All posts by David

Why Tree Climbing Matters: Part 2

tree climbing, Canopy Watch, tree climber, rec climb, tree climb
Got your arm in a cast? No problem! With a good teacher and a little confidence, tree climbing is suitable for people of all abilities. Photo © Patrick Brandt.

When you climb a tree you meet a friend –even if you’re the only person around.

Guest blog by Patrick Brandt – Piedmont Tree Climbing

David’s recent blog post beautifully describes the joy of climbing trees and why kids AND adults should do it more. I thank David for inviting me to write a sequel to that post with some of my complementary thoughts and experiencesI’ve helped more than 1500 novice tree climbers, ages 5 -75 years, climb into the canopy. Each of these climbers is unique but inevitably each one finds the same few things in the tree – and I’m not just talking about souvenir leaves, friendly ants, and lichens.

Here are some of the lasting benefits of tree climbing:

  • Climbers of all ages discover an increased appreciation for nature and ecosystems – especially trees!
  • Climbers overcome their fears in a safe and supportive environment. Each climber ends up feeling like they accomplished something incredible no matter how high they go!
  • Tree climbing is a great small group activity where climbers support and encourage one another thereby building self confidence and group identity/unity.
  • You don’t have to be an athlete, or super-strong, or extra-coordinated to climb trees on rope. In fact children and adults with disabilities can often climb on their own power. There are setups that favor arms, or legs, and mechanical advantage systems can be used by those who aren’t as strong.
  • Recreational tree climbing does not harm the tree and with a little care can easily abide by Leave No Trace principles.

Let me illustrate what I mean by sharing a few real tree experiences. Last fall a pre-teen girl came to her friend’s tree climbing birthday party with her arm in a cast thinking that she would have to watch all the fun from the ground. Instead, she climbed too – with a broken arm!  Tree climbing is a great group activity where climbers support and encourage one another thereby building self-confidence and group identity/unity.

Trees share power with the differently-abled. The climber in the lower left is is wearing a prosthestic leg, and his willpower got him into the trees. Photo © Patrick Brandt

Back in 2016, a father whose leg had been amputated below the knee climbed a tree adeptly with his kids (he’s wearing a prosthetic leg in the picture) .  You don’t have to be an athlete, or super-strong, or extra-coordinated to climb trees on rope. In fact children and adults with disabilities can often climb on their own power. There are setups that favor arms, or legs, and mechanical advantage systems can be used by those who aren’t as strong.

tree climber, tree climbing, public climb, rec climb, Canopy Watch
One of the best ways to grow is to confront your fears. Guided tree climbing offers us that and a lot more. Photo © Patrick Brandt.

On a recent public climb, a young girl was anxious about attempting a small limb walk to ring a cow bell. She really wanted to ring the bell, but even with my encouragement and insistence that she would be safe, she couldn’t take the last couple of steps toward the bell. A moment later, when my attention had turned to another climber, I heard the bell ring and turned to see her, bell in hand, with a huge smile on her face.  Climbers overcome their fears in a safe and supportive environment. Each climber ends up feeling like they accomplished something incredible no matter how high they go!In 2017 a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter all climbed together in a tree that was twice as old as all of them put together.  That brought new meaning to the phrase family tree!  Trees bring people of all ages together.

Tree climbing takes us to natural classrooms where we can learn about photosynthesis, greenhouse gases, and other processes from the experts – the trees. Photo © Patrick Brandt.

For the last 3 semesters, a university English class reads and discusses tree books in the classroom, comes climbing with me in the trees, and then participates in a tree-focused citizen science initiative at the local arboretum.  Trusting your life to the limbs of a tree brings renewed appreciation for trees and their place in the ecosystem. Trees are generous, calm, and strong. They soak up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and they exhale life-giving oxygen. Throughout their life and even in their death they provide habitat for insects, mammals, birds and other plant life. They shade our homes – saving us energy that would otherwise be used on air conditioning. They add beauty, form and variety everywhere they grow.

Could some of these lessons be learned on a climbing wall or rock face, and could similar experiences take place on a high ropes course? Yes, but when learned in a living, breathing tree, there is an added benefit – a new (or renewed) conservation mentality; appreciation for trees and by extension their place in the larger ecosystem.

Bat hang! A fun way to see the canopy in a different way. Photo © Patrick Brandt.
Three generations of girlpower – and grandma climbed the highest. Photo © Patrick Brandt

When you spend time with someone you get to know them better and appreciate them more. The same is true of people who climb into a tree. The experience transforms them. As they drive back home they look up. They see trees along the highway that they have never noticed before despite traveling that route hundreds of times before.  I believe this is a lasting change that will produce tangible results in the form of more time spent outside, more trees planted, fewer trees cut down, more donations to conservation groups, and more advocating for nature.

See you in the trees!


Meet Patrick Brandt, climber, instructor, arborist, and cat rescuer. Patrick was kind enough to author this blog, and I’m grateful he did. Photo © Patrick Brandt.

Postblog: I have climbed hundreds of trees.  Here are some of my most memorable experiences:

  • Once when climbing a 140 foot tall tulip tree growing in the riparian zone along a winding river, I heard the laughing call of a pileated woodpecker – one of the largest and most elusive woodpecker species in the Eastern USA. As I looking around to locate the call, I saw the red-crested woodpecker fly through the canopy below me following the river!
  • If spending an hour in a tree leads to greater tree-preciation, imagine the experience of spending the night in the arms of trees! I’ve spent a handful of nights in a hammock suspended in the canopy. There is nothing like watching the stars appear and disappear on a clear night as the breeze gently moves the leaves and branches above your hammock.  It is equally transformative to wake up in the morning as the light hits the canopy and the birds are singing under, above, and all around you.
  • I’ve installed close to 200 custom tree swings from Washington DC to Atlanta and as far away as Honduras. I see tree swings as another great tool for getting kids and adults outside and away from a screen to enjoy tree-enabled active play.
  • Usually it’s not much fun to be outside in the pouring rain without an umbrella. Being up in a tree when it is raining is not generally my idea of a fun time either, but on a few occasions I’ve been “stuck” in the canopy as a rain shower blows through.  The sound of the rain drops approaching through the forest, then spattering on the leaves around you is really quite magical.
Custom tree swings, installed and maintained by experts, are another way to connect with trees. Photo © Patrick Brandt.

About the author: Patrick Brandt is owner of Piedmont Tree Climbing in Mebane, NC. He and his wife, Julie, lead public and private tree climbs and install custom tree swings throughout the Piedmont region of North Carolina.  They have 3 wonderful children, all of whom have spent time in the trees.  Patrick’s formal education is as a biochemist and his full time work is in the Office of Biomedical Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  He has rescued close to 200 cats from trees (see, has 3 cats of his own, and has been known to commute to work on his mountain unicycle. Piedmont Tree Climbing is on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.


Sitka Spruce Grow Fast and Die Young

old-growth, Sitka spruke, forest canopy
Hiking through the old forests of the Pacific Northwest is hallowed time. There are precious few of these places left.

Shafts of light pierce the mist suspended among monolithic tree trunks while your feet squish on damp needles, and waist-high sword ferns yield to your passing even while they drench your pants with dew. A Hermit Thrush plays a melody on its metallic flute to a chorus of squirrel chatter, and banana slugs the length of your arm (or so it seems) weave mercury trails across your path. The oldest forests of the Pacific Northwest are hallowed magical places and the realm of giants. If you have never been, then I beg you to go. Try Mount Rainier or Olympic National Parks in Washington, or Jedediah Smith State Park in California. A visit to the old trees will shift your perspective on yourself and mortality forever.

If you haven’t been to see the old trees, then nothing I can write will prepare you for their sheer size. Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, and redwood trees can be 300 feet tall (100 meters, or as tall as a football field is long) and are in fact the tallest living things on the planet. Despite all being giants among trees, these three species have different strategies for growing so large. That is what makes them unique, and it’s the topic of this blog. Scientists like Russell Kramer, Steve Sillett, and Bob Van Pelt are the ones unlocking the mysteries of the trees, and it’s their work I’ll summarize for you, especially Russell Kramer’s.

old-growth, Pacific Northwest
Old-growth forests have a diverse-looking canopy of gaps, dead trees, and trees of all shape created over centuries.

First, for comparison, let’s look at some numbers. The oldest known Sitka spruce, Douglas-fir, and coast redwood trees are 480, 1,000 and 2500 years old. In those times, the biggest trees of each species reach diameters of 16 feet (spruce), 15 feet (Douglas-fir), and 22 feet (redwood). In other words, redwoods flat outlive their rivals, and their amazing size makes their competitors look like shrimps.

Don’t think the story ends there. Trees are cutthroats. Competition for limited sunlight spells life or death in the deep shade under the canopy of old forests. In these conditions every advantage counts, and in the arena of how-fast-can-you-grow, Sitka spruce is the undisputed champion. Although Sitka spruce only lives 1/5th as long and only attains 30% of the mass of the largest redwoods, it has nearly 80% of the leaf mass. The high leaf investment of Sika spruce enables astounding growth that outpaces even coast redwood. By 300 years spruce acquires 1.5 times more mass and by the end of its life around 500 years will be nearly 3 times the mass of a redwood the same age.

Why does the spruce grow so many leaves? Leaves produce energy, and energy begets growth. A little sapling that sprouts in a forest must grow fast or die before large neighboring trees overwhelm it with shade. When it comes to growing fast, no conifer beats the Sitka spruce.

There are other important differences between these tree species. The wood of redwoods is famous because it lasts forever. In fact, the species name Sequoia sempervirens means ever-living sequoia. Trees that persist for over 2000 years in a forest deluged with six feet of rain a year can only do so by producing chemicals to battle wood decaying fungi. Redwoods also have thick bark to survive fires, something they will encounter in two millennia. Sitka spruce forego all that; they’re stingy and smart. It takes energy to produce chemicals and grow bark. Spruce don’t live as long as redwoods, because they succumb to fungi that eventually kill them. Instead, spruce are all about growing leaves and growing tall. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the old forests, and Sitka spruce survive because they Grow Fast and Die Young.

Chapter 2. How do we know all this?

Now for the cool part. How do scientists know how tall are the tallest trees, how dense the wood is, or how much the leaves weigh? Easy: they climb them. Scientists like Kramer, Sillett, and Van Pelt climb over every foot of every tree, from the base to the highest leaf, and out to the ends of every branch, and they measure everything. Of course this is time consuming. Kramer climbed and measured 36 spruce trees for his research over two field seasons lasting eight months. His largest spruce required approximately 12,000 measurements to describe, not including measuring growth-ring widths. All the data they collect are then used to develop equations to explain tree size and growth rates. It requires amazing, rope-based tree climbing methods developed over the last 20 years, and genius ability in mathematics. That, my friends, is how science is done.

The position, length, and angle of every branch is measured according to the specifications in this figure. Canopy science is seriously complex and precise.
After careful mapping of trees 270 feet (90 m) tall, scientists are able to create 3-D maps of every branch. The tree on the right is the one shown in the diagram. The climbers help understand the scale of this Sitka spruce.

Let’s reflect on scientific tree climbing for a moment. In the old days when someone wanted to measure a tree they just cut it down. By some accounts, the extent of old forests in the USA is now less than 5% of what it used to be. Cutting old trees is unethical for any reason. And so is careless climbing. Large branches support soils, mosses, ferns, and woody shrubs, and even other trees in the canopy. It takes more than 150 years before spruce is tall enough to grow branches above the height they would be killed by shade from neighbors, and another 150 before they support rich communities of other plants. Kramer, Sillett, and others use the most advanced tree climbing techniques in existence, combined with an emotional, almost religious, appreciation for trees, to climb them without damaging the forest canopy ecosystem. You should also know that national parks and California state parks prohibit tree climbing without previously approved scientific permits and a climbing plan, precisely to protect this fragile world.

Canopy science requires extremely rigorous exertion and high skill level in methods for vertical access. But is also has the beauty of dance, and an intense concentration akin to meditation.
Pacific Northwest
Russell Kramer in his element, hard at work uncovering mysteries of old-growth forests.

References used in this paper

Kramer, R. D., S. C. Sillett, and R. Van Pelt. 2018. Quantifying aboveground components of Picea sitchensis for allometric comparisons among tall conifers in North American rainforests. Forest Ecology and Management 430:59-77.

Sillett, S. C., and R. Van Pelt. 2007. Trunk reiteration promotes epiphytes and water storage in an old-growth redwood forest canopy. Ecological Monographs 77:335-359.

Sillett, S. C., R. Van Pelt, J. A. Freund, J. Campbell-Spickler, A. L. Carroll, and R. D. Kramer. 2018. Development and dominance of Douglas-fir in North American rainforests. Forest Ecology and Management 429:93-114.


The wood of Sitka spruce is special in its own right. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any wood. Sitka spruce wood was the #1 material used in airplane construction during WWI, and the United States employed 20,000 men during the war to harvest it.


Why Tree Climbing Matters: Part 1

canopy, rec climb, Canopy Watch
Love and trees conquer fear, creating bonds that last a lifetime. photo © David L. Anderson

Look around you, in your city or wherever you live, and count how many people you can find climbing trees. I dare you. Go drive for an hour, walk in the parks, knock on doors and look over fences. I can tell you from the comfort of my chair the answer: I bet that in an hour of searching you find none. Zero. Nada. If you do find any tree climbers, they will be either arborists, who are getting paid for tree trimming or removal, or a couple of kids.

What happened? The lack of people enjoying trees is a mystery to me. Most of us climbed trees at some time when we were little, and children’s books are full of tree climbing stories, evidence that trees resonate with us deeply. I find this abandonment of trees confusing.

My whole life I have taken the role of poking holes in people’s perceptions. I dare people in my circles to see differently than they’re used to. It’s a role that is mostly unpopular, I must admit, but now I have found a positive bridge to open our vision into the world and into ourselves: trees. I take people tree climbing, and I see beautiful things happen. Let me reflect on a few recent climbs, and look for messages that reflect this story.

Canopy Watch, Honduras, Panacam Lodge, Lago Yojoa
Friends, trees, and ropes. Smiles that could melt glaciers. Climber training in Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras. photo © Jamz Luce

September in Honduras, Central America, Parque Nacional Cerro Azul. The Honduran Ornithological Society (ASHO) and Canopy Watch are hosting a tree climber training for biologists from Honduras and El Salvador. We have 10 biologists who work in tropical forests, and none has ever climbed to look for birds, amphibians, or epiphytes (read about epiphytes here and here) that they can’t see or study from the ground. Everyone on Day 1, instructors included, is excited and nervous as heck. Can we learn/teach advanced canopy access methods in one week? Can we keep people safe? What will they think of this new skill?

ASHO, Lago Yojoa, Honduras, Canopy Watch
Climbing trees on ropes can be the closest thing to flying, as Kevin Rivera shows us during the Honduras climber training. photo © David L. Anderson

And therein lies the problem: we are defining tree climbing in grownup terms, and the spirit of the little kids is lost – but not for long. The first two days of the training are filled with fear that comes from feeling vulnerable while hanging on ropes high in the air, and a self-doubt about being able to learn all these new pieces of equipment and how to use them. Gradually, the emotion turns to pure jubilee. Being in trees is fun! It’s a new world up there! Being a kid takes over again and tree climbing lifts our hearts.

Honduras, Panacam Lodge, Lago Yojoa, Canopy Watch
Teaching tree climbing to biologists like Kevin Rivera in Honduras opens doors to our profession, and windows on ourselves. photo © David L. Anderson

September in Boise, Idaho, and the Idaho Botanical Garden and Canopy Watch are hosting Idaho’s first-ever public tree climbing adventure. Thirty-six climbers are registered and pre-paid. I’ve got about $2,500 of brand spanking-new harnesses, ropes, and helmets suspended in a lovely sycamore tree. Who’s nervous?! Every hour a new group of six climbers steps up to the tree with a look of, “Remind me why I signed up for this again?”

rec climb, Canopy Watch
Andres on his third climb at the Idaho Botanical Garden after warning me of his fear of heights. Something changed in him when he was on rope, and we can feel good about that. photo © David L. Anderson

Each person is deep in an internal dialogue, asking if they will be able to make it up the ropes, and if it’s safe. It’s grownup thinking getting in the way again. Minutes into the climb, after they figure out how to move up a rope and the climbing gear emboldens their security, the fear melts and the smiles in that tree would melt glaciers. The inner kid shines out, and I can see it in every face that day, a shift from self-doubt to self-confidence, and from trepidation to celebration.

rec climb, Idaho Botanical Garden, City of Trees, Canopy Watch
Idaho’s first-ever public tree climbing adventure, Idaho Botanical Garden, was a good day in the City of Trees. photo © David L. Anderson

You see, tree climbing is more than a skill, a tool for science, a group activity, or a type of exercise. Tree climbing opens doors in our minds and blows the blinders off our eyes. Somewhere in the chemistry of adrenaline, joy, fear, immersion in nature, and muscle fatigue, tree climbing unlocks the inner kid in all of us. Seeing through our youthful eyes shifts our perspectives on ourselves, on people around us, and on trees. Anyone who climbs a tree as an adult comes down a kid again. Life is new again, and it is good. Trees do that to us.

It is here at that junction of joy, newness, and shifted perception that lies the moral to this story: The Power of Trees is a vital conduit to the Power of Change. Nothing changes our perspective more than conquering our fear. Nothing creates a bond between people and trees stronger than the experience of climbing into one. When we climb in groups there is a collective “we” that includes not only the climbers, but just as importantly, the climbee. Tree climbing draws our focus from outward, to inward, and back out again, and it forms bonds that are durable and meaningful.

Colombia, forest canopy, climber training, Canopy Watch
Beware the Power of Trees. This could happen to you. photo © David L. Anderson

What’s next? I live in Boise, Idaho, the self-proclaimed “City of Trees.” I want to get more people climbing trees. I imagine elected city officials, the Mayor, and kids young and old climbing with staff from the city parks and Boise Community Forestry. And let’s add adaptive sports, climbing with folks who have differing abilities like wounded veterans and Make-A-Wish kids. How will it look when trees unfold their Power of Change on this group? All we need is a chance and a little help from the City, and trees will do the rest. Only time will tell us how it looks, but I see beautiful smiles happening.

Parting shots

Here is a video from the Honduras climber training, filmed and produced by Carlos Funes. Listen, and my new friends from Honduras and El Salvador will tell what the experience means to them.


First and foremost, I have to thank the Idaho Botanical Garden for their bold vision in offering Idaho’s first-ever public tree climb this past September. You opened the door, and I will forever be grateful. Patrick Brandt at Piedmont Tree Climbing helped in so many ways to make the Boise public tree climb a success. The folks at New Tribe Tree Climbing Gear are some of the best advocates of tree climbing that I know of, and they too help me connect trees and people in Boise. The Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation provided the financial support for the Honduras climber training, and WesSpur Tree Equipment filled the gaps when we were purchasing the equipment that we donated to ASHO. The Peregrine Fund, a conservation non-profit headquartered in Boise, Idaho, sponsors my time at international climber trainings.

This blog is dedicated to my friend Julian Lindsay, who opens my eyes on the goodness in others more than he thinks.


Why I Teach Tree Climbing

Canopy Watch International
Climbing Academy 101: Hanging out with Marilyn Wright of Utah State University. Photo © Dan Kimball

It’s a universal truth that everything in life was harder when we were young. The walk to school was longer and it was uphill both ways. The weather was worse, with severe blizzards every week in winter, scorching summer heat records, hurricanes that swept away entire neighborhoods, and even the tornadoes were taller. Back then, we had it rough.

Tree climbing is no exception. In the good ol’ days you climbed a tree with spikes strapped to your legs. There were no gadgets, no ascenders, no slingshots, to make things easier. And helmets? Who wore helmets? Back then tree climbers took a blow to the head from a falling limb and died like manly men. There is a reason why dead hanging branches are called “widow makers” to this day.

I may be exaggerating, but not by much. I started climbing in 1995 and I learned the hard way: by trial and error. By that I mean mostly error. I had exactly two lessons in Boise, Idaho, climbing local cottonwoods with spurs before I left for the tropical rainforests of Central America. When I got there everything was harder, quite literally. Some of the trees I spurred had wood that was so dense and so smooth that the spurs barely entered, and it felt like ice skating a vertical waterfall. Some trees spurted such a profusion of sap that I was dripping with goo the color of blood. Epiphytes covered some trees so thoroughly, that once I just climbed on vines for 20 feet before I could sink my spurs into the tree. Then there were the insects, giant wasps nearly the size of hummingbirds, and ants called “bullet ants” because their sting felt like getting shot with a .22 caliber bullet. The nearest hospital was two days away by dugout canoe and a flight in a twin-engine airplane that spewed smoke from one engine – and that, I promise, is no figment of exaggeration. There was many a climb when the wind blew across me, the tree swayed to and fro, and I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into, and how I would be remembered if I died.

canopy, rainforest, forest canopy, Honduras, Canopy Watch
Climbing in Honduras, 1996. The trees were bigger back then.

The worst part of it all was, being a complete novice, I had no idea of what was the real difference between safe climbing practices and dangerous ones. I made mistakes no one should have to make, and I survived on sheer luck. Once in Oregon I was driven to the hospital with a puncture in my right thigh caused by a rookie move that I don’t make anymore.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Tree climbing technology and methods have undergone a total revolution. New gear is introduced every year that makes climbing more efficient, safer, and more fun. Still, you have to know how to use it. Any newbie can crash a car and die in it, and the same applies to climbing; do it right or stay home. One small error with good equipment and they are writing your epitaph. And so I teach. I want everyone to feel the joy and confidence of safe and efficient climbing that takes them to new heights in the canopies of trees. Tree climbing is perspective-shifting, affording you a new look on the world and into yourself.

I recently taught climbing to three biologists from Utah State University. We went through all the steps to get them into, and out of, trees with Goshawk nests. It’s a professional skill, methods for field ecology. I can help make their jobs better. They came for reasons related to what climbing would do for their research. What they didn’t expect was what climbing would do for their hearts. They loved it. Together we can make their spirits soar higher.

Canopy Watch International, tree climbing
The smile says it all. Climbing trees isn’t just for work. This smile is why I teach climbing. Thanks, Marilyn.
Canopy Watch International, tree climbing
Max von Zastrow gets a feeling for big trees in a ponderosa pine.

In August I head to Honduras with my good friend and climbing mentor Jamz Luce to teach canopy access methods to biologists from northern Central America. The canopy of the tropical rainforest is full of secrets. To find them, we really need local biologists climbing their local trees. A small grant from the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation (MCHF) pays for travel, food, lodging, and a couple of complete climbing kits. The Honduran Ornithological Society (ASHO) is organizing the event. A link to the Honduras climber training is here.

My deepest thanks to ASHO for organizing the event to grow the careers of young biologists, and to MCHF for funding. The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit that conserves birds of prey and their habitats around the world, is sponsoring my time. Carlos Funes – eres el rey del evento.

Canopy Watch International, canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica
Carlos Funes, on the left with the bandana, is the reason why climber training is coming to Honduras.

The moral to the story: If you are thinking of learning how to climb trees the right way, find a teacher who knows. And definitely don’t take their word for it. Ask questions: how long they have been climbing trees; where did they learn to climb trees; from whom did they learn; find out if they are using specialized ropes, harnesses, and equipment designed for trees.

This blog is dedicated to friends like Damien Carré, Will Koomjian, Brian French, Scott Altenhoff, Jamz Luce, Patrick Brandt, Eric Forsman, Jimmy Swingle, Tyler Zuñiga, and many other expert climbers who share their knowledge and passion with the public, so everyone can appreciate trees in a new way.

Final word: The scientific name of the bullet ant is Paraponera clavata, just in case you think I’m making stuff up.


Mission Impossible Colombia

Colombia, ProAves, rain forest, forest canopy
Mission Impossible: Eight park guards with little formal education and no prior experience in technical climbing, five days, proficiency with advanced methods required, all training conducted in Spanish.  Photo © David L. Anderson.

Colombia, ProAves, forest canopy, rain forest, rainforestSome ideas are too good to be true, or else too good to fail. This is one of those stories.

Have you ever met someone you liked at first sight? That rare friend, that when you found yourselves together for the first time there was chemistry and you were friends before you really knew who they were? Getting to know each other was a formality, the cement that held the wall together after the bricks were already laid.

ProAves is like that for me, only they are a non-profit conservation organization and not a single individual. ProAves’ mission is saving the most endangered birds in Colombia, South America. They buy land where remnant populations of critically endangered birds are found and turn it into wildlife reserves where tourists – foreign, Colombian, everyone – can go see them. ProAves is famous for saving the Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) from extinction. They built the Nature Reserve Loros Andinos (Andean Parrots), reforested the land with wax palms where the parrots nest, and conducted public outreach to get the local people on the side of the parrot. But one thing was missing: parrots nest in trees and palms, and ProAves needed climber training to get to the nests.

Colombia, ProAves, canopy, forest canopy, rain forest
A pair of Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) nesting in a wax palm. ProAves saved this spectacular bird from extinction. Photo © Alejandro Grajales.
ProAves, Canopy Watch, forest canopy
Yellow-eared Parrots are now so common they can be seen marching down the streets in little Colombian towns like Roncesvalle, where they teach people to love parrots. Photo © Alejandro Grajales.

I found ProAves last year in December on a vacation to Colombia. Colombia is the country with the greatest number of birds on the planet; 20% of all bird species in the world are found in one corner of South America. When I met some of the ProAves team in December 2016 in the fabled Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta I said, “I have to find a way to help this group.” After connecting with the Conservation Director Luis Felipe Barrera by email, we hatched an insane plan: we would teach their guardarecursos (park guards) to climb trees and palm trees so they could work with endangered parrots. And we would write grants to pay for all the gear, the travel, and the expense of the training. That, my friends, is a steep hill to climb.

Colombia, ProAves, canopy, rain forest canopy, rainforest canopy
Luis Felipe Barrera, Conservation Director of ProAves, and #1 reason that tree climbing came to Colombia. Photo © David L. Anderson

Consider: Felipe and I had never met face to face. He oversees all of ProAves’ more than 30 reserves and has his hands full. We had no money. I have a full time job already. The odds were stacked against us. It would have been far easier for Felipe to say, “Thanks, but I’m busy, ProAves is doing fine, and you are nuts.” But we did it. Because, like I said, some ideas are too good to fail. Master climber Jamz Luce offered to be co-instructor.  We got a grant from Rufford Foundation for endangered parrot conservation. The grant was smaller than we needed, but WesSpur Tree Equipment and New Tribe Tree Climbing Gear made up the difference, because good people do that. We purchased the equipment and shipped it, $3,000 worth, only to lose it all in Miami during Hurricane Irma. Yet somehow, everything worked out in the end.

Colombia, ProAves, forest canopy, rain forest canopy
Jamz Luce was the co-instructor of the course, and it is thanks to him that we succeeded in Mission Possible. Photo © David L. Anderson

And so I share the results with you. In September eight park guards and Felipe learned advanced tree climbing methods with all the lost-yet-recovered climbing gear. These park guards have little formal education and no prior technical climbing experience, but they climbed like pros. On the fifth day we gave them the ultimate mission – teach your bosses to climb. One of the best ways to learn is to teach, and in Latin American culture when you are telling your boss what to do it is a really big deal. They nailed it. I am proud beyond words.

Colombia, ProAves, rain forest, forest canopy
Alejandro (left) teaches his boss Eduardo to climb. There is no better way to learn than to teach another person to lay his life on the line. Photo © David L. Anderson
ProAves, Colombia
Paloma is her name, and she is ready for her first climb. Photo © David L. Anderson

Sometimes dreams come true. Some missions are too important to be impossible. On the last day of the course José Gregorio said it like this: “This was not only the best training I have ever had, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I feel like it made me not only a better employee, but a better person.”

Colombia, ProAves
Jose Gregorio climbing above the research station and visitor center, El Paujil Nature Reserve. Photo © David L. Anderson

Please visit the ProAves website and consider making a donation to save endangered birds in Colombia. Trust me, ProAves is worth it.

Good things happen when good people come together. This training succeeded because of the big hearts at WesSpur, a purveyor of tree climbing equipment located in Bellingham, Washington, and thanks to New Tribe, makers of fine tree climbing gear in Grants Pass, Oregon. The Peregrine Fund, a conservation non-profit that conserves birds of prey around the world, sponsored my time for this project.  Co-Instructor Jamz Luce is a special friend to me, and to tree climbers everywhere.  You are conservation heroes one and all. Thank you.

Parting shots.

Colombia, ProAves
Eight guardarecursos (park guards) of ProAves kicked major butt in their first ever tree climber training. Photo © David L. Anderson
Colombia, ProAves
Carlos Romero is a pro at climbing after only five days. Photo © David L. Anderson
Colombia, ProAves
Tree climbing makes us feel good. Photo © David L. Anderson.
Colombia, ProAves
ProAves and some NewTribe bling, a Yellowjacket Harness. Photo © David L. Anderson
ProAves, Canopy Watch, Colombia
Wax palms (Ceroxylon quindiuense), foothills of the Colombian Andes, are home to the endangered Yellow-eared Parrot. Photo © Alejandro Grajales.





Life In The Treetops

Costa Rica, Monteverde, epiphyte, canopy, rainforest
Sybil Gotch in the canopy of Monteverde, Costa Rica: living proof that scientists are cool. Photo © Sybil Gotsch

Epiphytes. In a single word you just can’t grab all the complexity of life above the forest floor in tropical forests. Epiphytes are those plants that grow on the surface of other plants. They include orchids, ferns, cacti, vines, shrubs, and even other trees. Close your eyes and imagine the raucous greenery growing in a tropical forest. An awful lot of that stuff is made up of epiphytes. They are so abundant and so complex that up in the treetops you basically have a whole other forest growing, double decker style. For more on these wonderful plants and how they add to biodiversity in a rain forest, check out an earlier blog on the topic.

Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
Cavendishia quercina is an epiphytic shrub in the blueberry family (Ericaceae). A number of species of hummingbirds depend on species like these for food. Photo © Sybil Gotsch

Simply stated, epiphytes add life to the forest. One thing that is less clear is how the forest adds life to epiphytes. These plants can grow hundreds of feet up in the forest. Really! How do they do that? I’d like you to meet Sybil Gotsch, because she studies the snot out of these things and she has the answers. Sybil is a professor at Franklin and Marshall College but her “office” is in the treetops in the fabled Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
Sybil’s office in the sky. Here she is testing a sap flow system that consists of sensors on branches that measure water movement. In this project, Gotsch determined that in the tropical montane cloud forests of Mexico, tree foliage can directly absorb water deposited onto leaf surfaces. Photo © Sybil Gotsch
Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
Sybil has professional arborists work on her projects. These guys know ropes, rigging, and trees. Photo © Sybil Gotsch.

In case you don’t know, Monteverde is a type of “tropical montane cloud forest.” That means the forest grows on the slopes of mountains that are constantly covered in clouds and mist. Epiphyte density is off the charts in cloud forests. There are about 800 species of epiphytes just in Monteverde (!!!), and it is estimated that 100 square meters of Monteverde cloud forest is home to almost TWO TONS of epiphytes. As much as 35% of all the leaves, and 45% of all the nutrients in the forest canopy, are made up of epiphytes. If you want to study the life of epiphytes, Monteverde is a good place to do it.

Costa Rica, cloud forest, Monteverde, canopy
Tropical montane cloud forest, Costa Rica. Photo © Sybil Gotsch.

One of the riddles that Sybil has answered is just how epiphytes deal with water in the treetops. Think about it for a second. Epiphytes aren’t rooted in the ground and have to get all their water from up in the canopy, where it is windy, sunny, and surviving these near-drought conditions can be a major challenge. One old assumption is that epiphytes absorb water from all the clouds and mist through their leaves. It’s a logical assumption to make for plants that spend half the year immersed in clouds. Well, dang-it, scientists don’t just assume, they ask questions, take names, and kick butt. Sybil has solar-powered weather stations installed in the canopy. She dissects leaves under microscopes. She injects pressurized nitrogen and water into sections of stems to understand the flow of sap. She has an entire crew swinging from ropes, Tarzan style, conducting this research. And Sybil has answers.

Answer #1) All the epiphyte species she studied can and do absorb water directly through their leaves. But some are better at it than others. The old assumption holds true, but the answer is qualified: how well an epiphyte absorbs water depends on the type of plant.

Answer #2) Some epiphytes have special tissues in their leaves that store water. (Can you say hydrenchyma?) Absorbing water through your leaves is one answer to surviving drought, but being able to store water is another strategy.

Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
This little shrub (Notopleura sp.) is a close relative of coffee. Note the thick waxy leaves that retain water well.  Photo © Sybil Gotsch.

Answer #3) Epiphytes refill the water in their leaves at night. It’s cooler at night, and often cloudy, and the water that is lost during the sunny, windy days gets replenished during the cool, wet hours. Plants aren’t dumb!

Costa Rica, cloud forest, Monteverde, canopy
When I say Tarzan style, I mean Tarzan style. Climbers traverse within and between tree crowns where they can sample every leaf tip and even the misty air. Photo © Sybil Gotsch.

These are just a few of Sybil’s discoveries. You’d fall asleep if I spelled them all out, so here’s what you need to know: First, epiphytes have a bunch of strategies to survive water stress in the canopy. They come in different sizes, some are woodier while others are gentle herbs, leaves can be thick or thin, and so on. It’s the diversity of strategies that allows 2 tons of epiphytes to coexist in a 100-m2 plot. Diversity is the hallmark of tropical forests. Epiphytes have figured out the water problem, and in doing so they contribute to the amazing biodiversity of tropical forests.

Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
Gonocalyx costaricense is another common epiphytic shrub in the blueberry family. It is an aggressive water user and vulnerable to climate change. Hummingbirds feed on the flowers. Loss of this and similar plants in the cloud forest canopy would seriously disrupt the forest ecosystem. Photo © Sybil Gotsch.

Second, because epiphytes capture water out of the air, they in fact add water to the whole forest ecosystem, including the water that reaches the soil and then the streams and rivers. Every human being who lives downstream from a cloud forest depends on epiphytes for the water they drink, cook with, and for watering their crops.

Last, global climate change stands to ruin all that. In Monteverde there are more days in the year without clouds than there used to be, and the base of the cloud layer keeps moving up in altitude. Simply stated, global climate change is depriving epiphytes of water. And when that happens, the forest, wildlife, and humans have less water too.

Parting shots:

Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
Sybil at “work.” In case you thought scientists were boring people in white lab coats?? Photo © Sybil Gotsch.
Costa Rica, Monteverde, canopy, epiphyte
Epiphyte leaves being identified and photographed back in the lab. Photo © Sybil Gotsch.


Gotsch, S. G., N. Nadkarni, A. Darby, A. Glunk, M. Dix, K. Davidson, and T. E. Dawson. 2015. Life in the treetops: ecophysiological strategies of canopy epiphytes in a tropical montane cloud forest. Ecological Monographs 85:393-412.


Paying It Forward

canopy, rain forest, Costa RicaOnce upon a time I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, Central America. That was a different lifetime, back when I knew everything and was poised to save the world. I spent 2 years living in some of the poorest areas of Central America, where many kids had no shoes and only two sets of clothes, one for the week and another for Sunday. For perspective, I lived on $100 a month and was among the wealthy elite in my town. You see a lot of things when you live in places where living is hard. I remember the body of the man who drowned in the river, crumpled on the street outside the police station. Then there was the time that the teenage mother had her baby on the bus. If your eyes are open – and it’s hard for them not to be – you learn a lot of things. Hopefully the lessons include humility and modesty, and that we are all part of the same fabric that is knitted across the surface of this planet.

One of the lessons I learned was that I was a long way off from saving the world. It was hard to deliver a conservation message to parents who were wondering how they would feed their families when the bean crop failed. Plus you can figure in that I was an outsider who was only going to be around for two years. It slowly dawned on me, being the young foreign genius that I was, that to have a lasting impact I had to train others. Somebody was going to have to carry the message after I was gone. Preferably that somebody was a local who knew the community and how to talk with people, and who was invested in seeing their neighbors have a better life.

I carry that lesson today. Recently I was the lucky bastard who got to fly to Costa Rica and train Latin American biologists how to climb trees. These young people are the field soldiers that are saving the world out there, not I. I’m “lucky” because I live in North America where I have access to training and expensive equipment. I’m LUCKY because once when I was younger I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is to pay it forward. So with good friends Jamz, Juni, and Hannah we put on a 1-day clinic amongst the branches of a guayabillo tree. Now I’m trying to piece together the resources to go back and teach an 8-day course, with full-blown certification in climbing essentials and canopy biology methods. Enjoy the pics. Contact me if you would like to donate to young people and the natural environment they serve – I’ll be buying more equipment to donate at the next climbing workshop.

A few good people donated the climbing equipment that you see in the photos.  It was all left behind with the biologists we trained.  I’d like to thank: WesSpur, TreeStuff; working arborists from the International Society for Arboriculture, Pacific Northwest Chapter; and an anonymous friend with a talent for making Kentucky moonshine – you know who you are.  I also thank The Peregrine Fund, where I work.  They sponsored my plane ticket and lodging in Costa Rica, and are believers in paying it forward.

Dedicated to Francisco Urbina, my Honduran counterpart from my Peace Corps days.

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica

canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica


Brothers in Arms

arborist, arboriculture
Arborist flying through the air, Avenger style. Real life is better than fiction, folks. Photo © Roger Barnett.

Saving endangered birds of prey is tough business, but someone has to do it. The work is a swamp of complicating factors, and you wonder if a person has to be insane to do this for a living.

First there is the location. Endangered species know no boundaries and wildlife aren’t interested in the comforts of a salon. If you are working with the Ridgway’s Hawk for example, you find yourself in the Dominican Republic, hiking the rainforest-covered rolling hills of karst limestone. Think 90º F, 85% humidity, jagged limestone that will slice your boot soles, and mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus. Or how about Madagascar. It can take days to drive from the nearest city to the field site, crossing rivers with a 4-wheel drive truck equipped with a snorkel for river crossings (I kid you not), carrying all your equipment and food with you. You have to be hardy in the extreme, and never mind the mosquitoes bearing malaria and sand flies that carry leishmaniasis. Never heard of leishmaniasis? It is one of the worst tropical diseases, and symptoms range from open wounds in your skin, the dissolving of cartilage in your face until your nose is lost, and permanent or lethal damage to your liver or spleen. I dare you to do an Internet search for images of leishmaniasis

Then there is the work itself. Depending on your location, you may have to work around crocodiles in Australia, grizzly bears in Alaska, tigers in India, lions in Africa, or worse, elephant poachers and guerilla rebels carrying automatic rifles and trained to shoot first and forget the questions.

Biologists work with a Gyrfalcon chick in western Alaska. The shotgun is for bear protection. Photo © Roy Toft.
Biologists work with a Gyrfalcon chick in western Alaska. The shotgun is for bear protection. Photo © Roy Toft.

To find a raptor nest you might hike for four hours, and that after a ride on a snow mobile, ATV, or dugout canoe. To enter a raptor nest might require rappelling cliffs, or scaling trees. And then there are the parents. Adult raptors don’t take kindly to people who want to scramble around with their eggs or chicks. Some raptors are harmless and will leave you alone. Some have a grip that will crush your hand and talons that can inflict serious damage. Climb into the nest of a Harpy Eagle and you are on their turf, and don’t expect mercy. Try and forget that you are two days from a hospital – it will make climbing 150 feet up the nest tree a bit easier.

By now you get the picture. Raptor biologists are badass, or insane, or both. Saving endangered birds of prey is serious business and takes the right kind of person. But who saves the person who saves the birds of prey? To answer that question I turn to the art, and the brotherhood, of arboriculture.

Arborists, like raptor biologists, do the hard work that no sane person would attempt. They are the men and women who care for trees. They climb trees to remove limbs with chainsaws, remove entire trees hundreds of feet tall from the tallest leaf down to the ground, and generally care for the well-being of trees and people living together.

What arborists are capable of. Photo © Roger Barnett.
What arborists are capable of. Photo © Roger Barnett.

What I love about arboriculture is that arborists have a brotherhood. They have to. When you are limbwalking with a chainsaw, one wrong move could mean death.

arborist, arboriculture
Among other super hero skills, an arborist can walk on a branch smaller than their bicep. All in a day’s work. Photo © Roger Barnett.

To do this work you have to trust the guy, or girl, who has got your back. On a different day you watch theirs. This connection creates a bond, one that, like raptor biology, knows no boundaries. When it comes to the art and science of tree climbing, Arborists are the Rembrandts and Edisons of the tree universe. If you want to learn to climb trees properly, go to a tree climbing instructor. That’s what I did.  And when you know enough about tree climbing, pay it forward – teach others.

Climber lowering a 200-pound dummy in a simulated aerial rescue. Got your back, bro!
Climber lowering a 200-pound dummy in a simulated aerial rescue. Got your back, bro!
arborist, arboriculture
These arborist brothers and sisters have each others backs, always. Photo © Roger Barnett.

A few weeks from now in October a climbing biologist (yours truly) and some arborists and climbing instructors from the Pacific Northwest of the Unites States – where proper trees grow – are heading to a conference in Costa Rica to teach raptor biologists from Latin America how to safely access raptors nests in trees. There is a wrinkle to this plan, though. Latin American biologists coming to the workshop can’t afford and don’t have access to true tree climbing gear. Teaching is one thing, providing thousands of dollars of equipment needed to keep tree climbers safe is another. WesSpur and TreeStuff generously donated a pile of fantastic gear, but it wasn’t enough. At the 11th hour I turned to climbing arborists at a conference of the International Society of Arboriculture. These are the men and women who do the work of arboriculture. Back-breaking work. Life-on-the-line work. And they know about the brotherhood. When I made a call for donated equipment to keep their brothers and sisters in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina safe, nearly $1000 of equipment flowed in, personal gear paid for in blood and sweat. Check it out.

Some of the gear donated by working arborists to climbing biologists in Latin America.
Some of the gear donated by working arborists to climbing biologists in Latin America.
Here it is in all its glory. Thanks to all the believers and good people.
Here it is in all its glory. Thanks to all the believers and good people.

I’m talking like this: 33 carabiners, 13 slings and split-tails, 6 pulleys, 4 ascenders, 1 throw cube with throw bags and line, 3 rings, 1 harness, 3 Andrew Jacksons, 1 Alexander Hamilton, and 1 Benjamin Franklin.

Saving species. Saving lives. Brothers in arms.

This blog is donated with open arms to a brother named Bill in his hour of need.


Thanks to the hard working arborists of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of ISA for caring. You blew me away.

Photos provided by Roger Barnett and Roy Toft.

Signs by Tomorrow created the cool sign that set the stage.

To learn more about Arboriculture, visit Climbing Arborist.


The Ghosts of Forests Past

Aerial image of Indiana today.
Aerial image of Indiana today.

I have worked in the conservation of nature in tropical countries for about 20 years now. I started as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995 in Central America, where my job was to tell local people how to manage natural resources like forests and rivers. I was uniquely suited to the job, because as the only person in the sector of my host country – Honduras – with a college degree, I thought I knew just about everything. Thankfully, I have learned a lot about the world and myself since then. One lesson remains unchanged, though: we are destroying the natural world at a far quicker pace than we are allowing it to heal.

The truly impressive thing about some developing countries is the amount of untouched land out there. In many places you can still walk into an old-growth rain forest that nobody owns and look up at monkeys and macaws, and amidst the raw humidity and shrieking insects and birds, it is easy to imagine yourself into a nature documentary. Wild places are still out there, all over.  And that is a part of the problem. When you have an overwhelming abundance of something you can fall into the trap of thinking that there is no limit to the supply. We can use it as much as we want, and never run out. This lesson has been learned and forgotten a thousand times in North America. Passenger Pigeons blackened the sky, until they were gone. The buffalo were endless. The coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest would supply lumber forever.  And the great forests of Indiana could never be exhausted.

Screeeeech. What?! The great forests of Indiana? Who are you kidding? Have you been to Indiana lately? The typical mental image is land flat as a pancake, and nothing taller than a corn stalk as far as the eye can see. It didn’t used to be that way. Barely 150 years ago Indiana contained some of the lushest forest and most massive trees on the continent. I kid you not. The photos below, from Gordon Whitney’s 1994 history of forests in America, tell you the story.

forest canopy
Wild sycamore in wild Indiana. They don’t come any bigger than this


forest canopy
Massive oak tree in mid-western hardwood forest, a ghost of forests past.


forest canopy
Tulip tree in Scott Co., Indiana.

I want you to hear the voice of Robert Ridgway, preeminent naturalist of the late 1800’s, who took many of these photos.

“The [Wabash] River flows for the greater part between dense walls of forest . . . If the forest is viewed from a high bluff, it presents the appearance of a compact, level sea of green, apparently almost endless . . . the tree-tops swaying with the passing breeze, and the general level broken by occasional giant trees which rear their massive heads so as to overlook the surrounding miles of forest.” Ridgway described forest monarchs that “attain an altitude of more than one hundred eighty feet.”

“Going into these primitive woods, we find symmetrical, solid trunks of six feet and upwards in diameter, and fifty feet, or more, long to be not uncommon, in half a dozen or more species; while now and then we happen on one of those old sycamores, for which the rich alluvial bottoms of the western rivers are so famous, with a trunk thirty or even forty, possibly fifty or sixty, feet in circumference, while perhaps a hundred feed overhead stretch out its great white arms, each as large as the biggest trunks themselves of most eastern forests, and whose massive head is one of those which lifts itself so high above the surrounding tree-tops.”

This was Indiana, people. The endless forests are replaced with farms and cities. And THAT is my worst waking nightmare for the vast forests of the Neotropics: seemingly endless cathedrals of trees and beasts will be turned into corn fields and cattle pastures. Unless we can remember history, and teach the lessons of history better than I did as a Peace Corps volunteer, the ghosts of forests past will become the ghosts of forest present. All that will be left for us will be blurred photos and the writings of long-dead naturalists.

Recommended reading

Gordon G. Whitney. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. Cambridge University Press.


From Neotropics to Afrotropics: Rainforest birds and ecological niches

Guest writer: Luke L. Powell

Sunrise over rainforest canopy in the Brazilian Amazon.
Sunrise over rainforest canopy in the Brazilian Amazon.

Back in the fall of 2012, I was wrapping up my last of four field seasons in the Central Amazon – Manaus, Brazil. My study site, the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, was set up for its remoteness: “MOTFA” is what we replied when asked where we worked: Middle Of The F&%*ing Amazon.

forest canopy
One of our more simple field camps near Manaus, Brazil – pretty basic living.

I spent the early part of my career very much focused on those rainforest birds of the Central Amazon – the antbirds and ovenbirds and woodcreepers and all the rest. I had previously worked in Costa Rica as well as Peru, so in Manaus I had some idea of what I was getting myself into bird-wise. In other words, within the Neotropics (tropics of the Americas), the families, and often the genera of birds that frequent rainforests are pretty consistent. Despite the diversity of Manaus, my experiences elsewhere in the Neotropics had prepared me somewhat for what to expect from the birds – which bird families were where, which would be sensitive to rainforest degradation, and which families and genera held which niches.

Fast forward a couple of years and my research has moved from the new to the old world tropics. When starting this transition, I was curious to see if the patterns that I understood from the Neotropics would hold in the Afrotropics – Equatorial Guinea in particular. Why Equatorial Guinea you say?! Well, this Massachusetts-sized country nestled squarely in western central Africa has the full complement of African rainforest fauna: elephants, chimps, gorillas and a dizzying array of colorful birds. But the wildlife is under intense threat from development: Equatorial Guinea discovered oil in the 1990’s and has since been pumping oil, laying down asphalt and putting up buildings as quickly as they can. Several parks were also set aside, but it’s not clear what the sensitive bird species even are or how good of a job those parks actually do at protecting those sensitive species. To fill the gaps of knowledge in this rapidly-developing country, colleagues and I started the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative – an NGO dedicated to exploration, education and ecology in the country. We’ve since expanded to mammals as well and changed the name to Biodiversity Initiative.

When I set off for my new project in Equatorial Guinea, the birds were entirely different and I pretty much had to start from scratch on understanding the community. You see, the African and South American continents split off such a long time ago that the bird communities have diverged to a tremendous agree, so much so that most of the families in the Neotropics don’t even exist in the Afrotropics. Fortunately for me, in most cases, there are very close yet unrelated analogs holding the same ecological niches—the role that an animal plays in the rainforest community.

The first place I looked was to the canopy—for an analog of those loud, colorful, Neotropical fruit-eaters with enormous bills: toucans. And immediately I was satisfied in finding that hornbills – the ecological equivalent of toucans – are both abundant and species rich in Equatorial Guinea. This represented a beautiful example of convergent evolution: when two unrelated species converge to fill a similar niche and body plan; dolphins and sharks are a classic example. Unfortunately, because of their large body size, the largest hornbills are often shot by hunters seeking bushmeat. As Africa continues to develop, fewer and fewer of these charismatic hornbills will remain.

forest canopy
Me holding an African Pied Hornbill (Tockus fasciatus) in Oyala, Equatorial Guinea

Next I looked to the understory, where in the Neotropics, ovenbirds and antthrushes accounted for much of the diversity. In the Afrotropics this primarily niche is filled by an unrelated family: the (Old World) thrushes (Turdidae). The American Robin (in the US) and European Robin are well known members of this family. These birds are stocky with a prominent chest, and strong legs and feet built for hopping and walking along on the forest floor – just like their Neotropical counterparts.

Forest Robin (Stiphrornis erythrothorax) captured and banded in Equatorial Guinea
Forest Robin (Stiphrornis erythrothorax) captured and banded in Equatorial

But what about mixed species flocks? In the Neotropics, these multi-species groups of insectivorous species are dominated by the antbirds (Thamnophilidae) with Thamnomanes antshrikes leading the charge with their whip-crack calls. African mixed species flocks are dominated by the greenbuls (Pycnonotidae), a cryptic group of often greenish-colored birds that are ubiquotous in the mid story. Though far less is known about these Afrotropical assemblages of mixed-species flocks, in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania, The Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus ludwigii) has recently been found to be the flock leader. Although not a greenbul, this drongo (family Dicruridae) does make a whip-crack rallying call like its Neotropical flock-leading counterpart.

Forest canopy
Flock-leading Dusky-throated Antshrike (Thamnomanes ardesiacus) banded near Manaus, Brazil.

And what about the Neotropical warblers (Parulidae) – those nimble insect-gleaning gems? In Afrotropical rainforests, these are matched by the Old World Warblers (Sylvidae), a drabber but ecologically equivalent family that are also common tropical-temperate migrants – with many of these breeding in Europe. And the ultra-diverse aerially acrobatic Neotropical Flycatchers (Tyranidae)?

In the Afrotropics these find an ecological equivalent in the Old World Flycatchers (Musicapidae), like the oft-studied Pied Flycatcher
In the Afrotropics these find an ecological equivalent in the Old World Flycatchers (Musicapidae), like the oft-studied Pied Flycatcher

If you’ve spent enough time in Neotropical forests (or you had a great guide on your bird tour), you’ve eventually stumbled on the Old Man of the Forest – the trogon. Most are in the genus Trogon and all are frugivorous and strikingly bright, beautiful canopy birds. Much to my delight, I found that this family exists in the Afrotropics and is no less spectacular. Equatorial Guinea has two species in the genus Apaloderma, one of which was caught by my field crew just last week. I’ve since learned that the Asian tropics (my next frontier?) have a few species of trogons as well – most in the genus Harpactes.

forest canopy
Ornithologist in training Amancio Motive Etingüe holds a Bar-tailed Trogon (Apoloderma vitattum) near his home town at Ureka, Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea

And last but certainly not least, my favorite Neotropical bird family (or subfamily, depending on your taxonomy) is the curiously-moving woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptidae). These ovenbird relatives have modified claws and stiffened tails that they use to hitch themselves vertically up trunks and branches gleaning insects from the bark as they go – not unlike creepers and nuthatches of temperate forests. In Manaus there are 13 species of woodcreeper, each of which has its own unique and curious niche. Strangely enough, this group seems to have no ecological equivalents in Afrotropical rainforests! There certainly a few woodpecker species in Equatorial Guinea, but none are particularly common aside from perhaps the Buff-spotted Woodpecker (Campethera nivosa). Why this niche is essentially empty is a mystery to me, but it sure seems there’s a big haul of Afrotropical insects on tree trunks that are not well exploited.

forest canopy
The Duke of Woodcreepers: Red-billed Woodcreeper (Hylexetastes perrotii) captured near Manaus, Brazil. Note the unusual green skin on the feet and around the eye.

So I’ve found that there are tons of cool birds in the Afrotropics – most with ecological niches similar to that of an analogous family in the Neotropics, and at least one group (the woodcreepers) without. What is a clear difference between Neotropical and Afrotropical communities is how much more poorly the Afrotropical species are understood. With development booming in Africa and human population on the continent projected to quadruple by 2100 – much faster than any other continent – there is a great need to understand and protect these African birds. For me, Equatorial Guinea is a microcosm of the situation in the rest of Africa, which is one of the reasons I am now focused there. What are the keystone species such as flock leaders (drongos?) and seed dispersers (hornbills)? Which species and ecological groups are most vulnerable to disturbance such as logging and agriculture (terrestrial insectivores? large, hunted species?). How many cryptic species exist – those that look alike but are unique species only differentiable by song? Are the birds of isolated islands such as Bioko, Equatorial Guinea, subspecies, or are they actually full (and endemic) species worthy of protection as such? With more work, we can understand the ecology, evolutionary history and habitat requirements of many of these poorly known Afrotropical gems, which will help us to protect them in this time of intense change in Sub-saharan Africa.

forest canopy
A sacred Bubi forest in Equatorial Guinea, Africa.