We always find things of interest when we go for a walk whether that's here in the UK or when we are in Cuba. Today was a day of many memorable moments but then this is a special place. Today we set off to the hills of the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. But even before we got there we stopped because there were quite a few butterflies by the side of the road. The attraction was lots of flowering Eupatorium. The most striking were a couple of the endemic Gundlach's Swallowtail Parides gundlachianus with their bright red and metallic blue patches on the forewings.
In fact it was a real butterfly fest here for the half hour we spent in this spot by the side of the road - 29 species in all including Orange-washed Sulphur Phoebis avellaneda, Antillean Mapwing Hypanartia paullus, Oviedo's Swallowtail Heraclides oviedo, Common Long-tailed Skipper Urbanus proteus and Confusing Yellow Pyrisitia larae. The latter usually needs netting and examining in the hand to be sure of the identity but taking quite a few shots of this suspect I managed to get a picture clearly showing the scalloped black edge to the upper forewing that is the distinguishing character.
We continued into the National Park and looked around whilst waiting for our guide to arrive. A wonderfully tame Cuban Knight Anole Anolis equestris kept us amused. All the previous ones that we have come across have been quite timid to say the least and would rapidly move up the tree to a position out of view or to where they felt safer. This beautiful male had no such fears and was clearly at ease in human company which was an absolute delight. It's only preoccupation was in finding its next meal as it stalked through the vegetation looking for butterflies and other insects that might stray within range. It paid no attention at all to us or the cameras. We could have happily watched it for hours.
Our guide then arrived and we set off exploring in the forest. It wasn't long before Doug found a larva of a Red-striped Leafwing Siderone galanthis on Casearia aculeata. As they feed they leave distinctive tell-tale segments of dried leaf attached to the midrib and let their cryptic coloration do the rest. Isn't nature brilliant.
A few months previously I had come across a picture of a larva of Tiger Mimic Queen Lycorea halia taken on Hispaniola and emailed it to Doug with a note that he/we should look out for it when next in the right habitat. It was very distinctive with black and white bands along its length. Only a short distance from the S. galanthis larva Doug noticed some feeding damage on a Ficus leaf. On turning over the leaf he found a mid-instar larva with distinctive black and white bands - and knew straight away exactly what it it was although he had never seen one in the flesh before. Well done Doug.
Later in the walk we found several more larvae on a different Ficus species including a final instar and a couple of newly emerged first instar larvae just 3mm long. It was fascinating to note that the tiny larva had gone to the edge of the underside of the leaf and chewed through the veins in a semi-circle around where it was sitting. I'm not sure why it does this but I can think of two possible reasons. I suspect that the sap is rather sticky and possibly rather toxic so the liquid pools of sap surrounding it might provide a deterrent against ants. Or it might just be to stop the flow of toxic sap to the area of leaf on which the larva is going to feed. Other species are certainly known to do this and others do it because the sap would clog up its mouth-parts as it dries and prevent it feeding. And note also the two small black lumps on the second segment that grow into the long black tubercles as it develops.
In the next picture on the left you can see how even as the larva grows it continues the chew through the leaf veins to stop the flow of sap to where it is feeding.
Lycorea halia is said to also use Asclepias curassavica as a larval foodplant but we could find no eggs or larvae on this plant.
We followed the valley along to a beautiful open cave where we found both males and females of the rare and endemic damselfly Hypolestes trinitatis. In the poor light they were incredibly difficult to follow as they flew.
We saw some other great butterflies too - Pelaus Swallowtail Heraclides pelaus, Cornelius Skipper Euphyes cornelius, Mexican Sailor Dynamine postverta, Frosty Flasher Telegonus habana, Cuban Flasher Telegonus cassander and Corrupt Skipper Panoquina corrupta. Nothing more than just record shots of the last two though unfortunately!
Back at the hotel we found a Caribbean Ruby-eye Perichares philetes and a couple of moths trapped on the stairwell landings so released them.
Very sad to be missing the fantastic Bird Fair this year but we'll look forward to going again next year. Not only missing meeting up with old friends from around the world, talking to folk about swifts, going to some of the 180+ talks, drooling in the art tent and trying not to spend money in the camera and optics tents. And what a coup to get Carrie Symonds to talk on the opening day. I do hope she bends Boris's ear about the environment (amongst many other things). Great to see that she chatted with Chris Packham and others and even joined him in a Q&A session.
She said that she was a new-comer to bird-watching having visited Bempton Cliffs and seen the amazing puffins there. And then being alarmed to later read about the slaughter of puffins that occurs by "trophy hunters" in Iceland where they are allowed to shoot up 100 per shoot. And this at a time when there have been dramatic declines of puffins in the UK, Faeroes and Iceland. The mindless slaughter of the planet's wildlife by thoughtless idiots with guns has to stop.
How anyone could think that the mindless slaughter of such a beautiful and declining bird was a fun day out is beyond comprehension, especially when they are so tame and confiding.
And I wonder if Carrie will also be at the Birdfair today to hear Chris Packham's presentation. This for us is the real highlight of the whole event. The hour-long presentation to a marquee full to overflowing with 1,000 people by Chris and colleagues will I expect touch on the destruction of our UK uplands and its wildlife on driven grouse moors. But resistance is growing by the day. If you haven't already signed the petition you can do so here.
The illegal slaughter of our birds of prey by some gamekeepers involved in driven grouse moors and the wilful blindness to this by politicians both in Scotland and England is an utter disgrace. A Golden Eagle was photographed last week over a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland last week with an illegal trap clamped to its feet. It hasn't been seen since and will almost certainly be dead by now. This follows the finding of two illegal traps near a Hen Harrier nest on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. One contained a badly injured male Hen Harrier that was taken to a specialist veterinary surgeon for treatment but later had to be euthanaised. You can read more about these atrocities on the RPUK website.
And finally good luck to Greta Thunberg on day 3 of her voyage across the North Atlantic on a small yacht to address the UN at a conference in New York. I don't have such fond thoughts for Arron Banks who tweeted to her that "Freak yachting accidents do happen in August ..."!!!. Lovely chap Arron. I wonder what makes this charming man think for one moment that it is acceptable to dish out abuse like this to a 16-year old girl with Asbergers who is simply trying to save the planet. A formal complaint has been made to Twitter.
Yes that's the same Arron Banks that is according to the Guardian under criminal investigation for his part in the UK Brexit Leave campaign. And the same Arron Banks that is said by the Times to be under investigation in relation to his South Africa mines. And the same Arron Banks that is suing the Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr who took home the Technology Journalism and Investigation of the Year prize at the British Journalism Awards in 2018 for exposing the harvesting of millions of Facebook users’ data by the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica and the wider impact of technology misuse on democracy. And you can read more on Carole's Twitter here. He is also said to be not very happy about what is said about him in The Great Hack. His tactics towards anyone that says anything about him that he doesn't like and especially to Carole Cadwalladr reminded me of this clip from Chris Packham's speech at Hen Harrier Day 2019 at Carsington Water the other day where he relays a comment that his dad made to him while they were at a football match when he was a young lad and had just witnessed a brutal foul - They're playing the man because they can't beat the team. I do urge you to watch this. The similarities with the abuse that Chris Packham (who also has Asbergers) gets from some people in the shooting community is striking.
There were a few different moths in the moth trap this morning. The one on the bottom right of these four that looks like a Eublemma is one that we have seen before at Topes and I still haven't worked out what it is.
Today was really a travel day with stops on our way to Moa. But on the stops we saw some nice things. An obliging Southern Broken Dash Wallengrenia otho. several Gulf Fritillary Agraulis vanillae larvae including one of a remarkable colour form that even Doug had not seen before.
Nanus Skipperling Oarisma nanus are a tiny butterfly around 7mm long and very slim. They fly very low to the ground so are easy to miss. You will only find them in clearings in natural vegetation with fine grasses growing. I don't have a 100mm macro lens for my Canon camera, I'm going to have to get one because the quality of of my pictures could be so much better a lot of the time. So for close ups i use a small Panasonic Lumix TZ41 which with perseverance and the right conditions can produce some nice results and I was quite pleased with picture below, but I'd still like to see how it compares to a 100mm macro Canon.
The Hotel Pinares de Mayari has good facilities, good food, clean unheated pool and nice rooms in wooden cabins set in spacious grounds where you can run a moth trap - what more could you want? Well, a few more moths would have been nice but I was only using a wemlite bulb rather than an MV with a heavy choke.
We explored locally first of all looking for one of the newly described Calisto sharkeyae but although Doug had a brief look at one as well as a Calisto bruneri, all that I managed to see was the common Calisto herophile. So I spent a while photographing an obliging Cuban Bullfinch that kept coming back to to some bare branches in front of me till I realised that it was waiting for me to move away from the berry tree where it wanted to feed.
The large bright pink orchid Bletia purpurea was quite common. This is not endemic and is found in the US and Central America as well as other islands in the Caribbean. A beautiful hawk-moth or Sphinx larva was camouflaged on a bare stem. It seemed to have eaten most of the leaves already. We don't often come across phasmids here but I took a picture of this stick insect and have sent it to a world expert for his opinion. And I'm starting to get to grips with some of the odonata but some still coming across new ones
There were a nice selection of butterflies including this nice group of yellows mud-puddling.
We also saw Cuban Sicklewing Eantis papinianus, Caribbean Sailor Dynamine egaea, Orange-washed Sulphur Phoebis avellaneda, and in the open areas with sparse fine grasses were two Nanus Skipperling Oarisma nanus. We also saw De Villiers' Swallowtail Battus devilliers, Polydamas Swallowtail Battus polydamas and Gundlach's Swallowtail Parides gundlachianus down near the river. In this area there was an Aristolochia growing at the base of some of the pines but despite careful searching we couldn't find any eggs or larvae of the Parides.
A slight dampener was put on the afternoon when I discovered at lunch-time that I had lost my mobile phone out of my (normally zipped) pocket. We had covered quite a bit of ground during the morning in some rough terrain and thickets so the chances of finding it seemed pretty slim. Not wanting to waste good time in the field we didn't go back till the evening. I had a pretty good idea of where it might have happened and against all the odds I found it - happy days, must be more careful in future.
I have done some important updates to the website in the last couple of weeks. Firstly I have added quite a few additional reptile pictures here mainly as a result of some great contributions by Raimundo Lopez-Silvero and the expertise of Javier Torres Lopez for identifications. My thanks to them for their help. If readers have good quality photos, especially of species not yet featured, then I would be very pleased to use them here.
I am also adding quite a lot more photos of Odonata which you can see by going to Species > Other Wildlife > Odonata or clicking here. I still have lots more to add which I will do over the next couple of months, and I'm grateful to Juerg Carl Demarmels for his help in identification. And once again if you have pictures of species not yet shown, or better ones than are here already, then I would be pleased to use them here.
The number of species of butterflies that have been seen on Cuba has taken a sudden leap to 201 species, up from 196. The addition of five almost overnight is the result of some great research just published by Rayner Núñez and his colleagues into the Calisto group on the island using DNA barcoding amongst other criteria. The paper, published in Invertebrate Systematics, gives details of the five new species which are Calisto disjunctus, C. gundlachi, C. lastrai, C. sharkeyae and C. siguanensis though whether it is worth $40 just to read one research paper that has already been funded entirely by others including out of the public purse ie you and me is up to you to decide. The paper also contains some fascinating information on when and how the group evolved from its origins 12.15 million years ago to the present day and how those changes have been affected by the rise and fall in sea levels in the intervening period. So from what was just 20 years ago, thought to be just one or two species with a handful of subspecies, it has now been shown that there are sixteen full species on Cuba with undoubtedly more to be discovered.
There has also been another important piece of research just published by PNAS entitled Genomes of skipper butterflies reveal extensive convergence of wing patterns which you can read here. For centuries man has used just the observable characteristics (phenotypes) to infer evolution and therefore to classify species and groups of species. It was always assumed that species with the same or similar phenotypes would be closely related but this research shows that species that are only distantly related display convergence in wing patterns that fooled researchers for decades. This paper takes a sample of the skipper Sub-Family Eudaminae and examines using genome analysis whether that was correct. I thoroughly recommend that you read the full paper which you can do for free.
In a nutshell this has resulted in a reclassification of the Eudaminae and so several species that were previously thought to be closely related have now been placed in different genera, and vice versa. I have now updated the Cuba species list and you can download it here.
I am grateful also to Yosiel Álvarez Quesada for bringing another paper to my attention. Wahlberg et al (2009) Proc. R. Soc. B (2009) 276, 4295–4302 Nymphalid butterflies diversify following near demise at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary revised the taxonomy of the Nymphalidae and so that is now taken account of in the revised checklist above. It is freely available on the internet just as all research should be rather than hidden behind paywalls, the model for which was dreamt up by that well-known philanthropist Robert Maxwell who fraudulently misappropriated hundreds of millions of pounds from the Mirror Group pension fund. His family are still in the news today I see!
Today is the start of a one week trip to Pinares and the east. Jose picked us up early and we then went to Holguin to collect Doug before setting off towards Mayari and then on to Pinares through the Parque Nacional la Mensura. We made various stops and picked up some nice things on the way including Barred Yellow Eurema daira, Baracoa Skipper Polites baracoa, Whitish Yellow Pyrisitia messalina, Limenia Hairstreak Strymon limenia and larvae of Lime Swallowtail Papilio demoleus and Cloudless Sulphur Phoebis sennae.
Driving on south from Mayari we stopped at the restaurant above the waterfall for a nice soup and chicken lunch. There was a tame Louisiana Waterthrush feeding around the tables. This is the species that feeds near upland streams rather than Northern Waterthrush that prefers mangroves near the coast. We then spent a while looking for larvae around the restaurant garden with some success Three-spotted Skipper Cymaenes tripunctus, Caribbean Faceted Skipper Synapte malitiosa, Caribbean Skipper Pyrrhocalles antiqua and Caribbean Ruby-eye Perichares philetes.
We then took a nice walk down through the forest with our guide Carlos who showed us some beautiful orchids near the waterfall itself. Both are endemic and found only at this eastern end of Cuba. Bletia antillana is the more showy with bright pink flowers but the most interesting for me was the tiny Lepanthes fulva growing on a small rock which appeared to just covered with small leaves. Only when we looked closer did we see the orchid's tiny flowers only about 2mm across! The orchid has a raceme of flowers originating at the base of the leaf and sometimes has two or three flowers in bloom at once but here there is only one.
As we were getting in the car to leave I heard swifts calling and a quick dash to get a better view gave me a gave me a clear but all too brief sighting of a small party of White-collared Swifts as they flew down the valley. They are only found in the mountain forests where they are said to breed on cliffs near waterfalls and in hollow royal palms. We have seen them a couple of times before but this was the best view to date.
We arrived at Hotel Pinares de Mayari in time for Lynn to have a swim in the nice pool and for me to set up the moth trap.
An obliging Green Heron was the best this morning on a brief visit to the lagoon before breakfast.
And a walk around the Las Guanas nature reserve adjacent to the hotel was quite quiet today with not many butterflies or birds, but we always find something of interest. We always see Anolis lucius Slender Cliff Anole here and they are often quite approachable. And we noticed a sloughed snake skin up on the coral limestone overhang where a snake had used the rough surface to shed it skin as it grew. It was about a metre long but I don't know what species it was.
Beach bean Canavalia rosea, also called coastal jack-bean, is a common plant around the coasts with its pink pea flowers and long stems trailing over the rocks and vegetation, and with large fleshy round leaves. There were two Braco Skipper Burca braco nectaring on its pink flowers and also five Miami Blue Cyclargus thomasi. We watched as the latter even laid an egg on the flower bud of the peas which is a first as we have only seen them lay on Stigmaphyllon before. There were some of these yellow flowers growing nearby and they too had eggs of Miami Blue. A week later I was keen that we came back to see how these eggs were faring but when we did it had been so hot during the week that the Stigmaphyllon had all dried up and there was no sign of the larva on the pea.
The attractive trailing Passiflora cuprea was quite common here.
While I was photographing the Passiflora an anole ran across that I didn't recognise at all. Annoyingly I didn't manage to get a picture as it was certainly something we hadn't seen before. There were some that we did recognise including this Cuban Whiptail Pholidoscelis auberi.
Karlos had mentioned to us the other day that he had recently seen Hooded Warbler at Playa Pesquero so we were keen to go and try to see them as the area can also be good for butterflies. Here in England the area is what we would call a brownfield site where old buildings had been demolished and since colonised by wild flowers and one or two trees. And all this next to the mangroves and forest scrub which was full of birds. We stopped to look on the flowers to see what butterflies there were and were amazed to find lots of hairstreaks - over twenty of five different species all within just a few metres of each other! There were Fulvous Hairstreak Electrostrymon angelia, Bartram's Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon acis, Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon istapa, Limenia Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon limenia and Martial Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon martialis.
Two merlins were hunting the area by sitting in some tall pines and making forays after dragonflies and birds. There were at least three Hooded Warbler in the area but were hard to see and I only managed glimpses but there were other nice things too including Western Spindalis, Cuban Oriole, Ovenbird, Parula and Oriente Warblers, Cuban Vireo and Cuban Pygmy-owl.
Along the forest edge there were some Nickerbean plants growing and the fruits were attracting several Chestnut Leafwing Memphis echemus and Florida Purplewing Eunica tatila.
Pale Cracker Hamadryas amphichloe normally settle on tree trunks but do occasionally settle on foliage.
Karlos and I then went to another area to look for Cuban Nightjar but failed to find it on this occasion but we did find two nice dragonflies. One is a Red-mantled Saddlebags Tramea onusta but I'm not sure about the other yet.
Lynn had spent the day at the hotel and when I got back told me about the large snake, a Cuban Racer Cubophis cantherigerus by the Mares pool balcony - disappointed to have missed it.
The Merlin has three subspecies in N America. Two are largely sedentary while the third, the Taiga Merlin Falco columbarius columbarius, migrates from Canada and northern US east of the Rocky Mountains except the Great Plains, is migratory and winters in S North America, Central America, the Caribbean and N South America as far as the foothills of the Andes. In Cuba it is said to be an uncommon winter resident and transient though we have seen them regularly in the Guardalavaca area in winter especially at the Luna y Mares hotel. We have also heard of a group of more than ten birds being seen in this area in the early spring presumably on their way back north.
At dusk tonight two Merlin put on a fantastic display for 20 minutes chasing after the bats as they came out of their roosts in the eaves of the theatre building. And we saw one of them catch a bat for the first time. It was interesting that their strategy was completely different to that of the bird that we have have watched here for the previous three winters. That bird was a wily adult that had worked out that the bats were much easier to catch just as they came out of the roost because they were traveling at a much slower speed, so it would do small circuits around the entrance until this coincided with a bat exiting and it was job done. I presume that it was the same returning bird that we saw each year and would usually see it catch two or sometimes three bats each evening.
This year an American Kestrel had adopted exactly the same strategy, perhaps from watching the merlin do it last winter, and would just sit on an adjacent roof watching until the bats were streaming out and then it would usually take no more than two or three circuits to catch its supper - thirty seconds at most. The two Merlin this year are I suspect inexperienced first year birds. They were only attacking the bats right out in the open when they were at full speed and although Merlin are much faster, the bats seemed well aware of the threat and would deftly jinx out of the way at the last moment. There was some evidence of cooperative hunting between the two Merlin as occasionally we would see an attack by one bird closely followed by an attack by the other and tonight this was successful. The bat loses a lot of speed as it jinxes and was picked off by the second bird. Lynn and I both agreed that watching the Merlins each evening was one of the real highlights of the holiday and would have been worth it even if we had seen nothing else. The display was always spectacular with the birds sometimes coming so close that you could hear and feel the rush of their wings as they came past - absolutely breath-taking! Nothing in nature is guaranteed but if you stay at the Luna y Mares during the winter do go and check them out.
And my grateful thanks to Graham Catley for letting me use his superb image of a Taiga Merlin below.
We didn't stray far from the hotel today and again I spent a bit of time at the balcony near the Mares pool. Again it turned up trumps with another rarity Cuban Hairstreak Allosmaitia coelebs. And this was on top of the Cuban Longtail Chioides marmorosa which I saw here yesterday but forgot to mention as I hadn't got a photo. Today was different though. I was interested to see that like several of the hairstreaks and blues they have not only fake antennae at the rear but also fake eyes formed by the tornus of the hindwing turning out. The colour of these on Bartram's Scrub-Hairstreak Strymon acis is bright red but on A. coelebs is blue. Butterflies can see well to the front and sides but from directly behind is their weakness so having a pair of 'eye's that move from side to side when the hindwings are alternately moved up and down is their strategy to deter attack from the rear.
There was a fruiting tree just outside our room at the Luna y Mares hotel that was attracting lots of birds to feed both in the branches and on the ground below. There were Cuban Green Woodpeckers, Cuban Orioles and Cuban and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds up in the branches as well as Black-throated Blue, Palm and Cape May Warblers on the ground. I spent twenty minutes just sitting on the ground and waited for the birds to come to me. And there was also Gray Catbird and Northern Waterthrush close by too neither of which I had seen in the gardens before.
Our last visit to the Luna y Mares had been marred slightly by the number of cats in the grounds and in the restaurants scrounging food. We had made strong representation to the staff (as did others) that we would seriously consider not coming here again if they didn't do something about them. It's good to know that they listened to common sense and while we did see just two while we were there they were keeping a very low profile! As a result it was great to see the Grackles, Blackbirds and sparrows back at the outdoor restaurants and that the number of anoles had increased too.
We took a taxi back to the area near the Taino Indian village and saw lots of butterflies including three Silver Emperor Doxocopa laure, Lime Swallowtail Papilio demoleus, Orange-barred Sulphur Phoebis philea, Mimosa Yellow Pyrisitia nise and a Potrillo Skipper Cabares potrillo.
Welcome to our Blog
Here we will post interesting news about what we and others have seen in Cuba.