Cuba Birdwatching Holidays and Tours

From watching great gatherings of pink flamingos

From watching great gatherings of pink flamingos near Cayo Coco to spotting tiny Bee Hummingbirds flashing through the foliage, Cuba is a paradise for birders. Travellers can discover the best bird-watching spots in the Caribbean amid the country's lush biosphere reserves and protected natural landscapes.

From £799 per person

A natural haven for exotic birds, Cuba has been called an ‘accidental Eden' for its huge array of wildlife that has continued to blossom over the past fifty years as industrialisation on the island has stalled. It has an extraordinary biodiversity not seen elsewhere in the Caribbean that includes the largest pink flamingo colonies in the western hemisphere and the world's tiniest bird, the Bee Hummingbird. The island is a delight for birdwatchers, with the chance of spotting more than 350 native and visiting species in habitats that range from vast wild wetlands and lush forests to cave-studded valleys and wooded mountain slopes.

Cuba is sprinkled with no less than 263 protected natural areas that encourage a kaleidoscope of migratory and seasonal birds to stop over, as well as a thriving population of endemic species such as the magnificent many-coloured Cuban trogon and the extremely cute little Cuban tody. Birdwatchers visiting Cuba also have a chance to see endangered birds such as hook-billed kites, thick-billed vireos and ivory-billed woodpeckers.

The island's unspoilt natural areas and national parks are the best destinations for intrepid birders. You can go birdwatching in the virgin forests of the Escambray Mountains, close to the colonial Trinidad, spot exotic species in the verdant hills and valleys of La Guira National Park or gaze out on a sea of salmon-pink flamingo near Cayo Coco. The country's number one birding hotspot is the Peninsula de Zapata, where you can tour the protected wetlands and woods effortlessly ticking off species as you go.

Birding regions: where all the fun happens

Peninsula de Zapata, south-central Cuba

A vast area of woods, marshes and mangroves jutting out into the warm Caribbean waters of Cuba's southern coast, Peninsula de Zapata is a bona fide birdwatching destination with more than 160 different types of birds. It includes the biggest protected area in the Caribbean. The Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve -also called Gran Parque Natural Montemar– has been designated a wetland of international importance, mainly for aquatic birds. But there are dry forests here too and quaint little villages dotted about the landscape, linked by a series of trails.

To appreciate the peninsula's awe-inspiring biodiversity, you can explore both the Zapata swamps and forests that are a temporary home for thousands of migrant birds like tanagers, thrushes, warblers and vireos, as well as species totally exclusive to the area such as the Zapata rails, Zapata wrens and Zapata sparrows. The area has a good tourism infrastructure and very knowledgeable local guides, as well as basic accommodation for travellers at Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs, which is centrally located for the best birding spots. Even wondering around the hotel grounds in Playa Larga at dusk gives visitors a wonderful sense of the area's rich birdlife with the call of Cuban nightjars echoing through the air and opportunities to search for several species of owl – stygian owls, Cuban pygmy owls and Cuban screech owls.

To head into the Zapata forest you can walk woodland trails named after the tiny villages of Bermejas and Soplillar, which they encircle. Flocks of warblers and noisy Cuban parrot move through the trees and blue-headed and grey-headed quail-doves strut along the dusty ground. Though endangered, it's likely you can spot quite large Fernandina's flickers in the area, bobbing in and out of nests in dead palm trunks, and you can hear the distinctive call of Cuban trogons all around. Other birding highlights include tiny bee hummingbirds resting on twig-thin branches, Cuban yellow-headed warblers, Cuban parakeets, long necked and beaked lizard cuckoos and little slender-beaked Cuban emeralds with glinting green feathers.

In the famous Zapata swamp, birders can go in search of the elusive Zapata wren, known for its beautiful flutey song, and look in the reedy wetlands and long grasses for red-shouldered blackbirds. The area dubbed Rail Alley is named for its abundance of rail birds – spotted rails and rare Zapata rails among them. Elsewhere on the peninsula you can experience the truly beguiling sight of dark-winged snail kites circling slowly and gracefully overhead. A bird of prey about 17 inches tall, it has a hooked beak and large talons for feeding on its favourite food – big apple snails.

Zapata's Las Salinas salt pans are a wildlife refuge and another good bird-spotting stop. Its long coral road is flanked by shallow pools popular with waders, as well as cranes, double-breasted cormorants, roseate spoonbills and groups of rosy flamingos. In the ponds and cenotes you can watch for northern jacanas using its wide feet to walk across lily pads on the surface of the water.

Sierra del Rosario and La Guira National Park, western Cuba

The verdant mountainous region between Havana and Pinar del Rio in the west of Cuba has become one of the country's top eco-tourism destinations, encompassing the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve and accompanying eco-resorts of La Terrazas and Soroa, as well as the exceptionally beautiful La Guira National Park. The area has more than 115 bird species including an abundance of endemic woodland-dwellers, such as Cuban vireos and Cuban solitaires, known for their strange, distinctive flute-like song. With a plethora of migratory birds nesting here too, it's a great place to observe a number of species all at once.

Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve's pine-clad slopes and tropical valleys are full of hidden grottoes, waterfalls and streams frequented by a whole spectrum of exotic birds – giant kingbirds, Fernandina's flicker and blue-headed quail doves. At just over 50km from Havana, the reserve is one of the most accessible places to go bird-spotting in Cuba and has a well developed tourist infrastructure. You can find comfortable accommodation inside the reserve if you want to stay overnight. La Moka hotel built into the hillside in the small eco-community of Las Terrazas is the best option with easy access to guided walks along a network of nature trails. La Serafina route is particularly recommended for birders.

To the west of Sierra del Rosario, La Guira National Park was once a huge privately owned state. A lush park of picturesque wooded valleys and limestone caves, it now belongs to a cornucopia of birds and other wildlife, dwelling in its crevices and canopies. Some are easier to recognize than others – the native Cuban green woodpecker is unmistakable with its bright red mohawk, hopping about the branches and diving into holes in tree trunks. The park's hiking trails pass alongside trickling streams and through an open dome-roofed cave, where swallows dart in and out of their nests.

Climbing up into the pine-forested hills, there are good view points and an excellent chance of seeing a clutch of different warblers – olive-capped warblers, native Cuban warblers and yellow-headed warblers. In the lower woodlands, keep your eyes peeled for the dainty yellow-and-black Cuban Grassquit finch that's only found in Cuba. There are hiking trails criss-crossing the park and the town of San Diego de los Banos on the southern edge of the park makes a good starting point for a day's birdwatching.

Jardines del Rey, north-central Cuba

The idyllic castaway cays of Jardines del Rey that skim the northern coast of Cuba are a utopia for birds, as well as holidaymakers. There's an extraordinary variety of both aquatic and land-bound birds that make for exciting birdwatching. The undisturbed sand flats and mangroves form shallow aquatic ecosystems favoured by waders, while the dry woods attract warblers, gnatcatchers and delicate Cuban emeralds. You can watch salmon-pink greater flamingos in the shallow waters between cays and see whole flocks fly in to feed on the sand flats, along with white phase redish egrets and white herons in the mangroves. In the coastal lagoons and scrubland there are a variety of local and migrant birds – magnificent frigate birds, brown pelicans and clapper rails.

Exploring the peaceful tracks of Cayo Coco, you can spy handsome stripe-headed tanager picking at berries, loggerhead kingbirds, chunky Greater Antillian crackles and cartoon-like crescent-eyed peewees. For fans of birds of prey Cuban black hawks hang out and hunt here too, with a distinctive white stripe across their tail feathers that's visible in flight. The shallow blue waters and lagoons of the neighbouring island of Cayo Guillermo are also a good place for wader-watching and on land you have a good chance of glimpsing the Bahama mockingbird. The nearby uninhabited Cayo Paredon Grande is another birdwatching hotspot, where you can walk from the lighthouse to a beautiful beach, looking out for local specialities – yellow-and-indigo oriente warblers and rare thick-billed vireos.

The region is also home to one of the largest breeding colonies of greater flamingos in the Caribbean, numbering more than 70,000 birds. To see this awesome natural spectacle you will need an experienced guide to navigate the swamps of the Maximo-Camaguey River Wetlands, where the deltas of the Maximo and Camaguey rivers meet the sea.

Sierra del Escambray, south-central Cuba

Rising into the mists beyond the colonial city of Trinidad in southern Cuba, the picturesque slopes of the Sierra del Escambray are swathed in evergreen, pine woods and grasslands that harbour a rich diversity of forest birds. Accessible from Trinidad, Topes de Collantes National Park is criss-crossed with tracks that snake into woods and to high vantage points where you can view everything from colourful Cuban parrots, Fernandina's flicker and broad-winged hawks to different types of warbler, swift and swallow. Part of Cuba's second highest mountain range, the national park's trails can be challenging, but the reward is the chance to see more than half of Cuba's endemics and a whole host of tropical forest dwellers.

In the eastern part of the Sierra del Escambray, Banao Heights nature reserve is a virtual aviary fluttering with parrots, painted buntings, cerulean warblers and much more. The beauty of the surrounding scenery and the rich dense forests makes it the ideal place for birdwatching, and there's a successful local initiative to increase the population of Cuban parakeets, which are quite rare on the island.

Sierra del Chorrillo, eastern Cuba

In the south-east of Cuba's Camaguey province, which straddles the central-eastern section of the island, a concertina of picturesque hills and mountains are a haven for wildlife of all shapes and sizes. Located 36km from the provincial capital of Camaguey, the area around La Hacienda la Belen – with stunning limestone karst escarpments and rounded mogotes – is particularly renowned for its rare birds. With the hacienda as its high focal point, the Sierra del Chorrillo Ecological Reserve is run by travel agency Ecotur, with marked nature trails that you can follow to glimpse a colourful array of birds – Cuban parakeets and parrots, giant kingbirds, Fernandina's flicker and Antillean palm swifts. Look out for svelte grey Cuban peewees and listen for singing Cuban meadowlarks too.

Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve, eastern Cuba

Separated from the rest of the island by the sky-high Sierra Maestra, the far eastern end of Cuba is one of the island's most lush, fertile and unspoilt areas with thick rainforests, pine and cloud forested slopes teeming with birds. The region's picturesque landscape has barely changed since Christopher Columbus gushed that it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, when he first landed in Cuba in 1492.Today much of it comes under the umbrella of the Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve that contains several smaller protected areas such as the Quibijan-Duaba Ecological Reserve, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park and El Yunque – the imposing flat-topped peak that overlooks the region's chief town of Baracoa.

The forests of the Sierra Maestra are said to be one of the last refuges of the critically endangered Gundlach's hawk, though spotting one is extremely rare. The biosphere reserve is also home to the threatened Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker and the Cuban kite. In fact more than half of Cuba's endemic birds live in the area including trogons, Cuban green woodpeckers, Cuban parrots, oriente warblers and bee hummingbirds. Close to Baracoa, you can follow a trekking trail through the Quibijan-Duaba Ecological Reserve and climb to El Yunque for a great chance of spotting all types of birds and a truly unforgettable birds-eye view over river valleys and Alejandro de Humboldt National Park.

Local birds: endemic treasures found nowhere else

Cuba's diversity of healthy habitats has bestowed it with a treasure trove of endemic species. There are 21 very special local birds in Cuba that intrepid twitchers will want to make an effort to see.

Exclusive to the island is the world's smallest bird, the bee hummingbird, as is birder's favourite, the tiny colourful ball of feathers known as the Cuban tody. But an eagle-eye is needed to spot both these species, carefully watching for the glint of the bee hummingbirds' whirring iridescent wings, often mistaken for an insect, and following the tody's call in the dense foliage beside rivers and streams.

Chief among Cuba's native species, the Cuban trogon or tocororo – nicknamed for the sound it makes – is resplendent with turquoise plumage, a blue head, red and white underbelly and black and white checks on its wings. Its colours mimic the Cuban flag so it has been adopted as the national bird. Bird spotters commonly see pairs of trogon in Cuba's shady forests. The rare dusky-grey and white bellied giant kingbird is also endemic to Cuba and usually lives among the tall pines of low-lying forests and beside woodland streams, though it can be spotted elsewhere.

The incredible wetlands and woods of the Peninsula de Zapata contain around 18 of Cuba's 21 endemic species. A clutch of birds native to the Zapata swamp have been named after their home – Zapata wrens, Zapata rails and majestic Zapata sparrows that are much larger and more robust looking than their European cousins. Among the island's subspecies of common birds, there are special Cuban crows, blackbirds and swallows too. In the woods, endemic blue-headed quail doves may cross your path, and you can sometimes see Cuban martins hopping in and out of their nests in the trunks of palms. As darkness falls on the peninsula, Cuban screech owls and Cuban pygmy owls come out to feed.

Fernandina's flicker – a beautiful stripy black and ochre woodpecker with a terracotta-coloured head – is another striking local species to look out for. Of course, groups of Cuban parakeets and parrots streaking across the rainforest canopy are a welcome reminder that you are in paradise. But the prize for the best local song goes to the Cuban Solitaire, known for its haunting flute-like tune. Perhaps the hardest bird to see is the critically endangered Gundlach's hawk, which has been reduced to just five areas of the island.

The best times for birdwatching

A variety of factors make Cuba a good birdwatching destination all-year-round. To see the greatest number of migrant species mixed in with local residents, winter is the best time. More than 115 different types of transitory bird stay in Cuba for the whole winter, and only 14 species visit in the summertime. That said, March onwards is breeding season for Cuba's birds, with the increased activity and nesting making them easier to see. No matter the time of year, tropical birdwatching is usually best just after sunrise and before dusk when the air is cooler and the birds are most active.

Tips for travelling twitchers

Travellers going birdwatching in Cuba should bring their own equipment, such as binoculars, as these can be difficult to get hold of on the island. Also a copy of the Birds of Cuba book will come in very handy when identifying the myriad species.

You can see the best birding spots by joining a birdwatching tour or excursion from the resorts on the island, but consider hiring a car if you want to explore independently. There are a variety of good places to stay to be close to Cuba's best birdwatching action. Las Terrazas in Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve, Cayo Coco in the northern cays, Playa Larga on the Peninsula de Zapata and Trinidad close to the Escambray Mountains all make good birding bases.

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