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Introducing Birdwatching in Cuba

Cuba teems with birdlife - from the multi-coloured Cuban Parrot to the tiny emerald-feathered hummingbird, and from the pink wading Greater Flamingo to the singing Cuban Solitaire. Cuba is home to some 358 species of birds and 21 of these species are endemic to the island.

These include the Bee Hummingbird which is the smallest bird in the world; the Cuban Tody, a.k.a the Cartacuba and the island's cutest bird, splashed in bright green and red; and the handsome Cuban Trogon, which sports the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag - which is why it has been declared the island's national bird.

Cuba's mangroves, swamps, sandy coastlines, pine forests and tropical valleys are breeding grounds for thousands of these birds, the vast majority of which are migratory.

Cuba boasts some 80 protected land and marine sites across its archipelago. The top spots for twitchers are the Zapata swamp, the largest swampland in the West Indies and found on Cuba's southern coast; the sandy beaches and mangrove flats of the Gardens of the King, a small archipelago made up of tiny keys stretched along Cuba's northern coast; La Guira Park in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range located in western Cuba; and the Najasa area in the southeastern province of Camaguey in central Cuba. But not to be underestimated, the far eastern mountains found north of Cuba's former capital of Baracoa, a city that dates back to the 16th-century and which sits facing the Atlantic Ocean, are home to the highest percentage of endemic species on the island.

Birdwatchers also come here for a chance to spot critically endangered flights of feather. Numbered among these are the red-necked Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Hook-billed Kite, the yellow, and black-breasted Bachman's Warbler, and the small, muted-yellow Thick-billed Vireo.

What to do and sights to see

Birdwatching is possible across the main island and its surrounding keys but there are four hot spots which promise the richest twitching opportunities. These include the Zapata swamp, the boot-shaped peninsula jutting out of the bottom of the island in central Matanzas province; the Gardens of the King (Jardines del Rey), a coral archipelago made up of several large islands or keys (Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Romano, Cayo Guayaba and Cayo Sabinal), and hundreds of smaller scattered keys that are sprinkled along the north central coast of Cuba; the pine-tree and semi-tropical forests of the Sierra del Rosario mountains in western Cuba; and the Sierra de Najasa hills dominated by the El Chorrillo peak, a limestone karst area dotted with mogotes and caves located in the southeast corner of the province of Camaguey in central Cuba. A fifth area, close to the far eastern coast of Cuba, north of Baracoa, is also a birdwatcher's paradise.

Zapata National Park

Zapata National Park

The Zapata National Park is Cuba's largest swampland providing the richest opportunity for birdwatching in Cuba with some 83 per cent of endemic species present in the region. Some 18 of Cuba's 21 endemic species live in the crocodile-infested swamp, salt flats, and scrubland, and along the stunning beautiful River Hatiguanico, including the Zapata Wren, (Ferminia cerverai), Zapata Sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata), and Zapata Rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai). There are several trails into the Zapata forest used by birders. These include the Santo Tomas trail, Soplillar trail, and Bermejas trail. Spotting highlights include the zunzuncito, a.k.a. the Bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), the rare Gundlach's Hawk (Accipiter gundlachi), the Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops), and Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae).

Cayo Coco, north coast of Cuba

Cayo Coco, north coast of Cuba

Cayo Coco, a small key and a popular beach tourist hotspot with a line of first class hotels sitting along its beautiful shoreline, is surrounded by the wild beauty of mangrove swamps, seagrass and sand dunes which are fringed by pristine turquoise seas.

More than 200 bird species live on Cuba's northern keys including endemic species such as the Oriente Warbler (Teretistris fornsi), and the metallic grey Cuban Gnatcatcher (Polioptila lembeyei). The region is also home to one of the largest colonies of Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the Caribbean. On neighbouring uninhabited Cayo Paredon Grande, intrepid twitchers can spy the endangered Thick-billed Vireo (Vireo crassirostris), and common inhabitants such as the Cuban Vireo (Vireo gundlachii), and the Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus).

La Guira Park, Western Cuba

La Guira Park, Western Cuba

The pine-tree peppered mountains and semi-tropical forests of the Sierra del Rosario in western Cuba are home to around 100 species of Cuba's birds including the endemic Cuban Solitaire (Myadestes elisabeth), also known as the Cuban Nightingale or Ruisenor in Cuba, the Yellow-headed Warbler (Teretistris fernandinae), Gundlach's Hawk (Accipiter gundlachi), and Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae). Good bases from which to kick off birdwatching expeditions here are Hacienda Cortina inside the park, the village of Soroa, Las Terrazas eco-community, and the small town of San Diego de los Banos.

Sierra de Najasa, Central Cuba

Sierra de Najasa, Central Cuba

The Sierra de Najasa, overlooked by the El Chorrillo peak, is a limestone karst area dotted with mogotes and caves in the southeast corner of Camaguey province in central Cuba. Birding highlights include the rare Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipter striatus), the coffee-coloured Plain Pigeon (Columba inornata), the Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops), the rare, primary-coloured Cuban Parrot (Amazona leucocephala), the rare Giant Kingbird (Tyrannus cubensis), and Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae). Birdwatchers base themselves at the Ranch La Belen and explore the area trekking along recognised bird trails.

Cuchillas del Toa, Eastern Cuba

Cuchillas del Toa, Eastern Cuba

The Cuchillas del Toa mountain range in eastern Cuba offers rich pickings for birders with high rates of endemic species inhabiting the forests. Pine forest, rainforest, coastal bays, and high rainfall make this one of the most beautiful, lush and fertile corners of Cuba. Some 12 endemic species of bird make their home here including the Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops), the rare, primary-coloured Cuban Parrot (Amazona leucocephala), the zunzuncito, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), and the Oriente Warbler (Teretistris fornsi). The mountains are also a haven for the endangered Hook-billed Kite (Chondronhierax uncinatus), and the rarest of all birds in Cuba, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis).

Tips and tricks

Birdwatching in Cuba is possible year-round but there are certain times of year that prove more productive than others. Also, the best times of year for twitching usually coincide with the island's most enjoyable and mild weather season. Cuba's dry season runs from November until April, and its wet season, when humidity soars along with rising temperatures, runs from May to September. All birdwatching spots in Cuba are off the main tourist track, so car hire is essential. You will also need to bring all your equipment with you as it's most likely that you will not be able to buy any specialist or non-specialist equipment in Cuba.

Best time of year for birdwatching in Cuba

The best times of year to go birdwatching in Cuba are the winter months when a large number of bird species are present on the island including winter residents and transitory birds. Transitory birds are also best seen between August and October, and between February and April. That being said, during the summer breeding months, more native species can be spotted, too.

Equipment

Bring all your birdwatching equipment with you - binoculars, telescopes, spotting scopes, field guides, cameras and lenses. It's highly unlikely that you'll be able to purchase anything of this nature in the island. Cuba is extremely hot and humid in the summer months so bring appropriate hot weather clothes. Wear closed walking shoes or hiking boots year-round as much of the walking - especially in the Zapata region - is in scrubland. Insect repellent and sun block are essential.

Car hire

The best birdwatching spots in Cuba are all off the beaten track and miles from public transport routes. Hiring a car also means being flexible on your birdwatching holiday to Cuba. A 4x4 isn't necessary but a sturdy vehicle is as some of the roads - especially the road out to Santo Tomas in the Zapata peninsula - are in very bad condition. Note that the best birdwatching time of year - November to April - is also the high season for tourism. Cars are in huge demand over this period so advance booking is essential.

Claire Boobbyer

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Claire Boobbyer

Cultural Explorer

A self-confessed wanderluster and devoted culture lover, Claire writes about her frequent travels...

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