Editor’s note: As fall approaches and many of our birds are now heading back to their wintering grounds, we here at ABC look back as staff member Dan Lebbin recounts work in South America when the same birds were migrating north during spring migration.
I left Dulles International airport in a strange April blizzard and fortunately arrived in on Colombia’s Caribbean coast on time without missing my connection in Panama City. The streets were full of people celebrating a local soccer team’s victory, instantly creating an air of excitement.
I was excited too: I was on my way to reunite with two donor agencies and a dozen partner conservation organizations from across Latin America and the Caribbean (and hopefully to see some good birds along the way).
We were there to discuss how all of our organizations can improve our management to sustain the conservation results and reserves we have created over the long term and accomplish even more together, with a special focus on developing tourism as one tool for generating unrestricted income for institution and reserve activities.
It was all about building bridges across organizations in order to strengthen our partnership network spanning the hemisphere–in all the places where the most endangered birds, both resident and migratory, occur.
Seven of us from American Bird Conservancy made the trip to Minca for our meetings. Beforehand, five of us were able to stop in arid scrublands where Chestnut-winged Chachalacas were plentiful and in a mangrove swamp where we saw the critically endangered Sapphire-bellied Emerald. (There is some doubt whether this is a valid species, or whether it is merely a local form of the more widespread Sapphire-throated Emerald. Regardless, we enjoyed watching one.)
The workshop in Minca was about reserve and institutional management, a topic that may sound as dry as this place had become after four months without rain, but our group was energized by the idea of how we can improve our work and fundraising. This was followed by field trips to El Dorado Reserve, managed by Fundación ProAves, where we held a workshop on best practices for reforestation projects focusing on measuring and tracking the results of these efforts.
El Dorado and Minca are located in the Santa Marta Mountains of northern Colombia, which is a mecca for bird watchers. These mountains are the tallest in Colombia, are perched directly above the Caribbean Sea, and sit apart from the main Andean chains. From El Dorado, we could see the coast roughly 6,400 feet (1,950 m) below.
Our meetings not only represented a convergence of conservation organizations, but also coincided with a convergence of boreal and tropical migrants with an extraordinary diversity of resident birds. The Santa Marta Mountains boast the highest concentration of endemic bird species in the Andes and are located at the confluence of bird communities associated with northern South America and Central America.
Before breakfast and the start of our planned events, we would go out bird-watching and find stunning endemics like the Golden-winged Sparrow on the ground, while flocks of Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks gathered in the trees above preparing to leave for their breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. We even saw a Prothonotary Warbler at the Hotel Minca.
These birds remind us what we are working so hard for!
ABC’s partners presented impressive statistics of how they are managing their organizations, fundraising for projects, earning operating dollars through ecotourism, and generally achieving great conservation results on the ground. Participants engaged in lively discussion, despite the long days and high temperatures in our meeting space.
Enrique Ortiz of blue moon fund gave important feedback from his dual perspective as a donor and leader of a conservation organization. Freddy Garmendia of the Honduran group ASIDE presented a very different model of income generation for projects, including starting business first to generate funds to later spend on the project goals. ABC’s Benjamin Skolnik presented an overview of payment for ecosystem service schemes providing financing to projects in multiple countries. ABC’s Holly Robertson presented on how ABC can help partners raise funds and promote tourism together.
Many ideas for follow-up work emerged related to training and tourism development. Opportunities for future collaboration also emerged – for instance, representatives of USAID and our Colombian partner ProAves began a discussion about how to promote tourism in the area of El Dorado Reserve.
The big lesson that emerged, however, was quite simple: there is no magic to sustainability of conservation organizations and reserves. Instead, it requires constant hard work and creativity to generate sufficient and diverse funding streams annually.
Most participants continued from Minca on to El Dorado Reserve following the meetings to participate in a reforestation “best practices” workshop. We drove uphill to the reserve, stopping along the way at a few points to see birds like the Rusty-breasted Antpitta and recently split Santa Marta Antwren (previously lumped with Long-tailed Antwren).
At the reserve, we immediately dove in with presentations from partners about their experience in reforestation, complete with planting statistics and costs. We discussed best practices for planning and monitoring reforestation and restoration projects at all stages of these kinds of projects, including setting goals, measuring benefits to communities, measuring success for tree planting (during each of its own phases: seed collection, germination, nursery, transport, planting, maintenance in the field), and measuring the impact of this effort on other indices such as bird populations, water, and soil.
ABC’s Jason Berry gave a tutorial on entering bird monitoring data into eBird, which we then practiced taking the necessary data in the field. Andrew Rothman, ABC’s Director of Migratory Birds, gave an overview of ABC’s work on migratory birds, the opportunities for our partners to become more involved with these efforts, and how their activities fit in with the larger alliance of institutions working together across the hemisphere. Finally, we outlined key questions that will form the basis of a manual of best practices for reforestation and restoration activities. We hope to develop this manual further to follow up on this workshop.
This is all to emphasize how seriously we at ABC take partnership: We know that only together, working with organizations across the hemisphere, will we achieve our goal to “bring back the birds.” It’s well worth our staff time and effort to build these bridges with other groups, and that is done person to person and on site where the birds are.
In the days that followed, we toured the reserve, including upper portions where trees had been planted and a small nursery near the lodge. Everyone saw the endemic Santa Marta Parakeet and nest boxes for which ProAves has deployed to encourage their reproduction.
At the end of the meeting, we showed some of the best photographs taken by participants of the trip (many shown here), including some truly exceptional shots taken by Jorge Brocca of the Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola.
Despite being inside most of the time, we still saw many birds, including skulking antpittas and tapaculos. Several people had great views of the powerful Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, a White-tipped Queztal building a nest, and the Golden-breasted Fruiteater. Black-fronted Wood-quail and Colombian Brush-Finch visited feeders and compost piles at the lodge. Most in the group saw the endemic screech-owl behind the lodge after dark. And on the last day, we had a Blossomcrown on our way back down the mountain, rapidly visiting pink flowers outside a store that sold blackberry wine.
Editor’s Note: ABC would like to thank blue moon fund and The Jeniam Foundation for supporting ABC’s sustainability work with partners as well as the support for reforestation activities of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through their Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) grant program.
Daniel Lebbin works in ABC’s International Division, leading projects in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile to create and expand nature reserves for the hemisphere’s rarest birds. Dan coauthored The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation published in 2010. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University, where he studied habitat specialization of Amazonian birds and spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Peru.