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Pooling Skills for Conservation in South America

Text and photograph by by Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez
Dr. Nick Bayly teaches participants to handle, measure, and band birds.
Dr. Nick Bayly teaches participants to handle, measure, and band birds.

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High in the cloud forests of northwestern Colombia, I hiked a steep trail into the 546-acre Cerulean Warbler Nature Reserve near San Vicente de Chucuri, with a team of conservationists led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation science director Ken Rosenberg and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center biologist Peter Marra, for the first International Field Course on Migrant Landbirds in the Neotropics. All eyes and ears were alert for warblers. Our base of operations was a field station operated by Fundacion ProAves, embedded in a landscape of small coffee and cacao farms, providing an ideal setting to teach 28 students how to survey for wintering warblers in forested and agricultural areas.

Our team of instructors included Lab post-doc Rachel Vallender and researchers from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and several universities. We were a mix of graduate students, professors, researchers, and managers, with complementary skills related to bird population monitoring and habitat assessment. The course was organized by Fundacion ProAves biologists Maria Isabel Moreno and Camila Gomez, with the help of the American Bird Conservancy. Our goals were to pool our knowledge about bird monitoring, migration biology, and study design, and to develop a field protocol for surveying Golden-winged Warblers on their winter range.

The students arrived that afternoon, after traveling for 15 hours or more. They represented a combination of private and public institutions from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia. I expected the students to be young biologists like myself, but this was a diverse group with extensive field experience; one had worked on specialization of flycatchers in the Santa Marta mountains, another on endangered parrots in Colombia. One was a bird guide and documentary filmmaker with Audubon-Panama. Perhaps the most unlikely student was a Caracas Metro subway conductor who has worked on conservation projects for the past 20 years as a community service! Their collective dedication with such limited resources, was inspiring.

For five days, instructors covered a variety of skills to empower students to make even larger contributions to bird research and conservation efforts in their home countries. This type of capacity building is what I call “sustainable science,” the best way to advance conservation in Latin America over the long term. Imagine if every scientist from the United States who worked in Latin America trained just one local biologist!

On the last day I was still answering questions about study design and data analysis, and there was much more to cover! Frustrating as our limited time was, it was gratifying to share knowledge and skills I’ve acquired over the past five years at Cornell. This course helped me realize how much I can contribute to the development of other Latin American biologists, as a graduate student and as I continue along my career path.


Originally published in the January 2009 issue of BirdScope.

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