San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Mother-daughter trip fosters conservation in Costa Rica and the U.S.

Taking the same route as the birds they’re studying, a group from the U.S. state of Minnesota arrived in San José last week to learn about the avian species that split their time between the northern United States and Central America.

“The idea that they [the birds] actually fly as far as they do, twice a year, just blows me away,” said Catherine Nicholson, Costa Rica’s honorary consul to Minnesota, who led her daughter and two other 17-year-old high school students from St. Paul on the trip. “It took us a whole day on a major airliner to get down here. And for them to be able to replicate our travel with teeny little wings and looking for food the whole time is just unbelievable.”

On the trip, the students studied under eminent biologist Dan Janzen in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and planted seeds of endangered trees in Paraíso, a small town in Cartago province east of San José. The five-day trip ended Tuesday, but the students will use the experience to create a final Girl Scout project that will focus on conservation and migratory birds. And through the project, they hope to combat the troublesome issue of habitat loss in the U.S.

Laura Nicholson, Indirah Conover and Nicole Fox plan to raise awareness about these birds, which spend their lives traveling between Minnesota and Central America along the Mississippi flyway. During a conversation Friday at INBioparque in Heredia, Laura Nicholson, Catherine’s daughter, named off many of the birds that winter here, including brightly colored scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds, wood thrushes, shorebirds and even the Baltimore Oriole. Then the group discussed the problems the birds are facing back up north.

In Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest, the birds are losing their habitat to urban development. The migratory birds feast on bugs that thrive on native trees, shrubs and flowers. The habitat provides food, shelter and nesting materials for the birds. But those plants are disappearing and being replaced by non-native species.

Conover filmed a mini-documentary during the trip to Costa Rica. The video will illustrate the country’s biodiversity and the extensive annual journey undertaken by the birds inhabiting both Minnesota and Central America.

Laura Nicholson is working on a labeling system for native plants in Minnesota so that residents know which perennials benefit the birds. Fox is searching for her own similar project.

The group will collaborate with Southern Skies, a U.S. organization that also supports migratory birds. At a nature sanctuary in downtown St. Paul, Catherine Nicholson has held open houses to show visitors the state’s native plants and the coveted birds that frequent those trees and flowers.

Migratory birds 2

A visit to the Cuajiniquil Environmental Improvement Initiative. Courtesy of Catherine Nicholson

Planting native species will have an effect beyond luring pretty birds. These local plants support a larger ecosystem, and without them other creatures suffer. Perhaps the most significant victim is the honeybee – an insect crucial to the U.S. food supply.

This past winter, 31 percent of honeybee colonies died, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bees pollinate fruits, vegetables and nuts. Losing the bees would have a catastrophic effect on the farming industry.

The most recent issue of Time magazine made the topic its cover story. In “A World Without Bees,” reporter Bryan Walsh imagined the consequences of honeybees dying out. He blamed a mixture of pesticides and lack of food for weakening honeybees and making them more vulnerable to pests and disease.

In the spring, bee expert Marla Spivak told Minnesota Public Radio that the state has a growing “flowerless landscape out there, and bees need flowers for good nutrition.” Bees that have an adequate food supply will have a better chance at fighting off diseases and pesticides, she said.

However, convincing individuals to grow a bee garden can be a hard sell. Catherine Nicholson and the Girl Scouts have the alternative approach of promoting native species that attract those vivid migratory birds. Because often times, bird-friendly plants are bee-friendly too.

“If you provide the right habitat for one specific species, you’re probably providing a habitat for a huge amount of species,” Nicholson said.

Editor’s Note: Thursday is Mother’s Day in Costa Rica, a national holiday. The Tico Times extends our best wishes to all the moms out there!

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