For the Birds Radio Program: Monteverde Cloud Forest
Laura read a news story saying the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica is losing its clouds and humidity. Wildlife that tolerate warmer, drier conditions are moving in and cloud forest creatures are disappearing. The Golden Toad has entirely disappeared.
One of the scariest things I’ve read lately is a story in the November 20 New York Times about the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica losing its clouds. I spent a few days in this cool, lush forest in January, delighting in the abundance of wonderful birds-tiny Green Thorntail hummingbirds, gorgeous Emerald Toucanets, and the fabulous Three-wattled Bellbird. Of course, the most beautiful bird of all, the Resplendent Quetzal, which even the New York Times proclaims ‘’truly worthy of its name,” is utterly dependent on cloud forest habitat. The quetzal nest cam I link to on my web page is set up at Monteverde. Monteverde is wonderfully protected by its landowners and the Costa Rican government because its richness is so spectacular.
But it turns out that local protection isn’t enough. Little by little, the clouds have been retreating farther up the mountain, and since Monteverde is at the top, the clouds have nowhere left to go except away. When we were there, the clouds broke up several times, but it seemed pretty damed wet. But a few days hardly provides a complete overview of conditions. Overall, there is less annual rainfall, the clouds break up more often than they used to, and the humidity is slowly declining. Those creatures most dependent on a consistent high humidity are disappearing, such as the exquisite Golden Toad which is already extinct. Meanwhile, creatures that require drier conditions than cloud forests typically provide are starting to move in-such as the Blue crowned Motmot my daughter and I watched and photographed up at Monteverde in January.
This is a gorgeous bird, but it has plenty of suitable habitat in the lowlands-the cool, wet cloud forest wouldn’t be suitable for any motmot except that Monteverde has lost some of its cool wetness. As more and more lowland birds work their way up the mountain, there will be even more pressure on the birds at the top. Dr. Nalini M. Nadkami, an ecologist at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, told the New York Times that “Many cloud forest organisms have literally nowhere to go. They’re stuck on an island of cloud forest. If you remove the cloud, it’s curtains for them.”
Why is this happening? Global warming may well have a hand in this, but the most immediate problem is deforestation, not of the cloud forest itself, which is steep and hard for machinery to penetrate, but of the more accessible lowlands. Much of the rainfall in the Central American tropics does not have as its source moisture that builds up over the ocean, but rather the transpiration of the plants right there. Especially on the Pacific slope, the dry season can produce genuinely desert-like conditions, but beneath the dense canopy of a hot, humid rainforest is a self-contained system that recycles its own moisture. When a lowland rainforest is lost, all its moisture is lost, too. A beautiful, lush jungle can become a literal desert within a few short years when it’s cut down to graze cattle or produce coffee on a plantation. And the moisture that is lost down there changes the hydrologic cycle, little by little drying up the cloud forest.
There’s not a lot we can do as individuals, but we can at least keep ourselves from contributing to the problem. Reducing the amount of beef we eat and making a serious effort to buy only shade-grown coffee are two things that will at least help a little. Far more is needed than just this, but I firmly believe that it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. And it would be a dark planet indeed that was no longer lit by the glowing feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal.