Las Nubes trail named for York PhD student

Chris Saker loves woodpeckers. In fact these pointy headed birds have interested him so much that over the past three years he has braved chilly swamp land, water snakes and the perils of the rainforest just to study them.

In 2006, Saker played an important volunteer role in the search for the elusive (and maybe extinct) ivory-billed woodpecker (see YFile, June 15, 2007). Now he is studying other kinds of woodpeckers and their role as determinants of the health of the rainforest. Specifically, his master’s research looked at how pale-billed woodpecker numbers offer an indicator of a rainforest’s biodiversity.

Saker began working on his MES with York environmental studies Professor Howard Daugherty in 2007. Since then, Saker has travelled to York’s Las Nubes Rainforest Reserve to work with students participating in the Las Nubes Field Course and on his own to study Neotropical woodpeckers in their rainforest retreat. He recently completed his master’s research and has embarked on his doctoral studies. Now Saker – who is looking at how tree cavities created by the pale-billed woodpecker offer their own indication of a forest’s biodiversity – has been immortalized in the Las Nubes Rainforest with a trail named in his honour.

Above: Chris Saker at the Chris Saker Trail in Costa Rica

"Chris spent six months in the rainforest studying these birds," said Daugherty. "While he was down there, he got to know the people in the community, specifically those in the local Forest Conservation Council of Quizarrá, the caretakers of the reserve  They were so impressed with his work and dedication that they created a plaque and named a trail in his honour."

The trail, now known as the Chris Saker Trail, began as a heavily wooded path that Saker used every day to reach the heart of the reserve, which was the site of his research. "The dedication was one of the greatest honours of my life," says Saker. "It was a very humbling experience and the honour coming from such amazing people will always stay with me." Saker plans to make frequent use of the trail for his doctoral research, which is focused on what happens in the tree cavities created by pale-billed woodpeckers.

"In my own research, I am interested in looking at what other species are doing within these tree cavities," says Saker. "Specifically how pristine versus human-altered landscapes affect the occurence and ecological role of these tree cavities." Many other mammals, insects and other organisms living in the rainforest move into the woodpecker tree cavities and create their own condominium of biodiversity, says Saker. "What happens to these species when the woodpeckers are forced out by coffee plantations or other interference? It is important to see what is going on in these cavities and know what organisms depend on these cavities, before this habitat goes missing and we can no longer see the ecological significance. It all boils down to developing better-informed conservation strategies and agricultural practices."

Saker’s research is focused on woodpecker conservation ecology along the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. The corridor, named after Alexander Skutch, an internationally known naturalist, botanist, ornithologist and philosopher who died in 2004 after a lifetime’s research in the area (see YFileJune 28, 2004), connects the Los Cusingos Neotropical Bird Sanctuary in the lowlands of southeastern Costa Rica with the highlands of the Las Nubes Rainforest Reserve and Chirripó National Park.

Above: A view of the Las Nubes Rainforest in Costa Rica, donated to York by Dr. Woody Fisher

Las Nubes, which means "the clouds", was donated to York University in 1998 by Dr. Woody Fisher, a prominent Toronto physician, medical researcher and co-founder of the Canadian Liver Foundation. York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies created the Dr. Woody Fisher Fund for Neotropical Conservation to protect this rainforest habitat through an agreement with the Tropical Science Center in Costa Rica.

"While I am not too big into cutting trails into the rainforest, this trail will serve as a way for people in the community who look after the rainforest to walk into the area. It will also be used by students in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies," says Saker, an Alexander Skutch in the making.

"Land use practices in the area are very sensitive to the rainforest and the trail will be appreciated and well cared for. It may serve to inspire another student to study the rainforest," he says.

Saker’s field research in Costa Rica has been funded by the Fisher Fund for Neotropical Conservation and by the Kenneth Molson Foundation.

 Visit the Las Nubes Rainforest Reserve Web site for more information.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor