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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cuba

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our tour this year encountered fine weather and we found all of the “gettable” endemics, 23 (taxonomy dependent). We saw most very well, except for Gundlach’s Hawk. Some, like Zapata Wren, were seen better than on any of our previous tours. The quail-doves, except Ruddy, were seen well. Other highlights were numerous and included a pair of roosting Stygian Owls, West Indian Whistling-Ducks, Cuban Martins, Thick-billed Vireo, a pair of Bahama Mockingbirds, Cuban Bullfinches, and excellent comparisons of two Osprey subspecies, our North American carolinensis with the resident Caribbean subspecies, ridgwayi. Our most unusual find was a first cycle Bonaparte’s Gull on Cayo Romano. Also memorable were all the anole lizards, some dozen species, many of which were very striking in appearance (and size!).

 IN DETAIL: Our tour started on the morning of 17 March at the airport at Fort Lauderdale. Check-in and our departure for Havana on Jet Blue mid-day all went smoothly and we arrived mid-afternoon in Havana. Clearing immigration and customs went smoothly and we met our co-leader, Luis Díaz, on the other side. Luis is a herpetologist, but is an expert on birds (and fish!) too. It was my fourth tour with him. We also met our Cuban Habana Tours guide, Gonzalo, and our expert and very safe driver, Arturo. Gary Markowski, head of the Caribbean Conservation Trust, and the man who organizes these tours was there too and with us for the first half of the tour along with his son, Ronan. Greater Antillean Grackles, one of the more numerous species in Cuba, were plentiful in the airport parking lot. A few Antillean Palm Swifts were about too and as we headed west. We travelled for over an hour to our destination at the foothill community of Soroa. Here we were able to do a bit of late afternoon birding. Here we saw White-crowned Pigeon, Zenaida Dove, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Trogon, the national bird of Cuba, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Pewee, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Western Spindalis and Red-legged Honeycreeper. North American winter visitors were also about, including Black-throated Green and Tennessee Warblers, and we had nice comparisons of Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes. Gray Kingbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos, breeding birds on Cuba, had just arrived from their South American wintering grounds. Along the stream we noted two spectacular Cuban Stream Anoles (also known as Water Anole) looking like miniature crocodiles, and a Western Giant Anole. In all we would see a dozen species of anoles, mostly endemics, many of which were spectacular.  That evening we went for a walk for hutias, a large mammal. We missed those and didn’t see any night birds, but did see seven Western Giant Toads, and ten or more Cuban Stream Frogs.

The next morning we left before dawn for San Diego de los Ba?os where we stopped for a quick breakfast and picked up our local guide, Caesar. We continued on to Cueva de los Portales in La Guira National Park. The scenery here with steep limestone forested mountains and a deep canyon with caves was spectacular. It was here that Ché Guevara hid out during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The birding here was excellent with a Cuban Pygmy-Owl perched out in front of its nesting hole just as soon as we got off the bus. Cuban Tody was seen too along with a very cooperative and quite stunning Scaly-naped Pigeon, a somewhat scarce species that is often just seen in flight. Our main target was the endemic Cuban Solitaire and all eventually got to see this somberly colored species, but one with a beautiful and haunting song. We encountered our first Cuban Green Woodpecker (at a nest), Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, Cuban Tody, Yellow-headed Warbler (now in its own family along with the Oriente Warbler), Cuban Oriole, and Cuban Bullfinch, a species that should be an endemic as the other subspecies, taylori, from Grand Cayman, has a very different song. Overhead were good numbers of Cave Swallows and a few Cuban Martins (an endemic breeder) along with a few Broad-winged Hawks (endemic subspecies cubensis). A Magnolia Warbler was one of only two found on the tour. Non-birds were also notable and included Brazilian Free-tailed Bat and Cuban Fruit Bat along with a fine variety of Anoles: Cuban Green, White-fanned, Pinar del Rio Cliff, Red-fanned Rock, and Twig. As we headed back east, we encountered our first Giant Kingbirds, a pair. This should be considered an endemic species. It is now quite scarce due to deforestation in the lowlands over a century ago. We also had fine views of an Olive-capped Warbler, found locally in Cuba, and in the northern Bahamas. After lunch back at San Diego de los Ba?os, we visited Hacienda Cortina for a bit of birding. We had even better views of Olive-capped Warbler, and Sara and Erin found multiple Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, our only ones on the tour. We made one other stop at some fish ponds along the autopista (highway) where we saw a dozen Snail Kites. We arrived at La Moka in Las Terrezas. The lodging here was excellent, my favorite of the tour. We didn’t do much birding but a “lucky few,” rather Chris, saw a bird hurtle and hit the window near the office. Others heard the thud. The deceased bird turned out to be a female Ruddy Quail-Dove, a species that the rest of the group missed seeing alive. For some reason this species is non-cooperative on tours. Some of us did some night birding and a lucky few saw a Prehensile-tailed Hutia. Three Cuban Tree Frogs were also encountered and we heard two Bare-legged Owls close by, but they escaped detection. 

The next morning we birded the grounds of La Moka and noted a variety of species including Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds at the feeder and an adult female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on the tree above. North America warblers included both Cape May and Tennessee. After breakfast our local guide, Otis, took us down to a pine plantation below La Moka and here we found a pair of Stygian Owls (endemic subspecies siguapa). At the nearby pig farm we had great views of many grassquits (now in the tanager family), mostly Yellow-faced (West Indian subspecies), but also many Cuban Grassquits too, a striking endemic. After lunch at the hilltop restaurant in the old coffee plantation, we headed for the Zapata Peninsula stopping at Ni?a Bonita where we studied a large flock of Lesser Scaup. Continuing on to Playa Larga, we arrived near dusk at our guesthouses, Enrique’s and Karrenia’s.  

The next morning we departed before dawn for Berméjas. Here accompanied by local guides Frank (director of the national park) and Orlando, we went to the blind where there were many doves, including many Zenaida, but also both Gray-fronted and Blue-headed Quail-Doves, both Cuban endemics. Ovenbirds were walking about as well. Carrying on to the east at La Cuchilla we studied a pair of the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird and also watched a Cuban Pygmy-Owl being mobbed by North American warblers. We saw our first Cuban Vireo here. Just back to the west was an area where several striking Fernandina’s Flickers were present, one pair at a nest. This endemic is strikingly different from our own Northern Flicker in many characteristics, including behavior. We had nice views of a Bare-legged Owl at a roost hole. Back at Berméjas we had a flock of Cuban Parakeets and our first Bee Hummingbird, a female. We had a buffet lunch at Cueva de los Peces and also watched more than a half dozen Blue-headed Quail-Doves walking around just past the kitchen. Non-avian treats included Northern Curly-tail, Cuban Spiny-plant Anole and Cuban Giant (Knight) Anole. A large Cuban Boa was wrapped up and roosting in a shack. That evening we checked the dump area near Playa Larga and heard well but did not see Greater Antillean Nightjar.

Leaving the next morning before dawn for La Turba, we stopped and attracted a Greater Antillean Nightjar, getting brief views in flight. As the light of the dawn arrived, our bus flushed an adult Gundlach’s Hawk on multiple occasions. Sadly we didn’t get perched views. This is a Cuban endemic, but is closely related to the Cooper’s Hawk, even having vocalizations that are virtually identical. Our main goal was the end of the road where a pair of the endemic Zapata Wren had been frequenting. Sure enough we heard it singing and got excellent views of both birds. Zapata Wren is colored like a House Wren, but is larger and has a longer tail, and is much more barred above. The song is absolutely spectacular and sounds nothing like any of the U.S. wrens. Right nearby were several Zapata Sparrows feeding on the jeep track, another endemic. These were of the nominate and brighter (strongly yellowish below) nominate subspecies, inexpectata. We got our best views of Yellow-headed Warbler, a pair. From here we went to Las Salinas, a waterbird area with lots of mangroves. We encountered a variety of shorebirds, including a scarce (for Cuba) Dunlin and saw our only Peregrine Falcon (tundrius subspecies). A variety of herons were present as well as close American Flamingos. A half dozen Wood Storks flew overhead. Also overhead were several Cuban Black Hawks, shaped like our Common Black Hawk but with a different underwing pattern and a strikingly different call, bau-tist-a. We also compared migratory (or wintering) North American Ospreys (carolinensis) with resident Caribbean bids (ridgwayi). The latter birds were paler headed and had a paler underwing. Overall the wings looked broader, less angled and pointed. In the mangroves we found several Yellow Warblers of the “Golden” group. This subspecies (gundlachi) is also found in mangroves in extreme southern Florida. After lunch at Tiki Hut, we visited Bernabe’s in Palpite, just north of Playa Larga. The back yard here is amazing with lots of feeders and Bee Hummingbirds, and, we had splendid views of many, even hand feeding them. A number of them were adult males in alternate plumage. I know of no other hummingbird species that loses the gorget in the non-breeding plumage, but admittedly don’t have experience with the South American species. Other birds were numerous too including some ten Cuban Orioles and several very accommodating Black-throated Blue Warblers. That evening we checked the beginning of the road to Santo Thomás and located a Bare-legged Owl. A front had come through and the temperature had dropped.

The next morning was cool with light northwest winds. It was a driving day, our destination being Cayo Coco off the north coast and well to the east of the Zapata Peninsula. At lunch at Rio Azul, we had nice views of a Louisiana Waterthrush, and also had another large Cuban Giant (Knight) Anole, a beautiful Cuban Blue Anole, and two Band-headed Anoles (also known as the Slender Cliff Anole). Our drive was long but we saw our only Northern Harriers (three) on the trip. On the causeway to Cayo Coco we found some 100 Red-breasted Mergansers, and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull with other waterbirds. Arriving on Cayo Coco, the devastation from Hurricane Irma from the previous fall, was obvious, particularly on the north side. Wind gusts had reached 180 mph. Birds were not in abundance. On a walk near our hotel we did have a calling Northern Flicker (endemic Cuban subspecies with a brown rump, chrysocaulosus).

The next morning we were joined by our local guide, Raynier, the son of Paulino, whom had guided us in previous years. Raynier was charming and a good birder and led us to some good existing habitat on the southeast side of Cayo Coco. Here we found a number of birds including Oriente Warblers, Cuban Bullfinches, Zapata Sparrow (duller varoni subspecies) and a pair of Cuban Gnatcatchers, striking with their black crescent around the rear of the face. In the flooded mangrove forest we heard several Least Grebes, and had perched views (on a stump) of a West Indian Whistling-Duck. A family group was seen by some. Heading east, we crossed over to Cayo Romano where we found lots of roosting ducks and large flocks of shorebirds. Some 300 Greater Yellowlegs were remarkable. I’ve never encountered such numbers of this species. 100 American Wigeons were also unusual (for Cuba). A first cycle Bonaparte’s Gull photographed was a rarity for Cuba, probably our rarest bird of the trip. Several more Cuban Black Hawks were seen. Crossing our last bridge, we arrived at Cayo Pered?n Grande. Here the devastation from Irma was particularly visible, and it was very quiet. We were relieved to hear a single Thick-billed Vireo, and after a bit of time it came in for good views and photos. This is an endemic subspecies, cubensis. The species (nominate crassirostris) is common in the Bahamas but in Cuba it is very restricted and Hurricane Irma no doubt devastated the population. After lunch back at our resort we headed west to Cayo Guillermo. Eventually we had decent views of a pair of Bahama Mockingbirds. A cooperative Prairie Warbler was also present and we studied a variety of shorebirds too, including two Semipalmated Sandpipers, no doubt early spring migrants. Herons included several “Great White Herons,” a color morph (or a separate species!) of the Great Blue Heron., and our only Yellow-crowned Night-Heron of the trip.

The next morning we birded Cueva de Javalí on Cayo Coco and counted some seven Key West Quail Doves. Other birds were present too including a Painted Bunting (for some) and our most cooperative Cuban Tody, remaining perched for an extended period at close range. After breakfast we visited a nearby beach where we had a male Piping Plover (nominate subspecies with a broken breast band) associating with a large flock of Sanderlings. After lunch we checked a sewage pond where we compared Stilt Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs, then headed back over the causeway to the mainland, said our goodbyes to Raynier, and headed to Camag?ey to the southeast, arriving in the late afternoon.

The next morning we studied Cuban Martins right over our hotel (nesting at the old Catholic church next door) then headed southeast to Rancho La Belén. Along the way we stopped in the farm country and studied the endemic Cuban subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark, hippocrepsis. In many ways, especially song, they are more like Western Meadowlark, although genetically they are closer to Eastern. Still, they should be recognized as their own separate species. Other species noted included a number of Plain Pigeons (scope views), and, around a small pond, several Northern Jacanas and Purple Gallinules. Arriving at Rancho La Belén, our local guide, Camillo, took us on a walk around the grounds. Here we studied many Cuban and Palm Crows, noting the shape differences and especially noted the very different calls. Bird diversity was good with excellent views of many North American warblers, a Yellow-throated and a Northern Parula were particularly cooperative. We also had excellent views of a perched Giant Kingbird. After lunch we took a short walk where we had nice perched views of several Cuban Parrots. Arriving back in Camag?ey, we took a bicycle tour (driven by local riders) of the old city. We visited four squares and heard the history of this very old colonial city. Our guide, Gonzalo, was born here and informed us of much of the history. At our last stop, after admiring the bronze statues, we walked into the El Paso restaurant where we had our last dinner together. The food and service was excellent, and the music from Black Coral was even better.

The next morning we had a relaxed breakfast and watched the Cave Swallows and Cuban Martins. The martins were perched up on the staircase leading up to the top of the tower of the old church. We then headed the short distance to the airport where our mid-day flight was on time. Some of us had time to share a lunch at the Fort Lauderdale airport before we departed for our home (or other) directions.

-Jon Dunn 2018

Created: 11 April 2018