Archive | conservation RSS feed for this section

Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

Advertisements

How can tourism be responsible? Let’s ask Ged.

23 Mar


I expend a great deal of energy supporting and promoting various forms of responsible travel, including types of tourism known as “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism.” And so I often encounter the legitimate question: How can tourism be sustainable at all? Doesn’t it, by its very nature, contribute to the planet’s demise? You bring hoards of people into pristine natural areas, altering indigenous cultures, running roughshod over endangered species’ habitats, and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere with all the flights and other nasty forms of transportation.

Touché. True, if we all wanted to do the most sustainable thing possible, we’d each stay put, on our own plot of land, grow our own food, create our own homes, draw on natural resources for energy and building materials, manufacture our own supplies, and NOT travel, or at least not go very far from our respective communities. However, few of us in this day and age have the skills to go into the wild and live off the grid – much less the disposition to stay in one place. Whether international or regional, travel is how we expand our horizons, how we learn about the world around us. And, as long as we can, as an enterprising species, we are going to do it.

So, then, given human nature, the more practical question becomes: How can those who offer travel experiences ensure they improve the lives of the local people and the ecosystems their trips affect? Fortunately, there are many answers to this question. One of them is to build into the price of the tour funding that will go directly to conservation partners and programs that help the animals and the local people on the ground in the places visited. That is the approach taken by Ged Caddick, who runs Terra Incognita Ecotours. What follows is an interview I did with Ged last month for my Sustainable Travel International column, The STI Inner View.

Nominated for Best Tour Operator in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award, Terra Incognita Ecotours is based in Tampa, Florida, and operates tours to Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania. Gerard “Ged” Caddick founded Terra Incognita Ecotours in 2004 after more than fifteen years of working in expedition travel. Ged worked for Lindblad Expeditions as an expedition leader from 1992 to 2004, and for International Expeditions while living in Belize in the 1980s. He has led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History as well as many College Alumni groups, the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institution. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool, and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. As one can imagine, I had a hard time getting Ged to sit still for this interview as he’s usually on at least three continents each month. We spent a little time together recently when he had just returned from at trip to India setting the foundation for yet another ecotour.

Frances: Where were you in India and what did you see?

Ged: We were in Banhavgarh and Corbett National Parks and had some incredible wildlife experiences. We saw tigers and Asian Elephants on multiple outings, but also the monkeys called Common Langurs, Plum-headed Parakeets, Jungle Cat, Wild Boar, lots of Spotted Deer, Brown Fish Owls, eagles and much more. It was very, very cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. We will be offering India in early 2012, probably in February.

Frances: In a nutshell, what is the philosophy behind Terra Incognita Ecotours?

Ged: We are committed to making a difference to our guests and to the places we visit. Our commitment is to provide travelers with opportunities to participate in ecotours that explore the world with a sense of discovery and wonder, and to preserve our environment for future generations. We draw on our legacy of adventure, experience and knowledge to do this. And as we do so, we strive to create ecotours that are as enriching and memorable as they are comfortable and fun.

Frances: How did you decide upon the name Terra Incognita?

Ged: Terra Incognita was chosen as this was the term you saw on the edge of the maps drawn by early explorers to show that the edges of the map were undiscovered, uncharted or unknown land. I love the romance and idea of exploration this invokes.

Frances: How did the experiences and dreams of your formative years foster your leadership skills and shape your interest in travel and animal conservation?

Ged: I grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Liverpool, the oldest of ten children! We had dogs chickens, geese, pigs and various other animals as pets, as well as horses for riding when I was a young teenager. Always being around animals and loving them, I dreamed of being a game park warden in East Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. I even applied for such jobs there as I finished University. I traveled a lot within the UK, to the Lake District every summer with my family and as a teenager all over England, Scotland and Wales, plus a couple of trips to France.

Frances: What was the event that first interested you in environmental conservation?

Ged: During my university days in Liverpool I spent vacations working as a volunteer for the “British Trust for Conservation Volunteers,” doing trail maintenance, cleaning old footpaths, canals and other such tasks.

Frances: Did you have a mentor who directly inspired you in terms of your ultimate career choice in working to protect animals?

Ged: My first job was a zoo-keeper at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, a zoo dedicated to captive breeding and conservation of endangered species. My mentor there was Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo.

Frances: How did you first get the inkling you wanted to work in travel or tourism?

Ged: In the mid 1980s, when living in Belize and working at the Belize Zoo, I started doing guiding for International Expeditions as they started tours to Belize. They needed local people who knew the wildlife and culture of Belize. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed sharing my love of conservation and wildlife by showing people natural spaces and species in-the-wild.

Frances: What were the challenges of living in Belize long-term and what did you love about it?

Ged: The biggest challenge to living and working in Belize was the isolation and the fact that simple tasks presented many more logistical challenges; communication, building, even getting supplies takes much more effort there. What I loved was that you could make a difference, that my work at the zoo was helping to change people’s perceptions of wildlife and nature in the country of Belize. You become a big fish in a small pond when working in a small country like Belize; when I was there, the population of the entire country was less than 200,000 people.

Frances: What were the things you most admired about Lindblad Expeditions? What elements of the job did you find challenging? Were there aspects of the travel experience you wanted to emulate when you started your own travel company?

Ged: My time at Lindblad was very enjoyable, and particularly important was the commitment to excellence. Dealing with “difficult” people was always the main challenge! I knew when I started my company it was going to be important that we made a positive impact on the places we visited, that we made a difference, that our presence was a force for good, for improved conservation efforts.

Frances: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards of being a tour operator for you?

Ged: Attracting customers through marketing has been my biggest challenge – and I am still learning. The most rewarding facet of the work is helping the conservation organizations and other partners we work with in each destination.

Frances: Empowering local people is a huge component of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Give an example of seeing local people become empowered as a direct result of your tours.

Ged: On our Rwanda trip last September, many of the group were so moved by their experience they asked what they can do to help the kids we met around the Virunga Lodge where we stayed. Most of these children attend primary or elementary school as that is required by the government. But high school is elective and costs money, so many bright children do not continue their education as they simply cannot afford to. I have been sponsoring three children through high school, covering their fees and uniform costs etc. Well, many in the group wanted to do the same; they asked about each sponsoring a specific child. So on the next trip in December, I personally took over some funds gathered by these clients to sponsor about eight kids through a year of high school. And we’ll continue to do this sort of thing on a yearly basis.

Frances: Can you describe an “aha!” or “wow!” moment where your clients really “got it” in terms of ecotourism?

Ged: Every single time we take people to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, people experience an “Aha!” moment, they realize their presence is helping to save the Gorillas. Every single trip, someone is reduced to tears by the moment. I have had similar experiences when we see Pandas in the wild in China.

Frances: And I understand you got to meet someone very special last summer while on a tour to Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Can you tell us about that as a closing anecdote?

Ged: We were so fortunate last July to be in Gombe simultaneous to Jane Goodall being in Gombe, simultaneous to the 50th Anniversary of Jane’s pioneering work in Gombe and simultaneous to the visit of Lara Logan and the 60 Minutes film crew as they interviewed Jane and filmed the Chimps. Indeed several times we found ourselves being filmed by the 60 Minutes crew on the trails as we met Jane, and again as we arrived outside Jane’s house on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we actually joined Jane for sunset cocktails! So we sat glued to the TV one Sunday night in the fall for the airing of 60 Minutes to see if we made the episode! We did not make the final cut, as not surprisingly the focus was on Jane, her research and the Chimps, not on our small tour party that overlapped so fortuitously with this filming! But we are in a behind-the-scenes clip that you can see at this link (the Jane Goodall segment begins at about the 8:15 mark).

To learn more about Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours, please visit the company’s web site and follow them on Facebook.

12th Bird of Christmas: Three-Wattled Bellbird

6 Jan

Dedication: As I wrap up this final Bird of Christmas on Epiphany, my mother turns 80 today. She has been teaching me to appreciate birds for almost 47 years; I dedicate this entire series to her.

Courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

It was my first time exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a deep green magical forest with tall old-growth trees that seem to be from another place and time. Hiking along lush trails through mist that evaporates as sunlight streams down from the canopy, I was mesmerized by an eerie yet lovely soundtrack of high pitched “eeenk” sounds followed by what can only be described as a “metallic bonk,” like the amplified plunk of an out-of-tune piano key.

Following the “eeenk; bonk” sounds from one opening in the thick tropical forest to another, I finally spotted the enthusiastic vocalist, a male Three-Wattled Bellbird! He is a beautiful creature with a ghostly white head, neck and shoulders, and a chestnut-brown torso, perched on the very tip of a craggy branch, not too high up in the trees, mouth gaping open to project his territorial call for up to two miles!

Watch him making his call and you will want to go!

A couple of nights before, I had visited La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, where I heard a presentation by Debra Hamilton about the Three-Wattled Bellbird, Procnias tricarunculata. Debra is a conservation biologist, a mom, a bird research specialist, owner and manager of a small bookstore and café, the director of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation – and those are just a few of her titles. She has devoted her life to studying the rare and endangered bird species that make the mystical Monteverde Cloud Forest their home, and is heading up many projects to help save these hauntingly beautiful birds.

Debra, who has been working in the Monteverde area since 1992, explained that there are only a few Bellbirds still in existence in the very special humid forest habitats where their favorite food, the wild avocado, grows. This is because, sadly, much of the tropical forest containing the bird’s food supply has been cut down, in Costa Rica and in other Central American countries. What was once a large area of forest is now only in small fragmented pieces. Along with several other scientists, Debra has studied diversity of understory birds and the use of agricultural windbreaks as biological corridors for birds moving between forest fragments. She is currently involved in a long-term study of the Bellbird, including investigations of migratory patterns, population locations and sizes (which means taking a Bellbird census!), and the possible impact of climate change on Bellbird populations.

Debra and her colleagues know that in order to save the Bellbird from extinction, its remaining habitat must be preserved and protected. So they have begun to focus much of their energy on reforestation projects. I want to help, and so does Terra Incognita Ecotours, so we plan to partner to offer a special bird conservation trip this spring. I’d like to hear from anyone who would be interested in a voluntourism experience in May or June 2011 staying in Monteverde at La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge and visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. You would join us in planting trees that will help expand and enrich habitat for the Bellbirds (and other avian species such as yesterday’s Resplendent Quetzal) so that their voices will always ring out over the cloud forest canopy.

Read more about the bellbird and Debra Hamilton here.

Some photos for this entry are courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica and Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours.

Photo by Bruce Smith

11th Bird of Christmas: Resplendent Quetzal

5 Jan

Today’s elusive bird, a symbol of freedom, is one whose presence I was actually in once, but forfeited my chance to view it in favor of another avian quest.

I was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and shortly after arriving, heard both the call of the Resplendent Quetzal, and also that of the Three-Wattled Bellbird. A large crowd was forming in the area from which the Quetzal’s voice was emanating, while the Bellbird promised to be further away from the masses up a solitary mountain trail. And so I went for the Bellbird, more about which I’ll share tomorrow. My hope was that later on, the Quetzal would still be available, but alas it did not grant me another opportunity for an audience. And this fact in and of itself will draw me back to Monteverde as soon as possible.

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

In his famous book, “A Naturalist in Costa Rica,” Alexander F. Skutch devotes a an 18-page chapter to the Quetzal, recounting its history as a bird sought out for many purposes, some of them sinister.

“While still a schoolboy, I possessed a Guatemalan postage stamp that depicted a brilliant green bird with a crimson belly, a ridged crest over the head, and a remarkably long, gracefully curving train. Later, I learned that this bird is called the Quetzal and, later still, that the Guatemalans had chosen it as their national emblem and pronounced its name with the accent on the last syllable. Symbol of liberty, the Quetzal, it was averred, would invariably die if confined in a cage.”

Skutch then gets into the cruel realities of how the bird was hunted for centuries, not for its picture, but to create a mounted trophy! “Although I saw so many stuffed Quetzal skins, it was long before I glimpsed a living Quetzal in the forest. Doubtless, the abundance of the stuffed skins explained the rareness of the living birds, for as too often happens, it was only after they had become rare in Guatemala that laws for their protection were made and enforced.”

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

Like the Second Bird of Christmas in this series, so Pharomachrus mocinno, the next-to-last bird, belongs to the trogon family. Its song is a treble syllable described as KYOW or like “a whimpering pup,” often in pairs, which may be repeated monotonously.

Quetzal eating a caterpillar

The Resplendent Quetzal is classified as “near threatened” and can be found in some of Costa Rica’s protected areas, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where it shares habitat with the aforementioned Three-Wattled Bellbird. In partnership with Terra Incognita Ecotours and La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, I will be helping to organize and lead a voluntourism experience to Monteverde in May or June of 2011 to help with reforestation efforts that will provide more habitat for both species. You’ll hear more about this in my final entry of the series tomorrow. If being a part of such a tour interests you, please comment here or on my Facebook page.

11 birds down, and one to go! Thanks for reading.

Photos for this entry are courtesy of Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours.

8th Bird of Christmas: Crested Caracara

2 Jan

Today’s bird follows nicely on the heels of yesterday’s – it’s another falcon, but it is more a scavenger and less a predatory species than the Guaco. Seeing this chicken-like raptor that frequents roadways where it can find carrion efficiently always reminds me of one specific incident which begs the question: “Which came first, the car or the Caracara?”

Photo by Bruce Smith

Like many people, I went to Costa Rica initially to experience ecotourism and the resorts and parks that make sustainable practices their focus. The incredible abundance and diversity of plants and trees there in turn support an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, which is what makes the country such an amazing ecotourism destination.

Ticos realized the need to protect their country’s natural resources as early as the 1850s. A century later, a commission was created to study places in the country that should be declared national parks and by 1970, the first parks were established to protect the flora and fauna that make this destination so special. Thus Costa Ricans seem to have a true understanding of how important animals are to their economy – alive rather than dead.

Photo courtesy J Centavo.

Given this history of environmental consciousness, I was amazed to witness every single day I lived in Costa Rica, no matter where I went, an insidious threat to animal life in the form of speeding vehicles.

One day I was walking along the gravel road that leads into Curu Wildlife Refuge, when a taxi sped by me so fast it nearly hit me and a couple of horses. Five minutes later, having picked up a customer at Curú’s Information Center, it raced back down the park road at equally dangerous velocity, this time threatening a Crested Caracara to within an inch of its life. At the expense of any life (wild or otherwise) that happened to be in the way, this tourist was going to get to her next ecotourism activity or hotel muy rapido!

Mexico’s national bird, and found in the southern US, Caracara cheriway combines many characteristics of other species, simultaneously resembling a hawk, vulture, chicken and roadrunner. Called “the bone carrier,” cargahuesos in Spanish, it perches on a low branch, walks around on the ground, or glides low to the earth with wings crooked and bowed, showing the white patch at the base of its primaries. Cruising above roadways in search of roadkill, it occasionally takes live prey or pirates prey from other birds, especially vultures. Vocalizations are dry rattles that give it the moniker “caracara.”

One solitary hike found me face to face with a juvenile who seemed merely bemused by my capturing many photos while he or she preened and looked unconcerned. I could never figure out why this young individual seemed to have an egg actually attached to its chest just under the feathers, which you can see in these photos. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery, please chime in. A tumor perhaps?

So, to return to the question, “Which came first, the car or the caracara?” I think we know the answer. This road running raptor will always be a reminder to me that wherever we go on this planet, there will be cultural challenges and social mores with which we will not agree, but to which we’ll of necessity adapt with cautious tolerance.

6th Bird of Christmas: Purple Gallinule

31 Dec

I mentioned in yesterday’s entry that my favorite color is yellow. Well, my second favorite color is purple… and another of my favorite water birds found in Costa Rica is the American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica). Unlike most of the birds in this series, this bird can also be found in the southeastern US, which is where I had an endearing experience that won me over as a fan for life.

Gallinules – or “swamp hens” as they are often colloquially called – are in the rail family Rallidae, and although they are almost always on the water, will rarely swim at all. They rather scramble awkwardly through thickets and tall reeds, walk on floating mats of vegetation, and will only fly short distances, somewhat weakly, with legs dangling below them. They are extremely vocal, making loud screeches, and harsh reedy peeps.

During a February in the early 2000s, my best friend from childhood and I were staying for a week at a little fishing village situated on a small lake in central Florida. We’d hike around the margins of the local marsh area every day to spot alligators, lizards and of course whatever bird life we could see. Living amid the usual egrets, herons and sandpipers, there was a noisy colony of iridescent medium-sized chicken-like birds, who had huge yellow feet, purple-blue plumage with a green back, and a red-and-yellow bill and white undertail. The coolest part of their appearance was a pale blue forehead shield, which looked like it had literally been painted onto the bird by some crazed artist. It soon became apparent that each duck-like individual had a slightly different look, hue or size of this frontal shield by which you could recognize him or her.

One of the sad results of the adaptation of wild creatures to places frequented by large groups of human beings is that certain individual animals are especially susceptible to becoming “tame” and they consequently become dependent upon people for their food – and show no fear of them. In the case of this group of gallinules, while most of the colony remained skittish upon our approach, scuttling away on little lily pads almost as if able to walk on water, one little buddy always remained quite close and would eat morsels of food right from our hands. He also called to us with an endearing “pip pip pip PEEEEEEEEEER!” We referred to this vocalization as “piping” and never forgot our little friend. In fact, when I returned to the camp a year later, I was able to locate him again!

So, when on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in Tortuguero National Park, I was always elated to find my familiar Gallinule friends, although none was ever so charming or friendly as the piping gallinule of Leesburg, Florida. Just for an interesting comparison, I include below a photo of the Northern Jacana, a bird that appears very similar to the Gallinule, and has a yellow frontal shield. Like the Gallinule, the Jacana lives in marshes, ponds and other wetland ecosystems.

Not considered to be globally threatened, Purple Gallinule populations are probably decreasing in their range due to freshwater wetland loss in the United States, and in South and Central America. Sadly, these birds have been destroyed in rice fields by aerial spraying with pesticides.

Hear the vocalizations of the Purple Gallinule.

Photos in this entry by Frances Figart and Bruce Smith.

1st Bird of Christmas: Scarlet Macaw

26 Dec

The 12 Birds of Christmas

Unless you’ve grown up in Andalasia, you know that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates a series of increasingly grand (and in some cases improbable and quite unwieldy) gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. The dozen days in the song are the twelve days starting, in some traditions, the day after Christmas and leading up to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).

While I’m enjoying (forces smile) a prolifically snowy and more-often-than-not-below-effing-freezing Christmas holiday in the states, tropical climes are, as you can imagine, not far from my mind. Having spent a great deal of the winter time in Costa Rica the past few years, I have many favorite bird species there. I decided to share here 12 of them, some of which I have actually sighted and photographed – and a few who continue to elude me – offering up a let’s-pass-some-time-doing-something-productive-and-educational blog series: The 12 Birds of Christmas!

Dec. 26: The First Bird of Christmas is the Scarlet Macaw

Jogging along in the sand as the tide goes out along Playa Tambor, I’m distracted by what sounds like a raucous argument between two domestic partners. I follow the animated chatter away from the Pacific and up towards the estuary that flanks the tiny air strip next to a popular Vegas-like resort that is all some know about the sleepy fishing village of Tambor. As I get closer, I recognize the combatants’ voices. They belong to Scarlet Macaws, who make roaring vocalizations whilst flying from their roost to a feeding site, and then wax relatively quiet when munching on a perch, which they’ve just found.

At one time, the beautiful large, bright red-blue-and-yellow Ara macao was close to extinction due to the pet trade and the destruction of habitats that include their main source of food, Tropical Almond (Terminalia catappa) trees, on which this pair is feeding somewhat noisily. Our area on the Nicoya Peninsula is one the places where conservation efforts – including nest protection, artificial nest creation, captive breeding-and-release and reintroduction programs such as the one at Curú Wildlife Refuge – have contributed to the successful comeback of the Lapa, as it is known to Ticos (Costa Ricans).

The illegal exotic pet trade is an industry that disturbs me greatly; sometimes while hiking in Costa Rica I have seen youngsters with nets attempting to capture birds. Parrots, iguanas and wild cats are the animals most often exploited. Now, on the rare occasions that I enter a pet store in the states where I see some of the parrots and macaws that I have adoringly followed in their natural habitats, I am sickened and outraged that this torturous practice continues to flourish. At some point in my future, perhaps there awaits a project to raise more awareness about this issue. If you have been involved in a good program to combat the pet trade, I’d love to hear about your experience.

One bird down, and 11 to go.

Listen to a clip of the Scarlet Macaw.

Photos for this entry by Frances Figart