Mississippi Kite, Philadelphia Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, American Redstart and Louisiana Waterthrush. From their names alone, it’s the bird list you might expect from a road trip around the USA rather than a trek through mountain rainforests of Caribbean Guatemala. But, each of these species is one of the many Neotropical migrants that fly down from North America to winter in the warmer climes of Central and South America or the Caribbean islands.
Most of these are songbirds such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers and vireos, although there are also many shorebird, raptor and waterfowl species which are considered Neotropical migrants, breeding in North America and following the summer south. It is not directly the temperature which makes them migrate, but their diets of flying insects, caterpillars, fruit and nectar that are not sufficiently available in winter.
Not much was known about the migratory ecology of these birds until the late 1980s, when several long-term studies showed that many migratory bird populations had been experiencing declines, and the most probable cause seemed to be the loss and degradation of habitat in the Neotropics. The resulting concern led to the founding of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Program (Partners in Flight, PIF), back in 1990, and there has been a considerable effort since then to learn more about migratory paths and wintering habitats, to design the best strategies for migrant bird conservation.
The Endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler
One of the most prominent threats that unequivocally came to light as a result of the research into the threats to and conservation of American migratory species is loss of both summer breeding and winter feeding habitats. One example is the striking Golden-cheeked Warbler, also known as the gold finch of Texas, a small passerine whose contrasting gold and black markings make it easy to spot in the Ashe Juniper forests of its home state. This warbler is endemic to Texas and relies on its juniper forests for breeding before migrating with other songbirds down the Sierra Madre in Mexico and wintering in forests of Central America: Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico.
The Golden-cheeked Warbler is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to the decline and fragmentation of both its breeding and wintering habitats. The Ashe Juniper forests in Texas have been under clearance for land development and agriculture, but the IUCN classification for the species says, “The main cause of decline may be logging and firewood-extraction, and agricultural conversion for cattle reducing pine-oak habitats in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.”
Conserving the flyway
Various organisations are involved in the preservation of the tropical habitats which are vital for the survival of neotropical migrants. The Foundation for Eco-development and Conservation (FUNDAECO) has been working to create a network of protected areas, saving the remaining forests of Caribbean Guatemala from clearance for cattle ranching and Oil Palm plantations. This region is a rich habitat for birds migrating between the Americas, as both a destination and a stopover site for species travelling further south (such as the Blackburnian Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Canada Warbler).
Marco Cerezo, FUNDAECO
“The plight of declining migratory bird species needs to be considered as a message about the importance of international conservation- these birds do not operate within political borders, and to ensure their conservation, neither should we,” says Marco Cerezo, General Director of FUNDAECO. “The Golden-cheeked Warbler is a good example of a species facing habitat loss in North and Central America, and we consider our efforts in protecting its habitat in Central and Caribbean Guatemala as an important part of the conservation effort for this species across continents.”
Sierra Santa Cruz
FUNDAECO are currently working with World Land Trust (WLT) to save the last unprotected rainforest in Caribbean Guatemala, the forests of the Sierra Santa Cruz mountain range. The Treasure Chest Appeal launched in early October aims to raise £625,000 for the purchase and protection of a 2,500 acre (1,000 hectare) reserve within Santa Cruz which would become the core of a larger protected area in the future.
“Sierra Santa Cruz is an incredible hotspot for biodiversity in the Caribbean,” says Dan Bradbury, Deputy Director of Communications and Development at WLT. “In addition to 45 migratory species that winter or transit through Sierra Santa Cruz, such as the Golden-cheeked Warbler, there are 214 resident bird species that have been recorded, including globally threatened species like the Great Curassow, Great Tinamou, Keel-billed Motmot and Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Protecting the tropical forests in this region is of incredible importance for the survival of the threatened neotropical migrant and resident birds found here.”
Find out more about the Treasure Chest Appeal to save Sierra Santa Cruz here.
You can also donate by texting TTCA17 with an amount up to £10 to 70070.