When Robert Norton set out for Cuba in December, his goal was to help continue the country’s participation in the Christmas Bird Count, a yearly census by the National Audubon Society that tracks data on bird populations.
Working with local researchers and volunteers, the expert birder assisted with organizing and completing three counts in western Cuba, each on different days and in different ecological settings, making this only the second year in recent decades a Christmas Bird Count has been completed in the country.
“It yielded tremendous results,” Norton says.
Data was collected at one site in Viñales National Park, and two sites – Las Salinas and Bermejas National Parks – in Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In all, volunteers recorded 16,684 individual birds at the three locations, with a total of 145 distinct species documented – a remarkable number, Norton says, as it can sometimes take a week and many more volunteers to see that amount.
The counts yielded some surprises, too. The Bermejas count volunteers spotted Wood Thrush, a species that had not been sighted in two fall surveys. They also documented all four of the area’s quail-dove species: Ruddy, Key West, Grey-headed and Blue-headed.
Despite low water levels in Las Salinas, the area still attracted thousands of migrating and wintering waterfowl, including Blue-winged Teal, American Coot, and Gull-billed Terns.
Such data is important to capture now, Norton says, to establish a baseline for comparison before environmental changes occur and potentially impact bird populations.
He says the volunteer turnout was encouraging, especially in light of transportation obstacles faced by many. He hopes that by working with local volunteers, he can help institute a framework for future generations, as he emphasizes that the count belongs not to him but to the Cuban people.
Volunteers were enthusiastic and ranged from park directors to maintenance staff, representing a spectrum of backgrounds working together for the same cause. Lay people were matched with more experienced guides, providing a unique opportunity for aspiring birders.
Though there is still more work to be done, it is Norton’s impression that the 2012 count was a success, and he hopes next year will yield even better outcomes.
“With more volunteers, it can only get better,” he says.