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Thursday, January 31, 2013

What we do, and why

We at Estacion Biologica FUNDECI/GAIA have been working a long time in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Several years ago, we appealed to the local authorities and the Ministry of Natural Resource and the Environment (MARENA) to provide a presence in the area, which was until the late 1900's, only a paper tiger. People were cutting trees, constructing houses, hunting, boating, and all kinds of other activities which were incompatible with the identity of Laguna de Apoyo as a natural area and, furthermore, illegal. 
The area was designated part of the Sistema Nacional de Areas Protegidas in 1991, but this decree did not save the area from the ravenous pressure of unsustainable uses, because there were no park guards nor any other kind of systematic vigilance in the area. Timber cutters, weekend boaters and hunters, and developers had a free-for-all in the area. Dozens of lots were cleared and houses built, including a 65-house development aimed at the US market for timeshares. 
While all this was going on, FUNDECI/GAIA was quietly (and at times, not so quietly) working with the community and the local and national government offices to save Laguna de Apoyo as a natural area. Among the first projects executed in this area was the construction of a guardhouse for the reserve, located at the main entrance to the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve on the edge of the volcanic crater. 
nature Nicaragua
Jeffrey McCrary of FUNDECI/GAIA and Cruz Palacios of MARENA at the Laguna de Apoyo guard station. Photo by Rebecca Orr.
To perform this feat, several negotiations were required. First, MARENA agreed to hire a park guard to provide vigilance in the reserve. Until then, this area had no one to count on for vigilance and control. The mayor of Catarina, Juan Manuel Gallegos, donated a small piece of municipal land for the guardhouse. MARENA supplied a series of design criteria for the guardhouse, also. A local builder, Francisco Aguilar, agreed to perform the construction at a very reasonable cost. The Small Projects Fund of the Canadian Embassy provided part of the financing, the remainder paid by funds from FUNDECI/GAIA and from Patricia and Olga Lopez. 
This guardhouse was finished July 6, 2000, approximately one hour before a mortal earthquake destroyed hundreds of houses in Masaya and the Laguna de Apoyo area. The rustic design for our guardhouse, however, held fast, and no more than a crack or two resulted. And the timing was perfect, because the structure was immediately put into use by the authorities in the rescue efforts, as hundreds were evacuated from Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve and its vicinity with the participation of the Civil Defense, National Police, and Red Cross. 
nature Nicaragua
Counting birds can not be done at a more pleasing location. Pier-Olivier Boudreault, intern with FUNDECI/GAIA, takes a break by the shore of Lake Apoyo. Photo by Catherine Bard-Duchesneau.
We have been very busy with many other projects since then, too. Some of our projects are direct actions in conservation, others are in research and monitoring of the natural resources in our beautiful natural area. Our studies of the endemic fishes of Laguna de Apoyo began many years ago, and continue into the present. In 2008, we began a long-term bird monitoring project, in which many volunteers and interns have worked alongside the staff at Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo. Data on bird populations is gathered monthly in several points. Our monitoring efforts have been expanded to include vegetation, bats, butterflies, and moths. Several students have done internships in these areas in conjunction with the monitoring project.
internships Nicaragua
Our interns work on their data as dinner is getting prepared. Life is good at Estacion Biologica. Photo by  Rebecca Orr.
Our volunteers and interns work on projects of benefit to the wild nature of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve and the communities in and around the reserve. Some of the projects involve wildlife, other recent projects have included erosion control, reforestation, recycling, and environmental education. Many volunteers and interns also study Spanish at Apoyo Spanish School, which is also located in Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo. Our school is the oldest in Nicaragua, and our teachers have trained the teachers of many other schools in Nicaragua in our successful methodology. 
Our Spanish students sometimes get hands-on experience in Nicaraguan cooking styles. Photo by Rebecca Orr.
Protecting the environment in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve goes beyond prohibiting hunting and cutting trees. There are several competing uses for the natural resources of this area, and far too many people to police. The best protection mechanisms for the forests and lake are those which take advantage of natural forces, such as the economic benefits the natural resources provide the local people. We at FUNDECI/GAIA work as closely as we can with the National Tourism Institute (INTUR), the National Police and MARENA to protect the natural resources of this gem.
Among our most notable projects is the development and approval of the first management plan for Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. GAIA worked closely with the sponsoring NGO, Liga de Cooperativas de Nicaragua (CLUSA) on contract by MARENA, to collect data and organize community participation in the management plan. There was plenty of opposition to the process, particularly on the part of unscrupulous land developers and real estate brokers, all of which was eventually overcome, and the management plan was approved by MARENA in 2010.
Some of these trees in our reforestation nursery are grown in re-used plastic milk bags. Photo by Phil Johnson.
Our guests are invited to help us in the ways that fit best their capacities. Many people actually enjoy "playing in dirt", which is essentially what is entailed by our reforestation project. Each year, we plant hundreds or even thousands of trees in critical points in the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Our homegrown trees are produced with compost made from kitchen waste and leaves, and the seeds collected from the natural forest of our reserve. We are not paid by anyone to plant trees, because our intention is not to grow trees for commercially lucrative harvest. Instead, we are re-creating forest where it once was. Planting trees requires a small amount of capital, but lots of labor, so we depend heavily on volunteers. Want to donate your time to make the world a greener place? 
Swimming in Laguna de Apoyo is beyond words. Photo by Rebecca Orr.
In everything we do at Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo, we try to enjoy ourselves and have fun. Between it all, a dip in the clear, warm water of the lake is an absolute requirement. Day or night, the lake invites.
Nancite (Byrsonima crassifolia) is a wild fruit of our area, abundant in season and worth a taste. Photo by Jeffrey McCrary.
We eat well at Estacion Biologica, and sometimes, we even eat from the forest. a variety of chile is native to our forests, and we harvest it in season for our use, from plants which grow right in our yard. Other edible fruits abound, most of them alien to the uninitiated. Learning about the wild fruits which Nicaraguans consume is part of learning about this wonderful country. 
Dawn is gorgeous over the lake, but you must get up to enjoy it. Photo by Catherine Bard-Duchesneau.
While we are picking up trash, recycling, planting trees, counting monkeys, or SCUBA diving, we are also living. We have bills to pay, too, and your contribution helps. Please come by to have dinner with us, or stay a few days in our rustic lodge. If you wish to make a financial contribution to our program, we are always grateful, too.
You are being watched. Photo by Hans Rademaker.
Every day we see something new, often something very pleasant, about Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. For instance, howler monkeys once were a rare sight at Estacion Biologica, as they generally stayed at least 500 meters away. The forests have improved in the past decade, thanks to numerous conservation measures implemented in the reserve; now we have them in the yard practically every day. We are not far from the city, but the nature is still here, and we are working to keep it that way. Want to help? Please contact us.
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nature Nicaragua
Just add water, and you are there. Photo by Catherine Bard-Duchesneau.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Downtown Managua

Tourists visiting Nicaragua often avoid the capital, Managua. The city is not too large, as capital cities go, but it's not particularly user-friendly for the uninitiated, especially for those who don't speak Spanish. Nonetheless, Managua is the epicenter of Nicaraguan society, and all Nicaraguans refer to it for its abundant cultural activities. 
An identifying feature of Managua is the legacy of a terrible earthquake in 1972, in which thousands were killed and most citizens of the capital were left homeless. Rubble can still be found in the capital, and half-destroyed buildings are occupied by squatters living in unimaginably insecure and degrading conditions, in an area once graced with urban, middle-class architecture. Nonetheless, a few structures remain from the past, and there are other gems in Managua, too. Here are some photos from downtown Managua, near the epicenter of the terrible 1972 earthquake. 

managua cathedral
Managua "old" cathedral, now in ruins. Photo by Joyce Procure.
The former downtown area of Managua languished for decades after the earthquake. The cathedral unusable, entire neighborhoods turned to rubble, and shells of buildings inhabited by indigent people in appallling conditions. Some functions continued in downtown Managua after the earthquake, for instance, the National Palace was left strong, as was the Bank of America building. But ruins and extreme poverty were everywhere, along with all the social ills that accompany them.
Managua cathedral
Side view of the ruins of the "old" Managua cathedral. Photo by Joyce Procure.
The area has recently become dramatically revitalized through the injection of large sums of money from the government. Parks have been restored and police are present day and night to make them safe. Slums and rubble have been cleared in several areas, replaced by housing projects. Decent housing for poor people has become a primary priority again, after a long hiatus.
Nicaraguan architecture
The National Palace withstood the 1972 earthquake intact. Its strong, imposing lines suggest  German styles from the 1930's. Photo by Joyce Procure.
Only a few years back, a visit to this area was best left to the valiant. Today, the area is safe and is gaining traffic and life. Managua once again has a center.
Carlos Fonseca
The banners strung on the poles are based on the blue-and-white national flag, and the red-and-black Sandinista flag. Behind the flags are found the tombs of  Sandinista leaders Carlos Fonseca, Santos Lopez, and Tomas Borge. Photo by Joyce Procure.
Managua continues to be the center for culture in Nicaragua, where concerts and plays are found and all kinds of attractions are found, particularly for the person who speaks Spanish.
The Presidential Palace was built during the last decade of the twentieth century with financing from Taiwan. Photo by Joyce Procure.

The Nicaraguan National Assembly occupies what is known as the Bank of America Building in downtown Managua. This building was among the very few multistory structures that survived the 1972 Managua earthquake. Photo by Joyce Procure.

Prior to the 1972 earthquake, the Managua Cathedral was utilized by the upper classes of Managua.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Illegal traffic in Nicaraguan wildlife II

Human nature drives us to want to acquire things that are beautiful. We can't be satisfied to see a beautiful object in nature and then leave it there. For instance, some kinds of Nicaraguan wildlife are subject to the willfulness of humans to treat wild animals as objects that can be bought and sold.
Macaws are the largest members of the New World Parrot family (Psittacidae); they are spectacular, gregarious, and "smart" birds. Two species of this group are found in nature in Nicaragua: the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), and the Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus, previously named Ara ambigua). The Nicaraguan populations of both these species have suffered greatly because of the pet trade.
This is a Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), which has been subjected to coloration, through chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, to make it appear to be something even more exotic. Sale of these majestic animals should be banned, as well as mistreatment by processes such as feather bleaching. Photo by Matthias Geiger.
Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) no longer inhabit almost all of the Pacific region of Nicaragua, thanks to the illicit pet trade. This species is listed on CITES Appendix I, which means, basically, that it is quite difficult to export an individual. In spite of the ban on international trade, Scarlet Macaws are much easier found on tethered to sticks on roadsides than in the skies overhead, in Nicaragua. There is a robust trade and virtually no prosecution of pet owners. Many birds find their way to small watercraft which transit contraband from Nicaragua to the much wealthier neighbor, El Salvador, where the birds bring much more money. A Scarlet Macaw in good condition in Nicaragua can cost much more than five hundred dollars. 
Bumbelina is a pet rescue, Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus).  She is receiving care at Estacion Biologica in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo by Joyce Procure.
We have handled a number of rescue animals over the years at Estacion Biologica. Most of these animals have been taken from people who captured them for use as pets, or the animals have been found injured in or around Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. When we have a little success, the animals survive, heal, and eventually, return to the wild. Not all can heal and return to the wild, however. One pet rescue bird in Estacion Biologica FUNDECI/GAIA, is a Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus). Its native range is considerably more limited than that of the Scarlet Macaw. The majority of the birds of this species are found in southeastern Nicaragua, where jungles are thick and rain is practically year-round. Bumbelina is a female, like her fellow rescue Scarlet Macaw, Midorna. Bumbelina is very angry and aggressive, and large and heavy, so she is best admired from a safe distance!
The Great Green Macaw is Endangered and is also listed on CITES Appendix I. Nonetheless, current law enforcement does not prevent the ownership of these birds inside Nicaragua, and they can be found in many homes.
macaws in Nicaragua
Bumbelina was captured in the wild, and her injuries were severe from the brutal mistreatment. She still dreams of flight, but her amputated right wing prevents her from ever returning to the wild. Photo by Joyce Procure.
Midorna is a Scarlet Macaw, also a pet rescue living at Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo. Bumbelina weighs about twice Midorna, much bulkier with a much heavier bill and larger claws, but the two birds make great friends. Like Bumbelina, she has been mistreated in captivity, and her permanently injured wing prevents her from taking flight. During her lifetime of incarceration in a cage, she has developed a feather-plucking disorder, making her look much less majestic than she would look if living in the wild. We are hoping that her feather plucking will reduce with lots of activity and contact. The two birds are destined for delivering the message that wild animals deserve to be free, not in cages! They will be visiting schools and social events around our area, throughout 2013.
Ara macao
Midorna is affectionate with those whom she trusts. Photo by Joyce Procure.
As lovers of nature, we are disturbed by the illegal traffic in wild animals. Our desire to "own" a beautiful bird has harmed many birds, and their loud screeches are no longer heard in much of the forests they once inhabited. Would you like to help us prevent the capture and trade in endangered wild animals in Nicaragua? There is plenty to do. Please contact us!
wildlife in Nicaragua
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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nicaragua is a must-see in 2013: NY Times

Most people who have spent time in Nicaragua won't be surprised that the New York Times has rated Nicaragua as a must-see country for 2013. That's ahead of the over-the top expensive places like Amsterdam and Bhutan.
Lots of beaches are prime spots of the backpacker vacation route in Nicaragua, especially spots ideal for surfing. There are also colonial cities, towns off the beaten track, volcanoes, lakes, rivers and jungles. And for the culturally and politically savvy, there are plenty of chances to see great plays and view or purchase art, and relive the great moments in the country's dramatic political history.
vacation Nicaragua
While the backpackers arrive in Nicaragua in ever-greater numbers, the NY Times article explains that high-quality lodging, food, and tours are now available here. The people of Nicaragua are noted for their friendliness, too. Surfing, yoga, sun and sightseeing are all available here and easy for travelers to reach. And as the article suggests, tourism is now a formidable aspect of the Nicaraguan economy.
vacation Nicaragua

Nature tours are high-quality, too. In Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, for instance, birds and monkeys are easily seen even by novice nature lovers. The lake is clear and hosts several fish species only found within its crater. It's one of the must-see places for birdwatchers and scuba divers.

You can arrange a guided birdwatching tour or SCUBA dive with Estacion Biologica FUNDECI/GAIA. Lodging and Spanish classes can be provided in the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve; internships and volunteer opportunities are also possible. It's easy to travel to Nicaragua, with connecting flights daily in Miami, Houston, Atlanta, and other cities. 
Nicaragua tourism
travel Nicaragua
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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bird research in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve

Our volunteers have been busy in 2012 catching birds. These volunteers had a great time in all they did, but perhaps the most important aspect of their time at Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo is the change they have left behind here. We are learning more about the birds with every activity, and we work closely with the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) to train park guards, facilitate conservation work, and inform the public on nature issues in the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve.

Here are some photographs taken by our volunteer, Vera Neumann. She has diligently worked on the study of birds several months, and will continue through most of 2013. This volunteer-driven project has yielded a lot of useful information on the birds and on the impacts of forest use in the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve.
Steely-vented Hummingbird
The Steely-vented Hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei) looks very similar to the Blue-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia cyanura). Here, the former has been captured during our mist netting study of birds in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. 
Each time we capture a bird, we identify it, measure its dimensions, check its age and sex, and then we clip a small piece of feather in a location that does not affect the bird. The bird is released into the wild within a half-hour of capture. We try to affect the life of the bird as little as possible and in return, gather information that can help to protect the wild animals found in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve.
Blue-tailed Hummingbird
The Steely-vented Hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei) glows in Elmer's hand.
Hummingbirds are especially gratifying to capture and handle. They are especially delicate and sensitive to mishandling. We provide them with a drink when they are extracted from the mist net, because hummingbirds require frequent feeding and their liquid balance is more critical than with bigger birds. Not only do we enjoy them, we learn about them. For instance, Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is home to two very similar species, the Steely-vented Hummingbird and the Blue-tailed Hummingbird. By capturing them, we can distinguish them and begin to determine how they live together and share resources.
The Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) is a migrant which is easily overlooked. We catch them occasionally, but we see them even more rarely. They tend to stay low, and their neutral colors and retiring behavior helps hide them well. 
Migratory birds are abundant in the forests of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve from September through April. Some, such as the Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) are common, others, such as the Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) are quite uncommon here. Mist netting is helping us to characterize what kinds of birds are found; we had not even sighted a Worm-eating Warbler before catching one.
Hylocharis eliciae
Hummingbirds such as this one (a Blue-throated Goldentail, Hylocharis eliciae) are docile once captured and held in the hand. 
Through our mist netting studies, we can learn when hummingbirds reproduce. Birds reveal their reproductive status in their feathers and other cues on their bodies. Some species form leks, assemblies of males, in which females come to shop around for their mates.
Myiodynastes luteiventris
The Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris) is an unusual migratory bird; it nests in Nicaragua but winters in South America. 
Not all migratory birds in Nicaragua breed further north. Many species nest in Nicaragua, among them, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (Myiodynaste luteiventris). Beginning in May, squeaks which suggest the sound a child's bathtub squeeze toy come from high in the forest, as the birds establish breeding territories, find mates, and reproduce. By the end of August, the birds will have bred, fledged their chicks, and departed for lands further south. 

Platyrhinchus cancrominus
This tiny bird is a Stub-tailed Spadebill (Platyrhinchus cancrominus). As a tyrant flycatcher, it has a wide bill and whiskers on the sides of the bill to help it catch insects in flight. This species is present in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, in the most forested areas along the southwestern shore of the lake.
Some surprises turn up in our bird research, using mist netting. Some birds that are characteristic of humid tropical forest, such as the Stub-tailed Spadebill, are present in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. This species is more common in the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, where the rains are more abundant and last most of the year. This bird species is missing from the more open areas of this reserve, presumably because the open forest tends to be drier.
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