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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

Our trip began with a meeting in Fort Lauderdale followed by a flight to Havana. After our arrival we departed for Soroa and had time for some afternoon birding. Species seen included Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Trogon (the Cuban national bird), Cuban Tody, West Indian and Cuban Green Woodpecker, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban and Black-whiskered Vireos, Red-legged Thrushes (subspecies rubripes with a buffy belly), Western Spindalis (Cuban endemic subspecies pretreri), Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, and probably the highlight, a well-seen Cuban Pygmy-Owl, a Cuban endemic and the only Glaucidium in the West Indies. In route we counted some 104 Turkey Vultures, indicative of how common this species is in Cuba. Two Peregrine Falcons, a winter visitor, were also noted as were three Cuban Green Anoles.

The next morning we birded a bit around the botanic garden in Soroa and then headed west to the visually stunning site of Cueva de los Portales in La Guira National Park in the Sierra de los Organos, the location where Ché Guevara hung out with his army during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962.Our main goal of the day was Cuban Solitaire and we had good views of one at Cueva de los Portales. It is overall uncommon and local in Cuba. Diminutive in coloration but it has a spectacular song. Other species of note during the day were Scaly-naped and White-crowned pigeons, Antillean Palm-Swift, Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, Northern Jacana, Gundlach’s Hawk, Snail Kite, a lingering Louisiana Waterthrush, Indigo Bunting (male) and Cuban Bullfinch, the latter species has now been split as a separate species from the Grand Cayman Bullfinch, Melopyrrha taylori. Quite unusual (for Cuba) was a single female American Kestrel of the North American sparverius subspecies. In the evening near Soroa we took walk where we had nice views of the other endemic Cuban owl, the Bare-legged Owl. A complete surprise on that evening walk was a roosting Wood Thrush which Luis discovered. This species is quite rare in Cuba (my first) and is also the first one I’ve seen anywhere at night! Nine species of anoles were also seen, including a Bearded Anole at night!

We birded around Soroa the next morning where the highlight was certainly several Fernandina’s Flickers, another striking endemic species. From here we continued to Las Terrazas and met Otis who led us to two roosting Stygian Owls. Other species of note included Cuban Pygmy-Owl, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cape May, Black-throated Green, and Olive-capped warblers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cuban Bullfinch, and many Yellow-faced (West Indian subspecies olivacea) and Cuban grassquits. On our way back towards Havana we stopped at a reservoir where we found a few Ring-necked Ducks with many Lesser Scaup. Quite notable there were three Common Terns that were probably wintering here. These were my first ones for Cuba. Just outside of Havana we fueled the bus and while waiting had good looks a small group of Eastern Meadowlarks, of the endemic subspecies, likely a full species with a distinctive song, hippocrepsis. We arrived at our evening destination, Playa Larga at the north end of the Bay of Pigs, in the early evening, our home for the next three evenings.  

The next morning we headed (with Frank, the warden of the National Park) to Bermejas where another guide, Orlando, maintains a blind to observe the quail-doves. Amongst the many Zenaida Doves, we noted three of the four species of quail-doves found in Cuba: Ruddy, Blue-headed and Gray-fronted, the latter two being Cuban endemics. Also noted were a flock of some 20 Cuban Parakeets and a roosting Bare-legged Owl. Further east we found a pair of Red-shouldered Blackbirds, another Cuban endemic. Other species of note for the day included 25 Lesser Yellowlegs, three Glossy Ibis, an adult Northern Jacana, Limpkin, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, American Kestrel (two “Cuban” and one rare, for Cuba, “American”), an adult Peregrine Falcon, Cuban Oriole and 30 Northern Rough-winged Swallows. After dinner we tried unsuccessfully for Cuban Nightjar at Sopillar.

On our 2nd day at this location we headed to La Turba where we had good views of both the rare and localized endemic Zapata Wren and the nominate inexpectata subspecies of Zapata Sparrow, another Cuban endemic. Two Red-shouldered Blackbirds were also seen along with various warblers, including a Prairie. From here we headed to Las Salinas de Brito for waterbirds, notably American Flamingoes. We tallied 50. Shorebirds were numerous and we noted a surprisingly high (for Cuba) total of 50 Dunlins (subspecies hudsonia), 6 Semipalmated (likely spring migrants), two Red Knots and six “Western” Willets (subspecies inornata). Also of interest were 20 Northern Shoveler, 5 American Wigeon, 15 Gull-billed Terns and 15 Black Skimmers along with two 1st cycle Ring-billed Gulls. Raptors noted included three Cuban Black Hawks and three Osprey, one of which was the pale and largely white headed Caribbean ridgwayi subspecies which looks stockier and broader winged in flight. A largely gray 2nd year immature female “Golden” Yellow Warbler (subspecies gundlachi) was carefully studied. We heard, but did not see, Clapper Rail. Later, after a delicious lunch at Tiki Hut, we went to Casa Ana where enjoyed fine views of Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. Warblers noted here included numerous Black-throated Blues (both subspecies), and a Cape May. Late in the day we walked west to the outskirts of Playa Larga where we saw two Cuban Parrots and four Cuban Crows. A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and three Yellow-rumped Warblers were our only ones of the trip.

The next morning we departed Playa Larga after an early breakfast and headed southeast, stopping again at Bermejas at the blind where we had an extremely close and accommodating Gray-fronted Quail-Dove. Near Trinidad we found another Cuban endemic, a pair of Cuban Gnatcatchers. North of Trinidad we had good comparative and vocal comparisons of both Cuban Crow and the just split (from Hispaniolan Palm-Crow) Cuban Palm-Crow. The two were formerly known as the Palm Crow. Later in the afternoon we went walked to Plaza Major where late in the day we noted several Cuban Martins amongst the Cave Swallows and in addition, two White-collared Swifts (West Indian birds are of the subspecies pallidifrons) and a single Gundlach’s Hawk flew over. Another Gundlach’s Hawk, always a scarce species, was seen earlier in the day. Before dinner and just after dusk we ventured just north to El Cubano Parque Natural where we immediately heard Cuban Nightjar and obtained fine perched views of one bird. We estimated four singing birds were present. I have never encountered such a high density of this species in Cuba. This is another recent split, the Hispaniolan Nightjar (Antrostomus ekmani) is now recognized as a separate species. The two formerly were known by the English name of Greater Antillean Nightjar.

The next morning we ventured up into the mountains at Guamuhaya where we found a rare Cuban endemic, Giant Kingbird and even located a nest. This striking species with a loud distinctive whistled call is often treated as an endemic species, the few (and old) records away from Cuba were during the winter and were likely stragglers from Cuba at a time when the species was much more numerous. Other species noted were a handful of Cuban Vireos, two Cuban Pygmy-Owls, two Cuban Parrots and three Broad-winged Hawks (endemic subspecies cubanensis). An adult male Cuban Martin was seen on a nearby hilltop at lunch. From here we headed to our evening destination, Villa Guajimico. We were particularly interested in checking for Oriente Warbler. It had been discovered here recently, a notable range extension and the first location where both it and its relative Yellow-headed Warbler have been found together. All we found here this afternoon and again in the morning were a pair of Yellow-headed Warblers. Later a participant on another tour sent me actual photos of a seemingly pure Oriente Warbler he had seen on a tour here, so further investigations in this region of Cuba is certainly warranted. That evening after dinner a Barn Owl was heard. The Cuban (also on the Cayman Islands and Jamaica) subspecies, furcata, was the first named of the New World subspecies which might well represent a different species from the two Old World clades.

After a morning walk the next morning where we carefully studied a pair of Yellow-headed Warblers and found our first Magnolia Warbler, a male, along with two Cuban Crows and two male Cuban Martins, we headed to Cienfuegos and then to Havana where we had lunch at the Hemingway Restaurant just east of Havana. Afterwards we studied shorebirds on the coast just east of the harbor. Afterwards we had a tour of the old restored colonial portion of Havana and then headed to our evening accommodations. We concluded with a nice and delicious final evening dinner.

The next morning we departed for Fort Lauderdale where many of us had lunch together at the airport before heading on to our separate destinations.

                                                                                                                                                                                           - Jon Dunn

Created: 08 January 2024