Birding in the remote Guanahacabibes Peninsula (Cuba)

The Guanahacabibes Peninsula, protected by a National Park since 1963, is a rather remote area settled in the most western point of Cuba, far from the main touristical routes and, perhaps also because of this, it managed to maintain an outstanding wildlife together with a very low human density.

To get to La Bajada, the main village of the peninsula, by public transports from Viñales or Pinar del Rio was virtually impossible, so the only way to arrive there was to go by rented vehicle or by taxi. To find a taxi in the peninsula, or even a single car to move, was particularly complicate, so could be a good idea to agree with the driver, that had taken you there, some trips around and the return to “civilization” in advance.

Tobacco fields on the way to La Bajada

At the time of my visit, in December 2016, I asked to the ranger station of the National Park, nearby La Bajada, for some guided excursions around: they were happy to take me in the woodlands close to their station, but they hadn’t any car to lead me to Cabo San Antonio, the most western point of Cuba. They managed to find a private driver from a rather far village, but I lost all the morning waiting him: the car,a survivor of the Sixties, decided to break on that morning and it took some hours to adjust it again…

La Bajada was a very small village of a couple of dozens of poor houses facing to the beach, one police station and a primary school.

La Bajada houses
Piglet in a garden
Telephone booth
Telephone booth
Primary school of La Bajada

To book a room there from Viñales was impossible at the time of my visit, so, when I arrived there, I wasn’t sure to find a casa particular (the local form of bed&breakfast) with vacancies: luckily few tourists usually decided to venture in such a remote place, therefore I found a nice accommodation with lovely homemade meals for 30 CUC/night. The only problem were the horrible sun-flies that rage at dusk and that were not blocked by any glass on the windows, entering in good numbers every evening and particularly capable to find the few centimeters of skin not oiled by Biovectrol repellent…

The first afternoon I rented a bike to ride south west, along the shore, till
María la Gorda, the famous International Scuba-Diving Centre, but soon the tyre got flat, after just 6 kilometers.

Therefore, forced to stop, I reached one of the wonderful white sand beaches and I went snorkeling into the azure waters.

The water was clear, but not particularly rich in fish quantity with about 30 species noticed.

Blue Tangs (Acanthurus coeruleus),
French Grunts (Haemulon flavolineatum) and a single Redband Parrotfish (Sparisoma aurofrenatum)
Bluehead Wrasses (Thalassoma bifasciatum)
Smooth Trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter)
Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor) and French Grunt (Haemulon flavolineatum)
Christmas Tree Worms (Spirobranchus giganteus)
Banded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon striatus)
Condylactis gigantea

The best sightings were a single Whitefin Sharksucker (Echeneis neucratoides) and a shy Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda).

Whitefin Sharksucker (Echeneis neucratoides)
Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)

On the way back to La Bajada, the mangrove woodlands and the widespread brackish water marshes along the shore hosted some interesting birds like the endemic Cuban Black Hawk (Buteogallus gundlachii), Cuban Crow (Corvus nasicus) and Cuban Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium siju), but also commoner species like Little Blue and Great White Heron, White Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Loggerhead Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird and Red-legged Thrush.

Cuban Black Hawk (Buteogallus gundlachii)
Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus)
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
Cuban Crow (Corvus nasicus)

Along the shore, instead, I spotted nice waders, such as Willet, Sanderling and Grey Plover, and a small flock of America Coots.

Sanderling (Calidris alba)
American Coot (Fulica americana)

Being this coast facing to the west, the sunset got spectacular above the sea surface.

With the dusk, some dark and quick moths appeared from the foliage of trees: only the use of the flash light revealed the amazing turquoise tones of wings of the Urania boisduvalii, endemic of Cuba.

Urania boisduvalii
Urania boisduvalii

When I arrived to my casa particular the sky was unbelievable and only the awful sun-flies ruined the peace of those moments, without any “artificial noise” around, just the sound of gentle waves coming to the shore.

My second day started with bad news from the ranger station: the driver with the car to visit the heart of Guanahacabibes Peninsula, till Cabo San Antonio, hadn’t arrived to the meeting on time and there were no news about him.

So I went with a local guide to have a walk not far from the station, hoping in a late arrival of the driver.

The guide, as in other Cuban nature reserves, wasn’t particularly skilled on bird identification and didn’t know any English name, speaking only in Spanish. On the other hand, he was rather knowledgeable about the local flora, pointing the different endemisms and using Latin and, if existing, Spanish names.

The meadows and scrubs nearby the station hosted some gorgeous birds, including the endemic Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), also known as Helena Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world!

 Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)
Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)
Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus)
Cuban Emerald (Chlorostilbon ricordii)
Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

But also stunning butterflies

White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae)
MNangrove Skipper (Phocides pigmalion)
Tropical Buckeye (Junonia evarete)

…and curious samples of plants, such as the creeping cactuses Selenicereus grandiflorus, made interesting the excursion.

Selenicereus grandiflorus
Unknown berries
Turbina corymbosa

The dry woodlands, characterized by limestones and funny karstic structures, was unhabited by a lot of birdsparticularly active during the fist hours of the day, including many endemics such as: Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus), Cuban Tody (Todus multicolor), Cuban Lizard-cuckoo (Coccyzus merlini), Cuban Amazon (Amazona leucocephala), Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus), Cuban Pewee (Contopus caribaeus), La Sagra’s Flycatcher (Myiarchus sagrae), Yellow-headed Warbler (Teretistris fernandinae) and Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra).

Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus)
Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus)
La Sagra’s Flycatcher (Myiarchus sagrae)
Yellow-headed Warbler (Teretistris fernandinae)

At mid morning, the driver hadn’t arrived yet, so, always together with the “local guide” (pretty useless for somebody interested in birds, to be honest…), I went to have a walk along the coastal marshes not far from La Bajada: the habitat was quite suitable for water birds like herons, raptors, waders and waterfowls.

Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
American Wigeon (Mareca americana)
Cuban Black Hawk (Buteogallus gundlachii)

Almost at midday, the driver finally arrived: we were ready to start our exploration of the heart of the Guanahacabibes peninsula!

The first part of driving crossed a thick forest with groves of Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata) with huge leaves. The temperatures got warmer and the bird activity decreased.

Thrinax radiata
Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata)
Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata), an introduced species
Thrinax radiata
Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus)

Then we reached the arid area of Diente de Perro, where the forest gave way to scattered bush patches in a limestone field (“lapiez”) particularly eroded by atmospheric agents.

Diente de Perro area
Diente de Perro area

That was the habitat of some endemic species of Cactaceae: Fragrant Prickly Apple (Harrisia eriophora) and Harrisia taetra, but also of a lot of huge
Cuban Rock Iguanas (Cyclura nubila nubila).

Cuban Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila nubila)
Harrisia cf. eriophora
Fragrant Prickly Apple (Harrisia eriophora)
Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Harrisia sp.
Harrisia sp.
Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus)
Harrisia cf. eriophora
Fragrant Prickly Apple (Harrisia eriophora)

The next stop was to have a look into a wide wetland that use to be a flooded forest populated by Cuban Crocodiles, but had been destroyed maybe by an hurricane or by a change in salt composition of water: a fascinating landscape indeed.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Finally we arrived at the Cabo San Antonio, the most western point of Cuba: here a lighthouse had been built and, not far from there, tourists could sleep in the exclusive resort of Las Tumbas, facing to a wonderful ivory coral beach.

Cabo San Antonio lighthouse
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)
Playa de Las Tumbas

In Guanahacabibes the beaches were places where I often spotted nice dragonflies such as Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), Marl Pennant (Macrodiplax balteata) and Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia).

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)
Marl Pennant (Macrodiplax balteata)
Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia)

On the way back, the light was particularly bright, having the sun behind, and the landscapes took lovely saturated colours.

The light for bird photography got also much more attractive.

Portrait of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Cuban Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila nubila)

Unexpected and particularly welcome was the presence, in the middle of the road, of various species of Columbidae: White-crowned (Patagioenas leucocephala) and Plain Pigeons (Patagioenas inornata), Zenaida (Zenaida aurita) and Common Ground Doves (Columbina passerina).

Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita)
Common Ground Doves (Columbina passerina)
Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita)
Plain Pigeon (Patagioenas inornata)

Coming back to the La Bajada woodlands, I couldn’t not notice the huge termites nests on the trees: amazing metropolis of insects.

In La Bajada I enjoyed my second and last sunset in the peninsula and, the first time ever in my life, I managed to watch the famous “green light”.

Willet (Tringa semipalmata)
The “green light”

I spent my last morning in La Bajada exploring the beach, the rocks and the maquis, observing a good variety of wildlife.

Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)
Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
West Indian Fuzzy Chiton (Acanthopleura granulata)
Cordia sp.
Queen Conch (Lobatus gigas)
Senna sp.

Particularly interesting was the presence of quite a few endemic lizards: Cuban Ameiva (Ameiva auberi denticola), Cabo Corrientes Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus stictigaster stictigaster) and Peninsula Anole (Anolis quadriocellifer).

Cabo Corrientes Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus stictigaster stictigaster)
Cuban Ameiva (Ameiva auberi denticola)
Cabo Corrientes Curlytail Lizard (Leiocephalus stictigaster stictigaster)
Peninsula Anole (Anolis quadriocellifer)

Hi had also the time for a last swim in the sea, clearly with my old Nikon Coolpix 5200.

Spot-fin Porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix)

When the driver came to took me back to Viñales , I arranged with him a last visit to María la Gorda: the beach there was known to be one of the most beautiful of Cuba and the reality satisfied the expectations.

Playa de María la Gorda
Cuban Blackbird (Dives atroviolaceus)
Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus)
Playa de María la Gorda

A wonderful end of my 3 days of birding in the remote Guanahacabibes peninsula.

Luca Boscain

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