by Eliot Berz, Tennessee River Gorge Trust
It all started with avian technicians at the Tennessee River Gorge Trust (TRGT) attaching 16 geolocators to a particular neotropical migratory songbird, the Louisiana Waterthrush. After wearing the tracking devices for a full year, five of these birds returned to the Tennessee River Gorge equipped with geolocators full of fascinating data. The geolocators revealed the migratory pathways and wintering destinations of the five birds; two of which spent their winter around the Petén region of Guatemala. The following year, ornithologists at TRGT, University of Toledo, and Harding University were approved to expand the project by attaching 60 geolocators to Louisiana Waterthrush and 60 to the sympatric Worm-eating Warbler. The aim of this larger study was to investigate the migratory connectivity of distinct local populations and explore the physical effects of geolocators on the species.
In order to incorporate the human element into this research project, TRGT initiated a cultural exchange component in partnership with La Paz Chattanooga. The plan was to connect the communities on each end of the birds’migration. In the fall of 2018, TRGT and La Paz Chattanooga traveled to the Petén region of Guatemala to meet with partners and commence this cultural exchange program. TRGT and La Paz staff partnered with the Petén Birders Association and Caoba Birders Club to travel throughout villages in the region to talk with school groups about the project. Letters, artwork, and video messages were shared with Guatemalan students from students in Tennessee. The Guatemalan students then sent the Tennessee crew back home with beautiful artwork of their favorite migratory birds and letters of their own.
The next phase of the project begun in the spring of 2019 when TRGT brought 3 members of the Petén Birders Association and Wildlife Conservation Society to Tennessee. The three conservationists flew over the Gulf of Mexico, just as the Louisiana Waterthrush had done earlier that month, and began an exciting two-week adventure. The group met with school groups, presented community lectures, and established relationships with many local groups.
The Petén representatives shared artwork and letters between students from Guatemala and Tennessee followed by moving messages about how these migratory birds connect our communities. The group taught science classes about conservation in Guatemala, Spanish classes about Guatemalan culture, and community members about our shared responsibility to protect the environment. But that was not all. Each morning before the crew met with community groups, the Guatemalan partners accompanied the TRGT bird research team into the field to recapture banded Louisiana Waterthrushes that had just traveled from Central America themselves.
The Petén Birders Association and Caoba Birders Club work day in and day out to educate their surrounding communities about bird conservation and more broadly, the long-term benefits of protecting the environment. The group is also leading by example through demonstrating how eco-tourism and birding can provide economic incentives to leave their forests and farms intact, rather than selling the lands for incompatible land uses such as monoculture oil palm plantations. Our other partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Flores office, works to use compelling science to inform the protection of Guatemala’s unique wildlife. These organizations work to protect many of the same migratory species that we protect here in Tennessee, and in some cases, maybe even the same individual birds! This program is still growing. TRGT has partnered with Velo Coffee Roasters on a microlot coffee sourced from Guatemala. The proceeds from this coffee will support the Petén Birders Association in their mission to promote bird conservation and environmental education in the Petén region of Guatemala. Not only did this exchange highlight our international responsibility to protect the species that call both places home, but it also used migratory birds as a means to demonstrate how we are much more connected and similar than we often realize. Stay tuned for more exciting news. This is just the beginning!
This project was made possible by the Lyndhurst Foundation and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Partners: La Paz Chattanooga, Petén Birders Association, Caoba Birders Club, University of Toledo, Harding University, University of Tennessee Chattanooga, Wildlife Conservation Society.
Special thanks to Marcial Cordova Alvarez, Delfido Noel Vicente, Benedicto Lucas, Roan McNab, Dr. Henry Streby, Gunnar Kramer, Silas Fischer, and Dr. Patrick Ruhl.