Successful Trip to Cuba

March 15, 2012 by Robert Rice

Pete Marra, Bob Rice, and Scott Sillett from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Migratory Bird Center recently traveled to Cuba. They met with the director, two vice directors and several scientists from the Institute of Ecology in Havana to discuss research collaborations and ways to help build educational and research capacity.

Because of its size and proximity to the United States, Cuba is a critically important island for overwintering migratory birds. That means that establishing collaborations with Cuban scientists is vital to protecting our shared neotropical birds.

During the trip, the SCBI scientists and their Cuban counterparts Dr. Hiram Gonzales, Dr. Daysi Rodriguez, and Alejandro Llanes, visited several national parks and Biosphere Reserves that encompassed both natural and agricultural habitats. The trip resulted in an agreement to develop four primary projects:

  1. Examine the consequences of habitat occupancy by migratory and resident birds across natural and agricultural habitats of Cuba;
  2. Quantify the migratory connectivity of Cuban birds to North and South America;
  3. Establish an avian monitoring program for Cuban migratory and resident birds;
  4. Facilitate collection management training and collection restoration to ensure the long-term protection of avian specimens in Cuba.

The Cuban scientists and administrators hold the Smithsonian in high regard and were eager for research and training collaborations. The Smithsonian has a long legacy of cooperation with Cuba, including visits by Secretary Dillon S. Ripley in 1980, resulting in a signed MOU, a document still respected today.

Furthermore, the bird watching was tremendous. We saw several spectacular endemic species, which are found only in Cuba, including the Zapata sparrow and the bee hummingbird, the world's smallest bird. Cuban trogons, another endemic bird, seemed to be everywhere. We also saw yellow-headed warblers, Cuban todies, Cuban vireos, and many migratory species such as black-throated blue warblers and American redstarts foraging in the forest habitats.

I was really impressed by the number of protected areas. In one protected area near the Zapata swamp, a local guide named Orlando took us to see blue-headed and Key West quail doves. Thanks to proactive habitat protection to some areas in southern Cuba, especially its wetlands, Cuba remains a refuge to enormous numbers of Caribbean flamingos and other waterbirds. Unfortunately, areas on the north coast are under siege, largely by Spanish hotel developers.

Another issue in Cuba is the tradition of keeping wild birds as pets. In fact, it was quite common to see indigo and painted bunting in cages in downtown Havana. Some US scientists blame the significant decline in the eastern populations of painted buntings to the pet trade in Cuba.

Visiting Cuba was in many ways like stepping back in time. It was filled with relics from the past, including Chevys and Fords from the early 50; some towns relied almost entirely on horse and buggies for transportation. Everyone played music and Cuban music filled the parks and nightclubs. Here are a few more photos that highlight both the culture and natural history of beautiful Cuba.

Photos by Peter P. Marra.