All posts tagged Cuba

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Fourth in a series about the Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip to Cuba in November, 2010.

Guanahacabibes National Park was my favorite part of Cuba.  Named after the original inhabitants of the area, the Guanahatabeys, this area is at Cuba’s western tip and is very remote and wild.  We stayed at a dive center called Maria la Gorda, which means “Maria the fatso.”  Legend has is that Maria was a prostitute who was captured by pirates and left here on this remote beach many years ago, where she lived out the rest of her years.  Pretty strange, huh? 

The National Park covers over 1,000 square kilometers and is also designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  Not only does this area offer world-class scuba diving, but it contains miles of mangrove swamp, coastal thicket vegetation, and limestone karst forest.  We surveyed birds for three wonderful days here, enjoying expert park staff, lots of wildlife, beautiful scenery, and fantastic tropical sunsets.

Of particular interest bird-wise were migrants from North America that we identified.  This was potentially our greatest ornithological contribution of the entire two-week trip.  The first cold front of the season passed the day prior to our arrival, possibly delivering a fresh crop of migrants from the north.  Specifically, we found three species that are not often found in Cuba.  The first was a Lincoln’s Sparrow, which is apparently very rare.  Our Cuban guide, Osmani Borrego, had never seen one.  Next, we found an Eastern Phoebe, classified in the Cuban bird guide as a vagrant.  A vagrant means that it does not regularly occur there.  Third, we found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, another vagrant to Cuba, with very few records in the country.  All of these were found in the same area on the same day.  Maybe these birds are actually more common than what is published in the books, and that more study is needed on their occurrence.  Perhaps we made a valuable contribution to Cuban bird knowledge after all.

Enjoy a short video highlighting the scenery and some of the other birds we found while in the remote, pristine, and beautiful Guanahacabibes National Park and Biosphere Reserve.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Third in a series about the Delaware Nature Society bird survey trip to Cuba. 

After experiencing the Zapata Swamp, the mountains of western Cuba were our next destination for the bird survey.  We stayed in the small town of San Diego at the Mirador Hotel.  It was a nice place with good food and a great live, original Cuban band at night.  Our guides said something about birding around some kind of cave.  I didn’t really know what that meant, but when we arrived at Cueva de los Portales, I was blown away!  Picture monolithic limestone hills covered in native vegetation and palm trees.  Now, also imagine a stream flowing through a hole in the hill, and an adjacent cave.  In this cave, Che Guevara hid during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Oh yeah, the birding was good here too.  We managed to find our target bird, the Cuban Solitaire, which is related to the Townsend’s Solitaire of western North America.  It is a resident of native woods and thickets, most of which have been converted to agriculture in Cuba.

Our second birding location in this area was in the abandoned Hacienda Cortina, originally owned by a wealthy friend and colleague of Batista, Cuba’s U.S.-friendly dictator who was in power before Castro.  Now this estate is a collection of ruins, statues, a tropical arboretum, ponds, grazing cows, and weeds.  It was a real wild place…and could be in a scene of a strange sci-fi or horror movie.  We luckily found our target bird here…the Giant Kingbird.  It is related to the Eastern Kingbird, which live in our area in the summer, but it has an enormous, king-size bill.  This species only lives in Cuba and it is a rarity.  Our guide, Giraldo, spotted the bird in a tree as we were driving out of the place.  Also in this area, we stopped at an orchard to find the Cuban Grassquit, which reluctantly obliged us.  In the process, we discovered a species that our guides, Caesar and Giraldo got very excited about…a Nutmeg Mannikin, which they had never seen.  This introduced bird from Asia was making a nest, which was extremely late and very noteworthy, being November.  We toasted this bird with Cuban Rum and TuKola that evening.

Check out a short video about highlights from this part of Cuba.  The soundtrack includes the strange calls of the Cuban Crow, followed by the haunting song of the Cuban Solitaire.  If you have any questions about these places, please ask.

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 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!

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader 

In early November, 2010 I had the pleasure of leading 10 Delaware Nature Society members on a two-week bird survey trip to Cuba.  Organized through the Caribbean Conservation Trust (CCT), we assisted with long-term ornithological surveys taking place in western Cuba.  

It took me a few days just to get over the fact that I was actually in Cuba, which is still off-limits to Americans as a travel destination.  We traveled legally under a humanitarian/environmental license.  On our first full day, we received an orientation to our ornithological mission and recuperated from our long day of travel in the beautiful city of Havana.  

Sunrise in Havana from the Hotel Nacional.

As part of our orientation, we visited Orlando H. Garrido, author of “Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba.”  He summarized the island’s endemic birds through a guided tour of his personal taxidermy collection and his vast experience as an ornithologist.  Orlando is one of Cuba’s greatest naturalists, but is also a noted tennis player, having played in Wimbledon, 1956-1961 and the U.S. Open in 1959.

Orlando H. Garrido, author of "Field Guide To The Birds of Cuba" signs copies of his book and explains the natural history of Cuba's endemic birds.

For a lunch stop, we visited another famous Cuban, Jose Fuster, who is known as the “Cuban Picasso.”  Jose is an acclaimed artist who has turned his entire neighborhood into a vast art project.  His house itself is a work of art and contains his gallery, work station, a visitation area. 

Our group was amazed at the sight of the neighborhood and house of one of Cuba's most accomplished artists, Jose Fuster.

The architecture in Havana is a combination of old Spanish colonial mixed with art-deco, and a twist of New Orleans French Quarter design.  Many of the structures are long overdue for repair, but it is an extremely beautiful and historic city nonetheless.  We experienced a good deal of it driving to and from our appointments for the day. 

Plaza de la Revolucion is a huge gathering site for political rallies. On one side is the Memorial a Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero. The 17m marble statue sits overlooking the square.

Across the square is the Ministerio del Interior with a huge mural of Che Guevara. Che, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, is another national hero in Cuba. His image is seen everywhere on billboards, houses, hats, shirts, and even car headlamps.

Speaking of cars, if you are an antique vehicle enthusiast, you could spend all day “car-watching” in Havana.  American cars from the 50’s are everywhere, and I estimated about 10% of the vehicles we saw were old American models.  Otherwise, European and Asian vehicles were the main method of transportation other than lots of bicycles, motorcycles, old buses, and lots of interesting taxis.

If you know what kind of car this is, please let me know. "Car-watching" was almost as fun as "Bird-watching."

There were lots of old American cars that were being used as taxis in Havana.

A typical city street in old Havana.

Historic buildings, old forts, monuments, statues, and incredible architecture is everywhere in Havana.  The most grandiose and incredible building in Havana is the Capitolio Nacional which is similar to the US Capitol building but a little taller and richer in detail. 

The most incredible building in Havana is the Capitolio Nacional, which used to house the Cuban Congress. Since 1959 it has been the home of the Cuban Academy of Science and National Library of Science and Technology.

After a day getting the feel for Havana and an orientation to our bird survey, we were ready for the countryside, national parks, and biosphere reserves…and of course…Cuba’s birds!  More on that to follow in future posts.

Register for the DNS Travel Year In Review on December 9, 6-8:30 p.m.  The program, which includes a dinner and evening presentation of our travel programs from 2010, will include highlights from the Cuba trip.  For more information and to register, click here.