In winter 2011, WCS Conservation Scientist Dr. Steve Zack traveled to Cuba to represent the WCS Latin America and Caribbean Program’s conservation projects on that vibrant island nation. Zack, an Arctic scientist who focuses mainly on migratory birds, took the trip in part to memorialize his friend and colleague Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, a WCS conservationist and Cuban crocodile expert who died tragically of malaria in 2010. He also hoped to continue Thorbjarnarson’s legacy by forging new partnerships to protect the island’s tropical wildlife at a pivotal time in Cuban history.

“Cuba is a very inspiring place with really motivated people who care deeply about their natural resources,” Zack said. “Those opportunities to conserve their heritage will change dramatically if and when Cuba’s doors to the rest of the world open up.”

As an ornithologist and a first-time visitor to the Caribbean region, Zack was amazed by the diversity of both native birds and international migrants wintering on the island. Of Cuba's 369 species of birds, some are found nowhere else, such as the enigmatic bee hummingbird—the world's smallest bird—and the Fernandina flicker, one of the rarest woodpeckers. But approximately 70 percent of Cuba's birds are migratory, passing through or wintering up to 7 months of the year on the island. These include raptors, warblers, and many other species of concern to Cuba, North America, and Latin America at large.

“It was really impressive to see the sheer numbers of American migratory birds wintering in Cuba—or as Cubans would say, Cuban birds about to go visit the United States,” he said.

You can find out more about the trip by watching this audio slideshow.

WCS is grateful to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation for supporting critical conservation work in Cuba.