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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Cuba

Wednesday 24 March to Saturday 3 April 2021
with Jon Dunn and Luis Diaz

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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
  • 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 is the largest of the Greater Antilles and its 42,000 square miles has nurtured 28 endemic birds, only one of which, the Cuban Macaw (since 1864), is definitely extinct although the Zapata Rail hasn’t been confirmed 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 the Bahamas, and we’ll see nearly all of them, many representing endemic Cuban subspecies. The summer breeders, including the endemic breeding Cuban Martin, will have arrived by late March along with Gray Kingbird and Black-whiskered Vireo, and many North American birds, notably warblers, will still be here on their winter grounds.

As in so many other parts of the world, Cuba’s natural habitats 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. Despite this, Cuba has an impressive series of national parks and preserves and the government takes conservation issues quite seriously.

US citizens can visit Cuba, albeit with restrictions. Our tours are structured within those rules and have operated without major disruption. European and Canadian tourists have flocked to Cuba for years and the country has good roads and hotels. Havana, Cuba’s largest city, is worth seeing by itself, especially the areas beautifully restored to the Spanish colonial period, and we’ll spend part of our last afternoon touring the old city on foot. Finally, Cuba has long cherished its distinctive and fine musical heritage and we’ll be serenaded at several meals by some of the best musicians in the country.

Day 1: We’ll begin mid-morning at the Ft Lauderdale airport, followed by a very short early afternoon flight to Havana.** After clearing immigration and customs, we’ll be met by our Cuban naturalist and official guide and immediately set off on the three and one half hour drive west to Viñales. After dinner, weather permitting, we’ll search for the endemic Bare-legged Owl. Night in Viñales.

Day 2: We’ll spend the morning around Viñales focusing on Cuban Solitaire, a somberly colored species with a beautiful song that we’ll hear repeatedly. Actually seeing one often takes some time… Other species we might encounter include Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Antillean Palm Swift, Cuban Emerald, the colorful Cuban Trogon (the national bird), Cuban Tody, West Indian and Cuban Green Woodpeckers, Cuban Pewee, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Vireo, Red-legged Thrush, Western Spindalis (endemic pretrei subspecies), Yellow-headed Warbler, and Cuban Oriole. The rare, threatened and endemic Giant Kingbird is possible. The polymorphic American Kestrels that are found in Cuba and elsewhere in the West Indies are very distinctive in their behavior and likely represent a separate species. We’ll watch the skies for Cave Swallow and Cuban Martin, an endemic breeder. After lunch we’ll head east, stopping at fishponds for Snail Kites and other waterbirds. After a fairly long drive we’ll arrive late in the afternoon at the late 18th-century French town of Las Terrazas and our very fine hotel.

After dinner we’ll look again for Bare-legged Owl, especially if we missed it at Vinales, and we might see Prehensile-tailed Hutia, a large endemic mammal. Night near Las Terrazas.

Day 3: Located in the mountains, our hotel’s grounds are full of birds. We should see a number of endemic or near-endemic species including Cuban Bullfinch and Cuban and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds and wintering North American warblers. We’ll scrutinize the White-crowned Pigeons with special care, looking for Scaly-naped Pigeon, a West Indian endemic. A nearby pig farm attracts many grassquits, mostly Yellow-faced but also a number of the attractive and endemic Cuban Grassquit. Shiny Cowbirds should be present as well. A pair of Stygian Owls (endemic siguapa subspecies) has been present recently in a pine plantation below our hotel and we’ll hope they’re still there. Olive-capped Warblers are found in the pines as well and Gray Kingbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos should be numerous. After lunch at a hilltop restaurant in the old coffee plantation 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 other waterbirds. 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, with great luck four, 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 Owl, 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 wintering North American 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. Just to the east the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird is present in small numbers and we’ll search carefully for another endemic, the distinctive Fernadina’s Flicker. Limpkins occur too and depending on marsh and rice field conditions, we might find various rails: Sora, and with good luck King (endemic ramsdeni subspecies), with very good luck, the striking Spotted Rail. Glossy Ibis are found here too along with Crested Caracaras. We’ll listen carefully for Eastern Meadowlarks. This endemic subspecies (hippocrepsis) is distinctively different in appearance, sounds totally unlike an Eastern Meadowlark, and very likely represents a distinct species.

On another morning we’ll arise before dawn to look for 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 and we have a good chance of seeing the endemic Zapata Sparrow (inexpectata, the most colorful of three subspecies). Spotted Rail is found here too but is seldom seen. The endemic Zapata Rail is or was found here, but it has reached near mythical status with essentially no confirmed (no photo or specimen) records for 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 resident Caribbean ridgwaii subspecies, which is stockier and has larger feet, a paler head, and paler underwings. Here “Golden” Yellow Warblers are resident, and we should 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’ve missed Zapata Wren, we’ll make another attempt first thing in the morning, before departing for Guajimico near Cienfuegos. There is good birding near our hotel, and the Jardin Botanico de Cinefuegos (formerly the Harvard Botanical Gardens) periodically has nesting Gundlach’s Hawk. Cuban Gnatcatchers are not too far away on the road to Trinidad, and we may look for them if we hear they are being evasive at Cayo Coco. Key species around Guajimico include both Cuban and Palm Crows, very similar looking species, but with different structures and very different calls. Both Yellow-headed and Oriente Warblers occur here as well. These two are now placed in their own family Teretistridae, endemic to Cuba. We’ll look carefully for both and be alert as well for recently discovered hybrids. We also have a chance for Giant Kingbird. Night in Guajimico.

Day 7: After looking for any species we may have missed yesterday, we’ll turn northeast for the four-hour drive to Cayo Coco. We’ll have lunch at Rio Azul where streamside woodlands support wintering North American including Black-throated Blue, Worm-eating, and sometimes Louisiana Waterthrush, although most will have gone north by then. Various anole lizards are here too, including the striking endemic Band-headed Anole. On the 17-kilometer-long causeway approach to Cayo Coco, we’ll check for water birds, sometimes including a Lesser Black-backed Gull. American Flamingoes should be present too along with Reddish Egrets, sometimes in dozens. 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’ll bird on or near the grounds, where wintering North American warblers and often Cuban Oriole should be about. The threatened West Indian Whistling-Duck is often in the mangrove swamps on or near our resort grounds and Greater Antillean Grackles will be numerous. Night on Cayo Coco.

Day 8: This morning we may drive to the next cay, Cayo Pered?n Grande, if the endemic subspecies (cubensis) of Cuban Vireo is findable. They were present here prior to Hurricane Irma, but just a few remained afterwards, and this taxon is on the verge of extinction. If none have been seen we’ll visit the next key west of Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, where we’ll look carefully for Bahama Mockingbird, a scarce and local species found only on the cays off Cuba’s northern coast. This is probably the best location during the tour for shorebirds and Yellow-crowned and “Great White” Herons are found here too. In March 2017 we found several Bahama Swallows, a rarity in Cuba. In the scrub we should find Oriente Warbler and Cuban Bullfinch. This evening we’ll do a bit of night birding this looking for Barn Owl and sometimes we find a wintering Chuck-will’s-widow. Night on Cayo Coco.

Day 9: On Cayo Coco, Cueva de Javalí is a popular evening night spot for tourists but a prime and unpeopled birding spot in the morning as food and water attracts many species including Cuban Bullfinch, a wide variety of North American wintering species, including many wood warblers and sometimes Painted Buntings. At the water drips set up for birders, Zenaida and possibly Key West Quail-Doves visit along with lots of passerines. One other birding spot we’ll check at some point is on the south side of Cayo Coco where Cuban Gnatcatcher with its distinctive black auricular outline is found. Oriente Warbler, 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, including Cape May. Mangrove Cuckoo is also possible. After lunch at our resort, we’ll begin our long drive back to Havana, with an overnight in Santa Clara. It was here that Ché Guevara triumphed over Bautista’s troops in late December 1958, essentially sealing the outcome of the revolution. His body, along with his comrades (all executed in Bolivia in 1967) are entombed here. On the hotel grounds there should be a variety of North American warblers and Gundlach’s Hawk is sometimes found. This rare enigmatic species is found throughout Cuba, but unless a nest has been found, it is hard to find – “everywhere, but nowhere” is the frequent refrain from Cuban ornithologists. Closely related to Cooper’s Hawk, it hasn’t expanded its range and numbers like Cooper’s has in North America. Night in Santa Clara.

Day 10: After a bit of birding on the grounds we’ll finish the drive back to Havana, arriving in time for lunch in the restored colonial district. After lunch our guide will take us on a tour of the old district, restored to its 19th century Spanish period glory. Later, we’ll drive along the waterfront, past the site of the USS Maine, the late 19th century sinking of which led directly to the start of the Spanish-American War. We’ll also search carefully for Cuban Martin if we have missed it previously. After an afternoon rest at our accommodations, we’ll go out to a fine restaurant for our final farewell dinner. Night in Havana.

Day 11: After breakfast we’ll drive to José Martí International Airport for our flight back to Fort Lauderdale, in time to connect to other flights home.

Updated: 07 February 2020

Prices

  • 2021 Tour Price Not Yet Available

Notes

Questions? The Tour Manager for this tour is Stephanie Schaefer. Call 1-866-547-9868 or 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

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

** NOTE: 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 Ft Lauderdale–Havana flight 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 Miami 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 Miami 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 2020). 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.

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

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