27 – 3 March 2014
Before we even left home, we did a bit of research on birding in Guatemala and where to go to look for the rare birds, particularly the Ocellated Quail. Every bird species we looked for on eBird had a sighting by John Cahill. In fact, nearly every record we could find had either John Cahill or Rob Cahill’s name all over it. So of course, we had to find the Cahills and learn the secrets of birding in Guatemala.
In our search for the Cahills we turned up a project called Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC) run by none other than Rob and Tara Cahill outside of Cobán. Community Cloud Forest Conservation is a not-for-profit conservation organization that focuses on education, teaching agroecology, empowering women, and preserving the cloud forest. Although it may seem strange that a conservation organization focuses on empowering women, empowering women may in fact be one of the best ways to conserve habitat. The key factor in every single conservation issue we are faced with is population – more people consume more resources of every kind, period. Nowhere we have traveled is that more evident than Guatemala, as vast swaths of forest have been cut down as a growing population converts more and more forest to fields and pastures and harvests more wood for cooking.
CCFC works with men and women in remote communities on the edge of the cloud forest to stem the deforestation at the critical edge of forest and community. They teach agroecology in the community; teaching them sustainable farming practices that do not rely on cutting down the cloud forest. CCFC also has program that provides young women with the resources to stay in school. Empowering women and keeping them in school really does help protect the cloud forest because educated and empowered women have fewer kids and hence less cloud forest needs to be cut down to plant corn to feed the family. Several of the women who have gone through the programs at CCFC are in their mid-20s and have no children, which is actually pretty amazing considering that in rural communities most women finish only 6 years of school at most, have their first child in their mid teens, and will have 8 or more living children in their life. These child birth statistics are astounding, beyond what we had imagined! Many young women have their first child at 14! In addition to teaching agroecology to men and women they also teach communities about birds, the cloud forest, and conservation. CCFC uses the bird sleuth curriculum that was developed by the folks at Cornell to teach children about the wonders of birds.
When we arrived at Finca Rubel Chaim (the home of CCFC) we were met with the warmest welcome by the Cahills. After our introduction to the work of CCFC and a quick tour of the ranch we headed out to look for the Ocellated Quail.
Ocellated Quail are elusive and rare birds that that occur in pine/oak forests and surrounding fields from Chiapas to northern Nicaragua. Ocellated Quail are listed as threatened by Bird Life International and very little is known about the life history of this bird. Although rare everywhere, there are a few better locations to look for them, and they are seen with regularity at and surrounding Finca Rubel Chaim. In the late afternoons they will often come down to the dirt road for a little dust bath. Josh and I spent three full days walking the roads, fields and pines without so much as hearing the a single quail call. We were starting to joke that this bird really did not exist, that the few photos of it online were photoshopped Montezuma Quails. On our fourth day, after another quail-less morning, we went to town to resupply and came back towards the ranch to give it one more try. We headed up a side road across the valley but encountered a lot of people and dogs and we knew that there was no way we were going to see a quail with that many people on the road. A bit disappointed, we headed back to the ranch. Just before reaching the gate of Finca Rubel Chaim, Josh and I both gasped for air and mumbled something unintelligible to each other while Josh cautiously stopped the truck and we frantically reached for our binoculars – there was a little brown lump in the road that looked just like a dust-bathing quail. Miraculously, there just 25’ in front of us was a male Ocellated Quail.
We got amazing looks and he even stayed on the edge of the road for a couple of minutes and posed for the camera. After a few minutes of glorious looks and lots of photos, we tried to sneak closer to the quail but he slipped into the tall grass. Just as he did, however, a female scurried across the track to join him. She had been hiding in the grassy median the entire time. We could barely believe it. We just saw not one but two Ocellated Quails!
While at Finca Rubel Chaim, we also took the opportunity to hike up to the ridge and see a bit of the cloud forest. The hike was great and it was nice to see that there is still some cloud forest that supports many of the cloud forest species. CCFC is working to reforest much of the area around the ridge to provide additional habitat for birds. They even have a population of wintering Golden-cheeked Warblers, and are working to reforest oaks in the appropriate zones to expand habitat for this endangered species.
In addition to birding around the ranch we tried to help out CCFC even if it was only in a small way. Josh worked on a nagging computer problem that Rob was having with some of his education software and I contributed lesson plans and restoration articles to their library. It was only a little but we wanted to give back what we could.
While we were at CCFC we also had the opportunity to meet their son John Cahill, the 18 year old prodigy behind all of those eBird records. John maybe one of the youngest birders in Guatemala, but he is also one of the best. His ear is amazing, he knows every little chip in the forest! Nor have we ever met anyone more passionate about birding. This year John is working on his second big year in Guatemala. He did his first big year in 2012 at age 16 and saw 591 species. John is trying to beat his 2012 record while raising money for cloud forest reforestation (http://bigyear.cloudforestconservation.org/johncahill). John shared some of his birding spots and tips and we were able to enjoy a morning of birding around Finca Rubel Chaim with him and a couple of his clients (He’s already guiding at 18!). We had a great morning of birding and learned a few new songs from John. He also joined us a few days later to bird in the western highlands, searching for the Black-capped Siskin for us and other rarities that John was hoping to find to add to his big year list.
As we have driven around Guatemala (and Chiapas and Veracruz in Mexico in particular) we have been greatly saddened by the horrific amount of deforestation. Nearly every hillside is devoid of trees and filled with either corn or cattle, no matter how steep the slope nor how far from the road. It is truly depressing to see the environmental devastation in these most populous regions of middle America.
However, after spending four days at Community Cloud Forest Conservation with the Cahills, we have hope because we can see changes happening. As well we have inspiration to find our opportunity to start a conservation organization in a place that needs it so badly and where so much can be done. Little by little we can make a difference and Community Cloud Forest Conservation is doing just that. Often the key to conservation is through the people. Our visit to CCFC was truly inspiring and we hope that someday we can do the same. Thank you Tara, Rob, and John!