Coffee vs. Conservation

Field Report #5
Location: Buenos Aires

Conservation zones are often in regions that are difficult to access and have been so for a very long time. If they were more accessible, people would already have been there, leaving their footprints, and there would be less worth conserving. So it is with Cusuco. Cusuco is challenging terrain both by foot and by vehicle.

Buenos Aires is the closest town to Cusuco. It’s the lowest “camp”. By camp I mean we eat three meals a day in a restaurant and stay with local families. But we still do science, though it’s a longer trek to the reseaarch areas than from the other camps. The area immediately around the town is a mix of fragmented forests, small holdings comprised predominately of coffee plantations with occasional plantain, yucca, or corn, but mostly coffee.

As a result of Opwall’s presence, I suspect the economy has grown. It seems people typically make $1-2/day growing coffee, but working for Opwall brings in significantly more. Muchulados (sherpas) make $8/day, cooks make about $10/day, guides can make up to $15/day. This year as well, any locally employed people receive healthcare as well.

The other day, Chip and I finished up our birding with a trip to the school. It was highly productive visit for Chip who has been working here for a number of years. He’d like to see more conservation efforts and was investigating the possibility of using the school as a cafe with hummingbird and oriole feeders to increase tourism in the park. While there we also learned of a NGO that was working on reforestation with a number of species being started on the school grounds. Unfortunately, the school and its students aren’t involved, but it’s a promising enterprise.

As I mentioned previously, initially the local people were eager to bring specimens to the camp. While that practice has been stopped, people have changed their behaviors due to Opwall. Since Opwall arrived 11 years ago, there has been a local movement to grow shade grown coffee. Many of the science staff (non-Honduran) here are outright skeptical about it, but from digging a little further, it seems that shade-grown is a recent phenomenon. People in town have gone as far as forming a cooperative. I am not entirely sure whether people are attempting to reintroduce cloud forest trees into their fields or if they are continuing to expand the plantations into the forest. I suspect it is a bit of both. Regardless, there is a wide range of shade in the shade grown coffee fields.

Every day, there is coffee served twice a day. Locally sourced coffee, which means for better or for worse Opwall is supporting some level of deforestation as they fight to conserve the forests.

Some of the most foundational work is done by the Habitat team. They use the same sites year after year where they measure changes to the forest. Louis and I helped out with the Habitat surveys our last day in BA. We did the bird work on the way out and habitat work on the way in. We were responsible for measuring the girth of all the trees within the plots with a dbh greater than 15cm. Rick did some other measurements including vegetation density, canopy coverage, and tree height. Some of these sites fall in coffee plantations. Some years the scientists return to find the sites have been replaced by coffee plantations. It’s a measurement of the human impact on this remote forest.

Fields and forest surrounding Buenos Airess. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 25, 2015.

Fields and forest surrounding Buenos Airess. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 25, 2015.

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Bird Work at Base Camp and Buenos Aires

Field Report #4
Location: Buenos Aires

June 18 – Day 13 – Did first point count on my own. Well, with two of the three new birders and four uni students. Went really well. Positive feedback all around and I could identify most birds.

June 19-21 – Did demo banding near camp while Kate conducted the point counts. Owled at night.

June 23 – Day 18 – Departed Base Camp for the first time since arrival. Headed to Buenos Aires (closest town) to work there for the week.

June 24 – Day 19 – Walked around town looking for a place to do mist-netting. Very limited options. Town is very steep.

June 27-29 – Days 22-24 – Power is out for the entire town due to a blown transformer. Radios are running off a car battery. Limited availability to do work outside of town.

June 29 – Day 24 – Very productive day. Attempted to find a missed subsite for a transect (fail), but we made it work. Realized our earlier discovered mystery bird nest had nestlings. Birded around town with Chip. Spent the afternoon observing the nest of the Bright-rumped Antilla. Photos once my camera isn’t packed away. Did more investigations. Found two more probable sites for nocturnal surveying, but a severe thunderstorm prevented that from happening.

June 30 – Day 25 – Finished our work in BA this morning with a final point count along Transect 1. Then pitched in with Habitat surveying. Stopped around 11 at an amazing lilac tree. We ended up sending Habitat and the guide back when they got bored at staring at all the hummingbirds. We opted for hummingbirds over lunch, but recognized not everyone would share our stance. We got 11 identifiable species of hummingbird and one more we need to work out the identification for. All in one tree.

July 31 – Day 26 – Data entry in the morning, then heading off to satellite camp, Guanales, today after lunch. Apparently there are lekking Red-capped Manakins there!

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Prowls for Owls

Last week, seven of us took a free afternoon to walk to town. It was an hour down and two hours up. So we didn’t actually have much time in town. It was enough to spot a few birds and buy a few cool drinks. While we were outside one shop, children came out to show us their newest pet.

Turns out it was a baby owl! They communicated to us that it had fallen out a tree far, far away. We instantly cooed and ooohed. Everyone wanted to hold the baby owl and pose with it. Someone has a photo of me with it, don’t recall who – perhaps Charlotte or Jordan has it. The interesting thing about the community vibe is that we’re all freely asking people to take photos of various spectacles, including scientific documentation with their own cameras…. I can’t imagine how hundreds of people are going to redistribute the photos at the end of all this.

Some of the party wanted to take the owl with us on our return up the mountain, but I vetoed that idea. I didn’t want to explain to children we were about to deprive them of their pet. Also, I was pretty certain Opwall would have a policy regarding bringing back orphaned wildlife. Nevertheless it was cute.

We believe the owlet to be a Mottled Owl, which is one of the two common types here, the other being the Crested Owl. At least those are the two we’ve identified on our Owl Prowls.

We found out later that during Opwall’s first year in Honduras, the locals were very eager to bring unusual specimens to the camp to show the scientists. But that’s not what Opwall is about.

While in Base Camp this week, (hence access to internet) Kate and I were assigned to complete each transect (4) once and to complete opportunistic surveys at will. We split on the first day because we had eight students and 3 new staff with us. Then she did the remaining two transects on her own and I did the teaching with demo netting. (We have 2-3 very worn nets, but no banding equipment). It’s still enough to show students birds up close and teach them how to work with nets.

The first excursion for the new birders (Andrew, Daniel, and Monte) was owling. 5 of us and 1 pre-med tag-along sitting on a ridge in silence straining to hear hoots and whoos. (We heard 2 mottled owls on our second ridge and then called it a night because they were jet lagged). Much more exciting than the previous week where 7 birders went out and heard no owls. This time we used ipods for playing calls and strategically visited ridges for better acoustics.

Kate, Daniel, and I went out the next time with another bird enthusiast, Chip, but poor weather conditions prevented us from staying out long or hearing owls.

The following night, Kate and I had our best luck. We had two owls, of two species both unknown at the first point. At the second point, we could still hear one from the first point, picked up two more of the same species as well as recording 1 Mottled and 1 Crested Owl in the distance as well. Total of 6 owls across four species. Best owling ever. Especially since it doesn’t require wearing two winter coats just to feel numb.

IMG_0515

Note: While in the field I will have no access to most social media, including facebook, twitter, and google+.

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Learning Feather by Feather

Field Report #2: Base Camp

If you’re looking for the frontiers of birding, try the tropics. Limited knowledge exists and the ability for mistakes abound. Last week during a training session we noticed a number of presumably juvenile Barred Forest-falcons clustering in pines along a ridge (2-3, with a possibility of some of those being adults). The following day we were treated Barred Forest-falcon consuming a passerine. It was quite exciting to watch the predator consume the prey. As the act proceeded,feathers rained down and the ornithologists scurried about collecting the feathers. One of the projects here is to sample isotopes across the various communities to construct food webs.

We’ve since used our assortment of feathers to identify the deceased as a Blue-crowned Chlorophonia. Go science!

A day or so later towards the end of a low-key banding day, we captured one of these fine, fierce predators. As we were reading the description in detail, something wasn’t quite adding up. Turns out, we weren’t working with Barred Forest-falcons after all, but the much rarer, endemic White-breasted Hawk. Whee and whoops!

How we mistook a hawk for a forest-falcon I’m not entirely sure, particularly as the forest-falcon in question has great Elvis sideburns of feathers. It wasn’t until we were examining the hawk feather by feather that we realized our error. (To be fair, there was some question of where the bars were in the earlier encounters!)

This was a much more exciting discovery. The Americans on the team (Rob and I) received a bit of grief over the misidentification initially as the White-breasted Hawk is a subspecies of Sharp-shinned Hawk. However, unlike the Sharpie, White-breasted Hawks have….. white chests. I did however note as I arrived to the net that it was very much Sharpie sized, so I feel I’m off the hook on that one. (There’s a bit of bantering and division between American and British procedures and customs. It’s mostly in good fun unless you say anything less than stellar regarding David Attenborough*.).

The White-breasted Hawk was a ringing first for the park. I can’t share all my photos due to limited bandwidth, but from just this one I hope you can get the sense of what a fine bird it is!

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

*They’re probably just as displeased if you misspell Attenborough. Alas.

Note: While I am in the field I will have no access to most social media including facebook, twitter, and google+.

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Team Bird Unite

Field report #1: Base Camp
Days 1-12.

June 6 – Day 1 – Arrived in at Cusuco National Park in Honduras where I will be operating as an Ornithologist for the summer field season. Currently seven of the ten team members are present. The final three will be arriving during week 2. Broke my smaller, lens upon arrival when my bag spilled open. Bugger.

June 8- Day 3 – Learning mostly by ear than by sight. Can only keep a few species in my head at a time as my head is quite muddled. Came down with what I thought were allergies that transformed into a fever and sore throat. I’m going birding anyway.

June 9 – Day 4 – Overdid it. Lost my voice. Now have laryngitis. Still birding.

June 10 – Day 5 – It’s raining an awful lot for the dry season.

June 13 – Day 8 – Project developed. I’ll be exploring three additional methods in my research (incidental camera trapping, nocturnal point counts/transects, and opportunistic sightings). I’ve been working with the ornithology team lead, the biodiversity coordinator and the stats team to develop a sound and exciting project. (I hope). The goal is to figure out the relative amount of time to pursue each method to rapidly inventory the avifauna of an biologically unknown cloud forest.

June 14 – Day 9 – Voice returned, then I lost it again.

June 16 – Day 11 – Training is over. Tomorrow the team splits and the real work begins. I’ll be spending the week (week 2 per the official schedule) in Base Camp running the lectures and completing point counts and opportunistic sightings.

June 17 – Day 12 – Teams have departed to Capuco, Guanales, and Cantiles – various camps throughout the park.

 Bird team and associates during an early season practice season. Louie (1), Rob (2), Kate (5), and Jack (6) showing birds to Jordan (3), Sophie (4), and Brittany (7). People numbered from left to right. Cusuco, National Park, Honduras. June 12, 2015.

Bird team and associates during an early season practice season. Louie (1), Rob (2), Kate (5), and Jack (6) showing birds to Jordan (3), Sophie (4), and Brittany (7). Peopled numbered from left to right. Cusuco, National Park, Honduras. June 12, 2015.

* Note: While in the field I will have no access to most social media, including facebook, twitter, and google+.

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Metal Rods Attract Unusual Nighttime Visitors

So that last post garnered little attention.  Not that surprising considering it’s technical nature and dearth of birds!

As the semester wraps up for me, things are rather busy with two presentations on Monday, a final to proctor and all the data to pull together before Friday.  (This is the last week for me anyway since I take off on Sunday for a two-week bird banding workshop).

Campus in bloom. Rutgers University - Newark. Photo taken on April 26, 2015.

Campus in bloom. Rutgers University – Newark. Photo taken on April 26, 2015.

I do get a little bit of green and birds as I move between campuses.  I heard a Warbling Vireo earlier this weekend!

Campus in bloom. Rutgers University - Newark. Photo taken on April 26, 2015.

Campus in bloom. Rutgers University – Newark. Photo taken on April 26, 2015.

However, as I couldn’t go to the birds, the birds came to me.

On Friday, I learned through the grapevine that an Eastern Whip-poor-will appeared on campus.  On my way home, I stopped to look for it.

I did find it, exactly where it had been all day.  I’m not sure what it thought about the disconcerting concert taking place 150 feet away.  It flushed as soon as it realized I had spotted it and I couldn’t relocate it. So no pictures.

When I arrived Saturday morning, I poked around looking for it, but it seemed to have vanished/moved on/concealed itself really well.

Then last night leaving campus (yes on a Saturday), we stumbled across it again.

Eastern Whip-poor-will.  Rutgers University - Newark. Photo taken on May 2, 2015.

Eastern Whip-poor-will. Rutgers University – Newark. Photo taken on May 2, 2015.

This time I had an opportunity to go back to my car, get my camera (and monopod!) and get a few shots as it hunted from one of the poles holding up our mist nets.  I had a chance to watch it take off and return a few times.

Eastern Whip-poor-will from another angle. Rutgers University - Newark. Photo taken on May 2, 2015.

Eastern Whip-poor-will from another angle. Rutgers University – Newark. Photo taken on May 2, 2015.

Not quite as cool as last year’s Chuck-will’s-widow (check out May 6 and 7 entries 2014) which also appeared briefly in May and perched on metal poles.

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Perils of Data-based Birding

As a birder-scientist, not only do I have the joys of exploring farmlands and forests for novel encounters, but I also have the “joys” of exploring fields…. as in data fields.

As part of my PhD program, to become more knowledgeable about birds, I have to spend more time away from real birds (much of the current knowledge transfer system is based on similar logic…e.g. to improve learning we should spend less time learning and more time testing).  For the spring semester, I opted to do a rotation in the lab of Dr. Gareth Russell.

The Russell Lab does fascinating work looking at animal choice and response to their environment by modeling behavior and movement.  Current and recent work has followed Grizzly Bears in Alaska, Big Horn Sheep in California, Baleen Whales social networks in the Atlantic Ocean, Elephants in Africa.  The modeling element comes in when scientist try to interpret why the animals made the choices they did.  What elements of the environment most resonated with the animal causing its behaviour?

Turns out since you can’t actually ask the animals, you can use a computer to figure it out.

For my project, I can share the details later, I obtained  USGS banding records for songbirds along the east coast to determine movements over time.  My goal was to use this data to answer questions about their migratory movements in the fall.

As it goes with a venture into any new area, there’s a steep learning curve as you get to know the landscape.  You have weird experiences such as when I reloaded the data set and every bird name involving a color (say yellow warbler and white-throated sparrow) became {#*code#) warbler and (#&code#(-throated sparrow.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

So after months of learning to program in Mathematica (mixed success), I managed to create a map! This beautiful rendered map shows 50+ years worth of records where in the birds presented:

  • were banded and recaptured after July 1,
  • were banded and recaptured in the same year,
  • were recaptured in a new location.
Mathematica output.

Mathematica output: Apparently one bird didn’t get the memo and went west, not south.  H1: That bird can’t read a compass. H2: That bird is a rebellious juvenile.

However, as beautifully colored as it is and as important as it looks, it’s only ~800 pieces of data across 44 species and 50+ years, not enough for a solid analysis. Back to the drawing board.

When after significant hours of effort, you’re still coming up with nothing, you doubt yourself, even when other people have faith. “There aren’t any birds here!”

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Then you do something really basic, like identifying an American Robin, or writing a function which figures out how many days into a year it is.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Now you know there are birds there, and you’re just not finding them.  You feel conflicted about that.

Three weeks to go and we’re still “exploring the data”.  The sun is nearly setting.

Mathematica output: Tree swallow presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

Mathematica output: Tree swallow presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

So, finally we made a graph.  This graph, for Tree Swallows, shows presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.  Think January at the bottom and December at the top.

Now that I’d found one bird surely I could find them all, but could I do it by family?

Yes… Probably… How hard could it be?… Maybe… If I had more time… Impossible… Wait, what?… No… Maybe… Nope… Did I get it?

After a very dark night:

Mathematica output.

Mathematica output: 10 families of songbirds tracked over the years for arrivals and departures. years are represented on the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

 

I actually succeeded as the sun rose.  Talk about symbolism!  I’ll have a chance to share this in my next meeting on Friday. Hopefully we can call this success.

Can only imagine what’s next?  3D versions?

Stay tuned for Rotation 2 news coming Summer 2015 when I return to real fields (or forests anyway)!

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