It's a Great Day to Bird

Month: November 2018


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

All dressed up …

Jeanette gave this guy a few coins and in return he threw a chain around her neck and tried to take her head off. All in fun.

Erin said “Look a phone”, and then this woman went over to pick up the phone and listen and then check to see of any money was in the coin return slot.

Narrow streets in Old Havana

A very nice park in Old Havana

Castillo de la Real Fuerza – supposedly the oldest building in Havana. There is an actual “moat”.

Jack crossing the moat

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Yes, it actually works

Havana Cathedral, or La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Ha

One of two cruise ships visiting Havana.  No wonder the streets seemed crowded with tourists.

Our birding group

Lots of street performers

This was painted on a wall across the street from our hostel

We got to see a lot of the old cars while in Cuba, and in Havana some of them are now taxis.  Many have changed the color of their cars – some are hot pink.  We actually got to ride in old convertible cars on our way to dinner.  I was afraid the car we were riding in was going to break down, either that or run out of gas.  There are other modes of transportation in Cuba too – bicycles, wagons, carriages, horses, newer cars, buses, trucks (passengers standing up in the back), and trucks converted to transport people.  I cringe when I see these trucks because the people are not protected at all should the vehicle get in an accident and roll.

This seems to be a popular color

Now I like the color of this old car, which is now a taxi

Jim, Linda, and Michael in their old car on the way to dinner

Now this was a little scary. Our driver was working the phone most of the trip.

We had a pleasant visit with Senor Orlando Garrido.  He is quite the character.  He told us stories about his tennis days (he played at Wimbledon and in the Davis Cup), and he is famous for developing a Cuban field guide.  He admonished us to verify birds we were observing (Osprey and Northern Flicker) and how they might soon become recognized as separate species.  We didn’t see the Northern Flicker, but we did see the Osprey.  However, we didn’t look closely enough at the bird (generally seen in-flight) to tell the difference between the Cuban and the North American Osprey races.

Senor Orlando Garrido

The Zapata Wren I didn’t get to see

Tomorrow we head home to the United States.  We had a very good time in Cuba and give it high marks.  Cuba is an interesting country and the people are very friendly – no anti-American sentiment (they love Obama!).  I do have an issue with how they treat their dogs nor do I Iike caging of birds.  While Cubans get free medical and a free education, price controls on imported items and cars are expensive or prohibitive.  The internet is very limited, but cell phones are common ($5/month fee!).  Food at restaurants was expensive too.  Similar to American prices.

19 November  2018

We left for the airport and got to see a lot more of Havana.  The flight to Florida was uneventful.  I think we spent more time on the ground waiting to take off (started loading 55 minutes before the flight was due to take off) than in the air (48 minutes).  I like these short trips.

I would recommend Cuba as a birding destination.  Of the 26 Cuban endemics, we got them all except for Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail, and Cuban Kite.   Not too shabby.  Plus, we got a number of the near endemics as well.  I am a happy birder.


Florida – Part I

Florida (26 October – 8 November)  

We are now in the raining “Sunshine” state – Florida.  And, with the rain, is it ever humid – “you can cut it with a knife” as the saying goes. Stifling.  Jack said he could never, ever live here.  I agree.

We were going to stop at a forest service campground we stayed at when we did our Big Adventure in 2013-2014, but once we got there we thought since it was raining out, why not keep going.  So we did, arriving at Alexander Spring Recreation Area (part of Ocala National Forest) around 2:45 p.m, and finding only 10 open camp sites.  We had originally planned to be here the following day, but it is probably good we came a day early so we could get a camp site before the weekend rush.

The campground is nothing special, although there is a warm (72 degree F) spring-fed pool (a swimming area) as part of the recreation area.  No swimming for us, instead we took a short hike on an adjacent boardwalk bordering a portion of the spring.  We didn’t see a lot of birds, but maybe they were hunkered down after the rain.  At the end of our hike, we got caught in a downpour but, despite getting soaked, it was refreshing.

Alexander Springs

Cute little lizard – no more than 2 inches in length

The wet and slipper boardwalk

Some type of grasshopper??? This guy was probably as big as the lizard.

Yes, more fungus

Turtles on a log

And then the skies opened up. It was a wet walk back to our camper van.

Onward the next morning to Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, which was about 30-35 miles from our campground.  This refuge has trails, but no auto tour route.  I figured the trails would be unmaintained, narrow, and traverse forested habitat.  Boy was I ever wrong.  We found a nicely mowed and maintained trail system – hooray!!!

We primarily walked the impoundment trails (a loop of around 4.0 miles or so), and was able to see a total of 22 different bird species (and none of them ducks).  I did get three new species for the year: Tricolored Heron, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Indigo Bunting (female).  All these birds were a delight.  We also had a couple of Great Blue Herons (GBH).  For some reason these herons seem so much larger here than further north.  And we really haven’t seen too many GBH’s on the trip so far.  Generally, they are a quite common water-related (think National Wildlife Refuges) bird to see.

I really like this National Wildlife Refuge, which is a new refuge for us.  It is a fairly young refuge, created in 1964 to protect, improve, and create habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl.  The refuge consists of 21,574 acres of freshwater marshes, streams and canals, cypress and mixed hardwood swamps, wooded uplands, and lakes (or ponds are they call them). They also have a observation tower (not too high), which provides great views of the refuge.   I would definitely come back here again.

We had thought about driving to the beach (about 40 miles away) afterwards, but decided to just return to our campground.  While this morning was windy and cool, the afternoon is hot and sunny.  Now we can relax at our campsite for a couple of hours instead of fighting traffic (today is Saturday and so the beaches are probably busy).

Gray Catbird – it liked the purple berries on this plant

I think this is “Red Bayou” Lichen

Another new wildlife refuge for us

Map showing refuge boundaries and location of trails

Close up of trails. We essentially walked around Pools 1 and 3.  Pool 2 closed to hunting.

The start of the trail

I think this nest box has been here awhile

Love the wide trails

Boat-tailed Grackle

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

Tricolored Heron

Observation Tower

Impoundment/Dike Trail

Don’t Fly from Me Turkey Vulture

I Never Thought I See

All Through My Bird Days, My Mad Obsession

You Kept Your Distance, I Kept On Searching (sung to Evita)

We think it was for muzzleshot guns. We didn’t hear anything.

Probably the same Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

A “White Peacock” I believe

There were a few alligators present, including this momma alligator

One of her four babies

Anhinga …

… cooling off

Great Blue Heron (aka GBH)

This grass was pretty, especially blowing in the wind.

We left the Ocala National Forest and Alexander Springs Recreation Area to travel to Tomoka State Park, via a detour to Daytona Beach to get some items for a Cuba trip at the local Target Store.  Along the way we saw two Florida Sandhill Cranes along side Interstate 95 (I-95).  These cranes are a non-migratory subspecies.  Surprising to see them feeding so close to such a busy interstate.  Crazy birds.

The Target store was located across the street from the Daytona International Speedway.  You could hear cars racing around the track.  Maybe there is some big race coming up, because there weren’t many cars in the parking lot.

We got to Tomoka State Park around 10:00 and found about 10 or so vacant campground spots so we chose one (#65).  We then walked the park to check out the birds.  We did see a Wood Stork flying high above.  This is a FOY (First of Year) bird for me.  The last time we were in Florida we only saw Wood Storks at a refuge near the Everglades.  So was nice to see the bird elsewhere, even if only in flight.

After a couple of hours walking and birding the park, we returned to our campsite where I spent the rest of the evening finishing my Tennessee/Georgia blog.  Luckily we had two bars on the cell phone so I could work on the blog.  Woohoo!!!

Tomoka State Park

You can picnic, boat, fish, camp, and bird at the park


A statute to Tomoka (an Indian Chief for which the park was named)

We are starting to see a lot more lizards. I like lizards.

After leaving Tomoka State Park the next morning, we drove to Merritt Island National Wildlife, which is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center and Canaveral National Seashore.  The refuge is an overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.

We drove the Black Point Drive (7-mile), and saw a lot of great birds. This drive passes through salt and freshwater marshes.  A beautiful area with a variety of habitats.   At Stop #4 we had seven heron/egret species:  Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Reddish Egret.  Fun!!!  There were also a lot of Belted Kingfishers along the route.  In a two-mile stretch of road (not the drive, but still part of the refuge), we counted 5 Belted Kingfishers.  And a lot of Osprey.  If you want to see a lot of Osprey in one place, this is the refuge to visit, at least at this time of year.  Within the same two miles, we had nine Osprey, and six of those were on consecutive utility poles.

The drive is truly a great place to see waterbirds – finally.   Waterbirds, in addition to the herons and egrets, included Glossy Ibis and White Ibis, Common Gallinule, and Roseate Spoonbill.  Along the drive, which is one-way and narrow, we let a guy pass us (because no one goes as slow as we do), and he stopped to talk about Alaska (everyone sees our Alaska license plate and wants to engage us in an Alaska story or are curious – “did you drove the whole way here?”).  He said he spent part of a winter in Wasilla with his retired father.   I think Wasilla is the last place I would want to spend winter.  He mentioned he had been on this drive earlier and has seen 5 different raptors.  He also mentioned the mosquitoes at the refuge, which he claims are as big as a vulture.  Funny guy.  I mentioned our Bald Eagles, and he said he wasn’t going to mention them since he knew about Alaska and our Bald Eagle population.  Yeah, I told him we try to act interested when we are down this way and people go on and on about the Bald Eagles they are seeing.  Good to get excited about a bird – just need to get excited about saving them…

After the drive we did the Scrub Ridge Trail looking for the Florida Scrub Jay.  Unfortunately, the only thing we found were thousands of mosquitoes, although none as big vultures.  We learned the salt marsh mosquito can lay as many as 45,000 eggs per square foot, which figures out to be two billion eggs per acre.  Yikes!!!  Can you imagine what it must be like if all those eggs were to hatch at once?  And they say Alaska’s mosquitoes are bad.  Go mosquito-eating birds, bats, and insects.

From the Scrub Ridge Trail we drove to the Bio Lab Road – essentially a drove one-way road – hoping we might see some new birds.  We did see a lot of the same waterbirds (herons and egrets).  Once we were off this road, we drove back towards the refuge’s visitor center.  When we were there earlier inquiring about where we might find the scrub jay, the refuge visitor staff member mentioned an area along the road between Kennedy Parkway and the ocean (road that continues after Highway 406 ends (see the map).  We were driving this area on the way back to the visitor center and Jack spotted a jay-looking bird in a tree adjacent to the road.  So we stopped – luckily a wide road shoulder.  And there was the Florida Scrub Jay.  Yay!!!  The lighting wasn’t the best for a photo, but I had to try and capture this threatened bird on a digital image.

In all, this refuge drive revealed  38 different bird species (not bad for ‘windshield birding).  We had a couple of fly-by birds – small birds – but they disappeared into deep shrubs and never reappeared.  We also had a hawk which we suspect was a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it was too far away to tell for certain.  It truly was a “Great Day to Bird”, due in part to the beautiful weather.  Merritt Island NWR definitely makes my top 10 list of favorite refuges.

Refuge Map

Wilson’s Snipe

Great Egret

At Stop 4 along the drive there was a trail to two observation platforms, but when we got to them they were boarded off.

Green Heron

Green Heron

There were a lot of these Tricolored Herons at the refuge – a lot.

For such a small heron, it has a rather large bill.

Palm Warblers – a very common warbler in Florida.  This bird winters here.

Belted Kingfisher – Male

Pied-billed Grebe

Turkey Vulture

Great Blue Heron

Common Gallinule (former known as a Common Moorhen)

Mother and Juvenile Common Gallinule

So ugly it’s cute

Snowy Egret

Jack thinks this might be a mud turtle

Belted Kingfisher

The same turtle???

And yet another Belted Kingfisher

Florida Scrub Jay


Glossy Ibis

Unfortunately, there are no public campground near the refuge so we reluctantly left the refuge, as I would love to spend more time here, and headed to our campground for the night – Sebastian Inlet State Park – about 70 miles south.  We got there around 5:00 pm and as we were checking in we saw some Brown Pelicans and Ruddy Turnstones, on the breakwater.  Jack was happy to seen the turnstones and I was happy to see the pelicans.  And then, surprise surprise, we saw two Wood Storks walking through the parking lot and headed towards two fishermen.  The fisherman ignored the storks and the storks ignored the fishermen.  I, however, got several photos of the birds.

This isn’t a bad campground, however, right now the gnats are horrific.  These small monsters (think smaller than a pinhead) are driving us nuts.  Luckily we are only here one night.  To escape the gnats is when you really want a fully contained camping unit – no fun to try and cook outdoors with gnats all around.

Our campsite

Wood Stork

Tricolored Heron

Ruddy Turnstone – fun to watch them actually “turn” stones.  I had to climb on some rocks to get a photo.

I had left the table cloth on the picnic table overnight and was surprised how much moisture there was on the cloth in the morning.  Lots of humidity, despite the breeze.  We quickly made breakfast – don’t want to linger too long with the gnats buzzing about and biting – and went to the a fishing access parking lot adjacent to the Sebastian Inlet to check out the birds.  Today, a crazy Wood Stork was on top of the restroom building and another on a utility pole.  It was fun to watch the Brown Pelicans diving for fish.  We also saw Royal and Forester’s Terns likewise diving for their meals, whereas the herons and egrets simply stand along the shoreline and wait for a fish to swim by before spearing their meal.  There were a lot of Osprey out hunting for fish as well.  When they catch a fish they usually take it to a perch (tree or utility pole) to begin feasting.

This stork is on the roof of the restroom

Wood Stork on top of utility pole

Black Vulture

Ruddy Turnstone

We left the park and made our way south about ten miles or so to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.  This was the birthplace of the wonderful National Wildlife Refuge System.  Pelican Island was the very first established National Wildlife Refuge (Thank You Theodore Roosevelt and Paul Kroegel).  This 3.0-acre refuge was created in 1903, when Paul Kroegel fought off market hunters who wanted the bird plumes to sell for women’s hats.  Luckily woman don’t wear those kinds of hats anymore (except for maybe during the Kentucky Derby).   Paul was the first game warden on the island and was paid the sum of $1.00 per month.  The refuge has since grown in size to 5,376 acres, due in large part to the efforts of other conservationists to protect mangrove islands and submerged lands from development.

We walked out to the observation tower with a view of Pelican Island.  The Trex boardwalk up to the tower has boards listing when each of the national wildlife refuges were created.  We started to identify which ones we’ve visited and I told Jack this could take awhile, so we continued on with only making an occasional note about a specific refuge.   We didn’t see much from the observation tower except we could see Pelican Island itself.  It is totally covered in Mangrove and upland trees.

We then walked Joe’s trail (named after Joe Michael, another person responsible for protecting the area).  This 3.0-mile trail is quite open and it was quite hot out (80 degrees with full sun, which is very hot for us Alaskans).  There was observation platform about one-mile into the hike and it was here that we saw the majority of birds on the refuge.  The herons, egrets, storks, osprey, and spoonbills loved this area for some reason.  Again, looking at both the Great Egret and Great Blue Heron they look so so big.

That’s me – I Love National Wildlife Refuges

Paved trail from the parking lot to the “Centennial Trail and Joe’s Trail

Trail Map

Okay what’s wrong with this picture? I know, NO BROCHURES.

This sign needs to be replaced

Strangler fig – strangling the tree

Paul Kroegel photo

View of Pelican Island from the observation tower

Centennial boardwalk – lists all the national wildlife refuges and when they were created

The Alaska Maritime NWR has its base in Homer, Alaska (my hometown).  It was established in 1909.

A form of bird yoga?

Joe’s Trail

View from the observation tower located at about mile one along Joe’s Trail

There were a lot of waterbirds present

Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret, Snowy Egret

Roseate Spoonbill

After the hike we got into the van, cranked the air conditioning to high, and took off for Vero Beach and the Indian River County Library.  We want to vote in this election so we got set up so we could download the ballot and then mail it in.  That is what we did at the library.  Florida allows early voting and there were lots and lots of political signs outside the library claiming “Vote for Me”.  We were lucky to find a parking space.  Next stop – the post office to mail in our ballots.  Woohoo!!!  I’m so glad that is done.

Political Signs at the Indian River County Library in Vero Beach

And more signs

Okay which is scarier?

On the way to our next campground – Kissimmee (pronounced “Kis-sim-me) we spotted a small pond in a field where there were literally over a 100 waterbirds (total, not 100 species):  Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Anhinga, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret (there were horses in the field), and several shorebirds: Greater Yellowlegs and peeps (either Western or Least Sandpipers).  And to top that off, throw in a Belted Kingfisher and several Palm Warblers.  Fun to watch all the birds.  Despite their numbers, they are very territorial and will chase each other out of a certain area or ‘personal space’.

Roseate Spoonbills – such a colorful bird

A birder’s delight

We made it to the state park around 4:30 p.m., although it took us about another 30 minutes to drive the 4.6 miles from the entrance gate to the campground – there were birds to observe you see.  We did see a Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, Sandhill Cranes, and about 100 Turkey Vultures circling overhead.  There were Thanksgiving-style wild turkeys at the campground feeding among the very tame deer.  The campground itself is in a wooded, peacefully quiet prairie view setting, with only 5 of the 20 camp sites occupied.  Once the weekend comes the camp calendar shows a full-house.  Floridians apparently like to get out and ‘fall’ (if 80* is fall!) camp.  Can’t say as I blame them.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park ” dry prairie”

A Great Blue Heron with a Sandhill Crane (Florida subspecies)

Eastern Meadowlark

A rather tame “Wild Turkey”

Our campsite at the park

View from our campsite of adjoining campsites

Dry prairie

We got up to a warm, muggy morning with standing water on the camp stove (lots of moisture in the air).  It was relatively cool so we decided to go for a 4.6+ mile hike – the Prairie Trail.  Remember this place is called the Kissimmee “Prairie” Preserve State Park, so a lot of open country.  As the day progressed, the ‘relatively cool day’ became HOT.  But, the prairie (dry and wet prairie) landscape is beautiful.  There was some shaded copses of trees and an occasional cloud, so some relief from the sun.  Despite the prairie atmosphere we had some great birds – probably because of the seasonal wetlands.  We observed thirty (30) birds in all, including the roosting location for all those hundreds of Turkey Vultures.  One of the highlights was another Yellow-billed Cuckoo and several Crested Caracara.  Oh, and we saw and quietly passed a few alligators too.

After the walk we came back and just hung out at the campground.  It was fun to watch the Turkey Vultures flying low over the trees.  Maybe they were waiting for free food from the campers.

Happy Halloween …  (oh and no kids at the park so no trick-or-treaters).

Trail Map

Beginning of the trail

Crested Caracara

I got a number of shots of the bird yawning

Red-shouldered Hawk

Vulture Roost Tree – at the Equestrian Campground in the park – where the Prairie Trail starts

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Turkey Vulture in this position before

Dry prairie habitat

We did walk through a palm tree grove

There are a fair number of seasonal wetland in the park – like this one

Northern Cardinal (male)

Pretty purple flowers on this wetland plant

A type of goldenrod

This dragonfly was hanging on for dear life – we welcomed the breeze

I think this is a golden-silk orb spider (or weaver) – big sucker.  Luckily their webs were off the trail.

Catesby Lily (Native)

Swamp Buggy – only $17.00 for a ride

View from our campsite

Time to leave this quiet, idyllic campground.  I would definitely like to come back here and spend more time.  There are a lot of trails we didn’t hike.  And speaking of trails, we did stop off and hike a short portion of the Peavine Trail.  There is a nice seasonal wetland along the trail and we knew we would see some great waterbirds.  Yup.  Plus, there were six alligators including two ‘Big Daddies or Mommas’ that were about 20-feet from the trail.  Let’s just say that walking that part of the trail was nerve-wracking, at least for me.  One large guy (the males are generally larger than the females), got a little upset with us on the way out.  Luckily he only moved his head, but that action was quick.  Yikes!!!

We did get to watch a Great Blue Heron swallow a good sized fish – about 6-8 inches in length.  We first saw the fish in its mouth sideways.  The heron would then dip its beak into the water and swish the bird around.  The heron did this several times before raising its beak and swallowing the fish whole.  I think when it moves the fish in its beak it is breaking down the fish’s bones to make the fish easier to swallow.  Fascinating.  And the alligator nearby didn’t see to have a care in the world.  I wonder how many trusting birds get eaten by alligators?

As we began our early-morning walk, we heard and saw about a dozen or so Eastern Meadowlarks singing from the adjacent prairie, perching on shrubs, wire fencing, or posts.  Some were quite yellow, whereas the ones we saw two days ago where much paler.  Their song is very melodic.

Peavine Trail

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

This alligator was awfully close to the trail – made me nervous. They can move fast when they want to.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – looking down to see if any food is available

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Eastern Meadowlark – one of many we saw and heard

Great Blue Heron with a fish in its mouth