Habana Vieja and the Little Farter

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For three centuries, Havana was a sort of center of commerce between the new world and the old world. It held a massive shipbuilding center, and was a stopover for gold-laden ships en-route to the Spanish motherland.  It was, as you can see from the Malecón, impenetrable.

A French Pirate had easily plundered Habana Vieja in 1555, burning the place to the ground on his way out.  That’s a compelling incentive to fortify.

Those fortifications protected the city, for the most part, for the next two hundred years. In 1762, the city was defended by nine ships-of-line, fresh from Spain, and eleven-thousand soldiers and sailors. Two immense fortifications stood at the entrance to the bay. In case these fortifications were breached, a boom chain could be raised from the sea, blocking entry by any ship.

Spain was at war with England, and taking Havana was considered an essential part of victory for the English. 20,000 soldiers and sailors, twenty-three ships-of-line and an assortment of bomb vessels, cutters, frigates and sloops sieged Havana and then executed an amphibious assault of the city.

By the time the British captured Havana, they had captured one-fifth of the entire Spanish naval fleet as well as vast sums of Spanish wealth.

Havana was returned to Spain a year later, but the defeat only meant Spain would fortify the city even more; line the bay with even larger stone fortifications.

The next morning, I wake knowing I have to get started on my search for the Pedorrera.  Havana, being all concrete and stone, isn’t necessarily the first place to look for birds.  But one place in particular caught my eye as having some good potential. 

A taxi driver – “no, my car is Chinese,” he had explained, reminding me of the economic absurdity of it.  “Our number one trading partner!”, dropped me off at Hotel Nacional, a large, sprawling hotel with commanding views of the Caribbean and the Malecón.

I had used Google Earth to find a place in Havana with lots of dense foliage and green space.  Hotel Nacional had it all in a compact space.  Ornamental gardens and big, sprawling trees and clumps of straggly bushes.

I walk through the ornate lobby of the hotel, avoiding eye contact with the bartenders, waiters and security guards, and when I make it to the gardens, I open up my tripod and mount the telephoto lens.  The Pedorrera is not rare, and it ranges throughout Cuba, so I might as well start looking for it now.

If I were with a guide or a local with birding knowledge, I would likely have much better luck at finding the Pedorrera.  But even in Oregon, where I have a much more intimate knowledge of where my local common birds are, I might only see certain ones once or twice a year. If a Cuban visited me in Oregon and asked me to find a Swainson’s Thrush or a Red Crossbill, I would have to tell him that while these birds are common within a two hour drive of home, our chances of finding one would be virtually zero.

When you have never seen a certain bird before, you can read about its habit, and look at a thousand pictures of the type of tree it’s sitting in, or how it sits on a powerline.  You can study the eBird reports, and read dozens of narratives about recent sightings.  But none of that adds up to local knowledge, or repetitive sightings that make future identifications a breeze.

Having birding and naturalist guides, or connecting up with locals who have local knowledge, is essential to birding, and something I do all the time.  But sometimes, I have this need to go it alone, purposely complicating my pursuit for the challenge of being completely without a net.

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