Cuba: The next great birdwatching destination?
Cuba has always held an air of mystery for me. Part of it is the forbidden fruit aspect. It’s a country where I’ve been forbidden to visit or conduct business even it’s a mere 45 minutes away from Florida. Due to the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions, Cuba was cut off from the United States. The Cuban people have a sense of pride for their ability to fix what they have, create what they need, and do it independently from the behemoth next door.
As a birder, Cuba is incredibly exciting because it has more than two-dozen species of birds that you can only find on their island, including the world’s smallest hummingbird called the bee hummingbirds and arguably the world’s cutest bird: the Cuban tody. Though many people visit for the old cars, the landscape outside the cities is varied with mountains, scrub and lush agricultural lands. Plus, gorgeous blue waters surround the island nation.
Birding in Cuba is not quite the experience that it is here in the United States or other Latin countries like Panama. In the United States and Panama you can be independent and go without a hired guide and check eBird and Facebook for birding locations. If you know where you’re likely to seen a bird, you can visit that park, pay an entrance fee and enjoy. In Cuba, you must hire a state guide to take you into the park. We hired ornithologist Hiram Gonzalez to take us around the country, but still, if we wanted to go to a park to see blue-headed quail dove or bare-legged owl, we needed to hire a state guide to accompany us into the park. Cuba is prepared for nature loving travelers. Even if you stay at an AirBnB, the owners will help set you up with a local guide.
The local guides know where to find the birds and deliver them, sometimes not using the birding ethics we know in the States. They are relying on your tips so will work hard to find the bird. Our group was interested in photography opportunities. When our guides took us to a flock of flamingos in perfect light, they told us to let us know when we got our initial shots, and they’d be happy to scare the birds off so we could get flight shots. We declined that offer.
But the guides are incredibly handy in helping you find the bee hummingbirds. In the United States or Central America, nectar feeders are common and you would stake one out for your target hummingbird species. There are no nectar feeders in Cuba, so finding a 2-inch hummingbird is no easy feat as it zips around above the treetops. A guide is essential.
For certain species we had to hire gondola drivers to guide us through Zapata Swamp so we could see such rarities as Zapata sparrow and Zapata wren. Though we found the sparrow in other areas, there was no way to get the wren on our own without the guide showing us the waterlogged spot.
In many Latin countries, you can survive with knowing minimal Spanish. In Cuba, those two semesters of Spanish you took decades ago won’t cut it. If you cannot easily communicate in Spanish, consider hiring a guide to help you. Our group booked through Holbrook Travel and then worked with a local company called San Cristobal who gave us a cultural guide and driver along with our ornithologist guide. She spoke very good English, gave us the inside scoop on the culture and had extensive knowledge of Cuban and American history.
Though Cuba may not have the well-oiled tourism machine you might find in Costa Rica, it has lots to offer for a unique cultural and natural history trip. Take time to enjoy the beaches. We bounced around on the waves in the Bay of Pigs, and it was bizarre to see the pillbox defense posts used during the invasion of 1961 as we floated along in the turquoise blue waters.
If you are headed to Cuba, a fantastic guide for the birds is Endemic Birds of Cuba Field Guide by Nils Navarro. It also includes birds you can find in the West Indies and will help you with most of the birds you’ll see. The rest of the birds you can figure out with a Sibley Guide on your phone since so many of our breeding birds winter in Cuba.