Friday, 26 February 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 4. The stairway to heaven. Playa Larga

With 5 nights gone it was time to move on from Moron to head south west to Playa Larga at the top of the Bay of Pigs, or Bahia de Cochinos to give it it's correct title. This was the bit I was really looking forward to. Hopefully a birding hotspot, located right next door to the Zapata swamp/ national park. The N.P. offices are based there so getting a guide as and when required should be simple enough. In fact my emails to try and book two of the most well known had basically referred me there as they were booked up ( and that was months in advance).
It's a fair old journey from Moron, about 350 kms so we left fairly early taking the scenic route with the intention of stopping off in Santa Clare to visit the Che monument.
Cuba 2016 18860
Impressive it is. Huge and must have cost a fortune along with the whole arena it is built in. Apparently 500,000 locals volunteered to help in the construction. As an 18 year old Che was a bit of a hero to me, I had the poster on the wall although I hadn't  got a clue about him or what he really stood for. Student ideals eh! 
After Santa Clara we picked up the three lane Autopsista Nationale which would have taken us all the way to Havana had we not come off at Jaguey Grande to drop down to Playa Larga.
The Autopsista is 3 lanes for much of the way and it was probably the weirdest diving experience I have had. With a speed limit of 110kph ( just under 70mph) you can put your foot down a bit but you have to be prepared for one or two pot holes as usual. There isn't a crash central barrier in much of the road but the odds on something crossing over from the other side is fairly small I would imagine basically because there is no traffic at all.

Cuba 2016 18861

 What joy. I'm hogging the centre lane to a) give me options if there is a pot hole ahead, b) avoid the occasional pedestrian who appears in the fast lane trying to flag you down to buy cheese! Why are they in the fast lane? Obvious, so they can cover both directions at once as there are few cars to try an attract.
So, swerving this way and that at  higher speed, we got to Playa Larga sooner than expected, probably around 4.00pm, and were immediately feeling right at home. What a lovely couple run our chosen Casa. The extremely charming Tony and Osmara have previous experience working in the hotel industry and it shows. They currently only have two rooms available in what was the family house handed down from grandfather who claimed the plot when it was still a swamp but now it's the most envied location in PL and everyday we witnessed them turning away potential enquirers.Hugely beneficial to us was that they speak perfect English too!
Cuba 2016 18826
The tree in front of their home must be one of the most photographed in Cuba if not anywhere. At sunset quite a few people would turn up to snap the shot, complete with Tony's bike !
As for us, well what a spot to sunbathe for Claire during the day, Mojitos and beers at night.
Cuba 2016 18824
Meals are taken on the wrap around covered patio as seen in the first shot. You are feet from the sea which is warm and has some excellent snorkelling right there.
No doubt you are starting to get the picture. It's the ideal spot for a birder/non birder couple who just want to chill.
Osmara told us she was worried we'd be bored having booked 10 days, most folk stay a day or two.
We certainly weren't and I'll tell you why in a page or two!

After settling in I was itching to get out but with just an hour or so of light left I left Claire and just drove through the village and up an unmade road I found. The swamp was on either side so I was on the fringe of the National Park. In fact after a few hundred metres I arrived at the barrier of the now closed entrance point. I just kerb crawled the mangroves until first I found yet another Cuban Pewee... I was to discover how common they actually are as time went by..... and both an American Redstart and Grey Catbird which were neither as confiding or stationary as the Pewee.
Cuban Pewee Contopus_caribaeus_1
Disappointed at failing to capture all three on camera I wasn't to know I'd see plenty more!
What I did learn was that the mosquitos were very active on the edge of the swamp. It was my first and final visit to that stretch of track.
Ordering a later breakfast I was off again first thing, this time to the village of Sopillar just a few miles away but outside of the park and in the middle of a wooded and agricultural area.
I was soon on to a Northern Mockingbird posing rather nicely.
Northern Mockingbird 1
Better still a West Indian Woodpecker which I had been watching at the top of an electricity pole flew down to make an even better shot clinging on to a banana flower.
West Indian Woodpecker 2
This was more like it !
A Palm Warbler was soon forgotten in favour of an American Kestrel
American Kestrel
then I spent hours, well seemed like, trying to get a decent shot of the Great Lizard Cuckoo which was always on the move and semi obscured.
Great Lizzard Cuckoo
Eventually I settled for this one.
Great Lizzard Cuckoo 1
It was soon time to return for breakfast but the fun wasn't over, as I was leaving the village I heard Parrots calling so I stopped the car. One of the villagers beckoned me over, then invited me in to his back garden.
How good was this!
Cuban Parrot 2
They were feeding just a few feet away from me.
Cuban Parrot 3
My biggest problem was I was too close with a 600mm lens!
I had to go, I was already a little late for breakfast but there was still a surprise when I got back. A regular visitor right in front of the Casa was this Little Blue Heron
I returned to Sopillar that evening, this time adding more shots of Loggerhead Kingbird
<untitled> 662016-01-31
and Shiny Cowbird
Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis
but that was about it.
Not a bad full first day though eh?
Not sure which was my highlight, the Woodpecker

West Indian Woodpecker 4
or the Parrot ?

Has to be the Cuban Parrot.
How often do you get that close ? I didn't get another opportunity again, actually I tell a lie. I did.
Sadly this highly at risk species is dwindling in numbers fast and one of the prime reasons is the number that have been and still are being taken in the wild as pets. To make matters worse, to catch the fledgling birds the tree they nest in is chopped down to get them. That not only reduces number currently but also in the future as nesting sites are denied not just parrots but other birds too.
What a day though, lets leave on a high note. A wild Cuban Parrot where it should be, up a tree not in a tiny cage.


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