With thanks to Jim Frost
My birding life list was stuck firmly on 1,982. I wanted to crack 2,000 this year. To do this I had to go birding somewhere that I’d not been before that would give me 18 lifers plus a nice holiday, within budget, for my non-birding, but ever tolerant, wife Claire. Cuba sounded ideal because if I could connect with most of the endemics that the island has to offer then I should easily reach my target. However, being fair to Claire, I couldn’t drag her around Cuba chasing birds, so we decided that an all inclusive beach holiday to Cayo Coco would suit us both. Therefore this is a trip report aimed at those who plan to stay at the Memories Flamenco, Pestana Cayo Coco or Melia Jardines Del Rey hotels in the Jardines del Rey tourist area of Cayo Coco, Ciego de Avila Province, Cuba, on a limited birding time scale.
We stayed at the Pestana Cayo Coco hotel, centrally located on the Cayos. The Pestana is a typical all inclusive Cuban hotel, very well landscaped with 1,000’s of plants and trees including mangrove fringed beach. I sent an email to the hotel a few weeks before we flew and asked for a room with a garden view. A reply from Yaima Jiménez Martín ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) assured me they would do their best to accommodate me. They did indeed place me with a garden view and being on the ground floor I had good numbers of birds from our patio throughout the day. Plenty of American wood warblers, Cuban Emerald, Red-legged Thrush, and La Sagra’s Flycatcher to name but a few.
The Cayo’s don’t represent Cuba as a country, more of a tropical idyll. To sample the real Cuba you need to get to the mainland. We travelled to the provincial capital city Ciego De Avila and the town of Moron (Cuban Martin here) and also to the city of Camaguey in the centre of Cuba. We attempted to fly to Havana but all services were cancelled, for the foreseeable future, due to ‘technical difficulties’. Both trips were an excellent insight to the real Cuba and although impoverished, the people were much laid back and friendly and the Cuban cuisine excellent.
Easy option, take sterling cash and change as required at the hotel.
I contacted Paulino Lopez Delgado ( Paulino.email@example.com ) a few months prior to leaving and booked a half days birding on the mainland and two half days birding around the Cayo’s. Highly recommended by others I can only concur that he is an excellent birder and the ‘must go to’ man if birding the Cayos, plus it was great fun riding around in his 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
I used the Helm Birds of the West Indies. Very useful plates but the text is now out of date. As an example, Thick-billed Vireo is mentioned as being “Uncommon migrant to coastal north-central Cuba in October” when it is a common resident at Cayo Paredon Grande.
Useful local birding info
I birded most mornings from 06:45 to about 9:30 and recorded a large number of species around the hotel environs. Turkey Vulture, Cuban Emerald, Northern Mockingbird, Loggerhead Kingbird and Greater Antillean Grackle were ubiquitous. In the grounds of the hotel I found nesting American Kestrel, Cuban Oriole, Greater Antillean Grackle and Red-legged Thrush. I’m sure there were many more.
The whole place was alive with American wood warblers for the first week I was there but they tailed off noticeably during the second week. The first two weeks of April would be busier but I saw most, if not all, of the wood warblers available at that time, plus, with the help of Paulino, all of the possible endemics of the area.
Good birding areas around the Pestana
1. Turn right outside the entrance to the Pestana, past the service entrance to the hotel for staff and before you get to Memories Hotel you will see some large white boulders. Turn right here on to a track that leads you to a scrubby area. This was to be my local patch and I had a vast array of species here each morning including Black-throated Blue Warbler, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Loggerhead and Grey Kingbird, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Prairie Warbler, Western Spindalis, Cuban Bullfinch, Indigo and Painted Bunting and much more.
2. On the beach of the Pestana turn right and walk past the white Melia beach boardwalk and beer shack and turn right onto a large area of scrub land. Follow a small inlet of brackish water, on the left, that leads to a lagoon. This inlet was full of small fish and had Green Heron and Spotted Sandpiper daily. The Lagoon held good numbers of American Flamingo, herons, stilts, Reddish Egret, American White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill as well as Semipalmated Plover and sandpipers. The scrubland had Cattle Egret, Killdeer, Smooth-billed Ani and various doves. Early morning visits were more productive but always worth a check, if needing a break from the beach, during the day.
3. Opposite the entrance to the Pestana, walking right, there are a few good tracks leading into wooded areas producing Cuban Tody, Cuban Pewee and Key West Quail-Dove among others.
4. Turn right outside the entrance to the Pestana and continue past the Memories Hotel, until you come to a large lagoon. I didn’t find this very productive but is worth a look as it did have Roseate Spoonbill, Tri-coloured Heron, Little Blue heron, American White Ibis and Royal Tern, but only in ones or two. The thinner wooded habitat, on the right, before reaching the lagoon held Cuban Vireos.
5. Turning left on the beach at Pestana, walk to the white Memories beach boardwalk and onto a small patch of open ground. Palm Warblers and Indigo Buntings were always present, even in the heat of the day
6. Turning left out of the Pestana entrance. The woods on both sides of the road were very productive for warblers and the two woodpecker species.
7. There is a tourist hop on, hop off bus that runs from Cayo Coco to Cayo Guillermo and Playa Pilar. Sit on the open deck (catch the first bus to make sure) and be prepared for a very windy ride. The bus pauses at the causeway connecting Cayo Coco with Cayo Guillermo to enable tourists to view the American Flamingos. Use this time to scan the various herons, egrets, waders and look for Cuban Black Hawk. There are breeding Cave Swallows under the causeway too. You can get off at the next hotel and walk back to the causeway and lagoons and catch the bus on the way back but if you have booked Paulino then there is no need as you will visit this area on the way back from the Bahama Mockingbird site.
23rd April. Paulino’s ½ day trip to the mainland
Paulino picked me up from the hotel at 7am in his classic American 1955 Chevy and headed towards the causeway connecting the Cayos to the mainland, birding along the way. Birds en route included Mangrove Cuckoo, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Cuban Green Woodpecker etc, whilst along the causeway there were Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-breasted Merganser and American Flamingo plus the usual assortment of herons, egrets and terns.
On the mainland we headed to open pastureland connecting with Eastern Meadowlark (future split?) lots of warblers, Great Lizard Cuckoo, and Northern Jacana before eventually calling in Cuban Pygmy Owl and Cuban Trogon. Moving around plenty of different habitats we picked up approx 40 species for the ½ day including Antillean Palm Swift, Snail Kite, American White Pelican, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Limpkin, Cuban Blackbird, Wood Stork and Red-tailed Hawk.
26th April. Paulino’s ½ day Cayo Coco & Cayo Guillermo
Again Paulino picked me up at 7am and we went straight to a sewage treatment works (always a great place to bird wherever in the world!) Good numbers of West Indian Whistling Duck, also Northern Shoveler, Solitary Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Killdeer and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Moving on we encountered a party of five Limpkin by the road, a nesting Northern Flicker and a family of Northern Crested Caracara.
At the Cayo Guillermo causeway we had the usual herons, egrets, Double-crested Cormorant and terns including Least Tern.
On reaching the end of Cayo Guillermo we immediately found our target birds, Bahama Mockingbird and Cuban Gnatcatcher. This was all too easy and the morning birding was to continue like this.
Heading back to Cayo Coco we had a quick stop to connect with two Zapata Sparrows moments after leaving the car.
At Paulino’s feeders by a cave (used as a disco at night), where he supplies food and water to the birds in the area, we had 9 Key West Quail-Dove, Indigo Bunting, Grey Catbird, various warblers, Ovenbird, an unexpected male Summer Tanager, and, star of the show, a very obliging Gundlach’s Hawk, much to the great excitement of Paulino.
On the way back to the Pestana, in conversation, I happened to mention that I hadn’t seen Clapper Rail whilst in Florida; duly noted, Paulino took me to a site where, ten minutes later, I was watching two Clapper Rails mating!
27th April. Paulino’s ½ day Cayo Romano and Paredon Grande
A long drive to the site of Thick-billed Vireo. Once again we were on to our target bird as soon as we left the car. Unfortunately there are plans for a hotel at this site so that may well impinge on these birds in the future. Other birds of note on the road trip were the usual Cuban Black Hawk, Oriente Warbler, Black-whiskered Vireo, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Bullfinch, herons, egrets, flamingo, terns, pelican et al.
A productive stop at a mangrove swamp added Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Waterthrush, Cuban Tody, White-crowned Pigeon and Cuban Pewee to the ever growing day/trip list.
Believing this to be my last trip out with Paulino and that I’d bagged all the birds that I could possibly have, I was delighted when he suggested that he could pick me up on the evening of the coming Saturday and take me to a Cuban Nightjar site as he was on the Cayos ‘till early evening with a bird photographer (Paulino lives on the mainland).
30th April.Paulino’s Nightjars
I met Paulino at reception at 7:45pm and we drove the short journey to an area by the entrance to Parque El Baga . By 08:10pm we were back in his car having had excellent views of Cuban Nightjar both in flight and on the ground. We then went on to try to locate Cuban Bare-legged Owl that were calling nearby but no luck. This was the first time we failed to find what we were looking for.
With the expert help of Paulino I eventually came away with a trip list of 118. This easily exceeded my expectations and it was rather fitting that Cuban Tody was my 2,000th lifer.
West Indian Whistling Duck
American White Ibis
Western Cattle Egret
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
American White Pelican
Cuban Black Hawk
Northern Crested Caracara
American Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Eurasian Collared Dove
Common Ground Dove
Key West Quail-Dove
Great Lizard Cuckoo
Cuban Pygmy Owl
Antillean Palm Swift
West Indian Woodpecker
Cuban Green Woodpecker
Las Sagra’s Flycatcher
Cape May Warbler
American Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Greater Antillean Grackle