Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Chigger Farm

In a brief interlude between major destinations, our group from New Mexico Ornithological Society stays in the lovely hotel of San Diego de los Baños. (Yes––there are hot springs!)

San Diego de los Baños (Photo by Narca)

Here we (rather carefully) tromp through what came to be called "the chigger farm". Forewarned, all of us accept Dale's generous offer of a liberal dusting with his flowers of sulphur, and later I hear only one person lament having found those chiggers.

And why head out on such a risky mission? The chigger farm is our one chance at seeing the beautiful Cuban Grassquit.

They are elusive. With no luck on our first try, we return another day. They are still elusive, but we persist. Eventually our Cuban guide Giraldo and our driver Francisco (also an enthusiastic birder!), locate the little imps, in a flock where they are outnumbered by Yellow-faced Grassquits. From across a field, we all enjoy scope views, and then the more audacious photographers wade through more chiggers to try for photos.

Yellow-faced Grassquit (Photo by Narca)

As uncooperative as these birds are, I'm amazed that Jerry is able to catch this photo of the gorgeous male and his fetching mate.

A pair of endemic Cuban Grassquits (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

In double-checking information for this post, I've learned from Wikipedia that this grassquit is now considered to be a tanager, and most closely related to Darwin's finches of the Galapagos. This relationship between Cuban species and those of the Galapagos is also emphasized by Giraldo Alayon, our Cuban scientist-guide. In his work with spiders, he has found a group in Cuba whose closest relatives are on the Galapagos! Giraldo also tells us that the same situation exists with Bahama Mockingbird––its closest relatives are the Galapagos mockingbirds, not our familiar Northern Mockingbird or the nearby Tropical Mockingbird of Central and South America.

I am very curious about this connection between Cuba and the Galapagos. Does anyone out there know more? Apparently part of Cuba formed over the Galapagos hotspot, yet that was so long ago that it seems unlikely that the lifeforms would have the same source. And the evidence comes from such disparate groups as spiders and birds!

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