John Alexander has flown more miles in the past two weeks than the migratory birds he studies.
Last week, Alexander, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath Bird Observatory, received the Wings Across the Americas award in Kansas City from the U.S. Forest Service for an international partnership he helped create. This week he's in Costa Rica planning the next steps for that partnership.
Over the past 20 years, the Klamath Bird Observatory — along with the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Costa Rica and Dr. C.J. Ralph of the U.S. Forest Service's Southwest Research Station in Arcata, Calif. — have trained dozens of Latin American biologists in bird banding and other monitoring techniques.
They've also created a series of monitoring stations, known as the Costa Rica Bird Observatories.
"Our selection group really liked the diversity of the partners involved, they liked the long-term sustainable aspect of partnerships. They really liked the fact that it was good science being done," says Carol Lively, Wings Across the Americas program coordinator for the Forest Service.
The award is given annually to groups working to conserve migratory birds, bats and butterflies. This year dragonflies were added to the list.
"Where we're going with this program is that we will have a much stronger network of scientifically trained people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean," Lively explains. "We will be able to have a much stronger overall conservation program at the local, regional, national, international levels."
As Alexander sees it, the best way to train foreign biologists is not to give workshops in their countries for a week and then leave them on their own.
"We bring interns to us here in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion to learn bird banding — a very sophisticated science — for six months," Alexander says. "They really become experts. It's about retained capacity."
KBO has recently hosted interns not only from Costa Rica, but from Trinidad, Brazil and Peru, as well.
The North American partners have taught their colleagues to the south how to raise the funding necessary to sustain their own monitoring programs and stations. It's something award co-recipient Pablo Elizondo has taken to heart.
"I think eco-tourism, business, grants will be the financial key for sustaining our bird observatories over the next few years," says Elizondo, executive director for the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in San Jose, Costa Rica. "We have been working on getting the public to visit our banding operations. That has proven to be a successful model of attracting people interested in science and conservation, and also for bringing in some funding."
Millions of data points gathered over 20 years as a result of this partnership have enormous potential, says award co-recipient Dr. C.J. Ralph, of the U.S. Forest Service.
"We will be able to project into the future (how) the birds are likely to respond to changes in the environment — climate change or land use," Ralph says.
Ralph expects to release computer models and other tools based on this wealth of data. These tools will help the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management make better decisions.
For the KBO's Alexander, monitoring birds is first and foremost about improving land management.
"We work with (public agency) land managers to bridge the gap between academia and science," Alexander explains. "We use birds as our lens for understanding how ecosystems function and respond to disturbance and management."
Many bird species found in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains are migratory, so they benefit by the joint conservation efforts.
"By protecting habitats for endemic birds in places like Mexico and Costa Rica, we're also protecting the wintering habitats of our own birds," says Alexander.
It's another indication of how our land management has impacts thousands of miles away.
"This is a model of nongovernmental organizations doing academic-level science and bringing that science in a relevant way to land managers," says Alexander. "We're using that model to help build capacity in Latin American countries to do the same thing, ultimately, for the same birds."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at email@example.com.