Chasing the Ivory-Bill

Day 3: Bureaucratic Snags and a Real Lead (Finally)

An old soul recounts a time before the phantom bird's disappearance.

January 25, 2016, Farallones de Moa, Cuba — We woke up shortly before dawn, skipped breakfast, and hiked up a steep, muddy trail to a vantage point high above the village. From there we could make out the distant ridgeline near Ojita de Agua, where we hoped to be camping soon. It was there that Les Short and his colleagues camped in 1986 when they saw at least two and possibly three Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and we are eager to retrace their steps. The place seems so mysterious now, and yet I know it will soon be very familiar to me. Is it actually possible I might see one of these birds? The idea is difficult to grasp, but this is the best remaining Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat in all of Cuba. And we have the tools—the double-knocker and the playback calls. If Ivory-bills are present anywhere in the country, they should be here, and we are well prepared to search for them.

A mule stood feeding on an open, grassy knoll nearby—perhaps one of the mules that will carry our gear up the mountain. We saw several interesting birds—the most common being Cuban Crows. Their raucous calls—so exotic, so unlike any sound made by an American Crow—echoed all around us. A Cuban Emerald, a stunning green endemic hummingbird, the first of its species I’ve seen, buzzed near some flowers—and then another and another. And then I caught a glimpse of a tiny Bee Hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, but it didn’t hang around long enough to give me a satisfying view; I hope I see more of them in the days ahead.

A short time later, we met with a park official at his office. He seemed amenable to the idea of us trekking to Ojito de Agua from Farallones, but he wanted to check with his department headquarters in Guantanamo. We soon discovered that our permits to enter the restricted area (where the Ivory-bills were seen) in Humboldt National Park had not come through from Havana—and also that we cannot enter the park from the Farallones side. We must travel to the Guantanamo office—more than four hours away—and make arrangements to enter Humboldt from there. In the meantime, the man suggested we head to Baracoa and get written permission to stay at Bahia de Taco, an outpost of Humboldt Park on the coast. We can spend a couple of days there, hiking from that side up into the high country while waiting for our paperwork to be completed. The pine forest on top of the mountains there is contiguous with that of Ojita de Agua, though about 30 kilometers away, so it should be a good place to begin our double-knock sessions.

Before we left Farallones, we met Rafael—a spry 91-year-old with close-cropped white hair and an easy smile. He has lived in Carpentero Real (Ivory-billed Woodpecker) country for his entire life, and he told us of his many encounters with them over the years. It was obvious he knows what he’s talking about. He was in his early teens when he first saw them, he said—large, elegant, black-and-white birds, sometimes moving in family groups. He mimicked their calls perfectly—enk, enk, enk—and told us with a laugh that they reminded him of the sounds of a young goat. They were so numerous he never had any trouble finding them, he said, and he could not have imagined that they would ever vanish from the face of the Earth. It was difficult to pin him down on the exact time when he stopped seeing them here. Heavy logging had taken place in the area for years. He seemed eager to talk but wanted to tell us about other things—his life, his dreams. He spoke of his wife, who passed away three years earlier, and of his philosophy: “I love everybody,” he said. “Every nationality, every color. Everyone is my family.” As we stood to leave, Rafael hugged us both tightly and wished us well on our journey.

Follow my daily blog as the search for the Ivory-Bill unfolds.

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