Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cuba: February 14-20

Last weekend Lillian and I got back from a nice and relaxing week in Cuba, at an all inclusive resort on Cayo Santa Maria. It was my first time to Cuba and at an all-inclusive resort. All in all we had a great time and managed to do quite a bit of birding while there too, which was awesome; I'm sure I don't have to explain the pluses of birding somewhere hot vs. -20 C...

We stayed on Cayo Santa Maria; our hotel, the Eurostars, was situated roughly at the end of a 48km causeway. The habitat was predominated by extensive mangroves as well as dense scrub-forest along an elevated ridge overlaid by limestone (very similar to our alvars in Canada). As one would expect, the causeway took a while to complete (finished in 1999; took 10 years), and the area has only been very recently explored, specifically from an ornithological standpoint. Having said this, the area is very remote, and the causeway itself is a controlled access-point (only tourists, researchers and people working at the resorts are  allowed access). I did a fair bit of studying ahead of time (Birds of Cuba, Birds of the Caribbean and song identifications), as I wanted to maximize my birding, especially as I knew a fair bit of birding would be done by ear, particularly in the dense foliage.

Anyways this is a pretty brief synopsis of the area; below is a day-by-day summary of what we did, saw, etc. All the pics were taken by Lillian (I need to get a good camera).

Day 1: Saturday February 14th
We left on Friday the 13th, only getting to our hotel late in the evening. Our first day here, we mostly explored the resort and started to check areas off the resort. Our resort was pretty big (~800 rooms) and about 1km from end to end. I quickly found some areas close by our room that allowed birding opportunities, as well as getting off the resort.
Western Spindalis in the centre; were quite common in the resort area
I quickly got acquainted with a few of the more common species of the resort: Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Emerald, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Cuban Pewee, etc.

Looking west, from the Refugio towards the sewage lagoon and resorts in the background.

eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22002097

Day 2: Sunday February 15th
After having spent the previous day mostly lounging, I was antsy to explore and get in some good birding. Before breakfast, I walked around the resort, finding several nice, tropical species; Painted Bunting, Common Ground-Doves, Zenaida Dove, lots of warblers, and best of all, by far, a Cuban Gnatcatcher; a very rare species for the area. The bird was singing, in seemingly good habitat, and I later had the same bird a few days later (when I checked back).

After breakfast, we started walking from the resort to the park nearby; Refugio de fauna Cayo Santa Maria. Just as we were almost off the resort, Lill spotted a bird not too far off the ground; an Eastern Phoebe! Cool...! Turns out though, this is only the 8th record for Cuba (r records listed in Birds of Cuba, plus 2 in eBird)! Sweet!

After leaving the EAPH, we walked the 2km to the park and then a pretty cool trail about a kilometre from the entrance and then back. Looking back, this was kind of a crazy day, simply put because if we were in Ontario the equivalent rarities would've been a crazy day. We had amazing luck; not only did we see lots of common and interesting birds, but we found several rarities for the area. Walking over to the park I spotted a Pectoral Sandpiper amongst a flock of Lesser Yellowlegs. Turns out this is only the 2nd record for Cayo Santa Maria and as far as I can tell the only 'winter' record for the species on Cuba (spring migrant?). More bizarre though, was the fact that JV saw, likely this same individual on the 21st!

Getting into to the park though, and walking the trail we saw lots more cool species; our first Cuban Bullfinches, lots of White-eyed Vireos, the Cuban race of Osprey, and best of all; a Key West Quail-Dove, Greater Antillean Nightjar (huge!), and the other really good rarity of our trip, a Thick-billed Vireo singing away near the trail entrance. I'm not really sure of how many records there are here (none?), but as the bird flies, its less than 20km from a known breeding area on Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo.

The trail in the refugio
Lots of Spanish Moss throughout.
Very alvar like habitat
A Cuban Bullfinch way back in there.
One of the many termite mounds through the scrub-forest.
After our pretty damn productive day, we called her quits and sat by the ocean sipping some nice rum-punch!

eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22002517

Day 3: Monday February 16th
This was undoubtedly our highlight of the trip; we took a day trip to the Central Mountains; essentially across the peninsula, close to the city of Trinidad. We got up nice and early, and after waiting for our bus, which was 45 minutes late, boarded and were on our way (left at 08:20). It was a really cool drive, as pretty much all of our drive to the resort on the 13th had been in the dark. On our drive (3 hours one way) we saw lots: Antillean Palm-Swift, Cuban Blackbird, the Cuban races of American Kestrel (pretty cool), Helmeted Guineafowl, and Smooth-billed Ani's among many others.
'Typical' country-side scenery.
After a few dozen switch-backs and 2 stops for the puking guy, we finally arrived. Needless to say it was pretty cool drive (luckily we weren't sick!). The park, Guanayara Park, within Topes de Collantes, was awesome! Breath-taking vistas and great birding all around. It was really fun walking through the jungle, seeing new species, as well as other species we normally don't see until the summer.



We saw lots of really cool species, and given the location and habitat we had lots of new species for the trip: Cuban Green Woodpecker, West Indian Woodpecker, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Tody (my favourite), Cuban Parrot, a flock of Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, lots of warblers (had 8 Louisiana Waterthrushes!), and a heard only Cuban Trogon.

A shade grown coffee plantation.
Undoubtedly, the coolest bird species we saw: Cuban Tody
After our 4km hike through the bush and a nice swim, we had the long drive back; another 3 hours, with most during the dark, however, I still managed to see a fair bit before dark.

eBird checklist of the day: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22004286

Day 4: Tuesday February 17th
We took this day to relax a fair bit, after our pretty busy day. We had wanted to rent a scooter for the morning to head back to the refugio, but weren't able to until in the afternoon; however, this led us to find the sewage lagoon, just a few minutes from the resort. Needless to say, I was excited! My very own Cuban sewage lagoon. Lots shorebirds and waterfowl were present: Black-necked Stilts, Short-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Blue-winged Teal, among some other interesting species; a calling Clapper Rail, Cuban Black Hawk, and tonnes of herons and egrets!

Black-necked Stilts, Willets, Roseate Spoonbills among many other birds at the lagoons. Note lower water levels were to the left, not on the pic.
Prairie Warblers were pretty common in the scrub everywhere.
Least Sandpipers really liked the low water areas.
Lots of herons nearby.
Cuban Black Hawk were relatively common in the area of our resort.
eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22005636

Day 5: Wednesday February 18th
We took it easy this day (I guess we took it easy everyday...we were on vacation!); however, I got up nice and early for sunrise and did some good birding along the main road, as well as checking out the lagoons. Here I had some good stuff: the same Cuban Gnatcatcher, a heard only Great Lizard-Cuckoo, my first good views of Cuban Vireo, as well as finding some Stilt Sandpipers and a Yellow-throated Vireo (I think this is fairly rare in winter here). Definitely the birds of the day seemed to be Gray Catbird and Palm Warblers (sounds like Pelee/LP in May!).
Lillian standing beside some huge Yucca!
A Gulf Fritillary; we saw a few species of butterflies (the only other species we saw that I knew was Common Buckeye).
The beach from our resort.
Late in the day, after the rain went through, it was evident that a pretty large cold front had gone through. Temperatures dropped from about 30 to 21 C. Unfortunately we didn't witness any thunder or lightning!

eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22005782

Day 5: Thursday February 19th
We took a pretty laid-back way to the day; again we were hoping to rent a scooter, but had no luck (I guess that's Cuba for you). Instead we went to the market to get some souvenirs. Walking back from the market we had our first Gundlach's Hawk fly over. Getting back to the resort, we decided to walk into the park. On our way over (it's 2km to the entrance) we decided we might as well walk the entire road length while in the park (6km) as who know's when we'll be in the Cuba again. Needless to say we were a bit tired and thirsty, but it was pretty cool. We saw another Gundlach's Hawk, and had great views of a Great Lizard-Cuckoo, as well as our first White-winged Dove. Getting to the very end of the road was neat; the area gave way to extensive mangrove swamp, with a wide beach (it was low tide). I didn't bring my scope with me to Cuba, but it was here that I really wished I had - lots of shorebirds were out on the flats (I could really only ID Willets), as well as herons and cormorants.


Great Lizard-Cuckoo - these guys are pretty cool; think Yellow-billed Cuckoo on human growth-hormone

Cuban Black Hawks seemed to like this habitat.
I was hoping for Mangrove Cuckoo's here, but no dice.

eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22006175

Day 6: Friday February 20th
Our last day in Cuba. Fortunately we had a later flight, and had the morning to check things out before we needed to get our bus to the airport. I got up early and checked things out. This day seemed very windy (>50km/hr) and cooler (~20 C); it was evident getting to the sewage lagoons that gulls and terns were in higher numbers than I had seen recently. Checking the lagoon out I noticed 2 American Avocets, a pretty rare bird or Cuba (5 records listed in birds of Cuba; 26 records in eBird), as well as my lifer Sandwich Tern! I hadn't really thought I had a chance for either species so it was nice to be proven wrong! It was also cool to see so many Black-necked Stilts - I estimated 425 in the lagoons!

After lunch we packed up and hopped on our bus. With just another hour of time in Cuba, I managed a few more species on our ride back to the airport: Anhinga and Eurasian Collared-Dove. All in all, it was a great trip; I'm really looking forward to going back as well as exploring the Caribbean/Tropics further!

Lizard sp. - I need to ID this; in total we saw about 4 species that I could tell.
Cuban Pewee's were fairly common throughout.
Crested Caracara were uncommon where we were.
eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22006330

Trip species list: 115 species

3 comments:

  1. Great post Ken. Your lizard looks good for Leiocephalus stictigaster.

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    1. I agree with Michael on the ID. You may have also seen L. carinatus at some point, which is what people refer to as the "Curly-tailed Lizard" - they are quite common in somewhat disturbed areas especially.

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    2. Hey guys!

      Thanks, yeah, looks good for L. stictigaster. I don't think we saw L. carinatus. I think we saw 1/2 other species, but don't have photos.

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