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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cuba

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our Cuban tour in the spring of 2019 encountered 166 species, including all 25 of the “getable” Cuban endemics. These included Blue-headed and Gray-fronted Quail-Dove, along with two non-endemic quail-doves, Ruddy Quail and Key West. Other scarce endemics included Gundlach’s Hawk, Bee Hummingbird, Fernandina’s Flicker, Giant Kingbird (nesting), and Zapata Wren. In addition we saw over 20 endemics to the West Indian region along with a half dozen endemic subspecies, highlighted by good views of the rare and local ramsdeni subspecies of King Rail. Other highlights included a pair of Stygian Owls and a well-seen Spotted Rail, along with seven species of anoles and a Prehensile-tailed Hutia, an endemic mammal.

IN DETAIL: Our tour started with a mid-morning meeting at the Fort Lauderdale airport and after lunch we departed for Havana in the early afternoon, arriving at our destination in mid-afternoon. Once we were clear of immigration and customs, an easy process this year, and assembled in the bus, we headed west towards San Diego de los Ba?os. Two Swallow-tailed Kites, a rare West Indian migrant were encountered soon after leaving the airport.We stopped along the autopista at some fish ponds and saw some Snail Kites. Little Blue Herons were present too. Our only Cuban endemic noted this afternoon was Cuban Blackbird. We did see four “Cuban Kestrels.” This distinctive subspecies is dimorphic with white and cinnamon color morphs and has a very different behavior, overall being much more Merlin-like with almost no hovering and no tail bobbing. The Caribbean group of American Kestrels consists of four subspecies,and likely represent a distinct species. The Cuban subspecies (sparverioides) is also found in the Bahamas and Jamaica.

The next morning we headed west towards Cueva de los Portales (“Che’s Cave) and found many birds in a very picturesque environment. It was here that the legendary Che Guevara hid out during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Species seen here or nearby included the beautiful and under-appreciated Scaly-naped Pigeon (several seen well), Antillean Palm-Swift, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Broad-winged Hawk (endemic cubanensis subspecies), Purple Gallinule, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, West Indian Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (endemic Cuban subspecies cyrysocaulosus with a barred rump), Cuban Pewee, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Gray and Loggerhead (nominate caudifasciatus) kingbirds, Black-whiskered Vireo (numerous), Cuban Martin, Cave Swallow (cavicola, one of four subspecies of the Greater Antilles), Red-legged Thrush, Western Spindalis (endemic pretrei subspecies), Yellow-headed Warbler, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Oriole, Yellow-headed Warbler, Olive-capped, and Cape May warblers,Yellow-faced Grassquit (West Indian subspecies olivacea) and Cuban Bullfinch (endemic nominate subspecies, almost certainly a separate species from taylori from Grand Cayman which has a very different song). We spent some time studying and listening to the endemic subspecies (hippocrepsis) of Eastern Meadowlark, almost certainly a separate species. The song is completely different from other subspecies of Eastern Meadowlarks. Most memorable were the Cuban Solitaires that serenaded us during the entire time we were at Cueva de los Portales. We saw several well.

After lunch at San Diego Los Ba?os where Luis showed us an Antillean Palm-Swift in-hand, we headed east towards Las Terrezas, an old early 19th century French settlement, established by emigres from Haiti after the successful revolution there. Along the way we noted a pair of Least Grebes and our only Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”) Warbler of the tour. At the turnoff to Las Terrezas, we had decent views of the uncommon and local endemic Fernandina’s Flicker We first looked at a pair of roosting Stygian Owls (endemic Cuban siguapa subspecies) in the pine plantation. Arriving at our accommodation at Moka, we had time to do a bit of birding, noting Red-legged Honeycreepers, including a juvenile being fed by its parents. That evening after dinner at a fine vegetarian restaurant, we did some evening birding noting first a Greater Antillean (“Cuban Nightjar,” nominate subspecies) which came in and provided superb views, then found another endemic, the Bare-legged Owl. We also noted a Prehensile-tailed Hutia, a rather large endemic mammal. During the day we noted a Western Giant Anole along with several White-fanned Anoles.

The next morning we birded around Moka noting additional Scaly-naped Pigeons, along with Cuban Emeralds and Cuban Trogons, along with numerous North American wintering warblers. A male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker provided exceptional views. Nearby at a pig farm we studied numerous grassquuits, mostly the striking endemic Cuban Grassquit along with fewer Yellow-faced. Shiny Cowbirds were there too. After lunch we headed east past Havana and then south to the Zapata Peninsula for Playa Larga and the Bay of Pigs where the failed “invasion” took place in April 1961. At a marsh near Playa Larga we had nice views of a pair of the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird. 

The next morning we departed early to Bermejas located just east of Playa Giron. Here Orlando led us to the blind where numerous doves were being fed. These included many Zenaida Doves and three species of quail-doves, the endemic Blue-headed and Gray-fronted, and a pair of Ruddy Quail-Doves, the latter being the first ones we’ve ever seen well on a Cuba tour. The scarce endemic Cuban Parakeet was also seen well, a flock of 20 were counted. We then headed farther east to La Cuchilla where in the flooded rice fields we found some 140 Glossy Ibis, a scarce and local species in Cuba, and had good views of the endemic Cuban subspecies (ramsdeni) of King Rail. On the way back we stopped at a site where we found Fernandina’s Flickers and had excellent studies of a Cuban Pygmy-Owl. Rails were also present and we had long studies of a Sora. Even better was a cooperative Spotted Rail that walked across a channel, allowing all good views. This striking species is widespread in the Caribbean and the Neotropics, but is secretive and poorly known. As a stray it has occurred twice in North America. Four Limpkins were also noted. At lunch at the swimming spot at Caleta Buena Luis located a female Richard’s Gecko, an endemic. On the way back to Playa Larga, we stopped at a fruiting tree where we had good studies of Cuban Parrots along with a variety of wintering North American warblers. Here we also noted a nesting pair of Cuban Black Hawks, and we had good scope studies of them. We compared the appearance and especially the vocalizations to the Common Black Hawk. Cuban Crows were also noted.   

On our second day on the Zapata Peninsula we visited nearby La Turba where we had excellent studies of the very uncommon, local, and often difficult to see Zapata Wren. We also noted the endemic (nominate subspecies) Zapata Sparrow there. Next we visited the salt water playas of Las Salinas. Wood Storks, many Neotropic Cormorants, American Flamingoes, and a variety of shorebirds, including a pair of Wilson’s Plovers, and three Stilt Sandpipers were seen. Most notable was an American Avocet (male), our first on a Cuba tour. After lunch we visited nearby Palpite where at Bernabes, a yard with established feeders, we found many birds, including multiple Black-throated Blue Warblers and Cuban Orioles, but also numerous Cuban Emeralds, and the tiny Bee Hummingbird, the World’s smallest bird. The Bee Hummingbirds readily came to hummingbird feeders hand-held by the many visitors. Nearby at the crocodile farm (for Cuban Crocodiles) we noted a Northern Jacana and a female American Anhinga. Northern Curly-tails (a lizard) were also seen.

The next day was a driving day as we headed to a cay off the northeast coast of Cuba, Cayo Coco. East of Santa Clara we noted a few Red-tailed Hawks (solitudinis) and at a  pond east of Santa Clara two American Anhingas were seen. The highlight of the day was an adult Gundlach’s Hawk that was seen circling the autopista. This close relative of the Cooper’s Hawk (appearance and calls very similar) is endemic to Cuba where it is widespread but rare, or as the Cubans say, “everywhere, but nowhere.” While Cooper’s Hawk has become a widespread and numerous urban nester in North America in recent years, this has not been the case for the Gundlach’s in Cuba. At Rio Azul we noted several Band-headed Anoles and also noted a male Blue-green Anole. That evening we were unsuccessful in finding Barn Owl, but did see a Western Giant Toad, and a Chuck-will’s-widow.

This morning we were joined by Raynier who led us to Cayo Guillermo to the west. In previous years we headed east to Cayo Pered?n Grande, but Hurricane Irma and development for a luxury resort, has severely impacted finding a number of species, most notably the endemic cubensis subspecies of Thick-billed Vireo. Instead we headed west to Cayo Guillermo where we had outstanding views of pair of Bahama Mockingbirds, a scarce and local species on offshore northern cays in Cuba. It is also found in the Bahamas and the southeast portion of Jamaica. A Mangrove Cuckoo was also seen well. Shorebirds were numerous and we good comparisons of Least, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers along with Red Knots and Short-billed Dowitchers. Both the nominate subspecies and the western subspecies (inornata) of Willet were seen well too. Back on Cayo Coco we saw a Long-billed Dowitcher on a sewage pond, and at Playa Cardinal Beach near our hotel we located two Piping Plovers. Later that afternoon on the southeast side of Cayo Coco, we braved the mosquitoes, but did see the varoni subspecies of Zapata Sparrow and several Oriente Warblers, and eventually located the distinctive Cuban Gnatcatcher with its sharply black outlined ear coverts. Back on our hotel grounds at Melia we had fine views of 21 West Indian Whistling-Ducks, an endangered species.

The next morning we visited Cueva de Jabali on Cayo Coco, a popular night-time party spot, but deserted by morning. Three Cuban Green Woodpeckers were seen well along with a varoni Zapata Sparrow. North American wintering species were numerous and included numerous Gray Catbirds, Ovenbirds, and several Painted Buntings. Doves were numerous and included Common Ground and Zenaida and also a pair of Key West Quail-Doves. After lunch we headed farther east, then south to Camaguey. At our hotel near dusk the Cuban Martins came into the church tower next door.

The next morning we drove southeast to La Belén, stopping in the ranching country along the way where we studied and listened to more hippocrepsis Eastern Meadowlarks. Crested Caracaras were numerous and at a pond we noted a Purple Gallinule and three Northern Jacanas. Five Plain Pigeons, an uncommon to mostly rare endemic species in the West Indies, were also seen well. Arriving at La Belén, we were joined by Camillo and took a lovely walk on the ranch there, a protected area. Our chief goal was Giant Kingbird, a rare endemic Cuban species. We found three along with a nest. This species was formerly more widespread and numerous more than a century ago, its decline no doutbt due to the destruction of the lowland forests. It is widely considered to not be an endemic, but the only other certain records were from Great Inagua and the Caicos Islands in the southern Bahamas. These half dozen records between 1865 and 1891 were all in winter and likely represented (my opinion) wintering strays from the mainland of Cuba, a time when the species was much more numerous. Cuban Parakeets were present too and we found numerous Palm (endemic minutus subspecies) and Cuban Crows and noted their structural, behavioral, and especially vocal differences. Later in the afternoon we were ridden on bicycles through the historic colonial city of Camaguey, stopping at four different squares. At the last square, we stepped into El Paseo where we had a delicious and elegant final dinner. We were serenaded by “Black Corral” and Annellis and Douglas. Their repertoire included a mix of Cuban and other songs, the latter including “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen’s now famous “Hallelujah” both sung beautifully in Spanish. We walked back along the old city streets back to our hotel.

On our final morning after breakfast and the departure of Cuban Martins from the church tower, we headed to the airport and caught a mid-day flight back to Fort Lauderdale where after a final group lunch the tour concluded.

During our time in Cuba we found 166 species. We found all of the “getable” endemics and saw all of them well. In addition we found 22 species endemic to the West Indies along with a handful of endemic Cuban subspecies.

                                                                                                                                                                              -Jon Dunn

Created: 09 March 2020