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