Cuba Birding - 2nd-9th March 2005

Jim Rose and Dave Ferguson

 Day By Day Report

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2 March 2005

The holiday got off to a bad start with over a five hour delay on the flight due - amazingly - to fog in Goa which delayed our plane’s arrival in Gatwick. There was a further short delay while ice was removed from the wings (it was snowing at the time). The flight itself was uneventful but was further delayed by strong headwinds which meant that we arrived in Holguin at 21.00 instead of 15.15. The car hire office was closed but eventually the person we needed turned up and we were on the road at midnight. The one good part of all this was that the car we were given - a Suzuki Grand Vitara with only 700 km on the clock - looked ideal for the job it was about to do - which indeed proved the case.

 

3 March 2005

We had a 100 km drive to our hotel, the Villa Pinares de Mayari which is south-east of Holguin in the Altiplanicie de Nipe.  The roads were empty, unlit and with few signposts. We navigated by checking the kilometres we had driven and comparing them with the map. We saw one bird on the way, a Barn Owl.

Eventually we arrived at the town of Mayari and began looking for the turnoff to the hotel which was about 30 km to the south. At the far end of the town, just when we were starting to panic, we saw a sign saying ‘Pinares’, so off we went.

This road was surfaced but so full of holes it looked like the backside of the Moon. Our slow progress was made even slower by our not knowing how far up the road the hotel was or on which side of the road it was on. It seemed an age before we saw a sign (on the right, by the way) to the hotel.  (Have you ever heard of a hotel where a 4x4 is essential to get there!)

Of course by this time all the hotel staff, with the exception of the night guard, were asleep. But the guard sorted us out and at 02.00 we finally crashed into bed. It had been a long journey.

Nevertheless we woke at dawn to the unmusical yodelling of Greater Antillean Grackles and Cuban Blackbirds. Red-legged Thrushes wandered the lawns as we walked to the restaurant. After quite a good breakfast (Ham and cheese sandwich!) we birded the grounds of the hotel. These were extensive with mature trees and flowering shrubs. To the south were grassy fields while to the north was a forested mountain. In the garden we saw Cuban Emeralds, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Cuban Pewees, Loggerhead Kingbirds, Black-cowled Orioles, Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, Yellow-faced Grassquits, Cuban Grassquits, Ovenbird, and a red phase American Kestrel.

 

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The hotel Pinares De Mayari
Situated high in the Sierra Mensura mountains and only reached by a very rough track.   The gardens were excellent for birding.

But the bird of the morning - if not the whole holiday - was a Gundlach’s Hawk. It was sitting in a small tree on the edge of the garden, an unidentified - at the time - raptor. While we were frantically assembling our cameras it flew off disappearing behind trees. Later on DF saw the bird flying and obtained a short video. In the fields were more grassquits, and a couple of Common Yellowthroats in scrub.

After lunch we drove down the road we had come along but it was disappointing, just farmland, although we did see our first Smooth-billed Anis. We returned to the hotel and set off up the mountain along a wide track. We were surrounded by pines in which there were warblers. We like warblers, especially American ones. The endemic Olive-capped Warbler was the commonest, we saw one Oriente Warbler (another endemic), while the others were North American migrants: Cape May Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Palm Warblers and American Redstarts. We saw several more endemics: the stunning Cuban Tody which was common, one nearly as stunning Cuban Trogon, Cuban Green Woodpeckers, while we heard three Cuban Solitaires, one of which we managed to see. A flying dot, which may have been a large insect, could also have been a Bee Hummingbird. We only saw one species of butterfly, but it was a mega: Gundlach’s Swallowtail, another endemic. It was common in the forest.

 

4 March 2005

After breakfast (an omelette this time) we climbed up the mountain track. We added Cuban Bullfinch, Western Spindalis and Prairie Warbler to the list and we managed clear views of one of the three singing Cuban Solitaires. We obtained a less satisfactory view of a La Sagra’s Flycatcher and an even less satisfactory view of another flying dot.

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The track from the hotel Pinares De Mayari to the top of the mountain (radio mast).  Mainly Pine forest but with plenty of other trees, shrubs and flowers.

The main buildings of the hotel and our room were perfectly acceptable but some of the outbuildings were in a ruinous condition. This nice hotel in a great location (for birders anyway) was suffering from a lack of guests which the terrible road from Mayari did nothing to help. We left at mid-day for our next stop, the hotel at El Salton.

The dirt road to the south was actually better than the potholed surfaced road from the north. We drove through forested mountains stopping at suitable places. Highlights were a Pied-billed Grebe on a river, a superb male Red-legged Honeycreeper, and another Gundlach’s Hawk.

We eventually reached a surfaced road which crossed an arm of the Embalse Protesta de Baragua. This large lake held a Neotropic Cormorant, two Ospreys and two Royal Terns. Just outside the town of Contre-maestra we saw two Snail Kites. We eventually reached the Villa El Salton via yet another badly potholed road.

This hotel is set beside a river in a narrow steep-sided wooded valley a few hundred metres form a thin waterfall that plunges into a circular pool. It was a pleasant spot and full of birds.

By the river we found two Louisiana Waterthrushes, in the trees on the opposite side of the river a Scaly-naped Pigeon, while, much nearer, a Worm-eating Warbler sat still for the cameras. A surprise was the sight of five Yellow-crowned Night-herons sitting on nests halfway up the slope on the opposite side of the river.

Dinner in the open-air restaurant was lacking in atmosphere, as we were the only guests in this very nice hotel.

 

5 March 2005

We had arranged to meet Ricardo Sosa by asking for him at reception the previous evening. He was recommended in Blake Maybank’s trip report. He spoke good English and (as far as we could judge) equally good French and I expect his German was pretty good as well.

We began by walking down the road by the river. He was continually imitating Cuban Pygmy-owls, but though we heard them in the distance we did not see any. However we did see Northern Waterthrush by the river. We returned to the hotel and set off up a steep path.

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The hotel El Salton
There were numerous Red-legged Thrushes in the wooded gardens.

This brought us to farmland and great views. The first notable bird was a Great Lizard-cuckoo, even bigger than we expected, then distant flying White-collared Swifts. Grassquits were mostly Yellow-faced but there were a couple of Cuban. Woodpeckers were represented by two West Indian and a Cuban Green. A call was identified by Ricardo as a Cuban Vireo and we also heard a Cuban Trogon. But we were still after Cuban Pygmy-owls and eventually Ricardo found one, a very smart little owl indeed. Two Zenaida Doves were new.

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Ricardo Sosa - El Salton Hotel

An excellent birder, guide and linguist!

After we returned to the hotel at mid-day, and said our goodbyes to Ricardo, the weather, which had so far been warm and sunny, now turned drizzly. We spent most of the afternoon on our balcony which gave a view of the river and the forest beyond. The only new bird was a Tennessee Warbler which, unfortunately, only DF managed to see.

 

6 March 2005

We left after breakfast, having failed to change money because the hotel wasn’t allowed to. We returned to the village of Cruce de los Banos then turned south to the coast. The road is marked on the map as a white road then a thin grey line. It was fine to start with, a good quality dirt road. It passed alongside a river which held a Least Grebe and - a big surprise - a female Hooded Merganser. The Birds of Cuba lists only three records but presumably there have been more since the 1998 publication date.

The road now took a turn for the worse. It became a rocky track through the forest, only just passable by four-wheel drive - and then it crossed a river. The track continued about 100 m further down the river on the opposite side. We had to drive down the river, avoiding the large holes. We did actually stop in mid-stream to video a very close Tricolored Heron.

The track now became even worse. The previous day’s rain had left it muddy in places and our vehicle became stuck in mud. It took some nifty manoeuvring on JR’s part to get us out. And then we had to cross the river again.

This time we could not see the bottom so we just went for it. The water came over the sills but we made it.  Eventually the track improved to a reasonable dirt road, the terrain became noticeably more arid and soon we could see the sea in the distance. The track through the Sierra Maestra, though stressful, did give us some birds. We saw our third Gundlach’s Hawk, six White-collared Swifts, a male Indigo Bunting, a Scaly-naped Pigeon, as well as many more usual birds.

A stopping place above a valley just before we dropped down to the coast gave us a large mixed flock of Yellow-faced and Cuban Grassquits and a good view of a Cuban Vireo. Then we were on the south coast road heading west.

The long drive on this unbelievably empty road produced one new bird - Cuban Crow whose weird calls initially baffled us. We saw three, one of which flew over the road. We also our last flock of Cuban Grassquits, the males of which are very smart birds. Eventually we arrived at Niquero where we checked in to the Hotel Niquero, a pleasant hotel in the middle of the town where we had a good fish meal. A trip down to the docks yielded Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, a Neotropic Cormorant, Ruddy Turnstones and a Willet before an officious jobsworth told us we could not use our optical equipment in the area (there were two elderly fishing boats nearby).

 

7 March 2005

We drove towards Cabo Cruz where we had to pay a hefty 16 pesos (about 9) to get into the national park. Shortly afterwards a Common Black-hawk flew off from a telegraph pole.

Before the cape was a mangrove-edged lagoon full of birds. Commonest were Tricolored Herons and White Ibises followed by Reddish Egrets, one of which was a white phase.   We also saw our first White Ibis. Ducks were represented by American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal and waders by Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs and Short-billed (we presumed) Dowitchers. We also saw another Common Black-hawk.

We drove on to the cape where we did a little seawatching on a cliff between the village and what looked like a weather station. We saw several Magnificent Frigatebirds some distance out, Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns much closer in, but no Tropicbirds. Another jobsworth told us not to point our scopes at the weather station which may of course have been military.

 

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The headland at Cabo Cruz 
Seawatching was dissapointing but we did see Magnificant Frigatebird.

We now had to get to the Najasa area. We drove back to Niquero on to Manzanillo and towards Las Tunas. Near Vado del Jeso we stopped at some flooded rice fields which seemed to be full of birds. We estimated the Glossy Ibises to number about 750, while there were 50 White Ibises, 50 Great Egrets, 10 Greater Yellowlegs, 1 Least Sandpiper and 12 Snail Kites. Overhead flew 20 Tree Swallows, 10 Cave Swallows and 2 Barn Swallows.

We finished the day at the Hotel Camaguey, a large hotel on the outskirts of the town.

 

8 March 2005

The day began badly. We decided to change some traveller’s cheques but the hotel had no money! This left us with a problem which we would face later. Meanwhile we were on our way to the Sierra de Najasa for - we hoped - more Cuban endemics.

Just south of Najasa we encountered a near endemic - Palm Crow, calling much like a Carrion Crow and completely unlike a Cuban Crow. Later we saw both together. Just north of the village of Belen we came to a palm grove by the road. Here we saw Plain Pigeons, a flock of Cuban Parakeets, and West Indian and Cuban Green Woodpeckers.

 

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Palm trees at Najasa 
The habitat in this area was very varied.

Our destination was the home of Pedro Regalado who had been mentioned in one of the trip reports. His home was easy to find - his name is over the gate. He was very willing to show us the birds but he was not available for another two hours so we drove down the road to a cemetery which was mentioned in a trip report and which he also recommended. Here we saw more Plain Pigeons, more woodpeckers and obtained a brief look at a Giant Kingbird. Driving back to Pedro’s house two flying Cuban Parrots gave us an even briefer glimpse.

The walk with Pedro began along the road. Almost immediately we found a pair of Cuban Pygmy-owls and, after some effort, a pair of Giant Kingbirds. We then tried for Fernandina’s Flicker but failed but did get a Cuban Screech-owl in its nest-hole, two Northern Jacanas and a perched Cuban Parrot. In one small bush were a Northern Parula, a Black-and-white Warbler and a Black-throated Blue Warbler - all males. To us Brits this was mind-boggling.

14530-Pedro-400.JPG (54665 bytes) Pedro Regalado

An excellent birder, ornithologist and artist. (Also makes a great cup of tea!)

Pictured outside his home at Najasa.  Pedro plans to move house fairly soon, so don't expect to just call in on him as we did.   However you should be able to contact him at :-

Post: Apartado postal No 161,
Camaguey 1, CP 70100, Cuba.

Email: gracielala@hlg.tel.eteosa.cu or Luli@ccness.com

We left Pedro after a very welcome cup of Tetley’s tea, to begin what turned out to be a very tedious drive. The Footprint guide gave several possible hotels on our way back to Holguin. The first was just outside Guaimaro. This turned out to be a dump so we drove on. The second was just west of Las Tunas. It was signposted from the road but appeared not to exist. We drove on again. Our next port of call was Puerto Padre on the north coast. This was OK as we had the morning for some birding before we drove to Holguin and the plane home. According to the Footprint Guide the Villa Covarrubias was west of Puerto Padre but it omitted to say it was 80 km west by road! We arrived in the town after dark, discovered the hideous truth about the location of the hotel and eventually ended up in a Casa Particular. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough money to pay for it and had to part pay in sterling.

 

9 March 2005

Just east of Puerto Padre we stopped by a small stream and obtained Solitary Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, 3 Semipalmated Sandpipers and 10 Chestnut Mannikins. We were looking for the road to Playa Uvero so we could do some seawatching but we took a wrong turning and ended up by a small reservoir which held 5 very close Snail Kites. Eventually we found the right road and managed a lone Magnificent Frigatebird. On the drive to Holguin we passed a large lake just north of the town which was not marked on the map. It held quite large numbers of birds - 40 American Coot, 25 Ruddy Ducks, 5 Ring-necked Ducks, and two Caspian Terns as well as the usual herons and egrets. After getting lost in Holguin we finally made it to the airport and had an uneventful flight home.

 

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