Birdwatching in Cuba

Cuba lies fewer than 100 miles off the Floridan coast and despite being just the size of Virginia – or half of Utah – the country holds twenty-seven species of birds that are found no where else on earth (which neither state can claim).

In October 2014, BirdNote initiated its international travel program with a trip to this captivating destination. We had a well-balanced itinerary that exposed our group to the arts, food, culture, natural spaces and people of this beautiful country. We did, however, visit Cuba on the least ideal month for birdwatching; neotropical migrants had already passed through and many of the resident specialties were not singing on territory (March is the best month, according to our guide). We still manage to tally 83 species on our six-day trip, even though the two days we set aside specifically for birdwatching coincided with the rainiest weather of the trip. Of these species, 22 are only found in the Caribbean, and 12 are only found in Cuba.

Here’s the list of species we found, by location.

Monday, October 20 2014

7:30am – 8:20am
Hotel Nacional de Cuba (23.144005,-82.3802733)

The grounds of this iconic hotel isn’t very expansive, or natural, but we found a decent assortment of birds, including several species of warbler and a tanager in the large pine tree.

Eurasian Collared-Dove (15)
Common Ground-Dove (5)
Mourning Dove (5)
Antillean Palm-Swift (2)
Red-legged Thrush (4)
Northern Mockingbird (4)
American Redstart (2)
Northern Parula (1)
Palm Warbler (4)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Summer Tanager (1)
Cuban Blackbird (30)
House Sparrow (6)

10:50am – 11:30am
Finca Vigia (23.0677525,-82.2962719)

The grounds of Hemingway’s Home are incredibly lush. I wish we had more time there, and had arrived earlier in the day.

Turkey Vulture (7)
Cuban Emerald (2)
American Kestrel (1)
Red-legged Thrush (8)
Northern Mockingbird (6)
Northern Parula (1)
Cuban Blackbird (10)

Tuesday, October 21 2014

8:00am – 8:10am
Hotel Nacional de Cuba (23.144005,-82.3802733)

I made a quick tour of the grounds before breakfast. It was a good decision: I found my only Tawny-shouldered Blackbird of the trip!

Eurasian Collared-Dove (3)
Mourning Dove (5)
Antillean Palm-Swift (1)
Cuban Emerald (1)
Palm Warbler (6)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird (2)
Cuban Blackbird (5)
House Sparrow (2)

10:00am – 12:30pm
Jardin Botanico Nacional (22.9923477,-82.3370147)

An immense botanical gardens with loads of birding opportunities. We walked around the visitor’s center and through the nearby greenhouses. We then took our bus to the Japanese garden where we strolled around the small lake and had lunch.

Osprey (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Common Gallinule (3)
Killdeer (1)
Spotted Sandpiper (1)
Common Ground-Dove (3)
Great Lizard-Cuckoo (2)
Antillean Palm-Swift (9)
Belted Kingfisher (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (2)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (1)
Cuban Pewee (2)
Loggerhead Kingbird (1)
Cuban Vireo (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Northern Mockingbird (11)
Tennessee Warbler (8)
American Redstart (2)
Northern Parula (1)
Palm Warbler (25)
Cuban Blackbird (22)
Greater Antillean Grackle (14)

Wednesday, October 22 2014

10:35am – 12:05pm
Soroa Orchid Garden (22.7936969,-83.0086505)

A loop of the lush grounds, with rain. Hooded Warbler = rare find!

Turkey Vulture (24)
Great Lizard-Cuckoo (1)
Cuban Emerald (6)
Cuban Trogon (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (4)
Cuban Pewee (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (3)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Northern Mockingbird (4)
Cape May Warbler (1)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (1)
Palm Warbler (7)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Western Spindalis (2)
Cuban Blackbird (6)
Greater Antillean Grackle (12)

3:00pm – 4:20pm
Hacienda Cortina (22.6337022,-83.4088308)

This is unfortunately when the skies decided to dampen our optics. Thankfully the downpour we experienced right before lunch let up a bit. We were with a local guide who took us to the exact tree where endemic Giant Kingbirds breed. We were just a few months too early. Olive-capped Warblers in the pine trees were a nice consolation and a beautiful male Hooded Warbler was only the second our excited guide had ever seen at this destination.

Green Heron (4)
Turkey Vulture (14)
Common Ground-Dove (2)
Smooth-billed Ani (5)
Cuban Emerald (3)
Cuban Trogon (2)
West Indian Woodpecker (3)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (1)
American Kestrel (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Northern Mockingbird (9)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
Hooded Warbler (1)
American Redstart (2)
Northern Parula (1)
Palm Warbler (4)
Olive-capped Warbler (1)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (1)
Western Spindalis (16)
Summer Tanager (1)
Cuban Blackbird (46)
Greater Antillean Grackle (14)

Thursday October 23 2014

9:40am – 12:15pm
East Vinales Valley (22.624714,-83.6882365)

We went on a lightly-traveled dirt road out to the steep limestone cliffs that hold the endemic Cuban Solitaire, a plain bird with an incredible song. The unrelenting rain insured that the walk out was more of a muddy slog. I started to hear the solitaire’s song about 100 meters from the end of the trail, but I didn’t know if it was coming from a cage in a nearby farmhouse. It was wild and it sang from the dense foliage at the base of the cliff for 45 minutes before I was informed that we had to go. I gave it three more minutes: At two minutes, it flew in and perched on an exposed branch long enough to get in the scope. Incredible.

Wood Duck (1)
Anhinga (2)
Cattle Egret (5)
Turkey Vulture (9)
Smooth-billed Ani (1)
Cuban Emerald (3)
Cuban Tody (1)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (2)
Loggerhead Kingbird (3)
Cuban Vireo (1)
Cuban Solitaire (1)
Northern Mockingbird (7)
Black-and-white Warbler (1)
American Redstart (5)
Palm Warbler (8)
Olive-capped Warbler (1)
Yellow-headed Warbler (4)
Yellow-faced Grassquit (4)
Cuban Blackbird (15)
Greater Antillean Grackle (20)

5:10pm – 6:35pm
Horizontes La Ermita Hotel (22.611507,-83.6990699)

I walked around with two tour participants and found some nice species around the hotel grounds and down the street. Highlights were numerous Olive-capped Warblers in the roadside pine trees.

Great Egret (1)
Cattle Egret (4)
Mourning Dove (3)
Antillean Palm-Swift (3)
Cuban Emerald (2)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (1)
Northern Flicker (1)
American Kestrel (2)
Cuban Pewee (1)
Cuban Vireo (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Gray Catbird (2)
Northern Mockingbird (12)
Black-and-white Warbler (1)
Palm Warbler (5)
Olive-capped Warbler (8)
Prairie Warbler (1)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (5)
Cuban Blackbird (3)
Greater Antillean Grackle (15)

Friday, October 24 2014

11:30am – 3:45pm
Las Terrazas (22.8447446,-82.9435265)

We had a tour of Las Terrazas, a small community with a hospital and numerous schools. I looked for birds at every stop, but the restaurant was the most productive location, providing our first and only Cuban Bullfinches. I scoped a soaring accipiter at the coffee shop: I would’ve called it a Cooper’s Hawk back home, which is a Gundlach’s Hawk in Cuba. Another endemic!

Turkey Vulture (250)
Gundlach’s Hawk (1)
White-crowned Pigeon (1)
Smooth-billed Ani (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (3)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (2)
Northern Flicker (1)
Cuban Pewee (2)
La Sagra’s Flycatcher (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (1)
Yellow-throated Vireo (3)
Red-legged Thrush (2)
Northern Mockingbird (3)
Northern Parula (1)
Magnolia Warbler (1)
Bay-breasted Warbler (2)
Palm Warbler (3)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (5)
Yellow-faced Grassquit (16)
Cuban Bullfinch (6)
Western Spindalis (6)
Cuban Blackbird (31)
Greater Antillean Grackle (35)

4:25pm – 4:35pm
Presa Machucucutu (23.0398506,-82.4935913)

We stopped to have a quick bathroom break next to a large, roadside wetland. No lifers for anyone but a lot of new species for the trip.

Ring-necked Duck (3)
Ruddy Duck (3)
Pied-billed Grebe (12)
Great Blue Heron (2)
Great Egret (5)
Snowy Egret (5)
Green Heron (3)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (5)
Turkey Vulture (3)
Common Gallinule (4)
American Coot (40)
Belted Kingfisher (2)

Here’s a full list of the birds that were seen by one or all of the group, with location and date of the first sighting. All species in BLACK are only found in the Caribbean; UNDERLINED are only found in Cuba.

WOOD DUCK (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
RING-NECKED DUCK (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
RUDDY DUCK (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
HELMETED GUINEAFOWL (Domestic) (Hotel Nacional de Cuba)
INDIAN PEAFOWL (Domestic) (Hotel Nacional de Cuba)
PIED-BILLED GREBE (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
AMERICAN FLAMINGO (Domestic) (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
ANHINGA (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
BROWN PELICAN (Havana – Oct. 25)
GREAT BLUE HERON (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
GREAT EGRET (seen along the highway a couple times)
SNOWY EGRET (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
REDDISH EGRET (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
CATTLE EGRET (seen from the highway)
GREEN HERON (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
TURKEY VULTURE (how could you miss these?)
OSPREY (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
GUNDLACH’S HAWK (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
RED-TAILED HAWK (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
COMMON GALLINULE (seen at two locations)
AMERICAN COOT (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
KILLDEER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
LAUGHING GULL (Havana – Oct. 20)
ROYAL TERN (Cojimar – Oct. 20)
ROCK PIGEON (Most numerous in Havana)
SCALY-NAPED PIGEON (Vinales Valley Overlook – Oct. 23)
WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
MOURNING DOVE (widespread)
GREAT LIZARD-CUCKOO (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
SMOOTH-BILLED ANI (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
BARN OWL (Havana – Oct. 20)
ANTILLEAN PALM-SWIFT (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
CUBAN EMERALD (Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s House) – Oct. 20)
CUBAN TROGON (Soroa Orchid Garden – Oct. 22)
CUBAN TODY (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
BELTED KINGFISHER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER (Jardin Botanico – Oct. 21)
CUBAN GREEN WOODPECKER (Jardin Botanico – Oct. 21)
NORTHERN FLICKER (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
AMERICAN KESTREL (Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s House) – Oct. 20)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 24)
CUBAN PEWEE (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
CUBAN VIREO (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
YELLOW-THROATED VIREO (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
CUBAN SOLITAIRE (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
RED-LEGGED THRUSH (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
GRAY CATBIRD (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
OVENBIRD (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
TENNESSEE WARBLER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
COMMON YELLOWTHROAT (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
HOODED WARBLER (!) (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
AMERICAN REDSTART (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
CAPE MAY WARBLER (Soroa Orchid Garden – Oct. 22)
NORTHERN PARULA (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
MAGNOLIA WARBLER (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
BAY-BREASTED WARBLER (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 26)
PALM WARBLER (the most frequently seen warbler)
OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER (Hotel Nacional – Oct. 20)
PRAIRIE WARBLER (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
YELLOW-HEADED WARBLER (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT (Horizontes La Ermita – Oct. 23)
CUBAN BULLFINCH (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
WESTERN SPINDALIS (Soroa Orchid Garden – Oct. 22)
SUMMER TANAGER (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
EASTERN MEADOWLARK (Highway to Vinales Valley – Oct. 22)
CUBAN BLACKBIRD (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLE (Jardin Botanico – Oct. 21)
HOUSE SPARROW (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)

Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: Cuba Edition

I love to travel. Sure, I like trying new foods and immersing myself in cities already centuries old when my native Seattle was just unexplored frontier. But the main reason I keep reaching for my passport is to find experiences that stand in stark contrast with my normal day-to-day life back home, like puppets having sex on prime time TV or “edible” beetle larvae.

Sometimes you have to really look for these experiences (overly positive news anchors in Canada); other times they smack you in the face just as you step off the plane (India). Even though it lies only 90 miles from the US shoreline, I suspected that Cuba, as a country in many ways stuck in the middle of the 20th century, was replete with opportunities for me to be baffled, stunned and amazed.

I couldn’t wait.

During our six day tour of the country – primarily in Havana, with a couple days in Viñales – we encountered a nice list of “shit that just wouldn’t fly back home.” None of these observations are right nor wrong, just different. My tone, at times, can be a bit snarky, but most of it is directed at my own culture, and not that of my hosts.

“Slick’r than Snot” Tile Floors

Cuba is a tropical island, therefore it rains. About four feet annually, in fact. So it’s reasonable to assume that people will enter homes or establishments with less-than-dry shoes, where they will almost certainly encounter tile floors. I have nothing against tile: they are great for repelling water and mud—easy to clean, to boot. When wet, however, tile floors provide as much traction as a lunch tray on an icy hillside. This would never “slide” in the U.S., where our cultural clumsiness is matched only by our propensity to sue the crap out of each other. If there’s a spill in Aisle 5 of a grocery store, managers will quarantine aisles 1 through 10 using CDC Level 5 protocols.

Our Cuban-owned hotel in Viñales apparently even waxed the tiles on our outdoor patios, perhaps so when traction is lost, the enhanced momentum would carry the victim past the single step – and its sharp, neck-breaking edge – to land on the soft grass beyond. In the event of a fall, I maintained an optimized “blood-to-rum” ratio to soften the impact.

No “Yellow Line”

If you taken the bus in the US, you’ve been yelled at for not standing behind the yellow line. It’s a fact of life. In Cuba, that space could easily fit a dozen people. In downtown Havana, I watched with amazement as a man – in order to fit behind a closing door – contorted himself and his backpack into positions not yet discovered by Bikram Choudhury. The door attempted to close, then was obstructed by the mans arm. He shifted then it was obstructed by his backpack. Shifted again only to be foiled by his foot. His other arm. His foot again. It took thirty seconds for the creaking doors of the Russian-made bus to finally close, wedging the commuter against the person next to him with enough vigor to warrant a restraining order in the U.S. At least the bus offered the same temperature and humidity of a Bikram yoga studio, for a fraction of the cost.

Lack of Emission Standards

I’m a passionate environmentalist but I also love classic Detroit cars: vestiges of an era and culture not known for efficiency, even when properly maintained. Car owners in Cuba have been denied ready access to spare parts since the embargo, thus their cars are maintained with a fruitful mix of grit and ingenuity. The result is simply beautiful, and consumed most of my memory cards. Thankfully, they don’t have emission standards in Cuba, which would’ve removed these beautiful relics from the streets years ago.

The weekends and summer vacations of my childhood were spent in my parents 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, watching the roadside of the western United States whiz by my backseat window. Many of my dad’s weekends, however, were spent underneath the van, especially as the annual emissions test drew near. (And, most likely, a few weekends following the first, failed test). In Japan, if absolutely anything on your car is not performing optimally, it must be fixed or replaced before it is allowed on the street for another year.

Stand on a corner in downtown Havana and it’ll become quite clear, to your eyes and nose, that these restrictions have not penetrated Cuba’s borders. But one look at a Fairlane or Edsel and you simply won’t care.


In the US, the legality of hitchhiking varies from state to state. It is, however, illegal to hitchhike on an interstate highway. While we drove down the impressively smooth Autopista Este-Oeste highway from Havana to Viñales, I was blown away by the number of people blatantly waiting for rides. Literally on the highway. Our bus driver would often have to swerve into the fast lane to avoid hitting people, who lurked in the shadows of overpasses to avoid the sun. It’s an efficient way to get places in a country that lacks transportation infrastructure and where owning a car is expensive. It just wouldn’t fly in the US, where you can’t even park on the shoulder without being pestered by highway patrol within minutes.

Gas Prices

Venezuela is Cuba’s largest provider of oil, supplying 60% of the island’s demand (Cuba, in exchange, sent 30,000 doctors to Venezuela – source). Venezuela is also famous for having the cheapest gas in the world: $0.06/gallon (source). The fact that Venezuela supplies such cheap oil to Cuba almost guarantees that these Detroit relics would enjoy subsidized gas prices.

Nope. Gas is nearly $6/gallon in Cuba. If you even find a car available for sale in Cuba, and can afford the asking price (think supply/demand curve), you then have to be able afford to fill it up.

And, courtesy of restrictions put in place by both the Cuban and U.S. governments, this isn’t exactly an island of Priuses.

Glacial Internet

The internet in Cuba is tightly controlled to prevent the free exchange of ideas. But it isn’t just expensive, it’s based on infrastructure that’s decades old.

Terms like “dial-up” and “56k” don’t resonate with today’s youth. They can’t relate to the rhythmic, robotic sound of a computer dialing a god-damned phone number and, after waiting 15 seconds for a connection, which often failed, only to watch it struggle to pull down text emails so slowly that you’d watch, with great anticipation, visual bars that tracked its progress.

Remember that? That’s Internet access in Cuba. And even that isn’t readily accessible.

Journalists get 120 hours of free internet access a month. Many sell a portion of their access on the black market to help supplement their monthly salaries. I met a gentlemen who purchases 40-60 hours of internet access a month, for 3 CUC/hour* (about US$3.39). This monthly transaction was the equivalent to six months salary for the average government worker.

Thus, internet access is very much a luxury. And don’t forget it’s slow, like “frozen molasses” slow: loading Facebook takes 25 minutes on his computer and a one megabyte file – roughly half the size of a picture taken with an iPhone – takes two hours to download. In the U.S., where a frozen Facebook video is grounds to throw your $600 smartphone against a wall, this would simply not fly.

Internet is available to tourists in nicer hotels, and the situation will only improve. Just two months after our trip, President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba. Within weeks, NetFlix and AirBnB announced their plans to enter the thawing market.

I used our six-day trip as an excuse to unplug; it was delightful.

Immigration Coffee Break

No one ever has a pleasant time going through immigrations and passport control. If you do, you have some sort of weird “I enjoy skeptical stares from strangers” fetish. I think my best experiences in immigration could be described as “frosty.” (This is especially the case returning to the U.S.). But, like removing one’s shoes in security, it just becomes a part of the adventure of travel.

I had an easy time entering Cuba. But, on our exit, our experience was a little different: the lines at passport control suddenly stopped moving. The doors closed. Officials moved briskly in front of the closed doors, purposefully avoiding eye contact with the twenty or so people still waiting in line. It took fifteen minutes for the lines to open again, as inexplicably as they’d closed. Apparently, the agents simply went on break.

If this had happened in the U.S. – where the stresses of travel reduce Americans into monsters with the self-entitlement of a toddler, the patience of a New York cabbie in rush hour, and the moral depravity of J. Dahlmer – these agents would’ve returned to a crime scene: a landscape strewn with torches, torn tropical shirts, and warring factions whose faces were smeared with the blood of their victims.

Homeless Dogs and Cats with Name-tags

We ran across several dogs in old Havana donning name tags that advertises that they are owned and cared for, which apparently prevents them from getting swept up by animal control. We have this in the U.S., obviously, but you got to admit that it’s pretty damn cute. It almost looks like he has a handmade keycard lanyard and works at Amazon.

Beer Desert

I only saw two types of beer during our six day tour of the island, both of which were comparable to American macrobrew in look and taste (though, after a long day in the sun, any liquid under 98.6º is refreshing). If a restaurant in Seattle even attempted to open with only two beers on draught – and macrobrews at that – the establishment would be torched by an hirsute, flannel-clad cadre of lumbersexuals before the first pint was poured.

After my second mojito or Cuba Libre, however, I no longer cared.

Entering through the ass-end of the plane

I’ve flown a lot, but entering an airplane through stairs in the very back of the plane was new. (Envision a plane that crapped a staircase). It would’ve been unremarkable were it not for the fact that a line had formed … directly behind the idling engines. I wouldn’t describe either the 100+ decibel whine of a turbine engine or the accompanying exhaust as “delicate on the senses.” And I always enjoy boarding a flight already with a feeling of nausea deeply-seated in my gut.

“Convertible Cuban Pesos” (pronounced “kooks”) is one of two currencies in Cuba, created specifically for the tourism industry. The exchange rate is officially 1 CUC = US$1, but tourists endure a penalty and tax when exchanging, thus 0.87 CUC = US$1.

The Cars of Cuba

A driver fixing his late 1940's GMC during a downpour in Vinales.
1954 Chevrolet
1948-1952 Chevrolet
1957 Chevrolet
Early 1950's Ford
Late 1940's General Motors
1955 Ford Fairlane
Late 1940's Ford
1948 or 1949 Ford
1956 or 1957 Edsel with a 1955 Chevrolet
Early Buick
1956 Chevrolet
1953 Chevrolet
1956 Buick
1957-8 Studebaker, late 1950's Dodge, 1958 Chevrolet
1953 Chevrolet
1954 Ford, 1959 Cadillac, 1959 Plymouth
Early 1950's Cadillac