A birdwatching holiday in search of Cuba's endemic birds.

Birding Cuba

Tuesday 4th - Friday 14th February 2020

Cuba is a fascinating country rich in nature, history, culture and boasts a unique political situation during the last 65 years. It is the largest island on the Caribbean with a territory of 110 thousand sq km (43 thousand square miles), including more than 4 000 islands. The island has various and very different looking habitats - from the high mountains on the east side to the beautiful Vinales on the west side, vast lowlands, a few wetlands, forests, savanna like grasslands and endless beautiful sandy beaches. Despite the variety of habitats, most of which are well preserved, the number of bird species recorded is relatively small at 371 so far. However, quantity does not always reflect quality and here in Cuba quality abounds. Of them 155 breeds on the island, which will be about the number we see on our visit - 150 to 160 species approximately. However, amongst them there are 26 endemic species (sadly, one of these is now extinct - the beautiful Cuban Macaw) and we will target all of them except the impossible and nearly mythical Cuban Kite and Zapata Rail. Some are scattered through the island, some are widespread, but be in no doubt some are the greatest gems to be seen in the birding world. Cuba is a home to the smallest bird in the world - the Bee Hummingbird at only 6 cm long. The Cuban Tody is another one, slightly bigger, but again a real beauty and it is wonderful that it can be seen all over the country. The same can be said for the national bird - the Cuban Trogon. The two endemic and beautiful quail-dove however are rare and need early starts and being in the right location in order to see them. The most difficult species are found in the vast Zapata peninsula, often wrongly called wetland. Although large parts of it are wet, there are also dry grasslands and forests. Here is found the most difficult endemic possible to be seen - the elusive Zapata Wren. Beside the birds, which are the main target we will definitely see, feel and experience the unique lifestyle of the Cuban people and the way things work in this country. Despite the hardship of the daily life, the people of Cuba are very friendly, relaxed, and extremely positive, readily extending a warm welcome to visiting foreigners.
After being three times in Cuba so far, we have decided to change the classical itinerary a bit, by not visiting the La Belen site in the east. The reasons are that it is a long way to this place, which despite quiet and beautiful needs more than a day drive in total and in fact the only species we will miss is the Giant Kingbird. However, the two days we will save here we will devote extra day at Cayo Coco, extra night at the beautiful Trinidad and in between to a wonderful forest hill we have discovered last year, full of warblers.

We will be staying in state owned hotels and good quality sea resorts as well as in private houses (casa particulares). This is the only way to feel, enjoy and understand the current life in Cuba.

ITINERARY

Day 1
Arrival at Havana airport in the early evening, followed by less than two hours drive that takes us to the beautiful Vinales valley, in Pinar del Rio province, west of the capital. Stay overnight for two nights.

Day 2 Very short drive will bring us to the nearest national park and we will take a short walk into it. This is one of the best places to see the endemic Cuban Solitaire - it is not that rare but it is not easily seen, even after we understand its location by its gentle and somewhat sad song, it might take some time to really see the bird. There will be other endemic woodland birds such as Cuban Vireo, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Grassquit and Cuban Tody as well as many other different birds - Western Spindalis, warblers on migration, Yellow-faced Grassquit, plus many more. Broad-winged Hawk is found here as well as the very rare and endemic Gundlach's Hawk, while Turkey Vultures are virtually everywhere. We will spend the morning here and after lunch will visit a different woodland nearby where we will look for Olive-capped Warbler, which is only found among pine trees. Other warblers will be seen too and there is a small reservoir which will bring wetland birds to the day list.

Day 3  Early morning birding for species we might have missed the previous day, followed by a long transfer to Cayo Coco Island which will take most of the day. However, we will break the journey with a few stops. Accommodation for three nights in beach resort.

Days 4 and 5 The island of Cayo Coco boasts some of the finest and most beautiful beaches in Cuba and probably in the whole of Caribbean. We will definitely take advantage of them during the day, but first thing in the morning will be to look for the local specialities - Cuban Gnatcatcher, Thick-billed Vireo, Oriente Warbler, Bahama Mockingbird and West Indian Whistling Duck. The vegetation will reveal many different warblers on migration, while the wetlands and coast sustain large numbers of flamingos, waders, rails, herons, pelicans, gulls and terns.

Day 6  We will pack and set off to Trinidad but most of the day we will spend in a forest hill one hour drive from Cayo Coco. Last time the whole site was full of wintering and migrating warblers and many other resident species. Late in the afternoon we will continue to the beautiful Trinidad, a very special place, listed in UNESCO World Heritage List. After we check in, we will have a walk at the streets full of history and atmosphere and have dinner in one of the open air restaurants, listening Cuban music. Stay overnight for one night.

Day 7 In the morning we will go birding on the Caribbean sea and some small wetlands nearby, then we will head to Zapata, but will arrive in the evening as will check few birding spots on the way. For the next four nights we will stay in private house where we can feel the real spirit of the Cuban life.

Days 8 to 10 We have three full days to explore the Zapata - It is not a swamp as it is normally called but a vast peninsula consisting of different habitats - marshland, Salinas, mangrove forests, tidal areas, dense woodlands and savanna like grasslands. A great number of birds are found here including most of the endemics - Bee Hummingbird, both Blue-headed and Grey-headed Quail-doves, Cuban Parakeet, Fernandina's Flicker, Pygmy and Screech Owl, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Oriole, Cuban Red-winged Blackbird, Cuban Black Hawk and the most elusive of all - the Zapata Wren. Big numbers of non-endemic but equally beautiful and attractive birds are found here - Cuban Parrot has its stronghold in Zapata and some large flocks can be seen outside the breeding season, numerous warblers can be seen in the area. The very beautiful Las Salinas will reveal a great number of waders, herons and flamingos, gulls and terns and many other species are possible as it is the migration time. The Magnificent Frigate birds soar in the distance and in the evening when we return we might see Cuban Nightjars foraging along the road.

Day 11 We have about three hours transfer to Havana for our return flight and we have options to do some more birding in the morning or spend few hours in the beautiful old Havana town which is full of colonial buildings, museums and fortresses and inevitably tourists. Departure in the evening and we shall arrive home next morning, hopefully with many memorable moments in this fascinating country along with a quality bird list.


TOUR MAP

Photo and video gallery