Once a month, bird watchers set out from the UGA Costa Rica campus, looking for anything with two wings. An experienced birder knows that brief flash of color above is a Crimson-fronted Parakeet as it sweeps across an opening in the trees.
There’s a lot to take in: color, size, bill shape, behavior, tail shape, posture, markings. Does this one shuffle along the ground like a sparrow? Or does he perch on the trunk of a tree like a woodpecker? Sometimes it can be difficult to keep up, as the names of birds begin to fly by.
We hear the sing-song catcall of a Squirrel Cuckoo and add it to the list. A rooster crows in the distance. “Pollo!” someone jokes.
This time our group is made up of our resident naturalists and head naturalist Arturo Cruz, our garden curator Lucas Ramírez, as well as Russ Kumai and Carol Cameron, friends of UGA Costa Rica and experienced birders. Anyone from the most experienced veteran to a novice is welcome to come along. Armed with binoculars and a notepad, we collect vital information about the bird population in the area. Such counts have been conducted by the University of Georgia here since 2009.
“Where the campus is located is really interesting because we have a whole bunch of conditions and many microclimates, which means we have many species,” explains Arturo.
The campus is a perfect transitional spot that sees species from both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the continental divide. San Luis alone has 230 bird species, with 624 in the larger area of Monteverde.
Counting birds can show patterns in behavior like migration. Arturo has noticed Black and White Warblers and Chestnut-sided Warblers usually arrive one to two weeks before other variations of warblers in October.
The bird count extends well beyond campus, from the Rancho Rio de San Luis Pizzeria, through the farms of Finca La Bella, and down to Invu. The area is divided up into 13 zones, although the number surveyed every month depends on how many people participate. During the Christmas Day bird count – the most extensive effort all year – it is common to find more than 100 species.
The weather is windy and a light mist falls. Last month it rained so much that the count had to be called off after lunch. But not before they could record 70 different species – typical for a normal day and excellent for half a day.
In the afternoon, we see the Summer Tanager down the road. Although within walking distance, it would not be seen on campus. Even within campus, the Red-crowned Ant-Tanager is only seen on the Camino Real Trail.“It’s a beautiful bird and really cool,” says Arturo. “You have to get into the forest to see it.”
The final tally for the day comes in at 55 species and 347 birds. Fewer species than normal, but more total birds.
The wonder of this biodiviersity translates into benefits for the surrounding areas as well. One of the most remarkable changes over the years has been the increased number and variety of species as a result of reforestation projects. The planting of more than 28,000 trees in the area (as of the end of 2012) has created bridges between forested areas that had been separated by pastures.
And more connectivity means more birds for farmers like Alvaro Vega, whose organic coffee trees rely on natural means of pest control. More birds visiting his farm can translate into fewer insects and greater yields. A recent study of Finca La Bella, where his farm is located, revealed it was visited by more than 200 bird species in a single year. The reforestation project works with local farmers who are interested in planting trees on their land. A variety of native species are used, from fruiting trees to those best suited for wind protection.
During our hike, one of the guides pauses to make a bird call and we all stay quiet and wait. There’s a plaque outside the front office with the program’s vision of, “a world in which human and environmental systems are not seen as separate and operate in harmony with one another,” written on the wall.
And with a whistle of an answer from the bushes, those words have never spoken louder.
Article and photos: Kathryn Ingall, UGACR Photojournalism Intern