Bird­ers of a feather flock to Cuba

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - Travel@wash­post.com

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.

To tell us about your own trip, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fond­est mem­o­ries, finest mo­ments and fa­vorite pho­tos.

PHO­TOS BY NOEL CAPES­TANY

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.

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