According to a story in USA Today, some 85 million Americans enjoy watching and/or photographing birds, ranking it 15th on the list of the most popular activities. A 2011 survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that around 18 million people each year take trips exclusively for birdwatching, with many participating in competitions to spot as many species as possible.
Cuba and Panama are perfect places to indulge in this increasingly popular pastime. Cuba has seven biosphere reserves, eight national parks, and two nature reserves, while Panama boasts 15 national parks and more than two dozen other protected areas. Each is home to hundreds of avian species, including 368 in Cuba and nearly 1,000 in Panama.
Endemic Birds of Cuba
Cuba’s endemic hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird, weighing around 1.8 grams and measuring up to 2.3 inches. Breeding males are stunning, with brilliant red-pink and blue plumage. Females have green/blue feathers up top and white/gray feathers below. Distribution of the bee hummingbird is patchy, but they’ve been spotted in the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Zapata Swamp, and the island’s eastern side.
Cuban Bare-legged Screech Owl
This small, endemic owl inhabits many of Cuba’s woodland area; but since they’re nocturnal, your best bet for finding them during the day is looking out for holes in the trees, where they usually roost. Its long, bare legs are its most distinguishing feature. The owls also have large, dark eyes and brown, gray, and white plumage, which is dark on top and light underneath, with some brown streaks.
This endemic bird is one of Cuba’s most exotic. Males have black masked faces, bright yellow collars, darker yellow upper plumage, and gray crowns and lower plumage. Females look similar, but they’re not quite as brightly colored. Although its numbers are believed to be in decline, the grassquit can be found all across Cuba, especially in the dry regions in the east.
Once considered a greater Antillian oriole, this endemic species has been given its own classification. Growing up to nearly 8 inches long, adult Cuban orioles are mostly black except for bright yellow patches on the side of the neck and at the base of its tail. They primarily inhabit forest areas and parks, and are a fairly common sighting.
This endemic parakeet—the only one found in Cuba—boasts a brilliant green color, with red feathers on its wings. Its population is in decline, having dropped below 5,000 in recent years. As a result, it’s classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable. The Cuban parakeet’s population is widely scattered, but it’s most commonly seen in the Zapata Peninsula, Trinidad Mountains, and Sierra de Najasa.
Another of Cuba’s endemic bird species, this tiny bird (which grows to about four inches) boasts bright colors—green on top, white underneath, with blue hints around the wings and a vivid red streak on its beak and neck. The Cuban tody is an avid hunter, and can often be seen found burrowing for insects during the day.
Cuba’s colorful national bird can be found all over the country’s forests, both dry and moist. It is easily identified by its blue upper plumage, white breast, and red feathers in the lower part of its body around the legs, which corresponds to the colors of the Cuban flag. It is known among the Cuban locals as Tocororo because of its distinctive “toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro” call.
One of Cuba’s two endemic woodpeckers, this Vulnerable species is much more rare than the Cuban green woodpecker. They can be identified by their signature striped brown/black and yellow feathers. Their population is fragmented, and most commonly found in the Zapata Swamp area. Look for them in palms, around the edges of woodlands, or feeding on the ground.
This is one of Cuba’s most endangered endemic bird species, with around 150-200 pairs remaining. There are five areas of Cuba where you may see it, including Zapata National Park, wooded areas west of Santiago de Cuba, and north of Guantanamo. But if you do see one, consider yourself lucky, as sightings are rare. Adult Gundlach’s hawks have gray-blue upper and white lower plumage, with a black cap and rust-colored legs. It often feeds on chickens, so some locals consider it a pest.
This endemic bird’s population is found in forests and semi-arid landscapes, from the Gunanahacabibes Peninsula to Zapata Swamp, down to Cienfuegos and over to the Isle de la Juventud. In addition to the yellow head it’s named for, the warbler also has feathers that are gray on top with light gray and white on the bottom.
Endemic Birds of Panama
Formerly listed as a subspecies of the Painted Conure, this endangered parrot is one of Panama’s most colorful bird species. Averaging nearly nine inches long, they have a vivid green body, blue nape and wing tips, red cheeks/chest/tail, and a black-and-white ruffled collar. Their population is dwindling due to habitat loss and degradation, and they’re primarily seen in Cerro Hoya National Park.
This rare beauty inhabits the moist montane forests of eastern Panama, usually between 3,000 and 5,300 feet of elevation. Unfortunately, deforestation is impacting their population. They look similar to the Pearled treerunner—brown head, back, and tail, with lightly colored streaks above the eyes, a light throat patch, and a mottled breast with teardrop-shaped markings—but the beautiful treerunner’s light markings are white rather than yellow.
Also known as the Azuero dove, this endemic bird can be found in the area around Cerro Hoya National Park as well as Isla Coiba and Isla Cébaco. They prefer moist lowland forests and swamps, and are currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN due to habitat loss. Though more plain than some of the other birds on this list, their light gray heads, white bellies, brown backs, and pink feet give them a cute, understated charm.
With a declining population of less than 1,000 individuals, this spectacular species was recently uplifted from Vulnerable to Endangered. They’re primarily found in the area between Cerro Santiago and Santa Fe National Park. They’re beautiful birds, with speckled white throats, iridescent green backs, and rust-brown markings along the eyes, chest, wings, and tail.
Pirre Bush Tanager
With around 240 species, tanagers comprise the second-largest family of birds. This one averages six inches tall, with red eyes and dark gray and olive green plumage. Though it has a relatively small range in the humid forests and montane woodlands of Darién National Park and its population is decreasing, the Pirre Bush tanager’s numbers remain strong enough that it’s classified as Least Concern.
One of two woodpecker species found in Panama, this endemic bird is colored unlike any other woodpecker we’ve ever seen. Males are orange-brown above with an olive-barred yellow rump, olive-spotted chest and throat, red crown and cheek, and a white streak just below the eye. Females are similar, but with dark gray crowns and cheeks. Look for them alone or in pairs in the trees of Panama’s humid forests.
Found only in the highlands of western Panama, the yellow-green finch boasts a bright olive green body; a black head, wings, and tail; and yellow thighs and bend of the wing. They’re related to the yellow-thighed finch, yet the two species’ habitats do not appear to overlap. Inhabiting montane forests, these birds are classified as Vulnerable due to habitat loss caused by deforestation.
This small flycatcher is usually confined to a tiny range in eastern Panama, stretching from the Canal Zone to the Darién. It’s identified by its olive head, white eye-ring, canary yellow underbelly, two yellowish wing bars, slender body, and long tail. You can often spot it foraging in mixed species flocks in the forest canopy.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.