Detained for Nicaraguan Border Crossing: Just Another Phase of the Parrot Pursuit

Christine Dahlin, PhD

posted June 28, 2016

An iguana on the beach near La Cruz, Costa Rica. (Photo by Christine Dahlin)

Pitt-Johnstown assistant professor Christine Dahlin, PhD, is travelling this summer through Central America, specifically Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to study communication in yellow-naped amazon parrots.

The trip is nearing the end and we have met with fabulous success and very few hiccups along the way, at least, that is, until we neared the border of Nicaragua.

yellow naped amazon crouched

A crouching yellow-naped amazon parrot.
(Photo by Molly Dupin)

We began the furthest Northern phase of our trip in Cuajiniquil, which Tim had scouted for us previously. To our delight, when we pulled into town mid-afternoon we found it bursting at the seams with parrots, who flew between mango trees. We drove to the only hotel in town, which came complete with breakfast and (gasp!) hot showers.

Yellow-napes literally called outside our room and we watched them from our balcony throughout the day. We thought finding the roost that evening would be a breeze, but when night fell, only a few birds flew haphazardly. That meant an early morning to try again, and Tom and I arose to drive down the beach. As the sun rose and we approached the playa, a ruckus grew, and finally we found the real roost, which, no surprise, was once again located in mangroves off the shore.

We are now situated in our last town, La Cruz, a border town nestled in the far North-East corner of Costa Rica. We recorded right at the border of Nicaragua 11 years previously, and I decided to try again, but when I arrived in the morning, to my dismay there was only a denuded landscape, trucks, and a shanty town full of immigrants desperately trying to make their way to America. The sight definitely made us appreciate our fortune in already being born American.

I decided to wander into the trees a bit just in case a parrot or two appeared. I found nothing, but alas, a Nicaraguan military patrol saw me with my equipment and decided to pull me across the border on suspicion of spying and photographing their military encampments. Thus began my half day “arrest”.   Despite my protestations “I’m an American professor, I have permits, and I don’t even have a camera,” they marched me across the border to Nicaragua and I spent the morning being (gently) interrogated and having my equipment repeatedly inspected. I also had myself and tattoos photographed, was Facebook-friended by one of the Nicaraguans (Facebook can be an international language of friendship), and had the fun time of explaining parrot dialect research in Spanglish to many Nicaraguan military officials.

Despite my frustration at not being allowed to leave or communicate with anyone, the guards were kind. They showed off a baby squirrel that they had adopted at the station, which I patted for a solid hour before it eventually fell asleep on my shoulder. They also shared their TV and provided juice and crackers.

 I was astounded at the poverty in which they lived, which is nothing like what our military experiences or indeed most Americans live in. Their uniforms were standard issue, but they shared a small house with many beds (sans pillows), crammed together and draw their water from a well, with a cook house in a small hut outside the main house.

I found the Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans all share a sense of humor, and when I finally returned to Costa Rica they all laughingly told me to make sure to stay on the right side of the border.

We now begin the last phase of our research, with just a couple of historic roosts to record. Our enthusiasm is undiminished!

Note: Dr. Dahlin's study and trip are funded by a grant from the Central Research Development Fund (CRDF),through the University of Pittsburgh.