Cuba is forbidden fruit for many birdwatchers, but better relations and ending the trade embargo will lure many U.S. birders to the island’s avian delights.
By Rex Graham
Cuba has set aside a network of protected wildlife preserves for about 380 species of birds, including 25 endemics. International birding tour companies are adding more trips to Cuba, but available spots will be limited and trips scheduled for 2017 and 2018 are expected to fill in 2016.
“Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of American birders will flood into Cuba, in my opinion, as soon as it becomes legal for American citizens to travel there,” said Chris Lutz, founder of Birding Ecotours. “Not only does it have a large count of endemics, but it is inhabited by the planet’s smallest, the Bee Hummingbird, and this alone is a huge draw, as well as some of the most sought-after and dazzlingly beautiful bird species that can be found anywhere near the U.S.”
There are lingering restrictions for U.S. citizens. “Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey,” President Barack Obama said on Dec. 17, 2015. During his March 2016 trip to Cuba, Obama said during a joint press conference with Cuba President Raul Castro – “when, I can’t be entirely sure.”
Cuba has not been spared of beachfront development that has ravaged other Caribbean shores. In addition, shortages of fuel and expansion of agricultural production have led to massive tree-cutting for firewood and farms. Only 14% of Cuba’s original forests remain. Forest-specialist bird species have declined sharply as a result. The Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct and several other Cuban species may share that fate.
Here are some must-see species for your first Cuba trip:
Top-10 birds of Cuba
The critically endangered Cuban Kite is now confined to the northeast tip of Cuba between Moa and Baracoa, according to BirdLife International. The remaining 250 birds are gorgeous with a huge, oversized parrot-like yellow bill. Like the related Hook-billed Kite, it specializes on tree snails and uses its massive bill to pierce and crush the shells. The Cuban species individuals are smaller than the Hook-billed and have a larger all-yellow bill. It diverged from the Hook-billed about 400,000 to 1.5 million years ago. The population is collapsing and there are few photographs of it.
Gundlach’s Hawk, an endangered species, has declined due to Cuba’s deforestation and it is persecuted because of its occasional taste for free-range chickens. BirdLife International estimates 400 individuals survive in the wild. Its shape, large feet and long toes are similar to the Cooper’s Hawk, and both prey upon birds. The larger females hunt the upper canopy and the smaller males use their dashing flights to capture birds in the understory. Their Kek, Kek calls are distinctive, but they stop when Stygian Owls begin calling.
The Cuban Black Hawk, which is smaller and browner than the Common Black Hawk, inhabits the coasts and hunts mostly crabs and a few other insect, lizard and mammal species. This non-migratory species has greatly benefited from the establishment of protected reserves that include coastal swamps and mangroves.
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest of any bird and the other 330 hummingbird species. It is 100,000 times smaller than the Ostrich, the largest living bird. However the hummer has a beautiful fiery red throat and gorget. It is found throughout the Cuban archipelago, but has declined along with the loss of mature forests. Cuba actually has so few hummingbirds that 26 non-hummingbird species (including pigeons and doves, Cuban Green Woodpecker and other woodpeckers, and other birds) feed on nectar. Of the 15 hummingbird species in the Caribbean, the smallest is the only one that may be listed as near threatened. Best places to see them are on Guanahacabibes Peninsula and in the Zapata Swamp.
The Cuban Trogon is a red, white, blue and green national bird of Cuba that can be seen throughout the country. It hovers while feeding on flowers, fruit and insects on the archipelago. The length of its intestine is about double that of the Resplendent Quetzal, a related species, which indicates a more plant-based diet than the quetzal and other Central American trogons.
The nearly extinct Zapata Wren is now found only in the Zapata Swamp, and occasionally seems to disappear even there. The burning of grass by locals to more easily hunt terrapins may hurt the wrens. BirdLife International estimates only 140 pairs left. The Zapata Rail is just as critically endangered: an individual rail was sighted at the swamp in November 2014.
The Cuban Bullfinch is a common bird in Cuba with an unusual appearance. It may be in the tanager family and is most closely related to “Darwin’s Finches,” and Caribbean grassquits and bananaquits.
Fernandina’s Flicker excavates nest holes in Palm Trees and is often found hunting under them for insects, worms and seeds. BirdLife International lists it as vulnerable because there are only 400 or so remaining pairs, with the largest concentration in Zapata Swamp. Logging and agriculture have reduced the number of palm trees it needs. In a single palm it relinquishes old nest holes to another threatened bird, the Cuban Amazon. Bird trappers simply push over the nest trees and collect the Amazon chicks. Similar devastation may be caused by hurricanes. With nest-hole trees in short supply, other cavity-nesting species may force Fernandina’s Flickers from their holes as fast as they can excavate them.
Male Cuban Gnatcatchers have handsome black crescents behind their eyes that give them a unique look. Very little is known about these insect-eaters except that they are often found in Cuba’s cactus scrub and thorny dry coastal areas.
The screeches of Cuban Amazons are heard only at a few places on Cuba, and also on smaller Caribbean islands. In the wild, the charismatic birds nest in limestone caves and palm tree burrows excavated by Fernandina’s Flicker and other cavity excavators. Poachers and trappers in Cuba, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands routinely push over the nest trees and sell the nestlings through the pet-trade industry. Wild-caught and confiscated birds have been housed in three captive-breeding populations (Zapata Swamp, Managua and the National Zoo) as the population has plummeted. Zoo and other captive-breeding programs for many bird species have been established to boost wild populations and create “insurance colonies” against extinction. However, most don’t have strategies to minimize inbreeding (more precisely called “mean kinship”). As a result most “are not likely to achieve their conservation goals,” according to a report in Journal of Heredity by Cuban and Canadian researchers. They recommended a strategy based on detailed genetic data to minimize kinship of breeding pairs.