Cuba - Part 1 - Matanzas to San Diego de los Banos

When Mark Breaks suggested a trip to Cuba last year I thought that by the time March came around, it would be ideal to have a holiday after several months solid work. And so plans were made, flights booked and hotel reservations made, with some help from Andy Mitchell. Mark, Rob Hughes and I flew out of Manchester direct to Varadero on March 8th with Thompson Airlines - the leg room was excellent putting some national airlines to shame. Ten hours later we breezed though immigration and customs - a bit of interest in our telescopes but no problem with iPhones - and made our way to the car rental place to pick up our Seat Ibiza (believe me, it was the best of a bad bunch!)

Our first hotel was in nearby Mataznas (Hotel Canimao). A late afternoon arrival meant that the trip to the first birding area could have had to be made in the dark - not recommended - but as our arrival process was swift we managed to get some birding in before dark in the hotel grounds that bordered a river. This turned out to be rather a good option as we managed to get acquainted with some of the commoner Cuban birds. The hotel was rather dated but the grounds were excellent, perhaps not of Senegambia quality but 28 species in a couple of hours were most welcome.
Palm Warbler - a very common bird all over the island
The borders at Hotel Canimao, Matanzas - warblers, Tody, Honeycreeper and Hummingbirds
Already we were fed up with Turkey Vultures which were absolutely everywhere and we has soon added a couple of all black species in the form of Greater Antillean Grackle and Cuban Blackbird. Cuban Pewee and Northern Mockingbird showed themselves well as did Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Emerald, West Indian Woodpecker and Common Ground Dove - all common species around the island. Down by the river we added Brown Pelican, Little Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher and Antillean Palm Swifts amongst others.
Our first North American warbler of the trip was a Palm Warbler - and then another, and another...... they were very common wherever we went. American Redstart was another species that we saw all over the island though in lower numbers and Yellow-throated Warbler was a very welcome lifer! An immature White-eyed Vireo gave us a bit of a challenge.
NOT our hire car!
The following morning we got up before dawn and searched the grounds again before breakfast; Red-legged Honeycreeper (four of them) was added to the list - the best views of this species all holiday - as well as a host of warblers including Tennessee, Black-throated Blue, Black and White, Cape May and Prairie, the latter another stonking bird that we came across regularly. We also got our first encounter with the fluorescent, diminutive Cuban Tody.

After a pathetic breakfast we made our way to our first 'proper' destination. Two and a half hours west on the other side of Havana towards Pinar del Rio is a region of limestone escarpments with a particular fauna. La Guira is a national park in the area and that's where we were heading for, staying at Hotel Mirador at San Diego de los Banos.
The autopista 40 miles from Havana
The trip was, erm, interesting! Cuban roads are notoriously bad and full of pot holes and we weren't disappointed. There are very few road signs and driving through busy towns with bikes and pedestrians, following lorries that are belching black smoke for miles or two-stroke motor bikes that knock you out with the fumes or a horse and cart around a no-overtaking corner tested ones patience - and then when there is a clear stretch of road (and there are many) it's pothole dodging at speed that normally necessitates driving on the wrong side of the road.
Life in the fast lane!
On reaching the 'motoway' (autopista) we picked up speed and dodging potholes took on a new dimension. It wasn't a problem - you had four lanes to dodge into as there was no other traffic to speak of (apart from horse and cart going the wrong way in the fast lane. We skirted Havana successfully with only one wrong turn and just as we got out of the suburbs we stopped to look at a marshy fringed reservoir that held lots of birds. A few Forster's Terns were quickly noted as well as large rafts of Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal. A few Pied-billed and Least Grebes were dotted around along with several herons and egrets.
Least Grebe
American Kestrels of both red and white-breasted forms and Cattle Egrets were commonly seen en-route and another brief stop at a likely looking patch of water got us our only Whistling Ducks of the trip - 15 of the Fulvous variety. We found the hotel and checked in but soon set of out to try for Cuban Grassquit as there was a good 'site' for this once common species nearby. After a bit of searching, Rob found the target species and soon we all had a good but all-too-brief view of two males in amongst a flock of the much commoner Yellow-faced Grassquits. A couple of miles up the road was the entrance to the park and a small lake where we got much better views of Least Grebe as well as lots of other species such as American Purple Gallinule, Loggerhead Kingbird, Le Sagra's Flycatcher and Cuban Vireo bringing the day's total to 69.
Loggerhead Kingbird


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