A small iridescent green bird, its bright red throat framed in blue, flits from shrub to shrub, oblivious to the fact that the nearby limestone caves once sheltered the legendary Che Guevara and his troops.
This is Cuba.
As our Chinese-manufactured tour bus bumped over dirt roads in a small town, a woman chatted on a cellphone from her seat in a horse-drawn cart.
This is Cuba, too.
Eager to see such sights, a group of 12 bird-watchers and photographers, most of us Minnesotans, jumped at a rare chance to travel to the Caribbean island in March. A map shows 240 miles separating Miami and Havana, but due to bitter political realities, our two countries are much further apart. Because of the U.S. embargo imposed in 1962, very few Americans have been allowed to travel to Cuba during the past 50 years. Even though restrictions have eased a bit, it's still not easy to gain approval for Cuba travel: A tour to conduct bird surveys under the auspices of the Caribbean Conservation Trust (see box), under a license granted by the U.S. Treasury Department, was our ticket into this fascinating country.
Cuba has a high number of birds found nowhere else in the world — 26 species are unique to this 750-mile-long island — and these were the birds we were most eager to see on our surveys. Such birds are called endemics in ornithological circles and here's a figure for comparison's sake: The continental United States has only 15 endemic species over a vastly larger land mass.
The Cuban tody was the little green bird lurking near the limestone caves, very easy to spot as he gave his rapid staccato call. We were fascinated by the vibrantly colored bird but also by the whiff of recent history provided by our Havanatur guide's tale of Guevara and his troops holing up here during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s.
(This kind of juxtaposition cropped up frequently during our tour. We visited sites whose spectacular natural beauty was steeped in history and the ghosts of the country's recent past. And we often felt like time-travelers, as we passed scenes from another century — farmers plowing fields with teams of oxen and horse-drawn carriages moving down the side of the highway.)
But back to the birds. Cuba is home to only two species of hummingbirds, and one of them is the smallest bird in the world. People come from all over the globe to view the 2 ½-inch bee hummingbird, so tiny it's easily mistaken for a large insect as it hovers to feed on tiny flowers. It's feisty, like all hummingbirds, and often chases the much-larger Cuban emerald hummingbird.
The highlight a few days later was another tiny bird, the 6 ½-inch Cuban pygmy-owl (an endemic). Unlike most owls, this sparrow-sized bird was out hunting in the daytime and flew right over our heads several times.
Drifts of flamingoes
Much of our time was spent in western Cuba, at preserves around the infamous Bay of Pigs and within the massive Zapata Swamp, the third largest wetland in our hemisphere (after Argentina's Pantanal and Florida's Everglades). The pools and lagoons within the swamp attract huge flocks of flamingoes from as far away as Venezuela during nesting season, up to 50,000 pairs of these gangly, spectacularly pink birds.
We learned to look closely at trees with berries for the chance to spot Cuba's single tanager, the Western spindalis, until recently known by the more descriptive name of stripe-headed tanager.
We spent several hours one morning following local bird guides through a section of forest, searching for the rare blue-headed quail dove: Think of a pigeon on steroids with an iridescent blue head patch. This handsome ground feeder was definitely worth all the scrambling down forest trails for a sighting. In another habitat we spied the giant kingbird, similar to our Eastern kingbird, but with a massive beak.
The woodpeckers were knockouts, too, especially the Cuban green woodpecker (it is green) and the Fernandina's flicker.
Birds from home
We were lucky enough to record 23 of those unique-to-Cuba birds. But mingling with the exotics were species of birds we could see back in Minnesota, such as palm warblers, black and white warblers, Baltimore orioles and the occasional American robin. These migrants would soon lift off to travel up the Mississippi Flyway to their summer homes.
I asked Carrol Henderson, who heads the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program, why he and his wife, Ethelle, put together Cuba tours.
"These trips open people's eyes about Cuba and the wonderful bird life to see here," Henderson said. "But they also spotlight the preservation work of the many committed biologists and botanists in this country."
Some birds in Cuba are found throughout the Caribbean, such as the red-legged thrush, a cousin of our robin, with spooky red eyes and those eponymous red legs. I think our bird guides were puzzled by our enthusiasm for this new-to-us bird.
Cuba could be a mecca for bird watchers, but our guides pointed out that the country is only slowly catching on to that fact. Facilities are very limited in the national parks and preserves, with no boardwalks, only a few crumbling viewing stands and little in the way of signage. Our Havanatur guide noted that poverty prevents most Cubans from feeding birds or becoming bird watchers.
Our flight out of José Martí airport in Havana was quite late, giving me time to mull over what had been an extraordinary 12 days. Yes, the birds were stunningly exotic, and we hope the migratory birds there will someday come under the protection of a treaty between our two countries, as they are elsewhere. But we were also fascinated by the cultural perspectives provided by our Cuban guides and our meetings with residents. Cubans are desperately poor, but they're resilient and very proud of their country and its history.
As more and more Americans tour our neighbor just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, I suspect that there will be more advocates for lifting the decades-old embargo, which slights both people and birds.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.