Over the past year, Audubon has been implementing a bird-based tourism initiative that includes a strong focus on training community members living in and around important bird and biodiversity areas to be bird guides. During the project, Audubon’s international partners in Belize, Guatemala, and Paraguay organized Christmas Bird Counts in which three dozen newly-trained bird guides participated. For many participants, this was not their first count, but the 2015-2016 CBC took on new meaning, and helped them envision birding as a tool to improve their economic livelihood and also contribute in a more meaningful way to hemispheric conservation. Newly trained community bird guides appreciated the opportunity to put into practice their skills in identifying birds, to communicate bird names in English, and to share the day with more experienced birders.
Belize has been participating in CBCs since 1973. In 2015, 26 participants, including 10 recently trained bird guides and one of their instructors-- Roni Martinez, a professional guide who is finishing up his own “Big Year in Belize” with over 500 species-- counted a total of 220 species in the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary circle organized by the Belize Audubon Society. This total was among the highest counts for any CBC in Belize.
Interesting species seen by the 4 groups in the Cockscomb CBC included: American White Pelican, Striped Owl, Yucatan Vireo, Clapper Rail, Peregrine Falcon, Reddish Egret, Least Bittern, and the critically endangered Yellow-headed Parrot. The Cockscomb CBC was not short on wildlife; distracting attention from the birds were Red Brocket deer, Northern Tamandua (Lesser Anteater), and a Neotropical River Otter.
Located in the foothills of the Santiago Atitlan volcano near Lake Atitlan, in the western Guatemala highlands and in a spectacular area of regional endemism, the CBC circle “Tarrales” now in its 9th year yielded a whopping 235 species! 22 people participated, half of whom took the basic guide course offered by Audubon’s local conservation partner Vivamos Mejor, as well as their instructor, Maynor Ovando, one of the best bird guides for the Guatemalan highlands.
Some of the highlights in the Tarrales circle were: Horned Guan, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Azure-Rumped Tanager, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia and Pink-headed Warbler. Recently arrived from their breeding ground in the US and Canada, some notable and familiar neotropical migrants included Wilson’s, Townsend’s, and Black-throated green warblers, the familiar Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer Tanagers.
Several participants of the basic bird guide course from the Atitlan area also participated in an inaugural CBC in the central Guatemalan cloud forest, near the famous Biotopo el Quetzal protected area. Despite rainy conditions, they counted 110 species including forest-dependent threatened species like the resident Resplendent Quetzal, and the migratory Golden-winged and Golden-cheeked Warblers.
Wildlife Conservation Society-Guatemala organized their 6th CBC in the “Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas” (EBG) circle [Scarlet Macaw Biological Research Station] in the Peten region of northern Guatemala; however, this was the first year they registered as an official Audubon CBC. Located in the western part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, this circle is inside the Laguna del Tigre National Park, home to critical breeding habitat for the Scarlet Macaw and at least 300 other bird species, including 80 species of neotropical migrants like Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Hooded, Kentucky, Swainson’s and Blue-winged Warblers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, among others. The CBC includes areas threatened by agricultural encroachment and conversion of forests to pasturelands and palm oil plantations.
35 people participated, including 12 newly-trained bird guides and 2 of their instructors: Marcial Cordova, a local amateur ornithologist and specialist in protection and breeding of the Scarlet Macaw; and John Cahill, a young but prolific birder and guide from the central highlands, as well as the instructor for the Advanced Bird Guide training course offered by WCS-Guatemala. Between 7 different routes, the group spotted or heard an impressive 242 species! Highlights included three separate detections of Scarlet Macaws, six King Vultures, an adult Peregrine Falcon, an immature Northern Harrier, and three Agami Herons.
In both Belize and Guatemala, park rangers participated, many of whom are local experts in avifauna. The CBCs represent a chance for them to share with experts from the region and also demonstrate their skills in spotting and identifying birds.
Further afield in Asunción, Paraguay, 14 people including Arne Lesterhuis- one of Paraguay’s best bird guides- and 7 individuals taking the basic bird guide course given by Audubon’s local implementing partner, Guyra Paraguay, spotted 68 species in a 62 acre urban green space called Parque Guasu Metropolitano over a short 3 hour period in the long- standing Asunción CBC. Highlights included: Black-capped Warbling Finch, Wedge-tailed Grass-finch, the ever elusive Striped Cuckoo, Neotropical migratory Cliff and Barn Swallows and Austral migratory Tropical Kingbirds.
Audubon is working throughout the hemisphere to strengthen connections between birds and people, educate community members, promote community science, protect important bird areas, and improve economic conditions. If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Sarah Stewart at 202-600-7988 or email at International@audubon.org.