Valle de Vinales

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Fifth and final post about the Delaware Nature Society trip to Cuba, November 2010.

With most of our bird surveying wrapped up, we spent the last few days of our trip to Cuba in the amazing Valle de Vinales.  This is the location of yet another national park, Parque Nacional Vinales, which is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This spectacular area is recognized for its dramatic rocky outcrops known as magotes coupled with traditional farms and villages in the Sierra de los Organos mountains.

The area is kind of like a tropical version of the Lancaster County Amish country, except there are no strip malls, outlets, chain restaurants, etc.  Farmers grow tobacco, coffee, oranges, sugarcane, and other produce under towering limestone magotes and cliffs.  They plow their fields with oxen, travel by horse-powered carts, and seem to live very simple lives.  Visitors come to hike, bike, and ride horseback through this traditional Cuban landscape, as well as just plain relax. 

Limestone hills called magotes tower above traditional Cuban agricultural fields in the Parque Nacional Vinales. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

We spent a few days here wrapping up bird surveys and enjoying the amazing views.  The main difference in habitat here was the native Caribbean Pine forest and native vegetation on the magotes.  Cuban Solitaires sang from high up lending an eerie jungle-like sound to the farmland where we stood.  The magotes retain virgin forest, since they are difficult to access for resource extraction.  At the base of magotes, our guide, Giraldo Alayon was very busy pointing out native palms, wildflowers, and other plants that are rare and endemic to Cuba.

Giraldo Alayon, our guide on the trip, describes the natural history of the bats that live in this cave. The magotes are full of caves, and harbor many, many bat roosts. We saw thousands pour out of this cave at dusk. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Birding in this area yielded most of the same kinds of birds we had seen earlier on the trip.  There are a few notable species worth mentioning, however.  The Olive-capped Warbler is a bird that lives in the pine forests of Cuba and the Bahamas.  We were able to get very good looks and photographs of this species here and it was very  common in pine forest.

Olive-capped Warblers were common in the Caribbean Pine forest of the Vinales area. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

On a sad note, we witnessed first-hand, the illegal wild bird trade here in Vinales.  In Cuba, capturing wild birds for the pet trade is rather common, although it is illegal.  It is part of the culture to keep songbirds in cages, sometimes used for “singing competitions”, much like a cock-fight.  People get together with their birds to see who has the better singer, and even bet money on the outcome!  I am not sure how you decide who is a better singer, but that is what happens.  The birds of choice tend to be Cuban Bullfinches and Cuban Grassquits.  We saw Bullfinches in cages on people’s balconies in various towns, and in Vinales we saw a Cuban Grassquit shortly after it had been caught.  A Cuban Grassquit is a small finch that is mostly black and green with a yellow wash around the face.  It only lives in Cuba.

A boy carries a Cuban Grassquit in a cage. Although illegal, it is still common practice in Cuba to trap wild songbirds for pets. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

As a consequence of trapping, Cuban Grassquits are very scarcely seen around towns and villages.  We managed to find 3 or 4 of them in the wild, but they are greatly outnumbered by the Yellow-faced Grassquit, which is a weak singer, and therefore not sought-after as a cage bird.

Our trip to Cuba came to an end after our visit to Vinales.  Cuba exceeded everyone’s expectations in many, many ways.  Not only is it beautiful, but it has many huge preserved natural areas and large national parks.  The people of Cuba are very friendly and welcoming, and I made many friends on the trip that I am sure I will keep in touch with for a long time.  Towns and cities are very clean and people seem to respect where they live.  In terms of trash, it is a much cleaner place than the United States, and certainly way cleaner than other Latin American countries I have visited.  If Americans are ever allowed to go to Cuba legally, I am sure the wonderful places we visited will be flooded with us.  I hope you can get there someday.

I would like to thank all of the Delaware Nature Society members that took part in the trip to Cuba.  I sincerely hope you had as great a trip as I did.  I would also like to thank Gary Markowski and the Caribbean Conservation Trust for making this wonderful trip possible.  Also, a very special thanks is in order for Dr. Giraldo Alayon, our naturalist-guide for the trip.  We really got more than just a naturalist.  Dr. Alayon is well known in the Caribbean as the foremost expert on spiders of the West Indies and Central America.  He has discovered, described, and named many species new to science.  He has published more than 100 papers on the systematics and biogeography of spiders and insects of the region.  He has also been a serious birder since 1977, and has published 15 papers related to avian biology and behavior.  He is currently working on a book about the Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which he has seen in eastern Cuba during expeditions to find the species in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Dr. Alayon is a past president of the Cuban Zoological Society, and is the current Curator of Arachnida at the National Museum of Natural History in Havana and earned his PhD from the University of Havana. 

Here I am with Dr. Giraldo Alayon in Vinales. He took a break from listening to Guns and Roses for this photograph taken by Ron Majors.

Since our visit to Cuba was officially classified as a Humanitarian Environmental visit to assist with long-term ornithological bird surveys, I will provide the entire list of species we found.  The list follows the latest Clements World Checklist:

  1. Wood Duck
  2. Blue-winged Teal
  3. Helmeted Guineafowl
  4. Least Grebe
  5. Pied-billed Grebe
  6. American Flamingo
  7. Brown Pelican
  8. Neotropic Cormorant
  9. Double-crested Cormorant
  10. Anhinga
  11. Magnificent Frigatebird
  12. Great Blue Heron
  13. Great Egret
  14. Snowy Egret
  15. Little Blue Heron
  16. Tricolored Heron
  17. Reddish Egret
  18. Cattle Egret
  19. Green Heron
  20. White Ibis
  21. Roseate Spoonbill
  22. Wood Stork
  23. Turkey Vulture
  24. Osprey
  25. Snail Kite
  26. Northern Harrier
  27. Cuban Black-hawk
  28. Red-tailed Hawk
  29. Crested Caracara
  30. American Kestrel
  31. Merlin
  32. Peregrine Falcon
  33. Clapper Rail
  34. Sora
  35. Purple Gallinule
  36. Common Moorhen
  37. American Coot
  38. Limpkin
  39. Black-bellied Plover
  40. Killdeer
  41. Black-necked Stilt
  42. Spotted Sandpiper
  43. Solitary Sandpiper
  44. Greater Yellowlegs
  45. Least Sandpiper
  46. Wilson’s Snipe
  47. Laughing Gull
  48. Caspian Tern
  49. Forster’s Tern
  50. Royal Tern
  51. Rock Pigeon
  52. Scaly-naped Pigeon
  53. White-crowned Pigeon
  54. Eurasian Collared-dove
  55. White-winged Dove
  56. Zenaida Dove
  57. Mourning Dove
  58. Common Ground-dove
  59. Blue-headed Quail-dove
  60. Cuban Parrot
  61. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  62. Great Lizard-cuckoo
  63. Smooth-billed Ani
  64. Bare-legged Owl
  65. Cuban Pygmy-owl
  66. Stygian Owl
  67. Greater Antillean Nightjar (aka: Cuban Nightjar)
  68. Antillean Palm-swift
  69. Cuban Emerald
  70. Bee Hummingbird
  71. Cuban Trogon
  72. Cuban Tody
  73. Belted Kingfisher
  74. West Indian Woodpecker
  75. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  76. Cuban Green Woodpecker
  77. Northern Flicker
  78. Fernandina’s Flicker
  79. Cuban Pewee
  80. Eastern Phoebe
  81. La Sagra’s Flycatcher
  82. Loggerhead Kingbird
  83. Giant Kingbird
  84. White-eyed Vireo
  85. Cuban Vireo
  86. Yellow-throated Vireo
  87. Cuban Crow
  88. Tree Swallow
  89. Barn Swallow
  90. Zapata Wren
  91. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  92. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  93. Cuban Solitaire
  94. Red-legged Thrush
  95. Gray Catbird
  96. Northern Mockingbird
  97. Tennessee Warbler
  98. Northern Parula
  99. Yellow Warbler
  100. Magnolia Warbler
  101. Cape May Warbler
  102. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  103. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  104. Black-throated Green Warbler
  105. Yellow-throated Warbler
  106. Olive-capped Warbler
  107. Prairie Warbler
  108. Palm Warbler
  109. Black-and-white Warbler
  110. American Redstart
  111. Worm-eating Warbler
  112. Ovenbird
  113. Northern Waterthrush
  114. Louisiana Waterthrush
  115. Common Yellowthroat
  116. Yellow-headed Warbler
  117. Hooded Warbler
  118. Western Spindalis
  119. Red-legged Honeycreeper
  120. Cuban Bullfinch
  121. Cuban Grassquit
  122. Yellow-faced Grassquit
  123. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  124. Summer Tanager
  125. Indigo Bunting
  126. Tawny-shouldered Blackbird
  127. Eastern Meadowlark
  128. Cuban Blackbird
  129. Greater Antillean Grackle
  130. Greater Antillean Oriole (aka: Cuban Oriole)
  131. House Sparrow
  132. Nutmeg Mannikin
  133. Tricolored Munia

3 thoughts on “Valle de Vinales”

  1. Louise Sebastiani

    What an impressive report on your trip and experiences while in Cuba. Excellent writing, awesome photos, and quite a lengthy list of sighted birds!

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