One Man Sets Out to Make El Salvador a Birding Destination

One overlooked Central American country could draw birders with the help of an avian crusader.

Oliver Komar’s face lights up as the white-phase reddish egret swoops into the craggy tidepool. The bird—vividly white against the black volcanic rocks and blue water of the Pacific—begins its graceful, characteristic method of using shadows from its outstretched wings to spot fish. Exceptionally rare in El Salvador, with fewer than 50 occurring in the country, the reddish egret is a real find, says Komar, an American ornithologist. “I’ll definitely put it into eBird.” 

A one-man force bent on bringing attention to El Salvador’s birds, Komar discovered nearly 10 percent of the country’s avian species and helped establish a variety of conservation ventures. Now he’s intent on attracting birders to the Central American locale with eBird, a project developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society that allows anyone to document the birds they see online.

Komar is now the director of the Regional Institute for Biodiversity, an intergovernmental agency for Central America based at Zamorano University in Honduras, but today we’re meeting on El Salvador’s southwestern coast. For two decades, Komar, who is originally from Massachusetts, called this small country home. Just after the 12-year Salvadoran Civil War ended in 1991, Komar began conducting research that led to his doctoral degree, realizing that while conflict plagued the country, local efforts to study Salvadoran birds or biodiversity had ground to a halt. “He was a pioneer in a way,” says John van Dort, a field researcher and birder in the region.

Komar seized upon the chance to introduce field ornithology to El Salvador’s biologist community and went on to become “the most important person in the last 20 years for bird conservation and bird science in El Salvador,” says Jesse Fagan, a tour leader for the U.S. bird tour company Field Guides Inc.

While in the country, Komar documented nearly 45 new species and the neotropical wintering grounds for the cave swallow. He became science director of the environmental organization SalvaNatura—the local Audubon partner organization—and initiated a new conservation science program. He coordinated bird monitoring and tagging programs, and collaborated with Birdlife International to identify El Salvador’s 20 important bird areas. In between field expeditions, he arranged workshops and conferences for local biologists.

“The great thing about Oliver is that along the way he teaches you a lot,” says Karla Lara, a Salvadoran biodiversity technician who works with Komar. “He can walk for hours and hours counting birds and listening to birds,” she says, “he knows them all.”

For several years, Komar helped organize annual bird-a-thons, where ambitious birders engaged in countrywide counting competitions over the weekend. Funds generated by the event supported the local bird monitoring program. “You’d spend two days doing what you love,” says Carlos Funes, a biologist at SalvaNatura. Each year, Funes says, he and Komar competed in the race. “We were like, we’re going to beat Oliver this year! But it never happened.” The highest individual team record was 210 species, with the highest total event record plateauing at around 325 species.

Despite Komar’s efforts to bring attention to birding in El Salvador, the numbers of birdwatching tourists lagged behind those of neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala. Because of the war, El Salvador missed out on attracting the bird tours of the 1980s. (Though Guatemala was also engaged in civil conflict during these years, the fighting received less attention and tended to be confined to certain mountain regions off the tourist path, says Komar.)

Birders still haven’t picked up on El Salvador as a prime destination; Komar recalls just three organized tours in the past eight years. “To this day, no one’s going to El Salvador for birding,” says Fagan, who lead the tours. He speculates that this is because of the country’s bad image of being deforested and plagued with gangs.

Still, Fagan says, “I truly believe it’s a great birding destination.”

In reality, El Salvador is easy to traverse, contains numerous national parks, and houses around 550 species, including the globally endangered golden-cheeked warbler—a Texas endemic that winters in Central America—and regional endemics like El Salvador’s “flashy” national bird, the turquoise-browed motmot. Komar describes the “spectacular” bird’s green, blue, and orangey-brown plumage, topped with “a brilliant turquoise eyebrow.” The motmot has a distinctive long, racket-shaped tail, which it wags back and forth like a pendulum. “This is a bird that everyone knows, a beautiful bird,” Komar says. In El Salvador, it is known as torogoz, after the sound of its call. In Nicaragua, its name means “ravine guard,” while people in the Yucatan call it the clock bird.

On past tours, Fagan and Komar teamed up to give birders a peek into the world of ornithology. Participants worked alongside local biologists trapping and banding dozens of local species, and many migrants from North America, too. The duo hope to make birding in the region a little easier by publishing the first bird guide specific to Northern Central America in 2013.

Visiting and local birders alike can do their part for El Salvador’s birds by participating in eBird. Komar serves as the eBird reviewer for El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and has embarked on a personal quest to popularize the tool. “I love the idea that birders can be citizen scientists,” he said. His great hope is to see thousands of people using eBird around the region. Though most eBird contributions currently come from visitors, Komar is promoting the tool locally through talks, demonstrations, and articles—and by nagging his friends. “Oliver is all the time like, Carlos! You need to put in your data, put in your data!” Funes says. “It’s great that we have it now.”