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 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.
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 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.
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 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.