Mike Mockler

Spring 2015

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The evocative name of Cuba sparks many different thoughts and images, depending on one’s knowledge of history, literature and politics - and probably one's age too.  Rum, cigars, old American cars, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Acosta, the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs are all likely to spring to mind at the mention of Cuba.  For me something else comes to mind: the impressive number of endemic birds that occur on the island of Cuba. 

A visit Pat and I made to Jamaica highlighted the phenomenon of endemism, as described in my report of that trip in December 2010.  Although a relatively small island, remarkably, Jamaica is home to 30 endemic bird species (ie. that are found nowhere else in the world), although it’s fair to point out that two of those species are very rare, possibly extinct. 

Having enjoyed Jamaica, we decided to visit the much larger island of Cuba which also boasts many endemics, currently 25 in total.  As in Jamaica, our intention was to explore all aspects of Cuba and to enjoy all the birds we might see, whether or not they were endemics and would not lament “missed” species.  In fact, as we later discovered, the majority of the endemics were relatively easy to see.

In true tourist fashion, we started by exploring the capital, Havana. The traffic was no different from many other capital cities around the world, but the elegant colonial-style buildings and brightly-coloured elderly American cars provided a distinctive character.  Many of these cars sported yellow plastic signs marked “Taxi” on their roofs, though many are still used as private cars and, in some cases, are beautifully preserved with new engines installed.  Others spluttered and roared while belching clouds of black exhaust.

Most local people seemed poorer than in many Caribbean islands but they had friendly smiles and cheerful faces.  Sometimes, however, these smiles were used to persuade you to take a ride in their taxi or horse and trap or to buy some of their wares. Tourism is certainly alive and kicking in this city, despite the country’s political system.  Hawkers, musicians and street entertainers are abundant: Cuba has no shortage of smart entrepreneurs!

The crowded streets of a busy city rarely support a great wealth of wildlife and Havana is no exception.  However, small parks and gardens provided sightings of Northern Mockingbird, Mourning Dove, Palm Warbler, Greater Antillean Grackle and the handsome Red-legged Thrush, the first of our Cuban endemics.  Near the harbour, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Little Blue Heron and Cuban Martin put in appearances.

La Guira National Park
To the west of Havana lies La Guira National Park, scenic highlands where striking limestone outcrops tower over forested valleys.  Here we visited caves where, during the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and his troops hid from government forces of the hated dictator, Fulgencio Batista.  Above Che's rudimentary office and bedroom in the cave were several active nests of Cave Swallows. 

Other birds we saw in the area included Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Emerald (the larger of Cuba’s two hummingbirds), Cuban Bullfinch, the lovely Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Grassquit and Cuban Solitaire, all of them endemics.  We also encountered West Indian Woodpecker, Loggerhead Kingbird, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Olive-capped Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and several American migrant warblers.

Zapata Swamp National Park
Cuba’s most important wildlife location is on the south coast of the island: Zapata Swamp National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designated by the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands as a wetland of international importance.   In fact, Zapata boasts no fewer than three endemic species of its own: the secretive, skulking Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow and Zapata Rail.  We managed to see the first two of these but the Zapata Rail is so scarce it is rarely seen.  In the wet areas, we found many waders (or shorebirds, as they are called in the Americas), Greater Flamingos, American White Pelicans, a variety of herons and egrets and the powerful Cuban Black Hawk.

In nearby woodland, we had very good views of many endemics, among them Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Screech-Owl, Cuban Pewee, Fernandina’s Flicker, Grey-headed Quail-dove, Blue-headed Quail-dove and the minute Bee Hummingbird.  The Bee Hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird and, as its name suggests, could be mistaken for a large bee.  Unlike the larger and more abundant Cuban Emerald, the Bee Hummingbird is, sadly, in decline, the reasons for which are not known.  So it was a treat to watch a breeding male zooming around at high speed, furiously displaying to a tiny female.  Grey skies and dull light made it impossible to capture the colours of this little gem on camera but we were grateful to our excellent naturalist guide, Maydiel Morera, for taking us to the right place - and for his pleasant company throughout our stay. 

Around Zapata we witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon.  Land crabs breed inland but, once a year, the females walk to the beaches to lay their eggs in the sea and all the males converge on the shore so they can mate with the females and fertilize their eggs. There were thousands upon thousands of these crabs heading to and from the beaches, so much so that, in places, coastal roads were completely covered with them.  Most drivers did their best to avoid crushing them but the numbers were such that there were many hundreds of fatalities. 

Trinidad, the former capital of Cuba, is a small town with delightful colonial-style architecture, cobbled streets, quaint museums, art galleries and craft shops.  The local people are very friendly and there are numerous musicians - in fact, Trinidad is famous for its musicians. 

Birds are few and far between in Trinidad but there are plenty of photogenic, elderly but colourful cars.  As in Havana, virtually all of these are American models but  one was English - a little Austin A35, dating back to the mid 1900s.   Coincidentally, way back in the mists of time, the first car we owned was an Austin A35!

The Northern Cays
Off the north coast of Cuba lie long chains of cays where littoral habitats support a rich bird population.  We encountered waterbirds such as Roseate Spoonbill, Limpkin, American Oystercatcher, West Indian Whistling Duck and Short-billed Dowitcher as well as birds of prey like Osprey, Merlin and Crested Caracara plus a host of migratory passerines such as Prairie Warbler and American Redstart.  Amongst the endemics, or near-endemics, we came across were the attractive Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Oriole, Thick-billed Vireo and the colourful Western Spindalis.

However, these habitats - coastal scrub, mangroves, mudflats and lagoons - are fast disappearing in the face of massive tourist development as huge beach resorts are constructed at an alarming rate reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Spanish costas in their boom years.  Many bird species are dependent on these habitats, especially migrating birds and some endemics.  With relations between the USA and Cuba rapidly improving, a huge surge in beach tourism is expected and, with it, yet more large-scale destruction of these important habitats.  I hope the Cuban government will act to preserve its native flora and fauna.  





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