Guatemala Big Year 2014: eBird and Conservation

By hbatcheller December 16, 2013
Pink-headed Warbler

Pink-headed Warbler, a threatened species of the Guatemalan and Mexican highlands. Photo by John Cahill.

John Cahill, a young birder from Guatemala, is preparing to embark on his second Big Year. We asked John and his father Rob write about John’s Big Year adventures in 2012, and to set the stage for the upcoming year of birding, eBirding, and cloud forest conservation. You can also follow John’s 2014 Big Year on his blog.

2:45AM, January 1, 2012. Laguna del Tigre National Park, Guatemala. One Limpkin calls out from the opposite side of the marsh. The year has begun. John Cahill (age 16) projected 2012 as a Big Year within the geographic limits of Guatemala. John’s goal: 500 species. By the time he hit the sack on the night of January 1, John had identified 127 birds–a great first day!

Three hundred and sixty-six days later: it’s the mid afternoon of December 31, we are driving down a dirt road near Esquipulas, Guatemala.

John birding in a mangrove forest. Photo by Rob Cahill.

John birding in a mangrove forest. Photo by Rob Cahill.

Over the last year, John has identified 590 species of birds in virtually every corner of Guatemala. He has been on beaches, salt-flats, and estuaries. He hiked up volcanoes, wondered into roadless forests, and walked along deserted desert roads. He has traveled by bus, boat, bike, car, canoe, truck, tuktuk, and hitchhiked.  Once John ventured out 50 miles into the Pacific Ocean in search of pelagic birds.

It is now 2:30pm on Dececember 31st. We still have our hit list. But we realize that there are only three more hours of daylight left for the year 2012. Would we have the luck of running into a Great Swallow-tailed Swift? Suddenly a tiny bird lifts off from the road ahead of us. Helicopter-like, it whirls its way up onto a pine branch 20 feet above us. We stop the car quickly and pile out. John makes the call: Chipping Sparrow! A barrage of photos ensues. The Chipping Sparrow is rare in most of Guatemala. This is species #591 and a great addition to his Big Year.

What made this an awesome Big Year?

The first thing to say about that is simply: Guatemala!

It is an amazing country due in large part to its compact biodiversity. In ten minutes you can drive from tropical lowland forest to highland cloud forest. One minute you are hearing Crested Guans and the next you are hearing Highland Guans.  Or you can be see Painted Buntings in the morning, Painted Redstarts at noon, and Resplendent Quetzals a half-hour later.

Guatemala brings east and west together during the winter. In Guatemala you can see Hermit Warblers in the same feeding flock as Black-throated Green Warblers. Townsend’s Warblers feed with Golden-winged Warblers. And in the same tree, you can see Western and Eastern Wood-Pewees.

The second thing that made this Big Year amazing was eBird.

John’s older brother made a really cool blog for the Big Year. John just had to upload his checklists into eBird and the blog automatically posted a dot on a map of Guatemala at the location where he had made the list. The species were added into a year list that could be viewed both chronologically and taxonomically. eBird’s amazing flexibility to function as the source of all that data simply boggles the mind.

Bonaparte's Gull, a first record for Guatemala. Photo by John Cahill.

Bonaparte’s Gull, a first record for Guatemala. Photo by John Cahill.

In 2012, John submitted 1,027 complete checklists and logged an amazing 780.24 hours of eBirding. He also recorded several new species that had never been reported in Guatemala. For example, on October 16 on a sandbar at the Pacific Ocean, John spotted a Bonaparte’s Gull: the first recorded in the country. He carefully photographed the individual and uploaded his photos on the Flicker eBird rarity site. eBird was John’s constant Big Year companion.

Well needless to say, when one turns 17 while finishing a Big Year just nine species short of an impressive 600, one wants to do it again.

So this is it: 2014!

John has several goals besides just identifying a ton of birds.

First, John’s goal is to raise funds for conservation in Guatemala and, specifically, for planting cloud forest tree species in illegally deforested areas in order to help stem the tide of cloud forest loss. In Guatemala, tiny villages and big cities alike depend on the water that comes from the mountain top cloud forests. And tons of birds—both resident and migratory—depend on these forests. Sorry to report it, but these cloud forests are disappearing. John wants to raise the funds needed to plant 50,000 cloud forest trees. Planting all these native trees will also help fight global climate change and restore important habitat in IBA GT007 (an important bird area in Guatemala’s central highlands).

Tricolored Heron, photo by John Cahill.

Tricolored Heron, photo by John Cahill.

Second, John wants his Big Year to help us understand bird ecology in Guatemala. His goal is to submit even more complete eBird checklists than last year. Every carefully submitted eBird checklist is like putting a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. John wants the information that he is learning about birds in Guatemala to be available to others around the world, and eBird is the tool that makes that happen.

John is also sharing his photos with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in an exciting new work called the Merlin Project. His photos are being entered into a computer program that will use recognition software to identify birds.  He is also sharing his audio recordings with the Macaulay Library.  John even added a new species of bird to Macaulay’s massive collection: several great recordings of the Ocellated Quail, an elusive quail species in danger of extinction in Guatemala.

So here’s to Big Year 2014: for conservation and science!

You can follow John’s 2014 Big Year and pledge to protect the cloud forest here.