Birding to a Salsa Beat On The Endemic Rich Island Of Cuba

Bee Hummingbird Cuba 1

One of THE birds to see in Cuba not only endemic but the smallest bird in the world - Bee Hummingbird.

My feet were already tapping to a salsa beat as we emerged from the airport terminal into a warm Havana evening. For the next two weeks as we travelled around Cuba enjoying the fabulous birds of this beautiful island, our evenings were accompanied by the irresistible sound of bands playing traditional Cuban love songs and dances. During the day, however, we were out enjoying Caribbean birdwatching at its very best. Cuba was a new destination for us and it was a revelation. To start with, it’s bigger than expected, being nearly 800 miles long and about 55 miles wide. It also encompasses a variety of diverse habitats including mangrove swamps, dry forest, limestone outcrops, savannah grasslands and sandy beaches, which are home to an exciting range of birds including 25 endemic species that are available to the visiting birdwatcher. And lastly its strategic location just south of the Florida panhandle means that its resident birds are boosted by American overwintering species including mouth-watering New World warblers, giving a bigger potential bird list than in many other Caribbean destinations.

Cuban Tody 2018 1

And then there is the Cuban Tody also tiny but oh so wonderful!

I’d pored over the field guide to the birds of Cuba and top of my wishlist was the endemic Cuban Tody, but would we see one? I didn’t have long to worry, as we encountered this dazzling little bird on our very first birdwatching day. Walking along a cart track between tobacco fields near Viñales, suddenly there one was, perched in full view at eye level, just feet away from us. What an incredible encounter, the Cuban Tody punched well above its weight! It’s tiny, not much bigger than our Wren but the range of colours that were packed into this diminutive bird had to be seen to be believed. There’s a clue in its scientific name: Todus multicolor. From the back, it was iridescent emerald green all over, but it turned around to reveal a startling palette of secondary colours. Its belly was snow white, while under its broad spade-like red bill was a vermilion bib like a cravat. Its cheeks were baby blue, its flanks were bubblegum pink, and when it displayed, it quivered those pink flank feathers like a burlesque fan dancer, all the while making a piercing buzzing call. This combination of colour, sound and action was simply irresistible to us and its mate, and these delightful little birds perched confidingly close to us, a photographer’s dream, no need for post-production photoshopping here.

Vinales scenery Cuba Feb 2018 1

Not only stunning birds in Cuba some of the landscapes are beautiful too.

Birdwatchers are fickle creatures and having satisfied our desire to see a Cuban Tody, we were then hungry for our next fix of new endemics. Of course, that didn’t stop me taking hundreds more photos of all the other Todys we encountered, but now we set our hearts on seeing a Bee Hummingbird, another Cuban endemic. This is the smallest bird in the world and each one weighs a mere 1.95g, that’s about four cottonwool balls combined! Once a widespread species, the Bee Hummingbird’s numbers have declined, and it is now hard to find, being restricted to localised patches. We weren’t sure how easy it would be to catch a glimpse of this midget, but we needn’t have worried, our local guide had an amazing encounter lined up for us.

Zapata Sparrow Coya Coco 1

Zapata Sparrow another of the wonderful Cuban endemic birds and tricky to see.

“Come into the back garden,” he said outside one particular cottage. “I’d like you to meet a special friend.” He thrust a sugar-water feeder into my hand. “Just hold this for a minute, would you?” Within seconds my face was being fanned by the tiniest of whirring wings as a 5cm flying jewel hovered right in front of me. Its head was black, its belly white and its back a glorious sparkling sapphire-blue. The Bee Hummingbird, a full adult male no less, delicately probed the feeder and extended its tongue to lap up the sweet nectar. Then it hovered in mid-air, its wings whirring so fast that my eyes couldn’t keep up with the movement. It zipped in again to feed for a few seconds before darting away to sit on a nearby sunlit branch, its tiny feet locked tightly around its perch. Then it turned its head, and the world stopped as I held my breath.

Cuban Trogon male 2018 1

The stunning Cuban Trogon was yet another wonderful bird enjoyed this one in a hotel garden!

What had looked black when it was feeding, suddenly became a multi-coloured riot as all the colours of the rainbow clashed together on the feathers of this male’s wonderful headdress: crimson, puce, tangerine, gold and lime, these unbelievable colours flashed in the sunshine, leaving me breathless and speechless. What a stunning transformation. Then this tiny miracle of colour lifted off and zapped away like a firefly to a nearby feeder in the shade, becoming a black shadow of its former self. The Bee Hummingbird can apparently even fly upside-down; I was a bit disappointed not to see this for myself, but given its amazing colour metamorphosis, I could believe anything is possible for this astonishing little bird.

Cuba Birdwatching Trips bird tour endemics

The mind-blowing Fernandina's Flicker that we enjoyed superb views of.

Throughout our two-week trip the exciting birdwatching in Cuba continued, and even the final minutes of our last afternoon walk held a special surprise. Just as we were leaving, I suddenly noticed there was a bird watching us from a tree beside the path: Fernandina’s Flicker, another endemic. This strong-billed, finely-barred, crazy-looking woodpecker posed in the warm sunlight of the ‘golden hour’ and then as its mate arrived, the sight of it calling and displaying was quite simply the icing on our fabulous Cuban birdwatching cake.

Cities are not usually our sort of place Havana was a lot of fun, after seeing all possible endemic birds!

It was only the lure of ride in a classic American car and the promise of culture and rum cocktails in Havana that enticed me away from these wonderful birds. As I enjoyed the first of several daiquiris in Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite Havana bars, and tapped my toes in time to the salsa music from another live band, I reflected on the superb birding we’d enjoyed in Cuba. One word summed it up perfectly: irresistible. I’ll be back for more!

Ruth Miller

We would love you to join us on our Birdwatching Trips we have tours to suit everyone please check out our tours pages or drop us a line here and we can arrange a trip ideal for you...

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds and lots of fun with you soon!

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