HawkArtScience: Hawksaloft.com blog

(Archive: Raptors & Cuba)

10 December 2009, Thursday
Raptor migration through Cuba: Part I

Where are the highest hawk migration numbers for Osprey in North America? The big days? The monster Osprey kettles? In the very short history of their hawk migration studies, in the World Series of Ospreys, Cuba takes home the gold medal. Bring on the other teams: Lighthouse Pt., Cape May, Kiptopeke, Veracruz... this new count sees 2x to 3x the numbers of any other NA location.

"Oh, we had 92 Osprey rise up one morning, circle above us; other groups, fifty birds," raptor biologist Freddy Rodriguez Santana observes in a very soft tone while speaking about the hawks over his island nation of Cuba. Big days have hit 600, with two to three hundred Osprey days recorded on this very new project... ten years old, but five years of serious data (he says... sounds like one of those good hawk counters we'd run into anywhere).

Freddy and fellow Cuban biologist Nicasio Vina Davila have been at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology — meeting everybody, working on their connections and talking like all involved, including the raptors, just don't care about the borders. But boundaries, like those hardened between the US and Cuba, are a big deal in this discussion. Shaking hands with these guys and talking birds of prey yesterday afternoon was, for me, a very big deal. The real work is not a public program, really, but the scientific, national, and international efforts. The prestigious MacArthur Foundation is banking on it too.

Hawks hit the island and either follow the land left or right. The Ospreys go East, while just about all "our" Swallow-tailed Kite head West. The San Antonio hawkwatch is the North American capital for the big kite! From there 66% — from their fledgling observations — just head right on their first attempt, crossing over to the Yucatan. While 24%, start out and return... sounds like a data tale that could be told by any hawkwatcher observing raptors near land's end. Through Freddy's HMANA-style counts at his three sites (so far), a few surprises — Swainson's Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk are new to the list, plus our Cooper's Hawk has been seen... an endemic and endangered species there, Gundlach's Hawk, is a dead ringer. Ah, fun with accipiters.

Starting a count anywhere, choosing a clear vista at the proper confluence, finding the routes on this wind or on the backside of that weather system... well, that's an international language learned through the intuition, experience, and long, happy days spent hawkwatching. In all languages and without borders, the sign reads: "Welcome. Hawk spoken here."


24 December 2009, Thursday
Raptor migration through Cuba, Part II

What are the odds? First, that I'd be thinking about Ospreys on Christmas Eve... instead of Roughlegs and Redtails (okay, I'm always thinking about Redtails, but). But I am looking at my notes from Freddy Rodriguez Santana's presentation at Cornell earlier this month (see December 10th post) and looking at images of this Summer's new Osprey presence just off Pt. Peninsula, my wintering grounds, and I thought about the two fledgling birds I saw there in August. One looking South. Those young eyes are powerful, but they certainly can't see Cuba from here.

What are the odds both these birds survived their first migration as far as Cuba? What are the odds they made the long water crossing from Cuba or the Dominican to South America? While the history, cultures, and of course, politics are world's apart, we all know — Cuban biologists and the rest of us — that the birds know no such divisions. We know via GPS tracking. NASA has a PDF brochure online and also a tracking site showing Ospreys on the move: overland, over water, lingering. Those are some long odds.

Just like elsewhere, juvenile hawks especially are prone to lingering on islands. The NASA data, and other satellite tracking work on Ospreys shows these young birds spend between five and 25 days on Cuba. They rest there, wait out the twists and turns of the the tropical storm season, fish, but mostly figure out that, sooner than later, they need to make another water crossing.

Siboney is one of two Osprey count stations. La Gran Piedra (The Big Rock), is the other. For birds now following the big water and those coming off the island's centerline, both sites are just outside the city of Santiago, along the southeast coast. There is more coastline to follow, but points East track over Guantanomo and its bay. From their counts to date though, Siboney and The Big Rock are at the confluence of the Osprey flow.

Satellite data over Cuba is available for Swallow-tailed Kite and Peregrine too. The kites bear West and cross to the Yucatan, and the counts on the ground see this. The movements of the Peregrine, as least as far as the hawk counts go, is not clear... remember the number of birds being tracked for any species is a miniscule sample set.

Still in its early days and years, Freddy's project has yet to search out and count Peregrines from sites where they can actually detect the forward progress of the falcons to their next destination. Over at Veracruz, they had to find a spot along the coast for the falcons, and Cuban counters have yet to find their Carden. Cuba is still a wild place and, applying the the One-mile Limit (see the Laws of Birding), seeking out the best falcon viewing/counting location on the right winds is part of the adventure, future-tense.

28 December 2009, Monday
Raptor conservation in Cuba, Part III

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 9 December 2009: Nicasio Vina Davila & Freddy Rodriguez Santana with Louis Agassiz Fuertes panels from the old Lab in the background pose prior to Freddy's talk on raptor migration & conservation in Cuba; With one foot almost out the door to meetings with Cornell & the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago (before returning home to Cuba), Nicasio Vina Davila makes last minute connections that in a few days will be hopefully long-lasting, and likely long distance.

Nicasio Vina Davila traveled to Cornell with Freddy Rodriguez Santana on this trip, in his new role. Both are biologists in Cuba's fairly new natural heritage program at the Centro Oriental de Ecosistemas Biodiversidad (BIOECO*) in Santiago... the city, and region, at the opposite island end from Havana (fourteen hours or so by car). But as an experience and accomplished Cuban naturalist, Nicasio is now tasked with adding the federal government's role to the science.
(*Google's language page is a useful resource for translating this site.)

As the latest data is gathered, the question becomes what to do to protect Cuba's unique species, their habitat, and enough wild around it to make it work into the future. Cuba is also very fortunate to have even wilder places where only preliminary surveys have been conducted.

Mexico is the Wild Wild West; Cuba is not, even with its wild undeveloped tracts. When the Mexican government designated forests as "protected" — the Monarch Butterfly winter grounds — the trees therein began disappearing at an alarming, accelerated rate. The focus for protection of Cuba's endemic Gundlach's Hawk (Accipiter gundlachii) will be first and foremost on park/reserves, even though the split of Ag habitat is 40-60%, public-private. That's the federal government taking the lead, confident that protection, regulation, and enforcement will take hold! The population estimate, with up-to-date survey info, for their endemic accipiter is three to four hundred individuals, and surprisingly, was a bit higher than originally thought.

With new population census numbers in for other endemics and raptors, the new news is not such good news. Old numbers consistently overestimated populations by upwards of 70-89%... either methodology or decline in play here. On the other hand, you work with what you've got and legitimate urgency is always an attention-getter in protection planning for the endemic raptors: Cuban Black Hawk, Cuban Kite, and Gundlach's Hawk (a Cooper's Hawk look-alike). Working with Cornell's "CSI" lab (aka, Irby Lovette's Evolutionary Biology program at the Lab of Ornithology) will make efforts in Cuba different from other North American natural heritage projects, well, because this DNA science literally wasn't available for us back in the 70s and 80s in the US and Canada.

Protect the top predators anywhere and you've protected much, much more in the process. Nicasio Vina Davila and Freddy Rodriguez Santana know this is true.

They've got the urge for going, and
they've got the wings so they can go.

— Joni Mitchell

Hawk•art•science blog
Truth and beauty. Art and science. Entries here will be on that flightline, although I will stray from the hawk-part on occasion, or will I? I aiming this beast at hawkheads and/or the young seasonal revolutionary biologists. It's for the flexible and young-at-heart too.
Comments, questions, excited utterances, and/or exasperated afterthoughts from you, dear reader, are welcome and will receive a reply. — Tom Carrolan
(Image above: "Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009")

Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
The Hawksaloft.com website was launched in 1997, following three years of printed handbills, plus numerous emails, all voicing my alt.hawkwatching ideas in New England. If you've been here before, the original site is archived in all its old-timey graphic glory. To navigate the old way, just click on Psychedelia the Hawk Owl and be transported back in time... trippy. Any bookmarks or links found anywhere online still work.

Not everything that counts can be counted and
not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein