Birdlife of the Equator: A Virtual Trip to Ecuador

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Inca Jay, one of many beautiful bird species of Ecuador. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

By Benjamin Skolnik

Have you ever been to the Equator? If not, I highly recommend taking the journey to the small country of Ecuador (named after zero degrees latitude), which is a wonderfully small nation that is easily traveled, safe, and a sampler of what the tropics have to offer. Ecuador is one of several South American countries where American Bird Conservancy works.

Torrent Duck family in Guango. Photograph by Benjamin Skolnik

Torrent Duck family in Guango. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

To begin, visit a monument marking the Center of the World (Mitad del Mundo) outside the capital city of Quito. From this perch amongst the Andes Mountains, you will then need to decide whether to continue to explore the highlands north and south, head west down to drier climates and the Pacific coast, fly five hundred miles offshore to the Galapagos Islands, or descend into the Amazon basin to the east.

The birds in all of these regions are outstanding. There are the flightless, fearless birds of the Galapagos, the pockets of endemism in the highlands and drier regions, and the humid rolling hills in the northwestern Chocó region.

But for sheer abundance and variety of plant and animal life, there is no parallel to the wet eastern slope of the Andes. So let’s travel downhill to the rain forest.

Eastern slope forest of Ecuador. Photograph by Benjamin Skolnik

Eastern slope forest of Ecuador. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

In two short hours, one can drop several thousand feet and traverse a variety of montane and foothill habitats that host well over 500 species of birds. On several recent trips, I have visited this region and been impressed by the diversity of birdlife. The foothill forests receive tremendous rainfall, lying just above the Amazon basin, and harbor lush habitat for tropical species, including our very own warblers.

White-necked Jacobin _Benjamin Skolnik2

White-necked Jacobin. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Cerulean Warblers–a rapidly declining migratory species–flock to these moist slopes and spend the winter here. I was lucky to glimpse wintering Cerulean Warblers at the Wild Sumaco lodge and Narupa Reserve.


Cerulean Warbler. Photo by Mike Parr

ABC has supported both of these places, and we have recently helped expand Narupa Reserve, owned and operated by Fundación Jocotoco.

Within the reserve I visited several pasturelands where wood-pewees watched. I discussed with forest guards how they will use machetes to clear weeds surrounding naturally emerging native trees. Our aim is to recreate mature woodlands preferred by the Ceruleans.

Even with his hands up, Benjamin shows how tall and aggressive the grass is here. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Even with his hands up, the author is practically dwarfed by tall grass in Narupa Reserve, which can easily overtake emerging trees. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Narupa Reserve is yet another place that is not only improving for birds, but for bird lovers, too. A new tent platform was built so visitors can stay a few nights and explore the recently constructed trail system to find warblers, Military Macaws, and–if you are lucky–an Orange-breasted Falcon or two.

Sword-billed Hummingbird. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Sword-billed Hummingbird. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

We hope to see you in Ecuador soon! Learn more about places where you can participate in incredible birding while helping to save species on our Conservation Birding website.

To see more photos, check out the photo gallery:

Benjamin-Skolnik-at-work_Luis-RubelioBenjamin Skolnik is an International Conservation Officer at American Bird Conservancy. He works with partners in Ecuador and Colombia on projects for land protection, ecotourism, and conservation birding. He also coordinates the Alliance for Zero Extinction, a global effort to curb species loss. He is fluent in Spanish and can speak basic Quechua. Benjamin lives in historic Greenbelt, Maryland with his family.

More Millerbirds, More Problems … if You’re a Field Biologist

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Millerbird looks on from her nest after feeding one of her chicks . Photograph by Megan Dalton

22 July–4 August | By Megan Dalton

I was lucky enough to be one of the Millerbird monitors for both this and last year’s tour, and one of the great things about coming back to Laysan is seeing first-hand how the Millerbird population has grown.

Over six months of intensive monitoring in summer 2013, Michelle Wilcox and I were able to confidently approximate how many Millerbirds existed on Laysan (121 adult individuals at the end of September 2013). Since the majority of the birds on the island were banded at that time, we were able to keep track of the number of breeding pairs and territories, along with their nesting successes and failures.

By the end, we felt like we knew ‘NIMI [Nihoa Millerbird] Land’ well enough that if we heard a Millerbird singing, we could guess with reasonable accuracy which individual bird it was.

Trying to Catch Up

Now, the days of knowing each individual are long gone! The Millerbirds on Laysan have been prolific while we’ve been away, and there are many up-and-coming young birds that have carved out new territories between the already established ones. However, there are even more unbanded birds wandering about, who are—rather unhelpful for a field biologist—nomadic and inconspicuous until they get old enough to claim a territory of their own.

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Just one of many unbanded Millerbirds on Laysan giving the biologists headaches. Photograph by Megan Dalton

Answering the question of how many unbanded birds there are, along with getting up to speed with all the other new developments, are proving to be the major challenges for Robby, Barbara, and me this season.

Restoring a Piece of Laysan

Laysan has a well-known history of ecological tragedy, specifically brought about by an introduced population of rabbits who devoured nearly all the vegetation on island in the 1910s and 1920s. I’ve been reading a lot of historical accounts lately relating to the natural state of Laysan just prior to that time period, when I imagine the island must have been near its peak abundance and vivaciousness.

Walter K. Fisher 1902, Laysan Millerbird

Rare portrait of the now-extinct Laysan Millerbird and its nest in native bunchgrass. Photograph by Walter K. Fisher, 1903

One of my favorite accounts was written by Walter K. Fisher in 1903. When describing the fearlessness of birds here, particularly some of the endemic land birds, he writes:

While we sat working, not infrequently the little warbler, or Miller Bird, would perch on our table or chair backs, and the Laysan Rail and Finch would scurry about our feet in unobtrusive search for flies and bits of meat. Each day at meal-time the crimson Honey-eater [Laysan Honeycreeper] flew into the room and hunted for millers [moths].”

Another favorite passage by Hugo H. Schauinsland in 1899 states:

After dinner, if we sat outside in the shade of our cabin to be refreshed by the tradewinds after a hard day’s strenuous work, it would not be long before one of the pretty little brown birds [Laysan Millerbirds] would appear. It would alight on an available knee or perch on the back of a chair to boldly stare at us, or sometimes just to sing us its lovely song. Once, one of these brave little songsters decided to sing its favorite tune perched upon the upper edge of the open book that I held in my hands.

Laysan early 1900s

Laysan in its barren state, completely void of vegetation, as a result of an introduced rabbit population and their appetites, 1923. Photographer unknown

Many things have changed since then—the denuding of the island, the extinction of the endemic Laysan Millerbird, rail, and honeycreeper, along with several plant and insect species—but Laysan has also come a long way in terms of ecological restoration.

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Panoramic shot of Laysan’s northern interior as it looks today in 2014. This area is also known as “NIMI Land.” Photograph by Barbara Heindl

Native bunchgrass, naupaka, and morning glory have recolonized the majority of the island where it once was barren, and a lot of hard work has been put into out-planting native shrubs and sedges as well as controlling and eradicating noxious weeds.

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Young Millerbird nestling, part of a future cohort of breeding Millerbirds on Laysan, rests on the rim of its nest. Photograph by Megan Dalton

And now there’s a growing population of Millerbirds once again, the ones recently translocated from Nihoa that are now living and thriving on Laysan. I look forward to the day when future biologists tasked with surveying Millerbirds are presented with the “problem” of tracking an overwhelming number of birds, with males singing in every direction, and perhaps a Millerbird or two alighting on the edge of an open book.

Megan Dalton Megan Dalton is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and has worked as an avian field biologist for several years on the mainland and in Hawai‘i. She is thrilled to be on Laysan again where she has recently reached her current life goals of being a momentary perch for a curious Laysan Duck and tricking both of her crew mates with her Millerbird song impression.


Fisher, W. K. 1903. Notes on the Birds Peculiar to Laysan Island, Hawaiian Group. Auk 20: 384-397.

Schauinsland, Hugo H. 1996. Three months on a coral island (Laysan), 1899. Translated by Miklos D. F. Udvardy. in Atoll Research Bulletin. 432: 1-61. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

A Tubenose’s First Milestone: Facing the Air and Sea

Photo 5, Alba)tross Ponder the future (Robby Kohley

A young albatross ponders the future. Photo by Robby Kohley

July 5-21, 2014 | By Robby Kohley

Millerbird Update: We have been on Laysan for three weeks, and with camp establishment, familiarization, and general training behind us, we have settled into a daily routine that focuses on population monitoring of Millerbirds.

We are just getting started but we are already excited about our initial discoveries. We have seen 73 of the 109 banded birds known from the end of the last monitoring season in September 2013. We expect this number to continue to grow as we investigate more areas.

Nihoa Millerbird by Megan Dalton

Millerbird nestling banded in 2013 on Laysan. Photo by Megan Dalton

I participated in the pre-translocation work on Nihoa in 2009 and 2010, as well as both translocations and post-release monitoring periods in 2011 and 2012, so the initial founder birds are of particular interest to me. Because of the time spent working and cheering for them, many feel like old friends. In just a short time we have already seen 25 of the 50 original founders and expect to find more.

These founding individuals continue to expand our understanding of Millerbird biology as they repopulate Laysan, with some possibly setting new longevity records for the species. Megan, Barbara, and I are excited to continue the search for more Millerbirds, and share the results in the future.

Coming of Age on Laysan: Albatross Chicks Take First Flight to Sea

One of the motivations for a biologist to keep returning to work on the small island of Laysan is that no matter what time of year, there is some type of exciting natural history spectacle to appreciate. This month has been no exception, with the fledging Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses putting on a stirring show.

A pair of Black-footed Albatross recently arrived on Laysan. Photo: M. Wilcox

Pair of Black-footed Albatross recently arrived on Laysan. Photo: M. Wilcox

The albatross parents have spent 290 days, flown an estimated 50,000 combined miles, and avoided the many perils of the open ocean to get the young albatrosses to this milestone in their life—their first flight.

Photo 3, Effects of Plastic on a young albatross (Barbara He

An unfortunate example of the effects of being fed plastic on a young albatross. Photograph by Barbara Heindl

Unfortunately some of the perils of the open ocean that the adults must overcome in order to successfully raise young include dangerous human-made obstacles. These include thousands of hooks placed out by the long-line fisheries, which can snare and drown birds, and tons of small pieces of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean, which can be ingested directly or indirectly due to their resemblance or association with the birds’ primary food sources. The plastic can gravely affect the adults or be passed on to the young during feeding, causing death due to choking, starvation, or dehydration.

The next step is one the young albatrosses must take on their own, with no guidance from the adults, and it is a big step! They must learn to fly while safely navigating the crashing waves and avoiding the tiger sharks that have gathered just off-shore to gulp down any unlucky albatross that spends too much time sitting on the water. Immediately upon learning to fly, they must travel hundreds of miles to their central feeding grounds in the far North Pacific. This could be compared to a toddler learning to walk and immediately being made to run a marathon in order to get lunch.

Photo 2, Shark Attack (Robby Kohley)

Shark attacking an unlucky young albatross that will not be making it to the far North Pacific. Photo by Robby Kohley

Observing the fledging process is a captivating lesson in animal behavior and the pragmatism of nature. For young albatross, where on the island they hatch and then decide to practice flying can mean the difference between failure and success.

Practice Makes Perfect—If You’re Lucky!

Some individual young albatross practice flying at the South Ledge, which is characterized by crashing waves. Many become caught up by the waves on their first attempt, and with no easy way to escape they quickly become overwhelmed. If they do escape there is a decent chance they are injured or have used up too much energy and burned precious fat reserves that will be needed to make it north. Others, by fortunate circumstance, end up practicing on the inland lake or the calmer bays on the island. These areas allow for many short practice flights, better muscle development—and more second chances!

Photo 4, Yong albatross recovers from wave (Robby  Kohley)

A young Laysan Albatross recovers from being caught in the spin-cycle of the waves. Photo by Robby Kohley

While watching the young albatrosses it is hard not to feel empathy for their situation as they struggle in the waves, crash land while practicing to fly, or stand on shore staring out to sea over the breaking waves and tiger sharks, toward the horizon knowing their future is that way, with no idea what to expect.

It is easy for a person to identify a time in their life when they were in comparable circumstances, when maybe you faltered while learning, failed because you weren’t prepared, or faced a big change or decision in your life with no idea what the future may hold.

Photo 6 Young albatross headed north (Robby Kohley)

A young Laysan Albatross overcomes the odds and heads for the far North Pacific. Photo by Robby Kohley

This is why when you see a young albatross overcome it all and disappear over the horizon, it is hard not to crack a smile, wish him well—and want to warn him of the perils of fishhooks and floating plastic that await him.

Robby KohleyRobby Kohley has worked on conservation projects throughout the Hawaiian Islands since 2007, most recently for the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project on their efforts to protect the endangered Akikiki and Akeke’e. While on Laysan he hopes to capture photos of fledgling albatross and furtive Millerbirds. On his off-time, he enjoys killing black flies, stashing candy bars and sun bathing.

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.

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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.

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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.