An inconspicuous and little-known migratory songbird drew me to Cuba three winters ago. The island’s people and landscape captured me, and have kept me coming back.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Cuba’s birds – both resident and migrant – and the places they live are a huge draw for me. They’ve led me to the island’s highest peak at 6,476 feet elevation, and taken me to remote cloud forests where humans had probably never tread. But, my most enduring memories invariably involve my local colleagues, now my friends.
We’ve shared the thrill of discoveries; the humor needed for a fifth consecutive dinner of instant mashed Until recently, VCE’s efforts centered on Hispaniola – especially the Dominican Republic – where 80-90% of the planet’s approximately 100,000 Bicknell’s Thrushes overwinter. Unraveling this globally vulnerable species’ fascinating and complex ecology has highlighted an urgent need to protect its fragile winter habitats. With human populations growing and conservation resources scarce, the odds often seem insurmountable. VCE and our many local allies are working hard to stem the mounting tide of habitat loss on Hispaniola; there is no question that rangewide conservation efforts need to focus there.
But, what about the other three islands where Bicknell’s Thrush spend six to seven months each year – Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica? For any migratory animal – whether a Monarch butterfly, a potatoes; the crushing exertion of plodding up steep slopes under heavy backpacks; the exhilaration of Cuban Solitaires chorusing on a mountaintop amidst swirling clouds; and the simple pleasure of lively banter. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten the best part of the ‘deal’ from a deepening relationship with my Cuban counterparts, but I feel confident that I’ve given something back as well.
First, some context. Since 1994, I’ve spearheaded bird conservation work in the Caribbean Greater Antilles – Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico – through the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), located right here in Norwich. Our primary conservation target is a rare, secretive, migratory songbird – the Bicknell’s Thrush – which nests on mountaintops in New York and New England, and spends its winters only on these four islands. The species is an ‘umbrella’ for conservation of the high-elevation forests where it lives – both in the north and south – meaning that if we protect Bicknell’s Thrush well, we conserve a host of other unique flora and fauna.
VCE’s work has featured a blend of cutting-edge science, on-the-ground habitat protection, and capacity-building of local partners. That approach has produced remarkable discoveries, helped focus attention on threatened biodiversity hotspots, and trained a new cadre of conservation professionals. It has been an immensely rewarding aspect of my career as an ornithologist, but most vital to me are the associated human relationships that have enriched my life.
Until recently, VCE’s efforts centered on Hispaniola – especially the Dominican Republic – where 80-90% of the planet’s approximately 100,000 Bicknell’s Thrushes overwinter. Unraveling this globally vulnerable species’ fascinating and complex ecology has highlighted an urgent need to protect its fragile winter habitats. With human populations growing and conservation resources scarce, the odds often seem insurmountable. VCE and our many local allies are working hard to stem the mounting tide of habitat loss on Hispaniola; there is no question that rangewide conservation efforts need to focus there.
But, what about the other three islands where Bicknell’s Thrush spend six to seven months each year – Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica? For any migratory animal – whether a Monarch butterfly, a thrush or a caribou – we must understand the species’ status across the entire annual cycle if we are to effectively conserve it. For Bicknell’s Thrush, we long suspected that eastern Cuba might harbor a secondary ‘mother lode’ of birds in winter, especially in the remote high-elevation forests of Sierra Maestra.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, always eager to exercise our signature ‘brute force biology’ tactics, VCE undertook what has now become a three-year study to determine the distribution and abundance of Bicknell’s Thrush in eastern Cuba. Our first step was to identify a reliable local partner with a strong ornithological resumé. We found that and much more in Centro Oriental de Ecosistemas y Biodiversidad (BIOECO), with whom we have forged a strong and dynamic collaboration. It turns out that obtaining visas and in-country permits to work in Cuba has been our greatest obstacle!
During early 2017, after weeks of uncertain waiting, our visas suspended in bureaucratic limbo, my VCE colleague John Lloyd and I finally touched Cuban soil in late March. Two days later, we were straining under heavy backpacks on the steep ascent to Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest mountain. Enveloped by lush, pristine cloud forest – as Cuban Trogons, Todies, and Solitaires serenaded us – we sallied forth daily in the pre-dawn with headlamps, conducting surveys of more than 100 points for Bicknell’s Thrush. And, we found… exactly zero birds. Disappointing, yes. Surprising, not really. Intriguing, definitely. We knew our timing was late and that some thrushes on Hispaniola begin moving off their winter territories in April. Had we arrived a month or two earlier as planned, we’re guessing we’d have found birds. As always, questions outnumbered answers, and a second winter beckoned.
Encouraged by my gung-ho BIOECO colleagues (and with funding from the Canadian Wildlife Service), I returned in January 2018 for another foray to Pico Turquino’s uppermost slopes. This time, we found Bicknell’s Thrushes – seven to be exact, two of which we banded – in the cloud-drenched forests at elevations of 5,600-6,250 feet. Not exactly a mother lode, but a respectable total, though far fewer than we expected to find in these extensive, untrammeled forests. My Cuban associates joined me in feeling both encouraged and perplexed, but determined to persevere in our quest.
To our east, the island’s largest tract of unbroken cloud forest in Parque Nacional Bayamesa awaited exploration.
So it was that I found myself this past January with four hardy BIOECO team members, all of us shouldering heavy backpacks, plodding resolutely upslope to the trailless wilderness of Bayamesa. Specifically, we hoped to reach two peaks that, as far as anyone can determine, had never been visited by humans. If any region of Sierra Maestra harbored a concentration of overwintering Bicknell’s Thrushes, Bayamesa’s virgin cloud forests seemed like our best bet. Over the next week, from a base camp at 5,000 feet we hiked up and over Pico Bayamesa each day, braving rain, chilly temperatures, treacherously steep slopes, soaked vegetation, and chronically wet boots. My machete-wielding colleagues made steady but slow progress, though we had to call it quits well short of our goal – the 10-kilometer-distant Pico Maceo. However, we claimed a measure of victory with the discovery of seven new Bicknell’s Thrushes, three of which we banded. Instant mashed potatoes, freeze-dried spaghetti, and insanely-sweetened camp coffee never tasted so good! There is no substitute for team work under adverse conditions, and our camaraderie forged indelible memories. My Cuban friends’ irrepressibly good humor, physical stamina, dynamic optimism, resiliency, and prodigious field skills were nothing short of inspiring.
To wrap up the Bicknell’s Thrush story (for now), what can we say about this elusive songbird in eastern Cuba after three winters on the island? First, it is clear that Cuba offers this species nowhere near the stronghold that Hispaniola does, despite its abundance of suitable, intact cloud forest habitat. Second, Cuba’s protected areas are in exceptionally good shape and provide Bicknell’s Thrush a far more secure winter refuge than elsewhere in its restricted winter range – I can only wish that more birds overwintered there! And third, we’re far from having all the answers. Much work remains to be done, and my Cuban colleagues are eager to lead the charge, and to keep me involved – that suits me just fine.
To conclude with a few reflections on the remarkable Cuban people, I’m deeply struck by the way they value life and the simple pleasures life offers to us all. These are people who have relatively little, and scant opportunities for material gains under the island’s long-standing Communist political system. To me, the lack of visible socioeconomic class distinctions – which I witnessed in Santiago de Cuba and every outlying rural area we visited – is truly refreshing. I’m convinced it promotes harmony, community, and a sense of social compassion. People are genuine, caring, generous, and respectful. No one is hurrying, hustling, competing. We could learn a lot from Cubans.
I’m left with a genuine sense of humility from my experiences on Cuba, not only for the opportunity to visit the island’s most remote and majestic wilderness areas, but by my extraordinarily good fortune to advance conservation science with dedicated, talented, and fun-loving Cuban colleagues, now my lifelong friends.