PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 142, Fall 2005: PRBO International

PRBO's International Work


Latin American Partnerships

Birds Across Borders

Steven C. Latta, PhD

Latin American Program
Executive Director's Column
Mexico Collaboration
New Marine Horizons
Long-distance Shorebird Migrations
International Internships
Dorothy Hunt's Generosity
Focus on Migratory Songbirds

Ecuadorian students monitor birds in Andean forest habitat, in a collaborative project for conservation and research. Boris Tinoco (left) will be an intern at PRBO's Palomarin Field Station this winter. Photo courtesy Boris Tinoco
High in the Ecuadorean Andes, where broad expanses of cloud forest give way to rock, tussock grass, and scattered tangles of red-limbed Polylepis forests, PRBO biologists are involved in an exciting new expansion of our Latin America Program. Working with numerous Ecuadorean colleagues, we teach bird monitoring and field research techniques while conducting research. Our collaborative work in Ecuador is focused on the critically threatened habitats of these high southern mountains.

Healthy habitats in Latin America serve vital functions. They ensure the survival of Neotropical migratory birds that have undergone serious declines in recent decades. They support the resident birds and endemic species that contribute to global biodiversity. They maintain clean, dependable water supplies and sustain local economies and cultures.

As is true for PRBO's work in general, our Latin America Program begins with building partnerships. We then conduct collaborative monitoring and research to document the status of key bird species, and we interpret results to support the design of effective conservation measures. On-site training is also a major emphasis. Current efforts in Ecuador exemplify this international program's promise.

Our focal site of concern in Ecuador is Cajas National Park. Covering more than 28,000 hectares (108 square miles) on the continental divide, and ranging in elevation from 3,200 to 4,450 meters (up to 14,600 feet), the park is designated a wetland of international importance (by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands global treaty) and an internationally Important Bird Area (by BirdLife International). Cajas is home to nearly 150 bird species, nine of which are considered threatened. About 90% of the park is píramo, the most prominent ecosystem of the Andes--alpine bunchgrass interspersed with sedges, herbs, and low-lying mats of lichens and mosses, with small patches of Polylepis* forest. The remainder was originally cloaked in high Andean cloud forest vegetation, much of which, though now protected, shows the effects of previous logging and grazing.

(* Broadleaf Polylepis trees occur in sheltered patches at elevations up to 4,500 meters in the Andes. Polylepis forests have been fragmented due to burning to promote livestock grazing, introduction of exotic tree species, tree cutting, cultivation, and road building. As a result, many specialized birds endemic to Polylepis woodlands and cloud forests now are threatened with extinction.)

The park also serves as the major water catchment area for the nearby city of Cuenca. Under agreement with the national park system, the water department of this municipality manages Cajas. This unique arrangement, whereby the people most reliant upon the ecosystem services provided by the park also manage the park, has been tremendously successful: Cajas is recognized as one of Ecuador's best managed parks.

The chance for PRBO to contribute needed expertise drew us to Cajas in 2004. With collaborator Catherine Graham of Stony Brook University (New York), we have forged an excellent working relationship with Cajas National Park directors, the water department in Cuenca, and biologists from Azuay University. We have also garnered important support from BirdLife International's Americas Regional Office in Quito and the BirdLife partner in Ecuador, Corporaci├│n Ornitol├│gica del Ecuador. Together we have designed a training, monitoring, and research program at Cajas that will significantly build capacity and contribute to management and conservation efforts.

PRBO and Stony Brook University will work with Dr. Gustavo Chac├│n, Director of Azuay University's School of Biology and the Environment, and his student, Boris Tinoco, to train at least eight Cajas National Park guards in avian monitoring techniques. Following an introductory course (also offered to ecotourism guides), the guards will spend several days each month working alongside a PRBO intern to gain experience in monitoring birds.

In December 2005, Boris Tinoco will begin a three-month internship at PRBO's Palomarin Field Station, advancing his training in bird monitoring. He will then spend a year participating in field research and working with Cajas National Park guards to transfer knowledge about mist netting, point counting, and area search techniques to the guards. Boris expects to enter the doctoral program at Stony Brook University, where he will continue with his own research on high Andean birds.
Violet-throated Metaltail. Photo by Boris Tinoco

PRBO, with input from Stony Brook and Azuay universities, collaboratively will complete a monitoring plan based on Cajas National Park's objectives and resources, which the newly trained guards will then implement. Research at Cajas will focus on the composition of avian communities in key natural and disturbed habitats, will provide estimates of survival and reproductive success, and will inform more detailed studies of the ecology of birds of conservation concern.

One such bird species, a hummingbird endemic to the area, is the Violet-throated Metaltail (Metallura baroni), restricted to Polylepis forests and adjoining habitats in the high Andes near Cuenca. Little is known about its ecological requirements, natural history, or what limits its population size. With our U.S. and Ecuador partners, we have begun to study this vulnerable species in order to ensure its survival in Cajas National Park.

Birds Across Borders
Residents of RocjáPomtil├¡, Guatemala, practice monitoring with point counts. Steve Latta is in the background. Photo by Knut Eisermann

For the past 15 years, the need for cooperative, science-based conservation that looks beyond national boundaries has guided the growth of PRBO projects with our Latin American colleagues. PRBO's approach to strengthening conservation in Latin America is based on the premise that locally based organizations, along with their biologists and volunteers, must develop their own avian research, monitoring, and conservation efforts. We offer expertise as trainers and advisors, and we help funnel available resources to select local organizations.

Our Latin America Program's strategy consists of four main components:

· Avian Conservation Network. Dispersed throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, the sites in this emerging network support numerous bird species and their habitats. They also serve as training centers for local biologists and land managers, are important for long-term ecological monitoring, and focus new conservation planning efforts on protected areas. PRBO now has active partnerships throughout Mexico and in Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panam├¡, Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

· Capacity Building. Since 2002, always working with local partners, we have offered 17 workshops in avian monitoring and field research techniques for more than 175 Latin American students, biologists, and land managers. We have supported more than 40 interns from eight countries for internships of at least three months in their home countries or at Palomarin Field Station.

· Avian Monitoring. Our two-part strategy for monitoring on an ongoing basis involves meeting local goals while adding to knowledge at a regional and international scale. Sites to date extend from the Colorado River Delta to Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. With PRBO training support, Mexico's Natural Protected Areas system recently adopted its first-ever national monitoring program for birds, funding ten proposals for monitoring in protected areas, with five more areas to be added each year. This builds directly upon cooperative efforts described on page 5.

· Research. Collaborative studies focus on the ecology and conservation of wintering Neotropical migratory birds and on resident and endemic bird conservation. One example: In the Dominican Republic, we are studying the demographics and breeding biology of endemic and resident bird species to provide a basis for sound management and conservation on the island of Hispaniola.

The Latin America Program at PRBO has grown exponentially in the last three years and exemplifies PRBO's broad vision of science-based conservation. We are especially grateful to the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for providing significant funding in support of our recently expanded efforts.

Working with locally-based organizations throughout the Americas, PRBO is set to continue providing leadership in conserving birds and habitats throughout the hemisphere.

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