Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Autumn Musings

Once again, drifts of autumn leaves shift with the winds in South Fork, in the Chiricahua Mountains. Madrone berries are peaking, and pulling in feasting birds. Above, the sky is frisky with mares' tails, foretelling an impending storm. All this richness!

Autumn along the South Fork Road (Photos by Narca)

And one friend who fully appreciated wild richness, no longer is here to do so. Farewell to Rich Stallcup, who showed me my first Montezuma Quail right here in the Chiricahuas, more than three decades ago.

Montezuma Quail (Acrylic painting by Narca)

Mexican Jay, tossing leaves

The only industrious creatures this afternoon are the jays, proving by their behavior that we've overlooked some subtle relation between them and the leaftossers of Central America... a musing that returns to Rich, who often connected ideas in an original manner. He told Peter Warshall, "They've put vultures and storks in the same family. Seems like a birder's great melding of bringing babies and recycling the dead."

The main idea that stayed with me from reading One Hundred Years of Solitude was Márquez's notion that the key to living well in old age is to reach an "honorable pact with solitude". We also face the challenge of reaching some peaceable accommodation with the loss of friends––with losing all of those whose going leaves an empty place against the sky.

Mexican Jay, a portrait

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cuba's Warblers

One of the last outings in Cuba for our group from New Mexico Ornithological Society is a quick trek into the Sierra de Cubitas, not far from the city of Camagüey. It is late in the day when we arrive, and rain showers are threatening.

In the foothills of the sierra, we find a very excited, vocal group of Cuban Palm Crows. See how short the wings are? Much shorter than in Cuban Crow, the other endemic corvid. The palm crows also sound rather like our Fish Crow, unlike the crying-baby call of the Cuban Crow. Fun!

An endemic Cuban Palm Crow (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Soon we are immersed in another big mixed flock of wintering North American warblers, like this beautiful Prairie Warbler.

Prairie Warbler (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Then the Oriente Warblers appear! Jubilation! 

Of Cuba's two endemic wood warblers, the Oriente Warbler replaces the Yellow-headed in the eastern part of the island. Both occur in all types of forest and at all elevations, as long as the understory is dense. Oriente Warblers often conceal their nests in a clump of Tillandsia, a bromeliad.

Oriente Warblers emerge from a tangle (Photo by Narca)

Oriente Warbler (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Yellow-headed Warbler (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

The Yellow-headed Warbler has a similarly restricted range, occurring only in western Cuba, but also is in no danger. Indeed we found it to be common in the region around María la Gorda and Guanahacabibes. Look at the size of that bill––quite large for a warbler!

Earlier in the trip in pine forest near Cueva de los Portales, we had found the Olive-capped Warbler, a Cuban specialty that also lives in the Bahamas. Although it occurs only very locally in pine forests, the Olive-capped is fairly common in the right habitat and is not endangered.

Olive-capped Warbler (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

We saw few snakes in Cuba, but Jim did find this lovely little boa on the grounds of Hotel Batey Don Pedro. This Dusky Dwarf Boa has an interesting alternate name: the Cuban Giant Dwarf Boa!

Dusky Dwarf Boa, Tropidophis melanurus (Photo by Narca)

As the sun sets once again over Cuba, I celebrate both the people who have graced this trip and the birds––from the super-stars like Cuban Parrot to the familiar, cosmopolitan Great Egret.

Cuban Parrot (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Great Egret (Photo by Narca)

Dave Krueper excelled as our group leader from New Mexico Ornithological Sociey. Cubans––our cultural guide Ray, scientist-guide Giraldo Alayon, bus driver Francisco, and local guides throughout––all added immeasurably to our experience. Thank you, everyone!

Janet Ruth and Dave Krueper at lunch in Havana. In the background are Jerry Oldenettel, Christopher Rustay, Jim Shiflett, 
and Alan (looking away). (Photo by Narca)

Pretty good trip, huh, Bruce?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Giant Kingbirds!

After watching day break over the city of Camagüey (home town for our Cuban guide Ray), our merry band from New Mexico Ornithological Society sets out for Finca La Belén in the Sierra de Najasa.

Dawn over Camagüey from the roof of our hotel (Photo by Narca)

La Belén is a protected holding where ranching and ecotourism converge. Here we are seeking the Giant Kingbird... and anything else that crosses our path. One of the first birds we run across is a Cuban Pygmy-Owl. We've found this species throughout the trip: what a treat that has been!

Cuban Pygmy-Owl (Photo by Narca)

Pretty soon the cry comes––a Giant Kingbird has been found! It is actually slightly smaller than southern Arizona's Thick-billed Kingbird, but we'll keep that between us. Their bills are similarly enormous––look at the stoutness here! And compare that to the more slender bill of the Loggerhead Kingbird below. The Giant and Loggerhead Kingbirds are closely related and occur here in the same habitat. The Giant, however, is endangered, while the Loggerhead is abundant. Reasons for the Giant Kingbird's decline are not known, although the loss of large trees for nesting is a likely factor.

Giant Kingbird (Photo by Narca)

Loggerhead Kingbird (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

The rest of the morning is relaxed. Our time in Cuba is drawing to a close, and we are savoring the species that come our way. Today a Gundlach's Hawk favors us––among the best views of the trip, although the flying raptor doesn't give me a chance for a photo. Cuban Green Woodpeckers and a Red-legged Thrush are among the birds we'll miss when we leave!

Cuban Green Woodpecker (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Red-legged Thrush (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Butterflies at La Belen are among the best we've seen on the trip.

Cuban Daggerwing, Marpesia eleuchea (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Malachite butterfly, Siproeta stelenes (Photo by Narca)

Around us, the work of the ranch continues, and after an excellent lunch, Janet and Ray even find a pony to ride.

Oxen pull a laden farm conveyance (Photo by Narca)

Janet finds a new friend (Photo by Narca)

We have one more destination today, the Sierra de Cubitas, where we will search for Oriente Warblers, the last of Cuba's three species of endemic wood warblers. So we don't linger long after lunch, as inviting and comfortable as Finca La Belén is!

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."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bermejas Reserve, Cuba

Over the course of several days, our group from New Mexico Ornithological Society explores wild areas of the Zapata Peninsula. One morning we begin especially early, for we are going to Bermejas Wildlife Reserve, renowned for its quail-doves. We must arrive at first light and secret ourselves behind a blind, to be in place when the shy quail-doves venture out to feed.

On our first bird survey in Cuba (with Western Field Ornithologists), Alan and I missed seeing the spectacular Blue-headed Quail-Dove. It was the only Cuban endemic we missed, of those that we could reasonably hope for. So for once I am especially alert, this early in the morning!

Bermejas Wildlife Reserve, Zapata Peninsula, Cuba (Photo by Narca)

We walk a short distance down a trail at Bermejas, and stand behind a blind, silent and unmoving as the early morning light slowly grows. Very soon Zenaida Doves appear. We wait.

And then the first quail-dove joins the Zenaidas--a beautiful Gray-fronted, recently split from the White-fronted Quail-Dove of Hispaniola. "Gray-fronted" doesn't do it justice at all. Its head is entirely opalescent, and the violet of its back shimmers in the early light.

Gray-fronted Quail-Dove (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Again, we wait. And at last the Blue-headed Quail-Doves emerge, two pairs of this endangered, exquisite species. (And this is just how the day starts!)

Blue-headed Quail-Dove (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

When we emerge from the quail-dove blind, Turkey Vultures are sunning.

Turkey Vulture (Photo by Narca)

We are now farther east in Cuba, and thus closer to the region recently hit by Hurricane Sandy––and we are finding more and more flooded habitats (even in this region of marsh land) where usually we would be able to walk. So finding Fernandina's Flicker and Bare-legged Owl becomes a major challenge. We eventually hear one flicker, but do not see it. 

Our local guide Orlando is determined to show us the Bare-legged Owl. He knows the daytime roost for one, quite close to the road, and when the owl isn't visible at the cavity entrance, he wades knee-deep through the flooded grasses towards the snag. At his approach, the owl pops out to observe what manner of creature would brave the waters.

A Bare-legged Owl peers from its day roost. (Photo by Dave Krueper)

Orlando, our stalwart local guide, drains the water from his shoes. 
(Photo by Narca)

All of us appreciate Orlando's generous effort! And afterwards, he wears those wet jeans as a badge of honor. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zapata Peninsula

Our sojourn with New Mexico Ornithological Society moves on to the Zapata Peninsula on the central south coast of Cuba––a fabled land! Indeed, three birds are named for the region––the Zapata Wren, the Zapata Sparrow, and the Zapata Rail––of those, all are highly adapted to the marshy conditions of Zapata Swamp, and all are endangered.

Zapata Swamp National Park and Biosphere Reserve is also a RAMSAR site for conserving wetlands of international importance.
(Photos by Narca, except for Jerry's wren)

The wren and the rail are endemic to the Zapata Peninsula, at present time living nowhere else. Two other populations of the Zapata Sparrow live in Cayo Coco and Guantánamo Province. The rail, sadly, is slipping towards extinction, and none have been seen in several years. It suffers from predation by introduced African Sharptooth Catfish, which eat the rail chicks, and introduced Small Asian Mongooses. Our hopes, however, are high for finding the wren and the sparrow.

Our base here is Playa Larga ("Long Beach"), a lovely seaside hotel with scattered cabañas and a resident Stygian Owl. When we pull in, a Great Lizard Cuckoo is prowling the entry way.

A Great Lizard Cuckoo at the entry to Playa Larga

One idiosyncrasy of Cuban resorts is towel origami. They fold bath towels to resemble hearts, swans bearing flowers, and the like––and they carry the practice to a high art.

In Cuba, towel-folding gives a new twist to origami.

But Playa Larga is the only place where I've seen them attempt to fold a blanket in this manner!

This origami resembles a Red-throated Loon more than a swan.

The wetlands of Zapata Swamp are even more flooded than usual.

Venturing along roads with flooded sawgrass savanna on either side, we find Zapata's famous namesakes. The sparrow is especially cooperative: a pair observes us, then resumes foraging, until finally we walk away from them! This beautiful sparrow recalls for me the colorful brush finches of Central and South America.

A curious, confiding Zapata Sparrow (not all are so cooperative!)

The endangered Zapata Wren is more secretive, creeping through the undergrowth by the road, but eventually he relaxes with our presence and hops into full view. His flat crown strikes me as very distinctive.

Zapata Wren (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

The Zapata Peninsula is also the site of the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion. We visit a museum which presents the Cuban point of view of events here, where US actions were seen as an extreme provocation. To understand the US viewpoint, we have to place ourselves back in the fearful mindset of the Cold War. There is no need now to perpetuate those particular old fears. It's time to move on to today's vantage point, and normalize relations between the two countries!

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!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Che Guevara's Cave

The next stop in our Cuban journey with New Mexico Ornithological Society is Cueva de los Portales, the impressive limestone cave where Che Guevara hid during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

One entrance into Cueva de los Portales (Photos by Narca)

This 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union / Cuba was one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. The crisis was a direct result of our involvement in the attempt to overthrow Castro's government at the Bay of Pigs invasion. Our Cuban guide Ray tells us something I hadn't known––Castro only declared the country officially Communist after the provocation of the Bay of Pigs.

During those 13 days, Che Guevara––an Argentine revolutionary who became one of the most loved figures within Cuba and a symbol everywhere for rebellion––used Cueva de los Portales as the headquarters for the Western Army, which was under his command.

Che Guevara's image is everywhere, here on a vintage Chrysler.

When Alan and I visited the cave in 2004, there were a few stark pieces of furniture, including the bed where Che slept and the table where he played chess. Now some wooden construction has been done to give it a slightly more homey appearance, and the bed is neatly made up with sheets. The ceiling of the cave looms 90 feet above these bits of furniture.

The bed where Che Guevara slept during the Cuban missile crisis.

Textured limestone wall

Its history aside, the cave within these limestone mountains is most impressive. The cave lies within La Guira National Park, and the forests here shelter some of Cuba's special birds.

Limestone cliffs at La Guira National Park

The intriguing plant life would rouse anyone's Inner Botanist. 

The first new endemic for the day is a Cuban Solitaire––its plumage is modest, but its song is as haunting as that of other solitaires.

The Cuban Solitaire's song resonates in these mountains and, later,
 echoes in our daydreams.

A Great Lizard Cuckoo thrashes about the bromeliad-laden branches, and Cuban Green Woodpeckers forage on the palm fruits.

The Great Lizard Cuckoo is a relative of our roadrunner.

Fruiting palms attract hordes of hungry birds.

Possibly Cuba's most spectacular bird is its trogon, and today several trogons watch us curiously, as we admire them. This glorious species is both widespread and fairly common.

A fabulous Cuban Trogon, the national bird (no surprise there!)

The mountains around Cueva de los Portales also harbor Cuba's national flower, called White Ginger. It is actually native to Asia, but has thrived after introduction to Cuba. Cuban women used it to smuggle messages to their men during the wars for liberation of the 19th century.

White Ginger or Butterfly Jasmine, Hedychium coronarium,
is Cuba's national flower.

Next destination: the Zapata Swamp!