Blue-headed Quail-dove

All posts tagged Blue-headed Quail-dove

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

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!