In the great Zapata Swamp, both birds and people covet these "sticks with punk hairdos"
Carajo! Lost again. Trudging through the oppressive heat in Cuba's Zapata Swamp, I search for the Cuban parrot nest I discovered the day before in the stump of a dead sabal palm. The distinctive trees provide nesting habitat for the parrots, but I have been using them as guideposts to help me navigate through this flat woodland. Sabal palms look like punk hairdos on sticks, and their odd shapes and the lichen patterns on their trunks make each one unique. Now I am wandering in circles and my heart sinks as I realize why: My guideposts from 24 hours ago are missing.
I have come to the Zapata Swamp with my colleague, ornithologist Arturo Kirkconnell of the National Museum of Natural History in Havana, to study an endangered woodpecker, Fernandina's flicker, and to photograph birds native to Cuba. In the process, I have been introduced to this quintessential Cuban ecosystem and its remarkable community of animals. The sabal palm, the keystone species of this ecosystem, provides shelter and food for a wide array of birds and lizards. If something happens to the palm, the entire ecosystem may be at risk--including all the creatures I've come to see.
I won't get to see my parrot nest--someone has toppled the nest stump. All the neighboring sabal palm stumps have been knocked down, too. I stoop to retrieve a lone white eggshell, the only remnants of the parrot nest. This is clearly the work of parrot poachers.
Toppled or denuded palms, I'm learning, are an increasingly common sight here--and not just because of poachers. Campesino (peasant) families--with average annual incomes of less than $100--clear groves for farming and cut the surrounding trees for firewood and charcoal production. They also harvest the palm's fronds to thatch their roofs. All these intruders in the protected Zapata Swamp, driven in part by Cuba's faltering economy, are putting one of the country's most important
wildernesses at risk. Concerned about what I've seen, I decide to learn more about the role of these trees and the threats to them.
The Zapata Swamp is a 4,500-square-kilometer (1,700-sq. mi.) mosaic of fresh and saltwater marshes, mangroves and woodlands on a limestone plain in southwestern Cuba. It is 160 kilometers (100 mi.) south of Havana.
While 63 percent of the country has been converted to agriculture, the Zapata Swamp remains one of the most extensive habitats for Cuban wildlife. Most of it, therefore, has been designated a national preserve.
All but three of Cuba's 25 endemic birds breed here. Two of these birds, the Zapata wren and Zapata rail, are found nowhere else. The swamp remains one of the last strongholds of the Cuban crocodile, the Zapata sparrow, the Cuban parakeet, Fernandina's flicker and the world's smallest bird, the Cuban bee hummingbird.
The ancient sabal palm, which also grows in the southeastern United States and the Bahamas, dominates parts of this wilderness. It is a true survivor. Able to grow on poor soils and withstand hurricane-force winds, it can live for more than 100 years. Growing up to 20 meters tall (67 ft.), it is topped by a pincushion of 15 to 30 fronds, each of which is up to 2 meters long (6.6 ft.).
Many distinctive Cuban birds and other creatures find shelter in these fronds. One, the black-cowled oriole, a mellifluous songster, is a skilled artisan. It weaves its baglike nest beneath the stout leaves using fibers collected from other palm fronds. Two other members of the blackbird family, the Cuban blackbird and Greater Antillean grackle, conceal cup-shaped nests amidst the dense palm crowns.
Kestrels use the young, upward-facing leaves as a lookout point. Northern mockingbirds perch in the horizontal, middle-aged fronds and serenade potential mates. Anole lizards, bats and a variety of insects find shelter in the palm's older, drooping fronds. In the dense, leafy globe, bare-legged owls and Cuban pygmy owls find refuge from predators and a shady resting place.
Other creatures find cozy shelters or nesting sites in the soft trunk of dead sabal palms. Four different kinds of woodpeckers drill out cavities in the palm, and other birds inherit or steal these holes from the woodpeckers. The Cuban pygmy owl, bare-legged owl, Cuban parakeet, American kestrel and Cuban trogon all rely on woodpecker holes or scarcer natural cavities for their nest sites. Other birds, such as the diminutive Cuban tody, use the woodpecker borings in a pinch. Various anole lizards and the Cuban tree frog also take refuge in old woodpecker excavations.
Cavities formed by other natural processes also provide shelter. When a palm dies, the crown decomposes first and falls away piece by piece. With its protective bonnet gone, the core of the trunk rots from the top down, eventually creating a hollow chimney. Cuban parrots seek out such chimneys for nesting and large Caribbean rodents called hutias find sanctuary there as well.
When the trunk finally succumbs to decay, wind and gravity, it continues to supply shelter, first as a hollow log for small boas, bullfrogs, spiders and scorpions and finally as a mere pile of sawdust and bark--a haven for blind snakes and a variety of insects.
Sabal palms provide more than just homes, however. A healthy tree bears a bounty of small, black fruits in the rainy season. These fruits help to nourish resident birds such as colorful Cuban trogons, red-legged thrushes, stripe-headed tanagers, woodpeckers and other birds. Migrants from North America--black-throated blue warblers, Cape May warblers and yellow-throated warblers--regain weight lost during their journeys by eating the nutritious fruits. The warblers will return the palm's favor by dispersing its seeds far and wide.
Sabal palms also play an important role in the lives of the human inhabitants of the Zapata Swamp, as Kirkconnell and I learn when we arrive in the sleepy village of Bermeja in search of Fernandina's flickers. A collection of thatch-roofed houses, called bohios, Bermeja lies on the eastern edge of the swamp, 16 kilometers (10 mi.) north of the Bay of Pigs. The people of the village are mostly farmers who work small plots of land. Adjacent to the village is a scrubby woodland dominated by three species of trees: Cuban sabal palm, soplillo and jucaro. The sabal palms provide the people of Bermeja with thatch for their roofs and occasionally serve as lumber when the taller royal palm is not available. The latter two trees also yield firewood for cooking and heating.
Mariano de la Rosa, who lives in the middle of the village, is carefully working his way around the roof of a small building behind his house pounding nails into each upright petiole, or leaf stem. "I need about 1,000 leaves to complete a roof," de la Rosa says while sawing off the excess petiole. He lays the fan-shaped fronds in overlapping courses much like shingles. The thick layer of palm thatch is perfectly waterproof and effectively insulates the house from the tropical sun.
After harvest for thatch, some palms are left with only two or three fronds. To protect nesting birds and the palms themselves, preserve regulations specify that fronds may be cut only between July and December. Violators, in theory, face a fine of 10 pesos, roughly a day's wages. But enforcement, it appears, is nonexistent. On the other end of the woodland we meet several men on the side of a major road loading a large tractor-pulled cart with hundreds of fronds.
As we venture into the woodland, a staccato chatter leads us to a yellowish brown woodpecker streaked with black on the head and covered from back to tail with black jail stripes. The woodpecker, Fernandina's flicker, still thrives here in Bermeja due to the wealth of sabal palms. Elsewhere, loss of habitat has caused the woodpecker to decline to the point that it is now considered endangered. Kirkconnell estimates 90 Fernandina's flickers live here--perhaps the largest remaining group of Cuba's most sociable woodpecker.
Another resident woodpecker, the West Indian woodpecker, regularly harasses Fernandina's flickers. Kirkconnell and I have witnessed several attacks by West Indian woodpeckers on unprotected nests of Fernandina's flickers. In one case, a woodpecker hauled out a week-old flicker chick and unceremoniously dropped it 5 meters (16.5 ft.) to its death.
Near the scene of this crime, the loud keek keek keek of an American kestrel gives away the location of its nest site in one of the tallest dead palms in our study area. As the male kestrel flies in, the female moves to a perch near the nest and calls. Barely stopping on the perch, the male alights, hands over an anole lizard and flees. The female enters the nest hole with the youngsters' food. I happily photograph the action and plan to return the next day when the light is perfect.
Alas, this is not to be. We are shattered as we return and find logs lying about and the kestrel's home resting on the ground. The cavity is cut open, and a baby kestrel lies dead on the leaf litter. It does not take great strength to push over these tall stumps. Amid the destruction lie a Fernandina's flicker nest and the palm in which a West Indian woodpecker had just begun to chisel out a hole. The perpetrators had hoped to find a nest with young Cuban parrots. A parrot can bring from $17 to $50 on the black market and might provide the seller with a pair of jeans, cooking oil or scarce soap.
Our pursuit of birds takes us deeper into the preserve where I am surprised to see large clearings for cultivating rice. These clearings are called tumbas, derived from the Spanish tumbar (to knock down), but which also ironically means tombs. An old man is preparing the soil to plant rice. He complains about the jicoteas, Cuban turtles, eating his rice and says that he plans to poison them. He does not appear concerned that he is farming in a preserve. "The rice that we get from the [official] store is not sufficient to feed my family, but farming this piece of land I get surplus rice which I can sell," he says.
Our time in the field is drawing to a close, but I still want to photograph the rare Cuban parakeet so we pay a visit to Sopliar, a small farming community a half-hour's drive from Bermeja. Even in the middle of the large cornfields adjacent to the village, sabal palms stand, lone reminders of the native ecosystem. The campesinos keep many of the palms to provide thatch for their bohios.
Inquiring about the location of Cuban parakeet nests, we are led to a young farmer named Felipe. Dressed in old shorts and sweating from hard labor in the warm morning sun, he reluctantly tells us, "I have a Cuban parakeet nest. It's mine alone." He mentions that in a few days he will remove the chicks to sell them and asks, "Want to buy some?"
It's unlikely that Felipe's plan to remove the rare, officially protected birds will land him in trouble. As with the illegal clearing and palm-frond harvesting occurring inside the reserve, there is little risk of getting caught. We learn why when we visit the chief forest guard, Orlando.
A friendly, gentle man in his 40s with a bushy black mustache, Orlando is skinny like most Cubans these days. To help him enforce the law, he has been issued a blue Russian motorcycle with a sidecar. But the motorcycle runs on gasoline, a very scarce commodity in Cuba. Asked about the urgency of apprehending violators of preserve regulations, Orlando says: "Sometimes you just have to make your view fat [turn a blind eye]. You know, people have to eat."
Nature photographer, author and wildlife biologist Doug Wechsler is director of VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology), a comprehensive collection of bird photographs housed at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.…