Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

     Winter in Ontario means snow. Sometimes not so much, sometimes the stuff that buries houses.
    We spent last weekend in Ottawa with my daughter, Caroline, her husband, Andrew, and our two grandchildren Sam and Will, who are now by the way, both taller than their grandpa. Shouldn't there be a law against that?
    We arrived on Friday, early afternoon, and all was dry. We did hit a couple of snow squalls on the way from Waterloo to Ottawa, but nothing serious.
    Overnight, however, from Friday into Saturday, several centimetres of snow fell, and the landscape was transformed. On Saturday afternoon we decided to go for a walk at Petrie Islands Park, one of our favourite spots to do a little birding; an area that over the years has been extremely productive.
     There was still open water and a lone Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) had decided to tough out the early winter and was still making a living. That may soon change as temperatures begin to dip and even the Ottawa River freezes up. Ice was forming along the shore.



     American Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been busy laying in winter storage, and there was evidence of their depredation everywhere. 




     The extent to which a family of beavers can transform a landscape is nothing short of amazing.
     In terms of birds, the most exciting find was a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) who obligingly alerted us to their presence by a volley of their loud staccato call. This is a spectacular bird by any standards.






     In fact, birds in general were sparse, not unexpected given the time of year.
     We had a great walk, however, with much to interest us and returned home well satisfied with our afternoon perambulation. 
     The next day was a little colder, but still very pleasant, so we all decided to set off again, this time in the woods surrounding the neighbourhood where Caroline and Andrew live, and combine a bracing walk with the dog's daily exercise.
     Here, at the trailhead, are Andrew, Caroline, and Nalla, their faithful companion.



     The woods were snowy and very appealing, with crisp sounds underfoot, snow laden conifers,  and the cheerful accompaniment of chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches.



     Someone seems to have made it a Christmas project to install bird feeders deep in the woods and adorn them for the season.



     The feeders were empty, however, otherwise there would doubtless have been a constant parade of birds.
     Nalla revels in a romp in the woods but never gets too far ahead without checking back to make sure that her human charges are not lagging too far behind.



     We returned home after a couple of hours for a welcome glass of wine (maybe two) and one of Caroline's always superb dinners.
     When we left Ottawa on Monday morning the temperature was minus 18°. Winter has truly arrived, whatever the calendar says.
     Yesterday was the day for our regular Tuesday Ramble with David and we elected to walk along the Mill Race Trail. Mary is away in Florida, Franc was feeling under the weather and Carol had other plans so we were just five.
     Snow is not confined to Ottawa as you may see.



     Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a year-round resident and both males and females were common.




     This pair of Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) seemed unfazed by the snow, which was falling heavily at times.



     Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) deals with winter with aplomb.



     The trail has such a different aspect from season to season and in some ways winter is the most appealing.




     One certainly doesn't have to worry about mosquitoes biting!
     We lost count of the number of Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) but they were very common indeed.




     This Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had not yet retired to spend the winter under the ice, perhaps in a comfortable beaver den, warm and dry.



     As naturalists in a northern land we celebrate winter and all that it has to offer. I urge anyone who dreads the advent of the season to get out and enjoy it - dress warmly, keep your eyes and ears open and a whole world will reveal itself to you.
     And for those of you who have just read this blog post, enjoy this wonderful compilation.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Trip Report - Cuba - 19 - 28 November 2017

Background

     Although we had been to Cuba twice and enjoyed it very much, we still needed to visit the legendary wetlands of Zapata to have any chance to find many of Cuban's endemic birds not yet experienced. Franc and Carol had indicated from the getgo that they wanted to go and Judy and Mary soon joined in. Carol's son, Adam and her daughter, Nicky, together with their children Boe, Lincoln and Spencer also were happy to sign on for a week in the sun, especially since mom/grandma would be there to spoil them.

19 November 2017
Waterloo - Pearson International Airport - Varadero

     Our flight was scheduled for departure at 06h:15 so Judy and Mary arrived at our house at 02h:30 to drive to Pearson International Airport. We knew that the highway was closed at Milton for the removal of an old bridge, but the detour took very little time at all and we lost at most four or five minutes. 
     We went to the airport parking lot that I have used for many years and in no time at all found ourselves at the terminal. Check-in was very smooth - well, for us anyway. Sunwing is pretty sticky about the weight limit for cabin baggage and Franc's camera and lens exceeded it, so they had a bit of an issue about that. Finally it was all resolved and we proceeded through to the boarding lounge.
     

    Take-off was delayed for a short time while the plane was deiced, but we then had a smooth flight to Varadaro, were quickly through customs and immigration formalities, and were on a bus to the Grand Memories Resort.
     We arrived long before the rooms were ready for occupancy so we stored our luggage in a designated area and went for lunch at the snack bar. I had a tuna salad, which was in fact a potato salad with a hint of tuna, and a chicken sandwich, with a glass of wine. It filled the void but was less than memorable. Miriam forgets what she ate so it was presumably even less memorable!
     But we were entertained royally by Greater Antillean Grackles (Quiscalus niger) hopping around the tables, perching on the backs of chairs, filching every scrap of food they could get. Better not leave your plate unattended!






       Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) were so ubiquitous Judy named them Cuban Sparrows!



     Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica) was also quite common and had no hesitation in coming into a dining room crowded with people, with all the hustle and noise of serving staff, dishes clanging, glasses clinking, children rollicking, raucous laughter, and the other sounds and actions of joyful vacationers. 






     Antillean Palm Swifts (Tachornis phoenicobia) hawked for insects over the resort, sometimes swooping quite low to facilitate really good looks.




     We finally gained access to our room at 14h:45 where we relaxed for a while and I took a nap. Then we sat out on our patio enjoying whatever birds happened by.



     Cuban Blackbird (Dives atroviolaceus) was not nearly as ubiquitous as it had been at Marea del Portillo, but it was present nonetheless.



     The toilet, as far as we knew, worked fine, but a maintenance worker came to fix it. Then it didn't work. Every time it was flushed water spewed out like a geyser and flooded the bathroom floor. The water was creeping inexorably towards the bathroom door whence it would start to penetrate the area where we were sleeping. The washroom sink flooded the counter every time we so much as washed our hands.There was no hot water. Other than that everything was fine.
     Dinner was taken from an extensive buffet and while the selection was very acceptable, everything that was supposed to be hot was cold. As far as we could tell the containers used to keep food warm had no hot water under them so the food quickly cooled. 
     We turned in around 21h:30 having tiptoed through the rapidly forming lake in the bathroom.

Accommodations: Grand Memories Resort  Rating: 3 stars.

All species 19 November: Magnificent Frigatebird, Double-crested Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Turkey Vulture, Lesser Yellowlegs, Common Ground Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, Antillean Palm Swift, Cuban Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, House Sparrow.

20 November 2017
Grand Memories Resort

     We had a good night's sleep and waded through the bathroom wetland to shower in cold water, shave (me) in cold water and then slosh back through the wading pool on the floor.
     I went to the front desk to advise them of our dilemma. I was asked, solicitously I might add, whether I was about to go for breakfast. Upon answering in the affirmative, I was assured that the toilet would be fixed when I returned to the room. Need I even say that it was not?
     We went for a walk along the beach to do a little birding and generally get ourselves familiarized with everything.



     It was quite wonderful to see a Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) cruising over the water coming in for a landing, especially when one contemplates their endangered status not so many years ago. 



     There were numerous Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) cruising over the water and plunge diving for fish. They seemed to be enjoying great success.


   
     They were joined from time to time by a few Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia), their larger cousins.



     The default gull here was Laughing Gull (Leucocephalus atricilla) but it was relatively infrequent at this location.




     I remember well the American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) that seemed to populate every light standard at Marea del Portillo; it seemed no different here.



     On the way back we stopped at the snack bar to get a cold drink and a fellow was there with a captive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). We assumed that the purpose of this was to deter the grackles from invading the tables, but we never saw the hawk or its handler again so I not so sure that was the case. In any event, it was a magnificent creature and Miriam enjoyed its company.





     We were back at our room a little after 11h:00 and the toilet was still doing its imitation of Old Faithful, so I went back to "Guest Services" to encourage them to fix the damn thing. Once again we were assured that it would be taken care of right away. We went for a little walk, returned to the room, and found the bathroom mopped out and the toilet fixed. Or was it? We got one flush from the toilet and that was it; the tank would not fill up again with water. 
     After lunch at the buffet, where everything hot is cold again, we meandered a little, snoozed a little, read a little, meandered some more and met everyone for dinner at 19h:00. Before leaving we all made a sandwich for the following day, since we would be leaving before the breakfast spread would be available.
     We were to embark on our trip to the Zapata Swamp the next morning, and Tania Piñeiro, the guide we had contracted with before leaving Canada, would be picking us up at 06h:00, so we bade each other goodnight at around 20h:30 and retired for the night.
     We soon learned that it takes a little over four large water bottles to fill a toilet tank - but we would be away for two nights and three days so obviously the wonder workers of the energetic and competent maintenance staff would have ample time to tackle this complex technical issue. We expected a smooth flush upon our return.

All species 20 November: Laughing Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Common Ground Dove, Antillean Palm Swift, American Kestrel, Cuban Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Greater Antillean Grackle, House Sparrow.

21 November 2017
Varadero - Pálpite Soplillar - Las Salinas 

     We all met in the lobby at 05h:45. I went to advise the front desk that we would be away for two nights so not to worry when presented with no evidence of occupancy each morning. Given the close attention to detail and overall vigilance of the staff I felt this was entirely necessary. I also opined that they would be able to work at the toilet, unbothered by even the slightest notion that they might disturb an afternoon siesta, or other activity not spoken of in polite company, so as to assure that our tank would merrily refill each time it was discharged, and that when we returned toilet woes would be but a distant memory. As for hot water, the shrug of their shoulders told me that it was barely worthwhile pursuing this issue, so I did not.
     While walking back to Miriam and the others (everyone but Carol who opted to stay behind to spend the time with her family) I met Tania. We introduced ourselves to each other and I paid her the fee for her services, having gathered up everyone's share of the total ahead of time. They say that first impressions are important and I felt immediately that we had found a winner and that we would all like her very much. We were introduced to our driver, Adonis Barroso, who impressed us similarly as a sterling fellow. These conclusions were validated at every turn.
     We set off in high spirits, in a comfortable minivan of Chinese manufacture, for our adventures in the Zapata Swamp, the third largest wetland in the Americas, exceeded only by the Pantanal in Brazil and the Everglades in Florida, USA.






     During the morning we birded along easy-to-travel flat roads in swamp-forest near Sopillar, where Tania knew from experience that certain species could be found.
     

     Her sense of timing and her knowledge of the area were impeccable. The endemic Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus) was easily located and there were several in the area. It is a very handsome bird indeed and was a lifer for everyone except Miriam and me. We were able to have very good looks at this bird, for prolonged periods.





     A Great Lizard Cuckoo (Coccyzus merlini) is a spectacular bird, fairly common, but always exciting.


     Perhaps this Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) bred in Ontario just a few months ago.


     When we visited Marea del Portillo and the surrounding area we searched long and hard, travelling great distances at times to find Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus) under blazing sun, and both times we found only one - and the first time it flew almost as soon as we saw it. Here, Cuban Trogon verged on common, and at one point I said to Tania, "I have three trogons now." "Look again, David," she replied, "There are seven." And indeed there were - and all visible quite clearly. It was quite an experience.



     In addition we had sterling looks at Yellow-headed Warbler (Teretistris fernandinae), a stunning endemic. 


     We were able to find both Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) and Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) feeding in typical waterthrush fashion.

Northern Waterthrush
      Judy, more than anyone else, enjoys seeing wood warblers who spend the breeding season with us, in their more permanent habitat in the Caribbean, so she will particularly enjoy these pictures.


Northern Parula
 

Black-and White Warbler
Prairie Warbler

American Redstart (First fall male?)



American Yellow Warbler (male)


American Yellow Warbler (female)
     Surely one of the favourite birds on any visit to Cuba, even for those with barely a passing curiosity about feathered creatures is Cuban Tody (Todus multicolor).



      In the right habitat Cuban Pewee (Contopus cariaeus) is one of the easiest Cuban endemics to find.



      La Sagra's Flycatcher (Myiarchus sagrae) was another endemic tyrant flycatcher, new to all of us.



     Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) was familiar from Marea del Portillo.




       Within the genus Turdus it seems to me that Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) is the most handsome species of all.




     There are no representatives of the Jacana family north of the Mexico/USA border, so to encounter this Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa) was a special treat.



      Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) were common every day, often in large kettles, but sometimes perched obligingly for photographs.






     Charcoal production is still practiced in Cuba. No doubt it is vital for cooking in many rural locations, but what it foretells for the future of the forests is anyone's guess.



     Just before leaving to go into town, we had the unalloyed delight of having a Cuban Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium siju) fly from one tree to another and perch quite visibly. Its presence attracted a mixed flock of songbirds who were not at all happy to see it there.



     Butterflies in foreign lands always present a bit of an identification challenge for us. If anyone can help with this one we would appreciate it. Thanks to Ronald Orenstein and Alvaro Jaramillo for help in identifying this butterfly as a White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae)...


     The same is true for this dragonfly. .....and the dragonfly as Great Pondhawk (Erythemis vesiculosa).


     Before going for lunch we visited a house with a Firebush (Hamelia patens) where Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is virtually guaranteed and we were not disappointed, seeing several individuals, including a male that perched for five minutes or more. 

Male




Female




     Cuba is home to two endemic hummingbirds, the other being Cuban Emerald (Chlorostilbon ricordii) which was feeding in the same tree.



     A Western Spindalis (Spindalis zena) visited the Firebush also, and several Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds (Agelaius humeralis) fed in the garden.


Western Spindalis
     Lunch was taken in a restaurant called Tiki and was very agreeable indeed. 



     They served a pineapple juice that was nothing short of delicious, and we started with a little dish of ground crab which we spread on bread. This was followed by a fish soup. I had Red Snapper fillet and Miriam had calamari. Mary started by ordering the fillet of fish but somehow changed her mind and received a whole Red Snapper on her plate. Her eyes were bigger than those of the fish! After trying valiantly to navigate around the bones she finally 



succumbed and asked the server to take it back to the kitchen to have it filleted. After that she boldly tackled it all, polished it off and declared it superb!
     Upon leaving the restaurant we checked into our B&Bs. No single house could handle all of us, so Miriam and I stayed at Cá del Sol, Judy and Mary at another, and Franc across the road by himself. Our charming hosts were Franklin and Lele, and their place was immaculate. They obviously had great pride in what they had achieved, and it was a total contrast to the resort where no one seemed to give a damn. In a pure stroke of serendipity our toilet did not work, but they went to fix it instantly, fixed it once and for all, and it worked evermore. Our room was well appointed, clean as a whistle, with an en suite bathroom. 



     Once we had deposited our bags in our room we left for Las Salinas to bird in a totally different habitat from the morning's activity. 
     One of the first significant species we saw was a white morph Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). It really is quite a stunning bird and I had not seen one in many, many years, the last one being in Florida, USA. These white birds are generally larger than the typical Great Blue Heron, with heavier bills. We had the luxury of seeing a white morph bird (probably the subspecies occidentalis) standing next to a Great Egret (Ardea alba) providing excellent comparison.







     The endemic Cuban Black Hawk (Buteogallus gundlachi) was seen several times, perched in a tree or on a snag along the waterway, searching for its favourite food - frogs, snakes and lizards, stranded fish, crayfish, large insects, crabs, turtle eggs and hatchlings, possibly iguanas; also carrion in the form of dead fish. ( Raptors of the World (2001). 






     Wood Storks (Mycteria americana) were seen.




      White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) probed the mud for food.



     An American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) sailed past on outspread wings like a vision of angels.




     A Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) looked like an apparition from the dawn of time.



     Tania was delivering for us again and again!
     There were large flocks of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), tall and stately, some almost deep red in colour. Some of them marched in unison like a well-trained corps of soldiers. Others provided with us with a formation fly past at close quarters. It was quite wonderful to say the least.




     We didn't keep count but I suspect that Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was the most numerous of the herons encountered and seemed to populate every corner of the wetland.



     A Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) put on a textbook display of the frenzied, madcap feeding activity for which the species is renowned. I think this exhibition was Mary's favourite sequence of the entire trip.




     There were also Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), Tricoloured Herons (Egretta tricolor), many other species of heron, ducks and various passerines from time to time. It was a magical place to be and since we were in the open, away from forested areas, with a light breeze, the mosquitoes that had plagued us a little during the morning were not a problem.






Tricoloured Heron
     Just before leaving this area we saw a flock of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and searched without success for Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans).





     Had we stayed a little longer we might have succeeded but as night approached mosquitoes and biting midges of some kind were on a mission to make life miserable for us so we scuttled back into the vehicle.
      Help with the identification of the following butterfly and dragonfly would be welcomed. Thanks again to Ronald and Alvaro. The butterfly is a Buckeye, sp. 
and the dragonfly a Saddelbags sp.




     The sunset was magnificent.



     On the way back to our B&Bs Tania took us to a formerly reliable spot to find Stygian Owl (Asio stygius) but it would not respond to her tape and she thinks it may have left the area. At the same location we were successful, however, in seeing Bare-legged Owl (Margarobyas lawrencii), a lifer for everyone, making it a two owl day which is always something to hoot about!  
     Tania had arrange with Franklin and Lele that the six of us could eat at our B&B so that we would be together for dinner (Tania and Adonis were heading home). The food was well prepared and delicious, tastefully presented, served with class, and pleasing in every way. We started out with fried cheese, followed by chicken and rice, potato wedges, salad, and rice pudding for dessert. We all shared in a bottle of Spanish red wine.
     Before going to sleep I took a shower and there was hot water. Hooray! But the pressure was so low the water barely dribbled out of the shower head. Boo hoo! 
     The bed was comfortable and both Miriam and I had a good night's sleep.

Accommodations: Cá del Sol   Rating: Four stars.

All species 21 November: American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Lesser Scaup, Wood Stork, Magnificent Frigatebird, Double-crested Cormorant, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricoloured Heron, Reddish Egret, Cattle Egret, Green heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, American Flamingo, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Cuban Black Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Northern Jacana, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Common Ground Dove, Zenaida Dove, Mourning Dove, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Bare-legged Owl, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Antillean Palm Swift, Cuban Emerald, Bee Hummingbird, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody, Belted Kingfisher, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Green Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Cuban Pewee, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Tree Swallow, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Red-legged Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Ovenbird, Lousiana Waterthrush, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-headed Warbler, Western Spindalis, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Oriole, House Sparrow.

22 November 2017
Santo Tomas and Soplillar

     After a hearty breakfast, prepared for us by Franklin and Lele at an early hour, Tania and Adonis arrived to pick us up to begin our morning's birding.
     We left for Santo Tomas and part way along the road both Tania and I simultaneously saw what we believed was a nightjar. Adonis stopped the vehicle and we all got out, to be treated to a stunning display put on by at least one and possibly two Cuban Nightjars (Antrostomus cubanensis). The aerial display was breathtaking, with birds at times so low we could have jumped up and touched them, but they also sat on the road, and just before we left perched on a low snag right in front of us, barely above eye level. Unfortunately the light was not favourable for photographs.
     We parked the vehicle and headed off along a wooden boardwalk to connect with the pole boats and their skillful handlers to penetrate deep into the swamp to search for two of the birds most emblematic of the Zapata Swamp, Zapata Sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata) and Zapata Wren (Ferminia cerveral).



     The journey along an ancient canal originally dug by the Spanish occupiers of Cuba was very pleasant indeed. The heat of the day had not yet become oppressive and the motion of the craft created a slight breeze. Our boatmen were skillful and responded to every instruction Tania gave them, even to the point of stabilizing the craft so that Franc could stand up to take pictures.
     It seemed that in no time at all a Zapata Sparrow popped up in front of us, close enough to the boat that we barely needed binoculars. It was a wonderful look at a bird that we perhaps will never see again.  I believe the bird we saw was of the subspecies sigmani.



  
     We moved farther along the canal and the boatmen jumped out into the water to push and shove our boat through narrow gaps in the sawgrass tussocks to get into prime position to locate Zapata Wren. 



     Tania played her tape and in the blink of an eye it seemed, a Zapata Wren was on a bare branch, singing and displaying. It was really quite fabulous, and we had seen both of these endemics within a half hour.





     As we wended our way back a Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra) popped up giving everyone a clear look.



     Some of these species take on an almost mystical quality for birders, many of whom will never have a chance to encounter them. Cuba seems remote and inaccessible to some, and of course there are still idiotic regimes which ban contact by their citizens with Cuba, and maintain embargoes enacted at other times under different circumstances. In this light, Miriam accessed her ETSY account from Cuba, using the limited WIFI available at the hotel, and based on the mere fact that she made contact, without conducting any transactions, her account was suspended. ETSY is an American organization, of course. Her account was reinstated after we returned to Canada, but it really makes one wonder how draconian it is that one may not even simply sign into a site on the internet without sanction or penalty. Thank goodness that Canada has always maintained open relations with Cuba. We have been there three times now, have always been made to feel very welcome by friendly people, and we hope to do it again.
      Twice, on the Florida Keys in the USA, I have seen White-crowned Pigeon (Patagioenas leucocephala) but for the briefest of moments. I was very happy, therefore to get a really good look at this bird, both perched and in flight.






     After we returned to our starting point we thanked our boatmen and tipped them generously, and left to do some more birding. It was very active, with warblers and vireos and other families to entertain us. Cuban Crow (Corvus nasicus) was heard quite frequently, but we never did see the bird.
     No matter how many times one see Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) it never ceases to amaze.



     One of the morning's highlights was a flock of Cuban Parakeets (Psittacara euops), resplendent and noisy, in bright sunlight - an enchanting sight. As is the way of psittacids they were able to disappear in the foliage of a tree, where it was great fun to relocate them.




      Judy, Mary and Miriam were so entranced with these birds that they decided they would form their own little club, called the Parakeet Club. Obviously this is a highly exclusive organization, and I expect that they will devise complex entry requirements and perhaps even secret chants, but upon return to the resort Carol was granted instant membership. If anyone is desirous of joining I will use my influence with the founding members to gain access for you. My fee is $50.00 - cash or cheque only - a bargain I am sure you will agree. As part of your initial membership I will secure an autographed picture of each of the Fab Four, suitable for framing and placing on your nightstand.
     At one point I almost stepped on a snake, which I am pretty sure is a species of Boa. There are no poisonous snakes on Cuba, but it surely highlighted for me how easy it would be to get into a danger zone with one, without ever having seen it.



     We returned to Lele and Franklin for lunch, where we were served banana chips, bread, salad, pork, rice and beans (ultra tasty) and a dessert which I did not record. We shared a bottle of wine.
     It was so pleasant to be served and to sit with only our own companions, including Tania and Adonis. Conversation was easy, we did not have to line up at the trough with assorted sweaty, sometimes half dressed, vacationers. No one sneezed over, or dipped their fingers in, the exposed food. We did not have to listen to people whining and complaining about one thing or another. As I already mentioned I would like to return to Cuba one day, but it will be B&Bs all the way, with Tania as my guide, bonne vivante and agreeable companion.
     By now the tropical sun was beating down and we decided to have a siesta until 15h:00, when we would once again sally forth to enjoy las aves de Cuba.
     One of the afternoon's highlights was a Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum), a species that causes great excitement at home when an individual puts in an appearance, generally at Point Pelee. Actually I have never seen this species in Ontario, but I have made its acquaintance in Texas, Costa Rica and Cuba.
     We had prolonged, wonderful looks at Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae) and tremendous view of Cuban Parrot (Amazon leucocephala). We tried to locate Blue-headed Quail-Dove and most of the group got the briefest of glimpses but I missed it. Grey-fronted Quail-Dove (Geotrygon caniceps) eluded us completely.


Fernandina's Flicker
Cuban Parrot



     It was well past 18h:00 when we returned to our B&B and dinner was at 19h:00. It was, as always, a fine affair. Tonight's offering comprised salad, sweet potato, shrimp, rice, with cheese and guava purée for dessert. We shared a bottle of wine, as usual, with Franc passing on the wine since they only had white. Mary cajoled Franklin into serving us anise with coffee. 
     Not only were we always impressed by the quality of the food at this modest little hostelry, it was presented very attractively and served with gentility and grace. Tania had made a fine choice for us.
     A hot but feeble shower was welcomed before turning in for the night.

All species 22 November: Helmeted Guineafowl (probably domestic), Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Limpkin, Killdeer, Scaly-naped Pigeon, White-crowned Pigeon, Common Ground Dove, Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Zenaida Dove, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Cuban Nightjar, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, Belted Kingfisher, West Indian Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Fernandina's Flicker, Crested Carcara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Parrot, Cuban Pewee, LaSagra's Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Crow, Zapata Wren, Red-legged Thrush, Grey Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Waterthrush,Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-headed Warbler,Cuban Bullfinch, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Oriole, House Sparrow.

23 November 2017
Bermejas - La Cuchilla, Cueva de los Peces - Varadero

     We had breakfast at 05h:15 and Tania and Adonis arrived at 05h:45 to take us to try once again for the Stygian Owl. Even though we tried in a couple of places we came up empty, but kudos to Tania for her persistence in attempting to find this bird for us.
     We birded mainly along a road, with a certain amount of mixed forest habitat. It was easy going and the birding was good. Several Northern Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) were feeding on road kill, sometimes joined by Turkey Vultures to provide a little competition for the spoils.



     Red-shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius assimilis) is a Cuban endemic with limited distribution and certain parts of the Zapata Swamp are its only stronghold. We were fortunate to come across a couple of large flocks.



     An endemic Cuban Oriole (Icterus melanopsis) perched in the open enabling Franc to get this great shot.



     We had seen a few West Indian Woodpeckers (Melanerpes superciliaris) in flight, but nothing rivalled the amazing sequence played out before us as a couple of birds cavorted and chased each other right before our eyes, landing on favourite snags where we were able to get excellent photographs. This is indeed a spectacular bird.






     Even more astounding than the West Indian Woodpeckers was a pair of Fernandina's Flickers, seemingly engaged in some form of courtship or bonding behaviour, all taking place at the top of a single snag. It was a performance worthy of a David Attenborough documentary.







     
     To complete a trio of woodpeckers we saw a Cuban Green Woodpecker fly to a nest hole.



     The Cuban race of Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna hippocrepis) has long been proposed for elevation to full species status, and we were able to enjoy several birds, often at quite close range. We will keep a close eye on taxonomic revisions as it relates to the entire Eastern Meadowlark complex, which may in fact represent several full species.








     While we were watching the meadowlarks a Cuban Pygmy Owl arrived on the scene causing great consternation among the passerines, but it seemed ill inclined to hunt.



     Tania pointed out a couple of Yellow-faced Grassquits (Tiaris olivacea), not  stunning males unfortunately but a great sighting nonetheless.




       We visited an area where a viewing compound had been set up at the edge of the forest.



     When we first arrived a couple of Zenaida Doves (Zenaida aurita) were feeding on seed scattered by the fellow in charge of the gate, and we had excellent views of what is a stunning bird. Finally, we saw at the end of a long trail, a couple of Blue-headed Quail-Doves slowly coming towards us and they eventually began to feed right in front of us. We all had wonderful views of this endemic species.




     Do you get the idea that Franc wants to shield himself against mosquitoes?



     As mentioned earlier Cuban Trogon, Cuba's national bird was quite common, but it was hard to become blasé about such a beauty.



     As it turned out, it would not be the only sighting of Blue-headed Quail-Dove. Tania took us to an area close to the snorkelling location at Cueva de los Peces, where close to thirty Blue-headed Quail-Doves were at very close range. Apparently a few years ago a single bird showed up there, to be joined by another....and so on. It was great to see so many.



     We returned to our B&B for lunch where Lele and Franklin served us cream of cheese soup (so good we asked for seconds), salad, pasta and chicken drumsticks, all washed down with delicious mango juice. We got our bags from our room, settled our account and left for the last time. It really had seemed like home.
     Our first stop was at a fishing pond where we saw several warblers and our only Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) and Purple Gallinule (Porphyria martinica) of the trip.


Ovenbird

Common Gallinule

Purple Gallinule
     On the way to Varadero we stopped at Tania's house for a coffee and we were delighted to see where she lived. After about a half hour we motored on to Grand Memories Resort, going through a torrential rainstorm en route, with much thunder and lightening. Back at the resort they had the same storm and Adam took the following remarkable pictures of the lightening from the beach.




     We made good time despite the downpour and arrived back at the resort before 18h:00. It was with mixed emotions that we bade farewell to Tania and Adonis, sadness at leaving them and gratitude for their great company and a job well done. We all hope to see them again.
     Carol joined us for dinner and we were able to tell her all about our adventures, while she regaled us with the antics of her grandchildren who were thoroughly enjoying their stay.
     Oh....and by the way.....the toilet is still not fixed.

All species 23 November: Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Limpkin, Killdeer, White-crowned Pigeon, Common Ground Dove, Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Zenaida Dove, Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Fernandina's Flicker, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Cuban Parrot, Cuban Pewee, LaSagra's Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Cuban Crow, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Red-legged Thrush, Grey Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-headed Warbler, Western Spindalis, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Cuban Bullfinch, Red-shouldered Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Oriole, House Sparrow. 

24 November 2017
Grand Memories Resort

     For the first time, I thought I would try a custom omelette for breakfast, so I joined a relatively long line waiting for the chef to prepare their omelettes with the ingredients they had selected. It was truly hard to believe the behaviour of some of the people waiting their turn. There was a party of three directly in front of me and one of them went off to get pancakes and syrup which she brought back and they all started to eat them by rolling up the pancakes, dripping syrup on the floor in the process. She went back for more, she also brought cheese, and they munched as they moved along the line. It was disgusting. I decided that I could do without the omelette. How I longed for the quiet civility of the B&B we had left behind.
      Following breakfast, I went to the lobby. The customer service office (now there's a euphemism) was closed so I went to the front desk. I gave up on trying to have the toilet fixed; instead I insisted that they move me to another room. I was told that they had many buses coming in later that day and could not assign me anything until 16h:00, at which time I should return to the desk, but they were very sorry that I had been at the resort five days and they had not been able to help me, and that they would give me a "very nice room." I actually told them that if they would give me the tools I would fix the toilet myself, but they declined my generous offer. 
     We birded around the grounds during the day, stopping for lunch at the buffet, and not doing much of anything else.


Common Ground Dove

     Just before 16h:00, I presented myself at the front desk, and Judy was with me so that she would know where we relocated to. They told me that I would be moving into the room right next door to where I was now, but "Please wait," they added. Judy left and promptly I was advised that I would be moving to the next block - no big deal, but it's amazing how quickly that changed.
     I was advised that my room was being prepared as we spoke and that it would be ready at 16h:15 - just time for us to move our stuff across. When we went to check, they had just opened the door to start cleaning it. The cleaning staff wanted to get into our old room, so we moved everything over and waited outside, and finally were able to occupy the new room at 17h:30. At least we knew it was clean since we watched them mop the floors etc. And - joy of joys - we could flush at will, the floor did not flood and the tank refilled! Even better, perhaps, we had hot water; not lukewarm, HOT, and it came right out of the faucet in an instant without having to wait. I was giddy with satisfaction!
     Amazingly, they moved other people right into the room we had just vacated knowing full well the toilet did not work. It is not only sad that they would do this, it's unconscionable if you think about it.
     Dinner was taken at the buffet and I chose pasta from the pasta bar. It was quite good and it was hot.

All species 24 November: Common Ground Dove, Cuban Emerald, Northern Mockingbird, American Redstart, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Greater Antillean Grackle, House Sparrow.

25 November 2017
Grand Memories Resort

     I joined Franc, Carol, Judy and Mary for an early morning walk along the beach; Miriam decided to stay in bed. Surprisingly there were many beach walkers and joggers and a few people already staking out their claim to chairs or ramadas. Tractors were grooming the sand so bird life on the sand was non-existent. Initially there was not much in the air either, but ultimately we had a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) showing their complete mastery of the air, Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) were fishing and a single Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) rounded out the group.


Royal Tern
     Carol had never previously seen a Great Lizard Cuckoo so she was delighted that we spotted one in full view on the ground as we left the beach. It flew up into a small tree and moved around in there for a while, but always in view, so she made up for lost time. Our first Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina) at the resort was also flitting in and out of sight in the vegetation.




     I went back to the room to get Miriam and we joined the others for breakfast at the buffet.
     We had made inquiries about the Hop-on, Hop-off bus, a wonderful service as it turned out, and decided that we would go into Varadero to check out the local market, and get the lay of the land in the process. The fare for this bus is 5 CUC and you can ride it all day if you wish, getting on and off at will. Even if you are not at a designated stop the driver will pick you up if you flag him down.
     Carol decided to stay behind to help watch the grandchildren since Nicky was feeling a little under the weather, but the rest of us hopped on a bus right at the resort gates, went to the end of the peninsula first and doubled back into Varadero, getting off at the market. It was quite a pleasant venue, with many local craft vendors. We bought a few things and enjoyed meandering around taking it all in.
     We had lunch in town, attracted to a restaurant simply because a Palm Warbler was perched on the back of one of the chairs! It was an agreeable choice and we all had sandwiches of one kind or another (mine a club, Miriam's ham and cheese). A street artist came by hoping to induce us to permit him to create our portraits, but we declined this singular pleasure. Mary, however, brought up a Cuban Tody on her phone and the fellow did a creditable job with coloured pencils, for which Mary rewarded him with 10 CUC and a beer to go. I expect to see this original creation in a place of honour on her wall next time I visit her house!
     We were back at the resort mid afternoon. I took a nap while Miriam and Mary passed their time in the pool, with an extended visit to the pool bar I might add, no doubt formulating the various rules and procedures that will be essential in ensuring the future success of the Parakeet Club.
     Carol had arranged for an à la carte dinner in the Gourmet Restaurant, and I must say that is was quite agreeable. The restaurant was very well appointed, not crowded, the servers quite professional, and the food attractively presented. and I did not have to bump elbows and jostle with hundreds of others cruising around the buffet tables. I had a smoked salmon entrée, beef tenderloin with the merest hint of vegetables, and crême Catalan for dessert. Miriam had the same, I believe, except that her dessert was a lime pie that resembled neither lime nor pie. Need I say that we did justice to a couple of bottles of wine?
     We returned to our room, updated bird lists, read for a while - stuff like that - and went to sleep, secure in the knowledge that everything worked; the chambermaid had even wrapped a towel around the stem of the faucet so that we would not have to deal with a flood on the counter.

All species 25 November: Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Common Ground Dove, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Antillean Palm Swift, Northern Mockingbird, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, House Sparrow.

26 November 2017
Grand Memories Resort - Varahicacos Ecological Reserve - Tip of the Peninsula

     Carol's children and grandchildren left for home and we were in the lobby early to bid them farewell and wish them safe travels, followed by breakfast at the trough.
     We all boarded the Hop on, Hop Off bus to go to the Varahicacos Ecological Reserve, a short distance from the resort. 
     A pair of Northern Mockingbirds came to see us off.



     The resort looked quite splendid as we left. Great attention was always paid to the exterior as though appearance was everything; the buildings and the interior of the rooms are slowly experiencing decay due to lack of maintenance, neglect and the seeming unwillingness to fix even the simplest things. For example the towel hook on the wall in our room was fine as long as you only hung a hand towel on it; the moment you put a bath towel there it lurched forward half out of the wall, the towel on the floor. Obviously it is a complex technical operation to anchor this hook securely, beyond the scope of anything that I could understand.



     The ecological reserve was quite interesting, but we found relatively few birds there. Tania had told us that in times past the reserve had been considerably larger, but land had been expropriated for resort development.
     Termite colonies were especially obvious.



       The reptilian population was more numerous than the avian population, or at least more apparent. Curly-tailed Lizard ( Leiocephalus sp.) was far and away the most common.


  
     I believe the following is a species of anole.



     We did have excellent looks for a very long time at Cuban Green Woodpecker, much to Carol's delight, for she had not seen one before. 



     A Cuban Pewee was especially cooperative and quite entrancing.




     We returned to the resort for lunch and relaxed during the heat of the afternoon. 
     Franc and I decided to catch the bus to the tip of the peninsula to see what we could find in the way of seabirds, and the results were very pleasing indeed. There was a large colony of Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), hundreds of Laughing Gulls in every plumage phase imaginable, Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga), Royal Terns,  Sandwich Terns (Thallasseus sanvicensis) Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Sanderlings (Calidris alba), Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) and others. We were able to get quite close to some of the birds at times, but the light was waning and conditions for photography were far from ideal, much to Franc's chagrin.


Anhinga


Black Skimmer


Laughing Gulls

     A Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) reminded us of home.


     When we returned to the resort we told Judy about what we had seen and she regretted not having accompanied us, so we vowed to return the next day.
      Happy hour at 18h:30 seemed like a good idea so we met at the lobby bar. We had dinner in the Oriental Restaurant (arranged by Mary) at 19h:30, and as was the case at the previous à la carte we ate in, the decor, service and presentation were lovely. The food, however, was mediocre at best. The saving grace was decent Spanish wine.
     We were back in our room by about 21h:00 and were in bed about an hour later.

All species 26 November: Double-crested Cormorant, Anhinga, Brown Pelican, Turkey Vulture, Killdeer, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Laughing Gull, American Herring Gull, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Black Skimmer, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Green Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Cuban Pewee, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Northern Mockingbird, Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Palm Warbler,Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Greater Antillean Grackle, House Sparrow.

27 November 2017
Grand Memories Resort - Tip of the Pensinsula

     Given our success at the marina at the tip of the peninsula yesterday we all decided to return there, despite the fact that it was heavily overcast, with hints of rain.
     We saw most of the same birds we had seen before but were limited as to where we could wander by a couple of overly zealous security guards. As it was the clouds got darker and finally it started to rain heavily enough to drive us inside. There was a small craft market there and we checked through it and bided our time to see if the rain would stop.



Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone


     A lone Smooth-billed Ani perched on the fence and Franc captured this remarkable picture.





     Finally we gave up, boarded the bus and returned to the resort for lunch.
     We went our separate ways after lunch, most of us simply relaxing until around 15h:00. Judy, Franc and I then decided to make another visit to the marina, and were confronted by the same security guards, but they gave us a little more leeway and we could get into areas previously forbidden to us. Actually the reason for their caution became more apparent as we saw substantial debris, with sharp edges to metal, and broken glass, due to damage caused by the recent hurricanes. Judy was especially happy to have good looks at the Sandwich Terns, a species she had not seen before, and there were many of them lined up on one of the docks. There was a couple of long-legged shorebirds with slightly upturned bills, looking very much like godwits, a rarity on Cuba. We will have to see what kind of detail is revealed in Franc's pictures and see if we can get some other opinions.





Laughing Gull and Sandwich Tern
     Although it had been quite sunny when we first arrived the clouds quickly rolled in and Franc once again had less than ideal conditions for photography.
     Dinner was taken at 18h:00 back at the resort, following which we returned to our rooms to get ready for the journey home the following day.

All species 27 November: Magnificent Frigatebird, Double-crested Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Cattle Egret, Killdeer, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Black Skimmer, Common Ground Dove, Mourning Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, American Kestrel, Northern Mockingbird, Palm Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, House Sparrow.

28 November 2017

Grand Memories Resort - Varadero Airport - Pearson International Airport - Waterloo

     We trundled our luggage down to the lobby at about 06:15, grabbed a coffee, turned in our room keys and waited for the bus to take us to the airport.
     Soon we were on our way, picking up passengers at various resorts along the route, and seeing a variety of birds through the windows as we travelled along. At one stop there was a substantial flock of Antillean Palm Swifts and several of them disappeared into the thatched roof at the front of the hotel. I assume they were nesting there.
     All of the formalities at the airport went without a hitch and our plane left only a little late. It was a smooth flight home, although it took forever to get through Customs and Immigration at Pearson after we touched down.
     Finally, however, we retrieved our car and got onto Highway 401 at rush hour for a slow drive home.
     Judy had parked her car in our driveway and she and Mary quickly loaded their luggage and drove away. Franc and Carol had their own vehicle parked at the airport of course.
     Despite a few irritations along the way it had been a great trip.

All species 28 November: Magnificent Frigatebird, Double-crested Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Cattle Egret, Laughing Gull, Antillean Palm Swift, Northern Mockingbird, Palm Warbler, Greater Antillean Grackle, House Sparrow.

General Comments

     Cuba is a great destination and its people welcoming of tourists. There is much to commend it. The most disappointing part of the experience for me was to see the resort falling into decrepitude and disrepair, much of it seemingly unnecessary. Our first room was in Block 14 and virtually all of the outside lights were inoperable and every time we came home after dark it was almost pitch black in the interior section where our room door was. I am sure that in most cases it was simply a question of changing the light bulbs, but no one did it. When we moved to Block 15 the lights were on; in Block 14 we never had hot water, in Block 15 we did. In both units there were issues with the patio doors. In our first room it was hard to close since the latching mechanism did not work properly and on the outside the bezel around the latch had come off exposing a very sharp metal edge. In the second room the latch did not work at all and it was difficult to open and close the door since it had been installed slightly off kilter. Everywhere stucco was cracking and falling off the walls. 
     Judy had problems with her safe in the room, being unable to open it. The maintenance person who came to fix it simply opened it for her and was about to go when she told him that he had not FIXED anything. She closed the door on the safe and of course it would not open. Only after this did they actually fix it. If she had not been present when the service guy came she would have had to traipse back to the lobby again. No one seemed to give a damn - or did I mention that already?
     I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture.

Acknowledgements
  
     Thanks to Judy, Mary, Franc and Carol for being great companions on our trip. We saw a wonderful variety of birds and enjoyed each other's company in so many ways. Carol's children and grandchildren added to the enjoyment of the trip immeasurably, whenever we had the chance to interact with them. It was a pleasure to see that interaction between kids, sunshine and water - a combination that's hard to beat.

Tania Piñeiro Cordero
     
     A terrific bird guide by any standards, and as personable and agreeable a companion as you could wish for. We enjoyed every moment spent with her.
     If you wish to go birding in Cuba you could no yourself no greater favour than to contact Tania - Cell phone +53 53 11 25 75, House phone +53 45 91 20 49,
tanelapc@nauta.ca; birdingincuba.tania@gmail.com

Adonis Barroso

     A fine fellow and a good, steady driver; friendly and always willing to help. Furthermore, he has become a competent bird guide in his own right and often helped us to find birds.