I opened my eyes at 4am on January 5, 2023 initially confused at where I was, then soon remembered that I was in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale. A familiar mixture of exhaustion (from a difficult day of flying from Los Angeles the day before) and excitement consumed me as it was on that day I was heading to Cuba.
My morning went by quickly. I walked briskly in loops outside of the series of adjoining hotels prior to sunrise for exercise, basking in both the warm and humid air and the familiar sounds of southeastern birds as the sun rose. I had coffee. I went to breakfast and easily found my tour group. We made introductions, ate a hot breakfast while talking about travels (everyone there had traveled extensively), and then headed to the airport.
I was surprised by the chaos of the Fort Lauderdale airport, at least until we walked to some far off corner of the airport for our gate where it was relatively quiet. There we spent some time discussing what to expect when we entered the country, and heard tales from past trips to Cuba from those who had been there. Eventually, we boarded our plane for the short flight.
Our arrival in Cuba reminded me of Burbank, except for the blast of warm and humid air and tropical palms. There were no plane ramps like Burbank, so we exited using stairs at both the front and rear of the plane. The expectations when we arrived in the airport were confusing, and our group spent a lot of time looking at others in the group trying to figure out how to navigate entry into the country. Some of us, including me, were pulled aside and had our noses swabbed for COVID testing. My bags were inspected multiple times. Finally, thankfully, all of us made it into the parking lot where we regathered with our local guides from Altaï Group without incident.
You could feel the excitement as our bus departed. We had two primary Cuban guides who would be with us for the length of the trip. One of them was predominantly responsible for keeping the trip organized and on schedule. She was also our main cultural guide. The other, a herpetologist at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural Cubana, was also one of the nation’s leading bird experts. Together, they opened the trip describing what we would be doing for the next ten days, and the natural and cultural history of the Soroa region that would be our first stop. As we drove, our group continued to get to know each other as we took in the unfamiliar scenes that passed by our windows.
It’s entirely possible that I missed the initial announcement, but from my perspective our first stop for birds before we made it to our accommodations was both welcome and unexpected. As we passed through the town of Soroa, I wondered if any of the numerous hostals we passed were the ultimate destination, but beyond the town the road narrowed and climbed into dense forest. We eventually emerged in an open and flat area with views far into the distance, and were told we were getting out to look for birds.
We didn’t have to look too hard.
As if often the case on islands, while the overall diversity of bird species was not high, birds were abundant and everywhere. It did not take long to get our first Cuban endemic species, eleven of them in fact, some of which I was able to get my camera on. The most exciting of these was the Cuban Pygmy-Owl, with a stare that looked straight into your soul. The most difficult to view was the Cuban Solitaire which sang its beautiful and haunting song from perches that always seemed just out of visual reach in the dense vegetation until I finally spotted one – visible in a very small window between branches – that many got good looks at. We also managed to document a rarity in Cuba in the form of a Blue-headed Vireo, which used the same perch as the endemic Cuban Vireo we found a few minutes prior.
After about two hours, it was getting too dark to look for birds. We piled back into the bus and drove back down the hill into Soroa where our group was split across three different homes. I was destined for Hostal La Colonial. The family who owned the home was welcoming and the room was comfortable. We had a short period of time and to unpack and shower before gathering at a nearby home for a home-cooked meal of locally grown vegetables, rice, and several beef dishes washed down with Cerveza Cristal (La Preferida de Cuba!), before returning to our rooms to rest for the night.
The table below summarizes the bird species observed on our first day in Cuba based on output from eBird. Cuban endemics are highlighted in green.
|Common Name||Scientific Name||Count||Location|
|Ring-necked Duck||Aythya collaris||Embalse Nina Bonita|
|Rock Pigeon||Columba livia||1||Jose Marti International Airport|
|White-crowned Pigeon||Patagioenas leucocephala||2||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Great Lizard-Cuckoo||Coccyzus merlini||3||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Emerald||Riccordia ricordii||4||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cattle Egret||Bubulcus ibis||1||Auto selected 22.92124, -82.73503|
|Turkey Vulture||Cathartes aura||1||Jose Marti International Airport|
|Cuban Pygmy-Owl||Glaucidium siju||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Trogon||Priotelus temnurus||2||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Tody||Todus multicolor||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Green Woodpecker||Xiphidiopicus percussus||3||Orquideario de Soroa|
|West Indian Woodpecker||Melanerpes superciliaris||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Northern Flicker||Colaptes auratus||2||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Pewee||Contopus caribaeus||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Loggerhead Kingbird||Tyrannus caudifasciatus||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Vireo||Vireo gundlachii||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Blue-headed Vireo||Vireo solitarius||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Gray Catbird||Dumetella carolinensis||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Northern Mockingbird||Mimus polyglottos||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Solitaire||Myadestes elisabeth||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Red-legged Thrush||Turdus plumbeus||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|House Sparrow||Passer domesticus||1||Jose Marti International Airport|
|Yellow-headed Warbler||Teretistris fernandinae||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Oriole||Icterus melanopsis||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Greater Antillean Grackle||Quiscalus niger||1||Auto selected 22.93744, -82.72890|
|American Redstart||Setophaga ruticilla||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Northern Parula||Setophaga americana||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Red-legged Honeycreeper||Cyanerpes cyaneus||10||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Yellow-faced Grassquit||Tiaris olivaceus||3||Orquideario de Soroa|
|Cuban Bullfinch||Melopyrrha nigra||1||Orquideario de Soroa|
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