Birding Without Borders

Day 120: Community Conservation

Making a difference in Guatemala’s cloud forest.

April 30, 2015, Near Coban, Guatemala — John Cahill’s parents, Rob and Tara, moved to Guatemala 14 years ago to work in education and have stayed ever since. When they moved they had four kids—Ruth (age 3), John (5), Peter (7), and Nathan (9). Rob and Tara settled on a farm near Coban, in central Guatemala, and the family grew up there—the kids went to Guatemalan schools and learned Spanish and the indigenous language. And, they all learned their Guatemalan birds.

Today, Rob and Tara work full-time in direct environmental education with local indigenous villages. Rob tells me that they have seen the surrounding cloud forest slashed, burned, and fragmented at an alarming rate over the past 14 years, and decided that the best way to help save what’s left is to educate the people who live there about sustainable ecology and agriculture. They set up an organization called Community Cloud Forest Conservation, and are now finishing construction of two beautiful buildings which can house groups of students from surrounding villages. 

When I arrived last evening, I was confronted by a couple dozen young indigenous women who are spending 25 days at the center, learning from local teachers. They applauded as I walked in: They have all been following my big year! Rob said later that most of these women have barely ever left their villages; when he pointed at Antarctica on a globe (to illustrate where I started this year) and asked the group where it was, they shouted out all kinds of names: Costa Rica! Panama! South America! The continent of Antarctica may be just too far away to comprehend when your world is a Guatemalan village.

John and I spent several hours this morning birding a patch of foothill forest with Pedro, a local guy who doesn’t use binoculars but has a sixth sense about spotting birds and identifying their calls. Pedro doesn’t know English or scientific bird names, but has spent enough time with John that they’ve invented their own names to communicate. The Slate-throated Redstart is “el feo,” (“the ugly one”), to distinguish it from “el bonito,” (“the pretty one”), which is the Painted Redstart. For the Rufous-browed Peppershrike, they just say “rojo” (“red”), but, when saying it, make eye contact and do a slashing motion over the forehead. It works! Unfortunately, it rained all morning today which dampened bird activity; every so often Pedro removed his sweatshirt, wrung about a liter of water out of it, then put it back on. We were glad to be hosted for a dry lunch at the house of Max Noack, the owner of the property where we spent the morning, who is an enthusiastic follower of this blog. Thanks, Max!

New birds today: 8

Year list: 2349

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