6 November 2010

Cuba - May 2008

This trip was mostly centred around sitting on the beech in the tourist trap of Varadero with a limited amount of birding involved. We did get out for a single mid-morning (09:00 - 12:00) trip to the Zapata peninsula with Orestes Martinez ''El Chino'', and few stops along the side of the road when appropriate.

Birds around the Varadero area are quite limited, with only common species present: Greater Antillean Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, Caspian Tern, Laughing Gull, Common Ground-Dove, Mourning Dove, Zenaida Dove, House Sparrow, Cuban Emerald, Double-crested Cormorant and Grey Kingbird.

Within the Varadero complex of resorts is a small nature trail encompassing some mangrove and´sand forest´. Only a few miles at best and swamped with kamikaze mosquitoes, it is worth a walk around at least once. A slow pace is necessary as the area holds some quail doves. Species seen here included, Cuban Vireo, Yellow-headed Warbler, White-crowned Pigeon, Cuban Emerald, La Sagra´s Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Antillean Palm-Swift and Cuban Woodpecker.

An interesting section, perhaps only seasonal or even due to recent building work presents itself at the beginning of the Varadero stretch. Opposite the Sol Club Palmeras a section of flat land with bare patches, short grass and small wetland type area of perhaps 1 acre in size exists. This section provided us with breeding Least Tern as well as various remaining migratory waders and a collage of herons and egrets. These included: Little Blue Heron, Great Egret, Reddish Egret, Tri-coloured Heron, Snowy Egret and Cattle Egret. Others included Killdeer, Wilson´s Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot. Neo-tropic Cormorant on the Varadero Golf Course.

By far the highlight of the trip was our day spent near Zapata. We had arranged to have El Chino, a local guide take us around for half the day. On the way we picked up Antillean Night-Hawk near Jose Smith Comas. I must drive home the fact that we only arrived in Playa Larga at 09:15, way too late for anything decent one would expect. When you consider this with the quality of birds seen, you can understand how I could not recommend Chino enough. See below for Contact Details.
We jumped in the car and drove a short distance to some wooded forest/thicket. First up some Cuban Trogon. Walking the trails followed with a Yellow-faced Grassquit. Quite the unbelievable after this, Chino heard a Blue-headed Quail-Dove calling, a few minutes of quite searching and we had a male sitting at head height a few yards into the tangle. The species then came quicker than we could buy them, Cuban Tody, Black-whiskered Vireo, Grey-fronted Quail-Dove, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Cuban Pygmy-Owl, West-Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Woodpecker, Fernandina´s Flicker (after 20 minutes of having the bird 5 yards away and not being able to see it!), Cuban Pewee, Logger-headed Kingbird, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Bullfinch, American Kestrel, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Shiny Cowbird and Black-cowled Oriole.

Chino then took us on a rambling drive into the middle of a forest, set us up under and tree and told us to focus the telescope on a particular branch - 10 minutes later a male Bee Hummingbird perches and sings - quite extraordinary. Chino took us back to his nick of the woods, Calitone, next to Playa Larga and invited us for lunch. The porch at the back only 3 feet from the bay of pigs! Lobster for lunch. While the amenities are basic, in fact nothing that we westerners would generally be happy to eat near, the authenticity beats any ´local experience´ money can buy. With lunch costing 20CUC for my brother and I, as well as the morning with Chino only 15CUC each, a large tip was certainly required.

Chino further told us where to look for certain birds on our return. We stopped at the obligatory Boca de Gaum to look for Red-shouldered Blackbird which duly obliged as well as Cuban Blackbird, Smooth-billed Ani, Limpkin and Northern Jacana. This is also the home of the Cuban Crocodile centre.
As one will notice in Cuba, signposts and logical road directions are completely absent. We got lost travelling from Varadero to Zapata twice. Even on the way back we went around in circles for a while. The easiest way to conquer this is to pick up one of the local Policeman who are hitching towards your intended direction. While lost, (we were in the vicinity of Torriente I believe) we picked up Red-tailed Hawk, Snail Kite, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Meadowlark and White-winged Dove.

To my mind, Cuba was one of the best locations I have visited. Forget the political rubbish spouted by the US - Cubans are some of the friendliest people I have come across. Even the military were very much engage brain first before arming weapon (unlike my more recent run in with the US border patrol - how do I look like a Mexican illegal...). History ebbs out of every corner, even a modicum of historical knowledge makes Cuba a fascinating destination.

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