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By Nic.Korte

The crosses along the road were a sad reminder of past events. They were dedicated to Cubans killed during the US-supported invasion of Cuba known in our country as the Bay of Pigs, but elsewhere as the Invasion of Playa Girón.
(Photo by Tim Henson)

The failed invasion occurred in April 1961. Fifty-five years later, birders are invading. The village of Playa Larga was our base for exploring the nearby Zapata Swamp—the largest protected area in the Caribbean.

But, why go birding in Cuba?

Because it is an island!  Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson and his collaborator Robert MacArthur tested a theory of species equilibrium on a tiny island in the Florida Keys. All insect species were eradicated and they observed the re-population by new species. A book describing this experiment, The Theory of Island Biogeography, became a standard ecology text explaining how many species will populate islands of a certain size, and why many are endemics—that is, found nowhere else in the world.

While the exact number can be debated—if Hawaii (home to many island-endemics) is eliminated--the number of bird species found only in the United States during their entire life span is 16. The number found in Cuba and nowhere else is 24-- down from 26 because two are already extinct. The number of Cuban endemics may rise as more genetic testing is performed, but it may also fall because most of the 24 remaining endemics are rated endangered or vulnerable because of their small populations and dwindling habitat.

Besides, the “Cuba-only” birds, 21 others found on Cuba are found only in the West Indies—often on only one or two other islands. Some of these are also endangered.
One endemic we saw frequently was the Cuban Trojan or tocororo—a local name based on its call. Fortunately, this beautiful bird, unlike many trogons found in Central and South America, is adaptable, and has a stable population.

(Cuba's National Bird, the Cuban Trogan, photo by Tim Henson)

Why Cuba now?

Restrictions for travel by US citizens are still in place. Travel in a group and under a special license is required. The pretense is that the group is doing a Natural History Survey or engaging in some sort of educational or social outreach. What is driving birders, however, is the sense of "before it is too late.” There is fear that Western investment and too many visitors will overrun the limited habitat. For example, two major birding magazines recently published articles about birding on Cuba.

One morning, I asked our tour leader how many other birding groups he thought might be in the area. He said he'd be surprised if there were others. We arrived at our planned location only to be confronted with two large buses and two larger groups of birders. We had hoped to see the endangered Zapata Wren. Possibly less than 1000 still survive. With more than 50 birders and three guides trying to call one; is it any wonder none of us saw a Zapata Wren? Lack of infrastructure and lack of enforcement of existing law, rather than resorts and condos may be more likely to doom Cuba’s remaining fragile species. Indeed, our local guide thought major resort developments on the Western model would not happen because Cuba’s leaders have clung to their original paradigm and not used their power to enrich themselves.  Whatever one may think of the Cuban socioeconomic model, it is a good thing that money can't buy influence.

The people we met were delightful. Our food was tasty and plentiful. A five-inch piece of thick spiny lobster tail anyone? How about a plateful of fresh shrimp? 

However the future plays out, I hope there will be room for Fernandina’s Flicker. Perhaps only 600 individuals remain in isolated populations. We were lucky, two of them gave us a great view for many minutes. 

(Fernandina's Flicker, photo by Tim Henson)

[Populations of all Cuban endemics are believed to be decreasing. Other species in jeopardy include: Giant Kingbird (population possibly as low as 250, we saw two), Blue-headed Quail Dove (population possibly no more than 1000, we saw none), Zapata Sparrow (population possibly no more than 1000, we saw none).]

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]


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