Birds are excellent indicators of forest ecosystem health as their abundance and diversity are closely related to habitat disturbance and they make ideal models because they are relatively easy to monitor and study. This topic takes advantage of fixed point count survey work being undertaken for birds at over 100 survey sites across Cusuco, as well as the long-running mark-release-recapture mist netting survey data. By examining species distributions and species richness across varying habitats, projects could: compare bird communities in different administrative divisions of the Park (e.g. the buffer/core zones that differ in degrees of wildlife preservation and human activity); study the impact of differing disturbance levels on bird communities; investigate the impacts of habitat type on bird community composition; or look at the effect of altitude on bird composition. By using covariates such as habitat structure and forest type, threshold limits for the different species could be elucidated which may have interesting implications for the impact of habitat alteration (e.g. by deforestation) in the future.
The forests of Central America are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America – which have evolved separately. Many of these ecosystems have been badly degraded but there is a proposal to join currently discontinuous areas of forest into a continuous Mesoamerican forest corridor running from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (where there are other Opwall teams) to Panama. Part of this corridor will encompass the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park in Honduras – a site rich in endemics and endangered species yet threatened by unchecked illegal deforestation. The Opwall survey teams have been working in Cusuco since 2003 and the data produced has resulted in the Park being listed as one of the top 50 most irreplaceable protected areas in the world (based on a review of 173,000 sites worldwide). As well as underlining the biological value of Cusuco, the datasets collected by the Opwall teams are also being used to make an application for funding through Natural Forest Standard (NFS). This will allow carbon credits from the Park to be issued, which can then be sold to multinational companies wishing to offset their carbon emissions and at the same time help protect biodiversity. Funding obtained in this way will then be used to manage and protect the park and the many unique species it supports.
In the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park it can get warm in open areas (temperatures up to 20 degrees Celsius) but much cooler in the shade of the forest. Overnight the temperature can drop below 10 degrees Celsius at higher altitudes. It rarely rains in the morning but it regularly rains late in the afternoon and overnight.
Fitness level required
High. You will need to hike from camp to camp for up to 5 hours over steep terrain with your backpack. For this dissertation you will also be going “off transect” which can involve some tough trekking through dense undergrowth.
Facilities in Cusuco are very basic (tents, hammocks, river showers, basic trench toilets). There is no cell phone signal in Cusuco National Park and very limited satellite internet available through a communal laptop at Base Camp.