Later this month I’m going back to Costa Rica for about five weeks…
Over the past couple of years I’ve been taking groups of students to Costa Rica and Belize to learn about tropical ecology and environmental issues. Why not learn about this stuff in the field instead of sitting in a lecture room, right? But my upcoming trip is different. I’ll be going on my own to work with a colleague on two projects related to tropical forest conservation. I’ll be learning some new skills (a good thing to do on a sabbatical!), helping out with two amazing projects, and working with great people.
The first project is a survey of birds along the Pacific slope of the mountains just north of San Jose. The goal is to document what birds are there, how abundant they are, and where they are located. I’ll be assisting with the project, since I am not an expert on tropical bird identification. I do have some birding experience in North America. Actually, my first job out of college was working as a field assistant in the Ozarks … observing, mapping, and tagging birds for a long-term ecological project studying neo-tropical migrants. That was a lot of fun! Also, I’ve spent about six weeks in Costa Rica so far with some expert birders, so I have some basic skills to help out. Plus, my primary role is to help document the data we collect. (I’ll be the guy that writes down what we see.)
The second project is related to the reforestation of old pastures, so my background in forest ecology will be more of a help here. Although Costa Rica, in general, has had an excellent track record in preserving forests (something like 25% of the land in Costa Rica has some level of protection), there are some pretty big holes that need attention. In particular, there are very few forests on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, so the necessary habitats for birds, mammals, amphibians and other organisms are cut up into small, isolated fragments. Or, more likely, they simply do not exist. By the way, part of the reason why the bird survey is important is to document where the birds are located along the Pacific slope and identify habitats that might be of higher priority for conservation.
In the Monteverde region, the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation has been involved in purchasing land for reforestation, as well as providing tree seedling to local landowners who plant them on their land. Much of this work centers around La Calandria Reserve and Lodge so I’ll be spending a lot of time there. Over the past 10 years, thousands of seedlings of native trees have been planted in old pastures, fields, and next to coffee plantations with the purpose of helping along the development of forests that used to occur on the landscape. This has been an incredible amount of work! Of course, leaving the fields to regrow on their own is also an option, but the kinds of trees that naturally regenerate in old pastures aren’t usually the ones that are most beneficial for wildlife habitat. Selecting and planting the right trees speeds up the process of reforestation.
So … out of the thousands of trees that have been planted over the past decade, some trees have been successful while others have not. The details of their success (survival rates and growth rates) need to be documented and this is what I’ll be working on. Along with folks from the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation — in particular, Debra Hamilton — I’ll be visiting areas where tree seedlings have been planted in the past to document which trees have been successful and which ones have not. This basic information about many trees in the tropics isn’t well known at all (it’s the edge of our knowledge about tropical reforestation). So, the results will be helpful in making recommendations about how best to approach reforestation to support critical habitat restoration.
I’m planning on blogging about my travels and work while I’m there, so follow along starting February 28th!