Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Yellow-crowned Night Heron on Cuba

     Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea is common in coastal areas of Cuba, especially in and around mangroves, and its numbers are swelled by migrants in the winter. It frequents both freshwater and saltwater habitats and feeds on a variety of crustaceans, crabs, insects, molluscs, arthropods, invertebrates, amphibians, small fish and at times small birds.


     On our recent trip to Cuba we saw but one adult and a couple of juveniles.
As may be seen the adult is a handsome bird. It is mostly grey with a prominently striped black-and-white head. In breeding plumage the bird develops several long creamy-white plumes, a hint of which is seen in the picture below.


     The juvenile is less splendidly dressed, being predominantly brown streaked with white and cream. The legs are a dull yellow-green. Ironically, the juvenile actually gets darker during the first year of its life.
     Franc Gorenc, the photographer extraordinaire of our group, captured the remarkable sequence shown in the pictures below, of a juvenile which we saw most mornings perched in a freshwater marsh adjoining the Caribbean.
     While watching the bird he noticed that it started to gulp, constrict its neck and open its bill, as though something were lodged in its gullet.


     How true this turned out to be. In the next shot one can clearly see the beginning of something about to be regurgitated.


     Franc has excellent equipment and is a consummate photographer and skillfully captured the entire sequence continued below. One can now clearly see that a crab or crayfish is being expelled.


     Why this item was not to the bird's liking is unclear, since they are known to favour this kind of prey, and crabs were abundant in the area where we located the heron. In the next picture the heron has successfully ejected the unwanted item.


     It shook itself and resumed a normal posture, seemingly glad to be rid of the obstacle in its digestive tract.


     My thanks are due to Franc, firstly for his fine work, and secondly for generously allowing me to use these images on my blog.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tuesday Rambles with David - Hamilton/Burlington Area

29 November 2016

     Our usual complement of eight was diminished a tad this week as Miriam, Carol and Francine were all under the weather to one degree or another - minor ailments but enough to keep them inside for the day, and Mary couldn't make it. However, I was joined by Judy, Franc, Jim and, as a bonus. Cara Poulsen, a University of Waterloo student you have met in previous posts. In a peverse way, it was good that some of our usual crew couldn't join us, since Cara wanted to join us and we don't want to let our group get beyond eight participants.
     Judy had expressed an interest in heading down to Lake Ontario where the spectacular concentrations of waterfowl have started to populate the area, so that is what we did.
     Our first stop was at the DesJardins Canal in Dundas, ON where ducks often congregate in fairly large numbers, always close at hand since the canal is quite narrow. In addition to waterfowl, the surrounding vegetation harbours numerous passerines. This Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis posed nicely for a picture.


     Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows Spizella arborea are two species that are emblematic of of the fall influx of northerly breeders, and both were present.


     There was abundant Goldenrod Solidago sp. and Teasel Dipsacus sylvestris (and other assorted grasses) to provide lots of food for seed-eating species and American Goldfinches Spinus tristis were quick to take advantage of this bonanza.



     There are few trees, but they were exploited by Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens and Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus but we had a clear line of sight only on this male Downy, searching for insects, grubs and spider eggs under the bark.


     Ironically, waterfowl, the primary purpose for our visit, were in short supply. There were numerous Canada Geese Branta canadensis, Mallards Anas platyrynchos, and a pair of Hooded Mergansers Lophodytes cucullatus, but not a single other species. The most photogenic of this entourage were the mergansers, but they took one look at us, flew to the opposite bank and concealed themselves in the reeds.
     We moved on to LaSalle Park in Burlington where we were confident that the waterfowl populations would be greater and more varied - and such turned out to be the case.
     Numerous Greater Scaup Aythya marila were present, some even close enough to shore for photographs.


     There were at least a hundred Ruddy Ducks Oxyura jamaicensis swimming, diving and feeding, but this is a tiny duck and they were quite far out. A lone female came a little closer than the others, albeit briefly, before it rejoined the main flock.


        By this time of the year American Herring Gulls Larus smithsonianus have often replaced Ring-billed Gulls Larus delawarensis as the most populous larid, but we saw few of the former and Ring-billed Gulls predominated everywhere. There seems to be a bit of an irrational bias on the part of some against gulls, but I always enjoy them and this Ring-billed Gull in flight shows what truly beautiful creatures they are, graceful and streamlined, masters in the air.


     Substantial rafts of Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula are common sights now and numbers will continue to increase over the next few weeks. These hardy little ducks take all the harsh weather that winter can throw at them as they survive on wave-tossed Lake Ontario. There are a few species which cause one to scratch one's head wondering how the the name was ever derived, but as the picture below shows Common Goldeneye has a moniker to suit.


     This juvenile Common Merganser Mergus merganser is well equipped to handle the vagaries of winter and the savage weather it can sometimes deliver.


     Mute Swan Cygnus olor is an introduced species, resented by some, but it is a magnificent creature, worthy of our admiration. In addition to its beauty, it is a dedicated parent and staunch defender of the family - traits we admire in humans.


     Mallard is the most cosmopolitan of all ducks and is the ancestor of many strains of domestic duck. This male in flight is paradigm of grace and aerial skill.


     Buffleheads Bucephala albeola populate the Great Lakes in equal measure to Common Goldeneye and are a familiar sight on the winter waterscape.


     American Black Duck Anas sparsa hybridizes so frequently with Mallards that it is an increasingly rare sight to encounter pure American Black Ducks. This individual seems to have some degree of interbreeding.


     As we walked along the woodland trail cheeky Black/Grey Squirrels Sciurus carolinensis scampered along with us, hoping for handouts. Several of them had these curious pale ear tufts.


     There were a few Redheads Aythya americana on the water, often singles and hanging out with other ducks.


     Trumpeter Swans Cygnus buccinator, surely the most regal of all swans, can always be found at LaSalle Park in the winter, where they dominate all of the other waterfowl. When they are vocal it is easy to appreciate why they are called Trumpeter Swans.



     To end the day we moved on to Stoney Creek, past Hamilton and on the way to Niagara Falls, to check out two reliable spots, Fifty Road and Creanona Boulevard, where close access to the water can be gained, with very large concentrations of waterfowl.
     Many Buffleheads were present.



     As were substantial flocks of Common Goldeneye.


     Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis have arrived in their usual huge numbers, riding out the swell and diving to feed on zebra mussels. This male is coming in for a landing.


    Three species of Scoter were present, but usually very far offshore. White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi was most numerous.


     It was a fine day of birding with much to be enjoyed. I have little doubt that we will be doing this trip again before the winter is out.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Trip Report - Cuba, 16 - 23 November 2016

Organizer and Trip Leader: David M. Gascoigne

Participants: Miriam Bauman, Carol Burrell, Jim Burrell. Francine Gilbert, Carol Gorenc, Franc Gorenc, Jim Huffman, John Lichty, Geraldine Sanderson, John Sanderson, Judy Wyatt (All members of Waterloo Region Nature).

16 November 2016
Waterloo - Pearson International Airport - Manzanillo - Marea del Portillo

     Following our very successful visit to Cuba in March, John Lichty casually said to me one day, "If ever you think about going back to Cuba, I would like to go too." Not being one to let the grass grow under my feet I immediately said, "Let's go in November, right after hurricane season." As soon as I mentioned it to Francine and Jim they pounced on it and said, "We're in!" Next, John and Geraldine, who had accompanied us before, let me know they wished to return also.
     And so it continued. Pretty soon we were up to thirteen participants and I was able to negotiate a really good price with Sunwing Vacations to return to Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, where I had good contacts for birding in back country areas, and a whole range of other activities which you will read about later in this account of our trip.
     If any perceptive person has tallied up the list of participants above it will become clear that there are twelve names not thirteen. Mary Voisin was on board early, but unfortunately had a serious family issue she had to deal with the day before our departure and had to back out. Not only did we feel for Mary, we were really sad that she couldn't come with us, for she is always a positive member of any group, a supremely agreeable person to be with.
     We made our way to Pearson International Airport in Toronto by various means, all car pooling in one form or another, and here are a few random shots of happy travellers waiting in the boarding lounge.


Francine

Judy

Franc

Miriam and Judy

John Sanderson and Jim Burrell

Carol Burrell and Geraldine
    Our flight to Santa Clara via Manzanillo (our destination) was scheduled to leave on time.







     In fact we did leave without more than a few minutes delay and after an uneventful flight to Manzanillo touched down at 17:00h. As was the case on our last trip, progress through the airport was abysmally slow but finally we all cleared Customs and Immigration and were on our way to Marea del Portillo by 18:35. At least on this occasion ours was the only flight they had to deal with.



     I have to say that the officials in Cuba are friendly and seem genuinely happy to see Canadian tourists pouring into their country. The fellow who processed me through the formalities was very curious about the fact that we were coming to see birds and he had great fun for five minutes flipping through my passport and asking questions about the various countries I have visited.
     We were happy to arrive at Club Amigo at 20:15. Our bags were taken to our cabana and we washed up in the room and went to the restaurant for dinner.



     Everyone had a good dinner from the extensive buffet and left the restaurant with a full stomach.
     I have to add a word of disappointment about some of the workers at the resort. They were trying to extract truly exorbitant tips from some of our group for handling their bags. The fellow who carried Judy's two tiny bags - a carry on and a small back pack told her he wanted two pesos (the Cuban Convertible Currency is pegged one to one with the US dollar) per bag, and unfortunately, feeling a little intimidated, she paid it to him. For Jim and Francine, it was even worse; they were screwed for ten pesos. I would suggest to anyone encountering this kind of unscrupulous usury that they simply walk back to the front desk with the offender and assist him in losing his privileged and highly sought-after job at the resort. I have never encountered shysters like this before and I can only hope that a few jerks do not tarnish others with a bad reputation.  

17 November 2016
Club Amigo - La Presa - Club Amigo - Julio's House - Club Amigo 

     Everyone reported having "not a bad sleep" or a "very good sleep" when we met at the bar for coffee, a practice we adopted every morning since the coffee there was so much better than the insipid variety in the restaurant.


John Lichty, Franc, David, Geraldine, Francine, Jim Huffman, Carol Gorenc, John Sanderson, Judy


     This rendezvous was very close to our cabana shown below; we had one of the two upstairs rooms.






     At the east end of the resort there is an area where freshwater enters the Caribbean, creating a little freshwater wetland where we birded most days; always before breakfast and often at other times during the day also. It was a very productive area, both in terms of waterbirds, and passerines in the surrounding vegetation. The entry into this zone, just beyond the boundary of the resort, was suitably marked.






     We were able to push three tables together in the dining room so that we could all eat together from the ample buffet. Several of us opted for a custom omelette cooked on a grille right before our eyes. There was a wide choice of items available and everyone had a hearty breakfast.

     I had been exchanging emails with Ricel Polán Hernandez, a Cuban I had met in March, whose principal occupation is that of a horse and buggy driver, but is also an accomplished birding guide, entirely self taught. John and Geraldine presented him with a field guide, and I had previously given him a good pair of binoculars, so he was well equipped to hone his skills, including learning the English names of the birds. 




     We had planned to go on at least a couple of walks with Ricel and he asked us if we would like to start out right away with a walk to the area beyond his house known as La Presa. Everyone except for John Sanderson and Carol Burrell (who both went horseback riding) was anxious to go so Ricel organized four buggies to transport us up to his house about two kilometres away.



     When we arrived Geraldine, Miriam and I renewed our acquaintance with Olaidis, Ricel's charming wife. Everyone else was presented to her and she seemed very pleased to have so many visitors. We remembered the well maintained, colourful garden from our last visit and it was every bit as appealing as it had been before.


Olaidis




     We set out on our walk, passing many modest Cuban dwellings on the way.




     The birding was productive right from the getgo; Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani was a species that would be seen on every day of our trip.





     Here is a sample of the kind of terrain we were traversing, under the hot Cuban sun.



     We broke for just a short rest and unknown to me Ricel got this picture with his phone.


Moi

     Cuban Pewee Contopus caribaeus caused great excitement when we first saw it, with everyone making sure that everyone else got a good look, but it would turn out to be a very common species, frequently encountered; always entertaining as it captured prey in classic flycatcher fashion.



     This frog (at least I think it's a frog) was deep in a hole sheltering from the heat with barely its head protruding.



     Several species of small lizards were seen, including this one which I believe is an anole of some kind.



     
     Goats were everywhere! In fact at times I wondered that there was even a scrap of vegetation left since they seemed omnivorous, eating everything in sight, including cacti. I am not sure how ownership of the goats is determined, but there obviously must be a way. 



     We were back at the resort in time for a late lunch. As always there was a wide variety of items available from the buffet and hamburgers and fish were being cooked on the grille. Different kinds of bread were always offered - sometimes in creative ways.



     House Sparrows Passer domesticus were never shy to share the dining space, seizing a morsel whenever the opportunity presented itself.



     After lunch John and Geraldine advised us that their driver had told them of a Cuban Emerald Chlorostilbon ricordii nest with two young and had offered to take them to see it. Naturally we all wanted to go, so we re-engaged the horses and buggies and all set off together. It was actually at the house of a fellow named Julio, an engaging chap indeed, whom we had seen at the resort and seemed to be one of the higher functionaries.



     Things got even better when we were asked whether we wished to see another nest, this time of a "paloma." In a house very close by, occupied by Julio's parents I believe, was the nest of a Common Ground Dove Columbina passerina nestled in a hand of bananas. Not only did we envy them the fruit right in their backyard but they had birds nesting there too!




     When we left to return to the resort the drivers asked if we wished to go via the little town of Marea del Portillo. John and Geraldine, with whom we were riding wanted to go directly back to the resort, so that's what we did. Everyone else went into town.
     Geraldine and Miriam decided that a dip in the pool would be agreeable and while there they saw a Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens fly by.
     We all met at the bar to do the list but by the time everyone arrived it was too dark, so we agreed to defer it until the following morning.
     Dinner comprised the usual range of choices from the buffet and pork was available at the barbecue station.
     We were back in our room a little after 20:00h and read until going to sleep.

      All species 17 November: Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Magnificent Frigatebird (Miriam and Geraldine), Turkey Vulture, Common Gallinule, Common Ground Dove, Mourning Dove, Zenaida Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Cuban Pewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, Barn Swallow (Jim Burrell), Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Northern Parula, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Grassquit.

18 November 2016
Club Amigo - Sierra Maestra National Park - Club Amigo

     We were awake early (around 04:45h), showered and went down to meet John Lichty. After the coffee maker was fired up at the bar we grabbed ourselves a coffee and settled back to watch the birds. 
     There was a tree near the bar, almost right across from our room in fact, that we had watched in March when we were here. I don't know the name of the tree and we couldn't find anyone who did, but it was quite remarkable in that it bloomed every night during the hours of darkness. By early morning large white flowers were in evidence all over the tree. Cuban Emeralds Chlorostilbon ricordii came to feed in normal hummingbird fashion, but they were outnumbered by Cuban Blackbirds Ptiloxena atroviolacea who fed by piercing the base of the flower, in the manner of South American flowerpiercers, ultimately severing the flower from the branch, whence it fell to the ground.



     Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds Agelaius humeralis frequented the tree, usually singly, and various warblers garnered insects. Within an hour or so the tree was pretty much denuded of flowers and the main show was over. Throughout the day birds did utilize the tree but the bulk of the activity was early in the morning and was entirely predictable.
     After observing the activity at the tree, usually joined by others who craved their early morning coffee, we all headed down to the wetland where fine birding could be enjoyed.



     Again, based on our experience in March, we knew of a little corner where woodland, pasture and stream met, which was very productive. Cuban Tody Todus multicolor was always there, and even though we had seen it the day before, our first photographic success with this species was achieved here. 



     A Cuban Pewee put on a textbook flycatcher display for us and enabled everyone to have very good looks indeed. Although this bird was seen every day, sometimes a half dozen or so, it remained one of the star attractions for many of us.



     We had arranged with Ricel to visit the Sierra Maestra National Park, approximately twenty-one kilometres along the coast, and everyone wished to take part in this excursion, so three taxis were hired to take us there.
     Cuba is filled with vintage cars of every description, many of them in immaculate condition as their owners polish, paint and fix their most valuable assets. Cars going back fifty years and more are still used on a regular basis, and with parts no longer available, everything has to be custom made in machine shops. I can barely tell a fifty-seven Ford from a sixty-five Chevy, but for an antique car aficionado Cuba must be a paradise.
     Here are two of the the venerable charabancs in which we were transported along the coast.




     The cost per vehicle was a modest 45 pesos to be driven to the entrance to the park where the drivers would wait for us and drive us back about five hours later. Franc and Carol, along with Miriam and me, and Ricel, crowded into the green and black mean machine shown in the first photo above. Ricel and I squeezed into the front seat with the driver and it was a cozy ride! There were no seat belts, of course, and the roads were potholed and crumbling, but the scenery was magnificent. In Canada we would have all been ticketed for contravening goodness knows how many regulations, but in Cuba we threw caution to the wind and  enjoyed the experience. 
     We made a couple of stops along the way to take some pictures. The coastline was so glorious it was only necessary to point the camera.




     At one stop Jim Burrell spotted a Great Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus minor in a tree just metres away and many people had their best look at this species at that location. It is a big bird but seldom seen completely in the open. 
     There were many species of butterfly, often spectacularly brilliant, but seemingly reluctant to land. Those we were able to photograph are seen below. We have been unable to identify them, but for a dedicated lepidopterist Cuba would be fertile ground indeed.





     The Sierra Maestra National Park is quite beautiful and, of course, we only saw a small part of it.




     Free-ranging pigs abounded and we wondered how people kept track of them. The simple answer, Ricel told us, is that the pigs go home each night!



     Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea was a common species, seen frequently in suitable habitat.



     There were several river crossings and we navigated them all with aplomb - well, maybe not aplomb exactly, we just ambled or stumbled across. Style was not our most pressing issue, staying upright was! Some of us doffed shoes and socks, others preferred wet footwear to the sharp stones on the river bed. That big baby, Ricel, complained about how cold the water was; for hardy Canadians it was like warm soup!



     We saw numerous American Kestrels Falco sparverius and we were surprised at the various colour morphs we encountered, varying from very pale as in this bird, or to a deep rufous breast and belly.



     The other difference between Cuban kestrels and those we encounter at home was their confiding nature. It was never difficult to get a photograph, whereas birds at home fly away whenever you get anywhere close. Many times we have seen a kestrel on a wire only to have it leave the moment we stop the car.
     Red-legged Thrush Turdeus plumbeus is a very handsome bird in this genus and we were fortunate to see several of them. This picture is appealing, but does not show the red legs from which the bird gets its name.



     As mentioned earlier we were blessed to see numerous Cuban Todies and we never missed an opportunity to get a few more pictures.





     We all wondered whether this Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca had perhaps preceded us on a visit from Ontario. It certainly was like meeting up with an old friend.



     We stopped for lunch at a shaded spot on the river bank.



    We were entertained by this fellow, who was drunk as a skunk, swimming and diving in the water in search of fish and crayfish that he caught with his bare hands.




    Shortly after lunch we were faced with another river crossing where we once again proved ourselves to be intrepid adventurers of the highest order. Jim and Francine, avid dancers that they are, seem to be practicing a few intricate steps!



     As always, the scenery provided a magnificent backdrop.



     Last March we visited the home of a family where this little girl resides. She is surely the most beautiful little girl in all the world and has a personality to match her good looks. Again we were invited in to share fresh, juicy, delicious mangoes, and good company.






     The little girl, whose name I forget to my eternal shame, knew that we loved birds and was quick to tell me that she had a pigeon of her own. One of her older sisters brought it down from where it was kept so that the little princess could proudly show it to me.



     When we left she gave me a big hug and we rejoined our drivers who were patiently waiting for us.
     Back at the resort we saw a couple of lizards, one of which is a Curly-tailed Lizard, so abundant in March, but seen far less frequently in November.




     We rested for a while in our room and when we went down to join the others near "the tree" we were very happy to spot a Cuban Oriole Icterus melanopsis, a lifer for me. John Lichty should be credited with first finding this bird.



     Dinner was taken in the dining room as usual, following which Miriam retired to our room, but I went to the bar with Franc and Carol for a coffee.
     It had been a great day!

All species 18 November: Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Turkey Vulture, Common Gallinule, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Common Ground Dove, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Antillean Nighthawk (John Lichty), Cuban Emerald, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Cuban Pewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, Red-legged Thrush, House Sparrow, Black-and-White Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, American Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Bullfinch.

19 November 2016
Club Amigo - Ricel's House - Club Amigo

     We were awake around 05:15h and were both showered and dressed about a half hour later. We went down to the bar to get a coffee; John Sanderson was already there, and the others slowly trickled in. 
     When everyone had finished their coffee we headed out towards the wetland and the trails alongside the stream. The birding was very good, with a variety of herons and egrets flying to and fro, many perching in close proximity to permit comparison between species. This Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nicticorax was perched inconspicuously in a dark area, but Miriam managed to get a couple of usable photographs.




     We had been wondering about the holes we saw in the ground, often with wet mud around the lip, when we were informed that they are the home of crabs that emerge at night. No doubt they provide good hunting for night herons.






     I have mentioned earlier the variety of colour morphs of American Kestrel. Here is one that has a distinctly rust colouration to the breast and belly.



     The warbler below gave us fits and we finally had to admit that we were unable to identify it. Upon returning home I turned to Alvaro Jaramillo for help and received a prompt reply indicating that this is a sub-adult male of the gundlachi subspecies of Yellow Warbler Setophaga aestiva gundlachi, whose primary habitat is the mangrove regions of Cuba and south Florida. Many thanks are due to Alvaro who has never failed to help me with problematic i.d. issues. He is a kind man, generous with his time and expertise.




     A Nashville Warbler Leiothlypis ruficapilla gave us a lot less trouble!



     When we were here in March we were unable to find the endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher Polioptila lembeyei despite the fact that our good friend Marco DeBruin regularly saw this species on his numerous visits. So, during the summer we went over to Marco's house where he showed us a detailed route on Google earth as to precisely where to locate the bird. 
     Today was the day to do some reconnaissance work so that we would know exactly where to go when we set off in the dark the following morning. We birded up to the hotel at the top of the hill and then walked though the hotel to the back, as instructed by Marco, exiting on the other side on a "cow trail." Everything was as described so we were all set for our foray the next day.
     Part of our instructions from Marco involved walking by a cliff face heavily populated by Green Iguanas Iguana iguana. This individual was a fine specimen.





     We had a coffee at the hotel before heading back down the hill to our accommodations, encountering this American Yellow Warbler Setophaga aestiva along the way.



     Western Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis were ubiquitous and some days we saw scores of them. They followed not only cattle, but horses, pigs and goats.



     Before leaving on our trip I had been able to arrange with Ricel, through the good graces of Marco, a pig barbecue for our group. We left the resort at 16:00h in a convoy of four horses and buggies bound for Ricel's house.
     When we arrived the pig was already roasting on a spit, not quite ready to be carved, but close to it.



     Several of Ricel's friends were there to help as well as his sister-in-law and I had already provided a couple of bottles of rum to ease the process along, and John Lichty and I each took another bottle. These guys are serious drinkers - not for them glasses, coke, slices of lime - they just take a slug from the bottle and pass it around! It worked, obviously, for the pork was cooked to perfection and was carved neatly.
     Here are the tools you need to carve up a whole pig.



     There was a coconut tree right in front of Ricel's house and while we were waiting for dinner he lopped off the tops of the nuts so that we could drink the cool, tasty water inside. A machete really is the all purpose tool!





     Jim Huffman seems to be guessing the weight of his coconut, or getting ready to pitch it like a baseball.



         Here are others of us with our prize too.






     We were amazed that the coconut itself is not used for human consumption. Once everyone had drunk the water the nuts were split open and fed to the chickens.



     Olaidis had prepared the table so that we could all eat together inside the house and a wonderful feast was shared by all.





     In addition to copious quantities of pork, there was yucca, rice and beans, slices of lemon and lime, and a delicious onion and garlic sauce.
     Without exception everyone ate heartily and left the table with high praise for the meal and our gracious hosts.
     We returned to the resort in the dark with sure-footed horses seeming to unerringly know the way.
     We did our check list near the bar, several of us having coffee. When we returned to our rooms we felt very privileged to have participated in this Cuban feast reserved for honoured guests, important family events and special occasions. It was a great opportunity to sample authentic Cuban life.

All species 19 March: Black-crowned Night Heron, Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Blue Heron, Reddish Egret, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Turkey Vulture, Black-necked Stilt (Jim Burrell), Killdeer, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Cuban Pewee, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Black-and-White Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler,Nashville Warbler,  American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, American Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Grassquit.

20 March 2016
Club Amigo - Farallon Hotel - Cactus Garden - Club Amigo

      We were awake early to meet everyone at 05:30h to embark on our quest to find the endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher in the area we scouted out yesterday. Coffee was not available at the bar until 05:45h so we all left sans café; for people who crave their early morning coffee fix this was a bold move indeed!
     We walked along the beach to the hotel in the dark, headlamps and flashlights illuminating the way, until we arrived at the beginning of the trail just as daylight started to break. This was the view across the bay.



     The trail was steep and narrow and try as we might we could not locate our quarry. Miriam and John Lichty both thought they might have heard it, but neither one could be sure. 
     The only sensible thing to do was to go and have the coffee we craved so much, so that is what we did, and made our way back to Club Amigo. A Cuban Blackbird bid us welcome.



     We enjoyed breakfast at the buffet and then some of us headed down to the wetland to see what we could discover.



     Earlier we had met a guy named Peter (I assume his real name is Pedro) who was friendly and anxious to learn a little about birds. He did everything he could to make us feel welcome and comfortable including building the benches you see below out of the materials right at hand.
     Franc and Francine are enjoying one of them, while Carol Gorenc is rummaging through her bag on the other.




     If we were at the wetland for any length of time Peter would bring bananas for us to snack on. Let me tell you, a banana picked from the tree five minutes earlier tastes a whole lot better than one that has been in the store for a couple of days and in transit several days before that.
     Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum was far and away the most common warbler we saw, from right outside our doors to grassland and riverine habitat.





     Western Cattle Egrets were similarly ubiquitous.



     I mentioned earlier how commonly we saw American Kestrel and this individual alternated between a perch atop a palm tree and one on a wire.
There was a substantial population of dragonflies to provide opportunistic feeding for this bird.



     We had arranged for Ricel and his fellow drivers to pick us up at 09:30h for a visit to the Cactus Garden. I had no idea what to expect there, not having been there previously, but it turned out to be a stimulating experience, and not without interesting birds.




     We were not surprised to see pigs wandering around at will.



     A couple of little boys latched onto us, especially onto Jim Burrell, with the oldest (I presume) anxious to show us birds and thereby earn a few tips. His name was Bernardo, a bright little guy, who called Jeem every time he spotted movement. 




     He was, in fact, responsible for leading us to Western Spindalis Spindalis zena, a lifer for both Jim and me. We enjoyed his company.
     Some of the cacti had identification tags attached to them, but in most cases they had fallen off. I don't know what kind of fruit grew on these two species but they were certainly interesting. I would imagine that they are extremely succulent.




     Following lunch in the dining room at Club Amigo we took a break and then went down to to the wetland. Here we saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus, which is perhaps the most significant sighting of our trip. There are only four previous record for Cuba - 21 November 1952, 11 November 1984 and two undated. 





     Little Blue Herons were very common.


     As was Common Gallinule Gallinula chloropus....five of them in fact - and they seemed to be always squabbling. Miriam captured this interesting dorsal shot.


     Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon was usually heard before it was seen.


     After dinner at the à la carte restaurant we met as always to complete our checklist for the day and resolve any identification issues. As you can see, this was serious business!





All species 20 November: Black-crowned Night Heron (Jim Burrell), Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Brown Pelican (Jim Burrell), Magnificent Frigatebird (Geraldine), Turkey Vulture, Sharp-shinned Hawk (John Sanderson), Common Gallinule, Killdeer, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Cubn Emerald, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Cuban Pewee, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Black-and-White Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Grassquit, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Western Spindalis.

21 November 2016
Club Amigo - La Presa - Ricel's House - Club Amigo - Ferlin Restaurant

     Most of us met for coffee at the bar and then went down to the wetland and surrounding area to see what we could find. John Lichty had set out earlier to try once again for the Cuban Gnatcatcher - again without success.
     Miriam captured the sunrise beautifully.



     A little after 07:00 we went to the restaurant for breakfast since all of us, apart from the Burrells and the Sandersons, were going on long walk - our goal being Cuban Trogon Priotelus temnurus.
     Ricel and two other buggies collected us at 08:00 and we left for his house, which would be the starting point of our walk. Before leaving Ricel and Olaidis announced that we would all be having lunch at their house upon our return. What a kind and generous gesture.
     Miriam and I had done this walk in March and we were prepared for a strenuous walk, at times grueling, often exposed to the tropical sun beating down. To paraphrase Noel Coward......Mad dogs and birders go out in the midday sun!
     Fairly soon into the walk there is a large reservoir which provides water for the local area and irrigation for agriculture.




     There were a few ducks on the water but too far away to identify.
     For the first part of the trip at least, Francine kept up with Ricel, who handles this kind of effort as though it is a walk in the park. But then again he is only forty-four years old - a mere baby compared to the rest of us!



     This picture is typical of the terrain encountered along the early section of the trail.



     Sometimes the path becomes very narrow and even walking single file the vegetation almost brushes your sides. At one point we met a man on a horse coming towards us with another horse in tow. We squeezed off to the side of the path and could feel the heat from the horses' flanks as they passed by.
     We would walk for several minutes with barely a hint of bird life, then we would happen on a mixed flock. This is how we finally succeeded with Cuban Gnatcatcher. Hooray!






     In a perverse sort of way we were looking forward to seeing a rickety old bridge we had crossed in March. Marco DeBruin has labelled it "The Bridge of Death which crosses the Eternal Gorge of Peril" after a Monty Python skit! In fact, this structure had intrigued Francine sufficiently for her to request that we make sure to include this walk on our itinerary.   



  
     The view from the bridge is quite splendid and Ricel advised us that during the rainy season the water in the reservoir laps right up against the floor of the bridge. I am not sure I would want to cross it then!



     From time to time we took a short break to catch our breath and have a sip of water. I was impressed with Carol Gorenc (I always am) as she handled the terrain with grace and ease, bounding from rock to rock like an elegant gazelle.
We trundled, grappled, climbed and scooted, Carol glided.



     Jim Huffman is obviously enjoying her company.



     We saw a couple of Loggerhead Kingbirds Tyrannus caudifasciatus and finally got one open enough for a decent photograph.



     Probably the most demanding section of the trip was a dry riverbed filled with stones, boulders and loose gravel.




     For us it was tough going; for this snake I suspect not at all.




     If anyone is able to identify is I would be happy to hear from you.
     Despite slogging up the riverbed, through an area which Ricel advised, based on past experience was prime territory for the Cuban Trogon, we were unable to locate one.
     We headed back the way we had come and took a brief rest about two thirds of the way home when Ricel suddenly said, excitedly, "David, Tocororo!" And there it was above us, a beautiful Cuban Trogon. It refused to come into the open for a good picture, but everyone got to see this magnificent bird. For many, it was their first Trogon ever; an impressive sighting indeed.



     We slogged on, thinking that the journey would never end, but nine kilometres after we set out we were back at Ricel's house. Olaidis has lots of cold water for us, and I think we cleaned her out! I am sure the first glass that I had went right past my tonsils without stopping along the way!
     John Lichty looks happy to be sitting down, pants unzipped and falling free - an iconic image of sartorial excellence!



     Lunch was quite fabulous - pork, beef, rice, and plantain chips cooked and delivered to the table as we ate them. We are in the debt of these gracious, hospitable people, who have little by our standards, but who share freely what they do have. These are the experiences that are not forgotten.
     We returned to Club Amigo mid afternoon and didn't do much of anything until we met Ricel and another driver at 18:00 to take us to Restaurante Ferlin in Marea del Portillo. The Gorencs, Jim and Francine and Judy elected to stay behind, but the rest of us enjoyed a delicious Cuban meal in an authentic Cuban setting; fine food, a lovely server, good wine and it was inexpensive too. Miriam and I were wholeheartedly glad that we participated in the experience and I am sure the others shared the same feeling.




     Returning to the resort in our carriage, with sure-footed horses navigating the darkness, and warm breezes wafting over us was a sensory delight. We slept well with many happy memories to populate our dreams.

All species 21 November: Helmeted Guineafowl (maybe feral but probably domestic), Black-crowned Night Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Reddish Egret (white morph), Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Magnificent Frigatebird, Anhinga, Turkey Vulture, Common Gallinule, Killdeer, Common Ground Dove. Ruddy Quail-Dove (John and Geraldine), White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Trogon, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Eastern Wood Pewee, Cuban Pewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, Yellow-throated Vireo, Cuban Gnatcatcher, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Worm-eating Warbler (John and Geraldine), Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, American Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Grassquit, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

22 November 2016
Club Amigo

      This, our penultimate day, was a day to hang around the resort, start to get ready for the next day's departure, and really have a chance to study some of the birds we saw so frequently, especially the warblers, many of which were in their drab non-breeding plumage.
      We did not neglect the familiar North Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos either.



      Miriam and I spent most of our time down at the wetland and the surrounding shrubbery, focusing primarily on warblers that were attracted to a leak in a pipe, which barely created a trickle, but over time developed into a little shallow pool. With a little patience, one could count on seeing most species come in to avail themselves of this source of water.
     Yellow-throated Warbler Setophaga dominica is very rare in Ontario (I don't think I have seen more than three here), but in Cuba it was pleasingly common and Miriam succeeded in getting a great series of pictures.






      Sometimes reviewing the photographs at the end of a trip can reveal some surprises. At our daily check list session no one said they had seen a Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina, but the proof of the pudding is in the following picture.



     Miriam says that she was so concentrated on getting pictures of the various species that came to the trickle that it didn't consciously register with her that she was shooting a Cape May Warbler. 
     This American Kestrel, in the stunning red morph mentioned earlier, was resident at the resort.



     Northern Parula Setophaga americana is fairly common in our area in the spring, but often high in the trees and difficult to see, especially once the trees have leafed out. We saw them often low down in Cuba, and when they came to drink seeing them was even easier still. It is a handsome bird indeed.




     While watching the comings and going of the birds we spotted this tiny frog. If it hadn't moved slightly I am sure we would have missed it.



         This male Black-throated Blue Warbler Setophaga caerulescens is familiar to every Ontario birder and it was like seeing an old friend in Cuba.



     At Club Amigo they have a special dinner for guests returning to the resort and since the Sandersons and Miriam and I were there in March we were invited. There were appetizers of cheese, olives and little chunks of ham and toasted bread, kind of like melba toast. This was followed by a hot vegetable soup, lobster (local crayfish maybe?), shrimp, beef, and rice, potatoes and a mélange of carrots, green pepper and onions. Dessert, which was presented with great ceremony, was baked Alaska. 
     Following our dinner we rejoined the rest of the group and had planned to do the check list, but by then it was too dark. We sat around for a while talking and all finally retired to our rooms around 21:15h.

All species 22 November: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Anhinga, Turkey Vulture, Common Gallinule, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Royal Tern, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Cuban Crow (Jim Burrell), Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-White Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, American Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Great Antillean Grackle, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

23 November 2016
Club Amigo - Manzanillo - Santa Clara - Pearson International Airport - Waterloo

     We took advantage of our last morning to do some birding at the wetland, seeing most of the species we had been seeing throughout the week, including this Great Egret Ardea alba.



     Both adult and juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were present; Miriam was able to photograph the juvenile.



     I gave my Canada flag bandana to one of the fellows we had seen regularly when birding at the wetland, in addition to my flip flops. 




     Between breakfast and lunch we met to do our final checklist, leaving it to everyone to add other species to their own lists as necessary.


     We had our luggage out by noon and then milled around in the lobby after lunch until it was time to board our buses for Manzanillo and the flight home, with a stop in Santa Clara.
     Derek and Forrest Sanderson met us at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, as planned and drove us to Guelph, whereupon John took over and dropped off John Lichty, Miriam and me at our house. John picked up his car and drove home.

All species 23 November: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Common Gallinule, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Cuban Emerald, American Kestrel, Merlin (Jim Burrell), House Sparrow, Loggerhead Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, American Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

Overall comments
     This was a first class trip with as fine a group of companions as one might wish for. Everyone has expressed to me how much they enjoyed this trip and for those for whom it was the first visit to Cuba, they had a sterling introduction to the Cuban people, Cuban life and Cuban avifauna. I suspect that the memory will live on with all of us.

Further Information
Contact David Gascoigne, theospreynest@sympatico.ca, 519 725-0866