Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Trip Report - Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Grand Caymans

Bare-legged Owl
October 24 – November 21, 2015


This trip to the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean was undertaken immediately after a 3-week birding tour of Panama (report here and following blog post) with Glenn Scherf, Bill Watson and Sandra Watson. Our intention was to mix birding with cultural, culinary and various pursuits, and our destinations lived up to expectations. We did very well with the endemics and regional endemics on the four islands. Of the 90+ species we were chasing, we dipped (inexplicably) only on Chesnut-bellied Cuckoo on Jamaica and for Bill, West Indian Whistling-Duck and Antillean Euphonia (both of which I had seen in the Dominican Republic). We managed this impressive result while birding mostly in the mornings, freeing up the afternoons for travel and other activities.

We opted to self-drive in Puerto Rico for our 6-day visit, as the distances are relatively short, the roads are good and the sites are easy to find and bird. We elected not to try for the endemic parrot as the site was out of the way and requires prior arrangement with the authorities. Our focus on the island was in the south-west, where most of the specialties can be readily found.

For 7 days in Jamaica, we hired Wayne Murdock of Attraction Links ( to drive and provide the vehicle; driving around Jamaica can be challenging so this was a good move. Wayne is not a professional birding guide but knows the sites; beware that you will need to pay for his meals and costs not in the contract. We were on Grand Cayman Island only in transit, but with enough time to find the single endemic.

In Cuba for 15 days, we were again self-driving but arranged for Andy Mitchell in London ( to organise a package with Havanatur that included car hire and the more expensive hotels. Andy also lines up local guides, organises for them to book your remaining accommodation in rural casas, and provides detailed directions for finding your way around. The directions proved to be accurate, easy to use and useful in Cuba, where road signs can be absent or easy to miss. Hiring Andy did not add much to the cost if we had arranged everything ourselves. Cuba proved to be a most impressive destination, from both cultural and birding perspectives.


October 24. We flew from Panama City to the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan, via Bogota. After a long travel day we stayed overnight at the convenient but expensive Airport Hotel. (See here for Puerto Rico bird pics).

October 25. We picked up our car up from the airport early in the morning and drove 2 hours across the island to the south-west town of Guanica, booking into Mary Lees By The Sea, a self-contained apartment complex on the water a few kilometres from town. In the afternoon we drove west a short distance to Parguera where we saw a flock of Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds at a traditional site by a small seaside store.

Maricao State Forest
October 26. We drove north into the mountains to Maricao State Forest, where the wet forest contrasts with the dry scrub around Guanica. In the early morning a Puerto Rican Nightjar flew across the road. Our efforts at Maricao centred on trails and the roadside around the state forest administration centre. Many island endemics showed including Puerto Rican Emerald, Puerto Rican Tody, Puerto Rican Woodpecker, Puerto Rican Vireo, Puerto Rican Spindalis and Puerto Rican Bullfinch. The Puerto Rican Tanager – expected to be given its own family - was common and frequently a flock leader. Elfin Woods Warbler is one the island's more difficult targets but we found it in 2 spots, including the turnoff from the main road to the park centre. Other birds included a couple of fly-by Green Mangos and a Key West Quail-Dove on a trail. When we returned to Mary-Lees-By-The-Sea we found Pearly-eyed Thrasher to be common.

Guanica State Forest
October 27. Before dawn we went back along the road towards Guanica, where we had good looks at Puerto Rican Nightjar at the 3.5km mark. We drove a few kilometres east along the scenic coastal road to a track that heads north up a slope into the Guanica State Forest. In the dry thorny scrub we found Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Caribbean Elaenia and Adelaide's Warbler. Another Key West Ground-Dove was seen.

Coast near Guanica
October 28. Back in the state forest on a trail at the road's end, a Puerto Rican Pewee was seen briefly in the morning. We left our comfortable apartment to travel across the island to the Humacao Reserve on the east coast. We found Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Green-throated Carib quite easily in flowering trees along levy banks in the wetland. We headed north for our overnight accommodation in the Ceiba Country Inn. In the hotel grounds after some effort we scored nice views of Puerto Rican Screech-Owl.

October 29. We saw the last of our targets, Puerto Rican Oriole, in the hotel grounds in the morning before departing for San Juan, where we stayed in the Coral by the Sea Hotel.  In the afternoon we visited the Del Morro Castle and San Juan Old City.

Del Morro Castle
October 30. We flew to the Jamaican capital of Kingston via Fort Lauderdale in the U.S. We were met at the airport by Wayne (he was late) and it was dark by the time we were leaving suburban Kingston. It took a couple of hours on a slow, windy road to reach our accommodation, Starlight Chalets, near Section. The hotel was ordinary and the food highly overpriced, but the place is very birdy, with superb views across the valleys. See here for Jamaica bird pics.

With Wayne Murdock, Hardwar Gap
October 31. The day began around the hotel grounds with (Red-billed) Streamertail, Sad Flycatcher, White-chinned Thrush and Orangequit. A party of Yellow-shouldered Grassquits was spotted along the road to Section. We spent the morning on the higher slopes of the Blue Mountains-Hollywell National Park around Hardwar Gap, especially the forest within a few kilometres of the Gap Cafe on both sides at about 1500m. A feast of endemics included Ring-tailed Pigeon, Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Becard, White-eyed Thrush (much scarcer than White-chinned), Jamaican Vireo and Jamaican Euphonia. We saw a Greater Antillean Pewee, a difficult-to-find species.

View from Starlight Chalets
Blue Mountain Vireo is another of the island's trickier birds but we found several. Arrowhead Warbler proved to be quite common. In the afternoon we birded around the chalet gardens, scoring an unexpected Jamaican Mango and to top the day off, close views of a Crested Quail-Dove on the road near the hotel.

November 1. We again birded Hardwar Gap, this time going a little further to Woodside Road. We saw Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Elaenia and Greater Antillean Bullfinch, with brief views of a Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo. In the afternoon we visited Dennis Coffee, a farm where the famed Blue Mountain coffee is grown organically by a community of dope-smoking Rastafarians.

Dennis Coffee Farm
November 2. We were up well before sunrise to try for Jamaican Owl and were not disappointed. A pair called for a while before an owl flew in very close in response to playback of a juvenile begging call; it perched briefly a couple of metres above us. As the sun rose we found Rufous-tailed Flycatcher in the garden. We left the mountains to head to the north coast town of Port Antonio, where we checked into the pleasant Bay View Eco-Resort.

Port Antonio
November 3. We headed east for a 45-minute drive to the Ecclesdown Road in the John Crow Mountains. We easily found our main targets after being confined to the car for a couple of hours by heavy rain. Good numbers of Yellow-billed Parrots and Black-billed Parrot swere encountered along the road along with an obliging Jamaican Crow, which responded to playback of an Australian Raven call. We saw (Black-billed) Streamertail, lumped by Clements with Red-billed. In the afternoon we had nice views of Jamaican Mango in Port Antonio and took time out to absorb the beautiful coastal scenery.

Coast near Port Antonio

November 4. We searched the well-vegetated hills around Port Antonio for our sole remaining targets – Chesnut-bellied Cuckoo and Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, which I had seen briefly at Hardwar Gap. We saw the lizard-cuckoo well but the other cuckoo frustratingly eluded us.

Bob Marley Museum
November 5. We left the hotel, calling into the Castleton Botanic Gardens, where we had a pair of Jamaican Crows, and in the outskirts of Kingston we visited the Bob Marley Museum, where you need to be wary of overbearing guides. We stayed at the Port Royal Hotel near the airport.

November 6. We departed Jamaica for Cuba via George Town on Grand Cayman Island. During the brief transit stop, when you need to purchase your Cuban tourist cards, we left the airport and walked to scrub close by where a Vitelline Warbler, the Caymans' only endemic, duly emerged. We flew to Havana, dealt with paperwork complications and picked up the vehicle at the airport. We drove 2.5 hours to our destination – the town of San Diego de los Banos in western Cuba in the dark, but Andy's directions ensured there were no problems. For Cuba bird pics see here and also here.

Cueva de los Portales
Our guide, Caesar Hernandes, met us at a prearranged spot (after some complications not worth detailing here) and escorted us to our accommodation – Casa JulioyCary. Casas are rooms attached to private homes, usually with en suites. The food and ambience of inexpensive casas in rural areas makes them are a more attractive accommodation option than the run-down government-owned hotels.

Casio JulioyCary
November 7. Caesar was booked with a tour group in the morning (another mix-up) so we found our own way to La Guira National Park, a 30-minute drive from town. We saw nice specialties including Great Lizard-Cuckoo, West Indian Woodpecker, Crescent-eyed Peewee and Puerto Rican Emerald as we ascended a rough road towards the Hacienda Cortina. In a grove of pine trees we found a pair of Olive-capped Warblers. Higher up in the limestone gullies we heard Cuban Solitaires calling and saw one up close.

La Guira
We were delighted to find a sub-adult Gundlach's Hawk perched a few metres above a trail; this is probably Cuba's hardest endemic other than the near-mythical Zapata Rail. Other goodies included Cuban Bullfinch and Yellow-headed Warbler. In the afternoon we hooked up with the now available Caesar to visit the Cueva de los Portales, a beautiful limestone cave complex used as a bolthole by Che Guevara during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The solitaire was again present along with La Sagra's Flycatcher and good numbers of two bat species. In the late afternoon we found a party of Cuban Grassquits in fields near San Diego, along with Cuban Blackbird and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. Less endearing was a boisterous wedding party near the casa which went all night.

November 8. A travel day with a very long (10 hours, including a successful negotiation of Havana's suburbs) drive to the livestock ranch of La Belen in eastern Cuba in the Sierra de Najasa. The economic challenges facing Cuba become apparent as you travel around. Farming is often done by plough, either by hand or with livestock. Ancient vehicles lumber along the roads along with horses and carts. The people were nonetheless invariably polite and engaging. We arrived at our basic accommodation just on dark and none too soon, as the last 40 kilometres of road are seriously rough.
Near La Belen
November 9. We birded along the road into the ranch, seeing an exquisite Cuban Trogon (surely the classiest of its family with that tail), Cuban Parakeet and Cuban Green Woodpecker. Cuban Tody was bigger than todies on other islands. Cuban Palm Crow was interesting to compare with the more common Cuban Crow. Several Giant Kingbirds were in the mix and a Cuban Pygmy-Owl showed nicely. Later in the morning we met our prearranged guide, Camillo, but by then we had seen the local specialties.

November 10. A party of Rose-throated Parrots at the hotel was a good start to the day, then another long drive (4.5 hours) to the seaside resort of Cayo Coco, where we booked into the Hotel Sol Cayo Coco. Everything is included in the cost for these extravagant resort hotels including alcohol, but be warned - the cocktails are heavily watered down.

Cayo Paredon Grande

November 11. We drove east to Cayo Paredon Grande, birding tracks in the vicinity of the old lighthouse. Oriente Warbler and Cuban Gnatcatcher were found easily in the dry coastal scrub. Thick-billed Vireo was co-operative in mangroves nearby, where Cuban Oriole and Cuban Black-Hawk were also found.

November 12. Today we headed west to Cayo Guillermo, where Bahama Mockingbird proved to be much skulkier than the more numerous Northern Mockingbird. We believe we had a small party of Cuban (Zapata) Sparrow (race varonai) in the coastal scrub, which showed briefly before flying away. We looked unsuccessfully for West Indian Whistling-Duck around Melia Cayo Coco, supposedly a good site for the species.

Angel Garcia at Soplillar
November 13. Another long drive (5.5 hours) to Cuba's top birding destination – Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs, where we met our guide, Angel Garcia (, who escorted us to our accomodation - another casa, the delightful Villa Rio-Mar ( overlooking the historic bay. Our host, Daniel, was charming and helpful.

At Villa Rio-Mar
November 14. We headed off early with Angel to Soplillar, an area of forest close to Playa Larga. On the road in the early morning we had success with 2 close Grey-fronted Quail-Doves, followed quickly by 3 not-so-close Blue-headed Quail-Doves. On the scrub edge we had a pair of Fernandina's Flickers putting on a show, while the world's smallest bird, Bee Hummingbird, perched on a dead branch in a the tree top. In the afternoon we visited the Cuban Revolution Museum in Soplillar.

La Turba
November 15. An early start to La Turba and Cuban Nightjar performed well on the road into the huge Zapata wetland. We were in luck when a Zapata Wren perched on a reed close by and sung vigorously in full view; this species, endemic to the wetland, can be easy to miss. We had a pair of Cuban (Zapata) Sparrows on the road, these birds much closer than the ones on Cayo Guillermo. On the way back near Palpite, a pair of Red-shouldered Blackbirds took some coaxing before appearing, while a Northern (Cuban) Flicker was more co-operative.

Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga
November 16. Our focus here was owling in the very early morning. We heard a Stygian Owl in scrub on the edge of Playa Larga and eventually tracked it down. Unfortunately it flushed and although close, we had to make do with a reasonable flight view. Better luck was in store with a Cuban Screech-Owl which perched by the road in the open, with a couple more calling in the scrub.

Cueva de los Pecas
November 17. With all the specialties in the bag, a day for relaxation and sight-seeing. We visited the Bay of Pigs Invasion Museum in Playa Giron and La Ceuva de los Pecas, an impressive 70m sinkhole linked to the ocean by an underground cave. Blue-headed Quail-Doves are fed here and a group of 6 was very tame. A spot of snorkelling offshore was a pleasant diversion.

Havana Old City
November 18. As we left Playa Larga for Havana, we called in at a home in Palpite known for its trees favoured by Bee Hummingbirds. We saw several hummers (the males not in breeding plumage) before undertaking the 2.5-hour drive to the Hotel Armadores de Santander in La Haba Vieja (Old City).

Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal
November 19. A day around the Old City, visiting the Castille del Morro and Che Guevara's former home by taking a ride in one of the ancient automobiles that abound throughout Cuba. America's inhumane and vindictive embargo, imposed in the wake of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, continues to inflict a huge economic toll on this impoverished country.

Street art - human statue in Plaza Vieja
November 20. More sight-seeing, absorbing the cultural and historic ambience of places like the Plaza de la Cathedral, Plaza Vieja, Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal and Paseo del Prado.

Havana Harbour
November 21. Depart Havana.

Sight-seeing in Havana
For an annotated list of species, see here for the full trip report on Surfbirds.


  1. I really enjoyed taking an armchair vacation to these lovely tropical islands. You saw some really great sites and wildlife. Cuban Trogon and the todies are a few of the species that are really spectacular.
    I do feel the need to state that the USA's inhumane and vindictive trade embargo against Cube is a bit of a red herring. Cuba's poverty is mostly caused by its own policies against free enterprize. It is Cuba that prohibits public internet access, cell phones, elections, freedom of the press etc. Cuba could easily end the embargo tomorrow if they chose to make a few humane changes like freeing political prisoners and allowing free speech etc.
    Besides the US trade embargo has no effect on the ability of other nations to do business with Cuba.

  2. Thanks for the comments John. I agree that Cuba is not a perfect regime and they have got many things wrong. However, I think we disagree about the impacts of the embargo. The US embargo does in fact have implications for companies in other countries wanting to trade with Cuba. Moreover, I doubt it would be as easy as you suggest to convince the Americans to lift it, although this will happen eventually. The Cubans have already made many (belated) reforms to no avail. So we agree to disagree. Greg