Friday, 15 March 2019

Guatemala 2019, Part 1: Introduction

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Thorn forest in the Motagua Valley (January 18-19, 2019)
Part 3: Los Rachitos del Quetzal (January 19-20, 2019)
Part 4: Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes (January 20-21, 2019)
Part 5: Reserva Natural Atitlán (January 21-22, 2019)
Part 6: Volcán San Pedro (January 23, 2019)
Part 7: Cerro Rostra Maya, Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 24, 2019)
Part 8: Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 25, 2019)
Part 9: Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 26-27, 2019)
Part 10: Parque Nacional Tikal (January 28, 2019)
Part 11: El Caoba former airstrip, Tikal former airstrip (January 29, 2019)
Part 12: Parque Nacional Tikal, Uaxactún (January 30, 2019)
Part 13: El Remate and Flores (January 31, 2019)


Sometime during the summer of 2018 Dan Riley and I began kicking around the idea of traveling somewhere during the upcoming winter. It had been a few years since we had done an international trip together, the last time being back in January 2015 when we visited Colombia with several others. Dan and I have very similar interests and travel well together, and we had talked about doing a trip with just the two of us but it had never came to fruition. We both set aside time in January 2019 and began tossing around ideas of where to travel.

Blunthead Tree Snake (Imantodes cenchoa) - Los Tarrales Natural Reserve, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

It was tough picking the perfect destination that had novel species for both of us, but was not halfway around the world. Dan and I have both traveled a fair bit in Central and South America in recent years but there had not been a lot of overlap in these destinations. Therefore the countries that had the most potential for me were places he had already been to, and vice versa. But there were a few places that would be new for both of us. Peru was one of those destinations, and southern Mexico/Guatemala was another. January would be the rainy season in Peru so we began to focus on Guatemala and southern Mexico. We had set aside two weeks for this trip so decided it was in our best interest to limit ourselves to just one destination. There is only so much you can see in two weeks, anyways! Flights to Guatemala were quite cheap which made our decision easier.

Ocellated Turkey - Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Guatemala is a diverse country with an interesting history and varied flora and fauna. At one time the land which is now Guatemala formed the core of the Mayan civilization, prior to the Spanish conquests in the 1500s. Mayan culture is still very prominent in Guatemala, partially due to the high percentage of people who identify as Maya (around 41% of Guatemalans) or mestizo (around 41.5%).   Guatemala is the most populated country in South America with over 16 million inhabitants, and the country has experienced a significant amount of development and deforestation in recent years.  That being said, there are still some amazing natural areas remaining in Guatemala, from the vast lowland forests in the north, to the high elevation pine and oak forests in the central and southern mountains. Most of Guatemala is mountainous, other than the Pacific coast and the northern lowlands. These mountains create a number of ecological niches due to altitudinal gradients and the ensuing changes in moisture and temperature. Shared with southern Mexico; many of the species found in the Guatemalan highlands are restricted in range to southern Mexico and Guatemala. These include some of the most sought after birds in Central America: Horned Guan and Pink-headed Warbler topping the list.

Viewpoint near Chiantla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala

Dan and I decided that we would rent a vehicle for the first nine days of our trip, and complete a big loop that started and finished at Guatemala City. From there we would take a short domestic flight to the town of Flores, located in the humid lowlands of Guatemala. Flores is very close to the famous archaeological sites of Tikal and Uaxactún, which are surrounded by primary forest and a high diversity of species. The first nine days or so would be very busy with a lot of ground to cover, but the final four days in the Tikal area would be a nice change of pace and a relaxing way to finish off the trip.

Below is a map showing our route. The green loop represents the nine-day circuit we completed with the rental truck, the red line denotes our domestic flight from Guatemala to Flores, and the north green line represents our route via rental car from Flores to Tikal and Uaxactún.

Lago de Atitlán, located in the middle of points #5-8 on the map, is one of the main birding hotspots in Guatemala due to the nice range of habitats and species found in the lake's immediate vicinity. We explored several locales near Lago de Atitlán including Reserva Natural Atitlán, Volcán San Pedro and Los Tarrales Nature Reserve, however there were several other locations that we were able to visit by completing a big loop with the rental truck. These included the dry thorn forest of the Motagua Valley (#2), the humid mountains south of Coban (#3), and the high-elevation oak and pine forest north of Huehuetenango, home to Goldman's Warbler (#4). We only spent one night at each at these locations and six nights around Lago de Atitlán. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have the extra time so we could spend two nights at each of the first three locations we visited. We were a little rushed and ended up missing a few species due to inclement weather, logistical mishaps, or lack of time. But I do not think I would be willing to take away any days from our time near Lago de Atitlán. A three week trip would have been perfect, and also could have afforded the opportunity for a more leisurely pace at the start of the trip, while also visiting a new area or two.

A quick word on travel in Guatemala. Most birders who visit Guatemala do it one of several ways. The most popular (though most expensive) is to organize everything through one of the tour operators. There are several companies in Guatemala that would be happy to sort out your lodging, transport and guides, though of course you will pay a premium for this service. On the other end of the spectrum is the option to do everything independently, stay in hostels, and travel via bus throughout the country. There are a number of areas that are popular on the "tourist trail". These include Lago de Atitlán and surrounding areas, the Antigua area, and of course, Tikal. It is relatively easy to organize everything if you stick to the popular areas, as there is already significant backpacker infrastructure in place.

We elected to choose a third option - that is, renting a private vehicle and exploring on our own. While the cost was a little bit more expensive than if we had elected to take public transport, the freedom offered by having our own vehicle more than made it worth our while. Additionally, the cost of the rental truck (including our gas) was not too bad, working out to less than 40$ per person per day. We were also able to visit a larger number of areas in a shorter amount of time without having the delays caused by waiting on public transportation. Additionally, the first three nights of our trip would have been very difficult to organize (and taken an extra day or two to complete), since we were way off the beaten tourist track.

our chariot
We also saved money on the trip by neglecting to hire guides for any portion of it. Dan and I have a fair bit of familiarity with traveling and birding throughout the Neotropics and we both enjoy the challenge of finding everything on our own, so we did not hire guides which also helped to keep the costs down. At Los Tarrales where we stayed for three nights, we were informed that in general, guests have to be with a guide to explore the full trail system. However, the lodge manager made an exception for us and let us explore at will.
Overall we did quite well on our own, finishing with 356 bird species, including most of our main targets. If we had had a guide, we probably would have seen Goldman's Warbler in the Huehuetenango area, a bird that was probably our biggest miss from the trip.

Pink-headed Warbler - Chiantla area, Huehuetenango, Guatemala

For those who wish to do a similar trip to us (that is, renting a private car and exploring independently), a few words of caution. Driving in Guatemala is certainly not for the faint of heart. Many of the roads are impassible without a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Other drivers are a little bit crazy as well - timidness is not a characteristic of Guatemalan drivers! Fortunately we were in a big truck so other drivers often yielded to us, especially if I drove with a bit more assertiveness than what is necessary back home. When traveling between towns, often the road will continue as the main thoroughfare through the downtown area. Navigating these stretches are often chaotic between the other drivers, motorbikes, and numerous pedestrians. On several occasions I had to squeeze the truck through a narrow gap with only a few inches on either side in a crowed downtown street. Speed bumps are spaced every 100 m or so throughout each and every one of the towns, and many of them were quite prominent as well. Most rental vehicles in Guatemala are manual transmission, so driving stick is an essential skill.

Additionally, some areas in Guatemala are not safe to explore on your own and we were warned of a few sketchy roads to avoid, for fear of being ambushed and robbed. While the likelihood of this happening is still relatively small, be sure to exercise caution when planning your route. We ended up driving one of the more dangerous roads at one point, though we only found that out after the fact. That being said, I would think that the odds of being targeted would be much higher if you were being transported in a tourist van, as opposed to driving a pickup truck (with heavily tinted windows). We experienced no issues during our trip, and everywhere we went the people were friendly. Perhaps we were just lucky, and it is hard to say with us only having spent two weeks in the country - obviously our experience provided just a brief snapshot of what Guatemala is like. But we had a great experience traveling independently in Guatemala.

Gartered Trogon - Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

As I mentioned before, Dan and I have very similar interests when it comes to travel. If I had to break it down, I would say that my interest is approximately 50% birds, 25% herps, and the remaining 25% split between mammals and invertebrates, especially butterflies and moths. Dan's interests are similar enough with perhaps a little tweaking of the numbers. Our trip was primarily driven by which birds we wanted to see, while also visiting areas that gave us a good chance to see a variety of herp species. Everything else would be "by-catch" while we were on our bird or herp quests. This strategy worked out very well. We were able to see more birds than we had estimated, only missing a few targets. Our herp list was quite solid considering we did not target species too much. And we encountered many other species of our tertiary targets (mammals, invertebrates, etc). Add in the amazing scenery and excellent food, and it was a pretty successful trip!

Orophus sp. - Los Ranchitos del Quetzal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala


Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Thorn forest in the Motagua Valley (January 18-19, 2019)
Part 3: Los Rachitos del Quetzal (January 19-20, 2019)
Part 4: Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes (January 20-21, 2019)
Part 5: Reserva Natural Atitlán (January 21-22, 2019)
Part 6: Volcán San Pedro (January 23, 2019)
Part 7: Cerro Rostra Maya, Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 24, 2019)
Part 8: Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 25, 2019)
Part 9: Los Tarrales Natural Reserve (January 26-27, 2019)
Part 10: Parque Nacional Tikal (January 28, 2019)
Part 11: El Caoba former airstrip, Tikal former airstrip (January 29, 2019)
Part 12: Parque Nacional Tikal, Uaxactún (January 30, 2019)
Part 13: El Remate and Flores (January 31, 2019)

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Best of Cuba, February 2019: Part 3 (Escambray Mountains, Cayo Las Brujas, Cayo Santa Maria)

We left Playa Larga on February 13, working our way east towards the town of Trinidad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Escambray Mountains.

On our first afternoon in the area we visited the Hanabanilla Reservoir, a man-made lake that was created for its hydroelectric potential. We took a boat across to a restaurant (Rio Negro) on the forested shoreline to have lunch. One of the highlights of visiting Hanabanilla is walking to the viewpoint above Rio Negro. The views are stunning, plus it is a good area to see a variety of wildlife including Cave Anoles.

Viewpoint above Rio Negro, Embalse Hanabanilla, Villa Clara, Cuba

Cave Anole - Embalse Hanabanilla, Villa Clara, Cuba (photo taken during 2017 tour)

The following day was spent in the mountains at Parque Natural Topes de Collantes. We loaded into a re-purposed Russian army truck along with our guide Gisele, and drove down a narrow lane that took us to a secluded restaurant surrounded by misty hills. Gisele led us on a walk through the forests and we marveled at the orchids and birds that we encountered. After our walk, we enjoyed an excellent meal of roast pig - one of the better meals of the whole trip. Among the birders, one of the highlights of the day was seeing three Black Swifts flying around above us, while visiting a coffee farm later in the afternoon. This species nests in the Escambray Mountains, but they are scarce here and hard to find, a common theme with Black Swift across its range. These were the first Black Swifts I had ever seen.

Russian army truck transport - PN Topes de Collantes, Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

La Codina, PN Topes de Collantes, Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

Chinese Ground Orchid - PN Topes de Collantes, Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

Towards the end of the trip, we journeyed north to Cayo Las Brujas. Located along a causeway, Cayo Las Brujas is about 30 km offshore but near to several other keys, including the larger Cayo Santa Maria. We had three nights at Cayo Las Brujas meaning we had two full days.

On our first day we boarded a private catamaran for the day. The catamaran is always one of the highlights of this tour for me: the food and drink is excellent, there are several snorkeling opportunities, and it is just a nice, relaxing day out on the water. Despite breaking my camera earlier in the trip, I still had my point-and-shoot underwater camera to make use of. I photographed about 32 species of fish during our two snorkeling opportunities (and missed several others). I can see how snorkeling and diving can be addicting! One day I will have to get my SCUBA certifications....

Common Lionfish - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

Spotted Porcupinefish - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

Gray Angelfish - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba
French Grunt - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

Yellow Jack - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba
Red Cushion Sea Star - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

Atlantic Sergeant Major - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

Yellowfin Majorra - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

:Lunch on the catamaran consisted of spiny lobster, shrimp, fish, and much more!

A nice walk on a secluded beach gave us a chance to see several lizard species including Leiocephalus stictigator and Auber's Ameiva. Good numbers of Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns hunted for fish just offshore, and we inspected some of the molluscs and chitons in the littoral zone.

Leiocephalus stictigaster - Cayo Frances, Villa Clara, Cuba

Bleeding Tooth Nerite - Cayo Frances, Villa Clara, Cuba

West Indian Fuzzy Chiton - Cayo Frances, Villa Clara, Cuba

Shell Mound Pricklypear - Cayo Frances, Villa Clara, Cuba

 On our second full day at Cayo Las Brujas we met with local guide Edwin Ruiz Rojas to explore nearby Cayo Santa Maria. Edwin is an excellent guide and I highly recommend him. He knows the fauna of Cayo Santa Maria better than anyone, speaks excellent English, and is an incredible guide. We explored three areas throughout the morning: Sendero Pelo de Oro, Sedero Laguna de la Jicotea, and the brackish lagoons found beside the main road (south of the Golden Tulip Aguas Claras Resort, when looking at Google Maps).

Caribbean Land Hermit Crab - Cayo Las Brujas, Villa Clara, Cuba

Overall it was a very productive morning. Our first White-eyed Vireos of the trip as well as the local subspecies of Florida Land Snail were viewed well at Sendero Pelo de Oro, while we also had our best views of Cuban Black Hawk (apologies for the photo quality - it was taken with my phone through my binoculars).

Cueva Pelo de Oro - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba (photo taken during the 2015 tour)

Florida Land Snail - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba

Cuban Black Hawk - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba

Viewing the brackish lagoons alongside the main road is always a highlight for me. These lagoons are a haven for American Flamingos, wading birds, ducks and shorebirds, and seem to act as a very productive vagrant trap. On my first trip to Cuba in 2015, we discovered a pair of American Avocets on the lagoon which represented the first (and only) records of that species for Cayo Santa Maria. We had a Pectoral Sandpiper on the same trip; a rare winter record for Cuba. Potential to find unusual birds is always high here, but even the usual species are fun to observe! Despite not having my big camera with me, I managed a few "record shots" with my phone through my spotting scope.

Greater Flamingo - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba

White-cheeked Pintail is a recent addition to the bird list of Cayo Las Brujas according to Edwin. The flock has grown in recent months to several dozen, and they can usually found at the brackish lagoons. We had fantastic views of several individuals.

White-cheeked Pintail - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba

The "best" bird of our time here was a Least Bittern that Jean Hampson spotted along the water's edge. Fortunately several others were nearby and we all managed to see the skulker before it slunk back out of view. I was fortunate to take a single record photo through my scope before it disappeared. While Least Bitterns are uncommon but regular winter visitors to mainland Cuba, this was the first record for Cayo Santa Maria according to Edwin.

Least Bittern - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba

The third location that Edwin took us to was the trail leading to Laguna de la Jicotea, located a fit further east on Cayo Santa Maria. 

Following Hurricane Irma which devastated the area in 2017, Edwin noticed a Black-faced Grassquit along this trail. In the time since the grassquit has been reliably found in the area, often accompanying a Cuban Bullfinch. It was late morning and the sun's intensity had increased but we gave it a try anyways. After some playback, a small flock of birds flew in that included several Cuban Bullfinches and our target, the Black-faced Grassquit. While widespread throughout much of the Caribbean, Black-faced Grassquit is a rarity in Cuba and not one we were expecting! It is the bird on the left in the photo below. Again, this photo was taken with my phone through my binoculars so the image quality is not great. 

Black-faced Grassquit (bottom left) - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba

We found a few other things on our walk, including a Cuban Racer that disappeared before I could get the rest of the group on it, a Cuban Treefrog and a nice variety of lizards.

Cuban Racer - Cayo Santa Maria, Villa Clara, Cuba (photo taken during the 2015 tour)

That afternoon we had some free time to relax on the beach. The following morning we made the long drive to Havana, where our trip would be concluding. We enjoyed a full day exploring Havana followed by our Farewell Dinner at the excellent Cafe del Oriente, located in old Havana. I would like to thank my group for being great travel companions. It was an excellent trip!

Monday, 11 March 2019

Best of Cuba, February 2019: Part 2 (Cienega de Zapata)

The Cienega de Zapata, or the Zapata Swamp, is the largest wetland in the Caribbean. Located only a short drive from Havana, the Cienega de Zapata Biosphere Reserve covers over 6000 square kilometers making it not only the largest protected area in Cuba, but in the whole of the Caribbean. The wetland is named Cienega de Zapata due to its geographical shape, being almost shaped like a shoe (zapato in Spanish).

We would be based out of Hotel Playa Larga, a beachside hotel located at the north end of the Bay of Pigs, or partway up the heel of the boot in the map, above. Playa Larga is a nice central location from which all accessible parts of the swamp are, at most, 1.5 hours away. As a bonus, a flock of Cuban Parrots roosts near Hotel Playa Larga and are easily seen each morning and evening.

Cuban Parrot - Hotel Playa Larga, Matanzas, Cuba (photo taken during 2017 tour)

The Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve protects the swamp as well as many adjacent areas. While the core of the wetland consists of seasonally flooded sawgrass marshes, a variety of other ecotypes can be found in the area. These include grasslands, coastal matorral, mangrove forests, seasonally flooded deciduous swamps, and evergreen forest. Very little topographic relief occurs throughout Zapata, and the substrate often consists of limestone, hinting at its geological past as a former coral reef.

Boat ride through along the Rio Hatiguanico, Matanzas, Cuba

American Crocodile - Rio Hatiguanico, Matanzas, Cuba

Our first full morning in Zapata was spent visiting a location known as Bermejas. Among birders the Zapata Swamp is well-known as a place to see all but around five of the Cuban endemic bird species, and Bermejas is one of the more reliable locations for a number of them. We had employed the services of Ana Suarez, a local guide who works for the National Park. Ana was absolutely incredible, with a keen knowledge of the flora and fauna at every place we visited, and first-hand experience of the conservation programs and environmental issues within the swamp and surrounding areas. Our morning in Bermejas started extraordinarily well. We had barely stepped off the bus when a screeching flock of Cuban Parakeets zipped past before settling into a distant tree. Cuban Parakeet numbers are but a shell of what they used to be and the species is listed as Vulnerable with only a few thousand remaining in the wild. Cuban Parakeet is one of the species that Ana is most actively involved with the conservation efforts of. As a cavity nester, they are particularly susceptible to poaching, since there are a limited number of trees that provide suitable cavities, making it easy for poachers to find the nests.

Cuban Parakeets - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

A few minutes after our Cuban Parakeet success we found ourselves just within the forest behind a waist-height barrier, staring down a long, straight leaf-covered path. This particular trail is often frequented by quail-doves early in the morning, birds that are otherwise very difficult to see due to their secretiveness. Four species of quail-doves can be found in Cuba; two of which are endemic (Gray-fronted and Blue-headed Quail-Dove), one which is a Caribbean endemic (Key West Quail-Dove) and one which is widespread in the Neotropics (Ruddy Quail-Dove). Our vigil at the "quail dove path" paid off with sightings of Ruddy, Key West and Gray-fronted Quail-Doves, along with several Zenaida Doves. I was particularly happy to snap a few distant photos of a Gray-fronted Quail-Dove as it was one of the remaining endemic bird species that I had never photographed before in Cuba.

Gray-fronted Quail-Dove - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Our morning in Bermejas just kept getting better. Soon we were watching a pair of Bee Hummingbirds; the male performing an aerial display, hovering high in the sky while calling. A walk in the nearby forest produced many warblers, all the "usual" endemic birds, several lizards and dragonflies and our first Florida Tree Snails of the trip. The stars of the show, however, were a pair of endemic Bare-legged Owls, roosting in a dead palm.

Bee Hummingbird - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Ovenbird - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zebra Longwing - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Anole (Anolis) sp. with a Florida Tree Snail shell - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Later in the morning we visited a place that is known to have a small colony of Fernandina's Flicker. This species is a cavity nester, and much like Cuban Parakeet and Cuban Parrot, Fernandina's Flicker has also severely declined in number. Part of the cause of its decline was the widespread loss of many suitable cavity trees due to the high winds from Hurricane Michelle in 2001.

Fernandina's Flicker - Soplillar, Matanzas, Cuba (photo taken during 2016 tour)

We had had an extremely productive morning in Bermejas but the day's excitement was far from over. Lunch was at an oceanside restaurant called Cueva de los Peces, surrounded by open deciduous forest that is home to Blue-headed Quail-Doves. A small group of quail-doves has become quite tame, showing up like clockwork behind the restaurant each day to enjoy a feeding of rice. Nowhere else in the world can this Cuban endemic species be seen so well. It appears that the acclimated flock has grown, as five birds were present this year!

Blue-headed Quail-Dove - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

One of the quail-doves had some problems with the pigmentation of its blue cap, along with some of the other feathers on the face.

Blue-headed Quail-Dove - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

Cueva de los Peces is also a great area to watch lizards. Northern Curlytail Lizards are downright abundant on the limestone rocks, often tolerating a close approach. Habana Anole (Anolis homolechis) is also rather common here; I was able to catch one for the group to show off its distinctive, white dewlap.

Habana Anole (Anolis homolechis) - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

Northern Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus) - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

Northern Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus- Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

I was particularly thrilled to spot this anole, a species I had never encountered before. It is known as the Cuban Twig Anole, Anolis angusticeps.

Cuban Twig Anole (Anolis angusticeps- Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

That afternoon we explored an area called Las Salinas located southwest from Playa Larga. A road cuts straight through the swamp, passing mangrove islands interspersed with open salt flats and extensive shallows. This area is a haven to bird life, especially American Flamingos, various wading birds and sandpipers.

Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

As the afternoon turned to evening we enjoyed the avian spectacle. A flock of American Flamingos numbering over 500 took off at once and flew past. Hundreds of American White Pelicans roosted on an island. Several Clapper Rails fired off from somewhere within the mangroves. Almost every species of wading bird was accounted for, including Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill and Reddish Egret. Seven species of shorebirds were identified while four species of terns were tallied. We watched a spectacular show of a Magnificent Frigatebird in full-chase mode on a Laughing Gull, making it give up the meal it had recently caught.

Short-billed Dowitchers and a Black-necked Stilt - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

Magnificent Frigatebird - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

Black Skimmers - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

Roseate Spoonbills - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

As the sun began to set, a pair of Cuban Black Hawks provided the last new species for the day. We finished with over 90 bird species, our best single day total of the trip!

The following morning we headed west, deep into the heart of the swamp, to a small village called Santo Tomas. Accessed by a long dirt road that heads west from Playa Larga, Santo Tomas is surrounded to the north by seasonally flooded, saw-grass marsh. It was here in 1926 that Fermín Z. Cervera, a Spanish naturalist, discovered three species of birds brand new to science at the time: the Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail, and Zapata Sparrow. While the Zapata Rail is damn near mythical, having been observed by only a small handful of observers since its discovery, the Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow can both be found with some effort. In addition, another scarce Cuban endemic - the Red-shouldered Blackbird - can also be found here.

We enjoyed a short walk to the start of a canal, where three boats were waiting to transport us. From there, the boatman used long poles to paddle us along, while we strained our ears to pick out the calls of Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow and Red-shouldered Blackbird.

exploring Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

exploring Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

exploring Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

I worried that the wind would pick up by the time we approached the habitat for our target species, as increased gusts would surely make birding more difficult. These species are difficult enough during good conditions. Fortunately, the birding gods were smiling down on us and the wind was nothing more than a light breeze throughout the middle parts of the morning.

Birding along the canal - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Luck was on our side and we managed to connect with all three of our target birds! A few Red-shouldered Blackbirds sang off in the distance, while two checked us out briefly before departing. At least three different Zapata Sparrows appeared alongside the canal and one perched only a few feet above our heads. And a singing male Zapata Wren (as well as his mate) came in quite close when we tried a bit of playback at a particular spot. Not only that, but the male Zapata Wren sat in a mostly unobscured bush, singing his heart out, and allowing everyone a chance to take photos and recordings. It was just a magical morning!

Zapata Wren - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zapata Wren - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zapata Sparrow - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zapata Sparrow - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

We noticed a few other things of interest here and there, including a number of butterfly species, odonates including Rambur's Forktail and Slough Amberwing, a Yellow-throated Vireo, and fantastic views of a Cuban Pygmy Owl, our first for the trip.

Florida White - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Cuban Pygmy Owl - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Rambur's Forktail - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

birding along the canal - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

A great morning out on the water!

One last location that I wanted to mention is the Bee Hummingbird house located in the small town of Palpite (10 minutes north of Playa Larga). It is here than an enterprising family has been able to cash in with the presence of Bee Hummingbirds in their yard. The Bee Hummingbird is smallest species of bird in the world and a Cuban endemic. It is only found in a few disjunct areas in Cuba but even at the Zapata Swamp, where it is perhaps the most reliable, it is not exactly easy to find unless one knows an exact location to search. The presence of a flowering tree and numerous hummingbird feeders at the house in Palpite ensures that there are always a few Bee Hummingbirds around, as well as a good variety of other species.

We spent an hour here one afternoon and it did not disappoint. In addition to the incredible views of Bee Hummingbirds, we also spotted Black-throated Blue Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Cuban Oriole, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Emerald and more. The only negative was that this was the location where I broke my camera due to a strap failing on me. But we won't talk about that....needless to say my ability to take photos (at least with the big camera) was compromised for the rest of the trip. The last frames I took with the camera before it died were of a Bee Hummingbird. A good way to go out, I suppose.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - La Boca, Matanzas, Cuba

female Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

Turkey Vulture - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

The next blog post will cover our remaining locations that we visited, including the Escambray Mountains as well as the keys (cayos) of Las Brujas and Santa Maria, off the north coast of Cuba.