View from Sapsucker Woods
|John W. Fitzpatrick
Boarding a charter flight to Havana, Cuba, in early September,
I expected memorable experiences and more than a few surprises.
I was bound for the famed Zapata Swamp, accompanying three long-time
colleagues from Chicago's Field Museum. With a team of Cuban counterparts
we would conduct biological inventories in concert with the Cuban
agency in charge of natural areas. For 30 years I had looked longingly
at Cuba on maps of the Caribbean. Now at last, by setting foot on
the island, I hoped to launch mutually beneficial partnerships with
several scientific labs on this beleaguered island-nation.
Southern Cuba is drenched with rains almost every afternoon during
late summer, and sure enough I stepped from the bus into a full
tropical deluge to greet Greg Budney, Jessica Eberhard, and Eduardo
Iñigo-Elias-three biologists from the Lab of Ornithology
who had just finished teaching two sound-recording workshops at
opposite ends of the country. We shared a joyful lunch with ecstatic
workshop participants before they returned to Havana. Three weary
(and wet!) mentors flew home to Ithaca, leaving behind 12 recording
rigs for permanent use by our newfound colleagues throughout Cuba.
Through the next week we arose before dawn to explore the vast marshes
and forests of the Zapata Swamp, Cuba's most significant remaining
wilderness area and home to several birds found nowhere else in
the world. Guided by Arturo Kirkconnell, author of the recently
published Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba (Cornell University
Press, 2000), we documented some new breeding areas for the rare
Zapata Wren. We saw Zapata Sparrows and Red-shouldered Blackbirds
in the vast sawgrass marshes and small flocks of the severely endangered
Cuban Parakeet flying over the forests. We even saw the big, zebra-striped
Fernandina's Flicker, now among the world's rarest woodpeckers.
But perhaps the most intriguing moment of my trip was provided by
two Northern Flickers, the same species that breeds in my backyard
in Ithaca, New York. A resident subspecies of this handsome woodpecker
(it lacks the white rump) is quite common where dense forest remains
Four of us were exploring by boat the mangrove-lined tributaries
draining Zapata into the Hatiguanico River. With freshly honed bird-recording
skills, Arturo and herpetologist Luis Diaz had focused on a flicker
calling high in the mangroves. Suddenly, two female flickers alit
just a few feet over our heads and began feverishly displaying at
one another with their namesake flicka-wicka-wicka calls.
Each bird intensely rocked left and right on the branch like a clockwork
toy, bill pointed skyward, chest thrust toward its rival, tail and
wings spread. Then both birds froze, utterly motionless and silent,
their bills pointing opposite directions from one another. After
15-20 seconds they began anew, only to freeze again after another
few seconds of displaying. And so they continued for 20 minutes
at least, alternating between intense action and frozen stiffness.
Finally, one of the females thrust toward the other with a much
louder and more forceful call, and the two flew off in a chase.
Dominance had been established.
Long, ritualized freezes in mid-action seemed surprisingly more
important than the more obvious physical and vocal movements in
this curious display. What is communicated by these games of "statue?"
Do our flickers play this same game in their displays, or are the
behaviors of Cuban and North American flickers drifting apart along
with their plumages? My quick review of the literature failed to
answer these questions so they remain to be explored. Fortunately,
every vocal detail was preserved for study; Luis recorded the entire
I've been fascinated by flickers for decades, but their intrigue
is now enhanced thanks to this lucky close encounter in Cuba, and
I have two gifted and curious naturalists to thank. What a joy it
is to know that they'll still have the recorders with them the next
time they go exploring together.
-John W. Fitzpatrick
Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director
citation: Fitzpatrick, John W. The View from Sapsucker Woods. Birdscope,
newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Autumn 2002. <www.birds.cornell.edu>
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