The world’s smallest living bird weighs around 1.6 to 2 grams with a length of 5 to 6 cm. It is the Bee Hummingbird endemic to the Republic of Cuba. In contrast, the largest living bird is the Ostrich found in many national parks in the African continent. A male Ostrich can reach a height of 2.8 meters with a weight of 156 kgs.
The state of Florida in the USA is only 180 km north of the Republic of Cuba. But it became insulated from the influence of the USA after the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro in the year 1959. The restrictions on American visitors to Cuba are likely to be relaxed in the near future. I was keen to visit the Island before there is an influx of Americans to that nation which will most likely result in a change in the culture and the landscape there.
Lilani and I left Sri Lanka to the USA on the 2nd of December 2015 to arrive in JFK on the following afternoon where my good friend Mahilal, who I have known for over fifty years, was at the airport with his wife, Ramani, to welcome us. After staying three nights with Mahilal at his place in New Jersey, I left for Havana, the capital of Cuba via Panama on the 7th December. Lilani stayed back in NJ so I travelled alone. The taxi that took me to the Hotel in the new city of Cuba was a very old Larda from Russia. It was the first time I had travelled in a Russian car.
Prior to the revolution, Americans had great influence in Cuba. This is very noticeable when you arrive in Havana city where they still use American cars of the 40’s and 50’s such as Ford, Pontiac, Dodge, Plymouth, and Chevrolet etc. I had an evening three hour city tour including a visit to the old city of Havana, in a red color convertible Chevrolet manufactured in 1952. The lobster dish at dinner was fresh, tasty and very reasonably priced.
The following morning my bird guide, Chino, with whom I planned my trip in June for bird photography in Cuba, was at the Melina Hotel at 7.30 am to pick me up. The next three nights were planned at Playa Larga in the Zapata peninsular, which was a three-hour drive from the capital. We arrived in Playa Larga after driving through the beautiful countryside of Cuba, in time for lunch at the guesthouse of Chino’s brother, adjoining Chino’s property with a great view of the bay of Cochinos in the Caribbean Sea. But, the weather was not in our favour due to scattered rain.
However, as planned in the afternoon we drove towards the south of Playa Larga where Chino was successful in spotting some birds that I have not seen before including two birds endemic to Cuba; Cuban Pygmy-Owl, and Bare-legged Owl.
Next morning, I was ready by 6.30 when Angel, Chino’s brother who is also a birding guide, accompanied me on the morning photographic birding tour towards Zapata Swamp. This is considered to be the most extensive wetland of the Caribbean island covering 479,800 hectares. At the Zapata Swamp National Park, with great difficulty he sighted the Zapata Wren, which is endemic to the Zapata Peninsular. The images I took were not perfect due to distance and poor light, but is good enough for a slide show and for memories of the trip. Later we sighted the Cuban Green Woodpecker, Zapata Sparrow, Red-shouldered Blackbird, Cuban Tody (beautiful color, only 4.25 inches in length) all species that are endemic to Cuba and the pictures were good for enlargement and for presentation.
During the afternoon drive with Chino, we were lucky to sight the National bird of Cuba, the Cuban Trogon, endemic to the Island. The colors of the National flag of Cuba that was first raised in 1850 are the colors of the Cuban Trogon. Later, the much-awaited bird of my interest in Cuba, the Bee Hummingbird, was captured by my camera. It was quite thrilling to see the smallest bird of the animal planet in its natural habitat. It has the fastest wing speed of any living bird. However, focusing on the tiny bee bird which is only 2 inches in length, to take a clear picture while in motion was very difficult. You need a good camera body with a smart lens and the higher shutter speed on priority. The afternoon rain shortened my photography session.
On the 10th, we were on the road by 6.30 am heading towards Bermetas, 80 kms south of Playa Larga, in search of the Cuban Parakeet, which is also endemic to the Island. On the way my friend at the wheel sighted a Cuban Black-Hawk. Later in Bermetas, I took some excellent shots of a pair of Cuban Parrots with good lighting and later sighted the Cuban Parakeets but at a distance. Another endemic bird the Cuban Oriole, was also spotted. On our way back to Playa Larga, a Broad-winged Hawk, another bird of prey endemic to Cuba and a Cuban Vireo came to the attention of my camera.
Later in the afternoon, we went to the location where the bee hummingbirds were sighted previously. It was amazing to watch when the bee bird flew towards its favorite tree, the firebush to suck the nectar from the flower. During the mating season from January to April, the male changes its color of the head and chin from greyish white to reddish/pink. Otherwise, even though the male is slightly smaller, identifying them in other months is very difficult. Once again the rain shortened my stay there.
Since my pictures taken on the Cuban parakeet were not good, on the last day in Zapata, once again we went in search of them as well as the Blue-headed Quail-Dove, endemic to Cuba. But it was not successful. We returned to Havana that same afternoon. In the evening, I had dinner with Dr Anton, a cardiologist, who is a friend from my university days. He came from London for a short stay in Havana, to pursue his interest in antiques.
The following morning, I had to say adios to Cuba and flew to Panama where I was joined by Lilani, Mahilal and Ramani. We spent three nights there. I had arranged to go bird watching for two days in Panama with Mr. Gonzalo, a birding guide, while the others spent time sightseeing and shopping. The birds I saw were not endemic to Panama and most of them I have sighted before in Costa Rica and Ecuador in Central America.
We returned to Sri Lanka on the 22nd December early morning.
During my stay in Cuba apart from bird watching, I observed that the people are very friendly and they seem content. Cubans have their basic needs, and there are no beggars. The government provides free education and healthcare to all at a good quality standard. I got the impression that this was a country where socialism has been successful.