Cuba: Caribbean Birding at its Best

Cuba boasts an impressive 26 birds found nowhere else, not to mention a handful of other Caribbean specialties too, which for first-timers to this idyllic, beach-strewn, region, will provide ample opportunities for yet more lifebirds. Chasing endemic birds is one thing, but it should also be made clear that many of these on Cuba are also truly spectacular birds; from the tiny emerald-green and rose-pink Cuban Tody, to the striking ratchet-tailed Cuban Trogon, to the impossibly small Bee Hummingbird (the bee-sized, World’s smallest bird), some of the Caribbean’s most wanted birds will be on offer, during our time on the island. This tour is timed for the best birding season, when, in addition to the exotic resident tropical birds, there will be an abundance of eastern North American migrants around too, for that early dose of spring migration, where birds like Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers can be seen alongside species like the pink-faced Cuban Parrot, and sky-capped Blue-headed Quail-Dove.

Of course, any visit to Cuba is about more than just birds, and so we have included a full day within Havana, to immerse yourself in a city steeped in rich history and with an utterly unique vibe. It is often said that the time to go to Cuba is now, with relations thawing between the United States and this Caribbean island there has never been an easier time to go, and while its unique culture and feel are still largely intact!

PLEASE NOTE: Tropical Birding Tours is a US company, which will be operating this trip in conjunction with the Caribbean Conservation Trust (CCT), an organization that is legally licensed to manage bird conservation programs in Cuba, and are authorized to do so by both the US and Cuban governments; therefore, it is legal for US citizens to join this trip. CCT has been managing bird conservation programs exclusively in Cuba for 22 years.


While Tropical Birding will endeavor to use the itinerary stated below, occasionally last minute modifications to the itinerary may be required, that could include the specific sites visited, or hotels used. We are working with the Caribbean Conservation Trust that has 22 years of experience in working with birding tours, and so are confident that if any changes need to be made, these will be done with our best interests at heart.

Day 1: Fort Lauderdale to Cuba. After a meeting in Fort Lauderdale (Florida), we will take a flight to the cultural heart, and capital city of Cuba, Havana, then drive west of the city for the night. In the evening, we will begin our endemic birding with a search for Cuban nightbirds, like Bare-legged, and Cuban Pygmy-Owls for the keen amongst us. Night in Moka.

CubanTrogon
CubanTrogon (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 2: West of Havana. On this day we will bird west of Havana, around Las Terrazas and La Guira, looking for a series of endemic birds, like Cuban Grassquit (vastly outnumbered by Yellow-faced Grassquits on the island), and the striking Cuban Green Woodpecker. In the afternoon we shall check into the grand Hacienda Cortina that dates back to the early 20th Century, and bird in the local area, searching for further specialties like Giant Kingbird, Fernandina’s Flicker, and Olive-capped Warbler. On this day, will also get our first shot at some of the most prized of all Cuba’s birds: the spatule-tailed Cuban Trogon, and tiny Cuban Tody.

Cuban Tody
Cuban Tody (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 3: Cuevas de las Portales to Playa Larga. The morning will be spent split between the surrounds of Hacienda Cortina and the scenic limestone hills of Cuevas de las Portales. The latter site is perhaps the best on the island for the Cuban Solitaire, with its unforgettable, and melodious song. The odd Yellow-headed Warbler may also feature, which, though currently grouped within the New World Wood Warbler family (parulidae), sits within a two-species warbler genus that may, in time be considered a separate, Cuban endemic, bird family of their own. Other possibilities include Scaly-naped, and White-crowned Pigeons, both Caribbean specialties. We will drive east to Playa Larga, a great base for exploring the most famed birding locale on Cuba: Zapata, over the coming days, scanning for waterbirds en-route.

Blue-headed Quail-Dove
Blue-headed Quail-Dove (Dubi Shapiro)

Days 4-5: Zapata. Zapata is a large area covering a variety of birding sites, and is collectively revered as the best birding area on all of Cuba. For this reason two full days will be spent combing the varied habitats and sites sprinkled in this area, which offer almost the entire list of Cuban endemic birds. This peninsula comprises of tropical evergreen forests, swamps and mudflats, and will bring us an exciting mix of widespread wetland species, along with localized tropical resident songbirds. The bird list of the area is intoxicating, including such thrilling birds as Blue-headed Quail-Dove (which in recent years often attends a feeding station, at a purpose-built blind on site); Fernandina’s Flicker, and one of the most prized hummingbirds of all, the exceptionally tiny Bee Hummingbird, which is dwarfed by your average American shot glass! While walking the forest trails with expert local bird guides, we will also search for 3 other species of quail-dove, as well as two owls at day roosts (like Cuban Pygmy, and Bare-legged Owls). We will also visit to the infamous Zapata Swamp, home to the elusive endemics Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow, in addition to the near-endemic Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. At night, we will have the option to search for night birds, like Stygian Owl and Cuban Nightjar. Two further nights will be spent in Playa Larga, a long and beautiful beach area, set beside a beautiful bay, Bahia de Cochinos.

Bare-legged Owl
Bare-legged Owl (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 6: Zapata to Cayo Coco. After some final birding in the Zapata area, we will journey north to the island of Cayo Coco, for a two-night stay. In the afternoon, we may start our search (depending on our arrival time) for the coastal birds of the area, like West Indian Whistling-Duck (easier in Cuba than anywhere else in its range), and Oriente Warbler, among others. Two nights will be spent on the island of Cayo Coco.

Western Spindalis
Western Spindalis (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 7: Cayo Coco. The entire day will be spent on the archipelago, a paradise of mangroves, lagoons and other coastal habitats, loaded with wetland birds in particular, where flamingos, jacanas, egrets, herons and other waterbirds abound. As well as myriad waterbirds that will await there, endemic and specialty birds will still be on the agenda too, including Key West Quail-Dove, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban and Thick-billed Vireos, Cuban Gnatcatcher, and Bahama Mockingbird, among others. Another night will be spent on the island.

Cuban Amazon
Cuban Amazon (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 8: Cayo Coco to Santa Clara. Some final birding will be done on Cayo Coco, before heading west to the town of Santa Clara after lunch, which has some interesting, and difficult species west of the city. A single night will be spent just outside Santa Clara.

Oriente Warbler
Oriente Warbler (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 9: Escambray Valley. Journeying just west of Santa Clara, we will search for tough specialties like Giant Kingbird, Palm and Cuban Crows, and an outside chance of a Cuban Parakeet too. The night will be spent in a scenic coastal location.

Day 10: Return to Havana. After some final birding on the west side of the island, we shall return to Havana, for a two-night stay in Cuba’s cultural heartland.

Cuban Lizard-Cuckoo
Cuban Lizard-Cuckoo (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 11: Havana. This day will be a cultural day with no birding planned, with a tour of the sites and sounds of Havana, one of the most extraordinary cities in the world, with its unique history. After none days on the road, searching for the myriad endemic and specialty birds, this will be the perfect end to the trip, and an ideal companion to the birding section of the trip. You will leave Cuba with not only a healthy set of specialty birds, but also a valuable insight into the history of the island, and the lively Cuban way of life. Another night will be spent in Havana.

Day 12: Departure from Havana. In the morning you will be transferred to Havana’s international airport for onward departures to Fort Lauderdale.

El Capitolio in Havana is where the seat of government is located
El Capitolio in Havana is where the seat of government is located (Michael Oswald)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

This trip is operated by the Caribbean Conservation Trust (CCT), which will run this as an ornithological survey of Cuba, with a strong cultural element. The results of our daily bird surveys will later be submitted to CCT for submission to the Cuban authorities. CCT has been managing bird conservation programs exclusively in Cuba for 22 years, and will provide U.S Department of Treasury authorization documentation for this trip. CCT will manage ground operations for this trip, provide assistance with pre-trip information, flight booking, and also assist with acquisition of your Cuban Tourist Card (visa) and any other required travel documentation.

PACE: Moderate. Early breakfasts (between 5-6am) are normal on this tour; and long days are required, as some of the afternoons are taken up by long drives. Most of the drives are on good condition, paved roads, although some short sections of unpaved road will be encountered. On three of the days drives of 4-6 hours are required.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the walking on this tour is on easy trails or roads, with only some short periods on uneven ground required.

CLIMATE: Generally dry and sunny, but often humid in many areas. While rain is still possible, this is timed for the season when the least rain falls.

ACCOMMODATION: All the accommodations are of a reasonable to good standard with en-suite facilities, 24-hour electricity and hot water throughout. However, standards of Cuban hotels are generally a little lower than many western countries.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour; if you are interested in a photography tour of Cuba then please contact the office, as we can currently offer this as a custom tour, and will be soon offering this as a set departure tour soon. There are no feeders, but there are good opportunities for casual photographers to take photos on the fly, although Cuba does not have the feeder set ups found in Central and South America.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay and have at least one full blank page. Visas are required for citizens of all countries, and these will be arranged, prior to boarding our flight together at the airport in Fort Lauderdale. Everyone will also need to complete a document of authorization in the airport too. Local ground assistance will be provided for this simple process in Fort Lauderdale airport.

For U.S. Department of State Country Specific Travel Information go to: US State Department Travel Adive for Cuba

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and hotel/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 through breakfast on day 11; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from day 1 through to the evening of day 10; ground transport in Cuba in a suitable vehicle, from arrival in the country on day 1 to the afternoon of day 11; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Return flight from Fort Lauderdale to Havana (please note: Tropical Birding will book these commercial flights for the group 6 months before the tour); visa to be purchased at the airport in Fort Lauderdale before flying to Cuba (currently up to around $100, depending on the commercial airline used); optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.