Cuba Mar 02—12, 2016
Posted by David Ascanio
Our Cuba tour started at the airline counter of the Miami airport with Cuban-Americans checking bags of all sizes, many covered with a protective blue plastic, flat screen TVs, electronic devices, tires, car parts, and much more. I reminded you to say goodbye to fresh lettuce and uncooked vegetables, and with an espresso coffee in hand we boarded the flight to Cuba. Shortly after 45 minutes in the air the plane tires screeched the tarmac of Santa Clara airport, and big hands were offered to the pilot: a local tradition. What a nice welcome to Cuba!
After arrival we noticed that many things were new to us: a country with two currencies, no billboards, and charming people everywhere. Having binoculars handy, we drove a short distance to Santa Clara’s Plaza de la Revolución (revolution square) and later made a quick stop in Los Caneyes to enjoy close views of Antillean Palm Swift, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Blackbird, and Cuban Emerald (the last two were our first Cuban endemics!). After lunch, we drove about 4 hours to one of the best birding areas in the island, Cayo Coco in the Archipelago Jardines del Rey.
Cayo Coco is part of an archipelago consisting of about 5 large keys and several islets. Two early morning departures secured us an excellent view of Key West Quail-Dove and Zapata Sparrow, the latter endemic to Cuba. We also enjoyed our first views of Cuban Tody, Cuban Green Woodpecker, and Cuban Vireo. In the wetlands at the side of the road we came across egrets, herons, terns, and swallows.
Following Cayo Coco we made a short visit to Topes del Collante. We were welcomed by Cuban Trogon and Cuban (Greater Antillean) Oriole around the parking lot. Topes del Collante also played an important role in the cultural aspect of this tour. We paid a visit to the Colorado’s family and learned about the Cuban economic system and life on a Cuban farm, although several warblers visiting the bushes around the house kept our eyes busy!
Continuing south we headed to the Zapata Peninsula. Once there, the welcome parties were two Red-shouldered Blackbirds and a nesting Fernandina´s Flicker. At the Zapata Peninsula we enjoyed views of the largest number of endemic bird species. One early morning allowed us to see the astonishingly beautiful Blue-headed Quail-Dove and the Key West Quail-Dove. Later in the same morning most of us enjoyed views of Gray-fronted Quail-Dove through the scope. The second morning found us in la Turba, a location where, despite our efforts, we could only hear the Zapata Wren (we never saw it). Other target species found in the Zapata Peninsula were the small and compact Cuban Pygmy-Owl and the curious Bare-legged Owl. On one evening we found the perfect spot to see Cuban (Greater Antillean) Nightjar. This one was so close that we were only a few feet from it! By the way, did you notice its disproportionally larger head? I am sure everyone agrees that the real gem of this location was the diminutive Bee Hummingbird. Measuring just 2.25 inches (5.5 cm), this is the smallest bird in the world.
Our tour continued to the west side of the island, to Soroa and Viñales. Among the resonant qualities of these hills we found a pair of Cuban Solitaires singing. What a sweet and wonderful song! We also learned about the island´s tobacco farms and the making of various tobacco types. Before we headed back to Havana we visited Las Terrazas community and nailed a pair of Cuban Grassquits, a bird that can be very difficult to see.
The very last full day worked out in a different way. We were in Havana, and to see the city waking up, we were already walking in Old Havana right after dawn. Boys and girls were going to school; the bread man was announcing his products with a whistle; buses and cars were honking; and lots of people were walking. Seeing the people here, along with impressive colonial and art deco architecture, rounded up an unforgettable tour, one that will bring memories for years to come!