Thursday, 31 March 2016

Trip Report - Cuba

23 March - 30 March 2016

Background

     Our great friends John and Geraldine Sanderson had wanted to join our group in Costa Rica, but unfortunately, by the time they expressed an interest to me, there was only one position left, so we were unable to accommodate them. 
     A fellow member of our naturalists' club, Marco DeBruin, visits Cuba quite regularly and I had already been discussing with him the details of the all-inclusive resort that he goes to, and the scope for birding in and around the property. As soon as John and Geraldine heard of my interest in going to Cuba, they immediately said they would like to accompany us, and so it was that the planning began. Given the fact that northbound migrants join the resident species on the Island of Cuba from about mid March through mid April the timing of our trip was predetermined by the birds.
     Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean with a correspondingly diverse avifauna and we knew that a single trip to one area would not provide the opportunity to see all of its species, or all of the endemics, but we could enjoy a diverse and interesting range of birds, with the chance to see my first bird of a brand new family (Todies), always the star attraction for me.

23 March 2016
Waterloo - Milton - Pearson International Airport - Aeropuerto Internacional Sierra Maestra, Manzanillo de Cuba - Club Amigo Marea del Portillo

     John and Geraldine drove their spacious minivan to our house and picked us up a little after 10:30. The plan was to drive to their son, Ian's house in Milton, from where their daughter-in-law, Georgina, would drive us to the airport, returning to allow one of their other sons, Derek, to use the vehicle while we were away. When we left it was raining, rain turned into a mixture of snow and rain, with a little ice for good measure. The balmy breezes of a tropical isle already seemed very inviting!
     We arrived in Milton at around 11:30 and John's grandson, JR, drove us to the airport instead of Georgina. He was a good steady driver, and deposited us at the terminal in good time.
     It didn't take us long to get our boarding passes and luggage checked in and we had lots of time before we needed to go to the boarding lounge, so we went to Swiss Chalet for lunch. It was very agreeable. Miriam had a bowl of chunky, tasty chicken soup with a coffee and I had a chicken wrap with a salad and a glass of water.
     Lunch over, we headed to our boarding lounge and were ensconced there by 13:30, ready for a 15:00 departure. 



     I will leave it to you to guess whether these were happy travellers, anxious to embark on their Cuban adventure.



     We boarded the aircraft at 14:45 but were delayed a little before taking off at 15:20. All the seats had not been sold, so we were able to have two rows of three so that each of us had an empty seat in the middle, allowing us lots of room.
     The flight was designated a "Champagne Flight" and we were served a glass of sparkling wine. Even Geraldine, normally a non-imbiber, enjoyed her celebratory bubbly. Food on planes has never been a cause for celebration, but it seems that with each flight we take, the airlines have found ways to debase the standard even further. Miriam had a chicken sandwich, I had a calzone, She said that her sandwich wasn't awful, but my calzone was terrible, I am sure that I now know what sawdust doused with tomato sauce, encased in a bite-resistant shell tastes like.  Miriam had a miniscule glass of white wine, and I had a similarly diminutive swig of red wine, but nothing could dampen our spirits as we sped through the sky southwards to Cuba. 
     We touched down at Manzanillo at 18:45. The weather was quite cloudy and the temperature 30°. As we descended Miriam had been seeing small groups of egrets but it was impossible to determine the species. At the side of the runway, however, were two Killdeer Charadrius vociferus, our first birds in Cuba.
      It was pretty slow getting through the airport. Only three out of seven immigration wickets were open, and every passenger had to be photographed. The people were friendly, however, and the immigration officer we got was fascinated to flip through my passport and look at all the stamps!
     When we went to retrieve our luggage my suitcase and Miriam's arrived quickly, but it took a while for John and Geraldine's to make an appearance. Several large buses were waiting to convey us to Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, almost two hours away, and we had to check with a Sunwing representative to get our seating assignment. Initially she couldn't find my name, but we spotted it on one of the envelopes and soon we were in our seats. The journey to the resort was in darkness so we didn't have a chance to see much of the island on the way.
      We arrived at 22:05 and were met with a cold fruit juice, with or without a shot of rum. The registration process was abysmally slow. The desk has but one computer and a second attendant attached identification bracelets to our wrists.
     Our luggage was carried to our room and we turned on the air conditioning and went out to get a snack. Most of the food was scraps left over from earlier in the evening, but we managed to get salad and fruit, with a little cold pasta. John and Geraldine decided to simply turn in for the night.
     Miriam and I returned to our cabana and were in bed by 23:30. The beds were comfortable and we both got a good night's sleep.

All species 23 March: Killdeer


Club Amigo Marea del Portillo

     This all inclusive, three-star resort was to be our home for a week. If you are looking for luxury this is not your place, but if decent, clean accommodation, is what you need, then you have found a gem. It was absolutely adequate for our needs, with good food (not spectacular but more than acceptable) with a reasonable degree of variety, all the wine we could drink, spotless grounds, friendly staff - everything you could wish for; hot showers, clean sheets, good towels. We met several people who have been there many times, one woman approaching seventy visits, and another couple who spend five months of the year there, and is now in their seventh year of doing so. Our cabana was right on the beach and each night we fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.








     We thought it was perfect for our needs and so did John and Geraldine. I would return without hesitation.





     Given the long hostility towards Cuba by the United States, and the parallel acceptance of Cuba by Canada, most Cuban resorts are populated by Canadians with a few Europeans. The guest flag flying here was Canadian, the foreign currency accepted was Canadian. It was almost like being in a tropical province of Canada!
     Some may nitpick, some may complain, some may whine about nothing - we had nothing to complain about. We were comfortable, well fed, politely served and welcomed at every turn. This country is absolutely safe and one could walk outside the resort at will without fear or concern.

24 March 2016
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo

     I was up early and out birding before 07:00. My first two endemic species were located in a citrus tree no more than thirty metres from our cabana. Two Cuban Emeralds Chlorostilbon ricordii and four Cuban Grassquits Tiaris canora were busy getting their first feed of the day.


Cuban Emerald

Cuban Grassquit


    John and Geraldine were already having breakfast when we joined them at 07:30. In addition to copious quantities of coffee Miriam enjoyed a wide selection of fruit, while I had an omelette made to order, with a little sausage and home- fried potatoes.
     An amusing little incident occurred after breakfast when I went to stand at the front steps to watch the antics of a couple of Northern Mockingbirds Mimus polyglottos, the most common species of all. I was joined by a couple of smartly dressed Cubans, and the moon, which we had noted had been full when we journeyed from the airport, was clearly visible in the sky. One of the two pointed to my binoculars and said, "Maybe with those you can see a flag on the moon." I replied that there was an American flag on the moon. He spat out, "So they say!" in clear derision. Given the embargo over so many years, which has impacted the Cuban economy in various deleterious ways, there is obviously simmering resentment towards Americans, and a visit by Barak Obama is not going to heal the wounds overnight.



Northern Mockingbird

     I rejoined the others and we all went for a walk around the grounds. Cuban Blackbird Ptiloxena atroviolacea was almost as common as the mockingbird, but was surprisingly difficult to photograph. It appears that Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater is quite unusual on Cuba, but we saw four males. Surprisingly, we never saw a single Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis which might have been more expected.
Cuban Blackbird
     Through our friend, Marco, I had been able to make contact with a local fellow, Ricel Polan Hernandez, well-known to Marco, and competent in terms of finding birds. I had arranged to meet him this morning and went to find him at the appointed spot, to make arrangements for an outing the following day. 
    John looked good striding over to join us.


        There were many lizards around, of various types, the most common depicted below.



     They always seem to curl their tail and when they ran they looked for all the world like little chipmunks. I am unable to identify them as I have no reference works on the reptiles of Cuba, but they certainly entertained us each day.
     It was hot and we decided to go down to the beach and rest on reclining chairs in the shade of the trees until close to lunch time. It was very pleasant indeed, and, as always, the beach was uncrowded.
     At 11:00 we attended an orientation to Club Amigo, which we found quite informative, following which we birded a little more, and then went for lunch. An extensive buffet was available and we all ate well. Wine was available at every meal and it was always pleasant to have a glass or two.
     We decided to go back to our rooms and we napped until about 15:00 then went down to the poolside bar where we had delicious cold juice.
     After 16:00 when it cooled down marginally we resumed birding and were happy to find Yellow-faced Grassquit Tiarus olivaceus, a stunning little bird. 



    We noticed that feral goats, sheep, pigs, horses and dogs seemed to be present everywhere, and must surely wreak havoc on the local flora and fauna; thus it was hardly surprising that Western Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis were similarly ubiquitous.



     Geraldine and Miriam decided to go for a swim in the Caribbean and declared it refreshing, even though the water was quite warm. John and I just lounged under the trees and admired the two mermaids and the Brown Pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis.
    Dinner, at 18:30 was a buffet again, as it was every night in fact, other then one night when we made a reservation at an à la carte restaurant. There was ample choice although the offerings of pork and beef were sometimes a little tough. Chicken was always a reliable option and there was a good choice of salads, rice, vegetables, pasta, with fruit and ice cream for dessert. No one left hungry.
     We were back in our room by 19:45 and were asleep before 21:00.

All species 24 March: Western Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Turkey Vulture, Laughing Gull, White-winged Dove, Cuban Emerald, American Kestrel, Grey Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Scaly-breasted Munia, Cape May Warbler, American Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Brown-headed Cowbird, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Grassquit, Yellow-faced Grassquit. 

25 March 2016
Club Amigo - Ricel's House - La Presa - Ricel's House - Club Amigo

     We were outside before 07:00 checking for birds on the way over to breakfast. John and Geraldine arrived a little after us; in the meantime we sipped on coffee. Miriam had fruit and liquid yogurt to start, followed by a two-egg omelette with green pepper, onion, ham and cheese and a slice of toast. I made myself a sandwich of cold meat and cheese; then tried the liquid yogurt and fruit Miriam had started with.
     We asked the serving staff to fill our water bottles for us, and I made a sandwich of bread and cheese for us to take with us on our walk with Ricel. Geraldine did the same for John and herself.
     Ricel had advised us that it was about a two kilometre walk to his house, but since we would be walking about nine kilometres after that, we might wish to consider taking a horse and buggy to and from his place. This we chose to do, for the modest charge of roughly $5.00 each for the round trip. 



     The ride was leisurely and very pleasant. A Common Ground Dove Columbina passerina was there to see us off.



     Upon arrival at Ricel's house we met his lovely wife, Olaidis, who would be making lunch for us on our return. We looked forward to the pleasure of dining in a Cuban home.
     We set out on our walk, our principal targets being the endemic Cuban Tody Todus multicolor and the endemic Cuban Trogon Priotelus temnurus. It was hot, and the terrain was not easy, but we set off in high spirits. 
     Any time one looked at the sky Turkey Vultures Cathartes aura could be seen riding the thermals, but we also spotted a couple of them sitting on a hillside.



      Red-legged Thrush Turdus plumbeus is a bird with a fairly wide distribution over several islands of the Caribbean and we were very happy to encounter it, especially since none of us had ever seen it before.




         
     It is indeed a striking bird.
     It was not long after feasting our eyes on the Red-legged Thrush that we encountered our first Cuban Tody. At first it was frustrating because John and Geraldine were having a hard time getting on the bird, but before the day was out we would have met up with at least a dozen of them and everyone would have enjoyed first class views. This bird is barely bigger than a hummingbird and is incredibly beautiful. We were thrilled and delighted to have such a wonderful study of the species.




         At one point we crossed a very rickety looking old bridge, one that has clearly seen better days. John, the engineer among us, assured us that it was structurally sound, but I am not sure we were totally reassured, especially when we saw the ground through the gaps in the floorboards!




     It was here that Ricel displayed a wry sense of humour. Having crossed the bridge, he announced that we had no need to do so, he just wanted to make sure that everyone had the experience, so we all trooped back again!



     We stopped for a brief rest and shared the sandwiches we had brought and had a welcome drink of water.



     As mentioned earlier, feral animals seem to populate the entire island and it was rarely that we did not have a suite of sheep in view. The odd one had a bell, and a few were marked in some fashion, but the others were indistinguishable one from the other.




     The trail was often very steep with loose, sandy soil, but like all good birders on a quest, we persevered and followed our leader, who knew where we had to go to see the birds we had come to find.



     At one point it poured with rain, but Miriam had two umbrellas with her so she and I stayed relatively dry. The others simply got wet unfortunately, but the trail did not permit us to walk side by side and share an umbrella. Actually we were all so hot that the rain was quite welcome, and once it stopped we dried off quickly. Ricel aptly commented, "It has not rained for three months. Why today?"
     We slogged on to the area where Ricel normally encounters Cuban Trogon, but he indicated that the rain was not a good omen since it tends to drive the birds deep into the forest, and he was not hearing any of them. Try as we might we could not locate a trogon.
     Somewhat disappointed, but not disheartened, we started the journey back. John was flagging a little, justifiably so, but Geraldine was there to help him at every twist in the path. She was a pillar of strength both mentally and physically.
     When we got back to the bridge we had crossed earlier Ricel heard an endemic Great Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus merlini and he and Geraldine doubled back to try to find it. I got caught up with a Cuban Tody and didn't go with them, to my chagrin. We would see several cuckoos before the trip was over, but Geraldine saw the only Western Spindalis Spindalis zena of the entire trip. Here is her proof.



     It was not long afterwards that we ran into a pair of Cuban Green Woodpeckers Xiphidiopicus percussus, a gorgeous endemic that we had not really expected to find. What a great sighting!



    The trail was still a challenge and we were all hot and a little weary but we carried on in the knowledge that every step was bringing us closer to the shade and comfort of Ricel's house.




     Soon we saw the gate!



       We walked through the lovely garden and were greeted by Olaidis who beckoned us inside. 


   
     It was wonderful to sit in the relative cool of the house and enjoy a sumptuous lunch she had prepared for us. There was stewed beef, rice, banana chips, tomatoes and cucumbers, with delicious ice cold, refreshing water. It was a meal fit for a king, served with style and elegance by gracious hosts. It was our privilege to share in this food and to benefit from the warm hospitality of Ricel and Olaidis.
     The driver of our buggy back to Club Amigo had already arrived so he too was invited to share lunch with us. Laughter was exchanged, food was enjoyed, a little English banter, a little Spanish banter, the warmth of friendship shared - a great experience for everyone.
     We were back at the resort by 14:30 and we headed for the bar beside the pool where Miriam had a cold beer and I had a cold juice. John had beer also and Geraldine juice. What an odd sight we must have looked sitting poolside in our dirty, muddy, sweaty birding clothes!
     Back in our air-conditioned room we relaxed for a while and then I went back to the bar to get us a couple of drinks - gin and tonic for me and sangria for Miriam. We sat on our balcony and sipped on them. They were so good, and so refreshing, I went back to get a couple more!
     At 18:30 we met John and Geraldine for dinner. Tonight they had suckling pig, carved to order. That was Miriam's choice, with rice and a little white fish. I had a bowl of chicken/vegetable soup, and a plate of suckling pig, with, as Miriam put it, a little of everything else on offer!
    By 20:00 we were back in our room. I don't know what time we turned out the light but I know that we both slept well!

All species 25 March: Northern Shoveler, Helmeted Guineafowl, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Turkey Vulture, Royal Tern, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Grey Kingbird, Cuban Vireo, Black-whiskered Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Red-legged Thrush, House Sparrow, American Redstart, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Bullfinch.

26 March 2016
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo
     
     This was a day to take it easy after the strenuous activity of the previous day.
     We all met at 07:00 for breakfast. Miriam had papaya and a banana. I had an omelette, sausage and a little home-fried potatoes. Coffee is a given!
      Our birding began at the front of resort where we were delighted to have a couple of endemic Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds Agelaius assimilis land almost right in front of us. 




     We meandered down a little dusty road, through woodland, where feral goats abounded.






     We located a little corner where the birds were very active, especially wood warblers of which there was a great variety, including several Yellow-throated Warblers Setophaga dominica, a species rarely encountered in Ontario.



       John's career was in the design of aircraft engines and it was amazing how his engineering skills were brought to bear as he designed and tested this seat.



     It seems to me that Geraldine and I are inspecting it somewhat dubiously; perhaps Geraldine is looking for the seat belt to strap him in!



     When the birding activity died down a little we went to the bar to get a cold juice and returned to our rooms a little after 11:00. We relaxed there until we all met for lunch at 12:00 where we enjoyed the usual buffet.
      We spent the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, relaxing, dividing our time between our cabana and the beach, with a gin and tonic for me and a pina colada for Miriam. I had a short post-lunch snooze while Miriam read. A little after 15:00 I went out and birded by myself for a while and saw the first Black-necked Stilts Himantopus mexicanus of the trip. A lone Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca signalled that the northbound migration of shorebirds is underway.






     While on the beach this Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens sailed gracefully by.



     Dinner was taken as usual at the buffet at 18:30. Miriam left around 19:30 because the obligatory mariachi singers were truly, truly noisy that night and we could barely hear each other speak. The rest of us followed a little later and we returned to our rooms where we read a little, completed birds lists etc. until it was time to turn in for the night.

All species 26 March: Western Cattle Egret, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Turkey Vulture, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Ground Dove, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, American Kestrel, Grey Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Blackbird, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

27 March 2016
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo - El Macia - Club Amigo Marea del Portillo

    We had arranged with Ricel to take us to an area where we might be able to locate the Cuban Trogon missed on our previous attempt. He had selected a taxi to take us there, large enough for six people, but when the time came it had broken down five kilometres from the resort. So, after a little consultation, we decided to hire two smaller taxis (at a very reasonable price) to take us along the coastal road approximately twenty-two kilometres to an area called El Macia, part of an environmental preserve. The taxis would wait for us until it was time to return.
     The drive along the coastal road was of spectacular beauty but the roads were in bad shape. Miriam remarked that in some countries you drive on the left, in others on the right, but in Cuba you drive where the holes are smallest!
     The scenery was spectacular and we were able to stop to take some photographs.




      We can only hope that it will not get spoiled by a proliferation of coastal construction if relations with the United States get normalized and developers of the Donald Trump ilk are allowed a free hand to despoil everything.
     A Northern Mockingbird surveyed the scenery with us.


   

     We started our walk and it was very pleasant indeed. The temperature was hot, but not oppressive, and the ground was flat. We paused to rest whenever we needed to. John, Miriam and Ricel seemed happy with this break.



     For a good deal of the route we were alongside a river, and at this location we came across a congregation of feral pigs and egrets. There were three species of egret present, Great Egret Ardea alba, Snowy Egret Egretta thula and juvenile Little Blue Herons Egretta caerulea which are entirely white into their second year.





Juvenile Little Blue Heron




     Our only Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius of the trip was seen at this location.

     We had brought sandwiches for lunch from the dining room, along with fruit and little pastries and we stopped to eat at a most unlikely location. The following structure, on the weekends, is a cock fighting arena, where it costs ten pesos to enter and large wagers are made on the outcome of the contests. This is one part of Cuban culture I am happy that I did not experience.






     I had seen a Cuban Bullfinch Melopyrrha nigra on our first excursion with Ricel but no one else had, so we were very happy to come across this bird.





     We also had the good fortune to spot several Cuban Todies and were never less than enraptured with this gorgeous little bird.


     Several times we had to cross the stream and Ricel was always there to lend a helping hand to those who needed it. 


     If we got our feet wet a couple of times it didn't matter because we were dry in no time.
     Ricel had been hearing Cuban Trogon and finally he located one out in the open. What a gorgeous bird! Unfortunately it perched for but a minute or so and before anyone could get a picture it had flown. The image in our memory is etched there forever!
     We had passed a house earlier where a distant relative of Ricel's wife lived, and on the way back we were invited to enjoy fresh coconut water. Ricel expertly used a machete to lop off the top and open up a drinking hole. It was deeeelicious!


     Here am I about to start drinking mine.


     This little girl and I bonded almost instantly and she was lively and very willing to talk. She was captivatingly pretty and a pleasure to meet. When we left she walked alongside me and held my hand. I thought for a moment I had a Cuban granddaughter.


     We returned to the highway where our two taxis were waiting for us and drove back to the resort. It had been a great morning and much less strenuous than our first foray with Ricel.
     Here is our taxi with its driver at the end of our trip.


     Miriam had scurried ahead to our cabana so on the way there I stopped to get a drink for each of us - a mojito for her and a gin and tonic for myself.
     We relaxed until 16:00 when we went down to the beach, finally returning to our room to get ready for dinner. 
     Miriam had a salad plate, then rice with a little rabbit and chicken, followed by a dish of very tasty ice cream. I had lamb, chicken, vegetables and a little salad.
     We were back in our room by 20:15 well contented with our day.

All species 27 March: Western Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Turkey Vulture, Spotted Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Trogon, Belted Kingfisher, Cuban Tody, Cuban Green Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Cuban Pewee, Grey Kingbird, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-whiskered Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Red-legged Thrush, House Sparrow, Black-and-White Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle.

28 March 2016
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo
      
     It had rained overnight and was still overcast when we went for breakfast. Whether this was a factor or not, I am not sure, but for the only time during our stay we had Antillean Nighthawks Chordeiles gundlachi flying overhead and swooping fairly low above our heads. They were accompanied by numerous bats, also the only time we saw them as far as I remember.
     There is a little marsh at the edge of the resort and we decided to make that our first birding stop for the day. Other than for numerous Cattle Egrets and Grey Kingbirds it was not especially productive so we walked along the little dirt road which led to the highway.
     This area was pretty birdy, especially for warblers, but photographing them is not easy as they flit around so much and barely stay still for a moment. In the time it takes to lift the camera they have generally moved to another branch. Miriam did manage this fairly decent shot of a Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata, one of the more abundant species.



     As mentioned earlier there is an abundance of lizards of various species, all interesting, but sadly all remaining unidentified. This one would expand its throat displaying vivid colours but neither Miriam nor I were able to get a shot during the brief moment the behaviour occurred.



     Here are a couple of other species.




     Today we saw our first Green Heron Butorides virescens of the trip. John recounted a story of a birding friend who always claimed that Green Herons do not perch on wires. Well, I think we can disprove that assertion!


   

     As we walked along we ran into Ricel, who was not on any firm schedule, and decided to walk with us for a while. We proceeded along a dry river bed, to a bridge and crossed over to the other side, where we walked for a half hour or so. A small group of Smooth-billed Anis Crotophaga ani seemed ready to pose for a photograph or two.




     On the way back, we passed a group of men cutting down a tree, with an oxcart nearby to transport the branches. 






     These guys kindly retrieved coconuts for us and once again we were treated to the delight of fresh coconut water. This time they even carved us a little spoon out of the husk so that we could eat the fleshy part too. It was a very pleasant experience.



     Ricel left us to go on his way and we returned to the bar near the pool to have a cold fruit juice. 
     Miriam and Geraldine decided to go into the pool and were just in time for an aquatic exercise class, and they participated with gusto. John and I were exhausted just watching them.
     At noon we went for lunch. Miriam had a fresh fish sandwich, a couple of cold salads, and a piece of chicken. I had a hamburger with a side order of fish. 
     After lunch I had a nap while Miriam read. She decided to go back to the pool and returned later with a gin and tonic for me and a tequila sunrise for herself. We sat on the balcony and enjoyed them, listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach.
     Tonight we planned to go for dinner to the hotel up the hill, having been advised that it was part of the same resort complex and that we were free to eat at either location as we wished. When we initially arrived, however, we were denied entry into the dining room, the rules having been changed that very day. We were quite prepared to return to our regular spot, but others were not so compliant, They made enough fuss that they finally let us in. The food, however, was identical to that served down below at Club Amigo.
      As usual, John, suave and debonair, proved himself a hit with the ladies!



     We had planned to take the golf cart back to our home location but it needed a charge so we walked down. We stopped at the bar for a nightcap; Miriam had a Havana Special and I had my usual gin and tonic. 
     By 21:45 we were back in our room and in bed shortly afterwards.

All species 28 March: Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Turkey Vulture, Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo (H), Antillean Nighthawk, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, American Kestrel, Grey Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-whiskered Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Black-and-White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Bullfinch, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

29 March 2016
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo

     Miriam was still in bed when I left the room to go for a coffee near the pool. The coffee available there was always better than the restaurant for it was made on an expresso machine, and one could choose café con leche, cappuccino or other specialty brews. Miriam soon joined me and she had a coffee too. 
     John and Geraldine came shortly afterwards and we all went to the buffet for breakfast.
     We decided to start our birding day in an area across from Club Amigo where the horses and buggies assemble. I had birded there previously by myself but no one else had. A White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica seemed content to share its perch with a Northern Mockingbird.



     This area was very productive and we found a small bush which was alive with warblers. I managed this very poor shot of a Prairie Warbler Setophaga discolor.



     Miriam did substantially better in capturing a Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina, a species which was quite common in Cuba, but a species that it is sometimes difficult to find at home.



     Several Black-necked Stilts put in an appearance and two Kildeers announced their presence to us as they flew overhead. We also heard Greater Yellowlegs but did not succeed in seeing them.
     The prize was perhaps our best looks at a Great Lizard Cuckoo and the chance to finally get some passable photographs.






     It is a stunning bird and we were very happy that we all finally saw the bird well.
     Miriam captured a Cuban Emerald showing very clearly how it got its name.



     It was very hot indeed, perhaps the hottest day of all. Geraldine and Miriam both returned to their rooms but John and I continued up the hill towards the hotel and stopped in to get a cold juice.
     We then hitched a ride on the golf cart back to Club Amigo and sat by the pool while Geraldine and Miriam went for a swim.
     I decided to skip lunch since my stomach was a little upset, nothing serious but eating didn't appeal to me. Miriam went to the buffet with John and Geraldine and said she had a fine lunch indeed. She made herself a chicken burger with boneless, skinless chicken breast, dressed with tomato, onion, green pepper and mayo. This was followed by several slices of watermelon and a couple of pieces of papaya. Then she had three tiny pieces of cake and a scoop of chocolate ice cream! Not too bad huh?
     I was sitting on the balcony when she returned and we relaxed together until 16:00 when we decided to go out do a little birding and walk down to the "palm forest" we had been told about. 
     We started our walk at the little wetland we had visited several times before, and finally were able to get some decent shots of the Grey Kingbirds that were always there. 





     John and Geraldine had the same idea about visiting the palm forest right around the same time we did and we ran into them on the beach, so we went together. It was an interesting place to visit with different species of palm trees. We could never figure out whether it represented natural growth or whether it was originally a plantation.



     As always, there were lizards to be seen.






     We got back in time for Geraldine and Miriam to have a dip in the pool before dinner, this time joined by John.
     For tonight's dinner, our final one, we had made reservations at the à la carte restaurant for 18:30.
     It was quite lovely in there and we started with chicken vegetable soup. Miriam followed up with tilapia with shrimp, rice, potatoes and green pepper. I had basically the same dish but with chicken instead of fish.  Dessert was a piece of cake with vanilla ice cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce.
     We decided to go to the bar for a coffee, but when we got there the machine was broken so we went to the buffet where we could get a coffee, albeit not the delicious variety from the expresso machine we had hoped for.
      As usual the mariachi wailers were screeching at full volume and we couldn't hear each other speak so we left and returned to our rooms. There was a farewell party on the beach and that kept us awake until about 23:00 but the noise finally subsided and we fell asleep.

All species 29 March:  Little Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Turkey Vulture, Black-necked Stilt, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs (H), Common Ground Dove, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Emerald, Grey Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, American Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Grassquit, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

30 March 2016

     Our final day!
     I changed some money to accommodate the tips I wanted to leave for the various people who had treated us so well and went in for breakfast with John and Geraldine. Miriam made herself a sandwich with cold meat and cheese, watermelon, a small piece of cake, and coffee. I had an omelette with sausage and bacon - and coffee of course.
     We had arranged to donate a good deal of the clothing we had brought with us to people we had met during our walk yesterday and we met them around 09:00 to make the transfer. John and Geraldine gave many of their clothes to the lifeguard to whom they had chatted on the beach.
     For the chambermaid we left cash in the room and Miriam had made a lovely toiletry bag in which she included a tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant and other supplies.
     We birded for a while, meeting Ricel again and spending some final time with him.
     At noon we went for lunch, taking our bags with us to the lobby, for subsequent loading onto the bus which would convey us to the airport.
     Miriam succeeded in photographing Cuban Grassquits right from the restaurant.




     Our bus departed at 15:30 and we had a chance to see quite a bit of the Cuban countryside since our journey was in daylight. En route we saw our only Rock Doves Columba livia of the trip.
     We arrived at the airport at 17:30 but it then took an hour and a quarter to check in and clear customs.  It really is incredibly slow and standing in line in the stifling heat is not really what we wanted to do.




     Take off was at 20:10 and we were served the same kinds of abysmal sandwiches as we had coming down. I had a ginger ale and Miriam had a red wine.
     We touched down in Toronto at five minutes past midnight and were through the formalities fairly quickly. Derek met us in the arrivals lounge and we drove to Guelph to his house. John then took over and dropped us at home in Waterloo around 02:30.
     As always, it was good to be home.  

All species 30 March: Green Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Turkey Vulture, Killdeer (H), Rock Dove, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Great Lizard Cuckoo, American Kestrel, Grey Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, House Sparrow, Black-and-White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, American Yellow Warbler (H), Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Grassquit, Yellow-faced Grassquit.

Overall Impressions

     We were very much enamoured of Cuba and the Cuban people. John and Geraldine shared fully in this sentiment. We were treated with nothing but friendliness and kindness in all our dealings and we would return in an instant.
We had great birding, made good friends, shared a little in Cuban life - a fine experience all around.

John and Geraldine Sanderson

     It was indeed a life-enriching experience to spend so much time with John and Geraldine. Finer companions would be hard to imagine. Some people are referred to as the salt of the earth. In that case John and Geraldine are salt, pepper and ketchup too.




Ricel Polan Hernandez

     email: ricel@nauta.ca     cell phone: 52487671

     We very much enjoyed Ricel's company and found him to be a fine bird guide. He did all of this without benefit of binoculars or a field guide. He has very acute hearing and knows the bird songs well. We are going to send a pair of binoculars for him, and Geraldine is going to send him a field guide. We are encouraging him to learn the English names of the birds and we are confident that he could set himself up as a guide. If you are contemplating travel to this part of Cuba, I can think of no better person for you to contact if birding is your goal. His command of English is more than adequate and if you can manage a little Spanish you will enhance your experience even more.




Acknowledgements

     I owe a deep and sincere debt of gratitude to Marco DeBruin who put this whole idea into my head. He guided me every step of the way, never failed to answer all my questions, although at times he must have felt I was pestering him. It is in no small measure that his influence and guidance ensured our successful trip. Thank you Marco, I will be forever grateful.

Photographs

     Any photograph that was taken by me bears my name. The single photograph taken by Geraldine is identified accordingly. The other pictures are Miriam's. I am the dedicated (fanatical she might say) birder and it is usually difficult to be a birder and a photographer at the same time. Often she permits me to wallow in the glory of the moment and absorb as much of the bird and its behaviour as I can, while she takes care of the photography. Thanks honey!

Further Information

     Contact me at theospreynest@sympatico.ca or at 519 725-0866. I will prepare a spread sheet over the next couple of days. If you would like a copy please let me know.