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20 December 1998 - 2 January 1999

by Blake Maybank

All photos © Blake Maybank, 1999




I organised a family vacation to Cuba for Christmas and New Year's, 1998/99, a group of six people.  Of the group, only three were interested in natural history.  We were not interested, therefore, in a commercial organised birding trip to Cuba (several Canadian and British companies offer such tours).  Instead, I had to find an affordable all-inclusive modern beach-side resort, but one that allowed easy access into the Cuban countryside.

The popular tourist peninsula of Veradero in western Cuba was thereby excluded from my search, as there is little local natural habitat, and journeys to the mainland of Cuba are lengthy, although the Zapata Swamp might be accessible in a long day-trip.  Outside of Veradero, Western Cuba, in particular the Havana area, does not offer the seaside attractions that my family members desired.

I also looked at Cayo Coco, off the north coast of Central Cuba, an increasingly popular island resort destination, linked by a road to the main island.  Cayo Coco remains quite natural, and so offers good "hotel birding", but trips to the rest of mainland would be long, and perhaps unproductive.

That left eastern Cuba, and here the resorts are concentrated around two areas:

1) Guardalavaca, on the NE coast, an hour to the NE of Holguin airport; and
2) Santiago de Cuba, on the SE coast.

My first preference was for two resorts near Santiago de Cuba, as the mountains of the Sierra Maestra are close by, and I imagined there would be reasonable accessible birding opportunities.  However, Cuba is very popular with Canadians in winter, and my first two choices were already fully booked.  We then tried for the Hotel Las Brisas (formerly a Delta hotel), at Playa Guardalavaca.

As stated, the trip was all-inclusive, with a direct non-stop flight from Halifax to Holguin.  Our Air Transat charter flight was late, but we arrived reasonably intact, and were in our comfortable hotel rooms by 0100.

Las Brisas Resort, Playa Guardalavaca
                                                     View of Las Brisas Resort, seen from the Coastal Trail.
                                                                          photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

Our Las Brisas Hotel was clean, comfortable, professionally run, and emotionally and physically therapeutic.  It was a Four-Star hotel by Cuban standards, but is not the equal of Four-Star hotels in the Bahamas, or Barbados, or Bermuda.  However, the prices are much more reasonable.  It is excellent value for the money, and with a 60% return rate among their clientele, and a year-round occupancy rate of 85+%, they are doing something right.  The staff are attentive, the food is well-prepared, the music divine, the snorkelling is brilliant, and the rum is superb.  It is the most expensive hotel along the beach in Playa Guardalavaca, and the other, more modestly priced hotels and self-catering apartments were also clean and comfortable.  A few kilometres to the west were two hotels in the Dutch del Rio chain, and I didn't examine them, but I heard good reports.

As is common with all-inclusive vacations, trips away from the resort to explore the countryside are an additional expense.  We took several (see further on).

[Note to U.S. readers: there are numerous Inclusive-Vacation Charter Companies operating regular flights from Canada, the U.K., Netherlands, Spain, and Germany.  Canadians dominate the winter vacation scene, although there are many European visitors as well.  The Canadian tourists tend to be much less interested in explorations of any sort, being more content to linger close to the beach and the free rum.  Given the quality of a typical Canadian winter, this should perhaps not come as a great surprise.  Many Europeans go to Cuba in the summer, to escape the European heat, and Europeans are more likely to explore the countryside at any season.]

You can also go to Cuba on your own, without the benefit of a package holiday or organised tour.  If this is your desire, I recommend you read the Cuba Guide book recommended in the referencessection of this report.

Getting around:

Representatives from the various charter companies are frequently present at the hotels to offer in-country tours.  All in-country tours are organised by one of two Cuban government organisations, either Cubanacan, or Gaviota.  Gaviota tends to offer more tours with a natural history or cultural history focus than does Cubanacan, which, as its name suggests, has a strong Canadian connection.

It was possible to rent cars (standard transmission only) and mopeds from the hotel.  We did neither, so I can't tell you the rates.  However, I did drive one of the jeeps for our outing to Pinares, and the roads, while frequently in poor shape, were never frightening.  Motorised traffic is relatively light, as there continues to be a shortage of vehicles.  There are lots of pedestrians, bicycles, and horse-drawn wagons to be on the watch for.  Take special care when driving after dark.  The average driving speed was 40 kph, so time trips accordingly.

Solid one-speed bicycles were available for free to hotel guests, and were quite useful in the flat coastal areas near Guardalavaca.


1)  --  "Cuba Handbook" by Christopher P. Baker. Published by Moon Travel Handbooks.  We purchased it on-line through  We looked at many, and this is the BEST. Go to:

2)  -- "A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies", 1998, by Herbert Raffaele, et al., published by Princeton University Press.  Excellent resource, although not a pocket guide.  It fit in my backpack, though, and accompanied us on our outings.  Available through American Birding Association Sales, 1-800-634-7736, or
This book now supercedes the following old standby...

3)  -- "Birds of the West Indies", by Bond, (James Bond), published by Houghton Mifflin.  A useful, but not essential, back-up reference.  I lent it to a local artist in Guardalavaca who hand-painted two wonderful T-shirts using the plates for inspiration.


We had no problems with food or water, and at all our hotels could drink safely from the taps.  No particular vaccinations or inoculations were required.


We encountered few mosquitoes, and no chiggers.  One member of the group found a tick, but it hadn't burrowed in.


The temperature was in the high 20's to low 30's every day, and cooler in the evening.  It went down to 15 degrees towards dawn at El Saltón.  Although it was supposed to be the dry season, we experienced heavy showers on about half the days, and it was unusually windy, sufficient some days to cause cancellation of snorkelling and Scuba diving due to high water turbidity.  Unusual weather seems the norm these days.  But it wasn't a Canadian winter, and for that we were all thankful.


We had no experience with big-city Cuban life, but in the countryside, and around the resorts in which we stayed, we experienced no problems at all.  There was essentially no begging, although in the Guardalavaca area there were some people willing to sell you cigars or sea-shells, but they weren't pushy or obnoxious.  By contrast, most people were friendly and curious.  I never felt at risk, and neither did any of the five female members of our group.  We kept our valuables locked in our hotel-room safe, and had no troubles.  I have read trip reports from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic which describe a much more tense atmosphere away from the hotels, but Cuba does not follow this pattern.  Of course, Cuba is unique in many ways.


Most of the in-country tours can be paid for with credit cards, as can expenses incurred through hotels.  However, we had to pay cash using the "Special Traffic" tour company, for reasons which weren't ever quite clear.  But the trip was great, regardless.  Getting more money from the local bank presented no difficulty.  U.S. dollars are the currency of necessity within the country, an irony which should escape no-one.  You cannot use any credit cards linked with U.S. banks, nor anything connected to American Express, including their travellers cheques.

Outside hotels it's generally cash only.  For example, we ate one night in a local Cuban restaurant, not from the hotel.  In fact, the hotel encourages it by giving each person a $5 coupon to be redeemed at the restaurant.  The meal was excellent, but our bill was about twice our coupon value, and we had to use cash for the rest.

Other Attractions and Recommendations:

The coffee is superb, and all shade-grown (hence "bird friendly"), since the country cannot afford any pesticides or herbicides, one of the few good things to come out of the embargo.  The cocoa is equally fine.  The rum is as smooth as the breast of a Cuban Tody.  Artwork is skilfully and imaginatively executed, and ludicrously under-priced.  I don't smoke, so can't comment on the cigars, except to state that most black market cigars are said to be inferior copies, and not the "real thing".

Canadians are very much in the habit of bringing items into Cuba which are in short supply locally, and distributing them as tips to staff, or simply giving them to families or people one encounters as one roams the countryside.  T-shirts and baseball caps are frequently left behind, but children's clothing is much desired, as are school supplies (pencils, crayons, pens, paper), soap and toiletries, tampons, etc.  Even our empty plastic water bottles were welcome.  From within the hotels the extent of the shortages in the countryside isn't especially obvious, but it is real.  Take into the country as much as will fit in your suitcases, and replace it for the homeward trip with coffee, artwork, cigars, and rum.  And wonderful memories.  It seems a fair trade.

Overall Recommendation:

Go.  I'd return in a heart-beat.  It's a wonderful country.  And don't believe anything you are told by any U.S. media source.  Go and see the country for yourself, and make up your own mind.


Red-tailed Hawk
                                                  Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), local resident race.
                                                                         photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

As you read this account, keep two things in mind.

First, this wasn't planned primarily as a birding trip, and only four days of the trip involved excursions away from the Guardalavaca area.  And while in Playa Guardalavaca there were some days in which there was very little birding.

Second, Cuba is a big country, by far the largest in the Caribbean.  I know of no-one, nor any tour, that has managed to see all 25 endemic species in one trip, or even multiple trips.  We saw 11 of them, less than half, but at best we were birding about 10% of the time, quite unlike any tour.  And our final trip list was 91 species, which reflects well on the quality of the birding experience in this country, even for a relaxed investigation.

(In addition to the birding, there was a remarkable array of butterflies, and many interesting tropical plants.  And the coral reefs were magnificent.)


A) - Playa Guardalavaca  --  20 December 1997 - 2 January 1998

The first endemic was easy, as the Cuban Blackbirds patrolled the grass in the hotel grounds.  And, in the hotel Palm Trees, there were frequently Palm warblers, most apropos.  Other ornithological delights were not far away.  The following are the areas in and near Playa Guardalavaca that I found productive.

1 - The Mangrove.

Immediately to the east of the Las Brisas Hotel (itself the easternmost facility in Playa Guardalavaca), was a small mangrove, bisected by a rough wide rocky track.  It was a favourite heron roost at night, and we could watch from our hotel room balcony, rum drinks in hand, as the birds came in at dusk.  Most were Cattle Egrets, but other species were mixed in.  Yellow-faced Grassquits were easily seen along the edges of the mangrove, and there were many migrant warblers in the foliage.

2 - The Coastal Trail.

Three hundred metres east of the Las Brisas Hotel was the local restaurant, El Cayuelo.  To the east of the restaurant there is a line of houses parallelling the beach for another few hundred metres.  At low tide you can walk along the beach to the end of the houses, or at high tide take the dirt road on the land side of the houses.  Either way, past the last house, there is a trail at the edge of the water which quickly forks.  The left fork follows the coastline, first along a tiny beach, then through some second growth scrub.  Just past the tiny beach, there is a clearing on the landward side of the trail, and here there was a singing Red-legged Thrush, and among a large warbler feeding flock we had our only Oriente Warbler of the trip.  The left-hand trail then continues, and I never found its end. The right fork also roughly follows the coastline, but inland some distance, and more accurately follows an ancient up-lifted coral coastline (raised by tectonic activity perhaps?).  There is thick, second growth scrub, and this trail was usually very birdy, although it was sometimes hard to see into the vegetation.  I hiked this trail for several kilometres, and never found its end either.  But I did have many Cuban Vireos, a Lizard-Cuckoo, Plain Pigeon, Loggerhead Kingbirds, and a Cuban Pygmy-Owl, among many other birds.

Cuban Vireo  (Vireo gundlachii)
                                                                      Cuban Vireo (Vireo gundlachii)
                                                                             Endemic Cuban species.
                                                                       photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

3 - The Reservoir.

The water supply reservoir for Playa Guardalavaca is just south of the main highway going to Banes.  Simply get on your bicycle from the hotel, go east on the paved road, and follow it for a kilometre.  It first follows the coast, and then goes inland.  Just past the first junction with the road that bypasses Playa Guardalavaca, watch on your right for the raised dykes of the reservoir.  I only checked it once with a scope, but I'm sure more frequent visits would be rewarded.

4 - The Anchor Restaurant access road.

At the western end of Playa Guardalavaca is another local restaurant, "The Anchor", although this is an English translation of its Spanish name, which I neglected to write down.  The restaurant is accessible by foot from the western end of the beach.  However, it does have road access, and this road offered good birding.  You can do it on foot, of course, walking from Playa Guardalavaca, but we did it by bicycle.  You take the main highway from Playa Guardalavaca in the direction of Holguin.  First, just past the overpass, look on the south side of the highway at a small reed-bed cum wetland.  It held two Least Bitterns on one occasion.  Further west, watch for the sign indicating the restaurant, and take the dirt road going north towards the ocean.  The road first passes through sugar cane, but then climbs a small hill, and bisects several hundred metres of forest before reaching the coast, and the restaurant.  There were numerous migrants, and a number of resident birds, including Cuban Emeralds, Ruddy Quail-Dove, and others.

Species seen - GUARDALAVACA  --  20 December 1997 - 2 January 1998

Note: for species seen daily the highest count is given.
Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) 14, Dec 25th
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) 1, Dec 25th
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 5, Dec 21st
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) 1, Dec 27th
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) daily: high count of 3, Dec 22nd 
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1, Jan 1st
Great Egret (Ardea alba) 1, Dec 22nd
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) daily: high count of 500, Dec 25th
Green Heron (Butorides virescens) 1, Dec 21st
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) 2, Dec 27th; 1, Jan 2nd
Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) 2, Dec 22nd
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 50, Dec 22nd
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) 2, Dec 22nd
American Coot (Fulica americana) 8, Dec 25th
Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) 3, Dec 25th
Spotted Sandpiper (Tringa macularia) 2, Dec 22nd
Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) 2, Dec 21st; 2, Jan 1st
Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) 1, Dec 20th
Royal Tern (Sterna maxima) daily: high count of 5, Dec 20th 
Rock Dove (Columba livia) 2, Dec 22nd
Plain Pigeon (Columba inornata) 1, Dec 28th; 1, Jan 2nd
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) daily: high count of 3, Dec 22nd 
Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita) 1, Dec 22nd
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica) 4, Jan 2nd
Ruddy Quail-Dove (Geotrygon montana) 1, Dec 22nd
Ruddy Quail-Dove (Geotrygon montana) 1, Dec 26th
Great Lizard-Cuckoo (Saurothera merlini) 2, Dec 26th; 1, Dec 28th
Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) daily: high count of 14, Dec 28th
Cuban Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium siju) 1, Dec 28th
Cuban Emerald (Chlorostilbon ricordii) 2, Dec 26th; 1, Dec 28th
Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) 1, Dec 21st; 1, Jan 1st
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) 1, Dec 22nd
Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) 1, Dec 28th
White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) 1, Dec 28th
Cuban Vireo (Vireo gundlachii) 6, Dec 26th; 3, Dec 28th
Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) 1, Dec 22nd; 2, Dec 26th; 1, Dec 28th; 1, Jan 2nd
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) daily: high count of 20, Dec 22nd
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) daily: high count of 20, Dec 20th
Northern Parula (Parula americana) daily: high count of 4, Dec 28th
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) 4, Dec 21st; 2, Dec 22nd
Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) daily: high count of 4, Dec 22nd 
Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina) daily: high count of 2, Dec 26th 
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) daily: high count of 8, Dec 26th 
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) 1, Dec 26th
Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor) daily: high count of 10, Dec 26th 
Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) daily: high count of 7, Dec 22nd 
Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) 1, Dec 20th
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) daily: high count of 2, Dec 26th 
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) daily: high count of 6, Dec 22nd 
Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus) 1, Dec 26th
Swainson's Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) 1, Dec 22nd
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus) 1, Dec 26th; 1, Jan 2nd
Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis) daily: high count of 2, Dec 22nd 
Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla) daily: high count of 2, Dec 21st 
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) 1, Dec 21st
Oriente Warbler (Teretistris fornsi) 1, Dec 28th
Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivacea) daily: high count of 15, Dec 22nd 
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) 1, Dec 27th
Cuban Blackbird (Dives atroviolacea) daily: high count of 12, Dec 22nd 
Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger) daily: high count of 15, Dec 28th 

B) - Pinares de Mayarí  --  23 December 1998

We did this as a long day-trip from our hotel.  Pinares de Mayarí is on an isolated mesa in the Sierra de Nipe, one of the mountain ranges in SE Cuba.  There is a lodge there, now fully Cuban owned and operated, and not, therefore, linked to any of the package holidays.  It's not on the beach, after all.  But it has a wonderful natural setting in the forested mountains, and served us a very fine lunch.  We went on an organised trip through one of the package tour representatives at the hotel.  On the advice of a Dutch couple we met, we used Special Traffic, who cater to the Dutch and Germans, who generally want a more natural trip, with more hiking and natural history.  Other companies go to this location, but concentrate on farm visits, etc.  Instead, we visited waterfalls, hiked in the pine forests, explored the Integral Mountain Research Station (specialising in growing herbal medicines (another embargo initiative)), and a botanical garden.  All the sites were very good for birds, especially the hike through a pine forest to an overlook at a spectacular waterfall.  The best birds were two Giant Kingbirds, although we also enjoyed numerous Cuban Todys, a Cuban Trogon, and many pair of Olive-capped Warblers.

American Kestrel
                                                         American Kestrel (Falco sparverius sparveroides)
                                                                        Local resident race; light phase
                                                                        photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

I'd love to be able to spend a night or two at the lodge, and enjoy the birding in the morning or the evening.  Instead, it was a long day-trip for us, leaving at 0730, and requiring 3.5 hours to reach our destination.  There was little compelling bird habitat en route, although we could have stopped wherever we wished to .  I did all the driving for our jeep, as licensed drivers are in short supply in the country.  We returned well after dark, around 1930, and during the drive I had the pleasure of driving in the dark, in an open jeep, during several heavy downpours (it was odd weather, as I said, and unexpected -- the company had taken the covers off the jeeps for the "dry" season).  I needed wipers for the inside of the windshield, but I enjoyed it.  A memorable day.

Species seen - PINARES DE MAYARI   --  23 December 1998
Little Blue Heron  (Egretta caerulea)
Snowy Egret  (Egretta thula)
Great Blue Heron  (Ardea herodias)
Cattle Egret  (Bubulcus ibis) 200 
Green Heron  (Butorides virescens)
Red-tailed Hawk  (Buteo jamaicensis)
American Kestrel  (Falco sparverius)
Killdeer  (Charadrius vociferus)
Rock Dove  (Columba livia)
Mourning Dove  (Zenaida macroura)
Smooth-billed Ani  (Crotophaga ani)
Cuban Emerald  (Chlorostilbon ricordii)
Cuban Trogon  (Priotelus temnurus)
Belted Kingfisher  (Ceryle alcyon)
Cuban Tody  (Todus multicolor)
Cuban Pewee  (Contopus caribaeus)
Loggerhead Kingbird  (Tyrannus caudifasciatus)
Giant Kingbird  (Tyrannus cubensis)
Cuban Crow  (Corvus nasicus)
Cuban Vireo  (Vireo gundlachii)
Red-legged Thrush  (Turdus plumbeus)
Gray Catbird  (Dumetella carolinensis)
Northern Mockingbird  (Mimus polyglottos) 15 
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  (Polioptila caerulea)
House Sparrow  (Passer domesticus) 10 
Northern Parula  (Parula americana)
Cape May Warbler  (Dendroica tigrina)
Black-throated Blue Warbler  (Dendroica caerulescens)
Olive-capped Warbler  (Dendroica pityophila) 10 
Prairie Warbler  (Dendroica discolor)
Palm Warbler  (Dendroica palmarum) 15 
Black-and-white Warbler  (Mniotilta varia)
American Redstart  (Setophaga ruticilla)
Ovenbird  (Seiurus aurocapillus)
Northern Waterthrush  (Seiurus noveboracensis)
Louisiana Waterthrush  (Seiurus motacilla)
Stripe-headed Tanager  (Spindalis zena) 2
Cuban Bullfinch  (Melopyrrha nigra) 10 
Yellow-faced Grassquit  (Tiaris olivacea) 30 
Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)
Cuban Blackbird  (Dives atroviolacea)
Greater Antillean Grackle  (Quiscalus niger) 10 

C) -- El Saltón  --  29-30 December 1998

This site was my personal highlight for the trip.  El Saltón is in a wonderful valley of the Sierra Maestra mountains, 75 km to the west of Santiago de Cuba.  It was built as an anti-stress centre in the 1970's, and still maintains massage, sauna, whirlpool, hikes, bicycles, and horseback riding.   It is quite feasible as a day-trip from Santiago de Cuba (1½ to 2 hours each way), but you'd miss the dawn chorus or the evening search for owls and nightjars.  Day trips from the north coast are not feasible by car, but there are periodic helicopter flights as an expensive day-trip.  We chose to drive as part of an over-night trip.

Hills Above El Saltón

                                                                                  Hills Above El Saltón
                                                                           photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

As with most recent resorts in Cuba, it was originally half-owned by Canadians (Cuba sensibly always owns at least one-half of each tourism development).  This particular resort is now entirely Cuban-owned (Delta hotels is now controlled by an American company, and so had to divest itself of all its Cuban holdings, as per U.S. law).

Without the strong marketing expertise of an off-island partner, El Saltón has not been filling up, although the facilities are in good shape.  The rooms (and their washrooms) are clean and comfortable, but the rooms do have that musty smell you get when air-conditioning is competing with a hot, humid climate.  English is spoken.  I only went hiking, as my interest was birds, butterflies, and photography, but my mother enjoyed a massage, my mother and mother-in-law had a great horseback ride, and my wife rode a bicycle to the nearby town of Crus de los Baños.   The food was superb, with the best fresh orange juice I have ever had, and the coffee and cocoa was great as well.  But the best feature, for us, was the presence of a Lodge employee, Ricardo Sierra Sosa, and self-taught naturalist, who does the daily nature hike.  Ricardo knows his nature.  He certainly speaks English quite well, and is also reasonably fluent in French and Dutch.  When you go to El Saltón as part of a package trip, you receive a free one hour guided nature hike, but Ricardo is available after that for hire, for the absurd fee of one dollar an hour.  We contracted his services for a full afternoon, evening, and the following morning, and gave him a significant tip.  He is quiet, gentle, and knowledgeable.  I was quite impressed with his knowledge of Cuban resident species, but was embarrassed when he proved to know the call notes of neotropical migrant warblers better than did I.  Apparently I am too reliant on knowing their territorial songs, which they rarely sing on their wintering grounds.

Cuban Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium siju)
                                                                  Cuban Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium siju)
                                                                               Endemic Cuban species.
                                                                           photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

In the evening, around sunset, he had us follow him to his home, which is about a 20 minute walk from the hotel in El Saltón.  There, we were given wonderful coffee by his wife, and we waited for the nightly arrival of Bare-legged Owls, of which we heard 4, and briefly saw one.  We also had a Greater Antillean Nightjar.  The following morning was also very productive.  And, if one needs a break from the birding, there is the wonderful deep pool at the base of the waterfall for swimming, or one can simply eat or drink beside the spectacle.

You can book El Saltón in a number of ways, besides simply showing up unannounced.  Bookings can be made by Cubanacan, one of the two major Cuban operated in-country tour organisers.  They usually have representatives in all the major hotels.  El Saltón is owned by Club Vida, which also owns a hotel in Santiago de Cuba, called the Santiago Hotel.  The phone number of the Santiago Hotel is (53 226) 4-6212.  The phone number for El Saltón is (53 225) 6326.

As an overnight trip from Guardalavaca one needs four hours to drive each way.  We were driven in a van with windows that were far too heavily tinted.  The birding enroute was not noteworthy, save for the only flock of swallows we saw during the entire trip.  However one chooses to go, El Saltón is worth the trouble of getting there.

male Cuban Grassquit (Tiaris canora)

                                                                  Cuban Grassquit (Tiaris canora) --  male
                                                                               Endemic Cuban species.
                                                                         photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

Species seen - EL SALTÓN -- 29-30 December 1998
Green Heron  Butorides virescens
Red-tailed Hawk  Buteo jamaicensis
American Kestrel  Falco sparverius
Common Moorhen  Gallinula chloropus
Scaly-naped Pigeon  Columba squamosa
Mourning Dove  Zenaida macroura
White-winged Dove  Zenaida asiatica
Great Lizard-Cuckoo  Saurothera merlini 2
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani 10 
Barn Owl  Tyto alba
Bare-legged Owl  Otus lawrencii
Cuban Pygmy-Owl  Glaucidium siju
Greater Antillean Nightjar  Caprimulgus nensis
Cuban Emerald  Chlorostilbon ricordii
Cuban Tody  Todus multicolor
West Indian Woodpecker  Melanerpes superciliaris
Cuban Woodpecker  Xiphidiopicus percussus
Northern Flicker  Colaptes auratus
Cuban Pewee  Contopus caribaeus
Eastern Kingbird  Tyrannus tyrannus
Red-legged Thrush  Turdus plumbeus 10 
Northern Mockingbird  Mimus polyglottos
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  Polioptila caerulea
Northern Parula  Parula americana
Black-throated Blue Warbler  Dendroica caerulescens
American Redstart  Setophaga ruticilla
Louisiana Waterthrush  Seiurus motacilla
Red-legged Honeycreeper  Cyanerpes cyaneus
Cuban Grassquit  Tiaris canora 30 
Yellow-faced Grassquit  Tiaris olivacea 10 
Black-cowled Oriole  Icterus dominicensis
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird  Agelaius humeralis 10 
Eastern Meadowlark  Sturnella magna
Cuban Blackbird  Dives atroviolacea 20 
Greater Antillean Grackle  Quiscalus niger 15 

D) - Playa Pesquero  -- 1 January 1999

This exquisite beach is 20 kilometres west from Playa Guardalavaca.  There was a weekly excursion to the beach for a beach party, which we avoided.  Instead we chose New Year's Day to go there, when we expected few crowds.  We elected to go by bicycle.  There were five hills en route, which would not have been a problem save for the strong winds blowing into our faces on the return trip.  The bicycles are only one-speed, of course.  Mind you, we were humbled by the appearance of a 45 year-old man, with his ten-year old son behind him, who had the day before biked the 60 kilometres from Playa Guardalavaca to Holguin to celebrate New Year's Eve with his family, and was in the process of returning to Playa Guardalavaca and his job when we met him.  It was 1100, he had 15 Km remaining, and he had been pedalling since 0600.  He was fit.  I was not.

Northern Parula (Parula americana)

                                                                    Northern Parula (Parula americana)
                                                                        photo © Blake Maybank, 1999

En route there was some good birding, especially where a couple of steep wooded hillsides intersected the road.  But the best birding was the final one kilometre before the beach, where the road (gravel at this point), passed through second-growth forest.  It was very birdy, and I had my only La Sagra's Flycatcher of the trip.  The beach itself was deserted, but is unlikely to remain that way, as two hotels are under construction, with three more planned.  But the forest was apparently not being touched, so the birding should remain worthwhile.

Species seen - PLAYA PESQUERO  --  1 January 1999
Snowy Egret  (Egretta thula)
Great Egret  (Ardea alba)
Cattle Egret  (Bubulcus ibis) 50 
Turkey Vulture  (Cathartes aura) 40 
American Kestrel  (Falco sparverius)
Greater Yellowlegs  (Tringa melanoleuca)
Rock Dove  (Columba livia)
Mourning Dove  (Zenaida macroura)
Common Ground-Dove  (Columbina passerina)
Ruddy Quail-Dove  (Geotrygon montana)
Smooth-billed Ani  (Crotophaga ani) 10 
La Sagra's Flycatcher  (Myiarchus sagrae) 1
Loggerhead Kingbird  (Tyrannus caudifasciatus)
Cuban Vireo  (Vireo gundlachii)
Northern Mockingbird  (Mimus polyglottos) 25 
Northern Parula  (Parula americana)
Cape May Warbler  (Dendroica tigrina)
Black-throated Blue Warbler  (Dendroica caerulescens)
Prairie Warbler  (Dendroica discolor) 10 
Palm Warbler  (Dendroica palmarum) 15 
Northern Waterthrush  (Seiurus noveboracensis)
Louisiana Waterthrush  (Seiurus motacilla)
Common Yellowthroat  (Geothlypis trichas)
Yellow-faced Grassquit  (Tiaris olivacea) 10 
Cuban Blackbird  (Dives atroviolacea)
Greater Antillean Grackle  (Quiscalus niger) 10 

Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus)
                                                               Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus)
                                                                  Eastern Cuban (and Bahamian) race
                                                                      photo © Blake Maybank, 1999



1) A species in bold type indicates a species endemic to the Caribbean.  Example:
Cuban Emerald  Chlorostilbon ricordii Zunzún / Pica Flor

2) A species in CAPITALS in bold type indicates a species endemic to Cuba. Eg:
CUBAN TODY  Todus multicolor Pedorrera / Cartacuba

Note: Annotations follow this list.
Least Grebe  Tachybaptus dominicus Zaramagullón Chico
Pied-billed Grebe  Podilymbus podiceps Zaramagullón Grande
Brown Pelican  Pelecanus occidentalis Alcatraz
Reddish Egret  Egretta rufescens Garza Roja
Little Blue Heron  Egretta caerulea Garza Azul
Snowy Egret  Egretta thula Garza Real
Great Blue Heron  Ardea herodias Garcilote
Great Egret  Ardea alba Garzón
Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis Garcita Bueyera
Green Heron  Butorides virescens Caga Leche
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron  Nyctanassa violacea Guanabá Real
Least Bittern  Ixobrychus exilis Garcita
Turkey Vulture  Cathartes aura Aura Tiñosa
Red-tailed Hawk 1 Buteo jamaicensis Gavilán de Monte
American Kestrel 2 Falco sparverius Cernícalo
Common Moorhen  Gallinula chloropus Gallareta Pico Rojo
American Coot  Fulica americana Gallareta Pico Blanco 
Greater Yellowlegs  Tringa melanoleuca Zarapico Patiamarillo Grande
Spotted Sandpiper  Tringa macularia Zarapico Manchado
Least Sandpiper  Calidris minutilla Zarapiquito
Killdeer  Charadrius vociferus Titere Sabanero
Herring Gull  Larus argentatus Gallego
Laughing Gull  Larus atricilla Galleguito
Royal Tern  Sterna maxima Gaviota Real
Rock Dove  Columba livia Torcaza
Scaly-naped Pigeon  Columba squamosa Torcaza Morada
Plain Pigeon  Columba inornata Torcaza Boba
Mourning Dove  Zenaida macroura Paloma Rabiche
Zenaida Dove  Zenaida aurita Guanaro
White-winged Dove  Zenaida asiatica Paloma Aliblanca
Common Ground-Dove  Columbina passerina Tojosa
Ruddy Quail-Dove  Geotrygon montana Boyero
Great Lizard-Cuckoo  Saurothera merlini Guacaica
Smooth-billed Ani  Crotophaga ani Judío
Barn Owl  Tyto alba Lechuza
BARE-LEGGED OWL  Otus lawrencii Sijú Cotunto / Cuco
CUBAN PYGMY-OWL  Glaucidium siju Sijú Plantaner / Sijúcito
Greater Antillean Nightjar  Caprimulgus cubanensis Guabairo
Cuban Emerald  Chlorostilbon ricordii Zunzún / Pica Flor
CUBAN TROGON 3 Priotelus temnurus Tocoloro / Guatiní
Belted Kingfisher  Ceryle alcyon Martín Pescador
CUBAN TODY  Todus multicolor Pedorrera / Cartacuba
West Indian Woodpecker  Melanerpes superciliaris Carpintero Jabado
CUBAN WOODPECKER 4 Xiphidiopicus percussus Carpintero Verde / Ruán
Northern Flicker 5 Colaptes auratus Carpintero Escapulario
Cuban Pewee 6 Contopus caribaeus Bobito Chico / Pitibobo
La Sagra's Flycatcher  Myiarchus sagrae Bobito Grande
Eastern Kingbird  Tyrannus tyrannus Pitirre Americano
Loggerhead Kingbird  Tyrannus caudifasciatus Pitirre Guatíbere
GIANT KINGBIRD  Tyrannus cubensis Pitirre Real
CUBAN CROW  Corvus nasicus Cao Montero / Cao
White-eyed Vireo  Vireo griseus Vireo de Ojo Blanco
CUBAN VIREO 7 Vireo gundlachii Juan Chivi / Chichinguao
Red-legged Thrush 8 Turdus plumbeus Zorzal Real
Gray Catbird  Dumetella carolinensis Zorzal Gato
Northern Mockingbird  Mimus polyglottos Sinsonte
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  Polioptila caerulea Rabuita
Tree Swallow  Tachycineta bicolor Golondrina de Arboles
Barn Swallow  Hirundo rustica Golondrina Cola de Tijera
Cave Swallow  Hirundo fulva Golondrina de Cuevas
House Sparrow  Passer domesticus Gorrión
Northern Parula  Parula americana Bijirita Chica
Yellow Warbler 9 Dendroica petechia Canario de Mangle
Magnolia Warbler  Dendroica magnolia Bijirita Magnolia
Cape May Warbler  Dendroica tigrina Bijirita Atigrada
Black-throated Blue Warbler 10 Dendroica caerulescens Bijirita Azul de Garganta Negra
Yellow-rumped Warbler  Dendroica coronata Bijirita Coronada
Olive-capped Warbler 11 Dendroica pityophila Bijirita del Pinar
Prairie Warbler  Dendroica discolor Mariposa Galana
Palm Warbler 12 Dendroica palmarum Bijirita Común
Blackpoll Warbler  Dendroica striata Bijirita de Cabeza Negra
Black-and-white Warbler  Mniotilta varia Bijirita Trepadora
American Redstart  Setophaga ruticilla Candelita
Worm-eating Warbler  Helmitheros vermivorus Bijirita Gusanera
Swainson's Warbler  Limnothlypis swainsonii Bijirita de Swainson
Ovenbird  Seiurus aurocapillus Señorita del Monte
Northern Waterthrush  Seiurus noveboracensis Señorita de Manglar
Louisiana Waterthrush  Seiurus motacilla Señorita de Rio
Common Yellowthroat  Geothlypis trichas Caretica
ORIENTE WARBLER  Teretistris fornsi Pechero / Chinchillita
Stripe-headed Tanager 13 Spindalis zena Cabrero
Red-legged Honeycreeper Cyanerpes cyaneus Aparecido de San Diego
Cuban Bullfinch  Melopyrrha nigra Negrito
CUBAN GRASSQUIT 14 Tiaris canora Tomeguín del Pinar
Yellow-faced Grassquit  Tiaris olivacea Tomeguín de la Tierra
Baltimore Oriole  Icterus galbula Turpial
Black-cowled Oriole  Icterus dominicensis Solibio
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird  Agelaius humeralis Mayito / Totí Mayito
Eastern Meadowlark 15 Sturnella magna Sabanero
CUBAN BLACKBIRD  Dives atroviolacea Totí / Choncholí
Greater Antillean Grackle  Quiscalus niger Chichinguaco

Species seen = 91

Non-migratory West Indian race
Resident race Falco sparverius sparveroides; also occurs on the Bahamas & Jamaica, and is the only race with dark and light colour phases. Potential future split.
The national bird of Cuba. 
Called "Cuban Green Woodpecker" in Raffaele, et al.
Resident endemic subspecies Colaptes auratus chrysocaulosus, local and declining. Potential future split.
6 Called "Crescent-eyed Pewee" in Raffaele, et al.
7 The species is said to breed from April to June, but near Guardalavaca they were singing every morning, and pairs appeared to be territorial, as I found them in the same place on several successive days. They showed no evidence of flocking with warblers.
8 A species that deserves study. There are visually different races on different islands, and two races occur in Cuba, but don't overlap. We saw the eastern race, which also occurs on the Bahamas, with black throat, white chin, and gray underparts. 
9 The few we saw (around Playa Guardalavaca) appeared to be North American migrants, and not the non-migratory local race.
10 The Black-throated Blue Warblers did not display any of the secretive or aloof behaviour they typically exhibit on their northern breeding grounds. They foraged in plain view within thatched open-air restaurants, they responded enthusiastically to pishing, and were readily picked out among feeding warbler flocks. A wonderful show.
11 According to Raffaele, et al., the Olive-capped Warbler is usually in pine tree-tops except during the breeding season of March - August. By contrast, we encountered five pairs in our hike in Pinares de Mayarí, and all were close to the ground. They readily came in to pishing, and were usually in the company of wintering migrant warblers.
12 I was surprised to see that all the Palm Warblers were of the western race, Dendroica palmarum palmarum. Does Dendroica palmarum hypochrysea winter further to the NW?
13 Called "Western Stripe-headed Tanager" in Raffaele, et al., in recognition of the imminent split of Stripe-headed Tanager into three species; this subspecies/species also occurs in the Bahamas. The races of Stripe-headed Tanager in Jamaica and Hisponiola are also considered separate species.
14 The Cuban Grassquit was formerly widespread, but, due to illegal capture for the Cagebird trade, is now hard to find. They were refreshingly common at El Saltón, however.
15 This is another bird that requires closer study, especially in light of the imminent splits among the Eastern Meadowlark in North America. Cuba has the only population of Eastern Meadowlark in the Caribbean, and it is a resident, non-migratory subspecies, Sturnella magna hippocrepis. We heard it singing, and its song was unlike any Eastern Meadowlark I've heard. A strong candidate for splitting. 

Respectfully submitted:

Blake Maybank

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