Authored by John A. Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon Society and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
This is a final note from Finca Esperanza Verde, in the north central highlands of Nicaragua. I have included here a mix of birds we see on our excursions to this reserve and ecolodge, my home away from home. Some of the species shown are tropical residents which remind me of birds back home. Others are indeed migrants that bred back in the U.S. or Canada sometime last year and flew here for half a year. Others are just notable tropic-colorific. I hope you enjoy the images below and more so, I hope you get the chance to visit a tropical forest some day.
Lineated Woodpecker – this one looks very similar to our Pileated, and it
is in the same genus. We found a pair investigating a cavity and according to one of our local guides, they are beginning to breed now. Instead of offering suet, lodges here offer bananas to any interested birds.
Pale-billed Woodpecker – this species is in the same genus as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And this one will make a “double knock” bill-strike-on-wood that is similar to that described for the Ivory-bill. Vanessa found one at a nest cavity, apparently feeding young. We know little about the life history of this species in Nicaragua. The Costa Rica field guide indicates this one finishes nesting in late December so perhaps up here, a little further north, they finish in January.
Black-cheeked woodpecker – this species is in the same genus as our Red-bellied Woodpecker. They are normally found just east of here, at lower elevations. The property at this site is between 1000-1200 meters and this woodpecker is mostly below 1000m. But we see numerous “Caribbean slope” species up here – presumably due to the local geography. The sound of this woodpecker reminds me of the Red-bellied.
Woodcreepers. In the New World Tropics there is a group of birds called Woodcreepers. They are sort of in between a woodpecker and a brown creeper. They creep and probe in loose bark, mosses, and other epiphytes. Most of these species have stiff tail tips. They range in size from a Downy Woodpecker to a Flicker. They never stop moving
(except at night of course) so I can never seem to get a good shot of one,
except when I can hold it very still…….
The Spotted Woodcreeper in the photo shows the tail tips very well, along with an oversized bill.
Lesson’s (formerly Blue-crowned) Motmot – This is one of a few species of Motmot’s found in the humid forests, where we are working. The national bird of Nicaragua is a dry forest species called Turquoise-browed Motmot, and I have also included an image of that species. The Motmot’s are another new world tropical group of birds. They nest in cavities dug into mud banks. No one seems to know for sure where the word Motmot comes from, although I have read at least one interesting note about this. I just can’t remember where I read it, sorry. For now, enjoy the photos.
Bushy-crested Jay – the tropics is full of some fun-looking jays. In addition, some clearly carry on the black and blue theme of a jay. This species has a rather small range – it is found from Guatemala to No. Nicaragua. I recently found a family of them just off the west edge of the Finca property which represents about the southernmost sighting for this species and what is essentially the first for the Finca. As you can see, a jay is a jay anywhere you go.
White-collared Manakin – Manakins are another new world tropical
group of birds. Males gather at leks to sing and dance and carry on, to try and attract a mate. You can search the Internet for some very amusing videos. Here is one of 4 species we find at the Finca property and this is one Olivia captured in a mist net, while trying to lure in a Golden-winged and/or a Brewster’s Warbler (we found both warblers occupying the same area).
Rufous-browed Peppershrike/Yellow-throated Vireo – The Peppershrike is essentially a tropical vireo. At our site we get this species plus a couple neotropical migrants, the Blue-headed (rare) and the Yellow-throated shown here.
Warblers – here, the most common warblers are some neotropical migrants: Chestnut-sided, Wilson’s, Tennessee, and Black-throated green; and many Golden-wings. This Tennessee Warbler is proof enough that one man’s trash is another bird’s treasure. Both coffee and Chestnut-sided’s migrate to the U.S. at some point. And then, we also find some resident warbler species, and this Rufous-capped Warbler is one of my favorites.
Common Pauraque – this is one of many nightjar species found in the tropics. It’s a cross between our familiar Whippoorwill and Chuck-wills-widow although more like the former to me. Fortunately, we seem to be able to find at least one each trip. Olivia Merritt photographed this one.
There are ~340 species of hummingbirds. Species diversity peaks in Colombia (~150), but Ecuador and Peru are not far behind. While Nicaragua has many fewer, it’s nice that 10 species of hummingbirds visit the feeders at this lodge. Some have only been seen at the feeders a few times over the past 7 years or so. The Crowned Woodnymph is a species more commonly found at lower elevations on the east/Caribbean slope – but a few individuals are regular in the forests and at the feeders.
One that is rare on the property (and elsewhere in the country it seems)
is the White-bellied Emerald. It looks like a female Ruby-throated. This individual has been visiting the feeders for almost a year. But up until now, we almost never saw it on site. I have captured 3 in 20 mornings of mist-netting, over a 10-year span. We don’t really know much about how it makes a living, at least, not in Nicaragua.
The Violet Sabrewing is named for the shape of the outer flight feathers, easily seen here. And the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is, well, aptly named. Note the outer flight feathers of this Sabrewing.
And then here’s one that Vanessa spotted one drizzly afternoon, as the rest of us were looking in the other direction. I won’t print her initial reaction – but it got my attention. And I’m glad, because it was a new species to our list for this property (after some 20 trips) – called the White-necked Jacobin. It is another one that occurs mostly at lower elevations – we’re pretty much at the upper limit for this species, at the Finca. Vanessa Merritt regained enough composure to capture a nice memory.
Tanagers. We love our tanagers in North Carolina, and for good reason. Now, it seems, a tanager is not a tanager. That is, who is related to whom has changed with new genetic studies. In the meantime, one can visit the tropics and find some real jewels in the real tanager cohort. Included here are a few examples. Crimson-collared and Passerini’s tanagers are closely related and spend much of their time in the understory and along forest edges. The Golden-hooded Tanager is an example of the genus Tangara – a group of spectacularly colored birds that reaches its colorific peak in the eastern Andean cloud forests. The colors of this Golden-hooded Tanager are more electric in the sunlight…..
Summer Tanager – the Central American forests are full of migratory birds. This is a very familiar species to us all, although you may not have realized how much it loves bananas.
I just have to point out that the intrepid, adaptable House Sparrow is
found throughout Central and South America. In spite of what they represent, I find them rather adorable and I have to give them credit for being so adaptable. So, I couldn’t help but snap a few images when I found a small group of them just over the mountain in the small town of San Ramon. Who knows, these may be the only pictures of House Sparrow from Nicaragua……… here’s one.
Vesper Rat – there are many rodents in these parts. And sometimes,
those “parts” include a bedroom or kitchen. Here is one of the cutest little rodents around, trying to make a home behind a hanging over Vanessa’s bed. But this is only after it failed to finish a nest in her binocular case, and after chewing up one of her shirts for bedding material. In spite of these pesky events, I still find it mighty adorable – more so because it is in their room and not mine (it seems to come back each night……).
Spiders – no surprise, this area is full of them. It’s been fun to see some that are familiar, like this Aranea species – very similar to the one that we find in lovely webs on our front porches in late summer/fall. Another species both here and back home is this Orchard Spider. One this is also familiar, but for a different reason, is this Tarantula species. This one was climbing a post in the dining lodge (outdoor eating area). It’s been cold at night here, in January, and I wish I had more clothes like what this guy is wearing.
Three-toed Sloth – one can never get enough sloth pictures.
[photos by John Gerwin, except where noted]
Authored by John Gerwin
A significant element of the Nicaragua economy is based on coffee exports. Based on numerous surveys, a significant number of birds thrive among the vegetation found in traditional coffee farms and there are many such farms in northern Nicaragua. On a traditional farm, the coffee bushes are planted under the canopy of taller trees. Those trees can be a broad mix of native species, or a mix of native and fruit/nut bearing trees, or even a single species. Although a forest consisting of a mix of native species is preferred, even one of only a layer of the Flowering Inga can provide food and “lodging” for a suite of birds. And of course, coffee growing/harvesting/processing is a form of agriculture, and this suite of activities yields employment for many people.
One of those jobs is the “cortador”, or harvester; a.k.a coffee picker. Well, the person is not picking “coffee” but rather, coffee beans. And technically, coffee fruit, called a “cherry” because the typical fruit is a bright red color when it is mature. Finca Esperanza Verde is located in the north-central highlands of Nicaragua. In these parts, the coffee cherries mature between December to mid-February. Some bushes will continue to yield ripe fruit into early March, at higher elevations. The cherries on a given bush do not all ripen at once. Thus, pickers will re-visit bushes several times during the harvest season.
Another critical element of life here is the machete. In Spanish, the verb
“cortar” also means to cut. Here our Young Naturalists learn the importance of knowing homonyms (“twin” words).
On a traditional coffee farm, the cherries are picked by hand. In some places, the pickers cheat a bit and strip all the cherries off, discarding unripened ones. This is a bad technique for two reasons. It wastes those unripened fruits that would continue to ripen if left on the bush; and it damages the stem where the cherry had been attached and this can cause that part of the bush to not fruit again. So, on a farm that is designated, or strives to be, sustainable, pickers are not allowed to use that technique. Each farm employs a “coffee manager” who oversees how the picking is done and how it is proceeding each year, which ensures compliance. At FEV, a coffee cherry is picked, one by one. As you can imagine, this is a laborious process.
In this photo of coffee cherries, red are ripe, green or ‘reddish’ are still ripening.
To get a sense of just how laborious, I asked Vanessa and Olivia to give it
a try one morning. We set out with Luis, the resident coffee “mandador” on a bright sunny morning in mid January. Luis helped them attach the baskets around their waists that local pickers use. Two sizes can be found – the women got a size that holds about 15 pounds of coffee cherries. With baskets tied around their waists followed by a quick introduction to picking, it was time to get to work. Each spent the next hour tugging, pulling, and twisting away.
When a basket is full, a worker will empty it and return to pick more. At the end of a day, her coffee haul is weighed and she is paid for the day. In the Matagalpa region and provinces to the north, most of the pickers are women. Different folks have told me that the women have better dexterity and concentration. And as is the case in most cultures, their focus is on providing for the family. Pickers may move around a province, or remain in a smaller area, perhaps working a few farms. But the work is considered “migratory”. Often, women bring their children along (there is no school in January; also a Fair Trade certified farm cannot allow children at all). When a social cproblem arises among a group of pickers it tends to be testosterone-driven, exacerbated by alcohol abuse. Thus, overall, women are preferred.
Thus, I felt it was best to just have Vanessa and Olivia do the picking while I watched and took photographs……. I’m sure you would all agree.
Our Young Naturalists now hard at work (yet still smiling)
A skilled picker will pick enough coffee cherries to yield 130-160 pounds. In January of 2017, a picker will receive 200 cordobas (Nicaraguan currency) for 130 pounds picked, which is nearly $7 USD at this time. And so, after one hour, Vanessa and Olivia ended their coffee-picking session and it was time to weight the fruits of their labors.
So how did our industrious Young Naturalists fare? Will they earn enough to eat dinner tonight? More importantly, will they earn enough to feed their mentor Juancito dinner tonight?
Each picked about 3 ½ pounds. After doing some complicated math, we come to the realization that we will all be going to bed hungry tonight. They have each earned about $0.10 in one hour, so if they were to work a 10-hour day, they would each get $1 USD. Of course, with enough time, practice, and putting their deXXterity and concentration into play, I’m sure they would soon be up to the more livable $7 USD/day. That is livable right? Parents’ wishes notwithstanding, I ask each if they would like to come back and be a seasonal coffee picker, or go home and on to college – for now, they will go to college. It’s nice to have such choices.
Picking coffee fruit is only the beginning of a very detailed, laborious, multi-multistep process in getting fresh beans to your local roaster. I won’t go into all those details (you can find a lot written and described online). Suffice it to say, to produce really good coffee beans requires a lot of hands-on work, with an eye towards minutiae. Good coffee is expensive and I understand why. I wish the people in Nicaragua were paid more, but that’s how the market works. In the end, I’m grateful for the opportunity to enjoy good coffee, and the birds I love (both at home and in the tropics). And once/year visit my second family here at Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm).
John Gerwin is Treasurer of Wake Audubon and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
All photos are by John.