Lago de Yojoa. One of the many beautiful places in Honduras. Photo by Erin Strasser.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Honduras and hope to return in the near future. The people were friendly and hardworking, the landscape beautiful, the birds abundant, and the food delicious.
Collared Aracari, one of the resident species we encountered. Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
Baleadas, the comida tipica of Honduras! Photo by Erin Strasser.
One of the things I loved most about Honduras was the peoples’ pride and sense of obligation to protecting the land. Signs preaching the importance of conserving water sources and protecting the flora and fauna were scattered throughout many of the farms we visited. The coffee pickers that regularly surrounded us were genuinely interested and often stopped to chat as Fabiola and I processed birds.
We protect the fauna. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Unfortunately it was common to observe children picking coffee during the hours they should have been in school. One morning as Fabiola and I banded, a young girl of about 8 or 9 approached us. Her curiosity was apparent and immediately she began asking questions, even following us on a few net runs. We learned that she did in fact attend school, but during coffee picking season her studies were infrequent. Will this brief experience somehow influence or guide this girl in the future?
The entrance into one of the coffee plantations. Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
It seems as with most conservation issues there are always pitfalls and roadblocks, at times eliciting a sense of despair in even the most optimistic of people. For example, in the middle of an attempt to recapture one of our radio-tagged Wood Thrush, we discovered that that particular forest remnant was destined to destruction and a future as a sun grown coffee plantation. Machetes hacked away at the trees and vines as we hopelessly looked on, pondering the fate of the birds that will likely perish. Damn the man!
A Northern Bentbill, one of the resident species likely to be displaced after a patch of forest was chopped down. Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
Towards the end of our field season, the Mesoamerican Development Institute and COMISUYL organized a workshop for faculty of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras (UNAH). Presentations highlighted sustainable coffee growing and processing practices, jetropha-based biofuels, the theory of integrated open canopy (IOC), and songbird conservation.
Brett talks to a group from UNAH about his research on neotropical migratory songbirds. Photo by Erin Strasser.
An integral part of the workshop was to organize and initiate a monitoring program for neotropical migrants in coffee plantations. Fabiola and Brett both gave great talks and faculty joined us in the field for a banding demonstration.
Brett and Fabiola discuss bird monitoring with faculty from UNAH. Photo by Erin Strasser.
I truly believe that consistent outreach, education, and collaboration can help promote more biodiversity friendly and environmentally sustainable actions. It will take a lot of effort and patience, particularly in less developed countries where money is hard to come by and everything is that much more logistically challenging.
A Worm-eating warbler, one of the migratory birds that utilizes shade-grown coffee for overwintering habitat. Photo by Erin Strasser.
In the coming weeks we will release one of two or three webisodes documenting our work in Honduras. Maybe it will persuade some of you to further support research and conservation or simply buy shade-grown, bird friendly coffee.
Our work in Honduras focused on neotropical migratory songbird habitat requirements in shade grown coffee plantations however we encountered much more than birds. Much more. What else did we encounter so frequently? Invertebrates.
A tick bomb. Photo by Brett Bailey
Yep. Those are all ticks, or garrapatas. These miniscule monsters hatch en mass and congregate on the ends of vegetation where they wait for some unfortunate warm blooded creature to pass by. On many occasions, these warm blooded creatures were us. And when we passed by these conglomerations of arachnids, they explode. All over your pants. Or shirt. Or boot. And screeching ensues once you’ve looked down and realized the horrific event that is taking place. Tick Bombs are not the bomb.
Even our feathered friends such as this resident species, a Slate-throated Redstart had to contend with the ticks.
Look at that little tick right above his eye! Photo by Erin Strasser
Thanks to the wisdom of a colleague who has spent years in the field in Honduras, I always carried duct tape for swift tick removal. Got ticks on your pants? Use tick tape. I could be a millionaire.
Tick tape. Photo by Erin Strasser
On another occasion as I searched for color banded migrants in a forest fragment adjacent to Finca Santa Fe, I made friends with yet another mass of creatures. I yelped in pain as I brushed my arm against this innocuous looking tree.
Evil gusanos! Photo by Erin Strasser
Apparently there are so many creatures that would like to eat some nice, succulent caterpillars that they require two defense mechanisms: camouflage and poisonous spines.
And then there was the household fauna.
This is why we have bed nets. Photo by Erin Strasser
On any given night a visit to the bathroom was like a trip to an entomological museum. Giant cockroaches and scorpions dominated.
Photo by Erin Strasser
One of our favorites was Scorpy, a scorpion that had an unfortunate encounter with Sammy’s machete. Despite losing his primary hunting apparatus (his metasoma or tail), Scorpy managed to survive for the three months we were there and greeted us nightly.
Scorpy meets the machete. Photo by Erin Strasser
Thankfully for us, there were plenty of the “friendlier” insect varieties.
Photo by Erin Strasser
Although I can imagine this large wood borer could pack a mean bite!
Photo by Brett Bailey
On our last day of fieldwork I returned to the house to grab our lunch. I was treated to a large hunk of freshly gathered honey and honeycomb that Sammy and some of the other farm hands came across while working the farm. It was by far the most delectable honey I’ve ever tasted with hints of shade-grown, organic coffee blossoms.
Miel of the gods. Photo by Brett Bailey
As with the neotropical migrants, insects seemed to favor coffee grown in shade or in the vicinity of forest fragments. This make perfect sense of course; where there are insects, there are insectivorous birds. So next time you drink your freshly brewed cup of shade-grown coffee, keep in mind that it is “bug” as well as “bird” friendly.
** The following is the second 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. **
Fabiola, Brett, and I wait patiently amongst the coffee branches, hoping to catch a glimpse of cinnamon- brown, straining to identify sounds beyond the ear numbing chicharras, or cicadas. What we are so eager to find is the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), one of our focal neotropical migrants and a species of special concern due to population declines over the past several decades. At first glance the Wood Thrush or zorzal del bosque may not be the most charismatic species. However with their bold black chest spots, blank stare, bobbing motions as they forage in the leaf litter, and their agitated and bursting “pit pit pit pit pit” call they quickly piqued my interest.
Coffee plants dominate the understory in this shade-grown coffee finca. Mist-nets were often set up between rows of coffee, requiring meters of rope to tie back plants. Photo by Brett Bailey.
Sammy Manzanares, one of our Honduran guides assists with the setup of a mist-net. Photo by Brett Bailey.
The Wood Thrush spends its breeding season in deciduous forests of eastern North America. As a neotropical migrant (NMB), that is, a bird that breeds in North America and migrates south to Latin America for the winter, the destruction and fragmentation of both breeding and wintering habitat are suspected factors in this species’ decline. Shade grown coffee fincas (farms) may act as a winter refuge, mimicking natural habitat by providing cover from predators and dense leaf litter necessary for foraging. However, depending upon the size or quality of certain habitats, or the number of Wood Thrush defending winter territories in an area, birds may be forced to move into more disturbed or less favorable sites potentially lowering their chances of survival.
A Wood Thrush. Photo by Erin Strasser.
A major aim of this project was to gather information on Wood Thrush overwintering habitat requirements in Honduran shade-grown coffee fincas and adjacent forest fragments. What factors influence overwintering survival, movement patterns, and prepare birds for the long migratory journey back to the breeding grounds?
Coffee plants grow in the highlands. Photo by Erin Strasser.
To monitor thrushes we trapped birds, marked them with individually numbered federal aluminum bands and a unique color band combination, and more often than not, fitted them with a small (< 1.5 gram) VHF radio transmitter. These transmitters were designed so that if we were unable to recapture birds and retrieve them, they would fall off after several weeks. After approximately 6 weeks the transmitter’s battery dies. In the case of a few of our birds, there was enough time in the season to replace the transmitter and continue tracking for several weeks.
Fabiola Rodriguez processes a Wood Thrush. Photo by Brett Bailey.
A Wood Thrush models its newly placed VHF backpack transmitter. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Although we captured most of our birds passively with strategically placed nets, we also used playback, a thrush decoy, and a concentrated net arrangement. During these episodes, we spent countless hours crouching under coffee, slipping down muddy hillsides, rushing birds towards the nets and dealing with misleading radio signals bouncing off of wet, shiny leaves and streams.
Our decoy "David Bowie" who unfortunately failed to succeed in landing us a thrush. Decoy and photo by Erin Strasser.
This season we were able to capture over two-dozen Wood Thrush, and place transmitters on about 20 individuals. One of our birds was aptly named “Boise” in reference to its Boise State University influenced orange and blue color bands. Birds such as “Boise” were tracked several times a week. Locations were pinpointed by visual observations and/or triangulation: the art of taking several GPS points and associated bearings quickly and from various angles. While “Boise” remained fairly loyal to its territory in a shady finca, other birds congregated at sites for only a few days before moving on, while others divided time between coffee fincas and adjacent forest.
A color banded Wood Thrush nicknamed "Boise". Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
Brett’s research will likely elucidate why and for how long certain birds utilize a particular area and whether this is related to age, sex, or body condition. At a larger scale, studies such as this will help biologists identify how to effectively integrate forest corridors, fragments, and shade to maintain or increase viable NMB habitat. In turn, this may increase the value of shade-grown coffee for local coffee cooperatives and their farmers while promoting fair-trade and sustainable coffee farming practices. If you are interested in supporting NMBs and fair-trade cooperatives, and purchasing shade grown coffee, visit Café Solar’s website. Also, visit Brett Bailey’s webpage for more info on his research.
Stay tuned for more on our research and adventures in Honduras. All I can say is we encountered a lot more than birds. – Erin Strasser
** 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.
Recently depulped coffee beans are initially sun dried on large, cement patios. Photo by Erin Strasser.
A Magnolia Warbler, one of our focal species. Notice the red dusting of pollen on its face. Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
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.
COMISUYL’s new and sustainable coffee secadora. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Typical traffic encountered in Subirana, Honduras. Photo by Erin Strasser.
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.
Finca Santa Fe nestled in the highlands of Honduras. Photo by Erin Strasser.
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.
A male Golden-winged Warbler, a declining neotropical migrant of Eastern North America. Photo by Erin Strasser.
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.
A recently color banded Black-and-White Warbler. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Fabiola Rodriguez holds a resident species, a Blue-crowned Motmot. Photo by Erin Strasser.
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”.
The birthday bird, a White-breasted Hawk. Photo by Erin Strasser.
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