Christmas Bird Count in Cuba - Part 1

Christmas Bird Count in Cuba - Part 1

Dec 19, 2012|Birding| by administrator

Robert Norton has been “chasing birds,” as he puts it, for most of his life. Through the years, his fascination has led him far and wide, and with his current project he hopes to shape a path for a new generation of birders.

On December 14, Norton departed for Cuba to assist with the country’s participation in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), an annual census that tracks data on bird populations in the Western Hemisphere.

This is only the second year Cuba has taken part in the 112-year-old tradition, but Norton anticipates working with local researchers to establish a long-term program on the island and gain a greater understanding of resident and migrant species.

“When you start looking at these creatures and then you start looking at the wider picture of where are they, why are they there, their interaction with the ecology and other organisms, it opens up a whole new view of how the world works,” he says.

Norton also assisted with Cuba’s first CBC count in 2011, and though he sought to return this year with U.S. volunteers under the auspices of Audubon, delays in the organization’s license renewal forced them to shelve the idea for the time being. Norton chose instead to go alone as a professional researcher, spurred by his belief in the project’s importance and investing his own time and money to see it continue.

Holbrook Travel has sponsored his expedition with a donation to help offset some of his costs.

Norton points out that Navy personnel at Guantanamo Bay conducted winter bird counts for several years in the 1970s, but when they left the counts were not continued. The idea now, he says, is to create a longitudinal database; as the information accumulates over years and then decades, a more accurate picture will emerge.

The CBC was first proposed in 1900 as an alternative to Christmastime shooting competitions to see who could kill the most game, including birds. One-day counts take place each year between December 14 and January 5, as volunteer researchers and hobbyists identify and tally birds, either by sight or birdcall.

Counts are conducted at multiple locations, each within a 15-mile diameter area known as a count circle. The census is repeated in the same count circle, on roughly the same day year after year, allowing researchers to measure changes in bird populations over time. Norton hopes to have three such count locations in Cuba this year.

The collected data can become a powerful tool in conservation efforts. Norton says that the people he’s met in prior trips to Cuba seem to have a keen sense of their natural patrimony and that they seek to preserve their history. One person he’s been working with is Frank Medina, director of Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, one of the locations for this year’s count. Norton says Medina seems excited and has already lined up volunteers. “He sees what I see, and I think he’s going to take it from there and it’s just going to grow. That’s what I’m hoping,” he says.

“In Cuba, it’s going to be a really fantastic opportunity, because they have a great youth movement learning about ecology,” he says. His aim is to help get the spark going, fan the flames some, and then let the next generation take it over and expand the effort, Norton says.

Norton himself started birding at a young age, perhaps 12 or 13. He describes birding as “something you can do anytime, anywhere, at any age, really.” As an adult, his interest developed into a vocation. He studied biology, focusing on birds for his master’s and PhD work, and since then, birding has been a constant thread through most of his professional life. He taught at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., and later worked for the local government as a biologist and in conservation and planning. “Birds really brought me all through that whole process,” he says.

Island biogeography, another of Norton’s interests, examines the distribution of species and ecosystems and encompasses the environment and endemism. This trip to Cuba is really kind of a pinnacle of that, he says, because there are so many interesting endemic species, meaning those that can be found nowhere else in the world.

On his first trip to Cuba in 1993, he spotted one such species, the Blue-headed Quail Dove, which he says was a highlight for him. Closer to home, his favorite bird is the Carolina Wren. “It’s a common bird,” he says, “but it has such a big, vibrant, joyous voice for a little, tiny package.”  

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