Tuesday 14 April 2015

February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley
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 morning dawned cool, but calm and with clear skies, allowing the air temperature to quickly become comfortable by the time we arrived at a trail that snaked through deciduous forest. This was to be the location for our morning hike with local guide Mario, a walk through the deciduous woodlands, open pastures and seasonally flooded woodlands. Among the target birds for the morning were two species of quail dove - Blue-headed and Gray-fronted - both endemic to Cuba and both difficult to find. The Gray-fronted prefers a relatively dense understorey in swampy woodland, while the Blue-headed prefers more open woodlands with a limestone substrate. 

Deciduous woodland - Soplillar area, Cuba

As we began our hike, some of the common birds of this habitat type began vocalizing, and we soon picked out Cuban Vireo, American Redstart, White-crowned Pigeon, Cuban Tody, La Sagra's Flycatcher and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. A Cuban Crow flew over once while a pair of Cuban Parrots perched in a palm tree, providing good looks for the clients who had yet to see wild ones well. A Great Lizard-Cuckoo watched us quietly from beside the trail, while several others called in the distance.

La Sagra's Flycatcher - Soplillar area, Cuba

It wasn't long before Mario and I detected some rustling in the undergrowth, and a pair of Gray-fronted Quail-Doves quietly moved deeper into the forest. With a bit of searching, slightly better looks were obtained of this endemic dove; strikingly beautiful when the light hit it just right. 

Right around this time, I paused to look at a warbler in the undergrowth just off the trail - it was a Swainson's! This also provided some excitement because most of the group hadn't been around when we found the first during a morning hike in the Vinales Valley. We ended up seeing four Swainson's Warblers over the course of the morning and I think its safe to say that everyone came away satisfied with their views of these skulky birds. Photographing them in the dark understorey, however, is a different matter entirely.

Swainson's Warbler - Soplillar area, Cuba

While people were enjoying the warblers and attempting to catch a glimpse of the quail-doves, Mario led me to an open area and pointed to a tree along the edge of the clearing. Bee Hummingbirds apparently frequent the small, white flowers on the tree. We were there for less than 30 seconds when Mario spotted a female fly in. He quickly got me on the bird and I enjoyed a good, long look at the world's smallest bird species. It really was incredible as the bird was not much larger than a large bee. 

Bee Hummingbird - Soplillar area, Cuba

We called the rest of the group over, and fortunately the hummingbird remained at the tree, feeding at eye-level for several minutes, then returned after a brief absence. For some of the clients this was the most wanted bird of the trip. Luckily Mario came through, and we all came away from the experience feeling satisfied and for me, a little relieved that we had locked onto this difficult endemic. 

Bee Hummingbird - Soplillar area, Cuba

We continued into an open area, used for cattle grazing during the summer that becomes flooded during the rainy season. The sun had climbed higher in the sky while Turkey Vultures soared in the distance. A small group of martins twisted and turned in the airspace above us, revealing themselves as Cuban Martins once we had a look at the diagnostic females (males cannot be reliably told apart from Purple Martins in the field). Nobody knows where Cuban Martins winter in South America, so for now Cuba is the only place in the world to see them. 

open palm pasture - Soplillar area, Cuba

One Turkey Vulture immediately caught my eye as it rose above the nearby woodland and into view. A quick look with my binoculars confirmed that the silvery appearance of the bird was not due to the glare from the sun, but from white feathers. I believe the bird is partially leucistic - the first Turkey Vulture I've personally seen that looked like this. Mario mentioned that he has seen this individual in the area before. 

partially leucistic Turkey Vulture - Soplillar area, Cuba

Mario led us to a small stand of palms where he had a surprise in store for us. After a bit of patience, Mario coaxed this sleepy-looking Bare-legged Owl to take a look outside its nest hole at us.

Bare-legged Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba

We left the owl to continue on with its day and wandered back towards the deciduous woodland. The cool shadows in the woodland were a nice relief from the direct sun in the open areas. Warbler activity was still high, and mixed flocks contained Prairie, Black-throated Green, Worm-eating Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes, among the regular American Restarts, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Blue and Palm Warblers.

We searched for quail-doves as we walked, rather unsuccessfully for the most part. But Mario had another surprise in store for us, and once we were in the right area he kept his eyes to the upper branches in the canopy. Finally he spotted his quarry - a day-roosting Stygian Owl.

Stygian Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba

This was our third owl species that Mario had found for us in less than 24 hours. Stygian Owls are distributed throughout the neotropics, but generally are secretive and in low enough densities that they are difficult to observe. This was only my second Stygian - the first was a bird seen roosting over the road at dawn in El Dorado in the Santa Marta Mountains, Colombia earlier in the year.

Stygian Owl - Soplillar area, Cuba

The Stygian Owl put a little spring in our step as slowly made our back out to the entrance. Another Gray-fronted Quail-Dove made an appearance, even pausing out in the open at the base of a tree for most of the group to observe. Several Yellow-headed Warblers and Cuban Trogons added to the count of endemic birds seen during the morning.

We finished with close to 50 species and headed to a nearby ocean-side cafe to enjoy a well-earned lunch.

After lunch we had the opportunity to take some free time and swim, snorkle, or enjoy the shoreline. I cooled off in the warm waters of the Caribbean for the first time all trip, then grabbed my camera and went off in search of lizards.

 I walked around with our local guide who was with us for the tour, Esmerido, and we found a few lizards, such as this species which I believe is Leiocephalus stictigaster.  They were fairly common in the open areas such as roadsides, ditches, and woodland edges.

Leiocephalus stictigaster - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

This dragonfly caught my eye...

And a small group of Yellow-headed Warblers moved quickly through the roadside woodland.

Yellow-headed Warbler - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

This Leiocephalus carinatus is a larger, more impressive looking version of the related L. sticticgaster we had seen earlier. Known as Curly-tailed Lizards, these have long tails that they often curl up, which can be raised above their back.
Leiocephalus carinatus - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

Leiocephalus carinatus - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

Leiocephalus carinatus - Cueva de Los Peces, Cuba

Our afternoon was spent driving down a long causeway that traversed mangroves, deciduous woodland and open salt pans which provide habitat to various species of shorebirds, terns, gulls, and wading birds. A Zenaida Dove crossed the road in front of the bus, but it wasn't until we arrived at the salt pans that activity really kick into high gear. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Wood Stork, American White Pelican and Reddish Egret were all new for the trip, while several dozen distant American Flamingos foraged in the shallows. All of the regular herons except for Black-crowned Night-Heron were accounted for and seven species of shorebirds included our first Black-necked Stilts, Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers of the tour.

birding in Las Salinas, Cuba

Another new endemic was quickly discovered, as several Cuban Black-Hawks soared overhead and two perched close enough to enjoy scope views. Roosting Terns were also seen well in the scope and included our first Royals and quite a few Gull-billed. One memorable sight was the large group of Black Skimmers that took off simultaneously, the contrast of their black and white wings striking in the late afternoon light.

At one point, Mario was able to coax a Clapper Rail to respond and eventually wander into view along the edge of the mangroves. Having never seen one before, I was thrilled to watch the bird as it skulked among the vegetation (if only my camera wasn't in the bus at the time!). By the end of the day we had seen about 90 species, certainly the highest in one day so far.

That evening I walked around the grounds at Playa Larga once again, relaxing a little bit by watching the sunset at the end of a busy day.

Playa Larga, Cuba

Working off of a tip from a previous trip report from Cuba, I checked out an area at the edge of the hotel property and after some effort called in a Greater Antillean Nightjar. It flew by twice during the twilight of the evening, though it never vocalized.

The Zapata portion of our trip was certainly a success, and we happened to see most of the target species that we had a shot at, while also experiencing the snorkeling, herping, hiking, and dining of the area. Plus, there is reason for me to return, as I still would like to try for the remaining endemics including Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail and Red-shouldered Blackbird.

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