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Lange: Songbird Rescue

01/30/12 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) The songbirds we usually think of as “ours” here in New England actually spend most of their lives in Central America. They’re disappearing in both places; but according to commentator Willem Lange, in Costa Rica researchers and some coffee growers are trying to save them.

(Lange) Eight of us stand on an open hillside above the tiny village of Cedral, deep in the hills a few miles east off the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Six of us are gringos – UMass grad students studying migratory songbirds and a crew from New Hampshire Public Television. Also two locals, who help capture, measure, and tag the birds.

The valley below has the air of a Shangri-la: thick forest and cleared land laced with yellow volcanic rock roads that zigzag up the hills; a green patch of coffee plantation across the valley; a twin-towered stone-and-concrete church and a large rectory no longer occupied; a corner store, a cantina; and a rough concrete-block bar that opens on occasion.

We drove up here about seven this morning, the wheels of our vehicles spurting loose rocks out behind. We hiked a trail through jungle-like forest and emerged in this field. We set up almost-invisible mist nets six feet off the ground and baited one of them with a decoy that looks like our quarry, the golden-winged warbler, and a tiny playback recorder that broadcasts its call.

The golden-winged warbler migrates from North America, from mostly the Appalachians, to Central America. Not much bigger than an English sparrow, it’s a lovely little bird. And it appears to be approaching the Endangered Species list.

Warblers were once able to fly through forage-filled forests all the way from Appalachia to Central America. Now they hop from copse to copse, dodging industrial farms where pesticides have eliminated insects, and tourist destinations where the jungle has been bulldozed for hotels, golf courses, and marinas. The increasing stress is diminishing almost all the songbirds’ numbers and for some may be the cause of their disappearance.

The coffee plantation across the valley is designed to combat that. It has a canopy of mature trees for shade, wind protection, and roosting sites. It uses no pesticides but relies upon the birds it attracts to eat the insects. Its owner’s dream is an unbroken chain of similar plantations stretching through Central America as a highway for the birds. He’s devoted to preserving the environment and the songbirds and providing a living wage for his workers.

One of the students comes out of the bushes, whispers, “Got one!” and a few moments later brings a tiny golden-winged warbler up the hill. Duly measured, weighed, and tagged, he’s placed in my apprehensive fingers for his turn before the camera. We look at each other up close. I open my hand. He squats a moment, peering at the lens. And then he’s off in a quick flutter, with my prayer for a safe trip back to the States this spring.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, recalling a recent assignment in Costa Rica. That was work?
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