From Caribbean Birding Trail

Birding Tours of Cuba in 2018 from BirdsCaribbean

Cuban Tody—one of Cuba's most beloved endemic birds. (photo by Aslam Ibrahim)
Colorful and friendly, the Cuban Tody is one of Cuba’s most beloved endemic birds. (photo by Aslam Ibrahim)

Join BirdsCaribbean, the Caribbean Birding Trail and acclaimed Cuban bird guide, Ernesto Reyes Mouriño, on the adventure of a lifetime in January or March of 2018.

Cuba is well-known for its amazing landscapes, vibrant culture and unique biodiversity. According to the new Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide, 371 birds have been recorded in Cuba, including 26 which are endemic to the island and 30 which are considered globally threatened. Due to its large land area and geographical position within the Caribbean, Cuba is also extraordinarily important for Neotropical migratory birds—more than 180 species pass through during migration or spend the winter on the island.

Our itinerary takes you to several of the best and most beautiful birding locations in Cuba, providing opportunities to see many of Cuba’s endemic species and subspecies as well as many migrants. Along the way, we will meet  people in local communities, stay mainly in Bed & Breakfast establishments (casas particulares) and eat in private restaurants (paladars), allowing you to experience Cuba’s rich culture, delicious food, friendly people, and generous hospitality. We will also have the opportunity to meet and  have discussions with local ornithologists and conservationists that have been working with BirdsCaribbean for many years.

BirdsCaribbean is offering two tours in 2018: an 8-day trip in January and an 11-day trip in March. Find detailed itineraries for both trips below. Traveling with us helps Caribbean birds as a portion of the proceeds from the trip supports our bird conservation programs in Cuba and the Caribbean. With new relations opening up, this is the perfect time to take your birding trip to Cuba, don’t delay!

Space is limited so sign up now to reserve your spot!

Check out the report and photos from our January 2016 trip here and from our July 2017 trip to Havana and Zapata Swamp here. Purchase the new Endemic Birds of Cuba Field Guide here.

Read more

Simply Antigua Barbuda: A Coffee Table Book That Highlights Sustainable Tourism, Birds and Nature

A male White-cheeked Pintail preening. This beautiful sedentary tropical duck is common on a number of Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda.  (photo by Binkie van Es)
A male White-cheeked Pintail preening. This beautiful sedentary tropical duck is common on a number of Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda. (photo by Binkie van Es)

Let’s face it: Coffee table books often lie on the table, mostly untouched unless you pick them up in a moment of boredom, flick through the pages, and put them down again. However, once you open Simply Antigua Barbuda, you will become immersed. It is far more varied than the average tourism publication, with a rich diversity of topics – from finely drawn sketches of the islands’ National Heroes to – yes, an article on Birding in Barbuda, and a strong focus on sustainable living and conservation for future generations. As its authors and publishers note, it is“designed to be dipped into” – not only to enjoy the gorgeous photographs but also to obtain detailed information on the history, culture and environment of the twin-island nation. And this 264-page, high-quality publication was all put together in six months!

Magnificent Frigatebird male inflates his bright red throat pouch to attract a mate at Barbuda's Frigatebird Colony, the largest in the Caribbean. (photo by Kate Lavasseur)
Magnificent Frigatebird male inflates his bright red throat pouch to attract a mate at Barbuda’s Frigatebird Colony, the largest in the Caribbean. (photo by Kate Lavasseur)

The exquisite photographs portray the islands’ natural beauty, from the calm, unsullied blue of Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon to hidden hiking trails and Antigua’s 365 famous beaches (“one for every day of the year”). An article authored by Daryl George, board member of Antigua’s Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), includes stunning close up photographs of Hawksbill and Leatherback Turtle hatchlings. EAG and BirdsCaribbean member Natalya Lawrence reminds the reader that there is much more to Antigua & Barbuda than beaches, focusing on the offshore islands. She describes the success of the Offshore Islands Conservation Programme, which has resulted in the removal of alien and invasive species and a surge in numbers in bird populations and native species in the past 20 years. Natalya also highlights the Floating Classroom program, which has opened the eyes of young Antiguans to natural wonders on their doorstep.

The section on Barbuda – a low-key tourism destination that has encountered environmental challenges – emphasizes the welcome move towards low impact, sustainable tourism and programs such as the Blue Halo Initiative, a collaborative coastal zoning project that is helping to protect the island’s fragile coastline and marine ecosystems. Barbuda has the largest Frigatebird Sanctuary in the western hemisphere. This extraordinary bird is among those highlighted in an article by EAG and BirdsCaribbean member Joseph (Junior) Prosper, edited by BirdsCaribbean’s Lisa Sorenson. Striking photographs by other BirdsCaribbean members (Andrea Otto, Binkie van Es and Ted Eubanks) of the supremely elegant West Indian Whistling-Duck, the Barbuda Warbler and other species enhance the text.

Simply Antigua Barbuda Tourism Coffee Table Book
Simply Antigua Barbuda Tourism Coffee Table Book

The book beautifully integrates tips on sustainable living with the many attractions Antigua has to offer – including cuisine. There are delicious recipes for the invasive Lionfish, and important information on the closed seasons for the Queen Conch, Parrotfish, Spiny Lobster and several other important marine species. Dr. Evelyn Weekes of the Agro-Ecology Society of Antigua describes several climate-smart projects that help to enhance the tourism product as well as the lives of Antiguans.

Joseph Prosper observes in his article Birds of Barbuda: “Let’s choose a tomorrow that does not succumb to the bulldozer but instead preserves this natural wealth for all to experience and enjoy.” This gem of a book reminds us of the fragility of the region’s island ecosystems, and the need to preserve them – not only for tourists.

The book is available to order online at this link.

The online version of the book can be viewed here.

By Emma Lewis, frequent blogger for BirdsCaribbean and member of BirdsCaribbean’s Media Working Group. Find me at Petchary’s Blog!

Loving the Lora and Chasing the Chuchubi at Bonaire’s Caribbean Birding Trail Guide Training Workshop

The Yellow-shouldered Parrot (Amazona barbadensis), or Lora, as it is locally known in Papiamento, is one of Bonaire's most charismatic birds. It lives in Bonaire's dry forests. Only about 900 remain in Bonaire where it is classified as threatened. (photo by Sam Williams)
The Yellow-shouldered Parrot (Amazona barbadensis), or Lora, as it is locally known in Papiamentu, is one of Bonaire’s most charismatic birds. It lives in Bonaire’s dry forests. Only about 900 remain in Bonaire where it is classified as threatened. (photo by Sam Williams)

Many of Bonaire’s visitors already have a keen interest in nature—as evidenced by the tens of thousands of divers and snorkelers that arrive to the island each and every year, with fish ID lists in hand. What many visitors don’t realize is that the island boasts a topside fauna that is just as diverse and fascinating as the underwater life.

From the lovable Lora to the charming Chuchubi, Bonaire offers a plethora of beautiful birds for birders and nature enthusiasts to enjoy. Yet few people partake in this wonderful activity, much less travel to Bonaire specifically to bird. The hope is that this will now change, thanks to a recent training of Bonaire’s tourism sector in how to be an interpretive bird guide and show visitors the beautiful bird life of the island.

Globally, the tourism market for wildlife watching and wildlife photography is growing, and bird tourism is a significant part of this. Another growing segment is that of the independent traveler; individuals that prefer to go “off the beaten path” and seek out authentic experiences. The Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT) is an initiative that seeks to attract these markets to Bonaire and the Caribbean as a whole and connect these visitors with the cultural and natural resources of their island. Integral to this is having well-trained local naturalist guides who can identify and interpret the birds and their habitats for local and foreign visitors.

From 26 to 30 September, 27 representatives from Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten and St. Eustatius attended BirdsCaribbean’s Interpretive Guide Training Workshop in Bonaire. Participants consisted of mostly of tour guides, but park staff, nature educators, biologists, and even Bonaire’s famous salt industry also attended the training. Their combined linguistic abilities alone were astounding: Papiamentu, English, Dutch, Spanish, German and Portuguese, which led to much amusement (and some confusion) about the common names of certain birds.

Learning to identify birds in the field. The diversity of participants matched the diversity of birds. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Learning to identify birds in the field. The diversity of participants matched the diversity of birds. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)

The intensive five-day workshop offered skills in identifying birds, how to use binoculars and spotting scopes, avian ecology, and guiding and interpretation techniques. The training also included daily field visits to some of Bonaire’s best birding sites, such as Lac Bai, Gotomeer, Dos Pos, Salina de Vlijt and the LVV/water water treatment ponds. Interactive presentations and demonstrations were given by staff of BirdsCaribbean, STINAPA, and Echo. Certified interpretive trainers from the National Association of Interpretation (NAI), Venicio (Beny) Wilson and Rick Morales, who work as guides in Panama, wowed the participants with in-depth sessions on the birding market, communication skills, and the principles of environmental interpretation.

Despite the impending threat of Hurricane Matthew, the workshop participants’ enthusiasm could not be dampened and they showed up, rain or shine. For some it was their first time seeing Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, White-cheeked Pintails, Semipalmated Plovers, Black-necked Stilts, Willets, Spotted Sandpipers, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, and Caribbean Elaenias, and even the trainers were excited about seeing Bonaire’s national bird, the American Flamingo. Trainer Beny Wilson commented, “Throughout the week, I was constantly amazed at how “tame” Bonaire’s birds are. By that I mean they are generally unconcerned about close proximity to humans and simply go about their daily routines. It was fabulous to be so close to the action and especially to see flamingos just 30 feet away!

Facilitator Beny Wilson explains the birding market—the different types of birders and what they need. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Facilitator Beny Wilson explains the birding market—the different types of birders and what they need. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)

For those students that had never before seen a bird through a pair of binoculars or telescope, this workshop was an enlightening experience. The art of ‘digiscoping’ was popular among many, especially those who don’t have a fancy camera but still want to take and share great bird photos. Using this technique, visitors can easily take fantastic bird images using their own smart phone and their guide’s scope.

Others were keen to sign up to eBird Caribbean, an online checklist program, and start entering their sightings. This can be a useful tool for any visitors who wish to add birding to their Bonaire vacation itineraries, as the web site shows which birds can be seen on the island and their general locations. It’s a fabulous way to find out if a “life bird” you wish to see occurs on Bonaire.

Short-billed Dowitchers, and assorted sandpipers and plovers rest and feed at Salina de Vlijt, a seasonal wetland located in an urban area and unfortunately slated for development. Bonaire is a shorebirders' paradise - the island's salinas and salt ponds provide critical stopover and wintering habitat to thousands of migratory and resident shorebirds. (photo by Sipke Stapert)
Short-billed Dowitchers, and assorted sandpipers and plovers rest and feed at Salina de Vlijt, a seasonal wetland located in an urban area and unfortunately slated for development. Bonaire is a shorebirders’ paradise – the island’s salinas and salt ponds provide critical stopover and wintering habitat to thousands of migratory and resident shorebirds. (photo by Sipke Stapert)

For everyone, learning the skills to engage visitors about Bonaire’s birds and their environment was invaluable. “I learned how our great bird diversity can be harnessed to be an adjunct to our visitors’ love of nature,” commented one participant from Bonaire.  Binkie van Es, a guide from St. Maarten stated, “This was a very inspirational workshop for me that showed me how to develop an interpretive tour. This involves giving meaning to what we show our clients during a trip and not just mere facts, injecting a purpose and a part of yourself to leave the visitor with an everlasting impression of their day.” A connection to conservation was emphasized throughout the workshop and this was reflected in another guide’s comment: “I am interested now to continue to expand my knowledge as well as get involved in conservation of our island’s natural areas.”

Newly-trained guides from the Mangrove Information Center pose with facilitators and their Certificates of Completion for the CBT Guide Training. L to R: Janet Koek, Lisa Sorenson, Elly Albers, Beny Wilson, Holly Robertson, Mick Arts, Rick Morales.
Newly-trained guides from the Mangrove Information Center pose with facilitators and their Certificates of Completion for the CBT Guide Training. L to R: Janet Koek, Lisa Sorenson, Elly Albers, Beny Wilson, Holly Robertson, Mick Arts, Rick Morales.

Sam Willams, board member of Echo, the non-profit foundation that led the workshop organization stated, “Developing bird-related tourism on Bonaire has been a dream I’ve shared with others for many years. I am really proud and honored that Echo was able to play a part in bringing the Caribbean Birding Trail to the island. Thanks so much to Lauren Schmaltz for her efforts in making it a reality, as well as the great facilitators, and for the partnerships with Lisa Sorenson from BirdsCaribbean, Kalli De Meyer from the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, and STINAPA Bonaire. And of course all the enthusiastic guides!

It is now up to the tour operators to promote birding opportunities on their respective islands and practice the skills learned in the workshop in order to become professional CBT guides. It seems that the participants were indeed inspired to continue to hone their skills. Guide Cyrill Kooistra from Curacao, commented, “These birding trainers were amazing! There I was wondering ‘how do they do that?’ In class you learn about these birds, but after two days the trainers really lit a spark in me; the kind of spark that made me afraid to become like them. They glow when they spot something, and yes, I even started to become like these enthusiastic birdspotters. Amazingly, at the end of the week, I got 7 of 11 correct in the birding quiz, compared with just 2 on the first day.”

Workshop participants and trainers at Lac Bay.
Workshop participants and trainers at Lac Bay.

As well as the knowledge and skills gained, all participants also received a pair of Vortex binoculars, a BirdsCaribbean buff and hat, NAI Workbook, copies of field guides “Birds of the West Indies” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao”, mangrove identification guides, and bird ID cards for Bonaire and Curacao.

We look forward to continuing to nurture the guides as they develop their bird guiding skills. Soon, we fully expect many Bonaire visitors to arrive with their fish wish list in one hand and their bird wish list in the other!

The CBT Interpretive Guide Training was made possible through the generous support of our sponsors and local partners. These include: Echo, Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, Vogelbescherming Nederland, U.S. Forest Service International Programs, STINAPA Bonaire, Cargill, Kooyman, Wild Conscience, Vortex Optics, BONHATA (Bonaire Hotels & Tourism Association), Rento Fun Tours, Bonaire Rent-a-car, and Boutique Hotel Sunrisa. Thanks to Lisa Sorenson, Hannah Madden and Susan Davis for contributing to this article about the Bonaire CBT Guide Training!

The American Flamingo, national bird of Bonaire, can be viewed at close range on many of Bonaire's salinas. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
The American Flamingo, national bird of Bonaire, can be viewed at close range on many of Bonaire’s salinas. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
The Tropical Mockingbird, called the Chuchubi in Papiamentu, is one of the most conspicuous and well-known birds of Bonaire, known for its loud jubilant song. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
The Tropical Mockingbird, called the Chuchubi in Papiamentu, is one of the most conspicuous and well-known birds of Bonaire, known for its loud jubilant song. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Despite the impending threat of Hurricane Matthew, the workshop participants’ enthusiasm could not be dampened and they showed up, rain or shine. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Despite the impending threat of Hurricane Matthew, the workshop participants’ enthusiasm could not be dampened and they showed up, rain or shine. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Gotomeer Salina is a great place to view flamingos and a variety of waterbirds and shorebirds. It is also an important site for nesting Least Terns. (photo by Hannah Madden)
Gotomeer Salina is a great place to view flamingos and a variety of waterbirds and shorebirds. It is also an important site for nesting Least Terns. (photo by Hannah Madden)
Early morning birding practice at LVV Wetland/ Wastewater Treatment Plant, a fantastic place to see shorebirds, ducks, flamingos, and other waterbirds. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Early morning birding practice at LVV Wetland/ Wastewater Treatment Plant, a fantastic place to see shorebirds, ducks, flamingos, and other waterbirds. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Holly Robertson, Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT) Project Manager, shares the mission and goals of the CBT. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Holly Robertson, Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT) Project Manager, shares the mission and goals of the CBT. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BIrdsCaribbean, talks about the many migratory and resident birds that can be found on Bonaire. (photo by Holly Robertson)
Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BIrdsCaribbean, talks about the many migratory and resident birds that can be found on Bonaire. (photo by Holly Robertson)
Trainer Rick Morales explains how to guide a group on a trail before the morning birding walk at Dos Pos. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Trainer Rick Morales explains how to guide a group on a trail before the morning birding walk at Dos Pos. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
The spectacular Yellow Oriole is a breeding resident on Bonaire. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)
The spectacular Yellow Oriole is a breeding resident on Bonaire. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)

Birding Tours of Cuba in 2017 from BirdsCaribbean

Cuban Tody—one of Cuba's most beloved endemic birds. (photo by Aslam Ibrahim)
Colorful and friendly, the Cuban Tody is one of Cuba’s most beloved endemic birds. (photo by Aslam Ibrahim)

Join BirdsCaribbean, the Caribbean Birding Trail and acclaimed Cuban bird guide, Ernesto Reyes Mouriño, on the adventure of a lifetime in January or March of 2017.

Cuba is well-known for its amazing landscapes, vibrant culture and unique biodiversity. According to the new Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide, 371 birds have been recorded in Cuba, including 26 which are endemic to the island and 30 which are considered globally threatened. Due to its large land area and geographical position within the Caribbean, Cuba is also extraordinarily important for Neotropical migratory birds—more than 180 species pass through during migration or spend the winter on the island.

Our itinerary takes you to several of the best and most beautiful birding locations in Cuba, providing opportunities to see many of Cuba’s endemic species and subspecies as well as many migrants. Along the way, we will meet  people in local communities, stay mainly in Bed & Breakfast establishments (casas particulares) and eat in private restaurants (paladars), allowing you to experience Cuba’s rich culture, delicious food, friendly people, and generous hospitality. We will also have the opportunity to meet and  have discussions with local ornithologists and conservationists that have been working with BirdsCaribbean for many years.

BirdsCaribbean is offering two tours in 2017: an 8-day trip in January and an 11-day trip in March. Find detailed itineraries for both trips below. Traveling with us helps Caribbean birds as a portion of the proceeds from the trip supports our bird conservation programs in Cuba and the Caribbean. With new relations opening up, this is the perfect time to take your birding trip to Cuba, don’t delay!

Space is limited so sign up now to reserve your spot!

Check out the report and photos from our January 2016 trip here. Purchase the new Endemic Birds of Cuba Field Guide here.

Read more

On the Caribbean Birding Trail in Cuba

BirdsCaribbean bird tour group at Viñales Valley, Cuba with our local bird guide Ernesto Reyes and Nils Navarro, author of “Field Guide to the Endemic Birds of Cuba.” From L to R: Lisa, Nils, Ernesto, Ann, David, Jeff, Vicki, Margaret, Joni, Jennifer and Susan.

Cuba—definitely on the bucket list of most birders and indeed world travelers, but not the easiest country in the world to travel to for Americans. “I’ve waited 57 years to take this trip,” declared David Hill. “The door slammed shut on me in 1959, but now, finally, I have the chance to visit.” David, a retired airline captain and founder of RARE, was one of nine persons that traveled to Cuba for a birding expedition organized by BirdsCaribbean, January 22-30. The Caribbean Birding Trail tour, which included time in Havana, the Zapata Peninsula and Viñales Valley, was designed to not only see as many endemic birds (27!) as possible but also to experience Cuba’s vibrant culture, beautiful landscapes, and warm and friendly people. The co-leaders of the trip were Lisa Sorenson and Jennifer Wheeler from BirdsCaribbean and Joni Ellis from Optics for the Tropics. We were well taken care of by our guide, Ernesto Reyes, Cuban bird guide extraordinaire and long-time BirdsCaribbean friend and colleague. Our group consisted of nine Americans, most traveling to Cuba for the first time with the exception of Lisa and Joni. All brought great enthusiasm for experiencing Cuba’s birds and culture, as well as much personal experience in the field of wildlife conservation. Everyone had a lot of interesting information and stories to share that added to the enjoyment and learning of the trip. The excitement of introductions and anticipation for a fantastic week made waiting in multiple lines at Tampa International Airport for document review, baggage check, security and boarding go quickly!

¡Havana!

Capital and old cars in Havana. (Photo by Margaret Kinnaird)
Capital and old cars in Havana. (Photo by Margaret Kinnaird)

Havana airport was surprisingly small, and will certainly need to grow as tourism booms on the island. A large crowd of eager family members awaited arriving loved ones, but our guide, Ernesto, was able to pick out the first few of our group that ventured out – it is true that birders have a certain look about them! We met our driver, the “other Ernesto,” nicknamed Soby, boarded our mini-bus and headed into the bustle of La Havana Vieja (Old Havana). It was everything the guidebooks described and more. Antique cars, bicycle-taxis, and the occasional horse cart traversed on cobblestone streets beneath stately buildings of colonial-era Andalusian-inspired and Baroque architecture, interrupted by the occasional Soviet-style high-rise. We were all completely captivated by the sites and sounds of this colorful and chaotic city, full of such rich history and seemingly frozen in time.

We spent the first evening and all the following day enjoying Havana. We were distributed for lodging in casas particulares (private bed-and-breakfasts) in the heart of the old city, and gathered to explore the streets and squares together. We saw waves crashing on the famous Malecón (shorefront promenade); Ernesto and his daughter Mariana guided us by the most historic buildings and plazas; we drank Mojitos on the roof of the hotel Ambos Mundos (where Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls); and dined and drank at charming restaurants and bars. Of course, we took advantage of the myriad photo opportunities with antique Oldsmobiles, Fairlanes, and Chevrolets, which were everywhere, and several of us visited the fabulous Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – Arte Cubano, which houses artwork purely by Cuban artists. A few in the

Emeritus ornithologist and living legend, Orlando Garrido, sharing stories from the field while showing us his endemic bird collection (Photo by Susan Jacobson)
Emeritus ornithologist and living legend, Orlando Garrido, sharing stories from the field while showing us his endemic bird collection (Photo by Susan Jacobson)

group also enjoyed wonderful Cuban music late into the night by the talented Cuban group Hearts of Fire at the Paris Club. There are not many birds to see in Havana, though it was noted that several of the stunning artworks in the Museo Nacional Palacio del Bellas Artes featured bird imagery of some kind!

At our Havana evening meals, we were joined by our Cuban colleagues and dear friends; biologist Lourdes Mugica (Universidad de la Habana) who dined with us at La California, and Maikel Canizares (Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática) at El Canoñazo. Both work in bird conservation and are long-time BirdsCaribbean members and partners on BirdsCaribbean programs such as the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival, Caribbean Waterbird Census, BirdSleuth Caribbean, and White-crowned Pigeon research. They are also serving on the Local Organizing Committee for the next BirdsCaribbean International Conference in Cuba in July 2017. Another special visit in Havana was with emeritus ornithologist, the tireless and charming Orlando H. Garrido. Many of our party had his landmark book, Birds of Cuba (co-authored with Arturo Kirkconnell, 2000). Orlando, a living legend, regaled us with stories of his involvement in forming the bird collection for Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Historia Natural decades ago, and in debating the finer points of taxonomic lineages in current literature. Also, he gave us a close-up look at his collection of mounted Cuban endemic birds.

The Zapata Peninsula

Early morning light on Bay of Pigs, Zapata Peninsula. (Photo by Margaret Kinnaird)
Early morning light on Bay of Pigs, Zapata Peninsula. (Photo by Margaret Kinnaird)

On Day 3, we were up early and off to the Península de Zapata on the southern side of the island, considered to be the most important region in Cuba for birding. A bus ride on wide, well-maintained, but largely empty highways took us to the Playa Larga area, found on the llanura (plain) of Zapata between the east and west ciénagas (swamps) of Zapata. Traversing wetland areas, we started seeing waterbirds right away, including Limpkin, egrets, herons, and ticking off endemics such as the Cuban Black Hawk and Red-shouldered Blackbird. Playa Larga is found directly on the northern reach of Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Obviously this is a site of historic significance and the area was marked by individual monuments to those 161 Cubans who lost their lives defending the island during the US-backed 1961 invasion.

Bee Hummingbird - the world's smallest bird (photo by Aslam Ibrahim Castellan Maure)
Bee Hummingbird – the world’s smallest bird (photo by Aslam Ibrahim Castellan Maure)

We stayed in casas in the small village of Caleton, a pretty little town with a beach, mangroves and just two little roads (one paved, one not) but experiencing a building boom associated with tourism. One of our first destinations was a nearby village neighborhood where endemic Bee Hummingbirds, the world’s smallest bird species! — are known to hang out. Indeed we had a great view of a pair from a rustic backyard – a male demonstrating his courtship flight (flying way up in a straight line, then zipping out to the side) to a seemingly less-than-attentive female (probably distracted by the flowering trees, as were several Cuban Emerald hummingbirds and migrant warblers).

Cuban Pygmy Owl (Photo by David Hill)
Cuban Pygmy Owl (Photo by David Hill)

During our time on the Zapata Peninsula (Days 3, 4, 5), we visited a variety of diverse habitats. The Bermejas Reserve (Refugio de Fauna Bermeja), a forested area with nice trails, yielded such highlights as the beautiful Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s national bird), Cuban Crow, Bare-legged Owl, Cuban Parakeet, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Vireo, and the adorable Cuban Tody, a favorite of everyone. We had great looks at more Bee Hummingbirds and a variety of migrants warblers were also seen including Yellow-headed Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler, among others. At Cueva de los Peces, we had fantastic views of 4 Blue-headed Quail Dove casually strutting around, including a male courting a female. La Cuchilla was the place to see Fernandina’s Flicker, busily working on excavating a nesting hole in a dead palm tree. A Crested Caracara and Cuban Pygmy Owl were spotted nearby.

Counting flamingos, herons, egrets and many other waterbirds at Las Salinas, Zapata Swamp. (Photo by Jennifer Wheeler)
Counting flamingos, herons, egrets and many other waterbirds at Las Salinas, Zapata Swamp. (Photo by Jennifer Wheeler)

Las Salinas, an area of shallow tidal flats, wetlands, and mangrove-islets, showcased many hundreds of American Flamingos and a wide variety of herons, egrets, ibis, seabirds and shorebirds, including American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Black Skimmer, Clapper Rail, Royal Tern, Caspian Tern, Black-bellied Plover, and Short-billed Dowitcher.

At Boca de Guamá a wooded tourist spot around a lake we had excellent looks at the Cuban Oriole and West-Indian Woodpecker. Our target birds at La Turba, a grassy vegetated track between tree-lined canals, were the Zapata Sparrow and Zapata Wren. With a little help from playback, we were rewarded with four active sparrows at very close range! Unfortunately, the Zapata Wren was not so cooperative in the windy weather. Finally, one evening, we walked around the small eco-village of Los Hondones, a quiet in-holding in the National Park. Ernesto is building a house there and envisions a tranquil oasis where guests would be surrounded by a woodland of native trees and active birds. Before dark we had a long look at an industrious Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Parrot, and La Sagra’s Flycatcher, and after dark, a Greater Antillean Nightjar (Cuban) attracted to the insects under a streetlamp.

The adorable Cuban Tody - a unique beauty and huge favorite of everyone. (Photo by David Hill)
The adorable Cuban Tody – a unique beauty and huge favorite of everyone. (Photo by David Hill)

Back in Caleton, we enjoyed festive group meals with such treats as fresh coconut water from just-hacked-open coconuts and fresh fish pulled from nearby waters. We ate dinners at the casas, and were treated both nights by a very talented group of musicians, Son X Siempre, who provided excellent, authentic Cuban music, great for dancing. We were also hosted to rum-and-honey shots and a presentation by Rosendo Martinez, the founder of Cuba’s Protected Areas Program (Centro Nacional de Areas Protegidas) and an advisor in Sustainable Tourism and Interpretation. Rosendo conducts workshops for casa owners and tour agencies, and is a great contact for BirdsCaribbean’s Caribbean Birding Trail program. Later, after dark, we went to take a look at the town’s Stygian Owl, perched and hunting for bats to provide its evening meal.

Viñales Valley, with stops in Las Terrazas

The Viñales Valley. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)
The Viñales Valley. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)

On Day 6, we made our way to the West, to the Pinar del Río province. On the way, we made several stops to look for birds, of course. At the Niña Bonita Reservoir just west of Havana, we dodged raindrops to conduct a Caribbean Waterbird Census count, and tallied hundreds of Lesser Scaup along with a scattering of Ring-necked Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks and Brown Pelicans. In the Sierra del Rosario hills, we stopped at the eco-resort of Las Terrazas for lunch and were treated to a demonstration of the local chanting campesino music, while fighting off very aggressive chickens and peacocks mooching our lunches.

The Cuban Solitaire has a hauntingly beautiful call. (Photo by David Hill)
The Cuban Solitaire has a hauntingly beautiful song. (Photo by David Hill)

In January, the New York Times listed Viñales as a top destination to visit this year. We could see why. It is lush and beautiful valley punctuated with huge, flat-topped, limestone mountains called mogotes (which means “haystacks”). In between the mogotes are found rich, red-soiled fields renowned for their crops of tobacco. The developed and undeveloped areas are protected as the Parque Nacional de Viñales, and are rich in birdlife. Our first birding effort, however took place on the delightful terrace above the home of Nils Navarro, artist, naturalist, and author of the new book, Field Guide to the Endemic Birds of Cuba. In between sips of Cuba Libres (rum and Coke, with lime juice), and sighs of admiration at the pink skies of approaching sunset, we enjoyed watching hunting Merlins through the scope.

Day 7 was rainy, but we headed out to Maravillas de Viñales, a public use zone of the national park, where

Tobacco drying, Viñales Valley.
Tobacco drying, Viñales Valley. (Photo by Jennifer Wheeler)

Ernesto and Nils sought to find the Cuban Solitaire for us. We heard it’s melodious song and soon spotted it near the observation platform. We also enjoyed many other birds in the area including the Western Spindalis, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Pewee, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Crow, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Blackbird, and Red-legged Honeycreeper before rain drove us back to the village for lunch. That afternoon, we had a lesson in tobacco cultivation and harvest (all by hand, or with the help of oxen) and cigar rolling in a local tobacco drying barn, and had a chance to puff on a fine cigar constructed skillfully and rapidly before our eyes. We also enjoyed coffee at a little, local finca run by Nils’ in-laws, after touring their efforts at sustainable subsistence farming (raising vegetables, coffee, fruit, rabbits and other livestock).

Man with fowl at tobacco farm in Viñales. (Photo by Susan Jacobson)
Man with fowl at tobacco farm in Viñales. (Photo by Susan Jacobson)

This was meaningful as we later learned that Cuba imports the vast majority of its food supply, with typically 80% of household income going to the purchase of food. Much more on-island production of food is needed to correct this trade imbalance. A highlight of late afternoon birding along the road to the El Albino Reservoir was the Olive-capped Warbler, found only in Cuba and two islands in the Bahamas, as well as Antillean Palm Swift, numerous migrants and waterbirds.

Dinner was in our individual casas. Here is a good place to explain that the business of renting out rooms to tourists is one of the few individual businesses allowed by the Cuban government.

Nils sharing information with the group about the flora and fauna of Vinales. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Nils sharing information with the group about the flora and fauna of Viñales. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)

Homeowners have embraced this opportunity, and casas particulares form the most successful micro-enterprise in the country. Currently about 4,000 rooms are rented out to tourists in private homes, more rooms than are managed by all but one of the government tour agencies, which own the rooms in hotels and resorts. Casa particulares are registered with the government, and taxation is extremely heavy, but the income far exceeds formal salaries. Casa owners also provide meals and beverages to supplement the income. We found almost all casas to be rented at a similar low price, though quality was extremely varied!

On Day 8, we did a bit more birding in the hills behind Viñales, then headed east towards Havana. We stopped at a small fruit and coffee farm in Las Terrazas to check off the Cuban Grassquit (we got lovely close-up views of a group in the grass while the farmer provided us with sweet bananas) and also stopped along the highway to see the Cuban Kite and Eastern Meadowlark (Cuban race).

Hasta La Vista, Cuba

Spectacular male Western Spindales (Photo by Susan Jacobson)
Western Spindales (Photo by Susan Jacobson)

Day 8, we spent our final afternoon and evening enjoying Havana again. Several of us sought out souvenirs – rum, cigars, jewelry, chocolate, bongo drums, and art were favorite choices. We checked out shops along Calle Obispo and street vendors along the Prado, and after supporting the Cuban economy, received a presentation on the topic from José Atonio Moreno (aka Pepe), a retired economist and professor. He provided an explanation for much of what we had experienced during our trip – a country with an economy that has languished for decades but is now committed to economic and political reforms that have already seen significant results as they are embraced by the innovative and resilient Cuban people.

We enjoyed a final, celebratory meal at the charming Café de Artes, decorated with vintage instruments and portraits of famous Cuban musicians. One last mojito! Then on Day 9, we were thanking Ernesto and Soby with hugs all around, back in airport lines, declaring to customs, and making plans to stay

Lisa, Ernesto, Jennifer and Nils at Viñales Valley.
Lisa, Ernesto, Jennifer and Nils at the end of a wonderful day in Viñales Valley.

in touch and share our photos. Already there is an intense yearning to go back to see and experience much more of this amazing country before it changes too much, but the wonderful memories of this magical trip will linger for a long time. David, affectionately nicknamed “el Capitan” by Ernesto, commented, “It was the trip of a lifetime, well worth the wait!

By Lisa Sorenson and Jennifer Wheeler

Stay tuned for the trip report from our March 6-16, 2016 Cuba bird tour. BirdsCaribbean will lead two bird tours to Cuba again in 2017 (January 23-30 and March 3-13) – click here for information. Email us: info@BirdsCaribbean.org. 

Cuban Bullfinch, another one of Cuba's 27 endemic birds. (Photo by David Hill)
Cuban Bullfinch, another one of Cuba’s 27 endemic birds. (Photo by David Hill)

 

The Caribbean Birding Trail is being developed to raise global awareness of the unique birds and biodiversity of the Caribbean and to create a sustainable economy around these rare species, in an effort to protect them. This new project is an initiative of BirdsCaribbean. We have partnered with and/or trained local tour companies and guides, have first-hand knowledge of the best birding and heritage sites to visit, and know the communities and NGOs that are working to conserve Caribbean birds and nature. Our tours are well-suited for birdwatchers, nature lovers, wildlife photographers, and anyone looking for authentic, unique, and revelatory experiences. Travel with us and know that your tourism dollars will bring benefits to the organizations, communities and people that will put them to the best use. Learn more at www.CaribbeanBirdingTrail.org.

Statia: One of the Caribbean’s Best-kept Birding Secrets

For seabird lovers, Statia is the best place in the Caribbean to see Red-billed Tropicbirds up close. (Photo by Hannah Madden)
For seabird lovers, Statia is the best place in the Caribbean to see Red-billed Tropicbirds up close. (Photo by Hannah Madden)

One of the Caribbean’s best kept secrets is St. Eustatius, a special municipality of the Netherlands that measures just 11 square miles. You might think there is little to see there, but nothing could be further from the truth. Affectionately known as Statia, the landmass has been spared the destructive development that plagues so many other islands in their search for economic sustainability through mass tourism. Bird-watching is a particularly rewarding pastime on Statia, which offers accessible birding across the island. In fact, a recently published paper in the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology lists a total of 75 recorded species!

Statia supports a number of species that may be of particular interest to ornithologists, such as the restricted-range Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green- and Purple-throated Carib, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Caribbean Elaenia, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, and the Bridled Quail-dove. It is also an important stopover or nesting ground for migratory birds like the Short-billed Dowitcher and Red-billed Tropicbird.

A hike up the dormant Quill volcano will bring enthusiasts in close range of the Bridled Quail-dove. (Photo by Hannah Madden)
A hike up the dormant Quill volcano will bring enthusiasts in close range of the Bridled Quail-dove. (Photo by Hannah Madden)

Visitors to Statia are always pleasantly surprised by the birding opportunities the island offers, and efforts are being made to develop and strengthen birding tourism, especially through the Caribbean Birding Trail and other collaborations with BirdsCaribbean. Director of the St. Eustatius Tourism Development Foundation, Mr. Charles Lindo, states: “Statia is known for its peace and tranquility, and with the new information of having 75 different bird species on our island only strengthens the fact that we need to maintain the avian fauna of our island by preserving their natural habitat.”

Two of Statia’s main selling points for bird-lovers are the Bridled Quail-dove and Red-billed Tropicbird. A hike up the dormant Quill volcano will bring enthusiasts in close range of the Bridled Quail-dove, which wanders the outer slopes of the dry forest at elevations of over 200 meters and inside the lush, liana-filled crater. According to Raffaele et al. (A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies), this bird is generally ‘uncommon to rare’ in the Lesser Antilles and is a declining species across its range. Nevertheless, sightings on Statia are common and thanks to the protected status of the Quill National Park, it is hoped that this bird’s habitat will remain untouched in the coming years.

A walk along Zeelandia beach offers visitors the opportunity to literally walk up to a tropicbird nesting in the sandstone cliff face. (Photo by Hannah Madden)
A walk along Zeelandia beach offers visitors the opportunity to literally walk up to a Red-billed Tropicbird nesting in the sandstone cliff face. (Photo by Hannah Madden)

For seabird lovers, Statia is the best place in the Caribbean to see Red-billed Tropicbirds up close. A walk along Zeelandia Beach offers visitors the opportunity to literally walk up to a Red-billed Tropicbird nesting in the sandstone cliff face. Nesting season is from October to May, with peak activity from January to March. Statia and its sister island Saba, some 20 miles away, support one of the largest breeding populations of Red-billed Tropicbirds in the region. This may be due to a lack of coastal development on our small islands, which offer a safe nesting haven for a pelagic species with high site fidelity.

On the Caribbean Birding Trail in the Dominican Republic

Participants practicing how to use spotting scopes to identify distant birds. (Photo by Beny Wilson)
Participants practicing how to use spotting scopes to identify distant birds. (Photo by Beny Wilson)

Say “Dominican Republic” and almost instantly the image that appears in one’s head is that of a long, straight and blinding white-sand beach on which an infinite stream of foamy crests come to end their journey across the blue-green Caribbean canvas. This mental picture has been implanted in our brains by thousands of magazine articles and television ads, and though beautiful, there is nothing particularly unique about it.

The setting of the most recent Caribbean Birding Trail Interpretive Guide Training in the Dominican Republic was the virtual opposite of this cookie cutter image of a sandy beach. This time the training was high up in the mountains—a scene like no other on the planet—in a valley surrounded by high ridges everywhere, and all around a tapestry of produce fields that extend as far as the eye can see. Rows of carrots, lettuce, potatoes, and strawberries carefully divide the land into small and big parcels. The air is chilled by the mountain breeze, enough to make us don our jackets and blow warm air into our cold hands. This, too, is the Dominican Republic, or La Española as the first Spaniards named it the last days of the 15th Century when they first arrived in these realms:

The land there is elevated, with many mountains and peaks incomparably higher than in the center isle. They are most beautiful, of a thousand varied forms, accessible, and full of trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to touch the sky, and I have been told that they never lose their foliage. I saw them as green and lovely as trees are in Spain in the month of May. Some of them were covered with blossoms, some with fruit, and some in other conditions, according to their kind. The nightingale and other small birds of a thousand kinds were singing in the month of November when I was there.

After reading this paragraph from a letter sent by Christopher Columbus to Luis De Santangel in which he announced the discovery of new land, we are convinced that Columbus did in fact visit the area of Constanza and Valle Nuevo, or at least he visited a very similar mountain area not far from here, because this is exactly the feeling we had when we arrived for the third Caribbean Birding Trail Interpretive Guide Training program.

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See the Birds of Jamaica with Paradise Birding and Save $500

Endemics, like the Jamaican Oriole, abound in the Blue Mountains (Photo by Steve Shunk)
Endemics, like the Jamaican Oriole, abound in the Blue Mountains. (Photo by Steve Shunk)

Anyone who attended BirdsCaribbean’s 20th International Meeting in Jamaica will surely recognize Steven Shunk, one of the keynote speakers at the event and owner of Paradise Birding. We have partnered together to offer a special discount of $500 off on the upcoming Paradise Birding tour of Jamaica for any BirdsCaribbean members. Plus, Paradise Birding will also support our conservation work by making a $100 donation to BirdsCaribbean for each member who signs up.

What’s in it for you? The best possible birding tour of Jamaica, highlighting the 29 endemic bird species that are found only on Jamaica. The tour is February 8-15, 2016 and you can get all the info on the Paradise Birding website: Caribbean Endemics of Jamaica Birding Tour. The lead guide will be Steve Shunk, fresh from his visit this summer, and the full itinerary includes the Blue Mountains, Port Antonio, Ecclesdown Road and more. Former President of BirdLife Jamaica, and perhaps the best birding guide on the island, Ricardo Miller of Arrowhead Birding, will be our local guide in Jamaica.

The iconic Red-billed Streamertail is one of Jamaica's most famous endemics. (Photo by Steve Shunk)
The iconic Red-billed Streamertail is one of Jamaica’s most famous endemics. (Photo by Steve Shunk)
Birding tourism has the potential to transform bird conservation in the Caribbean, by creating a market for birds and their habitats. BirdsCaribbean is working with our partners to tap into this potential through our Caribbean Birding Trail project and by working with birding tour operators in the region and beyond to showcase our unique bird diversity and create unforgettable experiences like the Paradise Birding Jamaica tour.

If you are interested, visit the Paradise Birding site for more information about the tour, including a detailed itinerary. The $500 discount on the Jamaica trip is valid until November 22nd.

Birding Tours of Cuba in 2016 from BirdsCaribbean

The Bee Hummingbird, one of Cuba's most adorable endemics. (Photo by Ernesto Reyes)
The Bee Hummingbird, one of Cuba’s most adorable endemics. (Photo by Ernesto Reyes)

Join BirdsCaribbean, the Caribbean Birding Trail and acclaimed Cuban bird guide, Ernesto Reyes Mouriño, on the adventure of a lifetime in January or March of 2016.

Cuba is well-known for its amazing landscapes, vibrant culture and unique biodiversity. According to the new Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide, 371 birds have been recorded in Cuba, including 26 which are endemic to the island and 30 which are considered globally threatened. Due to its large land area and geographical position within the Caribbean, Cuba is also extraordinarily important for Neotropical migratory birds—more than 180 species pass through during migration or spend the winter on the island.

Our itinerary takes you to several of the best and most beautiful birding locations in Cuba, providing opportunities to see many of Cuba’s endemic species and subspecies as well as many migrants. Along the way, we will meet  people in local communities, stay mainly in Bed & Breakfast establishments (casas particulares) and eat in private restaurants (paladars), allowing you to experience Cuba’s rich culture, delicious food, friendly people, and generous hospitality. We will also have the opportunity to meet and  have discussions with local ornithologists and conservationists that have been working with BirdsCaribbean for many years.

BirdsCaribbean is offering two tours in 2016: a 7-day trip in January and a 10-day trip in March. Find detailed itineraries for both trips below. Traveling with us helps Caribbean birds as a portion of the proceeds from the trip supports our bird conservation programs in Cuba and the Caribbean.  With new relations opening up, this is the perfect time to take your birding trip to Cuba, don’t delay!

These trips are completed!  See a report of our January trip here.

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Caribbean Birding Trail Conducts First Guide Training Program for 24 Participants in Jamaica

Training participants practicing their bird identification on Burnt Hill Road in Cockpit Country. Photo by Lisa Sorenson.
Training participants practicing their bird identification on Burnt Hill Road in Cockpit Country. Photo by Lisa Sorenson.

Robin Redbreast. Big Tom-Fool. Mountain Witch. Until recently, those were the only names Caribbean Birding Trail Guide Training participants would have used for some of Jamaica’s common birds. Now, after having successfully completed the five-day training course, participants know that these birds also have common English names that are recognized internationally by the birding community: Jamaican Tody (Robin Redbreast), Rufous-tailed Flycatcher (Big Tom-Fool) and Crested Quail Dove (Mountain Witch). With this knowledge, the guides can now share stories about Jamaica’s unique birdlife, including how these birds got their local names, for a growing global audience.

The Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT) Interpretive Guide Training Program was held from 15-19 June in Albert Town, in the parish of Trelawny and the heart of Cockpit Country. Hosted locally by the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA), the course was attended by 24 participants—staff from local tour operators, non-profit organizations and independent guides. Jamaica is the second country to receive this training from the CBT, a newly launched project of the regional non-profit organization BirdsCaribbean.

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