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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Cuba

Thursday 28 March to Saturday 6 April 2019
with Jon Dunn as leader

Price: $5,750*

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  • Bare-legged Owl, a Cuban endemic in its own genus, <em>Margarobyas</em>

    Bare-legged Owl, a Cuban endemic in its own genus, Margarobyas

  • Cuba's national bird, the Cuban Trogon.

    Cuba's national bird, the Cuban Trogon.

  • The stunning Blue-headed Quail-Dove, one of four quail-doves in Cuba

    The stunning Blue-headed Quail-Dove, one of four quail-doves in Cuba

  • Cuban Parakeet, a Cuban endemic sadly declining due to habitat loss.

    Cuban Parakeet, a Cuban endemic sadly declining due to habitat loss.

  • Cuban Tody, and endemic and one of only five todies worldwide.

    Cuban Tody, and endemic and one of only five todies worldwide.

Cuba, the largest of the Greater Antilles with over 42,000 square miles, lies only 93 miles south of Florida. It’s been largely inaccessible to Americans since the Batista government fell at the end of 1958 and Fidel Castro assumed control, but over time, and especially over the last decade, the rules have relaxed from both the Cuban and U.S. governments, and Americans can once again visit, albeit with some restrictions. The recent restrictions that were reinstituted do not have much effect on our tour program. As in so many other parts of the world, the habitats of Cuba were severely affected by logging and other activities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; in Cuba’s case, trees were felled to expand the sugarcane industry. As with most areas, the environmental damage was worst in the lowlands.  Despite this, Cuba has an impressive series of national parks and preserves and the government takes conservation issues quite seriously.

Cuba has 28 endemic birds, only one of which is definitely extinct, the Cuban Macaw (since 1864), and the Zapata Rail hasn’t been definitively documented for many decades. We should see over 20 and possibly as many as 25. Three other endemic subspecies (Greater Antillean Nightjar, Cuban Bullfinch and Eastern Meadowlark) likely merit full species status. Nearly 25 other species are endemic to the Caribbean region, mostly from the Greater Antilles or from the Bahamas, and we will likely see nearly all of them. Many of them represent endemic Cuban subspecies. . The summer breeders, including the endemic breeding Cuban Martin, will have arrived by late March and many North American birds, notably warblers, will still be here on their winter grounds.

Cuba has long been catering to European and Canadian tourists and has a good infrastructure of roads and hotels. Historic Camagüey, restored to the Spanish colonial period, is worth seeing by itself, and we’ll spend part of the final afternoon touring the city by bicycle taxi. Finally, Cuba has long cherished its distinctive and fine musical heritage. We will be serenaded at meals by some of the best musicians in the country.

Day 1: Our tour will start mid-morning at the Fort Lauderdale airport, followed by an early afternoon flight to Havana.** After clearing immigration and customs, we’ll be met by our Cuban naturalist and guide  and ground staff and will then head toward the late 18th-century French town of Las Terrazas, just over an hour away.

Located in the mountains, our accommodation (La Moka) is one of the best of the tour, and birds are numerous on the grounds. We should see a number of endemic or near-endemic species including Cuban Bullfinch and Cuban and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, along with a variety of West Indian species, such as Western Spindalis (endemic green backed subspecies, pretrei) and wintering North American warblers. We’ll scrutinize the White-crowned Pigeons with special care, looking for the beautiful  Scaly-naped Pigeon, a West Indian endemic. After dinner we’ll offer evening birding, searching in particular for the endemic Bare-legged Owl. Night near Las Terrazas.

Day 2: This morning we’ll bird the grounds at La Moka, looking for anything we may have missed yesterday, notably Scaly-naped Pigeon. A nearby pig farm attracts many grassquits, mostly Yellow-faced but also a number of the attractive and endemic Cuban Grassquit. Recently, a pair of Stygian Owls (endemic siguapa subspecies) have been present in a pine plantation below our hotel. After lunch at a hilltop restaurant in the old coffee plantation  we’ll depart to the west for San Diego de los Baños in Pinar del Río province, where Gray Kingbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos will have recently arrived from South America to breed. Nearby is Hacienda Cortina, a large old estate and now a public park with excellent birding. Here we should see Smooth-billed Ani, Cuban Trogon (the national bird), Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, the distinctively polymorphic sparveroides subspecies of American Kestrel (which acts more like a Merlin than a kestrel), Cuban Pewee, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Tody, Olive-capped Warbler (a species restricted to parts of Cuba and the northern Bahamas), and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. We stand a decent chance of finding two other highly sought-after Cuban endemics: Fernandina’s Flicker and Giant Kingbird. Least Grebe and Purple Gallinule are also possible, as are a number of North American wintering species, including perhaps a lingering Louisiana Waterthrush. Night at San Diego de los Baños.

Day 3: We’ll visit Cueva de las Portales in La Guira National Park, best known as Che Guevara’s hideout during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Here in the trees among the limestone karst formations we’ll be looking particularly for the endemic Cuban Solitaire, whose somber appearance is more than made up for by its remarkable jangling song. We should see both White-winged and Zenaida Doves and will look again for Scaly-naped Pigeon. Amongst the Cave Swallows we’ll look for our first Cuban Martins. Cuba has almost as many endemic Anolis lizards as it does birds. Some of them are large and colorful, and here we might see Western Giant, Water, and Cliff Anoles. Later we’ll retrace our steps past Havana and then turn south to the Zapata Peninsula, home to the largest wetland in the Caribbean. We’ll make a few stops at two inland reservoirs where we should see some lingering wintering ducks and perhaps a Snail Kite. Late in the afternoon we’ll arrive at Playa Larga near the Zapata Swamp and the site of the infamous April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. On our guesthouse grounds before sunset we might see Cuban Parrot or a  Cuban Crow, the latter possessed of a remarkable, almost comical vocabulary. Night at Playa Larga.

Days 4–5: We’ll bird the vast Zapata Swamp for two days. On one morning we’ll visit Bermejas, where we could see three species of quail-dove, including two handsome endemics, Gray-fronted and Blue-headed. Key West Quail-Dove is sometimes present, and there is at least a chance of seeing Ruddy Quail-Dove, although most encounters involve only brief flight views. Other endemic species here include Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Pygmy and Bare-legged Owls, Cuban Vireo, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Oriole, and the diminutive Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. We often find Great Lizard Cuckoo, Western Spindalis, and Shiny Cowbird along with a fine variety of North American wintering wood warblers. On some occasions a roosting Stygian Owl can be located, and elsewhere in the area we should find Limpkin and perhaps the endemic chrysocaulosus subspecies of Northern Flicker, which lacks a white rump. The endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird is also possible.

We’ll arise before dawn one morning to see if we can locate the Greater Antillean Nightjar near Playa Larga. Once it gets light, we’ll try to find what will probably be our most difficult endemic, the distinctive (especially on vocalizations) Zapata Wren. We have a good chance of seeing the endemic Zapata Sparrow (inexpectata, the most colorful of three subspecies), and with great good fortune might see a Spotted Rail. The endemic Zapata Rail is or was found here too, but it has reached near mythical status with essentially no confirmed records for many decades (actually the better part of a century). Later we’ll visit Salinas de Bides, noted for its many American Flamingoes along with numerous other waterbirds, including a few Wood Storks. North American wintering or migrant Ospreys will be present along with the stocker and much paler headed (and paler underwings) resident Caribbean ridgwai subspecies, which is resident. Here “Golden” Yellow Warblers are resident, and we should also see Clapper Rail and the endemic and distinctive-sounding (“bau-tis-ta”) Cuban Black Hawk If we missed Greater Antillean Nightjar at dawn, we’ll try for it again at dusk. Nights in Playa Larga.

Day 6: If we haven’t yet seen Zapata Wren, we’ll make another attempt for it first thing in the morning, but today will be mostly devoted to our long drive to Cayo Coco. We’ll stay at an all-inclusive lodge that caters to Europeans and Canadians. Hurricane Irma in the fall of 2017 devastated the north coast of Cayo Coco, but some habitat remains and the hotel is in excellent condition, in fact even better than prior to the hurricane after the restoration. We will do some birding on or near the grounds. A few wintering North American warblers should be about and possibly Cuban Oriole. We’ll look carefully again for the endemic resident subspecies of Northern Flicker.. Greater Antillean Grackles will be numerous. Night on Cayo Coco.

Day 7: We’ll visit the southeastern part of Cayo Coco which was more protected and suffered less damage from hurricane Irma. Here we’ll look for two endemics: Cuban Gnatcatcher with its distinctive black auricular outline and Oriente Warbler. Cuban Bullfinch, Western Spindalis and a grayer (from inexpectata) subspecies of Zapata Sparrow, varoni, should also be present along with a variety of wintering North American warblers. In the spring of 2018 in the flooded forest we saw the globally threatened West Indian Whistling-Duck, including a brood of ducklings. Gundlach’s Hawk, a close relative of the Cooper’s Hawk, is possible. Later we’ll continue on to Cayo Paredón Grande, where we’ll search for   the endangered (for Cuba) Thick-billed Vireo, an endemic subspecies, cubensis.. On adjacent Cayo Romano we should encounter large flocks of wintering waterfowl along hundreds of roosting shorebirds, and once lucked upon a single rare (for Cuba) Bonaparte’s Gull here. After lunch back at our hotel and depending on recent reports, we may head to Cayo Guillermo to the west of Cayo Coco. It is particularly good for wintering shorebirds and recently  has had a pair of  findable Bahama Mockingbirds. In March 2017 we found several Bahama Swallows, a rarity in Cuba.We’ll spend some time in the afternoon looking for shorebirds and other waterbirds, including Yellow-crowned and “Great White” Herons. Night on Cayo Coco.

Day 8: On Cayo Coco there is an popular evening night spot for tourists (Cueva de Javalí) that is a prime birding spot during the day, with food and water that attracts many species including Cuban Bullfinches, a wide variety of North American wintering species, and  Key West Quail-Doves. After lunch we’ll drive to Camagüey, possibly stopping along the way to search for Mangrove Cuckoo if they are known to be present. We’ll arrive late in the day at our destination, a lovely old colonial city with beautiful architecture. The endemic breeding Cuban Martin should be nesting and roosting adjacent to  our hotel at an old Catholic cathedral  along with numerous  Cave Swallows. Night in Camagüey.

Day 9: We’ll venture east to La Belén, stopping in agricultural country to listen to the endemic hippocrepis Eastern Meadowlarks. Their song and even their appearance are more suggestive of Western Meadowlark, and they should probably be considered their own species. In the open country we might also see Crested Caracara and our only Palm Crows along with many Cuban Crows, and around the ponds we might find Northern Jacana and Purple Gallinule. We also have a good chance here or nearby of seeing Plain Pigeon, a scarce West Indian species At La Belén we’ll walk the trails in the preserve. The threatened Giant Kingbird is found regularly here, and we should get good comparisons with the more numerous Loggerhead Kingbird.. Both crow species are numerous and we Plain Pigeons are found here too. We’ll return in the late afternoon with time to take a bicycle trip (not self-driven!) along the streets of the old colonial city, concluding at our  favorite restaurant, El Paso, with music provided by our friends, Black Coral. Night in Camagüey.

Day 10: After a leisurely breakfast and some further study of Cuban Martins and Cave Swallows we’ll head to the Camagüey airport for an early afternoon flight back to Fort Lauderdale, where the tour concludes after lunch at the airport. 

Updated: 23 April 2018

Prices

  • 2019 Tour Price : $5,750
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $580
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Notes

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

** NOTE: As of mid-2017 it’s now possible to purchase your own flights directly from the USA to Cuba. As such, we aren’t including the price of the early afternoon Fort Lauderdale – Havana flight (and return from Camagüey) in the tour price since it’s possible (and likely cheaper) to include it in your ticket purchase from your home airport. To ease complications upon arrival in Havana we are starting our tour in the Ft. Lauderdale airport, where we’ll proceed as a group through the process of getting visas and through immigration and customs after arrival in Havana. It may be necessary to overnight in Fort Lauderdale prior to the tour if the timing of your flights won’t allow you to arrive in time for the flight to Havana in the early afternoon (you’ll need to check-in for the Fort Lauderdale flight three hours prior, thus by mid-morning). Note that an additional $30 for Cuba’s departure tax will be applied to the flight purchase. At the airport you will also have to pay around $3/day for medical insurance (required by Cuban gov’t) and a $50 visa fee (in 2018). An additional permit is required for Americans to enter into Cuba and will be provided through our partner organization, Caribbean Conservation Trust (details below).

*** This tour is organized by our partner, Caribbean Conservation Trust, Inc. (CCT), a U.S. based organization committed to the conservation of endemic and migratory birds and their habitats in the greater Caribbean region. The U.S. Department of Treasury has provided a license for conducting bird conservation work in Cuba to CCT and it is through this program our tour will be permitted. Your participation in this program will involve a bird and habitat survey each day. Data is compiled by the group and submitted by the trip leader to CCT staff.

Please note that some aspects of this tour are still in flux as on-the-ground developments continue in Cuba. Please refer back here occasionally for the latest.

Maximum group size 12 with one WINGS and multiple local leaders.