June 10th, 2009

To the bat cave

By KENNEDY WARNE

The sun has just risen over the Bay of Pigs, oncologist
and Juan Carlos and I, bronchitis
accompanied by a local guide named Mario, anorexia
are driving the mangrove-flanked road from Playa Larga to the Laguna de las Salinas, in Zapata. The road is alive with large white crabs which scatter left and right into the mangroves as we approach. At certain times of year you cannot see the road for crabs, Juan Carlos tells me. There are separate migrations for red and white crabs, both for the adults heading to the sea to breed and for the young crabs making their way shoreward, where they dig their burrows in the sand and live most of their lives out of water.

White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.


The most spectacular migrations are of the red crabs. Sometimes they swarm up the walls of houses and onto the roof. Juan Carlos says he has seen thatched roofs that look like they have been painted red. The red crab’s pincers are sharp enough to puncture a car tyre, he adds. I find this hard to believe, but later, when I encounter a crab with a claw the length of my hand, I can readily see the possibility.

Flamingos, egrets, spoonbills and ibises are feeding in the seagrass beds and mudflats behind the mangroves. In deeper water a hundred or more cormorants paddle round and round a clump of mangroves as if attached to a conveyor belt, dipping their heads underwater to feed, then resuming their frenetic circuit.

The flamingos take flight, running on skinny legs to achieve launch speed, then lifting themselves into the air. They look like flying broomsticks, neck and legs forming a straight line in front of and behind a pair of black-tipped pink wings. Later I see a juvenile, entirely lacking in pink pigment. Like scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills (and no doubt other reddish wading birds), they hatch white, and only assume their ruddy colour after eating large quantities of red crustaceans.

Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.

KENNEDY WARNE
Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.


At the end of the road we climb into a plastic skiff and Mario poles us across the shallow flats. We see a man casting a fly rod and pole over to investigate. He’s a fishing guide, Marco, but he has no client today—summer is the quiet season—and so he is relaxing . . . by fishing. He walks slowly across the flats, casting and retrieving in a relaxed rhythm. Near a clump of mangroves he has a strike, but it is a small needlefish and it breaks off.

He moves to a new area and immediately has a big strike that strips line and gives the rod a nice bend. He works the fish away from the mangrove roots and reels it in. A bonefish, almost translucent, a fighting species highly prized by anglers. The mouth is down-pointing, suggesting a diet of creatures on the seabed. I ask Marco if bonefish mostly eat crabs. He says, “For sure, crabs, but also anything that moves.”

He deftly removes the lure and releases the fish. As we pole away we see him start casting again; a solitary angler in a vast wetland. There are definitely worse ways to spend your days off.

Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.


The crabs are back on the road when we drive back to Playa Larga. We pool suggestions as to why this should be the case. Does the road offer a clear space in which to make territorial or courtship displays? We can’t see any displaying going on, so this seems an unlikely explanation. Is there a particular kind of food on the road—the corpses of crabs that have been squashed by car tyres, perhaps? There is no scavenging that we can see. I conclude that it may just be a factor of density. There are so many crabs here that the natural spacing of the creatures takes them onto the road.

In a clearing in the mangroves, several rows of bee hives stand on coral rocks above the mud. I’m instantly reminded of the exceptional mangrove honey I enjoyed in Bangladesh and Tanzania. Alas, it is not the flowering season for Avicennia, the species from which honey is collected here.

Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.

KENNEDY WARNE
Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.


Clouds of mosquitoes drive us back into the sanctuary of the vehicle. I would like to stay longer in the Zapata wetland, but Juan Carlos and I have an appointment on the north coast with some bats.

The sun has just risen over the Bay of Pigs, erectile
and Juan Carlos and I, stomach
accompanied by a local guide named Mario, are driving the mangrove-flanked road from Playa Larga to the Laguna de las Salinas, in Zapata. The road is alive with large white crabs which scatter left and right into the mangroves as we approach. At certain times of year you cannot see the road for crabs, Juan Carlos tells me. There are separate migrations for red and white crabs, both for the adults heading to the sea to breed and for the young crabs making their way shoreward, where they dig their burrows in the sand and live most of their lives out of water.

White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.


The most spectacular migrations are of the red crabs. Sometimes they swarm up the walls of houses and onto the roof. Juan Carlos says he has seen thatched roofs that look like they have been painted red. The red crab’s pincers are sharp enough to puncture a car tyre, he adds. I find this hard to believe, but later, when I encounter a crab with a claw the length of my hand, I can readily see the possibility.

Flamingos, egrets, spoonbills and ibises are feeding in the seagrass beds and mudflats behind the mangroves. In deeper water a hundred or more cormorants paddle round and round a clump of mangroves as if attached to a conveyor belt, dipping their heads underwater to feed, then resuming their frenetic circuit.

The flamingos take flight, running on skinny legs to achieve launch speed, then lifting themselves into the air. They look like flying broomsticks, neck and legs forming a straight line in front of and behind a pair of black-tipped pink wings. Later I see a juvenile, entirely lacking in pink pigment. Like scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills (and no doubt other reddish wading birds), they hatch white, and only assume their ruddy colour after eating large quantities of red crustaceans.

Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.

KENNEDY WARNE
Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.


At the end of the road we climb into a plastic skiff and Mario poles us across the shallow flats. We see a man casting a fly rod and pole over to investigate. He’s a fishing guide, Marco, but he has no client today—summer is the quiet season—and so he is relaxing . . . by fishing. He walks slowly across the flats, casting and retrieving in a relaxed rhythm. Near a clump of mangroves he has a strike, but it is a small needlefish and it breaks off.

He moves to a new area and immediately has a big strike that strips line and gives the rod a nice bend. He works the fish away from the mangrove roots and reels it in. A bonefish, almost translucent, a fighting species highly prized by anglers. The mouth is down-pointing, suggesting a diet of creatures on the seabed. I ask Marco if bonefish mostly eat crabs. He says, “For sure, crabs, but also anything that moves.”

He deftly removes the lure and releases the fish. As we pole away we see him start casting again; a solitary angler in a vast wetland. There are definitely worse ways to spend your days off.

Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.


The crabs are back on the road when we drive back to Playa Larga. We pool suggestions as to why this should be the case. Does the road offer a clear space in which to make territorial or courtship displays? We can’t see any displaying going on, so this seems an unlikely explanation. Is there a particular kind of food on the road—the corpses of crabs that have been squashed by car tyres, perhaps? There is no scavenging that we can see. I conclude that it may just be a factor of density. There are so many crabs here that the natural spacing of the creatures takes them onto the road.

In a clearing in the mangroves, several rows of bee hives stand on coral rocks above the mud. I’m instantly reminded of the exceptional mangrove honey I enjoyed in Bangladesh and Tanzania. Alas, it is not the flowering season for Avicennia, the species from which honey is collected here.

Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.

KENNEDY WARNE
Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.


Clouds of mosquitoes drive us back into the sanctuary of the vehicle. I would like to stay longer in the Zapata wetland, but Juan Carlos and I have an appointment on the north coast with some bats.

We travelled from the Zapata Peninsula, sale
on the south coast, sovaldi
to a little place called Cayo Caguanes, buy on the north. The target was bats. There is a fishing bat that takes its prey from pools in the mangroves here, and we hoped to see it in action.

Butterfly bats stream out of a limestone cave at Cayo Caguanes.

KENNEDY WARNE
Butterfly bats stream out of a limestone cave at Cayo Caguanes.


Before we looked for that bat, however, Juan Carlos had another species to show me: the butterfly bat, said to be the world’s smallest. He knew of a cave where millions of these bats roosted. Each evening they stream out of only a couple of exits for a night of feeding on insects.

An hour-long, bone-jarring ride in a trailer towed by a smoke-belching Russian tractor brought us to a guard house in the mangroves. (Initially I thought the strong military presence in mangroves on the north coast was to discourage Cubans from attempting to launch boats in the direction of, say, Miami, but Juan Carlos told me that access to all Cuba’s mangrove reserves is controlled by the military.

While the guards lounged in the watchtower—high enough to be out of mosquito range—we followed faint trails into the bush, searching for the cave entrance. It had been a while since both Juan Carlos (an avid speleologist) and the local guide had been here, so it took a while to find the place. It was coming on to dusk, but there was still enough light to identify various bird and tree species, including one locally known as the “tourist tree,” because its bark looks just like the peeling skin of a sunburnt Caucasian.

With a wingspan of about 12 cm, the butterfly bat is said to be the smallest in the world.

KENNEDY WARNE
With a wingspan of about 12 cm, the butterfly bat is said to be the smallest in the world.


Once we located the entrance we climbed down into the limestone cavern and crawled to one of the holes where the bats emerge. I stuck my head into the opening and was amazed. The sound of millions of tiny wings was like a fan on full speed. It felt like a fan, too—a steady breeze against my skin. The cave was pitch black, but I knew that the bats were flying past me: I could feel the rush of air and the occasional touch of a velvet wing on my face. I was astonished that no bat collided with me, though I guess to a bat my head looked like a large hot globe, easily avoided.

After half an hour the evening bat commute seemed to be waning, so we retraced our steps. The forest was dark now, and fireflies were out. Juan Carlos found one on a blade of grass and caught it to show me. I had never seen one up close. I expected something resembling a fly, but in fact these ones were sizable beetles. The two green light-emitting organs are situated on either side of the front end of the abdomen.

The tractor took us back into the mangroves, where we watched a known bat pool for half an hour, flicking a torch on occasionally to light the scene. The bats were making their ghostly flights just above the surface, but not dipping down to feed. As at Hatiguanico, there had been a lot of rain recently, shifting the salinity of the pool towards fresh water, and the thinking was that this had forced the fish towards the sea.

The lumbering batmobile was cranked into life once more, and we jolted home to the pyrotechnics not of fireflies but of an electrical storm that made the clouds glow like mercury lamps.

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