Some days I have fantasies about being a scientist, imagining long days in exotic field locations, listening for birdcalls in lush rainforest or tracking mammals through the desert. When I met Katie Goodall, PhD student (and my housemate in Matagalpa), and found out she’s researching birds and coffee farms, I immediately hoped she’d let me tag along.
With little persuasion on my part, one day Katie and I got on the Jinotega-bound bus and wound up the road into coffee country.
After jumping off at the highway, we hiked down the road to Selva Negra, a coffee plantation, hotel, and pioneer of ecotourism in Nicaragua in the 80’s. On either side of us rows of coffee bushes spilled over the rolling hills, interspersed with mature trees that cast shade below.
Selva Negra, like most farms in Nicaragua, grows Arabica beans that need some shade to thrive. As a result of this planting strategy, some mature trees and forest are left intact. A byproduct is greater habitat for birds and other animals compared with non-shade-grown coffee.
Selva Negra’s coffee is also grown organically, with natural fertilizers and without pesticides, which also protects birds and other animals.
Katie uses fine-threaded mist nets to catch and release birds to find out which species are present on the farms.
In the late afternoon she chose three sites for the nets within the plantings, each at a different angle and in slightly different environments. We put up the poles, and strung out and untangled the nets, then wound them up so they wouldn’t catch any night creatures.
The coffee bushes had burst into bloom with fragrant white flowers, their lemony scent akin to gardenia. The sun had dipped lower in the sky by the time we finished prepping all the nets. In the late afternoon, the plantation came alive with the songs of wrens and oropendulas, one of my favorite birds, with a looping, musical call and feet-long woven nests that dangle from the outer branches of mature trees. We packed up for the night, planning to come back early the next morning when the birds would be most active.
Over a dinner with giant homemade tortillas at the hotel’s restaurant I asked Katie more about her research.
Her agroecology degree, and in turn the question guiding her studies, are complex: she wants to know how coffee farmers’ decision-making is affecting the environment. She’s measuring that effect through the abundance and diversity of birds and trees, and focusing on farms in cooperatives, as opposed to large-scale plantations owned by a single person.
So her research involves not just the birds and the forest but the human players. This element fascinates me, having spent time in coffee-growing communities and seeing all the pressures small farmers face: the politics and power dynamics of cooperatives; fluctuating prices in international markets; land distribution; attitudes about gender and work; and the list goes on.
So the unique thing about Katie’s research is she’s as passionate about understanding the challenges farmers face as protecting birds. She’s hoping her research will benefit the farmers she’s surveying. Before she left Nicaragua she invited participating farmers to a meeting to hear her preliminary results and get their feedback.
The morning after we set up the nets we woke up at 5 am but it was so windy we waited another hour to make our first foray. We opened up the nets, then came back on a half-hour schedule for each net to check for birds.
One site was easy to locate next to a snag with a neat hole ten feet up, telltale for a toucanet nest. (Toucanets are small toucans, with a longer, narrower beak). We soon caught sight of a parent in nearby tree, waiting to swoop down and perch on the edge of the hole to feed its young.
Between the second and third sites we spotted a tiny hummingbird nest a little above eye level in a bush at the edge of the trail, but a mirror held above it showed no eggs or other sign of life.
Soon the quick jogs between the nets became familiar. As we moved from the sun-dappled plantation to the cool forest trail and back, we caught new scents beyond the coffee blossoms: musky peccary, the mossy forest smell.
In one net we caught a delicate hummingbird, which Katie freed and released with minimal study, since their hyper-fast metabolism makes them sensitive to capture.
While I didn’t handle any birds, I did free a giant cicada, unwinding the thin threads while holding its body to keep the propeller wings from vibrating. Katie said it was good practice for other winged creatures!
I had to leave that afternoon, but Katie stayed at the farm a couple more days, and returned each week over the course of another month. When she was in town, she spent hours a day inputting data, a part of the scientist’s life that didn’t make it into my fantasy. But I can report the birdcalls were beautiful, and that my taste for coffee grew in complexity.