04/04 - 27/04/2014
Hans Matheve, Bas Matheve & Jasmin Lauwaert
Many thanks go out to Peter Collaerts for pre-trip information. Thanks to the South African couple for letting me join the La Turba excursion.
A set of my bird sound recordings of this trip can be found at Xeno-Canto.
Departure from Brussels Airport + Arrival at Havana Airport. Night in Havana.
Visit Havana. Night in Havana.
Visit Havana. Night in Havana.
Pick up car + travel to San Diego de los Banos (2.5 hrs) + birding La Guira NP (grassquit site). Night in San Diego de los Banos.
Birding La Guira NP (Pine Trail and Cueva de los Portales). Night in San Diego de los Banos.
Birding La Guira NP (Hacienda Cortina) + drive to and visit Las Terrazes (1 hr) + drive to Playa Larga (3.5 hrs). Night in Playa Larga.
Birding Cienaga de Zapata NP (La Turba and Soplillar) + relax at Playa Larga. Night in Playa Larga.
Snorkeling at Cueva de Peces (25 min drive) and Playa Larga. Night in Playa Larga.
Birding Cienaga de Zapata NP (Soplillar) + relax at Playa Larga. Night in Playa Larga.
Birding Cienaga de Zapata NP (Soplillar) + snorkeling at Punta Perdiz. Night in Playa Larga.
Snorkeling at Cueva de Peces + drive to Cienfuegos (50 min). Night in Cienfuegos.
Visit Cienfuegos + drive to and visit Trinidad (1.5 hr). Night in Trinidad.
Visit Trinidad + drive to and visit Sancti Spiritus (1 hr) + drive to Camaguey (3 hrs). Night in Camaguey.
Visit Camaguey + drive to Najasa (1 hr 15 min) + birding Najasa (cemetary). Night in Finca La Belen.
Birding Najasa (Finca La Belen grounds) + drive to Camaguey (1 hr 15 min). Night in Camaguey
Visit Camaguey + drive to Moron (3 hrs). Night in Moron.
Drive to and birding Cayo Peradon Grande (1.5 hrs) + relax at Cayo Coco + drive back to Moron (1.5 hrs). Night in Moron.
Drive to and birding Cayo Guillermo (1.5 hrs) + relax at Cayo Guillermo + drive back to Moron. Night in Moron.
Visit Moron + drive to and visit Remedios (2 hrs) + drive to Santa Clara (30 min). Night in Santa Clara.
Visit Santa Clara. Night in Santa Clara.
Visit Santa Clara + drive to Havana (3 hrs). Night in Havana.
Visit Havana. Night in Havana.
Visit Havana + departure from Havana Airport.
Arrival at brussels Airport
Note: This was more a family trip, so we took our time to relax, visit cities and beaches, do snorkeling and other non-birding activities. When making a hardcore birding trip it must be possible to make it in about 8 days. Birding was very easy/straightforward and limited to a few hours in the morning..
Download kml file with all gps coordinates
Cuba with a baby
This was our first trip overseas with a baby (9 months). While preparing the trip we found out that there wasn't too much information available on the net about practical stuff concerning babies. These are some remarks which might be helpful for other (even non-birding) young parents who take their offspring:
We took all diapers for the whole trip with us. At least in cities it is possible to buy them in the supermarkets - the quality might be inferior though. In all casas particulares and even some restaurants people were very willing to prepare baby food. There are plenty of suitable vegetables and fruits. We did bring powdered milk (formula) however. It seems difficult to get it there. Temperatures were very high as was the humidity. The sun can be very burning. Make sure to take along sufficient sun protection: sun block, hat, long sleeves, umbrella, veil, ... When walking we preferred putting our baby in a baby stroller as in a combination of an umbrella it gave the best sun protection and a refreshing air flow. We only used our baby carrier backpack a couple of times: sleeping is less comfortable and he was sweating a lot more in it. As there is little traffic in Cuba walking around with a stroller was easy. Baby car seats like in the Western world are not available when renting a car. We took ours with us to travel comfortably and safely. We were happy to have taken along our portable baby tent/bed. It is very useful as a mosquito protection - in some areas there are plentiful. Also, make sure to bring child friendly repellent (no DEET), it is difficult to get in Cuba. Be aware that everybody wants to hold you baby - they simply love them!
We took all diapers for the whole trip with us. At least in cities it is possible to buy them in the supermarkets - the quality might be inferior though.
In all casas particulares and even some restaurants people were very willing to prepare baby food. There are plenty of suitable vegetables and fruits. We did bring powdered milk (formula) however. It seems difficult to get it there.
Temperatures were very high as was the humidity. The sun can be very burning. Make sure to take along sufficient sun protection: sun block, hat, long sleeves, umbrella, veil, ... When walking we preferred putting our baby in a baby stroller as in a combination of an umbrella it gave the best sun protection and a refreshing air flow. We only used our baby carrier backpack a couple of times: sleeping is less comfortable and he was sweating a lot more in it. As there is little traffic in Cuba walking around with a stroller was easy.
Baby car seats like in the Western world are not available when renting a car. We took ours with us to travel comfortably and safely.
We were happy to have taken along our portable baby tent/bed. It is very useful as a mosquito protection - in some areas there are plentiful. Also, make sure to bring child friendly repellent (no DEET), it is difficult to get in Cuba.
Be aware that everybody wants to hold you baby - they simply love them!
As we were traveling with a baby, we decided not to use public transport for this trip. We rented a car from Havanautos. Driving is very easy as the traffic is very light. The roads are quite ok, but have some pothole sections. The road to Najasa was rather bad, but still drivable with a regular car. As it is not allowed to bring a GPS, we used a free app (Maps.me, no data connection required) on our smartphone for navigating. Especially within cities this turned out to be very handy!
Traveling with public transport should be possible. Between cities there are regular but not many buses. To get to your birding destinations a taxi is probably often required. Hitchhiking is still very common in Cuba...
Tourism is the most important business for Cuba and is changing (the country) a lot! The most convenient and best accommodation is often found at 'casas particulares'. The owners were always very friendly and helpful for anything - also for arranging your casa in the next city. Near the beaches and in the bigger cities one can also opt for fancy resorts and hotels. Airbnb is also available for Cuba from now on.
Cuba has a dual legal monetary system: the major Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). As a tourist you mainly use the CUC - only for street food, small purchases or specific products the CUP is used. You have about 24-25 CUP for one CUC. More and more ATM's are found in the cities, although not all cards are accepted in some banks. Every now and then our Visa credit card was not accepted. With your credit card (and your passport!) one can easily get money at an (international) bank counter. We also took along some Euros as a backup and changed some.
The weather was invariably hot. Temperatures dropped only slightly at night. Bird activity became low from 10 AM onwards. February march might be a cooler and more comfortable period for birding.
Health and safety
We encountered no health problems. No need for any special medical precausions (ref: Institute of Tropical Medicine). Traveling independently caused no safety problems at all. In general Cuban people are very friendly and helpful especially towards babies/children. Must be one of the safer places in the Americas.
Most plugs encountered were type A. Best to bring your travel adapter. Read more at the Worldstandards website.
Below is a list of the sites we birded. Most information was gathered through trip reports via CloudBirders, especially the ones by Collaerts (2014), Gordijn (2014) and Merrill (2013). We also used the "A Birdwatchers' Guide to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Caymans" by Kirwan et. al.
La Guira NP
This National Park is situated 2.5 hours west from Havana towards the touristic village of Vinales. It has the same type of limestone hills although less scenic. The birding however is great and the specialties are easily accessible and found. It used to be the estate of the wealthy politician Josť Cortina. His properties were confiscated and turned into a national park - some ruins are left. We stayed at the Hotel in San Diego de los Banos which is close to the park. There is at least one casa particular in town, and other people also make day trips from Vinales or Soroa.
At the edge of the village of San Diego de los Banos there is a stakeout for the localized Cuban Grassquit. It resides in the dry pastures and bushes at 22.638714, -83.382392.
The main birding is done within the park itself. A sidetrack leading towards a limestone outcrop gave the best birding - it starts at 22.653519, -83.445168. It passes through a patch of pine forest (22.6552372765, -83.4449384598) where the warbler can be found. At the end of the track there are some remnants of a research center (22.658915, -83.443909) where you have an open area to scan for the singing solitaires perched in the trees on top of the rocks.
The park road continues and the dirt track to the right (22.662000, -83.469805) heads to Cuevas de los Portales (22.669522, -83.479396). This is a little visited tourist attraction as Che Guevara lived here during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We birded a bit around the cave but the tracks are limited.
Highlights: Antillean Nighthawk (on both evenings groups were seen hawking above San Diego de los Banos), Cuban Bullfinch (a few seen on both days), Cuban Grassquit (both days a group was seen at the stake-out, up to 10 birds), Cuban Solitaire (2 birds seen at the rocky outcrops along the trail inside La Guira NP at 22.6606986276, -83.4439470173 and 1 at the Cueva de los Portales, a few more heard), Fernandina's Flicker (a pair seen near Hacienda La Cortina at 22.63408, -83.406801), Giant Kingbird (1 seen near the research centre remnants in the NP), Gundlach's Hawk (1 bird seen twice soaring overhead along the trail in the NP), (Cuban) Northern Flicker (1 bird seen in the pine forest along the NP trail), Olive-capped Warbler (5+ birds seen in the pine forest along the NP trail), Scaly-naped Pigeon (daily small numbers seen), Yellow-headed Warbler (daily several groups seen).
Cienaga de Zapata | Playa Larga
The area in and round the Cienaga de Zapata NP is the top birding destination in Cuba as it holds most of the target species. It is situated on the famous Bay of Pigs, about 180km from Havana. The small and quite coastal town of Playa Larga is the most convenient place to base yourself. There is an great choice of casas particulares - we enjoyed having one right at the beach.
Birding inside the National Park is only possible with a guide. The brothers Chino and Angel (email@example.com) are the most recommended bird guides, but I used the services of Mario as they were both occupied. Unfortunately Mario tends to take several groups together, the second visit we were with 8(!) people - clearly not the best tactic for quail-dove searching...
The marshes at La Turba are only accessible in the company of a guide. The start of the entrance track is at 22.433067, -81.142403, about 18 from Playa Larga towards Jaguey Grande. All targets were fairly easy seen on one morning.
The dry forest near Soplillar was visited twice in order to see all quail-doves. A guide is not really compulsory here but is easier to find the owls. From Playa Larga drive SE towards Playa Giron and take left at 22.2736298115, -81.1772635254. At the main intersection of Soplillar take right for a few hundred meters, pass the gate and take the dirt track left at 22.28816, -81.147301. The birding can start after a few hundred meters along this track and along the numerous footpaths inside the forest. On one evening I tried for night birding but the gate was locked.
Palpite is a small village on the way towards La Turba (and the autopista) where Bee Hummingbird is fairly easy to see. The pink house at the NE edge of the village (22.326187, -81.183447) can be visited as the owners are very friendly. Make sure to make a small donation for visiting their garden!
Cueva de los Peces is a cenote (flooded tectonic fault) and is famous for snorkeling - it attracts many tourists. This used to be a reliable site for Blue-headed Quail-Doves as they came to eat food spills at the nearby restaurant (22.166586, -81.136480). We did not find any quail-doves and according to the guides they don't come there anymore. The snorkeling in the open sea on the other side of the road however was quite enjoyable! Waves come in between 10-11 AM, be there earlier.
Highlights: Bare-legged Owl (1 bird seen at 22.287451, -81.137547, another was distantly heard at night in the same area), Antillean Nighthawk (5+ birds heard and seen near Soplillar), Bee Hummingbird (a few birds seen on 2 occasions in a private garden at Palpite, see above), Blue-heaed Quail-Dove (eventually 1 bird heard and taped in the forest near Soplillar at 22.28434, -81.136271), Cuban Black Hawk (a few birds seen near the coast), Cuban Crow (most evenings encountered in Playa Larga, very vocal!), Cuban Parrot (groups seen near Hotel Playa Larga and near Palpite), Cuban Pygmy-Owl (on a few occasions heard and seen), Fernandina's Flicker (1 bird seen near Soplillar), Gray-fronted Quail-Dove (good numbers seen in the forest near Soplillar), (Cuban) Greater Antillean Nightjar (1 bird seen and 1 more heard near Soplillar), Key West Quail-Dove (1 bird encountered in Soplillar), (Cuban) Northern Flicker (1 bird sen near Soplillar), Red-shouldered Blackbird (at least 5 birds encountered in La Turba), Yellow-headed Warbler (a few birds encountered in the entire region), Zapata Sparrow (3 birds seen in La Turba at 22.413195, -81.186551), Zapata Wren (1 bird seen in La Turba at 22.435989, -81.177323).
Najasa | Finca La Belen
This is a protected area of geological and biological diversity, including some caves and petrified forest. The Hacienda - Finca La Belen (20.997606, -77.712087) - is a stud farm and the swimming pool attracts local people. The drive from Camaguey takes about 1.5 hrs as the road is in quite poor (but still drivable) condition. Pass the village of Najasa and take the turnoff left at 21.012772, -77.742226, the entrance gate is a bit further on the left side (21.010511, -77.737156). We booked one night in the finca at the Ecotur office in Camaguey. Be aware that Cubans come here to relax, drink beer and play loud music - the nights can be noisy. Day tripping from Camaguey seems a good alternative...
The main birding is done near the Cemetery of El Pilar (21.004283, -77.743866). At the turnoff to the finca, continue right for about 1 km. Between patches of palm trees all targets were readily seen the first afternoon.
One morning was spent birding on the grounds of Finca La Belen by simply following the entrance road - no real targets here though. According to the staff there are also trails that can be hiked in company of a guide. They can take you to the 'petrified forest' as well...
Highlights: Cuban Crow (fairly commonly encountered in the region), Cuban Parakeet (several groups seen, both near the cemetery and on the Finca), Cuban Parrot (daily good numbers seen), Cuban Pygmy-Owl (a few birds heard and seen at both sites), Fernandina's Flicker (1 bird seen near the cemetery), Giant Kingbird (1 bird seen near the cemetery and another on the Finca), Palm Crow (daily good numbers encountered), Plain Pigeon (daily good numbers seen).
Cayo Coco | Guillermo | Paredon Grande | Romano
The Northern keys off Cuba are known for their beaches and (pricy!) all-in-resorts. We opted to base ourselves in Moron on the mainland - there are several casas particulares here in contrary to the keys - and drive the causeway across the bay. The drive to Cayo Coco takes 1 hour, and both for Cayo Guillermo and Paredon Grande another half hour until the birding sites. Other people suggested staying in Sitio La Guira which was closed for renovation at the time of our trip.
Cayo Coco is the largest of the keys. We only birded the pool near Hotel Melia Cayo Coco for the whistling-ducks. No need to talk yourself into this exclusive hotel. A few hundred meters before the entrance take the small sandy track at 22.534222, -78.356957. Follow this until you have a view at the pond and the ducks are even in the heath of the day easily seen under or near the cabins built on poles.
The best birding was in the dry scrub near the lighthouse (22.4821173879, -78.166131674) of Cayo Paredon Grande. We birded the track leading south-east through some scrub and bushes and passes next to some lagoons with mangrove patches. On the way back we made a quick and successful roadside stop on Cayo Romano at the sparrow site (22.413305, -78.199806) described by Collaerts.
At the far end of Cayo Guillermo we birded the scrub (22.604419, -78.672078) along the main road just before the Playa Pilar beach restaurant/bar 22.6121132359, -78.6980990854.
Highlights: Bahama Mockingbird (1 bird seen on Cayo Guillermo at 22.6038514808, -78.6714039901), Cuban Black Hawk (only seen in good numbers on Cayo Paredon Grande), Cuban Bullfinch (daily good numbers at various sites), Cuban Gnatcatcher (at least 5 birds seen on Cayo Paredon Grande along the lighthouse track), Key West Quail-Dove (1 bird seen in the scrub next to the whistling-duck lagoon), Mangrove Cuckoo (1 seen at Cayo Peradon Grande), (Cuban) Northern Flicker (1 bird on Cayo Coco), Oriente Warbler (easily seen at Cayo Pardeon Grande), Thick-billed Vireo (easily seen at Cayo Pardeon Grande), West Indian Whistling-Duck (more than 30 at the lagoon near Hotel Melia Cayo on Cayo Coco, see above), Zapata Sparrow (a pair seen on Cayo Romana in the scrub along the main road, see above).
FULL TRIP LIST
Taxonomy strictly follows Clements' 6th Edition (incl. updates). The list only contains species positively identified by at least one of our group. Birds identified by guides or other people only are not included, presumed species neither...
West Indian Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna arborea Vulnerable (VU) Restricted range
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Helmeted Guineafowl Numida meleagris
Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus Near-threatened (NT)
American Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Great Egret Ardea alba
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens Near-threatened (NT)
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Green Heron Butorides virescens
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Gundlach's Hawk Accipiter gundlachi Endangered (EN) Country endemic Restricted range
Cuban Black Hawk Buteogallus gundlachii Near-threatened (NT) Country endemic Restricted range
Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Clapper Rail Rallus crepitans
Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus
Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata
American Coot Fulica americana
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Willet Tringa semipalmata
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus
Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Royal Tern Thalasseus maximus
Scaly-naped Pigeon Patagioenas squamosa
White-crowned Pigeon Patagioenas leucocephala Near-threatened (NT)
Plain Pigeon Patagioenas inornata Near-threatened (NT)
Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina
Blue-headed Quail-Dove Starnoenas cyanocephala Endangered (EN) Country endemic Restricted range
Ruddy Quail-Dove Geotrygon montana
Gray-fronted Quail-Dove Geotrygon caniceps Vulnerable (VU) Country endemic Restricted range
Key West Quail-Dove Geotrygon chrysia
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica
Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor
Great Lizard-Cuckoo Coccyzus merlini
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani
Bare-legged Owl Margarobyas lawrencii Country endemic
Cuban Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium siju Country endemic
Stygian Owl Asio stygius
Antillean Nighthawk Chordeiles gundlachii
Greater Antillean Nightjar Antrostomus cubanensis
Antillean Palm-Swift Tachornis phoenicobia
Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae Near-threatened (NT) Country endemic
Cuban Emerald Chlorostilbon ricordii
Cuban Trogon Priotelus temnurus Country endemic
Cuban Tody Todus multicolor Country endemic
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon
West Indian Woodpecker Melanerpes superciliaris Restricted range
Cuban Green Woodpecker Xiphidiopicus percussus Country endemic
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
Fernandina's Flicker Colaptes fernandinae Vulnerable (VU) Country endemic Restricted range
Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Merlin Falco columbarius
Cuban Parrot Amazona leucocephala Near-threatened (NT) Restricted range
Cuban Parakeet Psittacara euops Vulnerable (VU) Country endemic Restricted range
Cuban Pewee Contopus caribaeus
La Sagra's Flycatcher Myiarchus sagrae
Gray Kingbird Tyrannus dominicensis
Loggerhead Kingbird Tyrannus caudifasciatus
Giant Kingbird Tyrannus cubensis Endangered (EN) Country endemic Restricted range
Thick-billed Vireo Vireo crassirostris Restricted range
Cuban Vireo Vireo gundlachii Country endemic
Black-whiskered Vireo Vireo altiloquus
Palm Crow Corvus palmarum Near-threatened (NT)
Cuban Crow Corvus nasicus Restricted range
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis
Cuban Martin Progne cryptoleuca Country endemic
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor
Zapata Wren Ferminia cerverai Endangered (EN) Country endemic Restricted range
Cuban Gnatcatcher Polioptila lembeyei Country endemic Restricted range
Cuban Solitaire Myadestes elisabeth Near-threatened (NT) Country endemic Restricted range
Red-legged Thrush Turdus plumbeus
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii Restricted range
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla
Louisiana Waterthrush Parkesia motacilla
Northern Waterthrush Parkesia noveboracensis
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Hooded Warbler Setophaga citrina
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
Northern Parula Setophaga americana
Magnolia Warbler Setophaga magnolia
Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia
Black-throated Blue Warbler Setophaga caerulescens
Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum
Olive-capped Warbler Setophaga pityophila Restricted range
Prairie Warbler Setophaga discolor
Black-throated Green Warbler Setophaga virens
Yellow-headed Warbler Teretistris fernandinae Country endemic Restricted range
Oriente Warbler Teretistris fornsi Country endemic Restricted range
Red-legged Honeycreeper Cyanerpes cyaneus
Cuban Grassquit Tiaris canorus
Yellow-faced Grassquit Tiaris olivaceus
Cuban Bullfinch Melopyrrha nigra
Western Spindalis Spindalis zena
Zapata Sparrow Torreornis inexpectata Endangered (EN) Country endemic Restricted range
Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticus ludovicianus
Red-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius assimilis Country endemic Restricted range
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius humeralis
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna
Cuban Blackbird Dives atroviolaceus Country endemic
Greater Antillean Grackle Quiscalus niger
Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis
Cuban Oriole Icterus melanopsis Country endemic
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
House Sparrow Passer domesticus