Reviving Cuban Christmas Bird Counts

By Robert L. Norton

Robert Norton has been “chasing birds,” as he puts it, for most of his life. Norton started birding at a young age, perhaps 12 or 13. He describes birding as “something you can do anytime, anywhere, at any age, really.” As an adult, his interest developed into a vocation. He studied biology, focusing on birds for his master’s and PhD work, and since then, birding has been a constant thread through most of his professional life. He taught at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, and later worked for the local government as a biologist and in conservation and planning. “Birds really brought me all through that whole process,” he says. Through the years, his fascination has led him far and wide, and with his current project he hopes to shape a path for a new generation of birders.

When Norton visited Cuba from Florida in November 2011, his goal was to help continue and grow the country’s recent participation in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Working with local researchers and volunteers, he assisted with organizing the first recent count at Varahicacos Ecological Reserve near the town of Varadero.

The following year in 2012, Norton participated in and helped organize three additional counts in western Cuba at Vinales and Zapata Swamp, each on different days and in different ecological settings, making only the second year in recent decades any Christmas Bird Counts had been completed in the country. The counts in 2011 and 2012 were only the second and third time Cubans had taken part in the 115-year-old tradition. Norton sought to return in the winter 2013 with U.S. volunteers under the auspices of Audubon, but delays in the organization’s license renewal forced them to shelve the idea for the 114th CBC season. But the necessary preparations are in place for the continuation of the new Cuban CBCs for the 115th CBC.

The Setting
Cuba is in fact an archipelago of islands located in the northern Caribbean Sea located between latitudes 19° and 24°N, and longitudes 74° and 85°W, and roughly 90 miles across the Straits of Florida from the closest tip of Key West, Florida. The main island is the largest island in the Caribbean and 17th largest island in the world by land area (40,369 sq. mi.). The second largest island of the group is Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) in the Canarreos archipelago with an area of 849 sq. mi., and an overall total land area of 42,426 sq. mi. for all islands combined.
Island biogeography, another of Norton’s interests, examines the distribution of species and ecosystems and encompasses the environment and endemism. The trips to Cuba are really kind of a pinnacle of that, he says, because there are so many interesting endemic species, meaning those that can be found nowhere else in the world.

BirdLife International provides the following narrative regarding Cuba’s endemic birds: “In total, 25 species are endemic to Cuba, but only six of these are judged to have historical ranges of less than 50,000 km2. All ten of the restricted-range species are reliant on wooded or scrubland areas, mostly in the lowlands, but their patterns of distribution vary. The Yellow-headed Warbler is confined to western Cuba (east to Matanzas and south-west Las Villas provinces) and Isla de la Juventud, while the Cuban Gnatcatcher is most numerous in southern Cuba (Oriente) and the Olive-capped Warbler is confined to Pinar del Rio.”

 “Several of the widespread Cuban endemics are also very rare today as a result of loss and disturbance of wooded habitats and, for some species, hunting: these are Gundlach's Hawk (Endangered), Blue-headed Quail-dove (Endangered), Cuban Parakeet (Vulnerable), Bee Hummingbird (Near Threatened, the world's smallest bird), Fernandina's Flicker (Endangered), Giant Kingbird (Endangered) and Cuban Solitaire (Near Threatened). In addition there are a number of widespread, non-endemic rare species which also occur: West Indian Whistling-duck (Vulnerable), Piping Plover (Vulnerable; winter only), Plain Pigeon (Endangered; the highest known population, 100 pairs, is in Cuba), Gray-headed Quail-Dove (Near Threatened), Cuban Parrot (Near Threatened), and Bachman's Warbler (Critical, possibly extinct; winters only in Cuba, last unconfirmed sighting anywhere being in 1988). Black-capped Petrel, a seabird that breeds on islands in the Caribbean including Cuba, is also threatened (Endangered).”

While CBCs in Cuba have only been included three times in the past, Norton anticipates working with local researchers to establish a long-term program on the island and gain a greater understanding of resident and migrant species. Norton points out that Navy personnel at Guantanamo Bay conducted winter bird counts on base for several years in the 1970s, but when the personnel departed the counts were discontinued. The idea now, he says, is to create a long-term database; as the information accumulates over years and then decades, a more accurate picture will emerge as to population numbers and trends.

“When you start looking at the wider picture of where birds are, why are they there, their interaction with the ecology and other organisms, it opens up a new view of how the world works,” he says.

Counts will be conducted at multiple locations, each within a 15-mile diameter area known as a count circle. Each season the censuses will be repeated in the same count circles, on roughly the same day year after year, allowing researchers such as Dr. Hiram Gonzales to measure changes in bird populations over time. Data collected at two sites – Las Salinas and Bermejas National Parks – in Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The parks are expected to assist management of the area, according to Frank Medina, chief manager. In all, thus far volunteers recorded 16,684 individual birds at the three locations, with a total of 145 distinct species documented – a remarkable number, Norton says, as it can sometimes take a week and many more volunteers to see that amount.

Continuing the legacy
At the Bermejas site, a popular bird watching area, endemic species here include the Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Pygmy-Owl, Bee Hummingbird, Cuban Woodpecker, Fernandina’s Flicker, and Cuban Grassquit. A mosaic of dry forest, swamp, mangrove and mudflats, the Zapata Peninsula is one of the best-preserved ecosystems on the island. Birding opportunities will seek several endemics, such as the Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody, and of course the Bee Hummingbird. Hundreds of flamingos are sometimes present among the herons, egret, ibis, and spoonbills, as well as Cuban crocodiles inhabiting the marshes. Other species that may be encountered include Bare-legged Owl, Blue-headed Quail-Dove, and Gray-fronted Quail-Dove. During the day of the count lunch with special guests including Zapata area conservationists will update participants on continuing projects to preserve Cuba’s largest wetlands. In the late afternoon, counters continue to bird in the nearby Sopillar region of the reserve for more endemics.

The previous counts yielded some surprises, too. The Bermejas count volunteers spotted Wood Thrush, a species that had not been sighted in two previous fall surveys. They also documented all four of the area’s quail-dove species: Ruddy, Key West, Grey-headed and Blue-headed. Despite low water levels in the Las Salinas circle, the area still attracted thousands of migrating and wintering waterfowl, including huge numbers of Blue-winged Teal and American Coot, as well as a few Gull-billed Terns.

“In Cuba, it’s going to be a really fantastic opportunity, because they have a great youth movement learning about ecology,” Norton says. His aim is to help get the spark going, fan the flames some, and then let the next generation take it over and expand the effort.
As for 2014, Norton hopes to have four count locations in Cuba during the upcoming 115th CBC. The collected data can become a powerful tool in conservation efforts. Norton says that the people he’s met in prior trips to Cuba seem to have a keen sense of their natural patrimony and that they seek to preserve their history. One person he’s been working with is Frank Medina, director of Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, one of the locations for this year’s count. Norton says Medina seems excited and has already lined up volunteers. “He sees what I see, and I think he’s going to take it from there and it’s just going to grow. That’s what I’m hoping,” he says. “It yielded tremendous results.”

Such data points are important to capture now, to establish a baseline for comparison before environmental changes occur and potentially impact bird populations. Thus far the volunteer turnout has been encouraging, especially in light of transportation obstacles faced by many. Norton hopes that by working with local volunteers, he can help institute a framework for future generations, as he emphasizes that the count belongs not to him but to the Cuban people.
Local volunteers are enthusiastic and range from park directors to maintenance staff, representing a spectrum of backgrounds working together for the same cause. Lay people were matched with more experienced guides, providing a unique opportunity for aspiring birders. Though there is still more work to be done, it is Norton’s impression that the 2012 count was a success, and he hopes next year will yield even better outcomes.

“With more volunteers, it can only get better,” he says.