Fresh Meat for Flies: First Impressions of Laysan Island

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Millerbirds were first reintroduced to Laysan Island in 2011. This is a great conservation success story: the population has now at least doubled in size. Photo: C.R. Kohley

July 7, 2014 | By Barbara Heindl

It has been a week since I arrived on Laysan Island with fellow field biologists Megan Dalton and Robby Kohley. We have been sent to Laysan, a small island in the Northwest Hawaiian chain about 930 miles northwest from Honolulu, to monitor a population of translocated Millerbirds. The last time anyone checked on the Millerbirds was in September 2013, when Megan, Michelle Wilcox, and Andrea Kristof departed.

Team NIMI compressed

The Millerbird monitoring team on Laysan (left to right): Megan Dalton, Barbara Heindl, and Robby Kohley. Laysan Albatrosses are also seen in the background. Photo by Barbara Heindl

In 2011 and 2012, a total of 50 individual Millerbirds were brought from Nihoa Island to Laysan Island, where Millerbirds had been extinct on the island for almost 100 years. The original Laysan Millerbird population went extinct because of habitat degradation caused by introduced, non-native rabbits. Once the rabbits were eradicated, and decades of habitat restoration completed by USFWS Refuges, the Millerbirds were translocated.

Life in the Field: Adaptation

When you start a new field job there is always a transition period. The period of time where everything is new, your assumptions about the location and experience are either met or modified. You develop a flow with your new co-workers who are also the people you will be living with for the next several months. You are forced to compare all your new experiences to your old ones and for the most part, maybe more than anything else, are trying to cope with how to take in everything, new guidelines, new living quarters, new background noises, everything.

I am not sure whether this experience has been eased or complicated by my working almost exclusively on Kaua‘i, the closest (~800 mi) inhabited island in the main Hawaiian chain, for the last five years.

On “Gilligan’s Island”

Figure 2. The sun sets on this tour of Laysan Island, only to rise again in early 2013 (Photo by Michelle Wilcox)

The ocean is always in view on Laysan Island. Photo by Michelle Wilcox

Everything on Laysan is still part of Hawai‘i, but at the same time different from the Hawai‘i I have previously experienced. It is undeniably closer to what my family and friends from the mainland visualize. An ocean view backdrops every image I lay my eyes on. Gilligan’s Island is a close approximation, and the coconut wireless is real, though no one has managed to engineer an FM/AM coconut radio yet. But otherwise it is a stark contrast from the work I have been doing for the past 5 years.

Working for the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project, my “office” was the Alaka‘i Swamp in montane rainforest at the uppermost elevations of Kaua‘i. The Alaka‘i is a tangled jungle-gym of forest where, while you may see rainbows at the end of the day, it is likely because you have just endured or are still sitting in a torrential downpour. Working there you are constantly tripped by vines and low branches, and often fight to get through dense woven masses of ‘ohe naupaka or shrub ‘ōhi‘a, a task that requires not only the patience of a saint but also the zen-like resolve of a monk.

Bird Detection in NIMI Land

On Laysan, in what is fondly referred to as “NIMI land” (NIMI being the field code for Nihoa Millerbird), I have traded in that familiar tangled mess of twisted shrub ‘ōhi‘a for tangled beach naupaka (a native coastal shrub). The main difference being that beneath the matted naupaka are countless nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Brown Noddies and, of course, Nihoa Millerbirds. All of which makes every step an exercise in decision-making and a lesson on the effects of one’s footsteps on an environment not made for humans.

Big mouth Baby Frigate compressed

A screaming Great Frigatebird chick in its nest in the naupaka on Laysan. Photo by Barbara Heindl

Detecting Millerbirds is far more difficult then I initially expected. I am used to detecting birds, in most situations by sound first, and usually I am able to narrow the location down and get visual confirmation shortly thereafter. While the Millerbird song and calls are distinct, they are fragile and can be hard to pick out through the deafening din of Great Frigatebird and Red-footed Booby nestlings begging for food. Sooty Terns and Noddies swooping above you don’t help either while you are trying to focus on the mouse-sized Millerbirds secretively hopping around the underbrush.

Nihoa Millerbird Fledgling on Laysan photo by Robby Kohley -ABC

Fledgling Millerbird in a typical secretive pose. Photo: C.R. Kohley

On Kaua’i a “busy” bird survey might become more difficult if you are flanked by a single upset Kaua‘i ‘Elepaio or a chatty Japanese White-eye, both of which might make detecting the ever-decreasing ‘Akikiki or ‘Akeke‘e difficult. These distractions are nowhere near the cacophonous sound of upset seabirds and hoards of flies buzzing in your ears, eyes, and nose. Even keeping in mind that the Millerbird is only one of two songbirds on the island, the social and consistent melody of the Laysan Finch can easily cover and mask a nearby Millerbird’s gentle “chk chk” call as well.

Toward a Future with Many Millerbirds

I have been repeatedly amazed and so thankful to be joined in the field with Millerbird veterans Robby and Megan. They both have been involved at critical stages of the Nihoa Millerbird project, including the two translocations and the transition to monitoring the growth and success of the new population.

Their skill and proficiency in this environment is not only impressive, but has also been a valuable resource for me in learning the ropes during our first week on the island. They can detect the light song of a Millerbird tens of meters away, when all I hear are the primordial shrieks of Frigatebirds directly above us.

The Millerbird "Black over Silver, Blue over Orange" perched in the native bunch grass Eragrostis variabilis on Laysan. Photo: C.R. Kohley

Millerbird known as “Black over Silver, Blue over Orange” for the colors of its bands, perched in a native bunch grass on Laysan. Photo: C.R. Kohley

The few interactions I’ve had with Millerbirds so far have been deeply rewarding, all thanks to these two seasoned biologists. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next three months bring, especially as I start to get my feet under me in the field, both figuratively and metaphorically. Whatever the future brings, here’s to hoping there are lots of Millerbirds in it!

Editor’s Note: ABC helped translocate the Millerbirds to Laysan from their last remaining habitat on Nihoa Island during 2011-2012 and continues to support the project. A “founder population” of the birds more than doubled its original population of 50 birds to 121 in 2013, offering increased promise for the species’ future.

Barbara Heindl is a field biologist on Laysan Island monitoring translocated Nihoa Millerbirds. She has also done extensive work on Kaua‘i, Hawai’i, Alaska, and across the United States’ mainland. She is originally from Wisconsin and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Behind the Scenes: First-ever Black-capped Petrel Satellite Tracking


One of three Black-capped Petrels destined to carry a satellite tag for the first time in history. Photo by Tazio Taveres

By Rob Ronconi

Locally known as diablotín, which translates loosely to “little devil,” the Black-capped Petrel (Pterodroma hasitata) is one of the world’s most imperiled and least known seabirds. This species was thought to be extinct for most of the 20th century, then was rediscovered in 1963 nesting high up in the mountains of southeastern Haiti.

Since then, various expeditions have found diablotíns nesting among the cliffs, boulders, and pine forests of four sites on the island of Hispaniola.

In early April 2014, in a joint project led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) South Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Clemson University, Grupo Jaragua in the Dominican Republic, and American Bird Conservancy, I had the privilege and pleasure to join an expedition to Sierra de Bahoruco National Park in the Dominican Republic.

Our purpose: to deploy the first satellite tags on diablotín.


Team Diablotín. Photo by Rob Ronconi

So How Do You Find a Diablotín?

Consider this. In Sierra de Bahoruco, expeditions have been searching for nests off and on since 1979 until the first active nest was finally found in 2002. Scrambling, crawling, and climbing, during the past four years Grupo Jaragua has discovered 45 nests in this area confined to the top 100 meters of the Loma del Toro ridge at 2,200 meters above sea level.

Cool nights and warm days merge pine forest with agave plants in a fire-prone ecosystem. Here diablotín hide their nests among sharp limestone boulders and densely vegetated north-facing slopes, so well hidden that you could be staring right at a burrow without even knowing it.

My journey began in Santo Domingo where I was met by Chapa, Grupo Jaragua’s logistics man; Ernst Rupp, research and expedition leader; and Tadzio, an overseas recruit who has been volunteering at the Natural History Museum.

From here, Loma del Toro was two days’ travel via Oviedo and Pedernales, where we picked up food, supplies, equipment, and, most importantly, the remaining members of Team Diablotín: Esteban, Gerson, Pirrin, Jose Luis, and René.


Making the climb in the search for Black-capped Petrel burrows. Photo by Rob Ronconi

Climbing from sea-level to the heights of Sierra de Bahoruco, we passed through an impressive diversity of ecosystems from dry desert and coastal lagoons to humid broadleaf and towering pine forests, each carrying their own mix of endemic and migratory birds.

Sadly, though, we also passed farmlands encroaching into park boundaries. From the top of Loma del Toro, views of Haiti below were a stark reminder of the real pressure facing habitats and species on Hispaniola. Agricultural development, charcoal making, forest fires, and timber harvest are all real threats impacting the forests of Hispaniola right up to the tops of these seemingly remote mountain ranges.

Despite these threats, the pine forests atop of Sierra de Bahoruco are fairly well preserved, providing nesting sites for the cryptic diablotín and dozens of other endemic species.

The Small, Downy Reward

The long journey was rewarded with my first glimpse of a Black-capped Petrel chick sitting in the back of its burrow. The chick was still small and downy; at this time of year most eggs have recently hatched, and chicks wait in their burrows for parents to return with a big feed.


Chick waiting in burrow for parents to return with food. Photo by Rob Ronconi

On our first evening, with the sun setting, we quickly scrambled to set “traps” (one-way doors) on burrow entrances to catch adults that would return under the cover of night. Our intent: to affix small, solar-powered transmitters on three birds that would enable us to track their movements during foraging trips at sea over the next several months.

Silent and chilled, we waited in the dark near burrow entrances for four hours, only to be duped before we called it a night.

With more time the next day we regrouped, visited more nest sites, and reconfigured our traps, this time designed to catch birds while we slept at night. Early risers found success on the second morning, when we caught our first two diablotíns destined to carry satellite tags.


Team Diablotín prepares a petrel to carry the satellite transmitter. (Author Rob Ronconi pictured at right.) Photo by Ernst Rupp

Having studied shearwaters, storm-petrels, and gulls in the past, Pterodroma petrels were a real treat for me to work with. What diablotín lack in size in comparison with their shearwater cousins, they make up for with beautiful black and white plumage and an impressive stout, sharply hooked bill. (Our first candidate left a nice gash in my knuckle that bled through most of the tagging procedure).

Until now, Grupo Jaragua’s work with the petrels had been very “hands-off,” using infra-red trail cameras and acoustic recording devices to monitor activities around burrows. So not only were we deploying the first satellite transmitters on this species, but we were even making the first-ever measurements of Black-capped Petrels during the breeding season. Each weighing in at around 400 grams (just shy of one pound), three diablotíns were equipped with transmitters.


Black-capped Petrel, outfitted and ready for flight. Photo by Tazio Taveres

In many ways this work marks an exciting new era in the discovery of Black-capped Petrel life histories. It was my privilege to be a part of this expedition, and we owe its success to the hard work of Grupo Jaragua!

Now we wait for these elusive seabirds to show us their secret lives at sea.

(Editor’s note: You can see where the tagged Black-capped Petrels are today by visiting this website:

Rob Ronconi is a seabird biologist who has studied shearwaters, petrels, gulls, terns and auks in the North Pacific, and the South and North Atlantic Oceans.  Currently he is a research associate at Acadia University leading a study on bird interactions with offshore oil and gas platforms. Ronconi lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Northern Climes to Nicaragua: Long-distance Migrants on Shade Coffee Farms

Black-throated Green Warbler, one of many migrants that breed in North America and winter on Latin American coffee farms.

Black-throated Green Warbler, one of many migrants that breed in North America and winter on Latin American coffee farms. Photo: Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

By Scott Weidensaul

The challenges facing bird conservation can seem insurmountable. And it’s true that some of the threats—climate change, habitat loss—are overwhelming in their scope.

But as American Bird Conservancy has been pointing out for years, sometimes even the smallest changes can have enormous effects, from keeping your cat inside to making the right choices when you go to the grocery store.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that one of the easiest and most effective changes you can make for bird conservation is to buy the right kind of coffee. Industrial coffee production, for inexpensive grocery-store brands, has destroyed millions of acres of tropical bird habitat. But buying traditional, shade-grown coffee is a direct investment in bird conservation every time you pour yourself a mug.

Traditional shade coffee farms are a complex, multi-layer habitat which helps account for the density of migrant songbirds that use these plantations during the winter ©Lee Simpson

Traditional shade coffee farms like this one are a complex, multi-layer habitat, which helps account for the density of migrant songbirds that use these plantations during the winter. Photo © Lee Simpson

ABC is a strong backer of the Bird Friendly (BF) certification program from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. BF is the gold standard in coffee certifications, proven to preserve the highest level of biodiversity on the farms that meet its rigorous requirements.

In April in this blog, Dr. Bridget Stutchbury from York University in Toronto wrote about the importance of Bird Friendly coffee for songbirds like Wood Thrushes, which she’s been studying for years. Her groundbreaking research has shown that shade coffee farms in Nicaragua and eastern Honduras are vitally important for wintering Wood Thrushes and other Neotropical migrants.

Last year, I had a chance to see that for myself, when my wife and I spent a week birding Smithsonian-certified shade coffee farms in Nicaragua, especially in the northwest of the country near the Honduran border.

It was a remarkable experience. To the untrained eye, the landscape that rolled away in every direction—misty, tree-clad mountains—looked like untouched forest. In fact, almost everything we saw was under shade coffee cultivation, the way coffee has been traditionally grown in that part of the world for two centuries, under the canopy of an intact, functioning forest.

Cafeletero José Ruiz © Lee Simpson

José Ruiz, one of several hundred small shade coffee farmers in the highlands of northern Nicaragua who produce Smithsonian-certified Bird Friendly coffee — and whose land provides critical habitat for migrant and resident birds alike. Photo © Lee Simpson

Even more remarkable, after more than 25 years birding in the tropics I simply had never seen as many migrant songbirds as we did in there. Great mixed flocks of warblers, orioles, tanagers, vireos, grosbeaks, and other songbirds I knew from back north rolled past us in flickering, colorful movement, in the company of tropical resident birds like squirrel cuckoos and motmots.

During our time there, I met with the leaders of the local coffee cooperative, UCA San Juan del Rio Coco. The co-op’s more than 400 small farmers produce millions of pounds of Smithsonian-certified coffee every year, and they told me they were anxious to learn more about exactly what birds were using their farms.

So this past February, with support from ABC partner Birds & Beans (which sells only Bird Friendly coffee, and buys much of its supply from UCA San Juan), a team of six researchers headed to Nicaragua. Three came from Bridget’s lab at York University and three from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, which is also a big supporter of Smithsonian-certified coffee.

Violet sabrewing foraging in a shade coffee farm pauses on a banana flower ©Drew Weber

Violet Sabrewing foraging in a shade coffee farm, pausing on a banana flower. Photo © Drew Weber

For weeks, the crew rose before daybreak and headed to that day’s slate of farms, scrambling up and down steep hillsides in the early, fog-shrouded light, watching and listening for birds, and meeting with the farmers whose families have been raising coffee in these hills for generations.

They were struck, as I had been, by the stark contrast between the immense green oasis that the coffee-farming highlands represent, and the dry, denuded pastureland and sun coffee plantations surrounding it—land that was largely barren of birds.

“Something that I found unforgettable was the difference between the shade coffee region around San Juan del Rio Coco, which, despite the dryness, was very green, and areas east and west that had been deforested,” said Drew Weber, part of the Hawk Mountain team. “I think it is a pretty telling comparison of how promoting shade coffee agriculture is the only way to go if we expect forests to remain in the region.”

Valle de Rio Coco, Nicaragua. Lowlands  converted pastureland sun coffee, highlands forests farms traditional shade@drew weber

Valle de Rio Coco, Nicaragua. Here, you can see lowlands converted to pastureland and sun coffee, while highlands retain traditional shade coffee farms, and plenty of birds. Photo @ Drew Weber

They also found plenty of birds—more than 130 species, including Neotropical migrants from Broad-winged Hawks and Merlins to vireos, thrushes, warblers, and flycatchers. Especially common were Yellow-bellied Flycatchers; Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green and Wilson’s warblers; Summer Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles. But the team also found rare species of deep conservation concern, like Golden-winged Warblers.

“Having a Black Hawk-Eagle soar right over our heads was a special moment, and both the sight and sound of 50+ Chestnut-headed Oropendolas speeding by en route to their night roost was incredible,” York University team member Garth Casbourn recalled.

Montezuma's oropendola©Drew Weber_crop

Montezuma Oropendola, a resident bird drawn by the nectar of a native tree in a shade coffee farm. Photo © Drew Weber

But it wasn’t just the birds, as Lee Simpson from Pennsylvania was reminded repeatedly.

“I was amazed to be in a rural community far from the capital where organic farming practices had been embraced,” she said. “Some of the producers whose farms we surveyed were excited to share with us how they keep the water clean after processing the coffee to remove the husks, or how much safer organic methods are for their families. I began to learn how this co-op had come to embrace organic methods.”

That’s one of the strengths of Bird Friendly coffee—that it actually has many strengths. It’s great for the birds, obviously, but the value goes well beyond that.

Nests of Montezuma's oropendolas_shade coffee farm in Nicaragua©Drew Weber

Dozens of enormous, pendulous nests of Montezuma Oropendolas droop from the branches of a tree on one shade coffee farm in Nicaragua. Photo © Drew Weber

Without the premium price that certified coffee brings, small farmers and local co-ops like UCA San Juan del Rio Coco might not be able to thrive. The USDA organic certification that the BF label requires safeguards not just the wildlife and the land, but the people who live in such rich, fertile places.

And the Bird Friendly program strengthens communities that might otherwise be forced to make poor environmental choices, or be steamrolled by big agribusinesses moving in and taking over, as has happened in much of the coffee-producing world.

Nor does conservation end when the migrants leave the wintering grounds. Many migratory birds depend on agricultural landscapes here in North America, too, either as stopover habitat in migration, or breeding sites once they arrive—like Bobolinks and Vesper Sparrows in a lush pasture, or Yellow-throated Vireos and Gray Catbirds in a riparian thicket.

Gray Catbird2_Warren Cooke_U

Gray Catbird, a familiar species that overwinters on Latin American shade coffee farms. Photo by Warren Cooke

That’s why Birds & Beans is also working with Organic Valley, a co-op of more than 1,800 USDA certified organic farms around the country, to replicate the kind of bird surveys that were done in Nicaragua last winter, up here this summer.

As a start, teams will be surveying farms in Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont, and North Carolina to document the bird life on them—stitching together the whole story of these long-distance migrants, and the way that the choices we make as consumers makes a real, serious difference for bird conservation at every step of their life cycle.

Editor’s Note: At American Bird Conservancy, we drink Birds & Beans coffee, and we recommend it for all of the reasons Scott states above. Plus, it’s just plain great coffee. You can get it here.

Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen books on natural history, including Living on the Wind and Of a Feather, as well as his newest, The First Frontier. He is also an active field researcher, specializing in the migration of owls and hummingbirds. Weidensaul lives in Pennsylvania.

Isla Santa Clara: Restoring Habitat for Pink-footed Shearwater

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A glimpse of the rare Pink-footed Shearwater, which nests only on Isla Santa Clara and two other Chilean islands. Photo by Peter Hodum

By Holly Freifeld

The zodiac’s bow smacked the choppy water hard on the approach to the little island’s landing site: a slippery, wave-washed tongue of rock. We each steeled ourselves for the scramble over the gunwale and onto the rocks in that unpredictable split-second when the boat, the water, and the shore all lined up.  Crumbling basalt cliffs soared on either side, and the summer sun was scorching.

Some devoted readers of the ABC blog may predict that this is Nihoa in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, home of endemic Millerbirds, Nihoa Finches, and a half-million or so seabirds, but no.  This is a less fortunate sister in the Southern Hemisphere: Isla Santa Clara, in Chile’s Juan Fernandez Archipelago.

Opening figure (left) Santa Clara

Isla Santa Clara, in Chile’s Juan Fernandez Islands (33°S latitude; about 2.2 km2). Photo by Holly Freifeld

Opening figure (right) Nihoa

Nihoa, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (23°N latitude; about 1 km2). Both Nihoa and Santa Clara are oceanic islands made of basalt (fragments of ancient volcanoes). Photo by Holly Freifeld

Gazing up past the eerily familiar cliffs, I sought the cloud of seabirds that whirls and floats above Nihoa and most of the other remote, uninhabited Pacific Islands I have visited.  The sky was empty. The arid slopes were covered not with a mix of native shrubs, but a near-uniform golden blanket of what I would soon discover to be wild oats, Avena barbata, an alien invasive grass we all know from every walk in an American cow pasture.

Instead of carefully negotiating space with an endangered Hawaiian monk seal or two, landing on Santa Clara involves scattering dozens of Juan Fernandez fur seals, which in stark contrast with the monk seal, are enjoying a population boom in the archipelago, their only home.

Fig 1 (left) Santa Clara landing

Santa Clara landing with Juan Fernandez fur seals.

Fig 1 (right) Nihoa landing

Nihoa landing. A handful of Hawaiian monk seals typically would be loafing on the rocks. Photos by Holly Freifeld

They’re also far more fearful of humans than monk seals. As our boat nudged the rocks and one by one we variously leapt, hopped, slid, and fell onto shore, fur seals of all sizes did the same, into the water.  Once we were ashore, the boat nosed cautiously back several times so that the crew (park guards with Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal, or CONAF) could quickly pass our gear across. As they waved good-bye and turned back toward the mile-wide channel that separates Santa Clara from Robinson Crusoe, we formed a fire-bucket brigade and ferried our gear across the rocky terrace and up to CONAF’s cabin on a small flat shoulder maybe 130 feet above the sea.

For the next three days, Peter Hodum and Valentina Colodro of Oikonos Ecosystems Knowledge, Hector Gutierrez of Rescatemos Juan Fernandez (a local conservation group dedicated to control of invasive plants), and I would hike over the island and I would see for the first time nesting colonies of the Pink-footed Shearwater, known locally as Fardela Blanca, a seabird that Peter has been studying in the Juan Fernandez Islands for 14 years.

With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and others, ABC has been working with Oikonos since 2009 on a variety of conservation projects for this globally threatened seabird, which nests only on Santa Clara and two other Chilean islands: Robinson Crusoe, just across the channel, and Mocha, a coastal island some 400 miles to the southeast. Here on Santa Clara, the shearwaters nest in two or three well-defined colonies as well as in burrows scattered thinly around the island. Our job on this trip was to select and mark a subset of burrows in two colonies for monitoring through the breeding season.

Similar Islands, Different Histories

The non-native mammals (including humans) that prey on Pink-footed Shearwaters and munch on and trample their habitat on Mocha and Robinson Crusoe are absent from Santa Clara.  The island once had feral sheep and rabbits, but these were removed by CONAF in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Although some of the island’s native plants, including the strange and lovely cabbage tree, Dendroseris litoralis, have crept back in places around the island’s margins since the last rabbits were removed, the damage wrought by herbivorous mammals – severe erosion and the near-complete loss of native vegetation – is still plain to see, and will require many years of hands-on restoration work to reverse.

Fig 2 (left) Dendroseris

Cabbage tree on Santa Clara. The small “forest” of these shrubs in the background on the left is an example of the modest natural regeneration of native plants around the edges of Santa Clara since rabbits were removed.

Fig 2 (right) Dendroseris detail

Cabbage tree in bloom. Photos by Holly Freifeld

Santa Clara’s climate is relatively arid, like Nihoa’s, and the island’s native vegetative may once have been similar to Nihoa’s as well: a combination of shrubs, native bunch grasses and ferns, and perhaps small trees in ravines. Today the wild oats dominate the island (perhaps carried there in the guts of the sheep), as well as thistles, mustards, dock, and other weeds. These non-native plants, all of continental origin, evolved together with mammalian herbivores and thus can survive in the presence of heavy grazing and browsing, and under conditions of increasing erosion and decreasing soil nutrients. The natives, for the most part, cannot.

The result, for the shearwaters, is dry, friable soil lacking the network of substantial roots that formerly provided structural integrity for their burrows through wet and dry seasons. Lacking stability, many burrows collapse.  Peter estimates that Santa Clara now harbors about 3,500 breeding pairs of Pink-footed Shearwaters. The degradation of the vegetation and substrate probably has severely reduced the Pink-footed Shearwater population on the Santa Clara; they likely once nested all over the island. Santa Clara does have a few other species of nesting seabirds, but these are not reliant on excavating burrows.  Approximately 325 pairs of DeFilippi’s Petrels nest in scree slopes or other rocky crevices on Santa Clara, along with a few Kermadec Petrels and White-bellied Storm-Petrels.

fig 3 (left) Santa Clara veg

The landscape of Santa Clara is dominated by wild oats (Avena barbata), an alien invasive grass. The sheep, and rabbits, are gone, and the grass is thriving.

Fig 3 (right) Nihoa veg

Nihoa’s vegetation is nearly all native shrubs and bunch grasses. Photos by Holly Freifeld

In contrast, Nihoa, which is less than half the size of Santa Clara, is home to probably 100,000 seabirds or more representing 16 species, including burrow- and crevice-nesters such as Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Christmas Shearwaters, Bulwer Petrels, and Tristram’s Storm-Petrels. Granted, biogeography, not human impacts, explains a lot of the difference in the number of seabird species between the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and Juan Fernandez. Too, Nihoa’s topography is so extreme that soil development is patchy, and “traditional” burrow-excavators like Wedge-tailed Shearwaters nest mainly in rock crevices and small caves. The point, though, is the difference in the number of individual seabirds. Nihoa is covered with birds, as a rocky, oceanic island free of alien mammals should be. Santa Clara is by comparison woefully, echoingly, empty.


Restoring native vegetation, and thus nesting habitat for Pink-footed Shearwaters, is the goal of ABC’s work with Oikonos and CONAF on Santa Clara.  The near-term objective is to establish native plants, rather than thistles and other alien species, in the two largest and most accessible concentrations of shearwater burrows on the island.

This is not a simple matter: getting to, and staying on, Santa Clara isn’t easy or inexpensive, and little infrastructure currently exists on the island to support propagation and care of newly planted vegetation. The work underway now seeks to identify the most efficient methods, requiring the least time and technology, for reaching this objective.

I hiked Santa Clara with Peter, Vale, and Hector, alternately awestruck by the gorgeous, sweeping landscapes, and dismayed by the near-wholesale alteration of the island. Peter tells me that Isla Selkirk, the third of the Juan Fernandez Islands, is loaded with birds: hundreds of thousands of Juan Fernandez Petrels and Stejneger’s Petrels. Selkirk also still has a fair amount of native vegetation, despite its small population of feral goats. Isla Mocha, the stronghold of the Pink-footed Shearwater breeding population, also has quite a bit of native forest.

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Pink-footed Shearwaters on Santa Clara. Photo by Peter Hodum

The link between vegetation and seabirds can be critical on breeding islands.  Native plants often provide essential structure, above and below ground, for nesting seabirds. That link has been weakened for Pink-footed Shearwaters on Santa Clara. With time, patience, and a lot of hard, hands-on work–propagation, planting, irrigation, and other support–habitat for this seabird can be restored, a bit at a time.

HFreifeld on Searcher  7Sep11_GWallaceHolly Freifeld has managed ABC’s Seabird Program since 2012, following 10 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focused on conservation of Hawaiian birds and Pacific seabirds. Prior to joining FWS, Holly participated in the study and conservation of island birds in American Samoa, Independent Samoa, Tonga, Palau, and California as well as in Hawaii. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Oregon.




Help Save Wood Thrush: Drink Bird Friendly Coffee

Wood Thrush singing. In 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the Wood Thrush: “This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.” Photo by Lang Elliot

By Bridget Stutchbury

The Wood Thrush is an ambassador for the forest birds of eastern North America, and a modern-day “canary in the coal mine.” According to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), this species has declined by over 50 percent since systematic counts began in the late 1960s.

The number of Wood Thrushes found during Breeding Bird Surveys has dropped by about 50 percent since the 1960s.

I wrote about the demise of the Wood Thrush in Silence of the Songbirds, and since then I have received dozens of comments from readers about the emotional loss they feel when the Wood Thrush disappears from their neighborhood. Wood Thrushes are rarely seen, but their flute-like song is bold, beautiful, and full of  life. Summer evenings used to bring a refreshing and ringing dusk chorus of “ee-oh-lay” from thrushes in the forest by their house, but now several years have gone by with none at all. Each spring brings new but diminishing hope.

Listen to the Wood Thrush’s song:
(Andrew Spencer, XC33467. Accessible at

What can be done to bring their beloved thrushes back?  My answer is to drink Bird Friendly® coffee (which is organic, fair trade, and shade grown) to help give Wood Thrushes a safe place to spend their winter when they are thousands of miles from our back yards.

Tracking Birds with Tiny Backpacks

Where exactly do our Wood Thrushes go after they are finished breeding? To find out, I have used newly miniaturized tracking devices called “geolocators,” which the birds carry as a little backpack and which must be retrieved and downloaded when the bird returns to its breeding site the next year. The geolocator measures light levels every few minutes, and then sunrise and sunset times can be converted into latitude and longitude.

Geolocators are “light loggers” and use sunrise and sunset times to determine a bird’s location. Photo by Bridget Stutchbury.

In May 2008, my graduate students caught the very first Wood Thrush to be tracked for its entire migration. At the same time that this forest in northern Pennsylvania had been buried under 18 inches of fresh lake effect snow, “our” Wood Thrush was in Nicaragua and completely at home in a world of strangler figs, howler monkeys, and toucans. I was stunned to see that in spring this bird had flown 2,300 miles in only two weeks.

Most Wood Thrushes from the central- and north-eastern part of the breeding range winter in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Source: Stutchbury et al. (2009) Science 323: 896.

Of the five Wood Thrushes tracked that first year, all spent our winter living in eastern Honduras and Nicaragua. This was not just a coincidence. We have now tracked over 70 Wood Thrushes that bred in the central-east or north-east part of the breeding range, and the vast majority also wintered in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, or western Costa Rica.

Wood Thrush with Geolocator by Elizabeth Gow

Wood Thrush wearing a small geolocator tracking device on his back. Photo by Elizabeth Gow.

This part of Central America is a Wood Thrush hotspot, but the tragedy is that it is also a deforestation hotspot and is losing its tropical forests at one of the highest rates in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 2011 State of the World’s Forests report, since 1990 Honduras has lost 27 percent of its forest, and Nicaragua 31 percent, to agriculture. It should come as no surprise, then, that Wood Thrushes who depend on those forests are disappearing quickly. The scale of our assault on this endearing forest icon is enormous; the North American population size of Wood Thrushes has dropped by about 12 million birds since the 1960s.

The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in Nicaragua maps of forest loss show the extreme level of deforestation in the recent past, and for the coming decades.

You Can Help: Go Bird Friendly

Bird Friendly shade coffee farms are high-quality forested habitat for dozens of species of migratory songbirds, as well as tropical birds that there live year round.  In the village of San Juan del Río Coco, Nicaragua, a cooperative of more than 400 small coffee producers raise more than 2.5 million pounds of Bird Friendly certified coffee every year. This one co-op adds up to about 8,000 acres, a green oasis that is surrounding by miles of deforested land devoted to pasture, sun coffee, and other crops.  Saving heavily shaded coffee farms throughout this region would protect tens of thousands of acres of habitat for Wood Thrush. But farmers need your help.

As Jefferson Shriver’s blog post illustrates, small and medium-size coffee farmers gain many ecological and economic benefits from keeping a multi-layered and diverse set of tree species on their farm. Recent studies have shown that birds can directly benefit farmers by controlling insect pests and increasing coffee production.

What is missing is large-scale support and commitment from the millions of coffee drinkers in America.  Too many birders are not aware of the benefits of shade coffee to birds and farmers, or do not realize how easy it is to buy Bird Friendly shade coffee and help the birds they love.

What can you do to make sure that our Wood Thrushes and other forest songbirds remain common and serenade future generations for years to come? Drink Bird Friendly coffee!

Photo by Douglas Morton

Bridget Stutchbury is a professor at York University, Toronto. Since the 1980s, she has followed songbirds to their wintering grounds in Latin America and back to their breeding grounds in North America to understand their behavior, ecology and conservation. Bridget is author of Silence of the Songbirds (2007) and The Private Lives of Birds (2010).

Editor’s Note: At American Bird Conservancy, we’re drinking Birds and Beans coffee. The quality is superior, and since we’re all about conserving birds, nothing less will do! We find it easy to order: Just set up a recurring subscription and you’ll never have to worry about where to get coffee again. We encourage you to give it a try.


Unexpected Dividends: Migratory Sandpipers in a Bolivian Reserve

A Buff-breasted Sandpiper foraging in the grasslands at Barba Azul, which is an important stopover site for these migrant shorebirds. Photo by Ed Schneider.

By John Nielsen

First and last, save habitat. If you had to pick a single rule for bird conservation groups to follow that would probably be it. Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish we had saved less bird habitat,” for one thing. For another, the rewards for preserving these wild places can be greater than expected.

As a case in point, take the land deals that created Bolivia’s wondrous Barba Azul Nature Reserve in 2008, and then doubled its size in 2012. Asociación Armonía, a Bolivian conservation group and longstanding partner of American Bird Conservancy, made those acquisitions with help from ABC, Rainforest Trust, and a host of other groups.

Both acquisitions have been hailed as godsends for one bird in particular: the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw from which Barba Azul (or in English, “blue beard”) got its name.

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

Other Rare Animals Conserved

People who read news reports about the creation of Barba Azul may remember seeing references to other rare creatures found in the reserve —everything from maned wolves, pumas, and jaguars to a wide range of declining native birds, including Greater Rhea, Long-tailed Reed Finch, and Streamer-tailed Tyrant.

One bird that was barely mentioned in the early news reports was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a long-distance migrant that breeds in the Arctic and winters in Argentina. Bennett Hennessey, Director of Asociación Armonía, said the reason for that was simple: when Barba Azul was created in 2008, researchers rarely visited the area during the rainy season, which is when the “buffies” are around. “At the time it was assumed that Buff-breasted Sandpipers rarely stopped here while migrating south to Argentina,” Hennessey said. “Basically, because we did not know that they were out there we did not go looking for them.”

Accidental Sightings

Hennessey says he got his first inkling that more than few Buff-breasted Sandpipers were stopping in these grasslands in the fall of 2008, when he and a colleague were surveying the then-private ranchlands that became Barba Azul. “We were driving through a wetland area when the vehicle got so badly stuck that somebody had to drive a tractor to the site and pull the vehicle up onto firm ground, which took several hours. While waiting for the tractor to arrive I went bird watching, and saw an unexpectedly large group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers foraging in a dried-up lagoon.” Hennessey saw more foraging buffies while bird watching with his son a few weeks later. “These observations suggested that the Beni grasslands of Barba Azul could be an important stop-over site for Buff-breasted Sandpipers in particular and boreal migrant shorebirds in general,” he said. “We took that idea to Gary Donaldson of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), which funded a study of the migratory shorebirds that use Bolivia’s tropical grasslands as wintering grounds or stopover sites.”

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

That research, begun in 2009, continues today. “In that time, we’ve learned that Buff-breasted Sandpipers are very common in the fall in Barba Azul,” said Hennessey. “They arrive here weak and hungry after crossing roughly 1,000 miles worth of largely inhospitable forests of Amazon basin. They rest, they eat, they build up weight and strength, and then they leave, finishing their long journey south to pampas grasslands in Argentina.”

First and last, save habitat. It’s always a good idea and there’s no better way to save the treasures that have not yet been discovered.

John NielsenJohn Nielsen is Senior Writer/Editor at ABC and a former Environment Correspondent at National Public Radio. In 2006 his book Condor/To the Brink and Back/The Life and Times of One Giant Bird won the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature.


Does Bird Friendly Coffee Matter? A Farmer’s Perspective

Chestnut-sided Warbler, one of many migratory species that overwinters on Central American shade coffee farms. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

By Jefferson Shriver

“Bird Friendly®” coffee’s very name makes it obvious that there are clear benefits for the birds and bird habitat. At Gaia Estate—a medium-sized family farm in Nicaragua that my wife and I own—we grow Bird Friendly coffee, and the birds are plentiful.

In addition to year-round residents like Turquoise-browed Motmot and Collared Aracari, we see many migrants. Baltimore Orioles, Summer Tanagers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Yellow and Chestnut-sided warblers are just a few of the birds we welcome back each year. In fact, upward of 125 species of birds have been observed on the farm.

But how about the farmer?  Is there a clear business and livelihood case for farmers to adopt the Bird Friendly farming approach?

entrance gate gaia

Entrance to Gaia Estate, a family farm in Nicaragua where Bird Friendly coffee is grown. Photo courtesy Jefferson Shriver.

A Century of Traditional Farming

At Gaia Estate, coffee has been grown in a “three-story” shade system for over 130 years. Here, the underbrush of a forest was cleared and most of the trees kept, leaving more than 70 species of trees in place and a very tall canopy.

Growing coffee in a shaded, agroforestry system like this used to be the norm in Nicaragua and in most of the country.  The broader landscape was a tapestry of rustic shade-grown coffee farms very similar to what we have at Gaia today.  Varieties of Arabica coffee such as Bourbon and Tipica, which were originally found in the forests and love the shade, were grown for a consistent cash income.

But coffee was never the whole story. Farmers also intercropped hardwoods, fruit trees, and semi-perennial crops such as bananas, roots, and tubers that provided them with food, fodder, and lumber when they needed it.  They also knew that a three-story shade system would provide a blanket of leaf litter and root systems to protect their soil from erosion and lock in moisture during dry periods; that it would provide wind and rain breaks to shield coffee from extreme weather; and that it would keep the water springs and streams running through their farms vibrant and clean.

A Walk in the Forest

Despite a changing rural landscape and coffee industry, we continue to conserve this tradition today at Gaia. Our tangerine harvest comes in March, avocados in June, and limes, coconuts, and banana harvests year-round. Organically raised chickens run amuck on the farm and provide a weekly supply of eggs, and fallen trees provide lumber for construction. We grow cinnamon, clove, guava, soursop, wild-grown chile pepper, and cilantro—all amidst the coffee. Vanilla, a shade-loving climbing orchid that winds its way up and around trees, is on its way to becoming a primary new cash crop on the farm.

vanilla at Gaia

Vanilla, a shade-loving climbing orchid, is a new cash crop on the farm. Photo by Jefferson Shriver.

We selectively hand weed instead of using herbicides, leaving a new generation of tree seedlings spread by bats and birds to grow and eventually replace the elder giants. Instead of highly toxic pesticides, we use certain species of trees and plants on the farm to combat pests.  We use manures, coffee residues, and nitrogen-fixing, leaf-shedding trees instead of synthetic fertilizers to keep our top soil healthy and crops fertilized.  The permanent and temporary farm workers we employ at different times of the year enjoy a shaded, toxin-free environment.

Time and again, those who visit Gaia consider their experience to be more of a walk in a forest than a farm, and always comment about the high volume of butterflies, ants, and lizards they see compared to other farms, to say nothing of the birds.

Buffer against Changing Conditions

Bird Friendly production systems are also a major buffer to one of the most serious threats coffee farmers have ever faced: changing growing conditions. Arabica coffee is a rain-fed crop and extremely sensitive to just the right kind of growing conditions: consistently cool average temperatures (particularly night temperatures), plenty of rain that is distributed fairly evenly (no extended drought), no extreme winds, and the right shade-to-sun ratio.

Sadly, the planet is not providing these types of conditions for farmers the way it used to. As an agriculture advisor in the developing world for the past 16 years, I have had countless conversations with coffee farmers living along the equator.

What they are experiencing, similar to what we are seeing at Gaia, are longer dry seasons, stronger winds, stronger rains, unpredictable rainy seasons, and warmer average temperatures. These factors are causing flowering to become irregular and pests and diseases to migrate. Plantations are dying or barely productive. When the weather changes like this, coffee becomes more difficult to grow and is less viable to a farmer.

Turquoise-browed Motmot_Luke Seitz_U

Turquoise-browed Motmot, one of many resident birds on Gaia Estate. Photo by Luke Seitz.

Counting More than Beans

Today there are powerful voices and economic forces in most coffee-producing countries that promote a chemically intensive, shadeless, monocrop system with the promise of higher yields per hectare. I will be the first one to say that over the short term, these systems will out-produce the traditional shade grown system if it is only beans we are counting.

But if we look at benefits beyond coffee yield to include the multiple outputs of a shade-grown, intercropped system, the Bird Friendly alternative remains an attractive one to small- and medium-sized farmers. Finding a price premium for their coffee in a Bird Friendly-certified market provides a true tipping point to maintain these systems over the long term.

We sought Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification in 2010 in search of some market recognition for this farming approach. We were fortunate to find that in Birds & Beans. However, the market for Bird Friendly coffee is in sore need of expansion if other farmers stand to benefit at significant scale.

Bird Friendly farming is a story of synergistic relationships, of diversity, a celebration of life in its many forms in an agro-ecological system.  It is also the best natural insurance policy against changing growing conditions (aka climate change) available to farmers today.

I suppose we could grow coffee in the sun, all lonesome and by itself, but why on earth would we? We would like to keep those 125 species (and counting) of birds around too.

Jefferson ShriverJefferson Shriver is co-owner of Gaia Estate. He has lived in Nicaragua for over 16 years. See a video by Birds & Beans featuring Gaia Estate here:

Editor’s Note: Want to help? It’s easy to purchase Bird Friendly coffee from a company such as Birds & Beans. For other ways to help migratory birds, consider becoming a member of the Western Hemisphere’s bird conservation specialist: American Bird Conservancy