Sunday, April 14, 2024

Birding in Cuba - February 2024 - Part 8

25 February, 2024
Cayo Coco (Cueva El Jabalí, Laguna Flamencos) - Playa Las Coloradas

     Breakfast at the buffet was enjoyed by all, following which we went to the location popularly known as "The Cave." It is in fact an underground disco, populated by bats during the day when the party-goers are not there, with a reversal at night when the bats are out hunting.
     We always start our visit aboveground with a check of a bird bath and a couple of feeders, where there is much to be seen.
     One of the highlights is a subspecies of the endemic Zapata Sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata), and we were not disappointed.

     A Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus) was common, yet always delightful.

     Scanning the surrounding scrubby vegetation was productive, and this Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) posed beautifully.

     A Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra) was no less cooperative.

     Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) is surely the most handsome of the Turdus thrushes.

     A Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was not to be outdone, and showed us his most handsome side.

     No visit would be complete without a visit to the bats, and so we descended the stairs - into the cave of mystery and delight!

     There were no crowds of merrymakers to disturb our visit.

     Beth made sure that we were all aware of the rules before entering.

     We did not "violate the principles and ethics of our society." We were the very model of well-behaved Canadians; curious, eager to see the subterranean inhabitants, but innocuous to a tee!
     This is an interesting place, to say the least.

     Mike, generous to a fault, bellied up to the bar and offered to buy everyone a drink.

     Suffice it to say that we went a little batty!

     It was an interesting experience, of that you may be sure, enjoyed by everyone.
     Back into the bright light of day, a male Western Spindalis (Spindalis zena) was a fitting welcome from our journey into the underworld, and a female followed right behind to validate the greeting.

     We boarded the bus and travelled to Laguna Flamencos to see West Indian Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) See it we did, but the birds kept frustratingly far away, so I have no pictures to share with you. 
      A Neotropic Cormorant (Nannopterum brasilianum) was a little more amenable.

     There was a good variety of shorebirds and other species present, but mostly out of camera range. The following shot will give you an idea of what we were facing.

     On the way back to the resort for lunch we did manage to meet up with a Mangrove Cuckoo (Coccyzus minor).

     After lunch we had time for relaxation (aka siesta, a nap, forty winks) following which we made a short journey to the beach beyond the resort where a wonderful variety of birds awaited us.
     These Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) perched on driftwood were captivating.

     Kathy and Mike had their binoculars trained on everything that moved!

     Is Virgil pondering the next shot or wondering whether he got the last one just right?

       Many Sanderlings (Calidris alba) provided enchantment for all of us.

       A Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) cruised overhead.

     Kathy kept a close eye on a Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and was able to photograph the following sequence.

     The premier attraction at this section of the beach is the presence of Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus), a bird under siege at every stage of its life cycle. It is classed globally as threatened and endangered, with a total population of between 7,600 and 8,400 in 2020. It is at a high risk of decline as its shoreline habitat is threatened by pollution, expanding expropriation of its habitat by humans, and rising sea levels.
     It is an incredibly appealing little bird, and we were excited to spot one with a leg marker, clearly visible, and able to be captured on camera.

     When I returned home I submitted a picture and the details of our discovery to the appropriate authorities and was advised as follows:

"David- Yes, this is one of our plovers from eastern Canada – he was banded as a chick in July 2017 at Malbay South, NB.  Originally he was black flag AP, but when the code on the black flag became unreadable, we replaced it with white flag K2 in 2021.  As you noted, he winters in Cuba at Cayo Coco.  In the nonbreeding season he has also been seen in spring 2018 in North Carolina; and in fall: 2018 in Virginia and North Carolina, and 2019 North Carolina.
Great to know he is still alive and doing well!  Thanks for sending in the sighting."

     Piping Plovers have been known to live for fourteen years, but most probably do not survive beyond five years, so this epic little voyager is getting on in years.
     I am grateful to Mike for sending me this map of the migratory route followed by our hero, from birthplace to wintering grounds on Cayo Coco, a distance of 3,050 km.

     We were a very happy group.

     In case you ever wondered, there's more to Cuba than palm trees and rum. Just ask any of the people above and they will set you straight.
     Until the next time.....  

    I am grateful to Alan, Beth, Kathy, Mike, Tania and Virgil for contributing their pictures.  

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Book Review - Frogs of the World: A Guide to Every Family - Princeton University Press


     It seems that people have always had a fascination with frogs. After all a maiden had only to kiss one to have her very own prince, and the enduring favourite on the children's television show, Sesame Street, has been Kermit the Frog.
     Lamentably, this engagement has not benefitted frogs (or other amphibians for that matter) in any way at all. From page 53: "Amphibians are the most threatened terrestrial vertebrate group on the planet, with tens of species going extinct each year."
     If this does not fill you with sadness, I am not sure what will.
     The pages of this book are filled with a glorious array of these creatures that, in so many ways, represent the very face of the climate crisis and all that is happening in the world around us. There is not a spot on Earth where frogs are found where their continued existence is not imperilled.
     The book is filled with glorious illustrations of frogs big and small, colourful and cryptic, temperate and tropical, even those that are capable of being frozen in ice for a good part of their life cycle.

     Species that are representative of every family are featured, with a description, pictures and a range map. There are frogs that are benign and those that produce poison so powerful it is capable of killing a human ten times over. 
     What is common among all species of frog is that their very presence is an indicator of a healthy environment, with clean, unpolluted water. The skin of a frog permits efficient gas exchange - up to 90% of its oxygen intake - essential to its survival, and anything that impairs that ability is highly problematic. Acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, clear cutting of forests and urbanization all portend death for frogs.
     These ancient creatures, that have graced the Earth for around 250 million years, can be wiped out in the blink of eye by callous human disregard for their existence.

     Poison Dart Frogs have been linked with indigenous people in the tropics for as long as they have co-existed, each in harmony with the other, symbiotically and without endangerment. One spill from the tailings pond of a poorly managed mine can wipe out millions of years of life on Earth, irreplaceable, lost for all time. 
     We are already impoverished by those species we have lost. Let's summon our collective will to ensure that the dreadful trend of extinction is stopped. Let citizens join with scientists; let children be educated; let indifference be a sin.

     The authors point to a few encouraging success stories, but one is bound to conclude that the finger is in the dike, and the dike is in urgent need of permanent repair.
     Enjoy this book, revel in the unrivalled beauty of frogs around the world, and do your part to ensure that they too may survive.

     We will be much poorer for their loss, and we simply cannot permit that to happen. If the bell tolls for frogs, it tolls no less for us.

Frogs of the World: A Guide to Every Family - Princeton University Press
Mark O'Shea and Simon Maddock
Hardcover - US$29.95 - ISBN: 9780691248301
240 pages - 6.75 x 9.5 inches (16.875 x 23.75 cm)
300 colour illustrations
Publication date: 09 April, 2024

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Book Review - Piping Hot Bees and Boisterous Buzz-Runners: 20 Mysteries of Honey Bee Behaviour Solved - Princeton University Press


     It was hard not to chuckle at this playful title of a book by one of the world's most pre-eminent bee biologists. 
     The book begins with Seeley reminiscing about being "not quite eleven years old"  and already observing a bee colony in a black walnut tree and asking himself questions about what was happening. As one goes through the book and vicariously takes part in Seeley's discoveries, one gets the firm impression that this eleven-year old boy is alive and well - and still living in Ithaca - curiosity undiminished. 
     And yes we do get to know about piping hot bees and boisterous buzz-runners.

    Along the way we are privileged to share in Seeley's ground-breaking series of elegant experiments and meticulous studies, all designed to shed light on bee behaviour and expand our knowledge of these remarkable, important, intelligent insects. We are treated to a window into the collaboration between scientists across international boundaries, divorced from ideology, and pure in the pursuit of knowledge. It is remarkable how many of Seeley's graduate students have gone on to gain renown as bee researchers in their own right.

     Every chapter is a self-contained story, a tale of discovery, of hard work and eureka moments. The sense of elation is palpable and it is impossible not to share in it.
     The book is unique - the memories of a scientist looking back on a life well-lived, on a satisfying career, on friendships made and cherished, on what it means to tease out nature's secrets.  It is at once a 
monument to discovery and a personal reminiscence.

     We all are in Seely's debt for this book and for his contribution to science. It truly is a portrait of excellence.
     May he thrill us many times again.
     I suspect he will!

Piping Hot Bees & Boisterous Buzz-Runners: 20 Mysteries of Honey Bee Behavior Solved - Princeton University Press
Thomas D. Seeley
Hardcover - US$29.95 - £25.00  
ISBN: 9780691237695 - 312 pages 
6.125 x 9.25 inches (15.31 x 23.125 cm) - 106 colour and black-and-white illustrations
Publication date: 09 April, 2024

Sunday, April 07, 2024

Birding in Cuba - February, 2024 - Part 7

24 February, 2024
Trinidad - Carretera Trinidad - Río Higuanojo - Río Higuanojo - Pedraplén Cayo Coco - Entrada de Cayo Coco

     Everyone looked well rested and refreshed as they straggled from their rooms for breakfast, taken very agreeably in the courtyard; a fine start to the day.


     Before long, it was time to go, and we loaded up the cart to deliver our luggage to the bus.


     Kathy looked all set to face whatever challenges the day might bring!

     Rocío and her charming young man, Ernesto, came to say goodbye.

     It has been a great pleasure for me to see her grow up from the child I first met, to a confident and beautiful young woman. Perhaps one day she will be able to visit us in Canada.
     We had not been long on the bus when the gauge showed that one of the tyres was flat, so we were offloaded at a park while Jovany went to get it repaired. Ironically this was not our original bus. It had been showing mechanical issues and a replacement vehicle had been delivered.

      Just before we left, Rocío and Ernesto paid us another visit.
 It was actually quite pleasant to spend a little time in the park enjoying Cuban companions, and it was not long before we were on the road again, a large nail having been extracted from the tyre and the hole plugged.
     We stopped along the highway a short distance from Trinidad where Cuban Palm Crow (Corvus minutus) is known to favour a stand of palms, and within minutes of disembarking from the bus, there they were!
     Very agreeably, Cuban Crows (Corvus nasicus) were also present, with one species on each side of the highway, permitting an examination of behavioral and vocal differences.
     The two species are quite similar in plumage, but their calls are different from each other. Cuban Palm Crows have a habit of flicking their tails and, unlike Cuban Crow favour landing on the ground.  
     Unfortunately, I do not have a picture to memorialize this encounter.
     We moved on to our next stop, where our target bird was Giant Kingbird (Tyrannus cubensis)

      This is a very robust flycatcher, characterized by its huge bill; it didn't take us long to find it.

     It was very agreeable to also find a familiar bird from home, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), perhaps vacationing in Cuba just as we were!

     A Cuban Green Woodpecker (Xiphidiopicus percussus) was no less captivating - but it is certain we will not see this beauty in Ontario.

     It was productive to cast an eye on the river where an Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) waited for an opportunity to pursue its next meal.

     No doubt it will be vying for fish with Neotropic Cormorant (Nannopterum brasilianum).

     We drove on, getting ever closer to Cayo Coco, but not before stopping for lunch.

     This seemed like a unique way to display bottles of wine (or rum); perhaps I need one in my house.

     I know that Virgil can "make anything" so I expect that he is working on it as we speak.
     Fresh flowers are a delicate touch anywhere, but to have them bedeck the restrooms elevated a bio break to a whole new level of enjoyment!

     After an excellent lunch, we set a course for Cayo Coco, with no further dallying along the way - until we saw some interesting birds, that is!
     Just before entering the causeway, we spotted this huge congregation of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus).

     In Alan's picture above an American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) has "photo-bombed" the stilts, and in the bottom right corner a Willet (Tringa semipalmata) may be seen.
     There were stilts - and more stilts!

     It always seems to me that Cuba is too far south for Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus), but the evidence proves me wrong. There they were!

     If your eyes are sharp you can also detect Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) and Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) loafing along with them.
     Kathy managed this excellent picture of a Royal Tern in flight.

     A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) looked especially grand.

The causeway beckoned!


     There are wonderful birds to be seen on Cayo Coco and we enjoy going there, but we wish there were alternatives to the all-inclusive "resorts" where we have to stay, these monuments to crass commercialism, synthetic jollity, always on a path to decay and disrepair from the moment they are opened, lacking in charm, devoid of character - but stay there we must.
     This is Pullman Cayo Coco, our home for three nights.

     In the evening, when we met to "do the list", a time-honoured ritual for birders, it was always difficult to find a secluded spot, and even more difficult to escape constant noise.

     One could only long for the peace and quiet of Damita's dining room, with a Barn Owl to keep us company.
     Those were the days!

     Photographic credits: Alan, Beth, Ernesto, Kathy, Virgil - and a few pictures of my own. 

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.