VIDEO: Birding in Cuba with Whitehawk

We can’t seem to get enough of Cuba these days. Our birding tours in this vibrant country always amaze us in so many ways. Cuba is a destination for everyone – with stunning scenery, incredible bird life, endemics galore, cultural integrity and delicious food, to say the least. In Cuba, there seem to be surprises to our delight around every corner. Check out our new video featuring birding in this amazing Caribbean destination!

As you can see, not only is Cuba a top destination for birders, but is an excellent place for wildlife photographers. There are fantastic photographic opportunities throughout the entire tour – for birds and wildlife, and also beautiful scenery, both in the city and in Cuba’s diverse natural habitats.

Looking for more information about Cuba? Check out the following links:

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba for Birders
Birding Cuba: Culture, Community and Conservation

Cuban Pygmy-Owl Whitehawk Birding
Cuban Pygmy-Owl, one of Cuba’s 24 viable endemics

Our next trip to Cuba is set for January 30 to February 9, 2020. Join us for the ultimate Cuba birding experience! Contact us for more details.

~ Your friends at Whitehawk Birding

Birding Cuba: Community, Culture and Conservation

The endemic Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, found only in Cuba

With nearly 400 bird species (25 of which are endemic, according to the Clements Checklist ), a welcoming culture, good food, and year-round warm temperatures, Cuba is one of our favorite destinations. We are offering our next tour to this tropical island in January 2020.

The Birding: Endemics Galore

Islands in general are hotspots for endemic species, and Cuba is no exception. The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba has a great diversity of habitats, some like no other on Earth, and has supported endemism and is home to 25 endemic species. There are even endemic extinct species (Cuban Macaw), and another which is critically endangered (Zapata Rail). It also supports a number of endemic subspecies and regional endemics as well. Not only are Cuba’s viable endemics attractive but they are among some of the most notable birds in the world. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird on Earth, and it is only found in Cuba! Likewise, the Zapata Wren from Cuba’s Zapata swamp is known to have one of the smallest global ranges in the world. While some species are rare, such as the Gundlach’s Hawk and Cuban Solitaire, other colorful endemics are easy to come across – Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s National bird), Cuban Tody, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Parakeet. In fact, we have had great luck on all of our past trips (check out our past trip reports) to Cuba to see all of the viable Cuban endemic birds.

The stunning Blue-headed Quail-Dove is always a highlight of our tours

Culture and Conservation: A Community Connection

But there’s more to Cuba than just the birding. Cuba is long-known as a cultural destination, where Old Havana’s lively atmosphere and great food attract people from all over the world as a unique travel destination. While Cuba’s political history has had a large impact over the years on the country’s economic and travel situation, Cubans still remain as welcoming and friendly as ever.

Getting out to explore the island and its different environments, we come across mogotes, bays, marshes, dry forest, beaches and more. Being an island, all of these habitats are sensitive to disturbance. By visiting and placing direct funds in the country through ecotourism, we are supporting the conservation of these habitats and species that live there.

And there’s so much more to love about Cuba – check out our Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba for Birders list!

Cuban scientist, author and wildlife illustrator Nils Navarro talking with our group

Cuba Travel Update – Yes, US Citizens can go there!

Though travel regulations have changed for US Citizens hoping to visit Cuba, it is still legal to travel there. For our tour, we will be traveling under the OFAC designated category of “support for the Cuban people.” Under this category travelers must engage in meaningful activities that support locals. During our tours, we always stay in “casas particulares” – Cuban-owned private homes, and we eat in locally owned restaurants. Additionally, we are accompanied 100% of the time by our amazing local guide, Maikel, and work with other local guides in specific areas. As part of our “Bins for Locals” program clients have the option of donating used binoculars to local guides and biologists who are unable to obtain some otherwise. We also make a visit to a local school to donate books (in Spanish) and other supplies (we encourage our clients to bring along any materials to donate)! The information we collect on bird sightings throughout the country will be uploaded to eBird and will help further knowledge about the local avifauna and, in the long term, population trends and other important information for conservation. Finally, at the end of the tour, we will provide you with a document that includes our itinerary activities and names of the casas particulares and restaurants where we visited during the tour. 

Come escape the cold US winters with us. Join us on our next Endemic Birds of Cuba tour, January 30 to February 9, 2020.

Top 10 Birds to See in Panama

Panama, as you probably know from us by now, is a birding paradise. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to make our home, and this small Central American country thrives with its incredible natural assets. Over 1000 species of birds have been recorded here, owing to Panama’s varied habitats, elevational reaches, tropical climate and geographic position as an important migratory flyway for shorebirds, raptors and songbirds.

While it is extremely hard to choose a top 10 birds among over 1000 species found in Panama, we thought we would take a stab at the task! We feel that these top 10 are some of Panama’s most sought-after, beautiful and unique bird species. Perhaps after reading about them, you may be enticed to book a trip and come see them for yourself!

In no special order, here are what we consider Panama’s top 10 birds:

Harpy Eagle

Ok, perhaps we are biased here as our entire team has worked with Harpy Eagles in Panama for some time, but we are enamored by our National Bird. The Harpy Eagle is not only one of the most powerful birds on Earth, but is graced with such incredible beauty, delicately entwined with formidable features causing our hearts to skip a beat every time we see one. Harpy Eagles are considered rare, even endangered in some places, throughout its range. Here in Panama, the vast, highly biodiverse region of Darien in eastern panama is where Harpy Eagles roam. While sightings are never guaranteed, known nest sites in Darien give us good chances to see adults and juveniles in the wild year-round, since their breeding cycles last at least 2 years. Ask us about Harpy Eagles!

Harpy Eagle Panama
Harpy Eagle, Panama’s national bird

Resplendent Quetzal

Dubbed with the title of being “the most beautiful bird on Earth,” the Resplendent Quetzal surely lives up to its name, and it’s no surprise that it makes our top 10 birds to see in Panama list. The male’s emerald-green, shimmery feathers, contrasting bright red belly, fanned crest and its most adorning feature – long, wispy feathers that trail from its lower back long past the tip of its tail – attract even the most casual passerby. This bird is truly resplendent! The Resplendent Quetzal is found in Panama’s Chiriqui highlands, where it lives in the tranquil cloud forests, feeds on little avocado fruits and nests in cavities – hard to believe it can contain its tail inside a hole in a tree (it usually sticks out of the opening!). The best time of year to see the Resplendent Quetzal in Panama is during their breeding season from January through April, conveniently coinciding with Panama’s dry season. Book a trip to see Resplendent Quetzals in Panama!

Resplendent Quetzal
The Resplendent Quetzal resides in the highland cloud forests of Chiriqui, western Panama

Ocellated Antbird

For any birder exploring the American tropics, antbirds are always on the top of the list for birds to see. While Panama has over 30 species of antbirds and their relatives to dazzle our sights over, there is one species that truly stands out of the crowd: the Ocellated Antbird. Its (relatively) large size, shaggy hairdo, bright blue facial skin, and ornately scalloped pattern all over its body makes this antbird a most-wanted bird to find in Panama. But there’s a trick to finding them – in order to find an Ocellated Antbird, look for swarming army ants in Panama’s lowland rainforests. Ocellated Antbirds are “professional” army ant followers and are rarely found away from a swarm. A big ant swarm may have up to half a dozen Ocellated Antbirds attending it, and they dominate over all other antbird species at the swarm. Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park is an excellent place to find Ocellated Antbirds!

Ocellated Antbird Panama
Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Searching for ground-cuckoos brings us to a whole other level of birding in the Neotropics, that relies very much on luck and good birding karma! The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, although widespread, is the “holy grail” bird to find in Panama. Never common and hard to predict, this roadrunner of the tropical rainforests attends large army ant swarms in central and eastern Panama. Like the Ocellated Antbird, it stays on or close to the ground, and eats up larger animals (small lizards, large arthropods) that army ants disturb while swarming. Ground-cuckoos are indeed cuckoos, but on the contrary to typical cuckoo behavior, they build their own nests and raise their own young, rather than parasitizing other bird nests. There is always the possibility to see one on our Panama tours, and if lucky enough to find one, you deserve a celebratory drink at the end of the day for adding this spectacular bird to your list!

A true “holy grail” bird, the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo can be seen with luck at army ant swarms

Black-crowned Antpitta

Antpitta-like in many aspects, the Black-crowned Antpitta is actually a rather remarkable member of the gnateater family, Conopophagidae. It fits the standard, antpitta “eggs with legs” appearance, and its two subspecies are both decorated with rich dark plumage and striking scalloping on their breast. Black-crowned Antpittas are only found in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, making them a key target species in this area of the Neotropics. They are best detected by their distinct songs and sharp chucking alarm calls. We can find Black-crowned Antpittas in the foothills of western and central Panama, and into the lowlands of Darién. 

The Black-crowned Antpitta lurks in the dark forest understory of Panama’s lowlands and foothills

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker

Unlike some other countries in tropical America, Panama is not known as being a hotspot for national endemics (regional endemics YES). We have a small number of endemic species, less than 10, and due to range extensions and more exploration into remote areas, some of our previously endemic species are being found in our neighbor nations. But that’s ok! Birds don’t have boundaries. The Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker is one of our national endemics, found only here in Panama. This small, attractive woodpecker is found in the foothills of eastern Panama – Cerro Azul is a great place to seek out this bird.

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker
Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, one of Panama’s endemic species

Tody Motmot

The Tody Motmot is a denizen of the dark nooks of the foothills of Central America. This motmot represents its own genus Hylomanes, and definitely stands out from the crowd within the motmot family. It is smaller and lacks the racket tips on the tail and gets its name for its resemblance to the todies of the Caribbean. The foothills forests of El Valle de Anton, as well as further into Darién, are excellent places to find the Tody Motmot in Panama, and it is always most-loved bird on any of our trips where we are fortunate to see it. It is always a target on our full day trips to El Valle de Anton.

Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle
Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle

Spectacled Owl

Of all the amazing birds we find while birding in Panama, the widespread Spectacled Owl is most often voted “bird of the trip” and for good reason: those large eyes surrounded by white “spectacles” and that piercing glare we experience every time we see one is beyond memorable! It is one of our largest owls in Panama, and luckily, we know of a few reliable roosts in some of our most popular birding areas where established pairs raise their young every year. They are superb subjects for bird and wildlife photographers, often allowing fairly close approach.

Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama
Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama

Sapayoa

For decades, the Sapayoa has remained a true mystery to birders and bird taxonomists. While it is nothing remarkable in appearance, it’s the appeal of its odd evolutionary history, along with its rather small global range, that makes it one of the most wanted birds to find in Panama. While it resembles a flycatcher or a manakin, ornithologists and taxonomists have long pondered over its taxonomic placement, as its closest living relatives appear to be the Old World broadbills. It is now generally accepted to be placed in its own family, Sapayoidae. For birders seeking to see representatives from each family of birds, this is a number one target! Panama is perhaps one of the best places to see the Sapayoa – it can be found in the eastern foothills and lowlands, almost always near forest streams. Ask us about finding the Sapayoa in Panama!

Sapayoa Panama
Sapayoa, a truly unique and puzzling bird

Blue Cotinga

Last but definitely not least, the Blue Cotinga definitely merits a spot in our top 10 birds to see in Panama list – how could it not! The electric blue plumage of the male is like no other in central and eastern Panama, where it is fairly common in the treetops of the lowland rainforest. With that color it easily stands out from the crowd! Even the scalloped plumage of the dull brown female is attractive. Panama is the only place to find the Blue Cotinga in Central America, and its small range to extreme northwestern Ecuador makes it a special bird to find. Blue Cotingas are usually solitary or found in small groups and are best found by visiting fruiting trees that they frequent. Seeing a male always produces an awe-inspiring reaction!

The male Blue Cotinga is a spectacular bird

Ask us about finding these top 10 birds and other incredible avifauna in Panama. Whitehawk offers tours all over the country, targeting these species and others that draw us to our beautiful country. Book your trip with us now!

Our Newest Destination: BHUTAN

FIre-tailed Myzornis Bhutan
Bhutan is home to many colorful birds, such as this Fire-tailed Myzornis

Asia’s big up-and-coming birding destination is the land-locked country of Bhutan. Bhutan appeals to us for several reasons. The small country is home to over 600 species of birds, some of which are more easily found here than anywhere else in the world. This is the case of the striking and rare Rufous-necked Hornbill, Beautiful Nuthatch and near-endemic Bhutan Laughingthrush, as well as some fantastic pheasants, including Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal and Satyr Tragopan. Situated north of India and nestled in the shadows of the mighty Himalayas, Bhutan boasts a multitude of elevational ranges and thus great diversity of habitats, from tropical and sub-tropical forest, cloud forest, and up to high elevation passes. Bhutan is culturally beautiful – extravagant Buddhist temples, dzongs, monasteries draped with colorful prayer flags, intriguing relics and stunning architecture call to us, and are set in the most scenic of landscapes one could ever imagine.

Satyr Tragopan Bhutan
The Satyr Tragopan is one of the several beautiful pheasants we will look for during the tour

Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas

For these reasons and many more, we are excited to announce Whitehawk’s first birding tour to Bhutan. Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas is a 16-day, cross-country journey through this spectacular country. With our highly experienced local guides, we will visit the best areas for birding along the way, many still begging to be explored. This tour takes us through a wide range of elevations, maximizing the different species of birds we will find during the tour, from lowland tropical and subtropical forests to high elevation passes with mesmerizing views of the Himalayas. Cultural stops along the way will complement our days of birding, and there will no doubt be birds to see around the enchanting monasteries and monuments, bringing us the best of both worlds. Additional birds we will seek out during the tour include Ward’s Trogon, Himalayan Cutia, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Ibisbill, Long-tailed Minivet, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Hooded Pitta, and Crimson Sunbird, among many others.

TIger's Nest Monastery Bhutan
Tiger’s Nest Monastery, near Paro

A Glimpse at the Tour

This tour begins in Guwahati and finishes in Paro, with short connecting flights to and from the larger cities in India (Delhi and Calcutta). We traverse the rugged landscape, traveling in a comfortable van from southeast to western Bhutan. Each night we stay in local hotels and nature resorts, accredited by the Bhutan bureau of tourism. Our local guides, as well as our Whitehawk tour leaders, have a wealth of knowledge on the birdlife and wildlife of Bhutan; there will be opportunities to learn and see plenty of new species around every curve of the mountain. Our first Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas tour will run April 12-27, 2020. Please contact us for more information about this new and exciting tour!

Rufous-necked Hornbill Bhutan
Bhutan is one of the best places to find the rare Rufous-necked Hornbill

2019 Discover India: Birding & Tiger Safari Trip Report Online!

One of 12 individual tigers we were lucky to see during our 2019 tour in India

Well, our long-awaited tiger safari and birding tour came and went, leaving 7 people in complete awe of the spectacular wildlife we saw during the 2-week excursion into the wilds of India. We had great sightings of not one, not two, but rather TWELVE Bengal Tigers in the wild, observed their behaviors, studied their perfection as top predators and gained an even greater respect for the incredible animals that they are and their importance in their diminishing habitat.

As we ventured through the national parks and reserves of northern India, we were lucky to see plenty of other wildlife that was nothing short of marvelous. Like Africa, India is a fantastic place for large mammals in general, and during the tour we had great views of, among others, Dhole (Wild Dog), Jungle Cat, Leopard, Common Palm Civet, Indian Gazelle, Blackbuck, Northern Red Muntjac and Nilgai.

Jungle Owlet seen at Bandhavgarh National Park

Finally, the birding! The wide variety of habitats we visited during the tour were worthy of some world-class birding, with memorable sightings of Brown Fish-Owl, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Indian Courser, Sarus Crane, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Plum-headed Parakeet, Savanna Nightjar, Chestnut-breasted Bunting, Orange-headed Thrush,Crested Treeswift, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Jungle Owlet, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Indian Skimmer and so much more.

Orange-headed Thrush foraging on the ground in Tadoba National Park

Overall, we wrapped up our tour with 246 species of birds and 26 species of mammals. Without further ado, check out our Discover India: Birding & Tiger Safari trip report for the full account of our most memorable moments, tour highlights and a full list of the birds and mammals seen and enjoyed during the tour. We are already planning for our next Indian adventure, check back soon for dates for our future tours in this highly biodiverse country, or get in touch with us for more information.

A Leopard carrying away a fresh kill in Ranthanbore National Park, one of this tour’s many amazing moments

Ornitherapy in Panama: Birds, Beaches and Yoga

Whitehawk’s first ornitherapy tour is set in the tranquil forests and white sand beaches of Belize.  Now we are excited to introduce our second tour in this style, in our home-base country of Panama.

Imagine waking up to a spectacular view of Pacific dry forest from the front porch of your private cabin, just a five-minute walk away from the soothing waves of the Pacific Ocean. You hear the familiar “whoop” of the Whooping Motmot outside your cabin, the comical buzzy notes of the Lance-tailed Manakins lekking in the forest nearby, and a screech of a Yellow-headed Caracara flying above. Take a deep breath and fill your lungs with the fresh, salty air. The morning bird activity will no doubt attract your attention – take a moment to watch the movements of the motmot as it flicks its tail like a pendulum from side to side, waiting for the perfect moment to dart to the ground to snatch up an insect.

Yellow-headed Caracara Panama
Yellow-headed Caracara are abundant in central Panama

Connecting with birds

An ornitherapy tour is all about indulging in a connection with birds and nature. The first five nights of the tour are set in the dry forest of the Pacific lowlands. Our friends at Istmo Yoga and Adventure Retreat will graciously host us at their beautiful oasis just a couple hundred meters away from the sandy beach and warm Pacific waters. The birds of the Pacific lowlands and lower foothills of El Valle de Anton nearby will charm us with their charismatic behaviors and ease of observation. Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, Lance-tailed Manakins, Flame-rumped Tanagers, Crested Bobwhites, Collared Aracaris, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Tody Motmots, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, Gray-headed Chachalacas and so many more will inspire us.

The final two nights take us to the banks of the Panama Canal where over 500 species of birds have been recorded. Toucans, trogons, manakins, antbirds, cotingas – all will dazzle and stimulate our minds and souls. From the forest understory to the canopy above, we will celebrate Panama’s great bird life. We will also take in some of the local sights, including the famous Panama Canal.

Stand Up Paddleboarding Panama
Stand-up paddleboarding in the calm waters of the Pacific

Connection with yourself

This tour also gives us the opportunity to relax, reflect and perhaps try out something new! While at Istmo, join us for a daily Yoga class and/or meditation session. Or get out on the calm waters of the Pacific and try Stand-Up Paddleboarding through the calm mangroves. You may even see a Straight-billed Woodcreeper or Mangrove Cuckoo, two mangrove specialties, while on the board! At any time, feel free to pull out some pencils and give sketching a hummingbird a go, or spend a few minutes coloring a mandala for some sweet relaxation in nature. Share these moments with others in the group or keep them to yourself to enjoy. Let ornitherapy and birds help you find this great connection!

Meditation on the beach Panama
Meditation on the beach

Nature prescriptions and Ornitherapy

Birds and nature have the incredible ability to greatly aid a wide variety of conditions, or at least put our minds at ease and sooth us. So much so, GPs are starting to prescribe birdwatching and beach walks to people suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stress and mental illness. We recently came across this article and couldn’t help but see the connection to the benefits of our ornitherapy tours – it’s worth a read.

“There’s no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection”

For those looking for a birding and nature getaway that embraces relaxation, join us in December 2019 for Whitehawk’s Panama Ornitherapy: Intro to Birding and Yoga. Perhaps this is a great way to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, and truly enjoy a gift of nature. Contact us for more information and to reserve your spot now!

Ornitherapy: Birding for the Soul

Looking back to some of our blog posts from 2013, this one caught our attention and is worth reposting. What is ornitherapy? How can birds help us to mentally, emotionally and physically thrive in today’s busy society? Read on and be inspired:

I recently came across a print ad by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showing beautiful snow-capped mountains against an orange sky and a foreground of wetlands filled with what look like hundreds of snow geese resting on the water.  The ad reads, “There is no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection.”

Butterfly Falls, Mountain Pine Ridge Belize
Butterfly Falls, tucked away in the Mountain Pine Ridge, is a beautiful oasis

Connecting with birds

I have been thinking a lot lately about that ad; about what it really means to be “connected” and what things in this life are truly worth “connecting” to. On the surface, we, as a society tend to form fleeting connections that do little to feed us emotionally or nurture us physically. Even we birders are often so connected to our life lists that we sometimes forget about the birds themselves. How often have we seen a new species only to immediately check it off the list and move on to the next one, without taking the time to really marvel at the beauty of its feathers, or the grace of its flight?

When was the last time you immersed yourself, if only for a moment, in the secret lives of birds – watching them forage for food, preen, or simply perch quietly in the shade? Do we truly “connect” with the species we are watching? Even when we learn their calls it is usually for purposes of identification, and not to enjoy the unique melodious music that deserves as much appreciation as a fine aria.

A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem in Costa Rica
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Connecting with ourselves

I can’t help but wonder… as a society, have we lost our connectedness, our mindfulness – our ability to be in present in each moment as it occurs and experience all the joy, beauty, sorrow or disappointment that moment brings? While Yoga and meditation strive to teach us how to do just that, those new to these practices might find them overwhelming and out of their realm or interest. But the truth is that neither Yoga nor meditation has to be done on a mat, sitting quietly in a room. In fact, our best moments of mindfulness are achieved off the mat.  One way to accomplish this is by immersing ourselves in nature. Yes, even while birding, we can achieve a feeling of peacefulness, tranquility, and joy.

Yoga in nature Belize
Yoga in the most serene rainforest setting, photo courtesy of Hidden Valley Inn

Whitehawk and Ornitherapy

We at Whitehawk want to offer our clients such an experience. Through our ornitherapy tours we practice birding in a mindful way – learning about the natural history of the species and spending time with each bird that we see. These tours also provide other optional mindful and relaxation activities such as gentle yoga  classes, both for beginners and for those who have been practicing for years. Our first ornitherapy tour brings us to the beautiful forests and colorful coral reefs of Belize. Our second ornitherapy tour will inspire us in Panama – stay tuned to our blog for more details coming very soon. Won’t you join us?

Top 10 Reasons to Love Vultures

Hooded Vulture, Rüppell’s Griffon, Eurasian Griffon and White-backed Vulture in Senegal

We admit it, we are big fans of vultures. And why not?! Long thought of as being dirty, ugly, garbage eaters, they are actually very beautiful birds and more importantly, play a major role in the environment. In the light of International Vulture Awareness Day 2018 which took place on September 1, we thought we would compile our list of the top 10 reasons to love vultures.

1. Bald heads

Of course, a bald bird is not the most appealing at first and may render the image of vultures as being ugly, but vultures are bald for at least two good reasons. Vultures are carrion eaters and in order to get into the good parts of a carcass, they need to get their heads deep in there! If they had feathers all over their heads, it would be very difficult to clean off (imagine plunging your head into a bowl of spaghetti and then imagine the cleanup afterwards – ugh!). But, with a bald head, all the vulture needs to do is splash around in a puddle, wait for it to rain or just let the sun dry it off and they have a nice clean head. Love it! But that’s not the whole story. New research suggests that vultures are bald because of the weather – being bald helps them stay cool in hot temperatures and by tucking their necks and heads in, they can stay a bit warmer in cold temperatures.

Having a bald head, like on this Black Vulture, helps it to stay clean and cool

2. Nature’s clean-up crew

Vultures are scavengers and feed primarily on carrion – dead animals. They are not well-equipped to kill prey and require their food to be dead or mostly dead. They play a major role in the environment by cleaning up roadsides, fields and the forest floor of dead animals. By doing this, they help  stop the spread of diseases. The stomach acids of a Turkey Vulture are so strong they can kill rabies, anthrax and other serious mammalian diseases. Nature’s most efficient clean-up crew!

3. More than just carrion-eaters

Did you know that some vultures specialize in eating some rather unique things? The Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture of Europe, Africa and Asia is one of these specialists – up to 90% of its diet consists of bone marrow. It carries bones to great heights over rocky hillsides and drops them to break them open and access the marrow inside. The Palm-Nut Vulture of Africa specializes in eating the fruit husks of oil palms and the palm-fruits of Raphia Palms. It also eats a wide variety of live animals, including crabs and mollusks, fish and turtle eggs and hatchlings. A number of vulture species are known to eat vegetable matter, and even some that will consume animal feces! See the Lammergeier in action on our India: In Search of the Snow Leopard tour.

Lammergeier
The Lammergeier specializes in eating bone marrow.

4. Sense of smell

The well-known Turkey Vulture, along with its close cousins the Greater Yellow-headed and Lesser Yellow-headed vultures of the Americas, are among only a few species of birds that has a highly-developed sense of smell. Their olfactory abilities are so good that they can find rotting meat on the forest floor covered in leaf litter from soaring above the canopy. Most vultures lack a sense of smell and, instead, use their keen eyesight to find food. Intelligent birds that they are, other species like Black and King Vultures will follow these keen-nosed vultures to where the food is. The Turkey Vulture has been used to locate leaks in natural gas lines – gas companies inject a chemical that smells like decaying flesh, and where there are leaks, Turkey Vultures will be found congregating in the area!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
The large, open nostrils of this Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and its close cousins help it to smell its food

5. They’re beautiful

Despite first impressions of vultures and their unique habits, they are beautiful birds. Nobody can deny that they are incredibly graceful in flight, gliding for hours on outstretched wings. Some species, like the King Vulture and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture of tropical America, are beautifully adorned with bright colors on their bare heads. And several species have pure-white plumage that shines in the sun when they soar overhead. Get up close with King Vultures in the Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize. How could you not love these beautiful birds?

A King Vulture spreads its wings, showing off its beautiful plumage and brightly colored head

6. Long-distance travelers

Some species of vultures are migratory. They make long journeys each year from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds where food is abundant. Turkey Vultures are well-known migrants; they fill the skies each spring and fall over North and Central America, in groups called kettles, sometimes numbering up to 10,000 individuals! Vultures migrate using thermals as a means of conserving energy; they can soar for hours this way without barely a flap of the wings. Turkey Vultures migrate from Canada well into South America, and they do so in record time, covering up to 200 miles per day! Panama is one of the best migratory hot spots for Turkey Vultures—over 1.5 million Turkey Vultures pass over the isthmus each fall. Ask us about experiencing the fantastic raptor migration of Panama.

Even non-migratory vultures can be long-distance travelers on a daily basis, soaring over 100 miles in a day in search of food. Their broad wings designed for soaring help them do this effortlessly, and they can move at speeds up to 60 miles per hour!

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture in flight

7. Find them almost everywhere

Another reason to love vultures:  they are a cosmopolitan group of birds. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Seven species can be found in the Americas from Canada down to Tierra del Fuego. There are 16 species of Old World vultures that soar the skies of Europe, Africa and Asia. Vultures are found in a wide variety of habitats, from tropical rainforest to high Andean plateaus, African savanna to the staggering rocky cliffs of the Himalayas. Wherever you may find yourself in your travels, there are likely vultures to be found. Ask us about seeing vultures on our Whitehawk tours.

8. Stars of ancient mythology

Vultures are a prominent feature in ancient mythology all over the world. They are revered as consumers of death and bringers of rebirth. They are present in Greek legends: Egyptian Vultures were known as the “cuckoo’s horse” because when they arrived in the Spring they carried migrating cuckoos on their backs. The Egyptian Vulture is also well-known in Greek tradition as the “cheese maker” because it regularly forages near dairy farms and feeds on dairy product waste. Another legend states that the poet Aeschylus died because a Lammergeier dropped a bone on his head. The stories go on and on.

Vulture heads are abundant in ancient imagery from various cultures. Vulture bodies have long been used in folk medicine. The term “griffon” is used to describe lazy, uncouth and gluttonous people, referring to the Griffon vultures. Generally, vultures are connected with shepherds and pastoral life and are typically viewed positively due to their rebirth powers.

The Egyptian Vulture is a prominent bird in ancient Greek mythology

9. Record wingspans & heavyweight fliers

Vultures are among the largest flighted birds on Earth. The Andean Condor of South America is one of the heaviest flying birds. It weighs up to 33 lbs. and has an immense wingspan of over 10 feet – the largest wingspan of any raptor. This makes the Andean Condor the largest raptor on Earth. Of the Old World Vultures, the largest species is the Cinereous Vulture, just slightly smaller than its American cousin, at 31 lbs., with a similar wingspan. Lifting off the ground requires great force of their strong wings which are built for soaring and thus help conserve their energy. If you like seeing big birds, you’ll love vultures!

Andean Condor
The Andean Condor of South America is the largest raptor in the world

10. Bio-indicators

Vultures are excellent environmental indicators and alert us to changes in ecosystem health. Being a scavenger near the top of the food chain, vultures are subject to bioaccumulation of toxins, such as DDT and lead. Vultures and other raptors showed early indication of environmental contamination and sparked action to ban DDT in North America. When vultures in Asia began to decline significantly in the early 2000s, it brought about attention that something was happening in the environment. A veterinary drug was being used to treat injured livestock, and when the vultures ingested the meat after the animal died, the vultures suffered from kidney failure and also perished. The sad reality is that several species of vultures are now critically endangered in Asia, though this drug has been banned in some countries. Vultures are indicators of poaching activity since they travel long distances to find animal carcasses and congregate in large groups. Sadly, many vultures are targets of poisoning events by poachers trying to hide the evidence of their actions.

We love vultures!

We enjoy vultures whenever we see them – on our travels or in our own backyards. Vultures also need our help – several species are severely declining in numbers and are critically endangered. Next time you see a vulture, consider some of the reasons why they are so special and so important in our environment. Ask us about vultures on our tours. We love talking about them, and perhaps you will come to love vultures, too!

Top 10 mammals to see in India

India is a very colorful country and its biodiversity stands out as much as the textiles and dyes that highlight the streets and hillsides do. While India has over 1,250 species of birds to admire, some of the mammals of are unique and rare. Large cats, unusual bears, stealthy canids, huge bats, clever primates and impressive ungulates can all be found in this wonderfully biodiverse country. Here is our list of the top 10 mammals to see in India.

1. Bengal Tiger

The Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is the queen of the dry forests of India. Highly endangered, there are 6 extant subspecies of tiger (one of which only exists in captivity). The tiger is the largest cat in the world, and the Bengal Tiger is the second largest subspecies, next to the Siberian Tiger. The Bengal Tiger is also the most widespread of the tiger subspecies, with a spotty distribution throughout India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. This powerful cat preys on large mammals and birds, using its stealth to catch its prey. There is nothing quite like staring into the green eyes of a tiger. This is, without a doubt, on the very top of the list of mammals to see in India by most of the people. We invite you to experience it for yourself during our Discover India: Birding and Tiger Safari.

Top 10 mammals to see in India: Bengal Tiger at Ranthambore National Park - by Marta Curti
Bengal Tiger at Ranthambore National Park

2. Asiatic Lion

Lions are the well-known pride of Africa, but the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo leo) is much less known. Once spread throughout the Middle East and India, it is now restricted to only one state in northwestern India, specifically in the dry forests of Gir Forest National Park. Asiatic Lions are generally a little smaller than African Lions. They have a larger tail tuft and a less developed mane, and a distinct fold of skin along their belly. Endangered due to its tiny population, and numerous unsuccessful reintroduction attempts, the Asiatic Lion relies on the effective protection of its habitat where it currently lives. It is estimated that only around 500 Asiatic Lions exist in the wild. There is no better time to see this mighty cat. Ask us about our upcoming Asiatic Lion tour.

Asiatic Lion in India: Lioness in Gir Forest National Park - by Yeray Seminario
Lioness in Gir Forest National Park

3. Sloth Bear

Though not even closely related, the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) does share some characteristics with its Neotropical namesake. This medium-sized bear has a shaggy, black coat of thick fur and long, sickle-shaped claws for digging into nests of its favorite food, termites. It is generally slow moving, but like other bears, can run faster than humans if needed. It is the most widespread bear species in India, but due to habitat loss is considered vulnerable. Sloth Bears can be found doing well in the reserves that protect tigers, lions and other key species.

4. Sambar Deer

The Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor) is widespread across India and Southeast Asia. While India may be full of powerful predators, the Sambar Deer plays an important role as well. A favorite prey species for tigers and Asiatic lions, it is one of the largest species of deer, only rivaled in size by Elk and Moose. It is highly variable in appearance, and males sport large, 3-pronged antlers. Seeing Sambar Deer on our Discover India: Birding and Tiger Safari tour gives us hope that just maybe, a tiger or lion is stalking it in the distance.

Sambar Deer in India - by Yeray Seminario
Sambar Deer at Bandhavgarh

5. Southern Plains Gray Langur

India has its share of primates, and the Southern Plains Gray Langur (Semnopithecus dussumieri) is the most widespread langur species on the Subcontinent. They can be found foraging in groups in forested areas of southwest and west central India. They also make themselves at home in cities. These primates intrigue us with their expressive faces and gregarious nature, and are a favorite sighting on our India tours.

Southern Plains Gray Langur India
Southern Plains Gray Langur mother and child

6. Indian Flying Fox

The Indian Flying Fox (Pteropus giganteus) is one of the largest bats in the world. It weighs up to 3½ pounds and has a wingspan up to nearly 5 feet! It is best encountered at its daytime roosts, which could consist of thousands of individuals, usually in tall trees in urban areas. They groom, stretch, chatter and quarrel at their roosts. At night, they head out to feed on fruits and nectar in the nearby forests. Their diet changes depending on the season, and are known to also eat insects and leaves, flowers, seed pods and twigs. We look for Indian Flying Fox roosts on our India tours.

Indian Flying Fox
Indian Flying Fox is one of the world’s largest bats

7. Snow Leopard

Together with the Bengal Tiger, this is probably on the top of the list of mammals to see in India. One of the rarest cats in the world, seeing a Snow Leopard is a surreal moment. Roaming the rocky slopes of the Himalayas of northern India and Nepal, this dusty-colored cat blends in perfectly with its barren landscape. It hunts Bharal and other large mammals. Finding one requires great patience and a little bit of luck. But once you set eyes on this elusive feline, the world seems to pause for a moment. The global population is estimated at less than 10,000 individuals, so now is the time to see a Snow Leopard! Join us on our India: In search of the Snow Leopard tour.

Snow Leopard India
A beautiful male Snow Leopard we observed in Hozing Valley, Hemis National Park

8. Indian Jackal

The Indian Jackal (Canis aureus indicus) is a subspecies of the Golden Jackal, the only species of jackal found outside of Africa. Jackals are medium-sized canids; they are similar in appearance to wolves but smaller and slimmer. Adults grow up to a meter in length and nearly half a meter in height. They are social and live in family groups and are most often found around water courses in valleys, and along seashores. Indian Jackals are omnivorous and tolerate a wide variety of habitats. They are fairly easy to see on our India tours.

Indian Jackal India
Indian Jackal

9. Nilgai

Endemic to the Indian Subcontinent, the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) is the largest antelope in Asia. It stands up to a meter and a half at the shoulder and can be over 2 meters in length. Males can appear brownish-gray to bluish in color, giving it the name “Blue Bull.” Females are an orange-tawny color. Both male and female have a distinct white throat. Males sport a pair of short, un-ringed horns, unique among the bovids. Nilgai roam the grassy plains and scrubby forests of India, where their tall stature allows them to reach higher branches to browse leaves and vegetation.

Nilgai calf at Bandhavgarh National Park - By Yeray Seminario
Nilgai calf at Bandhavgarh National Park

10. Bharal

High in the Himalayan mountains of India and Nepal, Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) roam the rocky and grassy mountainsides. Also known as the Himalayan Blue Sheep, this is the favored prey of the Snow Leopard. Like the Sambar Deer, finding Bharal on our India: In search of the Snow Leopard tour means that an elusive cat may be lurking nearby.

Bharal Blue Sheep India
Bharal – one of the main food sources of the Snow Leopard

There are many more mammals to see in India!

Of course, there are many more amazing mammals to see in India – Leopard, Indian Elephant, Himalayan Wolf, Dhole, Red Panda, Rhesus Macaque, Muntjac, Indian Pangolin, Fishing Cat and much more. This is just a little teaser of some of the mammals we see on our India tours. Join us in India and relish the great biodiversity the Indian Subcontinent has to offer!

Top 10 reasons to visit Cuba for birders

Cuba is one of the most unique places in the Americas. It is the largest island in the Caribbean and has lots of natural habitat to support hundreds of species of birds including 28 endemics and 15 regional endemics. It also features a rich and thriving culture that seems to propel us back in time. There are many reasons to visit Cuba. Here is our list of the top 10, though not in any particular order, because all are worth boasting about!

1.  28 endemic species of birds

Islands in general are known for having endemic species but Cuba possibly tops it all with 28 endemic bird species, of which 26 are possible to find on our tour (as there haven’t been any confirmed records of the Zapata Rail for decades!). Also, a big handful of regional Caribbean endemics can be found too. Cuba’s endemics are incredibly unique; many species are placed in their own genera and even in their own families – Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s national bird), Oriente Warbler, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Tody, Blue-headed Quail-Dove and Cuban Solitaire, just to name a few. We have had great luck seeing all 26 viable endemics during our previous tours, including the one that can be the most difficult to find, Gundlach’s Hawk. Check out our 2018 trip report.

Cuban Trogon the Cuba's national bird
Cuban Trogon, Cuba’s National bird

2.  Zapata Swamp

Located on the Zapata peninsula 93 miles southeast of Havana, the Zapata Swamp is one of the key habitats to visit during any birding trip to Cuba. It is home to three key endemic species that bear its name, the Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow and the virtually flightless and critically endangered Zapata Rail (by some, presumably extinct). The Zapata Swamp itself is comprised of one million acres of lowland wetlands. It is part of the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in the year 2000, and is the largest protected area in all of the Caribbean.

The Zapata Wren is the most restricted endemic bird in Cuba
The Zapata Wren is the most restricted endemic bird in Cuba

3.  Old Havana

Founded in 1519, Old Havana is the old town city center of Havana. Full of fortresses, cathedrals and plazas, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not to be missed. Draped in baroque and neoclassical architecture everywhere you look, the old cobblestone streets are full of color and culture. Old cars add even more color to the landscape, and you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time. Take a stroll down the Malecón on the waterfront or visit the National Capitol; enjoy a concert or ballet in the Great Theater or go museum-hopping to experience Cuba’s art and history. There is much to see here!

4.  Cuban Food

Latin America has a tropical flare in just about all aspects, and food is a major part of that. Like other things in Cuba, the country has great Spanish, African and Caribbean influences when it comes to food. When visiting Cuba, get ready for delicious dishes of arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), ropa vieja (shredded pork), boliche (Cuban pot roast), black beans cooked to perfection, or indulge in a frita (Cuban hamburger – shoestring fries come on the burger!). Tropical fruits are abundant here – guava, plantain, papaya, pineapple, coconut – and are served fresh and are included in many recipes. Be sure to leave room for dessert – arroz con leche (Spanish rice pudding), coconut flan, tres leches cake, Cuban pastries and more!

5.  Casas particulares

There are hotels and resorts in Cuba, but to really immerse yourself in Cuban culture, a stay at a casa particular provides a truly rewarding experience. Casas particulares are houses run by local people that rent the rooms or houses where they live. It is a grand experience of family hospitality, a great opportunity to share stories and learn about the life experiences of local Cubans. It promotes tourism within community and has mutualistic rewards for both the home owner and visitor. We stay in casas particulares for most of our Endemic Birds of Cuba tour.

6.  Smallest bird in the world

Cuba is home to many unique species of birds, including the Bee Hummingbird. Weighing in at only 2.6 grams and a mere 6.1 cm long, it holds the record as the smallest living bird in the world! Both male and female show iridescent plumage, and the male is adorned with a brilliant gorget showing a rainbow of fiery reds and oranges fading to yellows and greens in the right light. It is found throughout the Cuban archipelago but can be best found at the mogotes and Zapata Swamp. The Bee Hummingbird is locally known as zunzuncito – an incredibly cute name for a hummingbird, we think!

Bee Hummingbird the smallest hummingbird in the world
Male Bee Hummingbird, the smallest hummingbird in the world

7.  So many flamingos

Cuba boasts one of the best spectacles of flamingo­­s in the world. American Flamingo (also known as the Caribbean Flamingo) is found here in great numbers, with an estimated 70,000 breeding adults. Cuba is home to the largest breeding colony of flamingos in the western hemisphere. These salmon-colored waders are always a highlight when we visit Cuba. We’ll look for them at Cayo Coco and in the Zapata Peninsula.

American Flamingos at Salinas de Brito, Zapata Peninsula
American Flamingos at Salinas de Brito, Zapata Peninsula

8.  The Mogotes

In the plains of the Viñales Valley, odd rounded mountains called mogotes pop out of the rural landscape. These vertical-walled hills are made of hard limestone left over after millennia of erosion. Cuban Trogon, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Gundlach’s Hawk, Yellow-headed Warbler and Cuban Bullfinch can be found in the area, among others.

Mogotes in Cuba, Valley of Viñales
Mogotes, in the Valley of Viñales

9.  Excellent Botanical Gardens

A natural gem in the heart of Havana is the National Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1968, the gardens feature collections of Cuban plants, orchids, succulents, palms, ferns, and other plants from all over the world. Knowledgeable guides share information about the ecosystems of Cuba and Cuba’s plant life. The botanical gardens are quite large, and there is much to explore. The variety of habitats here provides a great home for birds and other wildlife, and we kick off our Endemic Birds of Cuba tour here as Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Kestrel, Cuban Emerald, Antillean Palm-Swift and West Indian Woodpecker, among others, are common here. There are other beautiful botanical gardens to visit in other regions of Cuba as well.

10.  Meet leading Cuban Ornithologist

We feel one of the best parts of our Endemic Birds of Cuba tour,  in addition to indulging in the exquisite birding and culture during, is meeting Nils Navarro, Cuba’s leading ornithologist. Nils is the author of Endemic Birds of Cuba, a revolutionary field guide and the first of its kind focused on Cuba’s endemic birds. It was 10 years in the making. Nils is also an accomplished wildlife artist and did all the illustrations for the field guide. We’ll meet Nils in his studio in the Viñales Valley and delight as he shares his expertise and stories of birding in Cuba.

Nils Navarro talking with our group in Viñales
Nils Navarro talking with our group in Viñales

There you have it! Of course, we feel there are many more reasons to visit Cuba, especially if you are a birder or nature lover. Join us January 25 to February 4, 2019 for our popular Endemic Birds of Cuba tour and relish in all that Cuba has to offer!