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Continued: Birder gets a rare glimpse at the birds of Cuba

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 24, 2014 - 1:41 PM

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 val​

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    Americans aren’t allowed to visit Cuba as bird-watchers or tourists (although millions of others from around the world do so each year). We traveled under the license granted to the Caribbean Conservation Trust, requiring a humanitarian project to benefit the Cuban people. The bird surveys we conducted in Cuba’s spectacular national parks and preserves contributed to ongoing conservation work. Our contingent was led by Carrol Henderson, who heads the Minnesota DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program, and his Costa Rica-born wife, Ethelle.

    I can’t imagine a better pair of trip leaders, but Carrol and Ethelle’s Cuba trips are booked solid for the near future. If you’re interested in traveling to Cuba, and your focus is nature or birds, try the Caribbean Conservation Trust, They have “bird survey” trips coming up in November and next February. Many tour companies also offer people-to-people education tours. Google “tours to Cuba” for a start.

    Val Cunningham

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