Cuba Feb 10—20, 2016

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Cuba has an allure for Americans more than any other New World country. The forbidden fruit of Cuban Cigars, Havana nightclubs, Hemingway’s playground—both the bars and the sea, and endemic birds all lured us down to Castro’s Cuba. Finally permitted to enjoy this neighborhood playground, we made haste observing more than 20 Cuban endemics and many exciting Caribbean birds, as well as meeting many friendly Cubans as bird guides, potters, and tobacco and coffee farmers who all shared their way of life with us for a few hours or days. On our first evening we pulled into Cayo Coco at dusk, which gave us just a few minutes to see some of our first Caribbean birds, Cuban Oriole and Loggerhead Kingbird.

Zapata Sparrow

Zapata Sparrow— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

On our first morning Odey had us quietly walking the dark forest of Cayo Coco, sneaking up to a drip to try to see the Key West Quail-Dove. The dove was there, and we all enjoyed great looks as it walked along a shady trail. Only now we can enjoy the Cuban Tody, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, and Red-legged Thrushes we walked past to spy on the quail-dove. Next among the scrubby mangroves, a Cuban Pewee tried to distract us from the fussing of a Cuban Gnatcatcher. Cuban Bullfinch and Western Spindalis were in the woods as we searched for one of the rarer Cuban endemics we would see on the north coast, Zapata Sparrow. Eventually Odey called out a pair and they duetted for us right along the road. As we drove out to Cayo Paredon Grande, the rusted hulk of a lighthouse loomed over the scrubby vegetation that housed Oriente Warblers and Thick-billed Vireos. In the evening a Cayo Guillermo lagoon hosted a lonely, drowsy American Flamingo, and a Mangrove Cuckoo gave itself up just before a Bahama Mockingbird surrendered to scope views. As we headed back to Cayo Coco, Odey had a secret spot for West Indian Whistling-Ducks; the ducks were there, whistling away along with stilts and gallinules. We also saw, in the failing light, our first Great Lizard Cuckoo as it growled out its call to another unseen.

The hotel grounds seemed tame compared to the onslaught of new birds the day before, but we enjoyed the wintering warblers: Black-throated Blue, American Redstart, Prairie, and Yellow-throated all put in appearances. We also added the monotypic genus Xiphidiopicus, better known as the Cuban Green Woodpecker. By lunchtime we were in Trinidad with its vibrant streets and colonial architecture and, of course, classic American sedans. After glimpsing some martins, we slipped into the studio of the fifth generation Santander potter. We were awed by the skill and speed with which he produced several beautiful pieces. That evening we were in the mountains at nearly three thousand feet where the air was chilled. While waiting for the hotel check-in, we discovered a couple of obliging Limpkins in the forest nearby.

Limpkin, Zapata Swamp

Limpkin, Zapata Swamp— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

In the chilly air the following morning we watched our first Cuban Trogon; an amazing concoction of violet, red, and white, the Tocororo is the national bird of Cuba. Overhead, Scaly-naped Pigeons whizzed past, and a few stopped in a dead pine for scope views. Cuban Parrots were commuting into the forest for the day, and a few stopped in some eucalyptus for fine scope views. We also enjoyed leisurely scope views of the Great Lizard Cuckoo as it methodically plucked lethargic wasps from the small crevices of a power pole. Much of the late morning was dedicated to touring a coffee plantation and visiting a family that has been growing coffee for generations. We also enjoyed a forest walk where everyone finally got great looks at Cuban Tody and our first looks at Cuban Vireo and Worm-eating Warbler.

A very early departure brought us to the Zapata Peninsula where we would search for endemic birds with Orlando. Our first couple of stops yielded two new endemics, much to the delight of our frenetic guide: Red-shouldered Blackbird and Fernandina’s Flicker. Bermejas Sanctuary gave us Yellow-headed Warbler, the western complement of Oriente Warbler. Orlando knew of several palm snags that were sometimes occupied by Bare-legged Owls; our sixth stump finally housed a somnolent owl that came up for a quick look before slipping back into its trunk for the day. We walked many trails, but the quail-doves weren’t out this morning so we headed to a dirt road across the highway where, in the flowering trees, there were TWO singing male Bee Hummingbirds, the smallest bird in the world and now Ben’s 4,000th! It was now midday, and we drove south and west to see the beautiful Caribbean waters of the Bay of Pigs. The limestone landscape has many caves, and we stopped at a famous roadside area for snorkeling, but we weren’t interested in the water; we came for a special guest at Cueva de los Peces. Over the years Blue-headed Quail-Doves have become regular visitors near the kitchen area for bits of rice tossed out. Winnie spotted it first as the gorgeous endemic strutted out, head bobbing. With a sky-blue crown, black and white striped face, a little more blue frilling on the neck, all framed by a black bib with white edging, this was an exquisite bird by any measure! Playa Larga hosted our first Cuban Crows, and a big lunch fortified us for the long drive to Soroa.

Blue-headed Quail-Dove

Blue-headed Quail-Dove— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

The hotel grounds at Soroa proved to be quite birdy, and we had our best looks at West Indian and Cuban Green woodpeckers and more excellent studies of the Cuban Trogon, which nobody could ever tire of. In the Viñales area we visited the Montesino family tobacco farm. We learned about tobacco farming, harvesting, aging, and finally cigar-rolling. In the trees at the farm we found our only Tennessee Warbler of the trip. Cueva de los Indios tucked into the mogote landscape near Viñales was home to a more humid forest, and here we listened to the beautiful cascade of the Cuban Solitaire; not satisfied with just listening, Ben finally extracted a Solitaire for everyone to enjoy in the scope. A quick drive through the scenic and prosperous town brought us to a delicious lunch at an organic farm, but not before we lured a handsome Olive-capped Warbler to an execrable patch of pines just up the road. In the evening we tried owling yet again, but the buho was not interested in showing himself.

Stygian Owl

Stygian Owl— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

 

 

 

 

 

We started in the dark again this morning, hoping the Stygian Owl would reward our persistence; no luck, but we did hear (briefly) a Cuban Greater Antillean Nightjar. We continued our walk in the forest as it was getting light, and the consistent soft toots of a Cuban Pygmy-Owl led us to our first sighting of this cute endemic owl. After breakfast we toured the beautiful grounds of the Orchid Garden next door and were rewarded with the rare endemic Cuban Grassquit (spotted by Paul), rare because Cubans are so fond of it they’ve decimated the population for the cage bird trade. Soon we were learning about the very prosperous Las Terrazas community, touring the school, an artist’s gallery, a coffee shop, and excellent restaurant Buenavista, where we enjoyed lunch and many birds. A quick check of Finca Esperanza yielded a Great Lizard-Cuckoo, but no more Cuban Grassquits. Now we were off to Havana where we stopped to take in the scene of Revolution Square before checking into the hotel along the malecon.

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cuban Green Woodpecker— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Our first stop on the outskirts of Havana was at Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigia. We arrived as the tenth bus, but once again CJ worked his magic, and soon he whisked us in and we were touring the beautiful grounds and home of this great American writer. After lunch at a private paladar in town, we headed back to the south coast to pick up a few birds we had missed in the Playa Larga area. Again, we failed to find the buho in evening and predawn outings, but we were rewarded with sightings of a nightjar and a Cuban Pygmy-Owl. After some dark liquid, purported to be coffee, we were off to the Zapata Swamp with Armando. We drove through farmland, forest, palm savannah, and finally the open marsh, which was home to the Zapata Wren. Armando worked a couple of different birds for well over an hour with scarcely a glimpse. Just as I was about to surrender to the swamp, a wren started singing quite close by, and eventually everyone had a quick look before the Zapata Wren melted back into the swamp. Armando smoked a cigarette to relax after this trying episode. Next Armando informed us that we had an 80% chance at seeing a Stygian Owl at his next spot. So after Javier backed up the bus along a dike road for ten minutes, we turned around and sped off to the next forest patch. Once again Armando was tenacious and, as the morning warmed, I conceded that all of our nocturnal efforts and this search would not give us a Stygian. Heads hung, we headed back to the bus. Moments later Armando commanded, “Come here!” Spirits lifted, we raised our binoculars to see a handsome Stygian Owl unobstructed on a bare Gumbo Limbo limb. Armando soon declared, “100%” and enjoyed another cigarette! This morning concluded our birding for the tour, and we were then off to Havana to take in some of the beautiful buildings that had been preserved in Old Havana. We also added our best looks at Cuban Martin as we wandered the handsome colonial streets and squares.