A Cueva and a Hacienda

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Third in a series about the Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip to Cuba. 

After experiencing the Zapata Swamp, the mountains of western Cuba were our next destination for the bird survey.  We stayed in the small town of San Diego at the Mirador Hotel.  It was a nice place with good food and a great live, original Cuban band at night.  Our guides said something about birding around some kind of cave.  I didn’t really know what that meant, but when we arrived at Cueva de los Portales, I was blown away!  Picture monolithic limestone hills covered in native vegetation and palm trees.  Now, also imagine a stream flowing through a hole in the hill, and an adjacent cave.  In this cave, Che Guevara hid during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Oh yeah, the birding was good here too.  We managed to find our target bird, the Cuban Solitaire, which is related to the Townsend’s Solitaire of western North America.  It is a resident of native woods and thickets, most of which have been converted to agriculture in Cuba.

Our second birding location in this area was in the abandoned Hacienda Cortina, originally owned by a wealthy friend and colleague of Batista, Cuba’s U.S.-friendly dictator who was in power before Castro.  Now this estate is a collection of ruins, statues, a tropical arboretum, ponds, grazing cows, and weeds.  It was a real wild place…and could be in a scene of a strange sci-fi or horror movie.  We luckily found our target bird here…the Giant Kingbird.  It is related to the Eastern Kingbird, which live in our area in the summer, but it has an enormous, king-size bill.  This species only lives in Cuba and it is a rarity.  Our guide, Giraldo, spotted the bird in a tree as we were driving out of the place.  Also in this area, we stopped at an orchard to find the Cuban Grassquit, which reluctantly obliged us.  In the process, we discovered a species that our guides, Caesar and Giraldo got very excited about…a Nutmeg Mannikin, which they had never seen.  This introduced bird from Asia was making a nest, which was extremely late and very noteworthy, being November.  We toasted this bird with Cuban Rum and TuKola that evening.

Check out a short video about highlights from this part of Cuba.  The soundtrack includes the strange calls of the Cuban Crow, followed by the haunting song of the Cuban Solitaire.  If you have any questions about these places, please ask.

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