February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley
February 12, 2015 - Parque Nacional La Guira and Soroa
February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas
February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata
February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp
February 16 and 17, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula
February 18, 2015 - the Escambray Mountains
February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria
February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
February 22, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
Our Best of Cuba tour began with a day and a half in the Viñales Valley, located several hours to the west of Havana. The valley contains soils fertile enough that tobacco farming by traditional techniques constitutes a major land use. However, there are some natural areas left, particularly in the Sierra de los Organos mountains which encircle the valley. Tree covered mogotes - karst hills composed of limestone - rise sharply from the valley floor and provide a stunning backdrop.
A morning hike through the valley on February 11, where the above photos were taken, proved to be a great introduction to some of Cuba's common birds. Turkey Vultures soared in the skies by the dozens, Cattle Egrets strutted in many of the fields, all the while the emphatic, sputtery calls of Loggerhead Kingbirds provided a near constant soundtrack.
|Loggerhead Kingbird - Viñales Valley|
A perched American Kestrel of the Cuban race provided a dash of excitement. Cuban Kestrels come in two color morphs - red-breasted and white-breasted, and lack the dark breast-streaking of their American counterparts.
|"Cuban" American Kestrel - Viñales Valley|
The mogotes are home to several endemic birds to Cuba, including the relatively localized Cuban Solitaire. This species can be very difficult to see, but its ethereal voice occasionally rose up from a distant mogote during our walk. We did end up spotting one, its drab gray coloration providing confirmation that this is a bird whose song is more appreciated than its looks. I took a distant "record shot" of it anyways.
|Cuban Solitaire - Viñales Valley|
Certainly one of the most striking of Cuba's avifauna, the Western Spindalis proved to be a common enough bird in woodland edges and scrubby areas. Formerly known as the Stripe-headed Tanager, this species is found throughout Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands, and the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Occasionally a small flock would pass through, pausing to eat fruits and berries, and providing excellent photographic opportunities.
|male Western Spindalis - Viñales Valley|
Cuba is home to four species of flycatchers which are year-round residents. The aforementioned Loggerhead Kingbird is one, as is the La Sagra's Flycatcher (a relatively small, plain Myiarchus) and the Cuban Pewee. The fourth, the Giant Kingbird, is rare, endemic and declining and only reliable in a handful of select spots, one of which we visited later in the trip. Cuban Pewees were common in the Viñales Valley, and this individual allowed my close approach for photos.
|Cuban Pewee - Viñales Valley|
Several other endemic birds were easily seen in our time in the valley. The Cuban Trogon, Cuba's national bird made its first appearance, though I will discuss that species in a later post. The ubiquitous Cuban Blackbird was nearly a constant sight in any semi-natural area as well.
Some keen-eyed members of the group spotted our next new endemic - a pair of Cuban Orioles sitting quietly in the depths of a hedgerow. We would later see a few more pairs, including some individuals out in the open (see the photo below). Formerly known as Black-cowled Oriole which ranged throughout Central America and parts of the Caribbean, it was "split" in 1999, of which the birds in the Greater Antilles became the Greater Antillean Oriole while the birds on mainland Central America retained the name of Black-cowled Oriole. Greater Antillean Oriole was further split into four new species in 2010 - one of which is the endemic Cuban Oriole. Got to love taxonomy!
|Cuban Oriole - Viñales Valley|
I was excited to spot the first Cuban Bullfinches of the trip after several kilometers of hiking through the valley. Cuban Bullfinch is a species that has been hit hard by the caged bird trade in Cuba. Despite the reduction in numbers they still remain reasonably common in scrubby areas. I wish the same could be said for another caged bird trade casualty, the Cuban Grassquit, which is absent in many areas it formerly occupied.
|Cuban Bullfinch - Viñales Valley|
A big highlight for our group was coming across this male Anolis luteogularis (Western Giant Anole) while having a tour of the Caridad Tropical Garden in the town of Viñales. This species is endemic to western Cuba and one of the larger anole species that I have been fortunate to see. Anoles are the most diverse group of lizards in Cuba and at least 64 species can be found in the country, most of which are endemic.
|Anolis luteogularis - town of Viñales|
I'll finish this post with an image of a West Indian Woodpecker that entertained several of us as we arrived at a restaurant for a late lunch following the hike through the valley. West Indian Woodpeckers remind me somewhat of Red-bellied Woodpeckers from eastern North America; however, they are noticeably larger with a black streak above the eye.
|West Indian Woodpecker - Viñales Valley|