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CUBA BIRDING TRIP REPORT
by Jon Hornbuckle
How to see almost all the specialities at minimum cost
Cuba has a remarkable avifauna, ranging from Bee Hummingbird, the world's smallest bird, to several very rare species, and including some 30 species which are virtually endemic to the island. Amazingly, it is now possible to see all the specialities in as little as a week by visiting only four areas, excluding Zapata Rail, Cuban Kite and the probably extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I was able to achieve this, in the company of Ashley Banwell and Allan Sander, thanks to local assistance and some luck. It would have been easier in March-April, rather than January, and the migrant Cuban Martin (which first appears in early Feb) would also have then been present.
Cuba is currently unique in having hardly any public transport and very few hotels, restaurants and shops. However, a trip can be reasonably pleasant and cheap if a car is hired (preferably in advance, e.g. Via, Rex, Havanautos, Cubacar, T & M, etc.) and you stay and eat in private houses (casas particulares). The latter were charging $20 a day for a room and $3-8 for a good meal. Some were obvious, with billboards outside, but they mostly had to be found by asking locally. [JWW: Casas particulares are listed on various websites, including Casas Particulares and The Cuban Exchange.] They should be licensed but it is probably better not to ask about this. The people are very friendly but it is a police state...
Almost everything has to be paid for in US dollars cash, and so there is no point in changing money for local currency. [JWW: A solution to avoid carrying large amounts of cash is to open a Duales debit card account.] Bring plenty of small notes with you. As simple food like bread is hard to buy, being rationed, it is worth having a stock of snack items.
The only potential problem is obtaining a visa. In the Caribbean it can be done at the airport, but in Europe you apparently have to prove you have booked at least 4 days of hotel accommodation. Hence it may be easier to enter from say Jamaica, or from Cancún or Mérida in Mexico although I am not certain visas are available at Mexican airports - it may be necessary to visit a travel agency there to buy one. [JWW: Pandering to Cubans in Florida, the Bush administration began enforcing the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba for the first time in 2003, with at least one $7,500 fine directed at a birder. (Technically it's a prohibition on spending money in Cuba.) However, the chances of being charged appear to be remote, unless you admit that you traveled to Cuba or bring back Cuban goods. For details on how Americans routinely travel to Cuba without any problem, see Trading with the Enemy - A primer for Americans visiting the forbidden island and the Lonely Planet Cuba travel forum.]
If you do book a hotel, ensure it is not La Gauma near Playa Larga (which we did thanks to ill-advice) because you have to take a boat at $10 per person per time to reach it, which is not included in the cost, and it is difficult to leave early from there.
Playa Larga / Zapata Swamp
This is the key area, holding most of the specialities. All except the rail, wren and sparrow can be seen outside Cienega de Zapata National Park, and hence without a guide, but there are 3 excellent guides here who will definitely improve your chances of success. We used the brothers Chino and Angel, the official guides for the Park; Osmane is also said to be good. Chino's English is quite good - he lives in the Park at Santo Tomas (tel 059 5670 if you are feeling very lucky) but often stays in Playa Larga at his brother Ramon's house; Angel lives nearby - see map. We paid $10 per half day for their services and it's helpful to have an item to give them, e.g., a compass or birding literature, as most goods are unobtainable. They can also find you somewhere to stay and eat.
You need at least one trip into the park for the wren and sparrow -- more if you want to try for rails and crakes - Spotted, King and Zapata Rails and Yellow-breasted Crake occur but all are difficult to see. You must have a guide and pay $10 each for entry. It is necessary to wade in the swamp - best to wear old footwear, not sandals; there is a distinct possibility of getting seriously wet by stepping into an unseen hole. Bee Hummingbird is probably easiest here, and the rare Cuban race of Sandhill Crane an outside possibility.
Apart from the rail, which you will only see if dead lucky, the most difficult endemic is the shy Gundlach's Hawk. I had 2 or 3 unsatisfactory sightings in the environs of Soplillar and heard it near Santo Tomas. With Chino we did locate a small farm along the eastern edge of Soplillar village which the farmer claimed was regularly visited by hawks to predate on his chickens. Blue-headed Quail-Dove can also be difficult, but Chino likes a challenge.
There is a large area of salinas in the NP holding many waders and flamingos, although we did not visit it.
It is very difficult to find the way out of Havana but if coming from La Guira or the airport, follow the signs to Parque Lenin without going into the city. Turn northeast onto the autopista just before the Parque and then take a right turn southeast on to the main eastward autopista which passes under the one you are on. Continue on it to Jaguey Grande, by-passing Sancto Spíritu, and turn right to Playa Larga (signed) at the crossroads to Jaguey Grande (on the left). It takes 1.5 - 2 hours if you don't get lost in Havana.
It is possible to buy petrol at a barely visible pump some 12km north of Playa Larga, by the crocodile farm. There is a daily bus from Playa Girón to Havana which passes Playa Larga and returns in the afternoon. The Playa Larga Hotel, which is usually fully booked by German tour groups, runs day trips 2 or 3 times a week to Havana and will take extra passengers for $25 one-way.
La Guira NP
This is the only site west of Havana, a couple of hours along a good road to Pinar del Río. Turn right at km 101, just after an incomplete bridge over the road, then right at the T junction and follow the signs to the NP, passing through the imposing entrance archway. There are no entrance restrictions or charges, or food. There are wooden chalets, mostly rather dilapidated, in an attractive setting at the end of the road, where it may be possible to stay, but a better bet is probably to stay at a casa particular in Soroa some 30 km back down the main highway - turn right (north) at an over-bridge immediately after a garage and burger bar and drive 6 km into the village.
The only essential birds are Cuban Solitaire and Olive-capped Warbler. The former can be found fairly easily near the stream crossing before the road goes up into the pines which is where the warbler is. Try to see Scaly-naped Pigeon here too if you need it. This is a scenic area of limestone hills with plenty of birds but all other species there should be observable around Playa Larga.
La Belén National Park
This is the site south of the large town of Camaguey for the rare Giant Kingbird and Cuban Palm Crow. Other good birds here are Gundlach's Hawk, Plain Pigeon, Cuban Parakeet and Grassquit. The best thing to do is to go to the house of Pedro Regalado at Najasa - see map - near La Belen. He is a professional ornithologist and is usually willing to show visiting birders around. The Kingbird and Crow can be seen from the road near his garden, at least early in the morning. We spent some time looking for the hawk without success. Permits are required to enter La Belén, costing $5 for half a day, the money going towards the work of the reserve. You should of course tip Pedro for his services.
This island off the north coast is connected to the town of Moron by a long causeway, which is not featured on current maps. It is being developed as a resort and all food and accommodation is expensive. Locals are only allowed on the island if they work there! There are plenty of casas particulares and eating places in Moron. The tour groups come here to see the eastern endemics - Oriente Warbler and Cuban Gnatcatcher, plus the varonai race of Zapata Sparrow, Bahama Mockingbird and Thick-billed Vireo. The endemics occur throughout the island and can be seen elsewhere, as they are widely distributed, but the sparrow and mockingbird may be restricted to here. The vireo appears to only occur on the eastern end - we saw it as soon as you enter high scrub forest at the island end of the causeway. For the mockingbird, you need to head along the main road west on Cayo Coco to the next island, Cayo Guillermo, also being developed -- the bird is more skulking than Tropical Mockingbird which also occurs, but does respond to tape; this island also holds the Cuban race of Common Black Hawk. The sparrow, which is easier to see here than at Zapata Swamp, is found near the north coast, e.g. at the Cuevas de Jabali / Ecological Trail car park.
Much of the scrub forest is being cleared for hotels, golf courses etc but as Cayo Coco is quite large, perhaps the already scarce sparrow will survive.
The rare Cuban Kite, a not-widely recognized split off Hook-billed Kite, is found near the extreme northeast of Cuba - a long way and so nobody goes for it.
Jan 16 22.15 arrive Havana, drive to Soroa, arriving 00.30
17 07.00-11.30 La Guira NP, drive to Playa Larga, 17.00-18.00 Palpite; night at Playa Larga
18 07.00-11.00 Bermejas, 15.30-18.00 Soplillar; Playa Larga
19 06.00-11.00 Santo Tomas/ Zapata Swamp, 15.30-18.00 Bermejas; Playa Larga
20 07.0-10.00 Soplillar, 11.30-17.30 drive to Camaguey and Najasa
21 06.30-11.30 Najasa, drive to Cayo Coco, night at Moron
22 06.30-12.30 Cayo Coco; 14.00-17.30 drive to Playa Larga
23 07.30-10.30 Soplillar, 16.00-20.00 Bermejas; Playa Larga
24 07.00-10.00 Soplillar, 16.30-18.00 Soplillar; Playa Larga
25 Drive to Havana
02.55 bus to Gatwick; American Airlines Gatwick -- Miami - Cancún, where met Ashley Banwell; Aerocaribe to Havana, arriving 22.15; quickly through customs and immigration - met Allan Sander. Long wait for car but easy drive to Soroa, finding vacant lodging at second attempt (on left at far end of village).
06.30 depart for La Guira, driving straight to the stream where soon saw Solitaire and Yellow-headed Warbler. Olive-capped Warbler located in pines a few 100m further on but no sign of roosting Stygian Owl. Spent some time on track beyond chalets and water tank, with Tody and Lizard-Cuckoo only species of note. 11.30 drove back to pleasant casa in Soroa for brunch, then direct to Playa Larga. Located Chino in the village after some difficulty and checked into casa by the beach. Back to Palpite for last hour of daylight, and saw Blue-headed Quail-Dove on the track - one of the toughest birds to see! [Chino particularly pleased.] Lobster and beer at the Diving Club to celebrate.
Morning at Bermejas with Chino - Grey-headed Quail-Dove, adult male Bee Hummingbird on high perch, Fernandino's Flicker, Cuban Grassquit, Cuban Pygmy-Owl but no Bare-legged Owl at known roost-site. Sandwiches at kiosk at Playa Girón turn. On drive back to Playa Larga a Key West Quail-Dove flew across the road and on relocation gave good views in the narrow coastal wooded strip. An hour on trail in woodland before Soplillar - flushed Gundlach's/ Broad-winged Hawk. Late afternoon along track through marsh near Soplillar - Gundlach's Hawk flew over distant woodland. Evening visit to Playa Larga hotel failed to produce hoped for Stygian Owl.
Early start for Santo Tomas with Chino and Angel. No luck at Sandhill Crane site but wading in the swamp rewarded by good views of Zapata Wren and a soaking. Drove further in to find Zapata Sparrow, hearing Gundlach's Hawk calling; obliging female Bee Hummingbird near Santo Tomas. Return to Bermejas in afternoon with Angel who had seen Bare-legged Owl at roost previous day, but gone -- one was flushed (utv) but could not be relocated. Flock of Cuban Parakeets flying and feeding near village centre, and nightjar on the road at dusk. Nocturnal visit to hotel/ campsite for locals beyond Playa Larga hotel resulted in good views of Stygian Owl.
Another 3 hours at Soplillar, mainly looking in vain for Gundlach's Hawk, then long drive to Camaguey where we turned right, just before the town, on road signed to Santa Cruz del Sur; left turn at crossroads after 42 km on dirt road to Najasa, then right turn after 22 km, 7 km drive south through straggling Najasa, left fork and Pedro's house was first (?) on left - fortunately, he and his wife were at home and very welcoming, so we soon had sustenance, floor space and a long discussion.
Birded by Pedro's house till 07.15, watching singing Giant Kingbird for some time, then drove km or so down the right fork and walked tracks on edge of La Belen NP - Palm Crow and Cuban Grassquit; another short drive to a more wooded area where Gundlach's Hawk is regularly seen but no luck. 11.30-16.00 drive to Moron and checked into Casa de Huesped, 23 Calle Sta. which proved to be a pleasant and quiet spot with hot shower. Drove for a recce to Cayo Coco - difficult to find route out of Moron, head right then left; dusk by time we had crossed the causeway so returned to Moron to check-out the disco scene.
Back to Cayo Coco where immediate stop gave first of many Oriente Warbler but 1 and only Thick-billed Vireo; still no gnatcatcher near Hotel Tripp or at Cuevas de Jabali / Ecological Trail car park but good views of Zapata (or Cuban as Pedro logically prefers to call it) Sparrow. 30 km or so west to Cayo Guillermo, past building sites and on to dirt road where stop in taller scrub gave the gnatcatcher at last and a pair of Bahama Mockingbirds. On return journey turned right by large ceramic pig sign through works area and scrub to lake some 2 km along dirt road - some wildfowl but no West Indian Whistling-duck. Stop on northern edge of Moron at the sewage works gave Snail Kite, then lunch in town at only decent restaurant of the trip while puncture was repaired. Three hour drive back to Playa Larga.
Another fruitless morning trip to Soplillar, followed by concerted effort in the afternoon at Berjemas to find Bare-legged Owl, eventually rewarded by one at dusk.
Double dose of Soplillar today, seeing distant Gundlach's Hawk perched up early on and finding farmer who had seen 2 the previous day, but none to be found near his place today.
Drove to Havana to drop Allan at airport and tour the city.
Many thanks to Neil Bostock, Nick Gardner, Guy Kirwan, Andy Mitchell, Keith Turner, Nigel Wheatley and Barry Wright for helpful advice.
Jon Hornbuckle 35 Grove Road, Sheffield S7 2GY, UK
Species in bold are Cuban endemics
Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) 1 Cayo Coco
Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) Common Cayo Coco and a few around Playa Larga
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 20+ Cayo Coco, 6 Playa Larga
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) 3 Havana
Tricoloured Heron (Egretta tricolor) Common Cayo Coco & Zapata Swamp
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) Few Playa Larga area & Cayo Coco
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) Few Cayo Coco
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) Few Zapata Swamp & Cayo Coco
Great Egret (Egretta alba) Few Cayo Coco
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) Common throughout
Green Heron (Butorides virescens [striatus]) Common Zapata Swamp, few Cayo Coco
White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) 10 Zapata Swamp, few Cayo Coco
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) Small flock Zapata Swamp
Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja) 1 Playa Larga - Havana
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) A few near La Guira
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Few Cayo Coco
Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) Common Cayo Coco, 2 Najasa
Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) 1+ Cayo Coco
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) Common throughout
Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) 1 Moron sewage works
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) Singles Zapata Swamp and Soplillar
Gundlach's Hawk (Accipiter gundlachi) Singles in flight on 18th and perched on 24th at Soplillar, and heard at Zapata Swamp. Raptor flushed from woodland near Soplillar was either this or Broad-winged Hawk.
Common Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus gundlachii) Singles Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and 2 near Playa Larga
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) A few singles throughout
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) 2 Cayo Coco
Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus) 1 Soplillar, 2 Moron
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) Common throughout
Merlin (Falco columbarius) 1 Najasa
King Rail (Rallus elegans) 1 heard Zapata Swamp
Sora (Porzana carolina) 1 Zapata Swamp
American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrula martinica) 1 Najasa, 3 Palpite
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) 3 Najasa and Zapata Swamp
American Coot (Fulica americana) Few Cayo Coco
Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) Singles Zapata Swamp and Cayo Coco
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus [himantopus]) 50 Cayo Coco
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) 1 Playa Larga
Wilson's Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) 1 Playa Larga
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) 15 Playa Larga, few Cayo Coco and elsewhere
Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) Few Cayo Coco and Moron
Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) Few Cayo Coco and Moron
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia) 1 Playa Larga
Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) 25 Cayo Coco
Herring Gull [sp] (Larus argentatus) 1 Cayo Coco
Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) Common Cayo Coco
Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia) 20 Cayo Coco
Royal Tern (Sterna maxima) Few Cayo Coco
Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis) Common Cayo Coco
White-crowned Pigeon (Columba leucocephala) Common throughout
Plain Pigeon (Columba inornata) 1 Najasa
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) Fairly common inland
Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita) Fairly common throughout
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica) 1 Najasa
Common Ground-dove (Columbina passerina) Few throughout
Grey-headed Quail-dove (Geotrygon caniceps) Only 2 singles at Bermejas
Key West Quail-dove (Geotrygon chrysia) 1 Bermejas - Playa Larga
Ruddy Quail-dove (Geotrygon montana) 1 briefly Palpite
Blue-headed Quail-dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala) 1 Palpite
Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops) 15 Bermejas
Cuban Parrot (Amazona leucocephala) Small numbers throughout with 15 max at Solpillar
Great Lizard-cuckoo (Saurothera merlini) 2 La Guira, up to 5 daily around Playa Larga
Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) Common throughout
Bare-legged Owl (Gymnoglaux lawrencii) 1 seen and 2 heard Bermejas
Cuban Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium siju) 2 Bermejas, 1 Soplillar and several heard
Stygian Owl (Asio stygius) 1 Puerto Larga
Greater Antillean (Cuban) Nightjar (Caprimulgus cubanensis cubanensis) 1 on 18th & 2 on 23rd Bermejas, 1 Soplillar
Antillean Palm-swift (Tachornis phoenicobia) 10 en route and at Soplillar
Cuban Emerald (Chlorostilbon ricordii [mellisugus]) Up to 4 daily
Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) A male Bermejas and female Santo Tomas
Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus) 15+ La Guira, up to 3 daily around Playa Larga
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) Small numbers throughout
Cuban Tody (Todus multicolor) 1-2 daily
West Indian Woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris) 1-2 daily around Playa Larga
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) A few singles La Guira, Soplillar and Najasa
Cuban Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus) 4 La Guira, singles Bermejas and Najasa
Northern (Cuban) Flicker (Colaptes auratus chrysocaulosus) Only 1 at Najasa
Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae) Up to 4 Bermejas, 2 singles Soplillar
(Crescent-eyed) Greater Antillean Pewee (Contopus caribaeus) Few daily
La Sagra's Flycatcher (Myiarchus sagrae) Fairly common around Playa Larga
Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) Fairly common throughout
Giant Kingbird (Tyrannus cubensis) 3 Najasa
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) 150 Moron - Cayo Coco
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) 20+ Soplillar
Zapata Wren (Ferminia cerverai) 1 singing at Zapata Swamp
Grey Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) A few singles La Guira, Solpillar & Cayo Coco
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Fairly common throughout
Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachii) 2 Cayo Guillermo
Cuban Solitaire (Myadestes elisabeth) 10 La Guira
Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) Fairly common throughout
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) 1 Najasa
Cuban Gnatcatcher (Polioptila lembeyei) Cayo Guillermo
Cuban Palm Crow (Corvus minutus [palmarum]) 1 Najasa
Cuban Crow (Corvus nasicus) Fairly common throughout
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) Fairly common in larger settlements and towns
Cuban Vireo (Vireo gundlachii) 1-2 most days except on Cayo Coco
Thick-billed Vireo (Vireo crassirostris) 1 seen and 2 heard Cayo Coco
Northern Parula (Parula americana) Few most days
Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) 1 Najasa, few Cayo Coco
Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina) 1 Soplillar and Najasa
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) Few around Playa larga, common Cayo Coco
Black-throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens) 3 La Guira, few singles Playa Larga & Najasa
Yellow-throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica) 3 Najasa
Olive-capped Warbler (Dendroica pityophila) 10 La Guira
Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor) 2 singles Soplillar
Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) Most numerous bird except on Cayo Coco where absent
Bay-breasted Warbler (Dendroica castanea) 1 Najasa
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) 1-2 in forest daily
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) Common throughout
Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus) 1 Soplillar
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus) Few Soplillar
Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis) 1 Soplillar
Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla) 1 Soplillar
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) Common Zapata Swamp, few elsewhere
Yellow-headed Warbler (Teretistris fernandinae) Common La Guira, fairly common around Playa Larga
Oriente Warbler (Teretistris fornsi) Common Cayo Coco
Western Stripe-headed Tanager (Spindalis zena zena) 10+ La Guira, 4 Cayo Coco, 1 Soplillar
Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) 5+ La Guira, 2 Soplillar
Zapata Sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata) 3 Zapata Swamp, 2 Cayo Coco
Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra) Common La Guira, few daily around Playa larga and Cayo Coco
Cuban Grassquit (Tiaris canora) 4 Bermejas, 2 pairs Najasa
Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivacea) Common Cayo Coco, few elsewhere
Black-cowled Oriole (Icterus dominicensis) 1-2 daily except at Cayo Coco
Cuban Red-winged/ Red-shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius [phoeniceus] assimilis) 5-6 Santo Tomas, Soplillar and Playa Larga
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius humeralis) 2 Soroa, Bermejas, Soplillar and Najasa
Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) Only 1 noted near Havana but probably overlooked
Cuban Blackbird (Dives atroviolacea) Common around Playa Larga and Najasa, 1+ La Guira
Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger) Fairly common throughout
Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis) 8 Playa Larga, probably overlooked elsewhere
West Indian Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna arborea) Los Canales (Playa Larga), Cayo Coco
Cuban [Hook-billed] Kite (Chondrohierax [uncinatus] wilsonii)
Yellow-breasted Crake (Porzana flaviventer) Zapata Swamp
Zapata Rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai) Zapata Swamp
Spotted Rail (Pardirallus maculatus) Zapata Swamp
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) Zapata Swamp
Scaly-naped Pigeon (Columba squamosa) La Guira
Cuban [Caribbean] Martin (Progne [dominicensis] cryptoleuca) Playa Larga &