February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley
February 12, 2015 - Parque Nacional La Guira and Soroa
February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas
February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata
February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp
February 16 and 17, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula
February 18, 2015 - the Escambray Mountains
February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria
February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
February 22, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
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.
|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.
|Yellow-headed Warbler - Viñales Valley|
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.
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.