Birding trip Cuba 4-17 March 2001

Report at   -  John van der Woude
See also:
- Itinerary, sites, GPS
- Photos of sites etc.: part 1 and part 2
- Species list

Our private birding trip on Cuba was from 4 till 17 March 2001. It was a great trip, and not only because we saw practically all the endemic bird species: 21 Cuban and another 20 Caribbean (all were lifers for the two of us), on a trip total of 145 species. We also were very impressed by the friendliness of the people, whereas their traditional music was another reason for visiting the island.
For the most part the endemics and semi-endemics of Cuba are rather striking birds, which adds to the pleasure of the hunt for them. Some are easy ticks, like Cuban Trogon and Cuban Tody, but for others we needed several hours, like for the Blue-headed Quail-Dove and the absolutely stunning Cuban Grassquit.

Following a rather classical itinerary, we first birded on our own in the pleasant wooded hills West of Havana (La Gu´ra nature park), where we got acquainted with several of the more common endemics plus the two that only occur in this part of Cuba (Cuban Solitaire and Olive-capped Warbler). We then drove on to the Zapata peninsula national park Southeast of Havana. This is a vast inland reed marsh with good surrounding lowland forest. Here we mainly birded with the preferred local guide called Chino. He produced, amongst others, stunning views of Zapata Wren and Bee Hummingbird, and we, in our turn, found him a Gundlach's Hawk nest. However, Blue-headed Quail-Dove did we not see, although we heard one calling once. After a short and mainly musical interlude in Trinidad we visited the region near Najasa, South of Camaguey, which is far East of Havana. Here we had a great day with Pedro Regalado, the local biologist, and we got all the species wanted in this very special wooded savanna-like region. Giant Kingbird and Palm Crow were the most specific ones. Moreover, Pedro tells you a lot about the ecology of the birds here. We then headed Northwest again, for the Cayo Coco island group, connected with a dam with Cuba's mainland. These beautiful keys, like the ones of Florida must have been once, is good for another five specialties (Cuban Gnatcatcher, Thick-billed Vireo, Cuban/Zapata Sparrow, Oriente Warbler, Bahama Mockingbird) and we got them all. This was without a guide but with good advice from several trip reports. I made GPS location measurements of all five spots.
At the end we had a few days in Havana, this bygone but recovering Paris of the Caribbean, together with relatives from Curacao. On one of these days we left town in order to make a stroll in the wooded hills of Soroa, to the West of Havana. From a 1995 trip report I had learned that Blue-headed Quail-Dove was seen here and we had a faint hope that we might get it here after we had failed to see it on Zapata. We found a nice forest trail, heard the bird after two minutes, and to our utmost relief we got good views of this difficult but beautiful dove.
We found travelling on Cuba easier than expected. We pre-booked the rental car and got a new one, and pre-booked only the first night after we would arrive in Havana. For nearly all the other nights we stayed in casas particulares (private rooms), which we could easily find and where we also had good meals (we also brought lots of muesli bars etc.). Often 20 US$ per night per room, and 8 US$ pp for the meal.

The roads are good and rather empty apart from horse carts, old timers, and some trucks. Finding gasoline was no problem. This, like anything of any value (like spa's, sodas and their good beer), is for sale in dollars and we did not use Cuban pesos at all. On the other hand, with pesos you will be able to have pizzas (lunch) that are sold from windows here and there in the somewhat bigger towns.

Bring all the dollars you need, not much chance to change. We found the expected formalities virtually non-existent for us as tourists, neither at the customs nor along the road.

Birding by public transport would be very hard on Cuba. Cycling may be an option if you have plenty of time and don't go to all the birding sites.
Finding the two local guides was no problem, they are well-known in their villages. Apart from these 3 days with them we did not use other guides.

There is a field guide specially for Cuba now (by Garrido and Kirkconnell), separately issued in the americas and in Europe (Helm). For general info we used the Lonely Planet guide. Use this also to have an indicatioon of the cost and hence the amount of dollars to bring with you.

We brought lots of small presents, and they were not difficult to give away to the Cubans. And yet, despite their relative poverty, I have rarely seen a more cheerful and friendly people.