Day 1: Arrival in Cuba
We arrive today on the beautiful island of Cuba, and then transfer to our hotel in Havana for the beginning of our Cuba birding tour. Most people will arrive on a flight to Varadero and transfer to Havana, but you can also arrive at the Havana airport (additional transfer fee may apply). We meet for supper to get acquainted and discuss the upcoming adventure. Night in Havana.
Day 2: Havana to San Diego de los Baños
After breakfast, we first drive to the Botanical Gardens for a leisurely walk in the grounds. Here we look for Red-legged Honeycreepers foraging on the flowers of trees, Western Spindalis, Cuban Emerald, Eastern Meadowlarks of the local resident race, and lots of migrants including Tennessee, Cape May, Prairie and Black-and-white Warblers and Northern Parula. We then drive to San Diego de los Baños in Pinar del Rio province, stopping for waterbirds and shorebirds at wetlands along the way. We will visit several areas in and near San Diego de los Baños, including La Guira National Park, and possibly even Cueva los Portales, where we will look for the stunning Cuban Trogon, Cuba’s national bird (so chosen because it has all the colours of the Cuban flag in its plumage). Other goodies we could find here are Cuban Emerald, West Indian Woodpecker, Red-legged Thrush, Western Spindalis, Cuban Solitaire, Loggerhead and possibly Giant Kingbird. Cuban Grassquits occur together with Yellow-faced Grassquits in weedy fields close by and we will make an extra effort to locate this declining endemic, a victim of the caged bird trade. Night in San Diego de los Baños.
Day 3: La Guira National Park and transfer to Zapata Swamp
This morning we return to the cool/pleasant mountains at La Guira National Park. The mountains are not high, only 800 m at the highest point, but the lush forest changes from semi-evergreen to pines at the peaks. The endemic Olive-capped Warbler occurs in these pine woodlands, Great Lizard Cuckoos scuttle along branches, and we may find Yellow-headed Warbler, all the while being serenaded by the Cuban Solitaire, one of the world’s most beautiful singers, whose song has been variously described as flute-like or bell-like, with an ethereal quality matching its high pine woodland home.
In the afternoon we drive to Playa Larga for a three-night stay. Our main destination is the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata, home of the fabled Zapata Swamp. This area was declared a biosphere reserve in 2000 and a Ramsar site in 2001. It covers an area of 628,171 hectares and is the largest and best-conserved wetland in Cuba and the Caribbean.
We will arrive in time to visit one of the many natural attractions of the park, perhaps Salinas del Brito. Extensive lagoons and mudflats support huge numbers of wading birds – 2000 American Flamingos, Great Blue, Green, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Great, Snowy and Reddish (both white and dark morphs) Egrets, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and Wood Stork. Shorebirds include Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least and Spotted Sandpipers, and there should be dozens of Neotropic Cormorants, American White Pelicans, Royal Terns and Caspian Terns. Passerines include Yellow and Prairie Warblers, the endemic Yellow-headed Warbler, and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, and we might find our first Cuban Black Hawk. Night at Playa Larga.
Days 4 & 5: Zapata Swamp
Two full days will be devoted to birding this famed area, a large lowland of mixed forests, flooded woods and wet prairies dominated by sawgrass. Our guides know the trails as we search for localized endemics such as Zapata Sparrow, the very rare Zapata Wren and the almost mythical Zapata Rail. While looking for these, we are likely to find several new species such as Cuban Parakeet and the gorgeous Cuban Parrot. Known habitats for quail-doves will be visited and with luck, Gray-headed, Blue-headed and Key West Quail-doves will be spotted moving silently in the dense undergrowth.
We will place special emphasis on locating Red-shouldered Blackbird, which frequents the tall sawgrass. Time could be spent at the local museum, which commemorates the Bay of Pigs War.
On one day, we leave the coast and visit deciduous forests near the village of Bermejas, in search of woodland species - Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Zenaida Dove, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Oriole (recently split from Black-cowled), and Bee Hummingbird. The Soplillar palm savanna supports a population of the scarce and declining Fernandina’s Flicker, as well as Cuban Lizard-Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon, Crested Caracara, Cuban Crow, and more North American migrants – perhaps Northern Waterthrush, Worm-eating and Swainson’s Warblers, Gray Catbird and Tree Swallow. An evening visit may turn up a Stygian Owl!
Soplillar is an area of deciduous woodland where we have a good chance of finding the endemic Bare-legged Owl and Cuban Green Woodpecker, so we inspect tree cavities and search likely spots.
Day 6: Drive from Playa Larga to Camaguey/Finca La Belén
In the early morning, we may spend a little time in the national park, looking for species not yet found, after which we have a long drive to our next destination, Camaguey, for a one-night stay. En route, we will stop for lunch and a little bit of birding, including possibly Cuban Tody.
Day 7: La Belén Farm and transfer to Cayo Coco
This morning we will bird La Belén Farm, famous for such very rare birds as Palm Crow, Giant Kingbird, Plain Pigeon and Gundlach’s Hawk. Cuban Pygmy-Owls are also present in the farm, as well as numerous migrants. In the afternoon, we head to Cayo Coco for a three-night stay.
Days 8 & 9: Cayo Coco
There is a lot to see at this charming location. Woodlands and scrub forest have Key West Quail-Dove, Mangrove Cuckoo, Oriente Warbler, Cuban Gnatcatcher, Thick-billed Vireo, Bahama Mockingbird, and a different subspecies of the Zapata Sparrow.
Wetlands, lagoons and scrub support Anhinga, Greater Flamingo, Roseate Spoonbill, the white morph of the Great Blue Heron, coots, ducks and grebes, Black-necked Stilt, and Clapper Rails, and interestingly the Bahama race of the Cuban Lizard-Cuckoo.
Evenings could produce Greater Antillean Nightjar. Nights in Cayo Coco.
Day 10: Departure
After a morning looking for species not yet located, we head to the airport at Cayo Coco for our flights home in the afternoon, drawing our incredible Cuba birding tour to a close.