Friday, 20 March 2015

Scotland and Morocco bound

By the time you read this, I will very likely have just arrived in Scotland after an overnight flight from Toronto via Iceland. For the past three winters I have traveled across the pond to visit the beautiful Laura Bond, studying to become a  veterinarian in Edinburgh, Scotland. These late winter trips work out well for both of us. Laura has a few weeks off between exams and placements, while I am still in the slow season at work. Mid March can be a nice time to go away too, because although spring is imminent in southern Ontario, it still takes way too long to arrive! Last year I returned on April 7 - just when spring really began to get going. This year I will also be returning in early April, hoping that I don't miss too many of the migrants in southern Ontario in the meantime! Regardless, the temperatures should hopefully be more consistently above freezing when I arrive back home.

During each one of these visits Laura and I have planned a separate trip somewhere else in Europe. In 2012 we spent a weekend in Spain, staying at my uncle's rooftop apartment in the heart of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. In 2013 we enjoyed 5 days in central France, visiting Tours and Paris. Last year we explored Portugal for a full week, including 5 nights based out of Faro along the southern coast.

coastline near Sagres, Portugal

This year we are going just a little further afield, flying to Morocco for 7 nights. We will be arriving in Marrakesh, spending two night there, and then renting a car for a 5 day loop to the south and west. We will fly out again from Marrakesh, arriving back in Scotland on the Saturday evening.

Our first night after picking up the car, we will be staying in Agadir near the coast During the day we are looking forward to exploring the nearby Paradise Valley in the mountains. Near Agadir we will be on the lookout for Morocco's only endemic bird - the Northern Bald Ibis or Waldrapp, as they move between feeding and roosting areas. After declining significantly for years, the numbers of Waldrapp in Morocco has slowly increased to 443 birds by the end of 2013. Technically Waldrapp is not endemic to Morocco as there is still a tiny population holding on in Syria, discovered in 2002. However, only a single individual returned to the Syrian colony in 2013 and it seems likely that this colony may soon die out, the last of the known eastern population.

We will also be traveling south from Agadir to the edge of the Sahara Desert, a place I have always dreamed of visiting. The scenery will be great and the birding should be awesome! There are a number of potential new species for us to see in southern Morocco, including a large number of wheatears, larks, and even warblers. If we are lucky we may even see some sandgrouse! I'm really hoping for some cool reptiles while we are here too. Cerastes cerastes and C. vipera, two species of sidewinders, are in the area!

We will spend some time in the Atlas Mountains as well, home to stunning vistas and amazing wildlife. Some of my most wanted birds for the mountains include Tristram's Warbler, Atlas Pied Flycatcher and Crimson-winged Finch, all species limited to northwest Africa.

Laura is really hoping to see a European Bee-eater, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, European Roller and Common Chameleon - species that we missed in Portugal! The Morocco trip should be a lot of fun with some great highlights.

After arriving back in Edinburgh we are planning on renting a car and visiting the highlands of Scotland including Cairngorms National Park. In the past we have been limited to places accessible by public transit from Edinburgh, simply because we were too young to rent a car without paying exorbitant fees. While we have been able to check out some castles, coastal areas, local towns, foothills, we have been unable to property tour the highlands. My main target birds here include Eurasian Capercaillie (the world's most bad-ass grouse), Black Grouse, and Scottish Crossbill!

After hiking Arthur's Seat, in Edinburgh, U.K.

Anyways I will sign off for now. If I have any time I may post a few photos here and there.


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Point Pelee weekend - part 3

The mild weather had continued overnight, so much so that the snowmelt in the fields was coming along quite nicely. During mid-morning, I received a text from Jeremy Hatt that he had found a Greater White-fronted Goose along Concession Road D, so I drove off in that direction as I was only a few minutes away.

Sure enough, the goose was almost too easy as it was one of the closest individuals to the road. The Ross's Goose, presumably the same bird from yesterday, was also swimming amongst the corn stubble and at times directly beside the white-fronted.

I had a busy day planned with a few other places I hoped to check on my way home. I managed to find two different Cackling Geese south of Hillman Marsh, my first of year. I also stopped by Muddy Creek near Wheatley harbour where this recently arrived Great Blue Heron kept a wary eye on the open water.






Something grabbed its attention, so it lifted up and flew a short distance, eventually settling down on a nice log.







I also grabbed a few more photos of the Common Mergansers which were still hanging around. The Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers and American Coot from yesterday were long gone, however.



As I was leaving Wheatley the sun began coming out and a familiar sight greeted me up in the sky - the first soaring Turkey Vulture of the spring! It seemed to be a good day for raptor migration, as I noticed quite a few migrant Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures throughout the rest of the drive home. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk on a roadside hydro pole near Port Alma was certainly a highlight as well.

My next plan of attack was to bird London, in particular to search for a Harlequin Duck that had taken up residence along the river weeks ago. Unfortunately, its whereabouts are somewhat sporadic as it never seems to hang out in one place for more than a few days. I birded a large swath of the Thames River, but ultimately there was too much open water to cover in the amount of time that I had allotted, and I missed the bird. It wasn't all a waste, however, as the birding was still excellent. Redhead, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and all three mergansers stand out as some of the highlights; good birds for an inland waterway.

My last stop was in Hamilton to see what I could find along the Burlington lift bridge. Light was running out fast, preventing me from checking other areas around the lakeshore. But it was fun to see some distant Red-throated Loons and re-aquaint myself with some other Ontario "year birds" such as Long-tailed Duck, Horned Grebe, White-winged Scoter, Peregrine Falcon, etc.

I finished with around 75 species on the weekend including some excellent early spring sightings. It was a good way to kick off spring!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Point Pelee weekend - part 2

On Saturday, I ended up sleeping in pretty late after hanging out at Jeremy's place, but eventually made my way into the park where I was able to renew my annual pass while it was still on sale.

The birding was slow as I checked out the Shuster Trail and the tip area, but eventually Jeremy Hatt and Kory Renaud arrived with their barbeques for a first of spring Pelee BBQ. Blake Mann and Mike Matheson both arrived, as did Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck. Alan Wormington stopped by for a burger or two and Sarah and Emily Renaud joined as well. It was good to see so many familiar faces and it felt great to be standing in the sun, kicking off the spring birding season in proper fashion.

While we were at the Blue Heron parking lot, Jeremy Bensette spotted this chrysalis perched precariously on the bark of the tree, looking very much like a piece of the bark. I think it might be from a Giant Swallowtail.
Giant Swallowtail? - Point Pelee National Park

As we were finishing up, Jeremy Hatt received a phone call from Kory, who had left a bit earlier. Apparently Richard Carr had found a swan in the onion fields that looked good for "Bewick's" Tundra Swan, the Eurasian equivalent of our "Whistling" Tundra Swans, and had flagged down Kory as he drove past. This is a very rare form to show up in Ontario, with only around three previous sightings for the province, the most recent being a bird at Ridgetown lagoons that Jeremy Bensette and Ken Burrell found independently in March of 2013.

The group of us raced over to the spot, where we joined Richard and quickly set up our scopes. It took a little bit of scanning as more often than not, the swans had their long necks underwater, probing for food, and hiding their bill colour which is the only easy way to ID a Bewick's. But eventually we all got on it and enjoyed watching it in the scope for quite some time. The yellow on the bill was quite extensive along the entire proximal bill edge and including most of the inner half of the bill. It had the bill pattern known as "Pennyface" commonly seen in Bewick's Swans as the yellow was separated by black on the top of the bill, though a small yellow bar remained between. Please excuse the poor photos - they were taken with my phone through my scope zoomed in to its maximum (60x).

"Bewick's" Tundra Swan (right of centre) - Leamington onion fields

"Bewick's" Tundra Swan (left of centre) - Leamington onion fields

"Bewick's" Tundra Swan (left of centre) - Leamington onion fields

While considered subspecies here in North America, Bewick's and Whistling Tundra Swans are considered separate species by others.  Regardless of its taxonomic status, it was a pretty awesome bird to get in the Pelee area!

 In time, the Ross's Goose which Alan and Richard had both found independently, also swam into view. Ross's Geese are becoming more regular in early spring in southwestern Ontario, but they are still rare enough and tiny and cute enough that they are enjoyable to come across.


Ross's Goose (right of center) - Leamington onion fields


I headed up to Muddy Creek later in the afternoon after following up on a tip from Richard. Here I found two drake Northern Shovelers, a single American Coot and a male Blue-winged Teal, all recent arrivals and all year birds. The lighting was nice and even though the angle was a bit steep, I tried my hand at some photos of the birds.
drake Northern Shoveler - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

drake Northern Shoveler - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

drake Blue-winged Teal - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

Blue-winged Teal and ice - not a common sight.

drake Blue-winged Teal - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

drake Northern Shoveler - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

drake Blue-winged Teal - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)
drake Blue-winged Teal - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

Common Mergansers, normally found out on the lake, readily adapt to the open water of Muddy Creek.

female Common Merganser - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

female Common Merganser - Muddy Creek, Wheatley (Essex)

I concluded the evening by returning to the field where the Bewick's Swan remained with several hundred Tundra Swans, where I watched them with Paul Pratt and Jeremy Bensette until dusk. Around 7:20, the Bewick's Swan and a couple of Whistling Swans took off and flew high to the due south, in the direction of the Pelee marsh. Perhaps it was roosting there for the night and would return in the morning.

At the end of the second full day, my year list had crept up from 34 species to 69 species, plus one that doesn't technically "count" in "Bewick's" Tundra Swan. It had been a great weekend and hopes were high that the last day would provide some more exciting moments. 



Monday, 16 March 2015

Weekend at Pelee

Like everyone else, I was getting pretty sick of winter. Though I've had the good fortune of being able to travel south a few times this year, when I have been around it has been one of the harshest winters I can remember. And we all thought last year was bad. This year the Great Lakes ice built up to record high levels, while the month of February did not see a single day go above zero for most of the province. The snow has been unrelenting and there have been some wicked cold snaps. On top of that, it has been a relatively slow winter for birding in Ontario. There have been some bright spots, such as the long-staying and easily accessible Harris's Sparrow, Painted Bunting and Varied Thrush, and Snowy Owls have made a big push southward for the second straight winter. But finches have been almost non-existant and the extreme cold either killed off a lot of the birds or forced them to retreat back south. By late February even Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks had become scarce, and Northern Shrikes were few and far between. For many, winter birding is a lot of fun, as it allows for close range study of certain types of birds (diving ducks, gulls, Snow Buntings, various finches etc) and birding can be done at a more relaxed pace. It is easier to regularly check certain locations close to home during the long winter, unlike in the spring when there are too many great birding spots around that it is harder to concentrate on these local patches as much.

I eagerly anticipate the arrival of spring each year, and luckily it seems to have finally arrived. It started with Horned Larks and American Crows while the early March temperatures remained well below average, but by late last week we were finally graced with a prolongued warm spell, beginning the long process of snow melt. As a result I anticipated a flood of birds into the southwest of the province over the weekend and planned my first Point Pelee visit since last fall. It would be my last chance until late April, and while there wasn't a huge variety of potential species to see, I was happy to just be looking at migrants again. 

I drove down after work on Thursday after having worked enough hours in the first four days of the week. In particular I had a groundwater monitoring site at a quarry in North Bay that I do monthly sampling for. This time around it involved trekking through waist-deep snow, so Pelee was sounding pretty inviting.

Friday dawn relatively warm and overcast, and I got started by driving a route through the onion fields north of Point Pelee. The roads were snow free and it was beginning to recede from the fields as well, though nearly every field was mostly snow covered. One of the first birds I came across was this male Ring-necked Pheasant. Normally I find them quite shy and difficult to photograph, though they will tolerate the close approach of a vehicle. If however the vehicle slows down, the pheasant nearly always darts away. This one for some reason was not too bothered by my close approach.




A stop at "Stink Creek" in south Leamington was productive with a flyby Merlin and some Ontario year birds - Gadwall, Hooded Merganser and both Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird. Since this was my first real chance to bird in Ontario so far in 2015, I wanted to raise my yearlist from the paltry 34 I began the weekend with.

A stop at the lakeshore at the southeast corner of Hillman Marsh revealed that both the marsh to the west and the lake to the east were fully iced over. Further out on the lake, with a scope I was able to spot some waterfowl in a few slivers of open water - Canvasback, Redhead, both scaup and the first Tundra Swan flock of the spring appeared.

I drove down to the national park, visiting it for the first time since November, 2014. It was good to be back! In the icy wintery conditions the park was still pretty quiet despite the comfortable temperatures, though American Robins, Horned Larks and blackbirds constantly called as they migrated over, as did a low-flying Rough-legged Hawk. Most of the common wintering sparrows appeared and a few Bald Eagles were nice to see. I stopped near the Blue Heron parking lot and was pleased to see that the red morph Eastern Screech-Owl was getting some sun. This particular individual has been visiting this cavity for months.



That afternoon I drove back through the fields, noting little change in the conditions, and eventually continued around to the edge of Hillman Marsh. An American Kestrel patrolled the shorebird cell area,

On Mersea Road 21, a.k.a. the road that was home to the Smith's Longspurs last spring, I finally came across a large puddle in a field that was full of waterfowl. It was a great way to finish off the day, scanning the swans, geese and ducks, all recent migrants, while Horned Larks and Red-winged Blackbirds provided a background chorus. Later, as I was getting ready to leave, I heard the distinct wing-whistle and peent of two American Woodcocks in the field. A welcome sign of spring.


Monday, 9 March 2015

February 12, 2015 - La Guira National Park and Soroa

We left the Vinales area mid morning on February 12, our destination being Hacienda La Cortina in La Guira National Park. Hacienda La Cortina was the former estate home of a wealthy lawyer, Jose Manuel Cortina, throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The estate has now gone to ruin and taken over by the park, providing an accessible way for birders to see a handful of specialty birds, such as Olive-capped Warbler and Giant Kingbird. We spent a few hours before lunch here, along with a local guide. 

The walk started slow bird wise, but we toured through the grounds and were taught the history of the hacienda, most of which I regrettably can't recall anymore! 

New birds for the trip included a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers as well as a couple of Green Herons along a swampy watercourse. A Louisiana Waterthrush called from somewhere along the edge of the ditch, and eventually great views were had of two different birds. We crossed a bridge over the watercourse, when someone in the group noticed these bullfrogs in the channel below us. 

American Bullfrog - Hacienda la Cortina, Cuba

According to our guide we were likely here too late in the morning to see Giant Kingbirds, as they usually are much more reliable shortly after dawn. We did however find several other interesting birds, including a somewhat tame pair of Cuban Trogons, a single Cuban Tody, and some Western Spindalis. As we approached a stand of trees, we heard the song of the other specialty bird of the area. It took a while but eventually everybody had sufficient, if not excellent views of a small group of Olive-capped Warblers as they skirted amongst the branches directly above us. I was pretty happy to see this near-endemic as this would likely be our only shot of it during the trip. A short walk down the path and another little group of Olive-capped Warblers were found, as well as a Cuban Green Woodpecker at the same time. One Olive-capped Warbler was in much better light, allowing me to grab the record shot, below. The woodpecker was new for most of the group as only a few had seen the one on February 11. We ended the walk at La Cortina right around lunch time, having seen about 35 species during a surprisingly birdy few hours!


Olive-capped Warbler - Hacienda la Cortina, Cuba

Our main stop in the afternoon was to visit Orquideario de Soroa, nestled on the side of a forested valley in the Sierra del Rosario moutains. We were given a tour of the gardens, which house over 25,000 orchid species in addition to 6000 other species of plants. Several Red-tailed Hawks soared overhead, and eventually the distinct call of a Cuban Trogon was heard. A quick search turned up the bird sitting quietly in the lower canopy of a tree, our best looks of the species yet.

Cuban Trogon - Soroa, Cuba

Not long after, I was near the back of the group when I heard an interesting chip note coming from some bushes. I hung back to check it out as it sounded an awful lot like a Cuban Grassquit (I had just been listening to their call on my phone about two minutes earlier!). Eventually I narrowed down the call's source, right to some palm branches where the bird sat still in plain view. The Grassquit remained for a few minutes, causing yet another interruption to the orchid talk given by the local guide, as everyone scrambled for a look. I think everyone in the group managed to see it before it disappeared over a fence.

Cuban Grassquits have been declining in numbers for years in central and western Cuba. This is principally due to trapping for the caged-bird trade, but also due to habitat loss through deforestation.


Cuban Grassquit - Soroa, Cuba

As we neared an open area overlooking the valley, several Red-tailed Hawks and a single Sharp-shinned Hawk soared overhead. The sharpie was of the local Cuban race, a year round resident that is found in afew areas in Cuba, one of which happens to be the area around Soroa.

Red-tailed Hawk - Soroa, Cuba


An eye-level Cuban Emerald provided the best looks of the trip so far.

Cuban Emerald - Soroa, Cuba

Our hotel in Soroa ended up being within sight of the orquideario, allowing lots of remaining daylight once we got everyone checked in. I walked around the grounds for an hour before sunset with a few of the keen birders in the group. This Cuban Kestrel was on patrol on a branch overhanging a public walkway. 


Cuban Kestrel - Soroa, Cuba

We also discovered a little flock of warblers behind some of the buildings along a riparian corridor. Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green were new for the trip, while several each of Northern Parula, American Redstart, and Palm Warbler were also noted. 

Later that evening, Glenn and I tried to call in some owls before calling it a night. It only took a few minutes until we could hear the low hoots of a Bare-legged Owl across a roadway from the hotel grounds. A second Bare-legged responded, while we also heard some different hoots that we attributed to a Stygian Owl. It was a great way to end an awesome day in western Cuba.

pair of Cuban Kestrels - Soroa, Cuba

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley

The hotel we were residing in during our time in the Viñales Valley was tucked away in the countryside. As a result, the surrounding fields, scrubby areas and forests were only a short walk away. Since it was my first visit to Cuba and the potential for new species was quite high, I made an effort to walk down the road leading away from the hotel whenever I had an hour or two of free time.

This ended up being very productive and I observed close to 40 species on these brief excursions. The hotel itself consisted of manicured lawns with the occasional garden or shade tree so the avifauna was not overly diverse, but species like Cuban Blackbird, Antillean Palm Swift, Cuban Emerald and Loggerhead Kingbird were still new and exciting for me.

Horizontes la Ermita hotel - Viñales Valley

Horizontes la Ermita hotel - Viñales Valley

On most mornings during the trip, Glenn and I led a pre-breakfast bird walk wherever we were staying. We were limited by only having 30-45 minutes between sunrise and breakfast, but several interesting species were found each morning as birds are most active at this time of day. On our inaugural morning in the Viñales Valley we came across a few noteworthy species, including our first migrant wood warblers that just may end up in Ontario in a few months' time - Tennessee, American Redstart, and Palm, as well as the first Cuban Vireo, an endemic bird to Cuba. I returned by myself after breakfast to the same abandoned lot where we had seen the above species and was surprised to hear a loud "toc-toc-toc-toc" in a rapid series. Cuban Tody!!

It did not take long before I found the culprit, sitting quietly on a branch no more than three meters away. What a spectacular bird!

Cuban Tody - Viñales Valley

While this species would prove to be quite common in most wooded or semi-wooded habitats throughout our trip, nothing compared to the excitement of seeing the first. Coming in at 4.25 inches from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail and colored with hues of green, yellow, red, pink, blue and white, the Cuban Tody certainly won the category of "cutest bird of the trip" for me. It turns out that they can be quite territorial as well if a bit of playback was used - a lesson I quickly learned!


Cuban Tody - Viñales Valley

That evening after our daily activities I found myself with almost two hours free. With the extra time I was able to cover a slightly larger area, following a relatively quiet dirt road through some farmland.


At one point I came across this interesting Northern Parula. It had an abnormally large amount of white in the secondaries of each wing; something I had never observed with this species before. Interesting!

aberrant Northern Parula - Viñales Valley

Right around dusk I noticed a distant raptor flying towards me. It was an Accipiter of some sort and as it approached I could tell that it was no Sharp-shinned Hawk. Indeed it was a Gundlach's Hawk!! I was quite excited to cross paths with this scarce endemic and fired off a dozen or so photos of the distant, backlit bird while it continued on past me. Gundlach's Hawks closely resemble Cooper's Hawks (which are absent from Cuba), and it is theorized that they are derived from Cooper's Hawks in a process referred to as "migration dosing". Migration dosing refers to misdirected migration, stranding individuals of a species in a new location. These isolated individuals end up staying and reproducing, over time evolving to become a population genetically distinct from the "donor" species (Greenberg and Parra, 2005).

Gundlach's Hawk - Viñales Valley

Gundlach's Hawks are endemic to Cuba and listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. According to birdlife.org, the population is estimated to contain around 400 individuals, though these numbers were based on data from 1994. The species is thought by some to be declining, owing to habitat loss and persecution by farmers. Apparently raptors of all sorts, and particularly Gundlach's Hawks, are killed by some farmers as they have a penchant for dining on poultry.  Garrido and Kirkconnell (2000) regarded it as Vulnerable, and some Cuban ornithologists consider it more common and in no immediate danger of extinction (per http://globalraptors.org/grin/SpeciesResults.asp?specID=8005). Regardless of its status I felt privileged to cross paths with one!

I paused to photograph this Guinea Pig along the side of the road at some point. Not sure what it was doing here!

Guinea Pig - Viñales Valley

The excitement for the evening was not finished quite yet. As the road passed through a grove of introduced pines I heard some odd call notes that I could not place. Eventually the skulkers became known - a little group of Yellow-headed Warblers. This species is only found in the western half of Cuba and is the sister species to the Oriente Warbler found in eastern Cuba. In the dull post-sunset light the yellow really shone on these birds! I boosted my camera's ISO and managed to snag a couple of record shots.



The following morning I took the group back down this road to see if we could relocated the warblers, or perhaps get lucky with another flyby Gundlach's. The Yellow-headed Warblers were still around, calling from in the brushy vegetation near the pines, but they refused to show for all but one or two of us. Walking back along the road, the hedgerow on the north side (as seen in the photo below, which I actually took the previous evening) held many songbirds including seven or eight warbler species and a pair of Cuban Vireos.

self portrait - Viñales Valley

At one point, a warbler flew to the ground at the base of a shrub and I instinctively put my binoculars up. I was shocked to see it was a Swainson's Warbler, a bird that was near the top of my "most wanted" list back in North America. It stayed in view for close to a full minute as I frantically called the rest of the group over. About half of us were treated to awesome views of the bird before it flew back into thicker vegetation. The other half of the group, still waiting for Yellow-headed Warblers further down the road, did not arrive in time, unfortunately. This was one morning where I really wished that I had brought my camera with me! Swainson's Warbler, the only species in the genus Limnothlypis, is one of the most secretive and least observed of North American wood-warblers, skulking in canebrakes and swamps in the American southeast. They have a certain "holy grail" aura to me and I've long wanted to visit their breeding grounds during spring or early summer in hopes of catching a glimpse of one. While Swainson's Warblers winter in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean/Central America I did not realistically think we would observe one on this trip due to their secretive tendencies. At least in the American southeast their loud ringing song is easy to notice. Wintering birds, however, are mostly silent.

This was certainly an excellent way of wrapping up our time in the Viñales Valley. That morning we left for our next destination - the Sierra del Rosario mountains where we were staying for two nights.



References

Garrido, O. H. and Kirkconnell, A. 2000. Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Greenberg, R. and Marra, P.P. 2005. Birds of Two Worlds: The Ecology and Evolution of Migration. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley, Cuba

Our Best of Cuba tour began with a day and a half in the Viñales Valley, located several hours to the west of Havana. The valley contains soils fertile enough that tobacco farming by traditional techniques constitutes a major land use. However, there are some natural areas left, particularly in the Sierra de los Organos mountains which encircle the valley. Tree covered mogotes - karst hills composed of limestone - rise sharply from the valley floor and provide a stunning backdrop.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

A morning hike through the valley on February 11, where the above photos were taken, proved to be a great introduction to some of Cuba's common birds. Turkey Vultures soared in the skies by the dozens, Cattle Egrets strutted in many of the fields, all the while the emphatic, sputtery calls of Loggerhead Kingbirds provided a near constant soundtrack.

Loggerhead Kingbird - Viñales Valley

A perched American Kestrel of the Cuban race provided a dash of excitement. Cuban Kestrels come in two color morphs - red-breasted and white-breasted, and lack the dark breast-streaking of their American counterparts.

"Cuban" American Kestrel - Viñales Valley

The mogotes are home to several endemic birds to Cuba, including the relatively localized Cuban Solitaire. This species can be very difficult to see, but its ethereal voice occasionally rose up from a distant mogote during our walk. We did end up spotting one, its drab gray coloration providing confirmation that this is a bird whose song is more appreciated than its looks. I took a distant "record shot" of it anyways.

Cuban Solitaire - Viñales Valley

Certainly one of the most striking of Cuba's avifauna, the Western Spindalis proved to be a common enough bird in woodland edges and scrubby areas. Formerly known as the Stripe-headed Tanager, this species is found throughout Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands, and the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Occasionally a small flock would pass through, pausing to eat fruits and berries, and providing excellent photographic opportunities.

male Western Spindalis - Viñales Valley

Cuba is home to four species of flycatchers which are year-round residents. The aforementioned Loggerhead Kingbird is one, as is the La Sagra's Flycatcher (a relatively small, plain Myiarchus) and the Cuban Pewee. The fourth, the Giant Kingbird, is rare, endemic and declining and only reliable in a handful of select spots, one of which we visited later in the trip. Cuban Pewees were common in the Viñales Valley, and this individual allowed my close approach for photos.

Cuban Pewee - Viñales Valley

Several other endemic birds were easily seen in our time in the valley. The Cuban Trogon, Cuba's national bird made its first appearance, though I will discuss that species in a later post. The ubiquitous Cuban Blackbird was nearly a constant sight in any semi-natural area as well.

Some keen-eyed members of the group spotted our next new endemic - a pair of Cuban Orioles sitting quietly in the depths of a hedgerow. We would later see a few more pairs, including some individuals out in the open (see the photo below). Formerly known as Black-cowled Oriole which ranged throughout Central America and parts of the Caribbean, it was "split" in 1999, of which the birds in the Greater Antilles became the Greater Antillean Oriole while the birds on mainland Central America retained the name of Black-cowled Oriole. Greater Antillean Oriole was further split into four new species in 2010 - one of which is the endemic Cuban Oriole. Got to love taxonomy!

Cuban Oriole - Viñales Valley

I was excited to spot the first Cuban Bullfinches of the trip after several kilometers of hiking through the valley. Cuban Bullfinch is a species that has been hit hard by the caged bird trade in Cuba. Despite the reduction in numbers they still remain reasonably common in scrubby areas. I wish the same could be said for another caged bird trade casualty, the Cuban Grassquit, which is absent in many areas it formerly occupied.

Cuban Bullfinch - Viñales Valley

A big highlight for our group was coming across this male Anolis luteogularis (Western Giant Anole) while having a tour of the Caridad Tropical Garden in the town of Viñales. This species is endemic to western Cuba and one of the larger anole species that I have been fortunate to see. Anoles are the most diverse group of lizards in Cuba and at least 64 species can be found in the country; most of which are endemic.

Anolis luteogularis -  - town of Viñales

I'll finish this post with an image of a West Indian Woodpecker that entertained several of us as we arrived at a restaurant for a late lunch following the hike through the valley. West Indian Woodpeckers remind me somewhat of Red-bellied Woodpeckers from eastern North America; however, they are noticeably larger with a black streak above the eye.

West Indian Woodpecker - Viñales Valley