Cuban Trogon

Cuban Tody

Bee Hummingbird

Western Cuba and Zapata

February 2007

Report by Carole Leigh List by Peter Leigh

ITINERARY & PREPARATION

Cuba was a destination we had always planned to visit. The birds, landscape and culture of this charismatic island had long held a fascination for us, so it was with great enthusiasm that Peter suggested the itinerary and I dealt with the logistics. As photographers, our main goal was to achieve the best possible images in the time available. We spend more time with each species than a birders do, so, by necessity, a big ‘tick list’ was low priority. We minimised travelling time to maximise the time with our cameras, choosing to work three major areas:-

Bee Hummingbird, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Tody and Cuban Trogon were the main targets for our cameras, as was Red-legged Honeycreeper (for its sheer beauty). Of course any opportunity to photograph new world warblers would be appreciated and all the Cuban and Caribbean endemics in the areas we planned to visit would get a fair proportion of our time and attention. We would work from dawn until dusk, with just a couple of short breaks, to cool off in the sea with our snorkels.

We don't use escorted tours and try to avoid guides (although we broke this rule in Zapata) as we enjoy the challenge and adventure of independent travel work to our own agenda. We are able to keep costs low by opting for simpler accommodation and food and undertaking extensive research of the area before departure. Arrangements are more complex when travelling independently but it enables us to control our itinerary and work without the risk of disturbance or irritation from groups of chattering people. If this makes us sound a little antisocial, well, when our eye is on the viewfinder, we often are!

Scouring the Internet for the best deals, we found accommodation in the right locations and adding the cost of flights, food and a mid sized hire car we were able to achieve savings of 45% below advertised prices. We booked our accommodation and flights (Air France have a 10k hand luggage allowance, useful for cameras) through The Holiday Place, an agency we found on the Internet, who offered good value for money and first class customer service. We booked a hire car in advance through an agency in Havana - Caribbean Diving Centers Ltd. They were able to offer us a very competitive rate with Cubacar Rental. We collected the car from the rental office of the neighbouring Neptuno Hotel in Havana.

CUBA

Havana

On our arrival in Cuba, we transferred to the Comodoro Hotel in the consular area of Havana. It is a big hotel with good food and friendly staff, not flashy but good value for money. There were Cuban Blackbirds, Antillean Grackles and other common species in the grounds. Interestingly, this was the only place on the trip where we saw Cuban Martins, they circled the sky above the hotel amongst a flock of Hirundines and Antillean Palm Swifts.

We spent a day in old Havana, a fascinating city, with its decaying elegance, ancient cars and friendly, colourful, people. The shops in Havana have very little for sale as the embargo imposed by the USA has resulted in a recycling economy. Spotlessly clean, well-repaired second hand clothes and re-worked items are the mainstay of many of the retail outlets and the queues are long. The tenacious, cooperative and inventive attitude of the Cuban people impresses me immensely. Despite the lack of goods in many other shops, the bookshops were both modern and thriving with new and old publications and stationery. Havana was the only place where we experienced any hassle, however, it was pretty mild by world standards and only occurred twice.

A fact essential for all visitors to know is that US currency and credit cards operated by US organisations are generally refused in Cuba. You need to check who operates the credit card for your bank, if it is a US firm, you will need to take a different card.

Whilst drinking coffee in a bar, we were fortunate to meet a jazz saxophonist who took us to hear some of Cuba’s musicians practising in large semi derelict building in old Havana. This was a real privilege and an experience I will never forget. The hypnotic rhythm of Cuban music is vibrant and addictive and these players were superb, some had even played at Ronnie Scotts while on tour to London.

Soroa

Having left Havana, with its confusing road signs and inadequate maps, after 2 hourswe eventually found our way to Soroa. We spent 4 days at the Hotel Soroa, a paradise location with good gardens and a crystal clear stream flowing through the lush tropical greenery of the hills. Not everyone likes this hotel, but we thought it was wonderful.

On arrival, we checked in a few hours too early and had to wait for our room to be prepared. We sat on a seat by the pool in the shade of a flowering Bottlebrush tree. The birding was even better than we had hoped for and we soon got to work with our cameras. The tree was small, but the birds it attracted kept us busy for the next few hours. Easiest birding and photography we could possibly have wished for. It was here we had our first sighting of one of our target species, Red-legged Honeycreeper, which flew down to feed on the nectar, along with Black-cowled Oriole, Antillean Grackle, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Tennessee Warbler, Palm Warbler and Cuban Emerald.

A walk around the grounds revealed at least four Cuban Trogons, high in the trees behind the huts, with Cuban Green Woodpeckers nesting close by. Northern Flicker, West Indian Woodpecker, a variety of migrant warblers (including Louisiana Waterthrush by the stream), American Kestrels, Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, Cuban Blackbirds and Red-legged Thrushes all gave good views. At night the security guards pointed out a Hutia (giant tree rat) to us.

Botanic Park and the Mirador Viewpoint, Soroa

Nearby in the Botanic Park, we found the usual assortment of migrant warblers, Western Spindalis, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Trogons at close range.

The Bottle-brush trees near the entrance were a great habitat, for migrant warblers, Yellow Faced Grassquits and Cuban Emeralds. Higher up, we found an area of mature trees and shrubs near the cafe where Cuban Trogons, Striped-headed Tanagers and woodpeckers showed exceptionally well.

Later that afternoon we braved the mosquitoes in the woods to walk up to the Mirador viewpoint nearby. This is a long steep track through the woodland up to an inland cliff with a fine view over Cuba. It was here we first saw a Cuban Pygmy Owl (a species which we later found to be quite common), which responded to our mimicry of its call whilst being pursued by an irate Cuban Emerald. We heard several Cuban Todies and had our first views of Great Lizard Cuckoo. While I was checking out a flock of migrant warblers, Peter walked on and found a Ruddy Quail Dove on the track

La Guira

West of Soroa is another site known as La Guira, a very productive area, with several endemics. A few miles past the entrance to La Guira, just after a sharp bend, we found a little bridge crossing a stream in a deep valley. This proved to be a productive area and we spent hours here watching and photographing Trogons, Todies, Yellow-headed Warblers, Cuban Bullfinches, Lizard Cuckoos and White-crowned Pigeons. I got my revenge on Peter, for his Ruddy Quail Dove at Mirador, by finding a Cuban Solitaire, we had both heard its beautiful song several times and knew where it was hidden, but unfortunately, Peter had turned his back when the bird flew across the road, giving me a good view. It continued to taunt him by singing from its new perch out of sight. Moving on to higher elevations, we found Olive-crowned Warblers, Zenaida Doves, La Sagra's Flycatchers, Cuban Peewees, Cuban Bullfinches and several migrant warblers.

Las Terrezas

We enjoyed a day birding with Arturo Kirkconnell at Las Terrezas, a peaceful tourist attraction and local beauty spot in the hills near Soroa. Las Terrezas has terraced gardens and great views over the surrounding countryside. Alongside the gardens, there is a steep path climbing through the woods, where warblers, Todies, Lizard Cuckoos and Cuban Bullfinches flitted through the undergrowth.

Later, as we rested sat on a high wall near the café, we kept our cameras busy on the surrounding trees with Cuban Grassquit (Las Terrezas was the only place we found this species), Cuban Green Woodpecker, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Yellow-headed Warblers, Todies, Cuban Vireo and Black-whiskered Vireos.

Zapata & Playa Larga

Leaving western Cuba, we travelled south to Zapata. This is the site where Fidel Castro’s forces defeated the US led invasion of armed Cuban exiles into the Bay of Pigs (Bahia.de Cochinos). Graves of the Cuban soldiers, who fought and died in this battle, line the roadside from Jaguey Grande all the way to Playa Giron, south east of Zapata.

On our arrival at the Hotel Playa Larga (situated at the top of the Bay of Pigs) we were besieged with mosquitoes, a problem created by the proximity to Zapata Swamp. However, the insects provided a food supply for the birds and we found the hotel grounds reasonably productive with Killdeer, Great Lizard Cuckoo, West Indian Woodpecker and plenty of migrant warblers. Hotel Playa Larga is extremely basic, but adequate and the staff are helpful and friendly.

Taking the road from Playa Larga to Playa Giron, there are roads and tracks off to the left (one leading to Soplilar and eventually to Palpite) where we found Fernandina’s Flicker, more Lizard Cuckoos, dozens of migrant warblers and various flycatchers, but the mosquitoes were almost unbearable.

La Salinas and Zapata Swamp

A short distance west of Playa Larga is the southern end of Zapata swamp (La Salinas), which is good for shorebirds, pelicans, herons and egrets, including Roseate Spoonbills and Greater Flamingo. A Common Black Hawk was perched in a dead tree near the track and a large Iguana rested in the shade of the building at the end of the track. To enter the swamp you need an official guide (they will not let you in without one). The receptionist at the Playa Larga kindly called the reserve headquarters and arranged permission and an official guide for us for about 20 convertible pesos (about £12).

La Boca

Going north from Playa Larga to Jaguey Grande, there is a marshy area on the right of the road (La Boca Marsh) where we found various herons and egrets, one or two shorebirds and had our first sighting of Northern Jacana.

A little further north is a service area, with a café, garage and shops, where local operators take tourists for boat rides to see the cultural, attractions, we saw our first Cuban Parrots in this area. Opposite the service area is a pond, which is worth checking, and the area near the boat ramps behind the buildings was busy with migrant warblers..

Northern Limits of Zapata Swamp

The northern edge of the marsh can be accessed from Jaguey Grande by travelling south on the road towards Playa Larga. This area was best at dawn with several views of Zapata Wren and the only Stygian Owls of the trip. We understand that crocodiles inhabit this area (not alligators, I'm talking about the mean ones) - keep one eye on the waterways, they are big enough to eat you and can approach unseen. Turn right just before a village called Australia and you will find a stone archway over the road, indicating that you have reached the northern entrance to Zapata Swamp. As the road goes south from here, there is a bend to the right, from there, a dirt track leads west through woodland and then into the reeds and grasses of the swamp. After about 3 to 4 kilometres, where the trees start to thin out, Julio found the wrens for us, the chances of seeing one without taping is almost nil.

In the past, people have gone to extremes to see Zapata Wren, with a guide taking them from Santo Tomas out into the marsh where they would disembark and wade into the water. These days this species can be seen easily from this driveable track in the northern marsh. Should our directions prove inadequate, the site can be found with the help of the official guides who can be contacted at Zapata Swamp headquarters, or via reception at the Playa Larga. They charge reasonable rates, are competent and excellent company, but you will need to use your own car.

Playa Larga to Playa Giron

Halfway between Playa Larga and Playa Giron is a diving school and for a fee you can snorkel or dive here amongst the crowds and coach parties. Peter and rejected this opportunity and found a place where the waters were calm and clear half a kilometre south of the school – no herding, no fee, no people. The wooded rocky shore of the bay hooks round slightly from the south at this point creating a sheltered area of water within the reef accessible by the metal ladder into the water. We spent many happy hours cooling off during the heat of mid day snorkelling amongst the fish and corals in this lovely bay.

If you have never snorkelled before, I can recommend it, as it is easier than swimming and the tropical fish come close, even swimming around the ladder. If you decide to try I would suggest wearing a T-shirt in the water and use at least a factor 30 waterproof sun-cream, as in the water, the sun will burn you severely in less than an hour at this latitude, unless you use sun screen. You don't notice when you are swimming, but later, you could lose your skin - literally! Avon's waterproof sun cream worked well and Peter and I were able to snorkel for a couple of hours a day without burning - it was bliss to escape the intense heat and the mosquitoes and the fish were so confiding and colourful, we were always reluctant to leave the water.

Nearby in an area of overgrown scrub, we first glimpsed a male Bee Hummingbird, but it flew off and did not return. However it was great for warblers and vireos, and various other species and a very showy Pygmy Owl made it a productive area for photography.

Cueva de los Peces

A kilometre or so further south is a delightful cafe (Cueva de los Peces) where we cooled down in the shade with a cold drink and a snack, while photographing warblers and Red-legged Thrushes in the trees next to the dining area. Beside the café is a deep sinkhole, which is full of tropical fish, grown large and healthy in the crystal clear salt water. The Cuban Hutia (a large tree climbing rodent - looks like an arboreal Coypu) was happily ensconced in a tree near the café and several lizards basked on the rocks.

Bermejas

From Playa Giron we took a road north to Bermehas. This forest reserve is the most likely site to find all the Quail Doves (although Blue-headed and Key West Quail Doves are scarce). We found Ruddy Quail Dove and Grey-headed Quail Dove here and took our best photographs of Todies and Fernandina's Flicker. Cuban Parrots, called noisily from the tree tops, Bare Legged Owl, Cuban Pygmy Owl and dozens of other species ensured we spent some considerable time here. Bermejas was the best area for warblers and flycatchers Todies and woodpeckers. In fact it was the best birding site we visited, perhaps the best site in Cuba.

It was here that we first chanced upon the author and bird expert, Arturo Kirkconnell, who was on site researching Fernandina’s Flicker. He is a friendly and obliging Cuban of Scottish descent, co-author of the Birds of Cuba and one of the leading authorities on the avifauna of Cuba. We enjoyed his company on a number of occasions following this meeting.

Later the next day we gave him a lift to Jaguey Grande on his way back to Havana. He helped us with translation on our errands, including helping us to purchase worming tablets for feral dogs in Playa Larga. We were concerned at the condition of these friendly, skinny, little dogs and aware of the risk that their infestation may be passed on to the local people. The locals couldn’t afford medicine for the dogs, but we could so we did.

Bee Hummingbird – The Smallest Bird in the World

Back on the road near Bermejas, we met Orlando, a slightly built middle-aged Cuban guy working the land. He was a terrific birder, seeming to be blessed with inbuilt radar, he did not need binoculars. His eyes and ears are sharp, and he knows the exact location of the local birds so well that he could find them long before us despite his lack of optics. He found Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Nightjar and many other birds for us

This was the most reliable site for Bee Hummingbirds (our main target species) and Orlando kept us company while we photographed them (we spent at least three afternoons on this task). Throughout the day, the females and immature males were present but as the shadows lengthened, the adult males (tiny and colourful with their crimson pink beards) came in to feast on the flowering trees. Whilst feeding, they were often harassed by the larger, more aggressive Cuban Emeralds.

Planning a Birding Trip to Cuba?

If not on a stringent budget, a first class, expert guide for birding Cuba is Arturo Kirkconnell (Tody@amca.co.cu). There are other independent guides, known as Chino and Angel in the Zapata area, who are also reputed to be very good, but if you want a specialist guide to do it all, who knows the whole of Cuba - Arturo.

If your funds are tight and you travel ‘Rough Guide’ style rather than ‘Wish You Were Here’, hopefully this information will help you find some of your target species. If you are lucky enough befriend Orlando at Bermejas, he will put you on to a few good birds. He knows Bermejas very well but does not speak English. A guide book is useful to show him which species you are after. If he helps you find the birds, you should reward him for his efforts. He is an amiable man and a good birder, providing you can find a way to communicate (he does not speak English).

The official guides at the Zapata HQ are fairly competent and have fixed rates at reasonable prices. They will help you find good birding locations in the Swamp and other areas close by, although their information is not always up to date.

In conclusion, Cuba is a wonderful place, the people are genuine, earthy, practical and usually friendly – they have no pretensions and are justly proud of their beautiful island. The birding is wonderful and the snorkelling is great but the mosquitoes are a nightmare in some locations.

We were reluctant to leave and will undoubtedly return. Fortunately, there is still much of Cuba for us to explore and hopefully, we may visit again very soon.

 
Species
Comodoro Hotel & Havana Soroa Las Terrezas La Guira Zapata Area Bermehas
1
Pied billed-Grebe
        y  
2
Magnificent Frigatebird
        y  
3
White Pelican (Lenin Park)
y       y  
4
Brown Pelican
y       y  
5
Double-crested Cormarant
y       y  
6
Anhinga
        y  
7
Great-blue Heron
        y  
8
Reddish Egret
        y  
9
Tri-coloured Heron
        y  
10
Great-white Egret
        y  
11
Little blue Heron
        y  
12
Snowy Egret
        y  
13
Cattle Egret
y       y  
14
Green Heron
  y     y  
15
Greater Flamingo
        y  
16
Roseate Spoonbill
        y  
17
White Ibis
        y  
18
Blue-winged Teal
        y  
19
Red-breasted Merganser
        y  
20
Turkey Vulture
y y y y y y
21
Common Black Hawk
        y  
22
Red-taile Hawk
  y   y    
23
Broad-winged Hawk
    y      
24
Osprey
        y  
25
Northern Harrier
        y  
26
Peregrine
        y  
27
Merlin
        y  
28
American Kestrel
  y y y y y
29
Crested Caracara
        y  
30
Sora Rail
        y  
31
Limpkin
        y  
32
Northern Jacana
        y  
33
American Coot
        y  
34
Purple Gallinule
        y  
35
Moorhen
        y  
36
Black-bellied (grey) Plover
y       y  
37
Killdeer
        y  
38
Greater Yellowlegs
        y  
39
Lesser Yellowlegs
        y  
40
Turnstone
y       y  
41
Spotted Sandpiper
y       y  
42
Short-billed Dowitcher
        y  
43
American Herring Gull
y       y  
44
Ring billed Gull
y          
45
Laughing Gull
y          
46
Caspian Tern
y          
47
Royal Tern
        y  
48
Sandwich Tern
        y  
49
Forsters Tern
y          
50
Black Skimmer
        y  
51
White-crowned Pigeon
  y   y y  
52
Mourning Dove
y y   y y  
53
White-winged Dove
  y y      
54
Zenaida Dove
      y y y
55
Common Ground Dove
y y   y y  
56
Grey-headed Quail Dove
          y
57
Ruddy Quail Dove
  y     y y
58
Smooth-billed Ani
        y y
59
Scaly naped Pigeon
      y    
60
Cuban Parrot
        y y
61
Cuban Parakeet
          y
62
Great Lizard Cuckoo
  y y y y  
63
Cuban Nightjar
          y
64
Cuban Pygmy Owl
  y     y  
65
Bare legged Owl
        y  
66
Stygian Owl
        y  
67
Antillean Palm Swift
y          
68
Bee-Hummingbird
        y y
69
Cuban Emerald
y y y y y y
70
Cuban Trogon
  y y y y y
71
Belted Kingfisher
        y  
72
Cuban Tody
  y y y y y
73
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
y y     y y
74
Northern Flicker
  y y      
75
Fernandina's Flicker
        y y
76
Cuban green Woodpecker
  y y   y y
77
West Indian Woodpecker
  y     y  
78
La Sagra's Flycatcher
  y y y y y
79
Cuban Peewee
  y y y y y
80
Loggerhead Kingbird
  y y y y y
81
Grey Kingbird
  y     y  
82
Eastern Kingbird
        y  
83
Yellow-throated Vireo
        y  
84
Black-whiskered Vireo
        y  
85
White-eyed Vireo
    y      
86
Cuban Vireo
        y y
87
Cuban Crow
    y      
88
Zapata Wren
        y  
89
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
      y y  
90
Cuban Martin
y          
91
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
        y  
92
Red-legged Thrush
y y y y y  
93
Northern Mockingbird
y y   y y y
94
Cuban Solitaire
  heard   y    
95
Catbird
        y y
96
Red-legged Honeycreeper
  y y      
97
Tennessee Warbler
  y        
98
Yellow Warbler
        y  
99
Blackburnian Warbler
        y  
100
Cape May Warbler
        y  
101
Black & White Warbler
  y y   y y
102
Worm-eating Warbler
          y
103
Olive capped Warbler
          y
104
Prairie Warbler
    y   y y
105
Palm Warbler
y y y y y y
106
Black-throated Blue Warbler
  y y   y y
107
Black-throated Green Warbler
  y       y
108
Yellow-throated Warbler
        y y
109
Northern Parula
  y y y y y
110
Yellow-rumped Warbler
  y y y y y
111
Common Yellowthroat
    y   y y
112
Kentucky Warbler
          y
113
Louisianna Waterthrush
  y        
114
Northern Waterthrush
        y  
115
Ovenbird
  y       y
116
Yellow-headed Warbler
    y y y  
117
American Redstart
y y y y y y
118
Hooded Warbler
          y
119
Striped headed Tanager (Western Spindalis)
  y y   y  
120
Summer Tanager
    y      
121
Yellow-faced Grassquit
  y y y y y
122
Cuban Grassquite
    y      
123
Cuban Bullfinch
    y y y  
124
House Sparrow
y       y  
125
Indigo Bunting
    y      
126
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird
  y y   y  
127
Greater Antillean Grackle
y y y y y y
128
Cuban Blackbird
y y y y y y
129
Black-cowled Oriole
  y y   y