Cuba

All posts tagged Cuba

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 Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Fifth and final post about the Delaware Nature Society trip to Cuba, November 2010.

With most of our bird surveying wrapped up, we spent the last few days of our trip to Cuba in the amazing Valle de Vinales.  This is the location of yet another national park, Parque Nacional Vinales, which is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This spectacular area is recognized for its dramatic rocky outcrops known as magotes coupled with traditional farms and villages in the Sierra de los Organos mountains.

The area is kind of like a tropical version of the Lancaster County Amish country, except there are no strip malls, outlets, chain restaurants, etc.  Farmers grow tobacco, coffee, oranges, sugarcane, and other produce under towering limestone magotes and cliffs.  They plow their fields with oxen, travel by horse-powered carts, and seem to live very simple lives.  Visitors come to hike, bike, and ride horseback through this traditional Cuban landscape, as well as just plain relax. 

Limestone hills called magotes tower above traditional Cuban agricultural fields in the Parque Nacional Vinales. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

We spent a few days here wrapping up bird surveys and enjoying the amazing views.  The main difference in habitat here was the native Caribbean Pine forest and native vegetation on the magotes.  Cuban Solitaires sang from high up lending an eerie jungle-like sound to the farmland where we stood.  The magotes retain virgin forest, since they are difficult to access for resource extraction.  At the base of magotes, our guide, Giraldo Alayon was very busy pointing out native palms, wildflowers, and other plants that are rare and endemic to Cuba.

Giraldo Alayon, our guide on the trip, describes the natural history of the bats that live in this cave. The magotes are full of caves, and harbor many, many bat roosts. We saw thousands pour out of this cave at dusk. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Birding in this area yielded most of the same kinds of birds we had seen earlier on the trip.  There are a few notable species worth mentioning, however.  The Olive-capped Warbler is a bird that lives in the pine forests of Cuba and the Bahamas.  We were able to get very good looks and photographs of this species here and it was very  common in pine forest.

Olive-capped Warblers were common in the Caribbean Pine forest of the Vinales area. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

On a sad note, we witnessed first-hand, the illegal wild bird trade here in Vinales.  In Cuba, capturing wild birds for the pet trade is rather common, although it is illegal.  It is part of the culture to keep songbirds in cages, sometimes used for “singing competitions”, much like a cock-fight.  People get together with their birds to see who has the better singer, and even bet money on the outcome!  I am not sure how you decide who is a better singer, but that is what happens.  The birds of choice tend to be Cuban Bullfinches and Cuban Grassquits.  We saw Bullfinches in cages on people’s balconies in various towns, and in Vinales we saw a Cuban Grassquit shortly after it had been caught.  A Cuban Grassquit is a small finch that is mostly black and green with a yellow wash around the face.  It only lives in Cuba.

A boy carries a Cuban Grassquit in a cage. Although illegal, it is still common practice in Cuba to trap wild songbirds for pets. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

As a consequence of trapping, Cuban Grassquits are very scarcely seen around towns and villages.  We managed to find 3 or 4 of them in the wild, but they are greatly outnumbered by the Yellow-faced Grassquit, which is a weak singer, and therefore not sought-after as a cage bird.

Our trip to Cuba came to an end after our visit to Vinales.  Cuba exceeded everyone’s expectations in many, many ways.  Not only is it beautiful, but it has many huge preserved natural areas and large national parks.  The people of Cuba are very friendly and welcoming, and I made many friends on the trip that I am sure I will keep in touch with for a long time.  Towns and cities are very clean and people seem to respect where they live.  In terms of trash, it is a much cleaner place than the United States, and certainly way cleaner than other Latin American countries I have visited.  If Americans are ever allowed to go to Cuba legally, I am sure the wonderful places we visited will be flooded with us.  I hope you can get there someday.

I would like to thank all of the Delaware Nature Society members that took part in the trip to Cuba.  I sincerely hope you had as great a trip as I did.  I would also like to thank Gary Markowski and the Caribbean Conservation Trust for making this wonderful trip possible.  Also, a very special thanks is in order for Dr. Giraldo Alayon, our naturalist-guide for the trip.  We really got more than just a naturalist.  Dr. Alayon is well known in the Caribbean as the foremost expert on spiders of the West Indies and Central America.  He has discovered, described, and named many species new to science.  He has published more than 100 papers on the systematics and biogeography of spiders and insects of the region.  He has also been a serious birder since 1977, and has published 15 papers related to avian biology and behavior.  He is currently working on a book about the Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which he has seen in eastern Cuba during expeditions to find the species in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Dr. Alayon is a past president of the Cuban Zoological Society, and is the current Curator of Arachnida at the National Museum of Natural History in Havana and earned his PhD from the University of Havana. 

Here I am with Dr. Giraldo Alayon in Vinales. He took a break from listening to Guns and Roses for this photograph taken by Ron Majors.

Since our visit to Cuba was officially classified as a Humanitarian Environmental visit to assist with long-term ornithological bird surveys, I will provide the entire list of species we found.  The list follows the latest Clements World Checklist:

  1. Wood Duck
  2. Blue-winged Teal
  3. Helmeted Guineafowl
  4. Least Grebe
  5. Pied-billed Grebe
  6. American Flamingo
  7. Brown Pelican
  8. Neotropic Cormorant
  9. Double-crested Cormorant
  10. Anhinga
  11. Magnificent Frigatebird
  12. Great Blue Heron
  13. Great Egret
  14. Snowy Egret
  15. Little Blue Heron
  16. Tricolored Heron
  17. Reddish Egret
  18. Cattle Egret
  19. Green Heron
  20. White Ibis
  21. Roseate Spoonbill
  22. Wood Stork
  23. Turkey Vulture
  24. Osprey
  25. Snail Kite
  26. Northern Harrier
  27. Cuban Black-hawk
  28. Red-tailed Hawk
  29. Crested Caracara
  30. American Kestrel
  31. Merlin
  32. Peregrine Falcon
  33. Clapper Rail
  34. Sora
  35. Purple Gallinule
  36. Common Moorhen
  37. American Coot
  38. Limpkin
  39. Black-bellied Plover
  40. Killdeer
  41. Black-necked Stilt
  42. Spotted Sandpiper
  43. Solitary Sandpiper
  44. Greater Yellowlegs
  45. Least Sandpiper
  46. Wilson’s Snipe
  47. Laughing Gull
  48. Caspian Tern
  49. Forster’s Tern
  50. Royal Tern
  51. Rock Pigeon
  52. Scaly-naped Pigeon
  53. White-crowned Pigeon
  54. Eurasian Collared-dove
  55. White-winged Dove
  56. Zenaida Dove
  57. Mourning Dove
  58. Common Ground-dove
  59. Blue-headed Quail-dove
  60. Cuban Parrot
  61. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  62. Great Lizard-cuckoo
  63. Smooth-billed Ani
  64. Bare-legged Owl
  65. Cuban Pygmy-owl
  66. Stygian Owl
  67. Greater Antillean Nightjar (aka: Cuban Nightjar)
  68. Antillean Palm-swift
  69. Cuban Emerald
  70. Bee Hummingbird
  71. Cuban Trogon
  72. Cuban Tody
  73. Belted Kingfisher
  74. West Indian Woodpecker
  75. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  76. Cuban Green Woodpecker
  77. Northern Flicker
  78. Fernandina’s Flicker
  79. Cuban Pewee
  80. Eastern Phoebe
  81. La Sagra’s Flycatcher
  82. Loggerhead Kingbird
  83. Giant Kingbird
  84. White-eyed Vireo
  85. Cuban Vireo
  86. Yellow-throated Vireo
  87. Cuban Crow
  88. Tree Swallow
  89. Barn Swallow
  90. Zapata Wren
  91. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  92. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  93. Cuban Solitaire
  94. Red-legged Thrush
  95. Gray Catbird
  96. Northern Mockingbird
  97. Tennessee Warbler
  98. Northern Parula
  99. Yellow Warbler
  100. Magnolia Warbler
  101. Cape May Warbler
  102. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  103. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  104. Black-throated Green Warbler
  105. Yellow-throated Warbler
  106. Olive-capped Warbler
  107. Prairie Warbler
  108. Palm Warbler
  109. Black-and-white Warbler
  110. American Redstart
  111. Worm-eating Warbler
  112. Ovenbird
  113. Northern Waterthrush
  114. Louisiana Waterthrush
  115. Common Yellowthroat
  116. Yellow-headed Warbler
  117. Hooded Warbler
  118. Western Spindalis
  119. Red-legged Honeycreeper
  120. Cuban Bullfinch
  121. Cuban Grassquit
  122. Yellow-faced Grassquit
  123. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  124. Summer Tanager
  125. Indigo Bunting
  126. Tawny-shouldered Blackbird
  127. Eastern Meadowlark
  128. Cuban Blackbird
  129. Greater Antillean Grackle
  130. Greater Antillean Oriole (aka: Cuban Oriole)
  131. House Sparrow
  132. Nutmeg Mannikin
  133. Tricolored Munia