From Cuba Conference 2017

Havana-Zapata Express: Memories from the BirdsCaribbean Pre-Conference Field Trip

Old Havana with it's beautiful colonial architecture. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
Old Havana with it’s beautiful colonial architecture. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)

Seventeen strangers from three countries, Bahamas, Bermuda, and the United States, became fast friends on the BirdsCaribbean 4-day Pre-conference Tour. Naturalists, biologists, students, professors, teachers, accountants, business owners and managers, and retirees all shared one common interest – to explore Cuba and see the birds of Cuba and the Caribbean.

We were met at the airport on Saturday July 8th, settled in to the elegant Meliá Cohiba, and given our freedom for the first evening in Havana to stroll the Malecón and to explore the sights and sounds of Cuba. We were told that walking anywhere, anytime in Cuba was safe, and our experiences verified this truth. On Sunday morning, Atila, our Cuban tour guide, started us off with a walking tour of Old Havana. Ambling along while learning history, seeing colonial architecture, street musicians, and cobbled streets busy with tourists and locals alike made for a lovely morning.  Lunch was to the accompaniment of music – music everywhere.

With our tour guide Atíla during the walking tour of old Havana. (Photo by Ericka Gates)
With our tour guide Atila during the walking tour of old Havana. (Photo by Erika Gates)

Between observations around our hotel and our tour of the City we saw the first of our Cuban endemics – the Cuban Blackbird. After lunch, the group piled in to taxis for a walk through the National Botanical Gardens about 30 minutes outside of Havana. There we spotted 13 different species including the Red-legged Honeycreeper, the Great Lizard Cuckoo, and the Yellow-faced Grassquit, not endemics, but exciting none the less. A note here – we were a large group of birders, so numbers of birds observed are from my notes, and many of the more experienced might well have seen more species!

On Sunday evening we were treated to a spectacular Caribbean sunset from the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The old fort overlooks the beautiful the Havana harbor, and we watched as darkness fell and the city came to a sparkling enchantment of lights. We had gathered for the re-enactment of the firing of the cannon – a centuries old tradition warning the population that the gates to the fort were about to be closed for the evening.

Red-legged Honeycreeper at the Botanical Gardens outside Havana. (Photo by Ericka Gates)
Red-legged Honeycreeper at the Botanical Gardens outside Havana. (Photo by Erika Gates)

Monday morning we loaded on to our comfortable, air-conditioned bus with Atila, and picked up our bird guide extraordinaire, Maydiel Cañizares Morera, who works for Zapata Swamp National Park. We headed off for Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) and settled in to our little bungalow accommodations. That afternoon Maydiel took us to “Zunzuncito House” in Paplite, where our hosts Bernabe and Juanita, introduced us to their frequent visitors, the Bee Hummingbirds. The smallest bird in the world – what a treat! There we also saw the Cuban Oriole, the Cuban Emeralds, West Indian Woodpecker, and the ever-present Cuban Blackbirds and House Sparrows.

Our next stop was the forests and savannahs of Soplillar. Despite threatening rain clouds and thick swarms of mosquitos, we intrepidly followed Maydiel, binoculars and cameras at the ready. We were delighted with seeing the Gray-fronted Quail-Dove, the Bare-legged Owl, the Cuban Pygmy-Owl, the Cuban Trogan, the Cuban Tody, the Cuban Green Woodpecker, and the illusive Fernandina’s Flicker. Seeing seven Cuban endemics in one afternoon reflects on Maydiel’s knowledge and skill as a guide. He’s brilliant! This was just day one of birding with Maydiel.

Several female Bee Humingbirds showed off while the group caught fleeting glimpses of two males. (Photo by Ericka Gates)
Several female Bee Humingbirds showed off while the group caught fleeting glimpses of two males. (Photo by Erika Gates)

Tuesday morning, ah, Tuesday morning. Our bus took us to the Cocorilla Canals in Santo Tomás, a saw-grass filled swampy area of Zapata. This small hamlet sits back off the grid of power and telephone lines, and it was here that we met the boatmen that would glide us through the swamp. As we drove up to the small cluster of homes, Maydiel commented, “There’s been a lot of rain, and we have to walk to the boats,” a subtle warning that the trail to our boats would be a wet one. Ha! We were headed to one of only two known locations for the Zapata Wren and one of three locations for the Zapata Sparrow (also known as the Cuban Sparrow) so not a single member of the group hesitated to carry on.

As we trekked through thigh-high water I asked the renowned Bermudian octogenarian conservationist, David Wingate, on his journeys to see a particular bird, how did this experience rate?  “Oh, right up there at the top,” he commented, “right up there at the top.” It was worth it, though, as we were serenaded by the Zapata Wren, and spotted three more endemics, the Zapata Sparrow, the Cuban Vireo, the Cuban Bullfinch. In addition, that morning we saw another 31 species, including a Crested Caracara on the ride back to Playa Larga.

Heading out into Zapata Swamp. (Photo by Ericka Gates)
Heading out into Zapata Swamp. (Photo by Erika Gates)
Catching a glimpse of Cuban Vireos and Yellow-headed Warblers in Bermeja. (Photo by Ericka Gates)
Catching a glimpse of Cuban Vireos and Yellow-headed Warblers in Bermejas. (Photo by Erika Gates)

After a casual lunch near the beach, we were bused 18 miles to Sandero Salinas de Brito.  Riding and walking the road surrounded on both sides by salt flats, we added the Cuban Black Hawk to our list of endemics. We also had the pleasure of seeing about 800 American Flamingos, a Stygian Owl, Osprey, Reddish Egrets, a white morph Great Blue Heron, White Ibis, a Snowy Egret, and a lone Roseate Spoonbill – 25 species in all that afternoon. I especially enjoyed watching the hundreds of land crabs scuttling out of the way of our bus as we headed back to Playa Larga.

After our final dinner at Playa Larga, we packed for an early departure in search of the Blue-headed Quail-Dove in the Refugio de Fauna Bermejas.  Despite a long quiet walk through the forest we had no luck with the Quail-Doves. Though many in our group had previously seen this bird, it was my first good look at the endemic Yellow-headed Warbler. We saw and heard 14 species on that walk, and long will I remember the sound of the Cuban Trogan echoing through woods, a haunting, whooping call from Cuban’s national bird.

Since we were early for lunch at Caleta Buena, we birdwatched and idled on the beach, swam in the rock formation pools, and sipped drinks in the shade of palm trees while Cave Swallows swooped overhead. We spotted the singular Laughing Gull seen on the trip. After a generous buffet lunch, we continued with our slow, steady climb up to Topes de Collantes for the BirdCaribbean 2017 conference.

What a memorable birding experience! Seventeen amazing, talented dedicated birders sharing and enjoying our four-day trip through the lush, green Cuban countryside. The trip was well-organized, and our tour guide Atila was thoughtful and informative. Food was plentiful and for me, that cold Cristal cerveza provided with our meals hit the spot! Our birding guide, Maydiel, made finding so many endemics look easy, a reflection of his knowledge of his country and its birds. We learned about Cuba, the history, the habitats and the birds. I think I speak for all of the participants when we tumbled in to our hotels in Topes de Collantes, we were blown away with our four-day pre-conference birding experience and it will be a cherished memory of a lifetime.

Please scroll over or click on the photos below for captions.

By Martha Cartwright. Martha is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Freeport, Bahamas for 31 years. After becoming a widow in 2013 she started feeding and studying the fish in her canal. One day she looked up and noticed the birds and hasn’t looked down since. She counts her blessings for the tutelage of eBird’s Erika Gates and for a dedicated birding community on Grand Bahama. She teaches yoga and postural alignment therapy when she isn’t birding.

For more fun articles on the BirdsCaribbean 21st International Conference in Cuba, July 2017, check out the following:

Commitment to Conservation (and Adventure) Create an Unforgettable BirdsCaribbean Conference

Coffee, Cave, and a Shot of Expresso

BirdsCaribbean Cuba Conference Connects Scientists and Promotes Conservation

David Wingate Honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award

BirdsCaribbean Conference in Cuba to Highlight Tourism, Technology and More

Exciting Speakers Lined Up for BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba

Cuba to Host BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference

Commitment to Conservation (and Adventure) Create an Unforgettable BirdsCaribbean Conference

The endemic Cuban Parrot was a daily visitor to the conference site in Topes de Collantes. (Photo by David Southall)
The endemic Cuban Parrot was a daily visitor to the conference site in Topes de Collantes. (Photo by David Southall)

Standing on the balcony of the Kurhotel in Topes de Collantes, Cuba, it is impossible to ignore the Cuban Martins darting about, the excited chattering of the Cuban Parrots, and the soft tocoro-tocoro of the Cuban Trogon coming from the forest. This location, high in the Escambray Mountains, was the perfect venue for the BirdsCaribbean 21st International Conference.

Hailing from 30 different islands and countries, 240 enthusiastic students, researchers and other professionals came together for five days to support Caribbean birds by networking, learning and sharing. The theme of the conference was “Celebrating Caribbean Diversity” and what better way to start than with the spectacularly diverse host country? Cuba Day included a range of fantastic talks discussing topics from introduced species and their effects to educational efforts of the National Museum of Natural History to the birds of Cuba only known from the archaeological record.

Each morning of the conference thereafter, dedicated individuals met bright and early before the sessions for working group meetings—concentrated discussions focusing on a common theme or species. There was a place for everyone at the table and new ideas were shared about the conservation of Bicknell’s Thrush, Black-capped Petrels, West Indian Whistling-Ducks, parrots, flamingos, and other endemic and threatened species.

Executive Director Lisa Sorenson addresses the conference in the opening ceremony. (Photo by Ingrid Flores)
Executive Director Lisa Sorenson addresses the conference in the opening ceremony. (Photo by Ingrid Flores)

Another common early morning activity was- of course- birding!  Before sunrise every day, birders from different countries would meet in the hotel lobbies, form small groups and walk off together into the morning light, hoping to get a glimpse of one of Cuba’s many endemic species found in Topes de Collantes. “I heard there is a Stygian Owl with young here!” said a duo from Cornell- a rumor that fueled many fruitless searches. The morning trips around Hotel Los Helechos were invariably filled with the call of Limpkins, Cuban Pewees, and new friends eager to be sharing their passion together.

The conference program was filled with outstanding presentations, representing the hard work and dedication to conservation of individuals across the Caribbean. In addition to learning critical information, participants were treated to special media that shared intimate moments of Caribbean avifauna. For example, during the Recent Advances in Seabird Conservation session, the audience was able to see a “bird’s-eye” view of foraging behavior in Magnificent Frigatebirds, with a camera mounted on the back of a wild bird. And who could forget the fantastic up-close photographs documenting the nesting cycle of the smallest bird in the world (a Cuba endemic), the Bee Hummingbird?

An early morning hike in Tope de Collantes yielded a Cuban Pygmy Owl, one of two endemic owls on the island. (Photo by David Southall)
An early morning hike in Tope de Collantes yielded a Cuban Pygmy Owl, one of two endemic owls on the island. (Photo by David Southall)

One of the highlights at the conference came from Herbert Raffaele, when he announced that he will be updating the Birds of the West Indies field guide.  The new version will include updated information about ranges, changes in taxonomy, and some new illustrations. This announcement is especially exciting because the project is fully supported by Princeton University Press.

On the third day of the conference, participants set off in all directions for a day of field trips to explore the beauty and uniqueness of Cuba. A large contingent took buses down the mountain to the nearby town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There they were greeted with a rainbow of brightly colored colonial buildings, unpaved roads and mid-century era cars, all of which evoked a sense that time had forgotten this charming city. The tour gave the history of the area while meandering through the streets, stopping occasionally to admire the exquisite handiwork of local artisans. Some conference goers were even able to try their hand at pottery making themselves!

Two St. Lucian delegates, Valance (Vision) James and Adams Toussaint, pose at the gorgeous entrance of Gruta Batata, a cave with pools and waterfalls. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
Two St. Lucian delegates, Valance (Vision) James and Adams Toussaint, pose at the gorgeous entrance of Gruta Batata, a cave with pools and waterfalls. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)

Those participants that did not go to Trinidad headed in the other direction – for the hills – on a variety of gorgeous hikes around the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve. One group took a hike to picturesque Vegas Grande waterfall, the second largest on the island. With cool, blue water at the bottom of the falls, swimmers were rewarded with a front row seat to White-collared Swifts exiting their roosting site. Groups were also given a tour of a coffee house and learned the traditional ways of harvesting and roasting the beans- and even got to enjoy a small, very strong cup. In addition to all the new life birds seen on the trails, all the hikers from this day will remember the fun of the open-air Russian vehicles that proved to be more like a roller coaster than a truck ride.

A field trip to Vegas Grande was filled with spectacular views and a cold swim. From left to right:Maydiel Cañizares, Jen Mortensen, Jessica Rozek, and Arnaldo Toledo. (Photo by Maydiel Cañizares)
A field trip to Vegas Grande was filled with spectacular views and a cold swim. Left to right: Maydiel Cañizares, Jen Mortensen, Jessica Rozek, and Arnaldo Toledo. (Photo by Maydiel Cañizares)

While the days were filled with bird watching and absorbing all the information at the conference, the nights were filled with live music, professional dancers, and dancing. The cool air of the mountains made the outdoor performances a delight and it was difficult to say no when asked to dance with your new (and old) friends.

Leaving the conference after five full days of intense knowledge sharing and exploring the incredible uniqueness of Cuba, participants were clearly motivated and instilled with a renewed commitment to conservation in the Caribbean. We are so excited to hear about all of the great research and outreach this momentum leads to at our next conference in Guadeloupe in 2019!

Learning how to salsa at the welcome reception. (Photo by Arnaldo Toledo)
Learning how to salsa at the welcome reception. (Photo by Arnaldo Toledo)

See additional articles about the conference:

Coffee, Cave, and a Shot of Expresso

BirdsCaribbean Cuba Conference Connects Scientists and Promotes Conservation

David Wingate Honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award

BirdsCaribbean Conference in Cuba to Highlight Tourism, Technology and More

Exciting Speakers Lined Up for BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba

Our hiking group heads out to Gruta Batata.  Left to right: David Southall, Valance (Vision) James, Jessica Rozek, Jen Mortensen, Adams Toussaint. (Photo by David Southall)
Our hiking group heads out to Gruta Batata. Left to right: David Southall, Valance (Vision) James, Jessica Rozek, Jen Mortensen, Adams Toussaint. (Photo by David Southall)

Cuba to Host BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference

Jessica Rozek is a PhD student at Tufts University, where she is focusing her research on Caribbean wetland conservation and human-wetland-bird interactions.  Learn more about her research here.    

Coffee, Cave and a Shot of Espresso

La Batata trail sign.
La Batata trail sign. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

The moment had finally arrived. It was time to add my name to the list for the mid-conference field trip to Trinidad. Leading up to my arrival in Cuba I religiously kept tabs on the mid-conference field trip page. I had an unfounded fear that the trip to the nearby town of Trinidad would be cancelled. I expected that by the third day I would be over-stimulated by the greenery of Topes de Collantes from early morning birding and that visiting a town would be a welcomed change of scenery.

Unfortunately, the comfortable bed at Los Helechos had a stronghold on me and I never joined the early morning birders. To compensate for my lack of will I wrote my name down for the Batata-Codina trip which promised a visit to a coffee house museum, a hike to a cave, lunch at Hacienda Codina and a mini- tour through one of the villages within El Parque Codina. I was quite satisfied by my decision and did not waste time second guessing myself.

Inside the coffee museum.
Inside the coffee museum. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

The trip started from outside the Los Helechos Hotel where the tour guide had herded everyone and was ticking off names from his list. We were taken to the coffee house museum in an old Russian army truck—the primary mode of transport for conference attendees and really an adventure in itself. Although small the museum allows visitors to sip and enjoy the aromatic local brew while learning about coffee’s boom-bust history in Cuba. It was hard for me to concentrate on history when each window of the museum provided breath-taking vistas of mountain peaks in the park.

While some people were still enjoying their coffee others decided to look for birds. And I was very glad to be part of the latter group. Cuban Parrots were squawking among themselves in some trees across the road. A few minutes later a pair flew out and perched on a mostly leafless tree in the morning sunlight. We also saw a West Indian Woodpecker, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani, Scaly-Naped Pigeon and an American Kestrel.

Our tour guide taking multiple photos with multiple cameras.
Our tour guide taking multiple photos with multiple cameras. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

Further down the road someone saw a Cuban Grassquit which sent the entire group jogging in that direction. But before we got to the grassquit a Cuban Trogon was spotted which prematurely stopped our jog and redirected our excitement. The trogon kept flying from tree to tree until it settled on a branch when we thought it had finally adjusted to our presence. It had not! It flew off again, leaving me, and possibly a few others, with my camera set to take a great shot. By this time the grassquit had also left. Nonetheless the trip started off with much excitement and we were hopeful that it would carry on during our hike through the forest.

Not too far from where the trogon was spotted we began our trek to the cave. The trail at first was very narrow. We stopped momentarily to smell flowers and inquire about origin and scientific names. I can’t recall seeing any birds at the beginning but we saw lots of trail signs. When we finally reached the La Batata sign a group photo was definitely needed. Our guide offered to take our photo and so he did equipped with about six cameras. Fortunately he had a system after each picture was taken he transferred the camera to his left arm.

Flat slug on trail.
Flat slug on trail. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

As the incline began to grow our guide spotted a Cuban Tody. Because of the bird’s small size I spent no less than 15 minutes on this first incline trying to locate the bird. The next bird we encountered was a Great Lizard-Cuckoo. A relatively large bird with a long gorgeous tail when fanned. Like the trogon we saw at the beginning it did not sit still. The cuckoo kept flying up and down the trail and we willingly followed just to catch a glimpse. Not long after we continued climbing up the mountain did we see a Cuban Pygmy Owl. It was amazing to see an owl perched so close to the trail and generally nonchalant about a group of people staring at it.

We began our descent as we got closer to the cave. Mentally and physically I felt fine the air was cool and the only nuisance up until now was mosquitoes. My toes however felt like they were about to burst through the toe cap of my hiking boots. Every so often I had to stop and knock my heels against the floor for some much needed relief.

Entrance to Codina Park.
Entrance to Codina Park. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

Eventually we reached the stream leading into the Batata cave where some brave souls refilled water bottles.
Stream rocks are notorious for being slippery and these were no exception. One group member tried crossing the shallow stream on his own and ended up slipping off a rock. In unison we all asked if his camera was okay. He was using a professional camera with the type of lens you think is long enough to see into your soul. Yes, the camera was okay but everything else got drenched as well as I suspect his dignity. I did not venture into the cave as I am not a fan of hiking in wet socks and boots. We were only at the half-way point.

Once cave exploration was completed, we began our second ascent and it was steep! Our birding/photo hiking group was broken into the healthy hikers and summit hikers. The summit hikers were at the forefront with their eyes glued on the prize. I certainly was not a member of this sub-group. Although not terribly drained from the uphill climb and distance the healthy hikers were not interested in bagging a prize. I am really not ashamed to say I welcomed rest stops that allowed me to rehydrate and power on.

Dining area at Hacienda Codina.
Dining area at Hacienda Codina. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

By the time everyone had regrouped by the entrance to Codina Park I was anxious to get to Hacienda Codina to feast on authentic Cuban food. Hacienda Codina is situated in a pine forest clearing and because it is literally off the beaten track it is a tranquil spot. It has a lovely little restaurant and bar surrounded by local flora. I ate one of the best meals at the restaurant. During lunch I also learned about life on islands in the Greater Antilles. BirdsCaribbean has the most diverse group of passionate and absolutely hilarious members.

After lunch it was back on our Russian army truck for a scenic drive through rural landscapes. Although overcast I really enjoyed seeing the houses and villagers trotting down the road on horseback. We stopped by a market/ craft stall ran by a local villager. She offered us samples of her homemade fudge and nut bars. The coffee lovers could not resist purchasing the fresh coffee beans.

Complimentary shot of espresso.
Complimentary shot of espresso. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

To end the trip we went back to the coffee museum to enjoy our complimentary shot of espresso. I was a bit hesitant since I had never had it before and I was warned that it would not be able to sleep that night. Casting all fears aside I accepted my shot of espresso and was not disappointed. Although considered taboo in some cultures I added a demitasse spoonful of sugar to it. The only side effect I suffered was the inability to control the pitch of my voice and I had the sudden urge to talk to everyone. If you are wondering, I slept like a log that night. Sleep came easily, most likely from being pleasantly exhausted from a full day of coffee history lesson, birding at an incline, and enjoying a locally prepared meal.


Rural village.
Rural village. (Photo by Aliya Hosein)

This article was contributed by BirdsCaribbean member Aliya Hosein from Trinidad and Tobago. When she’s not on a BirdsCaribbean mid-conference field trip, she’s often writing about parrots and helping people understand that they belong in the wild.

Reaching People: A Writing Workshop in Cuba

Mark Yokoyama leads a writing workshop at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)
Mark Yokoyama leads a writing workshop at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference, July 2017, Topes de Collantes, Cuba. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)

Primaries and ceres, tarsi and rookeries, vagrants and barbules—good words for birders, mumbo jumbo to most folks. Avoiding jargon was one of many tips shared in the writing workshop Reaching People. The workshop was led by Mark Yokoyama as part of BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba.

Most people like birds, but many people writing about birds fail to connect with a general audience. We forget to tell a story. Facts are given without context. There is no natural flow from one idea to the next. Often, the writing itself is too difficult for most people to read.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Science writing can be engaging—our favorite writers do it all the time. Complex ideas can be explained simply—great teachers know how. The workshop focused on these two ideas: storytelling and accessibility.

Workshop participants practice and get peer feedback. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)
Workshop participants practice and get peer feedback. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)

Picking key facts and ordering them logically helps turn a topic into a story. Adding details that grab a reader, and knowing what to cut are also crucial. Participants worked on their own stories during the class. Some even worked on a press release about the conference to send out when they got home.

The second half of the workshop focused on accessibility. Many were surprised to learn that the average adult in the US reads at about an 8th grade level. Unfortunately, many press materials are written at college level. This is a serious mismatch.

Luckily, we can be more readable just by using plain language and clear sentences. During one activity, participants found they had written sentences up to 60 words long without knowing it. Want to be easier to read? Find out what’s making your writing hard. There are even online tools that measure readability and suggest what you can change.

In just three hours, the group had a new set of writing tools and some hands-on practice. Jealous? Don’t be! You can download the workshop as a handout and run through it yourself. You can also download a copy of the slides and lead your own workshop. With birds and habitats under threat in the Caribbean, it has never been more vital to spread our message. Writing for everyone is a great start.

David Wingate Honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award

Dr. Wingate is pictured with BC President Andrew Dobson and BC Executive Director Lisa Sorenson.
Dr. Wingate is pictured with BC President Andrew Dobson and BC Executive Director Lisa Sorenson.

At the recently concluded BirdsCaribbean 21st Conference Meeting in Cuba, Dr. David Wingate was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his “exceptional knowledge and contributions to avian knowledge and conservation in Bermuda and the Caribbean”.

David Wingate was born in 1935 in Bermuda, he studied Zoology at Cornell University and went on to become the Conservation Officer for the Bermuda Government Parks Department from 1966 to his retirement in 2000.

For almost 300 years, no Cahows were reported from Bermuda (or anywhere else) until occasional corpses were found on the islands through the first half of the 20th Century. In 1950, David Wingate was a 15 year-old schoolboy in Bermuda, and was certain that the bird survived and must be breeding somewhere on the islets at the entrance to Castle Harbour. He determined to locate the nests and took a kayak across the bay to search for them. The sea was too rough for him to land, but he returned the following year with the eminent seabird biologist Robert Murphy, and nesting Cahows were found.

David Wingate at bird art competition in Bermuda.
David Wingate at bird art competition in Bermuda.
However, the species was still critically endangered. There were only a handful of pairs, and in 1951 perhaps eight chicks were reared. David Wingate determined to save this bird from extinction and has spent most of his life spent endeavouring to do so. Problems were faced and surmounted. Nest burrows were frequently taken over by White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon lepturus and the contents destroyed. Wingate designed and installed ‘bafflers’ with an entrance too small for tropicbirds but allowing access for Cahows. There were few burrows on the islets. Wingate created artificial burrows – with access ports so the nests could be monitored. By his retirement in 2000, the population had grown to over 50 pairs.

Crucially David mentored and trained Jeremy Madeiros to take over the recovery programme. Birds are now breeding on six islands including birds translocated onto Nonsuch Island. The Cahow population continues to grow with a record 117 pairs and 61 fledglings in 2017.

The re-discovery of the Cahow’s breeding grounds was his inspiration for a life involving birds and natural history. He is also credited with rediscovering the Black-capped Petrel in Haiti in 1963. The restoration of the once barren Nonsuch Island into a ‘Living Museum of pre-colonial Bermuda’ is Dr. Wingate’s lifetime work, and part of his effort to bring back from near-extinction Bermuda’s national bird, the Cahow. He has been a crucial part of Bermuda Audubon Society (since its formation in 1954) and a founder of the Bermuda National Trust. He also served on the board of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, and as a research associate of the Bermuda Zoological Society.

David Wingate with baffler.
David Wingate with baffler.
David’s conservation efforts have been wide-ranging, focussing on many species including the Green Sea Turtle Chelonia mydas, Bermuda Rock Skink Plestiodon longirostris, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea, and Bermuda population of Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis, and White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus. It is remarkable that at 81 years old David Wingate remains an active and leading conservationist on Bermuda. He has been responsible for the creation and restoration of numerous wetland habitats in Bermuda.

Amongst his many honours are two from Queen Elizabeth ll and one from the King of the Netherlands. Few Bermudians are known outside their country. David is one of those who commands respect for his conservation efforts. The success of the Nonsuch Island restoration project is used as a model worldwide. The success of the Cahow recovery programme is known throughout the world. He is quite simply the most influential, passionate, knowledgeable and untiring conservationist and naturalist that Bermuda has ever seen.

BirdsCaribbean Cuba Conference Connects Scientists and Promotes Conservation

BirdsCaribbean members learn the latest in bird science and conservation.
BirdsCaribbean members learn the latest in bird science and conservation.

Over 240 scientists, teachers and conservationists came together in Cuba this month at BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve Park. Held every two years, it is the only time when this far-flung community has a chance to work face-to-face to improve how birds are studied and protected. The event included nearly 150 presentations and workshops over five days.

“This year’s theme was Celebrating Caribbean Diversity,” explained BirdsCaribbean Director Lisa Sorenson. “We love the variety of birds here, but the diversity of our members is even more important. We brought people here from dozens of islands. We have different cultures and languages, but we all face similar challenges. The chance to share ideas improves our work all over the region.”

Vegas Grande waterfall was one of the many amazing sites in Topes de Collantes. (Photo by Arnaldo Toledo)
Vegas Grande waterfall was one of the many amazing sites in Topes de Collantes. (Photo by Arnaldo Toledo)

BirdsCaribbean is the region’s largest conservation group. Programs like the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival, which highlights birds found only in the region, reach over 100,000 people each year. At the conference, festival coordinators on different islands share ideas and activities. Others are inspired to launch festivals on their islands for the first time.

Researchers sharing their work give ideas that can help save birds. Members learn how birds recover after hurricanes or prosper when farmers plant shade trees over their coffee. Then they can bring bird-saving tools back to their own islands. This year, one highlight was the large number of Cuban scientists; 69 attended from all over the country.

“For almost 30 years, BirdsCaribbean has helped share the work of Cuban scientists with the rest of the world,” said BirdsCaribbean President Andrew Dobson. “Helping this collaboration has been a very rewarding part of our mission. It was also a joy to spend time with so many Cuban friends in one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful nature reserves.”

Program cover for BirdsCaribbean's 21st International Conference in Cuba. (design by Rolando Ata).
Program cover for BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba. (design by Rolando Ata)

After five days of sharing stories and bird-sightings, members flew home to their islands. Each one brought back new skills and ideas. Tools developed on one island will soon be helping birds on others. Though many may do their work alone, they have friends and allies across the sea. In two years, the next conference will unite them again.

More information on the conference, including the program (file available for download), is available here.

BirdsCaribbean is very grateful to our local host organization, Sociedad Cubana de Zoologia, and  the organizations, agencies and companies operating in Cuba that provided a donation of services and/or products to assist in hosting the conference:
Conectando Paisajes
CPP-OP15 Manejo Sostenible de Tierras
Gaviota Grupo de Turismo Cuba
Havana Club
Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática
Agencia de Viajes San Cristóbal
Sociedad Cubana de Zoología

We would also like to thank the many other funders and contributors from other parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. that provided support of this conference. This support enabled a number of Caribbean nationals to attend and participate, and also helped to cover the many costs of holding this conference.
Audubon International Alliances Program
Blue Horizons Garden Resort
Caribbean Conservation Trust
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Eagle Optics
EasySky Airlines
MacArthur Foundation
Optics for the Tropics
Rare Species Conservatory Foundation
The Friendship Association
Vortex Optics
Wildside Nature Tours

See additional articles about the conference:
Coffee, Cave, and a Shot of Expresso
David Wingate Honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award
BirdsCaribbean Conference in Cuba to Highlight Tourism, Technology and More
Exciting Speakers Lined Up for BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba
Cuba to Host BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference

BirdsCaribbean Conference in Cuba to Highlight Tourism, Technology and More

Enjoying birds and photography in Viñales Valley, Cuba (photo by Lora Leschner, BirdsCaribbean March 2017 Bird Tour).
Enjoying birds and photography in Viñales Valley, Cuba (photo by Lora Leschner, BirdsCaribbean March 2017 Bird Tour).

2017 is the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. So, what better topic to consider than that of Caribbean bird tourism for sustainable development and conservation?

Speakers at the BirdsCaribbean 21st International Conference in Topes de Collantes, Cuba (July 13 – 17) will be digging deeper into the eco-tourism field, and the potential of birding as a tourist attraction. Recent trends suggest that a more discerning and independent traveler in the Caribbean – as elsewhere in the world – has emerged, who is looking for a unique, authentic experience. Much greater sensitivity towards the culture and environment is a critical component of this – and of sustainable tourism in general.

Skip Glenn, Marking Professor at University of Pittsburgh.
Skip Glenn, Marking Professor at University of Pittsburgh.

So, although Caribbean tourism was built on the “sun, sea and sand” concept, it is evolving. In a highly competitive field some models need to be redesigned to cope with changing demands, says Assistant Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh Skip Glenn. In Cuba, Glenn will discuss that critical “balance” that will build profit for entrepreneurs, while at the same time ensuring the preservation of natural resources and sustainable growth in communities.

Another recent trend is “sharing” via social media and online in general. Judy Karwacki of Small Planet Consulting in Vancouver, Canada will explore this growing tendency among travelers, many of whom are looking to “live like a local.” At the Cuba conference, Karwacki will provide practical marketing information and tips for birding tourism destinations.

Judy Karwacki of Small Planet travel (photo by Tamea Burd Photography)
Judy Karwacki of Small Planet travel (photo by Tamea Burd Photography)

One example of a bird tourism model is the Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT), developed by BirdsCaribbean, which aims to raise awareness (and enjoyment) of the remarkable diversity of birds in the region and to encourage their conservation. CBT’s aim is to work with partners on every island to offer training at the local level in bird-centered, sustainable tourism that includes experiencing local culture and heritage.

Holly Robertson and Lisa Sorenson will have plenty to update participants at the Cuba conference on the “latest” from the CBT, which has held interpretive guide trainings in Grenada, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Bonaire to date. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Marshall-Reynolds Foundation have funded supporting activities, including marketing products, an interpretive panel for Jamaica’s Cockpit Country, and improving trails and infrastructure in the Dominican Republic. The CBT is moving ahead!

Jan tries the cigar
Trying a Cuban cigar at a tobacco farm in Viñales Valley is part of the fun on the Caribbean Birding Trail in Cuba (photo by Lisa Sorenson, BirdsCaribbean January 2017 Bird Tour)

There is much more to absorb and enjoy at the conference in Topes de Collantes. An informative and interactive Cuba Day will celebrate advances in the study and conservation of the island’s endemic, resident and migratory birds. A specific threat to bird populations on the island is the culture of caged birds; a workshop led by Gary Markowski of the Caribbean Conservation Trust will address this major concern and seek solutions.

The use of technology is something that no conservationist can ignore; the range of available tools expands almost daily. The use of drones for conservation is a fascinating topic, for example. Dr. David Bird, Professor Emeritus of Wildlife Biology at McGill University, will discuss the use of small unmanned aerial vehicle systems in monitoring populations of birds that are hard to access. Other technology-related topics will include how to use a GPS, mapping, and the value of eBird for conservation planning.

Would you like to write more fluently about birds, for a more general audience? The energetic Mark Yokoyama, co-founder of Les Fruits de Mer in St. Martin, will guide participants through a practical and motivating workshop on non-technical writing.

Zapata Wren, a rare Cuban endemic, confined to the Zapata Swamp is a much sought after bird for both avi-tourists on the Caribbean Birding Trail and researchers. (photo by Anne Brooks, BirdsCaribbean January 2017 Bird Tour).
Zapata Wren, a rare Cuban endemic, confined to the Zapata Swamp is a much sought after bird for both avi-tourists on the Caribbean Birding Trail and researchers. (photo by Anne Brooks, BirdsCaribbean January 2017 Bird Tour).

The conference schedule will also include stimulating talks and workshops on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s exciting BirdSleuth Caribbean program, which is making an impact in science education throughout the islands; a symposium on recent advances in seabird conservation in the Caribbean; and a roundtable discussion on long-term bird monitoring and banding in the region.

By the way – it’s not too late to register for the 21st International Conference in the beautiful Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve Park. For more details, please visit the Conference website.

Read more about the conference at this link and more about keynote speakers at this link.  Thank you so much to the generous sponsors supporting our conference!

By Emma Lewis, Blogger, Writer and Online Activist, based in Kingston, Jamaica. Follow Emma at Petchary’s Blog—Cries from Jamaica.

 

Exciting Speakers Lined Up for BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba

Topes Waterfalls-Lisa and Jen
Lisa Sorenson and Jennifer Wheeler wave from one of the many beautiful waterfalls at Topes de Collantes National Park. (photo by Maikel Canizares)

The BirdsCaribbean International Conferences, which take place every two years, are always enriching experiences for scientists, ornithologists, conservationists, students, teachers and bird enthusiasts from across the Caribbean. This year’s conference, which will take place in the beautiful Topes de Collantes region of southern Cuba from 13-17 July, 2017, promises to be no exception.

This year’s theme is “Celebrating Caribbean Diversity.” The organizers aim to make the 2017 meeting even more exciting than the 2015 meeting in Jamaica, which was attended by over 260 delegates. The planned conference program offers a taste of what’s in store. Distinguished keynote speakers will discuss a range of topics of significance to the region’s ecology and biodiversity, including conservation challenges, technological advances, civil society outreach and the latest research and educational programs.

Lourdes Mugica-REV
Dr. Lourdes Mugica Valdez, ornithologist and professor at the University of Havana, Cuba.

Headlining the all-star line-up of international keynote speakers is award-winning ornithologist Professor Lourdes Mugica Valdés of the University of Havana. Dr. Mugica will discuss her three decades of work on Cuba’s aquatic birds and their wetland habitats conducted with the University’s Bird Ecology Group.

Dr. Hiram González will present the work of Cuba’s Institute of Ecology and Systematics group on bird migration. Cuba is an incredibly important stopover and wintering site for migratory birds and the Cuban government has set up an impressive network of protected areas to conserve biodiversity, including Cuba’s 26 endemic bird species. As more and more tourists and birders flock to Cuba, however, there is more to be done with international partners to ensure that as many important habitats as possible are not destroyed for development.

Robert_Eric_Ricklefs
Dr. Robert Ricklefs, Ornithologist and Ecologist, Curators’ Professor of Biology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Dr. Robert Ricklefs, Ornithologist and Ecologist and Curators’ Professor of Biology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, will give a talk focusing on the conference theme of diversity, highlighting how the Caribbean is a global hotspot for birds. He will provide an overview of the evolutionary history of Caribbean birds, island biogeography, and host-parasite evolution (i.e., birds and malaria), using his own research in the Caribbean as well as others, to illustrate how populations expand(which may lead to the formation of new species), and decline over time. He will show how understanding genetic differences between avian populations also informs us about evolutionary uniqueness of island birds and can help us to develop conservation programs.

David Winkler, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) at Cornell University.
David Winkler, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) at Cornell University.

Cornell University’s Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Dr. David W. Winkler, will talk about his comparative research on swallows in the genus Tachycineta with partners throughout the Western Hemisphere. He will also share the work he is doing with engineers to develop new technologies for tracking bids and discovering more about their lives, including very lightweight, long-lasting radio tags with ever-expanding capabilities.

Conservation issues are always high on the agenda, and Dr. Nicasio Viña Dávila, Technical Coordinator of the Caribbean Biological Corridor of the United Nations Environment Programme, will present his perspective on those burning issues directly impacting conservation in the Caribbean.

Dominican Republic-based consultant Ms. Leida Buglass, who is Secretary for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Caribbean Regional Committee, will talk about how important it is to engage with partners in civil society to advance bird and habitat conservation, including case studies and lessons learned from many years of community work.

Dr. Nicasio Viña Dávila, Conservation Biologist, Technical Coordinator of the Caribbean Biological Corridor.
Dr. Nicasio Viña Dávila, Conservation Biologist, Technical Coordinator of the Caribbean Biological Corridor.

And there’s more. Informative sessions and training workshops include promoting sustainable bird tourism and updates on the Caribbean Birding Trail, bird education, the use of media to promote conservation issues, the state of Caribbean forest endemic birds, ecology of migrants, and many more.

There will also be a special Cuba Day, where local ornithologists will share the work they are doing to study and conserve the island’s rich bird life and habitats. There is much to learn and enjoy!

For additional information and registration information, visit the meeting website here. Read more about the conference here and other speakers and sessions here.

Thank you so much to the generous sponsors supporting our conference!