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Cuba:  11 - 22 February 1999
Jamaica: 22 - 25 February 1999

by Gail Mackiernan

In February, Barry and I decided to get away from the winter's cold and revisit the Lower Latitudes, as Jimmy Buffett recommends -- to pursue sun, sand, warmth and Caribbean birds.


Cuba is almost a mythical destination for American birders, because of legal and logistical entanglements, but it possesses some of the region's most intriguing endemics. Jamaica would be a familiar destination (we birded it in 1995) but we still had a few species to catch up with.

Luckily, there were organised Cuban birding trips for early 1999 and we were anxious to sign on. Our leaders for the trip would be Arturo Kirkconnell, one of Cuba's foremost ornithologists, and Guy Kirwan, editor of Cotinga.  Jamaica we would do on our own, staying at two sites new to us.

Travel to Cuba from the USA involves going through another country. Because of the embargo, US citizens are not allowed to spend dollars there and (because all tourist transactions are in dollars), this presents a significant problem. I simply let Barry, who is a UK citizen, deal with the money issues. We arranged travel through Jamaica: direct Air Jamaica flights from Baltimore to Montego Bay, picking up our already-reserved tickets to Havana there, and stepping aboard the Air Jamaica flight two hours later.

February 11:

We left Baltimore at dawn on a cold windy day, and two and a half hours later, were enjoying the sight of Jamaica's blue-green mountains and turquoise sea beneath the plane's wings. Lots of champagne en route added to everyone's festive mood! While waiting for our next flight, we scoped the little marsh next to the runway and found a Reddish Egret amongst more common waders.

The short flight to Havana left a bit late -- I was interested that about half the passengers were Americans. The flight path seemed to be over miles and miles of flat country covered with sugarcane fields, not a very promising sight. Columns of smoke from burning canefields were also ominous. But the coastline looked wonderful -- long white beaches and no development.

We landed at Jose Marti airport -- a new, very modern and clean facility -- and hurried to Customs. We had been expecting a long process, but we zipped through in 15 minutes (the agents, by the way, do not stamp your passport), located our luggage, and then looked for our scheduled transport to the hotel. This was a bit difficult as the Cubatur contact was holding a sign for another birding tour company! We finally figured out that he must mean us, and eventually were comfortably in a taxi en route to the Hotel Capri in downtown Havana. The driver spoke some English and I have some Spanish, so we got a bit of a tour into town. Traffic was moderate, and we saw the first of the many 1950s vintage US cars which tool the roadways of Cuba

The Hotel Capri is a place which has most definitely seen better days. While the lobby was okay, our room was shabby and ill-kept, the plumbing in extremis. We thought that this would prove typical of Cuban hotels, but actually the Capri was by far the worst. Not a good introduction for tourists. While we were checking in, we met three others of our group -- Frank Murphy, Scott Marshall and Louise Augustine. Scott and Louise had just returned from a local walk, and they had gripped us on several new birds. Only Francis Lenski and Guy Kirwan were not yet there.

By now it was late afternoon, but we all decided to take another walk in the neighborhood. We located the well-known Coppelia ice-cream restaurant, which is surrounded by a wooded park, now too busy for birds -- we would try in the the morning before leaving for points south. We ended our first day in Cuba with a beer at the "21 Club" across the street, and a surprisingly good dinner in the hotel restaurant.

February 12:

This was the first official day of the trip. We all met early in the lobby -- Fran had arrived very late the evening before but was raring to go -- and Guy was still missing in action. We speculated he might have spent the night with a Cuban friend. Cubatur was going to be there at 8:30 with our bus and driver, so we had about two hours to ourselves.  We decided to walk to the Coppelia park, and it proved a good move. In short order we saw TAWNY-SHOULDERED BLACKBIRDS (roosting in palm trees), CUBAN BLACKBIRDS, a single CUBAN EMERALD and several WESTERN REG-LEGGED THRUSHES (the latter look very different from the R-L Thrushes of the Bahamas or Puerto Rico). We also got some rather unsatisfactory looks at LESSER ANTILLEAN PALM SWIFT. Also present were many "urban" Palm Warblers, Northern Mockingbirds and the inevitable House Sparrows.

We hurried back to breakfast, and then packed our bags for the journey to Zapata. Promptly at 8:30, the bus arrived with Ramón, our driver, as well as Ricardo and Carlos, Cubatur employees. However, Guy had still not arrived, nor had anyone heard from him. At 9:45, we threatened to go on alone and rely on Arturo, whom we were to meet at Zapata Swamp, if Guy didn't show by 10 (we were a tough lot!) Luckily we didn't need to make good on our threat -- at 9:59, a taxi pulled up and out stepped an apologetic Guy Kirwan -- he had been trying to get a taxi for two hours from his friend's home in a Havana suburb!

All together at last, we started on our adventure. Carlos would accompany us throughout to resolve logistical problems along the way. First winding our way through the decaying but still lovely buildings of Old Havana, then onto the almost vacant Autopista south. We drove for 2 hours or more through agricultural areas where plows are pulled by oxen and the chief means of transport is the bicycle or the horse. We also passed through miles of fine orchards -- mangoes, oranges, grapefruits. There was a surprising amount of undeveloped habitat, much obviously second growth but still far more than expected. The most common birds en route were Turkey Vultures and Cattle Egrets.

We stopped for drinks at a roadside stand -- the only new bird added was YELLOWFACED GRASSQUIT.  They also had an Indigo Bunting in a cage. Louise and I discovered that one is expected to buy toilet tissue from the woman who guards the baños. Finally we turned onto a side road at a large sign advertising the Zapata Peninsula, drove for a while, and pulled into the parking lot of large tourist attraction -- La Boca Crocodile Farm. There were a number of shops and a restaurant, our late-lunch spot. The farm itself was supposedly excellent for birds. We sat down to a nice lunch (choices of fish, chicken or pork -- which we encountered everywhere), and then gathered to do some birding.

Right outside the entrance to the croc farm was a bottlebrush tree in full bloom. It in turn was filled with BLACK-COWLED ORIOLES and Cuban Blackbirds sipping the nectar, as well as a number of familiar faces -- Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Palm and Yellowthroated Warblers, a Gray Catbird. Northern Waterthrushes competed with GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLES and other blackbirds on the lawn. Several CUBAN CROWS, which look like generic crows but which (like their Jamaican brethren) emit a strange variety of jabbering, liquid notes, were sitting in the large trees outside the restaurant. We entered the park, which had a lot of good habitat (trees, brush and weedy ponds) and soon found ourselves gazing at WEST INDIAN WOODPECKERS, CRESCENT-EYED PEWEES and most exciting, two CUBAN PARROTS eating fruit in a tree. They are really beautiful birds -- and we never saw them as well as on this first day. I made a first effort at videoing some of the endemic species.

Other species seen included ZENAIDA DOVE, PURPLE GALLINULE, Green Heron, American Kestrel, Common Yellowthroat, Redstart, Black-and-White and Parula Warblers, and a soaring Osprey. There were also some huge crocodiles -- both American and the even-rarer Cuban -- in the many pools.

Unfortunately, the hotel at which most birding groups stay (at Playa Larga, right on the Bahia de las Cochinas --the Bay of Pigs) had been booked for a year by a German tourist company. Thus we were forced to stay at the lovely but rather inconvenient Hacienda La Guama lodge, located on an island and about a mile by water from the dock at La Boca -- a fact which greatly complicated pre-dawn and night birding. Another complication was that Arturo had not yet arrived -- he had been delayed en route from a study site in eastern Cuba, but was expected tomorrow.

However, we had had a great afternoon and (with thunderclouds threatening) loaded two small runabouts with luggage and took off -- at top speed -- for the island lodge. This was a beautiful setting of rustic cabinas connected by bridges to the main dining pavilion. Luckily we were all ensconced safely before a tremendous tropical downpour began. Dinner was late and through some confusion we only received about half the amount needed for our group, but we did the log and then retired to bed. Our cabin had some problems (quickly corrected the next day) such as missing light bulbs and no hot water, but it didn't stop us from sleeping soundly.

February 13:

We arose early and found it still dark -- slowly the light grew, the sun peeked over the trees, and the birds came alive. The lodge grounds were not particularly good for land birds, but large numbers of blackbirds and a few Emeralds were up and about. Many Neotropic and Double-Crested Cormorants were using the casuarinas on the lodge grounds for a roost, and they flapped off in all directions. After a nice breakfast, we again boarded the boats and ran in at top speed (the only apparent speed the boat drivers could go) to La Boca. There we met Osmany Gonzalez, a local guide for Zapata National Park and a very skilled and ethusiastic birder. "Quick!" he said as we stumbled up the dock, "Have you yet seen the Pygmy Owl?" "No?, then come quick -- there is one here..." Rushing us to the bottlebrush tree, he played a tape of the call -- within seconds, the tiny brown shape flew in (followed by indignant orioles and warblers) and sat peering at us. The Cuban Pygmy Owl looks much like others of its genus, very warm colored with small precise markings. I was happy to get some excellent video of this little endemic.

Finally on the bus, we took off for Playa Guiron and the village of Sopillar, where good secondary woodland and scrub supports many Cuban endemics. After a brief stop at the police post, we headed along the beautiful Bay of Pigs with its miles of undeveloped shoreline. At one point, Osmany had the bus brought to a screeching halt -- he had seen a small raptor perched in a tree, backlit by the rising sun. Unfortunately, despite care, the bird flushed before we could really get on it -- Guy felt it was a Sharpshinned Hawk, I thought it rather larger and bulkier than that, but who knows? As my nephew David says, "UTV" --"untickable views!"

 Eventually we stopped at a dirt road which led into the woods. In short order, Osmany was pointing out birds by call -- first, the wonderful little CUBAN TODY, announcing itself with its tok..tok..tok notes. With its blue nape and crimson flanks, this is probably the most beautiful of the five todies, all Caribbean endemics. For many, this was their first Tody and worth long looks. Next, a chattering buzz and the endemic YELLOW-HEADED WARBLER, one of two species in its genus -- a large warbler with greyish body and bright yellow head. It is usually found in pairs or mixed bird flocks, and gleans branches and tree trunks with a restless flitting action.

A rolling toro..toro call and Osmany announced, "Trogon!" but it took some imitation of the call by Osmany to bring in this, my most-wanted Cuban endemic. The CUBAN TROGON is both beautiful and strange -- blue cap, blue-green back, scarlet belly and white chest and undertail -- it flaunts the colors of the Cuban flag and is the national bird. The tail is remarkable, the feathers saw-toothed at the ends. But its behavior is classic trogon -- swooping flight and silent sit. They are quite common, which we were pleased to dicover.

A tapping noise led to a beautiful CUBAN GREEN WOODPECKER excavating an enormous hole in a small tree. The woods also hosted the very strange, slinking GREAT LIZARD-CUCKOO, a few LA SAGRA'S FLYCATCHERS and many Red-legged Thrushes. The area was alive with North American warblers as well, many in mixed flocks -- we added Worm-eating, Magnolia and Prairie to our list. I saw a largish warbler with a bluish back and rump, wingbars, and yellow streaked underparts feeding near the ground -- Guy got on it for an instant before it disappeared and we both agreed that it looked most like a Kirkland's but not "gripped" well enough to be sure. Despite looking, it could not be relocated as the mixed flock moved on. Along with warblers, other small birds included the CUBAN BULLFINCH (a black finch with white wing panels) and the vocal CUBAN VIREO.

Osmany montioned us to be quiet and we crept into the woods. He indicated a broken-off stump and told us to watch the top carefully. Then he lightly scatched the trunk and two BARE-LEGGED OWLS popped out and flew off! Not far, however, and we soon located one sitting watching us with its dark eyes, with an almost "alien"-like facial expression. Another endemic on the growing list!

Our final target at Sopillar was the endangered FERNANDINA'S FLICKER -- a large, terrestrial woodpecker whose range is now restricted to only a few sites in Cuba; the cause of its decline is unknown. Osmany knew of several territories in the area. A brief "troll" of the tape brought in a Northern Flicker (of the endemic Cuban race), and finally, a response by our target bird -- it has a louder and harsher call than the common species. A bit of bushwhacking brought us excellent views of three birds as they flew from tree to tree -- apparently a family group, which was encouraging. They are larger, browner, more uniformly barred and more plainly marked than Northern Flicker.

As we left the woods, the sun was hot, we were hungry but very happy with our birding luck so far. Before we could board the bus, however, Frank pointed out some Cedar Waxwings high in a nearby tree -- 16 of them, an excellent record for Cuba! On the way to our lunch stop, a flock of about twelve CUBAN PARAKEETS flew past, flashing their red underwings. We screeched to a halt, but they were gone -- only those of us on the left-hand side of the bus had seen them, so we hoped for better views later. Also common along the road were WHITE-CROWNED PIGEONS and LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRDS. Lunch was provided at a seaside restaurant filled with foreign tourists, mostly Germans and Canadians. A natural salt-water "swimming pool" was filled with lovely marine fish -- colorful wrasses, tangs and angelfish rivaling the Cuban birds.

During lunch, Carlos received some good news -- Arturo had arrived and would meet us at Cueva de los Pesces (Cave of the Fishes), a local tourist attraction. Our departure from the seaside restaurant was delayed by another heavy downpour, but the sun was out when we pulled into the Cave's car park. Arturo Kirkconnell was waiting, and we quickly did the introductions, and then we hastened inside for more birds. First on the agenda was a little party of WESTERN STRIPE-HEADED TANGERS, the male a splendid fellow in gold, black and white. But this was "the" site for Blue-headed Quail Dove, and we soon started scouting for this beauty. The restaurant manager told Arturo that three birds had been around earlier that day, near the garbage dump and pigpen in the woods. Birds always pick such salubrious surroundings!

Walking into the woods, we flushed two quail doves but they proved to be KEY-WEST QUAIL DOVES. The dump area was devoid of other doves but supported a lot of other birds, including a beautiful male Hooded Warbler and several Ovenbirds. Osmany volunteered to scout in the woods a bit -- walking was very treacherous since the "ground" consists of heavily eroded fossil coral filled with pits and sharp edges. He soon called out that he saw three Blue-headeds but they managed to elude us and retreat back into the woods; only Fran managed a brief glimpse of one.

From the cave, we drove to a different wooded area near Sopillar to continue the quail dove search. Despite a lot of walking, the only new bird was a single SCALY-NAPED PIGEON. It was now getting towards late afternoon. None of us had thought to bring a spotlight, so looking for owls or nightjars was out for today. So tired but happy, we journied back to La Boca and our rendevous with the speedboats. On the way, we noticed that American Kestrels in Cuba come in two "flavors" -- one with white underparts and one with rufous underparts -- the latter a very striking bird.

Back at the Hacienda, this evening we received a full meal and so went to bed much happier than before. A meal-time visitor was a rare Cuban Hutia, an almost extinct rodent which is now primarily restricted (thanks to pigs, dogs, cats and rats) to off-shore islands; it looks like a cross between an opossum and a muskrat. We would have a pre-dawn start the next day, for our trip to Zapata Swamp. During the night it got very cold, and we longed for blankets; so much for tropical warmth! It was obvious that a major cold front had arrived.

February 14:

Up at 4:30, dark with a million stars. Breakfast was welcome, lots of fruit, eggs and hot coffee. The boat trip to La Boca was freezing but as the sun rose, it started to warm. It was a rather short drive to the dirt track into famed Zapata Swamp -- Arturo told us we had a 2 km hike with no stops, as the Zapata Wren is most vocal at first light. En route we stopped briefly when a Zapata Sparrow called, but it would not respond to pishing or tape, so we moved on. As we reached the wren site, suddenly a loud chattering call burst forth right at the edge of the track. Osmany said it first, "ZAPATA RAIL!" and less than six feet away! One of the "ghost birds", even Arturo has only seen one for a total of two seconds.  It would have been great to say that we had excellent views, but such was not to be -- the bird moved off, calling a few times, and ignored the tape. However, we were happy to learn that we were the first birding group to have ever been that close to one.

At this point, we had to get in and wade! The wren territories were in small isolated clumps of trees in the wet sawgrass. There was a faint track into the marsh, and water stood from calf to thigh deep (or perhaps, heh heh, deeper!) Last year someone went in up to his neck. Since I was balancing my videocam, I was particularly careful. I only fell once and then managed to catch myself before anything got wet except my rear end. Osmany played a wren tape, and alternated a bit with the rail call. At least two rails answered, and finally, way off, a wren. It was starting to get windy.

En route to the wren, we found a RED-SHOULDERED BLACKBIRD on territory. Once considered conspecific with Red-winged Blackbird, work by Arturo and colleagues have supported the split. Female Red-shoulders are solid black, not streaked, and the call differs in timbre and phrasing from that of the Red-wing.

By now we could hear the ZAPATA WREN singing its musical song, quite nearby but unseen -- it is supposed to be reluctant to fly and certainly the wind made it reluctant to show itself. However, after a lot of manoevering and pishing, we all got looks at the male as he sang from a bit of brush deep in a clump of sawgrass. It was difficult to get the camcorder focused on him because of the branches, and just as I was about to press "record" he dropped down. Ah well, another time! Zapata Wren was once thought almost extinct, but Arturo and others have been surveying the swamp and have been pleased to find the bird more widespread, although still extremely rare (probably about 70 birds located to date). The rail, as well, has now been found at a number of sites in the immense swamp, but is also an endangered species.

It was a rather dirty and bedraggled crew that emerged from the swamp. Barry and I had luckily brought a change of sneakers, and gratefully stuck the blackened Zapata "zapatas" into a plastic bag for later humane disposal. Our next stop was Mera, an area of canals and extensive marshes. It would have undoubtedly been an excellent spot, but the day had gotten very cloudy, breezy and cool. We looked unsuccessfully for Whistling-ducks, but did manage to add a lot of waterbirds, including Glossy and White Ibis, to our list. We heard a Zapata Sparrow call but it had no intention of showing itself in the cold wind.

By the time we got to Cueva for lunch, the sun was out again. Luckily the restaurant pavilion was rather dark and outdoors, otherwise I am afraid we would have been personas non gratas! After the best lunch yet, we renewed our search for the elusive quail dove. Several of us walked quietly to the dump area, and were rewarded with a brilliant Key West Quail-dove in full sunlight, flashing his many colors. The delightful Hooded Warbler was still zipping about, as were other warblers in the sunny clearing. But no Blue-headed Quail Dove!

Our next stop was an area east of Playa Larga called Los Saballos -- here dirt tracks run through secondary and some apparent primary forest. It was the spot for Bee Hummingbird, and we spent a lot of time searching the many flowering trees and vines along the trail. This minuscule bird is the size of a largish insect and we had a lot of false alarms. But finally our luck came together, and several of us had a very brief look at an adult male BEE HUMMINGBIRD hovering over some tiny flowers high in a vine. It disappeared, but Osmany indicated that it was probably perching nearby (this species perches for long periods on favored branches). We never did refind the adult male, but were rewarded with a sub-adult male (unfortunately not sporting the red gorget) which gave us crippling views as it sat preening  on a tiny twig, blowing about in the wind. It continually darted its head back and forth like a pendulum, showing its lovely iridescent blue back, occasionally flashing out to take a tiny gnat from the air. When it flew, its wings made noise like a bumblebee, and it also had a series of twittering notes that (once you learned them) would announce its presence. This is of course the world's smallest bird, considered endangered although both Arturo and Osmany said it is a bit more numerous than previously thought, but local, scattered and favoring forest (as opposed to the Emerald, which can even be found in downtown Havana.)

We continued walking, and eventually reached a portion of the track with flowering red vines on either side. This spot was alive with Emeralds, and we also briefly saw a Bee Hummingbird. Some of us wanted to linger (still hoping to see a pukka male), but the leaders and Fran continued on. Sometimes fortune smiles on those who dally, and while we were watching for the elusive Bee, suddenly Scott said, "There're some birds on the road...are they quail?" I lifted my bins -- not quail, quail-doves -- to be precise, two beautiful BLUE-HEADED QUAIL DOVES, which peered at us curiously for a few moments, and then (with all deliberate speed) proceeded to walk across the road in plain view. Their iridescent blue head and neck feathers flashed in the light. WOW! High fives all around, even though the Bee Hummingbird eventually proved to be a female.

Guy appeared, walking back down the road, looking for the errant ones -- he forgave us when he saw the video I had of the much-wanted endemic. Most of us wanted to hang around a bit longer, but the leaders decided to press on to the next spot. There we ended up waiting for about 45 minutes for it to get dark enough for the Cuban Nightjar to appear -- but I guess this is an unavoidable hazard of any birding trip, as they say, hindsight is 20/20!

The nightjar spot was a large, grassy field -- and as the evening closed in, we were once again reminded of how good Osmany's eyes were -- without any birdcall to alert him, he suddenly flashed his spotlight and said, "Nightjar" and there it was, flying across the meadow to roost on a low branch. The CUBAN NIGHTJAR is considered by many authorities to be a separate species from the one on Hispaniola (but Raffaele lumps them as Greater Antillean Nightjar). It is a very gray bird, with a narrow white tail band on the male (which ours was). It never called, but obligingly flew about and perched in our beams until we were satisfied.

Our long day was not yet over. We had a date with a Stygian Owl at the Playa Larga Lodge. Recall, this is where everyone used to stay, which meant that groups used to be able to freshen up and actually eat supper before going out for the owl. We had no such option, the trip back and forth from Hacinda La Guama was out of the question. In any case, we had no problem entering the hotel compound, where we lounged about the pool (the bar was playing loud reggae), waiting for 8:30 pm and the owl's usual appearance. Barry and I, driven by cold and hunger, made a brief sortie into the main hotel but couldn't find any food, just many many German tourists. So we sank into our lounge chairs -- some folks even fell asleep (we HAD been up at 4:30). Every so often, we would get up and walk around spotlighting the trees, which was ignored by the guests and hotel staff (the latter all seemed to know Arturo).

 On one of these excursions, Osmany saw the owl flying in along the beach -- "THERE IT IS!" and we rushed to the largest tree, where the STYGIAN OWL perched for our spotlights. It was a very strange scene -- the music blaring 50 yards away, hotel guests at the bar, a bunch of scruffy-looking gringos staring at the top of a tree through binoculars while other, equally motley-looking folks flashed spotlights about. A few hotel guests wandered over -- and were duly impressed by the fierce-looking owl, whose yellow eyes darted about as it searched for prey. We noticed that it mostly looked UP, and Arturo said that in Cuba, it feeds primarily on bats, large moths, and sometimes roosting birds taken off the perch. Not unexpected on an island where there are almost no native land mammals.

After a while, the owl tired of us and flew away. We climbed exhausted back into the bus, thence to La Boca and a rather scary, full-speed, damn-the-pitch-darkness ride to La Guama and our fashionably-late dinner. Luckily we were fed exceedingly well that night, but we opted to do the log the next day!

February 15:

Not as early a start this morning, but still we were at Palpite in good time, looking especially for Grey-headed Quail-Dove. The area looks excellent, moist woodlands with good leaf litter. We soon saw a quail-dove on the track but in the scope it was a RUDDY QUAIL-DOVE. Osmany heard a Bee Hummingbird, and we eventually located the tiny bird perched high on a twig. While most of us were focussing on the hummingbird, a GUNDLACH'S HAWK flew right over us, flushing a pair of La Sagra's Flycatchers in the process. Unfortunately, everyone was looking in the wrong direction or distracted by the darting flycatchers, so no one got more than an unsatisfactory glimpse of this very difficult endemic. Also, although we definitely flushed at least one Grey-headed Quail-dove, again no acceptable views were had.

Feeling a bit down, we left as the morning wore on for an area near Sopillar called La Ceiba. After many rather tortuous turns, we arrived at a small farm. Osmany and Arturo knew where they were going -- they led us through a couple of farm gates to a pasture, and pointed into it -- CUBAN GRASSQUIT! About five of these increasingly difficult endemics were feeding on the ground, including two splendid males, with their black faces and golden ruffs. This species is plagued by the cage bird trade, and there is no doubt we would not have seen them without the local knowledge of our Cuban guides.

Lunch was again at La Cueva, but we couldn't look for the Blue-heads because of some rather aggessive dogs; having seen two birds the day before, the pressure, as they say, was off. After some discussion, we opted to return to Palpite for another try at Grey-headed, rather than the planned long drive to Los Canalos for waders. Although it was still mid-afternoon, it was probably the right decision -- within ten minutes of arriving at the site, we all had clear although somewhat distant views of a GREY-HEADED QUAIL-DOVE walking across the track. Another hour and a half's looking didn't produce any more birds, so that was it for us.

Now it was back to La Boca, where we split up into two boats for a sortie through the canals to look for Snail Kites and (perhaps) Whistling Duck. It was unfortunately still rather windy, but we managed to find a lovely male SNAIL KITE which afforded excellent views as it hovered over the marshes. We had to be content with Wood Duck, no tree ducks today. Back at Hacienda La Guama, we climbed to the observation platform on the peak of the dining hall roof, to look for raptors. Gundlach's Hawk is sometimes seen flying over the distant small islands in the evening. Best bird, however, was a Peregrine Falcon.

We went back to our cabins to partially pack for tomorrow's journey east to Camaguey.

February 16:

We gathered early to again climb the dining hall observation platform but strangely this is not allowed in the morning. However, after breakfast we hurried up to again do the Gundlach's watch. We saw a lovely sunrise, a Merlin and a Peregrine, many Ospreys, but no other raptors.

A boat was sent around to gather our luggage from the cabinas, and we all piled aboard to leave. It had been a very pleasant spot, but not the best for birders with too much time lost to-and-fro. The final trip to La Boca was actually at a more sensible pace as we were very heavily loaded with warm bodies and luggage. We were saddened to say goodby to Osmany, who had been such an enthusiastic and helpful member of our group for three days. A few farewells also to the bottlebrush tree and its attendent orioles and we piled aboard the bus for the long drive. Ramón looked happy as he was once again master of his fate, rather than a rather uncertain passenger on a hurtling speedboat.

Camaguey is well to the east, so we rejoined the autopista and turned our faces towards the sun. I put on my earphones and the first of my Buffett tapes. I would run through all of them, plus two Bob Marley, before we reached our destination.

As we headed east, we first passed through miles of flat sugarcane fields. However, soon the terrain became more rolling and we began to see tobacco fields and barns, somewhat reminiscent of my home state of Maryland. However, once again almost all the "farm power" was ox or horse, a consequence of Cuba's limited petrol supplies (and lack of hard currency to buy same).

We made a few short stops to bird -- at one lake we saw a large flock of Ring-necked Ducks and two Eastern Meadowlarks, which are of a distinct Cuban subspecies. But mostly it was driving. Small towns were filled with bicycles and horse-drawn surries and carts, augmenting the usual 1950's American and decaying Eastern bloc automobiles. Some of us started to make an "old car" list to relieve boredom.

Lunch was one of the various roadside tourist stops which spinkle Cuba -- thatched dining pavilion, baños, souvenir stands, and (once we had seated ourselves) a band which appeared as if from nowhere to serenade us. This one was far better than most, and we really enjoyed their singing -- to the extent of taking up the maracas and joining in. I managed to video Barry, Fran and Louise in embarrassing closeup (useful for future blackmail attempts).

Pressing onward, we passed through some quite substantial hills and limestone formations, many of which sported good forest. Everywhere grew beautiful Royal Palms, Cuba's national symbol. But our birding was limited to what we saw from the bus. Smooth-billed Ani. White-winged Dove. Belted Kingfisher. Eventually we reached an interesting area of rice paddies, just outside Camaguey. A pleasant hour was then spent sorting through shorebirds and waders, including remarkable numbers of Little Blue Herons, but the best bird seen was another Snail Kite. We then drove around a bit looking at stands of Royal Palms for the endemic Cuban Palm Crow, but came up dry. From there we drove into the old city of Camaguey, to the Gran Hotel.

Our rooms were comfortable and clean, and we enjoyed a good supper in the imposing banquet hall. After supper some of us took a walk through the local streets, and did some window shopping. I wondered if the goods displayed in store windows were, in truth, available inside or whether like East Germany in the 1960s, they were only for show.

February 17:

Carlos had not been able to arrange an early breakfast for us, so we left hungry and drove to the small town of Najaja, near La Belen NF. There we were met by Pedro Regalado, who is studying the endangered Giant Kingbird.  No sooner had we gotten out of the bus, but Pedro motioned to us, and indicated that a Kingbird was calling nearby. We followed the rather Kiskadee-like call to a clump of trees, where the large, short-tailed but heavy-bodied GIANT KINGBIRD was perched. But our views were brief before the bird flew off. Despite some waiting, it failed to appear although we were treated to a couple of PLAIN PIGEONS flying by.

Pedro then took us to a nearby spot where several large ceiba trees regularly host Kingbird nests.  Again, as the bus drove up one bird was right at roadside, but again it flew away. While we surveyed the surroundings for Kingbirds, we were treated to a fly-in of about 30 Cuban Parakeets (which perched obligingly), a flyover of a couple of parrots and even better Plain Pigeon views. Eventually, we heard the kingbirds again and to make a long story short, ended up seeing four of them at extremely close range. I managed some satisfactory video as well, which Arturo told me was the first time this species has actually been videotaped. Pedro said that this local pair had raised at least one young this past season.

Afterwards Pedro served us coffee at his house, and showed us a number of his watercolors of Cuban birds. All of us purchased some (we selected Oriente Warbler and Giant Kingbird). Guy took a large painting of Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird Pedro saw in 1988. The painting is destined for the cover of a future issue of Cotinga. Hopefully recent rumors of this species' survival will prove correct; Arturo is not convinced it is extinct, citing the difficulty (both physically and logistically) of accessing potential habitat, much of which is under Army control. Certainly both Zapata Wren and Rail were once considered gone (or nearly so); what is needed is field work and the funds for doing it -- and almost none of the latter is now available in Cuba.

We were now pretty famished, but we had a final stop before breakfast. A large stand of palms, a few trolls of the tape, and about 40 CUBAN PALM CROWS flew in. They have a very nasal call, similar to that of the Fish Crow, and totally unlike that of the more common species. Once lumped with the Palm Crow of Hispaniola, work by Arturo and others have supported this split. The crow is (for unknown reasons) very local and considered endangered.

Finally, back at the hotel and a lovely breakfast in the banquet room. Barry, lazily looking out the window, spots a martin floating by and soon we are all scanning the church steeple next door. Yes, definitely CUBAN MARTIN, confirmed by the female's clear white belly contrasting sharply with a dark chest and throat -- recently arrived from unknown wintering grounds and obviously about to set up housekeeping in the steeple. The male is identical to the Purple Martin. The new Raffaele book gives February 21 as the earliest date but Arturo says that the 16th is not that early. We get better views of the birds, as well as the city of Camaguey, from the hotel's observation deck one flight up.

But now it is time to leave for another long drive -- northwest to Cayo Coco on the northern coast. En route we had another excellent lunch at a roadside stop, and added SHINY COWBIRD to the list.

Near the coast, we stopped to scan a large wetland near the town of Morón, again failing to find any Whistling Ducks but seeing a number of Snail Kites. Outward to Cayo Coco on a very long causeway -- along the way we ticked MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS and a good number of Sandwich Terns. At the far end, we stopped and Arturo pointed out a distant streak of bright pink -- thousands of GREATER FLAMINGOES. None of them was very close, but we finally located a few which provided adequate scope views. About 3000 Flamingoes winter here in this shallow bay.

The many salt pans and mud flats on the south side of the cay supported large numbers of waders, including REDDISH EGRET (about equally divided between red and white color phases), and our first GREAT WHITE HERON, which co-occurs here with its Blue Heron siblings. We also saw several "GOLDEN" WARBLERS (the Caribbean race of the Yellow Warbler) in the mangroves bordering the road.

Cayo Coco, which looks like Florida's keys must have appeared before they were trashed, it also being developed. A number of large hotels are going up, and this and smaller neighboring cays may eventually go the way of the islands to the north. But at this time, they support good habitat -- extensive mangroves, mud flats, salt pans, and acres of shrub-scrub. And in this area are found some of Cuba's most local endemics.

We first stopped at a crossroads where, within minutes, we had both the local race of the ZAPATA SPARROW (an extremely handsome sparrow considered to be allied to theAimophila sparrows, but in its own genus Torreornis) and the other endemic CubanTeretistris warbler, ORIENTE WARBLER. This latter bird was far brighter and more attractive than the plates in Raffaele; its habits and song recalled that of its congener, Yellow-headed, with which it was once lumped.  Cooperative Cuban Vireos, Striped-headed Tanagers, and Bullfinches were also active in the afternoon sun. However, despite some searching we couldn't manage to find either Grundlach's Hawk (occasional here) or Bahama Mockingbird. The latter only occurs in Cuba on these small northern cays, and is very local even there.

We then moved onto Cayo Guillermo, the extreme northwest cay, where our hotel, Iberostar Daquiri, was located. But first another try for the Mockingbird -- and this time a fine male came into the tape, and sat up in the wind and sang freely. The song of the BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD is similar to that of its northern cousin, but lacks its repeated mimicry; it is also a larger, streaked, browner bird lacking white in the wing and having a long, white-tipped tail.  Another bird which was common here was the CUBAN BLACK HAWK or CRAB HAWK, considered by some authorities to be conspecific with Common Black-hawk. But it is a much browner bird with considerable white in the wing; differences in habits, voice and morphology probably support its specific status.

Finally, as the sun was setting, we went to our hotel. Actually, "hotel" was definitely an understatement. This was an "all-inclusive resort" -- one of those places where they put a little plastic band on your wrist and then everything, from unlimited food and drink to a wide variety of entertainment, is free. It is but the vangard of a large number of foreign-financed tourist facilities now being built in Cuba (Iberostar is a Spanish corporation). Arturo is very concerned that development will threaten the rich environment of these northern cays, where many highly localized birds and other species exist.

After checking out our luxurious rooms, we all met for drinks and then dinner -- a feast for kings and a considerable contrast to the amount and variety of foods available to the average Cuban. This was a welcome interlude for our Cuban team-members, as we stayed here two nights. Except for situations like this (accompanying a tour group), Cubans cannot stay at these resorts, even if they have the dollars. In fact, Cubans aren't allowed to live on Cayo Coco unless they work for the hotels.

February 18:

Up early to check the hotel grounds, but nothing of interest except the inevitable Palm Warblers and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds. After a hearty breakfast, which included freshly-prepared donuts, we were off to Cayo Paredón Grande for still more local endemics. On the way we saw a number of Cuban Black-Hawks, Reddish Egrets and a fair sampling of shorebirds. The target spot was a road through mangrove and coastal scrub, near El Faro -- a bright yellow-and-black lighthouse which guards the point. The target birds were one of our last endemics, Cuban Gnatcatcher, plus the local race of the Thick-billed Vireo, both of which are found only on these northern cays.

It was already getting rather warm (to my mind, we should have come here before breakfast), but we could hear the vireo's White-eye-like song from several spots. After quite a bit of pishing, and some exercise of the tape, a pair of THICK-BILLED VIREOS came in. Barry and I had seen this species in the Bahamas, but were interested in the color differences in the Cuban birds, which had more yellow underparts. There were also a number of Oriente Warblers, Flycatchers, Bullfinches and others about. But zip on the Gnatcatcher. We played a tape of its (remarkably musical) song, but silence prevailed.

We trudged up and down the road, as it got hotter. The vireos stopped singing, but Arturo assured us that no group had dipped on the Gnatcatcher here. We saw a Bahamian-race Osprey, with an all-white head, soaring over. The occasional Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern or Laughing Gull floated by. Our group spread out a bit to search, and finally, after about a half-hour, Guy came belting up the road -- he had located a pair of Gnatcatchers with a Mangrove Cuckoo as a bonus! After some brush-crunching , we located the MANGROVE CUCKOO almost precisely where Guy had left it -- it was a new bird for several in the group. We then heard the CUBAN GNATCATCHER singing, and finally were rewarded with excellent views of this quite attractive little bird. While it resembles other members of its genus, its song is distinct, being a long, melodious warble rather like that of Zapata Wren. A final new bird for the list was a Clapper Rail creeping through the mangroves.

It was now very HOT and we were happy to leave the area. On the way back, Ramón started to get worried about running out of gas for the bus -- which can be serious in Cuba, where petrol is severely rationed. However, he spied a gasoline tank truck coming along the road, hailed it, and got us filled up directly from the tanker. While we waited, I filmed a Great Lizard-Cuckoo creeping through the grass like some reptilian predator, as it searched for lizard prey.

Back at the hotel, it was definitely time for a shower and then lunch. Some of the group decided to relax, others to punish themselves with two hours of non-stop ping-pong. In any case, it was definitely too hot to birdwatch!

In the late afternoon, we met for a final foray in search of Piping and Wilson's Plovers. This took us to a beautiful, essentially unspoiled beach on Cayo Coco, where extensive mud flats hosted many shorebirds (but no unusual plover). It was a very pleasant, although long walk. Barry and I finally fell behind, and opted to scope a large lagoon where we had seen flocks of shorebirds flying in to roost. It was a very idyllic scene, several hundred Yellowlegs, about fifty Black-necked Stilts, and various waders and ducks (but no tree ducks) on the absolutely calm, black water. The rest of our group joined us, and we enjoyed the end of the day here, puzzling a bit over an immature white-phase Reddish Egret, and enjoying the unspoiled environment.

Then back to our resort for another huge meal. Some of the group went to a Cuban music revue, most of us went to bed!

February 19:

We had another long day of driving before us -- the trip back to Havana was almost as long as from Zapata to Camaguey. This reflects one of the problems of birding this huge island -- many of the endemics are very local, and these local areas are far apart. In fact, we did not even attempt to look for Cuban Kite, which is found another long drive to the far east, near Guantanamo. In fact, this species is so poorly studied that Arturo knew no sites where a birder with limited time would have a reasonable chance of seeing the bird. There is even disagreement as to whether it is a full species or a distinctive race of Hook-billed Kite.

No real birding this morning, just a large breakfast (with lots of fruit, fresh donuts and trail mix squirreled away for the long drive), and then back onto our faithful bus. On the way out we stopped to enjoy our last looks at Cuban Black-Hawk, Reddish Egret and several Great White Herons. Then over the long causeway, onto the Autopista, and west!

In Santa Maria we did the tourist bit at the Che Guevera monument -- Che is the romantic hero of the revolution, and his visage is everywhere, especially in this city where his success as a commander were so important to the rebels.  "Siempre el Comandante" read the roadside billboards. I reflected a bit about the contrast between these triumphs and his rather sorry end in Bolivia. (In 1997, we had arrived in that country on the 30th anniversary of Che's assassination, which seemed to be a reason for considerable celebration.)

The long drive was enlivened somewhat with occasional glimpses of birds such as White-winged Dove from the bus, and a few bathroom breaks. Otherwise it was pretty much non-stop until we reached Havana. We were back at the "lovely" Hotel Capri by late afternoon. Everyone was pretty knackered, and scattered to shower and relax before dinner.

We went to bed fairly early, as we had a dawn start the next day; breakfast would be served early (for which we were grateful). It would be our last day of the tour -- many of the group would be flying home on the 21st, but Barry, Frank and I were staying on a bit longer.

February 20:

Everyone gathered at 5:00 am, ate a hasty breakfast of coffee, juice and sandwiches, and then boarded the bus for Parque Nacionale La Guira, some two hours west of Havana near Pinar del Rio. Target -- our last possible Cuban endemic, the Solitaire. We picked up Arturo and his twelve-year-old son in front of their home in the suburbs.

There was almost no traffic on the Autopista Oest. At every overpass (many of them incomplete --with no connecting roads) were groups of people waiting for rides, many holding out peso notes or even dollars. Giving rides is legal and encouraged, paying for them is illegal, so at many of the major crossroads a heavy police presence seemed to be monitoring hitchhikers and their rides.

For a number of miles, we had been seeing a heavily-forested ridge running somewhat parallel with the road -- it looked like very birdy habitat. At KM 101, we exited north, to San Diego de los Baños and the park. Through the little town and then into the park through some very impressive stone gates which apparently in the past belonged to a large hacienda whose name was still carved over the archway.

The road went up and up, and we soon reached an area of Caribbean pines. At the very top was an (unfortunately) abandoned campground, Cabinas de los Piños, where nice little cabins sat on stilts amongst the tall pines. The area was alive with birdsong, and it was obviously the "place to stay" for a birdwatcher. Arturo told me that the first trip he led to the park, his group stayed in these cabins so they have only recently been left to wrack and ruin. The 1999 Lonely Planet Guide still suggests this camp as accomodation, which might explain the group of bicyclists who rode in, looked in great puzzlement at the obviously decaying cabins, and left.

But birding was the order of the day -- we soon walked into the excellent forest and almost immediately got wonderful views of a Trogon sitting at eye level. The calls of the trogon were everywhere. Also everywhere was the aethereal song of the CUBAN SOLITAIRE -- fluty, liquid and resonant. But it took a bit of doing to actually get satisfactory looks at this rather plain brownish gray bird, which favors the highest treetops. Several of us also saw several RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPERS, a South American bird which may have been introduced into Cuba -- it is not common on the island and this park is one of the best sites for this very striking species.

Walking on, we entered the pines -- the target here was the near endemic OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER, a species which Barry and I had seen well on Grand Bahama a number of years ago. They were a lot harder to get onto in Cuba -- keeping high in the pines and only affording distant looks -- but eventually everyone was satisfied. We also enjoyed many more trogons, as well as close looks at Yellow-headed Warblers, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Tody and Red-legged Thrush. Arturo looked throughout the pine grove for a roosting Stygian Owl which he has found in past years, but no joy today.

Finally, it was time to go. We rather reluctantly left the park, which was a wonderful birdy place and a fitting finale to our trip, for San Diego and a late lunch. This was at the lovely Hotel Mirador, which was a far cry from the seedy Hotel Capri, and about half the price! Barry, Frank and I started to think about trying to get back here on the following day, when we would be on our own.

On the return drive, we stopped at a few ponds for a last (and rather pessimistic) search for Whistling Duck -- needless to say, we were not successful. The trip was definitely winding down, and everyone was tired and quiet. We dropped Arturo and his son off at their home, with many fond farewells, and then back to the Capri. Here we bid Ramon and Carlos goodbye as well, and agreed to meet at seven for a final dinner as a group.

Frank, Barry and I walked down to the Malecón to admire the surf breaking against the seawall, and the many 1950s American cars plying the broad avenue. We also made some inquiries about car rental for the next day -- finding it to be much more expensive than anticipated. At the time, neither office we tried had a car available, so we agreed to check the next morning. Frank walked down to the Hotel Nacional to see if a taxi could be engaged for the day, as an alternative, but found no takers. The state-controlled cabbies apparently don't benefit sufficiently from day-charters to make them worth their while.  (We know other travelers have hired taxis for much less than car rental, but we were unable to discover their secret!)

At seven, we all sat down together to do the log for the final time. I totalled 150 species with 34 lifers, not bad at all for a 9-day trip to the Caribbean! As a group, we had seen all the Cuban endemics with the exception of the Rail (which we heard) and the Kite (which we did not try for). Barry and I missed Gundlach's Hawk, a flyby for some.  I had managed to videotape many of the endemics as well, several apparently for the first time.

After a fairly good meal, and good conversation, we all said goodnight and vowed to go birding together again sometime. Fran, Louise and Scott were leaving early the next day for Cancun so they hit the hay. Frank, Barry and I stayed up a bit to talk and then also went to bed.

February 21:

Barry and I met Frank for a rather late breakfast, then went next door to collect our rental car. We had already called the Hotel Mirador to ensure there would be rooms for us. Car hire is expensive -- not only is the daily rate very high, but after adding fuel costs and mileage, a 24 hour rental comes to well over $125. However, split three ways wasn't so bad, and (in fact) anything to get away from the Hotel Capri! An added concern was, since the Cuban rental companies do not (cannot) accept credit cards drawn on American banks, we had to leave a $250 cash deposit. However, we were given a rather new Toyota Tercel which had only a slightly ominous brake noise, and seemed to drive well.  Driving through Havana is actually easy, there is little traffic, and we were soon on the Autopista Oest again. This time, we knew where we were going and in less than 2 hours we were pulling into the Hotel Mirador car park.

What a contrast with the Capri! They were happy to see us, had lovely clean, well-appointed and maintained rooms ready (Frank actually lucked out on a small suite). They were quite interested that we were birdwatchers, the receptionist produced a pair of binoculars, stating that she was taking up the hobby!. We had some lunch and a beer next to the pool, and were soon ready to bird.

We drove to the top, Cabinas de los Piños, where we were greeted by the (apparent) watchman and his dogs, one a pathetic starvling with a sweet nature that we kept sneaking food to. The area of the cabinas held a lot of birds, and we enjoyed longer looks at Trogon and Green Woodpecker. Frank wanted to do some exploring, so we all agreed to meet back at the car in midafternoon. Barry and I first walked the Solitaire Trail past the large cave -- we didn't see much new but had wonderful close views of Trogon, Yellow-headed and Olive-capped Warbler, Tody and Solitaire, and I managed to get some good video. We then walked another trail which seemed a good possibility for Swainson's Warbler (which winters in Cuba, but was missed by our group). We had good views of RUDDY QUAIL-DOVE, and failed to "grip" a skulking warbler in some brushy weeds which was possibly only a Waterthrush but may not have been!

It started to rain rather hard, but we had umbrellas and so birded our way back to the car. Soon Frank appeared, a bit wet but happy -- he had had great looks at Blue-headed Quail-dove! After the rain stopped we all retraced his steps -- no Blue-heads, but another Ruddy and many other good birds.

In this manner we spent the rest of the afternoon -- really enjoying the wonderful woodland, quiet but for the songs of the Solitaire and Thrush, and the rolling calls of innumerable Trogons. As dusk began to fall, a large number of Antillean Grackles and some Cuban Blackbirds flew in to roost in the pines. Unfortunately, no Stygian Owl called or made an appearance, so we wended our way back to the hotel.

While we were sitting by the pool, enjoying a pre-dinner drink, some night bird flew over our heads -- by general size and color we guessed Nightjar but unfortunately it had been totally unexpected so not seen well enough to be sure.

At dinnertime, the inevitable band materialized to entertain us and the other tourists (mostly a large group of young French women). It was a very pleasant evening, only dampened slightly by the knowledge that Barry and I were leaving the next day, and that Frank wasn't -- but wanted to! He hoped to fly standby back to Toronto two days early, rather than spend two more nights at the expensive and unenjoyable Capri.

We went to bed to the sound of Cuban music from the bar, and slept like logs.

February 22:

Up early and again, a drive up to the cabinas area. Frank wanted to look for Swainson's Warbler and we for Blue-headed Quail-dove, so we again split up. We didn't have much time and the day was damp and somewhat dark. Barry and I again walked the upper trail, again seeing Ruddy but no Blue-headed, but sucking up the last of the many Trogons and other Cuban birds -- who knew when we might ever be back?

Back at the car, I managed some last videotape of Purple Honeycreeper and Yellow-headed Warbler while we waited for Frank. He shortly turned up, not successful in his hunt either, but reporting good looks at Tody and Trogon. We bid the caretaker adieu, slipped the little dog a final tidbit, and drove away. Down the mountain, out through the gates, and back towards the highway. Unfortunately, we managed to miss a turn and found ourselves on the old road to Havana -- not the highway -- not good as we needed to get the car back by 10 am.

A scrutiny of the map showed an interchange coming up, but when we reached it, there was no "real" road! Just a dirt track from the side road onto the autopista. Never mind -- we took it, and jolted up onto the pavement and headed (finally) east! A short stop at a reservoir actually added a couple of species to the trip list -- Ruddy Duck and Pied-billed Grebe -- and then smooth sailing back to Havana.

It took two turns around the block before we made it back to the rental agency, thanks to one-way streets and a fallen tree (!) but we got the car back in time. Unexpectedly, there was absolutely no hassle in returning the Toyota, and we got our deposit and half the fuel charge back immediately. It was then only a matter of catching a taxi in front of the Capri to the airport, and we were off. Frank was coming along in hopes of catching a standby flight to Toronto.

At the airport, we had a late lunch, amused by several Palm Warblers gleaning crumbs from tables inside the terminal. Barry and I then checked in at Air Jamaica -- Frank wouldn't know until the Lasca counter opened later in the day as to whether he was staying or leaving!

At two pm, we bid Frank a fond farewell and best wishes, and then boarded the plane for the short flight to Montego Bay -- and a different world!

Epilogue:  Frank, as it turned out, could not get on the afternoon flight and had to stay until the 24th. He was lucky in getting a room in a private home near the airport (thanks to the tourist bureau in the airport) and enjoyed a taste of Cuban life until he was finally able to leave.

(Jump to the Cuban trip list)


We arrived in Jamaica at 3:30 and by 4:00 pm were on our way to the Orange River Lodge -- set on 1000 acres of cockpit country just 20 minutes from Mo'Bay -- or shall we say, twenty minutes with no rush hour! About an hour later, in a slight drizzle, we reached the lodge itself, a graceful frame structure with wide verandahs surrounded by flowers. It is constructed in the style of an old Jamaican "Great House," reflecting the actual historic ranch buildings nearby. It appeared that we were almost the only guests -- the lodge is not on the beach, and is a more traditional Jamaican style of hostelry than the "tourist prisons" which line Jamaica's shore. One can ride horseback, hike, play golf, tennis, swim in the pool, or birdwatch!

We opted for the latter, and as dusk was now falling, we concentrated on evening birds. First we heard the distinctive call of the Jamaican Potoo echoing over the forest, as we were walking out to the entrance road. I had a tape recorder, and played a short sequence of Jamaican Owl. Almost immediately, one answered, but it was apparently up a gated drive near the "main house." We were a little uncomfortable skulking around this private dwelling, so contented ourselves with listening. [The next morning, we were assured that, as guests, we had free rein to go anywhere on the property including by the main house, something to remember for our next trip.]

It started to rain a little, so we left off birding and enjoyed an excellent Jamaican dinner, spicy fish and all the trimmings, a couple of Red Stripe beers and then to bed.

February 23:

We were up very early, no nightbirds but lots of activity around the lodge ground. In short order we ticked the minute VERVAIN HUMMINGBIRD (in the same genus as Bee HB, it is only a hair larger although much less colorful), the husky JAMAICAN MANGO and a few of the national bird, the RED-BILLED STREAMERTAIL. Other endemics and specialties in the many flowering and fruiting trees included SAD FLYCATCHER, ORANGEQUIT, JAMAICAN EUPHONIA, WHITE-CHINNED THRUSH, GREEN-RUMPED PARROTLET, JAMAICAN PARAKEET, WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON, ZENAIDA DOVE, JAMAICAN WOODPECKER, JABBERING CROW, the tiny JAMAICAN TODY, GREATER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH, JAMAICAN BANANAQUIT (a potential split), JAMAICAN VIREO, KENTUCKY WARBLER (a good record for Jamaica) and best of all, a noisy pair of JAMAICAN BECARDS building a nest over the entrance road. We had essentially missed this species on our last trip so it was really our first new tick.

We ate a late breakfast, did some final birding and videoing, just as a gentle but persistant rain began to fall. We decided to make our departure, so after many thanks and goodbyes to the friendly staff, we started on the two-hour drive to Marshall's Pen, the home of Robert and Ann Sutton, near Mandeville.

By the time we reached the main road, it was sunny again, so we made a short stop at the Rockland's Feeding Station near Anchovy. For decades, Lisa Salmon (now in her mid-90's) has been feeding birds and the area around her home and the surrounding ruinate woodlands host many Jamaican specialties. The only drawback is that a visit is somewhat expensive. We opted not to take a guided walk with the manager, Fritz, this time, because of time constraints, but it is recommended for first-time visitors as many good birds can be seen and Fritz's eyes are legendary.

It was quite an experience to have a tiny Streamertail or Mango sit on your finger as they sucked sugarwater from a vial! Other interesting species seen on the immediate grounds included the large JAMAICAN STRIPE-HEADED TANAGER, JAMAICAN ORIOLE, COMMON GROUND-DOVE, CARIBBEAN DOVE, BLACK-FACED GRASSQUIT and many repeats of birds from Orange River.

After about an hour we bid Fritz adieu and started off for Mandeville, reaching Marshall's Pen in mid-afternoon. Robert Sutton is Jamaica's foremost ornithologist; his home, one of Jamaica's "Great Houses", is a working cattle ranch. Much native habitat remains, however, and the grounds are alive with birds. No sooner had we arrived, when Robert hurried us over to see a roosting JAMAICAN OWL, one of our target species.  In midafternoon, the bird was asleep and not too interested in visitors, so we planned to return at sunset to watch him wake up. Other species we enjoyed included a perched JAMAICAN POTOO, many dapper WHITE-EYED THRUSHES, Jamaican Parakeets and Tanagers in a fruiting tree, JAMAICAN PEWEE, RUFOUS-TAILED FLYCATCHER, a tiny Vervain Hummingbird "singing" from a treetop, and the very impressive CHESTNUT-BELLIED CUCKOO.

Robert maintains self-catering accomodations for birders in flats over his garage, and this is the ideal setup. You can come and go as you please and have free run of the ranch. We decided to take a run into Mandeville for supplies and to visit an ATM machine. Only getting lost once in the confusing web of streets, we managed to accomplish our mission and get back to Marshall's Pen in time for the evening bird activity.

It is impossible to describe the intensity of that activity. One tree, filled with blossom, was also filled with Orioles, Bananaquits and Orangequits, hummingbirds of three species, and a large flock of Parakeets eating the flowers to the extent that the whole tree was a cacophony of chirps, squawks, chips and buzzing. It positively vibrated! We skulked the damp trails for the premier Jamaican bird, Crested Quail-dove, but no luck, although Caribbean Dove appeared common.

Finally, as dusk fell we revisited our owl. We watched in enjoyment as first one eye opened, then the other. One wing stretched out, then the next. He turned around on his perch, calling several times. He then dropped to a lower branch, giving wonderful views of his tawny face and dark eyes. Next he flew to a nearby tree, sat for a moment as we admired him, and then flew away into the gathering dark. Superb!

We ate a rather strange meal of ramen, beans, bread and soda and did our notes, then to bed.

February 24:

We were out early in hopes of catching an early Quail-dove, and in fact in short order located a Ruddy Quail-dove along the path, eating fallen oranges. A walk around found WHITE-WINGED DOVE, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Tody, Pewee, Oriole, Euphonia, both endemic thrushes, Becard, Woodpecker, Bullfinch and finally, the hard-to-find endemic, YELLOW-SHOULDERED GRASSQUIT.

Back on a woodland trail, I saw a dove flying in towards me -- it landed on a fallen log and it was a gorgeous CRESTED QUAIL-DOVE! Yahoo! Unfortunately, Barry was around the bend and by the time he returned, the bird had flown up-slope. A lot of flogging around failed to locate it, and Barry was a bit uphappy, being gripped off on this major species.

Robert met us and we made arrangements to visit the Black River Morass that afternoon, in hopes of West Indian Whistling Duck and other waterbirds. However, you can't organize the weather and in early afternoon, a tremendous tropical downpour suddenly arrived! Soon the various water catchment ditches and cisterns which surround the main house were overflowing with water, and the road was awash. It was impossible to bird so we decided to catch up on our sleep.

By late afternoon the rain relented, so we were able to make another foray. I went one direction, looking for video targets, while Barry staked out the orange trees for quail-dove. He was eventually rewarded, as the shadows lengthened, by a rather sodden Crested Quail-dove but at least he saw it. This was our fifth Quail-dove for the combined trip!

That evening Robert and Ann came down to visit and we had a very nice time, discussing their birding experiences, the Jamaican economy, the on-going "banana war" and other subjects. It is a small world, it seems that Arturo Kirkconnell had visited them a few years back as well! One interesting tidbit was the mystery nightjar that Robert saw and heard a couple of years previously, on the dry southern coast. He tried but was unable to obtain a recording of its call, which he said differed from any nightjar he was familiar with. The Jamaican Poorwill is considered extinct but since the Puerto Rican species was also once written off, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s, so who knows? This area of Jamaica is poorly-watched and could still hold secrets.

Before leaving us, Robert gave us precise directions to the southern end of the Barbecue Bottom Road through the Cockpit country, a road we had failed to find in 1995. This would be the site for our final target species, Black-billed Parrot.

February 25:

We were up before dawn and loaded the car, said goodby to Robert and Ann, and left. The run north to Albert Town was enlivened by Jamaican drivers and lots of potholes, but we reached the turnoff to Barbeque Bottom by 7 am. A local resident confirmed that, yes, this unprepossessing little road was one we wanted. We drove past a number of houses, then the road quality miraculously improved to a smooth (but narrow) paved surface, and we soon reached the intersection of the "main" road with a small side road leading to Spring Garden.  There was a sturdy stone bridge and ample room to pull over. This is Burnt Hill, really just a spot on the map as there was no apparent town, although some small fields dotted the hillside.

All around us were the pristine forested hills of the cockpit country -- the bridge crossed and the road skirted a deep valley filled with tropical trees and bird song. The bridge is near a major parrot roost, so we kept our ears open for their calls. Very shortly we saw our first new endemic for the trip, the large RING-TAILED PIGEON, now considered a threatened species. This one sat quietly for our observation, however. Some birding up and down the main and side roads added JAMAICAN LIZARD-CUCKOO and ARROW-HEADED WARBLER, plus good views of other species such as the Pewee and Vireo.

We soon heard the unmistakeable screech of parrots, and soon a pair of large Amazona parrots flew over, but their deep wingbeats and maroon throat indicated YELLOW-BILLED PARROT, the species we had seen before. However, soon more and more parrots flew by and we were sure that at least some were Black-billed. However it was not until a pair of birds flew in and perched near us that we definitely were able to clinch their ID as BLACK-BILLED PARROT, our final Jamaican endemic and final trip target!

After that we actually saw more Black-bills than Yellow-bills, as they flew over and past us. Eventually, the action ceased and we began to think about heading back to Montego Bay and our rendevous with the flight home. We met a local fellow who wondered what we were doing, and when told that we were looking at the parrots, he replied that by this time of the morning they were all in the town of Spring Garden, eating fruit from the cultivated trees.

The trip up the center of the island was uneventful, and we soon intersected the coastal road. In 1995, this had been clogged and busy so we had allowed lots of time to reach the airport. However, today it was virtually empty and we made exceptional time. Time enough to do some birding along the road between the airport runway and the ocean, where a series of lagoon attract shorebirds and egrets. We added a few species to the trip list, birds like Western and Semipalmated Sandpiper, then decided that we were tired -- it was time to hang it up!

Scope and bins packed, we turned in our car and checked onto the flight. En route to our gate, we passed a hoard of excited tourists (many from the USA) boarding the flight to Havana. It seemed a very long time ago that we stood at the same spot. Right now for us, it was back north and back to winter...

(Jump to Jamaica trip list)


CUBA (February 10 to February 22)

We saw 26 or so Cuban endemics (depending on status of several splits); in addition we heard one other endemic. We also saw several species which are limited to Cuba and a few Bahamian islands, e.g. Cuban Parrot andCuban Emerald.  [ ] means seen by others on trip, but not us.
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias herodias
"Great White" Heron Areda herodias occidentalis
Great Egret Ardea alba egretta
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis ibis
Green Heron Butorides virescens
White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
Roseate Spoonbill Ajaia ajaja
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius
[Gundlach's Hawk] * [Accipiter gundlachii ]
Cuban Black-Hawk Buteogallus anthracinus gundlachii
Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Crested Caracara Caracara plancus cheriway
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Merlin Falco columbarius
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
King Rail Heard) Rallus elegans
Zapata Rail (Heard)* Cyanolimnas cerverai
Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
American Coot Fulica americana
Limpkin Aramus guarauna
Northern Jacana Jacana spinosa
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes
Spotted Sandpiper Tringa macularia
Willet Catoptrophorus semipalmatus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus
Sanderling Calidris alba
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Stilt Sandpiper Micropalama himantopus
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
Gray Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia
Royal Tern Sterna maxima
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis
Rock Dove Columba livia
White-crowned Pigeon Columba leucocephala
Scaly-naped Pigeon Columba squamosa
Plain Pigeon Columba inornata
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica asiatica
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina
Gray-headed Quail-Dove Geotrygon caniceps
Key West Quail-Dove Geotrygon chrysia
Ruddy Quail-Dove Geotrygon montana
Blue-headed Quail-Dove* Starnoenas cyanocephala
Cuban Parakeet* Aratinga euops
Cuban Parrot Amazona leucocephala
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor
Great Lizard-Cuckoo Saurothera merlini
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani
Bare-legged Owl* Otus lawrencii
Cuban Pygmy-Owl* Glaucidium siju
Stygian Owl Asio stygius
Cuban Nightjar* Caprimulgus cubanensis cubanensis
Antillean Palm-Swift Tachornis phoenicobia
Cuban Emerald Chlorostilbon ricordii
Bee Hummingbird* Mellisuga helenae
Cuban Trogon* Priotelus temnurus
Belted Kingfisher Ceryle alcyon
Cuban Tody* Todus multicolor
West Indian Woodpecker Melanerpes superciliaris
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Cuban Green Woodpecker* Xiphidiopicus percussus
Northern (Cuban) Flicker Colaptes auratus chrysocaulosus
Fernandina's Flicker * Colaptes fernandinae
Eastern Wood-Pewee Contopus virens
Crescent-eyed Pewee* Contopus caribaeus
La Sagra's Flycatcher Myiarchus sagrae
Loggerhead Kingbird Tyrannus caudifasciatus
Giant Kingbird* Tyrannus cubensis
Cuban Palm Crow * Corvus minutus
Cuban Crow * Corvus nasicus
Cuban Vireo * Vireo gundlachii
Thick-billed Vireo Vireo crassirostris
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Cuban Solitaire * Myadestes elisabeth
Western Red-legged Thrush Turdus plumbeus plumbeus
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii
Zapata Wren* Ferminia cerverai
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
Cuban Gnatcatcher * Polioptila lembeyei
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor
Cuban Martin* Progne cryptoleuca
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Northern Parula Parula americana
Yellow (Golden)Warbler Dendroica petechia
Magnolia Warbler Dendroica magnolia
Cape May Warbler Dendroica tigrina
Black-throated Blue Warbler Dendroica caerulescens
Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata
Black-throated Green Warbler Dendroica virens
Yellow-throated Warbler Dendroica dominica
Olive-capped Warbler Dendroica pityophila
Prairie Warbler Dendroica discolor
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
Worm-eating Warbler Helmitheros vermivorus
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapillus
Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Yellow-headed Warbler* Teretistris fernandinae
Oriente Warbler* Teretistris fornsi
Hooded Warbler Wilsonia citrina
Zapata Sparrow * Torreornis inexpectata
Western Stripe-headed Tanager Spindalis zena zena
Red-legged Honeycreeper Cyanerpes cyaneus
Cuban Bullfinch * Melopyrrha nigra
Cuban Grassquit* Tiaris canora
Yellow-faced Grassquit Tiaris olivacea
Black-cowled Oriole Icterus dominicensis
Red-shouldered Blackbird* Agelaius assimilis
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius humeralis
Cuban Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna hippocrepis
Cuban Blackbird* Dives atroviolacea
Greater Antillean Grackle Quiscalus niger
Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis

JAMAICA (February 22 to February 25)

We saw 26 endemic Jamaican species, as well as an endemic subspecies which is a potentially good split. In addition, we saw a number of Caribbean specialties. This was in only 2.5 days of birding. The following is a list of most interesting and "target" birds:
White-Crowned Pigeon Orange River Lodge
Ring-Tailed Pigeon* Barbecue Bottom Rd.
White-Winged Dove Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Zenaida Dove Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Common Grounddove Rocklands
Caribbean Dove Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Crested Quail-Dove* Marshall's Pen
Ruddy Quail-Dove Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Parakeet* Orange River Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Green-Rumped Parrotlet Orange River Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Yellow-Billed Parrot* Barbecue Bottom Rd.
Black-billed Parrot* Barbecue Bottom Rd.
Chestnut-Bellied Cuckoo* Marshall's Pen, Barbecue Bottom Rd.
Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo* Barbecue Bottom Rd.
Jamaican Owl* Marshall's Pen, Orange R. Lodge (Hrd)
Smooth-billed Ani widespread in pastureland
Jamaican Potoo Marshall's Pen, Orange R. Lodge (Hrd)
Antillean Palm Swift the common small swift, Montego Bay
Jamaican Mango* Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Red-Billed Streamertail* Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Vervain Hummingbird Orange R. Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Tody* Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Woodpecker* Orange R. Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Pewee* Marshall's Pen, Barbecue Bottom Rd.
Rufous-Tailed Flycatcher* Marshall's Pen
Sad Flycatcher* Orange R. Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Loggerhead Kingbird common, widespread
Jamaican Becard* Orange R. Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Antillean) Cave Swallow Barbecue Botom Rd.
Jamaican Crow* Orange River Lodge
White-Chinned Thrush* Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
White-Eyed Thrush* Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Vireo* Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Arrow-headed Warbler* Barbecue Bottom Rd.
Kentucky Warbler Orange R. Lodge rare, (fide R. Sutton)
Bananaquit common, (endemic race, potential split)
Orangequit* Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Euphonia* Orange R. Lodge, Marshall's Pen
Jamaican Stripe-Headed Tanager* Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Greater Antillean Bullfinch Orange R. Lodge, Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Yellow-Shouldered Grassquit* Marshall's Pen
Yellow-Faced Grassquit Rocklands, Marshall's Pen
Black-Faced Grassquit common
Greater Antillean Grackle common
Jamaican Oriole* Rocklands, Marshall's Pen

Gail Mackiernan
216 Mowbray Rd.
Silver Spring, MD 20904

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