When it comes to protecting natural havens for bird species, shade-grown-coffee farms are second only to virgin forest. A writer's journey through Nicaragua illustrates just how key coffee farms can be for the well-being of a certain warbler.
Finding a golden-winged warbler in the Nicaraguan highlands is like finding a needle in a haystack that has been blown over by the wind, the hay stems tossed among a hundred other storm-scattered stacks. Except that our pursuit of the bird involves both an MP3 player loaded with chattering clips of sparring male golden-wings and the dogged persistence of a bird-crazy Nicaraguan couple. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, then, when I hear Lili Chavarria, a coffee farmer in the northern Jinotega region, calling from a sun-drenched opening in the cloudforest.
"Gold wing! Si! To the left!" Dressed in rubber boots, khaki pants, and a brown shirt, Lili is slight and delicate, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, her binoculars pointed toward the canopy. "Very high!"
I've looked for these birds back home in North Carolina, where golden-winged warblers favor high-mountain breeding habitat overgrown with shrubs and patchy trees--the edges of Christmas tree farms, in fact, are a favorite haunt for the birds. But now I'm in the warbler's wintering territory, 1,500 miles south of the nearest Fraser fir, and when I find the bird in my binoculars, it's framed in the whorled foliage of a guabillo tree. If ever a bird could be described as "rakish," it's the male golden-wing. Mostly gray and buffy white, this bird sports a brilliant doubloon of gold on each wing along with a yellow cap and a black bandit's mask across the eyes. You wouldn't be surprised if it flew around with a tiny rapier tucked under its wing.
Here at a small coffee farm, or finca, called El Jaguar, Lili, her husband, Georges Duriaux, and their son, Jean-Yves, are producing bird-friendly, shade-grown coffees, all the while helping to write a new future for golden-winged warblers and a new paradigm for collaboration between Central and North America. Since 2007 scientists from Audubon North Carolina, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and several of the state's universities have been monitoring wintering golden-wing populations on small coffee farms in Nicaragua. The researchers band birds and supply scientific training and much-needed equipment, such as GPS units and slope-measuring clinometers, to an energetic half-dozen Nicaraguan ornithologists and volunteers. The fincas provide study grounds for sustainability. Each opens its doors to scientists and tourists. Each is deeply rooted in community service. And in important ways, the golden-winged warbler is the glue that binds each such vision into a workable whole.
The alliance is uncovering a mother lode of wintering birds. "It's possible that half the global population of golden-winged warblers winters in the central highlands of Nicaragua," reports Curtis Smalling, a biologist with Audubon North Carolina who studies the birds in both North and Central America. And the region provides critical wintering habitat for many other migrating songbirds, such as chestnut-sided warblers and Tennessee and Kentucky warblers. "This partnership is showing us how an organization like Audubon can work on massive, global scales," Smalling effuses. "If we can establish relationships, then we can move into local communities and get down on the ground, in the forest, right where the birds are. And then we can give people like Lili and Georges the tools to work for their birds on their lands. And that will just ripple out, we hope, from finca to finca."
Which is how I spend my week in Nicaragua.
Golden-winged warblers are in a precipitous decline across much of their core range; the bird is on Audubon's Red WatchList and the register of federal Species of Special Concern. Breeding across the north-central and northeastern United States, southern Ontario, and the southern Appalachian Mountains, the warblers require patches of shrubby, weedy so-called "early successional growth" within a forest. Those habitats are getting hammered by the aging of forests and by urban and suburban sprawl in the United States. (There is also growing concern because the birds are interbreeding with closely related blue-winged warblers.)
On their wintering grounds, however, sustainably managed coffee farms are able to provide the complex patchy environments these birds require. There, high-quality habitat is literally made in the shade. Although coffee originated in the Middle East's highlands and in the shadowy understory of African forests, in the 1970s new "sun coffee" varieties were developed that can produce much higher yields than those cultivated beneath the forest canopy. Today much modern coffee cultivation takes place on open, sunny farms and plantations, many of them hacked out of native woodlands and virtually useless to their former winged residents.