Its a Great Day to Bird

Florida Again …

Once we took off from Cuba it was only a 48-minute flight to Fort Lauderdale – I so love short flights.  I would like to have stayed in Cuba a few extra days birding.  I wish we could have stayed at least a day longer at three different places: Vinales, Zapata Wetlands (Playa Larga), and Cayo Coco.  It seems as though all birding trips to Cuba are generally 9 days in duration.  I haven’t learned of any longer trips.

Facing travel fatigue, we decided to stay the night in Fort Lauderdale instead of hopping in the van and driving to a campsite.  We got to catch up on emails and the like, and sleep in an air conditioned room.  Hot and muggy here in Ft. Lauderdale.

Being a dog person, I loved this. Yes, my dogs generally rescue me too.

Now I really want these for our van and pickup truck

First stop of the day –  Arthur Mitchell Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.  To get to the refuge, which is about 39 miles from our hotel, we decided to take the Interstate (95) for a short way, then connect to Highway 585, and finally Highway 441.  Despite which road we took, the drivers in this state at manic.  They speed, cut in front of you with little or no warning and not much room, they run red lights (and some of those lights are very red), they tailgate, and one woman was driving down the road straddling two lanes.  Then she pulled into the crosswalk at a red light.  I was tempted to call the police and alert them to her erratic driving.  I know she upset a couple of drivers.  People like that are dangerous on the road.

The purpose of visiting Loxahatchee NWR again was to see if the Bobolink that had been seen earlier was still there.  If it was, it wasn’t presenting itself.  We did see 29 different species despite it being quiet bird-wise at the park.  When we first started out a woman was photographing a Great Blue Heron and I decided to get a few shots myself.  Then out of the grass an alligator erupts and goes after the Great Blue Heron and a Tricolored Heron that we hadn’t seen yet.  I suspect the herons were getting a little too close to some baby alligators, which a heron would eat.

Little Blue Heron – Juvenile. You can tell by the color of the bill.

Snail Kite (hatch year bird)

An unwelcomed visitor to the refuge – an Iguana (they are not native to Florida)

A portion of the Marsh Trail

Turtle – its shell reminded me of an army helmet

Snail Kite

Tricolored Heron

Swamp lily – so beautiful

Not sure what they were live trapping

I don’t think it was this alligator

We saw this Snail Kite with an apple snail – dinner

We actually saw it take the meat from the shell and eat it

Apple snail shell – they are good sized snails

This was the Great Blue Heron the alligator went after


There are actually two turtles in this photo. Can you spot both of them?

Purple Gallinule

Tricolored Heron


We spent about two hours at the refuge and then headed to Ortano South Locks Campground for the night.  This campground is located along the Caloosahatchee River near Lake Okeechobee.  The campground is owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers so we get to stay here for half price – $15.00 per night (senior pass rate).   Once we arrived we decided to check out the birds.  There must have been over 200 Boat-tailed Grackles here.  Amazing.  Within two-hours, we had 27 species, including two Bald Eagles.  One woman said it was nice that this is one of the few places in the United States where eagles can exist in peace.  Hmmm.  She must not know about Alaska’s eagles or forgot Alaska is part of the U.S., but we understood her meaning of what we call the ‘lower 48’.

Lots of people were fishing at the locks

Our campground site

We had a beautiful sunset

We decided to spend the morning birding the Ortano South Locks Campground and it turned out to be quite productive with a total of 29 different species.  We had three Loggerhead Shrikes in the campground.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than one at a time.  They would fly into the trees and the birds in those trees would either fly out or go silent.  I also had about four blue-gray gnatcatchers in the tree at our campsite too.   This is a nice place to camp and bird.

Pair of Loggerhead Shrikes

Loggerhead Shrike

Red-shouldered Hawk

Score – finally got decent photos of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

A Wood Stork and a Snowy Egret – significant size difference between the two birds

Loggerhead Shrike

We will spend the holidays with family in Lithia, Florida (near Tampa), enjoying good food with our nephew Nathan and his wonderful family.  They are gracious enough to let us stay with them for several days to unwind, relax, and enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone

Friday, instead of ‘Black Friday’ shopping, we cleaned out the van, did laundry, and took a very pleasant walk with family in the Fishhawk Ranch Subdivision.  This is a really nice subdivision with lots of retention ponds and green space corridors.  We saw 21 different species on our walk, including two Sandhill Cranes (the “Florida” subspecies of Sandhill Cranes are non-migratory).  Not bad for 1.25 hour walk in a developed subdivision.

Florida Sandhill Crane

Wood Stork at one of the subdivision retention ponds

Wood Stork

Anhinga drying its wings


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Little Blue Heron (Adult)

Great Egret

The different neighborhoods in the subdivision have bird names

Here are a couple example of the houses in the subdivision

On Saturday we drove to nearby Hillsborough River State Park to hike and bird.  We saw 33 different species, although on one trail (a mile long) we didn’t have any birds.  Most of the birds we saw were near the parking lots – in the more developed areas.  This seems to be the case in many places.  We hiked both the Baynard and the Wetland Trails.  In all, we hiked about 6.0 miles during a 4-hour period of time.  This includes stopping to eat at a convenient café in the park.

Pileated Woodpecker


Hillsborough River

Young alligator

This is actually a suspension bridge – very sturdy

Baynard Trail

Yes, more fungus

In the park store you can even buy flavored crickets. I didn’t see any takers, although the clerk kept trying to get young kids to buy some and try them.

Someone said Hispanic kids like these suckers. Jack said “no way”.  Again, no takers while we were in the store/cafe.

Now if people would only use them

A (Eastern) Phoebe a day, helps keep the blues away … have you seen a phoebe today

This is the wetland trail

… and the habitat adjacent to the trail

I finally got my Cuba blog completed – woohoo!!!  I had ‘published’ it earlier by mistake – I wasn’t finished with it yet.  Dang it.  From now on I will schedule a publication date about a month in advance and then go back in and change it when I’m ready to actually publish it to the world.

On Sunday, we said goodbye to our gracious hosts – The “Wonderful” Nathan Wiles family.  They are good people as the southern saying goes.  We already miss them and their precious dog Reese.  We headed north to Manatee Springs State Park, our campground for the night.  We stayed here in 2014 on our Big Adventure.  I went back and checked my journal from that trip and found that when we were here in early March it had been a very wet winter.  Today was actually quite pleasant.  We walked to the springs and spotted at least five Manatees in the pools fed by the warm spring water.  The Manatees migrate up the Suwanee River to winter in the spring-fed pool.  The park has a boardwalk, which leads out to the Suwannee River.  In the trees across from the boardwalk there must have been over 200 Black and Turkey Vultures roosting.  Every once in awhile the birds would flush – the birds erupting from the trees.

We did bird the park area and found several nice mixed flock of songbirds.  We even had an American Crow that made a very strange, whistling-like sound after its caw call.  At first I thought it might be a child making noises, but Jack pointed out it was the bird.  Sure enough.  I recorded the call.  Not sure how I can get it on the blog, but I will try.

Tomorrow we will visit the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge just south of the park.  We’ve visited this refuge in 2014.  Not sure what birds we might see there, but it’s always a good day to bird.

Boardwalk at Manatee Springs

Suwannee River … the trees on the right were the roost trees for the vultures

The American Crow making the strange sounds

Green Heron

Swimming or snorkling anyone? Actually this pond is only for scuba diving and it leads to caves

Overcast, cool, windy, humid today.  I saw a ring around the sun yesterday, which means the weather will turn bad within 24 hours – rain.  And did it ever rain.  Luckily it held off while we were at the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge doing a short hike and checking out Shell Mound Unit.  It did rain during a portion of the 9-mile nature drive.  But the worst of the storm hit once we left the refuge and headed north towards our campground for the night.  At times it seemed as though even our windshield wipers at full strength weren’t good enough to keep the window clear so one could drive.  A little nerve-racking.  And we had thunder and lightning as well.

River trail boardwalk

Dead and eaten Nine-banded Armadillo.  We saw a Turkey Vulture near the animal when we arrived at the refuge.

Due to the weather, there were not a lot of birds at the refuge today, although there were several large flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers.  They didn’t seem to mind the rain.  I wanted to get to Shell Mound during the rising tide, and high tide wasn’t until around 4:30 pm.  We got to the parking lot/boat launch around 12:30 pm and I’m glad we didn’t arrive much later.  There are several near-shore gravel/sand bars and the birds were concentrated on those.  As the tide came in, those areas were covered and the birds disappeared.  Timing is everything and we got to see a lot of shorebirds;  American Oystercatcher, Willet, Semipalmated Plover, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher.   There were also a fair number of Black Skimmer, along with Forester’s, Royal, and Caspian Terns.  This area was my favorite birding spot today, and we spent less than an hour here because of the rising tide and the winds.  So glad we got here when we did.

The Nature Drive road

Boardwalk at Shell Mound Unit

Areas where the shorebirds and gulls/terns were congregated

We made it to our campground: Ochlockonee River State Park.  I really like the area (Pine Flatwood habitat), but not the campground.  There are 30 sites scattered over a small area.  The bathrooms are a little dated.  We only plan to stay one night and move westward.  We will bird the area in the morning to see what birds are around – there are white ringed trees indicating Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests.  There are several trails we thought we might check out.  The temperature tomorrow is supposed to be cool – in the mid 50s.  More than 20 degrees cooler than today.  And tonight it is supposed to get down to 37 degrees.  Brrrrrrrrr.  But we do prefer sleeping in the cooler weather than the hot, humid weather.

This morning was cold – 37 degrees Fahrenheit at 7:00 a.m.  I think my toes froze.  I told Jack that if I needed to grasp anything with my toes, it wouldn’t happen.  If something fell on my toes, they would probably break off.  I should have put on my fake Ugg boots to keep my toes warm.  Will do that tonight if it gets this cold again, which is supposed to happen.

We birded the campground hoping to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, instead we saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Yellow-breasted Sapsucker, but alas no Red-cockaded, just the white rings on the trees marking their nest sites.  Several of their nest trees looked as though the tops were snapped off during Hurricane Michael this past October.  There was some evidence of storm surge material on the trails and in the campground and day-use areas.  We tried hiking the Pine Flatwoods Trail, but a portion of the trail was covered in water.  That might have been from yesterday’s rain.  It did come down pretty hard and for a long period of time.

Pine Hardwood Trail

Chipping Sparrow

Two Brown-headed Nuthatches clinging to the tree and each other to stay warm???

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Outdoor shower – cute use of an old canoe

Storm surge debris from Hurricane Michael (October 2018)

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

We left the park around 11:00 a.m., and headed west.  We decided to drive the Gulf Coast scenic route – Highway 98.  What we saw was not scenic, but rather a lot of debris piled up on the sides of the road from the Hurricane.  However, it wasn’t until we got to the towns of Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, and Parker that we really saw the destructive force of the Hurricane.  Mexico Beach is where the Hurricane made landfall and it looked as if the entire town had been destroyed.  My heart just broke for all those people affected by the storm.  It was really hard to see all that destruction.  I took photos as we were driving through these towns.  Later I realized I should have rolled down my window despite the cool temperatures (re: better photos).  Tyndall Air Force Base was hit hard too.  And the stands of pine trees along the road looked like match sticks snapped in half.  Miles of trees destroyed.

We are on the Florida Panhandle, and after passing through Panama City Beach, it seemed like on long continuous strip – developed with resorts, hotels, businesses, and winter homes.  We are staying the night at Henderson Beach State Park, near Destin, Florida.  This is a nice campground, at least Loop D, Site #49.  Our site is heavily vegetated so you don’t see much of your neighbors, which is what we like.  And the site is long and level.  At some campgrounds the sites are so short we wonder why some of these big rigs even bother showing up.

Site #49 – Henderson Beach State Park (Florida)

We only wanted to stay here one night and when we drove up we saw the “Campground Full” sign.  I told Jack to ask anyway since the web site showed openings.  Come to find out they did have one site left.  So we snagged it.  So glad, as we didn’t feel like driving to another campground. There were actually several sites in our loop that weren’t filled when we arrived at our site.

We changed time zones today (now in Central) so the sun sets earlier – like 4:45 pm.  So we either eat an early dinner while it is still light or cook in the dark.  Not having to cook outside is one nice thing about having a fully-contained camper, but we still like our ‘tin tent’.

Another cold morning.  Since we are at Henderson “Beach” State Park we thought we would check out the beach before heading north.  There is a trail from the campground to the beach via a boardwalk.  Once we got to the beach we were nearly blinded by the white, white sandy beach.  Beautiful.  We walked the beach and birded.  I was hoping to see a Snowy Plover, but no go.  As for shorebirds, we only had Sanderlings.  But I so love these charismatic birds.  Run, run, run, stop.  Run, run, run, stop.  Up and down the beach they go darting in and out along the surf’s edge in search of food.

Trail from our campground loop – leads to the beach

Boardwalk trail – they don’t want people walking on the dunes and destroying the habitat (its against Florida law to walk on the dunes, or so the signs said)

Henderson Beach

Brown Pelican, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern


The larger tern is a Royal Tern. The other terns are Sandwich Terns.

A sea cucumber – there were lots of them on the beach

Sea Cucumber

Lots of bird tracks

I think he was hoping we wouldn’t notice him sitting there quietly. I love how their tails fold over their backs.

There must be an air force base nearby as we had fighter jets flying overhead regularly.  Now that is a job I would love to have.  I know, sounds funny coming from someone who doesn’t like to fly commercial airlines.  But I think flying at high speed in something like an F-16 jet (or whatever the current version is now) and being at the controls would be a total mind rush or, very tense.  But, back to earth.

Military doing loop-de-loops

We decided to take a shower prior to leaving the campground.  Didn’t want to take one first thing in the morning as it was cold and we wanted to enjoy the beach.  After our showers, we headed north to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and our destination for the night – the Fort Pickens campground.  We didn’t have reservations, but looking online there were plenty of sites to choose from.  We are meeting our friends Pat and Bob (from Washington state) here.  We first met Pat and Bob in 2014 in Louisiana at the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.  They were looking for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as were we.  We’ve been friends ever since, connecting at various birding spots over the years.  They plan to stay here four nights, we only two.  Jack and I, well I anyway, always wants to be on the move.  Maybe if we had a big, humongous motor home, I too might want to stay put.  If for no other reason then the hassle of moving such a big rig and setting it up from one campground to another.   I could relax more in something large and luxurious; watch a little TV – ha!

I had thought about making reservations ahead of time and found two sites (C-13 and C-33) I thought might be good sites (based on the on-line photos for these sites).  Yeah right.  Always better to check out the sites first, if possible, and find one you want.  We ended up first in C-37 because we didn’t look close enough to see that it had a lot of standing water and the electric hookup was about a mile away.  So we went back to the campground registration office and successfully moved to C48.  Not the most ideal site, but then none of the sites in this campground are ideal – mostly open space.  Our friends Bob and Pat have a great semi-sheltered site in Loop A (site #34).  I would be more than happy to trade with them.

After getting settled in our campsite, we headed back to the beach.  And this time we scored with the Snowy Plover.  In fact, we had about 8 of them in all.  Not many other birds around however – a few Sanderlings, an Osprey and a Royal Tern that flew by occasionally – an individual we think liked to patrol the beach.  We did see some Brown Pelicans off in the distance and Common Loons.  This is our first sighting of loons in Florida.

Florida National Scenic Trail

A surprising number of wetlands on the island. This one near our campground.

Boardwalk from Loop A to the beach

Jack on the white sandy beach

My 8.5 size shoe next to the bird tracks

We suspect this was made by a Great Blue Heron (GBH). Lots of them on the island.

Snowy Plovers …


Moon (sea) Jelly

Part of the fort armory

This morning was much warmer than the past two mornings.  Nice.  Yes, I am climatically challenged.  I like temperatures for sleeping in the van between 40-50, and during the day between 60-70.  Kind of hard to find those temperatures year-round.  So I complain about both the heat and the cold.

Today was nice though, and after we birded an hour in the morning, we met our friends Bob and Pat for more birding.  This time we went to the actual “Fort” Pickens and birded a short section of the Florida National Scenic Trail and the beach.  No new birds, but then all birds are great birds.  The Northern Mockingbirds for some reason really like this area.  They seem to be everywhere.  We’ve also had a lot of Great Blue Herons and even found some roosting in the pine trees.  So strange to see such a large bird sitting in a tree.

Bay side of the island

Dead Needlefish or Ballyhoo

Dead American Shad – there were a lot of these fishes on the beach

Part of the fort

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

We went to lunch in Pensacola Beach, a short distance (6+ miles) from our campground at a place called Flounder’s Chowder House.  The chowder here has clams, shrimp, and flounder.  The chowder lived up to its award-winning claim – it was quite good.  After lunch we went to Shoreline Park, but saw very few birds, and this is an eBird hotspot too.  Oh well, just not today at this time of day.

We stopped at one of the National Seashore beach access points on the way back to the campground.  This area has really beautiful beaches with amazing white sand – so glad  there is a section protected.  It was getting late so not a lot of birds about, except for a few Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones.  While in the parking lot, there was a single Snowy Plover drinking water from the pooled water in the lot.  Bob and Pat were happy to see the bird – a First of Year for them.  We saw several yesterday and they were First of Year birds for us too.  Such cute little plovers.

Not sure what bird species this is

Pat, Bob, and Jack on the beach

Bob and Pat

The prize for today however was the Nine-banded Armadillo we saw on the Florida National Scenic Trail.  A friend told us they are essentially blind (can’t see too far) and so you can get close to them if you are quiet.  So I crept up to the armadillo and sure enough I was able to get within 6-8 feet while it continued to eat.  Such interesting creatures.  Its snout was always on the ground searching for and eating food so I couldn’t get a close-up shot of its snout.  And its back looked like an accordion as it moved.  Or course I was just happy to see one, let alone get so close and get a decent photo.  Hooray!!!  We also saw Bottle-nosed Dolphins in the bay.

Nine-banded Armadillo

Jack on the trail of the Armadillo

We decided to stay at Gulf Islands National Seashore another night as tomorrow’s weather is suppose to be decent and there is more yet to explore.  It’s not suppose to rain until tomorrow night.  And speaking of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, it was created in 1971, and it stretches 160 miles long making it the largest national seashore in the United States.  Surprisingly 82% of the seashore is submerged underwater.

We hiked and birded the bayside of the seashore near our campground.  I kept hearing this bird (have for the past several days) and could not find it among the vegetation.  Finally, today we saw the bird – an Eastern Towhee.  Hooray!!!  It’s always nice to put a song/call to a bird.  Now when I hear it again I know what to look for.

Morning has broken …

Brown Pelican – Adult


Hatch Year Brown Pelican (aka juvenile)


I’ve never seen a Willet resting on the beach

One of the fort’s structures

I climbed up and looked down on Jack. This would be a great place during spring migration as you could see the tops of the trees and you wouldn’t get warbler neck.

We met up with Pat and Bob around 10:00 am.  We walked over to the beach and birded the beach  – not much there.  Bob wanted to go inland to the road and back to the campground, so we bushwacked our way back.  When we were almost to the road I receive a text from my sister about the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit about 10 miles north of Anchorage.  Family and friends were safe and sound.  I guess there will be some major repair work to roads and bridges, and other structures.  The neighbor who looks after our house said all was well.  Some friends had to leave their homes and head to higher ground in case of a tsunami.  Luckily no tsunamis in the immediate area.  Awful to be away from home when something like this happens.  You really do feel helpless.

Pat – Bob – Jack – Shell

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstones

Snowy Plover

Sea Star

Ghost Crab – a very small one

What’s left of a fish

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

After we made it back to the campground we went to the local Subway for lunch, then back to the Fort.  Jack and Bob toured the fort, while Pat and I birded the area.  We found several ghost crabs during our walk, one very small – think smaller than a dime.  We also had a large flock of Sanderlings – around 40, with a few Willet and Ruddy Turnstone mixed in.  Up on the beach were five Snowy Plover.  There were also several Great Blue Heron roosting in the vegetation of the sand dunes.  I do like this area with its beautiful white sandy beaches. Tomorrow we head to Davies Bayou campground where we will spend several nights.  Unfortunately rain is in the forecast.  Not sure how much in terms of inches of precipitation.  Guess I should check it out.

Laughing Gull, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone

Brown Pelican – my favorite pelican

Great Blue Heron

There were lots of Common Loon on the bay – we counted 35

Great Blue Heron – they really like the island

The birds really like this structure – no public access

Wow, hard to believe it’s the last of November already.  We’ve been gone from home over 3 months.  We’ve been to several provinces in Canada (both east and west) and have visited or traveled through 15 states (from Montana to Florida).

The first day of December, and it definitely rained last night.  We had almost two inches of rain in the pan we left outside on the picnic table last night.  And there is a lot of standing water in our campground loop.  Now we know why everyone wants to stay in Loop A.  It was drier than our loop. 

We did find a recycle container so we wanted to take our last minute recycle items there before heading into Alabama.  When we were last in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (especially Louisiana) recycling was practically non-existent.  Sadly.   Surprisingly the only recycle container at Fort Pickens was at the fort itself, not in the campground loops.  After depositing the recyclable materials, we birded the fort area.  I had to get a last minute glimpse of those Brown Pelicans that like to hang out at the piers.  After birding we went to say goodbye to our friends Bob and Pat, then make our way west into Alabama and Mississippi.

Our campsite

Lots of water after the rain

American Kestrel

The Osprey is back on his perch tree

Eastern Garter Snake

Pelicans everywhere

The ocean side did not have much litter, but the bay side — well that is where everyone fishes and they are not good about cleaning up after themselves.

The National Park Service should have their campground hosts clean the beaches. Park staff clean the bathrooms, so not sure what camp hosts do other than put “reserved” signs on campsite posts.

Our friends Bob and Pat’s camper (on Sunday, December 2nd) at Ft. Pickens campground. I’m glad we left yesterday.

Off to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Until then …




9 November 2018

We are headed to Cuba today to participate in a Bird Survey (i.e., bird tour) led by the Caribbean Conservation Trust.  Being the neurotic person that I am, I wanted to make sure we got to the airport in enough time.  We were told to be at the airport by 9:15a.m., for our 12:15 pm flight.  Well we got there closer to 8:30 am, so we had a long wait.  Fine by me.

At the airport we had to pick up our “tourist visa”, which we had ordered for and paid online.  We were told to make sure it is filled out correctly and carry them with us at all times, and most of all “don’t lose them”.

There are only six people on our tour, plus our two guides (one a bird guide, another a local “general” guide) and bus driver (nine total).   We will have local bird guides at various points along the way.  As for our bird group, we all took the same flight to Cuba, but Erin (she flew a different airline).  Jim and Linda, a married couple, are from Florida.  Then there is Jeanette, also from Florida.  Our bird guide, Michael Good, is from Bar Harbor, Maine.  We are all close in age, except for Erin whom I suspect is in her 30s.

I hate flying, especially take offs.  To me every time we take off the plane sounds different (well duh, they are different planes), so if something doesn’t sound right I get nervous.  On the other hand, most people don’t like the landings.  This was evident when most of the people on the plane clapped when we landed.  The landing seemed normal to me, although we did come in a little fast.

We exited the plane in Cuba and immediate got hit by a wall of heat and humidity.  Ugh, we really don’t like the humidity.  The Floridians like to say, “Oh, you get used to to it,” — I don’t think so.  Luckily we don’t have to worry about humidity in Alaska.

We all went through immigration – the typical frown and cursory check, without any problem, picked up our luggage, and then went over to another terminal to pick up our last fellow birder, Erin from Vermont.  Erin is both the youngest and the newest birder.  Nice to have a fun, young person on the survey.

And yes, the pictures/images of Cuba are true, we saw a lot of old classic cars, but the Russian-made taxis were quite new.  We got into our vehicle (a bus) to begin the bird survey and headed west to the valley of Vinales, about three hours away.  This is a beautiful area, with lots of limestone cliffs and cave formations.  We stopped off at one cave near our hotel where thousands of bats emerge each evening.  Unfortunately, we got there a little late and only saw a few of the bats.

We spent the night at Rancho San Vicente, just outside of the town of Vinales.  After dinner Michael, Erin, Jeannette, Jack and I tried to locate and see a Bare-legged Owl (formerly the Cuban Screech Owl).  We heard it several times, but never did see the bird.  And we were like yo-yos going from one side of the road to the other to avoid the traffic on the road, which wasn’t much but it was constant and it was Friday night.  Erin befriended a local dog and it decided to follow us around.  I’m not sure what role dogs have in Cuban life.  They don’t seem to be pets, nor do they seem to be service animals.  I do know many are starving and we saw some with mange.  Poor things.  These dogs definitely lost out in the lottery.

Cuban Tree Frog – look closely as it is great at camouflage.  It also jumped on my leg causing a scream to come out of my mouth.  The frog is harmless.

Dwarf Boa Constrictor

10 November 2018

We spent the first part of the morning birding around the hotel, mostly because there were just so many birds right out our back door: Cuban Pewee, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Trogon, Red-legged Thrush, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Olive-capped Warbler, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Cuban Solitaire to name a few.  We always seem to find more birds near our hotels and parking lots…go figure.

Cuban Trogon

Great Lizard Cuckoo

Olive-capped Warbler

Cuban Pewee

Scaly-naped Pigeon

We then went to a nearby farm (Finca) to bird, which also proved productive,  We got great looks at the Cuban Tody,  a bird I was really hoping to see on this trip.  Luckily it is a common endemic species.  What a beautiful, colorful, small, charismatic bird.

Loggerhead Kingbird

Termite mound

West Indian Woodpecker

Next we went to a park to look for “grassquits”, finding the Yellow-faced Grassquit, but only hearing the Cuban Grassquit.  Hopefully we will see this bird species tomorrow.  I heard a noise that sounded like a pig, and it turned out that’s what it was – a pig.  Well actually several pigs.  If farmers can’t afford to feed their pigs, they let them loose.  Unfortunately, the pigs cause a lot of damage to the environment.  While they were quite close, they essentially ignored us.

Alligator Lizard

Great Lizard Cuckoo

Cuban Bullfinch

Cuban Tree Frog

Searching for the grassquits

We had a late lunch at a Farm to Table restaurant.  The produce is grown on the Finca.  It was yummy.  We had beautiful views of the Vinales Valley and the surrounding mountains (limestone Karst).

Some interesting signs – what you can do and what you can’t do

Lots of horse drawn carts

The Farm to Table restaurant

View from the restaurant of the Vinales Valley

Sadly we then left the Vinales area and headed to the town of San Diego de Banos for the night.  After checking in we walked around town searching for birds.  We came to an area and played the call for the Cuban Pygmy Owl.  The owl responded a number of times, flying from one side of the road to another.  However, each time it flew into dense vegetation, and the only sightings we had of the bird was as it darted across the road – fast.  If I didn’t hear the bird call, I couldn’t say it was an owl that flew across the road.  Maybe we will get another chance to see the bird.  I hope so.

Interesting wire job

View from our hotel room balcony

View from our hotel room balcony

At dinner we had a Cuban band serenade us.  Our bird guide said they were better than last year, and Jack thought they weren’t good at all.  They weren’t bad and they made up for their loudness with their enthusiasm.  They had CDs to sell, but no takers from our table.

11 November 2018

After breakfast we headed to Hacienda Cortina to look for the Giant Kingbird, which we did find along with other great bird species including the Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, a Cuban endemic (which means it is only found in Cuba).  I’ve been trying to actually see the “tawny” shoulder patch on this bird as we’ve only seen the bird flying and at a distance.  From a distance it could be mistaken for a Cuban Blackbird (if you are new to Cuban birds).  The birds flew into a tree and as they were landing with their wings outstretched I could actually see the “tawny” color.  We got good views of the Giant Kingbird despite the fact that two Loggerhead Kingbirds kept harassing it.

Giant Kingbird

Cuban Trogon

Cuban Tody

American Kestrel

Emerald Hummingbird

Red-legged Thrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

Western Spindalis

This guy is off to get water …

… and now he is sitting on the barrel after procuring water

Red-legged Thrush

This Hacienda was once owned by a wealthy Cuban.  It fell into disrepair and is slowly being fixed up with carriage trails, ponds, and landscaping – a very pleasant place.  The general public is allowed to visit the Hacienda, including us birders.

We then went to a field to check for grassquits, primarily the Cuban Grassquit.  But alas all we found were Yellow-faced Grassquits.  We saw these yesterday, and they are not a new bird for me, although I haven’t seen them in some years.  These birds can be found in Central and South America.  They feed on grass seeds, but are generally seen on brush/bushes.

Raking rice on the road

Since we didn’t see the Cuban Grassquit yet, we had another chance at a finca (farm) about 50 km away.  So we went.  Someone associated with the farm put out some crushed corn attracting both the Cuban and the Yellow-faced Grassquits, resulting in great views and many birds.  In order to get good looks (and photos) of the grassquits we had to run off the competing Helmeted Guineafowl and Domesticated Wild Turkeys attracted to the feed.

Cuban Grassquit – male

Fresh from the grassquit success, we headed to Playa Larga on the Zapata Peninsula – our location for the next two full days of birding and more ‘target’ birds (endemics).  Playa Larga is a five-hour drive away.  A long bus ride, but a good chance to check out the countryside, including the various houses.  We did make one stop at a lake to check out the birds.  We saw hundreds of ducks and Pied-billed Grebes.

This dog broke my heart

We arrived in Playa Larga, which is situated on the infamous Bay of Pigs, after dark – around 6:30 pm.  The rooms here are in a local hostel. In Cuba, hostels are owned by private citizens whereas hotels are owned by the government.  Our local guide said the government hotels offer less services than the private hostels.  Our hostel – Hostel El Enrique – is quite nice.  We’ve stayed at three different places so far and this is the nicest one yet.

Our room at El Enrique.  Each room was decorated differently.

12 November 2018

We got an early start – 6:15 am – so we could get to a nearby bird blind early to check out the endemic quail-doves.  We got to the bird blind and immediately saw three of our target species:  Gray-fronted Quail Dove, Blue-Headed Quail Dove, and Zenaida Dove.  The Blue-headed Quail Dove was a favorite with its quite striking blue head as the name implies.  From there we went in search of the Bee Hummingbird –  think small…very small.

Birding Blind

Checking out the doves and other birds

Our local guide Frank

The Bee Hummingbird, is believed to be the smallest bird in the world at 2.0-2.4 inches from tip to tail. As it was quite hot outside, it was a challenge to pursue this bird.  This bird of course likes flower nectar, so we’re in search of its favored flowers.  The bird was spotted first by Erin, who is quite the bird finder (or whisperer if you like).  But the bird darted off.  We then stood in what little shade we could find, sweat pouring down our faces, and waited and waited for it to buzz back.  We were finally rewarded when a female Bee Hummingbird made her appearance for the rest of us.  We got some good looks at the bird before it flew off to find nectar elsewhere.  We then retreated to a local museum in the town of Playa Giron; the museum was dedicated to the Bay of Pigs mercenary invasion (Cuban term) in 1961.  Not one of U.S.A. (C.I.A.) finest moments.

Another one of our local guides  – here looking for the Bee Hummingbird

After visiting the museum, we went to an area where we could go swimming in the ocean if we so chose.  Jack, Erin, and Jeannette either dawned their swimsuits (okay only Erin) or went in to the water in their clothes (Jack and Jeanette).  It was a beautiful area, and there were plenty of tourists, including one who was topless.  Jack, Erin, and Jeanette looked like they were having fun.  This area is part of a coral reef, so the swim area was protected from the open ocean.

Greater Antillian Grackle …

… hoping to get fed

And dogs are anywhere there is food. Can’t say that I blame them.

A pool where you can swim. Supposedly it connects to the ocean via a tunnel.

Lots of fish

Erin swimming

Erin and our local guide Abel

Brain coral

Was told this is a 1957 Ford

The water does look inviting

We then went back to the hotel for a little down time in our air conditioned room.  Some of us walked around town and birded.  Jack stayed back and cooled off.  Then around 4:45 pm we took off in search of the Cuban Parrot, Cuban Parakeet, Fernandina Flicker, and the Cuban Nightjar.  For today and tomorrow we have the benefit of a local guide – Frank – who happens to be the director of the Zapata National Park.  He got us on the Flicker, the Parrot, the Parakeet, and the Nightjar.  At one point, we even had the Flicker and the Parrot in the same tree.  The local guides are amazing.

View of Playa Larga from our hostel

American Kestrel

Cuban Parrot

Cuban Nightjar

With darkness descending, we left the area and returned to our hotel for dinner.

13 November 2018

Today was another early morning with breakfast at 5:45 am and on the bus by 6:15 am.  We made our way down a one-way road, of sorts, into the heart of the Zapata Swamp (a huge area) in search of two elusive endemic species: Zapata Sparrow and Zapata Wren.  We got to see the Zapata Sparrow within about 10 minutes of arriving at our destination.  The Zapata Wren, however, remained elusive, except for Erin who was lucky enough to see the wren at a location we had just vacated.  I had so wanted to see this secretive species.  One of my favorite bird families are wrens.  To get to this location we had to drive a single lane dirt road with only one turnaround about 5 miles down the road.  And we had a huge bus.  Kudos to our driver Carlos.  He has been a fabulous, very safe driver, and so friendly despite not speaking English.

The road into the swamp

This was the only area for a bus to turn around. Luckily our bus wasn’t any bigger.  There is maybe five feet on either end of the bus.

Somewhere in all that grass is a Zapata Wren

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Green Heron

This ‘headless’ Boa Constrictor was on the road

The snake had a beautiful blue/green sheen

We made a stop at a fish farm to search for a Wattled Jacana.  At this fish farm they raise Cuban Gar for conservation purposes, not for eating as people don’t eat Gar.  The Gar is considered a prehistoric species, having been around since Cuban came into existence over 40.0 million years ago (or so we were told).  Oh, and we didn’t see the jacana.

From there we went to a private residence, Casa del ZunZun.  The homeowners have feeders and bird-friendly plants and allow people to come into their ‘aviary’ to experience the birds that flock there like Bee Hummingbird, Emerald Hummingbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, and Cuban Oriole.  At least that is what I saw while there.  Lots of great opportunities to take photos of these birds.  The Bee Hummer was a great find.

Desmarest’s hutia.  I thought this little guy was cute.  Jack, not so much.

Cuban Oriole (black with with yellow on its wings)

Tawny-shouldered Blackbird

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird

Our final stop of the day was to Las Salinas Wildlife Refuge.  Wow!!! What a fantastic place, which is part of the Zapata Swamp National Park.  Lots of water so there were waterbirds everywhere and we got to see hundreds of American Flamingos – beautiful.  These birds were almost as pink as the iconic plastic flamingos you see on people’s lawns.  We also had a good look at a perched Cuban Pygmy Owl, which previously we had only see as a night fly-by and they fly-by quickly.  There were herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, terns, gulls, osprey, kingfishers, and even a Clapper Rail, which is always special to see.

American Flamingo

Crab in the water

Tricolored Heron

Along the road were several viewing platforms

Brown Pelicans and Cormorants (Neotropical and Double-crested)

Magnificent Frigatebird

Clapper Rail

Cuban Pygmy Owl

14 November 2018

Today was primarily a travel day as we made our way from Playa Larga to Cayo Coco.  We did make a few stops along the way for bathroom breaks (it costs money to go to the bathroom  – 25 cents), for lunch (all you can eat buffet, although there wasn’t that much to eat), and to check out a fish pond for birds.

This area was near the fish pond

Apartment building in Cuba – many were Russian styled

We then traveled over a causeway, which is about ten miles long to our destination for the night – Melia Cayo Coco hotel.  This is a big resort-style hotel.  We are in an eight-plex building near the beach.  Of course we will probably be too busy birding to enjoy the beautiful beach and beckoning blue ocean.

Once we crossed the causeway to reach the Cayo, there were hundreds of waterbirds, including a large flock of Black-necked Stilts estimated at around two hundred.  As we neared our hotel for the night, we saw about nine West Indian Whistling Ducks standing on a small dock.  Nearby was a Juvenile and an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  The whistling duck was a life bird for us and a bird I really wanted to see.  Woohoo!!!

Reddish Egret

Tricolored Heron

Egrets and Herons

The hotel complex we are staying at is huge.  They have five different restaurants, three of which require reservations.  We went to a non-reservation restaurant that had a huge buffet.  Lots of great food to choice from.  And a great dessert bar!   This is an all inclusive hotel, which means all food and beverages are included in the cost.  So you can eat a little or a lot, drink a little or a lot.  It doesn’t matter.  The food variety and quality was very good.  We’ve not taken a cruise before (other than on a small boat to Antarctica), but this is what we imagine it to be like.

West Indian Whistling Duck

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Afterwards several of us went in search of a Barn Owl, but we suspect the owl either left before, or died during, Hurricane Irma last year (2017).  When we came back to our room there was really loud music playing next to our accommodations, of course.  I think I’m cursed by the music gods.  With ear plugs in, I could still hear the music, although not as loud .  Luckily I was tired and fell right to sleep, thank goodness.

15 November 2018

We got an early start – in the lobby at 5:45 am for coffee and pastries, then on the bus for more birding.  The target birds for the day were: Oriente Warbler, Cuban Gnatcatcher, Thick-billed Vireo, and Bahama Mockingbird.  We scored three of the four birds.  The only bird missing was the Thick-billed Vireo – a localized species so very susceptible to hurricane disturbance.  Our guide knows of only two recent sightings of this bird – both last fall- shortly after the Hurricane.  This part of Cuba was hard hit by Hurricane Irma.

I think my new favorite warbler is the Oriente Warbler.  This is a pretty gray and yellow bird.  When we first saw the bird it was out in the open for some time.  Of course it was the one time I did not have my camera with me. I told everyone they can thank me for not bringing my camera.

Julia (butterfly)

Zapata Sparrow

Cape May Warbler

Juvenile Cape May Warbler

Cuban Green Woodpecker

We then spent the next several hours at various places on Cayo Coco, Cayo Paredon Grande, and Cayo Romano in search of the vireo and gnatcatcher.  While searching for those birds I happened upon the Bahama Mockingbird.  I was walking down this road and something made me turn and look slightly behind me on the left.  There, sitting silently in a bush, was a large bird that looked to be a mockingbird.  Now the Northern Mockingbird is in Cuba too, but this bird was just too large to be a NOMO, as Jack and I call the Northern Mockingbird.  Plus the bird had streaking on the chest, which the NOMO lacks here.  I was sooooo happy to see this bird.  Another life bird for me.

Bahama Mockingbird

Searching for the elusive Thick-billed Vireo

We had one more stop to make, in search of the Cuban Gnatcatcher, before heading back to the hotel for lunch.   At this last stop we finally found the gnatcatcher and got good looks at the bird.  Another lifer.  While looking at this bird, we had a Cuban Black Hawk in a nearby tree posing, and a Mangrove Cuckoo.  Jack and I’ve only seen the Mangrove Cuckoo once before in Panama back in 2008.  Nice to see the bird again.

Cuban Black Hawk – this bird’s call is “Ba-Ti-Sta”  I guess these birds are waiting for Batista to return to Cuba.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Cuban Gnatcatcher

Lesser Black-backed Gull

There is a lot of evidence of impacts to the island’s vegetation – a lot of downed trees – as a result of the Hurricane last year.  There isn’t much development on these Cayos (a term meaning island)  except for hotels but there are a lot of hotels and more being built.  I can see why they’ve built hotels on Cayo Coco as the water here is a beautiful turquoise blue.  However, I’m not one to spend my entire vacation sitting around a pool or the beach and just eating and drinking and swimming and sunning.  I’d rather be birding.

Here you can see part of the old road – what’s left after the hurricane

Lunch was amazing.  So much food to chose from.  If I stayed here a week I would probably gain 20 pounds or more.  Good it is only two nights.  I wonder what they serve for breakfast.  We missed the buffet breakfast this morning  in order to bird.  And I love to go out for breakfast.

We got a couple of hours off, and Jack and I spent part of that time with Jeannette who is a hoot.  She always good for funny life stories as a labor organizer.

Our 8-plex building – we were in the upper right hand corner room. Great views of the ocean and beach.

View from our room

They did have a great beach

This turtle was hanging out in a small water feature on the hotel grounds

In the late-afternoon we headed back out into the heat, although the humidity here doesn’t seem as bad as when we we’re further inland or along the western coastline.  At least not to me.  We went to look for shorebirds, but too much high water.  We only found a few Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling, and Ruddy Turnstone.  Still, glad we got to see some shorebirds.  I love my shorebirds.

We spotted a few shorebirds along the beach

Next we drove out to Cayo Gulliermo to search once again for the Bahama Mockingbird.  Not everyone got as good a look as yours truly.  We didn’t find the mockingbird.  The area where it had been seen in previous years was now bull dozed over and a large hotel was being constructed.  However, we did get good views of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a bridge that had three statutes of Ernest Hemmingway.  He wrote “Islands in the Stream” while he was in Cuba.  At the bridge, we waited about 20 minutes for the sun to set and watched several locals fishing from the bridge.  It was a beautiful sunset.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Juvenile American Flamingos

Laughing Gull

I just love the color of the water

Jack with Hemmingway

Local Fisherman with his “Needle” fish catch

The Needle Fish is silver and green – beautiful

Hard to believe we’ve been here for a week and only have three full days left.  Tomorrow we leave Cayo Coco and head southwest.  Need to find the Palm Crow.

16 January 2018

In the early morning (around 6:30 a.m.), we went to an area with a cave bar that can hold up to 400 people.  Not my idea of a good time, but to each his/her own.  We birded near the cave as the caretaker keeps feeders and water out for the birds.  The target bird was the Key West Quail Dove.  Unfortunately, it was a no-show.  We did however, get to see my new favorite warbler – the Oriente Warbler.  Too bad this bird is an endemic.  If I want to see it again I have to come back to Cuba.  We also got good looks again at the Zapata Sparrow.  This bird too is an endemic.  We had two within ten feet of us feeding all around some old equipment.  We did get a new bird for the trip (but not a new life bird) – the Painted Bunting.  It was a female, so all green.  The male is a beautiful green/blue/red bird.  Our guide, Michael Good, said he has only seen a male Painted Bunting once in Cuba and it was in a cage.  Yes, there is the illegal capture of birds for the pet trade.  So sad.  I’m not a fan of keeping birds in cages.


Zapata Sparrow

Cuban Grassquit

Cuban Tody

Oriente Warbler  …

… my new favorite warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler

Erin loving on a local dog

Looking down into the cave bar

La Sagra’s Flycatcher

We then went to a pond to look for some new birds, but just saw some old favorites: Greater Yellowleg, Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher to name a few.  In all, I had 35 species for the two hours we were out birding.

Okay remember I said I was looking forward to breakfast at the hotel we were staying at?  Well we returned from our early-morning birding excursion to the buffet line.  I was sorely disappointed in the breakfast buffet.   Oh well.

After breakfast we hung out at the resort.  The plan was to check out at noon, have lunch at the hotel, and then head to our next destination – Sancti Spiritus (a town and Province) and our accommodations at Rancho Hatuey.

Near our hotel

This guy was spear fishing. He had at least 3-4 different fish species.

The trip to Sancti Spiritus should have taken us around 3 hours, but it turned into an almost five hour bus ride.  Our driver and local guide were using a GPS.  The GPS gave our driver directions for the shortest route.  Now the shortest route does not always mean the fast route, which we found out later.  The road was not paved and we were suddenly thrown back in time about 50-60 years.  Our local guide told us this is the real Cuba.  Many of the people we saw from the bus looked at our bus in bewilderment.  We were all happy to have taken this route, however, because we went through a very beautiful part of Cuba – the real Cuba.

Our guide Michael sleeping on the bus

We arrived at our hotel after dark and had about 30 minutes to get ready for dinner.  Dinner was nothing special and neither was the room.  The only redeeming feature was the comfortable bed.  Many of the beds we’ve had have been hard – like sleeping on the floor.  This was my least favorite place to stay on the trip, despite going to bed early and getting a good night’s sleep.

17 November 2018

We birded the hotel grounds and surrounding area prior to breakfast at 7:30 am.  Following breakfast, we headed towards Trinidad, a historic Spanish colonial city.  Trinidad was once the center of commerce and wealth, but is now a tourist destination.  We walked to the main plaza but the very narrow streets limited our bus adventure.  Luckily, vehicle traffic is not very congested in Cuba as it costs a great deal to import/purchase a vehicle, thus, many classic 1950s vehicles are inherited and have very high value.  The ’55 and ’56 Chevy were very common, never did see a ’57 Chevy (only a ’57 Ford).

En route to Trinidad, we made several stops in search of the Palm Crow and the Cuban race of the Eastern Meadowlark.  The Palm Crow is a near endemic (Caribbean species) and the Eastern Meadowlark may become its own Cuban species soon.  So we wanted to be sure we got to see both birds.  The first stop proved fruitless for either bird.  The second stop we did see at least two Eastern Meadowlarks.  As we were walking back down the road from which we came, we heard the Palm Crow calling.  We saw a large flock of crows, however, there were also Cuban Crows in the area and what we saw could have been them too.  No way to know for sure which bird we were seeing, as the best way to distinguish between the two birds is through their calls.  We tried chasing the large flock of crows, but only heard and saw the Cuban Crow.  We needed to get moving so we called the hearing of the Palm Crow as good.  Off to Trinidad.


Various modes of transportation in Cuba

American Kestrel – many of the birds here have crisp white chests

Cuban race of the Eastern Meadowlark

This guy was following a man riding a horse. They were both carrying water.

Some of the various houses

Upon arrival in Trinidad we spent about 45-60 minutes walking around the town.  Our local guide is also a general guide and knows a lot about the history of Cuba.  Jack was more attentive than I.  I’m more interested in the birds.  What was most distressing about the town were the caged birds.  Our guide tried to free a caged Cuban Bullfinch, but was unable to open the door.   As Jeannette said, you can’t change stupid people.

A lot of the souvenirs were repetitious. If you didn’t buy what you wanted in the first shop, there were many more shops with the same items.

Cobble streets – not easy to walk on

These musicians were playing the famous Cuban song “Guantanmamera”. Our guide said the title sounds like “One Buccanero” (which is one of the local Cuban beers).

And this guy was dancing to the music

Buggy ride anyone?

Erin was the only one to buy anything in Trinidad

The caged Cuban Bullfinch that Michael tried to free

After Trinidad we drove to Cienfeugos, a town on the coast, for lunch.  Lunch was good.  I decided to have chicken instead of pork as I’ve eaten a lot of pork on this trip.  I thought maybe I could have pork for dinner.  Wrong.  Pork wasn’t on the menu.  Darn.  So an evening meal of chicken it was.  We had a late lunch, and even though dinner was late (around 8:00 p.m. or so), I didn’t eat much of my meal.  I am not used to eating so late in the evening and I so hate wasting food.

They do paint them various colors. I doubt this is the original color.

The bed at our hotel, Los Maletas, is again hard as a rock, but the pillows are acceptable.  We are in an old building in the heart of Old Havana.  Tomorrow we put birding aside to go for a walking tour of the historic center of Havana, then visit Cuban naturalist Senor Orlando Garrido.

Looking down from our hotel room into an open patio area

A church near our restaurant. I suspect that the guides get a kickback for bringing tourists to a particular restaurant or hostel.

18 November 2018

Today we spend the morning walking around Old Havana, its surrounding fortress wall, and learning about the different majestic government buildings, museums, churches, and plazas, including the hotel made famous by Ernest Hemmingway.  Today is Sunday, so lots of families out and about.  The Havana waterfront has an extensive walkway so a very pleasant stroll. Plus, lots of tourists since there are two very large tour cruise ships in port.  The tourists bring out the street musicians, mimes, and hawkers.

This was a homeless guy who enjoyed talking to himself