My 'traveling' moth trap comprises a cardboard box (kindly given to me by Chris Manley) that folds up into the bottom of my suitcase. The bulb is an energy-saving bulb that I brought from Canada as it operates on 110v and doesn't need a heavy choke. It is mounted on a wooden bar with a rainguard. Inside I put a few egg cartons or large dry leaves. There were about a dozen species in the trap this morning which we spent time photographing before releasing. I haven't yet managed to identify any of them! One of them is a Eublemma unless I'm very much mistaken. There are three species on the Cuban list - cinnamomeum, minima and rectum (recta?) and it isn't any of these as far as I can make out.
After breakfast we were collected by Rafael Giraldo and transferred to the main hotel as promised. Rafael is the Sales Manager at the hotel and organises the tours so we arranged to have a jeep trip tomorrow with a guide to go to Sierra de Codina. Douglas then found a larva of Cuban Rhinthon Rhinthon cubana on the Hedychium plants growing just behind our rooms. An excellent find this as it is a rare skipper that we had looked for before but not found. It has been recorded here just once before.
There are quite a few roads and trails around the hotel so we set off to explore.
The colour of the dewlap is an important identification feature for anoles. Both of these two are quite common but its always useful to see the dewlap to clinch the id as body colour is very variable on these two and Cuban Coast Anole Anolis jubar which you can see on the reptiles page.
At the bottom of the hill is a small stream where we disturbed a Little Blue Heron and just above that was a patch of Lablab purpureus, a type of bean, which Doug explained was the foodplant of Caribbean Yellow-tipped Flasher Astraptes anaphus. We searched the leaves and found a larval shelter but unfortunately it was empty. Close - but no cigar.
We searched the Costus spiralis plants for larvae but only found a pupal exuvia of Perching Saliana Saliana esperi. As we left the restaurant after supper a group of people were photographing a Cuban Tree Frog Osteopilus septentrionalis high up on the wall. These are large frogs and it's amazing how they cling on to a vertical surface with their suckered feet. The other frog we have seen before but still not sure of the id.
The large pine tree outside our room attracted various birds early in the mornings including White-winged Doves. Greater Antillean Grackles with their strange tails would sit preening in the sunshine and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds looked for insects. Their orange shoulder patches are often hidden but the slightly smaller bill and more slender appearance distinguishes them from Cuban Blackbird which are far more common.
Great Lizard Cuckoo are widespread and common but are rather skulking so when one approached us in scattered scrub on the path down by the lake this morning I stood still and waited for it to come to me, which It did in rather spectacular fashion
We set off for Topes de Collantes this morning which lies to the south of Lake Hanabanilla and is higher in elevation. On the way we stopped at a viewpoint for a short break with its wonderful view to the north with the southern arm of Lake Hanabanilla in the distance.
We had arranged to stay at Los Helechos Hotel for eight nights but when we arrived it looked as if it had seen better days!
Only joking! In fact the hotel is quite nice and the standard has been raised a lot since we were last here. This was an old apartment block from which, when the hotels were built here, they moved people out into various cities. The hotel has good food, pleasant rooms and a very smart brand new swimming pool that Lynn used every day. In fact we were treated like honoured guests during our stay, and we couldn't figure out why until the end. It turned out that in all the years that the hotel had been open nobody had ever stayed for eight days - usually its just one or two nights as part of a whistle-stop tour of Cuba. As the main hotel was full for the first night we were given a spacious little bungalow for the night at Villa Caburni which is a short way up the road with the promise that we would be moved down the next day.
Los Helechos is run by Gaviota which is in effect a part of the military so the transport for tours and day trips is in old military vehicles - lorries and jeeps depending on how many of you there are. We had tried to arrange our own vehicle and driver to stay with us here to give us more flexibility but had been told this wasn't possible but were never given a reason why. I suspect this is just Gaviota maintaining a monopoly on tourist transport in the area as I can't think of any other reason. And in fact that worked out just fine as some days we wanted to walk locally and others we arranged a jeep plus driver and guide to take us out. After getting set up in our rooms we went out for a walk and soon found larvae of Orange-washed Sulphur Phoebis avellaneda on Senna spectabilis amongst the bushes in front of the concrete shell of the apartment block. There were also eggs of White-angled Sulphur Anteos clorinde. We searched the Passiflora for Heliconiinae eggs and larvae but couldn't find any.
Doug pointed out the distinctive feeding damage of Red-striped Leafwing Siderone galanthis on Casearia with the tell-tale brown leaf fragments left hanging in a line along the midrib, and also of Perching Saliana Saliana esperi on Costus spiralis with the rather straight-cut edges where the larva had been feeding on the leaves. Both these species have been recorded here before but we didn't see adults of either during our stay.
Red-legged Honey-creepers and Cuban Orioles were feeding in a large flowering Erythrina tree but the distance was to great for any reasonable pictures of these with my camera set-up. Having checked with the security guard that it would be ok to run the moth lamp outside the bungalow overnight we set it up running the cable out through an open window. There were plenty of trees just outside so we looked forward to seeing what there would be in the morning.
On 30 May a friend at the Sol Rio Luna y Mares hotel near Guardalavaca north of Holguin wrote to say that for the past three weeks there had been an amazing migration of thousands of butterflies. He described this as an incredible sight which he had never previously witnessed. He also added that there has been no rain yet!
I sought further information from our Cuban friend Félix, a butterfly enthusiast in Gibara a few miles to the west, and his reply the same day was very interesting. He confirmed that a huge migration had been taking place. He said that migrations occur most years between May and July often lasting between three and five days followed by a gap. The most abundant species are Great Southern White Ascia monuste and Lyside Sulphur Kricogonia lyside, with Cloudless Sulphur Phoebis sennae, Large Orange Sulphur Phoebis agarithe and Cuban Snout Libytheana motya present in smaller numbers.
This year he says that in April there was a large migration of Great Southern White Ascia monuste with a few Lyside Sulphur Kricogonia lyside - unusual so early in the year. During the last twelve days of May there was a huge migration of mainly Great Southern White Ascia monuste from the NE which has also been seen in Holguin, Banes, Guardalavaca and Puerto Padre mainly between 8am and 1pm. This migration also included some Cloudless Sulphur Phoebis sennae, Large Orange Sulphur Phoebis agarithe and Lyside Sulphur Kricogonia lyside but these were scarcer.
Thank you Félix for your insight and to Ronald for first alerting us to this – just a shame we aren’t there to witness it for ourselves.
Postscript - I have since heard from Douglas Fernández who lives at Camagüey in the centre of the island who tells me that on 25 May in his neighborhood he and his wife Norris watched many Great Southern White Ascia monuste flying north after midday at a rate of about 100 per minute. And again on 27 May he and his son Douglas saw many flying north over the savanna grasslands at Albaiza, a few km outside Camagüey. Thank you Doug for sharing.
Because of the dry weather we've been struggling to find good habitat locally with butterflies flying other than around the hotel so we decided to go back to Cienfuegos Botanic Garden again today. Soon after we arrived we saw a Gundlach's Hawk briefly circling over the trees above us. This rare endemic, though widely distributed, is far from easy to see and this is only our second sighting. Another good find was a Barn Owl sitting low down in one of the large trees.
The Scaly-breasted Munias were again in evidence feeding in the bamboos with Yellow-faced Grass-quits.
But other than that we saw little new today in the Botanic Garden and our search for the two Hairstreaks drew a blank. A fly over White-collared Swift late in the day near the hotel was a good sighting and only the second time I have seen one in Cuba. They are a rare permanent resident in the mountains of the island though they are also widespread in Central and South America. We saw them, again only briefly, in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the south-east in March 2015.
I ran the moth lamp on the balcony last night but there were only a couple of moths as it was very windy. One is a Pyrausta but there are nine species in Cuba and I only know a few of them so far.
The hotel lies in the Escambray mountains at the edge of a large reservoir called Lake Hanabanilla that has several 'arms' and islands. There are boat trips on the lake in a varied assortment of boats. We opted today for one of the smaller ones as it afforded better viewing and photographic opportunities, but with a covered awning.
On the water were lots of American Coots, a few Lesser Scaup, and Least and Pied-billed Grebes. Osprey are very common here and we saw a single Snail Kite catching apple snails which are very abundant.
We stopped for lunch at a small privately run restaurant on the opposite side of the lake after disturbing a Limpkin as we approached. These long-billed water birds are quite common here and, like the Snail Kites, feed mainly on the apple snails as well as other invertebrates.
The eggs of White-angled Sulphur Anteos clorinde were quite common on Senna spectabilis laid distinctively on the edge of the leaves whereas those of Orange-barred Sulphur Phoebis philea and Orange-washed Sulphur P. avellaneda are laid on the young leaf tips. Doug found larvae of Common Long-tailed Skipper Urbanus proteus and Caribbean Skipper Pyrrhocalles antiqua.
But best was finding several larvae of Limenia Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon limenia on Malachra sp. growing by the waters edge. The larvae had used silk to hold the flower buds closed and were feeding on the developing seed pods inside.
Yesterday I'd had a quick look around the hotel to see if there were any suitable outside sockets to plug in a moth lamp but couldn't find, any and our room on the second floor wasn't really suitable either. So this morning we resorted to collecting up a few moths from the around the hotel lights to photograph. Douglas knew the name of one of them but that's as far as we've got at the moment.
In the morning we went out in the vehicle to explore the local area but there were hardly any butterflies flying as it was so dry so we returned for lunch and gave Jose the afternoon off. Later we went for a walk from the hotel past the small sewage settling ponds that serve the hotel. There was always a good variety of warblers here (nine species today including Black-throated Green that we don't see that often) and always a few waders and Louisiana Waterthrush. On this occasion there were two Solitary Sandpiper as well as the ubiquitous Killdeer. I spent a few minutes trying to photograph a Limpkin with little success and Lynn told me afterwards that a Killdeer had been feigning a broken wing behind me (I'd been to busy watching the Limpkin to notice). This meant only one thing - that it had a nest close by. It took me only a moment to find it so a quick photo and then we retreated to a safe distance and the female quickly returned to the nest which was a relief.
Douglas showed us an insignificant-looking Umbellifer in the Apiaceae (celery, carrot and parsley family) that he said was a foodplant of the Black Swallowtail Papilio polyxenes. This is the only resident Swallowtail that we haven't yet seen. In fact nobody has recently, and very little is known about it in Cuba, and there are no photographs of it alive taken on the island as far as I'm aware. There were also lots of Cardiospermum but no sign of Silver-banded Hairstreak Chlorostrymon simaethis larvae or adults though its good to know the plant for the future. Núñez (2004) compiled a list of the Lepidoptera of Topes de Collantes (555 species) based on a study of old records and further fieldwork in 2002-3. We added several new species to this list during our two week stay including one yesterday that I forgot to mention - Orange-washed Sulphur Phoebis avellaneda. We saw adults on five separate days during our trip and also found larvae. We watched an Antillean Flasher Astraptes xagua darting about amongst some young coffee plants nectaring on the flowers. Until I got good views of it I was hoping it might be the similar Cuban Flasher Astraptes cassander as that had been found here by Núñez in 2002-3 but sadly that wasn't the case.
Douglas pointed out several butterfly foodplants including Senna occidentalis for Cloudless Sulphur Phoebis sennae, and Senna spectabilis for Orange-barred Sulphur Phoebis philea.
Our friend Douglas arrived late last night on the bus from Camagüey to join us for the trip. It was great to catch up with news over breakfast. And then we were picked up by Donny's brother, Jose who was to be our driver for the next few days.
We had visited Cienfuegos Botanic Garden once before on 2 March 2014 and knew that it had potential. On that occasion it had rained beforehand and the gardens had looked quite lush in places. Unfortunately that was not the case this time and everywhere was very dry which didn't bode well. The entrance road is lined with palms, and a large part of the area is managed like parkland with mown vegetation and scattered trees, some native but mainly of foreign origin. The effect is pleasing but it could be so much more I think. There is a small restaurant and several local guides who take groups of visitors around to show them things of interest.
There are a large number of species of bamboo on display, some native and some not. Several near the restaurant had recently flowered and were seeding which attracted a mixed flock of Yellow-faced Grassquits and some other birds that I recognised as Munias but couldn't put a name to them. They are not in the Birds of Cuba but are clearly Scaly-breasted Munias. These seem to be spreading through the Caribbean from escaped cage-birds.
There were a few butterflies including White Peacock Anartia jatrophae and Monk Skipper Asbolis capucinus.
And also a couple of Calisto. The first is clearly Cuban Calisto Calisto herophile with its line of four white spots on the hindwing but the second has only three white dots and the median line is much straighter. I think it is most likely also herophile, perhaps of a different sex, there is so much more still to learn about these Calisto - there are additional species that have been discovered in Cuba but have not yet been described.
If I was in charge (and had the budget) I would gear the gardens more to display the wonderful native trees and shrubs. Perhaps use it as a propagation centre too for the rare trees that have suffered heavily to logging in the last coupe of centuries with a view to carrying out a replanting programme much as Costa Rica has done in such a big way in recent years.
And with a bit of thought given to planting, near the restaurant and elsewhere, of good nectar sources and larval foodplants there could be many more butterflies flying around even during the dry season. We wanted to look for two Hairstreak species that Doug had seen here on a previous occasion just under a year ago. We found neither unfortunately, though did find the foodplants of both. Calopogonium caeruleum (or coeruleum I'm not sure of the correct spelling) is the foodplant of the Amethyst Hairstreak Chlorostrymon maesites. The plant is a vigorous sprawling vine in the legume family. It was growing in a dry riverbed that crosses the site. Growing nearby was a large patch of Balloon-vine Cardiospermum halicacabum which is the foodplant of Silver-banded Hairstreak Chlorostrymon simaethis. We searched the flowers and balloon-like seed pods for some time looking for larvae without success. Ah well, another time.
We had a very nice lunch in the restaurant where a very tame and obliging male American Redstart was hopping around and watched a Black-throated Blue Warbler picking insects from a spider's web.
An American Kestrel was hunting insects and we saw and heard several Great Lizard Cuckoo including one that spent ages poking around amongst the epiphytes on a large tree occasionally checking on me to make sure that I didn't get too close.
A freshly emerged female Phaon Crescent Phyciodes phaon was a nice find and there were several Barred Yellow Eurema daira of the form with a lot of orange scales underneath.
have aDuring the afternoon we set off for our hotel for the next few nights, Hotel Hanabanilla up in the hills a little way to the north. Again we had stayed here for a couple of nights on our first visit so knew what to expect. Even up here they had had little rain for months so again it was much drier than we had hoped. After checking in we went out for a quick walk before supper through a small coffee plantation amongst the trees where Doug managed to find a couple of Caribbean Faceted Skipper Synapte malitiosa larvae on Pharus. The larvae are remarkably similar to Three-spotted Skipper Cymaenes tripunctus but have a very slightly different head pattern and tripunctus doesn't feed on Pharus.
The hotel was very pleasant and we had a nice breakfast and a wander before packing ready for our transport to arrive. There were no seabirds but after a while a group of male and female Cuban Martins starting feeding over the pool and about 10 minutes later were joined by a group of Antillean Palm Swift.
I love swifts but I've never tried to photograph them before - you can tell that from the pictures! And these ones are small and remarkably quick and the light wasn't good as it was grey and overcast. That I managed to get any shots at all was a surprise to me but you can make out the long slender wings, white rump, forked tail and variable pale areas below. The Birds of Cuba book says they are a common permanent resident. We have certainly not found them common, in fact in our eight visits to Cuba to date we have only seen them at three places. I think I'm right in saying that they don't spend the night on the wing as we once watched quite a large number come in to roost at dusk in the palm leaf roof of a hotel restaurant in the west of the island. They do also breed in such locations as well as amongst the dead leaves of palm trees.
Our driver Donny and vehicle arrived to take us to Cienfuegos which was a fairly uneventful drive through very dry countryside. We made one stop at a nearly dry river and stretched our legs. We saw a few common butterflies and warblers and a party of Smooth-billed Anis. They all had very abraded plumage making them appear much paler then they normally look as they panted in the heat. I noticed that they had long eyelashes to protect their eyes from the bright sun - their own built-in brise soleil!
We arrived at Cienfuegos before lunch and checked into our casa for our one night stay - Casa Victor. We spent the afternoon walking around Punta Gorda, the southern tip of the town but not much of interest there apart from a flock of Laughing Gulls and a Caspian Tern.
On our first trip to Cuba in February / March 2014 we had visited the Escambray Mountains near Cienfuegos in the middle of the island for a few days. We thought the area needed further exploration and decided to come back and spend more time here on our latest trip in March 2017. We had been warned that it would likely be very dry but in 2014 at the same time we had encountered rain and everything was quite green so we thought we would take the chance especially as we would be quite high up. As it turned out there had been little rain for many months so it definitely wasn’t the best time to go for butterflies. Despite that we managed to see 65 species as well as some good birds and reptiles. It just means that at some point we will need to come back here in the wetter summer months.
We flew from London Gatwick to Habana arriving on the evening of 13 March 2017 and transferred to our hotel for the night, the Hotel Copacabana by the beach in the centre of the city.
This is our final day of another great trip to the Luna y Mares hotel near Guardalavaca in Cuba. We have seen 85 species of butterflies and some other great wildlife, and found some new places to explore further when we come back here later in 2017. We had just the morning to explore before packing up ready for our flight back to Gatwick this afternoon. We checked out the lantana flowers by the balcony at the Mares pool where there were quite a few butterflies nectaring including this Florida Purplewing Eunica tatila.
And a quick check of the lagoon where there have been more warblers in evidence since the hurricane than there were before. A male Flambeau Dryas iulia spent a couple of minutes courting a female but was rebuffed.
I had one final failed attempt to get reasonable pictures of Fiery Skipper Hylephila phyleus in the horse field at the front of the hotel that we had seen here almost daily and then ensued a few minutes of panic as a Southern Dogface Zerene cesonia flew around the field nectaring on the blue porterweed with me in hot pursuit before it finally settled - a good find as we have only seen this species twice before.
It was only 100m from here to the little clearing where all the blues and hairstreaks were a couple of days ago. The numbers were fewer this morning but there was still a Martial Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon martialis. As I stood under the shade of a tree a Cuban Leafwing Anaea cubana flew down and started laying on the small Croton origanifolius bush beside me. It was too close to focus and so I had to move back slowly and watch as it flew round and chose another leaf on which to lay curving its body up to lay a single egg on the underside. I watched it lay several eggs like this before flying off to find another bush and I had a chance to examine one of the eggs. What a great way to finish the trip.
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Here we will post interesting news about what we and others have seen in Cuba.