Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

MVFN Returns to Cuba 2013

MVFN press story by Mary and Howard Robinson 

Seventeen members of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists recently returned from the group’s fourth international field trip, which was to observe the wonders of the natural world including some Canadian-born birds overwintering in a warmer climate in Cuba.

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Photo of MVFN group in Cuba (click on photo to enlarge or see link to labelled MVFN Cuba 2013 group photo), taken with a timer by Howard Robinson.  l-r: Murray and Karen Hunt, Perth area; Dave Milsom, Canadian leader, Peterborough; Mary Vandenhoff, McDonalds Corners; Mary Robinson, Clayton; Rolando, Cuban bus driver; Yuri Napoles Padron, Cuban leader; Joel Byrne, Pakenham; Cliff Bennett, Group organizer; Donna Lee Pullen, Ramsay; Mirtha Marie, Cuban guest; Howard Clifford, Blueberry Mountain; Dr. Yenalis Portales, Cuban guest; Terry McIver, Arnprior; Anne Mason, Almonte; Tim Pullen, Ramsay; Jean Clifford, Blueberry Mountain; Al Potvin, Almonte; Brenda Boyd, Almonte; Dr. Alain Porteles Cruz, Cuban guest; Aileen Young, Ottawa; Pip Winters, Almonte; and Howard Robinson, Clayton.

Travelling during the first two weeks of February 2013, the group visited the eastern provinces of Cuba, complementing the 2010 trip to the western provinces. Arriving in the city of Holguin, we met our Cuban tour guide and bus driver. We knew we were off to a good start as our guide was well known to some of us from our previous trip and the driver turned out to be a keen birder.

Barely away from the airport, soaring turkey vultures and white cattle egrets were the first birds we spotted. These common birds were seen many times, but thanks to continuous observation and the early morning bird walks led by our Canadian leader David Milsom, many more interesting and beautiful birds were observed throughout the trip – about 116 different species in total. Highlights included endemic birds such as the Cuban Trogon, the Cuban Tody, the Cuban Pygmy Owl and the Cuban Emerald hummingbird; spectacular birds such as the Great Lizard Cuckoo, the Magnificent Frigatebird and a barn owl feeding its chicks; and many birds that will head north soon such as the herons, warblers and kingfishers. In addition to birds, we saw lizards, beautiful butterflies, lovely orchids and other flowers, numerous palm trees and other semi-tropical vegetation.

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Cuban Pygmy Owl, spotted by MVFN members; 18 cm, which is smaller than our saw-whet owl. Click on photo to enlarge Photo by Howard Robinson

Our first destination was La Mensura National Park in the high plateau of Nipe where we noticed the changing vegetation as we travelled ever higher through the mountainous rain forest area. Our first nature-walk included sightings of many local birds and views of the spectacular Guayabo Waterfall, one of the highest in Cuba. Our next destination was Baracoa on the Eastern Cuban Atlantic Coast, one of the oldest colonial towns in Cuba. The road leading to Baracoa was challenging, to say the least, due to huge potholes, wash-outs and rocks from previous rainy seasons. Baracoa was the landing point of Christopher Columbus and the first settlement of the Spanish Conquistadores in Cuba.

Our hotel in Baracoa was situated high on a hill overlooking the harbour and ocean with a terrific view of the flat topped mountain of El Yunque. From this base, we visited Humboldt National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to 30 percent of Cuba’s endemic plants. Here we had an adventurous nature walk, climbing up and down hills, some slippery with red mud, and crossing a rapidly moving river four times. Helping each other on the crossings, we survived with only one dunking. Our efforts were rewarded when our local Cuban guide found the elusive ‘world’s smallest frog’ – so small it sits on an adult’s pinky finger nail. Some other activities in the Baracoa area included a nature walk to explain the chocolate making process; a row-boat ride to a local farm where we ate fresh fruit from the trees and were shown how to climb palm trees; and a tour of the natural history museum.

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From Baracoa we took a spectacular drive over the mountains and down to the Caribbean ocean and surrounding countryside. In the rain shadow of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, we visited the nearby Bacanao National Park – a parched strip of land declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. On the way to Santiago we visited a cactus garden and in this lovely city we learned more about the history of Cuba and toured the fort of El Morro initially built in the 1600s to guard the entrance to Santiago Harbour from pirates.

While driving throughout the ever-changing countryside from Santiago to Chivirico, we noted with despair the remaining damage from Hurricane Sandy which had devastated that area in the fall of 2012. At our resort on the Caribbean coast we had two glorious days to relax, and swim or snorkel in the ocean at a nearby coral reef.

Another drive to the mountains led us to the famous El Cobre Shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Charity. Our stay at the El Salton Lodge was exceptional. Here we had excellent views of a Cuban Pygmy Owl, a Louisiana waterthrush, Cuban Grassquits, red-legged honey creepers, and more. Other activities were walking in the mountainous terrain, spontaneously singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music”, and being introduced to local villagers living in the mountains.

Our next destination was the city of Bayamo, founded in the early 1500s. It was here that the national anthem of Cuba was first sung at the church near the main square. And it was here that our Cuban guide and bus driver sang their national anthem for us and we in turn stood in the bus and sang “Oh Canada” for them – another special memory.

Following a tour of the city of Bayamo, we headed to the Sierra Maestra mountain range where Fidel Castro’s 1950s revolutionary army built its headquarters high in the mountains and deep in the forest. We had an exciting hair-pin-turn car ride up the mountain and then hiked another few kilometres over rough terrain to Fidel’s rustic camp buildings – now a museum for the Cuban people and only to be treated with great respect.

After two wondrous days in the Sierra Maestra mountains we returned to Holguin in preparation for our trip to Toronto the next day. Of course we had a party on our last night to thank our Cuban friends and to celebrate our many experiences and new or renewed friendships. There are indeed many more memories: street scenes in the villages and towns; old cars and other interesting vehicles; rural houses with goats, pigs and chickens nearby; Cuban art, music and food; children in school uniforms; the Spanish language; and, of course, the overall resourcefulness of the Cuban people. We have only touched on a few memories and each of us has our own experiences to ponder. We all owe our thanks to MVFN’s Cliff Bennett for organizing the trip through Worldwide Quest tours, and to Quest leader, Dave Milsom an excellent birder and naturalist, who both made our trip to Cuba a truly wondrous experience.

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Costa RIca 2012 Local field naturalists return from international nature trip they won’t soon forget

Press Story

Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

Friday, March 30, 2012

Local field naturalists return from international nature trip they won’t soon forget

by Mary Vandenhoff and Joel Byrne

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One of the many Costa Rican species seen:  jacana on a water plant. Photo courtesy Jack Donaldson (Perth) who also travelled to Costa Rica in February.

A glorious trip to Costa Rica in mid-February brought together sixteen nature lovers from Arnprior, Perth, McDonalds Corners, Almonte, and Carleton Place. Most had met on local nature outings and share a love of nature closer to home as members of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) club, the trip organizer. A few members of the Friends of Bon Echo and the Ottawa Field Naturalists also joined them. They trekked to Costa Rica to learn about the flora and fauna of that lush and beautiful region on the isthmus of Central America. This was the third international nature outing organized by MVFN with the first being to Mexico to view the wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly and the second to Cuba. The tour was co-ordinated by MVFN member and Mississippi Mills resident Cliff Bennett.


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Photo 1: The MVFN group in Costa Rica. Front (seated): Nancy Madregal-Castro (Costa Rican guide); Kneeling (l-r): Dave Milsom (Canadian guide), Mary Vandenhoff , Olga Janoska , Rysha Colp (Ottawa Field Naturalists); Standing (l-r), Tim Pullen, Betty Pearce (Friends of Bon Echo), Joan Lindey (Friends of Bon Echo), Gary Hanes, Howard Clifford, Jean Clifford, Terry MacIver, Dorice Hanes , Al Potvin, Joel Byrne, and Wally (Costa Rican driver). Photo courtesy Cliff Bennett

The tour began February 9 from the capital San Jose where the excitement built as the group divided into four small aircraft and flew over the mountain range and the Pacific to a lodge in the southern lowlands near the Panamanian border. For three days, hikes through rain forest and along the Pacific were undertaken during which dozens of bird species and three species of monkeys were seen. Trip participant Mary Vandenhoff: “Our introduction to Costa Rica was a bird’s eye view of the country from a single prop Cessna flying from the capital nestled in the mountains (yes, under a volcano) over the mountains and along miles and miles of sandy coastline south to a jungle lodge. Where oh where is the runway? All I could see was forest rising from the beaches, but circling round, suddenly between the trees, lies a grassy strip. . . . We had arrived at Tiskita Jungle Lodge for three days of blissful immersion in exotic plants and flowers, spectacular birds (a daily treat was a flypast of Scarlet Macaws glittering in the rays of the setting sun) – even whales, sloths, and a white Ghost Bat sharing the cabin…”

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One of the many Costa Rican species seen: a blue morpho. Photo courtesy Jack Donaldson (Perth) who also travelled to Costa Rica in February.

After flying back over the mountains, the group was met by a bus, transportation for the rest of the tour which first headed north into the Braulio Carrillo National Park on the Sarapiqui River and the trails of the Selve Verde Organization of Tropical Studies Research Station. Here they were able to see three-toed sloths, poison-arrow frogs, green iguanas, caymans in the river and agoutis. One group walked by a well-camouflaged poisonous eye-lash viper, not two feet off the trail! Next stop was up the mountains and into a valley and the famous Arenal Volcano. This perfectly conical volcano exploded in 1968, leaving many casualties. Scars from a more recent eruption were evident but the cone was silent and mostly cloud covered when MVFN was there. Local hikes were undertaken including a boat ride through the Cano Negro Reserve on the Rio Frio and a visit to Danaus Ecocentre with its dozens of orchid species. The next few days were spent in the cloud forests of Bosque de Paz Biological Reserve. There, the group were keen to glimpse one of the most beautiful neo-tropical birds, the quetzal. Though this species remained elusive many others were seen as the group hiked several mountain trails and at the lodge, where the dozen hummingbird feeders attracted at least fifteen species, including Eastern Canada’s only hummingbird, the ruby-throated.

Trip participant Joel Byrne: “Great memories, all . . . How about the incredibly iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly that nobody could get to sit still long enough to get a photo of? On a side trip our Costa Rican guide very gently captured a Morpho on the fallen leaves, and we had our picture taken with it in full splendour, and immediately released it unharmed. Or . . . the beds in our jungle cabins that shook mildly at 5 am, no, not room service, but Mother Earth grinding her plates out in the Pacific. How about the rogue wave that wiped my glasses off my face, and the outgoing tide sucking sand, pebbles and my feet and legs out to sea. . . and the words of caution about rip tides and undertows surfaced in my brain as my body sank into the froth. Scramble for the blessed beach! . . . Capuchin monkeys looking like little men cowled and intrepid, defying death in the treetops, devouring fruit as if sitting at table while we clung to long, narrow bridges swinging above gorges with no visible bottoms. Secretive forest beasts, pacas, and agoutis, like giant rabbits (without the long ears) that nibbled at laid-out fruit, ready to bolt from some big cat. And of course the ubiquitous, laid-back lizards enjoying life in paradise.”

On the way back to San Jose, the group visited Poas Volcano Park and toured a coffee plantation. At a dinner prior to departure the group celebrated their experiences and toasted tour group leaders, Quest member David Milsom of Bolton, Ontario and Nancy Madregal-Castro, guide from San Jose’s Sun Tours. In all, they had trekked through four distinct climate zones and a variety of microclimates. Mary Vandenhoff: “We visited jungle, rain forest, cloud forest, river and ocean shorelines. Travelled by plane, bus, boat and walked, and sometimes just sat and the birds would come to us. Full days filled with awe and laughter – look, fig tree, 11:00 o’clock, 3rd big branch above the red bromeliad, a Trogon, a Honeycreeper, a Toucan . . . and 16 pairs of binoculars whip up to gawk in wonder at the brilliant colours of the magnificent birds. We never lost the sense of wonder at the incredible diversity of Costa Rica with its brilliant colours. Thank you Cliff for this incredible experience.” 

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