Notes from the Field Spring 2013


Students from Independence Junior College in Belize.

New partnerships, bold new field courses and new additions to the BFREE experience along with annual/biannual courses punctuate BFREE’s 2013 field season.

Student from Nebraska Wesleyan University working with cohune.

Student from Nebraska Wesleyan University working with cohune.

In early January, Dr. Jerry Bricker and students from Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) participated in BFREE’s newly developed field course, “Field Study Methods in Tropical Ecology”. Designed to optimize BFREE’s premium location adjacent to 1.5 million acres of pristine rainforest, students spent the first few days observing and participating in field research methods presented by BFREE staff biologists. From bat netting to mist netting for birds to aquatic surveys and land mammal survey methods, students experienced authentic research in the tropical rainforest. Throughout these activities, observations were recorded, and mini research projects were developed with input from both professors and resident researchers. Research topics varied widely from ant behavior to bioluminescence. Students’ research results rounded out the week with one “Star Wars”-like presentation by a pair of students studying bioluminescence who made a grand entrance to a darkened dining room wielding the rotting fronds of a cohune palm glowing like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre!

Otterbein University returned once again in mid-January with a new twist to their multidisciplinary course combining Tropical Ecology and Cross Cultural Experiences. A senior research project in psychology and sociology compared the attitudes toward the environment and the natural world of school children from the U.S. and Belize. Conducted during a homestay in the village of San Felipe, the survey looked at the impact of television and other technologies on attitudes toward the environment. After completing their survey, Otterbein students spent time teaching the Belizean kids outdoor games like Red Rover and Duck, Duck, Goose!

Collaboration between BFREE and Ya’axche Conservation Trust has provided students the rare opportunity to experience Belize’s Crown Jewel of protected areas, the Bladen Nature Reserve. YCT rangers led hikes for most of the BFREE field courses along the Bladen River Trail in an area of the reserve that permits access for educational purposes. These guided hikes focused on the challenges of managing Belize’s highest protected area with limited staff and resources as well as how local people use forest resources in daily living practices fostering appreciation for the necessity to protect such pristine environments like the Bladen for future generations.

Students from Otterbein swimming in the river.

Students from Otterbein University swimming in the river.

Sterling College students and faculty were welcomed for the sixth year at the end of January. Aquatic specialists, instructors Farley Brown and Charlotte Rosenthal, returned to previous research sites near Blue Pool and along the Bladen River to survey the aquatic life and flow of the Bladen River. Students participated in a variety of activities presented by BFREE staff biologists; including snail survey work, bat netting, bird netting and a tour of BFREE’s Agroforestry project: a shade-grown, organic and bird-friendly cacao and coffee farm.

The month of February welcomed local community college students from Independence Junior College (pictured at top) and their professor Abigail Parham for another weekend of field activities lead by BFREE Avian Biologist, William Garcia and Avian Technician, Liberato Pop. We were pleased to be able to offer field experience FOR Belizeans LED BY Belizeans!!

The month of March indeed came in like a lion for BFREE as we hosted two courses simultaneously on site. Both courses featured bold new arenas for BFREE. Next month’s News from the Field will feature a closer look at University of Florida’s School of Environmental Law’s cutting edge masters level course as well as an exciting new focused field course from University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

BFREE Avian Technician Receives Prestigious Internship

gato in oregon

Gato in Oregon.

BFREE is proud to announce that Avian Technician, Liberato “Gato” Pop, started his international Bird Banding internship with Klamath Bird Observatory in Oregon, USA during early May 2013. With the support of BFREE staff members, Gato began working toward the internship in January and has navigated through the process of applying, interviewing, obtaining a 6-month travel Visa, and deciding to leave his home for half a year to pursue this goal!

Klamath Bird Observatory (KBO) Interns engage in a variety of bird monitoring and research methodologies (e.g., bird banding and nest searching) depending on annual project needs. Interns gain skills in bird identification by sight and sound, survey methodology, orienteering and general field biology skills, meticulous data collection, and data entry. Interns also contribute substantially to KBO’s research and monitoring efforts. Upon successful completion of the program, Gato will be eligible to pursue his bird banding certification by the North American Banding Council and additionally hopes to be certified as a banding trainer.

Experiences like this are ones that BFREE has worked hard to try to link Belizeans to. Gato lives in Bladen Village, a small community of approximately 300 people. His village is one of the six communities buffering Bladen Nature Reserve in which BFREE has focused outreach efforts over the past seven years. By offering educational programs in village schools and to community members and by training and employing locals to become parabiologists (and in this case, avian technicians), BFREE seeks to involve Belizean stake-holders in the pursuit of the organizational mission to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.

gato sushi

Gato making sushi.

At just 21 years old, Gato found BFREE five years ago when he was 16. His father, village leader of Bladen that year, saw BFREE employee William Garcia putting up posters advertising the opportunity to train and work as an avian technician. Gato eagerly applied and, a few weeks later, he officially joined BFREE’s avian research team. Since that time, Gato has become an integral part of the avian team and has shown a special affinity for his work with Belize’s wild Harpy eagles.

Gato is one of 13 individuals who have completed avian technician training with BFREE and is one of three who are currently employed by the non-profit. Avian Program Coordinator, William Garcia, has taken advantage of multiple opportunities to receive additional training abroad; he also participated in a KBO internship and has worked with Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. in Kentucky, USA each summer for the past three years. Newest avian team member, Marlyn Cruz, will begin her first international internship with Copperhead Environmental Consulting this June.

BFREE would like to express sincere thanks to organizations like Klamath Bird Observatory and Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. for providing once in a lifetime opportunities to motivated and talented individuals like Gato, William and Marlyn.

Creature Feature: Oropendola

oropendola 2Photo by John Swartz,

Arguably one of the most interesting birds in the Bladen Nature Reserve, in terms of its song, nest-building skills and appearance, is the Montezuma’s oropendola, locally known as yellow-tail. Just upstream from the BFREE crossing is a rookery of around 100 nests, hanging high above the tranquil Bladen River.

oropendola 1

Photo by John Swartz,

The extraordinary song of this outlandish-looking bird consists of eerie vocalization that begins with a few high-pitched thin notes followed by a sound like the crumpling of brittle paper, and ends with an explosive, rich, hollow gurgling that carries for a considerable distance. This distinctive song is produced while the bird falls forward, remaining attached to the limb in a flipping motion – a bizarre feat to behold!

Considered a signature species of the rainforest, the bird’s nest-building skills are legendary. The four-foot long nests are constructed from thin strips of palm leaves skillfully woven into safe and sound brooding baskets. Like many of the bat species in the Maya Mountains, the oropendola is a frugivore, eating a variety of wild figs, sapodilla fruits and mammay apples, and is therefore considered an important agent of seed dispersal in tropical rainforests. These incredible birds are just one of the over 350 species of birds documented at BFREE.

A Rodent’s Role in Seed Dispersal

Klinger Trapping Crew (5)

Long-time BFREE board member and US Geological Survey Ecologist, Rob Klinger, is an invited speaker for the 50th Anniversary meeting for the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica during late June.

Below find the abstract for Rob’s presentation.

“Community Effects Of Variation In Strength Of Seed Dispersal And Seed Predation Relative To Seed Predator Abundance”  

Authors: Rob Klinger and Marcel Rejmánek

Seed predation and seed dispersal are often studied as individual effects, but the degree to which their relative importance co-varies with seed predator abundance and how this influences seed fate has not been well-studied. Therefore, we used observational and experimental approaches to investigate the numerical response of a small mammal seed predator, Heteromys desmarestianus, to disturbance induced changes in food availability, and evaluated the degree to which removal and fate of seeds of eight tree species in a lowland tropical forest in Belize were related to the functional response of H. desmarestianus to varying seed densities. Observational data revealed that the total proportion of fruits removed was determined primarily by the numerical response of H. desmarestianus to fruit availability, while removal rates and the proportion of seeds eaten or cached were related mainly to the form of the functional response. The numerical and functional responses interacted though; spatial and temporal numerical responses by H. desmarestianus to total fruit availability resulted in variation in the form of the functional response. Experimental reduction of H. desmarestianus abundance by 90% allowed us to assess the degree to which their rates of seed predation and dispersal limited seed to seedling survival of the eight tree species. In general, the proportion of seeds that germinated was influenced more by high rates of predation than by limited dispersal. Reduction in abundance of H. desmarestianus resulted in an order of magnitude decrease in fruit removal rates and an order of magnitude increase in the absolute and relative numbers of seeds that germinated. However, the proportion of seeds cached remained relatively constant across all periods and between control and removal plots. The results indicate that seed dispersal and seed limitation can occur simultaneously, and their relative strength will be determined largely by the dynamics of seed predator populations.