Cuba Birding January 2020

I signed on with Caribbean Conservation Trust for a 10-day bird survey in Cuba, followed by a day in historic Havana.  My son-in-law Adam and I joined 7 other survey participants on the Southwest flight from Fort Lauderdale to Havana on January 9th.  Our itinerary covered central and western Cuba where we found most of the possible endemic species.  Our objective was to enhance the scientific information relating to the numbers and distribution of birds in Cuba in order to facilitate their survival in an increasingly problematic environment.

My personal and specific objective was to see one of the two species of the Endemic Cuban Warbler Family: either a Yellow-headed Warbler or an Oriente Warbler.  We succeeded in finding both. 

As a secondary objective, I also hoped to see the smallest bird in the world.  That was achieved when we were able to observe this Bee Hummingbird at the feeders at a private home.

Well, now that I started with the punch lines, I will write in a little more detail about Cuba and the tour. 

Cuba is our closest neighbor in the Caribbean.  It lies within 100 miles of Florida.  The flight from Fort Lauderdale to Havana is less than an hour.  American and Southwest airlines, and probably others, fly between Fort Lauderdale and Havana on a regular basis.  Notwithstanding the Trump administration “restrictions” it is still legal (and not especially difficult) for United States citizens to visit Cuba.  But because of the (intended) fear and uncertainty created by the “new” restrictions and sanctions, visitors from the U.S. are currently many fewer than they have been in recent years, causing considerable privation among the Cuban entrepreneurs and workers who have developed and depended on tourism for their livelihoods.  U.S. fear and sanctions are hurting Cubans.  And now, the Corona Virus.

Cuba is a little over 700 miles long and about 120 miles wide at its widest point.  It is the largest island in the Caribbean.   It has about 11,000,000 inhabitants.  The second largest Caribbean island is Hispaniola, which is divided between Haiti and Dominican Republic, each with about 11,000,000 inhabitants.  These 3 countries account for 75% of the population of the Caribbean.  There are many other islands in the Cariibbean, some independent and some owned by other countries.  The ones with over 1,000,000 inhabitants are Jamaica with 3,000,000, Puerto Rico (a U.S. possession) 3,000,000, and Trinidad and Tobago, 1,500,000.  Some of the independent countries are surprisingly small and sparsely populated. All in all, there are over 700 islands, and 11 independent countries.   

While there, a Cuban summarized the accomplishments of the Cuban Socialist Revolution since 1959 as follows:  excellent education system, excellent medical system, excellent sports events and participation; but not much to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Food is rationed.  Here is a “store” where people go to get their basic foods on a weekly basis.

For car afficionados, it is a mecca for observing vintage autos, often brightly painted, which are on display everywhere, and used as every-day operating vehicles. 

We spent a lot of time driving through the countryside.  The land is beautiful, with low lying mountains, valleys and green pastures dotted with trees.  There is much pastureland.  There are cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and goats.  There are fields of sugar cane, tobacco, bananas, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables.

The history of Cuba is fascinating.  One of the most interesting books I read before my trip is Havana Nocturne, which well and entertainingly describes the situation in Cuba as it existed and changed in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, up to the ouster of the Batista government by the Castro led Socialist Revolution on January 1, 1959.  I recommend it as necessary background for understanding present-day Cuba and the relationship between Cuba and the United States. 

We were surprised that we did not need malaria pills for this trip.  Malaria has long been extinguished on this island.  We felt very safe wherever we went, in the country-side or in the cities. 

We arrived in Havana on the 9th and drove directly to Vinales, to the west.  We arrived too late to do any birding, and stayed there for nights 1 and 2 with night 2 following our Day 1 of actual birding.  This area produced for me Yellow-headed Warblers, fulfilling my primary objective of the trip, as one of the 2 species in the endemic Cuban Warbler family. We also had a brief in-flight view of Gundlach’s Hawk.

Also seen in the area (or on the drive to the Zapata area) were the endemic Cuban Blackbird and the following West Indian Endemics residing in Cuba, or Cuban subspecies:  Great Lizard Cuckoo, Antillean Palm Swift, Cuban Emerald, West Indian Woodpecker, Stygian Owl, American Kestrels, Cuban Peewee, Loggerhead Kingbirds, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Bullfinches, Western Spindalis, Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, Eastern Meadowlark (hypocreppis), and Greater Antillean Grackles. 

Here is the Stygian Owl, one of a pair seen.

From Vinales we went east to the south coast town of Playa Larga for nights 3 and 4.  I was unable to participate in Day 3 of Birding because I became ill during the preceding night, suspicious of food poisoning, and missed the day.  Adam was able to get a picture of Blue-Headed Quail Doves.

The rest of the group also saw several Endemic Species most of which I was able to see before or after that day, except for the Blue-headed Quail Dove and the Gray-fronted Quail Dove (which our guide Nils does not believe is deserving of species status separate from the Hispaniolan Gray-headed Quail Dove, which I have seen there). 

A boat tour of the Zapata Swamp on Birding Day 4 was a highlight the trip, with Zapata Wrens and Zapata Sparrows showing well; but, like everyone else, we did not see the Zapata Rail.

 I also saw the following Endemics on Day 4:  Bare-legged Owl, Greater Antillean (Cuban) Nightjar, Bee Hummingbird, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Parakeet, and Cuban Oriole.

Day 5 was spent on the road north across to the northern coast, to Cayo Coco (“Key” Coco).  The ride was long.  It terminated with a drive across a 35-mile causeway built on the shallow seabed between the coast of Cuba and the northern keys.  There we lived in luxury for 2 nights at a plush tourist hotel with lots of international guests.  A big pool, all-inclusive meals and drinks, a room above the water, evening live music, and other amenities enhanced the birding experience. 

The most notable new Endemics added to my personal count during our stay at Cayo Coco or on the drive back to Havana via Sancta Spiritus (where we spent the night), Trinidad and Cienfuegos were:  Cuban Black Hawk, Cuban Tody, Cuban Gnatcatcher, and Oriente Warbler, the second species of the new Cuban Warbler family.

In Havana we stayed at a unique, small hotel (about 10 rooms) converted by German investors from an Oldtown residence to a hotel.  It was ideal as a base for our day-tour of Havana.  Among the highlights of the day tour were these.

Several of our group in front of the Fidel Castro mural on an administrative building in Revolution Square

Also at Revolution Square is the Jose Marti Memorial, at 358 feet in height, the largest memorial in the world in honor of a writer.  Long planned, and much delayed, it was finished in 1958 in the final days of the Batista regime. Governments of Cuba whether pre-revolution or post-revolution, deem it important to honor Marti.  From Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Jose Marti, born January 28, 1853, Havana, Cuba—died May 19, 1895, Dos Rios.  Poet and essayist, patriot and martyr, who became a symbol of Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain.  His dedication to the goal of Cuban freedom made his name a synonym for liberty throughout Latin America.  As a patriot, Marti organized and unified the movement for Cuban independence and died on the battlefield fighting for it.  As a writer he was distinguished for his personal prose and deceptively simple, sincere verse on themes of a free and united America.”

Jose Marti Memorial, Adam in foreground

The fight for independence from Spain began in the 1870s and ended in 1898 when the United States, after the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor, went to war with Spain and drove it from Cuba.

The 29 new species I saw in Cuba brings to 3,825 my total species seen.  Adding the Cuban Warblers to my family list brings it to 223 out of 248. That leaves only the Sapayoa as my single Western Hemisphere unseen family. When the Corona Virus is conquered, I may still see the Sapayoa in Ecuador or Panama.

Madagascar Part 5 – The Lemurs, Chameleons, etc.


The trip to Madagascar offered an opportunity to see lemurs, found nowhere else in the world.  There are 3 orders of mammals found only on Madagascar: lemurs, tenrecs and Malagasy carnivores.  We saw a Tenrec, as earlier reported, but none of the Malagasy carnivores.  As for Lemurs, the Island lived up to its reputation.  From the Behrens and Barnes invaluable guide, “Wildlife of Madagascar”:

“Lemurs: A massive radiation of primates that is endemic to the island.  There are five living families, plus a further three that have become extinct.” “Lemurs are Madagascar’s most celebrated biological treasure. Fifteen percent of the world’s primate species and subspecies, 20% of its primate genera and one-third of its primate families, are endemic to the island.  Lemurs form one of the most prominent voices in the Malagasy forest.  Most species are vocal and produce many different calls.”   

The five different families of lemurs are Mouse, Sportive, True, Indri and Aye-aye.

Mouse Lemurs (Cheirogaleidae Family).  18 species, 9 to 12 inches long.  Behrens and Barnes: “These tiny nocturnal lemurs include the smallest living primate in the world: Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur. . . . They closely resemble the galagos, or “bushbabies” of Africa.  Modern taxonomy has seen the number of recognized species increase dramatically from two to 18, and more species may yet be described. Although mouse lemurs are occasionally found sleeping during the day (resembling tiny fur balls), most sightings are during the night, usually in the form of a pair of eyes bounding about the forest at remarkable speed. There is some variation in size and colour (from gray to rufous), but all mouse lemurs look very similar, especially with a typical night walk view.  According to current information, most can be identified simply by where you are, so refer to the locality and species table on this page.”

 Grey-brown Mouse Lemur

Dwarf Lemurs (also in the Cheirogaleidae, or Mouse, family).  7 species, 16 to 22 inches long.  Behrens and Barnes: “Dwarf lemurs are small nocturnal lemurs in the same family as mouse lemurs.  They are remarkable as the only primates known to go into a hibernation-like torpor during the dry season (approximately May to December), during which they live off the reserves of fat stored in their tails. . . . There seems to be little overlap in range of most species so tentative identifications can be based on the location of a sighting.  Refer to the locality and species table on this page.”

Based on my prior understanding that finding any mouse lemurs (including dwarf lemurs) would be difficult, I was hoping we would see at least one species from this big family of small, nocturnal lemurs.  We found 3:  Grey-brown Mouse Lemurs at Ifaty, and Goodman’s Mouse Lemurs and Crossley’s Dwarf Lemur at Andasibe.

2.  Sportive Lemurs (Lepilemuridae).  26 species, 17 to 25 inches long.  From Behrens and Barnes: “Sportive lemurs are classified as an entirely separate family.  They are rather chunky, with big eyes and ears, and have a vertical posture.  These nocturnal lemurs are often seen during the day, roosting in tree cavities or dense tangles.  At night, they move about with impressive leaps while retaining their vertical posture.  This is another group, like the mouse lemurs, where the number of recognized species (currently 26) has increased dramatically in recent years, and new species may yet be described.  These species look very similar, especially at night, but show some variation in size, color, prominence of the ears, and other traits.  However, it is unusual for two species to coexist, and so most can be identified by location  (see table below).”

As with the Mouse Lemurs, I thought we would need luck to see any Sportive Lemurs.  But, we saw 2 species:  Petter’s Sportive Lemur (White Footed?) at Ifaty, and Zombitse Sportive Lemur at Zombitse

3. “True Lemurs” (Lemuridae).  This family includes several larger lemurs, generally thought of as separate groups, (a “genus”) including Bamboo Lemurs, Ring-tailed Lemurs, Brown Lemurs and Ruffed Lemurs. Most True Lemurs are active in daylight, unlike the Mouse or Sportive Lemurs.  Except for the Ring-tailed Lemurs which we saw at Isalo, all of our sightings of this family were in the Andasibe area.

A.  Bamboo Lemurs.  Bamboo lemurs are active during the day.  They can be up to almost 3 feet long, tip of tail to tip of nose.  We found Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemurs at Andasibe.B

Another species of Bamboo Lemur, the Golden Bamboo Lemur, is critically endangered.  It exists only in Ranomafana National Park, which itself exists in large part because of the discovery of this species there in 1985.  We chose not to visit Ranomafana due to its remoteness, difficult topography and our time constraints for the trip.  

B. Ring-tailed Lemurs.  We included Isalo in our itinerary primarily because Ring-tailed Lemurs can often be seen there.  The 3 to 3.5 foot long Ring-tail is probably the most distinctive and well-known lemur in Madagascar, although the Indri, discussed later, certainly gives it a run for the money.  We were fortunate to find a very active group near the campground at Isalo.  Their expressive faces, athleticism and long tails make for a good show.     

C.  Brown Lemurs. From Behrens and Barnes: “Brown lemurs are a large genus (Eulemur) within the ‘true lemur’ family, and include some of the lemur species most frequently seen by visitors.  There are 12 species . . . . Brown lemurs are medium-sized [3 feet long], vocal, and generally found in groups.  They are generally diurnal.”  We saw them at Andasibe.I

D.  Ruffed Lemurs.  We saw just one Black and White Ruffed Lemur at Mantadia National Park, north of Andasibe, toward the end of our trip.  It is generally found high in the trees, and that was the case for us.  It appeared to be eating the flowers.  

4.  The Indriidae Family.  Like the True Lemurs, this family is normally active in daylight hours.  The Family includes Wooly lemurs, Sifakas (both Verreaux’s and Diademed), and the wonderful (and, if from a distance, haunting) voice of the forest, the Indris. All of them are large, colorful, athletic and charismatic. They gave us many hours of pleasure, and a few shocks as one or more Indri would suddenly emit from overhead an incredibly loud and surprising scream.  

Our first encounter with any of Indri family was with the Verreaux’s Sifakas in the southwest.I

At Andasibe, we were treated to several sightings of Wooly Lemurs,

And Diademed Sifakas,

The stars of the Lemur Show at Andasibe were undoubtedly the Indri. They were vocal and loud, beautiful and impressive with their leaps through the trees.  They could be heard every morning from our hotel.  The locals call them the Voice of the Forest.  Truly, never to be forgotten voices, deafening at close range, haunting from a distance.  

5.  The Aye-aye.  As for the 5th Lemur family, the monotypic Aye-aye, we did not expect to see any because it is rare and restricted to areas we did not visit.  Nevertheless, to complete the Lemur discussion, we quote a summary from Behrens and Barnes: “This remarkable creature is one of the world’s most bizarre animals.  Its strangest features are its perpetually growing incisor teeth and its thin, elongated middle fingers, which are used to extract larvae from dead wood.  Although it was sometimes considered to be a rodent in the past, recent genetic studies have placed it firmly in the lemurs.  It forms its own family (one of Madagascar’s five lemur families).”

We were able to identify 13 species of Lemur, at least one species within each of the 4 Lemur Families that were possible to find in the areas we explored.  The most surprising sightings were of the 3 normally nocturnal Mouse Lemur species and the 2 Sportive Lemur species, better than the previously hoped for 1 of each family. 


This Oustalet’s Chameleon showed up outside our hotel on our first morning in Tana.

The Andasibe area added several Chameleons to our collection.

Short-horned Chameleon

Big Nose Chameleon

And the near threatened Parson’s (Giant) Chameleon.


We saw 7 species of Gecko.  One of the prettiest is this Lined Day Gecko

Gold-spotted Skink

Three-eyed Lizard

Spider Tortoise

Frogs were small but colorful.  Here are several:

Marbled Rain Frog

Baron’s Mantella (Painted Frog)


Notable at Andasibe were the large numbers of various species of Butterflies.

Green Ladies in with hundreds of white butterflies

Cream-lined Swallowtail

And these denizens of the insect (or spider) worlds:

Kung Fu Cricket (seen at Ifaty)

Grant’s Millipede

And the weirdest of all, this Giraffe-necked Weevil

Madagascar Part 4, Birds of Andasibe- November 26 to December 1

We flew from Tulear to Tana on November 26.  There our party was divided for the remainder of the trip because of the need for smaller, four-wheel drive vehicles in the Andasibe/Mantadia area.  It took nearly 2 hours to get out of Tana because of the heavy traffic. The road was narrow and full of pot-holes.   It was slow-going most of the time and perilously fast the rest of the time, with heavy truck traffic both ways all the time.  We arrived at the Andasibe Hotel long after dark; we would spend the next 4 nights there. 

Within the Andasibe area are Andasibe National Park, Mantadia National Park and smaller preserves.  We spent most of our time near Andasibe, but on the 3rd day we drove the road to Mantadia.  We certainly needed the 4-wheel drives for that trip, which was not far, but very rough and wet. 

Over the course of several days we enjoyed 3 sightings of the odd Madagascar (Crested) Ibis:

And, finally, a stunning closeup view of a Cuckoo-roller, one of the regional endemics of Madagascar previously seen in good numbers, but not as close as this one.

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfishers were found at several locations.

Our Vanga sightings improved with first sightings of Nuthatch Vangas, more Chapert’s Vangas  and a better look at a Blue Vanga.

This White-headed Vanga stayed high in the trees.

White-throated Oxylabes (of the Malagasy Warbler family) on the nest held still for our photographers. 

Nelicourvi Weavers showed up every day.

Purple Rollers were foraging above a small pond.

One late afternoon we were able to see a Collared Nightjar.

I used to focus on species in my birding outings, of which there are over 10,000 world-wide.  In the past several years, however, I have been trying to see as many of the bird families as possible.  Currently there are 248 families, up from about 200 a few years ago.  Genetic analysis has resulted in this remarkable increase.   I started thinking about going to Madagascar a year or so ago because it would be possible to add 7 new bird families to my then life-time total of 216: Mesites (endemic to Madagascar), Flufftails (widespread in Africa), Crab Plovers (widespread in the Africa-Asia coastal areas), Cuckoo Rollers (endemic in the Madagascar region), Ground Rollers (endemic to Madgascar), Asities (endemic to Madagascar) and Malagasy Warblers (endemic to Madagascar).  I was able to see 6 of the 7, but although our guide had fleeting glimpses of a couple of Asities, I did not.  And so I was able to add 6 families to my count to bring to 222 the number of families of birds that I have seen.  As for species, I added 83 new species to my world list, to bring the total to 3,796.  Couas are members of the world-wide Cuckoo family, and Vangas have some newly assigned family members in other parts of the world, but both the Couas and the Vangas on Madagascar are particularly colorful and interesting.   

My final Madagascar installment (Part 5) will feature Lemurs, Chameleons and other creatures unique to Madagascar.

Madagascar – Part 3 – November 23, 24 and 25

On November 23 we took the long drive from Tulear to Zombitze and Isalo.

These destinations were included in our itinerary primarily for the opportunity to see Ring-tailed Lemurs at Isalo.  We were not disappointed.

We stopped for a roadside brunch along the way.  The stop was productive of plenty of birds winging their way through the open valley and brushland bordering the road.  Included were Madagascar Sandgrouse, Hammerkops, and Grey-headed Lovebirds.  On to Zombitse where Cuckoo-rollers (my 5th new family of the trip) were numerous and vocal as they flew calling over the forest. [A later close-up view with picture came at Andasibe, for a later installment]. At Zombitze we found Giant Couas


We were lucky at Zombitse to get good close-up views of a pair of rare and range-restricted Appert’s Tetrakas (of the endemic Malagasy Warbler Family).

Zombitse produced a surprising daytime view of our second Sportive Lemur, the Zombitse Sportive Lemur


And our first encounter with a group of Verreaux’s Sifakas.


Both Greater and Lesser Vasas (parrots) were present, as were Archbold’s and Common Newtonias (Vanga Family), and Blue Vangas.  A Hook-billed Vanga had a nest nearby.



Another Zombitse find was this Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher, one of several seen at various stops on the tour.Madagascar-Flycatcher

From Zombitse it was a short drive to our very impressive Hotel Relais de la Reine at Isalo


From the Hotel we took an evening walk, which Barbara and I cut short as the rest of the group walked on, so I could rest.  We climbed up some nearby rocks overlooking a grassy bowl.  There we sat on the ridge surrounding the bowl for a long time as the sun set


and a pair of Helmeted Guineas furtively lurked through the valley of tall grasses.

The 24th found us at Isalo National Park where we hoped to find Ring-tailed Lemurs.  And we did, as they gamboled about in the trees by the campground for a long time.



A long walk further into the park produced nothing of interest and we returned to the campground where we were fortunate to see again the acrobatics of the Ring-tailed Lemurs as they prepared to depart from the campground area.   I also saw the Park’s lone surviving Verreaux’s Sifaka as she danced her magical side-step down the path to join the retiring Ring-tailed Lemurs.  Her family was wiped out a few years ago in an out-of-control burn of nearby pasture lands that spread to the forest.

Here we also saw this Madagascar Tree Boa.


None of the snakes on Madagascar are poisonous.  Others seen on the trip were Cat-eyed, Speckled Hognose, Striped Garter and Mahafaly Sand Snakes.

On the 25th we returned to Tulear, with the drive occupying most of the day.  Along the way we saw panning for jewels in the muddy rivers, (recent discoveries of various precious and other gemstones has led to a “gem rush” in various areas in Madagascar).

We saw clothes being washed in muddy rivers and dried on the banks.


We saw numerous burial sites.


We stopped at a small Mahafaly Village


where we were welcomed and invited into a resident’s typical, modest, one-room, dirt-floored home.


Cooking of the evening meals on outdoor charcoal pits was in process. 


Water is imported from miles away with trucks coming through the villages on a weekly basis.


On returning to Tulear, we visited the  market


and returned to the Hotel Moringa for a restful night before our flight back to Tana, followed by a long, slow, dangerous drive from Tana to Andasibe where we would spend the rest of our tour in and around the Andasibe and  Mandatia National Parks and the Perinet Preserve.

Stay tuned for Part 4, the Birds and Lemurs of the Andisibe area.