When it comes to protecting natural havens for bird species, shade-grown-coffee farms are second only to virgin forest. A writer's journey through Nicaragua illustrates just how key coffee farms can be for the well-being of a certain warbler.
For years Humberto Picado worked in Nicaragua's coffee fields. Today he's one of Finca Esperanza Verde's most accomplished birding guides and a proud educator. "The change is better, to leave the coffee," he tells me, grinning. "More birds. And no mucho machete."
The next day he, Smalling, and I are hiking down a tiny stream flowing under dense primary forest, when Picado suddenly holds up his hand, halting our progress. In front of us, the ground is alive. We've stumbled into an ant swarm; untold thousands of the insects flow across the ground, covering trees and leaves. They're marching up and down saplings and vines and forming bridges of themselves to cross the stream. Ferreting among them, bills flashing this way and that, is a crazy-quilt collection of ravenous birds eating the insects. Familiar species hunt wingtip to wingtip with exotic tropical residents. A Louisiana waterthrush feeds near a gray-headed tanager. A Wilson's warbler stabs at the insects beside red-throated ant-tanagers. Next to me Picado sits on his haunches and thumbs through a worn copy of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, the closest thing there is to a Nicaraguan field guide. Five feet away, Smalling is exuberant. Within minutes he has three new life-list birds: the rufous-breasted ant-thrush, the buffy tuftedcheek, and the blue-black grosbeak, a cardinal-sized bird the color of an indigo bunting.
And there's a golden-winged warbler in the mix, as well. The bird stalks among the ants 40 feet away, and I watch it through my binoculars. For a moment I imagine that bird back home, flitting through the highbush blueberries of the southern Appalachians, yellow epaulets golden in the rising sun. My notion is as cheering as the sight of Picado, his head buried in a bird book, his face lit with a smile.