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birding at finca hartmann

Ever since I began drinking coffee, I have been a strong and vocal advocate of what is known as “shade-grown” coffee, but what I like to call “sustainable coffee.” If there is one thing coffee-drinking birders can do to help preserve biodiversity, it is to carefully choose their coffee. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as easy as picking a coffee with a seal on the bag. Many eco-friendly coffee farms cannot afford certification. Different certifications have various environmental criteria. As there is no legal definition of “shade-grown,” many producers and suppliers play fast and loose with this labelling. The best first step is to stop buying cheap supermarket coffee, responsible for an incredible amount of environmental damage. I get really pissed off when people who profess to being green consumers and nature lovers tell me that they know they shouldn’t drink Folger’s, but… But what? Too lazy to give up the convenience and do a little research, too cheap to spend the same amount on a cup of coffee as they would a can of Coke. If you’d like to know more about this topic, head on over to Coffee & Conservation for these posts:

FhsignSo in Panama, I wanted to see for myself how coffee was grown and the differences in biodiversity with different management types. On two days, we visited Finca Hartmann, a coffee farm near Santa Clara, Panama. We also spent a morning hiking through a farm that at one time supplied Starbucks, and because coffee was everywhere, we also had an opportunity to take a look at many other farms.

Finca Hartmann (aside from housing and other human infastructure) is a
mix of remnant and regenerating forest, pasture, and coffee. One thing we discovered was that coffee farms are far from homogenous. At Finca Hartmann, coffee occurs in plots ranging from 1 to 15 ha, and itself grows intermixed with native vegetation and/or crops such as citrus and bananas. The higher elevation part of the farm is directly adjacent to the La Amistad International Park, and we could have walked to Costa Rica through the forest trails. Some of these trails were made by Smithsonian researchers; the Hartmann’s welcome ecologists and students.


Here I am in the forested area of the upper part of the farm.


And standing (not sitting!) among the streamside forest on the lower portion.

Nearly 300 species of birds have been recorded at Finca Hartmann. Although we really only explored for 6 or 7 hours over the two days, were working without a guide, and spent equal amounts of time looking at insects, we observed around 80 species of birds at Finca Hartmann.

The most common North American migrant species we saw in coffee farms were Wilson’s Warblers (right), Tennessee Warblers, and Summer Tanagers. These were also common in the lower part of Finca Hartmann, along with Golden-winged, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, and Mourning Warblers, and American Redstart.

Because coffee at Finca Hartmann is grown in small plots amongst remnant vegetation and under various types of shade trees, birds that were more forest-dependent were also found even in the mixed forest-coffee habitats –White-ruffed Manakin, Blue-crowned Motmot, and Mountain Robin, for example. At the higher elevation portion, we had many species of forest birds, such as White-throated Spadebill, Red-headed Barbet (left), Eye-ringed Flatbill, Lesser Greenlet, and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper.

In contrast, in the farms that had larger patches of coffee under fewer shade trees and/or less frequently intermixed with remnant forest, we had much less diversity. Our hike was about 3 hours, and we had 29 species. Most common birds were those that preferred more open or edge habitats: lots of Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Silver-throated Tanagers, (right) and Clay-colored Robins. Where there was adjacent forest, we did see species like Emerald Toucanet. This farm was not really a “sun coffee” farm, but it was more intensively managed than Finca Hartmann. Even so, our experience underscored the importance of having forest on the farm, and a variety of vegetation in, around, or near the coffee.

Our visit to Finca Hartmann was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had — the birds, the coffee education (not just birding in the coffee, but a great tour of their small mill as they processed this year’s crop), and the hospitality of the Hartmann family.  We will certainly return there. It’s one of many small producers that deserve our support. Finca Hartmann coffee is often available from specialty roasters. Part of last year’s crop won 8th place in the 2007 Best of Panama coffee competition. I can recommend a great roaster that carries Finca Hartmann coffee: Novo Coffee.

Wilson’s Warbler photo by my friend Gavan Watson, Red-headed Barbet by PrincessRuffian, Silver-throated Tanager by Mitchmcc. Thanks to all for publishing under a Creative Common license.

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  • John January 28, 2008, 8:17 pm

    It's good to see that the money for shade coffee is being put to good use. How does the diversity compare at sites with similar habitat but without the coffee production?

  • Nuthatch January 28, 2008, 8:48 pm

    If the land around here was not in coffee, it was in pasture or vegetable or root crops that were all quite devoid of wildlife. We didn't see any large-scale farming of citrus or bananas; they seemed to be around homes or used to shade coffee. Land that wasn't used for agriculture or livestock that we went to was either park (Volcan Baru National Park) or the natural areas left on Finca Hartmann. These areas really get dense and wild quickly, and so the birds were often harder to see. They tended to be more forest-dependent birds that also tend to be more cryptic or unobstrustive(trogons, woodcreepers, weird little flycatchers, thrushes). Also, since so much of the land that was even vaguely level or accessible was farmed, the natural areas tended to be riparian or (most often) higher elevation/montane, and bird life there changed with elevation anyway.

    Overall, it was clear that natural or remnant areas had much more structural complexity in the vegetation, a factor known to be important to all sorts of biodiversity and a hallmark of the tropics. We were sobered by the extent of human impact there — all the way from Panama City through the highlands.

  • Ellen January 30, 2008, 3:12 pm

    It also should be remembered that there is shade and there is shade. Not only is there no meaningful certification, which allows some fincas to plant a couple of cecropias and call it shade-grown, but there's also a difference between shade-grown under trees planted in and around the fields (even if they really do provide shade, unlike the cecropias) and natural forest. It is really best to leave as much natural forest as possible. In addition, it is really important to leave the epiphytes on the trees. In some countries they leave trees, but remove epiphytes so more sun can get to the coffee. Research shows that the epiphtyes are really important. They support invertebrate abundance. Also some fincas just trim branches out of the trees, again to increase the amount of sun that reaches the coffee plants. Better than nothing, I guess.

  • Albert Thurman February 4, 2008, 11:08 pm

    I've been friends of the Hartmann's since 1976, when Chicho and Dinorah took me in as a young amateur butterfly and insect collector. I watched their 5 kids grow up and start running the finca, making it one of the best places to visit in the tropics. And now Chicho's grandchildren are having the same wonderful childhood his kids did. I'm over 60 now, but will continue to visit Finca Hartmann until the day I die. Fantastic place, wonderful people.