There's even a new magazine dedicated exclusively to Cuban birders. It's a free, bilingual digital quarterly all about this new, up-and-coming movement.
cuban grassquit cuban birdwatching
A Cuban Grassquit bird. Photo: ebird

It’s Cuban birdwatching and deep in a grove of words, all black and in Georgia font, Orlando Garrido reveals one of birding’s holy grails; he punts on where the last stand of the ivory-billed woodpecker might lurk. 

In print, and fresh off the press in an interview in Cuba’s first birding magazine, Garrido, the island’s David Attenborough and greatest living naturalist, senior author of The Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba, offers a glimmer of hope. It’s a lead on the ghost species keen Cuban birder, lawyer, and former diplomat Vladimir Mirabal didn’t miss in his published interview.

“The place Garrido mentions to me is very remote, miles from Havana, and we would need to prepare really well,” Mirabal tells Startup Cuba, “but once movement restrictions are lifted after the Covid pandemic, we’ll follow this up.”

We want to create a culture of respect and knowledge about birds and their habitats among Cubans.

Vladimir Mirabal – Founder, Birding Havana

It’s a golden tip off. The royal woodpecker, as it’s known in Cuba, hasn’t been spotted in more than 35 years. International experts consider Campephilus principalis to be extinct on the island. In 2016 Audubon Society twitchers trekked through rugged eastern Cuba in search of the bird, a half-meter tall creature with black and white plumage and in the male of the species a hot-red crest. After two weeks in the forested mountains north of Baracoa, 550 miles from Havana, the woodpecker expert and the writer reported zero luck.

Garrido’s interview features in the second edition of Cuban Birder, Cuba’s first birding magazine. It’s a free, bilingual digital quarterly launched this year and produced by Birding Havana, a group Mirabal set up in 2019. This year’s three published editions cover birding hotspots, using citizen science project eBird.org, camera and binocular tips, photography tricks, id guides, and interviews with pillars of the birding community including Garrido, and noted Cuban author and illustrator Nils Navarro.

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The new magazine is just one way Birding Havana hopes to foster interest in birds in Cuba, raise awareness of habitats and conservation, and stop the practice of capturing songbirds.

In Birding Havana’s sights, especially, are Cuban teens and children.

“We know it’s not possible to love and protect something when you don’t know anything about it,” Mirabal says.

Birding Havana takes children out to birdwatch in their own neighborhoods, gives talks, and organizes board games and puzzles.

Birding Havana takes children out to birdwatch in their own neighborhoods, gives talks, and organizes board games and puzzles. The end of July marked a deadline for a competition for Cuban children aged 8 to 15 to draw their favourite bird in celebration of Cuba’s avian world. Lukas Cervantes, 9, from Moa won first place with his Great Lizard-Cuckoo perched on a mountain tree.  

The birding scene in Cuba, made of up of local birders, is nascent. But this is changing thanks to greater access to the internet since 2015 (with mobile data available since the end of 2018), and a growing awareness of the environment — a world of tropical nature that embraces forests, lakes, mangroves, a 3,570-mile coastline with coral cayes, as well as more than 200 protected areas on land, and more than 50 protected marine reserves. Almost 9,000 members already follow four Cuba birding Facebook groups: Birding Havana, Club de Observadores de Aves Cubanas, Aves de Cuba, and Aves de Baracoa y el Alto Oriente Cubano.

cuban birdwatching

“Birdwatching in Cuba has, until very recently, been almost the exclusive preserve of foreign tourists,” Mirabal tells me. 

“The paradox is that at the same time there has been little or no national movement of bird watchers mainly for socio-economic and cultural reasons.”

But Mirabal is very hopeful: “There’s immense potential on the island for birdwatching to take off.

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“When I started birding I realized there were many people working on behalf of bird conservation but there was still so much to do, especially in the creation of a collective conservation consciousness.” 

“The idea is to harness the new use of social media on the island where techniques, knowledge, experience, book tips are swapped,” Mirabal says. 

cuban birdwatching
Red flamingos in Zapata Swamp. Photo: Wikipedia

“We want to create a culture of respect and knowledge about birds and their habitats among Cubans.”

And there’s no shortage of facts on feather to win over budding birders and environmental warriors. Cuba’s avian stats are stellar. The island is home to the greatest number of bird species in the Caribbean at 397, and a good number of endemic species at 28. Its forests shelter the smallest bundle of feathered flight in the world, the miniature zunzuncito, the bee hummingbird (mellisuga helenae) whose male of the species is a tiny bauble of iridescent teal green with a fuschia-pink crown and fiery tangerine breast, weighing less than a dime.

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Shetland Islands naturalist and writer Jon Dunn goes in search of the mini hummer in his new book Glitter in the Green, a love letter to hummingbirds found all over the globe. 

There, above me,” he writes, “sat the male bird, his throat now glowing like a hot coal, a rich fiery crimson in the sunlight. 

Mirabal is convinced that island-wide birdwatching in Cuba is vital given climate change challenges, human impact on natural habitats, and the growing practice of hunting resident and migratory songbirds by some in Cuba.

“These flaming feathers extended on either side of his throat, creating a drooping moustache of lava tones. He was small, but utterly magnificent.”

Dunn’s search for the bee hummingbird took him to Cuba’s Zapata Swamp, a Ramsar-designated wetland of crocs, bonefish, flamingos and other feathered creatures on the island’s Caribbean coast. Its plains of long saw-grass and watery veins shelter the highly elusive waterbird — the Zapata rail — rarely spotted and never caught on camera. Another odyssey for Birding Havana, Mirabal confirms. 

Zapata Swamp. Photo: Wikipedia

While Cuban Birder and social media are key to raising awareness across the island they go hand in hand with boots and binoculars on the ground, too. Pre-pandemic Mirabal’s non-profit Birding Havana organized free trips for Cubans to local hotspots. It also led tours for tourists with profits going towards binoculars, cameras and transport for locals.  

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Mirabal is convinced that island-wide birdwatching in Cuba is vital given climate change challenges, human impact on natural habitats, and the growing practice of hunting resident and migratory songbirds by some in Cuba.

On this, Mirabal is firm: “This capture of songbirds, among other factors, constantly threatens the survival, reproduction and development of many species of birds on the island.”

cuban birdwatching
Blue Headed Quail Bartley. Photo:  Glenn Bartley via Birdshare

Most at risk, he tells StartUp Cuba, are Cuban parrots, parakeets, Cuban bullfinch, and Cuban grassquit, and three migratory birds — the Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

The latest edition of Cuban Birder was released in August. Mirabal is in conversation with NGO BirdsCaribbean and charity Optics for the Tropics for collaboration and support. Birding Havana warmly welcomes donations too. 

el observador de aves cubanas

To date, British ornithologist Andy Mitchell, co-author of the definitive The Birds of Cuba checklist, and owner of Cuba Birding Tours, contributes to the magazine’s production.

“The magazine is important for ordinary Cubans going birdwatching,” Mitchell says,” and the birds in Cuba are fantastic,” he adds.

Birds flying in front of Havana, Cuba. Photo: Vladimir Mirabal

Mitchell, who first went to Cuba in 1987 with a couple of friends, the first Europeans to birdwatch on the island since the Revolution, has also opened another door to greater access to bird life. He commissioned a translation of the Cuba bird checklist into Spanish that will soon be available in pdf to every birder on the island, and beyond.   

These birds of a feather flocking together might just succeed in their quest to boost Cuban birders, raise environmental awareness, and safeguard the future of Cuba’s avian universe. And who knows what future Cuban-led expedition might unearth deep in its leafy, green-mantled woods.

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Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer who writes travel features for the UK national press as well as international media, mostly about Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. She's also written articles about Central America, South America, and Morocco. As a travel guide she's led tours for Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, and New York Times Journeys among others. Claire is the author of the newly published Havana Pocket Precincts Guide (Hardie Grant) as well as the last three editions of Frommer's Cuba. She's been visiting Cuba for 20 years and the island is her second home.

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