Cuba: One of Many Winter Getaway Locations for Birding

Lynnea Parker has been working with the program since January, assisting on a number of projects as our Avian Stewardship Assistant. Recently, she took a well earned vacation in Cuba – and we thought it would be fun for Lynnea to write a short blog on her trip. Here it is in her own words!

I went on a family vacation to Cuba in mid November. While everyone was frying on a beach near Varadero (turning various shades of red to purple) I was often found scampering around the resort looking for birds in the dense vegetation which bordered the property. On the occasion I braved the 30+ degrees Celsius to frolic in the ocean, I was keen to spot potential seabirds. My constant desire to bird watch no doubt annoyed my family to some extent! They didn’t understand why I couldn’t just “relax” 🙂

To prepare for my trip I purchased the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba by Arturo Kirkconnell and Orlando H Garrido published in 2000. Studying it on the airplane, I identified which species could be found in the Matanzas – Varadero area (located on the north eastern side of Cuba, east of Havana). While I wasn’t going to the “hotspot” of Cuba, which could arguably be Playa Largo near Cuba’s largest National Park, I was still able to put together a list of roughly 100 potential species. The species diversity in Cuba is limited, despite being situated nicely between mainland Florida and Mexico. One reason for islands having reduced biodiversity relates to Island Biogeography Theory, in which limited resources and greatly reduced immigration from other islands, or indeed the mainland, leads to less diversity, but greater appearance of endemics (species which are found nowhere else on Earth). The Galapagos are the most famous example of this phenomena, although being a larger island, Cuba has a greater diversity of species and habitats. The list of potential species included the Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Key West Quail Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Antillean Palm-Swift to name a few. 

During my seven day trip I was able to find 50 species. Unfortunately, the Cuban Trogon and Cuban Tody were not among them. The two best places I visited for birds was Rancho Gaviota west of Matanzas (a huge rural farm set in a nature landscape) and the Varahicacos Ecological Reserve on the eastern end of the Varadero peninsula.

Below is a selection of photos to highlight some aspects of my trip, with a species list at the end of this blog post. My full album of photos can be seen here: Birds of Cuba Album

Rancho Gaviota, Matanzas Cuba

On this particular day my family and I drove to Rancho Gaviota in caravan of Jeeps. The excursion was to visit the rural ranch and have a traditional Cuban lunch which consisted of foods originating from the farm. I think everyone agreed it was fantastic. After lunch we had an hour or so to explore the farm, of which my mom decided to cave in and help me bird. I had been recounting earlier in the day how difficult a time I was having finding new species. While, my mom made the difference and found me some of the best species of the whole trip! Who knew! She remarked that I was trying too hard to find the birds, and therefore missing them all.


Helmeted Guineafowl (Introduced Species -Still a Lifer Though!)


West Indian Woodpecker


Great Lizard Cuckoo (very “Great” indeed)


Cattle Egret


Varahicacos Ecological Reserve

On this day I went off with a companion to check out the ecological reserve close to the resort I was staying at. It was a fantastic experience walking through the reserve. As we walked down the forest path, geckos and lizards would scurry away to the nearest tree. At one point we heard a loud buzzing and found a massive bee’s nest formed in the cracks of a rock fissure (quickly departing after the discovery). While there were few birds to be seen, numerous species could be heard… or was there? I quickly grew tired of the Grey Catbirds and Northern Mockingbirds fooling me at every turn. Despite their trickery, there were a few nice finds.


Key West Quail Dove


Green Heron


Other interesting sightings from my trip:

Left column, top to bottom: Cape May Warbler, Royal Tern, Eurasian-collared Dove, Greater Antillean Grackle

Right Column, top to bottom: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Northern Mockingbird, Sanderling

–>Odd incident, I had a female Cape May Warbler land on my table and eat rice right from my plate while I was still sitting there…. not the kind of species you would expect to come begging for scraps! 

Species Seen in Matanzas and Varadero, Cuba (November 8th to 14th)

Lifers indicated in Bold

Helmeted Guineafowl – Numida meleagris
Rock Pigeon – Columba livia
Scaly-naped Pigeon – Patagioenas squamosa
Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
Common Ground-Dove – Columbina passerina
Key West Quail-Dove – Geotrygon chrysia
White-winged Dove – Zenaida asiatica
Smooth-billed Ani – Crotophaga ani
Great Lizard-Cuckoo – Coccyzus merlini
Antillean Palm-Swift – Tachornis phoenicobia
Cuban Emerald – Chlorostilbon ricordii
Black-necked Stilt – Himantopus mexicanus
Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus
Ruddy Turnstone – Arenaria interpres
Sanderling – Calidris alba
Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla
Royal Tern – Thalasseus maximus
Magnificent Frigatebird – Fregata magnificens
Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus
Brown Pelican – Pelecanus occidentalis
Great Egret – Ardea alba
Snowy Egret – Egretta thula
Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
Green Heron – Butorides virescens
Roseate Spoonbill – Platalea ajaja
Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura
Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
Cuban Black Hawk – Buteogallus gundlachii
Broad-winged Hawk – Buteo platypterus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus varius
West Indian Woodpecker – Melanerpes superciliaris
American Kestrel – Falco sparverius
Merlin – Falco columbarius
Cuban Pewee – Contopus caribaeus
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Polioptila caerulea
Gray Catbird – Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Mockingbird – Mimus polyglottos
Cuban Blackbird – Ptiloxena atroviolacea
Greater Antillean Grackle – Quiscalus niger
Ovenbird – Seiurus aurocapilla
Black-and-white Warbler – Mniotilta varia
American Redstart – Setophaga ruticilla
Cape May Warbler – Setophaga tigrina
Northern Parula – Setophaga americana
Blackburnian Warbler – Setophaga fusca
Black-throated Blue Warbler – Setophaga caerulescens
Palm Warbler – Setophaga palmarum
Yellow-throated Warbler – Setophaga dominica
Prairie Warbler – Setophaga discolor
House Sparrow – Passer domesticus


Volunteer Trip Report by Glennis Lewis – A Swan Song For October Birding at the Oak Lake/Plum Lakes IBA

On Thursday, October 18, Louanne Reid, Gillian Richards and I (Glennis Lewis) set out from Brandon to look for swans at the Oak Lake/Plum Lakes IBA. After several weeks of nasty weather (and a cancelled IBA blitz), it was a great pleasure to hit the road on a gorgeous calm morning with the anticipation of some excellent birding ahead of us.

We entered the IBA at the town of Oak Lake, and quickly spotted 12 Eastern Bluebirds near the town cemetery. Our next big find was a Great Egret, picture perfect on the water’s edge at the intersection of PR 254 and 50 N. And, while some slush ice lingered along the banks of the lake, there was open water on the lake and marshes with many waterfowl dispersed throughout. We found 910 Tundra Swans and 870 Snow Geese on our route north and east of the resort, and along the road to the dam.

SNGO Oak Lake Gillian Richards

Is that flecks of snow around this lovely blue morph Snow Goose. Copyright Gillian Richards


18 American Avocets in their pale nonbreeding plumage were counted north of the lake. We flushed up 3 Snow Buntings along the dam road while 2 Eared Grebes were spotted just west of the dam.


The American Avocets at Oak Lake were still hanging around later in October. Photos all copyright Gillian Richards.

By mid afternoon, the temperature soared to about 22 degrees and the wind picked up, causing fluffy white cattail seeds to explode over the marshes. It is a unique experience being caught in the middle of a cattail blizzard. But, as annoying as it is to have white fluff get in your eyes and up your nose, you have to marvel at the effectiveness of cattail seed production and dispersal.

At the end of the day, we were well content with our bird counts – 46 species, 3,213 individuals (see the list below and on eBird here, here and here). Thanks to Gillian for posting the counts on eBird. Louanne and Gillian also deserve great credit for pulling out branches and weeds that became tangled underneath my car on one of the rougher roads we traveled – an effort much appreciated!

Dowitcher Oak Lake Gillian Richards

Dowitchers doing their distinct pumping feeding action. Copyright Gillian Richards

On Sunday, October 21, I returned to Oak Lake with Jen and Anna Wasko to enjoy another lovely day of birding. We traveled around the north and east side of the lake, and down the dam road observing Tundra Swans. We also took a short walk into the Routledge Sandhills. The Sandhills are always worth a visit and, while they are on private land, there are a few points of public access. A right-of-way into the hills just west of the intersection of PR 254 and 50 N can be easily walked to get a view of one of the largest hills (now sadly much diminished by damage from off road vehicles).

TUSW Oak Lake Gillian Richards

Tundra Swans really do gather here in vast numbers. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

Happily, the Great Egret was still around for viewing, and we counted 6 Snow Buntings along the dam road. Another highlight of the trip was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets cavorting about in the oak trees along the road to Jiggins Bluff. Thanks to Jen for driving and to Anna who carefully counted all those Tundra Swans (384 in total).

GREG Oak Lake Gillian Richards

The lingering Great Egret at Oak Lake. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

Both of these field trips to the Oak Lake /Plum Lakes IBA are fondly remembered now that winter is taking hold. And, come next spring, there will be more birding trips to plan in this exceptional IBA with its many diverse habitats of marshes, wet meadows, dry grasslands, deciduous forests, and sandhills.

Species Name 18-Oct
Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens) 870
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 79
Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) 910
Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) 91
American Wigeon (Mareca americana) 8
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 159
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) 12
Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) 20
Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) 100
Redhead (Aythya americana) 70
Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) 37
Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) 250
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) 8
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) 40
Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) 5
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) 70
duck sp. (Anatinae sp.) 340
Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) 2
American Coot (Fulica americana) 1
Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) 1
American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) 18
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus/scolopaceus) 4
Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) 1
Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) 4
Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) 4
Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) 1
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1
Great Egret (Ardea alba) 1
Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) 2
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) 2
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 2
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1
Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) 6
Common Raven (Corvus corax) 5
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 5
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) 12
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 3
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 30
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) 6
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 2
Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) 3
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) 3
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 3
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 4
Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) 12
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

On behalf of the Manitoba IBA Program, thank you Glennis for writing this excellent piece. Thanks also to the rest of the bird group, Louanne, Gillian, Jen and Anna. It is fantastic to have such a great core of birders in Westman!