The Birds of Cuba

Our Casa owner, Adrian, gesticulates excitedly in broken English. He then energetically drags Marietta and I to his back yard oasis. “Come… Come!” he says, as we follow him with exhaustion after a long day. Bird Feeders hang from native trees and shrubs and a bird bath stands waiting for the birds to use every morning and evening. Within seconds, Adrian is showing us the smallest bird in the world – the Bee Hummingbird. The male Bee sits in a bush at eye level. He measures just shy of two inches long. Many native birds in Cuba are threatened by habitat loss, development and other human activity.

Birds Caribbean is a conservation group based in Natick, Massachusetts that is working to bring back the numbers of Cuban birds that have been in decline for the past 10-15 years. Not only is the organization making a difference in avian conservation, but they are also helping the people of Cuba make a living in the process. Cuban Biologist Ernesto Reyes explains how Adrian, at Casa Ana in Matanzas, used to be a poacher – of animals and even endangered species. But then Ernesto and others convinced him that he could make more money as an entrepreneur if he devoted his energy to planting native trees and bushes in his back yard. If Adrian could attract native birds, like the Bee Hummingbird, to his yard, then people would pay good money to stay at his home, or Casa.

The Bee Hummingbird opens and closes his colors at will, either to intimidate a rival bird who is invading his territory or to attract a mate. Maybe he thought I was pretty, and that is why his colors are out. 🙂 Well, I think he’s pretty handsome, too, and I came all this way to see him, so the feeling is mutual.

Many of these families who own Casas set aside two or more rooms in their home for travelers and the nicer they fix them up, the more money they can get per night. At night, the family will sleep in one room if they need to for the extra income they make from tourism. And if they can offer a bird sanctuary in their backyard, that’s even better for bird watchers and photographers.

These economic incentives often appeal to both rural, town and city dwellers. Casa owners Magdiel and Maidalys were the first family to host us as a group in the town of Vinales. In the morning, our hosts set out Cuban coffee with hot milk (or tea if you want it) and a spread of fresh papaya, guanabana and pineapple. They also offer eggs and sometimes, a pastry if you are lucky. This morning, I wake to Roosters crowing at 6 a.m. The Rooster here is a genius. He “cock-a-doodle-doos” at bedtime, sunrise and Siesta time!

After showing us the Bee Hummingbird, Adrian drags us further into his backyard. It is close to 6 pm when the Pygmy Owl is perched. And there it is, the Cuban Pygmy Owl, sitting pretty for us and posing for what seems like an eternity. This owl is very small, only about 9 inches long. It is quite a tame owl and on this trip, we get to see at least two pygmy owls, in addition to a Stygian Owl and a Bare Legged Owl.

The Cuban Trogon, below, is one of the most beautiful birds in the Caribbean.

Our guides and naturalists, Tania and Ernesto, searching for endemics at Sunrise.

Ernesto and Tania stop the bus often on the side of the road when they spot special endemic birds like this one … the Cuban Parakeet!

The Red Legged Thrush is a fairly common sight in Cuba.

The Cuban Green Woodpecker is not as common, below:

This Cuban Emerald is “the other Hummingbird” in Cuba. There are only 2 species of Hummer on the island, which incidentally, is about the same size as Florida.

Fernandina’s Flicker is an elusive bird that is one of the most endangered woodpecker species in the world. With the excellent skill of our guides, we are actually able to chase a couple of them down. (Below)

The Cuban Tody is one of the most adorable birds in the world and I still have high hopes of obtaining excellent photographs, but this photo eluded me because in this case, the bird was high above our heads. We had to strain our necks (Kind of like you do with Warblers) to see it! This is one bird, along with the Bee, that I am completely in love with and hope to return to Cuba someday to see more of.

I must talk about our trip to the Cuban military museum at Playa Giron, which is fascinating. The Museo Giron is a state owned museum whose exhibit explains the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 from the Cuban perspective. The 57 soldiers they lost in the American invasion are their National Heroes, whose names are engraved on a plaque outside of the museum. This young soldier stands guard outside the museum.

Below is a photograph of the Bay of Pigs, where the invasion took place. The name comes from when the Spanish brought pigs to the island on ships from Spain. Pirates used to be a common threat in the region as well. Aarrgghh!

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about this Spanish Colonial town named Trinidad. Like Old Havana, there are many 500 year old buildings that have been renovated and are still in use today. These are buildings and whole towns that were built by the Spanish in the 1500s, when Cuba was a colony of Spain and Elizabeth I was Queen of England. What is remarkable to us as Americans and Europeans is the absence of cars and traffic on the street.

On the main road outside of every town, Cuban people regularly stand by the side of the road. They are either hitchhiking or waiting for the bus to take them to their jobs. Most people in Cuba do not own a car. All of the car dealerships in Cuba are owned by the government, and even though they lifted restrictions on car buying there, the mark-up is ridiculously high and goes to the government. For example, a Toyota Corolla in the U.S. costs $20,000, but the same car in Cuba costs $40,000, and it is second hand. In contrast, a government worker in Cuba only takes home $30 a month on average. Cars are simply too expensive for most Cubans.

Below, Tania and Tom are checking out Old Trinidad, where vast wealth from sugar plantations allowed the Spanish to build ornate homes, large churches and cobblestone streets.

After dinner, we are entertained by local Cuban musicians. Their music is truly enjoyable and uplifting. This is another way that eco tourism supports the Cuban people. A third way is when a family has enough room on their patio to cook an evening meal for a group, and serve alcohol like a restaurant.

It is truly special when a Cuban family invites you into their home for dinner. We now have friends in Cuba, including Tania, Ernesto and Mariana…

Andrew Dobson is the President of Birds Caribbean. Andrew runs a great organization and possesses a wonderful sense of humor, too. Here he is having a conversation with the late, great John Lennon.

Having spent most of our 2 weeks in the country side, we finally arrive back in Havana. Here, we enjoy rides in old cars.

In Spanish Colonial times, very wealthy plantation owners had all the power and wealth, they owned slaves and sugar plantations. Here, we walk along the Cobblestone streets that are still intact and being restored.

In Old Havana, children are doing exercises in gym class as their teacher leads.

What an eye opening experience I had in Cuba, both with the Cuban people and with the Birds.

Thank you for reading my blog, I hope you enjoyed it!

3 thoughts on “The Birds of Cuba

  1. Wow! Wonderful stuff and you’re so lucky to have gotten there before everything fell apart. (I too made a trip just under the wire: got back from a MA Audubon birding trip to S. Florida on 3/6. If you are interested in seeing the birds I shot, some of which are truly weird, you can find them at https://bjsilver.smugmug.com/ in the South Florida gallery.)

    Hope we can bird freely for spring migration and everyone gets to that point in good health –

    Barbara Silver

    Liked by 1 person

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