Emblematic Bird Species
& Endangered Habitats
EMBLEMATIC SPECIES REPRESENT ENTIRE ECOSYSTEMS AND REGIONS.
They are well-known locally, nationally, and internationally. They are ‘rallying points’ for conservation, and in the case of the four we have chosen for our projects in Honduras, they are also endangered in their own right, and for this reason are of great concern to the local communities that play a key role in their protection. They are emblematic not just
of entire threatened ecosystems, but in particular of certain
endangered habitats that they need in order to survive.
ENDANGERED HABITAT: THORN FORESTS
Emblematic Species: Honduran Emerald
Colibrí Esmeralda Hondureña, Amazilia luciae
(IUCN Red List: Endangered & Decreasing)
(See its range map)
Other species and races of concern: White-bellied Wren (Uropsila leucogastra hawkinsi, endemic race and range isolate: LC); Green-backed Sparrow (Arremonops chloronotus twomeyi, endemic race: LC)
Ecosystem: Caribbean Slope tropical dry forest
Target Regions: Valle de Agalta (IBA HN007), Valle de Aguán (IBA HN006), Valle de Telíca, Valle de Olancho
Protected Areas: Honduran Emerald Reserve (“El Polígono,” Valle de Aguán). Almost all other remaining habitat is in private hands
Thorn forests are found in isolated, fragmented patches in the driest parts of intermontane basins (“valles”) on the Caribbean Slope of Honduras and Guatemala. They were far more widespread, and continuous, during the colder and drier Pleistocene, but have become greatly reduced in extent due to the influx of pine forests and, more recently, the relentless pressures of agriculture and cattle ranching. The thorn forests of greatest concern to the HOCC are those that are most isolated from the rest, in northeastern Honduras, containing the iconic Honduran Emerald—the country’s only endemic bird species—as well as endemic races of avifauna and numerous unique plants, vertebrates, and invertebrates.
The HONDURAN EMERALD, a cause célèbre of Honduran conservation, has been studied extensively in the face of threats to its habitat from infrastructure development projects such as highways and dams. Fewer than 10,000 hectares of thorn forest remain, and almost all of it except for the Honduran Emerald Reserve--established in large part due to the efforts of HOCC member Fito Steiner--is slated for removal to make way for export production (agriculture, cattle, and biofuels) within the next 25 years. Although the Honduran Emerald also occurs in a few non-thorn dry forests in western Honduras, and could feasibly survive extinction there, numerous other thorn forest species and races will no doubt be lost if uncontrolled development continues in the eastern Valles.
To protect the Honduran Emerald and its habitat,
the HOCC advocates three major approaches:
1) local community-based conservation of public reserves
under the rubric of model forests, community forests,
and microwatershed reserves;
2) private reserves owned by local landowners;
3) national reserves under the protection of the Honduran government.
In reality, de facto private reserves already exist, because almost all thorn forest is found on cattle ranches. Landowners often allow it to persist because they value the shade that protects springs and water courses. If landowners allow their thorn forests to be cut down, they lose the only sources of water for their cattle during the harsh dry season.
Under the 2007 Honduran Forestry, Protected Areas, and Wildlife Law, several mechanisms exist for protection of thorn forest. These include payment for environmental services, establishment of reserves, and adding value to habitat (i.e., making it attractive for local people to protect) via extraction of non-timber products such as natural dyes and fibers. The HOCC is committed to supporting all of these options. In addition, we support increased research efforts in partnership with local landowners and communities, enhanced environmental education efforts in local schools, and responsible ecotourism.
ENDANGERED HABITAT: OLD-GROWTH CLOUD FORESTS
Emblematic species: Three-wattled Bellbird
Pájaro Campana, Procnias tricarunculatus
(IUCN Red List: Vulnerable & Decreasing)
Other species and races of concern: Green-breasted Mountain-Gem (Lampornis sybillae, regional endemic; LC); White-eared Ground-Sparrow (Melozone leucotis, endemic, isolated population; LC); Wedge-tailed Sabrewing (Campylopterus pampa, endemic, isolated population; LC); Highland Guan (Penelopina nigra, Vulnerable & Decreasing); Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomochrus mocinno, Near Threatened & Decreasing; USA Endangered Species)
Ecosystem: montane rain forest (higher than 1000 meters above sea level)
Target Region: Cordillera de Agalta (including IBA HN012 Sierra de Agalta)
Protected Areas: P.N. Sierra de Agalta, P.N. El Boquerón, P.N. Montañas del Carbón, P.N. Sierra del Río Tinto
More than 75 cloud forests are found in Honduras, over half of which are in protected reserves. Others are either given over primarily to shade coffee production, or are on their way to protected status. Those found in eastern Honduras are the least-known and most poorly-protected, and include one of the largest cloud forests north of the Andes (2nd only to the Sierra de las Minas in Guatemala), the Cordillera de Agalta, broken up into four protected areas and containing some 120,000 hectares of old-growth. Unique habitats include old-growth pine forests, mid-level rain forests, “classic” cloud forest, vast cave systems, high-altitude hepatic “mossy” woods, and on peaks over 2000 meters, elfin forests and dwarf wind scrubs, with flora more similar to the northern Andes and southern Appalachians than to neighboring woods at lower altitudes.
Agalta and its surrounding valleys harbor over 500 species of birds as well as untold numbers of other floral and faunal species, some endemic to single mountaintops in the 200km-long chain, and many either endangered or threatened. Jaguars, Baird’s tapirs, and three species of monkeys are still common.
One of Agalta’s most unique and outstanding species is the THREE-WATTLED BELLBIRD, the loudest bird in the world, a spectacular cotinga that breeds in cloud forests, feeds on wild avocados, and congregates in large and raucous numbers outside of breeding season.
As an emblematic species, the bellbird has been used as the Sierra de Agalta National Park’s symbol for two decades. It is known locally by many names, including calandria, pájaro cafetero (coffee bird, because its arrival in certain areas heralds the coffee harvest), and pájaro pimentero (allspice bird, heralding the ripening of allspice fruits in the Pech indigenous region of El Carbón). However, the bellbird cannot survive in the fragmented habitats encroaching ever further on the cloud forests in Agalta’s remotest reaches. The Sierra de Agalta National Park, despite having existed on paper for 25 years, receives very little protection beyond what is provided by local villagers, while two brand-new reserves, the Montañas del Carbón and Sierra del Río Tinto national parks, are in a similar state. Hydroelectric projects, unsustainable coffee, migratory agriculture, and cattle pastures continue to eat away at the forest.
The HOCC supports greatly increased publicity for the Cordillera de Agalta, and recommends its possible proposal as a Biosphere Reserve connected via corridors to the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve to the east and to the Valle de Agalta thorn forests, virgin pine forests, and Botaderos National Park to the north. The HOCC partners directly with the ICF in the town of Gualaco and with local conservationists to promote a wide range of education and management options. We carried out a major biological expedition to the highest peak (La Picucha, 2354m) in 2012 that garnered several species of plants and animals new to science.
ENDANGERED HABITAT: OLD-GROWTH PINE FORESTS
Emblematic species: Red-throated Caracara
Cacao, Ibycter americanus
(IUCN Red List: Least Concern, but Honduran population
may be the last one remaining in Middle America)
(See its range map, but note that IUCN data are not updated
to reflect its recent rediscovery in Honduras)
Hear its call
CLICK HERE FOR INFORMATION ON THE 2013 NEST DISCOVERY
Other species and races of concern: Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia, Endangered & Decreasing; USA Endangered Species), King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa, LC & Decreasing), Ocellated Quail (Cyrtonyx ocellatus, Vulnerable & Decreasing)
Ecosystem: pine-oak woodlands
Target Regions: Bosque Modelo del Noreste de Olancho (municipalities of Guata, Gualaco, and San Esteban); La Muralla
Protected Areas: Parque Nacional Montaña de Botaderos, Parque Nacional La Muralla. Other areas containing old-growth pine belong to local communities as Areas Comunitarias and Microcuencas
The fact that Honduras is primarily a pine forest country comes as a shock to many first-time visitors. Around 60% of the national territory is covered by pines; the southern natural limit of pines in the New World is in bordering northern Nicaragua. Logging and other uses of pine forests have constituted an important sector of the Honduran economy since the earliest days of the Spanish colony, when pitch and turpentine were valued for medicine, boat-building, and other activities. Over the centuries, pine forests have been burned relentlessly to foster grass for cattle-ranching, ravaged by lightning-set fires, and decimated by periodic infestations of pine bark beetle. Nevertheless, some seven species of pine have continued to spread from the evolutionary home of Pinus in the Mexican highlands, often replacing rain forests and dry forests in the process.
Though pine forests soils are almost always useless for agriculture, the Honduran love affair with pine trees—the national symbol—continues, and the excesses of the timber industry are finally beginning to be braked by several decades of activism on the part of local communities, environmental groups, and a new, progressive Forestry Law which places an emphasis on sustainable harvesting and non-timber uses as well as biodiversity protection. A leader in community-based conservation and sustainable extraction programs is the northeastern town of Gualaco, once a major center of pine logging, where in the 1970s and 1980s vast, thick forests of old-growth Pinus oocarpa and other species with girths over two meters still existed. Now, only isolated and embattled fragments of this majestic forest survive, but elsewhere, large areas of bark beetle-damaged but never-logged woods spreads across an area some 200km east to west and 50km north to south, interspersed with recently-logged stands and a scattering of tiny villages. Sadly, a new threat looms -- open-pit iron mining, which is now legally allowed even within national parks, and threatens to drastically transform local landscapes and lifeways. Even as the pine forests are finally being allowed to recover, communities are now being lured with promises of wealth in exchange for the rights of a host of international companies to strip away the biodiversity altogether.
In 2012, visionary conservationists in the region, led by HOCC member Rafael Ulloa—a highly-respected former mayor, teacher, and landowner—celebrated the establishment of the Northeastern Olancho Model Forest (Bosque Modelo del Noreste de Olancho) within the Ibero-American Model Forest Network, including the totalities of Gualaco, San Esteban (including the El Carbón Pech tribe), and Guata (home to the Nahoa ethnic group) municipalities. This builds on a recent history of progressive actions by local villages to delimit, protect, and sustainably manage their pine forests as Areas Comunitarias and micro-watersheds. One of the primary groups active in supporting this has been The Nature Conservancy in its Pino-Encino project, focusing particularly on the Golden-cheeked Warbler, which spends the majority of its life outside of its Texas Hill Country breeding grounds in Honduras.
HOCC co-founder Mark Bonta has been obsessed with the most endangered and iconic of the pine forest’s avifauna, the RED-THROATED CARACARA, for almost 20 years, and wrote about early search efforts in Seven Names for the Bellbird: Conservation Geography in Honduras (2003). Since his book was published, this species, considered extinct in Central America, was officially rediscovered in the region, and efforts began to pinpoint nest locations and search for the answer to why an innocuous, non-persecuted, wasp-eating raptor that was once abundant has declined to between 20 and 30 breeding pairs and disappeared everywhere else between Mexico and Panama. Is a disease to blame, or is some other factor such as deforestation at fault? Is it possible to save the Honduran population? The "cacao" is intimately known to local people, who are very interested in protecting and preserving it as an icon of the Model Forest. In June 2013 the HOCC, in concert with The Peregrine Fund, proudly announced the discovery of a nest, which will help immensely in the effort -- for more information, click here.
ENDANGERED HABITAT: OLD-GROWTH RAIN FORESTS
Emblematic species: Harpy Eagle
Aguila Harpía, Harpia harpyja
(IUCN Red List: Near Threatened & Decreasing;
USA Foreign Endangered Species)
See its range map
Other species and races of concern: Crested Eagle (Morphnus guianensis, Near Threatened & Decreasing), Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus, Endangered & Decreasing), Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao, LC & Decreasing), Great Curassow (Crax rubra, Vulnerable & Decreasing)
Ecosystem: lowland rain forest (below 1000 meters above sea level)
Target Locations/Protected Areas: Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (IBA HN008), Tawahka Biosphere Reserve (IBA HN013), Parque Nacional Patuca (IBA HN016)
Millions of hectares of lowland rain forest, home to vast numbers of species, once seamlessly connected eastern Honduras to northern Nicaragua via the reserves listed above and the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. They are now drastically fragmented despite official protection measures stretching back to the early 1980s. Active deforestation fronts moving from the northwest and southwest have barely been impacted by multimillion-dollar protection programs and the pleas of Pech, Miskito, and Tawahka indigenous groups. A series of gigantic dams now under construction threatens to destroy the viability of one of the region’s principal waterways, the Patuca River, while illegal hunting and fishing, narcotics trafficking, slash-and-burn agriculture, and cattle ranching eat away at the remaining forests at an alarming rate.
The top avian predator in the region and largest raptor in the Americas, the massive HARPY EAGLE, is, sadly, not as shy of human beings as it should be, and is often shot and eaten when encountered. In 2012, a pair of Harpy Eagles successfully bred at a nest in the Patuca National Park and iwas at the time the only known breeding pair of this endangered species known north of Panama. You can see a brief video here. Only a few pairs of this species probably still exist in the region.
HOCC co-founder Robert Hyman has also spearheaded a publicity campaign for the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve; you can watch to documentary he produced, Paraíso en Peligro, here. Hyman strongly advocates greater emphasis on real protection for the Río Plátano and for the lifeways of its Pech and Miskito residents.
The HOCC is also focused on exploring a neglected but extremely important element of the region’s biodiversity: unclimbed high peaks in the region such as Pico Dama, Punta de Piedra, and the Cordillera entre Ríos, which contain a completely unknown range of species. In 2013, HOCC leds expeditions to two isolated eastern Honduran peaks that included rapid assessments of plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
Appropriate conservation strategies for this vast region must focus on community-based conservation but not exclude the primary actors, cattle ranchers, many of whom are absentee landowners. Ultimately, the Honduran government and international partners must also dedicate many more resources to the stabilization of the deforestation fronts, while seriously questioning the need for the Patuca hydroelectric projects that will spell the end of traditional lifeways for the Tawahka people and for many Ladinos and Miskitos as well.