Sunday, December 10, 2023

Birding in Cuba - November, 2023 - Part 1

     Following on the success of our trip to Cuba in February I was implored to organize a repeat trip. Ironically, the very people who pleaded with me to arrange it dropped out before the tour took place, but their replacements had an experience to be remembered.

Leader: David M. Gascoigne

Participants: Trevor Lewis, Karl Malhotra, Stewart Monckton, Brian Smith, Mary Ann Vanden Elzen, Andrew Weslowski, Lorraine Weslowski

Tour Guide: Tania Piñeiro Cordero

19 November, 2023  
Waterloo - Pearson International Airport - Varadero - Viñales

     As before I arranged for ground transportation to the airport with everyone being picked up at their doorstep, and it worked perfectly. We were safely delivered to Pearson International Airport without the chore of driving the highway, parking and being shuttled to the terminal. Being dropped off right at the departures level is certainly the way to go!
    Our flight left on time and I ordered a turkey sandwich from the euphemistically named "Bistro Service." It was truly quite awful. Perhaps a turkey flew over it; that was about the only hint of turkey that I could detect, and half the bun was soggy, devolving rapidly into papier maché or the like! It might have been aptly named "Botulism on a Bun," but fortunately no such disaster ensued!
     We touched down in Varadero before 20h:00 and were at the gate by our scheduled arrival of 20h:05. The process through Cuban formalities was as smooth as silk, and soon we were outside the terminal where we were greeted by our good friend Tania, our excellent guide, and Jovany, clearly the most proficient driver in all of Cuba! It was wonderful to see them again.
     We had made the decision to make the long drive to Viñales and settled in for the journey. We detoured in Havana to pick up Mariana, Tania's daughter, an unexpected joy, and barreled on towards Viñales, stopping only for the pressing needs of nature!


     We arrived at our accommodation at around 02h:00, but most of us had napped on the bus. 
     I felt right at home at Casa-Hostal Magdiel y Maydalis; familiar faces, broad smiles and warm hugs - even at two o'clock in the morning!
     Sleep was not hard to come by.

20 November, 2023
Viñales and Surrounding Area

     I was awake at 06h:00 and went outside to sit on the porch and watch the world go by. Ernesto Reyes, Tania's charming husband, and a birding guide of great distinction, was also leading a tour and we chatted as we watched American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) and a Merlin (Falco columbarius) hunt for their breakfast. Ours would be a little easier to obtain than theirs!
      Up and down the street, the sun shone brightly, and people went about their business.

     Our first morning back in Cuba was starting well, the very air redolent with promise.
     Our group gathered and we set off for the limestone karst of Los Mogotes, home of the endemic Cuban Solitaire (Myadestes elisabeth), whose preferred habitat is karstic woodland. 

     We were not long in finding our bird.

     Everyone was paying attention!

     The birds of Cuba were new to all the tour members except me and there was great excitement as a Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus) revealed itself right in front of us.

     It really is a spectacular bird.

     Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus), bedecked in the colours of Cuba's flag is equally splendid and is aptly designated Cuba's national bird.

     There are two distinct colour morphs of American Kestrel on Cuba, white and red, both striking and both far more approachable than the skittish bird familiar to us at home.

     Other than during hours of darkness it was virtually impossible not to see Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) circling in the sky - and from time to time they were perched too.

     I think it was Trevor who made the point that we never encountered carrion, but all the vultures looked well fed, proof that they have better success than us!
     Olive-capped Warbler (Setophaga pityophila) is a captivating West Indian endemic.

     The literature indicates that it is found on Grand Bahama and Abaco in addition to the Cuban population, but recent hurricanes have destroyed much of its habitat there, and no doubt the birds also. Realistically, it may soon be classified as a Cuban endemic.
     Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica), a gob-smacking vagrant in Ontario, verges on commonplace on Cuba.

     A Cuban Vireo (Vireo gundlachii) was another exciting endemic for our group of merry birders.

     A Great Lizard Cuckoo (Coccyzus merlini) is an impressive bird and an exciting discovery for everyone.

     A Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra) does not have the cachet of a Great Lizard Cuckoo, but is no less appealing.

     Cuban Pewee (Contopus caribaeus) is an endearing little bird, that often perches in the open, and quickly became familiar to everyone.

     We all paid close attention to Tania - well, most of us, most of the time!

        Brian was focussed on the task at hand.

     You don't want to mess with Mariana when she is licking everyone into shape!

     We ate lunch at the Buena Vista restaurant, as we always do, and the food was plentiful and delicious, taken on the deck overlooking the valley - buena vista indeed.

     We returned to our accommodations for a siesta, meeting again at 15h:00 to visit a tobacco farm to see the process of making that most quintessential Cuban product, a hand-rolled cigar.

     Mary Ann was clearly the star of the show, smoking her stogie like an old pro.

     I think she has done this before! Maybe there's a whole secret life we don't know about!
     The ladies certainly showed no reticence when it came to cigars!

     We had enjoyed a great first day and looked forward to dinner together - a wonderful start to our Cuban odyssey.
     (A note about the pictures - on most trips I have Miriam with me and without her I am short of pictures, so everyone has kindly agreed to share their images. Thank you all. On this post there are contributions from Andrew, Lorraine, Brian and Tania - and even a few of my own!)
David M. Gascoigne,
David M. Gascoigne,

I'm a life long birder. My interests are birds, nature, reading, books, outdoors, travel, food and wine.


  1. Maravilloso reportaje de ese viaje a Cuba, me ha dejado fascinada la buena organización y, por supuesto, las bellas aves que habéis viso.
    Muchos besos y abrazos.

  2. The cigar workshop was a relaxing time.

  3. Hello David,
    What a great trip, the Cuba birds are beautiful. Wonderful photos from your group!
    Happy Sunday, have a great day and happy week!

  4. Dear David!
    You did a great job organizing the trip to Cuba.
    I take great pleasure in admiring the unusual birds and Mary Ann smoking a cigar. I always take my sandwiches on the plane. I also had a case where a ham sandwich was unedible.
    I wish you a nice Sunday and a happy week.

  5. What a great series of photos from your trip to Cuba.
    The Cuban Green Woodpecker, the Cuban Trogon, the Olive-capped Warbler, the large Lizard Cuckoo are fantastic species that we never see here in the Netherlands.
    You saw so many beautiful things, I think you enjoyed it very much.
    Greetings Irma

  6. Hari OM
    Now this looks like a fun bunch (I am delighted that Stewart finally made it over!) and what a fab start to the trip. Looking forward to this series! YAM xx

  7. Congratulations on the organisation of such a smooth start to the vacation, David. In my years as a tour operator I soon came to recognise how important that aspect is.

    What a great first day too, with a bit of 'tourism' adding relaxation after the serious (and well-executed) business of birding.

    I was wondering how you were going to illustrate your posts for this trip without Miriam's contribution - your participants have done you proud in this respect, and I'm very much looking forward to your next post on this stay.

    Best wishes to you and Miriam - - - Richard

    1. I find that one of the critical aspects is to choose people you are pretty sure will be compatible and respectful of each other. There are no guarantees, of course, but so far it has worked. I have one more tour coming up in February but that will almost certainly be it. Miriam has pretty much declared that her travelling days are done, and I don’t wish to continue to leave her at home alone.

    2. I didn't have the luxury of choosing my participants, David, as my tours were advertised nationally and even attracted participants from mainland Europe and your side of the pond. Tour size was usually between thirty to sixty persons, and I even had more than ninety on one occasion. Fortunately, most of the participants were absolutely fine, but I did have to ban a few for jeopardising the safety of the tours and our reputation with our suppliers.

      I'm sad to hear that your February tour will be your last overseas excursion, but I guess that there's plenty more in Canada for you and Miriam to explore together.

  8. ...Turkey Vultures are so homely and necessary!

  9. Gosh, I love all the different from those you showed us in Canada.

  10. An interesting and beautiful country. The birds are really amazing.

  11. Mariana is beautiful and looks so full of joy. I enjoyed seeing all these birds that i have never seen before. so very different than what we see. I once too two puff off a cigar, someone gave it to daddy and he left it on top of the fridge, i was 12 when I decided to Try it and got really ill. that might be why i never took up smoking even though I was in the generation where most people smoked.

  12. Wow! The birds are nothing like the ones I saw in Costa Rica (except perhaps the vultures but even they looked different). I love the little Cuban Pewee, it's the favorite of all the photos. Great shots all of them.

  13. Two delightful little birds stand out for me - the Olive-capped Warbler and the Yellow-throated Warbler.
    I notice that you mentioned that Miriam's travelling days are done, as are ours too. However, we really miss our travels, but have decided that we don't want to add more to the aviation CO 2 emissions.

    1. I will miss travelling too, but all good things must end, I suppose. I have been fortunate to see a good deal of the world and many of its birds.

  14. Wonderful pictures of some spectacular subjects. Thanks for sharing them and your interesting comments about them and the trip.

  15. Must be so comforting to know your hosts and be familiar with the accommodations...besides being familiar with the various birds. You really seem to have such a fantastic time there! Loved the pictures. You have good photographers in the group, of course. :)

  16. Looks a fabulous trip.
    Lovely birds, I especially liked the Olive-capped Warbler.

    All the best Jan

  17. The Great Lizard Cuckoo is an interesting looking bird. Love these photos, David!

  18. It looks and sounds fabulous. Thank you for yet another vicarious trip with you. I am sorry that Miriam wasn't with you and sure that your reunion was sweet.

  19. A very nice beginning to start off your trip. Love seeing the different birds and the cigar making workshop.

  20. All the birds are very beautiful David. They have other colors in Cuba than in Canada and Norway. The Cuban Pewee was my favorite today. Hugs and kisses, Marit

  21. A great start to your trip. Interesting that those wanting you to do this trip didn't come. I'm guessing you had no trouble filling in their slots.

  22. And did Stewart come from the farthest away to attend?

  23. Hi David!
    what a wonderful chronicle of your trip to Cuba! each word seems tinged with the excitement and adventure you experienced with your traveling companions.
    It is a refreshing publication, in another very beautiful country too. Besides the birds, Mary Ann was the star of the show, those legendary cuban cigars...!

    Thank you for allowing us to live this cuban odyssey full of discoveries, laughter and the company of special people.

    Greetings! 🌟🌴

  24. Beautiful birds, again. Thank you.

  25. What an amazing trip, David!
    Cuba's birds are stunning.
    Your group captured some truly fantastic photos!

  26. What a great trip!...I think you are missing your Cuban coffee.......Abrazotes, Marcela

  27. What beautiful birds! And nice to see a couple familiar ones too.

  28. Fantastic birds! Looks like everyone had fun

  29. hello David
    a fabulous world of birds, the colors of the birds are more intense and colorful, maybe I'm just imagining it ;-)
    Greetings Frank

  30. What a good time you all had, the birds are beautiful as always and it's good folk lent/gave you some photos. I'd still be coughing just will the smell.

  31. This first part is fantastic, fabulous encounters, some of which I'll soon be making in Mexico!
    Gros bisous David

  32. David, I am again reading with interest about your trip to Cuba. I like nature, everything green and luxurious. Very different from what I see outside the window (.
    I liked the Olive-capped Warbler, it's very cute. What enthusiastic travelers everyone is and you organized everything well.

  33. It looks like quite a big group -- and with some wonderful sightings! Those birds are fabulous, the food looks great, Mariana a splendid guide. I'd have passed on the cigars, though!

  34. I see Stewart M joined you..I always used to get his blog in my email but Google took care of that so we have kinda lost touch..I always enjoyed him...Besides the bird connection...We both have kitties..
    Looks like a nice "outing"...Good pictures from the group..The Great Lizard Cuckoo has glorious tail feathers..Enjoy your week...

  35. I have never smoked a stogie but I would be tempted if I was there, just for the experience in Cuba. A marvelous series of photos and the birds are a delight.

  36. When I saw the list of participants I noticed that Miriam wasn't mentioned and I wondered how you would get your photos. How lovely that so many of your travel companions provide you with truly stunning pictures. The birds you saw are so different from what we see here, so much more colorful. It must have been lovely to see people again you truly appreciate, like Mariana - I guess everybody is quite smitten with her! You had a great first day in Cuba and I look forward to seeing and reading more about it.

  37. Gracias por este nuevo reportaje de Cuba. Abrazos.

  38. Congrats for organizing such a beautiful and interesting trip.
    Never seen a cigar workshop before: for sure it was a great experience (however I don't smoke).
    Great photos.
    Have a nice day.

    1. I don’t smoke either, but to see a hand-rolled Cuban cigar produced is an experience not to be missed.

  39. Jakie niezwykłe ptaki oglądaliście! Wyspiarska fauna jest niesamowita! A cygaro chętnie bym w takim miłym towarzystwie wypaliła. :-)

  40. I'm glad everything went so smoothly and you had he best first day. I would love to try a Cuban cigar.

  41. Hello David :=)
    There is nothing like a well organised trip when everything falls into place which is a good start to any holiday and makes everyone happy..My thanks to the participants for their contribution in sharing their beautiful photos I enjoyed every one shared. The eye catching Cuban Green Woodpecker, and the Cuban Trogon are both delightful birds of extraordinary beauty, and the Olive capped Warbler, and Yellow -throated Warbler are
    both lovely little birds. I recognised the spectacular Great Lizard Cuckoo from your last visit to Cuba David, and am still impressed by it's appearance, and the small Cuban Pewee although not as showy is so sweet. Your lunch time meal looked freshly made and delicious. and watching a real Cuban cigar being rolled must have been an education. I have never smoked, so would not have tried smoking one, but enjoyed seeing the ladies indulge. A smiling Mariana is how I remember her from your last trip, I smiled when I saw the photo of her in a less favourable mood. I also smiled after reading your comment earlier this morning and could feel my cheeks redden. You my dear friend are insightful to a fault, but most of what you wrote is more deserving of someone like yourself.
    Hugs and xxxxxx

  42. Unbelievable. I especially love the Cuban Woodpecker and that Trogon. Love their bright colors. I can see why the Trogon is the National Bird of Cuba (the Cuban flag).

  43. What a treat to come here today, David and the birds are extraordinary in their colours and beauty. I loved Cuba when I was there and remember it fondly, mainly a literary/historical touring but it captivated me as did its people.
    You sound like an adventurous bunch and the joy is palpable.

  44. The Great Lizard Cuckoo is gorgeous! Omg, this reminds me of the first time I smoked a stogey...I INHALED was horrible!

  45. Querido David es un hermoso viaje y tu relato maravilloso. Las aves son preciosas y las fotos espectaculares. Un enorme abrazo para ti y para Miriam. La eche de menos.

  46. Sounds like another memorable adventure! The meticulous planning for ground transportation made the journey hassle-free, reflecting your commitment to ensuring a smooth start. It's unfortunate that some initially enthusiastic participants dropped out, but it's heartening that their replacements had a remarkable experience.

    Your candid commentary on the "Bistro Service" adds a humorous touch, highlighting the highs and lows of travel, including unexpected culinary adventures. The efficiency of Cuban formalities and the warm welcome from Tania and Jovany are testaments to the charm of the destination.

    The decision to make the long drive to Viñales, with a detour to pick up Tania's daughter, Mariana, adds a personal touch to the journey. Here's to more unexpected joys and unforgettable moments on your travels! If you'd like to share more of your adventures, feel free to visit my blog: Safe travels!

    1. Thanks for this lovely comment, Melody. I will visit your blog for sure.

  47. Dear David, how happy I am to hear about your trip to Cuba.
    Picking up at the front door sounds absolutely tempting :-))
    The first port of call to the limestone karst is a dream. What beautiful nature and wonderful habitat for wildlife.
    Thank you for your wonderful photos to admire and learn from... the lizard cuckoo with its impressive tail, for example, is very impressive.
    I also love seeing what kind of food you are served... it's always delicious to see what others have on the table :-))))
    We have a very small cigar factory here... The owner is a real Habanero and he learned to roll cigarettes from H. Uppmann in Havana, where his mother also worked... I think love brought him here to us.
    I look forward to your day two and send you many happy greetings.

  48. Hello David,
    I wish I was younger and fitter then I could join you on one of your trips. Take care.

  49. Exciting post to read and take in all the photos. At the time we lived in Panama, S.A., Turkey Vultures could be found perched in most high places downtown. We often joked it was their national bird. Nice to take a side trip to learn about the production of cigars. One can tell you all hit it off well in the photographs, and trips are always best with friends. I want to wish you a lovely holiday season filled with all that makes you happy. Take care.

  50. What a fantastic trip! I love that Cuckoo with the extra long tail. The photos are really good and I know everyone enjoyed the trip and the details you took care of to make is special.

  51. I missed this post. You had quite a large group this time from the looks of it. And it's great to see the birds, but watching those cigar smokers was quite fun. off to check out part 2.


  52. How good to be able to return to Cuba! so many magnificent birds, outstanding places, much natural splendor and the warmth of its people. A destiny that I have pending. I will be reading little by little all your interesting stories in Cuba, with your always exquisite story accompanied by good photos. A big hug


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