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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cuba

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our tour recorded 162 species and more importantly we saw every “getable” endemic species, some 24-27 species, depending on the taxonomy of the Greater Antillean Nightjar and Cuban Bullfinch and whether one considers Giant Kingbird a Cuban endemic. Highlights included West Indian Whistling-Duck, good to excellent views of all four Cuban quail-doves, including perched views (in trees) of singing Ruddy and Gray-fronted and Blue-headed nearly at our feet, Greater Antillean (“Cuban”) Nightjar, Gundlach’s Hawk, Fernandina’s Flicker, Giant Kingbird, Bee Hummingbird, a family group of Stygian Owls, Cuban Parakeet, and Cuban Grassquit. We also saw 19 species of reptiles and amphibians. Our weather was uniformly excellent with little rain.

IN DETAIL: Our tour began in Fort Lauderdale at the airport. After a long check-in procedure (mostly involving health/vaccination) and after lunch we departed for Havana, Cuba arriving at Jose Martí International Airport. After clearing immigration and customs we met our team, the Cuban leader Luis, our driver Carlos (Charlie), who kept us safe throughout, and Gary, head of the Caribbean Conservation Trust, the trip organizer, and the one I have worked with since my first Cuba trip with Western Field Ornithologists in 2006, and all trips since. This was my 10th Cuban trip. We arrived at Moka, Las Terrezas at dusk. Moka is a lovely hotel in the trees atop a hill and has excellent birding on the grounds. The community dates back well more than a century and was founded by French colonists that had escaped the revolution in Haiti in the early 19th century. The government and community have put a high priority on reforestation.

The next morning we arose early and headed west towards San Diego de los Ba?os in Pinar del Rio province and Cueva de los Portales in La G?ira National Park. It is located on the north face of the east end of the Sierra de los Organos just west of the Sierra del Rosario. It has long been my favorite birding location in Cuba and has striking scenery as well. On the way we first stopped to admire a perched pair of Cuban Martins perched on a telephone line. This is an endemic Cuban breeder. The male was basically entirely purplish, but the flight feathers contrasted brownish, perhaps indicating 1st spring plumage with retained flight feathers. If so, the molt schedule might be different from Purple Martin. Photos of the male will be sent to Peter Pyle, a molt expert, for analysis. A bit farther along we studied some perched pigeons, one of which was a Scaly-naped, a striking and overall uncommon Caribbean endemic pigeon, dark purplish overall with a distinct orange sub-ocular mark and eye ring. We also noted a pair of “Cuban Kestrels.” The Cuban subspecies (sparverioides) and the other three Caribbean subspecies collectively are perhaps best treated as a distinct species. They show many differences from mainland subspecies, notably they do not bob their tails and their flight style in pursuing prey is more suggestive of a Merlin. This pair included a rufous morph, the dimorphic aspect is another feature of the Caribbean subspecies. While studying the kestrels, a pair of Broad-winged Hawks appeared. This species (endemic subspecies cubanensis) breeds here. We finally arrived at our destination and noted many birds around the parking area. These included our main target, a Cuban Solitaire. Although somewhat somberly colored, except for a striking eye ring, their song is spectacular. We were able to get prolonged scope views. Cuban Trogons were numerous and we also noted Cuban Emerald, including one female on a nest. Other species noted included Zenaida Dove, Great Lizard Cuckoo, West Indian and Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Pygmy-Owl, Gray and Loggerhead (endemic subspecies caudifasciatus) kingbirds, Cuban Tody, Western Spindalis (endemic pretrei subspecies), Yellow-headed Warbler (this and Oriente Warbler are in their own endemic Cuban family, Terettistridae), Cuban Oriole, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Yellow-faced Grassquits, including one that was building a nest (Caribbean subspecies olivaceus). Black-whiskered Vireos, having just arrived from South America, were singing everywhere. We also heard a Ruddy Quail-Dove singing from a slightly isolated clump of trees. Luis spotted the bright male perched on a branch and we got brief scope views before it moved off. This was the best views I’ve ever had of this elusive and colorful species.

Eventually, we went into the open cave which goes under the limestone karst formation. It was here that Ché (Ernesto) Guevara located his western army during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. On the other side we were most fortunate to get quite decent flight views of an adult Gundlach’s Hawk. This endemic Cuban species is clearly closely related, if not conspecific, to Cooper’s Hawk from North America. Luis is the country’s authority on reptiles and amphibians for the country and he showed us various anoles (some 65 species are found in Cuba), notably White-fanned, Cuban Stream and Pinar del Rio Cliff Anoles along with roosting Mexican Free-tailed and a single Cuban Fruit Bat. On the way out we stopped by a pond where a Purple Gallinule was seen and a few Antillean Palm-Swifts were overhead. Luis spotted a rare Giant Kingbird and after a bit of work we relocated it and got excellent views of this striking species, our only one of the tour. This is my favorite Cuban endemic. Although most authorities do not consider it a Cuban endemic, the other records, all specimens (roughly a half dozen) from January-early March, were from Great Inagua and the Caicos Islands between 1865-1891 (source is D.W. Buden’s The Birds of the Southern Bahamas, published by the B.O.U. in 1987). There was no evidence of breeding from those locations and it possible they were winter dispersers from Cuba at a time when the species was much more numerous. On our return to Las Terrezas, we stopped at some fish ponds where we noted some 40 Snail Kites, nearly all of which were adult males. White and Brown Pelicans were numerous as were Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons. Two Gull-billed Terns were noted too. Near Moka we briefly saw three Cuban Grassquits and Brian spotted a “Cuban” Eastern Meadowlark. After dinner we went night birding and Luis spotted a striking Bare-legged Owl, another Cuban endemic.

The next day was mainly a travel day to the east side of the Zapata Peninsula at Playa Larga, but we birded the grounds of our hotel at Moka and other areas that morning. White-crowned Pigeons were numerous as were a variety of warblers, including Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-throated and four Tennessee Warblers, our only ones of the tour. A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (winters on Cuba) and a male Indigo Bunting were noted along with a male Northern Flicker of the distinctive endemic chrysocaulosus subspecies with a barred, not white, rump, a character it shares with the gundlachi Grand Cayman subspecies. Down below in the pine forest Otis, our local guide, had been tracking a family group of Stygian Owls (endemic siguapa subspecies) and we had excellent views of one of the adults and two young. Here we also saw Olive-capped Warbler, found only on Cuba and the northern Bahama Islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. At the pig farm at Santa Rosalia we had excellent views of Cuban and Yellow-faced grassquits along with Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds and two Shiny Cowbirds. A Cuban Slider was noted on a nearby pond. Later after lunch and close to Havana we noted two Least Bitterns in the reeds at the edge of a lake. We arrived at Playa Larga at dusk.

Joined by our local guide Frank, we started the next morning at La Turba. Our main goal was locating the rare and endemic (to the Zapata Peninsula) Zapata Wren. We were fortunate not only to hear one give its exotic song, but got good views too. Here we also saw a pair of another endemic Cuban species, Zapata Sparrow. We saw the more yellowish inexpectata subspecies, endemic to the Zapata Peninsula. Another subspecies is found in the Guantanamo region and a 3rd is found on Cayo Coco. Northern Waterthrushes were present too. From here we visited the Cuban Crocodile farm where various warblers, Cuban Orioles, and two Purple Gallinules were noted. Later at Casa Ana in Batey Caleton we were treated to several Bee Hummingbirds visiting the feeders along with the more numerous Cuban Emeralds. This celebrated smallest bird in the world provided superb views. The male’s striking red and extended gorget, is held only in the breeding season. I don’t know of another hummingbird species where the gorget is only seasonably present. Numerous North American warblers were present too including Prairie and Cape May and Black-throated Blues, including males of both subspecies, the more southerly cairnsi,breeding south of the Susquehanna River in the Appalachians, showing the black stippling on the back. They winter more towards the western Greater Antilles than the more northerly nominate subspecies. A perched Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was also noted. While at lunch at Tiki Hut, we noted several water birds, including a perched Anhinga. After lunch we headed to Las Salinas de Brito for water birds. Probably the most striking species were the American Flamingos which were present in good numbers. We also had good comparisons of the North American Ospreys (carolinensis) as well as a single ridgwayi, the Caribbean subspecies. The latter has a much fainter eye stripe and a paler underwing, as well as various structural differences. Other specie noted included two “Great White Herons” (the white morph of Great Blue, or perhaps a separate species), a Wood Stork, 28 Black Skimmers, and several Cuban Black Hawks. An American Crocodile was briefly seen by some. That evening at dusk, we had superb views of a female Greater Antillean (“Cuban”) Nightjar, and Judy got striking photos of it. This species is polytypic, the other subspecies, ekmani, is found on Hispaniola. Given the apparent distinct differences in vocalizations, the two should be split. Nominate cubanensis is found in Cuba.       

The next morning we went to Bermejas where we met Orlando and another group from Denmark. Our main goal was the quail-doves at the blind for which all four species found in Cuba occur. We saw Key West and a distant male Ruddy and eventually four Blue-headed came in and approached close to the blind. A distant Gray-fronted was initially seen, but it didn’t remain for the full group to see. Zenaida Doves were numerous. Cuban Parakeets, now scarce and local in Cuba, were well seen and a nesting Fernandina’s Flicker was seen by two of our group. From here we headed east and in an open palm area near La Cuchilla where we obtained good views of additional nesting Fernandina’s Flickers, a distinctive and endemic Cuban species. A little farther east we birded the flooded rice fields where Glossy Ibis were present along with four Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. Also, we heard and got brief views of King Rails, the endemic Cuban subspecies, ramsdeni. We obtained lunch at Caleta Buena and some swam and snorkeled, and after that stopped at the museum at Playa Giron which was established to detail the Bay of Pigs invasion in mid-April, 1961. This was an utter failure from the U.S. standpoint, not to mention the Cuban Americans that participated. The blame can be laid with Kennedy, though he followed the template plan of the CIA. I would argue that the seasoning for Kennedy better enabled him to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis a year and a half later. After the museum we decided to return to the blind at Bermejas, but only a Zenaida Dove was present along with a briefly seen Magnolia Warbler. On the return near Playa Larga we had nice views of a flock of Cuban Parrots. I don’t think any of us will forget the massive migration of the Red Crabs, literally tens of thousands that were on the highway. Sadly, many were crushed by vehicles.

The next morning after breakfast we chose to return to Bermejas again in attempt to see Gray-fronted Quail-Dove. None were at the blind but Orlando led us on a walk and soon we heard one calling close-by. Eventually we located it calling high above us in a tree. We got scope views of it and eventually it dropped down to the trail for further viewing. A Key West Quail-Dove and a Cuban Parrot along with a Cuban Pewee were seen too. Heading east we stopped again at the rice fields and again saw a King Rail in addition to Glossy Ibis. From here we headed to Trinidad. Just to the east of Trinidad we obtained both views and sounds of both Palm (endemic subspecies minutus) and Cuban Crows. We had lunch at Hacienda Ingenio near the foot of the famous Manaca-Iznago Tower. Our rest stop later at Rio Azul was notable for several Cuban Blue-green Anoles, a single Band-headed Anole and a Cuban Giant (Knight) Anole. We arrived at our Pullman resort on Cayo Cayco where we were joined by our local guide Raynier. We stopped across the bay from our resort where we saw three West Indian Whistling-Ducks and met Alvaro Jaramillo’s birding group.

The next morning we headed west to Cayo Guillermo where our main goal was finding a Bahama Mockingbird. We located a single singing bird. Mangrove Cuckoo was also heard and glimpsed. Nearby at some lagoons we studied numerous shorebirds. These included a Piping Plover, a Red Knot, and two Semipalmated Sandpipers. Luis located a Black-spotted Gecko. Several Cuban Black Hawks were seen too. Back on Cayo Coco we noted Cuban Green Woodpecker, the endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher and our first Oriente Warblers. We also saw our first Cuban Bullfinches. AOS considers this a polytypic species with nominate nigra on Cuba and taylori on Grand Cayman. Distinct differences in song indicates that the species should perhaps be split, a policy that some have adopted. This species was recently much more numerous, but it is a popular cage bird as it has a nice song. On a nearby sewage pond we noted 13 Least Grebes and 7 American Wigeon. On a beach near our resort we found two more Piping Plovers with numerous other shorebirds, primarily Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones. In the afternoon we headed east to Cayo Pered?n Grande where Luis showed us two Orange-fanned Anoles. On this island there used to be the endemic cubensis subspecies of Thick-billed Vireo, but Hurricane Irma, and especially massive habitat destruction for resorts, has led to its near extinction. We did not see or even hear any. On the lagoon we counted some 163 Greater Yellowlegs and a single “Western” Willet, and at the bridge to Cayo Romano noted several Clapper Rails. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was also noted nearby.

Before breakfast the next morning we visited Cueva de Habalí and had excellent views of many North American warblers including Yellow-throated. Here we also saw our only Yellow-throated Vireo of the trip along with several more Cuban Bullfinches. Luis pointed out a Cuban Giant Gecko in the cove along with many Waterhouse’s Long-eared and Cuban Fruit bats. After lunch we headed back off Cayo Coco and south and west towards Santa Clara, arriving after dark at Las Cayneyes. Along the way we tried to find fuel for the bus but petrol stations were all out. Later, after dinner and checking-in to our rooms, Carlos and Luis drove west on the autopista and eventually found a station with fuel. As we checked into the rooms, a snake was spotted, a fine Giant Trope, a small boa.

 

The next morning we birded the grounds and noted a few North American warblers, including a few Cape Mays. A roosting adult Black-crowned Night-Heron was our first one of the tour. A Cuban Tree Frog was also outside of our rooms. Antillean Palm-Swifts were numerous and nesting in the thatched roofs. We could see one bird on the nest near the check-in desk. We ventured out nearby to farmland and secured excellent views of meadowlarks, the distinctive hippocrepsis subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark. I feel sure this is a good split in the future, the likely new English name would be Cuban Meadowlark. We listened to the birds sing their distinctive songs and they also gave their flight rattle. I’m not sure I have ever heard one give the distinctive “dzert” call note, a characteristic note of Eastern. It looks like the AOS will soon split Lilian’s Meadowlark of the Southwest from Eastern. From my perspective, the splitting of meadowlarks should start in Cuba. We also visited the memorial to Ché Guevara and his comrades that all died in battle or were executed in Bolivia in 1967. The memorial included many photos of Ché earlier in his life and during his revolutionary years. As we entered Havana, Mark spotted a Peregrine Falcon in flight, our only one of the tour. We checked into our rooms at Casa Brava guesthouse and had dinner that evening at a restaurant next door.

On our last full day we started with a short city tour of Old Havana with our guide Honey. Then we visited Orlando at his home in Havana. Orlando is the dean of Cuban ornithology and even at 91 is very interested in taxonomic issues. Today he talked to us about the possible occurrence in Cuba of Cooper’s Hawk, a close relative of the Cooper’s Hawk. He had a specimen from Cuba which might indeed be Cooper’s. Orlando also played multiple times in the Wimbledon tennis tournament in the late 1950’s. We had lunch in Old Havana and were serenaded by the group Sol and Son at La Bodeguita del Medio. After lunch we birded Playa del Chivo, Havana’s best shorebird spot. Here were three species of peeps, including six Seimipalmated Sandpipers and three Westerns, one of which was in full alternate plumage. Two Sandwich Terns were amongst the many Royals. Later that evening we had a delicious dinner at Casa Brava and were serenaded by Akemys who sang Cuban and western songs. Her voice was simply extraordinary. She even sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in Spanish.

The next morning it was off to get COVID tests. Fortunately, all tested negative. Then we headed to Jose Martí International Airport for check-in for our return flight to Fort Lauderdale. Our group was small, but special, and I greatly appreciated and enjoyed the time we spent together.

                                                                                                                                                                                               - Jon Dunn

Created: 21 June 2022