Category Archives: International Birding

Australian adventure – the Start

Life is full of surprises, some good, some less so and our son’s announcement that they were thinking of relocating from Potchefstroom in South Africa to a small town in Victoria, Australia definitely belonged to the latter when he first raised it some two years ago. The family moved lock stock and barrel to the town called Sale in September 2018, which meant that, if we wanted to see them other than on video calls, we would have to travel a little further to do so – about 11 000 kms further in fact!

It did not take much persuasion to make the trip, and on Sunday 14th April 2019 we boarded Qantas flight QF64 to Sydney then took a further short flight to Melbourne where we arrived after 7pm local time.

The flight route is almost over Antarctica

Stephan and the whole family had come to meet us – so good to see them all in the flesh again! Fortified with a good coffee and a sandwich we proceeded to the mini-bus that Stephan had rented and set off to Sale some 2.5 hours drive further east, taking our total travel time to 24 hours door-to-door – it’s not easy being a senior jet-setter but sometimes you just have to do these things! That wonderful invention – Premium Economy – certainly helped to ease the pain of a long-haul overnight flight, however we felt the effects of the 8 hour time difference for a few days before settling into a new body rhythm.

We had glimpses of the city skyline at night as we skirted around Melbourne on the way east to Sale –

Melbourne skyline

Melbourne’s suburbs seemed to be endless but eventually the road became narrower, the traffic lighter as we left the bright lights behind and passed through several smaller towns before reaching Sale

The City of Sale

Sale is a city situated in the Gippsland region of the state of Victoria, with an estimated urban population of 15,000 and was founded in 1851. It lies 212km east of Melbourne and is named after a British army officer, General Robert Sale, who won fame in the first Afghan war before being killed in battle in India in 1845. Although a small town by our standards, the building of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1884 may have ensured that it would earn the name “city” as per the tradition in the UK.

First impressions are of a quiet, neat, organised town with good facilities – very civilized in all respects and far removed from the big city life that we are used to.

First day in Sale – Someone left the Aviary door open!

I was curious to see what birds would be around the suburbs, but wasn’t expecting my first bird to be a Common Myna – probably the most disliked, introduced bird in South Africa! However that shock was soon forgotten as I stood in the small garden and watched the comings and goings of some more exciting species.

Oh No! (Common Myna)

Pied Currawongs, a Raven-like large black bird with white markings, and Australian Magpies were the most obvious birds around, followed by Red Wattlebirds, a medium-sized, long-tailed bird with features and giss similar to our Sugarbirds and also a nectar eater.

Pied Currawong
Australian Magpie
Red Wattlebird

Another regular, the Magpie-lark flew in and sat on the fence then dropped onto the lawn – a handsome pied bird that reminded me of our Pied Wagtail but on steroids.

Magpie-lark

The real surprise was the birds that Australia is famous for – the colourful parrots – flocks of bright green, yellow and blue Rainbow Lorikeets flashing by and settling in trees where they chatter away and screech so that you cannot ignore them and unexpected Galahs on grassy pavements, looking completely out-of-place with their deep pink, white and grey colouring. When you are accustomed to seeing these birds in cages it is a revelation to realise that they are, like all birds, able to cope and at their best in the wild.

Rainbow Lorikeet
Galah

Late afternoon we went for a walk in the wetland area not far from the house. The area has suffered from a drought for some time so the wetlands were mostly dry and fairly barren but a lone Masked Lapwing was a good find and the cattle in the fields were accompanied by Cattle Egrets, much as they would be in South Africa but here the species is the Eastern Cattle Egret.

Sale Common – pathway to the wetlands

Another feature of Sale is the numbers of Australasian Swamphens that are around and inhabit open lawns and verges. The African species we are used to seeing is mostly a skulker whereas the similar looking species in Australia seems to be comfortable wandering around the suburbs and parks.

Australasian Swamphen

By the end of day one my brand new Australian bird list (courtesy of the wonderful Birdlasser app) stood at a modest 13 species, but 11 of those were “lifers” so a very pleasing start

 

Eastern Europe – a Bit of Birding

I was not expecting to do much birding during our short tour of two weeks in Eastern Europe but, as always, I was constantly on the lookout for bird life and was rewarded with five new birds (“lifers”) during our tour, which consisted of four days in Prague, an eight-day cruise of the Danube with stops in four countries, and a short stay in Passau, Germany.

The best birding was while relaxing in our cabin, sliding door open to the fresh air and binos and camera at the ready as the boat cruised at a steady pace along the Danube. The only problem with this was the limited field of vision and the speed of the boat, which meant I had a very short time to react if I saw anything and I mostly had to rely on photographs for an ID of the bird species. The Danube at times widens out into a lake-size body of water, so any birds along the banks tended to be quite far away and it proved difficult to get a decent photo.

The photos showcased here represent the best shots I could get under the circumstances.

Prague

The best way of seeing a new city is to walk the streets and parks, which we did during our stay in this handsome city. European cities are not known for their variety of birds and Prague was no exception, with Jackdaws, Magpies and Blackbirds being the most common birds.

Jacjdaw, Prague
Jackdaw, Prague

One city park had a Eurasian Jay which was a new species for me

Eurasian Jay, Prague
Eurasian Jay, Prague

One fine day we took the funicular to the top of the hill which overlooks the city and walked through the extensive parkland and forests of Petrin Park. Here we came across a Common Chiffchaff and on the walk down saw Wood Pigeons. A Eurasian Green Woodpecker drew our attention with its call but did not hang around long enough for a photo.

Common Chiffchaff, Prague
Common Chiffchaff, Prague

Wood Pigeon, Prague
Wood Pigeon, Prague

Cesky Krumlow

We took a day trip to this historic town a couple of hours bus ride from Prague. With time to spare after the walking tour of the town, we found a pleasant riverside café for coffee which also turned out to be a good spot for viewing some birds as they came to the river. Apart from the ubiquitous Blackbirds, we found Grey and Pied Wagtails on the banks of the strongly flowing Elbe River (both eluded my camera) and a few Black Redstarts, one of which looked remarkably similar to the Familiar Chat we know from SA.

Blackbird, Cesky Krumlow
Blackbird, Cesky Krumlow

Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Black Redstart (Female/Immature Male), Elbe River in Cesky Krumlow – having a striking resemblance to the Familiar Chat we know from SA

Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow

Danube Cruise

A selection of the birds we spotted while cruising :

Mute Swans were seen frequently

Mute Swan, Danube
Mute Swan, Danube

A single sighting of Mandarin Duck was a surprise and a new species for me

Mandarin Duck, Danube
Mandarin Duck, Danube

Grey Herons were seen regularly

Grey Heron, Vienna
Grey Heron, Vienna

Great Cormorants in the protected area

Great Cormorant, Danube
Great Cormorant, Danube

Goosanders were another regular sighting but always at a distance

Goosander, Danube
Goosander, Danube

Caspian Gull in the protected area

Caspian Gull, Danube
Caspian Gull, Danube

Vienna

Our extended stop at Vienna allowed for a walk along the riverside, which was good for a few land-based species

House Sparrow, Danube
Common Chaffinch, Danube

Great Tit, Vienna
Great Tit, Vienna

Linz

While moored in Linz, Common Martins and Barn Swallows suddenly appeared in numbers over the river. I surmised that they had just returned from their annual African summer safari and were revelling in being back “home”, judging by the enthusiastic way they were swooping over the river, despite the bitterly cold weather

Common House Martin, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube

Barn Swallow, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube

Passau

This delightful town was a highlight of our trip (more about it in a later post). The birding was limited but a Lesser Kestrel flying high above the Castle was an interesting sighting

Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Lesser Kestrel, Passau

Other than that the ubiquitous Mallard Duck was the only water bird of note

Mallard, Passau
Mallard, Passau

Mallard, Passau
Mallard, Passau

I had downloaded Collins Bird Guide for Europe prior to the trip – it has a useful bird listing function which I used to list the species we encountered.  At the end of the two weeks I had a grand total of just 33 species – par for the course in Europe when the focus is not on birding.

I regularly see that many species in an hour, walking around our neighbourhood in SA – I’m just saying.

 

Alaska and Canada : Idiot’s Guide to (some of) the Gulls

 

The Trip (and a health warning)

The last few posts have been about our trip in August and September 2014 to Canada and Alaska, covering just a few of the wonderful experiences that these two destinations have to offer. Now it’s time to get back to the main theme of my blog – birding – before getting to the next phase of our trip, namely the Eastern part of Canada.

Health Warning : Non-birders beware – this post contains information that you may find disturbing and slightly obsessive. Birders will (hopefully) find it of some interest.

Gulls and more Gulls

Even before our Alaska cruise got underway, it was clear that Gulls would be a main feature of the birding opportunities, as they wheeled in the air and flew close by the ship as it stood docked in Seattle. Once underway, I realised that identifying the Gulls and other seabirds would be a real challenge, as both the ship and the target birds were moving, often in different directions, making it very difficult to pick up any sort of detail with my binoculars.

Fortunately I had my camera with zoom lens at the ready and resorted to taking photos first and asking questions afterwards – such as “what the heck was that!” This turned out to be the right strategy as I was able to identify many of the seabirds that would have otherwise remained a mystery, by comparing my blown-up photos with the illustrations in Sibley Birds (which I downloaded onto my I-Phone and I-Pad before the trip)

In the end I was only able to sort all my photos (approaching 1000 of them) and finally ID them once I got back to SA and at the same time I developed a list of the main features to help with the ID, finding as I did that many of the gulls have only very subtle differences between them

So here they are, all 11 Gull species and one Kittiwake that I saw on the trip, in the order that I saw them (the Kittiwake is very much like a Gull, so I have included it in this study) and with the key identification features listed :

(As a first time visitor to Canada and Alaska I’m by no means an expert so any corrections of errors will be welcomed)


Ring-billed Gull

Medium sized (43cm/17″)

In flight – long slender wings, sharply contrasting black tips with white spot

Bill – yellow with black ring

Head – white; brown smudging when non-breeding

Juvenile – mostly white underside and rump; dark tail band

First sighting – flying overhead in Calgary

Ring-billed Gull, Baddeck Nova Scotia
Ring-billed Gull, Baddeck Nova Scotia

Ring-billed Gull and probable juvenile, Baddeck Nova Scotia
Ring-billed Gull and probable juvenile, Baddeck Nova Scotia


Franklin’s Gull

Small (36cm/14″)

In flight – limited black tips to grey wings

Bill – red; black when non-breeding

Head – black in summer; black hood in winter

Juvenile – pale brown wings and neck

First sighting – flying overhead in Calgary

Franklin's Gull, Calgary
Franklin’s Gull, Calgary

Franklin's Gull, Calgary
Franklin’s Gull, Calgary


Herring Gull

Large (64cm/25″)

In flight – pale grey back; limited dark tips not sharply contrasting

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white with pale eye

Juvenile – pale brown/grey overall; dark tipped bill

First sighting – at sea

Herring Gull, at sea
Herring Gull, at sea

Herring Gull, at sea
Herring Gull, at sea


Heermann’s Gull

Medium (48cm/19″)

In flight – dark grey body with white head

Bill – red with black tip

Head – white; grey in non-breeding

Juvenile – darker all over

First sighting – at sea

Heermann's Gull, at sea
Heermann’s Gull, at sea


Western Gull

Large (64cm/25″)

In flight – dark backed; poorly defined black tips to grey wings

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white

Juvenile – dark sooty brown; paler rump

First sighting – at sea

This one eluded me – no photo unfortunately, but here’s a picture from Sibley Birds of North America

 

Western Gull
Western Gull

 


Bonaparte’s Gull

Small (33cm/13″)

In flight – pale grey wings, white outer primaries, thin black rear edge

Bill – thin black

Head – black head (summer); dark ear spot (winter)

Juvenile – light brown neck / head

First sighting – Juneau, Alaska

Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau

Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau

Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau

Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau


Glaucous-winged Gull

Large (66cm/26″)

In flight – pale grey and white; no black in wings

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white

Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; all dark bill

First sighting – Juneau, Alaska

Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle

Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle

Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Seattle

Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea

Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea

Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay

Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay

Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay

Glaucous-winged Gull, Juneau
Glaucous-winged Gull, Juneau


Mew Gull

Medium (41cm/16″)

In flight – grey wings; black wing tips with white spots

Bill – yellow

Head – white; brown smudging in non-breeding

Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; dark tipped bill

First sighting – Juneau, Alaska

Mew Gull, Juneau
Mew Gull, Juneau

Mew Gull, Juneau
Mew Gull, Juneau

Mew Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Mew Gull (Juvenile), at sea

Mew Gull (Juvenile), Glacier Bay
Mew Gull (Juvenile), Glacier Bay


Thayer’s Gull

Large (58cm/23″)

In flight – pale grey back; limited dark wing tips not sharply contrasting

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white; dark eye

Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; all dark bill

First sighting – Skagway, Alaska

No photo of an adult and I am not 100% sure about this photo being of a Juvenile Thayer’s Gull but it is most likely

Thayer's Gull (Juvenile), Skagway
Thayer’s Gull (Juvenile), Skagway


Black-legged Kittiwake

Medium (43cm/17″)

In flight – long wings; contrasting black wing tips ; black legs

Bill – yellow

Head – white; mark behind head in non-breeding

Juvenile – bold “M” on upper wings

First sighting – Glacier Bay, Alaska

Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay

Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay

Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay


Ivory Gull

Medium (43cm/17″)

In flight – all white

Bill – small, orange tip

Head – white; black eye

Juvenile – dark spots to feathers

First sighting – Misty Fjords, Ketchikan Alaska

I puzzled over this photo for some time before eliminating all but the Ivory Gull, which is listed as Rare in Sibley Birds, casting further doubt on my ID – I would really appreciate confirmation or otherwise from anyone with more expert knowledge

Ivory Gull, Ketchikan
Ivory Gull, Ketchikan

Ivory Gull, Ketchikan
Ivory Gull, Ketchikan


Great Black-backed Gull

Large (76cm/30″)

In flight – dark backed; black wing tips with large white spots

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white

Juvenile – speckled brown; black bill; whitish head

First sighting – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – among cormorants in bay pounded by heavy seas

The photo is not great but does show the black back of the gull in the foreground

Greater Black-backed Gull amongst the Cormorants, Cape Breton
Greater Black-backed Gull amongst the Cormorants, Cape Breton

 

The 11 Gulls  represent just under half of the 25 that can be found in North America, but quite a few of those not seen on our trip are listed as Rare so I was more than pleased with this “haul”.

More about some of the other birds seen during our trip in a future post – right now I’m preparing for a massive birding adventure into southern Mozambique with an expert birding guide and a group of 10 people in 4 vehicles including my own, leaving early on Thursday 29th January 2015. Watch this space!

 

 

A Taste of Cuba – Birding with Ernesto : Varadero

“Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us”

 

Nature Reserve at Varadero

The Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos protects a 3 km2 remnant of xeromorphic coastal scrub and mangrove at the tip of the 20 km. Hicacos Peninsula. Much of the peninsula, also known as the sun destination ‘Varadero’ to hundreds-of-thousands of international tourists, has been modified to accommodate scores of sprawling, all-inclusive resorts. It is also home to the newly described (2009) Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger reyesi), the only Aristelliger known from Cuba. Dίaz and Hedges (2009) named the species after its discoverer, local biologist and bird guide Ernesto Reyes. (Source : http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-cuban-lizards.html)

 

Ernesto works most days as a conservation officer at this nature reserve, which was a short taxi-ride from our hotel, and he was only too happy to include a walk through the reserve at any time during our stay. Andre and I took him up on the offer a few days after Geraldine and I visited Zapata Swamps with Ernesto and were glad we did, as it added another dimension to the Cuban birding experience and a number of lifers to the trip list.

Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us :

Ecological Reserve at Varadero
Ecological Reserve at Varadero

Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger Reyesi) named after its discoverer and our bird guide, Ernesto Reyes
Camouflaged Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger Reyesi) named after its discoverer and our bird guide, Ernesto Reyes

Ernesto took us along a few of the paths that run through the wooded part of the Reserve and  found a number of forest birds, many of which turned out to be Warblers of various combinations of black, brown, yellow and white. The new ones for our trip list and all lifers for me were :

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler (Interesting name)

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

All of them were too furtive and quick to get a photo for the record, so I took some photos of the Reserve’s other interesting features instead

Rocks are actually ancient coral reefs
Rocks are actually ancient coral reefs

Cuban Brown Curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis)
Cuban Brown Curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis)

My lovely assistant, Andre (someone had to carry the bird book)
My lovely assistant, Andre (someone had to carry the bird book – but note this is not a dumb blonde, he’s a Neurologist)

"Tourist Skin" tree - so called because it peels like the European visitors after a few days in Varadero's sun
“Tourist Skin” tree – so called because its thin red bark peels – just like the European tourists do after a few days in Varadero’s sun (Actual name is West-Indian Birch, I believe)

Ponds at Varadero Water Treatment Works

For good measure Ernesto took us to the nearby Varadero water treatment works the same day, where we clambered through a gap in the fence and found a number of exciting birds in the network of ponds.

Water treatment works at Varadero
Ponds at the Varadero Water treatment works

Tri-coloured Heron

White-chinned Pintail

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers
Northern Shovelers take to flight

Blue-winged Teal

Common Moorhen (for a change, an “ordinary” bird)

Laughing Gull

White Ibis

American Coot

Coot and White Ibis
American Coot and White Ibis sharing a patch next to one of the ponds

 

Well-satisfied with our “bonus” trip to the Nature Reserve and Water Treatment works, we thanked Ernesto for his wonderful assistance, bade him goodbye and got a taxi back to our hotel, where we continued our lazy existence for the rest of our 11 day stay. When our memorable holiday came to an end, we were taken by bus back to Havana (all part of the package) where we caught the Virgin Atlantic flight back to Gatwick near London, followed by a taxi shuttle (which you can pre-book) to Heathrow for our overnight flight to Johannesburg.

 

A Taste of Cuba – Birding with Ernesto : Zapata Peninsula

” Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see”

Finding a Bird Guide

While planning our trip to Cuba in early 2011, I searched the internet (well, Google did all the work)  for any birding opportunities in the 2 areas we were to visit, namely Havana and Varadero. In the process I came across a reference to Ernesto Reyes, who did bird guiding from the Varadero area, and sent him an email. He soon responded with suggestions and this led to me booking him for a day during our stay at Sol Palmeras resort hotel on the Varadero peninsula.

I looked forward to the chance to do some birding in Cuba, which was likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity in such an exotic location, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. I purchased a Cuba bird guide which I had a good look at before leaving for Cuba, so that I would have an idea of what birds could be found in the various habitats, and this helped a lot.

Turkey Vultures are everywhere
Turkey Vultures are everywhere – and a Martin caught flying by!

The Trip

Our main destination for the day was the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata – the Zapata Swamps National Park, which is located south-east of Havana and south of Varadero where we were staying in a fine resort hotel. The Zapata peninsula is bordered on the east side by the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed attempt by American-backed forces to invade Cuba back in 1961. Along the way Ernesto had planned stops at various spots to find some of the Cuban specials.

My daughter Geraldine agreed to accompany me and we were ready in the early hours outside the hotel main entrance, breakfast packs in hand, waiting for Ernesto and his driver to collect us. It seems that very few Cubans have driving licences because so few are allowed to own cars and Ernesto, married with kids, was not a driver, although he did take over on some of the back roads and showed us how not to pull away and change gears. Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see.

Zapata peninsula lies south east of Havana
Zapata peninsula lies south east of Havana

From Varadero we headed to the southern side of Cuba, passing through small villages on the way, one of which had a main street with more horses and old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs than motor cars

Country scenes
Country scenes

Country transport
Country transport

Country scene
Country scene

 

An hour or two later we entered the Zapata National Park area where our first stop was at a forested area alongside the road – we walked a short distance along a wooded path before Ernesto stopped and started pointing out bird species.

Forest road
Forest road

Forest flowers
Forest flowers

This happened a few more times until we reached the Zapata swamps, where we drove to various points then walked further along paths between the waterways, pausing to greet fishermen who were catching supper.

Zapata Swamps
Zapata Swamps

Zapata Swamps
Zapata Swamps

Just to prove I was there
Just to prove I was there

At one point we came across a group of American birders who were touring in a large luxury bus and they immediately called us over to view a very special bird, the Zapata Wren, through their scopes. We were surprised to find Americans in Cuba, knowing of the frosty relationship that exists and sanctions applied by the US on Cuba – apparently they are able to get permission for special trips

Ernesto and Geraldine about to meet up with an American group of birders in the Zapata Swamps
Ernesto and Geraldine about to meet up with an American group of birders in the Zapata Swamps

Their guide was one Arturo Kirkconnell, who happened to be co-author of the Cuban field guide I had bought, Birds of Cuba and he was kind enough to sign it and write a short message, which made the day extra-special.

Lunchtime with the locals

Ernesto offered a choice of a “Tourist Stop” standard lunch or he could arrange with some local people who, like a growing number of Cubans, have small restaurants in their homes. We chose the latter and it was a very special experience, eating in humble surroundings and served Cuban fare by the family – nice to be able to support them.

The "home" restaurant, the sign confirms they are approved by the government
The “home” restaurant, the sign confirms they are approved by the government

Ernesto and Don with the driver and the husband and wife who run the home restaurant
Ernesto and Don with the driver and the husband and wife who run the home restaurant

Classic in the country
Classic in the country

Zapata Swamps

One source describes it thus:

The Zapata Swamp is a mosaic of mangrove swamps and freshwater and saltwater marshes that form the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean. The swamp was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1999 and forms a vital preserve for Cuban wildlife, a spawning area for commercially valuable fish, and a crucial wintering territory for millions of migratory birds from North America. More than 900 plant species have been recognized in the swamp, and all but three of the 25 bird species endemic to Cuba breed there

Also a feature of the Zapata Peninsula is the system of caves along the coast, some of which have caved in creating small lakes. We visited one such flooded cave in a small reserve a short distance from the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – the largest flooded cave in Cuba,  70m deep and crystal clear

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The flooded cave
The flooded cave

Geraldine braves a rickety bridge
Geraldine braves a rickety bridge

Crystal clear water allows you to see the fish quite easily
Crystal clear water allows you to see the fish quite easily

These red crabs migrate to the beaches by the thousand at certain times
These red crabs migrate to the beaches by the thousand at certain times

The birds

It was a veritable feast of ‘lifers’ for me – no less than 49 during our one day trip to Zapata National Park and a further 14 in the space of a couple of hours spent at the Varadero Nature Reserve – but it’s not all about numbers, more about the experience of birding in such exotic and amazing locations.

The birds seen included the following – short descriptions are taken direct from my field notes :

Once again, where I was able to get a photo, the quality of the photos is very ordinary due to not having my “birding” lens on the trip (I won’t make that mistake again) so I had to make do with a standard zoom lens.

  Zapata Forest :

The forest was not as dense as some I’ve experienced – it was not too difficult to see the birds which Ernesto found. The rock underfoot looked volcanic or could be ancient coral.

Cuban Tody – small round colourful bird with a long thin bill

Yellow-faced Grassquit – male and female pair, small sparrow-like bird

Red-legged Honeycreeper – dark purple plumage, turquoise cap and red legs make it a very distinctive bird. Top of tree

Red-legged Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper

Common Yellow-throated Warbler – the first of many warblers, all in combinations of yellow, black and brown

Stripe-headed Tanager – colourful small bird in the mid-stratum

Cuban Trogon – signature bird for Cuba and their National Bird. Loud call, easily seen, 5 sightings during the day

Cuban Trogon
Cuban Trogon

Great Lizard Cuckoo – secretive, large bird (Coucal size), light brown in colour. I just caught it on camera as it flew off.

Great Lizard Cuckoo disappearing over the forest
Great Lizard Cuckoo disappearing over the forest

More Warblers in quick succession (we would have had no chance of ID-ing them without Ernesto) – Yellow-headed Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Magnolia Warbler. Cuba lies on the migration route between North and South America for many of the Warblers and we happened to be there when many of them are visitors to this Caribbean island.

Northern Parula – another Warbler

Cuban Vireo – looks like our White-eyes, just 2m from us in the tree

Cuban Vireo
Cuban Vireo

Black-whiskered Vireo

Black-whiskered Vireo
Black-whiskered Vireo

Zenaida Dove – forest path, pair on the ground amongst leaf litter

and then, a surprise sighting………..

Surprise in the forest
Surprise in the forest

  Zapata Swamps

Barn Swallow – just like home

Zapata Wren – the US visitors were very excited about finding this rare endemic – brownish barred bird with long tail, singing vigorously in the reeds

Indigo Bunting – blue all over, short bill

La Sagra’s Flycatcher – mid stratum, crested appearance

La Sagra's Flycatcher
La Sagra’s Flycatcher

American Redstart – male, mid stratum

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Flying overhead

Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – group of 5 – all black except for orange patches on shoulders, tree tops

Loggerhead Kingbird – large, flycatcher-like, crested appearance, low in branches

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant

Pygmy Owl – much like our Pearl-spotted, similar in size, low in tree next to channel

Northern Waterthrush – mid stratum, most resembles our Prinias

 

  Roadside Stops

Ernesto stopped at various spots along the way, often at places known to be home to some of the specials. We also stopped at one of the government-run “Tourist Stops” where you can have snacks and meals

Tourist Stop - Ernesto in conversation with a birding personality
Tourist Stop – Ernesto in conversation with a birding personality

Smooth-billed Ani – large, all-black Coucal-like bird – on the way to Zapata

Black-cowled Oriole – ponds near Tourist Stop, top of tree

American Kestrel – roadside pole

Purple Gallinule – ponds near Tourist Stop, walking on lilies

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule

Purple Martin – overhead

West Indian Woodpecker – near Tourist Stop, pecking at nest-hole in Palm tree

West-Indian Woodpecker at a nest-hole
West-Indian Woodpecker at a nest-hole

Cuban Crow – scavenging in road

Cuban Crow
Cuban Crow

Cuban Parrot – near Tourist Stop, top of tree

Great Egret – probably same as Southern African species – ponds near Tourist Stop

Great Egret
Great Egret

Great Blue Heron – ponds near Tourist Stop

Osprey – flying over ponds near Tourist Stop

Red-legged Thrush – dirt road, on ground, wary

Northern Mockingbird – dirt road

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

  Smallest Bird in the World !

The bird we desperately wanted to see, since realising it was a possibility – the amazing Bee Hummingbird – found by Ernesto on a dirt road off the main road. We watched, mesmerized, as it zipped from telephone wires to sparse trees across the road, almost quicker than the eye could follow, looking like a large bumble-bee. Sensational sighting! But I couldn’t get a decent photo…

The sensational Bee Hummingbird
The sensational Bee Hummingbird – 5 to 6cm long

  Open Savannah with many palm trees

Open Savannah with palms
Open Savannah with palms

Northern Flicker – Woodpecker-like bird in top of palm tree

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker (Female)

Northern Flicker (Male)
Northern Flicker (Male)

 

Fernandina’s Flicker – (just love the name!) Rare endemic in bare palm tree

  Roadside Farm with a number of large trees

Killdeer – Lapwing-like, in short grass

Common Ground Dove – open ground

Cowboys are alive and well in Cuba
Cowboys are alive and well in Cuba

Cuban Parakeet – flock of up to 20 in large fig tree, most flew off at our approach, some returned for viewing and photo opportunities

Cuban Parakeet
Cuban Parakeet

Rice paddies

Rice paddies
Rice paddies

Lesser Yellowlegs – very much like a Greenshank in size and appearance, yellow legs conspicuous

Little Blue Heron – pair at edge of paddies

Rice paddies
Rice paddies

Black-necked Stilt – much like our Black-winged Stilt

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

 

Crested Caracara – in distant tree – large raptor reminiscent of a Harrier-Hawk

Glossy Ibis – presumably same species as ours, flying overhead

Limpkin – on bank of paddy, large bird, long decurved bill

On the way back to Varadero we passed a country rodeo in progress – looked exciting

A rodeo was on the go
A rodeo was on the go

  Ernesto and the driver dropped us off at the hotel in the evening, after a brief stop at his home in a nearby town to meet his wife and daughter who tried their best to converse in broken English and charmed us in the process.

For days after we reflected on an amazing day spent birding an area that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see and experience for myself. It brought a lesson home to me – when it comes to birding (or anything else that grabs you) one should have no boundaries and take the chances when they arise, there is just so much out there to see and do!

 Note : Thanks to Ronald Orenstein for his guidance on a couple of mis-identifications in my photos, now corrected