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The Cuban Endemics, Plus

A review by Diana Doyle

Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide Including West Indian Endemics Residing in Cuba, by Nils Navarro

Ediciones Nuevos Mundos, 2015

168 page—softcover

Available in English and Spanish

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14535

Bee Hummingbird.

Those two words best characterize the tantalizing endemics of Cuba. But this Caribbean island boasts much more than the smallest hummingbird in the world, offering nearly 30 endemic species, from the Cuban Solitaire to the Zapata Wren. And now there is a book—created by the painter, curator, and conservationist Nils Navarro—dedicated solely to Cuban endemics, including many near-endemics and soon-to-be endemics.

Until the publication of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba (2000) by Orlando H. Garrido and Arturo Kirkconnell, birders relied on region-wide guides to the West Indies, such as Birds of the West Indies by James Bond or the book of the same title by Herbert Raffaele and his co-authors. Garrido and Kirkconnell’s guide included all the birds of Cuba, the majority of which were already familiar to North American birders in their summer ranges. That made it a large volume, nearly 400 pages with extensive color plates.

Navarro’s Endemic Birds of Cuba is different. It includes only the Cuban endemics—“plus,” as I’ll explain in more detail below. It is a very visual guide. And it is a more holistic guide, with additional material on habitat, geography, and conservation.

Each of Cuba’s 26 currently accepted endemic species receives a full-color two-page spread. Garrido and Kirkconnell recognized only 21 in their 2000 guide, but since that time, species such as the Gray-fronted Quail-Dove and Cuban Nightjar have been added to the total. And, depending on whom you ask, and how much time has elapsed since my writing this review, Cuba has another 39—don’t quote me on that number—endemic subspecies, some of which may yet debut as full endemic species.

To address this changing cast of characters, Navarro adds a section on more widespread West Indian endemics that also inhabit Cuba, birds like the Cuban Parrot, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Pewee, and Giant Kingbird. This additional section bridges the gap between de facto and de jure species status—that latter category including those birds that have never been documented away from Cub, the former those that occur elsewhere but are nevertheless most strongly associated with the island nation.

Taxonomy aside, Navarro’s book is really about the original watercolors it contains. This is not a collection of “dead bird” illustrations. Each species is the subject of several portraits, lusciously lifelike in their feathered detail, with eye contact that reaches off the page to beckon you to visit them in their native range. Browse this field guide at the risk of booking a flight to Cuba!

Navarro has logged extensive field time to capture how these birds really look. When I traveled to Cuba, I was most surprised by the Cuban Vireo—it looked little like the illustrations in the various older field guides. This vireo must be one of the most difficult birds to portray, with its oddly cute, somewhat dazed, bug-eyed expression caused by an asymmetrically-ringed brown eye set in a subtly pale yellow face. Navarro’s illustrations show them as they are. Yes, the Cuban Tody is that adorable. And the Bare-Legged Owl is that shockingly round-eyed.

Perfect. Well, except for the bane of printing: color fidelity. It turns out that it’s nearly impossible to reproduce color perfectly, especially in an affordable book. The yellows in Navarro’s book have a slight greenish cast—especially noticeable because so many of Cuba’s endemics, such as the Yellow-headed Warbler, the Oriente Warbler, and even its woodpeckers and sparrows such as the Fernandina’s Flicker or the Zapata Sparrow, are yellow-toned. In addition, the reds lean a bit toward orange, as in the cap of the Cuban Green Woodpecker. I showed the book to someone from the printing industry, and learned that this is apparently a common problem, a result of imperfect inks and the difficulty of texturing a light color like yellow with the darker tones needed to illustrate three-dimensionality. In order to show the feather detail that makes Navarro’s illustrations so lifelike, the printing process must overlay another color, such as cyan, which can shift the yellow to greenish if the cyan setting is a smidgen too high. Fortunately, it’s a minor issue here, and a fair tradeoff for the reasonable price of this full-color book.

Even beyond the illustrations, this is a very visual book. Navarro uses visual symbols throughout the guide to identify peak activity periods, diet, habitat, and so on. He includes flight and perching silhouettes. I particularly like the cover design, which does triple-duty as a visual page index, a laminated quick-ID flash card, and a checklist.

Navarro takes a holistic, conservation-oriented approach to all of the book’s content. The subtitle, “A Comprehensive Field Guide,” alerts the reader that the author will be sharing his passion for the conservation of Cuba’s birds, supplementing the species accounts with habitat descriptions and extremely useful photos of birds in ecological context.

Even with this additional material, Endemic Birds of Cuba is compact and slender. At first, I was tempted to extract the pages with the species accounts to minimize weight for travel. But I couldn’t bring myself to break the spine of this lovely book. As is, it’s the perfect endemic supplement to your North American birding resources.

Diana Doyle was the long-time editor of Birding magazine’s Tools of the Trade department. Her very useful article “Gearing Up for Cuba: Collecting Digital Assets for International Travel” appeared in Birding in 2016.

Recommended citation:

Doyle, D. 2017. The Cuban Endemics, Plus [ a review of Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide Including West Indian Endemics Residing in Cuba, by Nils Navarro]. Birding 49.6: 67-68.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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