Cuba Feb 07—18, 2017

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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We arrived in Camaguey to find a parched landscape; the arid regions of Cuba were well into their dry season. Breezing through Immigration and Customs, we stepped outside to breathe in Cuban air, admire our first American classic cars, and be amazed by the plethora of horse carts. In downtown we found narrow streets crowded with bicycles, carts, buses, and belching diesel trucks, all whizzing past crumbling colonial architecture. We had just a few minutes in the evening to roam the streets of Camaguey and admire this vibrant Cuban city. Dinner was accompanied by a great band, as it often would be, and an excellent trio of Flamenco dancers. The next morning, an early start took us through the little town of Najasa to Rancho La Belen, picking up Camilo on the way. Just as we arrived, the sun burned off the last bit of fog, and we were starting our Cuban life lists. Cuban Crow, Loggerhead Kingbird, and Cuban Emerald were some of our first finds. Camilo stopped the bus to point out a somnolent Bare-legged Owl dozing at the entrance to its nest hole! Soon we heard squawking Cuban Parrots, and the Giant Kingbird sounded off. Cuban Palm Crow attracted our attention for a bit, but the spectacular Giant Kingbird swooping over a cattle trough and sitting on a fence post drew our gaze. We scoped a pair and admired their massive bills. Farther along the trail, a few Plain Pigeons, a regional endemic, were perched up for scope views. Camilo led us into a forest of deciduous and palm trees; soon Cuban Parakeets were screeching overhead, drawing our attention away from the myriad of North American warblers overwintering. While we were searching for a calling Cuban Pygmy-Owl, the cutest bird in Cuba, the Cuban Tody, distracted us for a few minutes. Soon the owl was overhead, and we had nice scope views of our second endemic owl! After a whirl of activity, it was getting warm, and we needed to head to Cayo Coco. We bid Camilo farewell and, after a quick lunch in Camaguey, we were off admiring the pastoral scenes of rural Cuban life along the way. We found Odey just before the long causeway out to Cayo Coco, and once we arrived we had just a few minutes of daylight with which to find the West Indian Whistling-Duck and a few mosquitoes—we succeeded on both counts!

Cathedral in Plaza Vieja, Old Havana

Cathedral in Plaza Vieja, Old Havana— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

The next morning at Cueva de Jabali we were treated to excellent looks at more than a dozen Key West Quail-Doves bustling about, trying to get more rice than their fellow Zenaida Doves. Before we made it to the cave we had a sneaky pair of Zapata Sparrows on the roadside. After a quick check we headed out to the scrubby flats below the lighthouse of Paredon Grande. Thick-billed Vireo, Bahama Mockingbird, Mangrove Cuckoo (spotted by Ron), Cuban Gnatcatcher, and the gorgeous Oriente Warbler were all spotted that morning, leaving the afternoon for enjoying the American Flamingoes of Cayo Guillermo. One the way back to Cayo Coco we checked the waste water plant and found the most obliging Great Lizard-Cuckoo ever; content to forage for snails, this young bird crept through the grass just feet away. After it caught a snail, it would mash the shell and enjoy escargot! The pond held sandpipers, Blue-winged Teal, Black-necked Stilt, and other waterbirds. We enjoyed a successful day with Odey, even though the skies were cloudy for the lunar eclipse.

The next day we had a long drive to Trinidad where we saw the remnants of old sugar mills and took in the beautiful colonial architecture of this 500-year-old town. That night we enjoyed one of my favorite desserts of the entire trip, preserved Guava with rice pudding. At Parque El Cubano we enjoyed a short hike through the forest adding Cuban Vireo, and along the stream Louisiana Waterthrushes flipped leaves looking for lunch. Overhead the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were tending their nests. After lunch, we moved west through Cienfuegos; at an inauspicious bathroom stop we noticed a soaring hawk, sending us all scampering for binoculars. We watched in amazement as a Gundlach’s Hawk soared overhead!

Cuban Tody

Cuban Tody— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

In Bermeja we met the excitable and excellent Orlando. Soon he was telling us about his friend of fifteen years, the endemic Bare-legged Owl that popped out of his favorite roosting snag at Orlando’s urging. Then in the evening we watched in amazement as a couple of male Bee Hummingbirds fed on flowers just in front of us, a major highlight for everyone; the blue-green back glistened in the low sun, and occasionally we saw its glowing rose gorget, complete with distended bib. We met Orlando the next morning in the dark, waiting excitedly for the sun to illuminate the trail in front of us. Orlando is the undisputed Quail-Dove whisperer; soon the forms turned into Zenaida Doves, next the endemic Gray-fronted Quail-Dove and, finally, the crown jewel of Quail-Doves, the Blue-headed marched out of the woods and promptly displayed to a female, and then the two foraged at our feet for several minutes. Leonie spotted both of these endemics, and then Orlando dragged us away for the open marshy grasslands of the Red-shouldered Blackbird and the Royal Palm savannah realm of the Fernandina’s Flicker. We watched in amazement as the flicker was excavating its hole, throwing mouthfuls of woodchips out of the nest. While the marsh was full of birds, we only got a quick fly-by of the blackbird; it would have to wait. Back to Bermeja, where we enjoyed a flock of Cuban Parakeets foraging just overhead. Into the woods and some chattering Yellow-headed Warblers were our final endemic of the Bermeja reserve.

Bare-legged Owl

Bare-legged Owl— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

After lunch, we headed deep into the Zapata Swamp with Silvedo. After the long drive to the tiny village of Santo Tomas, we climbed aboard a couple of rickety boats for a ride through a canal into the swamp. After poling along for more than 20 minutes, we arrived at a tiny boardwalk. While the fabled Zapata Wren wouldn’t come to the boardwalk, we had to stomp a short distance before the bird popped up just behind us, singing briefly for all to see. Elated with one of the toughest endemics sighted, we started our long journey back to Playa Giron, gliding along the canal with just the wing-slaps of flushing White-crowned Pigeons breaking the gentle swoosh of the breeze through the trees.

On our way west we stopped to visit Finca Vigia, the Hemingway house, on the outskirts of Havana. Beautifully preserved, we enjoyed seeing the house as he left it with Parulas and Palm Warblers foraging on the grounds; even a Summer Tanager made an appearance. A light afternoon cocktail was savored as we listened to the booming vocals of yet another amazing Cuban band. Il Divino hosted our lunch, which was wonderful. Satiated, we then made our way to Soroa.

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Cruising through the Tobacco country of Pinar del Rio, we admired the pale green of tobacco fields and the various construction of tobacco barns from palm thatch to clapboard. Cueva del Indio is one location where one can encounter a beautiful endemic songster; though the Cuban Solitaire never sang for us, we enjoyed excellent scope views. Vying for our attention were Cuban Tody and a very stunning and cooperative Cuban Trogon. Across the street in the pines we found the Olive-capped Warbler, a regional endemic. Western Spindalis males also presented themselves for our best looks of the trip, and then we enjoyed one of our finest lunches at Finca Ecologico Paraiso with the undisputed best welcome drink. Finca Benito provided a tour of a tobacco barn and an explanation of the process of growing, harvesting, and aging tobacco to make the finest cigars in the world. One evening in the dark near Villa Soroa we listened to a Cuban Pygmy-Owl tooting in the distance as fireflies floated around us.

Cuban Trogon

Cuban Trogon— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Near Soroa we toured the Orchid Garden, our first hope of finding the Cuban Grassquit, our final endemic. While we enjoyed the music from a duo, we didn’t find the hoped-for grassquit, but we did find plenty of other species. A tour of Las Terrazas with Anais provided beautiful vistas of the restored forest and a visit to Finca La Gloria and Joan, our host. He put some fresh grain in the feeder and marched around his property, sucking on his ring finger, producing an excellent grassquit squeak. Soon the Yellow-faced Grassquits were swarming the feeder, but no Cuban. Joan called us around the corner, and we glimpsed a female disappear into the woods. Finally a pair came into the feeder, and we enjoyed excellent looks, even in the scope, at this stunning Cuban endemic, now too rare due to its coveted status as a cage bird. Our final Cuban endemic allowed me to exhale. But we still had some birding to do! We enjoyed the scenery and the woods around the Buenavista cafe in Las Terraza; trogons, thrushes, our first Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a smiling frog made our wonderful lunch better, as did the amazing band that serenaded us as we dined on the porch of the restored French coffee estate.

That afternoon we made our final bus trip into Havana where we would enjoy touring Old Havana and its colonial architecture, many squares, cobbled streets, beautiful cathedral, and more than a few American Classics. Our final dinner was at a state-owned restaurant on Plaza San Francisco where we arrived in style via several classic convertibles. “Amazing” is a simple way to describe our experiences with the Cuban people, culture, and nature.

Thank you for traveling with VENT. I look forward to our next birding adventure together, wherever in the world we might end up!