I had to visit Cuba at short notice for just over three weeks during the spring. Fortunately, a client (Nick) also wanted to do a short trip to the island following a family holiday on nearby Jamaica. The following is a short account of the tour. This was my first trip to Cuba for several years, but my fifteenth overall and was approximately the tenth tour I had led there.
I booked the necessary accommodation and car through Havanatour UK. As Nick’s time was very limited (six full days and two half days), I’d originally thought to skip one of the regular sites but Andy Mitchell quite rightly ‘egged me on’ into attempting to get all the regularly seen endemics in the week. Having in the past regularly managed just that with (sometimes large) groups in nine days, I figured it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Furthermore, Nick was keen not to miss out on anything without good reason. Thus, apart from the good as ‘impossible’ Zapata Rail and the Cuban Kite (last definitely seen, to my knowledge, when Mike Flieg and myself videotaped at least two and perhaps three birds in January 2001 at a site in eastern Cuba), we were set fair for all the endemics.
March 30. Nick’s flight was late arriving from Jamaica, so it wasn’t until after lunchtime that we’d completed all the formalities and were on our way west towards Viñales and a site for Cuban Grassquit. On arrival the grassquits were exactly were they’d been a few days before, so without much ado we were then en route to La Güira National Park. A week or so before I’d had some incredibly tape-responsive Olive-capped Warblers that had come right down to eye-level in the roadside bushes. They weren’t quite as cooperative for Nick, but the views were certainly not to be complained about. A Cuban Solitaire proved equally obliging, and having bagged our first views of some other endemics (Cuban Green Woodpecker etc.), it was time to hit the road back to Havana, where we arrived at our hotel, the Saratoga, just about opposite the Capitolio (not for the budget-conscious, but very nice).
March 31. Today was going to be mainly a driving day, east to Cayo Coco, and so no need for a pre-dawn start. I also wanted to have a quick check of the skies around the hotel for a Cuban Martin. We didn’t luck out with the latter, but we made good time along the autopista (detained only by some Cave Swallows and a pretty trashy lunch stop) and arrived at our hotel, the Melia on Cayo Coco, in good time for some birding. I figured we’d try the Cueva del Jabalí, which had been ‘hopping’ with migrant warblers a couple of weeks before and, more importantly, to try for Key West Quail-Dove. However, we arrived at more or less the same time as BirdQuest, led by my old friend, Derek Scott. ‘Being British’, I decided to give them the free run of the trail. Two lots of people trying for a quail-dove would probably just ensure that no one saw anything. We went off to try Zapata Sparrow, but didn’t have any luck (it was still pretty hot and más amenos nada was singing). Oriente Warblers and Western Spindalis kept Nick’s spirits up, and we closed the day off with a quick run into a neighbouring hotel to check out the West Indian Whistling Ducks. At first the lagoon seemed deserted, but then I realised that the silly ducks were perched on the roof of someone’s room, rather than swimming about on the water!
April 1. A pre-breakfast start at the Zapata Sparrow site produced the goods, although there were again very few migrants around. Following a leisurely breakfast, we headed off to Cayo Paredón Grande, pausing en route only to soak up some nice looks at Cuban Black Hawk (a fairly recent, but well-supported split). Our walk from the lighthouse produced the expected Cuban Gnatcatcher and Thick-billed Vireo, but the Clapper Rails would only sing back and refused to come out of the mangrove. Again migrants were in short supply, but a pair of Eurasian Collared Doves was a first record for the island! Back at the hotel for more free alcohol and too much food, we found a raft of West Indian Whistling Ducks right outside our rooms (so we needn’t have bothered running the gauntlet of the security at the other hotel after all). Our afternoon target was Bahama Mockingbird on Cayo Guillermo, which also proved typically easy, leaving us time to check out the shorebirds and other waterbirds. American Golden Plover, Stilt Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher all joined the list, but Clapper Rail was heard-only again.
April 2. Another pre-breakfast start, this time back to the Cueva del Jabalí, where patience at the drinking pool was well rewarded with a pair of Key West Quail-Doves, though migrants were still in somewhat short supply. We made time for an ample breakfast, this being our last taste of immodest Western excess on the trip, checked out (the Cuban Emerald nesting above the reception still on eggs!) and drove down to Camagüey (a pale-phase Arctic Skua as we crossed the causeway back to the mainland being the one surprise of the journey). After one false start, we eventually found the hotel, the Colón, which I’d never used before. (The Gran had failed to accept our reservation, and Havanatour had steered me towards this as next choice. With hindsight, if not staying at casa particulars, I think I’d go for the Hotel Camagüey, which has had a facelift in recent years, and has the advantage, for anyone self-driving, of being on the edge of town and well sited for the birding, as well as much less difficult to find.) The last hour or so of the day was spent checking off most of the specialties of the nearby Sierra de Najasa: Giant Kingbird, Cuban Parrot, the two crows, and Eastern Meadowlark. Just the parakeet was left for the morrow.
April 3. Another leisurely breakfast, then a brief pause at the cathedral to pick off a Cuban Martin or two, before returning to the Sierra de Najasa. A Gundlach’s Hawk buzzed across the road as we drove to the area. After an hour or two stomping about picking off a few warblers (there were more migrants here than on the cays) and a couple more pairs of Giant Kingbirds, we eventually found a small nesting colony of Cuban Parakeets. Nick having soaked up the views he wanted, we then hotfooted ourselves to Zapata. (Given the high-speed nature of our trip, we didn’t even have time to pop in and see Pedro Regalado, sadly.) A stop at La Boca produced some great looks at Fernandina’s Flicker, some Cuban Orioles (another recent split) and more Cuban Martins, and then at Punta Perdiz we put Cuban Pygmy Owl to rest. We arrived at our hotel, at Playa Girón, simultaneously with a large group of French Canadian birders and sometime later Derek Scott and BirdQuest arrived too. It was also good to see my old partner in crime, Arturo Kirkconnell, who’d agreed to join up with us for the last couple of days. The evening was spent chasing the resident Stygian Owls around the grounds, but sadly the only views were very distant.
April 4. A rare pre-dawn start saw as at the entrance to the Bermejas reserve to tape out the last singing Cuban Nightjar of the night. Following reasonable looks, we got into position for Blue-headed Quail-Dove. However, this was to prove the first bird to ‘misbehave’ on the trip. Group after group had been ‘ticking them off’ recently, but we had no luck all day. That there were upwards of 30+ other birders searching too probably didn’t help any of the different groups, but that’s birding. There were plenty other things to see. Cuban Parakeets were buzzing around, several Bee Hummingbirds and a pair of Fernandina’s Flickers were showing nicely by the ‘car park’, a Bare-legged Owl did his or her thing, and Grey-headed Quail-Doves were proving just about impossible to miss.
April 5. We were anxious to keep trying for Blue-headed Quail-Dove, but also mindful of two other important endemics, so early morning was spent at Turba, where after one false start with a wren that failed to show we got decent looks at both Zapata Wren and Red-shouldered Blackbird, whilst Spotted Rails were heard but not seen. The rest of the morning was spent travelling back towards Playa Girón, stopping en route at just about every potential Starnoenas locality that Arturo and I could think of, Los Sábalos, Molina etc. etc., but all drew a blank, other than near-bucket loads of Grey-headed Quail-Doves and another Bare-legged Owl. The afternoon was spent hammering away at Blue-headed, but there was still no joy, and Nick even managed to miss the only Indigo Buntings of the trip (which, given he’d not been birding the States, was more of a ‘miss’ than it might otherwise have been). In the evening, however, the Stygian Owl was at last ‘playing ball’ being perched for sometime in a large tree right by the swimming pool.
April 6. ‘Last chance saloon’ for Blue-headed Quail-Dove and the last ‘seeable’ endemic to get! I wasn’t in the best of sorts as somehow the ridge of my glasses had broken in the night, which meant I had to wear my sunglasses even in the pre-dawn darkness. As Nick had to be at the airport by just after midday, we had limited time to spend at Bermejas. Once again nada. We walked back to the car somewhat disconsolately, when suddenly two pigeon-like birds on the track were, after all, not just more Zenaida Doves or Grey-headed Quail-Doves, but a pair of Starnoenas. We soaked them up for the best part of ten minutes before one of the birds flew up into a tree and the other eventually walked off into the undergrowth. Arturo and my immediate thought that the bird had flown to a nest proved correct when we walked down the track to check it. A beautiful day for Nick. However, what happened next was perhaps even more surprising. Even though it was sunny, I was getting a bit sick of having to walk around like Bono with sunglasses permanently on, so Arturo took me into Bermejas where he found a guy with some piece of kit that was probably an artefact from the 1950s. Museum piece or not, it did the trick, and Mr Fix-it wanted all of a peso for his trouble. Needless to say I gave him 10 CUCs and felt I’d still gotten a bargain. Despite a puncture through having driven over too many crabs (this is the season of their migration to and from the shore across a ‘busy for Cuba’ road; it’s almost worth getting a puncture just to see how the resourceful Cuban tyre mechanic fixes it…with condoms, I kid you not), we still managed to arrive at the airport in good time for Nick’s flight. Job done!
Obviously, with more luck on Blue-headed Quail-Dove, the really time-challenged birder could probably shave another day off the week we spent. However, I have to say that Cuba’s got more than enough going for it, other than the birding, to make a longer stay well recommended.
I haven’t posted any photos with this report, but I spent some time with my friend, Will Price, prior to doing this trip and you can see photographs of a great many of the endemics on his web space at http://www.pbase.com/tereksandpiper or http://www.pbase.com/tereksandpiper/cuban_endemics. I’ve also posted a few notes on sites, taxonomy and conservation to accompany his pics.
http://www.pbase.com/tereksandpiper Starnoenas Starnoenas