Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses 

 

For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bladen Review 2017

The fourth edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research and educational projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize.

 

 

Click here to download a PDF version of The Bladen Review.

Number 4 Slider

 

https://www.givecampus.com/w3dtgl

https://www.givecampus.com/w3dtgl

Emily Buege – Fish Research on the Bladen River

Emily Buege and Melito Bustamante during their cichlid study.

Emily Buege and Melito Bustamante in the Bladen River while studying cichlids. Pic by Tyler Sanville

My name is Emily Buege, and I’m a master’s student in the geography department at the University of Alabama.  I’m finishing my first year in the program with my thesis fieldwork at BFREE!  Originally from Dakota, Minnesota, I grew up on a state park, so I’ve always been close to nature.  I obtained my undergrad degree in biology just down the road at Winona State University (WSU) in spring 2015.

At WSU, I met Dr. Jennifer Cochran-Biederman (then Mrs.), someone who would become one of the most influential people in my life. Jennifer’s master’s thesis had been on the diets of cichlids in the Bladen River and she based out of BFREE. In 2012, I participated in a student trip to Belize that she organized for Winona students. Never traveling to the tropics before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Having the BFREE experience lessened the appeal of more tourist-based attractions for me.  The wildlife is only part of that experience; the scenery, food, company, and accommodations were also big factors that drew me back for my master’s.

I’m interested in all animal taxa – butterflies to jaguar – but I chose a fish-based master’s project because my advisor is a river specialist.  My initial plan was to study African tilapia – a highly invasive and destructive species throughout Belize (and much of the rest of the world).  I got to Belize and found 3 individuals within reasonable working distance from BFREE, which isn’t exactly enough for an entire study!  So, I redirected my research to nesting sites of native cichlids. (Hopefully it’s a testament to BFREE that I was willing to change the entire focus of my study rather than my study site!)

Emily and Sarah Praskievicz in the Bladen River.

Emily and Sarah Praskievicz in the Bladen River. Pic by T. Sanville

 

During my time in Belize, I closely analyzed the habitat in the stretch of river near the BFREE crossing and up to Blue Pool.  Melito Bustamante, my field guide, and Sarah Praskievicz, my advisor, worked with me during different phases of my study. We noted locations of as many cichlid nests as we could find, and I hope to build a map that reveals the condition types each of four main species prefers to nest in.  I’ll be using the data I collected while in Belize to shape my thesis over the next year.

When not in the river, I went for walks in the forest.  Melito is an incredible birder, so when we went for walks together, I learned an incredible amount about the bird community here – toucans, tanagers, tinamous.  I also encountered a tayra (aka bush dog) near the river; I had never heard of that species until I read about it in a book the night before we sighted it!  Another highlight that was different than my last trip was that I had the incredible opportunity to really get to know the staff!  I’ve really connected with people I would never have gotten the chance to meet if I weren’t doing this project.

For me, this whole experience has been a lesson in taking life one day at a time.  I’m a planner, so I struggled when my project changed.  On top of that, I developed an ear infection, Melito got sick and had to leave, and other various challenges arose as I worked through my time at BFREE.

If I were to offer advice to other researches it would be to prepare for everything to go according to plan, but know that it might not!  Also, work hard, but don’t let opportunities to experience great things slip away.  Finally, get up early and go birding or stay up late and get to know the staff.  It all goes by so fast, and you don’t want to leave feeling like you missed out!

A note of thanks:

I want to extend a big thank you to everyone who helped me out during my stay!  Between seeking remedies for infections and looking for help in the field, I feel that I kept everyone at BFREE busy.  I’m so grateful for all the physical and moral support that I’ve received throughout this experience. Also, many thanks to both my advisors, Dr. Sarah Praskievicz who helped me immensely with the execution of physical habitat sampling and Dr. Peter Esselman who provided invaluable biological guidance in selecting not one, but two, projects. THANK YOU!

P.S. Despite a somewhat chaotic change of research topic at the beginning of my trip, I’m still hoping to continue on with a PhD after my master’s. I’m not sure what animal taxa I envision working on next, but there’s a neotropical river otter that I’ve caught on my fish cameras that seems to be asking me to study it!