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 http://www.surfbirds.com/trip_report.php?id=2628 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 (http://www.attractionslink.com/) 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 (email@example.com) 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).
|Maricao State Forest|
|Guanica State Forest|
|Coast near Guanica|
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.
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,
near Section. The hotel was ordinary and the food highly overpriced,
but the place is very birdy, with
views across the valleys. See here for Jamaica bird pics.
|Del Morro Castle|
|With Wayne Murdock, Hardwar Gap|
|View from Starlight Chalets|
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.
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
where we checked into the pleasant Bay View Eco-Resort.
We headed east for a 45-minute drive to the Ecclesdown
in the John Crow Mountains. We easily
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
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.
|Dennis Coffee Farm|
|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.
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.
|Bob Marley Museum|
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.
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.
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.
|Cueva de los Portales|
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.
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
|Near La Belen|
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), who escorted us to our
accomodation - another casa, the delightful Villa Rio-Mar
historic bay. Our host,
Daniel, was charming and helpful.
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.
the afternoon we visited the Cuban Revolution Museum in Soplillar.
|Angel Garcia at Soplillar|
|At Villa Rio-Mar|
|Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga|
|Cueva de los Pecas|
|Havana Old City|
|Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal|
|Street art - human statue in Plaza Vieja|
|Sight-seeing in Havana|