Cuba - endemics and West Indian endemics - 10 November - 23 November 2018

Published by Stephen Blaber (sblaber AT hotmail.com)

Participants: Steve Blaber, Tessa Blaber

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Introduction

Having birded much of Central and South America it was time to concentrate on the Caribbean. We decided to start with Cuba, which has an impressive array of endemics and West Indian specials. Following advice from numerous trip reports, particularly those of Ian Merrill and Greg Roberts, we contacted Andy Mitchell (kingbird@cubabirdingtours.com) in the UK who organised our trip for us along with Havanatour UK who did the hotel and car bookings. The latter are not straightforward in Cuba and have to be booked in advance and paid for with vouchers. Our trip was relatively hassle free and we saw almost all our target species, with 50 lifers, including all the endemics except Zapata Rail and Cuban Kite. Andy provided comprehensive driving directions (road signs are not frequent, especially in more remote areas), bird site advice, and he organised local guides in advance. Local guides are compulsory at some sites, but we opted for guides at all of our sites, both to increase our chances of seeing our targets and in order to support local birders. In retrospect this was a wise decision, all the guides were great, and we learned a lot about Cuba from them. Throughout our trip we had nothing but friendliness and courtesy from Cubans, many of whom enjoyed being able to speak to Tessa in Spanish. We used the field guide “birds of the West Indies” by Raffaele et al. and also recommend the recent article on Cuba birding in Neotropical Birding volume 23.

Driving in Cuba was relatively straightforward. The main roads vary in condition and potholes are frequent and require constant concentration. Fortunately traffic is light and much of it in rural areas is horse-drawn. Indeed the scene in some of the rural towns resembles something from a wild-west movie, with all manner of horse-drawn wagons. Driving at night is a particular challenge as most of these conveyances do not show any lights. They are however, subject to road rules as we observed a horse-drawn wagon pulled over by a jack-booted policewoman on a motorbike – notebook in hand! Vigilance was required with regard to petrol as the higher octane stuff for tourist vehicles is not always available away from the main towns. We learned to fill the tank whenever it was available.

Itinerary

10 Nov Arrive Havana, Cuba on flight from Mexico City at 1330. After collecting vouchers from the Havanatour office at the airport, picking up the car (a small Suzuki 4x4), and changing money, drove to Hotel Los Jazmines, near Vinales in the west (184 km, 3.5 hrs)

11 Nov Hotel los Jazmines.

12 Nov Hotel los Jazmines.

13 Nov Left and drove east to Cayo Coco (697 km, 11 hrs). Hotel Sol Cayo Coco.

14 Nov Cayo Coco.

15 Nov Cayo Coco,

16 Nov Left and drove to the reserve at La Belen, south of Najasa (259 km, 3.5 hrs).

17 Nov La Belen.

18 Nov Drove to the next base, Playa Larga in the Zapata Swamp (465 km, 6 hrs). Playa Larga Hotel

19 Nov Playa Larga.

20 Nov Playa Larga.

21 Nov Playa Larga.

22 Nov Drove back to Havana, dropped car, stay at Armadores de Santander in the city.

23 Nov Hotel transfer to airport, for
Cayman Airways flight at 1505 to Kingston via Grand Cayman

Narrative

(Only new species mentioned here, full list at the end)

10 November

After overnighting at the Camino Real Hotel at Mexico City airport, we flew into Havana on AeroMexico arriving at about 1.30 pm. We got through the arrival formalities quickly and with no problems. Following Andy’s advice we headed for the Havanatour office in the little mall opposite the arrivals entrance. Here we obtained various vouchers to exchange with hotels and the car hire company. We had to wait a little while for the car hire staff to finish their lunch, and used the time to change money and stock up on water and soft drinks. We were on our way in a handy little Suzuki 4x4 by about 3.30 pm. Following Andy’s directions and after filling the car with ‘tourist petrol’- 94 octane (a special blue pump; most non-tourist vehicles run on 83 octane or diesel), we were soon on the main motorway heading west. The drive was uneventful and traffic was light. New birds seen along the highway were the ubiquitous Great Antillean Grackle and Cuban Blackbird. Due to the late time of leaving, the last part of our journey was in the dark, with its attendant hazards of people and animals on the roads, but we arrived safely at the comfortable Hotel Los Jazmines near Vinales by about 7 pm and settled in and had dinner.

11 November

Our guide for the Vinales area was Nils Navarro, a well-known Cuban ornithologist, and author of the book “Endemic Birds of Cuba”. First thing in the morning we got our first record of Loggerhead Kingbird outside the hotel while waiting for Nils. Once he had arrived we set off for the first birding site, about 15 km west of Vinales. Here a track leads off the road into the forest. This site produced in rapid succession Cuban Trogon, Olive-capped Warbler, Cuban Tody, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Bullfinch, White-crowned Pigeon, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Pygmy Owl, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Red-legged Thrush and Western Spindalis. Still reeling from these lifers, we drove back down the road a short way to a bridge. Here we followed the stream into riparian forest where good views were obtained of a Cuban Solitaire, followed by Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Oriole. Overhead were flocks of Antillean Palm Swifts. Moving to a cleared area used for grazing cattle adjacent to the stream, Nils located Cuban Grassquit, an increasingly difficult species due to it being heavily trapped for the cagebird trade. By late morning it was hot and bird activity minimal so we went for a long lunch at a ‘paladar’ near our hotel run by Nils’s mother-in-law. After an excellent lunch and drinks to celebrate 18 lifers on our first day we returned to the hotel mid-afternoon.

12 November

Our second full day with Nils began at the Rancho San Vicente complex. Here in the gardens of the hotel we saw Scaly-naped Pigeon and West Indian Woodpecker. Walking further into the ranch we were lucky to get flight views of Gundlach’s Hawk. This was followed by close views of Cuban Vireo. Following this we drove to El Albino, following a very rough dirt road for about 15 km to a ranch adjacent to a large dam. The vegetation here comprised mainly oak and pine. Although this added a lot of species to our trip list, the only new species was Greater Lizard Cuckoo. This was more about exploring a new area and an interesting site to see with an amusing sign at one gate stating all the pigs belonged to the government. After returning to Vinales at about 1.30 we went for lunch at a paladar called “Restaurante El Cuajani” (elcuajani@nauta.cu). This was our only experience of Cuban fusion food. We didn’t know it at the time, but the lunches we had in this area, were by far and away the best of the trip.

13 November

This was a travel day. As the fuel in Vinales had run out, we left very early to go via Pinar del Rio where we obtained ‘tourist petrol’ at the third petrol station we stopped up - the first two only having lower octane. Then proceed with the long drive – about 700 km -to Cayo Coco. We stopped for breakfast at the restaurant by the lake just before Havana and again after Havana. The drive was straightforward thanks to Andy’s directions and we arrived at the 27km causeway in daylight and reached the hotel by about 6 pm. The Hotel Sol Cayo Coco is a massive resort designed for all-in package holiday-makers – not the sort of place birders would normally opt for, but convenient for the birding sites.

14 November

As pre-arranged we met up with our guide Paulino Lopez at the petrol station not far from the hotel at 6.30 am. We spent a very productive morning with Paulino at various sites on the cays. The first two species, Oriente Warbler and Cuban Gnatcatcher were found at a site not very far from the airport. Also not far from here we had great views of Mangrove Cuckoo, a species we have looked for and failed to find in many other places in Central and South America. It was very vocal here. After this it was not long until we found Cuban Sparrow close to the road. We then drove out to the lighthouse on Cayo Paredon, getting good close-up views of Cuban Black Hawk on the way. The lighthouse area had previously been a good site for Thick-billed Vireo, but Paulino was not optimistic as none have been seen since the devastating hurricane the year before. We explored the area and were unsuccessful with the vireo and there was also no sign of Bahama Mockingbird. Returning to Cayo Coco, we stopped in a mangrove area and using the tape soon obtained close views of Clapper Rail.

Following Paulino’s advice in the late afternoon we investigated the lagoon adjacent to the Melia Hotel and almost immediately located nine West Indian Whistling Ducks resting on a wooden pontoon.

15 November

Met up with Paulino at 6 am to go to the Wild Boar Cave area. Here, behind the maintenance buildings, many species come to tyres filled with water, as well as seed put out to attract quail doves. This is normally a good site for Key West Quail Dove, but although we heard one calling, none came to feed or drink – possibly because there was a lot of water around following recent rains.

In the afternoon we drove out to Cayo Guillermo seeking Bahama Mockingbird. Following Paulino’s directions we concentrated on the palmetto scrub area just past the last big hotel. Plenty of Northern Mockingbirds and a brief view of a single Bahama Mockingbird. Unfortunately much of the habitat is being destroyed by tourism developments.

16 November

We left early to drive to the La Belen reserve south of Najasa. This is partly reserve and partly a working horse ranch. En route we saw our first Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds. The roads became progressively worse until we arrived at the homestead. It is relatively far from any population centre and conditions were basic although adequate. Unfortunately they had run out of most food, except chicken and rice. Also the beer had run out! Despite the privations however, the staff were excellent and the birding great! We soon had both Palm Crow and Cuban Crow around the ranch. We arranged to go out first thing in the morning with the resident guide Camilo.

17 November

We spent the morning with Camilo exploring the magnificent ‘bird walk’ with its huge Royal Palms. Cuban Parrots were abundant and we also had good views of Giant Kingbird and Plain Pigeon. In the late morning we drove to a location just outside the park where after a short time we had great views of a pair of Fernandina’s Flickers. We failed to locate any Cuban Parakeets which we were assured are normally easily seen around the homestead!

18 November

A travel day, driving back westwards to arrive at Playa Larga, our base for the Zapata Swamp region. The Playa Larga Hotel was excellent, although following Andy’s advice we mainly ate at various paladars. The first of these, Milly’s – just across the road from the hotel was really good. After we had checked in, our guide for the next three days – Angel Martinez – came to see us and we arranged our activities for the next day.

19 November

Angel arrived on his motorbike at our chalet at 6 am and we set off for Sopillar – a 15 minute drive. Here we explored the wetland area, walking along a bund, hoping for Cuban Parakeet, but no luck. After this we entered the forest and soon had crippling views of Grey-fronted Quail Dove. Angel tried numerous tree hollows for the Cuban Screech Owl, but they were all empty. It was not long however, until we had close views of that important target – Bee Hummingbird. This was followed by a Worm-eating Warbler. Further searching did not turn up Blue-headed Quail Dove, so we drove to Cueva de los Peces on the road to Playa Giron. Here numerous Blue-headed Quail Doves were hanging around the kitchen area! Good close-up views. From here we drove to Playa Giron to re-fuel (none in Playa Larga) and to have lunch at El Butty, a favourite of Angel’s. As with other private restaurants, the food was excellent.

20 November

Early start with Angel to get to La Turba in the Zapata swamp. The target was Zapata Wren and it did not disappoint! Within half an hour of arriving we had close up views! Responding to the tape it flew across the creek and came within a few feet of us. After this we returned to the main road, stopping when Angel heard the call of the Red-shouldered Blackbird – again good close views of a pair in the reeds adjacent to the tar road. Next we returned to Sopillar hoping for a Cuban Nightjar roosting in the forest. Eventually Angel located one, sitting not lengthwise on a branch, but across it – amazing views. After dropping Angel back at the hotel we headed for Playa Giron and lunch again at El Butty. Following lunch we visited the Museum before returning to Playa Larga and meeting up with Angel to go to La Boca, a crocodile farm and restaurant area about 12 km from Playa Larga back towards the motorway. On the way there we had good flight views of a Key West Quail Dove. At La Boca we finally got to grips with Cuban Parakeet – several flocks gave us good views. The icing on the cake was just before dusk, a fly past by an Antillean Nighthawk, with its characteristic slender pointed wings and white wing patches.

21 November

As we had missed the Cuban Screech Owl and only had flight views of Key West Quail Dove, Angel had arranged for us to go to Bermejas Reserve, the other side of Playa Giron, where the chief guide Orlando Ramirez would help us. We set off at about 5 am to arrive at first light. Good views of Cuban Nightjar on the road close to Playa Larga. We duly met up with Orlando who guided us around Bermejas. Despite extensive searching we could not locate any Key West Quail Doves, lots of Grey-fronted ones however. Nevertheless Orlando took us to a known roost of Cuban Screech Owl in a tree hollow and we had excellent views of this engaging endemic, the last of our target species. After leaving Bermejas we returned to La Boca for a late lunch with live Cuban music.

22 November

Drove to Havana, stopping for breakfast at a restaurant on the motorway. Following Andy’s directions we reached the Hotel Armadores de Santander in the old city, close to the waterfront, by 11 am and checked in. The rest of the day was spent returning the car and sightseeing. Havana is a uniquely beautiful and historic city and we also enjoyed a trip in an old Chevy taxi so that Tessa could sit on a bench with John Lennon (bronze) in Vedado.

23 November

The prearranged taxi arrived on time and took us to the airport, only to find that Cayman Airways depart from Terminal 2 not the International Terminal. Fortunately we were able to get another taxi to drive us to Terminal 2 a good distance away– the driver could have incurred a fine for doing this so cleared it with the police before taking us. We then caught the flight to Grand Cayman and Jamaica.

Species Lists

West Indian Whistling-Duck – Cayo Coco, Melia Hotel area
Blue-winged Teal - widespread
American Wigeon – Cayo Coco lagoons
Helmeted Guineafowl – feral flocks at Sopllar
American Flamingo – Cayo Guillermo
Rock Pigeon - widespread
Scaly-naped Pigeon - Vinales
White-crowned Pigeon - widespread
Plain Pigeon – La Belen
Eurasian Collared-Dove – Cayo Coco singles
Common Ground-Dove - widespread
Blue-headed Quail-Dove – Cueva de los Peces
Ruddy Quail-Dove - Bermejas
Gray-fronted Quail-Dove – Sopillar, La Turba, Bermejas
Key West Quail-Dove – near La Boca
White-winged Dove - widespread
Zenaida Dove - widespread
Mourning Dove - widespread
Smooth-billed Ani - widespread
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Cayo Coco causeway
Mangrove Cuckoo - Cayo Coco mangroves
Great Lizard-Cuckoo - widespread
Antillean Nighthawk – La Boca
Greater Antillean Nightjar – Sopillar and Playa Larga
Antillean Palm-Swift - widespread
Bee Hummingbird - Sopillar
Cuban Emerald - widespread
Clapper Rail – Cayo Coco mangroves
Limpkin – Sopillar, Cayo Coco
Black-necked Stilt - Cayo Coco causeway
Wilson's Plover - Cayo Coco causeway
Killdeer - Vinales
Northern Jacana Cayo Coco lagoons
Ruddy Turnstone – Cayo Coco
Least Sandpiper - Cayo Coco causeway
Solitary Sandpiper - Bermejas
Greater Yellowlegs - Vinales
Willet - Cayo Coco causeway
Lesser Yellowlegs - Cayo Coco causeway
Laughing Gull - widespread
Lesser Black-backed Gull – Cayo Coco causeway
Caspian Tern - Cayo Coco causeway
Royal Tern – Cayo Coco causeway
Anhinga – El Albino
Double-crested Cormorant
Brown Pelican - widespread
Great Blue Heron - widespread
Great Egret - widespread
Snowy Egret - widespread
Little Blue Heron - widespread
Tricolored Heron Cayo Coco causeway
Reddish Egret - Cayo Coco causeway
Cattle Egret - widespread
Green Heron - widespread
Black-crowned Night-Heron – Cayo Coco
White Ibis - Cayo Coco causeway
Roseate Spoonbill - Cayo Coco causeway
Turkey Vulture - widespread
Osprey – El Albino, Vinales, Cayo Coco
Snail Kite – dams near Havana
Gundlach's Hawk - Vinales
Cuban Black Hawk – Cayo Paradon and Cayo Guillermo
Red-tailed Hawk - Vinales
Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas
Cuban Pygmy-Owl – La Belen, Vinales
Cuban Trogon – Vinales, Sopillar, Bermejas, La Belen
Cuban Tody - Vinales, Sopillar, Bermejas, La Belen
Belted Kingfisher – Cayo Coco causeway
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sopillar
Cuban Green Woodpecker - widespread
West Indian Woodpecker - widespread
Northern Flicker – La Belen
Fernandina's Flicker – near La Belen, Sopillar
Crested Caracara – Cayo Coco
American Kestrel - widespread
Merlin - Vinales
Cuban Parrot – La Belen, La Boca
Cuban Parakeet – La Boca
Cuban Pewee - widespread
La Sagra's Flycatcher - widespread
Loggerhead Kingbird - widespread
Giant Kingbird – La Belen
White-eyed Vireo - Vinales
Cuban Vireo - Vinales
Yellow-throated Vireo - Vinales
Palm Crow – La Belen
Cuban Crow – La Belen
Tree Swallow - Sopillar
Barn Swallow – Cayo Coco causeway
Zapata Wren – La Turba Zapata
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Sopillar
Cuban Gnatcatcher – Cayo Coco
Cuban Solitaire - Vinales
Red-legged Thrush - widespread
Gray Catbird - widespread
Bahama Mockingbird – Cayo Guillermo
Northern Mockingbird - widespread
Zapata Sparrow – Cayo Coco, La Turba
Western Spindalis - Vinales
Yellow-headed Warbler - Vinales
Oriente Warbler – Cayo Coco
Eastern Meadowlark – near La Belen
Cuban Oriole - Vinales
Red-shouldered Blackbird - Zapata
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – La Belen, Playa Larga
Shiny Cowbird - near La Belen
Cuban Blackbird - widespread
Greater Antillean Grackle - widespread
Ovenbird - widespread
Worm-eating Warbler - Sopillar
Louisiana Waterthrush - widespread
Northern Waterthrush - widespread
Black-and-white Warbler - widespread
Tennessee Warbler - Vinales
Common Yellowthroat - widespread
American Redstart - widespread
Cape May Warbler Cayo Coco
Northern Parula - widespread
Magnolia Warbler - Vinales
Yellow Warbler – Cayo Coco mangroves
Black-throated Blue Warbler - widespread
Palm Warbler - widespread
Olive-capped Warbler - Vinales
Yellow-throated Warbler - - widespread
Prairie Warbler - widespread
Indigo Bunting – Cayo Guillermo
Red-legged Honeycreeper - Vinales
Cuban Grassquit - Vinales
Yellow-faced Grassquit - Vinales
Cuban Bullfinch - Vinales
House Sparrow - widespread