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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cuba, Conservation, and Restoration

Many people told us, “See Cuba now, while it’s still isolated, before developers destroy it." But we didn’t find what we’d expected.

Yes, there are many rare and beautiful species and ecological remnants on this isolated island. And yes, some are severely threatened. And, admittedly, in two weeks we learned only so much. But we noticed parallels to the Midwest that suggested unexpected potentials and challenges for Cuban conservation.

Endemics are species found nowhere else on earth. Cuba has 63 endemic amphibians, 24 endemic mammals, and more than 3,000 endemic plants. (By comparison, surviving endemics in the British Isles include 0 amphibians, 1 bird, and fewer than 20 plants.)

Our trip focused on birds. Of Cuba's 26 endemic bird species, we saw 23 – quite a testament to our Cuban guides. For many species, a person needs to know just where to go; the populations are small; and the sustainability of the habitats appeared dubious. In many cases, development didn’t seem to be much of a threat. Invasive plant species did, and yet there were little or no resources for (or apparent interest in) combating them.

One disappointment was how much of our time we spent looking for birds on roadsides and other artificial habitats. Perhaps it was just easier to find them there, but we often got the sense that the habitats just back behind the edge were poor. 

The smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird is the size of a bumblebee.  
It bumbles about like a bee until it decides to move on, and then it vanishes in a blur.
Photo by Kim Novino (KN) 

Kim Novino waits for a bee hummingbird to return to the orange lantana flowers 
on which it was feeding. The mess of weeds, growing in a narrow strip along a new road, 
is probably not a sustainable habitat for this declining bird. 
The bee hummingbird survives in small areas widely scattered over the island. Found most frequently “in forest edges with an abundance of shrubs and flowers,” it was seen by us only twice - first in a newly cleared roadside and then along a half-built boardwalk among new tourist cabins. In other words, we found it in temporary, artificial habitats. We thought of the Midwest’s red-headed woodpecker that lost its natural savanna habitat, then was common for two centuries around farms and yards, but is now said the be the fastest declining bird in North America. Artificial habitats typically change, unsustainably for some of their species. In the U.S. we're restoring savanna habitat - to the benefit of red-headed woodpeckers and thousands of other species. Should the restoration of quality habitat be more explored in Cuba?

We found the Zapata wren and Zapata sparrow (above) near the Bay of Pigs. (KN)

We visited the vast Zapata Marshes just west of the Bay of Pigs to look for the Zapata wren, Zapata sparrow, and Zapata rail. The rail seems not to have been seen for years. We found the wren and the sparrow, but not in the marsh. They were flitting around invading trees and shrubs growing on dredge spoils along the edge of an artificial canal through the marsh. Our reference guidebook listed fire as a principal threat. In U.S. conservation, for decades we believed (wrongly) that fire threatened many species. Yes, fire may burn up some nests, but it also may be critical to maintaining the habitat. In recent years, fire has come to be seen as needed management for many grassland, wetland, and woodland species.

Many Cuban endemics
are still fairly common
including the Cuban oriole, yellow-headed warbler, and the Cuban tody (left).
Photo by Ron McAdow (RM)
This rickety platform provided some of our best birding. 
But a closer look at the habitat raised questions. 
We rarely saw rare birds in what looked like natural forests or grasslands. Around a rickety platform among small openings in brush, we saw many treasures including the Cuban solitaire, Gundlach's hawk, Cuban emerald hummingbird, and the Cuban pygmy owl. These thickets and openings looked something like a grazed-out Midwestern pasture, before restoration. In the Midwest, these habitats gradually become choked so thick with invasives that they lose their rare species. Here too, invasive were said to be increasing. We wondered what would happen to the birds of this habitat over time - if some disturbance didn't maintain the openings.

We walked north of the openings to see what was described as an undisturbed forest.
Impressive plant diversity grew from eroded limestone without visible soil.
It was a beautiful place we would have liked to see more of.

But we saw few birds there.

The endemic Cuban trogon - the national bird of Cuba. (KN)
In this woods, we saw Cuban trogon, Cuban pewee, Cuban parrot, and many other Cuban specialties. 
Why are all the trees small here? On this flat land near the Carribbean, 
the trees blow down in hurricanes every decade or two, we were told. 
Could wind be a Cuban counterpart to our prairie fires?   
In many places, we saw vast landscapes covered with monotypic stands of a Chinese shrub that seemed to have little habitat value. We saw infestation of Australian pine (Casuarina) and paperbark tree (Melaleuca) that would scare us if we saw them in Florida. These species can wipe out all biodiversity on land theoretically "preserved" for conservation. But when we'd ask about these infestations, we got no clear response. 

A similar assessment assessment struck me in Nils Navarro's fine book, Endemic Birds of Cuba.  Navarro devotes a page and a half to the threats Cuban birds and other animals face. He lists out-of-control fires, excessive rains, droughts, hurricanes, habitat destruction as a consequence of urbanization, development of the sugar industry, tourism, mining, tree cutting, poaching for food and the pet trade, cats, dogs, pigs, mongooses, African sharp tooth catfish, and pesticides. Invasive plants are apparently not seen as enough of a problem to mention. Or perhaps they don't seem worth mentioning because the challenge goes too far beyond Cuba's resources?

We saw many plows pulled by oxen, none by tractors. People work hard.
They don't have a lot of extra resources.

In rural areas, few people had cars.  
These folks are passing a sign marking the site of the battle of the Bay of Pigs invasion. 

In big cities, some people have 60-year-old American cars. 
But in the smaller towns, most people travel by bicycle, horse, or bus.  

Blue-headed quail dove. Extremely rare. Rapidly diminishing. (KN)
We saw the blue-headed quail dove in two areas. In both it had been baited with bird food. According to Navarro, it is illegally hunted as a delicacy. Despite a range of 11,000 square miles, there are estimated to be only one or two thousand birds left. That would be one or two birds per thousand square miles. Good habitat can support 20 per acre. What is good habitat? Are there forest management or restoration practices that would benefit this and other rare forest birds? 

We found Fernandina's flicker plentiful in one small area. Navarro says that 600 to 800 survive. Estimated habitat for the flicker is 2,800 square miles. Clearly, not all the habitat is as good as the little area where we saw them - a beautiful "fluvial savanna." It had clearly been burned recently. Our guides seemed not to know why - or whether burning helps this species (or for that matter the "near threatened" Cuban parrot, which sometimes nests in the same tree with it). Research on habitat management needs of rapidly declining species could pay big dividends.

Dr. Orlando Garrido, Cuba's foremost living naturalist, 
took time to welcome and orient our little delegation. 
Many Cubans we met were deeply committed to conservation. But resources are tight. Many Americans would eagerly go to Cuba to help with research and restoration, help find conservation grants, etc. That won't be easy, given the politics, though ambitious attempts could be well worth the effort, if the U.S. continues to relax its punitive restrictions. Perhaps non-antagonistic countries that have advanced restoration expertise could be helpful. South Africa and Australia come to mind. Would Cubans from the cities or countryside volunteer, as many do elsewhere - if facilitated? 

In the central U.S., for decades, American conservationists made a mistake. We focused too much on removing human influences. "Preserving" land - blocking development - was our principal conservation strategy. At least in the midwest, we now know that loss of habitat quality on protected conservation land is at least as big a cause of biodiversity loss. We have to conserve land, yes, but then we have to maintain habitat through controlled burns where needed, invasives control, and hydrology and species restoration. If American and Cuban conservationists could collaborate on such questions, it would likely be popular among both of our peoples. 


1. All photos taken by fellow trip-mates. Thanks to Kim Novino (KN), Ron McAdow (RM), Linda Masters and Stephen Packard.

2. We deeply appreciated the generous Cuban conservationists who led the trip, especially Dr. Luis Diaz of the Cuban Natural History Museum. Also Osmani Borrego, administrator of Guanahacabibes National Park.

3. We did find an exception to our impression that development was over-rated as a threat. On the barrier island of Cayo Coco, glitzy resorts are rapidly replacing habitat. Nearby Cayo Romano seems likely to lose much of its nature soon. Development could soon spell the end of its Cuban black hawks, thick-billed vireos, Cuban gnatcatchers, Bahama mockingbirds, and Cuban sparrows.
Cayo Romano was nearly all wild - and rich with rare shrubland plant and animal species.
Much of it is soon likely to be overrun with resorts
Given the need to build the tourist economy, some of the keys may lose nature. But it would be too bad if conservationists focused only on this tough nut instead of the huge areas where development isn't such a threat.

4. Our trip was organized by Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Caribbean Conservation Trust. Special thanks to trip leader Bob Speare.

5. We also saw eleven species of birds endemic to the West Indies - some of which are quite common in Cuba - including the great lizard cuckoo, Antillean palm swift, Cuban emerald hummingbird, and the red-legged thrush.


  1. Thank you for a peek into Cuba. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the photos of life in Cuba and the gorgeous birds. Your writings are thought provoking.

  2. You were lucky to partake in such an endeavor. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    How did this delegation benefit the local people so they would continue having a stake in conserving the rare species of their country?

    1. I hope we helped. Here are some possible ways.
      1) We exchanged a lot of ideas with the local conservation leaders; they were very proud to show off their areas and describe their efforts.
      2) We spent money of food, lodging, guides, etc. The fact that nature brings some revenue impresses some people.
      3) I think they can learn from us and we can learn from them.

    2. I am sure your delegation both disseminated valuable ideas to conservation leaders and helped give local residents a stake in conservation. Such actions as spending money on food, lodging, guides, and passing along your great experiences to others are often the things that tip the balance toward local support for conservation. Many stewardship groups in the Chicago region help build local support by going out to eat after a workday which also has the added benefit of giving volunteers an opportunity to socialize.

  3. Great photos! Thanks for keeping hope alive.

  4. Looks like a great trip. Too bad about the unsustainable habitat, but sounds as if it was a good idea exchange with local naturalists.

  5. Looks like a fantastic trip. Cuba also as wonderful endemic butterflies. I've alwatys wanted to see Gundlach's swallowtail.