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Avian surveys at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development in Guyana

Jennifer Johnson
Scheuer proposal 2002


Next January I hope to travel to the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development, in Guyana, to aid in avian faunal surveys and teach the Makushi Amerindians mist-netting techniques. The work would be intimately related to research that I will be conducting this summer on neotropical migrant birds and would contribute to my academic and professional development in conservation biology and ornithology.


The Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development is an autonomous international organization responsible for nearly a million acres of pristine tropical forest in central Guyana. Since its inception in 1989, Iwokrama's self stated mission has been "to promote the conservation and the sustainable and equitable use of tropical rain forests in a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic and social benefits to the people of Guyana and to the world in general, by undertaking research, training and the development and dissemination of technologies."

Iwokrama is something of an anomaly among integrated conservation and development projects in the tropics. The stakes are startlingly high —Iwokrama is said to harbor "one of the finest assemblages of tropical wildlife in the Americas"&emdash;and the preserve has been phenomenally successful in promoting sustainable and ecologically sensitive development. Scott Weidensaul, an internationally acclaimed author and ornithologist, explained Iwokrama's successes in a March 2002 Audubon article (link from "By combining the traditional wisdom of the Makushi, Wapishana, and other local tribes with modern scientific techniques, the center is safeguarding both the wildlife of the forest and a way of life still largely dependent on subsistence fishing and hunting. One way to gather information quickly is to train the Makushi to do their own research, and then let them pursue questions of particular concern to their own villages...many of the adults have learned the basics of field study and data collection through their years of working side by side with scientists. Now reserve managers are turning to the younger generation, too. In the past two years junior wildlife clubs have been started in all 13 villages, and they now have more than 320 members--roughly 10 percent of the local population--ranging in age from 6 to 18..." Graham Watkins, the senior wildlife biologist at Iwokrama, has suggested that a training session in mist-netting and ornithology be set up for the wildlife club members; hence this proposal.

I should also explain the purpose and value of mist-netting and banding as ornithological techniques. Mist nets, fine mesh nets about 2.5 meters high and 12 meters long, are strung end to end in order to capture small birds. Mist nets are nearly invisible; birds fly into the nets, become gently entangled, and are quickly removed by the researcher. A lightweight, individually numbered ring is then attached to each bird's leg, various morphometrics (including age and sex; length of wing chord, tail, tarsus, and bill; and levels of subcutaneous fat and keel muscle; presence of parasites; general health) are recorded, and the bird is released unharmed. Banding allows scientists to track individual birds across time and space, and is therefore an indispensable tool for studying dispersal, migration, behavior, social structure, life-span, survival rate, reproductive success and population growth.

I have been banding for four years under the tutelage of Scott Weidensaul, predominantly studying the migratory ecology of northern saw-whet owls (I presented a poster on this work in early March at the Smithsonian Institution's Birds of Two Worlds symposium) and small passerines. I am licensed to use mist nets and band all species except waterfowl, eagles and endangered/threatened species (Federal Bird Banding Laboratory, permit number 22918-K). Furthermore, I will be initiating a 5-year MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) research project this summer for the Maine Audubon Society. MAPS is a highly successful, continent-wide monitoring program sponsored by the Institute for Bird Populations, and I will be studying the breeding season ecology of neotropical migrant land birds. At least ten of the species that I will be studying this summer on their breeding grounds spend the winter in Guyana (Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Yellow Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, and Scarlet Tanager). Traveling to Iwokrama would provide me with a phenomenal opportunity to study these migrants at the opposite end of their annual journeys, complementing the breeding season research I will undertake this summer.

Project Description

I hope to spend approximately three weeks in Iwokrama next January, training Makushi youths in mist-netting techniques and other ornithological tools. Graham Watkins, the senior wildlife biologist at Iwokrama, will coordinate workshops for the wildlife club members, and I will teach under Scott Weidensaul's direct supervision. Workshop participants will either be flown in to Surama, a Makushi village that would likely serve as base camp, or else I would travel among the 13 Amerindian villages, teaching at multiple locations. Anticipated topics include set-up, use and repair of mist nets; net-extraction and banding; bird identification by sight and sound; aging and sexing by plumage and molt; point counts and other survey techniques. The Makushi are fluent in English as well as Macuxi, so language will not be a barrier, nor will I need to teach through an intermediate. Specific planning is in nascent stages, as the workshop is still more than nine months away, but I will work with Graham Watkins, Scott Weidensaul, and Tim Williams to refine the project design in coming months.

The project will meet dual goals: biologically, it directly addresses one of Iwokrama's research priorities&emdash;vertebrate population studies. In 1996, Robert Ridgely and David Argo of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia conducted preliminary faunal surveys in Iwokrama, identifying 377 bird species; further inventories will build upon their work. Primarily, however, the value of the project lies in providing the Makushi with tools to continue the research on their own. This avenue of research will lay the foundation for the sustainable and ecologically sensitive development upon which Iwokrama's success is predicated.

Academic Context

I am a first-year student and hope to be an honors biology major with a concentration in environmental studies, a minor in chemistry, and possibly a second minor in anthropology. I have taken (or am taking) BIOL 001, 014 (Cell) and 032-A (Spring Ornithology), CHEM 10H and 022 (Organic I). I audited BIOL 030 (Field Studies in Animal Behavior) last fall, and I am planning to take Ecology (BIOL 036) next semester, before I would travel to Guyana. Conservation biology and ornithology are my passions and intended professional fields. While I cannot state with certainty that my proposed project in Guyana would pertain directly to an eventual thesis, the project does dovetail beautifully with the long term MAPS research I will be initiating this summer, and I believe it would support my overarching academic and professional development.