RESEARCH, ECOTOURISM, OUTREACH
At the heart of bird watching is an intense love of birds and the natural world. The beauty of seeing a Male Resplendent Quetzal swirling and diving in front of an attentive mate is one of nature's most thrilling sights. But this sight is rare, and getting rarer by the year. Guatemala had more than 80% forest cover as the twentieth century dawned, but now it is down to less than 25%. With such varied threats as the advancement of the agricultural frontier, logging, forest fires, and road building, these surviving forests need our help. GBRC has decided to act by supporting our local natural areas, by directly conducting much needed research, developing local ecotourism plans, and reaching out to the international conservation community for help. You, the public who comes on our tours, fund all these activities. GBRC receives no outside funding for any of these activities!
In January 2001 GBRC conducted field research in the nearby Zunil Regional Municipal Park and the Zunil communal Forest. These rugged forests range from montane rainforest at 1500 meters to chilly endemic Pinebete fir forests at 3700 meters above sea level. They are home to some of Guatemala's rarest and most endemic species of plants and animals. It is one of the few places in the world to find endemic birds such as Horned Guan, Pink-headed Warbler, and Azure-rumped(Cabanis') Tanager, among others. It is also home to such magnificent avian wonders as the Resplendent Quetzal, Black Hawk-Eagle, Garnet-throated Hummingbird, and Stygian Owl.
Although there is anecdotal evidence of these birds' presence, no one has ever conducted in-depth research on avian distribution and abundance in this area. Research in the past has been conducted by visiting scientists who had at most a few weeks to conduct brief surveys. GBRC´s research project is conducting intensive point count research during all of the major seasonal periods. Additionally, we have collected informal species observations dating back to 1999 for use in the report's appendix.
Knowing what you have is the first step conserving it. The research findings will be given to interested local parties, e.g. CONAP, Universities, natural resources managers, private landowners, and NGOs. The scientific identification of the area's biodiversity will act to increase its attractiveness to national and international conservation players. These research findings will enable park managers to manage habitat for species and use this valuable baseline data to measure avian population trends for years to come.
GBRC has developed an agreement with local landowners, CONAP, and local indigenous communities to allow ecotourists to visit the last great Guatemalan highland forests. GBRC has helped out by training park guards and bringing tourists. Locals have helped by showing us remote forests, accompanying larger tours, and sharing the local folklore with GBRC's clients. Before this agreement, neither tourists nor locals appreciated the potential of ecotourism. Local lands were seen only as holding places for natural resources to wait to be physically exploited. By collecting entrance fees, guiding, and selling products to tourists, local people and governments see tangible reasons to protect these great vanishing forests. It is not a cure-all, but ecotourism is now creating a valuable dialogue between the local tourism sector, and local (Quetzaltenango) communities discussing conservation and tourism issues that did not exist earlier.
We have been told time and time again by birdwatchers that they can not believe so little conservation attention has been given to western Guatemala. The civil war, political instability, and intense competition from places like Belize, Mexico and Costa Rica have all conspired to make Guatemala a relatively unknown natural destination. But over the years, GBRC has been able to reach out to scientists, authors, and conservation groups. Here are a few highlights:
It is necessary that the Guatemalan public and not just ecotourists discover the beauty and importance of western Guatemala's natural areas for conservation to have a chance. GBRC has developed a slide show introducing the viewer to the local natural wonders hidden in the highlands, foothills and Pacific lowlands. The show discusses the large variety of habitats, the major threats they face, and what can be done individually and communally.
In late 2000, GBRC hosted one of the world authorities on hummingbirds, Ernie Franzgrote to help him find, videotape and observe hummingbirds for his upcoming field guide to the Hummingbirds of the World. We observed over 18 species in a 12 day period and found two species he had never seen before (Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, and Wine-throated Hummingbird). We videotaped three different hummingbird nests with females feeding young. These videotapes will be given to an illustrator for use in the production of plates for the book, and possibly an Audubon Videotape series.
During the summer of 2001, researchers from Columbia University (NY) contacted GBRC to help them with cloud-forest research. The research focused on the relationship of cloud-forest fragments (size & distance from source forests) and the abundance of cloud-forest endemic birds. Their preliminary results show that cloud-forest fragments need to be of substantial size to support a healthy variety of endemic bird species. They also found the cloud-forest habitats in Guatemala substantiality bigger and healthier than their neighboring forests in adjacent Chiapas Mexico. Furthermore, in their two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico no Pink-headed Warblers were found, indicating the highlands of western Guatemala may very well be the specie's last Stronghold!
GBRC was also proud to host Japanese government development personnel for a tour of the natural areas of Quetzaltenango. Japan is planning a multi year tourism project to promote "non-traditional" tourism and tourist destinations in Guatemala. They were very interested in our birding tours and the ecotourism potential of the area. In Early 2002 they will present their finds of areas and activities they will be supporting with developments grants, and technical advice.
Although we focus primarily on bird conservation, we could not help but be moved by the plight of the sea turtles that use the beach in front of the GBRC beach house. Our neighbors on the beach happen to be none other than Amigos del Bosque, who work to stop the illegal poaching of these magnificent animals and their eggs. GBRC has paid for the publishing of their annual sea turtle conservation poster project. If anyone is interested in supporting Amigos del Bosque, please contact GBRC for further information.
One of our most exciting, on-going projects is in association with the Barrick Museum of Natural History, UNLV. Led by Donald Baepler, the museum has built an internationally acclaimed avian DNA tissue and specimen collection. The museum has collected birds from all over the world, but until recently, had been unable to collect specimens in Guatemala due to lack of local contacts and research supports. Due to GBRC's supports and knowledge of the ave-fauna, the project is being realized! The collection of specimens is mostly conducted with mist nets and slingshots. The fieldwork is fun, but the real work is done in the laboratory back in the United States. These speciems can be valuable for discovering little known molts, bird distribuations, habitat usages, and other invaluable information. If they are able to make such discoveries, the conservation value of Guatemala's Highland forests will get a great boost!
Like most developing countries throughout the world, Guatemala is struggling against forces that put its habitats and bird life at risk: deforestation, erosion, the hunting and capture of endangered species, etc. Sadly, most Guatemalans have received very little, if any, environmental education; many do not understand the tremendous forces wreaking havoc on the country’s wildlife, nor exactly what is at stake. In part due to poverty and scarce leisure time, many Guatemalans, have little awareness of the fantastic diversity of life that surrounds them.
The good news is that the forces of environmental defense in Guatemala are on the move and gathering momentum. GBRC wants to do its bit, starting with the belief that conservation begins with appreciation and education. We are developing ornithological workshops directed toward the country’s conservation professionals and, especially, school teachers. The purpose of the workshops is to really see the birds, and then to learn about them and their place in the ecosystem. Some workshops concentrate on getting to know the local birds, while others focus on migrant species and the effect of habitat disruption on avifauna. By promoting birding, we promote conservation. Good birders make good defenders of wildlife!
Last Call for Optics
One of the biggest obstacles for local birders in Guatemala is the high price of binoculars and scopes. In fact, many biologists involved in conservation work lack even these basic tools! We encourage all visitors to GBRC to look in the closets, drawers and attics for any old, unwanted optics that you would be willing to donate. That small effort could make a big difference in the defense of Guatemala’s natural areas.