Cuba’s Zapata Swamp

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

As a young birder 25 years ago, I read an article about Cuba’s famous Zapata Swamp, the largest wilderness area in the Caribbean.  This landscape, similar to Florida’s Everglades, has extensive mangrove-ringed coast, tropical forest, saw-grass savannah and scattered palm hammocks, and some very endangered wildlife.  The swamp is the last refuge of the Cuban Crocodile, is a breeding site for almost all of Cuba’s endemic birds, and is the winter home for many familiar migrant birds who summer in our area.  Three bird species live in this wilderness and nowhere else in the world…the Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, and Zapata Rail.  I dreamt of going to this swamp someday…

The Zapata Swamp resembles the Florida Everglades and is the largest protected wilderness in the Caribbean at over 6,000 square kilometers. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

My long-ago dream became reality on the recent Delaware Nature Society Cuba Bird Survey trip.  Most of Cuba’s endemic species can be found in this huge area, as well as vast numbers of wintering neo-tropical migrant birds.  Our job was to visit several areas in this International Biosphere Reserve/National Park and survey for all of the species we could find.  We spent time in tropical forest, saw-grass/cattail wetland, and mangrove swamp.  A priority was to attempt to find the Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow.  The wren is found nowhere else on earth and the sparrow is only found in a few other locations in Cuba.  A third bird, the Zapata Rail, is virtually unknown to science and lives in remote corners of the swamp.  Even Orlando H. Garrido, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba has not seen this bird, despite over 50 attempts to locate it.  We did not attempt to find this bird.  If you are a gambler, the odds on finding the wren are about 5 to 1 and the sparrow about 3 to 1.  I should have bet one of my Cuban Convertible Pesos on the wren!  The Zapata Sparrow eluded our attempts to see it.

Finally, our bird survey group caught a glimpse of a Zapata Wren, which is an endangered species. Here we are in its habitat. This bird, which looks like an over-sized House Wren, stays low in dense marsh grass and is very difficult to see. Its entire population lives in the Zapata Swamp. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Another area we surveyed was a part of the reserve near the village of Bermajas.  The goal here was to find another endangered species, the Blue-headed Quail-dove.  Again, this is a shy bird like the Zapata Wren.  Seeing a small group of them required a stake-out of about an hour in the thick, mosquito-heavy tropical forest.  Finally, a group of three walked out of the forest onto the path in front of us.  They departed as quickly as they appeared.  After seeing these very rare and beautiful birds, we were free to speak at a volume more than a whisper and slap mosquitoes with vigor.

After finding the Blue-headed Quail-dove, our guides knew which dead tree to inspect to find a Bare-legged Owl, another Cuban endemic species. Photo by Joe Sebastiani
One of the most exciting finds of the trip was a Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. At 2.5 inches, this endemic Cuban bird was a "must see" for our group. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

I think that our favorite part of the Zapata Swamp was the area near La Salina.  After traveling for miles on a dirt road through tropical forest, we came into seemingly endless mangrove swamp with open stretches of shallow water.  The birding got really exciting here, as we saw multitudes of familiar herons and egret plus rare Reddish Egrets, pink Roseate Spoonbills, and about 400 American Flamingo!

The area near La Salina in the Zapata Swamp was incredible for wading birds such as these American Flamingo. Photo by Joe Sebastiani
The Cuban Black-hawk, otherwise known as the "crab hawk" lives in coastal areas of Cuba and feeds on...you guessed it...crabs! It is considered "near threatened" and we saw several of them in the mangrove forests. Photo by Rachel Cameron
The Director of the Zapata National Park (left) and Giraldo Alayon (our naturalist guide for the trip) scan the area for birds in the park. Photo by Marilyn Henry

The natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and shear size of the Zapata Swamp is unequaled in the Caribbean.  Similar to the Florida Everglades, this exciting wilderness is a dream to visit for a naturalist and birder.  Our group of 11 visitors from the Delaware Nature Society could have spent many more days here exploring, learning, and birding.  Unfortunately, we had to leave to survey birds in another part of Cuba.  Fortunately, more of Cuba’s incredible natural areas awaited, and more bird discoveries were headed our way.

More on the two-week Delaware Nature Society trip to Cuba is on the way in future posts.  Stay tuned!

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