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A top birder from Nicaragua dies from coronavirus

Luis Fernando Díaz Chávez
Luis Fernando Díaz Chávez. Photo by Oswaldo Saballos

We’re sad to report that COVID-19 has claimed the life of 31-year-old Luis Fernando Díaz Chávez, one of the best birders and ornithologists in Nicaragua. He became ill on May 12 and was in and out of hospitals and clinics, both public and private, and at one point he showed improvement. He was hospitalized for about five days before he died on June 3. Díaz Chávez worked for many years for Paso Pacífico, a nonprofit that restores and protects the Pacific Slope ecosystems of Mesoamerica. The organization has set up a GoFundMe fundraiser, which has a goal of $10,000. Díaz Chávez was the sole supporter of his widowed mother, and the funds will go to her.

Below are three tributes to Díaz Chávez from his colleagues and friends. Our hearts go out to everyone he leaves behind.

A gentle man with big dreams

Luis was a consulting biologist to Paso Pacifico for the past nine years. Every fall and spring migration, he would participate in month-long surveys of permanent transects we have set up in the north and south of Nicaragua. The long-term migratory bird surveys were carried out in partnership with Wayne Arendt of the U.S. Forest Service-International Institute for Tropical Forestry. Luis also was a key ornithologist in monitoring and bird banding at our three overwintering monitoring stations (MoSI) that we have in partnership with Institute for Bird Populations.

Luis was always willing to travel to the field to conduct research or to support our environmental education program, leading children out on birdwatching trips. He was patient and kind with the children, and his soft tone of voice and gentle manner made rural children feel safe when picking up binoculars for the first time. Luis helped train more than 500 children in birdwatching. He was a reliable participant in our Christmas Bird Counts and Global Big Day events as well.

In November 2019, Luis went to Nicaragua’s central lowlands to serve on our first raptor monitoring team with French biologist Vincent Romero. During the count, we documented for the first time 1.3 million raptors of six species over a 23-day period (average 9 hours per day). It was a newly discovered site and the first intensive raptor count in Nicaragua. This was a herculean effort given the difficult and remote field conditions and long days counting, but Luis Fernando and the team were undeterred. Their work will form the foundation for future raptor migration monitoring research in Nicaragua.

Luis was a bird photographer and always had his camera in tow. He was extremely generous with his photos and donated them to Paso Pacifico for our use. He had been working on a raptors of Nicaragua guide book with his colleague Oswaldo Saballos. Paso Pacifico plans to take this project up and support Oswaldo in finishing this guide, with Luis Fernando as co-author. Luis’ colleagues say that he also dreamed of going to graduate school to continue his studies in bird research and conservation.

Luis lived in one of Managua’s most dangerous slums. He lived in his grandmother’s house with his brother and many cousins, his parents, and aunts and uncles. It was a difficult life due to their economic circumstances where everyone was doing what was needed to survive as an extended family, and in a neighborhood where violence and crime were the norm. Luis worked hard in school and was able to attend public university UNAN-Managua University. His one brother also made it to University and then worked as a bank teller, but he is now unemployed since the nation’s 2018 political crisis.

Luis’ father passed away several years ago. A couple of years ago, during the political protests of 2018 that shut down the economy and left several hundred protestors dead, the country, and even Paso Pacifico went into an economic crisis. Work decreased. Even though Luis wanted to work on bird research and conservation, he decided to take a job as a high school science teacher so that he had a stable income enough to have money for his mother. He still worked on research and birding projects with Paso Pacifico during vacation periods and weekends.

My personal regret was not hiring him on full time, permanently at Paso Pacifico. As an organization, we have been promoting and supporting staff to use strict social distancing. Sadly, the Nicaraguan government has not put in place any COVID-19 protection measures and so public employees such as teachers and medical workers are at great risk. — Sarah M. Otterstrom, Executive Director of Paso Pacífico

Díaz Chávez walking in the woods. Photo by Adelayde Rivas

One of Nicaragua’s best birders

Luis was razor-focused, and whatever he set his mind to, he could achieve. He would not rest until he met his goals.

He learned bird calls on his own, without any grand technology to teach him or to give hints, and he became the best in the country at bird identification for calls, bar none. He also had a love for forest birds, and his ability to perceive them was especially good.

Luis was from a very humble background, but anytime he would earn money, it would be used to support his mom or to buy something for birding. He would always do whatever it took to get the newest or latest bird guides. He would never spend money on anything frivolous; he would dedicate his funds to either birding or his mother. He saved for a long time and eventually was able to buy a birding scope.

He worked on a biology assessment team with NGO Centro Humboldt that went to Indio Maiz Biological Reserve after the wildfires in 2018 that caused a lot of damage to this important reserve and that preceded the political uprising of 2018.

Luis was the ultimate underdog, he had every adversity in his life, and yet overcame it all to become one of Nicaragua’s best and most passionate birders. Why did COVID-19 have to take him? — Marvin Torrez, a biology professor and ornithologist at Universidad Centro America

Díaz Chávez in the field. Photo by Marlon Sotelo/Paso Pacifico

A birding mentor gone too soon

Luis once won a scholarship that gave him the opportunity to spend three months in Honduras doing research with people from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. It was very exciting for him.

Luis had a timid and fearful personality, probably from growing up in a very dangerous place. He was afraid at night to go to sleep and was fearful crossing rivers or other risky work.

Luis would send most of his work contract payment to his mother, even before he would depart to the field.

Luis and I would spend hours practicing bird calls and songs, listening and doing playback to make sure we knew the sounds. He was obsessive in learning them.

Luis was always very kind. We would share a room when we were working in the field. He would show me all of his bird guide books, and he treated each one with great care. After a few years of working together, he gifted me a raptor book. I now treasure this book.

After a long day of field work, doing research and collecting data, Luis would always go off by himself to continue birding and to take photos of birds.

In addition to identifying birds by song, he could identify them really well using silhouettes.

Luis was extremely shy and would not usually speak up in a group or talk with people he did not know.

Learning the news of his death has been one of the hardest things in my life because he was a birding mentor and he was so kind. He did not deserve to die in this cruel way. — Oswaldo Saballos, a birding technician for Paso Pacifico

Click here to donate to the memorial via GoFundMe

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