Day 11: Echoes From The Highest Ridgetop

The team hikes deeper—and higher—into the woods and meets a Cuban Pygmy Owl along the way.

February 2, 2016, near Cayo Probado, Humboldt National Park, Cuba — We climbed ever higher up the steep mountainside, the rhythmic thwack of machetes ringing loudly before us as Jabao and Vladimir cut a trail through the dense undergrowth of the pine forest. Some of the pines here were noticeably larger than the ones we’d seen elsewhere at Humboldt Park.

We stopped early and went through a double-knock session. As we sat waiting for a response, Vladimir carved a hiking stick with his machete. When finished, he handed it to me. “Not because you are old,” he said, with a grin. His workmanship is amazing. It was perfectly formed, thin and lightweight but incredibly strong, with a sharp point to get a firm hold in the slippery red clay. I could tell that it would be a great help as I clambered up and down these steep, rocky hillsides, doing my best to keep from slipping or twisting an ankle.

No Ivory-bills answered our double-knocks or kent call playbacks, but we heard the distinctive call of a Cuban Pygmy-Owl and set off searching for it on the hillside. When we found it, sitting on a horizontal branch at eye level about 25 feet away, we watched as it calmly preened its feathers and stretched its wings, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

On the next part of our trek, we climbed higher still, cutting through thick undergrowth with machetes the entire way, finally reaching the summit at 910 meters. This was a little higher in altitude than Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have ever been found, and the soil was poor and rocky, supporting only scrubby plants. We went through another double-knock session anyway, because the sound would carry for such a long distance, echoing down into the surrounding valleys. At the end of the session, we trudged back downhill to camp.

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