** The following is the first in a series of blog posts by Wild Lens biologist Erin Strasser. Her work in Honduras will be depicted in a Webisode during the coming weeks and months. **
This past January, I traveled to Honduras to assist Brett Bailey, a masters student at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst with his project exploring habitat requirements for neotropical migratory birds (NMBs) overwintering in shade-grown coffee farms and adjacent forest fragments. As NMBs have been experiencing long-term declines, much of the neotropics are being cleared for agriculture, and the demand for coffee has increased, this research aimed to not only quantify suitability of coffee habitat for NMBs and but also to inform more sustainable forms of coffee agriculture in the region. To do this, Brett, myself, and Fabiola Rodriguez, a graduate of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras spent three months conducting point counts, banding migrants and radio tracking a species of special concern, the Wood Thrush.
The next several blog posts will highlight my many exciting, frustrating, dirty, entertaining, and educational experiences while taking part in this research. More importantly, I hope that after reading these posts you all will have second thoughts about buying sun, or traditionally grown coffee.
January 3rd, 2012: Brett, Fabiola, our guide Sammy M, and I arrived in Subirana, a small pueblo situated in the northwestern highlands of the Department of Yoro, Honduras in the heart of coffee country. Our first stop was to visit a local coffee cooperative, Cooperativa Mixta Subirana Yoro Limitada (COMISUYL). Aided by The Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI) (mesoamerican.org), COMISUYL has recently established a solar/ biomass coffee drier, lowering production costs and increasing the coop’s sustainability by utilizing 80% less electricity than conventional driers and eliminating wood fuel.
After meeting many of the hardworking Hondurenos involved with the coop and enjoying my first cup of organic, shade grown, local coffee we headed out for the 45-minute drive to the farm where we’d be living for the next 3 months. We winded and bumped through country dotted with small coffee fincas (farms, or plantations), cleared areas for cattle grazing, pine woodlands, and secondary growth forests. Arriving at Finca Santa Fe, we were greeted by Allan and Cindy Manzanares and their 2 ½ year old daughter, Aubrey. The Manzanares family, like many of the people of the region, farm coffee and aim to do so in a sustainable way. In areas where sustainable farming practices such as using organic fertilizers, integrated open canopy (IOC), and shade grown coffee are employed, water sources are preserved, erosion is reduced, soil is enriched, and in Honduras alone, provides overwintering habitat for over 58 species of migratory songbirds.
The next morning we woke to the haunting CAOOWW call of the Collared Forest Falcon, interrupted by the constant cockle-doodle-doing of the farm’s two roosters. After pulling on our rubber boots and grabbing our trekking poles, we departed for a tour of the finca. Almost immediately we encountered a mixed species flock. Wilson’s Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Black-throated Green and Black-and-White Warblers, flitted around in the canopy above the coffee gleaning insects from leaves and branches. Later that day, we set out to locate suitable locations for mist-nets. Our goal was to trap and color band our seven focal NMB species (Wilson’s, Black-throated Green, Black-and-White, Magnolia, Tennessee, Golden-winged, and Chestnut-sided Warblers), as well as place radio transmitters on several Wood Thrush.
Over the course of several days of trapping in both coffee and an adjacent forest fragment we captured many resident and migratory birds. Each morning after downing a hearty (and greasy) breakfast of fried plantains, handmade corn tortillas, eggs, beans, and of course, fresh coffee we’d open our 10 nets and set up our banding station in the flattest possible location. Every 30 minutes from sunup to late afternoon we did the rounds, anticipating the new species we’d encounter wrapped in our nets. Migrants were fitted with individually numbered, aluminum, federal bands issued by the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/), a unique combination of color bands and we took a series of morphometric measurements and indices of condition before being released. This allowed us to identify birds as they flitted through the canopy in mixed flocks and determine if a particular type of habitat supported birds in better condition or specific age or sex cohorts.
One of our most exciting captures was a tiny White-Breasted Hawk, a relatively unstudied forest accipiter which is closely related to and resembles the Sharp-shinned Hawk, a common raptor of much of North America. As I found this particular bird on my birthday, we dubbed him my “birthday bird”.
Our first week was a success with many migrants and few ticks. Next time I’ll talk more about our adventures luring in and trapping the enigmatic Wood Thrush. – Erin Strasser