Birding in Cuba

My claim to never have had a bad day birding was sorely tested a couple times during our ten days birding in Cuba, particularly when I had to get up at 5 a.m. so we could wait in the woods more than an hour – or was it two? – for a quail dove to cross the path. This was my first experience with a group birding trip and it was also my first experience of target birding. Each day we were told what the target birds were we were meant to see, and if they didn’t show up we had to return a second time or move the target to another day. Our target birds were principally the 26 Cuban endemic species, and indeed for those compiling a life list this was their only chance to check them off. For those who just wanted to see a lot of birds, which was most of us, I think, the overall experience was more important.

As for the endemics, because we had two of the best birders in Cuba leading us, the group ticked off all 24 that are considered findable. I missed one because I chose to sleep in one morning, and only our leader was confident he saw Gundlach’s Hawk, although we all spent several hours staring at its nest. Two of the endemics were owls, and we saw four owl species in all, rather remarkable, but again there is a caveat. These birds were all served up to us on platters; it was at the opposite end of going into the woods, finding and identifying a bird on your own, which is the kind of birding I like. The guide for another group found the Stygian Owl asleep in a tree and called all of us over to look. Our own local guide found the Bare-legged (Screech) Owl for us by tapping on dead palm trunks until he located their roost and they popped up to see what was happening.

Since I was not going to discover and identify a rare bird on my own, my enjoyment came from learning the new bird, so that I could find and identify it when we came across it again as the trip went on. The Western Spindalis (a tanager) and Cuban Oriole were prime examples. It was also great fun to run into 21 species of warblers, 18 of which were on winter vacation from the East and 2 of which, the charming Oriente and Yellow-Headed Warblers, were Cuban endemics. And as for trademark Cuban birds, I was quite happy with the Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon and Bee Hummingbird.

As for Cuba itself, though, I found little to recommend. I suspect the art scene and the music scene, both centered in Havana, can provide more interesting destinations. They weren’t on our itinerary. (Havana itself was, in a one-day extension, and our city tour was certainly worthwhile.) Out in the country we stayed in hotels that were spartan and, in one case, not ready for international travelers. Cayo Coco was ready; international travelers were all that was there, and it provided a cheap Caribbean beach vacation for Canadians and Europeans on a budget. The food and entertainment, however, were below the standards of other resort islands, and there was nothing particularly “Cuban” about the hotels or the location, which was linked to the mainland by an 18km causeway. The towns we drove through, and even Havana, gave off a third-world feel, and the countryside was not particularly attractive. For most of the places we birded, you wouldn’t want to go there except to see a particular bird. We weren’t exposed to much Cuban culture or history, but we did visit the Bay of Pigs Museum, the Che Guevara Memorial and a tobacco store. The Hotel Nacional, where we spent our first night in Havana, is also historic: it seemed proudest of hosting a major Mafia sitdown.

As time goes by I will probably remember more fondly the birding highlights, including the 50 “lifers” – species I saw for the first time. But while I was in Cuba I was counting down the days, looking forward less to the next cement-block hotel than being back in Santa Barbara.

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