Friday, 4 March 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 8. 8 days in heaven

Considering the Zapata Peninsular is one of the top spots in Cuba and the Caribbean Islands it was surprising how few birders I saw really. Yes, there were a few but in a given day I probably only bumped in to one guided party and the only time I came across a self guided birder was at the Cueva de las Peces where on two occasions I met up with Brits, strangely enough, who appeared to be doing there own thing. I say strangely enough because the overall impression we had had so far was the majority of tourists were either Canadian or French with a few Germans thrown in for good measure. Most birders seemed to be Canadian.
I also got the impression that many of the birders I met were actually just on a day trip from one of the resorts on the north coast. I guess that's why I am writing this report full of enthusiasm that I have actually found something to share that might be of great appeal to a wider audience.
No doubt a pro guide can be very useful in showing you specific places to find specific birds but if you have the time to wander you may well find them yourself eventually, you might also find other tips of where to go on trip reports such as this one. 
Some species seemed to be very easy to call in if you had a voice recorder but I managed to find most species without.

Cuban Trogon   endemic to Cuba
In truth they were a bit more relaxed too which is what you'd expect!
Cuban Trogon   endemic to Cuba
After all they weren't feeling threatened.
Cuban Trogon        endemic to Cuba
I only found a Trogon on two occasions, the Tody was seen reasonably often. 
Cuban Tody        endemic to Cuba
Never in as good a position as on the first sighting though!
Woodland birding is very challenging for me. Not only trying to cope with variable light but trying to get a clear shot of your subject.
Louisiana Waterthrush   Cuba
Bits of branch getting in the way of both the Louisiana Waterthrush
Cuban Vireo   endemic to Cuba
The endemic Cuban Vireo

Northern Parula
Northern Parula       Cuba

The Black-throated Blue Warbler
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Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher      Cuba
Well everything really!
One or two species were more likely to appear in the open, the Flycatchers being a prime example.
Lasagra's Flycatcher.
LaSagra's Flycatcher   Cuba
and the confiding Cuban Peewe.
The Grey Catbird favoured both woodland and open space.
Grey Catbird       Cuba
When all else failed you could always guarantee the Northern Mockingbird would line up for a shot.
Northern Mockingbird    Cuba

The two most commonly seen Warblers were Prairie 
Prairie Warbler        Cuba
and Palm Warbler. Both often out in the open.
Palm Warbler     Cuba
The American Restart was another commonly seen bird and they seem to be happy to come down to hunt on the floor which gives a better chance of a clear view but as their insect prey tend to stay out of brighter light the shot poses it's own problems.
American Redstart    Cuba
When you are mobile a more hand holdable lens is a big advantage. I missed out on the Fernandina's Flicker because I was messing about with a tripod. I was taking it with me now but avoiding using it if possible as it lost precious moments trying to set it up when surrounded by undergrowth. My 600mm lens is just on the limit of my ability to hold still for , hopefully, a second to two. You still need a faster shutter speed though so depth of field was the regular loser in many shots.
Side on things don't look as bad, particularly in a pool of sunshine like this female Yellow-faced Grassquit.
Yellow-faced Grassquit    Cuba
But if you have the time, particularly for long distance shots where focus accuracy is important, a tripod is essential.
Cuban Parrot      endemic to Cuba
I did wonder though if I had made a mistake and should have brought my 500mm lens instead.
For flight shots it's the perfect tool. The 600mm is just that bit heavier to balance and the missed focus shows.
Cuban Parrot      endemic to Cuba
Ah well. Maybe next time.
When I wasn't out in the Soplillar woods, another reason that makes Playa Larga the perfect venue is it's proximity to some superb swimming and snorkelling. Something that Claire and I could do together. To make life interesting I had also bought myself a waterproof underwater camera. The Olympus Tough. What a cracking little camera and at the price I paid, £203, an absolute snip compared to the rest of my gear.
Our first trip out was to the Cueva de las Peces.... yes, I admit it, the extra motive was the birding opportunity I had discovered with Gwilliam the previous day but we soon discovered that even with a slight swell, access to the sea is a bit tricky, particularly after 10.00am when the crowds begin. We didn't stay too long but a day or two later we returned at 8.30am, this time with Tony's brother Arial.
Arial is a fisherman by profession. He uses both hand lines and harpoons. He tells me in his younger days he could swim down to 20m depth, now he says 5m or so is his limit. Me I stick strictly to the surface!
One of the tricks we learn't was to fill a plastic water bottle with breadcrumbs, you then fill that with water and occasionally removing the cap, squirt some crumbs out for the fish. Simple but very effective.
Fish food
The fish can end up too close!
Too close!
With Arial well below it gave perfect views!
Bay of Pigs   Cuba
He could also guide us to the exact spot you can find the wrecks of American landing craft.
US landing craft
The best place for snorkelling was probably the place I had been taken to see the Red-shouldered Blackbirds. You are expected to pay to go in, but Arial knows the people there so, being early too, we had a free visit. 
I made a $20 donation for what was the excellent services of Arial's guiding. A brilliant morning and a definite highlight of our holiday.
I need practice with the underwater photography. Without my glasses on it's difficult to see but I did get a few shots that came OK.
Bay of Pigs   Cuba
and where better to practice than right in front of our Casa!
Selfie    Cuba
Yes, the perfect location for a birder/non birder partnership.
Of course there was one other location that kept on drawing me back !

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