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A splash of colour in an otherwise grey world: Trops goes to Cuba

Posted by on March 17, 2014 10:23 AM | 


Mercifully he's ditched the goatee beard and beret, but a trip to Cuba (nice Cuban Emerald above, appropriately green for a St Patrick's Day blog post) earlier this year clearly left a powerful impression on Tropical Thomason.
Sorry it took so long to decipher and post your latest stream of (un)consciousness Trops, thanks for sending it to me.
Lurvely tropical pix...
Pretty jealous really - Cuba is a place I'd love to see "before it's too late", as the saying goes.
Ah well, over to a man lucky enough to get there...gawd help us, I wonder if Che had a pair of pins like that?
It's enough to put a man off his cigarillos, much less spark another revolution...


Birding in the footsteps of Ernesto and Ernest in Cuba:
by Tropical Thomason

A two week trip to Cuba in January this year with my understanding and patient good lady gave me a chance to get to grips with some Cuban and Caribbean endemics.
Our trip was a journey of two halves, the first week touring the western half of the island and the second week chillin' on the Cayos.
Our route for the first week took us to Trinidad and Cienfuegos on the south coast, then up to Santa Clara, the city made famous by Che Guevara.
It was here that Che and the boys bulldozed the railtrack derailing a government troop and munition train, the government troops wouldn't come out and fight so Che got the lads to light fires under the armoured trucks, and the troops soon hot footed it out into the arms of the revolutionaries.


12 hours later Batista fled the country and Che Cienfuegos and Fidel marched into Havana and history.
Long live the revolution.
It is here that Che's remains have been interned, a mausoleum square and statue have been erected in his honour, the statue reminds me of Wolfie from the T.P.F. (Tooting Popular front) in Citizen Smith.
Power to the people.
We also marched (well, drove) in a small Chinese coach into Havana.
The coach was our home for the week which we shared with 10 other British and Latvian tourists. Our guide Alex was justly proud of his country despite the sanctions and difficulties of the big brother neighbour next door.
He brought to life the Spanish and Revolutionary history of his beloved island as we passed from city to city, while I screamed Caracara or "GAG" (Greater Antillean Grackle) as we thundered down the bumpy "motorway".
The others on the coach soon realised they had a mad birder on the bus, Within 2 days most could id a "T.V." or "Northern Mocker". This had its advantages, at every piss/refreshment stop we made, they would fan out and find birds for me. I got my first Loggerhead Kingbird and Cuban Green Woodpecker this way.


Cuban Green Woodpecker

Havana is a strange place, a city in limbo, crumbling yet full of character and life. You can gauge a place by the people and Havanans (?) seem content, I never felt threatened, even at 6am while birding in the small parks around Revolution Square.
I was approached by a teenager while I was looking at a derelict side street that had been turned into a small market garden, he asked, in not bad English, if I was lost and did I need any help?
The morning of my first day in the country I fell in love with it, I awoke very early (jetlag and all that), and the town of Sancti Spiritus was still dark and not a soul about.
I knew the town had the oldest bridge in Cuba so I thought I'd go and tick it off. Next to the bridge was a street stall selling and smelling of coffee and food, I asked for a coffee in my best Spanish and was given an egg cup of brown bliss.
I'd best pay and get back I thought, so I handed the man a 20 CUC peso note - everyone looked at me as if I'd just stepped off a spaceship. After lots of mutterings murmurings and mumblings the guy that stood next to me payed my bill.
I later learnt that 1 CUC Peso is equivalant to 1$ or 25 old Cuban pesos, as the coffee had cost about 25 cents old money, I'd in fact given the coffee stall man the equivalent of a £500 note for a 25p cup of coffee at 06:30am, d'oh.
Later that morning Lynette and I watched from our balcony as the town's schoolchildren gathered in the central square below, dads giving daughters a "grogger" on their old bikes, mums walking the kids to the bus stop, all very lively and colourful.
Pupils all wore the same bright uniforms with compulsory (?) red triangle neckerchief, (see Cuban flag), although the teenage lads sported all styles of flat tops, side shaved or mohican hair styles as a show of individuality.
They chatted cheerfully, without the aid of an i-phone, pod, pad or patch, until the buses arrived and the square fell back to its 6:30 sleepiness.
Anyway the birdin:
Birdin' from a coach with 11 other non-birders can be a bit frustrating, just when you're on a probable new lifer, Alex is rounding us all up to see yet another statue of Fiddle, oops Fidel or Che.
Still managed to get some of the easy endemics onto the list including Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Emerald and Cuban Green Woodpecker, other goodies included Great Lizard Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Antillian Palm Swift, Grey and Loggerhead Kingbird, Red-legged Thrush, Black-cowled Oriole and a good handful of Yankee warblers, mostly in full summer nick.


Yellow-throated Warbler

After our touring about we flew down to Caya Coco and then on to Cayo Guillermo, the smallest of the Jardines del Rey islands on the Atlantic side of Cuba. Here the birdin' started in Ernest (sic), the nearest beach to our hotel is called Playa Pilar, named after Hemingway's boat, apparently when he wasn't downing daquiris in the Floridita bar in Havana (he holds the record of 47 in a day) and for this feat a full size bronze statue of the great man now permanently props up the bar, he would go fishing for Marlin or hunting for Nazi subs during WWII.
Cayo Guillermo is mostly mangroves, lagoons and beach, with clusters of all-inclusive hotels dotted along the coast.
Birding the hotel grounds and mangrove edges was very productive. American warblers where everywhere, Palm Warblers where abundant, even feeding with House Sparrows in the hotel grounds.


Palm Warbler

This warbler must surely be the next live Yankee warbler to get on to Category A British list. Other warblers seen in or around the hotel included, Yellow, Cape May, Black and White, Swainsons, Worm Eating, Prairie, Black-throated Blue, Parula, Yellow-throated, Yellow-rumped, Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush.


Black Throated Blue Warbler


Prairie Warbler


Yellow Warbler

The wetter mangroves held good numbers of waders herons and ducks, including Wood Stork (1), Glossy Ibis (2), Rosy Spoonbill, White Ibis, Greater Flamingo, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Reddish, Great and Snowy Egrets.
Waders included Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet and Grey Plover.
Smaller "peeps" stayed out of bin range and having no 'scope I had to let them go.
Early morning walks produced birds like Sora Rail, Zapata Sparrow (1), Yellow Bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Grey Catbird.
If you could get out to the mangroves at first light before the coaches bringing in the mainland workers started to arrive, the ducks, herons and flamingoes would be close up to the roadside.
One morning I could hear a strange loud whistled call "ba-TIS-ta ba-TIS-ta", a Cuban Black Hawk was being hotly persued by a Caracara, they twisted and turned, the hawk calling all the time till it was lost to sight, the Spanish name for the black hawk is gavilan batista.
Was this a natural re-enactment of Black Hawk Batista being chased out of the country by Che Caracara I mused.
The small car park area by Pilar beach proved to be a very birdy area, it produced all the usual american birds as well as Cuban Pewee, La Sagre's Flycatcher, Painted Bunting, Stripe-headed Tanager, White-eyed Vireo, Cuban Bullfinch and a small sparrow which was probably Savannah - all American sparrows are scarce or rare on Cuba so it was annoying not to be able to properly id it.
I was keen to spend a day with a local guide, and so after making inquiries I managed to track down Paulino Lopez Delgado, he was a busy birder but suggested I could join a group of 3 birders he was taking out for a half day.
I told him that I'd teamed up with Bruce, a Canadian birder who wanted to come along too, he said that would be fine and he would organise some transport.


So at 05:45 Bruce and I where duly waiting at the hotel lobby when this vehicle pulled up, I'd seen lots of old American cars that Cuba is famous for but nothing like this.
It was the size of a small barn, in fact it looked like a small barn on wheels, similar colour too. Bruce and I scrambled into the back row of seats and set off.
First stop was for Oriente Warbler which duly popped up on cue, it's is one of the two endemic warblers of Cuba, the other Yellow-headed Warbler lives on the western half of the island while Oriente lives in the eastern half and they don't overlap.
We drove off the Cayos and onto the mainland, all 7 of us, Paulino and driver and 5 assorted birders, our next stop was by a small fishing village where we quickly picked up Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Trogon, Limpkin, Fulvous Whistling Ducks, West Indian Whistling Duck, Northern Flicker, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Parrot. Photography was made difficult as there where military buildings in the area but a few pics were managed.


Cuban Trogon


West Indian Whistling Duck


Cuban Pewee


West Indian Woodpecker

As time was at a premium we all bundled back into the mobile barn and shot off, back onto the Cayos, we ended up in a clearing in a wooded area in the middle of Cayo Coco. Drinking troughs and drip feeders had been placed at the edge of the wood and soon birds started to appear, Cuban Tody, Worm-eating Warbler and Swainson's Warbler, Painted and Indigo Buntings, Common Ground Dove was quickly followed by a Key West Quail Dove, then came Red-legged Thrush and Gray Catbird quickly followed by Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush, while brighter yankee warblers flicked about in the trees above.


Key West Quail Dove

Bruce was spinning like a top as different and new birds for him were being called out all the time, he told me later that it was one of the best days birdin' of his life, and this guy had worked at Point Pelee.
On to our last stop, which was close to our hotel, here Paulino taped out a Cuban Gnatcatcher while a Bahaman Mockingbird perched close to a Northern Mockingbird, a brilliant end to a brilliant morning.
I had to ask the driver how old the car was.
"51"' he replied.
"Woow 51 years old", I exclaimed.
"No amigo, made in '51", came the response.
Bloody 'ell it's as old as me and in much better nick!
It was a '51 Chevvy shooting brake, affectionately known as a "tin woody".


American Kestrels


Any birder staying in the Cayos can contact Paulino by email or 53-52673207 cell phone.
I can recommend Cuba as not just a place to bird but also to visit, it's like stepping back in time.
115 species were seen (29 lifers) including 10 of the 22 endemics, and because of its position between the two great land masses of the Americas, Cuba also has scope for finding scarce birds.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird is classed as a rare transient, yet I saw three.

"Hasta la victoria siempre.
Patria o muerte".
Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the last true knight errant

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...


Can't compete with Cuba (take a look out of the window!!!) but - Chiffchaff singing again in Coronation Park, Ormskirk, this morning, and a Blackcap rehearsing at Martin Mere yesterday afternoon. Spring may be close by, but even the postman's gone back to "warm and waterproof" this morning.

A Chiffchaff was back in the wooded cutting off Selworthy Road by Royal Birkdale by the 14th, 2 were back singing in the Kew area this past week also.

I've put some clips of the long staying Long Tailed Duck taken on Thursday at Nel's onto YouTube.
You can see it here:
Male or female?

Enjoyed the footage of the Long Tailed Duck, thanks Ron.
Had a walk along the embankment at Banks (south of HOM) late yesterday afternoon in the howling off-shore wind. I met a group of birders bemoaning the lack of migrants in evidence, then just after they'd gone, up popped a stunning Wheatear, all pristine and fresh.
A proper little jewel of a bird!
As you said John - just as it should be.
A brace of Grey Partridge at Marshfield Farm too.

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