Bird Photography in Cuba

In my last article I outlined some of the changing birding environment that we faced during our recent visit to Cuba. This article shares some bird photography in Cuba captured during our week long visit. All of the species identifications are my best guesses. Readers should feel free to provide correct information if I have misidentified any birds.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-1000

As I did my perimeter walks around the marsh area, I also made a point of going across the walkway several times each day. During these journeys on the walkway I specifically looked for birds in the branches and at the base of the trees near the water. Most of my searches came up empty handed but I was rewarded with a few usable images. These included the one above of a green heron, and the next three that follow… a common gallinule… a yellow warbler catching a caterpillar… and a tricoloured heron.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-2200
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-900
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 229 mm, efov 618.3 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-640

Compared to our last trip to this area in 2016, there were far fewer birds. The ones that we did see were far more skittish than in previous years, making it very difficult to approach them. I made sure to wear clothing that was fairly muted, without any bright coloured stripes or other markings that may alert the birds of my approach.

After watching the birds’ movements from a distance it became apparent to me that my best chance of success was to position myself so the birds would come to me. This was particularly important when attempting to photograph the killdeer that were in the area.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-450

These quick, small birds would scamper along the shoreline as they fed, pausing in small groups as they went. When I saw a small group of killdeer in the water or along the shore, I would try to position myself about 20 metres (~66 feet) downstream of their movement.  I would get my camera ready and stand or crouch motionless next to a small shrub as the birds approached.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-450

This tactic allowed me to get up quite close to the killdeer. In a number of instances I captured my images without the birds even realizing that they had walked right by me.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-640

This same approach of watching birds feeding, then positioning myself ahead of their direction of travel also worked for some tricoloured herons, a clapper rail and an egret as you can see in the following photographs.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-560
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-450
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 224 mm, efov 604.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-200

There were very few egrets in the area, and those that were around we extremely skittish. I was thrilled that I was able to get a number of photographs of the specimen above while it walked within 6 metres or so of me (~19 feet) without even noticing I was there. At the same time, I was also saddened that the local egret population was so greatly reduced,.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-3200

There were a few specific trees along the perimeter walkway that I noticed some birds would use as hiding spots. I had already changed my focus to concentrating on perched birds rather than birds-in-flight. Although not always successful, if I approached slowly and quietly I was able to get some decent images, including a smooth-billed ani (above) and a red-legged thrush (below).

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 229 mm, efov 618.3 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-400

While I was trying to capture a photograph of a bird in one of the trees, a northern mockingbird landed  on a dead tree branch about 4-5 metres away (~13 to 16 feet). My focus immediately shifted and I captured the image below before the mockingbird flew off.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-200

Opportunities to capture images of birds in flight were few and far between during our entire week in Cuba. In fact, I can’t remember a trip with so few airborne birds. I managed to get a half-decent image of a black-necked stilt in flight as you can see below.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 267 mm, efov 720.9 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1000, 20 fps

I had some success capturing a few images of tricoloured herons in flight with the photograph below being one of the better ones of the week.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 124 mm, efov 334.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-320, 20 fps

On our last afternoon I was chatting with a local Cuban photographer who told me there was a nesting hummingbird down by the beach. I spoke to some of the resort workers in the area who explained that they were self-designated ‘hummingbird protectors’. They were keeping tourists away from the nest as it contained two 5-day-old hummingbird chicks.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-3200

I spoke to the workers for a while. From about 3 metres (~10 feet) away I was able to get some photographs of the female on the nest between her forages for food for her chicks.

To my surprise the resort workers suggested that I photograph the hummingbird chicks. The tiny nest was well above my head. I had to reach up with one hand and gently hold the branch to which the nest was affixed. I made sure not to touch the nest or disturb the chicks. With my other hand I held my Olympus TG-5 over my head pointing downward to shoot blindly into the nest, hoping to get the chicks in the frame to some degree.

The last photograph in this article isn’t great… but hey… its the first time I’ve photographed hummingbirds chicks in their nest. No one can predict whether future opportunities like this will present themselves or not. I was happy to document this special moment in nature.

Olympus TG-5 @ 6 mm, efov 33.3 mm, f/2.3, 1/125, ISO-320

The changing birding environment in the marsh area we visited in Cuba was very challenging. It forced me to think about where I could still find birds to photograph and how changing tactics could improve my odds of capturing some usable images.

It also was a stark reminder about climate change. The number of species in the area and the total population of birds appeared to be dramatically reduced compared to 2016. Bird photography in Cuba, and in many other places around the globe, is under pressure from the damaging effects of climate change.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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2 thoughts on “Bird Photography in Cuba”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Lovely collection of bird images from your trip to Cuba! This, despite the somewhat dire effects of climate change. Finding the hummingbird’s nest is priceless indeed. Hopefully, the egret population (and the others as well) was diminished by migration not mass-die off.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

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