Travel

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Bird photography by Hank Davis, DNS Board Member

The last birds on the list were special highlights of the DNS trip to Cuba in February.  They were at the top of our list to see, and everyone was really excited to get great looks at these birds.  Let’s see the final birds…

#2 – Parrots and Parakeets

Cuban Parakeets are a rare sight in Cuba, the only place they live in the world.

Cuban Parakeets are a rare sight in Cuba, the only place they live in the world.

In the small village of Bermejas works a birding guide named Orlando.  He guides people to show them many species of birds in the forest and town where he lives.  He makes his living from this, and I am sure the other villagers in Bermejas know this.  Perhaps people support him by leaving wild birds alone.  This might explain why there are still Parakeets around Bermejas.  In this village, Orlando found a flock of about 30 Cuban Parakeets, and Hank Davis was once again quick with the camera, capturing part of the flock in flight with this beautiful image.  This species has disappeared from most of Cuba because of habitat loss and being trapped as a caged bird.

The Cuban Parrot shares the #2 spot with the Parakeet.  Cuban Parrots actually live in Cuba, Cayman Islands, and the Bahamas and is considered “near threatened” with about 10,000 individuals in Cuba.  They used to live throughout the island, but habitat destruction and capture for the pet trade have seriously reduced their numbers.  Sound familiar?  We saw them in Guanahacabibes and Zapata National Parks.

Cuban Parrots are beautiful, noisy, and "near threatened" due to habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.

Cuban Parrots are beautiful, noisy, and “near threatened” due to habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.

#1 – Bee Hummingbird

I asked everyone on the trip what bird they most wanted to see.  Just about everyone listed the Bee Hummingbird as their top choice.  After all, it is the world’s smallest bird measuring just 2.5″ long.  For comparison, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that visits your backyard in summer is 3.75″ long.  The Bee Hummingbird really seems more like an insect than a bird as it zooms around feeding on small flowers.  We were able to see several males in Guanahacabibes National Park, however, this is the only place we saw them during the two weeks we were there, conducting bird surveys over half the island.  The Bee Hummingbird used to be common, but due to habitat destruction, now has a very spotty distribution and is considered “near threatened”.

The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world and is only found in Cuba.

The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world and is only found in Cuba.

The Bee Hummingbird is considered "near threatened" and has a spotty distribution in Cuba, the only place it lives in the world.

The Bee Hummingbird is considered “near threatened” and has a spotty distribution in Cuba, the only place it lives in the world.

During our two-week trip to Cuba, the Delaware Nature Society team of “skilled avian field workers” found more than 160 species of birds.  We collected data on bird species found and numbers of individuals we came across.  Our data was shared with the Caribbean Conservation Trust and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Our findings will be used by the scientific community on the status of resident and migratory species on the island.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Photos by Hank Davis, DNS Board Member, Professional Photographer, and one of the 13 skilled avian surveyors on the recent trip to Cuba

This is Part II of the “Top Ten Cuban Birds” from the February Delaware Nature Society trip to Cuba.  See below for numbers 5 through 3, picked because our group wanted to see them, were really excited when we did see them, or because of their rarity.  Most are endemic to Cuba, meaning that is the only place they live.  To see numbers 10 through 6, and to read a little about the trip, see my previous blog.

#5 – Cuban Gnatcatcher

The Cuban Gnatcatcher is endemic to eastern Cuba.  It is similar to our Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but smaller.

The Cuban Gnatcatcher is endemic to eastern Cuba. It is similar to our Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but smaller.

Hank Davis captured images of all the birds on this blog and my previous one about the birds of Cuba.  This is one of his best of the trip, I think.  Cuban Gnatcatchers live in coastal xeric scrublands in eastern Cuba.  This kind of habitat is dry and very low and impenetrably thick.  Even though its range and habitat are limited, and some of it is threatened by coastal development, the Cuban Gnatcatcher is still relatively common.  These small birds are similar to the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that lives in Delaware during the summer, but it has a small crescent behind the eye and sounds different, plus it is a little smaller than the Blue-gray.  We saw this species on the islands of Cayo Coco and Cayo Romano in north-central Cuba.

#4 – Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow (I know I am cheating.  Who cares!)

The Zapata Wren looks like an oversized House Wren.  It only lives in Cuba's Zapata Swamp.

The Zapata Wren looks like an oversized House Wren. It only lives in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp.

Zapata Swamp is the largest wilderness area in the Caribbean.  If you have ever been to the Florida Everglades, it will look similar…large expanses of sawgrass and cattail marsh, hummocks of tropical forest, and scattered palm trees.  It is vast, at over 1-million acres, and it is a world biosphere reserve.  There are two species of birds that live here and nowhere else on earth, the Zapata Wren and Zapata Rail, and a third that lives hardly anywhere else, the Zapata Sparrow.  No one ever sees the Zapata Rail, not even the author of the Birds of Cuba book, Orlando Garrido, and hardly anything is known about it.  We didn’t see it either.

We did get great looks at the Zapata Wren, however, which looks like a very large House Wren that might live in your backyard during summer.  It even sounds a little like a House Wren.  The Zapata Wren is an endangered species, and lives within extensive areas of tall marsh grass, where it stays low and creeps around out of sight.  The director of the Zapata National Park successfully called one out of the marsh and it came within feet of us, which is how Hank was able to take the above image of this ridiculously secretive bird.

The Zapata Sparrow is a tame, colorful sparrow that lives in three widely separate areas in Cuba...Zapata Swamp, Cayo Coco area, and Guantanamo Province.

The Zapata Sparrow is a tame, colorful sparrow that lives in three widely separate areas in Cuba…Zapata Swamp, Cayo Coco area, and Guantanamo Province.

Zapata Sparrow is a species with a very strange range.  It lives in the Zapata Swamp, Cayo Coco, and Guantanamo.  These small populations are over 100 miles away from each other.  The Zapata race likes habitat that is extensive areas of sawgrass marsh.  The Cayo Coco race lives in semi-deciduous coastal forest/thicket.  The Guantanamo race lives in areas of thorn-scrub and cacti.  We saw both the Zapata and Cayo Coco races.  This is a colorful sparrow, and is quite tame, and may approach you within a few feet.

#3 – The Quail-doves (3-way tie for 3rd)

In an area known as Bermejas in the Zapata National Park, we had a Quail-dove Hat Trick.  Blue-headed, Gray-fronted, and Key West Quail-doves at one location.  Luckily, a local birder named Orlando knows where they are and put up a bird blind for us to see them.  Quail-doves are a type of dove that acts more like a quail…very secretive and skittish.  If they hear you, they get out of there quickly, so one must be quiet and still to see them.

The Blue-headed Quail-dove is an endangered species that only lives in Cuba.

The Blue-headed Quail-dove is an endangered species that only lives in Cuba.

The gorgeous Blue-headed Quail-dove is a Cuban endemic endangered species threatened with habitat loss.  It likes heavily forested areas, and most of those have been cut down in Cuba.  We were fortunate to see two of them at close range in Zapata National Park.  I will let Hank’s photo do the talking…this bird is stunning!

This plump species of Quail-dove is another beauty.  It's population, which only lives in Cuba, considered threatened and vulnerable.

This plump species is the Gray-fronted Quail-dove and is another beauty. It’s population, which only lives in Cuba, considered threatened and vulnerable.

The Gray-fronted Quail-dove was one of the top birds that I wanted to see on the trip.  Luckily, we saw one at Zapata National Park.  This species was recently split from a similar one on Hispanola, so it is considered a Cuban endemic, and like many forest birds here, is threatened with habitat loss.

The Key West Quail-dove was a high-priority bird for me to see.

The Key West Quail-dove was another high-priority bird for me to see.

Ever since I opened my first Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, I desperately wanted to see the Key West Quail-dove.  When John James Audubon explored Florida in the 1800’s, he found them on the Florida Keys.  They live there no longer.  To see one, you must go to the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispanola, or Puerto Rico.  Luckily, we saw one on our “Quail-dove” morning.  All of the Quail-dove species on Cuba are shy residents of thick, tropical forest and are very difficult to see.  On top of that, they are gorgeous and mysterious…perfect for #3 on our list.

Stay tuned for the top two birds from the Delaware Nature Society’s February trip to Cuba!

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Photos by Hank Davis, DNS Board Member, Professional Photographer, and one of the 13 skilled avian surveyors on the 2013 Cuba trip.

This February, I had the pleasure of leading my second Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip to Cuba.  I led this trip for the first time in November of 2010 and wrote about it extensively on this blog.  You can see the previous posts at these links:  Cuban Bird Survey, Zapata Swamp, Cueva y Hacienda, Guanacabibes National Park, Valle de Vinales.

We had a similar schedule and agenda when compared to the 2010 trip, which was to visit a variety of national parks, preserves, and other areas to conduct bird surveys with Cuban biologists and ornithologists.  Our constant guide and lead biologist was Dr. Giraldo Alayon Garcia, who accompanied the DNS group in 2010.  He is the Caribbean’s leading authority on spiders and has described many new species to science.  Giraldo is also an excellent birder, biologist, and conservationist.  He was on many of the expeditions to document the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Cuba in the 1980’s and saw the bird several times on these long trips.

Our skilled team of 13 avian surveyors (all Delaware Nature Society members) were charged with the task of documenting species in many of Cuba’s most beautiful, wild, and biologically diverse places.  We ventured to four National Parks including Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, La Guira, Cienega de Zapata, and Cayo Guillermo.  We traveled the entire western half of the island from the far western tip at Maria la Gorda to the Cayo Coco area on the longest archipelago in the western hemisphere.  Our data went to the Caribbean Conservation Trust as well as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In this post and another one to come, I am going to feature the “Top Ten Cuban Birds” that we found on our surveys.  It is a little arbitrary, but I picked these species because they were on our “most wanted list” to see, some of them are very rare, and most of them are Cuban endemics, meaning they only live in Cuba.  Since we found about 160 species of birds, picking the top ten was a little difficult, and I risk some disagreement from my group, but I judged the list also partly on what the group told me the wanted to see, as well as their reaction after seeing it.

#10 – Fernandina’s Flicker

Fernandina's Flicker is a rare woodpecker that only lives in Cuba.

Fernandina’s Flicker is a rare woodpecker that only lives in Cuba.

Fernandina’s Flicker is a beautiful, but rare woodpecker that lives in scattered places across Cuba.  This Cuban endemic species is estimated to only have a population of about 600-800 birds, making it one of the world’s most endangered woodpeckers.  We saw this one at it’s nest in La Guira National Park, at a place called Hacienda Cortina.

#9 – American Flamingo

The American Flamingo is always a popular bird to see in the wild.  It is the only Flamingo that lives in North America.

The American Flamingo is always a popular bird to see in the wild. It is the only Flamingo that lives in North America.

Populations of American Flamingo are doing well on Cuba.  We saw them by the hundreds in the Zapata Swamp and the Cayo Coco area, where they feed in shallow lagoons and bays.  Flamingos are pretty strange birds.  They honk like a goose, and sift their curved bill in the water to filter-feed for small aquatic organisms.

#8 – Cuban Tody

The Cuban Tody is a very small, colorful puffball of a bird that is common in Cuba.

The Cuban Tody is a very small, colorful puffball of a bird that is common in Cuba.

The Cuban Tody is a tiny bird that darts around forests, spotting prey to leap up and snatch with it’s orange bill.  They are habitat generalists, which is why they are still common, living in just about any kind of forest.  It is a Cuban endemic species, and is difficult to photograph because it is found in low-light conditions, stays in thick vegetation, and moves around quickly.  Hank Davis did a superb job photographing this one.  Todies only live in the West Indies.

#7 – Cuban Trogon

The Cuban Trogon is the national bird of Cuba.  This colorful species of trogon has a strange ratcheted tail, and is common across the island.

The Cuban Trogon is the national bird of Cuba. This colorful species of trogon has a strange ratcheted tail, and is common across the island.

Luckily, the Cuban Trogon, another endemic species to Cuba is common across the island.  It lives in forested areas at all elevations, and sits very still as it searches for insects, fruit, and flowers to eat.  It can hover while it feeds, and nests in cavities in trees.  We saw many of them on our bird surveys, but photographing them can be difficult.  It is the national bird of Cuba because its colors resemble those on the Cuban flag, with its blue head, white chest, and red belly.

#6 – Stygian Owl

Stygian Owl is a rare sight on Cuba, where it is an endangered species.  It is commonly killed on the island, since many people consider it a bad omen.

Stygian Owl is a rare sight on Cuba, where it is an endangered species. It is commonly killed on the island, since many people consider it a bad omen.

Stygian refers to “from the River Styx”.  The fact that this bird’s name refers to it being from a river in Hades does not help it’s reputation as a bad omen in Cuba.  Because of this, it is routinely persecuted on the island, which makes them very difficult to find in the wild.  The only places where you have a chance to see one on Cuba is in remote wild areas, such as the Zapata Swamp and Guanahacabibes Peninsula.  We found this one at Maria la Gorda, which is a very remote scuba diving resort surrounded by miles of wilderness, far from people.  It called one night after dinner, and we were able to find it and photograph it.  Stygian Owls live in parts of Central and South America, as well as the Greater Antilles, and are related to Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, its cousins in North America.

Look for part II of the “Top Ten Cuban Birds” post coming up soon, where I will feature numbers 1 through 5.

By Carrie Scheick, Environmental Education Intern, and Phylicia Schwartz, Teacher Naturalist

Carrie Scheick, co-author, overlooking the Adirondacks High Peaks from atop Mt. Marcy. Photo by Dave Pro

The high schoolers involved in the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalist group, a group that meets once a month for various outdoor activities and gives their time volunteering at DNS events, look forward to a weeklong adventure each summer. Earlier this month the fearless Teen Naturalists and leaders (Joe Sebastiani, Dave Pro, and the two of us) headed to upstate New York to backpack in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. In preparation for the grueling, steep trails of the Adirondacks, we battled hills (and gnats) during our day training hikes at Woodlawn Trustees Preserve and French Creek State Park the week before. Top physical and mental conditions are essential for the intensity of the Adirondack backcountry. Being able to actually climb the mountains is one thing, mentally telling yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you feel spent is the other half the battle.

Our group assembled early Monday morning to load our packs and gear into the trailer. We all piled into the van to commence our very long drive to upstate New York. Our first stop once we arrived in Keene Valley was at the Mountaineer store to pick up bear barrels. Bear barrels are small, cylindrical barrels that fit in a backpack and are used to store food and “smellables,” anything that could attracts bears to a campsite. These are required for any overnights in the Adirondacks because the area is smack in the middle of black bear country. After unloading, repacking, and reloading our backpacks, we drove up to the Garden parking lot where we would leave the van and trailer to hit the trail. Unfortunately, upon our arrival at the Garden, the lot was full! Disappointed but relatively unphased, we put Plan B into action and camped at a local campground adjacent to the beautiful Chapel Pond. We figured we would have better luck with the parking lot the next morning.

The early morning sun reflecting Chapel Pond. Photo by Carrie Scheick

Tuesday morning we woke up with the sun, quickly packed up camp and drove back up to the Garden parking lot. After squeezing the van and trailer into open spaces, we laced up our hiking boots, hoisted our loaded packs on our backs, and eagerly set out following the yellow trail markers into the beautiful wilderness.

Our goal for the day was to establish a base camp; campsites were first come first serve, so we wanted to find the first available site and snatch it up. We knew that there were campsites near the Johns Brook Lodge (approximately 3.5 miles in) as well as other sites a couple miles past the lodge. We ended up hiking about 4.5 miles total from the Garden lot to what ended up being our home for the week; the boys commandeered the leanto (and quickly proceeded to spread out all their belongings) while the rest of us set up our tents.

A happy camper at Bushnell Falls Lean-to #1. Photo by Adam Carl

It was too late in the day after we set up camp and ate lunch to go for a day-hike, so we spent the afternoon exploring and swimming in the stream near our campsite. The evening was low key with our dinner menu consisting of boil-in-bag brown rice and a freeze dried meal to share with a buddy. After dinner we secured all our food in the bear barrels and we hiked a little ways back up the trail to drop them off for the night. As previously mentioned, the Adirondacks is home to black bears so it is important that we store our bear barrels and brush our teeth far away from our tents. After spitting our toothpaste out in various directions, we hung out until the sun dipped below the treeline and darkness settled. We crawled into our respective tents and leanto shortly after, needing our rest if we were to climb and conquer the tallest peak in New York State the following day.

Wednesday morning we woke early, eager and ready to climb Mt. Marcy, at 5,344 feet. After about a mile and a half, we realized the water filter and the first aid kit were sitting back at camp instead of embarking on our adventure with us. Thankfully we had some swift hikers on our trip (Dave Pro and Joe Cirillo) who knew how to motor, so they turned back to acquire the missing gear while the rest of us moved forward, knowing it wouldn’t be too long before they eventually caught up to us. (Which they did quite quickly!)

The trek up to the summit of Mt. Marcy was an intense hike, scrambling (and occasionally slipping) on the steep, rugged trails of tree roots and slick rocks. We schlepped through mud that squished under our boots and in many places it seemed as if we were simply hiking in a stream bed. Safety on the trail is really important, so we stuck together and took lots of rests as we climbed in elevation and the air became thinner.

Photo by Adam Carl

As we slowly rose in elevation, we saw changes in the vegetation as it shifted from the temperate deciduous forest we are used to in Delaware, to boreal forest, to the alpine zone. The boreal forest is characterized by coniferous forests and the dominant tree species shifted to spruce trees. We got to see a Boreal Chickadee which was really cool; this species has a brown head instead of the black head that distinguishes the Carolina Chickadees we usually see back home. The spruce trees slowly grew shorter as we neared the alpine zone, the high elevation habitat above the tree-line. The alpine zone is characterized by hard rock surfaces, small plants and a short growing season. It is extremely important to protect the alpine vegetation because it takes a long time to grow; it is imperative to only step on or place packs on hard, solid rock when you’re at these elevations (all you hikers reading this make a mental note!)

Stay on the trail and step on only rocks in the alpine zone. One footstep on an alpine plant can kill it. Photo by Carrie Scheick.

Once in the alpine zone, much of the trail became large, steep slabs of rock, requiring us to hone our rock climbing skills (little did we know we would need them even more the following day but more on that later…)

Trails go straight up in the Adirondacks sometimes. Photo by Adam Carl.

After what seemed like a long ascent, we finally reached the summit of Mt. Marcy, a whole 5,344ft high. It seemed like we were on top of the world, I mean we kind of were, just look at these views!

Mt. Marcy Summit. Photo by Adam Carl.

After spending what seemed like too short of a time on top the mountain, we began our descent. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent similarly to the day before with some much needed stream time after hiking over 8 miles. Before bed that night we had story time with Joe, who read us excerpts from a book that discussed the right way to, ahem, go to the bathroom in the woods. A thoroughly entertaining piece of literature.

Thursday was our longest and most challenging day of hiking. We did a loop of 9.5 miles and two mountains. We climbed Basin Mountain, 4,827ft in elevation and Saddleback Mountain with an elevation of 4,515ft. These mountains may not have been as high as Mt. Marcy but the climb was much more steep and intense. At one point during our climb near the top of Saddleback Mountain, we were scaling up rocks with not too much to hold on to and a long ways to fall! Talk about exhilarating!

We enjoyed a bit of lunch after summiting our second mountain of the day and then began our descent back to base camp. As we descended down the mountain we walked through a year-old landslide brought on by heavy rains from Hurricane Irene. It was amazing to see how little soil is on the mountainside and how trees and plant life are able to grow with such little support.

Landslide caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Photo by Adam Carl.

Friday morning we broke camp early and made great time back to the van; we were ready to head home. After eating freeze dried dinners and granola for a week straight, our stomachs were eager to eat some “real food,” so naturally we stopped at Five Guys on our ride back. As we pulled into the familiar parking lot of Ashland, relief spread through the van, knowing that mattresses and showers were shortly into our future. We all parted with smiles, satisfied that we enjoyed the time together that week, and knowing that we all survived the challenging but rewarding experience of hiking in the Adirondacks.

If you know someone who is 13 to 17 years old who would likes to study nature, be adventuring outside, and might like a trip such as this, tell them about the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalist group.  Find information here about registering for the 2012-2013 season.