Nautilus

Chasing James Bond’s Hummingbird


To find the Cuban bee hummingbird—the smallest avian species in existence, the one whose iridescent plumage, in Key lime green, lipstick red, and sapphire blue, matches the palettes of the classic cars along Havana’s Malecón—it’s best to track down famed bird guide El Chino Zapata.

So in late May, I arranged for a fixer named Domingo to drop a peso-stuffed envelope at a Havana hotel (my credit and debit cards didn’t work on the island) and set off from Havana to the Bay of Pigs, where El Chino dwells.

This is what you do to get there: hail a cab in Old Havana with its crumbling Crayola vibrancy—paint sloughing off stucco, pigmentation fading under the onslaught of a relentless sun. Beauty in dereliction, full stop. Zoom out of the city past red dirt béisbol fields, rev along the Autopista Nacional past fincas and by the ever-intriguing Boca Laguna del Tesoro. Take in the strange olfactory combination of sugar cane and manure. A couple of hours later, when you arrive at the Zapata Swamp pueblito called Batey Caleton—spangled with propaganda posters—have your cab driver slow up. Roll down your window, and per the bird guide’s emailed instructions, ask for “El Chino.”

“¿Cuál Chino?” will be the response from the man washing his car in his driveway.

“El Chino Zapata,” you will say.

That will elicit the following palm-to-forehead-smacking epiphany: “Oh, doy—go straight and make a left.”

El Chino Zapata (aka Orestes Martínez García) has been chronicling Cuba’s feathered treasures, including the zunzuncito, as the pipsqueak bird is known locally, for the better part of the last 50 years in the Zapata Swamp. But the 57-year-old, who’s missing his left index finger (crocodile incident) and at any moment wears two pairs of binoculars over his camo clothing, is bracing himself for an uptick in tourists seeking this thimble-sized creature.

Better off Red: At left, a male zunzuncito—his rostrum and gorget a sequined ruby and his wings a shimmering blue—perches for a brief respite during mating season. On the right, a female zunzuncito flashes her iridescent green feathers.El Chino Zapata (Orestes MartÍnez GarcÍa)

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