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22 April - 6 May 2000

by John Martin

Alternate report with maps now online at Surfbirds

Species List and Daily Totals

Cuba is an intriguing place and had been somewhere on our list of places-we'd-like-to-go-some-day for a while. We had been planning a three week trip to Zimbabwe this Easter for some time but completely blowsed out as the situation there appeared to be getting more and more unstable. We needed an alternative venue at short notice and less cost and some moderately prices flights to Havana on a new BA service direct from Gatwick came up. With just six places left we hastily decided to go for it. Only then did we discover that Cuba is not one of the cheapest destinations on earth, despite being a poor country. The principle reason is the odd dual economy that locks tourists into a US dollar-based system (ironic given the US trade embargo) while locals pay a fraction of the cost in pesos. It's not that you can't get pesos, just that it is hard to find anything to buy with them. There don't appear to be any shops as we would recognise them apart from the dollar shops, which are not used by the locals. Your dollars are very efficiently mopped up in this way and, not surprisingly, tourism is now the major earner of foreign revenue for Cuba, outstripping both tobacco and sugar.

Car hire is quite expensive - you will pay at least $50 per day plus another $10-15 insurance. We booked the smallest cheapest model without air con but they had none available so upgraded us at no extra cost apart from a higher insurance rate. Once you have bitten that bullet the other major cost will be accomodation which averaged $35 for a double room per night. This was in decent hotels with air con in the rooms and often swimming pools (which we used a lot!). You can also stay in Casa Particulares which are rooms in peoples houses and would be about $20. As the mates from Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mark and Linda Sutton) we went with have a small(ish) child, for whom the swimming pools were an obvious highlight of the trip, we didn't use this cheaper option. Meals were not cheap either, but above all they were dull and the portions were small.

On the positive side the music was excellent with live musicians of varying but usually high standards at most places. If you like Beuna Vista Social Club you will like the music. The people are great too, very friendly and away from the tourist traps there is never the atmosphere of hassle/impending rip-off that pervades some destinations. This was beginning to be more obvious in some of the tourist traps we visited, however, so things may change - it will be a great pity if it ever does. It is useful to have a modicum of Spanish - as a rule English is spoken only poorly/infrequently. One of the bird guides we went out with spoke good Russian which I bet isn't much use to him any more. The roads were generally a joy, with very little traffic and good surfaces. The main hazards were horses and carts, unlit bikes, people driving the wrong way down the main motorway (on which u-turns are perfectly OK, it seems) etc. Loads of people hitch and we gave plenty of them lifts. This often proved useful when navigating through towns where sign posts were very thin on the ground. Another major hazard in the Playa Larga area were the land crabs which were thick on the road some mornings and evenings. With the best will in the world it was impossible to avoid squashing some of them. Despite feeling guilty about this invertebrate slaughter it was annoying to later discover that the crushed crustaceans had had their revenge and had punctured our tyres. Mark had seven punctures one morning. 'La Ponchura' signs are, not surprisingly, frequent in the area so repairs weren't a major problem (except that Mark lost the gadget to undo his lockable wheel nuts - the locals made him another in a couple of hours!).

Our aim was to combine seeing as many of the endemic and near-endemic birds and Caribbean specialities as possible with some time duding. In two weeks this was not a problem. Some more manic birding crews have more or less cleaned up in just over a week. We did smugly note, however, that we did better than any of the crews whose trip reports we were using. This was, we think, partly because we had more time, because we used a couple more local guides, and because we were present in the middle of the breeding season. Thus whereas most of the winter trips had struggled with Bare-legged Owl, for example, we saw them at the nest with no problem. Some species, including Black-whiskered Vireo, Grey Kingbird and the endemic Cuban Martin, are summer migrants. We were lucky with the weather, seeing rain in quantity on only one day. A late April/early May trip could prove a bit of a washout if you were unlucky enough to visit in a year when the rainy season started earlier.

The main birds can be seen in four areas. We drove straight from the airport to Soroa in the Sierra del Rosario about 80km west of Havana arriving at the hotel at about 1am. We birded the local area next day with a trail up a nearby hill producing the best birds including Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Tody, Blue-headed Quail-dove and Cuban Solitaire. The latter is a must-see in this area and can be located by its haunting song. The hotel grounds produced some great birds including Cuban Trogon, the national bird. It is common, noisy and , for a trogon, conspicuous. Even better were two Stygian Owls and a Cuban Pygmy Owl. A huge tarantula in Mark and Linda's chalet was a bonus, though it was disconcerting when we lost track of it! Next day we went to the classic site in these mountains, La Güire National Park. You may have seen it on the telly with picturesque wooden chalets in the pine forest gently rotting away. Despite the advice from other crews to visit the area from a base in Soroa it is far better to stay in San Diego de los Baños which is only a few km down the road (as opposed to c.60km). We stayed in the excellent Hotel Mirador. You could also stay in the cabañas within the park itself. Birdy highlights here included Olive-crowned Warbler (this is the site for it and it is common), Scaly-naped Pigeon and Gundlach's Hawk. The latter is a rare and endangered accipiter most like a Cooper's Hawk. Amazingly we saw four between us, including one watched chasing a Mourning Dove from our hotel while we ate breakfast! Remarkably the hotel grounds held yet another pair of Stygian Owls (this big streaky asio is also classed as rare in Cuba).

The next site was the famous Zapata Swamp. This can be visited from a base in Playa Larga, a resort at the top end of the Bay of Pigs. It is a big area with several sites. The main habitats are catstail (Typha) and sawgrass (Cladium) swamps with patches of open water, fish ponds etc. There is also woodland, farmland and mangroves with salt pans and mudflats. We stayed here for four nights. Perhaps the most remarkable feature about the swamp itself is the scarcity of birds in general, especially passerines. A large fire affected many hectares of the swamp during our visit. The regular burning of parts of the swamp during the dry season has been suggested as one reason why Zapata Rail is now seemingly so rare. Introduced predators including a mongoose (Herpestes sp.) may also be part of the problem. There are some great birds, though, if you make the effort to find them and have some luck. We were greatly helped by a day out with Angel Martinez, one of the official park guides. You can't go into the park itself without guides and pay $10 per person per half day for their services and the permit. Money well spent and the only way to see the legendary Zapata Wren. We had views down to 2m. Other highlights of the day were Grey-headed and Key West quail-doves, Bare-legged Owl, Bee Hummingbird (only the smallest bird in the world), Fernandina's Flicker, King Rail and Cuban Vireo. We finished the day by finding our own Greater Antillean (Cuban) Nightjar - crippling views to 2m in the torchlight. The area also produced lots of Cuban Parrots, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Parakeet (for JPM at least), Red-shouldered Blackbird, Antillean Nighthawk and the stunning Cuban Crow (well its gargling calls are good value). I also found the nest of Bee Hummingbird which was a real bonus as this is a scarce and difficult bird. The Salinas produced lots of herons and a few waders and other waterbirds. These included Wood Stork, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, the Cuban race of Common Black-hawk (the so called Cuban Crab-hawk, which is brown instead of black), Least Tern, Wilson's Plover and a few Semipalmated and Least Sands. Janette and myself then spent a couple of days near the historic town of Trinidad and in the nearby Sierra de L'Escambray while Mark tried unsuccessfully to find Cuban Parakeet round Playa Larga. We also saw White-collared Swift, Scaly-naped Pigeon and, of course, Cuban Parakeet.

Met up again at Camagüey, the base for La Belen NP which is about 80km to the south. This is the area for Giant Kingbird, Plain Pigeon and Cuban Palm Crow. We saw these on the first evening and returned next day for a morning birding with local ornithologist Pedro Regalado. He is an expert on the kingbird which is a very rare species now, but proved easy to see here. Other birders had departed from this area on seeing the three species named above but we went into the park itself with Pedro and were rewarded with Cuban Grassquit (which Mark had seen at Zapata), 35 West Indian Whistling-ducks roosting in a big tree, Bare-legged Owl at the nest and, to Mark's relief, loads of Cuban Parakeets. Bizarrely we also saw Helmeted Guineafowl which has a long-established feral population in Cuba.

The final area is Cayo Coco which is one of the northern keys and has some Bahaman species as well as our two remaining feasible endemics. We based ourselves in nearby Moron at a decent little hotel which was the cheapest accomodation of the trip. Don't stay on Cayo Coco which is the preserve of huge all-inclusive hotels which, if you can get a room, will cost well over $150 per night. The first afternoon we called on Pedro's friend Odey Martinez who quickly snapped out of his siesta and agreed to show us the endangered Cuban race of Sandhill Crane. They were about 15km from Moron but you would never find them yourself. The track ended up a bit rough and we walked for half an hour before finding ourselves on the edge of a large open grassy area. Climbing up the partly completed frames of a planned observation platform we saw four cranes. On our way back to Moron we had some superb Northern Bobwhites right by the track (another endemic race and one of the smartest birds of the trip).

Next morning we went over the 27km long causeway to Cayo Coco. The first bit of tall dense scrub produced Oriente Warbler, Cuban Vireo and lots of migrants including some nice male Blackpolls. The place was ridden with mozzies so we moved on to the extreme north eastern key, Cayo Paredón Grande. Right at the end by the lighthouse the vegetation changed to small shrubs and dwarf palms much like Mediterranean maquis (but non-aromatic). Here we found Cuban Gnatcatcher and a pair of Thick-billed Vireos. There has been a bit of confusion about the latter. One trip reported it from near the causeway but later realised they had made a mistake. Birds of the West Indies gives it as a rare visitor here in October. We knew of reliable reports later in winter but our birds may well have been breeding. The male was in song and initially responded to us playing back a Yellow Warbler song. We got some passable video footage at close range. We gazed out to sea and saw some Sooty/Bridled terns at extreme range, probably the former, which would have been a tick for us both. Then it was right across to the extreme north western key Cayo Guillermo. This is being consumed by new hotels at an alarming rate. Again the habitat changed towards the end of the key and it was here that we hoped to see the supposedly elusive Bahama Mockingbird. As it was we saw it singing on top of a bush before we even got out of the car and then enjoyed excellent scope views.

Other wildlife of interest on the trip included an amazing diversity of reptiles and amphibians throughout. We even had some smart tree-frogs the bathroom at one place. Butterflies were pretty nice as usual in the tropics but I have no idea what any of them were. Mammals were represented only by a single mongoose, which is an alien here and a problem for local wildlife, and some bats. Some wierd native mammals do occur but are rather elusive. Plants were great as usual and included various orchids and lots of bromeliads. Birds we did not see included just two endemics. Zapata Rail lives in the swamp and is virtually flightless. Hardly anyone has ever seen it so we didn't expect to. Cuban Kite occurs only in the extreme NE where it is obviously very rare. A five day expedition a few years ago failed to find it but reports from locals indicated its continued presence. Ivory-billed Woodpecker has gone, which is very sad, but we did meet someone who has seen one (Pedro - in 1987). Spotted Rail and Yellow-breasted Crake occur in the swamp. They are difficult but some people do see them.

My trip list is attached (not a big list, as you would expect from an island, but lots of endemics and near-endemics and some nice water birds and other migrants). We will be doing a proper trip report with maps etc in due course. If anyone wants any more information let me know. This brief itinerary will help interpret the list:

22 April - 1745 depart London Gatwick, flight time about ten hours arriving 2145 local time. Pick up hire car, drive to Soroa arrive 2am at Villa Soroa.
23 April - bird Soroa area including trail up to nearby mirador through forest.
24 April - am Maspoton area (wetlands), pm La Güire NP.
25 April - before breakfast La Güire NP, drive to Playa Larga, 'rail pools' in Zapata area evening.
26 April - Playa Larga, Cueva de los Pisces, La Bocha, Bermejas (rainy day)
27 April - with Angel Martinez: Zapata Wren site, Palpite, Bee Hummer site, Bermejas. 'rail pools' on our own in the evening and Soplillar after dark.
28 April - duding near hotel am, Palpite and La Bocha pm.
29 April - am Las Salina. Helped Mark get punctures fixed, drive to Trinidad (showed Nette the Bee Hummer nest at Palpite en route).
30 April - duding round Trinidad am, pm Sierra del Escambray.
1 May - drive to Camaguey, late pm to Najasa and met Pedro Regalado (lamentably inaccurate gen from SMW, distances nearly all twice what he said!).
2 May - am Najasa and La Belen with Pedro Regalado , pm duding including Camaguey centre.
3 May - drive to Moron (Parador San Fernando), located Odey Martinez and visited Cuban Sandhill Crane site at Venero plus lagoon near Cunagua Mountain.
4 May - over causeway to Cayo Coco stopping to bird en route and on other side, Cayo Paredón Grande, Cayo Guillermo. Failed to locate the girls on Cayo Coco so back to hotel mid pm.
5 May - early am lagoon nr Cunagua Mountain, drive back to Playa Larga via Chamba, Remedios. Look for nightjars again at Soplillar.
6 May - am hotel duding, pm drive to Havana airport for 2345 flight home.

JPM 24/5/00