CUBA – Anous Trip 013-2014-04

The Cuban Birding Crisis

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April 1 to April 8, 2014

Rating: 6 – Strenuous to life threatening

Goal: All the ‘possible’ Cuban endemics in 6 days!

Brethren present: Attia, Brett, Friis, Mackenzie, Nicoll, Wood

Cost: $1,210.16 /person

Flight – 508.16 each – $609.79 including FINs flight

Vehicle – 2013 Peugot Tepee Window Van – $1600 – $266.67 each

Accommodation – $227 each – including most meals

Food and Personal- $150 each

Incidentals – Gasolina, Cervesa, Art, Tips, Guides (Zapata Only), Bribes, Incidentals, – $350

Notable Mentions: ALL Endemics except ‘Cuban’ Kite, and Zapata Rail.

WARNINGS:

  • Puegot Tepee’s catch fire
  • Pulling in to oncoming traffic on major divided four lane highways is not as hard as you think.
  • Some highways just end.
  • Contrary to popular belief, prostitutes in Cuba are fairly conspicuous.

Notable Misses: Zapata Rail, Cuban Kite, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Stygian Owl.

Species Total: 164

eBird Checklists: More checklists exist than what is summarized within this trip report, but for brevity we included only the significant stops and those that capture most species observed. www.ebird.ca

Photos Courtesy Anous Birding Syndicate (Mostly Y.Attia) – visit https://www.flickr.com/photos/122906971@N02/

 

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Cuban Tody

 

March 31, 2014

There was a celebratory subtext behind this trip to Cuba: Brethren Nicoll had turned 40, and Wood was getting married. We therefore dubbed this trip, The Cuba Birding Crisis. Brett, Friis and Mackenzie met at the Quality Inn Suites the evening before our departure to take advantage of the ‘free’ airport parking. Beer ensued, last minute re-packing, and late night slumber.

 

April 1, 2014

Luckily our flight wasn’t until mid-morning, but someone had the bright idea that we should meet Brother Attia who was arriving at Pearson around 0600. Needless to say, we were hung over at the start all in the name of comradery. Brothers Nicoll and Wood met up with us a couple hours later.

We departed Toronto Pearson (YYZ) at 0955 en route to Varadero, Cuba. We remember nothing of the flight, except that Fergus was standing.

We landed in Varadero at 1330, and as was predicted, the first bird of the trip was a Turkey Vulture. After gathering ourselves, getting our hands on some cash, some cigarillos, and of course our rental van, we were off. We were heading west, really west, but first we had to drop off our rental attendant Frederick who bummed a ride (a common transportation mode) off us to the nearest town of Matanzas. Matanzas was a quaint coastal town north of Varadero with hints of Spanish colonialism.

The van was a Peugot Tepee, a wonderfully designed passenger van with decent clearance, plenty of room for 6 men and their gear, and most importantly lots of windows and standard transmission! It was kind of heart-breaking looking at this pristine, crystal clean, forest green van, that was about to get the shit beat out of it. Main Cuban arteries are generally very well maintained. Most secondary and tertiary roads leave much to be desired.

Our destination was the Los Pinos, La Hacienda Cortina, and environs surrounding La Guira National Park, about 200 km west. We managed to navigate our way through Havana, but got slightly side-tracked in Santiago de Las Vegas – follow the bus they said, this looks like a main road they said, let’s turn around they said, let’s follow the bus again, this is certainly a dead end, we should get out of here. We managed to find our way back to the main Autopista and continued west. We arrived at the Hotel Mirador de San Diego in San Diego de Los Banos, had dinner, many cervesa and bed around 0045. Late night entertainment included numerous large tree frogs and at least two or three jovial older European men who had found new young love. It was a little difficult to differentiate between a legitimate relationship and business.

By the end of the day there was an interesting vibration coming from the drive-train of the Tepee…We figure one or more of the abrupt pot-hole encountered must of knocked something on the undercarriage in such a manner as to interact with the transmission in some way (Incident 1). Whatever the problem was, it did not sound good.

Despite spending most of the afternoon in the car we managed 41 species including a few excellent sightings and great views of Red-shouldered Blackbird at Varadero airport, and Barn Owl and Antillean Nighthawk at dusk on the road into San Diego de Los Banos.

Day Report: 41 species –

eBird Checklists:

Varadero Airport – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354853

Drive from Var0adero to San Diego de Los Banos eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354855

 

April 2, 2014

 We awoke well before breakfast, collected ourselves without coffee (somehow), and made our way to a quaint orchard and local farmland just outside of San Diego de Los Banos. The hunt for Cuban Grassquit began. This striking little endemic has become increasingly difficult to find due to its irruptive population and pressure from the captive bird trade. Our target did not pan out but we did manage our first look at Great Lizard-Cuckoo and West Indian Woodpecker. We continued on to higher elevations while it was still early in the day with plans to revisit this location in the afternoon. Coffee withdrawal was setting in at this point and some of us resorted to chocolate covered espresso beans.

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Great Lizard-Cuckoo

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West Indian Bad-Ass Woodpecker

We climbed, and climbed, and climbed, then the road kind of ended, but we continued to climb into higher elevation pine forests where we parked at the end of the road near some ruins. Olive-capped Warblers were quite conspicuous in the right habitat and we observed them at a number of locations. From the parking area we hiked farther up the road and travelled west along a trail that followed the ridge. Despite windy conditions this morning, we managed to hear 3-4 Cuban Solitaires singing in this area and followed the trail in pursuit. They seemed to stay at higher elevations for the most part, but a few of us managed to get poor views. Other new additions to our list included Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Oriole, Western Spindalis, Cuban Tody, Cuban Emerald,Tawny-shouldered Blackbird,Black-throated Green Warbler, and numerous Black-whiskered Vireos.After about an hour, we evaluated the trip objectives and realized that we had to keep moving. When Big Day mentality is driving your decisions on hour one of day one on a week-long trip, you know you’re in trouble. We made our way back to the van, but were continually distracted by the constant ‘whooops’ of Cuban Trogons; then one landed nearby in the open. Fifteen minutes later we had collected ourselves and continued to mosey on back to the van. Little did we know how abundant trogons would be in a variety of habitats throughout Cuba. A familiar sound on the walk out was a Blue-headed Vireo singing at close range.

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Cuban Trogon

 

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Western Spindalis

 

We took our time on the drive back down the hill stopping at a few locations, but we wanted to ensure a second chance for Cuban Grassquit. We revisited the site and spent the better part of an hour scouring the area, sifting through large groups of the more common Yellow-faced Grassquits. Eventually we narrowed down the habitat types and brother Wood found one male and three females at the edge of a field. Naturally we had split up to increase our coverage area, so rallying the whole group was difficult. Eventually we all rallied on the north side of the road in a small pasture that was hidden behind a large hedgerow. A pair entertained us for awhile, and a couple other odd balls, appeared and disappeared throughout our search. Another highlight from this site was a Thick-billed Vireo and an assortment of neotropical migrants. With the grassquit under our belts we sighed a bit of relief and headed back to Hacienda Cortina, an elaborate historical estate turned park that was teeming with bird life. Hacienda Cortina was a trip. The gardens and grounds of the old estate of a wealthy politician provides excellent birding opportunities. Giant Kingbird, Cuban Pewee, and Purple Gallinule were new additions here along with prolonged killer looks at trogons.

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Cuban Grassquit pair

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Cuban Grassquit pair

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Hacienda Cortina

After the Hacienda, we made our way back to Hotel Mirador for some lunch and a much-needed cafe con leche. We had spent a bit too much time in the area and enjoying a leisurely lunch before we realized that a 1400 departure from the hotel was going to severely dampen our spirits for the 550km jaunt across the country. So off we went, east, way east.

The Autopistas were generally in great condition except for in the vicinity of cities. One had to keep a keen eye otherwise, because when there were imperfections in the road or potholes, they were substantial. Consequently, part of this drive was piloted by the Fergler, while main pilot Mackenzie took a rest. About 50 km into his tenure, a remarkable rare silence came over the van followed immediately by a coordinated ‘oh-man’ as the passengers all simultaneously identified the looming danger before us -a cavern of a pothole with mountainous up-turned borders. With no sign of avoidance or slowing, the passengers braced for the worst. The impact was remarkable (Incident 2)! The sound was a combination of the roads pure impact with the chassis accompanied by a symphony of scraping and deforming of the undercarriage, exhaust system, and skid-plates. While Mackenzie may have undoubtedly been responsible for the initial transmission issues, the Fergler ensured that the Tepee would never be the same again.

We followed the Autopista most of the way, stopping opportunistically here and there, mostly for food, cafe, and bathroom breaks, but also for birds. The highlight along the way was a drive-by Fernandina’s Flicker that was much sought after by most in the van. As darkness approached, we stopped at some really weird hotel/resort/zoo near Santa Clara where Gundlanch’s hawks were supposed to nest. We didn’t find any accipiters but we did spot an unusual mammal roosting high in the branch crotch of a tree. The creature, tentatively called a Wombat, was later correctly identified as a Cuban (Desmarest’s) Hutia, an arboreal rodent endemic to Cuba. After a short search of the area we decided that we might as well eat there before making the rest of the trek to Cayo Coco. A decent hearty buffet ensued complete with a really, really, reaaaally weird mid-dinner fashion show that seemed to pay a strangely disproportionate amount of time near our table of six burly, unkempt men. It got dark around 2100h, and we were still far from Cayo Coco. We managed to navigate our way north in the dark skirting three Barn Owl hits, and arrived at the Memories Caribe Beach Resort shortly after midnight. Those that slept, were glad they did.

Non-resort accommodations on Cayo Coco are few and far between, but it is really handy to stay on the spit itself. The alternative is a 45 -minute to one hour drive from a more modest accommodation Moron. Memories Caribe Beach resort was one of the cheapest we could find and it showed. It obviously had the glitz and glamour of most all-inclusive on the outside, but the details were lacking. We were greeted by an apparently wild, very pink, very disoriented Greater Flamingo that called incessantly from the man-made lagoon on the grounds. Food was mediocre, service was acceptable, and infrastructure was somewhat run-down, but hell we were birding, not writing a travel guide. Staying in a resort did have some excellent birding-related perks:

1) 24 hr drink and snack bar,

2) 24 hr drink and snack bar that serves coffee and snacks early in the morning,

3) 24 hr drink and snack bar that has free-flowing beer, and

4) comfortable, clean beds.

Day Report: 69 species

 eBird Checklists:

Los Pinos – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354861

Cuban Grassquit Orchard – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354860

Hacienda Cortina – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354865

Cuba–travel from La Guira and Cayo Coco –

http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354869

 

April 3, 2014

We awoke early and headed to the Cueva del Jabali: the grounds of the Cave Nightclub where the adjacent trails, roadways, and water sources were supposed to provide excellent views of Key West Quail Dove. Our first views were mediocre and dark in the understory of the trails running south from the club. We followed these trails to a fairly significant pond that was a hive of activity, primarily with neotropical migrants such as Painted Bunting, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart and Cape May, and Prairie Warbler (the former being the more abundant warblers on the island next to Palm). This location had a number of Cuban Vireos. Rather late in our visit we discovered a back trail behind the main gate to the club where a drip of water from an air conditioning unit was a buzz of activity. This activity led us to a number of staff quarters behind the club where three drips appeared to be actively maintained by staff. Unfortunately, we discovered these mid-day and would have to return at dusk or dawn to truly see their worth. On our way out we discovered a pair of Cuban Gnatcatcher on the edge of a scrub-desert-carst area about 1 km from the club. Oriente Warblers were quite abundant low in the understory, and Black-whiskered Vireos were everywhere.

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Oriente Warbler

 

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Cuban Pewee

 

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Painted Bunting

 

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The lovely Key West Quail Dove

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Cuban Vireo

 

We had our first encounter with Chino here, brother of Angel, two ‘famous’ Cuban guides (pronounced guy in spanish-speaking countries) from the Zapata area. He was leading a few brits around that were gamete ticking their way around the countryside. He was a little standoffish and didn’t like our presence at some of what were obviously stake-outs for him. What he didn’t share was some back up locations he had for the local voranai subspecies of Zapata Sparrow found only in the Cayo Coco region.

We made it back to the Memories Caribe in time to catch a late breakfast and service a number of bowels. After a hearty brunch we set sail to Cayo Guillermo in search of the Bahama Mockingbird. The lagoons en route were quite productive and we stopped for about an hour at one that was full of waterfowl, herons, Greater Flamingos, Black-necked Stilts, and a gamut of shorebirds including 70 Stilt Sandpipers, and 9 Long-billed Dowitcher mixed with a flock of about 90 Short-billed. Nearby we scored some killer looks at a Snail Kite.

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The road on Cayo Guillermo eventually ended at a Nature Preserve with restricted access. We parked here and explored for a short time, but a parking fee and security guards working for a popular beach access/restaurant area were annoying so we carried on down the road. Significant construction of 3 or 4 resorts in the area is putting great stress on the habitat here and likely the limited population of Bahama Mockingbirds. We worked our way south stopping occasionally at reasonable looking habitat and as luck would have it stumbled upon not 1, but 2 B-mockers sitting atop some of the low-lying shrubs and cacti. Once discovered they were quite conspicuous within their territory for a short time before totally disappearing in the underbrush.

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Bahama Mama’s

Cayo Paredon was next on our list in search of Cigars and Whistling Ducks. Despite our worst spanish and pleading, we could not talk our way into the Iberostar Mojito and Hotel Melia so we explored the grounds as best we could from afar and enjoyed romantic views of West Indian Whisting Duck from a lovely waterfront gazebo. We then headed back to the hotel for a brief siesta and snack before heading out for the evening. A pair of endemic local subspecies of Northern Flicker were nesting in a cavity in a palm in the parking lot.

We wandered Cayo Coco and environs looking for alternative sites for Zapata Sparrow and various coastal access points. One such foray resulted in the Tepee becoming temporarily hung up on substantial cement ramp (Incident 3). The scraping sound was piercing, but remarkably there was only a few minor scrapes to the moulding.

We were destined for an evening at Cueva Jabali. The drips were lively and there were a few oil buckets that made for excellent seats while we observed the warblers, doves and thrushes visit the drips. Although skittish, the Key West Quail Doves provided excellent views for most, and Brett also got his long sought after a long overdue lifer Worm-eating Warbler with only light touching from brother Attia. Even though the dove was the goal, a lovely male Hooded Warbler stole the show that evening. The drive back to Caribe was uneventful – dinner buffet, ice cream, beer, bed.

Day List: 90 species.

eBird Checklists:

Cuevas Jabali – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354874

Lagoons on way to Cayo Guillermo – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354876

Scrub forest of Cayo Guillermo – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354878

Melia Hotel Zone – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354875

 

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Cuban Gnatcatcher – Cuevas Jabali

April 4, 2014

Up at the ass-crack of dawn again to make our way back to Ceuvas Jabali -thank goodness for cafe con leche at the late night snack bar. The early morning at the drip paid off with great views of Key West Quail Dove for all as well as a nice assortment of migrants. The rest of the morning was spent searching for Cuban Gnatcatchers and voranai Zapata Sparrow, thought by some to be a distinct species than those found in Zapata swamp. 2/3 of the group got excellent views of a Zapata at the same low-lying carst where the the gnatachers were. The others were off down the road taking one for the team. Even Chino apparently “struck out” with this bird to the dismay of his tour. A small pond and inlets farther north resulted in a Least Grebe and a group of 75 American Avocet.

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Zapata Sparrow (voranai subspecies)

We lingered in the area until late morning then headed south toward Najasa en route to Finca La Belen. The drive was lengthy, but scenic, as we winded south into the centre of the country. Pasture lands and low-intensity agriculture dominated the landscape. Finding La Belen was relatively straightforward; finding Pedro’s house just outside the nearby town of El Pilar, was not so easy. Pedro Regaldo Ruiz was an older gentlemen that is one of Cuba’s prominent ornithologists’. . He was involved in describing the aforementioned Cayo Coco race of Zapata Sparrow, is currently researching the differences between the Palm Crows in Cuba versus those in Hispaniola and is one of the last Cubans to see a wild Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He warmly invited us into his home for a passion-fruit drink and we enjoyed bird chat and a baseball game. We had dropped off a copy of the Birds of Hamilton by Bob Curry, for Bob Curry and Glenda Slessor along with an assortment of other goodies. Pedro was a fine artist also and we chipped in to buy his portrayal of a Cuban Trogan, a prize claimed by Brett. At dusk, Pedro strapped on his binoculars and walked us to a to a roost just down the street from his house where Cuban Palm Crow roost were coming in to roost. We studied the crows for some time learning to distinguish them reliably by call and behaviour, less so by visual field marks.

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Pedro’s

Back at La Belen we were greeted to the worst meal of our trip, with water served only after a couple requests, and no beer despite a full cooler. After some reflection we realized that we may have offended the owner by not accepting their offer of a local guide upon our arrival. While we realized that many individuals relied on guiding as a part of their income, we prefer to explore and discover things on our own time and our own pace. We tipped generously where appropriate, and with some translation assistance from Chino, who just happened to show up that evening, eased some of the awkwardness.

After dinner we went for a productive stroll down the road finding a Bare-legged Owl calling in the distance. Exhausted we pounded through the checklists for the day and tried to get a good night’s rest.

La Belen is a protected area 36km southeast of Camagüey contains three low-hill ranges: the Sierra del Chorrillo, the Sierra del Najasa and the Guaicanámar (highest point 324m). Nestled in their grassy uplands is La Hacienda la Belén , a handsome country ranch that was built by a Peruvian architect during WWII, and is now run as a nature reserve by travel agency Ecotur . As well as boasting an interesting display of (nonindigenous) exotic animals such as zebras, deer, bulls and horses, the park functions as a bird reserve , and is one of the best places in Cuba to view rare species such as the Cuban parakeet, the giant kingbird and the Antillean palm swift. Another curiosity is a three-million-year-old petrified forest of fossilized tree stumps spread over one hectare (Source: The Lonely Planet – http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cuba/sierra-del-chorrillo/sights/farms-workshops-factories/la-hacienda-la-belen). The ranch is the provider of Cuba’s finest horses.

Day List: 76 species.

eBird Checklists:

Cuevas Jabali – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354881

Sierra De Nejasa – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354892

Cayo Coco to Najasa – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S20022424

 

April 5, 2014

The morning began with a mediocre breakfast, continued poor service and attitude from the staff, but at least there was coffee, albeit served in unwashed mugs. We learned that you technically ‘need’ a guide to bird the park area, but the definition of need is subject to debate. In some cases it is true, National Park areas such as certain areas of Zapata, but in other areas we think it’s a translation issue meaning ‘ of course you ‘need’ a guide, how else would you find anything’? Regardless, we just enjoyed a very slow exit from the ranch. Our strategic stops on the way out resulted in numerous views of Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Parrot, Cuban and Cuban Palm Crow, a rather rambunctious Cuban Pygmy Owl, a number of North American migrants and the regular local avifauna. Before leaving the region, we took a detour south of El Pilar to the local cemetery where we stumbled upon a Giant Kingbird, more parakeets, and Plain Pigeon.

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Cuban Pygmy-Owl

Cuban Highway Cheese:

It was on this day that we discovered Cuban highway cheese! Since day 1 we had been passing small groups of 2-3 individuals along the roadways selling local fare, but there was some debate as to what they were selling. Finally, we decided that no matter what it is, we’re stopping and buying some at the next guy we see, so we did. It was un-ripened cheese – a lot of cheese – a giant wheel of cheese! Probably a good 5 pounds worth. It was paired with a lovely guava jelly and biscuits. After some consternation, we ate cheese, a lot of cheese, some more than others. For cheese that had been out in the sun for lord knows how long in 35̊+ temperatures, it was surprisingly cool and delicious. In summation, we highly recommend stopping for Cuban Highway-Cheese.

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Cheese Pacman eat John!

It was mid-morning, and we were getting antsy not sitting the van, so travel we must as we were destined to spend the night in Play Giron at the mouth of the Bay of Pigs adjacent to Zapata Swamp. Drives are always entertaining and interesting more often than not, especially when we take the scenic route. We knew that our best chance for Gundlach’s Hawk was probably going to be a drive-by or of course the infamous flook. As it turns out the drive-by won as we spotted a large accipiter chasing doves just south of Sancti Spititus near Rio Tayabacoa. An expert pull-over to the side of the road and record-breaking exodus from the van resulted in excellent views for everyone. An American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon were also observed at this location. Onward.

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Gundlach’s Hawk

We arrived at a small nature preserve outside Bermejas mid-afternoon and thought that we’d try our luck for Blue-headed Quail Dove. The dove was one of the group’s highly sought after so we ensured numerous opportunities to try and find one. The afternoon was hot and the bird activity slow, but we enjoyed a wander through the woodlands to orient ourselves for the next morning.

We trudged on toward Playa Giron in order to find Hostal Luis before dinner time. As luck would have it another beautiful local helped us find our way down the street. With the exception of Pedro in El Pilar, Hostal Luis was our first taste of genuine Cuban hospitality and cuisine. It was exceptionally clean, very well presented and had excellent meals to boot. Our menu for the evening comprised lentil soup, salad with tomatoes, rice & beans, fish, crab, rock lobster, shrimp, octopus, tamaties, and delicious Taro. A simple bowl of soup changed our entire perception of Cuban cuisine.

 

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Hostal Luis

 

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Hostal Luis – Playa Giron

 

Feast

Hostal Luis – Rock Lobster and all the fixings…

Day List: 71 species.

eBird Checklists:

Rancho La Belen and Cemetery south of El Pilar – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354893

Sancti Spiritus – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354909

 

April 6, 2014

A lovely early breakfast and excellent cafe at Hostal Luis was just what we had been longing for. We were on the road before sunrise en route back to Bermejas in search of our beloved Blue-headed Quail Dove.

We spent a few hours wandering all the trails and enjoying Yellow-headed Warbler, a great number of migrants, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Parrots, and a Gundlach’s Hawk that flew along the trail low over our heads. As tends to happen we split up, and the majority of the group got stellar looks at Blue-headed Quail Dove while Mackenzie and Attia were off gallivanting or something. The reserve was otherwise pretty quiet aside from the odd flurry of migrants.

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Yellow-headed Warbler

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Blue-headed Quail-Dove

Mackenzie and Attia, returned to the van for a spizoli, they ran into Orlando ( the local guide/steward of the area), who showed them his dove stakeout that he was very proud of, and his prized Bee Hummingbirds. When the guys came back to the van we embarked on a lovely cheese, cracker, jam and snack before surprising the lot with a pair of BEEs.

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Male Bee Hummingbird (not to scale)

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How is it possible that I stand out in a crowd of birders?

 

After Bermejas we headed to Cuevas de los Puevos, an apparent good backup location for the dove, for lunch. After lunch we headed to Playa Larga to check in at the Hostal Mayito. The Mayito was another pleasant surprise with very hospitable hosts. After a short break we headed off for an exploratory afternoon. We originally wanted to explore the national park, but discovered that the rumours of needing a guide were true, so we headed north instead to check out what we could of the canals and wetlands surrounding Laguna del Tesoro and Los Canales, an area of scattered wetlands, canals and rice fields.

Hostal Mayito

Hostal Mayito

 

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Hostal Mayito

We followed a dirt road that travelled north about 10km south of Playa Larga along the Hannabananna canal. It followed a main channel heading north toward the Autopista just west of Aguada de Pasajeros. The road got narrower, narrower, and less of a road, but we persevered. Along the way we came across a group of about 6 Northern Bobwhite working their way along the road which was a treat. As we proceeded the grass became longer, about waste height and the vegetation covered much of the road, but it was in generally good condition. Eventually we came across a large man-made reservoir. Our hope was that the road would continue to the Autopista and we could get fuel and make our way back to Playa Larga without doubling back. However, upon travelling along most of the pond we came across a rather curious fellow who was fishing. Upon asking him “Autopista?” The look on his face and quick-witted laugh answered our question. We could not make it to the Autopista. With less than an eighth of a tank of fuel, it was probably the right decision to turn around. Some of us still contest that we could have made our way out of there had we continued.

We stopped at one of the bridges on the way back for a peak, but there wasn’t much to see aside from an Osprey. There was a faint hint of smoke in the air after our stop, but we didn’t think anything of it; perhaps just a bit of grass burning on the exhaust. On we travelled back to Cuevos de los Puevos. Upon arrival we smelt and saw smoke! Upon inspection underneath the engine, the van was very much on fire (Incident 4). Well, a substantial amount of grass that had accumulated on the skid plates under the engine and gas tank were engulfed in 9 inch flames tickled the bottom of the engine and gas tanks. A mad rush ensued to find as much water as possible in the van and threw as much of it as we could at the flames. We managed to put out the flame and tried to remove as much of the grass as possible, but couldn’t get it all, nor see all of the little pockets it could have been hiding. Wood and Mackenzie then proceeded back to Playa Giron for gas, fitting. Thankfully, we appeared to have dealt with the fire and refuelled unharmed.

 

Los Canales

Oh yeah boys, She's definitely on fire!

Oh yeah boys, She’s definitely on fire!

Back at Cuevos de los Puevos, the guys had been enjoying spectacular views of Blue-headed Quail Dove with about 50 other touristas. By chance we ran into Angel again and asked him about our tour in the morning as we had booked him to take us into Zapata. The puzzled look on his face was troubling, but not as much as his response “I don’t have a tour with you – I’m booked already”. It turns out that his brother Chino had double booked them. He reassured us that someone would meet us at the hostal. So we carried on back to Playa Larga for dinner.

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Spectacular views of Blue-headed Quail Dove

 

The rooftop at Hostal Moyito provided a remarkable view over the Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga and surrounding wetlands. The rooftop provided some excellent birding with flyby Northern Pintails, American Wigeon, Whimbrels, Cave Swallows, White Pelicans, and Gull-billed Tern. Then we were summoned for dinner.

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Rooftop of Hostal Mayito

 

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Dinner at Hostal Mayito

Dinner was again fantastic. We can’t rememberwhat we had, but it was glorious. After dinner, the proprietor joined us and proceeded to instruct us on the proper construction of a Mojito with fresh mint and cuban rum. A few mojito later we tackled ET’s and all managed to head to bed by around 0130h.

Day List: 80 species.

eBird Checklists:

Bermejas – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354912

Cueva de los Puevos – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354913

Hostal Mayito – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S20032957

 

April 7, 2014

The morning was a struggle, but we had a great early breakfast and cafe and watched Angel speed in on his motorcycle. We followed Angel to his home to drop off his bike and started heading to La Turba and a few special haunts that Angel had staked out.

Our first priority was Zapata Wren. As we were driving toward the wetland we saw a number of Greater Antillean Nightjars flying along the roadway. En route to the wren spot we all had an internal dialogue thinking that we should ask Angel not to use playback. However, not wanting to insult him, we kept our mouths shut. In retrospect we all wish we had asked him to take it easy. It’s not surprising that the wrens are reluctant to respond. Within 1 minute of exiting the vehicle, Angel had his speakers out and was incessantly trying to call in the wren. Some of our crew abandoned Angel’s post almost immediately in order to enjoy La Turba without the obnoxious repetition. Of course, Chino also showed up and began with his player, and another young guide armed with yet another speaker and pointless recording. Based on the success of the recording, our chances were better just being patient and watching any number of the surrounding territories. Indeed a few of us enjoyed distant views of Zapata Wrens doing their own thing undisturbed – the alternative of course was to stay in one spot and wait for a brief view of an agitated wren being nagged out of his morning routine for benefit of some pointless list. Our conservative estimate for Zapata Wrens calling in the area was 6, but it could have easily been 10 or 12 if we didn’t have to listen over the recordings. Two Spotted Rails calling at close range and a few Red-shouldered Blackbirds were other special treats.

After about an hour of aggravating the wrens we carried on farther down the road in search of Zapata Sparrow which was relatively easy to find at the end of the causeway, We birded the area awhile and took our time on the drive out en route to Molina in search of Stygian Owl. We arrived at Molina and hiked for a couple of km into an area that Angel had known for roosting Stygians. En route we encountered a Gray-fronted Dove and the usual assortment of local and migrant avifauna. The hike was enjoyable, but lacked an owl. On the drive out however, we had a close encounter with another Blue-headed Quail Dove almost making it a unique hood ornament. Leaving Molina, we enjoyed a moment with a Cuban Black Hawk that was sitting on her nest. One of the last birds on our list was Fernandina’s Flicker – a couple of us had a very brief drive-by view a few days earlier, but we all wanted a good look. We stopped at Laguna del Tesoro hotel for a good look at Cuban Martins nesting on the buildings and as luck would have it scored a pair of Fernandina’s Flicker that were making their way through the palms in the hotel parking lot – from an aesthetic and enjoyment perspective, this bird was one of the highlights of the trip. Unfortunately, this visit was cut short by unpleasant hotel staff that were displeased with our choice of parking spots.

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Mama Fernandina’s Flicker

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Papa

We dropped Angel off at his home and spent about an hour too long trying to get some cash before rounding out our last day in Cuba. We grabbed some lunch at a nearby hotel, stocked up on a few more stoggies and went back to Bermejas….none of us can really remember what happened this afternoon…We spent a couple of hours touring the reserve again, got some excellent views of Gray-fronted Quail Dove, but not much else. Upon returning to Hostal Mayito, we reconvened on the rooftop for our final night in Cuba. Another incredible dinner ensued followed by late night mojitos, talk about the trip and birds, and bed.

Day List: 69 species.

eBird Checklists:

La Turba – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354914

Molina – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354915

La Turba to Molina – http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18354833

 

April 8, 2014

We awoke early and made our way to the airport. We had a bit of time to kill so explored the resort area of Varadero, which if we had avoided, we would have left with a much higher opinion of Cuba. The unfettered development of the coastal areas of Varadero, Cayo Coco, and Cayo Gulliermo all predicated a gloomy future for much of Cuba’s remaining wild coastal spaces and avifauna.

En route while trying to get back on the Autopista, we ended up driving into two lanes of on-coming traffic. Word of warning: If you’re going to try and follow directions deep into a city, then decide to follow cars that look like they know where they’re going through back-allies, dirt trails, fields, and eventually on to the Autopista – make damn sure you follow them the whole way, and get off the Autopista, because they’re taking a short cut. The alternative is about 5 km of oncoming traffic until the next exit.

Our approach to the rental car company was slow, precise and calculated. The transmission vibrations had become quite significant over the course of the trip. Therefore, in order to avoid potentially handsome damage charges, we had to coast into the rental company parking lot without engaging the transmission. We entered the airport with enough momentum to get us to the rental lot and carefully planned our route. There was no direct evidence of the fire and most of the scratches were concealed by dirt. Consequently, the rental booth wasn’t even attended when we arrived.

The flight home was uneventful aside from the spikey burs, and we all went back to our respective lives.

Irritation from chigger bites lingered for a good fortnight following the trip.

Day List: 40 species.

Summary: Go to Cuba soon.

 

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Spikey bastards

 

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Cuban Parakeets – La Belen

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I hate social norms, tradition and all that shit – oh well, SELFIE!

 

 Photo Archive: Under Construction…

BHQD

Blue-headed Quail Dove – Bermejas

 

Cheese

Cheese

 

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Cuban Oriole – Hotel Melia zone

 

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Snail Kite – Cayo Guillermo

 

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Antillean Palm Swift butt in nest.

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Brother Attia and Mackenzie’s room at Hostal Luis.

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Brett giving a local officer a geography lesson.

Traffic Jam

Traffic Jam

 

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OWIE!

 

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Hostal Mayito

Contribution to Hostal Mayito Guest Book.

Contribution to Hostal Mayito Guest Book.

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The van can make it!

The van can make it!

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Blue-headed Quail-Dove dance

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Orlando's house

IMG_6119 Pedro’s house

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Zapata – you guys are full of shit…

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Me gusta cafe con leche.

Me gusta cafe con leche.

Me gusta looking intensely into the camera

Me gusta looking intensely into the camera

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