Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 7. A full day's pro guiding.

Having sampled the obvious benefits of local knowledge I put them in to practice for a couple of days before taking another guided tour. However, in the meantime a new resident had arrived to stay at our Casa, an American lady,Connie, who currently lives in Beijing and who is interested in both birds and photography.
She had already contacted our host,Tony, and asked him to arrange a half day trip which he had done so. He also knew I intended taking another trip so when the guide turned up to discuss Connie's outing he suggested that it might be an idea to arrange something together. Connie had agreed that a fee of $70 for half a day's guiding and transport was acceptable.
Guess who the nominated guide was , no less than the English speaking Mario ! 
I suppose I made life difficult for him because I wanted to use my car for the whole day, which made sense as it was sitting there and paid for. Mario, it later dawned on me, was expecting to use a taxi paid for by Connie to get him the 30kms to start the tour.
Unlike Connie who's priorities were to see as many species as possible in the short time she was staying ( 3 nights, 2 full days) my priority now was to get inside the actual national park and swamp  to see what was overwintering in the Las Salinas area. I think Mario must have suggested Zapata Sparrow and Rail to begin with to which I then suggested we basically follow my trip with Gwilliam in the morning then go in to the park in the afternoon. Mario wanted $140. I played hardball, well softball really, and said that we should only pay $120 as we were using my car. Suddenly his English seemed very limited and the discussion was with Tony and in Spanish. I haven't a clue what was said. Anyway Mario agreed to the fairly comprehensive plan of leave at 6.00am, drive north for about 30kms to the Zapata Sparrow/Rail spot, then head south 80kms for the Quail-Dove at Playa Giron but stopping at the Casa for breakfast on the way. We would then head back to Soplillar then back to Playa Larga to enter the national park and Las Salinas.
An ambitious plan but Mario agreed and we shook hands on the price.
That night Tony got the call, Super Mario had cried off again but had arranged for a locally based guide to take his place. Manolito had been fully briefed on our plans and expectations so it wasn't going to be a problem that he didn't speak much English.
Fait accompli!
Connie certainly didn't have the time to change the planned day. It was the only opportunity she had!
Manolito it was then. He was there at 6.00am and off we headed back towards Jaguey Grande where, as it happens, Mario lives. We could have met him there had he wanted, anyway too late now. I was directed off the main road down an unmarked side track and after some distance told to stop.
We got out of the car and Manolito played his tape.
Zapata Rail.
In search of the elusive Zapata Rail

A bird was seen in the reeds on the far side of the canal. Manalito said 'Sora Rail" to which I looked at Connie and raised an eyebrow.
Moorhen      Cuba
We are not experts by a long chalk but we wondered who we had taken on here ! His English wasn't exactly good but we could make ourselves understood and Moorhen doesn't translate in to Sora by any stretch of the imagination.
We hung around for 20-25 minutes, in my opinion wasting time. Manolito was telling us the replies to his recorder were indeed Zapata Rail but I knew the chances of seeing one were less than zero. I think he explained he had seen one once in 23 years, or perhaps he was telling me that was how long since he or anyone else he knew had seen one. Either way we were wasting time on a lost cause.

*I have since read that there is doubt that the recorded call is actually a Zapata Rail and might be another Rail. So perhaps we were hearing a different Rail responding , perhaps that was what Manolito was trying to explain. The Sora Rail wasn't the bird in the water but the call he was playing.

Anyway, IMO we were wasting time. We had a tight schedule to meet, breakfast back in the Casa then heading south to Playa Giron. We moved on up the track but in the following discussion it became apparent that Manolito hadn't been briefed on our plan at all. He said it was impossible to fit it all in during one day. This threw a spanner in the works big time.
He was giving us the choice of either Playa Giron or Las Salinas. Connie agreed to Las Salinas but it gave me a new problem. I was running short on fuel and had planned to fill up at Playa Giron!
Feeling a bit annoyed by the turn of events my spirits soon lifted when Manolito spotted a Cuban Pygmy-Owl sitting in a tree. Nice one and well spotted.
Cuban Pygmy-Owl   endemic to Cuba
My thoughts on his abilities re-appraised!
Cuban Pygmy-Owl   endemic to Cuba
A Cuban Green Woodpecker flew in to a tree opposite the Owl, 
Cuban Green Woodpecker    endemic to Cuba
Connie was off to a flyer with 2 endemics which soon became 3, and I wasn't complaining at 2 new additions to my list.
The sound recorder soon had Zapata Sparrow responding and after following them for a while they settled in a nearby tree giving photo opportunities.
Zapata Sparrow   endemic to Cuba

I hadn't been too bothered about adding the Sparrow to my sightings list before I left for Cuba but having seen one I have to say I have changed my mind. Prettiest Sparrow I have seen I think!
Zapata Sparrow   endemic to Cuba

The light wasn't exactly good , things clouded over for a while but we had so far had a good morning. It was already 8.30am and I had at least 50 kms to drive both in going out of my way to refuel in Jaguey Grande and driving back for breakfast where we were expected. I asked Manolito to phone Tony to explain we'd be late. I noticed he did so via Mario. Mario was holding the numbers I guess.
Anyway, giving Connie the experience of driving over a "B" standard road at 50% over the speed limit was part of her Cuba experience and hanging on to the overhead grip she suffered the bumps in near silence but sighed relief when we got safely back to brekkie!
Afterwards, a short and more serene drive southwards as directed took us back yet again to the village of Soplillar. The guides do love this place!
One of our first sightings was this rather large and highly camouflaged lizard.
Tree Lizard     Cuba
Once again, Manolito revealing he had a sharp pair of eyes. I had certainly been wrong to question his earlier skills.
He showed us another little section of track previously unexplored by myself and it gave us yet another endemic. The fast moving Cuban Vireo. High in a tree, it proved impossible to photograph. Sound recordings failed to lure out either Trogan or Tody so we moved on to the little piece of woodland where I'd seen the Fernandina's Flicker with Gwilliam. The recorder did the trick and Connie soon had both target endemics in the bag. Attempts to lure the Flicker resulted in the briefest of sightings but no photo opportunities. That mission was abandoned and instead we headed to the car and again drove south, again back to the previously visited  Cueva de los Pesces. It was very busy by now and after a couple of words with the guys working the restaurant Manolito indicated that we should hang around a while to see if the Blue-headed Quail -Dove should appear. Interesting as this was at least 60 kms less driving than the place south of Playa Giron.
While we hung around I wandered off to see if I could better my previous attempts with an American Redstart whose habits I now had a good idea of.
American Redstart    Cuba
Sure enough, he returned to the same spot of a regular basis.
American Redstart    Cuba

Great views of the weird Lizards with the distinctive tail, I believe they might be Northern Curly-tailed Lizard, the list of Cuban species is pretty long.
<untitled> 672016-02-06I also got a brief view of a grey-black snake which vanished under some duck boards without a trace.
A small mixed flock of Greater Antillean Grackle
Greater Antillean Grackle     Cuba
and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird were a nice photo opportunity 
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird   Cubabut it was suddenly apparent the stars of the show had arrived.
Blue-headed Quail-Dove   endemic to Cuba
There were three of them, and they wouldn't keep still !
Blue-headed Quail-Dove   endemic to Cuba
Moving from shade to bright light as they searched for food they were a challenge but the lighting conditions were better than at the other place.
Blue-headed Quail-Dove   endemic to Cuba
It appears they respond well to regular feeding and were certainly very confiding. Too close for my lens much of the time.
Nice one and certainly worth the return visit.
Photoshoot over it was now probably early afternoon and when asked I declared "Las Salinas then!"
I said to Connie we couldn't come all the way to Cuba and not actually take a look could we ?!
In fairness, it was now very hot, the sun was beating down and the track to Las Salinas is rather rough, pot-holed and consequently uncomfortable, particularly for passengers I guess.
After a fair old drive you eventually arrive at the lagoons but with the shade of the earlier stretch of woodland now gone you really are exposed to the heat.
Zapata peninsular   Cuba
At car level views are obscured by the bushes.
Laguna de las Salinas   Cuba
and most of the birds appear quite distant.
American White Pelican    Cuba
We were adding some new trip species like the American White Pelican and for Connie, like me now, previously seen American Flamingo's . 
American Flamingo    Cuba
Good photo opportunities were disappointingly few. A Tri-coloured Heron the exception when it came to water birds.
Tri-coloured Heron   Cuba
I agreed that it was a bit of a hopeless cause and only slightly reluctantly agreed we should start heading back home.
We stopped along the way when Manolito spotted a Common Black-hawk for us.
Common Black-Hawk
later, when a distinctively bright bird flew across our path he asked us if we wanted to lure it back for a photo. Of course we did!
Yellow Warbler     Cuba
The male Yellow Warbler was immediately interested.
Yellow Warbler     Cuba
but was less confiding than the female who followed to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn't stray to temptation no doubt.
Yellow Warbler     Cuba
It was another first for me, probably Connie too I think, and made for a good end to the day. It was still only 4.30pm or so when got back to Playa Larga. When I mentioned the only real disappointment had been Fernandina's Flicker Manolito misunderstood and thought I was intending going back for another look. He was willing though looked very surprised I wanted to. I assured him I didn't.
We paid him the agreed $120 and I would imagine he would be very happy.
Without transport it was a handsome amount.
You have to put a guides fees in context with the cost of living in general. Yes, they have training and knowledge,and  a limited season but skilled professionals like doctors are highly trained too.
They earn $30 a MONTH!
Yes, people like professional footballers earn stupid amounts compared to doctors in the UK too but the disparity in earnings in places like Cuba can have a far greater effect.
What might seem like a small tip to us might represent a days wages to a Cuban. The downside is that people migrate from the needed professions to become waiters or barmen. 
You can draw your own conclusions.
Anyway, back in Cuba my bird list had grown. It had been a good day really. I think that the Zapata national park must have a lot more to offer but I had been surprised at the apparent lack of waterbirds. Not a single duck or wader, species like Great Blue Heron, Spoonbill and Ibis seen in only single sightings.
I still had some time left in Playa Larga but I was beginning to think I had exhausted most possibilities now.
The species list would probably remain unchanged but I could at least try for better photos.


  1. Great photos! Unfortunately, Mario is a deeply unpleasant person and will do down anyone he can - including bad-mothing the other local guides to clients. All the local guides dislike him. The usual price for a day's guiding in Zapata (in 2017) is CUC30 per person per day (using your own rental car). Still, you did well and were unlucky at La Salinas - in the right conditions it can be absolutely stuffed with waterbirds!

  2. Thanks for the insight Birdyman, I'm sure it will be appreciated by others who read this too.