After a successful visit to Cayo Guillermo last year we decided to return to Cuba; this time visiting the Sol Luna Y Mares Hotel on Playa Esmeralda. Whilst this area couldn't compete with Cayo Guillermo's lagoons teeming with flamingos. Roseate Spoonbills, egrets, herons and hundreds of waders it had some advantages over Guillermo. For a start it is actually on the mainland. It had its own lagoon and sewage works as well as dense forests and hills nearby. If you haven't been to Cuba before I thoroughly recommend it. A great chance to see a wide variety of birds, lizards, butterflies and insects. Many of the birds are ofcourse unique to Cuba. It's hassle free and the countryside is unspoilt and endless [population of 11 million and the island is 700 miles long!]
The hotel was fine. If you ever visit this area I recommend Playa Esmeralda and insisting on a room on the peaceful Luna side of the hotel. The Mares side is far too busy and noisy for my liking.
We had a great sea facing room on the Luna side.
The Blue Bridge Lagoon
Within 3 minutes of leaving the hotel you can access the blue bridge and across the lagoon. Always full of birds including an impressive 200 Northern Shovelers. The most numerous egret was the Snowy Egret. A Belted Kingfisher was seen regularly. Other birds on the lagoon included Pied-billed Grebe, Least Grebe, Moorhen, American Coot, Neotropic Cormorant[numerous], Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Tricoloured Heron, Great Egret and Green Heron. A Least Bittern was reported one day. Other birds seen around the lagoon were the inevitable Turkey Vulture, White-winged Dove and Mourning Dove. The nearby population of Cuban Martins would often fly over but only in the morning. I recommend a scope for this area as it is a fair sized lagoon.
The road to the Blue Bridge.
It is easy to head straight to the lagoon and ignore the potential for birds either side of the public road. Well worth a look, however, in the trees and shrubs either side. I was surprised to find a Cuba Pygmy Owl in a tree just before the bridge. There was a Black-throated Blue Warbler in the shrubs just before the bridge entrance one afternoon. Killdeers were generally running around on the grass here. The most common warbler around here was the Palm Warbler. Apart from the ever present Northern Mockingbird, Cuban Blackbird, grackles, Gray Kingbird, House Sparrow there were the common Cuban Red-legged Thrush, White-winged Dove and Ground Dove. One morning my attention was grabbed by two Smooth-billed Ani calling in the trees by the Blue Bridge. Yellow-faced Grassquits are very common in the whole area and usually some would be seen near the horse ranch. The Black-whiskered Vireo were always around. If you are not familiar with it's monotonous song you will be by the end of the week!
The Sewage Works.
Definitely worth a daily visit. Just next to the ranch before the Blue Bridge Lagoon, you will find the blue gated entrance. Generally there was a member of staff around who would let you in[no charge!] There are three tanks each warranting a look. Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Turnstone, Killdeer and Blue-winged Teal were ever present. On the last day a Least Sandpiper turned up. There were some shrubs and trees along the western boundary. Palm Warbler was regular and there was one American Redstart during the week. The sewage tanks also supported a large number of Turtles which emerged in the midday sun.
The Bahia De Naranjo track.
On the western edge of the hotel there is a magnficent bay,the Bahia De Naranjo. It is bordered by a dense wood,
A path starts opposite the Las Guanas nature reserve It heads south along the edge of the bay through the wood. Eventually it meets the Conuco Monogvina Restaurant track. I walked this track every day.It is wonderful!Keep on dipping out of the densely covered path, when you can, to look across the bay. Royal Terns regulary rest on the Dolphinareum rails. There was a Brown Pelican one day as well as a report of a frigatebird. A Yellow-crowned Night Heron appeared one day as well as some Snowy Egrets. Ocassionally Turnstones were on the shoreline. Turkey Vultures liked to land and rest on any deserted beaches here. I nipped off the main track one morning and spotted a Yellow Warbler. Going back to the main forest track you will hear and hopefully see three birds in particular. The repetitive Black-whiskered Vireo, the 'machine gun' sound of the Cuba Tody and the ascending ka,ka.ka.ka.ka... of the Hispanolian Lizard Cuckoo. All three were regulars along here along with the Red-legged Thrush[Cuban], Ground Dove and Cuban Emerald. Oddly, I did not see one Cuban Red-legged Thrush in Cayo Guillermo last year. Here they were heard and seen throughout the walk. Apart from the numerous Black-whiskered Vireo I sometimes heard Cuban Vireos in the thickly wooded areas. A bird I missed in Guillermo last year was the Western Stripe-headed Tanager. I had two great sightings along the track though,this year. My only sighting of a Cuban Green Woodpecker was along this track. Palm Warblers were regulary seen and I caught a glimpse of a Blackburnian Warbler too. Eventually the track opens out into a large open area before it meets the restaurant track. This was an excellent area. The Cuban Loggerhead Kingbirds favoured this area. They like to perch on the fence posts along the track and it was good to compare them with the more common Gray Kingbird. This was a great place to see Black-and-white Warblers. I saw them around here regulary. A Cape May Warbler was spotted here one morning. Palm Warbler and Yellow-faced Grassquit were genearlly around. My only sighting of a White-crowned Pigeon was here. Another good area to see Cuban Emerald. There was a Greater Antillean Oriole here as well as a Northern Parula. Just hereabouts there were 2 Smooth-billed Anis. I generally carried on to the restaurant[look for a huge rusty tank and head west]. Without fail I saw or heard a Cuban Tody about 100 yards before the restaurant where they had cut the track through some rocks. As you head to the restaurant there is an abandonned zoo on your right. There is a steep concrete path leading to a hidden lagoon. Black-necked Stilt, White-cheeked Pintail and Blue-winged Teal were regulars here. There was a Northern Waterthrush one day. Tawny-winged Blackbirds seem to like this area too.
La Cueva trip
A local guide called Robert took a few of us to a cave in the hills just south of Playa Esmeralda. He wasn't a bird guide he just did tours.[£5 all in]. There were some Cave Swallows, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Cuban Emeralds and a Merlin around here. I saw another Black-and-white Warbler; obviuosly common around these parts. It was a Warbler I saw all week along with the other regular warbler; the Palm Warbler.
Roca Azul Biopark
Again we went with Robert. The trip including bus,free drink and guided tour was £3! The park is on the opposite side of Naranjo Bay and would warrant a lengthier bird watching visit. A great place for Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, Palm Warbler and Yellow-faced Grassquit.
By far the strangest spectacle was a nightly show at the Animation Team Pavillion. No,it wan't another dreadful 'Hits of the 70's' spectacular. A Merlin appeared on the dot at 7.15 pm and started chasing emerging bats until it caught one of the poor creatures! Also saw Palm Warblers and a Cape May Warbler in the gardens. There was one Kestrel around a few Cuban Emeralds and the ocassional Yellow-faced Grassquit. Apart from the teeming sparrows, kingbirds, grackles, Cuban Blackbird. Tawny-winged Blackbird and mockingbirds there were lots of Lizards and butterflies as there were on our trips outside the hotel.