The delightful Bee Hummingbird, a Cuban endemic and the world’s smallest bird. Photo: Stuart Elsom
Cuba is attracting a lot of attention these days from the tourists eager to sample its tropical beaches and the salsa bars of Havana. However for birdwatchers the attractions of this, the largest of the Caribbean islands, extend far beyond the tourist hotspots to the fantastic wildlife and, in particular, the array of endemic birds to be found there.
Cuba remains a timeless, sleepy, tropical island with pleasing contrasts of golden beaches, dense forests, and rolling hills. It is also blessed with a unique avifauna, being home to more than twenty endemics, and it has achieved ornithological fame as the last possible refuge of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In addition to the island’s endemic species there are also a number of Caribbean specialities and distinctive races of mainland forms - and of course it is the only place to see the smallest bird in the world, the delightful Bee Hummingbird. Our tour is designed to offer the best chance of seeing the majority of the endemics and is also timed to coincide with the remaining wintering North American species and passage birds on spring migration.
Day 1: The tour will start with a flight from London to Havana. On arrival we’ll be met by our local guide and transferred to our hotel in the foothills of the 22,000 hectare La Güira National Park. Night in San Diego de los Baños.
Day 2: Western Cuba is blessed with some of the most spectacular scenery on the island. The Cuban national tree, the Royal Palm, is everywhere and gardens grow bananas and other fruits in abundance. This is also an area of tobacco estates and rice plantations. We’ll spend the day getting a feel for Cuba’s varied bird life and more specifically finding three species we won’t see anywhere else. Around Cueva Los Portales is the place to find Cuban Solitaire, an endemic bird of limestone country with a remarkable song. Back nearer our hotel is an area of scrub which is the best place to find the charming Cuban Grassquit. Around nearby Hacienda Cortina, an abandoned colonial estate, there is a lush mix of tropical forest, interspersed with small stands of pine which is home to many species including several endemics such as Cuban Trogon, Cuban Oriole and Cuban Tody. The near-endemic Olive-capped Warbler is here and we also expect to see Scaly-naped Pigeon, Western Spindalis and a variety of woodpeckers and warblers. Late afternoon we will pay the first of two visits to a roadside lake which can be very productive for ducks such as Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck and Ruddy Duck, as well as Belted Kingfisher, gulls, terns and pelicans. Night near Havana.
Day 3: Before breakfast we’ll return to the lake to check for any species not found yesterday. After breakfast we leave the western part of Cuba and we’ll drive to the cays off the North coast. Although primarily a travel day we’ll have birding stops enroute as we head east. We hope to arrive on Cayo Coco Island in the early afternoon, seeing our first Magnificent Frigatebirds whilst after crossing the 17-kilometre causeway from the mainland. Night in Cayo Coco.
Day 4: On Cayo Coco and adjacent cays, we’ll spend our time birding the mangrove areas in this delightful coastal location searching for such specialities as Cuban Sparrow, a threatened and localised endemic, Oriente Warbler, Key West Quail-Dove, Thick-billed Vireo, Bahama Mockingbird and Cuban Gnatcatcher, as well as the specialist crab-feeder, Cuban Black-hawk. Waterbirds such as American Flamingo, Magnificent Frigatebird, Anhinga, Tricolored Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, and a variety of waders which could include Stilt and Semipalmated Sandpiper and perhaps both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. We also have a good chance here of seeing West Indian Whistling-Duck. Night in Cayo Coco.
Day 5: We’ll have an early breakfast followed by more birding on Cayo Coco in the morning to catch up on any species we may have missed yesterday. Leaving the coast, we’ll drive to Camaguey, our base for exploring the bird-rich forests around Sierra de Najasa. We’ll stop along the way to give ourselves a chance to search some grassy fields where we should get superb views of Eastern Meadowlark and an assortment of hirundines including Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Night in Camaguey.
Day 6: Today is spent at La Belen, a reserve in rich woodland and savannah where we’ll look for one of the scarcer endemics – Giant Kingbird – and we’ll also seek out other special birds of the area including Plain Pigeon, Palm and Cuban Crows, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Parakeet, and Cuban Parrot. This is a superb area to find other endemic birds such as Fernandina’s Flicker and Cuban Trogon; this is also one of the best places to see one of Cuba’s rarest and most secretive of birds, Gundlach’s Hawk. There are also many warblers and orioles here and a small lake provides variety with waterbirds including Northern Jacana, a selection of waders and Belted Kingfisher. Night at Camaguey.
Day 7: After breakfast, we’ll set off for the Zapata Swamp, around 4 hours away. There will be some stops along the way and we should arrive in time for some late afternoon birding around our accommodation in Playa Larga, right on the beach in the Bay of Pigs.
Days 8-10: The Zapata Swamp is Cuba’s most prolific birding region and contains the largest wetland complex in the West Indies. Here excellent local guides will escort us through protected areas and to locations off the beaten track. This is a fantastic area for birds and should be the ornithological highlight of the tour. It is here that we’ll look for species such as Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Screech-Owl and the world’s smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird, a real avian gem, as well as completing our list of endemics with Yellow-headed Warbler and Cuban Vireo. Quail-Doves are also well represented here and include Ruddy, Key West, Grey-fronted and the sensational endemic, Blue-headed, though these shy forest creatures are never easy to see. We’ll also explore the area’s vast network of waterways looking for Limpkin and Green Heron, although our main aim will be to catch site of the rarely seen Zapata Wren, which occurs nowhere else in the world. After our evening meal we’ll be able to search trees in the garden with a spotlight looking for the superb Stygian Owl and the Greater Antillean Nightjar. A very early start on one day will be followed by a morning walk along a dry roadway in the swamp at La Turba, reminiscent of the Everglades, where we’ll have a chance of finding Cuban Blackbird, Zapata Wren, and Red-shouldered and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds among others. One afternoon we’ll head for Las Salinas Wildlife Refuge to look for a variety of waterbirds such as Reddish Egrets, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and flamingos, as well as endemic Cuban Black-Hawks and possibly Black Skimmers. Night in Playa Larga.
Day 11: After a final morning birding in the area we’ll travel back to Havana, arriving in time for a brief coach tour of the landmarks in the newer part of the city. Night in Havana.
Day 12: In the morning we’ll have a guided tour of the old historic city of Havana followed by some free time followed by lunch at a restaurant overlooking Cathedral Square where we can sit back, relax and watch the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Havana. In the late afternoon we’ll take the short bus journey to the airport in time to catch our flight back to London where the tour ends on Day 13.
Updated: 05 February 2016