Sunday 28 February 2016

Home from Cuba

I have just returned from another excellent trip to Cuba, guiding for Worldwide Quest Nature Tours. This was my first time as the solo guide for Worldwide Quest and I have to say that it was a success! Together with Esmerido, the local guide from Gaviota Tours who accompanied us the entire time, we traveled through much of western Cuba, experiencing the natural areas, wildlife and culture of Cuba. Esmerido and I were fortunate to have such a great group of clients join us. Amazing moments searching for wildlife are that much more rewarding when you can share it with others.

As there were a number of keen birders on this tour, birds were of course high on the list of target species. Given our route we managed to squeeze out every possible endemic, many which gave excellent prolonged views for the group!

Perhaps one of the best moments of the trip was watching about six Bee Hummingbirds feed, fight, and flit about mere inches from us. We all came away with excellent photographs of this species, the world’s smallest bird and a tough endemic to get in Cuba. I was particularly pleased to photograph some of the males with their gorgeous gorgets, as my lone previous sighting was of a less flamboyant female.

Bee Hummingbird

Another great moment was watching a pair of Blue-headed Quail-Doves feeding in the open only a few meters from us. This endemic species to Cuba, classified as Endangered globally, has recently become reliable at Cuevos los Peces, a restaurant and popular snorkeling spot east of the Zapata Swamp. We ate lunch here and were called over by the staff when the Blue-headed Quail-Doves appeared for their daily feeding(!). This was a species that we had missed last year on our tour.

Other bird highlights, which I’ll detail in future posts, included a flyover Gundlach’s Hawk, all four Quail-Doves, hundreds of American Flamingos, a baby and adult Stygian Owl (the baby was perched at eye-level!), great looks at Cuban Pygmy-Owl and Bare-legged Owl, and a whole host of other species including the colorful and spectacular Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, and Cuban Green Woodpecker. Additionally, with the assistance of local guides we came across two groups of the rapidly declining Cuban Grassquit, totaling almost 20 individuals.

Cuban Grassquits

While we did not discover any birds rare enough to match last year’s sighting of the Townsend’s Warbler (1st record for Cuba), we did come across some scarce birds for this time of year in Cuba including Orange-crowned Warbler Great Crested Flycatcher and Blue Grosbeak.

Birds were just part of the highlights on this tour – insects, reptiles, plants and marine life also provided their fair share of highlights. I was particularly thrilled to see two individual Antillophis andreae of two different subspecies, both spotted by clients on this tour. Having the extra pairs of eyes certainly helps with finding wildlife, as I am often scanning the treetops for birds! We also encountered a single Cuban Racer, about a dozen species of lizards, and quite a lot of marine life for those who ventured in the Caribbean with snorkels and masks. The plant life of Cuba was mentioned frequently in our numerous hikes and Esmerido and other local guides shared some of their vast knowledge of the flora of Cuba.

Zebra Longwing

Our tour also took in some of the history of Cuba as we visited Old Havana, Trinidad and Santa Clara. It was interesting to hear local perspectives on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Revolution, individuals such as Jose Marti, Ernesto “Che” Guevera and Fidel Castro, as well as the current state of the country. Cuba is a country slowly but methodically experiencing change evident all around us during our tour, and we felt privileged to visit at the time that we did.

Once the tour concluded I flew east to the city of Camaguey with hopes of finding a few more of the specialty birds of eastern Cuba, birds that we were not able to target during our tour. I was unable to book neither a car nor accommodations ahead of time, but managed to hitch a ride to Rancho La Belen, located an hour and a half southeast of Camaguey. I stayed here for three nights to take in the birds of the area. Despite a bout of illness that put me out of commission for most of my time here, I did find all of the birds I was hoping to, including the endemic Cuban Palm Crow, Cuban Parakeet and Giant Kingbird, along with Plain Pigeon and the possible future split “Cuban” Meadowlark. Barn Owls and Cuban Nightjars were easy around the lodges during the night, along with the always present Cuban Pygmy-Owl.

Cuban Pygmy-Owl

I will have more posts about this trip appear on the blog sometime in the near future. Winter in southern Ontario is nearly over and the days are slowly growing longer, so hopefully I will have some local content for the blog soon as well!


Blake A. Mann said...

Welcome back! Spring is about here and things will be happening now.

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Blake! That's the hope!

Ann said...

Hi Josh! Great to hear about the 6 bee hummingbirds!! We only saw the one on our trip with you and Glenn last year. Jim and I are planning a trip to Ontario this May, in part to do some birding with John and Jean, who we met on the 2015 Cuba trip.