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 Chavarría, 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.
At El Jaguar, started by Lili’s father, the family lost the farm during the Sandinista-Contra war, when armies from both sides bivouacked in its dense virgin forests. Lili and Georges, a Swiss-born agricultural engineer with a salt-and-pepper Clark Gable moustache, bought the property back in 1991, and today El Jaguar’s 250 acres are home to small plots of shade-grown coffee tucked into the forest. Registered with the Nicaraguan federal government as a private nature reserve, it is one of the smallest of Nicaragua’s 33 Important Bird Areas (IBAs), lands formally identified through BirdLife International’s IBA program, of which Audubon is the North American partner. More than 280 bird species have been counted on the farm, including seven that are considered globally threatened—among them such North American breeders as golden-cheeked warblers and the near threatened painted bunting. “We don’t have seven globally threatened species in all of North Carolina,” Smalling laughs, shaking his head. “Here there is that and more on a single small farm.”
One morning, as dawn breaks over the mile-high Cordillera Isabelia, I head out with Smalling, Lili, and Georges to work a line of listening points spread throughout the farm. Working with the multinational Golden-Winged Warbler Conservation Initiative, Lili and Georges monitor 12 sites on El Jaguar in an effort to see what type of habitat the birds frequent. The researchers seek individual warblers and determine what’s attracting them—the percentage of canopy cover, the presence of mosses and bromeliads, even the numbers of dry, hanging leaves where golden-wings tend to feed. Each listening post is situated at least 500 yards from its closest neighboring site, so running the point counts requires a nearly two-mile hike through steep coffee patches and soaring cloudforests.
Tunneling through head-high coffee bushes that edge a curtain of primary forest, we hear the bubbly, gonglike calls of the Montezuma oropendola and the Wilson’s warbler’s nasally chip from tall, broccoli-like trees. This kind of intersection between field and forest is prime habitat. “Golden-winged warblers are demanding birds,” Smalling explains. On their wintering grounds, they are drawn to a specific cover type: forest openings such as those created when massive trees crash to the ground, blowing holes in the cloudforest canopy. The tangle of undergrowth that sprouts in the sunny gaps isn’t unlike the shrubby habitats the birds frequent in Minnesota’s tamarack woods or North Carolina’s hawthorn balds. “Where we find them in Central America mimics very closely where we find them on their North American breeding grounds,” Smalling continues. “They show up in the same elevations, with the same kinds of complex, open structure with lots of edge.” Thousands of miles apart, the birds face similar challenges: lack of the tangled thickets they require for survival.
Shade-grown coffee, however, is planted and harvested beneath a forest canopy that provides birds with a wide range of critical needs. There are insects and fruits to eat. Mosses and ferns provide nest spots for the resident birds. They can rest on perches and hide from predators in niches. “A shade-coffee canopy with diverse tree species provides very high-quality habitat for many bird species, both native and migrants,” says Robert Rice, a researcher with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Coffee plantations with a diverse canopy cover of greater than 40 percent are second only to undisturbed forest in terms of bird species richness.
El Jaguar coffee is raised under a voluntary, strict conservation plan as a registered nature preserve, stipulating that 80 percent of the land remains uncut. In fact, the 13 coffee patches at El Jaguar were once cattle pastures and small bean and corn fields, so no new forest was cleared to create them. But cloudforest such as that found at El Jaguar is even cooler than and as wet as a typical rainforest, and coffee plants here are particularly susceptible to disease.
“It’s critical to have economic stability in those areas that are maintaining the habitats that remain,” explains Alex Morgan, a sustainable agriculture specialist for the Rainforest Alliance. To help pay for such outreach—and further its support of conservation science—El Jaguar offers a pair of cabins for visiting scientists and perhaps 200 serious birders and ecotourists each year. Simply appointed with a bed, kitchenette, and fresh flowers, mine looked out over lush gardens alive with butterflies. I enjoyed views of cloudforest and coffee patches framed by banana trees. Furthermore, there’s an open-arms invitation to join the Chavarría Duriaux family. One morning coffee pickers join us for breakfast—fresh fruit and tortillas cooked on a fire. Topping it off is a creamy, pungent farm cheese. One night we all dine on oxtail stew. Our discussion jumps from the subtleties of coffee bean grading to the parallels Smalling sees between the places he finds golden-winged warblers in the North Carolina mountains and those in El Jaguar’s patchy forests.
As we talk, Lili nods her head quietly, fingers interlaced beneath her chin, savoring the role her small family farm plays in the sunrise choruses of the southern Appalachians. “Are these our birds?” she asks, smiling. “Are they your birds? No. They are not ours or yours. They cannot survive just here or just there. They must have both. They need all of us.”
“Eduardo, toucan! Vienen aqui!” Come here! Omar Quintero’s pleas jolt me back to focus. I’m beat. Late yesterday, Smalling and I drove south from El Jaguar’s misty cloudforests toward Managua, past beneficios where coffee beans dried on large concrete platforms and tiny villages with mud homes hunkered under banana trees. We arrived at Finca Esperanza Verde at sunset.
I scan the ridges of the Cordillera Dariense but see nothing. “Mas alto,” Quintero instructs me. Look higher. I focus in on a distant ridge and there is the Central American rainforest’s signature bird—the keel-billed toucan—showy and exuberant, as if all of the colors and drama of the tropics were distilled into the features of a single animal.
Opened in 2000, this ecolodge was founded on an ethos of ecological coffee farming. Scientists study golden-winged warblers among 265 acres of steep, forested slopes and shade-grown-coffee patches that were once cattle pasture. Some tourists plumb five long trails in search of orchids; others come for the monkeys and tree sloths. There are more than 150 bird species here. The lodge’s cabin rooms are built from handmade bricks, and the property protects the watersheds of seven springs and generates power through solar panels and a micro-hydro generator. Drawing 1,300 tourists each year, Finca Esperanza Verde has chalked up seven international ecotourism awards or distinctions.
And just like the golden-winged warblers, summer tanagers, and American redstarts that winter in its woods, the farm has strong links to North Carolina. In 1993 five Durham, North Carolina, churches formed Sister Communities of San Ramón, Nicaragua (SCSRN). Church members had spent years protesting the U.S.-backed Contra war of the 1980s. After the hostilities, visits to Nicaragua’s San Ramón region led to a more personal commitment. Stateside, the group sold Nicaraguan coffee in church sales to support various food distribution and clean water projects, but there were bigger dreams. “The poverty there was just overwhelming,” says Lonna Harkrader, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served as executive director for the SCSRN from its inception until 2009. “We felt there was more we could do.”
From that despair grew the idea of an ecolodge that would employ local workers in sustainable-coffee cultivation and plow its profits back into the community. In 1997 the group bought an abandoned coffee farm on a remote hilltop northeast of Matagalpa. There was no water, electricity, or telephone service. All around were plunging cliffs and tiny wattle-and-daub homes clinging to narrow, muddy roadsides. The closest bus stop was an hour’s walk away. “What you see now—the coffee, the lushness—was all barren,” Harkrader says. “It had been classic slash-and-burn agriculture for so long that nothing would grow on it.”
That’s hard to imagine. Smalling monitors golden-winged warblers at a dozen sites scattered across Finca Esperanza Verde, and we take off after an early breakfast to make the rounds. Just 50 footsteps from the dining pavilion, I am cocooned in cathedral forests of ceiba trees, most draped in veils of green philodendrons. Streams tumble in head-high waterfalls, across mossy rocks and under tree ferns forming primeval shapes.
We break into the dappled sun of a coffee patch, and Smalling wedges the MP3 player in the crook of a tree. The loop of golden-winged warbler territorial calls was recorded in North America, so, oddly, we hear the calls of crows and indigo buntings as well.
Soon a pair of male golden-wings zips into the nearby trees, chipping vigorously. I watch one bird closely as he hops from tree branch to tree branch, head flitting this way and that. He stands nearly erect, fluffing his feathers. The next moment he’s rubbing his bill against the branch, first one side and then the other, declaring this is his turf. “That’s called bill swiping,” Smalling laughs. “He’s got all this adrenaline pumping through his system, but he can’t find anyone to take it out on.” I can’t help but think that he’s sharpening his rapier. Ten feet away one of my home state’s most threatened birds is having a full-blown hissy fit.
On the edge of a coffee patch, I can hear the zing of machetes downslope as unseen coffee workers chop at the weeds and shrubs growing between the rows of coffee plants. Though my visit is at the peak of bird numbers for these woodlands, I have just missed the height of the coffee harvest. Still, a few pickers move through the groves, baskets of red berries slung around their waists, using fingertips and the palms of their hands to snip each berry, one by one.
As at El Jaguar, coffee plays an important role in keeping golden-winged warblers on the land. At many sites the birds hunt insects in the dead, dangling leaves and among the tangled vines and shrubs that grow up in sunlit forest gaps, while small patches of shade-grown coffee support the mix of canopy and undergrowth the warblers seek.
When Finca Esperanza Verde was first training locals to guide birders, the learning curve was as steep as the region’s rugged mountains themselves. “We had to teach them to go slowly,” Harkrader tells me. “To pull out the field guide, to talk about the birds. They were just zooming people through the woods!”
For years Humberto Picado worked in Nicaragua’s coffee fields. Today he’s one of Finca Esperanza Verde’s most accomplished birding guides and a proud educator. “The change is better, to leave the coffee,” he tells me, grinning. “More birds. And no mucho machete.”
The next day he, Smalling, and I are hiking down a tiny stream flowing under dense primary forest, when Picado suddenly holds up his hand, halting our progress. In front of us, the ground is alive. We’ve stumbled into an ant swarm; untold thousands of the insects flow across the ground, covering trees and leaves. They’re marching up and down saplings and vines and forming bridges of themselves to cross the stream. Ferreting among them, bills flashing this way and that, is a crazy-quilt collection of ravenous birds eating the insects. Familiar species hunt wingtip to wingtip with exotic tropical residents. A Louisiana waterthrush feeds near a gray-headed tanager. A Wilson’s warbler stabs at the insects beside red-throated ant-tanagers. Next to me Picado sits on his haunches and thumbs through a worn copy of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, the closest thing there is to a Nicaraguan field guide. Five feet away, Smalling is exuberant. Within minutes he has three new life-list birds: the rufous-breasted ant-thrush, the buffy tuftedcheek, and the blue-black grosbeak, a cardinal-sized bird the color of an indigo bunting.
And there’s a golden-winged warbler in the mix, as well. The bird stalks among the ants 40 feet away, and I watch it through my binoculars. For a moment I imagine that bird back home, flitting through the highbush blueberries of the southern Appalachians, yellow epaulets golden in the rising sun. My notion is as cheering as the sight of Picado, his head buried in a bird book, his face lit with a smile.