Saturday 9 March 2019

Best of Cuba, February 2019: Part 1 (western mountains and valleys)

Cuba Part 1: Western mountains and valleys (February 7-9, 2019)
Cuba Part 2: Cienega de Zapata (February 10-12, 2019)
Cuba Part 3: Escambray Mountains, Cayos Las Brujas + Santa Maria (February 13-17, 2019)


I recently returned from a sixteen day trip to western Cuba, guiding for Quest Nature Tours. It was my fourth tour of duty after leading the February 2015, 2016 and 2017 departures as well. Typically I like creating a series of daily blog posts about each trip but for this one, I am only going to create three blog posts. The reasons for this are two-fold. For one, I blogged extensively about the 2015 trip (which you can read about here) and this trip follows roughly the same itinerary, other than the addition of an extra day in the Zapata Swamp. The other reason is that halfway through this trip, my camera strap failed, causing my camera to smash onto some concrete and rendering it useless for the rest of the trip.

The first post will cover our time west of Havana, in the Viñales Valley, Sierra de los Organos, and Sierra del Rosario. The second post will detail our exploits in the Zapata Swamp, the largest Caribbean wetland. The final post will describe our time in the Escambray Mountains and along the north coast, at Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Santa Maria.


Our trip began in the Viñales Valley, a two hour bus ride west of the capital of Havana. Surrounded by limestone mogotes that rise sharply on all sides, the fertile Viñales Valley is said to produce the finest tobacco in all of Cuba, while also growing all manner of fruit and vegetable. During our time in Viñales we visited a tobacco farm, explored an impressive cave system, visited a botanical garden within the town of Viñales, and went for a nice hike at a finca and around the base of a mogote.

exploring the Santo Tomas cave, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The Cuban Solitaire is found in only a few isolated mountain ranges in Cuba, making it one of the more range-restriced endemic bird species on the island. However, they can be quite common on the mogotes and we frequently heard their ethereal voices whenever we were in earshot of a mogote. Seeing a Cuban Solitaire, however, was an entirely more difficult proposition! The few we did find flew out of sight before the whole group could observe. Cuban Trogons however, were a bit more confiding. Representing the national bird of Cuba, the Cuban Trogon is said to be adorned with the colours of the Cuban flag. That tail is just spectacular!

Cuban Trogon - Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

During each morning of the trip, if time permitted I would lead a pre-breakfast bird walk for 45 minutes or an hour. I always had between 3 and 8 others join me for the walks which were frequently quite birdy. A major highlight occurred on our very first pre-breakfast bird walk. While standing at a base of a mogote, a large accipiter in flight caught my attention, beautifully lit against the mogote backdrop. An adult Gundlach's Hawk! This scarce Cuban endemic is similar to our Cooper's Hawks from back home, but can be very difficult to find (it was only my third, ever). About half of the group managed to get on the powerful raptor in flight before it disappeared around the side of the mogote.

early morning bird walk - Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

During our second morning, we visited an old estate known as Hacienda La Cortina.  The property was the former home of a wealthy lawyer, Jose Manuel Cortina. Following the Cuban Revolution, the property was confiscated by the government and Mr. Cortina left Cuba for Florida. The estate's gardens and ponds have been maintained, and a series of paved walkways provide easy access for birders to see a handful of specialty birds, such as the Olive-capped Warbler.

Our walk here was very productive and we had some great finds, including the best looks I've ever had of Olive-capped Warbler. Our first Cuban Sliders of the trip were basking along the edge of one of the ponds, a nice variety of butterflies flitted in the sunlight, and our healthy bird list included the likes of Cuban Oriole, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Cuban Tody, Purple Gallinule, Cuban Pewee and Western Spindalis.

Olive-capped Warbler - Hacienda La Cortina, Artemisa, Cuba

Cuban Slider - Hacienda La Cortina, Artemisa, Cuba

Great Lizard-Cuckoo - Hacienda La Cortina, Artemisa, Cuba

A school of these mosquitofish (Gambusia sp.) were just below the surface of one of the ponds at Hacienda La Cortina.

Mosquitofish (Gambusia sp.) - Hacienda La Cortina, Artemisa, Cuba

Just the way the lighting was hitting this Loggerhead Kingbird made it appear similar to a Gray Kingbird, which is also a common species but one which does not show up in Cuba until later in the spring. The pale tail tip and bill shape give this one away as a Loggerhead, however.

Loggerhead Kingbird - Hacienda La Cortina, Artemisa, Cuba

Ceraunus Blue - Hacienda La Cortina, Artemisa, Cuba

We worked our way east towards Soroa, our base for the next two nights. Our mid-afternoon arrival gave us time to explore the Orquidaerio de Soroa which boasts thousands of orchid species among many other plants. 

Exploring the Orquidaerio de Soroa, Artemisa, Cuba

Of course, the birding here can be quite good as well, and in the past I have seen the local race of Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cuban Grassquit on the grounds. Unfortunately we had no luck with those species this year, but we did have incredible views of two Summer Tanagers, half a dozen warbler species, and the "usual" endemics (Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Green Woodpecker, etc!).

Summer Tanager - Soroa, Artemisa, Cuba

This Northern Mockingbird was too photogenic for me to not take its photo!

Northern Mockingbird - Soroa, Artemisa, Cuba

One morning we drove to Las Terrazas, located just a bit east of Soroa. A massive forest restoration initiative began here around 50 years ago, as part of Fidel Castro's "Green Revolution" that began in the late 1960s. Castro wanted to increase the forest cover of Cuba but also wanted to improve the lives for the rural people living in poverty. At the time, the Sierra del Rosario mountain range had lost most of its forest cover, while the people living there were quite poor and surviving by making charcoal, further exasperating the deforestation. As part of the reforestation project, the mountains were first terraced to prevent erosion, followed by the planting of many thousands of trees. The people living in the hills were relocated to the community of Las Terrazas, which was outfitted with a school, medical clinics, and running water. It is incredible when walking through the hills around Las Terrazas to see how well the area has recovered; now well over 500 plant species can be found here, along with a wide variety of fauna.

Red-legged Thrush - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

We spend the day being guided by Leo, an excellent guide who I've had in the past in the Las Terrazas area. Here he is, pictured with his grand-daughter.

Our walk was quite productive with a nice variety of birds, trees, insects and more. This Yellow-headed Warbler was quite inquisitive, giving us great views of another endemic species.

Yellow-headed Warbler - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

In most places we went, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, or sometimes both were downright abundant.

Cuban Blackbird - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Western Honey Bee - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

During my 2017 Cuba trip we visited a farm just outside of Las Terrazas that feeds the grassquits, including quite a few Cuban Grassquits. This endemic species is quite scarce and getting harder and harder to find, partly due to habitat loss but also from trapping for the cagebird trade. I inquired with Leo and this farm was still feeding the grassquits this year.

It was quite the spectacle - at least 20 Cuban Grassquits along with many Yellow-faced Grassquits fed on the cracked corn on a ledge only a few meters away from us. Everyone came away with photos they were happy with!

Cuban Grassquits - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Cuban Grassquits - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba
Yellow-faced and Cuban Grassquits - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Cuban Grassquits - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Yellow-faced Grassquit - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Yellow-faced Grassquit - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Cuban Grassquits - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Leo had one last surprise in store for us, in a Caribbean Pine plantation within Las Terrazas. It took about 20 minutes of searching, but he eventually spotted the target: a beautiful Stygian Owl.

Stygian Owl - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

watching the Stygian Owl - Las Terrazas, Artemisa, Cuba

Following our time west of Havana, we drove east to the Zapata Swamp where we would be based out of Playa Larga for three nights. The Zapata Swamp will be the focus of my next post.


Cuba Part 1: Western mountains and valleys (February 7-9, 2019)
Cuba Part 2: Cienega de Zapata (February 10-12, 2019)
Cuba Part 3: Escambray Mountains, Cayos Las Brujas + Santa Maria (February 13-17, 2019)

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