Sunday, December 16, 2012

Las Salinas, Cuba

Our group from New Mexico Ornithological Society wraps up its stay in the Zapata Peninsula with an evening trip to Las Salinas––a coastal region of mangroves, replete with large waterbirds.

Driving in, we find a big Blue Crab in the middle of the sandy road, and our driver Francisco rescues it.

Francisco wrangles a big Blue Crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) to safety.

Migrant warblers join the resident "golden" form of Yellow Warbler in these mangroves. Mangroves are the "trees that walk to the sea," an impression heightened by the big prop roots of the Red Mangroves. Along tropical coasts the world over, mangroves provide extremely rich habitat, giving food and shelter to wildlife, and acting as a nursery for many fish and invertebrates like the Blue Crab. They also filter out heavy metals, which sink into the fine sediments under the mangroves––an important environmental service. For humans living nearby, mangroves give protection from storm surges and tsunamis. Although many regions of mangroves have been destroyed by development in recent decades, efforts are also underway to restore this valuable habitat.

Red Mangroves are a common species at Las Salinas. The roots of these remarkable plants can exclude at least 90% of the sea salt from entering the plant.

A Red Mangrove in flower

Here at Las Salinas we see a couple of rare white morph Reddish Egrets. One of our group, Bruce Neville, lived for many years in Florida and knows the subtleties of identifying these coastal birds. He teaches me something new: in distinguishing the white Reddish Egrets from immature Little Blue Herons, look for some yellow-green wash on the legs of Little Blues. The legs of Reddish Egrets have only gray and black hues. I have always relied on features like differences in the bills, proportions, and behavior, and it's fun to learn a new field mark.

Reddish Egret (Watercolor by Narca)

But the flamingos steal the show! American Flamingos are an especially bright rosy-red, due to carotenoid pigments from the crustaceans in their diet. These birds glow in the setting sun.

American Flamingos execute a delicate pas-de-deux.

Flamingos are from an ancient lineage; 
fossil flamingos are 30-50 million years old!

Two flamingos catch the fading daylight.

Our NMOS gang savors the sunset, as flocks of flamingos and egrets wheel past. It's a fine end to a day that started with a Zapata Sparrow!

We make good use of an observation platform at Las Salinas.

Now––almost a month after our evening at Las Salinas––while exploring the far reaches of cyberspace, I find this mangrove-related passage to share with you. Annie Dillard wrote it:

"The planet is less like an enclosed spaceship––spaceship earth––than it is like an exposed mangrove island beautiful and loose. We the people started small and have since accumulated a great and solacing muck of soil, of human culture. We are rooted in it, we are bearing it with us across nowhere. The word 'nowhere' is our cue: the consort of musicians strikes up, and we in the chorus stir and move and start twirling our hats. A mangrove island turns drift to dance. It creates its own soil as it goes, rocking over the salt sea at random, rocking day and night and round the sun, rocking round the sun and out toward east of Hercules."

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