10 - 18 April 1998
by Richard Knapton
"Isn't that an owl sitting up there, at the top of that tree?" We were birding in the cool mountain country of western Cuba, in pine forest in La Guira National Park. We had just searched successfully for Cuban Solitaire and were turning our attention to Olive-capped Warblers flitting high in the canopy, when Jack called out to us about an owl he'd spotted. Yes, it certainly was - it was a Stygian Owl! We gathered beneath the tree watching the bird as it nonchalantly preened itself, when Linda spotted another one close by which was watching us warily. We soon had full-scope views of this impressive bird - but the fact is that these two were number 2 and 3 Stygian Owls - we had already had exceptional views of one a few days previously at Santa Tomas in the Zapata Region, located by a local guide, Orestes Martinez (El Chino), one of several excellent and highly skilled naturalists/biologists with whom we interacted during our week in Cuba.
We had a very fine time in Cuba. Birding was for the most part splendid, occasionally exasperating as we all experienced close calls with quail-doves, and Gundlach's Hawk eluded all but a lucky few. Sometimes things did not go as smoothly as we would have liked - a delay here, lack of resources there, and so on - but in total we did well and our Cuban hosts did their best.
We arrived at Varadero Airport at mid-morning and met our guides, Eduardo our in-country guide, Vladimiro our bus driver and especially Arturo, among the most eminent ornithologists and field biologists in the country. We drove south away from the north coast across the island (passing through Cardenas which has a monument to a bicycle) to our destination for the first part of our trip, the Zapata peninsula region, and our lodge at Playa Larga. After settling in, we went to a location of secondary woodlands and overgrown trails for our first exposure to Cuban birds - the amazing Cuban Trogon, which proved to be surprisingly common, the Cuban Tody, surely one of the most endearing of birds, Great Lizard Cuckoos, Black-whiskered Vireos seemingly everywhere, good views of Cuban Parrot, a species we were to see encouragingly often during our stay, lots of Cuban Emeralds, and a sprinkling of neotropical warblers - Prairie, Palm, Black-and-white, American Redstart, Ovenbird. Pretty good start to the trip!
The next day we set off for the small community of Bermaja, about 30 km away, and hiked into a wonderful area of Sabal Palms. We had barely got off the bus when a flock of Cuban Parakeets swept in and perched conspicuously for all to see. Our target bird was Fernandina's Flicker, an increasingly uncommon species - and with Arturo's skill and knowledge, we located a nesting pair of these woodpeckers. West Indian Woodpeckers were here as well, along with more Cuban Parrots and Cuban Trogons, and the Cuban race of the Northern Flicker. Yellow-headed Warblers, endemic to western Cuba, were everywhere, it seemed. Scratching on a palm with a woodpecker hole produced a Bare-legged Owl, which sat at the entrance to its nest-hole for everyone to see at leisure. After a siesta at a beach resort close by, we went to a trail which we were to hike a few times on the trip - partly overgrown, leading through secondary forest with patches of mature trees still present. Arturo knew of a Gundlach's Hawk nest along the trail - as we walked along the trail, we disturbed a Gundlach's Hawk as it perched close by, and it flew away with only a few lucky birders at the front glimpsing it. We were not to encounter this species again, and Arturo felt that the nest had been abandoned. Our return hike however turned up one of the highlights of the entire trip; we found a Cuban Pygmy Owl sitting out in the open, being mobbed by Cuban Vireos and Cuban Emeralds, when what should suddenly appear but a Bee Hummingbird which proceeded to mob the owl and then perch on an exposed branch right in front of us!
We revisited the trail the next morning, with no luck at seeing Gundlach's Hawk, so we had to be content with excellent views of Cuban Green Woodpecker, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Lizard-Cuckoo, and other widespread species. In the afternoon, for a change of pace, we visited Los Canalles, an area of canals, mud flats and rice fields, where egrets, herons, Glossy Ibis and Fulvous Whistling-ducks were common, and there were local concentrations of shorebirds - Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, both yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, and a handful of Stilt Sandpipers, Northern Jacanas and Solitary Sandpipers. Notable by its absence was Snail Kite - we were not to find this species, and it evidently has not recovered from hurricanes in the mid-1990s. Another of our target species was Red-shouldered Blackbird, formerly a subspecies of Red-winged Blackbird but now a distinct species and thought to be more closely related to Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. It was Arturo's work on populations of Red-shouldered Blackbird which showed its true taxonomic status. We went to a spot where Arturo had seen the bird previously, and after searching through dozens of Shiny Cowbirds we finally located a male which put on a fine show for us.
The next day was the fabled trek into the Zapata Swamp itself. Up early, we set off for Santo Tomas and met El Chino who was our guide for the morning. A bit of tramping through ankle-high water (sometimes thigh-high for some!) brought us out into a saw-grass marsh, and after a little searching (and tape-playing) we had excellent views of Zapata Wren, well worth the slog through the marsh, and this was followed shortly thereafter by even better views of Zapata Sparrow, a truly handsome bird! The only rails we heard were Sora and King Rail - no Zapata Rail today! After leaving the swamp, El Chino took us to where a Greater Antillean Nightjar was nesting, for spectacular views of this elusive nocturnal species, and then to where a Stygian Owl was roosting, for more spectacular views! A search through the dry forest beside the swamp was somewhat frustrating as Gray-headed Quail-doves remained furtive and difficult to see, but the morning was an unqualified success! In the afternoon, for another change of pace, we headed for the south shore of the Zapata Peninsula to bird the mangrove shorelines and tidal flats. Birding was quite slow, but we encountered over 100 Greater Flamingos, as well as White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, herons and egrets including Reddish, and several Common Black Hawks of the distinctive Cuban race. However, as we were traveling back, Sylvia, who'd not been feeling very well, spotted four waterfowl in a pond beside the road - we stopped, backed up, and - yes - four West Indian Whistling-Ducks! Splendid views, and special thanks to Sylvia!
The next day we targeted quail-doves, with varying success. A fortunate few had good luck with Gray-headed Quail-Dove, another group had excellent looks at Key West Quail-Doves, but the birds remained furtive and elusive. The morning was rescued by Arturo, who found a pair of Cuban Grassquits after much searching, and we all enjoyed leisurely looks at this quite spectacular species, and one becoming increasingly uncommon at least in western Cuba. Off to Havana on the next day, stopping at a Crocodile Farm en route, where the endemic and endangered Cuban Crocodile was being raised. We took a boat ride along a canal to Laguna de Tesoro and then to a Taino Indian Village on an island in the lake; usually Snail Kites abound in the area, but - none today - the effects of the hurricanes have long-lasting effects! Our last full day was spent in the cool mountains west of Havana in Pinar del Rio province at La Guira National Park. On the way there we stopped to watch "Eastern" Meadowlarks - the song of these meadowlarks sounds rich and fluty, much more reminiscent of Western Meadowlark, and the young also have a different plumage than mainland populations. The taxonomy of Cuban birds is still in a state of flux! We drove into the park and went up into the pine forests on top of the "mountains" (actually only 800 metres high). The notes of Cuban Solitaires drifted in from surrounding woodlands, and after a short hike we found one, singing its remarkable song from an exposed perch, and we all managed pretty decent views. Hiking back to where the bus was parked, we found several Olive-capped Warblers, and Jack found the Stygian Owl. Stripe-headed Tanagers foraged in the tops of the pines, and a Red-legged Honeycreeper added a splash of colour. Arturo tracked down a Ruddy Quail-Dove as it sang from a branch, and several of us had excellent views of this sometimes difficult-to-see species. However, despite everyone's best efforts, the enigmatic Blue-headed Quail-Dove eluded everyone but Arturo. Such is birding!
We arrived back in Havana with some time to spare for looking around
the city - and John got a new bird right in the old town - Antillean
Swift! And so our tour ended - excellent views of almost all
endemics and near-endemics, and some quite difficult-to-find species;
all, three owl species in broad daylight is darned good!