Thursday, 22 May 2014

Photo Essay: Birds of Cuba - Part 2

This blog post serves as an addendum to a previous post I published here on October 9, 2013, devoted to some photographs I took of birds in Cuba during the March Break earlier that year. Most of the species pictured were seen in and around the Cameleon resort in Jibicoa, which is located on the north-coast of Cuba, about half-way between Varadero airport and Havana. Last year was the first opportunity I had to capture images of the Cuban birds up-close; I had purchased a 70-300 mm Nikon zoom lens for a previous trip to Florida. 

We were back at Jibicoa again this past March; so I had a second run at capturing close-up shots of the two-dozen or so species that call Jibicoa home. I would grab my camera and tripod three or four times a day and patrol the likeliest areas around the resort. The best times are early and late in the day, when the light is softer and bathes the birds in an attractive warm glow. In the middle of the day, it's usually too hot, and the light is much too harsh. I might be lucky to get several different chances to photograph the same species, but the light is always different - coming at a different angle and varied in its intensity.

If you are interested in some of the details about birding in Cuba, check out my previous post. I won't get into that detail again; I'll focus here mostly on the pictures themselves, and provide a little information about the situations in which I captured the images. 

It is worth repeating, however, some of the technical requirements for shooting pictures like these. A tripod is a must. Even in the best of light conditions, it is difficult to get sharp images. Landscape shots are so much easier, because the land does not move! The small birds - the perching birds (technically referred to as passerines) - flit about constantly. You need to use a fast shutter speed in order to overcome the movement - not only of the birds, but also the camera. Anything less than about 1/250 of a second will be problematic. But if you don't have optimum light conditions, then you need to shoot at a slower speed in order allow more light into the camera. It's a quandary. The conditions sometimes just don't allow for decent pictures. And because the small perching birds are always moving on, you need to work very, very quickly. Lack of sharpness can't be fixed, but problems with incorrect exposures, however, can be quite quickly corrected with photographic software like Photoshop. Cropping the composition, and adjusting the contrast, the colour, and the intensity of the image is very easily done.

The Cameleon resort at Jibicoa is located in lowland serpentine shrubwood (cuabal). It is not a hot spot for birds. But it is a varied environment: planted with a wide variety of mature trees and shrubs, and containing several different edge-biomes - a beach on the northern edge, a stream on the eastern side, and a fence that abuts on a woodlot to the west. Enough change of habitat to provide an interesting mix of bird species.

Red-Legged Thrush

Red-Legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus)

This bird is found all over the resort. It is a member of the Thrush family; and it resembles in size and behaviour our American Robin. It will fly up and perch in trees to secure its safety, but it is usually seen on the ground hopping about. It feeds amongst the leaf litter; you see it often tossing up the litter with its bill. A very attractive bird: it is easy to identify because of its prominent markings - its red eyes and legs, its black bib, and the white moustache angling down from its bill.

Red-Legged Thrush

Cuban Pewee

Cuban Pewee (Contopus caribaeus)

Its back is a dark, olivaceous gray. It has a grayish-buff  chest and belly. The distinctive mark - which differentiates it from the other pewees in Cuba - is the white crescent just behind the eye. The lower mandible of the bill is yellowy in adults, but paler in juveniles. Its tail quivers up and down when it first alights on a perch - much like the Phoebe. Seems to like perching on fences, or on low trees.

Cuban Pewee

Yellow-Faced Grassquit

Yellow-Faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivacea)

I got a picture of this bird last year, but it was a female - with drabber, less prominent, markings. It took me a while to figure out what it was. This specimen is a male; and it is much easier to identify, with its conspicuous orangey-yellow eyebrow and throat patch. It has a black patch on its breast, which gets larger as it ages. Only a small number of this species can be found each day.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

The mockingbird is found abundantly all over the resort. It is one of the mimic thrushes - very vocal, and often imitating the calls of other birds in its environment. It is usually found perched in low trees, shrubs, or balanced on an overhead wire. Prominent features: a large white wing patch (seen when it is in flight); white margins at the tip of its tail; and a yellow eye. 

West Indian Woodpecker

West Indian Woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris)

A noisy bird that calls all day. It is usually found perched on the trunks of trees - its favourite tree at Jibicoa is the giant Royal Palm. It has gorgeous colours: the back and tail are covered in black and white bars; the belly is reddish; the male has a red cap and nape; the female has a red nape. When in flight, this woodpecker shows prominent white patches on the outer part of the underwing. Very attractive.

West Indian Woodpecker

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

This is a small woodpecker - smaller than our Hairy Woodpecker; a bit bigger than the Downy Woodpecker. It has black and white bars on the back. There are also black and white stripes on the head. It has a red cap; and the male also features a red throat. Like the West Indian Woodpecker, this species sports a prominent white wing patch that is evident in flight. It seems to prefer palm trees close to the beach. Check out the row of holes it has pierced into the tree. The sap exuded from inside the tree quickly collects in the small holes. That's why it's a "sapsucker".

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum)

Most warblers like to perch in trees - often very high in trees. This small warbler prefers to forage on the ground for food. It has a prominent reddish-brown crown; and its chin and throat are yellow. A distinguishing feature for this bird is its constantly wagging tail.

Zenaida Dove

Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita)

This dove is slightly smaller than our familiar Mourning Dove; and its tail is shorter and stubbier. It is cinnamon brown all over. The sides of its lower neck have an iridescent purple shade. There are two black spots behind the cheek - similar to the Mourning Dove. It is usually seen foraging for seeds, and such, on the ground. Like other doves, you hear a distinctive "wing whir" as it flies off.

White-Winged Dove

White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)

This species is the same size as the Zenaida Dove. Its colour is similar to the Mourning Dove - without the cinnamon brown hue of the Zenaida Dove. It has a prominent white wing patch - very obvious in flight - which forms a white border along the edge of the wing. It has a black crescent visible under the cheek - larger than the similar mark on the Mourning Dove. It is more likely to be seen perched in trees, about ten feet off the ground.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture (Carthartes aura)

The Turkey vulture is very abundant in Cuba. At our resort you can usually see three or four soaring high above the ground throughout the day. Sometimes there might be two or three kettles visible - perhaps thirty birds altogether. In the evening,  individual birds will fly low over the resort, just above the trees. Occasionally you will find a small group standing together on the ground; or you might see one on top of a telephone or electricity pole.

Smooth-Billed Ani

Smooth-Billed Ani (Crotophaga ani)

I saw this species only once at our resort; it is a shy bird and tends to perch in thickets or up 12-15 feet off the ground. It is difficult to capture an image of this species in bright sunlight that reveals any details; it is jet black, and from a distance, you just get a sense of its overall shape and size. The short bill is deep and compressed sideways. The Ani has a very long tail, which moves around so loosely that it almost appears to have been tacked on to the rear of the body.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) 

The Cattle Egret gets its name from its propensity to hang out with grazing cattle - insects are one its major sources of food. Unlike the other egrets and herons, the Cattle Egret will often stand around on grassy areas in populated places (usually early and late in the day); but they will not let you get too close. This is the smallest egret in Cuba. This species' feathers are completely white; but it has a orangey-yellow bill and yellowy-green legs. In breeding season, it has distinctive buffy plumes on its upper head, at the base of its foreneck, and on its back.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)

This is a large and very attractive egret. It is entirely white - like the Cattle Egret - but it has a black bill and black legs. The distinguishing feature of this bird are the bright yellow toes at the end of the dark black legs - often referred to as "yellow slippers". These slippers are very prominent when it is in flight. It is the most active of all herons and egrets when in search of food - constantly stirring up sediment with its feet, and running and jumping to catch its prey.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

The immature Little Blue Heron is almost completely white. That confused me last year, but I eventually figured it out by noting the colour of the bill and feet - and checking the information in my bird guide. The adult heron is slate-blue, but with a violaceous-brown head and neck. Its bill is grayish-blue, with a black tip; and the legs are green. It is not a very active feeder, and spends a lot of time standing very still - which makes it easier to photograph then many other birds of its type!

Little Blue Heron ruffling its feathers

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron hiding

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

This was a brand new bird for Barbara and me this year - another one to add to the Life List. It is very similar to our Black-Crowned Night Heron - same size and similar colourations. Unlike the colour of the Black-Crowned's head, however, (which gives it its name), the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron's head is ... um ... yellow (actually, it is more whitish-yellow). Also distinctive is the white cheek patch. The bill is stouter than the Black-Crowned; and the legs are longer and yellower. When it was disturbed, it liked to fly up and take refuge in the fronds of nearby palm trees.

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron in late afternoon light

Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja)

Now a couple of birds seen from quite a distance, and identified later by enlarging the screen image on the back of the camera. This bird was quite easy to figure out, after I enlarged the image. As I watched it fly by, quite high up, over the village of Cojimar, I thought for a moment that it might be a flamingo, because of the pink colouration - but it wasn't large enough, and the neck was not nearly long enough. After checking in the guide book, and examining the bill - shorter and slightly upturned, rather than longer and curving downward - I decided it was a Roseate Spoonbill (and not an Ibis). A good example of how a digital camera can help identify a bird, as well as capture its image.

Roseate Spoonbill

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Another species I identified from the image caught by my camera was the Brown Pelican. This took a while though. It came over the resort in a group of three, late in the afternoon. I pondered the issue for quite a while. And went through my guide several times, considering the possibilities. But I ended up confident of this identification - especially after looking at other photos of the species I had captured on previous holidays.

Brown Pelicans

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia)

The occasion of witnessing the last species here was very memorable. I was walking down the beach, just west of the resort, when I saw an excited chocolate-brown dog running up and down the beach - seemingly chasing something. When I got closer, I realized that it was chasing a Spotted Sandpiper. The sandpiper would fly down a stretch of the strand and then land and walk across the top of the old, exposed coral. A short while later, the dog would locate its position and run up to grab it. At the last moment, the sandpiper would take off and reverse its direction, flying back about 25 metres, close to its original position. As the bird leapt up from the coral, and took to flight, the dog would start yapping at it excitedly, turn, and chase it down the beach - stopping occasionally, when it lost the scent. This went on and on. I realized the dog was just playing with the sandpiper - probably not much fun, though, for the bird. But lots of fun for me to watch, however, and to attempt to get some good pictures of the bird and the chase. 

Chasing the Spotted Sandpiper

These photographs were taken with a Nikon D7000 camera with a 70-300 mm Nikon zoom lens and a 18-105 mm Nikon zoom lens. 
© Clive W. Baugh 

Do not copy or publish these pictures without permission of the photographer.

Resources: Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba by Orlando H. Garrido and Arturo Kirkconnell, illustrated by Roman F. Company (2000); Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson (1980)


  1. The photographs are very good Clive.Well done mate.. Tony

  2. Wow!! What a location!! After saw your images, I am also thinking to visit there and recollect all beautiful memories from Cuba. Can you please tell me the schedule of suitable flights to cuba?