An Interview with Cuban Bird Expert, Arturo Kirkconnell

Arturo Kirkconnell is the bird curator at the National Museum of Natural History of Cuba and the author of several definitive papers on Cuban birds, a field guide, and a bird watching guide. At present he is working in another project: The Birds of Cuba, that will be published by the BOU Checklist Series. Arturo has been leading birding tours in his native Cuba since 1988. Nature Travel Network is traveling to Cuba, guided by Arturo Kirkconnell and Environmental Adventure Tours, from March 19-29, 2016. Details here.

The resplendant Vinales Valley © Arturo Kirkconnell.

The resplendant Vinales Valley © Kmiragava. 

Welcome to Nature Travel Network, Arturo. As the U.S. loosens travel restrictions, Cuba continues to get a lot of attention. You have been observing and researching the birds of Cuba for decades. You are the curator of ornithology at the National Museum of Natural History, have written 77 scientific papers and penned A Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba as well as A Birdwatchers’ Guide to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Caymans. Of all your projects, what are you most passionate about?

The study I feel most passion towards is research about Natural History of Cuban endemic birds.

As curator of ornithology, you must have held several thousands of Cuban birds in your hand. Tell us what this has taught you.

I have learned about individual plumage variation, the variation between different populations, plumage pattern in relation to age and sex as well as other important morphological data such as: bird size, wing and tail length and weight, among others aspects.

What are the conservation threats facing the birds of Cuba?

Although Cuba has an excellent conservation program with a National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) which encompasses 105 administrated areas with a total of 45 legally approved by the Cuban State, at present there are still 253 areas having been identified in need of protection which covers about the 20% of the island.

There are several species at risk due to the habitat loss that has continued since the Spanish colonized the island. At present human development in the northern cays is impacting and threatening bird populations such as: Thick-billed Vireo, Bahamas Mockingbird, and the wintering population of Piping Plover. Also, a big threat is caused by the presence of invasive animals and plants. Invasive plants such as Melaleuca are threatening the entire Zapata marsh habitat which is home to Zapata Wren, Zapata Rail (a critically endangered species) and Zapata Sparrow. Exotic animals, such as feral cats, catfish (Claria sp) and mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus) pose a big issue for bird conservation. It will be a challenge to conserve for present and future generations the most critically endangered birds such as: Zapata Rail, Cuban Kite and Ivory-billed Woodpecker and try to avoid some other threatened species such as Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, Giant Kingbird become even more rare and threatened in the near future.

I noticed you add the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to this list. I’ll get back to that in a moment! As travel restrictions to Cuba loosen, what will be the effect on birds, conservation, and birding tourism?

As I said before we have lots of land protection although there still exist several important areas that have been proposed to be protected and have not yet been legally approved. Human development will have negative impacts on nature, increasing the importance of having all the areas proposed by the National System of Protected Areas legally protected.

The tourism industry is now very important in Cuba, and birders can be an important sector of American people visiting our country. Birders can bring a positive impact to the local economy, although the amount of visitors should be controlled to avoid too many disturbances to the birds.

What are the major biodiversity areas in Cuba?

The Caribbean region is one of the top 25 world hotspots for biodiversity. Cuba has been classified by World Wildlife Fund as one of the 238 high priority Ecoregions. I would say the 5 most Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Cuba are:

  1. Zapata Peninsula, Matanzas province
    Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa mountain range (in Holguín-Guantánamo provinces)
  2. Peninsula de Guanahacabibes (Pinar del Riío province)
  3. Northern Cays (Archipelago Sabana-Camaguey) (Ciego de Ávila-Camagüey provinces)
  4. Najasa, in Camaguey Province

Of Cuba’s 28 endemics, which are possible to see on a typical trip? 

Typically we see 26 of the 28 Cuban endemics, except Cuban Kite and Zapata Rail. The former is extremely rare and it is found in eastern Cuba where most tours don’t reach. The latter species is also very rare and very hard to see on a birding tour.

What are Cuba’s 28 endemic species?

Bee Hummingbird
Cuban Black Hawk
Gundlach’s Hawk
Cuban Pygmy Owl
Bare-legged Owl
Cuban Nightjar
Blue-headed Quail-dove
Gray-fronted Quail-dove
Cuban Parakeet
Cuban Solitaire
Cuban Trogon
Cuban Tody
Cuban Green Woodpecker
Fernandina’s Woodpecker
Cuban Palm Crow
Cuban Gnatcatcher
Yellow-headed Warbler
Oriente Warbler
Cuban Vireo
Cuban Bullfinch
Zapata Wren
Zapata Sparrow
Cuban Grassquit
Red-shouldered Blackbird
Cuban Oriole
Cuban Blackbird
Cuban Kite
Zapata Rail

Bee Hummingbird © Arturo Kirkconnell

Bee Hummingbird © Arturo Kirkconnell

When is the best time to visit?
The best time is from November to April, although September is excellent, too. I personally like October because many Nearctic migrants arrive to Cuba during the fall migration, but also because most of the endemics can be observed then, too. The best month is March when there are still many migrants, and all the endemics start to breed. In late March, one can observe the summer residents, species such as Cuban Martin, Antillean Nighthawk, and Black-whiskered Vireo that arrive during that period. To guarantee you’ll see as many species as possible, the firsts two weeks of April is best so that you can watch as these birds migrate on their way back from southern regions to once again breed in Cuba.

What are some practical considerations for anyone traveling to Cuba? What do US travelers need to know?

Cuba is a very safe country, with lots of attraction for all types of visitors. They will feel what its like to ‘feel at home.’  I am sure the trip to Cuba will be an unforgettable experience for all of them, and I am sure many will return. It is just 90 miles away from Florida!

Editor’s Note: U.S. citizens need approval from the Treasury Department to spend money in Cuba, and thus, U.S. citizens can legally travel to Cuba if they are engaging in one of 12 categories of activities such as professional research, participating in an athletic event, performing in a concert, working on a humanitarian project or taking part in educational activities. The People-to-People license seems a popular choice for nature travelers. Connect with a tour company experienced in Cuba travel, one that has navigated these licensing issues. There are multiple daily flights from Miami and more flights being added from destinations such as Tampa, New York and Orlando operated by major carriers. However, seats still must be booked through third-party charter companies. It is recommended to check in four hours before departure time. (source: CNN).

Do you lead tours in Cuba? How can birders reach you?
I have lead tours in Cuba since 1988. Interested birders can reach me at a.kirkconnell59 [at] gmail.com.

For many birders, the case is closed on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But the last sighting of this species was in the eastern forests of Cuba in the late 1980’s. Is it closed for you and other Cuban ecologists?

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was recorded since 1984 to 1988 by several reliable observers although not any of those reports were documented by a photo or recording. This area is in far eastern Cuba in Humboldt Park, an area with difficult access. Only about 15 to 20% of the park has been well explored.

There are chances that the IBW still exist in Cuba, still lots of habitat remains in that remote region, and is where we still look for this iconic species.

I understand there are occasional expeditions. Who sponsors those expeditions?

The expeditions have been sponsored mainly by Birdlife International in UK which played a very important role to fund expeditions in search of Cuba’s rarest species.

Cuban Trogon © Arturo Kirkconnell

Cuban Trogon © Arturo Kirkconnell

Thank you, Arturo.  We look forward to seeing you in March!

Nature Travel Network is traveling to Cuba with Environmental Adventure Tours from March 19-29, 2016. Details here.

 

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