Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Clayheads on Tour - Cuba 13th to 27th March 2015

We touched down, myself & Mrs PJ, late afternoon in Cuba having survived the Friday the 13th flight and the first bird I saw was a Cuban Blackbird flying around inside the terminal building !! Not sure if this 'top trumped' a House Bunting at passport control in Marrakech once or an Upland Sand while we were waiting for our bags at Scilly airfield but it was a good start..

This was my second trip to the Caribbean but Cuba has many endemic birds so there was still going to be quite a few new birds to see especially with a trip  arranged to the Birding hot spot of Playa Largo in the Bay of Pigs.

 Cuban Blackbird
Hotel Patriarca
Our base in Varadero was specifically chosen due the hotel grounds being bordered by Varahicacos Nature reserve, so I was up & out at first light the first morning hungry for ticks while the wife slept on. Having a Mrs who is a late riser really is a bonus when you're birder. Once my bins had dehumidified I was really made up when I found a Palm warbler within 5 minutes but it wasn't as good a find as I thought as this turned to be one of the commonest birds !! I kid you not they were hopping around the tables and drinking out of the swimming pool. Other birds around the hotel on the first morning included -
La Sagras flycatcher, Smooth billed Ani, Great Antillian Grackle, Antillian Palm Swift, Common Ground & Mourning doves,White eyed Vireo, Cuban Vireo and many Mockingbirds.

Palm Warbler

 La Sagras Fly

Smooth billed Ani

Greater Antillean Grackle

I soon got to know where the best habitat around the hotel grounds was and my trip list started to build with daily sightings of Cuban Emeralds, Black & White Warblers,  Northern Parula, Prairie Warblers, American Redstarts, Ovenbirds and Blue Grey Gnatcatchers. One morning I found a Key West Quail Dove on the grass verge by the car park, absolutely brilliant and the only one I saw anywhere !!!
Northern Parula
 Cuban Emerald
Black & White Warbler
 Prairie Warbler
 American Redstart
Blue Grey Gnatcatcher

Varahicacos Nature Reserve.
There was very little information about this reserve on the Internet but it looked good on the photos and it wasn't a disappoinment. Though the birds were much the same as I had seen around the hotel which wasn't a surprise they were in greater numbers with far more American Wood Warblers. Double figures of B&W, Ovenbird and Prairie Warblers on every visit, I even manged some decent pics.. There were new additions however with Cape May warbler and Black throated blue warbler, both being life ticks for me as was Great Lizard Cuckoo. 
Cape May Warbler
 Black-throated Blue Warbler

Great Lizard Cuckoo

On one morning there was a bit of Raptor migration going over with several Broad winged Hawks, Ospreys and a single Sharp shinned Hawk.

Beach & Marina
The beach was a little disappointing 'birdwise' with Killdeer being the only Wader seen but the Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns are always good value and I had plenty of time to brush up on my 'birds in flight photography' with some pretty good results I think, especially when you consider the camera was free with Tesco points !!

 Brown Pelican
Royal Tern

The Marina was much more productive though it was quite a hike up the beach, like Blakeney Point only on sand and in  34 degree heat !! 
Once we were there there was a very handy restaurant which had ice cold Cuban Beer and good views of the roosting Gulls, Terns, Skimmers, Cormorants & Waders.
Playa Largo, Bay of Pigs.
We had booked the holiday at quite short notice, this coupled with me being a dozy git meant that I subsequently struggled to find a guide for my big days birding at the hots pot of Playa Largo so I am endebted to Andy Mitchell who, at the last minute managed to secure the services of Angel Martinez, only the best bloody guide on Cuba!!!
On the big day I set off at 'daft o'clock' in a taxi to meet up with Angel in the Playa Largo hotel, a 2 hour journey from our resort of Varadero. 
When we met I presented him with a list of my 'wants' just like a kid with his Christmas list !!! Well all I can say is that I must of been a very good boy all year because he delivered with interest.
First off was Cuba's national bird the Cuban Trogan and the first to be ticked off my target list, second Cuban Tody, cracking little birds who weirdly have a 'fart' like call which incidently Angel could mimmick very well, sometimes without moving his lips. Other gems included Cuban Parrott, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Yellow bellied Sapsucker,Tawny shouldered Blackbird, Red legged Thrush (common), Yellow headed warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Shiny Cowbird, Cuban Crow, Zenaida Dove, Grey headed quail Dove and Black whiskered Vireo.

Cuban Trogan
Cuban Tody
Cuban Parrotts
Red legged Thrush

Now I was already impressed with my guide but he took it to another level when we started looking for Owls. Within minutes he had summoned up a couple of Cuban Pygmy Owls, this was following by 2 Cuban Screech Owls ( at nest sites, so admittedly easy to locate) the hat-trick was completed with Stygian Owl and the cherry on the cake an unexpected Cuban Nightjar. 
Angel later told me that he usually sets 2 days aside to locate these 4 species when he guides for Sunbird holidays, today he found them all in 30 minutes !! a personal record, he even did a little dance in the woods to celebrate, which was a bit bizarre to say the least.

Cuban Pygmy Owl
Cuban Screech Owl
  Cuban Nightjar
Stygian Owl

Best bird of the day I've been saving till last. Bee Hummingbird. This bird was on my 'bucket' list and was in bold letters on the list of wants. Angel said it was a possibility but by no means guaranteed. Today however was one of those days and I just couldn't fail. We arrived at the site, he played the call, one flew in, landed on top of a shrub, I took some photos, high fives all round. Job as they say, done. 
Today was up there with some of the best days birding I've ever had, and all for the sum of £16.00 !!!  + a generous tip of course.

Bee Hummingbird
Away from the birding we enjoyed a couple of days in Havana whilst we were there, which is a must ( though I did see my first Cuban Martins in the city) the people are friendly and the classic American 1950's cars have to be seen to be believed, thoroughly recommended and I hope to go back one day.