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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our trip to Cuba this year managed to find 26 of the 27 extant endemics, missing only the Gundlach’s Hawk. These included Blue-headed and Gray-fronted Quail-Dove, Cuban Nightjar, the tiny Bee Hummingbird (smallest bird species in the world), Bare-legged Owl and Cuban Pygmy-Owl, Cuban Tody, Fernandina’s Flicker, Giant Kingbird, Cuban Solitaire, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Bullfinch and Cuban Grassquit. Other Caribbean endemics, of note, included  West Indian Whistling-Duck and Scaly-naped and Plain pigeons. Six White-cheeked Pintail were notable as was a roosting Stygian Owl. Three Marbled Godwits were casual with only about 10 previous Cuban records. Our species total was 161, one of our higher lists.  

IN DETAIL: Our tour started with a meeting at the American Airlines terminal at dawn and what followed was a surreal wait for many hours, a result of many things, but principally weather (rain) which closed the Miami airport for a time. At least it allowed Stuart White to catch up with us (after flight delays he experienced) at our gate and we all traveled as a complete group. Sadly, Mike Fowles, had to cancel in advance of the tour. Finally, rather late in the day, we boarded our plane and departed for Havana arriving at 6:15 p.m. and freeing immigration and customs at 7:30 pm. We met Luis and our driver, Carlos, and then headed west to Soroa, where we checked in to our private houses there for a very nice dinner.  The only real birding was done by Luis and the Dayal party which had arrived before the tour start and enjoyed a tour of Havana and got to see more than a dozen species near the airport as they awaited our arrival. We all noted the Greater Antillean Grackles around the terminal.

The next morning we departed early for my favorite location of the tour, Cueva de Los Portales in the Sierra de La G?ierra Range, a forested limestone karst of steep hills and pockmarked with caves and a flowing river. This is where Ernesto (Ché) Guevara hung out with his soldiers during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Our primary target was Cuban Solitaire, and we were serenaded with their beautiful songs. Eventually we located a singing bird and obtained good scope views. Birds were numerous here and included Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Antillean Palm-Swift, Cuban Emerald, Broad-winged Hawk (endemic Cuban subspecies, cubanensis), Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s national bird), Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpecker, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird (nominate subspecies found in Cuba, Jamaica, Cayman Islands and the Bahamas), Cuban Pewee, Red-legged Thrush,  Western Spindalis (endemic Cuban subspecies, pretrei), Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Cuban Blackbird. Red-legged Honeycreeper and Yellow-faced Grassquit. The Gray Kingbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos had arrived from their winter grounds in South America and were numerous throughout the trip. On the way out we stopped where another party of birders was birding. They had found a nesting pair of Giant Kingbirds, one of the scarcer endemics of Cuba. Others treat this species as not being an endemic, but the winter records from the Caicos Islands and Great Inagua could well have been strays from Cuba. There are no nesting records away from Cuba.  We also noted two American Kestrels of the resident Cuban subspecies, sparveriodes, one of the four Caribbean subspecies, which collectively may well be a separate species from mainland birds. Caribbean birds are dimorphic with white (much more numerous) and rufous morphs. A Purple Gallinule was also seen and several parties of Smooth-billed Anis were seen. We also saw the distinctive Cuban Stream Anole at the cave. On the way back to Soroa we stopped at a few water bodies where we noted two Anhingas and two Snail Kites. We took a bit of a break in the afternoon during which time Bruce found a Warbling Vireo, a bird that is accidental in Cuba and the one Cuban specimen was likely stolen. We looked for it the following morning, but did not find it and sadly the bird was not photographed. Later that afternoon we drove into the hills and birded until late in the day. We had a nice variety of birds, notably Cuban Vireo and both White-crowned and Scaly-naped pigeons, Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, and the stunning Cuban Tody. Both Summer Tanager and Baltimore Oriole were noted, both species being rather rare in Cuba, and a Louisiana Waterthrush was seen along the stream. A Peregrine Falcon circled over. We also noted two Northern Flickers (within the “Yellow-shafted” group, but having a barred rump  and treated as an endemic subspecies, chrysocaulosus) That evening after dinner we returned and got good views of a Bare-legged Owl, a Cuban endemic and noted several huge Cuban Toads.

The next morning we looked first at Los Sauces in Soroa for the Warbling Vireo. We missed that bird but did see several Tennessee Warblers  as well as a Cape May and an Ovenbird plus a few Cuban Grassquits, a colorful Cuban endemic.  We then headed towards Las Terrazas , stopping just north of the autopista where we found several Fernandina’s Flickers, a very distinctive looking and sounding Cuban endemic. Also noted was a single migrant Red-eyed Vireo, the first one we have recorded on our trips, a rufous morph “Cuban Kestrel,” and several Cuban Pygmy-Owls, another Cuban endemic. We then headed to Las Terrazas where we stopped at a pig farm and had excellent views of more Cuban Grassquits. Our next stop was the pine plantation at Las Terrazas where we located high in a pine the Stygian Owl and got decent scope views. Ten American White Pelicans circled over on our way back to the bus. Nearby at Capital Buena Vista we finally located Olive-capped Warbler, a species found locally in Cuba and the northern Bahamas (Abaco and Grand Bahama). We also had excellent views of Cuban Bullfinch, now treated as a separate endemic species from the Cayman Bullfinch (Melopyrrha taylori) found on Grand Cayman.  Two Broad-winged Hawks were seen during the morning. It is worth pointing out that the two grassquit species  we saw along with the West Indian bullfinches and the Red-legged Honeycreeper are all in the Thraupidae (Tanager) family. Our North American “Tanagers” are in the Cardialidae (Cardinals) family. After a delicious lunch we headed towards Playa Larga at the north end of the Bay of Pigs, stopping at some fresh water reservoirs where we saw flocks of Lesser Scaup and fewer Ring-necked Ducks, and later stopped for an extended fuel stop along the way.  We noted Cuban Parrots late in the day at Playa Larga.

We departed very early the next morning for Bermejas to the east of Playa Gir?n which saw most of the fighting during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. We were joined by Frank who manages the Zapata Swamp and was with us for the next two days. Our main target was the quail-doves which the local guide, Orlando, had set up a blind to view and administers the visits. We easily saw the Blue-headed and had great views, but the Gray-fronted was seen only briefly and was not seen by the entire group. Up to four species of quail-doves can be seen from the blind, two of which are endemic to Cuba, the Blue-headed and Gray-fronted.  Other species noted included the endemic Cuban Parakeet and a Magnolia Warbler, our only one of the trip. Further to the east at La Cuchilla we had good views of a pair of Red-shouldered Blackbirds, a Cuban endemic. The male looks largely like a Red-winged Blackbird, but the female is entirely dark. We saw several Limpkins and heard a very distant Sandhill Crane. The Cuban resident population is treated as an endemic subspecies, nesoites. A little farther east were some flooded rice fields where we noted a Northern Harrier, two Glossy Ibis and some migrant shorebirds, mostly Lesser Yellowlegs, but also a Stilt Sandpiper.  That evening after dinner we obtained good views and sounds of the Cuban Nightjar at Sopillar, an often difficult endemic to find.

The next morning we departed early for La Turba where we transported by truck to the end of the road where we then hiked to a place where they have recently located Zapata Wren. It took a time, but we could hear the wren singing and eventually it came in and provided splendid views. The female was present too. We also saw our only Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (a female) of the trip. From here we headed to a saline wetland, Las Salinas, where we admired some 250 American Flamingoes and a variety of water birds, including Reddish Egret and a Gull-billed Tern and a departing flock of some 102 American White Pelicans. Here we also had excellent views of several Cuban Black Hawks, another endemic, and noted their distinctly different wing pattern from the mainland species. Two Clapper Rails were eventually seen (subspecies caribaeus) and a few adult male Cuban Martins (endemic breeder) flew high overhead. After a delicious lunch at Tiki Hut, we visited Casa Anna in Playa Larga where many birds came to the feeders, notably hummingbirds, including the tiny, yet dramatic, Bee Hummingbird and numerous Cuban Emeralds. The male Bee Hummingbirds were in their alternate plumage with a red head. It’s the only hummingbird I know of where the male has an alternate plumage. The male in winter looks much like a female, but with a bluer back. The endemic Bee Hummingbird is celebrated as being the smallest bird species in the world. Wood Warblers were numerous too and included a number of Black-throated Blues, including both subspecies, the northern nominate and more southerly  cairnsi. Only the males, particularly the adult males, are identifiable to subspecies. We tallied 12 species of Wood Warblers during the day. A pair of Cuban Pygmy-Owls was in the yard too along with numerous Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds. That evening we had a wonderful birthday party for a participant. A singer with a beautiful voice sang for us, even performing Leonard Cohen’s famous “Hallelujah.” She had driven some 100 kilometers to sing for us. We thoroughly enjoyed the banquet of wonderful food including the birthday cake too! Ariadna (Ari) and Sofia, Luis’s wife and daughter drove down to be with us.

Today was a long driving day to Cayo Coco. We stopped to look at a half dozen Red-breasted Mergansers along the causeway and then arrived for a late lunch at 1:15 at our all-inclusive resort. We did have some time to look at the nearby beach at Playa Las Coloradas. Amongst the shorebirds, mostly Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones, were Seimipalmated Plovers and two Piping Plovers. The Piping Plovers showed characters of the Great Plains/Midwest breeding subspecies, circumcinctus with a complete breast band, but this is a variable character and some authorities regard the species as monotypic. A Caribbean Osprey (subspecies ridgwayi) with a whiter head and more dappled (with pale) upperparts was also seen and nearby a Mangrove Vireo was heard. From here we went to Cueva de Habalí where we saw two Cuban Green Woodpeckers at a nest cavity, a Cuban Bullfinch and a Worm-eating Warbler which repeatedly visited the bird bath.

The next morning we were joined by the local guide, Oday. We started at Cueva de Jabalí where we watched a half dozen Zenaida Doves come in to the bird bath and the feeding area.  Also present were two Key West Quail-Doves and nearby we obtained excellent views of a pair of Oriente Warblers and a pair of Cuban Gnatcatchers, both Cuban endemics. A Prairie Warbler (one of three we saw today) and Cuban Bullfinches and Cuban Vireos were present and we actually saw a Mangrove Cuckoo. From here we went to Cayo Guillermo where we searched for Bahama Mockingbird without success. A nice selection of shorebirds and ducks were noted. These included both White-cheeked Pintail (first time we have recorded this species on a Cuban tour) and the threatened West Indian Whistling-Duck (seven). Three Marbled Godwit, a very rare visitor to Cuba were also seen and photographed. These birds likely wintered.  Returning to Cayo Coco, and before lunch,  we checked the sewage ponds for the Tryp Hotel (lots of Blue-winged Teal, four Ruddy Ducks and 11 Least Grebes).  After an afternoon break we birded the eastern portion of Cayo Coco. We located a single Zapata Sparrow, an endemic species with three subspecies. The subspecies on Cayo Coco is varoni. We had missed the nominate inexpectata subspecies at La Turba on the Zapata Peninsula.  On the return we had pretty good studies of the “Caribbean” subspecies of the Osprey, noting its much paler underwing, a seemingly broader overall wing with possibly a disproportionately shorter hand and smaller head, and an overall stockier shape. Further studies should be undertaken to determine if it should be treated as a separate species. It also has much larger feet. Thanks to Oday’s recent birding he took us to a site where a Bahama Mockingbird had recently been present, and we were able to relocate it and got excellent views. This is a rare resident species in Cuba being found on only ten of the cays off the north coast. The species is a little more numerous in the Bahamas and is also found locally on the south coast of Jamaica. It is a rare stray to South Florida.

The following morning we birded a bit on Cayo Coco, checking the Hotel Tryp sewage ponds where three Northern Rough-winged Swallows were present along with the Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks and Least Grebes.  Seven Lesser Scaup were new arrivals. As we headed south on the causeway back to mainland Cuba, we noted a very large and densely packed concentration of shorebirds. These were composed of some 500 Black-necked Stilts, Semipalmated Plover (40), 1000 Least Sandpipers (with one Semipalmated Sandpiper!) and a record count for Cuba of Stilt Sandpipers, an estimated 1200! The Stilt Sandpipers were in assorted plumages, but the majority were mostly in basic (winter) plumage. A Peregrine Falcon cruised by which disturbed the party. A single adult Herring Gull on the other side of the causeway was our only one of the trip. Our drive to Camagüey was rather long. We stopped briefly in the Sierra de Cubitas where we noted several Oriente Warblers. This and Yellow-headed Warbler are not in the Wood Warbler family, but rather in their own family, Teretistridae. A family of two and restricted to Cuba. We arrived at our hotel at 6:15 p.m.

The next morning we departed southeast towards Najasa and La Belén. We were soon into the ranch country and at a marshy pond we noted four Northern Jacanas and three Purple Gallinules. Crested Caracaras were numerous during the day. Here we also studied and listened to the distinctive endemic Cuban subspecies of the Eastern Meadowlark, hippocrepsis. This taxon seems a likely species split, particularly with the recent split of Chihuahuan Meadowlark (Sturnella lilianae). I was tempted to wear a t-shirt with a “Cuban Meadowlark” that stated in the caption: “they split the wrong meadowlark.” Our progress through the ranch country was slow with stops for perched Plain Pigeons, a scarce and local Greater Antillean endemic. We stopped at a roadside pond where we had good views of a seemingly out-of-place Roseate Spoonbill (an immature).  A White Ibis was also seen and later two Cuban Parrots. We spent a considerable amount of time studying crows, both Cuban and Cuban Palm-Crows, both of which were numerous and vocal, often at the same places. The Cuban Palm-Crow is now treated as an endemic to Cuba, after the recent split of the Hispaniola subspecies (palmarum, Hispaniolan Palm-Crow). Cuban Crow is also found on the Turks and Caicos Islands. In addition to the diagnostic vocalizations, Nils Navarro’s feature of the facial feathering, outlined in his 2024 Edition (No. 7) of his Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Cuba, worked very well.  Nearing La Belén we picked up our local guide, Camillo, and entered the reserve. We didn’t have too much time to birdwatch there but noted our only Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the tour, a female, and had a small flock of blackbirds which included Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds along with four Shiny Cowbirds. Also seen were a Cuban Pygmy-Owl, a pair of Giant Kingbirds (one of the best remaining locations for this specie in Cuba) and two Cuban Trogons.

We then returned to Camagüey for a late lunch and after a break took a guided bicycle tour visiting the various squares and learning about Camagüey’s history, one of Cuba’s oldest colonial towns. During our journey we stopped to review the two parades, seemingly almost competing. Each parade had a statue of Jesus and they met at a large church where the Cardinal gave a speech. It was Easter Sunday. We finished in a square next to our restaurant (El Paso) for our last group dinner. Two singers sang for a time and amongst the tunes were again “Hallelujah” and the beautiful Cuban song, “Yolanda.”

The next morning we walked a short distance to Agramonte Square where there is an old and large church where at least 18 Cuban Martins were perched up high but out in the open. No doubt they nest here. We studied them and Cave Swallows. Two male Cape May Warblers were feeding in trees bordering Agramonte Square. We noted a Merlin and an adult Peregrine Falcon along the way. After a break we headed out to the airport for a quick parking lot picnic lunch,  and then checked-in for our Miami flight on American Airlines. We said or goodbyes to Luis and Carolos. Our flight left a little late (3:45 p.m.) and upon arriving we went our separate ways. Most departed late in the afternoon, or early evening, for connecting flights.

We recorded 161 species, one of our higher lists. Our most unusual species were the three Marbled Godwits at Cayo Guillermo which were wintering.  There are about ten previous records for Cuba. The distant Sandhill Crane cries added the species to the list, the first time we have recorded this species on a Cuban tour. We saw 26 of the 30 endemics. One of those, Cuban Macaw, was last recorded in 1864 and the other two are in my opinion long extinct, Zapata Rail (last specimen taken in May of 1934) and Cuban Kite (not sure when the last specimen was taken but all photos of specimens I’ve seen looked at look like they were taken long ago and are in poor condition. It may have gone extinct about a century ago, or perhaps even earlier. The endemic subspecies of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (bairdii) was documented with published photos in May of 1948 and was apparently still extant in 1956. Sightings with no documentation took place from the 1960’s and 1980’s. It must be surely extinct now in Cuba as it is from North America. In summary we saw all of the getable endemics, save the Gundlach’s Hawk, a close relative, perhaps a subspecies, of the Cooper’s Hawk from North America. The common phrase for Gundlach’s Hawk amongst the birding community is “everywhere, but nowhere.” We usually come across one somewhere, but sometimes not. Once in a while a nest is found. I find it interesting that Cooper’s Hawk has become so much more common in North America, nesting commonly now even in urban areas, yet Gundlach’s Hawk remains rare everywhere. I missed the species on my first Cuba trip in 2007. One flew over at Cueva de Los Portales. But I was looking down. It was quick. So it goes.

                                                                                                                                                                                    -          Jon Dunn

Created: 21 May 2024