While the Cuban people are known for their rich musical stylings, perhaps no voice in the Caribbean island nation emits such a harmonious sound as that of the Cuban solitaire. Also known as the Cuban nightingale, this elusive, endemic bird, although rather unassuming in its dull, gray plumage, mesmerizes all who hear its melodious song, which echoes through the forest of Ciénaga de Zapata or Zapata Swamp.
The largest wetlands in Cuba, the great Zapata Swamp encompasses more than 1,600 square miles in the western province of Mantazas, about 80 miles from Havana. It also is one of the largest and best-preserved wetlands in the entire Caribbean, having been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and comprising five separate protected areas, including a national park.
Zapata’s swamp prairies, tidal pools, and mangroves support an amazingly diverse array of flora and fauna, including nearly 1,000 plant species alone. The wetlands offer sanctuary to some 1,000 types of invertebrates and 30 different reptiles, such as the threatened Cuban crocodile. Other endangered creatures include the Cuban Boa, dwarf hutia, and Antillean manatee. The odd and rare Cuban gar, considered a living fossil and threatened with extinction, can be found swimming in Zapata’s rivers and lakes.
Yet the Zapata Swamp is best known as a birder’s paradise with some 175 resident bird species, as well as more than 60 others that visit during their regular migratory routes. Indeed, this is the only place in Cuba where 23 of the island’s 26 endemic bird species have been recorded.
In addition to the sweet-sounding solitaire, the wetlands are home to the beautiful Cuban trogon; the rare Zapata wren; and the Zapata rail with its green bill, red feet, and oddly short wings. An experienced local bird guide—an absolute must—can point out the Cuban parakeet and blue-headed quail dove; the cute little Cuban tody with its curiously big head; and the tiny bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest known bird, which averages just over two inches in length.
While the Zapata Swamp and its many inhabitants remain under threat from environmental issues and economic development, Cuba’s progressive conversation policies and outreach efforts are paying off. International funding as well as grassroots education continue to give the Cuban solitaire reason to sing.
For more information on our upcoming trips to Cuba, visit our Cuba Destination Page.