Each year, more than 72,000 volunteers spend parts of December and early January counting birds across the Americas for Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a citizen science project that tracks bird populations. In many places, counts have been going on for more than a century—but in Cuba, this year marked just the fifth time such counts have been conducted by Cuban birders themselves.
Cuba is a fantastic place to conduct a count—the country’s varied terrain, ranging from grasslands and lagoons to rain forests and cloud forests, supports 371 species and 28 endemic to Cuba—more birds than any other Caribbean island. Though U.S. personnel at Guantanamo Bay conducted a count for several seasons in the 1970s, they left the island and birds went uncounted for decades.
Then, in 2011 Robert Norton, a Gainesville, Fla., biologist who reviews CBC data for Audubon and leads several counts in the West Indies, met several Cubans at a meeting of the Society of Caribbean Ornithologists in the Bahamas. He encouraged them to start a count, and joined them to assist, gaining access to Cuba via a People to People license as a trip leader. (He got this visa via his employer, Holbrook Travel, which sponsors the counts.)
The work helps identify bird-rich areas in the country, a boon to American tourists and birders anxious to visit now that travel restrictions have eased. It could also provide support for Cuban conservation scientists who have been working with limited resources for years to preserve species and habitat (this year, Norton’s team brought donated, hard-to-find gear, including a spotting scope, pair of binoculars, and trail cameras, for local scientists). “Cuban scientists and conservationists deserve much credit for designing a national park system that protects representative samples of the country’s biogeographic regions,” says John Myers, Latin American Program Director for Audubon's International Alliances Program. Myers commended the efforts to expand CBCs in Cuba, noting that they’d likely bring data that is increasingly important in the face of climate change.
This year, Norton also launched a new count in the National Botanical Garden, a 1500-acre reserve right outside of Havana—an important location for attracting locals, who may not have the interest or means to travel further to participate. Janice Lloyd, who accompanied nine other U.S. bird nerds and 14 locals in conducting counts in Cuba this year, caught up with Norton, a lifelong birder who used to teach at Santa Fe College, about the importance of conducting CBCs in Cuba.
Audubon: How did you get involved in the CBC in the first place?
Robert Norton: My personal quest is to participate in a count in as many places in the West Indies as possible. We started them in the British Virgin Islands. I revitalized them in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1980s. I participated in the Dominican Republic. I was concerned there wasn’t one in Cuba, so when I met some of the [Cuban] scientists at the meeting in 2011 I had a chance to get involved.
A: This year marked the first CBC in the National Botanical Garden. What first attracted you to the botanical garden?
RN: I had a hunch it might be a good place to see birds. So after finishing the Cuban CBCs in 2014, we had a little extra time and visited the garden. We saw many common species but what took the prize for me was seeing a Gundlach’s Hawk, an endemic bird. People thought the Gundlach’s was extinct until it was re-spotted in the 1990s. It is still very rare. So almost a year to the day [in 2015], we went again, this time to do the count, and we saw another Gundlach’s. Was it luck or meant to be?
A: What other birds were you surprised to see in the garden during the CBC?
RN: We saw multiple pairs of American Kestrels. We also saw the colorful Cuban Green Woodpecker, an endemic. It was great to see large numbers of Eastern Meadowlarks and to hear them singing in the grasslands. In only two hours in the garden, we saw more than 50 species.
A: Your group performed bird counts in three other locations [Viñales National Park in the west, Bermejas, and La Salina, south of Havana]. What were some of the highlights?
RN: Overall, we saw 125 species. The areas are important winter grounds for migratory birds, so we saw many warblers, vireos, tanagers and honeycreepers in the west, but we also got to count many endemics, including the Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon and Cuban Pygmy Owl. One couple had been to Cuba five times and got to see the very rare Bee Hummingbird [the world’s smallest hummingbird] for the first time.
A: What did the local guides bring to the counts?
RN: They very quickly identify the birds by their territories and behaviors without binoculars. They know the habits and they can mimic the songs with an astounding repertoire of whistles and calls. I've heard one guide, who does not own binoculars, mimic a Cuban Solitaire to the point of bringing in the bird close enough for a portrait photo shot. Most of them cannot afford binoculars.
A: Have you seen local interest in birds grow in Cuba since you started doing the counts?
RN: Absolutely. Local people know they can make a good living being bird guides in Cuba. A doctor there might only make $20 a month while a bird guide can make $70 to $100 dollars a day. There are efforts to teach school children about birds and wildlife. Also, we’ve had more volunteers and new ones at each count.
A: What does the CBC do for Cuba?
RN: There are more bird tours starting because of it. This is spurring tourism. In my mind it’s a significant part of the economy.
A: Is Cuba facing any new conservation issues as it opens up?
RN: There will be pressure to exploit certain coastal areas. Hopefully, they will enhance areas along the coasts they have already developed with more hotels and marinas rather than develop pristine areas. Cuba appears to have a long-term perspective on species conservation as part of their natural resources plan for attracting tourism.
Birds are a shared resource and unique treasure. In its struggling economy, any valued data that supports conservation programs for endemic or migratory species protection in North America is welcome. That's why the CBC is important now and in the near future.