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Conserving the Elfin-woods Warbler in Puerto Rico
By Lilibeth Serrano
Photo Credit: Mike Morel
Agile and swift, small and restless, the elfin-woods warbler (Dendroica angelae) moves through the canopy as if playing hide-and-go-seek. There are 38 warbler species found in Puerto Rico, and the elfin-woods is one of the most difficult to find. In 2003 and 2004, bird experts set out to find this bird at six different forests, including places where the species used to exist, but they found less than 1,000 birds in just two locations: the Maricao State Forest and El Yunque National Forest.
Previously, the warbler was found in Cayey and Toro Negro but no one has seen it in those places since Hurricane Hugo struck 22 years ago. Because of the limited distribution of the elfin-woods warbler, the bird has been a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act since 1992.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is working with private landowners within a five-mile (8-km) radius of the Maricao State Forest to benefit the elfin-woods warbler. The strategy is to improve habitat quality around the existing population to compensate for the loss of habitat caused by communication towers, development and road construction. A five year pilot project started in 2007 and resulted in the improvement of 347 acres (104 hectares) of upland and 3.2 acres (1.3 ha) of river bank habitat. In 2009, the Service restored secondary forests in Las Marías and Mayagüez, and river banks in Las Marías.
Forests within farms allow the warbler to use the hillsides where farmers cultivate coffee and plantains. Restored river banks give the elfin-woods warbler corridors to move along the landscape. The Service will continue to take advantage of the flexibility demonstrated by the warbler to adapt and use restored agricultural lands. The Service is also evaluating the effectiveness of and ways to expand this initiative to private lands adjacent to El Yunque, where the second warbler population is located.
Limited access to native trees was identified early in the project as a hurdle to overcome. Because these trees are instrumental to restoring coffee farms and river banks, the Service established an agreement with an organization called Envirosurvey. Using federal funds, Envirosurvey set up greenhouses run by local farmers to produce a combined total of 17,000 trees that will restore habitat at 33 farms.
"Envirosurvey, has been instrumental in our efforts to turn sun coffee plantations into future mature and diverse suitable habitat for the elfin-woods warbler and listed species in Maricao," says Dr. Jorge E. Saliva, a biologist in the Service's Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office.
The Service works closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services and Farm Services Agency, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, Agricultural Extension Services, Envirosurvey Inc., and other organizations. These partnerships are pivotal in extending the impact of The Service's investments and complimenting its strengths. Conservation agencies share resources and refer cases to each other, on a case-by-case basis, depending on the farmer’s needs and the program objectives.
Lilibeth Serrano, a public affairs specialist in the Service’s Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office in Boqueron, Puerto Rico, can be reached at email@example.com or 787-851-7297, ext. 212.
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