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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wirnRx-zlNk

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

SNAP! How I Photographed 585 Species in One Year to Benefit Hawaiian Birds

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik captured on film during his 2013 big year. (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik photographed during his 2013 “big year.” (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

By David Pavlik, graduate student in Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota

Wow, what a year. From Northern Hawk Owl to Great Kiskadee, my 2013 “photographic big year”—focused on raising funds for ABC to help out Hawai’i’s endangered bird species—exceeded expectations in every way thanks to so many bird enthusiasts, and maybe including some of you!

Back at the beginning of 2013, I made a plan to travel a lot, taking photos of different species of birds. I asked potential supporters to consider donating either a flat amount for the year-long campaign or a set amount for each species of bird that I photographed.

My target was to photograph 500 distinct species—and I am pleased to announce that I exceeded that goal. The final tally was 585 different species photographed and a whopping chunk of change to help out the birds: almost $6,000!

I initially thought that I might get a few pledges from some close friends, and maybe a few more from conservation-minded birders. As the year went on, it quickly became obvious that there was much more support for this type of project than I thought. ABC promoted the project in newsletters and on Facebook; articles were written in local newspapers; and eBird supported the project with an article on their home page.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Following all that help, the pledges started rolling in, and my big year was on its way to becoming a success.

Zig-Zag Route from Michigan to California

My big year started in Michigan. Winter birding in Michigan can be tough, but I made a trip to the Upper Peninsula where I photographed some great birds including Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Hoary Redpoll.

At the end of January, I headed south to Florida for my job working with Brown-headed Nuthatches at Tall Timbers Research Station. I left a week early and birded from northern Florida down to the Everglades, then back up to the Panhandle. This was a tremendously successful week and I picked up some great birds including Western Spindalis and La Sagra’s Flycatcher. Sticking around Florida until early May meant I hit peak migration in the Panhandle and, before returning to Michigan, I had already photographed 300 species of birds.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of Western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

After Florida, I had a few free weeks before I needed to head out west for my summer field job. I used my frequent flyer miles to catch a flight to Alaska to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, where I photographed some tough-to-find species including Yellow-billed Loon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Tern, Marbled and Kittlitz’s  murrelets, Pacific Golden-Plover, Eurasian Wigeon, and Aleutian Tern.

The rest of my summer was spent in the Great Basin of Nevada and California conducting butterfly surveys. My friend and fellow Michigan birder Kevin Welsh and I drove to Nevada, making a small detour to southeast Arizona. We saw most of the Arizona specialties including Montezuma Quail, Mexican Chickadee, Scott’s Oriole, and Elf Owl.

Best of the Big Year: Hawaiian Petrel

Of course, while in the Great Basin, I paid attention to the birds (not just butterflies) and spent my free days chasing birds all over California.  I even managed to get on two pelagic trips. The highlight of my year came on a trip out of Monterey Bay with Shearwater Journeys, where we saw a Hawaiian Petrel! This endangered Hawaiian species is extremely rare off the California coast and was a life bird for just about everyone on board.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel, photographed off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

Next, I talked myself into making a long drive over to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. This was another successful trip, where I found two Himalayan Snowcock, many Black Rosy-Finches with young, Dusky Grouse, and Ferruginous Hawk.  At this point, I had already passed my goal of 500 birds and still had big plans for the rest of the year.

Ending with a Bang in the Rio Grande

It was mid-August by the time my job ended and it was nearly time to start grad school at the University of Minnesota. Luckily, there were still plenty of common birds for me to photograph during fall migration in Minnesota. I picked up new birds in Duluth, Minneapolis, and at Sax-Zim Bog, including Winter Wren, Northern Goshawk, Great Grey Owl, and Philadelphia Vireo.

Great Grey Owl, North America’s largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

Great Grey Owl, North America’s largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

With the year winding down, along with my first semester of grad school, I booked a flight to south Texas. What better way to end the year than with a winter trip to the Rio Grande Valley? I spent four days birding with my friend Mike Lester and we did really well, picking up Muscovy Duck, Tropical Parula, and many South Texas specialties like Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Common Pauraque, and Audubon’s Oriole.

Ongoing Inspiration, An Invitation

In addition to thanking all the individual supporters, ABC, and eBird, I also want to thank Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys for donating  the pelagic trip out of Monterey Bay, where the photograph of a Hawaiian Petrel became the highlight of my year.

This project has inspired me to continue raising money for conservation. If anyone is interested in buying a high-quality, matted print of any of the pictures taken on my photographic big year, I’ll donate a portion of all profits to ABC to support even more Hawaiian bird conservation. (Did you know that Hawai’i is the bird extinction capital of the United States?) Prints won’t be available for all photos due to image quality, but contact me at dtpavlik@hotmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.

I was incredibly fortunate to visit many great birding spots and had some good friends to keep me going throughout the year. And of course, this project certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful conservation-minded supporters who donated to this cause. Thanks to all!

David Pavlik graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in zoology. He has done bird research in Florida, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Michigan, and Alaska. He is now a first-year graduate student in the Conservation Biology program at the University of Minnesota.

White-out on the White Mountain: Restoring Forests on Mauna Kea

Hawai'i's not all white sands and beaches. This snow-covered truck awaited our freezing field crew on Mauna Kea. Photo by Robert Stevens

Hawai’i’s not all white sands and beaches. This snow-covered truck awaited our freezing field crew on Mauna Kea. Photo by Robert Stephens

By Robert Stephens, Project Coordinator, Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project

January 28, 2014, 7 a.m., Hilo, Hawai’i: As the field crew of the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project (MKFRP) drove up the rough dirt roads in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve and parked on Skyline Road—10,300 feet high on the flanks of the dormant volcano—the conditions were dry. But the building clouds had an imposing darkness. The weather reminded Cheyanne Rapoza, Field Crew Leader, of a snowstorm that delayed the annual Palila surveys in 2011.

The goal for the six field staff that day was to split into two groups of three, with each group surveying two of the four final vegetation plots selected from a sample of 60. These surveys would assess current forest conditions and help serve as a baseline for habitat recovery for the Palila—last of the 16 “finch-billed” honeycreepers that used to occur in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Field staff in a snow storm on Mauna Kea, 2011. Left to right: Chris Farmer, ABC; Paul Banko-USGS; Cheyanne Rapoza-MKFRP; and Ku'ulei Vickery-MKFRP. Photo by Robert Stevens

Field staff in a snow storm on Mauna Kea, 2011. Left to right: Chris Farmer, ABC; Paul Banko-USGS; Cheyanne Rapoza-MKFRP; and Ku’ulei Vickery-MKFRP. Photo by Robert Stephens

Unfortunately, Cheyanne’s intuition was correct. At the first survey plot, a light but cold rain began to fall. What started out as just wet and cold hands (especially if you were holding the metal clipboard!) progressed to a numbness that crept toward their body cores over the three hours spent working in the constant rain fall. By the time Cheyenne’s crew was halfway finished surveying their second plot, they had decided to take refuge from the cold, wet conditions.

Snow in Hawai’i?

Thirty minutes into the arduous 1.5 hour slog back uphill to the truck, the rain turned to a heavy snowfall, coming down sideways due to the gusty winds on the mountain. Nearly two inches of snow had accumulated on the truck by the time the shivering surveyors reached it. The crew cranked the heater to high as they descended from snowy Mauna Kea back to sea level and a warm 70 degrees F in Hilo. Along the way they picked up the other crew, who had completed their two transects and were also soaked and ready to retreat from the weather

Think about it … snow in Hawai’i?! This event reminds us how special Mauna Kea is. Mauna Kea means the “white mountain” in Hawaiian because of its snow-covered peaks. It’s quite different from how many people envision Hawai’i. It is extremely rough and rugged, with temperatures regularly falling below freezing. It is one of the most sacred sites of Native Hawaiians, one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observations—and, of course, home to the Palila.

The Palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper that is specially adapted to feed on the seeds of māmane trees, which grow on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo by Robby Kohley

The Palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper that is specially adapted to feed on the seeds of māmane trees, which grow on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo by Robby Kohley

Paving the way for Palila recovery

This project is working to restore high-elevation dry forest for the Palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper listed as endangered in 1973. This Critically Endangered bird now occurs only on the southwestern slope of Mauna Kea, which is less than five percent of its historical distribution on Hawai’i Island.

Palila are dependent upon māmane trees, a legume (pea family), that provides these birds with about 90 percent of their diet in the form of seeds that are toxic to most other animals, yellow flowers, young leaves, and moth larvae found in the seed pods.

Bye-bye black sheep

In 2013, the Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) began an eradication program to remove all hybrid-mouflon sheep from critical habitat designated for the Palila. Non-native ungulates like these have destroyed much of the forest over the past 200 years, and what remains is highly degraded due to continuing browse damage, drought, invasive plants, and fire.

Over 3,000 sheep were removed from Palila Critical Habitat  in 2013. Natural regeneration of māmane seedlings should increase habitat for the bird as sheep continue to be removed from Mauna Kea.

A view of the slopes of Mauna Kea from the air, showing habitat degradation by introduced non-native sheep. Photo by Robert Stevens

A view of the slopes of Mauna Kea from the air, showing habitat degradation caused by the grazing of introduced non-native sheep. Photo by Robert Stephens

Signs of success

Project staff are already observing habitat recovery at the 1,400-acre Ka’ohe Restoration Site, which was fenced in 2006 and has been sheep-free since then. Māmane saplings are over seven times more abundant at this site than on the other side of the fence, where sheep are still present.

American Bird Conservancy is a strong supporter of the work DOFAW and MKFRP are doing to restore forest on Mauna Kea and ensure the long-term viability of the Palila. To learn more about Palila ecology, threats and management, visit restoremaunakea.org.

Robert Stephens currently serves at the Coordinator for the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project and started working with Palila on Hawai’i Island in 2005. Previously, he worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He received a B.S. degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. degree in Zoology and Physiology from the University of Wyoming.

Frigid Forestry: How Winter Woods and Golden-wings Go Together

By George H. Fenwick, President, ABC

Great Gray Owl. Photo by iva, Shutterstock

Great Gray Owl, a sight that rewards who do bird conservation in the Minnesota winter. Photo by iva, Shutterstock

“It sure is easier when someone else has broken trail,” said Kevin Sheppard, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that he had snow-shoed ahead of me for most of our tramp through the northern Minnesota woodland.

Kevin is  ABC’s Golden-winged Warbler (GWWA) Private Lands Coordinator and quite used to this weather. I, on the other hand, was a southern visitor learning about Kevin’s work in identifying prospective lands to restore as GWWA habitat. I suspect Kevin was conducting a scientific experiment to determine whether the head of ABC had any toughness about him.

Field work during a Minnesota winter often requires snowshoes. Photo by Kevin Sheppard, ABC

Tools of the Minnesota bird conservationists’ trade: snowshoes. Photo by Kevin Sheppard, ABC

 

I need not mention that, at 17 degrees F below zero, the nearest living GWWA was plucking insects off of a tropical tree somewhere thousands of miles south of Minnesota. Nor need I mention how few birds inhabit maple/aspen/ash woodlands when it is that cold. Nor that this level of frigidness means that no Virginian’s clothing is warm enough unless said person keeps moving – rapidly!

Ruffed Grouse are one of the suite of species that benefits from GWWA habitat restoration. Photo by Larry Master, masterimages.org

Ruffed Grouse, one one of the suite of species that benefits from GWWA habitat restoration. Photo by Larry Master, masterimages.org

In spite of these challenges, I learned a lot. First, I learned that Kevin is a seasoned forester who knows both his forest stuff and what GWWAs need as breeding habitat when they return to Minnesota in the spring. Though I knew a bit about this species’ habitat needs, I learned more about northern forest succession, and how we can improve management for a suite of species that includes Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock.

I learned from Kevin how to tell fisher tracks from wolf tracks and how to recognize a Ruffed Grouse snow burrow. I also learned how much we need to do to bring the GWWA back to something approximating recent population numbers. There is quite a bit of aging aspen habitat that could be improved for our target birds by timber harvesting, which will help create the second-growth stands that these warblers prefer.

Golden-winged Warblers prefer second-growth habitats, and will benefit from management techniques that include harvesting of aging aspen stands. Photo by Greg Lavaty, texastargetbirds.com

Our focus bird: Although far away now, Golden-winged Warblers will benefit from our efforts come spring. Photo by Greg Lavaty, texastargetbirds.com

It is counter-intuitive to a mid-Atlantic guy like me, but forestry work in Minnesota is best done in the winter. Heavy equipment can become mired and damage thawed soil, and I already know from previous visits that some Minnesota denizens (mosquitoes, black flies) are not really welcoming. And, much as I dreaded getting out in that frosty weather, I had a terrific time. When the heart is pumping, the weather seems beautiful, and I returned to balmy Virginia quite certain that the birds are in very good hands with Kevin Sheppard.

And, yes, in case you are wondering, I saw some birds while I was there: Great Gray, Snowy and Northern Hawk owls, Goshawk, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, Northern Shrike, Snow Bunting, and more. Those who feel this is simply gloating are correct. That’s my payoff for a hard winter’s hike.

George H. Fenwick has served as President and CEO since ABC’s founding in 1994. Prior to that, he worked in a variety of capacities during 15 years with The Nature Conservancy, including Director of Science, and Chair of the Last Great Places Campaign Steering Committee. He received a Ph.D. in Pathobiology from Johns Hopkins University.

Loco for Cuckoos: My Search for the Bay-breasted Cuckoo

By Andrew Rothman

The elusive Bay-breasted Cuckoo, an exceptionally rare species that I was in a race to see—and am now in a race to save. Photo by Cesar Abrill

The elusive Bay-breasted Cuckoo, an exceptionally rare species that I was in a race to see—and am now in a race to save. Photo by Cesar Abrill

Nearly everyone involved in bird conservation has an unseen bird that haunts them—a “ghost bird,” so to speak. My ghost bird, for years, was the Bay-breasted Cuckoo, also known as the “Cua” for its cooing call. Like most other cuckoos, this bird is exceptionally furtive, but also beautiful, with big eyes and a long, spotted tail. Unlike many other cuckoos, it is Critically Endangered, and is only found in Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Actually there are no Bay-breasted Cuckoos left in Haiti, where the mid-elevation forests these birds inhabit have been ravaged by excessive logging, farming, and other problems linked to poverty and human population growth. As a result, all of the world’s remaining Cuas now live in the Dominican Republic, where ABC and partner groups are working to preserve the last remaining fragments of the forests that sustain it.

Symbol of Disappearing Landscapes

There are lots of rare birds in these forests, but the Cua is the one that’s come to symbolize the effort to preserve these wild landscapes. That’s one of reasons I’ve gone looking for these birds so many times over the years. But when I began my most recent trip through this part of the “DR,” the total number of Cuas I had seen stood at precisely zero.

As an International Conservation Officer at ABC, I had come to the DR to meet with representatives of the government’s Ministry of the Environment, and with our partners at Sociedad Ornithologica de la Hispaniola (SOH), a Dominican NGO. We discussed ongoing efforts to protect Cua habitat by reducing illegal charcoal operations, getting more equipment to park guards, and finding ways to draw more eco-tourists to protected forests near the country’s western border. I am happy to report that I saw signs of progress in and near these precious forests: for example, in the remote farm town known as Puerto Escondido, I helped inaugurate a forest-friendly Welcome and Interpretation Center.

Arriving at Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, Dominican Republic, on my quest for a Bay-breasted Cuckoo, or Cua. Photo by David Younkman, ABC

Arriving at Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, Dominican Republic, on my quest for a Bay-breasted Cuckoo, or Cua. Photo by David Younkman, ABC

I’ll describe our efforts to protect the threatened habitat of the Bay-breasted Cuckoo in more detail in a future blog. But before I do that, here’s the rest of the story of my most recent attempt to see my first Bay-breasted Cuckoo.

The Quest for the Cua Begins—Again

It began just after the inauguration of that nature center, when I entered the nearby forests of the Sierra Bahoruco National Park and the Loma Charco Azul Biological Reserve. I’d once chased the echoing coo of a Cua through the tall, dry trees found here, pushing through massive clumps of Spanish moss that make these forests like something from a fairy tale. That bird disappeared before I managed to see it so I was trying again.

And failing again, despite the best efforts of two expert local guides. The long list of endemic and migratory birds that we did see in these forests was impressive, I should add: It included the colorful Hispaniolan Trogon, the lovely Le Selle Thrush, and an unexpected Western Chat-Tanager. But we neither saw nor heard a Cua. Damn.

After a few days of this, I started driving northward through the mountains in the middle of this island, accompanied by Jorge Borca, Executive Director of SOH. Our destination was the town of Rio Limpio and the protected forests that surround it—forests widely thought to be the best place to go looking for Bay-breasted Cuckoo. Getting there meant driving for 12 hours on the nasty road that forms the border between Haiti (out the driver’s-side window) and the DR (out the passenger side). Before we were done we had passed through areas so thoroughly logged that it looked like the mountains had been shaved.

Finally, that evening, we reached Rio Limpio and checked into the Centro Ecoturistico de Nalga de Maco, one of two establishments used by visiting tourists. Early the next morning, I went looking for Cua in some woodlands near the oddly named Nalga Del Maco (“Butt of the Frog”) National Park. As usual, I brought along my copy of Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Latta, Rimmer, et al). As usual, the search began with no check mark or date next to the entry on Bay-breasted Cuckoo.

View of Nalga de Maco (“Butt of the Frog”) National Park, outside the town of Rio Limpio in the Dominican Republic. These mountains are one of the best remaining places to find a Cua. Photo by Andrew Rothman, ABC

View of Nalga de Maco (“Butt of the Frog”) National Park, outside the town of Rio Limpio in the Dominican Republic. These mountains are one of the best remaining places to find a Cua. Photo by Andrew Rothman, ABC

Success—Times Six

I had two days left to find a Bay-breasted Cuckoo—my personal “ghost bird”—and at first it felt like the entire species had decided to toy with me. At one point, for the second time, I chased the sound of a retreating Cua through the woods without seeing the bird itself.

The next day—my last before returning to the states—I got up especially early. In parts of the woods described as “Cua haunts,” I watched the trees as Jorge played a recording of a Cua call, listening for a response.

Nothing. Still nothing. By early afternoon, after pretty much giving up hope of seeing a Bay-breasted Cuckoo on this trip, I stopped playing the recording of the Cua call and started playing a recording of an Antillean Euphonia. (Dazzling, but not a Cua).

Then, as the new recording played, I saw a bird move at the top of the trees just in front of me. Too big to be a euphonia. Just the right size for a Cua. Raising my binoculars, I saw part of a long-tailed, big-eyed something. As calmly as possible, I called to Jorge.

“Come here. What is that?”

“Si, es ella,” Jorge said. “Yup, that’s her.” As we watched, the Cua crept out onto a branch so we could see her in all of her glory. Then she started issuing a series of loud, rattling “cuuaahh” calls.

The elusive Bay-breasted Cuckoo – finally found! Photo by J Brocca

The elusive Bay-breasted Cuckoo – finally found! Photo by J Brocca

I had seen my “ghost bird.” But the Bay-breasted Cuckoos weren’t finished yet. In response to the “live” cooing calls, a second Cua landed in a nearby tree and responded. Seconds later, from a different spot in the same tree, two more cuckoos sounded off.

This was seriously awesome; I was seriously thrilled. I felt even better when we saw the fifth Cua on our walk back to the truck. I felt better still later that afternoon, when we drove back to the Centro and found a sixth Cua in a tree near the front door of my cabin. Hard to believe—but true.

Andrew Rothman celebrates his birding victory—sighting not one, but six Bay-breasted Cuckoos! Photo by J Brocca

Andrew Rothman celebrates his birding victory—sighting not one, but six Bay-breasted Cuckoos! Photo by J Brocca

After years of trying—on my fifth trip to its homeland—I had seen the bird I dreamed of seeing. But that was the easy part. The hard part will be saving it. For that, we need all the help we can get.

Andrew RothmanAndrew Rothman, Migratory Bird Program Director at ABC, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and holds bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Wildlife Management. He founded the Rainforest Biodiversity Group in northern Costa Rica and was Executive Director of the Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center in that country as well.

Avian Methuselah: Celebrated Shorebird Keeps on Trucking

The beautiful rufa Red Knot, an inspiring survivor. Reported in this blog post are some rays of hope for the species' future. Photo by Mike Parr, ABC

The beautiful rufa Red Knot, an inspiring survivor. Reported in this blog post are some rays of hope for the species’ future. Photo by Mike Parr, ABC

By John Nielsen, Senior Staff Writer and Editor, ABC

The rufa Red Knot called B95 or “Moonbird” may be the most famous bird on earth. I can’t think of any other wild bird that has its own biographer (Philip Hoose, author of “Moonbird.”) Nor am I aware of any other single bird that has its own statue (at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve near the town of Milford, Delaware.) Moonbird is the only bird I know of that makes headlines by not dying. This is as it should be, since B95 is living proof that migratory birds can be incredible survivors.

The long-lived Red Knot with the tag B95, known as “Moonbird,” has become famous enough to merit its own biography.

The long-lived Red Knot with the tag B95, known as “Moonbird,” has become famous enough to merit its own biography.

Every year, B95 flies back and forth between its Artic breeding grounds and wintering spots in southern South America, traveling approximately 10,000 miles in the process. That’s a truly stunning feat, but it is not the thing that makes Moonbird so special. What makes Moonbird special is the fact that while the lifespan of the average rufa Red Knot is about five years, this knot has been on the wing for 19 years, at least. In that time, the cumulative distance travelled by B95 is thought be much greater than the distance to the moon. Hence the nickname Moonbird, and the widespread awe that comes with each new sighting.

The most recent proof that Moonbird is still with us comes from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. There it was picked out of a flock of roughly 100 Red Knots gathered on a beach. Patricia M. Gonzales of the Global Flyway Network identified the bird through binoculars. Gonzales told the New York Times that her hands started shaking when she recognized the badly faded orange tag attached to Moonbird’s right leg.

Sightings of this legendary bird are almost always used to draw attention to an ugly trend line, one that shows that rufa Red Knot populations have been plummeting for decades. Widespread loss of habitat and overfishing of the once-abundant horseshoe crabs that converge on the Delaware Bay each spring to lay millions of eggs, are leading to its decline. Still, flocks of migratory Red Knot almost always reach the bay as the horseshoe crab egg-laying begins. The chaotic feast that follows is amazing, but much smaller than it used to be.

Red Knots and other shorebirds converge on the shores of the Delaware Bay each spring by the thousands to feast on horseshoe crabs eggs, re-building their fat stores to finish the long migration to Arctic breeding grounds. Photo by Gregory Breese, USFWS

Red Knots and other shorebirds converge on the shores of the Delaware Bay each spring by the thousands to feast on horseshoe crabs eggs, re-building their fat stores to finish the long migration to Arctic breeding grounds. Photo by Gregory Breese, USFWS

The latest Moonbird sighting in Tierra del Fuego brings a few new rays of hope for the survival of the species. One comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has proposed to add the rufa Red Knot to the list of plants and animals protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Another comes from field teams that count Red Knots in the Delaware Bay each spring. Last year, they reported that the Red Knot population had held steady from the year before. Scientifically it’s not yet possible to figure out what that statistic means, or whether it’s linked to new restrictions on the annual harvest of horseshoe crabs. But that’s still much better than sharp declines that have long been the norm.

No one doubts that there’s a huge amount of work that must be done if we’re to bend this ugly trend line upward. We’ll need to be stubborn and we’ll need to find our way around all kinds of obstacles and threats.

We need to be more like Moonbird.

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.

How to See a Lear’s Macaw

The large, bright blue Lear's Macaw is only found in northeastern Brazil. This bird is emerging from its cliffside roost. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

The large, bright blue Lear’s Macaw is only found in northeastern Brazil. This bird is emerging from its cliffside roost. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

By David Younkman, Vice President of Conservation, ABC

If you ever find yourself in northeastern Brazil, go see one of the wonders of the bird world: Lear’s Macaws emerging by the hundreds from the crannies of a windswept cliff face. Thirty years ago this species seemed to be on the verge of extinction, with only 60 left in the wild. Now there are hundreds of Lear’s Macaws, thanks to conservation programs launched by groups such as ABC and our Brazilian partner, Biodiversitas.

The only wild home of the Lear’s Macaw is found near the town of Canudos, in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, in an endless-looking red-dirt landscape called “caatinga country,” these birds nest and breed in wind-blown, dried-out, isolated cliffs. Crops and cattle struggle here, but you’ll still find lots of spindly corn, yucca, and licuri palm, the last the chief food of the Lear’s Macaw.

The caatinga (dry scrub habitat) of northeastern Brazil's Bahia state is the only remaining place in the world to find Lear's Macaw. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

The caatinga (dry scrub habitat) of northeastern Brazil’s Bahia state is the only remaining place in the world to find Lear’s Macaw. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

Before you see the birds themselves, check into an isolated lodge run by Biodiversitas and built with the support of ABC’s donors. Then you sleep, but not for long. Long before the sun comes up you rouse yourself and stagger to the car that takes you to the cliffs where these birds nest. If the skies aren’t cloudy, you will see a brilliant sea of stars, and the curving edges of the Milky Way.

After that you wait in the dark under a tree, until just before the sun comes up. That’s when you hear the first bird call, and then the second, and then several more.

Macaws on the Move

Shadows moving on the cliff start to show their colors. Then, all at once, an enormous flock of Lear’s Macaws explodes out of the cliff, rising as a group—no, several groups—circling above your head. One, then three, then 10 or more land on a sunlit cactus: large, bright blue, with golden eyes and cheeks. In the meantime, you see more flocks emerging from the pockmarked cliff face, circling and then landing in nearby trees. After a few minutes they will rise, some flying for more than 50 miles to find their food for the day.

A group of Lear’s Macaws getting ready for the day. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

A group of Lear’s Macaws getting ready for the day. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

In the car again, you drive for hours on rutted, bumpy roads so you can spy the feeding birds. Then, back at the lodge, you rest until you realize that you must see these birds again. With your guide, you take a long hot walk through the red rocks and red sand, crossing what appears to be a dried-out river bed with lots of twisted sandbars.

When you reach the cliffs, you wait for the returning flocks. In the waning sunlight everything about these cliffs looks beautiful—the way they tower overhead, the patterns of erosion, the deep shades of red. While waiting, you marvel at the way the Lear’s Macaw digs nest holes in these cliffs, loosening the rocks with its saliva.

View of the Esquentada Canyon, which contains several Lear's Macaw nests. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

View of the Esquentada Canyon, which contains several Lear’s Macaw nests. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

Just before the light fails you see flocks of birds you did not see that morning—first, small, green Cactus (or Caatinga) Parakeets, with squeaky high-pitched calls. They flash green across the cliffs before disappearing into foliage. But by then you’re focused on the fast-approaching flocks of Blue-crowned Parakeets, bigger and deeper voiced. Chattering and pecking, they fill up the cliff face on one side of the canyon, leaving the other side open. When something spooks them, 50 of these parakeets shoot up as one and then circle slowly downwards. Is that a Bat Falcon on the opposite cliff? How long has it been there?

Thirty minutes until nighttime now. At this point you’re hoping that your guide knows the way back. Then, just as the fading light stops holding colors, you hear the returning Lear’s Macaws. Big, loud voices call out as hundreds of broad shadows fly toward the cliff face left open by the parakeets. As they land you see the gold parts but you cannot see the blue. Bigger, louder flocks are coming after this one—do they use the same roosts every time?—and as darkness falls they start to settle in.

A flock of Lear's Macaws returns to its roosting cliff site at dusk. Photo by David Wiedenfeld, ABC

A flock of Lear’s Macaws returns to its roosting cliff site at dusk. Photo by David Wiedenfeld, ABC

Seeing It for Yourself

That’s what I saw recently while traveling in Brazil. I think you should see it too—if only in your mind’s eye. The Lear’s Macaw is more than an incredibly beautiful and intelligent bird species. It is also part of an amazing spectacle that was once was nearly lost. But now it’s been recovered.

To learn more about the work that helped them back from the brink of extinction, check out the conservation projects section on the ABC website. And if you are inspired to visit, check out our Conservation Birding website.

David Younkman is Vice President of Conservation at American Bird Conservancy. He has more than 30 years’ worth of senior management experience in the field of conservation.