Birders of a feather flock to Cuba
Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Cecilia Capestany (author); and her husband, Noel Capestany, of Alexandria, Va.
Where, when, why: In January, my husband and I traveled to Cuba with a bird-conservation group to conduct a survey of endemic and migratory species, and to meet with local scientists and naturalists involved in research and conservation activities. We traveled to the western side of the island to explore a wide range of bird habitats, from forests to mountains to coastal wetlands, including the wild and sparsely populated Guanahacabibes Peninsula.
Highlights and high points: Cuba, with its geographical diversity and large areas of government-protected habitat, is home to many endemic bird species and a refuge to a number of migratory ones. With the help of local experts, our group was able to identify 153 species, which we duly reported to help in the management and conservation efforts of the bird population. As we were doing the survey, nothing surpassed the sheer thrill of birdwatching in some of the most beautiful and unspoiled landscapes on the island. We marveled at the jewel-like feathers of the Cuban tody, an adorable, chubby bird sporting a combination of vibrant green, red, light blue and pink colors; and the red, white and blue Cuban trogon, the national bird of Cuba, so designated because its colors are those of the Cuban flag. We squinted to find and follow the zigzagging bee hummingbird, at 2.5 inches the smallest bird in the world and increasingly rare. And we were enchanted by a Cuban pygmy owl which, perched for the longest time on a branch, was as curious about us as we were about it.
Cultural connection or disconnect: If today’s Havana is iconic for being a throwback to the 1950s, the countryside and remote villages we traveled through seemed to be at a standstill even farther back in time. Horse-drawn carriages, first a novelty for us as we were leaving the capital, then commonplace as we entered small towns, are the principal means of transportation for people and goods. Men on horseback were as ubiquitous in the town squares as in the fields. We saw parents picking up their kids at school in carts pulled by horses and donkeys. People at the edge of the road would hitch a ride. These are vignettes of a way of life we’re no longer used to in the United States. And yet, the warmth and friendship of the Cuban people we encountered, the professionalism and dedication of the local naturalists and biologists we worked with and the overwhelming welcome we received in all the communities we visited easily bridged any cultural differences.
Biggest laugh or cry: The richness of the bird habitats usually went hand-in-hand with a lack of choice in accommodations. Our group often stayed at lodgings or private homes where a hot shower was not to be taken for granted, toilet seats were a luxury and mattresses seemed to have passed from generation to generation. Our initial consternation soon went out the window as our misadventures became the butt of our daily jokes!
How unexpected: During our explorations, we had logged many miles to get sightings of one or maybe a handful of birds of a particular species at a time. We spent over an hour in the karstic, limestone hills to find the Cuban solitaire, a difficult bird to locate. It is rather dull looking, but one of the most exquisite songbirds in Cuba. And then, as we were near the end of our trip, we traveled to the south coast of central Cuba, past the famed Giron Beach, one of the landing sites for the Bay of Pigs invasion, to a remote national wildlife refuge and biological station on the delta of a river. As we approached the edge of the wetlands, we saw what looked like an infinite crimson ribbon between water and sky: Thousands of Caribbean flamingos wading in the coastal estuary were putting on an amazing display for us. With binoculars and cameras at the ready, we marveled at their pink and coral plumage, and the elegance of their movements.
Fondest memento or memory: Cuba, with its great biodiversity, is well positioned for ecotourism. Both the casual birdwatcher and the experienced birder will find much joy in its national parks and biosphere reserves, which are lovingly cared for by devoted naturalists, biologists, and concerned citizens, often with scarce resources. So it was a happy moment when our group made a donation of crayons, pencils, markers, coloring books and other materials to contribute to the educational activities in the communities surrounding protected areas. The hope is that, through education and conservation efforts, Cuba’s birds will be enjoyed by generations to come.
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TOP: The author strikes a pose in Playa Larga, Cuba. ABOVE: An inquisitive Cuban pygmy owl, part of the couple’s impetus for making the trip.