Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Key west Quail-Dove
This report outlines a two week birding trip which I undertook with my wife, Alison Rowntree, in Cuba. We wanted to combine our birding with some relaxation and a bit of time in Havana, so we did not attempt to try and see every endemic. However, we spent plenty of time at Zapata - Cuba's top birding site, several hours’ south east of Havana. We also did a lot of birding around Cayo Coco, off the central north coast, where a number of endemics and some other good birds can be found.
We really enjoyed our trip. Cuba is a fascinating country with great, friendly people and of course some really good birds. Birding highlights included: Bee Hummingbirds in a private garden, Stygian Owls at the nest, Bare-legged and Cuban Pygmy Owls together, West Indian Whistling Ducks in our hotel grounds, excellent views of Thick-billed Vireos and Cuban Gnatcatchers, Cuban Nightjar on the ground, plenty of Cuban Todies, four species of Quail-Doves, Zapata Sparrow, and 16 species of North American warblers, including Hooded.
For further information, please feel free to contact me - firstname.lastname@example.org
Our arrangements were made via Andy Mitchell (www.cubabirdingtours.com) an Orkney-based birder with vast experience of Cuba, who works in partnership with Havanatour, a travel agency specialising in Cuba. Andy is happy to customise your trip for you and will provide detailed information on where to find the birds as well as good driving directions and recommendations on accommodation. Between him and Havanatour, we were able to book everything except the (direct) international flights which we booked with Virgin via DialAFlight.
As part of our planning, I also looked at a few trip reports (from Surfbirds). As ever, Ian Merrill’s proved particularly useful. In addition, the Fatbirder website, gives a good overview of the country.
Andy’s arrangements were very good. Most of Havanatour’s went smoothly too. However, they failed to stamp one of our visas and we had to buy another one at Heathrow; we also had to chase arrangements for the transfer from Havana to the airport and the taxi their rep arranged between the airport and the Mariposa hotel seemed very over-priced.
We hired a car (far too big, flashy and expensive for our needs but apparently all that was available) which we picked up at Havana international airport and dropped off on Cayo Coco (from where we took an internal flight to Havana). Driving in Cuba is generally easy with little traffic (perhaps a bit more challenging in central Havana, which we avoided). However, some road conditions are poor and navigation is a challenge, with inconsistent signs. Andy’s detailed directions including links to google maps, overcame the latter nicely! We also took Michelin’s Cuba map 9786 national) which provided an overview of where we were going.
We stayed in hotels in Havana on arrival and at the end of our trip, a casa particular (Cuba’s version of bed & breakfast) in Playa Larga (for Zapata) and an all-inclusive hotel on Cayo Coco. We would recommend everywhere except the first Havana Hotel – the Mariposa. Don’t miss the fantastic casa particular experience! Reviews of everywhere we stayed can be found on Trip Advisor ("PlymouthPete19").
Whilst the range of birds is not vast, Cuba’s attractions include an interesting spread of endemics and near-endemics, plus plenty of fantastic North American warblers. Most birding is relatively relaxed and easy although a few specialist species require detailed directions / a guide. There are next-to-no mammals of any significance.
We used the Helm guide, Birds of Cuba by Orlando H. Garrido and Arturo Kirkconnell . H(reprinted 2014). This is adequate but the plates are not particularly good and the layout leaves a lot to be desired. Several recent species splits involving new names are not included.
Some photos in addition to those with this report will appear on Surfbirds (World Birding and World Rarities galleries).
Species seen are outlined in the daily accounts below.
Wi-Fi and the internet generally is not widely available and often unreliable in Cuba, although it could be purchased at our Cayo Coco hotel where it seemed reliable. Mobile coverage is patchy and expensive on international rates (local SIM cards are not generally available to foreigners).
Currency and visas
All money must be exchanged in Cuba on arrival / departure and is not available outside the country. So take enough cash. The currency for tourists is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC or CUC$) which is equivalent to one US dollar. There is also a local’s Cuban Peso or CUP, a currency which tourists don’t generally get involved in.
Visas (also called “Tourist Cards”) are required and can be purchased for £15 from your travel agency or airline prior to arrival. Make sure they are stamped on the back – see above.
4th February: Havana airport
We arrived at Havana airport at c4.30pm, cleared customs, exchanged our money and took an expensive 15 mins’ taxi ride to the Mariposa hotel, which we had been advised was the only option near the airport. Several Killdeers showed on the roadside en route. After a few drinks in the bar and (in the absence of proper food) a few snacks, we retired for the night.
The poor quality of this hotel, lack of proper food, and cost we were charged for the taxi, suggests it might be better to head for central Havana (some double the distance) even for one night here.
5th February: Havana to Playa Larga
After breakfast at the Mariposa, a wander around the grounds provided an introduction to Cuba’s avifauna: a few Common Ground Doves, a Palm Warbler, two Cuban Emeralds, half a dozen Cuban Blackbirds and overhead, two each of Turkey Vultures and Antillean Palm Swifts.
After a taxi ride back to the airport, we picked up the hire car from the REX office, a thorough and rather lengthy process.
Leaving around 10.30am, we put Andy’s directions to the test and navigated the outskirts of Havana nicely before hitting our first challenge – a police speed trap!
We had been warned about police scams over-inflating speeds to get their own on the spot fines. Our hire car company had advised we should get any offences written on the hire agreement to pay the company later, not the police at the time. I had been careful about my speed, and this officer showed me a speed gun flashing “66” in a 50 km/hr zone. Unfortunately for him, it kept reverting to “51” which was undoubtedly our correct speed. He spoke no English and my rubbish Spanish just got worse! As he kept talking and asking for money, I kept offering the hire car agreement to write on. It did the trick, and after about 10 mins of this pantomime, with no prospect of me handing him cash, he let me off!
Away again, we made the rest of an uneventful and largely bird-less, journey arriving at c1.30pm in Playa Larga, well placed for the extensive Zapata national park and next to the Bay of Pigs which witnessed the Americans’ failed invasion in 1961. We followed Andy’s instructions to the approximate location for the house of our bird guide, Angel Martinez Garcia (email@example.com). The only problem was: which house exactly? As luck would have it – with my Spanish back up to poor - the second person I asked was his Mum! Angel was pre-booked as our guide for Zapata and we had been told that guides are compulsory there, though there is little evidence to show how this is enforced.
After brief introductions, Angel took us to our casa, the fantastic Rio-Mar, nearby (run by Daniel Rodriguez, known as “Motica” - Mobile: (0053) 53112599, Phone (+53) 45-987125, email:firstname.lastname@example.org). With arrangements made for the following day, I set out to explore the local area of mangroves and forest behind the beach, which was full of birds including two striking Worm-eating Warblers, several Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers, Northern Waterthrushes, Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Blue warblers, Yellow-faced Grassquits and my first unbelievably colourful Cuban Tody. A Cuban Crow appeared on the telegraph poles beside the street nearby, and Palm and Yellow-throated Warblers proved quite common amongst the nearby houses.
The day was nicely rounded off with a fantastic meal watching the sun go down over the sea from our delightful casa.
6th February: Soplillar, Zapata
Met Angel at 7am together with two other British birders, one of whom we quickly discovered was born in our home town, Plymouth!
Forest birding in Soplillar (just east of Playa Larga) started with a focus on the rather shy and delicately-marked Grey-fronted Quail-Dove, a few sightings of which were eventually secured at some distance on the tracks. In a more open patch, we came across a small flock of noisy Cuban Parrots in the tree tops. Our first Cuban Trogon perched beside the track before we searched a mixed flock of passerines which included a White-eyed and several Cuban Vireos, two Magnolia Warblers (our only ones of the trip) and a handful of striking Yellow-headed warblers. Then Angel took us to a spot where we enjoyed a mini Owl fest – two charismatic Bare-legged appeared from their dead tree hide away, examining us with their dark eyes and right beside them, two Cuban Pygmy-Owls looked down on us from the trees. A good spread of North American warblers and several Cuban Todies, completed the morning’s entertainment. But Angel’s attempts to lure out Bee Hummingbird with his recording, was to no avail.
After dropping Angel back, armed with directions from the other birders we had met in the morning, we set off for a self-guided afternoon. First stop was a private garden in Palpite c5km north of Playa Larga. Here after a brief exchange with the owner (who we gave five CUCs) we were welcomed behind the house to enjoy point blank views of three glittering Bee Hummers including a perched male, coming to his feeders in a bush. A male Black-throated Blue Warbler joined them together with a constant supply of Cuban Emeralds, both the latter reasonably plentiful in the wider area.
To find this house – heading north through in Palpite, take the third road on the right (this is an unmade road and just before the sign for Soplillar), turn right, left and left again, following around the edge of a small park. The house is towards the end of this road, with a picture of a hummingbird displayed on it. It seems the occupants have been attracting Bee Hummer’s here for a while and welcoming visitors in to see them.
With the world’s smallest bird under our belt, we headed southeast to Cueva de los Peces (a mini tourist attraction c18km from Playa Larga on the Playa Giron road). Here, behind the café (by the natural pool which you can swim in) we found three stunning Blue-headed Quail-Doves. These previously difficult-to-see birds now come regularly to this spot for food and are remarkably confiding. An obliging Cuban Green Woodpecker and Grey Catbird added interest.
As we enjoyed drinks on the veranda outside our room at dusk, two Cuban Black Hawks (a recent endemic split) passed by.
7th February: La Turba, Zapata
A pre-dawn start with Angel to visit the La Turba area (between Playa Larga and the main road 1, north of La Boca).
Our first target was Zapata Wren which we heard (male & female) repeatedly, but after an hour-and-a-half had only glimpsed one. The constant playing of recordings seemed to have no positive effect on getting views, and we got the impression that it is being over-done here. Common Yellowthroats and Northern Waterthrushes as well as the odd Prairie Warbler, however kept us entertained during the wait.
Moving on, we had better luck with Zapata Sparrows, four of these bulky passerines performing at close range for their photos to be taken. A gathering of stunning warblers included Yellow-throated, Northern Parula and Prairie, and a Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Herons, Crested Caracaras and a party of Blue-winged Teals, provided added interest. My only Louisiana Waterthrush of the trip appeared on lily pads here.
Next we searched for Gundlach’s Hawk but only managed to hear them high in the trees. However, a Ruddy Quail-Dove on the track was an unexpected bonus before more colourful Cuban Parrots put in an appearance beside the road.
A try for Fernandina’s Flicker near Palpite proved fruitless. However, no problem at the next wooded site, where Angel directed us to a rather over-grown Stygian Owl “chick” in its’ nest and quickly picked out the two parents nearby. These huge owls with erect ear tufts were undoubtedly the morning’s highlight.
In the afternoon, I returned to the mangroves and forest behind the beach, near our casa enjoying a similar spread of warblers to the previous visit, including plenty of Northern Waterthrushes, and also several Cuban Bullfinches, an obliging Yellow-crowned Night Heron and amongst the usual American Kestrels, one of the red morph.
An evening excursion back to Soplillar, with Angel and a Belgian birder, started with a couple of roadside Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers before proving second time lucky for Fernandina’s Flicker, with a male of this intricately marked endemic perched in a tree top. A couple of West Indian Woodpeckers performed well as we walked to the spot for our after-dark target: Cuban Nightjar. As the light faded with the three of us watching and waiting in anticipation, suddenly the peace was shattered by the arrival of two buses containing bird tour participants and the air filled with loud talking and constant playing of recording preceded by “Greater Antillean Nightjar” (its’ former name) being announced. Fortunately, three birds showed – sometimes obscured by the crowd – in both flight and one on the track; so having obtained our views, we disappeared and I returned to our casa for our final dinner.
Other birds of note seen in the Zapata area during our stay, included: Pied-billed Grebe, Magnificent Frigatebird, Neotropic Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Little Blue, Tri-coloured, and Green Herons, White Ibises, Royal Tern, Common Ground-, Zenaida and Mourning Doves, Great Lizard Cuckoos, Smooth-billed Anis, Antillean Palm-Swifts, Cuban Pewees, La Sagra’s Flycatchers, Loggerhead Kingbirds, Tree Swallows, Red-legged Thrushes, Cuban Blackbirds, and Greater Antillean Grackles.
8th February: Soplillar, Zapata and drive to Cayo Coco
For my final morning at Zapata, I decided to return to Soplillar for a bit of pre-breakfast birding. Highlights were a Grey-fronted Quail-Dove at about half the range of our original sighting, showing its subtly beautiful colouring, and another Cuban Tody posing for pictures.
After a final leisurely breakfast, and views of a Tawny-shouldered Blackbird from our casa, we reluctantly said goodbye to the Rio-Mar and embarked on what proved to be a six-and-a-half-hour drive to Cayo Coco. Once an island, this cay is now joined to the north coast by a 17km causeway, complete with Castro-inspired posters celebrating this feat of engineering!
Two Greater (American) Flamingos and a Red-breasted Merganser, as we drove onto Cayo Coco, were the only birds of note.
We checked into the luxury of the all-inclusive Melia hotel, and began to sample the mind-boggling selection of food and drinks that were to be on offer for the next seven days.
9th February: Cayo Paredon Grande and Cayo Guillermo
After the earliest breakfast available in the restaurant, we headed for Cayo Paredon Grande, on the cay to the east of Cayo Coco. After, doing my best to avoid the potholes on rapidly deteriorating roads, we parked beside the lighthouse and took the track running east from the parking area here.
After several hours of searching the vegetation in this area, all we had achieved was some brief views of Oriente Warbler and a female Western Spindalis. The target endemics – Thick-billed Vireo and Cuban Gnatcatcher – were nowhere to be seen. Somewhat down beat, we therefore relocated at the road side several hundred meters back down the road, and searched the rather uninspiring looking roadside vegetation. Despite, the heat of the day rising, we quickly connected with a good selection of birds including: Common Yellowthroat, Prairie, Black-and-white, Norther Parula, Yellow and (lots of) Oriente Warblers, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Bullfinches, Cuban Green Woodpecker and, at last, Thick-billed Vireos including several in full song! We however left with no Gnatcatchers.
A fruitless afternoon was spent searching for Bahama Mockingbird at the tip of Cayo Guillermo (about 40 km to the west of the Melia) in windy conditions.
10th February: Wild Boar Café and Cayo Guillermo
We arrived just after dawn at the Wild Boar Café, some 15 mins drive west of our hotel. The trees around this nightclub in a cave attract a variety of birds, with several sources of water provided and people leaving cooked rice out. It wasn’t long before we connected with the site’s speciality – a Key West Quail-Dove which wandered briefly out of the undergrowth. A great “tick” for my birthday! As the light improved we started seeing more; and in the end counted no less than eight of these beautifully marked birds, including several in the open feeding on the rice. At one point, a Zenaida Dove joined them.
The biggest surprise however was a (female) Hooded Warbler amongst a good spread of other warblers in the trees where both Cuban and a Yellow-throated Vireos also appeared. Several Cuban Todies performed at point blank range, one devouring a moth nearly as big as itself! A handful of Western Spindalis showed around the car park including some stunningly coloured males.
The few hours spent at this fantastic site were amongst the most enjoyable birding we experienced in Cuba.
In the afternoon, I returned to Cayo Guillermo to try again for Bahama Mockingbird. This time I spent longer and covered every bit of accessible habitat around the end of the road. However, in the end I had to admit defeat with no Mockingbird of any description seen. Whether it was due to the (still) windy conditions or the new building site which is encroaching on the area, I don’t know.
A perched Cuban Black Hawk and a selection of warblers, provided some compensation.
On my return, I stopped at roadside pools just west of the bridge (complete with Castro sculpture) several kms to the south-east of Cayo Guillermo. Sightings here included a flock of Blue-winged Teals and a Greater (American) Flamingo.
However, pools on the south side of the road, half way back, proved the most productive with some big gatherings of ducks, waders and herons including: more Blue-winged Teals, a White-cheeked Pintail, Neotropic Cormorants, Great & Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Tricoloured and Green Herons, White Ibises, flocks of Black-necked Stilts, Grey Plovers, Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs, and a few Short-billed Dowitchers.
11th February 2016: Cayo Paredon Grande and Melia
Up pre-dawn to drive back to Cayo Paredon Grande and make the most of the last day of our hire car.
Having realised that we were probably not in the “right” spot for the key endemics on our first visit, we headed straight for the revised location. This is the track which runs east from the road to the lighthouse, several hundred meters south from the road end where it terminates by the wall of the lighthouse grounds (i.e. not the track which runs direct from the parking area there).
We drove the first bit and then parked where the taller vegetation starts and birded on foot in rather windy conditions. Thick-billed Vireos soon reappeared and an obliging Ovenbird wandered around, but after an hour-and-a half, not a single Gnatcatcher was to be found. We persisted. Then, a rather soft but interesting call alerted us to the bushes beside the track about two-thirds of the way to the beach – it sounded remarkably like the call we had been familiarising ourselves with all morning! And there in the bush right next to us was a Cuban Gnatcatcher sporting its’ distinctive c-shaped black facial mark, soon to be joined by two more. We enjoyed close views of these delightful little birds for some 20 minutes before they disappeared.
A quick check of the lovely beach at the end of the track produced no hoped-for waders, but Royal Terns gave some nice views along with fishing Brown Pelicans.
A short stop beside the road just south of where this track joins it, produced a similar spread of birds to our first visit (including Thick-billed Vireos) but additions were male Western Spindalis, female Cape May Warbler and, incredibly, two more Cuban Gnatcatchers.
Further down the road, an obliging immature Cuban Black Hawk perched by the road and Magnificent Frigatebirds floated overhead. Where this road joined the main one, we came across a Reddish Egret.
Back at the Melia after a quick dip in the pool, I found the West Indian Whistling Ducks (at least nine) which the hotel is famed for, under the most easterly chalets on stilts over the lagoon. This spot proved most consistent for them during the rest of our stay. Nearby, a very obliging adult Little Blue Heron posed for photos.
In the afternoon, we dropped the hire car off at the hotel next door – a remarkably swift and simple process.
12th February: Melia
Up early to explore the Melia properly, now we were car-less. It quickly became clear that this was a good choice for the birder, with plenty of natural vegetation having been left in the hotel grounds, and fringed by the beach and a lagoon. Striking Yellow-throated Warblers were widespread, two Worm-eating Warblers appeared behind the sports complex, a fine male Cape May Warbler showed in a clump of bushes near the beach bar and a male Western Spindalis glowed nearby. Cuban Emeralds proved quite common, West Indian Woodpeckers were using a hole in a tree by the pool, and two Cuban (Black-cowled) Orioles put in an appearance in beach-side vegetation. A Northern Flicker entertained guests by drumming on a metal roof!
13th February: Melia
A pre-breakfast stroll produced four Cuban Martins over the lagoon. Later, we wandered along the beach (westwards) from the Melia and back via the hotel next door for coffee. Sightings included: Yellow Warblers, Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans and an Osprey.
14th February: Melia
With the wind still up, I took a walk east along the beach where the only waders were a flock of Sanderlings. In the mangroves further down however, a mixed warbler flock included: Yellow, Cape May, Prairie, Palm and Northern Parula.
Back at the Melia, a few of the West Indian Whistling Ducks appeared in the open on the lagoon taking a Valentine’s Day excursion towards the International Restaurant!
Having not been given advance confirmation of our flight time, we finally heard from Solways that we had a 7pm pick up for a 10pm flight to Havana the following day.
15th February: Melia
A rather lazy day, with both of us feeling a bit under the weather. However, a few birds seen including Common Yellowthroat, Cape May Warbler and Ovenbird.
Other birds seen in the Melia during our stay were: Magnificent Frigatebird, Great Egret, Tricoloured and Green Herons, Turkey Vulture, Royal Tern, Eurasian Collared, Common Ground and White-winged Doves, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Cuban Green Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Loggerhead Kingbird, Red-legged Thrush, Grey Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Yellow and Palm Warblers, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Cuban Bullfinch, Greater Antillean Grackle and House Sparrow.
Other birds seen around Cayo Coco during our stay included: Great Blue Heron, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Double-crested Cormorant, Crested Caracara, and American Redstart.
In the evening, we took the hour long flight from Cayo Coco (an international airport with direct flights from Manchester serving the package holiday trade) to a very small airport in Havana which, to begin with, left us wondering whether we were in the right place! Here, we had a painfully long wait while a man shuffled names from a bus ticket-sized hand written list. Eventually, though, we were loaded on to a bus and taken on a tour of other Havana hotels, before finally being dropped at the hotel Armadores de Santander at midnight.
16th & 17th February: Havana
The next two days were spent enjoying the sights of old Havana. This was an experience not to be missed with fascinating streets, squares and architecture – a mixture of crumbling old grandeur and newly restored buildings. We also enjoyed the many old American cars – again of differing quality – and the plentiful bars and restaurants with their “pop-up” bands. Particularly enjoyable was the micro-brewery which serves beer from giant tubes brought to your table and great skewers of meat or fish, suspended from a frame!
The only birds of note we saw in Havana were: Cuban Martin, a dozen Cabot’s Terns, Prairie Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, and some Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls.
We departed Havana on the 7.20pm flight for Heathrow reflecting on a very varied and enjoyable visit to this great country.