Cuba is for the birds!

March 29th, 2013 by Sarah Reichard

Cuban tody, Todus multicolor. Photo by Jerryoldenettel.

Cuban tody, Todus multicolor. Photo by Jerryoldenettel.
Despite appearances the Cuban Tody is not related to hummingbirds.

I like to study plants for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is that plants sit very politely waiting for me to come along and find them. And they continue to sit until I am through examining and enjoying them. Birds, on the other hand, must be hunted down and no sooner to you find them, then they fly away without any consideration for my desire to admire them. I enjoy bird-watching, but find it to be very frustrating.

Our 2012 trip to Cuba did nothing to change my opinion. Oh sure, we saw the Cuban Emerald hummingbird, but despite valiant tries, we were unsuccessful at finding the Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. One of our group saw the Cuban Parrot, but the rest of us were unsuccessful.

So, while birdwatching was one of our planned activities and I dutifully took my binoculars, I had low expectations. Wow! Was I wrong! We pretty much saw every bird on our list. And I have a new favorite bird, one who totally stole my heart, the Cuban Tody.  That is one adorable bird!

Our bird-watching was supposed to start in Soroa, where we had again engaged a wonderful naturalist named Alberto to lead a walk. Unfortunately, Alberto called in unavailable that morning, and our terrific trip guide, Yuli, made some frantic phone calls and soon we headed to Las Terrazas for a very nice 4.5K hike with a guide named Miquel. That is where I saw my new avian love, the tody (could it not have been given a more suitably adorable name?). It sat over the trail on a branch and sang for us. We also saw the CubanTrogon which is the national bird of Cuba because its colors mimic the colors of the Cuban flag. It is also one good-looking bird. We also saw the Yellow-headed warbler and the Red-legged warbler on this walk.

bee_hummingbird_jonycunha

Bee Hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae. Photo by jonycunha.
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world.

This walk was not only exciting for me – I think it may have converted Yuli to a nature girl. Before we left Havana she said she was a city girl and did not like the countryside (she specifically mentioned frogs as undesirable denizens of the countryside). But on this walk, she borrowed Miquel’s binoculars and soon was knowledgeably tossing out names of the birds we saw a second time. I teased her later that when she finishes guiding she was going to become an ornithologist.

But our next hike, on the Zapata Peninsula, was truly amazing. When our bus pulled up, our hike guide Orlando, met us and asked if we would like to see the Bee Hummingbird. Seriously? And there they were, swarming around palm flowers. If he could deliver those 60 seconds after we were off the bus, we were in for a great walk! And we were. Later he took us to a stump with a couple of holes, positioned us, and motioned for us to be quiet. He went over the stump and scratched it with his fingernails and out popped a male Screech Owl! After that, he confidently said we would later see the Cuban Pygmy Owl, the smallest owl in the world. I thought to myself that there is no way he could be sure of that and he really should not promise it, but…sure enough, later on he pointed to a branch and there was the owl! I could not see a tether on his leg, so I assume that Orlando had just lived there so long and was such an avid birder, he knew where each individual bird hung out.

Cuban screech owl, Glaucidium siju. Photo by lgooch.

Cuban screech owl, Gymnoglaux lawrencii. Photo by lgooch.
The Cuban Screech Owl is found only in Cuba and nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

Cuban pygmy owl, Glaucidium siju. Photo by copepodo.
The Cuban Pygmy Owl is the smallest of the world’s 200 owl species.

Another fun bird that we saw here, as well as at our hotel in Soroa, was the Great Lizard Cuckoo. These birds are quite large, with very long tail feathers. The way they move around a tree looks exactly like a squirrel. They were great fun to watch.

As for the rest of the birds we saw in Zapata…all the birds we saw in Las Terrazas (Todys!) but also the Magnolia Warbler in on its winter vacation, the Black-throated Blue Warbler, West Indies Woodpecker, Northern Flickers (looking much like the ones in my garden in Seattle), Zenaida Dove, and so many other species that I don’t have room to write them all.  We did NOT see the Cuban Crow, despite much looking. I guess there is a reason to go back…

I may not shift to studying birds instead of plants, but I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into bird-watching in Cuba. I think I understand now why people work so hard to find those little winged jewels in the trees. And they have so amazing endemic species, found only in Cuba, that it was a real treat to be able to see them.

As we approach one month from our return, I am still pondering what I have learned in my two trips to Cuban. I will try to share my thoughts in the coming week.

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