Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nicaragua has huge f--king spiders.

Flying over Nicaragua.

Anyone that's a regular follower will know where I was this past week. Shooting footage for Punk Rock Big Year, in Nicaragua. I couldn't add any birds I saw to my big year, though there's been a suggestion by a few people that I should count them but use a different ink colour when I get the tats. I'm not quite convinced yet but we'll see. The trip was incredible. The coffee farm was incredible. The birds were incredible. The spiders were mind-numbingly terrifying. Ok, so a little thing not so many of you know about me. I'm 6' 2", 185 lbs. Not huge but not a little fella' either. I don't look like I scare easily and I don't. I can handle many situations without fear save someone stuffing a gun or spider in my face. I think I might fear the spider more. A gun in your face means you might have met your end but it'll undoubtedly be quick. A spider will take its time, paralyze you with fear and them maybe some poison. It won't likely kill you but leave you scarred beyond any other life experience. Maybe that's just how it goes with me. I have arachnophobia. Not the kind you make jokes about over a couple beers but the kind that actually freezes my muscles and makes me unable to act. I know it's ridiculous. I know it's a completely irrational fear but there it is, as real as the train I'm riding on right now. More on this later.

The new sign at Gaia Estate farm.

I visited a full-sun coffee farm (which will remain unnamed) and Gaia Estate organic, shade-grown, fair trade and Smithsonian Institute certified bird-friendly coffee farm. That's a mouthful to say for sure but if you are a birder and don't drink it (as much as humanly possible) you might just be a bad birder. Ok, maybe you are a good birder that doesn't overdo the iPod bird calls, that doesn't tread on private land for a tick and that doesn't plod into the bush and scare out a bird if it has become secretive. Let's just call you a bad coffee drinker if you don't drink Birds and Beans coffee. Ask my wife, things are often that black and white for me. Since I have become involved and educated about Birds and Beans, I can say that I probably have had about 50 or so cups of non- bird-friendly coffee. I even travel with my own bag of it, kettle and coffee press. The latter two items only cost me about $80. The coffee is priced roughly like any other good coffee per pound. So there's really no reason not to do it.

The birds
Our main reason for the trip was to prove the promises made to me by the owners of Birds and Beans Canada/USA that these farms were used extensively by both local and long- distance migrant birds. In truth, I trusted the owners implicitly, but for the documentary, it wouldn't have been very entertaining for you to have my face on screen saying as much to the camera. I wanted to experience it first hand (and secretly add many birds to my life list). I also wished to see if the difference between Gaia and a random full-sun farm were as vast as they told me. Let me say, the difference was staggering. We got a total of 71 species in two days birding Gaia Estate. The full-sun farm produced no more than 5 species. To be fair, we only birded there for about an hour and a half but it was clear that we'd be wasting our time to be there any longer. 3 out of the 5 were located at the very edges of the farm, near less affected forest, two Yellow Warblers were seen about 300 yards from the edge of the farm and the fifth species was a non-native species (Cattle Egret, not typically a user of heavily forested habitat, which this land only used to be). The other thing to note is that Gaia is only about a third the size of the sun coffee farm.

Squirrel Cuckoo by mindoconexion.
Collared Aracari by lightbrigade.

Our findings on Gaia Estate were extremely similar to that of Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman in January of 2011. We missed a couple they had and had a couple they didn't. Kenn was kind enough to send me his species accounts so we could do our research and make comparisons. I'm not anywhere near his league for bird knowledge but in my humble opinion, both local and our long-distance migrants are using Gaia Estate as a place to actively hunt for food, find shelter and even rear their young (we found several nests on the estate, some right in coffee plants). I feel it is extremely important for every birder (and non-birder) to drink this coffee and only this coffee. If we did, we would cause a ripple effect. Take money from the pocket of a big coffee company (like Starbucks) buying from full-sun and partial shade farms and they'll be quick to react and force their farms to go bird-friendly to recoup lost customers. My marketing experience is enough to know they'll do whatever they can to get their money back. Will you all do it? That's doubtful. But if I can just get some of you on board, that's a start. And then, you can tell two friends, and so on and so on (just like that famous ad campaign said).

White-throated Magpie Jay by bayucca (busy).
Turquoise-browed Motmot by Rainbirder.
My fave, Rufous-capped Warbler by Seabamirum.

The coffee
We also did a blind taste test of three types of coffee. Gaia's, a partial shade option and a full-sun option. The winner was clear and unanimous among myself and my three companions. The criteria were based on smell (grinds) and taste (fresh-pressed coffee). The owner of the Estate, Jefferson, is in the process of creating a small Eco-tourism plan. They are building cabins and out buildings that guests can stay in and experience the birds, beans, butterflies and trees. It is a very interesting idea and I'm going to help them in any way I can. I'll keep you all posted in case you are interested in visiting them when they are up and running.

Coffee cherries.

The spiders
Since the Eco-tourism part is in it's early stages, there's only one cabin to stay in. I was traveling with my cameraman Chris and two birders that are older than us. They would of course stay in the cabin and Chris and I were in a friend of Jefferson's place on the other side of a valley. This arrangement was fine with us as Jefferson was very graciously providing meals and a bed for us while we were there months ahead of his Eco-tourism schedule. The home we stayed in was not used recently and the bugs/spiders had clearly taken over. Chris and I are both heavily affected by arachnophobia. What are the chances of that? With both of us, it's not really a funny thing. Though we tried to joke as much as we could, we were both relatively paralyzed with fear when in close proximity to the spiders (of which there was no shortage). The ones in Nicaragua are just plain huge. One as large as the palm of my hand, leg tip to leg tip. Suffice to say we drank ourselves to sleep each night. I drank more beer in 5 days than I usually do in 2 months. One morning you could really tell by the look of me that I had had far too much alcohol the evening before. On top of that, we took an Ativan before retiring. I wasn't worried about the health effects, I had done plenty of drugs when I was younger and knew I'd wake up each morning to do my birding. I don't condone my actions but it was the only way I could get any sleep. My other companions, Richard and Margaret, staying in the first built cabin didn't have the same experience. Nor did Kenn and Kim. Kenn dreamt of the garden of Eden and I dreamt of my demise.

A hand-sized spider on our wall.
Margaret and Richard's cabin.

Bonus (the butterflies)
Something I never expected were all the amazing butterflies among other really cool insects. I don't fear insects at all. In fact I quite like seeing them. They are a sure sign of a healthy ecosystem. There were plenty to see at Gaia. We had Azure butterflies, Owl butterflies, many ant species (leaf-cutters among the coolest) and so many others that I can't remember all the names. There were so many butterflies that they were nearly running in to me all the time. I found this to be another great indicator of the need to farm coffee in only this way. On the full-sun farm, there was not even one butterfly. In fact, I only saw one insect; a dragonfly passing high overhead. This is no doubt from all the pesticide used specifically so there are no insects. Without any native species of plants, the insects would only have the coffee to feed on.

This large Owl butterfly's wing has been attacked by something.

The crew
I travelled with a few people. One, a photographer I have worked a great deal with in advertising over the last many years. His name is Chris Gordaneer and you can see some of his work here. Below are some portraits he did of the farm employees. The others are the two people that have helped me with the big year portion of the film more than anyone else. Richard Pope is a retired York U professor/author and Margaret Bain, a retired baby doctor. Dr. Margaret delivered many of the people in the city I grew up in. She started at Oshawa General a year or so after I was born. Had she started a couple years earlier there, she might have delivered me. How cool would that have been? Meeting 40 years later and heading to the Niagara Gorge looking for gulls with the woman that brought me into the world.

© Chris Gordaneer 
© Chris Gordaneer
Richard, Margaret Freder and I birding.

The conclusion
Bird friendly coffee is the only way to go. It is a unique situation where all sides benefit. The environment is preserved, the farmers are working in a healthier environment and fairly paid and it's better for the customer as they get a superior product. It's win, win, win as they say. So please, do this simple thing for me. Order some Birds and
Beans coffee today. It doesn't matter where you live in the US and Canada. They deliver it right to your door. If you have a coffee system at work, try and get them to switch to Birds and Beans product. Ask your favourite barista if their coffee is bird-friendly. Politely demand that they get Birds and Beans. I promise you, you'll be making a difference. The proof is in our lists.

Our second last sunset.

Trip lists
(G) seen or heard on Gaia Estate 
(H) heard only

Thicket Tinamou (H) (G)
Magnificent Frigatebird
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
Black Vulture (G)
Turkey Vulture (G)
Cooper’s Hawk (G)
Common Black-Hawk
Roadside Hawk (G)
Broad-winged Hawk (G)
American Kestrel (G)
Bat Falcon
Plain Chachalaca (H) (G)
Spotted Sandpiper
Caspian Tern
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon (G)
White-winged Dove (G)
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Inca Dove (G)
White-tipped Dove (G)
Orange-fronted Parakeet (G)
Orange-chinned Parakeet (G)
White-fronted Parrot (G)
Squirrel Cuckoo (G)
Groove-billed Ani (G)
Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (H) (G)
Pacific Screech-Owl (H) (G)
Mottled Owl (H) (G)
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (H) (G)
Common Nighthawk (G)
Mexican Whip-poor-will (H) (G)
Vaux’s Swift (G)
Canivet’s Emerald (G)
Cinnamon Hummingbird (G)
Steely-vented Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (G)
Black-headed Trogon (G)
Ringed Kingfisher
Blue-crowned Motmot (G)
Turquoise-browed Motmot (G)
Collared Aracari (G)
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (G)
Barred Antshrike (H) (G)
Long-tailed Manakin (G)
Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet (G)
Yellow-olive Flycatcher (G)
Tropical Pewee (G)
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (G)
Dusky-capped Flycatcher (G)
Great Crested Flycatcher (G)
Brown-crested Flycatcher (G)
Great Kiskadee (G)
Boat-billed Flycatcher (G)
Social Flycatcher (G)
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird (G)
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (G)
Masked Tityra (G)
Gray-breasted Martin
Blue-and-white Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (G)
Cliff Swallow (G)
Barn Swallow (G)
Rufous-naped Wren (G)
Banded Wren (G)
Rufous-and-White Wren (G)
Plain Wren (G)
Wood Thrush (H) (G)
Clay-colored Robin (G)
Tropical Gnatcatcher (H) (G)
White-throated Magpie-Jay (G)
Yellow-throated Vireo (G)
Philadelphia Vireo (G)
Tennessee Warbler (G)
Yellow Warbler (G)
Black-and-white Warbler (G)
Ovenbird (G)
Rufous-capped Warbler (G)
Western Tanager (G)
Blue-gray Tanager
Stripe-headed Sparrow
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (G)
Melodious Blackbird (G)
Great-tailed Grackle (G)
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole (G)
Orchard Oriole (G)
Montezuma Oropendola (G)
House Sparrow

Long-distance migrants seen on Gaia Estate that breed in Ontario, Canada:

Turkey Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
American Kestrel
Common Nighthawk
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Wood Thrush
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Orchard Oriole

Long-distance migrants seen on full-sun estate that breed in Ontario, Canada:

Yellow Warbler


90 species seen in Nicaragua
71 species seen on Gaia Estate
5 species seen on full-sun estate
21 long-distance migrant species seen on Gaia Estate
1 long-distance migrant species seen on full-sun estate

Our last meal was at the ocean. Just a 30 minute drive away from the farm. Nice view.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss


  1. Nice report from a traveler who is obviously into both birds and coffee. Sounds like a great place to visit and to source coffee from!

  2. It really is an amazingly beautiful spot. When they are up and running, I highly suggest a visit.