My first trip to Cuba

Male Bee Hummingbird in Playa Larga, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

My friend Chris Charlesworth invited me to go to Cuba with him with Avocet Tours. One of the tour participants from my first NFLD tour I led with Avocet was Nimali Seneviratne and my friend Chris Siddle from Vernon as well. I also got to meet nice folks from TX, AB and BC.

March 13

I flew in to Varadero via Air Canada and took a coach to our casa in Havana. En route I had Palm Warbler, Greater Antillean Grackle, Turkey Vulture, Magnificent Frigatebird, Cuban Blackbird and a Gray Kingbird. At a rest stop for lunch,,when the bus stopped on my way to Havana, I saw a huge wild and endangered Cuban Rock Iguana.

At dinner in Havana at a restaurant called Esteban we had a nice dinner of whitefish and I gave some of the begging cats some food scraps. Here a Red-legged Thrush serenaded us. There were Cuban/Purple Martins flying overhead. The male Cuban Martins are impossible to distinguish from Purple Martins. You need a perched female to see if they are no streaks on her belly to make it a Cuban Martin or watch them at a nest in Cuba. 

March 14

After a breakfast of a scrambled egg and a cheese bun and tea, we drove to Viñales to see the Cuban Solitaire and the beautiful limestone cliffs. At the cliffs in Viñales we had the endemic Cuban Solitaire doing its haunting call. You can watch a video of it singing below

We also had a few Smooth-billed Anis, Northern Mockingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Palm Warbler, Yellow-faced Grassquit, a rufous-morph American Kestrel (Cuban Race) and a Cuban Oriole. Fun fact: several female Smooth-billed Anis lay up to 29 eggs in one single nest but many of the eggs at the bottom layer sadly do fail.

The beautiful view of Limestone Cliffs in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Chris Charlesworth

I was able to get some nice photos of the Cuban Solitaire. We also had good views of some Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, endemic Cuban Blackbirds, White-winged Doves, Red-legged Thrushes and Antillean Palm Swifts. We also had great views of Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Emerald Hummingbirds, Yellow-faced Grassquits, Yellow-throated Warblers and American Redstarts. We also saw a stunning Cuban-Green Woodpecker. We also had Gray Catbirds and Common Gallinule as well. We had a delicious lunch of Lobster at Barbacora restaurant.

Cuban Solitaire in Viñales, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Smooth-billed Ani in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Emerald in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Yellow-faced Grassquit in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Loggerhead Kingbird in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Black-whiskered Vireo in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Next we went birding at Rancho St.Vincents. Here we saw a few new endemics including a beautiful Cuban Trogon and cute Cuban Pygmy-Owl and Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Blackbirds and Greater Antillean Grackles. We also saw a Great Lizard-Cuckoo and West Indian Woodpecker. By the way Cuban Pygmy-Owls are the smallest West Indian Owl.

Cuban Trogon at Rancho San Vincente - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Pygmy-Owl at Rancho San Vincente - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Greater Antillean Grackle at Rancho San Vincente - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Blackbird at Rancho San Vincente - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Great Lizard-Cuckoo at Rancho San Vincente - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We spent the night at Viñales and had a lovely local dinner again of Lobster and Taro and rice and beans. This would be a repetitive staple throughout the trip.

Cuba is suffering with huge shortages of gas, fuel and food and the people are suffering. They make less than 1$ a day (most people) and up to 4$ a day for those doing well (mainly those who work 16-18hr a day in the big resorts) and every night have electrical blackouts (blackouts do not occur in tourist resorts due to generators to keep tourists happy). In Viñales there was no power every night for 10 hours. This made sleeping in the baking heat almost impossible. In fact I had one of the worst nights there with the constant noise on the street and baking heat in my room. It is also not fun showering in the pitch dark. Also WIFI is pretty non-existent in Cuba and when you do get it you usually have to pay for it via a 25 Cuban Peso card that you must purchase and it works super slow and only in certain areas. We really are spoiled in Canada.

There was quite a few people begging in the streets and also some were selling bananas, unpasteurized cheese, peanuts and guava paste. It is illegal for them to sell these wares without a permit in this Communist regime but the people are desperate.  They would take anything for their wares, even a pen. When I was out birding without my wallet one lady selling bananas asked if she could have my pen on my shirt pocket for 3 bananas. I said she could have the pen for free but she insisted I took at least 2 bananas. I found the people there very kind despite their suffering. The little food they have in their fridge spoils from these long blackouts; I can't imagine living this way.

Many dogs and cats come to beg for food when you are eating outdoors. Quite a few looked like they were starving with visible ribs exposed and emaciated waists and underweight. I always saved some of my food for the animals even taking doggy bags from restaurants.  I should say I did see some starving animals like horses, dogs and cats showing many ribs. It was sad to see. I also saw many very skinny people (adults and children) who didn't have shoes walking on the dirt and rough roads.

If you come to Cuba, it is a good idea to bring medicine, first aid kits and powdered milk for the people suffering. Despite their hardships they are very friendly and kind, as I said before. Most people in the country cannot speak English.

Americans are now allowed to come to Cuba since US President Barack Obama made a new agreement in 2016. He was the first US President to go there since 1928. However, Trump has rescinded most of that agreement and Americans are not allowed to stay in any hotel (which are all government run). US Citizens  must stay in local casas in order to support only the Cuban people. Because of the embargos placed on Cuba by the US, a US citizen cannot use a US credit card in the country anywhere. Venezuela used to provide Fuel to Cuba and were a great ally but due to their own collapse can't help out Cuba like they used to. Russia has been a staunch ally and continues to help Cuba to this day.

I personally enjoyed staying in the casas. Not only to support the local people but to feel more immersed in their culture and to get the good local cuisine and experience. I note that they are super basic accommodations and nothing like the beach resorts but for a birding trip (if you aren't fussy), it is ok. Most nights during our stay we had no power due to the blackouts and no A/C and I admit that did make for terrible sleeps.

March 15

On the way to the Zapata Swamp and our casa in Playa Larga at the famous “Bay of Pigs” we stopped at Los Palacios fish farm and rice farm at Paso Real. Here is where I saw my lifer Limpkin. I also saw Tri-colored and Scaly-breasted Munias. Tri-colored was a lifer for me. I also saw the striking white morph of the Cuban race of American Kestrels. This May one day be split. They are truly so blindingly white! There were also many Little Blue Herons, Snowy and Cattle Egrets and some Green Herons. There was Purple and Common Gallinules, Northern Harrier, Snail Kite, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White Ibis, Caspian Terns, Black-necked Stilts, Brown Pelicans, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Common Ground-Doves. Many eastern warblers winter in Cuba and we saw many Palm Warblers, Yellow-throated, Cape May and Black-and-white here as well.

Next we went to a dairy and pig farm at the entrance to Rosario Biosphere Reserve. Here we saw a Yellow-throated Vireo, Shiny Cowbird, West Indian Woodpecker, beautiful Western Spindalis, Cuban Tody, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Grassquit (who is declining rapidly due to the illegal cage bird trade), Cuban Trogon, Gray Kingbird, Red-legged Honeycreepers and Helmeted Guineafowl. Helmeted Guineafowl have been introduced during the slave trade and are countable in Cuba.

Cuban Trogon at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Grassquit at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Red-legged Honeycreeper at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

West Indian Woodpecker at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Pewee at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Gray Kingbird at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Yellow-throated Vireo at the Rosario pig farm - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We then stopped at La Terrazas Reserve, where we saw several Olive-capped Warblers high up in the pine trees. In the deciduous foliage we saw a few endemic Yellow-headed Warblers (in their own Cuban warbler family). It is here that I saw my lifer Stygian Owl roosting high up in a pine tree. Cuba is the best place in the world to see this uncommon owl. 

Yellow-headed Warbler at Las Terrazas Reserve  - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Olive-capped Warbler in the pines at Las Terrazas Reserve - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Before we stopped for lunch we stopped at a lake called Embalse Nina Bonita, where we saw American Coots, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup and Brown Pelicans.

There was an electrical blackout 5 hours before bed, as I said a usual occurrence in Cuba since most casas don't have the generators that the big hotels have.

They still use horse and cart to get around in the towns in Cuba. Of course they have cars too and you do see a lot of old cars from the 1950's and 60s but you also see modern cars too. Most in the country don't have cars though and even those who do are having trouble finding fuel to run them as many gas stations have empty pumps. The farmers also use Oxen to plow the fields manually with the farmer following behind, unlike with machines that farmers use back home.

Horse and Buggy in Viñales, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We spent the night in Playa Larga.

March 16

Next we went to Zapata Swamp to La Turba in Zapata National Park with local guide Marietta (nice to have a female guide!) and saw the rare, endangered and endemic Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrows. We also had several Northern Waterthrushes, Palm Warblers, American Redstart, Prairie Warblers and Black-and-white Warblers and the rare endemic Red-shouldered Blackbirds, Cuban Tody, Cape May Warbler, Green Heron, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler and Smooth-billed Anis, Neotropic Cormorants, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Pewee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-headed Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Cuban Bullfinch, Red-legged Thrush, Gray Catbird, Sora, Cuban Orioles and a male Cuban race white-morph American Kestrel.

Cuban Green Woodpecker at Zapata Swamp - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Zapata Sparrow in Zapata Swamp - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The endangered and skulky Zapata Wren in Zapata Swamp - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Endemic Cuban Bullfinch in Zapata Swamp - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Oriole in Zapata - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Male white-morph American Kestrel (Cuban race) at Zapata - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I was surprised how little bugs were in the swamp but I was wearing Wind River mosquito treated clothes (since both Dengue and Zika are present in the country). I can attest the hats, long sleeve shirts and pants by this company really do keep the bugs off you. 3 in our group got ticks (that did bite them) and several got mosquito bites but I never did. I also used 100% deet spray which I ordered from the US prior to travel. It was very humid in the swamp and everywhere in Cuba. We had to use special modified old vehicles to enter the swamp.

Our modified Frankenstein vehicles that got us into Zapata Swamp - Photos: Melissa Hafting

After lunch, we went to Bernabe Bee Hummingbird feeders and we saw several Bee Hummingbirds! I knew they were the smallest birds in the world but it still amazed me to see how truly small they are! They are really the size of large bumblebees! At this spot there was also a male Black-throated Blue Warbler who was confiding. There were many Cuban Emeralds but we didn't see any Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Cuba only gets those 3 Hummingbirds. There was also a Cuban Trogon nest that two adults were tending and several Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds and Cuban Orioles. There was also a leucistic Turkey Vulture flying overhead. I had forgotten my expensive new hat there and the lovely caretaker biked it over to me the next day when I was eating in a restaurant. I gave him some money for his trouble and kindness! The Bee Hummer was so fast and hard to photograph. I only got one shot with the gorget lit up correctly. I have included many shots of this bird, even if his gorget is not lit up correctly, because he was so cute and hard to photograph and he is a bird I have always dreamt of seeing. I am happy with the first shot showing the colours of the bird accurately. Note the blue back and aqua green on the flanks, white belly and the fuchsia gorget (much like the colour of our Anna's) with hints of gold. They have long gorgets like Costa's Hummers.  They are sadly declining rapidly, due to habitat loss and loss of native plants which they depend on.

My friend Thor and his friend Charlie taught me something I never knew about the Bee Hummingbird! They let me know that the male Bee Hummingbird loses its gorget after the mating season is over. So it looks like a female.  Scientists believe this is done in order to be less attractive to predators. I don't know of any other hummer that does this. I told Thor this is what I love about birding as we are constantly learning something new and to me this just makes the Bee Hummingbird even cooler!

Bee Hummingbird (smallest bird in the world) in Playa Larga, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Black-throated Blue Warbler in Playa Larga, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Leucistic Turkey Vulture in Playa Larga, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After this, we went back to Playa Larga where the power was out again and I went swimming in the beach. The water was as warm as bathwater and I enjoyed watching an Osprey and Brown Pelican catch fish. 

I saw 3 incidents of animal cruelty (excluding people carrying and tying down cocks for a brutal cock fight but more on that later) during my trip to Cuba. First I saw two young men pinching the vulva of a mare to make it run faster in a cart and my gosh did it run fast with the look of fear in its eyes. Secondly the local bird guide Daniel Merino from 360 Cuba Birding Tours (who was wonderful) took us to look for birds at a Cuban Crocodile Farm. It was called The Criadero de Cocodrilos. Here I saw a baby Cuban Crocodile tied down tight to the ground with a rope very tight around its neck and another closing its jaw firmly shut. The animal was immobilized and couldn't move an inch. This was done in order for tourists to take photos of it. I don't know how long it was tied down for before I arrived and how long it stayed in that position after I left. I am guessing that it was all day. What a miserable existence for that animal. Many of the pens there had dirty water and were overcrowded and had no enrichment. The conditions were miserable from an animal welfare standpoint. These animals are raised for meat and hide and they also raise American Crocodiles. Wild Cuban Crocodiles are near extinct and critically endangered, occurring now only in the Zapata Swamp, as they have been hunted to near extinction.

The last incident was seeing an endemic baby Desmarest's Hutia which is colloquially called "Tree Rat" kept in a cage so small it could barely turn around in and the wire cage had no floor so it would get sore painful paws. The animal also had no water and it was held in an area where the baking sun hit it. It looked miserable and for its sake I hope it died quickly. It is illegal to trap and kill them in Cuba. It was beside a cage of two trapped wild Cuban Bullfinches, which is a species I had just seen in the wild, happy and free moments earlier. Cubans trap these birds illegally for the songbird trade and for singing competitions. They also capture Tree Rats for exotic pets and also to eat them. In addition to these incidents I saw severe emaciation of animals both horses and dogs but more on that later.

If you are staying off resort hotels and stopping at washrooms at gas stations and even at restaurants be prepared to rough it. Most do not have toilet seats, none have toilet paper and you must pay an attendant to let you in. Most of the time they give you a couple squares of toilet paper. Almost all of the toilets do not have running water, even in restaurants (so yes the cooking cleanliness standards are not up to the western world). Most of the toilets do not flush either. So you should bring wipes and hand sanitizer and toilet paper. I truly pity those with stomach troubles or IBS. I can't imagine how they would cope in such situations in this country. I recommend taking the vaccine Dukoral before going to Cuba due to the lack of sanitary conditions, if you are eating local food outside of the big resorts. One lady in our group got violently ill from the food she ate, as she ate the uncooked veggies and the ice cubes but luckily I never did, nor anyone else.

That evening in Playa Larga, we went through another 7 hour blackout. After an hour of power, it then was followed by another 6 hour overnight blackout, so the A/C couldn't be on again. That was an awful sleep, just as in Viñales.

March 17

We went back into the Zapata Swamp, this time to Sendero Salinas de Brito salt flats. Here we saw Roseate Spoonbills, my lifer American Flamingos, Tri-colored Herons, Clapper Rails, the endemic Cuban Vireo singing his head off, Reddish Egrets (both white and reg morphs), Short-billed Dowichers, Ruddy Turnstones, a Stilt Sandpiper spotted by Siddle, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, White Ibis, Wood Storks, Snowy Egrets, Least Sandpipers, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Caspian Terns, Cuban Tody, Northern Waterthushes and Black-necked Stilts. Here I saw my lifer Cuban Black-Hawks, Royal Terns and a gorgeous white morph Great Blue Heron (Great White) whom Chris Siddle said is likely to become its own species one day. Note the bill is much larger than on a Great Egret and the legs are not jet black like on a Great Egret. There were many Laughing Gulls and Little Blue Herons and Brown Pelicans roosting in trees and American White Pelicans in the water. There were also Ospreys, Harriers and a Merlin and  Belted Kingfisher.

White morph Great Blue Heron (note the larger bill than a Great Egret) - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Reddish Egret at Sendero Salinas de Brito, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Tricolored Heron at Sendero Salinas de Brito, Cuba  - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Royal with Caspian Terns at Sendero Salinas de Brito  - Photo: Melissa Hafting

American Flamingos at Sendero Salinas de Brito, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Juv Cuban Black Hawk at Sendero Salinas de Brito, Cuba  - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Adult Cuban Black Hawk at Sendero Salinas de Brito, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Little Blue Heron in Sendero Salinas de Brito, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Later that evening we went to Soplillar into a forest that led into a cattle field. In the forest we saw a Zenaida Dove, Cuban Tody, Cuban Parrots and Cuban Trogon. Cuban Todies are one of 5 Tody species in the Caribbean and are very hard to photograph! They jump and fly around so fast like jumping beans. They are such cute little birds and I always dreamt of seeing one, so was thrilled to see them in Cuba! 

We also found a Bare-legged Owl in its nest tree. They used to be called Cuban Screech-Owl and they do sound like Screech-Owls, with their bouncing ball call. We also had a male Rufous-morph Cuban Race of American Kestrel. They are so beautiful! There were also huge Termite nests and they were present in most forested areas in Cuba.

Cuban Tody in Soplillar, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Bare-legged Owl at nest cavity near Zapata, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Large Termite nest in Cuban forest in Soplillar, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Male Rufous-morph Kestrel (Cuban Race) in Soplillar, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Here we also saw another Cuban Pygmy-Owl that was nesting in a palm and a Cuban Crow. As night fell, we also saw the endemic Cuban Nightjars and heard their cool frog-like calls. There were quite a few fireflies as well around, which was so pretty to see. When we got back to our casas, the power was out yet again. At this point I just expected it to be and I had a cold shower in the dark to prepare for the hot night ahead. Cuba has 24 endemics (excluding the presumed extinct Zapata Rail and Cuban Kite).

Cuban Pygmy-Owl in Soplillar, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

March 18 

We went early in the morning to the Refugio de Fauna Bermeja where there is a bird blind to see Quail-Doves. Here we were lucky to see 4 of the rare and absolutely stunning endemic Blue-headed Quail-Doves and a couple Zenaida Doves. Zenaidas remind me of Mourning Doves. Unfortunately, we had just missed the endemic Gray-fronted Quail-Dove that was scared off by the earlier group. This species was split in 2004 from the now named White-fronted Quail-Dove in the Dominican Republic. Quail-Doves are declining in the country due to hunting and habitat loss. I made a video with my cell phone showing how tame the rare Blue-headed Quail-Doves were. If you come here, it is imperative you arrive before dawn (wish we had!), in order not to miss the Gray-fronted Quail-Dove.

A beautiful rare and endemic Blue-headed Quail-Dove in Bermejas, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

A Zenaida Dove on the forest floor in Bermejas, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Here we also saw the endemic Cuban Parakeets and the non-endemic Cuban Parrots. Both Parrots are declining.  They are suffering from habitat loss and trapping for the illegal Parrot cage bird trade.  Despite this being illegal, there is little to no enforcement in Cuba. 

Endemic Cuban Parakeet in Bermejas, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

We also saw the rare and endemic Fernandida's Flicker (the only individual during the trip!).  I got a terrible photo of it as it sat up above me and was backlit. We were also treated to great views of a singing Cuban Vireo, Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Prairie Warblers and Ovenbirds! There were also Gray Catbirds and Great Lizard-Cuckoos present.

A rare endemic - A Fernandida's Flicker in Bermejas, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We then stopped at the Babiney Rice Fields where we saw several Glossy Ibis and a Crested Caracara. I saw a skinny young man here, with dirty and ripped up clothes and no shoes. He looked like he had been walking for miles with 2 skinny dogs in toe and no water. He kept walking but I sure felt sorry for him and the dogs. Glad he at least had their company.

We next drove to the town of Cienfuegos and went to the Botanical Gardens to search for the rare endemic Gundlach's Hawk but could not find one. These hawks have nested at this location in the past. I had fun shooting a curious and confiding Loggerhead Kingbird though. Loggerhead Kingbirds are very common in Cuba and the West Indies.

A confiding Loggerhead Kingbird in Cienfugos, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

At lunch we admired a Curly-tailed Lizard. They are only found in the West Indies. At a lunch before this, we admired a Tarantula, I preferred this interesting lizard. Driving through Cuba you see a few signs supporting Fidel Castro and many more supporting the icon Che Guevera. After this we went to the coastal area south of Trinidad called Caleta de Muñoz where we found 2 endemic Cuban Gnatcatchers. These endemic birds differ from the wintering Blue-gray Gnatcatchers that I saw at Zapata Swamp as they have black face crescents on their cheeks. They were not easy to photograph. Got one blurry shot in the open and one shot with the bird half behind a twig lol!

Endemic Cuban Gnatcatchers in Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

We stopped in Trinidad and saw Least Grebes and Anhingas, Limpkins and a Solitary Sandpiper on the river. The roads were not great in Cuba with many large potholes but far from the worst I have seen. It was a long driving day and we drove through Sancti Spiritus and the apartment buildings here really looked poverty stricken. They were very old and falling apart and the full balconies on each apartment were in cages. The high rises had no elevators and were several stories high. 

When we finally arrived at our Casa in Camaguey we were all exhausted we had been up for 16 hours! We stayed at a beautiful Casa called the Green House. I loved it so much because they had a generator! They also had beautiful facilities and it felt like a fancy boutique hotel. They also had great food in their restaurant. They also had WIFI and because they had a generator we had power all night with A/C! I had a really good sleep. This place was the fanciest place we stayed at and despite this being a communist country, the owners here, were obviously wealthy.

March 19

At the New Ecuador Bridge in Najasa, we saw 3 Northern Jacanas (a lifer for me). These waders are so cool as they have yellow bony spurs on the underside of their wings to help protect themselves and their young against predators. They have yellow underwings and the greenish colour of the wing feathers is produced by a pigment,  rare in birds, called zooprasinin, a copper containing compound. The Northern Jacana is unusual in that it has a polyandrous relationship. A female Jacana lives in a territory that holds the territories of up to 4 males. A male forms a bond with a female who will keep other females out of his territory. Pair bonds between the female and her males remain throughout the year, even outside of the breeding season. The male Jacana makes the nest and broods the eggs and raises the chicks. The female only mates with the males and lays the eggs. 

Here we also saw Crested Caracaras and the Cuban race of Eastern Meadowlark, which is likely to be split. They sound more like a Western Meadowlark than an Eastern and look more like one too. There were Cuban Crows (separated from the endemic Cuban-Palm Crow only by voice). The Cuban Crows sound like Parrots and are very raucous, while the Cuban-Palm Crows sound more like Fish Crows. We also saw Little Blue and Green Herons, Great and Cattle Egrets, Caspian Terns, Gray and Loggerhead Kingbirds, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Mockingbirds and more.

Adult Northern Jacana in Najasa, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Gray Kingbird in Najasa, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Many poor Cubans tried to get on our bus for a little money. Most people don't have cars and city and country buses are very infrequent. Many routes and areas have no buses at all. I saw a few full buses that were completely packed and couldn't stop for those waiting. It is illegal for bus drivers in this communist country to pick up people who are Cuban citizens if they are travelling with and carrying foreign tourists. However, we encouraged our bus driver to pick up a woman with a baby. She rode with us for several hours. Her baby was named Emily and was adorable. The mom could not speak English but was so grateful to be taken to her destination where she was visiting her grandmother.  I was glad she didn't have to walk for hours in the baking heat. The baby didn't even have a hat. I gave her some USD before she left us.

The roads in Najasa were bloody awful with huge potholes, the size of cars. People had to drive onto mud or grass just to avoid the road! In this area very few had cars and were using horse and buggy. Boy do those horses work hard! In Najasa I saw a severely emaciated dog that was dying by the side of the road. His eyes were so sad and mostly closed. I wish had a shotgun or better yet a veterinary lethal injection to give him in his vein to put him to sleep and end his misery. It made my heart break.  There were also dozens of emaciated horses that I would of put a bullet in to end their misery too. I used to work with horses and know the conditions I saw were total neglect and starvation. The hip bones were showing and the ribs and they had skin ailments. They were much too prominent and no fat present from my veterinary training as Registered Veterinary Technologist I knew this was pure neglect and they were slowly dying. I would of given these a body score count of 1 and 2. There are many Turkey Vultures in Cuba and now I know why.

Next we went to Sierra del Chorrillo Bird Reserve where the sun was beating down but we saw the Giant Kingbird, which is endangered due to habitat loss and endemic in Cuba. They are now extirpated from Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. They are huge for a Tyrant Flycatcher and have honking bills.

Giant Kingbird in Najasa, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Here we also got Cuban Palm-Crows which are endemic to Cuba. There were many Cuban Crows as well. As I said earlier, The Cuban Palm-Crows sound like North American Fish Crows and the Cuban Crows sound like crazy noisy parrots. Both species look identical to one another. 

Cuban Palm-Crow in Najasa, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Listen to a recording Chris Charlesworth got of both species of birds below to hear the differences.

Here we also had Black-throated Green Warbler. I was hoping for Plain Pigeon but no luck on this trip. We also didn’t see Scaly-naped Pigeon either, which was another one that I had really wanted to see.

In Najasa at the place we stopped for lunch we saw men with Cocks (Roosters) that they were clearly using for Cock fighting.  This cruel practice is legal in Cuba and is often practiced in the countryside. The cocks are made to fight to their deaths and metal spurs are put on their legs to inflict maximum damage to their opponent. The men win money by betting on the victor. As the men sat eating they pinned the cocks down with leg pins and the distressed birds crowed and flapped their wings trying to get away. It was a sad sight. The men took their birds and drove off to go fight them.

We then drove to our Casa in Moron, en route I saw the Caribbean subspecies of Osprey (ridgwayi) perched on the side of the road. These birds have a much whiter head than the carolinensis subspecies we see in North America. When we arrived in Moron the power blackout happened at 10 pm and there was no wifi or A/C. The room was boiling hot, until the power came back on at 1 am and the A/C noise and bright lights startled me and woke me up.

March 20

The next morning we went to the Wild Boars Cave (Cuevas del Jabali) and saw 3 beautiful Key West Quail-Doves and a couple Zenaida Doves. There were also an Ovenbird, Cuban Bullfinch, Western Spindalis and Yellow-faced Grassquits and a Cuban-Green Woodpecker. We also saw my lifer endemic Oriente Warbler! Oriente Warblers along with Yellow-headed Warblers are in their own family called Teretistridae. While watching the singing Oriente Warbler we also had a few Cave Swallows fly over and had a White-eyed Vireo and Northern Parula.

Key West Quail-Dove in Cayo Coco - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Western Spindalis in Cayo Coco - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Oriente Warbler in Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

As we drove into the mangroves in Cayo Guillermo's resort area, we saw several Cuban Black-Hawks, Cattle and Great Egrets, White Ibis, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Laughing Gulls and Gray Kingbird. There were Willets, Caspian Terns, White Ibis, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, dozens and dozens of Reddish Egrets, Black-bellied Plovers, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and Northern Mockingbirds and a couple Marbled Godwits.

In the mangroves, we saw West Indian Whistling-Ducks (they have super long legs) and pretty White-cheeked Pintails, which were both lifers. We also saw Roseate Spoonbills, Northern Shovelers and more of the shorebirds and gulls that we already saw.

White-cheeked Pintail in Cayo Coco - Photo: Melissa Hafting

West Indian Whistling-Duck in Cayo Coco - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Next we went to the ocean to Playa los Colorados beach where we saw Piping Plovers, an American Oystercatcher, Royal Terns, Black-bellied Plovers and a Willet. Off the causeway we saw hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers and Magnificent Frigatebirds flying over head.

March 21

We went back this morning to Cayo Guillermo and found a singing Bahama Mockingbird, after dipping for 2 hours straight yesterday. This species has really declined in the region due to habitat loss from all the creation of the new resorts there. It was less hot today so perhaps that is why it was singing so beautifully in the open. I was able to get nice photos of it and admire its streaked flanks which differ from Northern Mockingbirds (NOMO). Its song is so different than NOMOs and they sound more thrasher-like.

Bahama Mockingbird in Cayo Guillermo, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

We then got 3 Mangrove Cuckoos calling and one came out in the open, allowing for clear photos! We had also dipped on this bird yesterday, so it was nice that today was much more successful. Next we went back to the Wild Boars Cave where we found a huge and dark White-crowned Pigeon. It was nice to finally see one clearly on the trip! We also had tons of great birds at the feeder such as Oriente Warbler, Cuban Tody, Ovenbird, Cape May Warbler, Western Spindalis, La Sagra's Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo and many more! There was also a pair of nesting Cuban Green Woodpeckers in a nearby palm tree.

    Mangrove Cuckoo in Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Tody at Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Cuban Green Woodpecker at nest in Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We went back to the same beach (Playa los Colorados) at Cayo Coco and found 3 Piping Plovers, many Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderling, Willets and lots of Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers along with Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls.

Laughing Gull in Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings in Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

During the trip I watched the bus driver continuously throw trash like plastic bags and the plastic container packaging from our water bottles into the forest.  I did tell him the third time that it was bad for the environment but he never stopped doing it. He didn't speak English so that may have been part of the problem. Here in Cuba one sees loads of trash  along the roadside and in the forest. I saw they were burning some trash and the men were not wearing masks and were inhaling toxic fumes which also go into the air. I saw the same with construction workers that were working with hot tar, wearing no masks and felt sorry for them.

The Government of Canada has a travel advisory posted for Cuba to use Extreme Caution outside of resort areas due to shortages of basic necessities including of food, medicine and fuel and due to some crime and the fact people can become stranded across the country in their rental cars, when they can't get gas. However, I felt pretty safe in Cuba.

Next we stopped at the sewage lagoons in Cayo Coco which was near to the cruel dolphin show and saw several Ruddy Ducks, Least Grebes, Ruddy Turnstones, Lesser Scaup, American Avocets, NOMO, Smooth-billed Ani. Least Sandpiper, Blue-winged Teal, American Coots and more. I had got all my targets thus far except for Gundlach's Hawk and Gray-fronted Quail-Dove, meaning 22 out of the 24 possible endemics. 

Many people thought I was Cuban and talked to me in Spanish asking where in Cuba I was from. Cuba has a large Black and mixed race population dating back to the slave trade. After lunch, I went swimming for the whole afternoon in the beautiful Turquoise colored ocean with my friend Chris. Here on the white sand I lazily watched Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets and Semipalmated Plovers running along the beach and in the sky Laughing Gulls, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans flying along. It was so peaceful and relaxing there by the Caribbean Sea. 

Beautiful beach I swam at in Cayo Coco, Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Chris and I took a taxi back to our casa. It was a beautiful 1957 Chevy. That had put A/C into the car which was very nice.

The 1957 Chevy (taxi) with A/C installed - Photo: Melissa Hafting

A Buick from the 1950s at the beach in Cuba - Photo: Melissa Hafting

When I got back to the casa in Moron, I was so glad I had went to the beach because the power was out and I would of been so bored and hot there. The power stayed off until 9 pm. It then came back on for a few hours and promptly went off again at 11:30pm. Cubans were protesting across the country due to blackouts and food and fuel shortages. You can read the news story here. For Cubans in their country it is dangerous to do public demonstrations of protests. The last time there was mass protests in 2021, the communist Cuban Gov't rounded up many people and arrested them and put them in jail for 23 years! I truly feel for the Cubans in these desperate times. I could tell that Cubans are a very resilient people.

The bus driver on our trip had to siphon diesel fuel in Cayo Coco from another bus driver because he could not find any fuel at many of the gas stations. As I said before there are many gas stations with fuel shortages or no fuel at all. The ones that do have fuel have their prices jacked up by the gov't as much as 5 fold!  This makes it even harder on the desperate Cubans! To think prior to the 1960's Cuba was a place US tourists came to and lived the life of luxury there. My how things have changed from one form of corruption to another.

A Russian ship was on the way with power, fuel and supplies to help the desperate Cubans. Russia and Cuba are two staunch communist allies since the cold war in the 1960s. The Cuban Government is blaming the USA for its current state due to the embargoes. Unfortunately, the old power plants in Cuba can't keep up and the shortages here are making life unbearable for most Cubans. The Cuban Gov't is giving food rations to children and pregnant women. However, the elderly are also suffering but receiving no rations. Not to mention the many starving animals also. 

On our last day in Moron I saw a bitch with her sick emaciated puppies. One of them was close to expiring and couldn't even keep his head up. At night a few street dogs would go by my casa searching for food every night up and down smelling for food. I made sure to give them food and their eyes would light up and tails wag. The first night one was especially scared but by the third night was very happy to see me and let me pet him and they always lapped up their food in seconds. I had my rabies shot up to date but most dogs are friendly in Cuba they just wouldn't survive if they weren't.

March 22

We did the long drive back from Moron to Havana. I never did see a Gundlach's Hawk sadly, so ended up with 22 out of 24 endemics and 56 lifers! Not bad for 10 days in the country! When we got into Havana I again felt sorry for the locals so many buildings were falling apart literally and looked terrible. Cubans are not permitted to fix the exterior of their homes in Havana so many places look in disrepair. In Havana you really see the differences between those who are wealthy and poor and there is no place more evident than the fancy luxury 5 star hotels in town. 

I would fly home to Cuba the next day after a very nice dinner in Havana near to our casa. It rained and poured that night the first significant rainfall of our trip.

March 23

I saw lots of flooding on my 2 hour shuttle bus drive from Havana to Varadero Airport. En route the bus had to go through completely flooded roads that no bus should have gone through! A car definitely would not have made it. I have never driven through such a flooded road. It looked like a river and was well past the wheel well of most pickup trucks! Despite the lovely people and beautiful birds I have to admit I was ready to go home and have reliable electricity. We really take for granted how lucky we are here in Canada. My trip to Cuba reinforced for me how truly blessed we are in so many ways.


  1. You nailed it like usual. Beautiful narrative to go with the always great photos of super birds. If I ever go I hope for many of those birds but not sure about being able to go with your accommodations - getting soft in my old age.

    1. Thanks so much Blair. Unfortunately since you are American you would be forced to stay in the same accommodations if you came since US Citizens are not allowed to stay in the hotels which are all government run.

  2. I enjoyed reading your account of our trip. You noticed so many things that I missed, especially about the people and their culture and unfortunate history. Let's hope things improve for them very soon. As always, it was fun and informative to read your narrative. I'm super glad you were along on the trip, Mel. (comment by Chris Siddle)

    1. Thanks so much Chris. Your kind words really mean a lot to me! I am so glad you were there as well! It was nice to have a fellow animal lover and dog and cat food sneaker along!

    2. PS and yes let's hope it gets better for the Cubans ASAP.

  3. Always a pleasure to read your latest birding adventure. This one was different in that along with beautiful photos and vivid descriptions, you also gave us insight to the difficulties Cuban people experience. What a sad state of affairs and one can only hope that it somehow improves.

    1. Thanks Q yes it is pretty dire there now. A step above what the poor people in Haiti are enduring but still very bad. I hope things get better for them as the people deserve better and the animals. Thank you for your kind words as always.

  4. Thanks Paul yes it has really gone downhill for the people living there. The power outages are pretty awful because they are daily and last for over 10 hours... glad when you went things were better. I talked to some Canadians at the airport and they were totally oblivious as they were in an all inclusive lying on the beach drinking and relaxing with generators at their hotel...

  5. Melissa, you certainly took it all in plus some great photos. Birding takes you to all sorts of places that make one very glad to be living in Canada. Pat M

    1. Thanks Pat was really lovely to meet you and travel wth you. Too bad I cant be there with you in nfld this year!

  6. The photos are stunning, particularly the hummingbird shots. The birds you saw in Cuba were amazing, almost magical to see the photos. Great report.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

Dowitcher Identification

Hawk Identification Tips from every angle (Sharpie vs Cooper and Red-tailed Subspecies)


*Updated - The most famous Red-tailed Hawk is eating fish on the ground just like a Bald Eagle!

My First Mother's Day Without My Mother