Monday 11 March 2019

Best of Cuba, February 2019: Part 2 (Cienega de Zapata)

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)


The Cienega de Zapata, or the Zapata Swamp, is the largest wetland in the Caribbean. Located only a short drive from Havana, the Cienega de Zapata Biosphere Reserve covers over 6000 square kilometers making it not only the largest protected area in Cuba, but in the whole of the Caribbean. The wetland is named Cienega de Zapata due to its geographical shape, being almost shaped like a shoe (zapato in Spanish).

We would be based out of Hotel Playa Larga, a beachside hotel located at the north end of the Bay of Pigs, or partway up the heel of the boot in the map, above. Playa Larga is a nice central location from which all accessible parts of the swamp are, at most, 1.5 hours away. As a bonus, a flock of Cuban Parrots roosts near Hotel Playa Larga and are easily seen each morning and evening.

Cuban Parrot - Hotel Playa Larga, Matanzas, Cuba (photo taken during 2017 tour)

The Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve protects the swamp as well as many adjacent areas. While the core of the wetland consists of seasonally flooded sawgrass marshes, a variety of other ecotypes can be found in the area. These include grasslands, coastal matorral, mangrove forests, seasonally flooded deciduous swamps, and evergreen forest. Very little topographic relief occurs throughout Zapata, and the substrate often consists of limestone, hinting at its geological past as a former coral reef.

Boat ride through along the Rio Hatiguanico, Matanzas, Cuba

American Crocodile - Rio Hatiguanico, Matanzas, Cuba

Our first full morning in Zapata was spent visiting a location known as Bermejas. Among birders the Zapata Swamp is well-known as a place to see all but around five of the Cuban endemic bird species, and Bermejas is one of the more reliable locations for a number of them. We had employed the services of Ana Suarez, a local guide who works for the National Park. Ana was absolutely incredible, with a keen knowledge of the flora and fauna at every place we visited, and first-hand experience of the conservation programs and environmental issues within the swamp and surrounding areas. Our morning in Bermejas started extraordinarily well. We had barely stepped off the bus when a screeching flock of Cuban Parakeets zipped past before settling into a distant tree. Cuban Parakeet numbers are but a shell of what they used to be and the species is listed as Vulnerable with only a few thousand remaining in the wild. Cuban Parakeet is one of the species that Ana is most actively involved with the conservation efforts of. As a cavity nester, they are particularly susceptible to poaching, since there are a limited number of trees that provide suitable cavities, making it easy for poachers to find the nests.

Cuban Parakeets - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

A few minutes after our Cuban Parakeet success we found ourselves just within the forest behind a waist-height barrier, staring down a long, straight leaf-covered path. This particular trail is often frequented by quail-doves early in the morning, birds that are otherwise very difficult to see due to their secretiveness. Four species of quail-doves can be found in Cuba; two of which are endemic (Gray-fronted and Blue-headed Quail-Dove), one which is a Caribbean endemic (Key West Quail-Dove) and one which is widespread in the Neotropics (Ruddy Quail-Dove). Our vigil at the "quail dove path" paid off with sightings of Ruddy, Key West and Gray-fronted Quail-Doves, along with several Zenaida Doves. I was particularly happy to snap a few distant photos of a Gray-fronted Quail-Dove as it was one of the remaining endemic bird species that I had never photographed before in Cuba.

Gray-fronted Quail-Dove - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Our morning in Bermejas just kept getting better. Soon we were watching a pair of Bee Hummingbirds; the male performing an aerial display, hovering high in the sky while calling. A walk in the nearby forest produced many warblers, all the "usual" endemic birds, several lizards and dragonflies and our first Florida Tree Snails of the trip. The stars of the show, however, were a pair of endemic Bare-legged Owls, roosting in a dead palm.

Bee Hummingbird - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Ovenbird - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Bare-legged Owl - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zebra Longwing - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Anole (Anolis) sp. with a Florida Tree Snail shell - Bermejas, Matanzas, Cuba

Later in the morning we visited a place that is known to have a small colony of Fernandina's Flicker. This species is a cavity nester, and much like Cuban Parakeet and Cuban Parrot, Fernandina's Flicker has also severely declined in number. Part of the cause of its decline was the widespread loss of many suitable cavity trees due to the high winds from Hurricane Michelle in 2001.

Fernandina's Flicker - Soplillar, Matanzas, Cuba (photo taken during 2016 tour)

We had had an extremely productive morning in Bermejas but the day's excitement was far from over. Lunch was at an oceanside restaurant called Cueva de los Peces, surrounded by open deciduous forest that is home to Blue-headed Quail-Doves. A small group of quail-doves has become quite tame, showing up like clockwork behind the restaurant each day to enjoy a feeding of rice. Nowhere else in the world can this Cuban endemic species be seen so well. It appears that the acclimated flock has grown, as five birds were present this year!

Blue-headed Quail-Dove - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

One of the quail-doves had some problems with the pigmentation of its blue cap, along with some of the other feathers on the face.

Blue-headed Quail-Dove - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

Cueva de los Peces is also a great area to watch lizards. Northern Curlytail Lizards are downright abundant on the limestone rocks, often tolerating a close approach. Habana Anole (Anolis homolechis) is also rather common here; I was able to catch one for the group to show off its distinctive, white dewlap.

Habana Anole (Anolis homolechis) - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

Northern Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus) - Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

Northern Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus- Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

I was particularly thrilled to spot this anole, a species I had never encountered before. It is known as the Cuban Twig Anole, Anolis angusticeps.

Cuban Twig Anole (Anolis angusticeps- Cueva de los Peces, Matanzas, Cuba

That afternoon we explored an area called Las Salinas located southwest from Playa Larga. A road cuts straight through the swamp, passing mangrove islands interspersed with open salt flats and extensive shallows. This area is a haven to bird life, especially American Flamingos, various wading birds and sandpipers.

Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

As the afternoon turned to evening we enjoyed the avian spectacle. A flock of American Flamingos numbering over 500 took off at once and flew past. Hundreds of American White Pelicans roosted on an island. Several Clapper Rails fired off from somewhere within the mangroves. Almost every species of wading bird was accounted for, including Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill and Reddish Egret. Seven species of shorebirds were identified while four species of terns were tallied. We watched a spectacular show of a Magnificent Frigatebird in full-chase mode on a Laughing Gull, making it give up the meal it had recently caught.

Short-billed Dowitchers and a Black-necked Stilt - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

Magnificent Frigatebird - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

Black Skimmers - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

Roseate Spoonbills - Las Salinas, Matanzas, Cuba

As the sun began to set, a pair of Cuban Black Hawks provided the last new species for the day. We finished with over 90 bird species, our best single day total of the trip!

The following morning we headed west, deep into the heart of the swamp, to a small village called Santo Tomas. Accessed by a long dirt road that heads west from Playa Larga, Santo Tomas is surrounded to the north by seasonally flooded, saw-grass marsh. It was here in 1926 that Fermín Z. Cervera, a Spanish naturalist, discovered three species of birds brand new to science at the time: the Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail, and Zapata Sparrow. While the Zapata Rail is damn near mythical, having been observed by only a small handful of observers since its discovery, the Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow can both be found with some effort. In addition, another scarce Cuban endemic - the Red-shouldered Blackbird - can also be found here.

We enjoyed a short walk to the start of a canal, where three boats were waiting to transport us. From there, the boatman used long poles to paddle us along, while we strained our ears to pick out the calls of Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow and Red-shouldered Blackbird.

exploring Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

exploring Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

exploring Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

I worried that the wind would pick up by the time we approached the habitat for our target species, as increased gusts would surely make birding more difficult. These species are difficult enough during good conditions. Fortunately, the birding gods were smiling down on us and the wind was nothing more than a light breeze throughout the middle parts of the morning.

Birding along the canal - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Luck was on our side and we managed to connect with all three of our target birds! A few Red-shouldered Blackbirds sang off in the distance, while two checked us out briefly before departing. At least three different Zapata Sparrows appeared alongside the canal and one perched only a few feet above our heads. And a singing male Zapata Wren (as well as his mate) came in quite close when we tried a bit of playback at a particular spot. Not only that, but the male Zapata Wren sat in a mostly unobscured bush, singing his heart out, and allowing everyone a chance to take photos and recordings. It was just a magical morning!

Zapata Wren - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zapata Wren - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zapata Sparrow - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Zapata Sparrow - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

We noticed a few other things of interest here and there, including a number of butterfly species, odonates including Rambur's Forktail and Slough Amberwing, a Yellow-throated Vireo, and fantastic views of a Cuban Pygmy Owl, our first for the trip.

Florida White - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Cuban Pygmy Owl - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

Rambur's Forktail - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

birding along the canal - Santo Tomas, Matanzas, Cuba

A great morning out on the water!

One last location that I wanted to mention is the Bee Hummingbird house located in the small town of Palpite (10 minutes north of Playa Larga). It is here than an enterprising family has been able to cash in with the presence of Bee Hummingbirds in their yard. The Bee Hummingbird is smallest species of bird in the world and a Cuban endemic. It is only found in a few disjunct areas in Cuba but even at the Zapata Swamp, where it is perhaps the most reliable, it is not exactly easy to find unless one knows an exact location to search. The presence of a flowering tree and numerous hummingbird feeders at the house in Palpite ensures that there are always a few Bee Hummingbirds around, as well as a good variety of other species.

We spent an hour here one afternoon and it did not disappoint. In addition to the incredible views of Bee Hummingbirds, we also spotted Black-throated Blue Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Cuban Oriole, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Emerald and more. The only negative was that this was the location where I broke my camera due to a strap failing on me. But we won't talk about that....needless to say my ability to take photos (at least with the big camera) was compromised for the rest of the trip. The last frames I took with the camera before it died were of a Bee Hummingbird. A good way to go out, I suppose.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - La Boca, Matanzas, Cuba

female Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

Turkey Vulture - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Matanzas, Cuba

The next blog post will cover our remaining locations that we visited, including the Escambray Mountains as well as the keys (cayos) of Las Brujas and Santa Maria, off the north coast of Cuba.


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)

No comments: