Special features

Doors to Cuba opening for birders

As new travel rules take effect, more American birders will be able to see Cuba’s extraordinary birds
By Carrol L. Henderson | Published: 4/20/2015

Open-doors-350“Trogon! It’s a Cuban Trogon!”

The national bird of Cuba, a green, red, and white beauty, sat quietly at the edge of a forest adjacent to a tobacco field, allowing us to marvel at its iridescence and fluted tail. Nearby was a dead tree with a cavity — the trogon’s nesting site.

The encounter, on our first day afield in April 2013, marked the realization of a longtime dream: My wife Ethelle and I were leading 11 Midwestern biologists, a science professor, and birdwatchers on a licensed bird-study trip.

The doors to Cuba — closed to most American visitors for the last 50 years — began opening for us in 2011, when I traveled to the Bahamas to attend a conference of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds. (The society is now known as BirdsCaribbean.) I met biologist and guide Ernesto Reyes, artist Nils Navarro, parrot researcher Maikel Cañizares, and refuge manager José “Fefo” Morales. (Navarro’s new book, Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide, will be published in June 2015.) Their presentations and obvious enthusiasm for preserving Cuban birdlife were highlights of the conference.

Read Julie Craves’s 2002 article about how U.S. trade restrictions have hampered bird research.

Reyes recommended contacting a U.S. nonprofit organization licensed to lead bird-study trips authorized by the Department of Treasury. We followed up with Soledad Pagliuca of the Friendship Association, based in St. Augustine, Florida. She and Reyes organized a marvelous itinerary that let us study Cuba’s birdlife and share our expertise with Cuban counterparts. We returned to the island in March 2014 to conduct daily bird surveys on a trip organized by Gary Markowski, director of the Caribbean Conservation Trust.

Now the doors are open even wider. President Obama’s recent decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba will enable more American birders to make their way to the island. (See sidebar below.)

Up to 30 endemics

The nation has loads of appeal for birders. It is home to no fewer than 26 endemic species — four more than occur in the Galapagos — and recent proposals to split four additional species could bring the tally to 30. In addition, 25 endemic subspecies and 22 species endemic to the West Indies region can be found in Cuba.

This is an amazing degree of endemism considering that Cuba’s bird list totals 370 species. The high number is a product of the island’s long biogeographic history. Portions of what is now Cuba and its neighboring islands began rising above the sea about 42 million years ago. In time, they formed a long, arching peninsula that projected northward from the South American landmass. (The peninsula is referred to as “GAARlandia.” The acronym is short for Greater Antilles/Aves Ridge.) Wildlife from South America dispersed northward along the ridge. Then, about 30 million years ago, sea levels rose, severing the land from South America. The island that we know today took shape, more or less, three to four million years ago, but its birds, plants, and other wildlife have been evolving through genetic isolation and natural selection for millennia.

On our trip in 2013, we tallied 144 birds, including 21 Cuban endemics and 13 regional endemics. The following year, we recorded 169 birds. Of them, 23 were Cuban endemics and 18 were regional endemics.

A total of 148 species are resident, and an additional 180 species — shorebirds, raptors, songbirds, and others — are migratory. Of those, 125 nest in the United States and Canada and winter in Cuba. Another 55 species migrate through Cuba to South America. Most migrants come from the Atlantic Flyway, including Black-and-white, Pine, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-throated, Prairie, and other warblers. Wintering American White Pelicans and Blue-winged Teal probably arrive from farther west.

New travel rules

In December 2014, President Obama announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba, and a month later, new travel regulations were introduced. The embargo remains in place, but much has changed. Here’s an overview.

Americans are still not free to travel to Cuba as tourists. To go, they will have to meet one of 12 criteria for authorized travel, as they have in the past. The categories include family visits, official government business, journalistic endeavors, professional research and meetings, educational pursuits, and other activities.

Prospective travelers, however, will no longer have to obtain a specialized license from the government. Instead, they’ll need only a general license, and they will no longer need to submit a written request for permission to travel. If U.S. airlines begin offering flights to Havana, as they are soon ­expected to do, it’s feasible travelers may be able to buy a ticket online and simply check a box stating that the trip serves a legitimate purpose.

Under the general license for people-to-people or humanitarian programs, organizations such as the Friendship Association and Caribbean Conservation Trust will still be permitted to lead bird-study trips. A representative of the organization using the license must lead the trips.

Traveling within Cuba promises to be easier as well. Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards and bring back gifts. Authorized travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods of Cuban origin, including up to $100 of Cuban alcohol or tobacco products.

But keep in mind that Cuba’s economy remains largely cash-based. It may be quite some time before you can use credit cards in the country. Before you go, check with your bank whether your credit or debit cards will be accepted.

Starting in Havana

All visits to Cuba will almost certainly start in Havana, the capital city, as mine did. Located on the north coast, the city not only has a fascinating cultural, literary, and political history but boasts lots of birds. Urban species like Cuban Martin, Red-legged Thrush, and endemic Cuban Blackbird compete for attention with vintage cars, colonial architecture, and bustling city squares. While in Havana, we enjoyed visits to the home of legendary ornithologist Orlando Garrido, co-author of Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. My companions and I were thrilled by his youthful enthusiasm and vast knowledge of the island’s birdlife.

It was in the Viñales Valley, about 135 miles southwest of Havana, that we got our first full taste of Cuba’s distinctive birdlife. Our group’s attention was frequently drawn in several directions at once as Reyes tried to get us to focus on Cuban Emerald, Red-legged Honeycreeper, West Indian Woodpecker, Loggerhead Kingbird, and Olive-capped Warbler, as well as endemic Cuban Oriole, Cuban Vireo, and Yellow-headed Warbler. On the nearby Maravillas del Pinar Trail, we not only encountered our Cuban Trogon but were treated to the flute-like song of Cuban Solitaire, another endemic species.

Yellow-headed Warbler, November 13, 2006, by Dominic Sherony, via Wikimedia Commons.

Yellow-headed Warbler, November 13, 2006, by Dominic Sherony, via Wikimedia Commons.

About 40 miles east of Viñales is mixed agricultural land, pine and deciduous forests, and steep-sided limestone hills called mogotes. The area’s crown jewel is 54,000-acre La Güira National Park, a mountainous wilderness near the town of San Diego de los Baños. The park’s forests are dependable for seeing the rare, endangered Giant Kingbird. At the western border of the park, Cueva de los Portales National Monument is a beautiful river and cave complex within a mogote that served as the hideout for Che Guevara during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Its forests provide habitat for Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Tody, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, and Yellow-headed Warbler.

Best birding spots

One of Cuba’s best birding locations, the Zapata Swamp, is only 90 miles southeast of Havana, on the south coast. My fellow travelers and I were awe-struck and giddy as we encountered, photographed, and took notes on one new species after another. Officially known as Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, it’s the third largest wetland in the Americas, covering 1.5 million acres. It has been recognized as an Important Bird Area, a Ramsar Site, and a World Biosphere Reserve.

No fewer than 21 of the country’s endemic birds occur at Zapata, and three are named for the area: Zapata Sparrow, Zapata Rail, and Zapata Wren. The sparrow is seen regularly, the wren is present but difficult to observe, and the rail, a critically endangered species, was spotted for the first time in 40 years in November 2014.

Bee Hummingbird on the Zapata Peninsula in Cuba, March 31, 2014, by Maureen Breakiron-Evans.

Bee Hummingbird on the Zapata Peninsula in Cuba, March 31, 2014, by Maureen Breakiron-Evans.

The swamp is also home to Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. I had dreamed we might find it but knew doing so would be a tall order. Then Reyes took us to flowering trees whose fragrant white blossoms attracted several hummingbirds, allowing us to view the two-inch-long bird from only a few feet away. What a joy!

Forests and heavily grazed pastures with scattered palm trees in the Zapata Swamp’s Bermejas community host three cavity-nesting specialties that raise their young in dead palms: Bare-legged Owl, Fernandina’s Flicker, and Cuban Parakeet. Bare-legged Owls have huge eyes that give them a curious, Dr. Seuss-like appearance as they peer from their cavities. The large Fernandina’s Flicker is more than 13 inches long and has a yellowish brown body that is marked with thin black bars. Flocks of noisy and inquisitive Cuban Parakeets feed in neighborhood fruit orchards.

On the north coast, about 300 miles east of Havana, Cayo Coco and nearby Playa Pilar and Paredon Grande make up the heart of a stretch of beaches, lagoons, thickets, and mangrove and evergreen forests. Though known more for its resorts, Cayo Coco has been designated an Important Bird Area. Indeed, the grounds of our hotel were thick with birds: Royal Tern, Laughing Gull, Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Oriole, and many migrant warblers.

We searched nearby wetlands for West Indian Whistling-Duck, Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Northern Shoveler, and American Flamingo, and we discovered a flock of 110 American Avocets — a vagrant species in Cuba. In roadside forests at Playa Pilar to the west and Paredon Grande to the east, we saw Cuban Bullfinch, Oriente Warbler, Bahama Mockingbird, Western Spindalis, Cuban Gnatcatcher, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Pewee, and the northern race of Zapata Sparrow.

Our favorite destination in 2013 was the Río Máximo Flamingo Refuge, about 100 miles east of Cayo Coco, on the north coast. In recent decades, it has provided nesting habitat for one of the largest concentrations of American Flamingos anywhere, as many as 60,000 pairs. When we visited, the population was lower but still thrilling, 16,000 pairs. Since then, recreational and fishing boats have been allowed near the breeding area, and the colony appears to have been abandoned.

Fefo Morales and Loydi Vázques have managed the refuge since its creation in 1987, protecting waterfowl, manatees, songbirds, and shorebirds. They and their supporters hope that boaters will be prevented from returning in the future and that the flamingos will come back.

Cuba is home to many great spots for birds. BirdLife International has identified 28 Important Bird Areas, most of which welcome visitors. Gran Piedra, a forested area about 15 miles east of the city of Santiago, in eastern Cuba, is one. Birders there have recorded 10 endemic species, including Gundlach’s Hawk, Oriente Warbler, and Cuban Grassquit. It’s also a wintering location for Black-throated Blue Warbler and a major passage site for Osprey and other migrants bound for South America.

Alejandro de Humboldt National Park is another. It lies about 60 miles northeast of Gran Piedra and covers 175,000 acres. Endemic Cuban Tody, Blue-headed Quail-Dove, and Cuban Parakeet are among the species that have been spotted in its mountainous pine forests and tropical rain forests. What’s more, the most recent sighting of critically endangered Cuban Kite occurred at Humboldt, in 2010, and the park may yet harbor Ivory-billed Woodpecker. (See sidebar below.)

Last stronghold of the Ivory-bill

Mountainous cloud forests in Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a World Heritage site in remote eastern Cuba, may be the last stronghold of the Cuban subspecies of Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The park was the site of the last reliable sighting, in March 1987. Members of the survey team heard the woodpecker there in 1988, 1989, and 1992, and a handful of local residents also reported seeing or hearing the bird in the area as recently as 2008, but the sightings have not been confirmed. Consequently, many authorities consider the subspecies, like its counterpart in the United States, to be extinct.

Giraldo Alayon, a biologist who reported seeing the bird in 1987, leads several trips a year for the Caribbean Conservation Trust. One of them visits the park, although it does not explore the woodpecker’s suspected remaining habitat.

Lessons from Cuba

Our visits were wonderful experiences. Bird-study trips involve field activities to gather information on Cuban birds, and they provide daily opportunities to learn about culture, history, and natural-resources management from the country’s leading biologists, artists, and nature photographers.

Birding Cuba is so much more than just an exercise in listing. We made lasting bonds with conservationists as we learned about their problems and accomplishments. The U.S. has an international migratory bird treaty with Canada, Russia, Japan, and Mexico, but no comparable agreement addresses mutual avian-conservation needs with our Cuban neighbors. My hope is that the recent thaw in our governments’ relations will not only allow more American birders to visit but also open doors for meaningful bird conservation in the years ahead.

Carrol L. Henderson is the nongame wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a tour leader, and the author or co-author of 13 books about birds, including Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation, reviewed here. In past issues, he has written about birding in Costa Rica and egg collecting.

Visit Cuba with us!

BirdWatching magazine and the Caribbean Conservation Trust will lead a bird-survey trip to Cuba December 7-16, 2017, and you can join us! Accompany acclaimed author David Sibley, Cuban scientist Dr. Luis Diaz, and other naturalists as we visit Cuba’s Western Mountains, Zapata Peninsula, Northern Archipelago, Escambray Valley, and Havana. Learn more.

  • I can imagine the birdwatching in Cuba would be breathtaking, especially seeing the Cuban Tody.
    http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=26366

  • Evelyn Ball

    We spent three weeks in Cuba this past Feb/March and did a few days of bird watching. I saw many birds like the Bee Hummingbird, Cuban Tody, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Solitaire and Cuban Trogon to name a few. It was a very interesting trip. Beautiful country, beautiful people and beautiful birds.