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We Count Them Because We Count on Them

The endangered yellow-naped parrot we were counting

I have written before about how we count parrots in parrot conservation because they count on us. If we know where the wild parrots are (and mostly are not) we can figure out how and where to employ conservation efforts, which many parrots, the most endangered group of birds, need. Counting them also helps humans, as I witnessed this past week in Nicaragua.

To get to Ometepe Island one takes a ferry, which is in the photo above is approaching stormy Ometepe. The tropical wave of storms was threatening our counting week, because birds move differently when it is raining and blowing.

The parrot counting team before we head out on the first day of counting.

I was on Ometepe Island working with a group of 19 young conservationists to do the annual census of parrots. We were trying something not ever done before, at least by me. Where normally we counted only one region consisting of 4-6 individual counting points, we were now spread over 4 regions with 16 total counting points. Logistics were quite complex. How do you move this many people so that every single person is in place to count all parrots from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m.? How can you train all of them well enough so that they all use the same methodology and decision parameters to place birds into categories of species and flock size? Finally, how is there enough time the next day to help each person and each group analyze the flight patterns of birds so as to rule out duplicate sightings within the region and between regions?

We met for 5 days, starting at 1 p.m. daily. We trained (photos below), reviewed methodology, and summarized the previous evening’s counts.

Then at 3:30 p.m. we all dispersed to our assigned count locations. I ended up in La Palma behind the community bar. Another person ended up on a dock in Merida. One was near a pool at a resort, and another atop a building with a Jacuzzi. Others had to walk far up the volcanoes to get to the open view necessary for parrot counting.

Motorcycles parked and ready to take the team out, as is Harry, our trusted drive (below)

My counting spot for two nights was at a bar in La Palma with a gorgeous view of Lake Cocibolca (above), with various other species keeping me company when the parrots flying over were scarce (below).

The first evening everyone in each of the 4 regions counted together for training purposes. The next evening, each region had only 2 groups, again for training purposes and for consistency. Then, the afternoon came when there were 4 counting points per region, and except at 3 points, each individual counter was by themselves, tracking hundreds of parrots and marking their species, time of flight, direction of flight, size of flock, altitude, distance, and vocalizations. Some points had up to 5 pages of observations, and a detailed map as well. I wondered if we were attempting the impossible. And then the improbable happened. Our commitment to the process and the parrots themselves broke through and bound us all together.

I saw this during the first evening of individual counts as we picked up people in the dark in my region, La Palma (photos above are of the entire La Palma team training together and of point #4). In the back of the truck, counters used their phones' flashlights to highlight their observations, not willing to wait until the next day to share what they had seen. “Did you see parents feeding their recently fledged chicks?” “Did you see that large rowdy group of juveniles?” “Did you know that I almost stepped on a coral snake?” “Wow, was the wind and rain bad at your location as well?”

Typical data sheets and the challenge to count every bird, only once

These were just general observations. The detailed work comes the next day when each group went through each sheet - minute by minute, species by species, individual parrot by individual parrot - to mark the parrots as “counted” and to remove any birds observed by another transect point. It became a game to see if we could “rob” other counters of their birds, raising our numbers and decreasing theirs. “Those are mine, I saw them first!”

A pair of Pacific parakeets on watch outside their nest this past week.

This methodology, “Fixed Transects for Determining the Minimum Number of Distinct Individuals” is not easy. In our most populous parrot area there were nearly 1,200 Pacific parakeets, and over 700 hundred yellow-naped and red-lored parrots. For each parrot we had to ask, “Whose are they? Who left us? Who came to us? Did we honor what we saw? Did we check our assumptions, observations, and math with others?” Our questions were like a congregated spiritual discovery - we produced a holy result where every individual person and parrot mattered, and was worthy of our focus and attention. The maps we drew showed not just our location, but every bird's flight represented by an arrow. These flight paths intersected in and out like a spider’s web or threads on a loom. In making these maps, we wove together the rends in the web of life caused by human exceptionalism and our false sense of separation. Instead, we wove our species in among the worthy others.

It took hours on the final day to summarize the results from all the days, first by individual sheets, and then by each region, and then by all the 4 regions together. One region met until nearly midnight to tabulate their results, and another was still going on Sunday morning (Teams La Peña, Totoca, La Palma, and Merida below summarizing their data).

After finishing our last summary, I remarked that I didn’t want to see another number again for at least a week, and was met with wearied smiles as I looked around at the counters. But not even 12 hours later, I was contacted by one counter who said he was going out that very evening to try to figure out in more detail the flight, foraging, and roosting patterns of his community birds. He was going above and beyond, and he told me it was because of love. He wasn’t alone. Everyone had gone beyond expectations to focus and to honor every single parrot in their location. Such careful observation to claim the birds counted in our locations led us in turn to being claimed by the birds.

The parrots help our hearts soar.

I witnessed commitment, purpose, and expertise in this group of conservationists who will make a better future possible for the people and parrots of this island. Life has not been easy for the parrots due to poaching fueled by the international parrot trade, or for the people slammed by the economic fallout from the civil unrest in their country over the last year. One counter said he almost left Nicaragua in 2018 to attempt the perilous journey north to the USA, so desperate was he for paid work.

But at least for this one week, families benefited from the stipends and meals offered during the long days, and now with greater capacity, are ready to be ecotourist and scientific guides for those who wish to observe and study these birds. Maybe they can elect to stay and not migrate if there are opportunities for them here, and also an increased connection to the life they study, count, and treasure. As they grow their capacity as conservationists, I hope that they will gain greater confidence to find a way forward towards greater well-being for all.

Our leader, Norlan Zambrana Morales marking a point at a roost site

The lead parrot conservationist, Norlan, told me on the last day, “This parrot project has benefited so many people on this island.” I teared up, knowing that perhaps it was me who had benefited the most, for I was forever connected to this group of 20 special young people who had done sacred work for a sacred cause – the flourishing of the people and parrots of the Americas.

I left the island a little less lonely and a little better at math.

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