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!

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