My Encounters with the Birds of BFREE!

The 1,153 acre BFREE Reserve where I work is a haven for diverse species of birds and my many encounters with them have always been memorable ones. Being in the heart of the jungle has provided me with many opportunities such as witnessing a spectacle display of birds in flight, birds feeding, bird dances, and the listening pleasure of the mystical melodies orchestrated by these feathered creatures. Truly, this is a dream place for many birders and bird enthusiasts, whether advanced or amateurs, to fulfill their quests. It is certainly a destination to place on your bucket list if you haven’t visited just yet!

Within a year of working as an Advanced Cacao Fellow at BFREE, my interest in birding has grown tremendously but my skill in identifying birds whether nearby or through their vocalization has been a slow progress.  Well, progress is progress they would say! Developing such skills and the ability to identify birds by their vocalization is a job that requires patience, vigilance, and good listening skills.

BFREE hosts over three hundred bird species, and these include migrants, transients, and resident bird species. Two major terrestrial ecosystems attract and provide habitats for these birds: the freshwater ecosystem and the tropical rainforest ecosystem.

Picture left: Roxanna Chen is the Advanced Cacao Fellow at BFREE. Her focus is on quality control, best fermentation protocols, and chocolate-making. Here she is shown in the cacao farm holding a fallen nest that was made by Montezuma’s oropendola.

Yellow-headed parrots

My first encounter began on my six-mile walk to BFREE for the very first time. Yes, I have listened to birds before, but I paid very little attention to them and the only ones I knew were those raised domestically. My journey began at sunrise and the view was spectacular, along the six-mile trek I transitioned through various ecosystems. First came the Pine Savannah then the ecotone (a region of transition between two types of habitats) and finally into the broadleaf rainforest ecosystem. Beyond that was the rolling evergreen Maya Mountains.

When I got to the Savannah, I was greeted overhead by a flock of chattering yellow-headed parrots. These parrots made themselves a home in crevices of old pine trees that were either wrecked by lightning or damaged by past wildfires.  Amazingly, I could recall vividly my second encounter with a solo yellow-headed parrot, whilst leaving BFREE with a group of Belizean students in the same area. The parrot was watching us right from its balcony. Other species of parrots such as the Red-lored Amazon, the Northern mealy amazon, the White-crowned parrot, Brown-hooded Parrot, and the Olive-throated (Aztec) parakeets can be heard at BFREE chittering and chattering but they are generally seen in flight or feeding on seeds in the nearby vicinity.

The Great Potoo

Then my bird encounters became even more interesting. While I was on a night hike, a coworker and I were headed for the 114-foot Observation Tower for stargazing, and I began deliberately inquiring about a list of wildlife that was interesting to see. Among that list was the Great Potoo; I had no idea what it was then. My curiosity heightened and my visits to the Observation Tower became more frequent. One night we became lucky! As we were climbing the many steps at about 8:30 p.m. we heard a very loud and heavy call coming from a tree in the vicinity of the tower. Climbing those steps and being over one hundred feet above the ground and into the canopy at night is a good cardio workout. As I sat on the wooden plank, exhausted from the climb, another loud call came from closer proximity, and shortly, the Great Potoo came swooping and landed right on one of the tower rails. It perched only a few feet away from us for about three minutes, so we got as many shots as possible but due to lack of proper lighting our photos were not satisfactory. The bird was as curious as we were; it sat very still, and we moved very stealthily beside it. It was such a magnificent bird, with very light gray feathers, a thick mustache, and scorching, red eyes; it was the size of a grown chicken. Relatives of this rare bird are commonly heard at night; the screeching and hooting sounds of owls ranging from crying babies to calls for help and the infamous scream of a barn owl commonly known as the bird of death.

Lesson’s Motmot

When the Lesson’s motmot is feeling cheeky, and “peckish” the office compound becomes a feeding site; only the fluttering sounds of wings can be heard as it feeds heavily on the nutritious seeds of the Lobster Claw Heliconia. Other feeding companions are the hummingbirds like the Long-billed hermit and the Purple crowned fairy. Now and again the motmot would sit on the office extension as if dropping by to say Hi and keep company.

Montezuma’s Oropendola

Montezuma’s oropendola is also a common visitor and during the mating season, one colony makes numerous nests in the Cacao Agroforestry Farm at BFREE. Their breeding spot is that of a mighty Ceiba Tree right in the middle of a cacao block. Their nests are neatly woven, waterproof, and
cozy, a proven fact of their brilliant ingenuity. These birds are easily identified by their unique and strange calls and especially during mating these calls are also accompanied by a performance.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

While I was fetching some drinking water, the stammering call of the Slaty-tailed trogon caught my attention. It was perching on a tree branch, stealthily moving its head from left to right as if it were taking surveillance of the area. Recalling my first sighting led to a flashback of a morning when it was sitting on one of the branches of an old Calabash tree back at home.

Scarlet Macaws

Recently, a flock of six Scarlet macaws stopped to feed by the garden. It was exactly the picture-perfect moment I was waiting for. I waited patiently for over a year to capture such a special moment; the beautiful colors of their plumage made them attractive. We hear them flying over but they were always in the thick of the forest and they preferred to settle only on emergent trees and, luckily, a prickly yellow tree was nearby and flowering.

Want to do your own birding?

Birds are fascinating creatures to observe and for that reason, I would like to encourage you to spend a little time this month looking at the birds in your yard, around your school, and in other areas you visit. Observe things that make one bird different from another bird – What color is it? Is it big or small? Does it soar high above the trees or hop around on the ground? Does it eat berries, seeds, or insects? What does its nest look like?

Global Birding Bird Day is Saturday, 11 May. This is a great opportunity for you to enjoy observing the birds around you. Over 600 species of birds can be found in Belize as resident or migratory species, so there are many opportunities to see birds every day. Staff of BFREE will be bird-watching and recording our findings on on Global Big Day. We encourage you to spend time watching and documenting birds, too!

Student Advocate Workshops for Earth Day

As part of Earth Day festivities, Heather Barrett, Deputy Director, and Jaren Serano, Dermatemys Program Coordinator with the support of Wildlife Education Fellow, Samih Young, delivered workshops at Sacred Heart Junior College and University of Belize. Over 60 students in Natural Resource Management and Biology as well as four educators participated in the workshops held on April 24th and 25th. The aim was to engage future conservationists and advocates by teaching current engagement methods, sharing existing resources and brainstorming additional opportunities. The workshop was centered around the critically endangered Hicatee turtle but also focused on the bigger picture of the conservation and protection of the watershed and its connected landscape.

The first part of the workshop provided background information and included a demonstration on conducting effective educational outreach presentations utilizing the Hicatee Awareness Month power point created as one of last year’s awareness materials. The second half of the session involved engaging students in independent thought and discussion during three breakout sessions.

Questions in the breakout sessions aimed to identify strategies and resources for engaging various stakeholders in advocating for Hicatee conservation (as well as the conservation of Belize’s natural resources overall), fostering countrywide awareness and equipping advocates. This collaborative effort allowed for the sharing of ideas and perspectives. Both sessions proved to be highly interactive, with all participants contributing brilliant ideas and thoughtful activities. The workshop concluded with the BFREE staff presenting a poster highlighting the first ten years of work at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center to school leaderships as a token of appreciation for their partnership.

Special thanks to the following individuals and organizations without whom this workshop would not have been possible:

Ingrid Rodriguez, NRM Professor at Sacred Heart Junior College, Dr. Pio Saqui, Samih Young and the UB Environmental Club for their coordination of these events; Disney Conservation Fund and Turtle Survival Alliance for their financial support that made these workshops a reality.

Welcome Dr. Rob Klinger, BFREE Conservation and Science Director

When Heather asked me to write something describing how I got back to BFREE, I had an internal reaction that was akin to someone asking me to have a root canal. Whether it’s rational or not, I really dislike autobiographical stuff. Making myself do something even as mundane as updating a CV is a major struggle, let alone writing a few paragraphs about “me”. I could just dutifully recite my twisting and not so traditional scholastic and professional trail: BS in Wildlife Biology from Humboldt State University (underplaying the fact it took me six years or so to complete because that time was interspersed with stints as a biological technician and fire crew member with the US Forest Service, as a deckhand on a tuna boat, as a bricklayer, and a year off to be a wandering hippy vagabond, happily traveling all over the states, Canada, and Mexico); field grunt on the statewide mountain lion survey that California attempted many years ago; ski bum and bartender (simultaneously); MS in biology from San Jose State University, where I worked on the interplay between fire, deer, and mountain lions (dream come true); a few years as an endangered species biologist and statistician for an environmental consulting firm (great practical education in bio-politics); a couple of years as the field coordinator for a project looking at the effects of off-highway vehicles on plant and animal communities in the Mojave Desert; nine years as The Nature Conservancy’s ecologist on Santa Cruz Island off the California coast; a Ph.D. in Ecology & Evolution from UC Davis, where I wandered into this incredible place called the Bladen Nature Reserve and got involved with this crazy little conservation NGO called the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education; and (finally), for the last 17 years an ecologist and statistician (yeah, I’m a numbers guy) with the US Geological Survey. In and amongst all that were things like being a fire ecologist for a few years with the US Forest Service, being a member of a couple of bio-inventories in New Guinea, working with the Charles Darwin Station on the Galapagos Islands for six months, and being on the board of BFREE for well over a decade, including a stretch as the president. But absolutely none of that dutiful recitation really gets at HOW I got back to BFREE. The “how” comes down to two things: bear tracks in the snow and baseball.

Bear Tracks and Baseball

The bear tracks in the snow happened when I was young. My parents and my uncle and aunt had cabins in the San Bernardino mountains, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. One spring we were hiking a snowy trail when my uncle (who was a consummate outdoorsman), pulled up short, pointed something on the ground out to my dad, shot my mom and aunt a glance, and started taking us in another direction. I asked my dad why my uncle had altered our course, and he said, “There were fresh bear tracks going down our trail”. Now, if you are expecting me to say I wanted to go back and find the bear you are going to be disappointed; I was scared out of my wits and wanted to go home. But, after the fact, it sparked excitement and curiosity in me about the natural world. In no time I was learning to identify mammals, birds, reptiles, plants, and animal tracks, as well as fish, hunt, and camp on my own. So, by the time I was a teenager I knew what I wanted to be: a baseball player or a biologist. Yes…baseball. I was, and remain, a big baseball fan and was a decent, though not spectacular, player as a kid. I was good enough to get invited to play in what at the time were known as “Rookie Leagues”. These were winter leagues the major league clubs set up as a low investment way to find kids who might be the proverbial diamonds in the rough. One day, after a particularly good game late in the season, I was told a scout wanted to talk to me (if I remember correctly, he was with the St. Louis Cardinals). He was a very tall, lanky older guy with white hair and a smoldering cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He came up and shook my hand and said “Klinger, sit down. I have had my eye on you and think it’s time to talk. Son, you are one of the best fielders I have ever seen. You could probably walk out on the field with any major league club and be one of the best defenders in the game. But you will never hit above .270 or .280 in AA ball.” Of course I was disappointed, but I knew he was right and that I had just received some very sage advice. I finished the season, then “hung ’em up” (meaning my cleats, as the saying goes).

Back to BFREE

From that point on, despite the winding path I dutifully recited above, I never lost sight of what I wanted or where my passion was. But how I actually got on that path was because of those bear tracks and grizzled old baseball scout. I have pursued my passion for biology with no regrets whatsoever and consider myself one of the most fortunate people on the face of the planet. And now, the thing that excites me most about being back at BFREE is getting to finally go all in working with Jake and Heather, as well as old friends like Sipriano Canti and Thomas Pop. We’ve known for years how well we work together and how much we enjoyed it, but it was always in fits and starts depending on how long I could stick around before I had to go back to my day job. Well, this is my day job now, and I could not be more happy or excited. My girlfriend Elaine is holding down our house in Bishop, California when I am at BFREE (or, more truthfully, she is at the beck and call of our eccentric cat). Elaine said, “You can tell BFREE they can have you, as long as I get a regular supply of chocolate in exchange.” That sounds like a fair trade to me, so I hope BFREE, and all of you, are prepared to have me for a good long time!

Introducing Samih Young – BFREE Wildlife Education Fellow

By Samih Young and Heather Barrett

This month, Samih Young joined the team and is taking on a brand new role within the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program. She joins as the Wildlife Education Fellow and will be collaborating on outreach programming and communications while also supporting work taking place at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. She’ll be an important contributor to Hicatee Awareness Month as well as other educational programming taking place this year. Samih is currently completing the last semester in her associate’s degree at University of Belize and is an active member of the university’s Environmental Club.

Samih is jumping right in to work with BFREE. Currently, she is helping to organize an Earth Day event at University of Belize with Jaren Serano, Dermatemys Program Coordinator and Heather Barrett, Deputy Director. On April 25, the team will lead a workshop for students in the Environmental Club called, “Empowering Student Advocates: Turning Ideas into Conservation Action.”

In her own words

Hi there! My name is Samih Young and I’m originally from Belize City, I spent my formative years soaking up the wonders of nature on the cayes, which ignited my passion for the environment. As a little girl, I dreamt of becoming a marine biologist, but my journey took a slight detour when I pursued my associate’s degree in Natural Resource Management. However, this decision opened my eyes to the beauty of terrestrial conservation, and I knew I had found my calling.

As someone deeply rooted in Belizean landscapes, I carry a profound appreciation for our country’s rich biodiversity and natural heritage. My upbringing in the coastal regions instilled in me a deep sense of responsibility towards protecting our environment for future generations. This connection to Belize’s ecosystems fuels my dedication to conservation efforts, and I am eager to channel this passion into meaningful action at BFREE.

Nature has always been my sanctuary, evoking a sense of belonging unlike anything else – well, except for music, which holds a special place in my heart. My recent experience assisting the team at BFREE with the annual Hicatee Health Assessment was truly inspiring. Surrounded by individuals from diverse backgrounds, we shared a common mission: ensuring the well-being of the remarkable hicatee. Witnessing such dedication reaffirmed my commitment to conservation. It was not only the hicatee turtles that made me fall in love with the place but the level of biodiversity the reserve has. My first morning at the reserve I was awakened by the calls of howler monkeys, a symphony of nature that stirred my soul. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I savored every moment, eagerly anticipating the dawn of the next day amidst such natural splendor.

Growing up in the city, I often felt like an outlier in my passion for the environment. But witnessing the global effort to safeguard the hicatee at BFREE filled me with hope and determination. I know BFREE is the right place for me because being there made me fall in love with a species that I was only seeing for the first time. I’m enthusiastic about potentially making a long lasting positive change and I am thrilled at the prospect of learning from and collaborating with this dynamic team at BFREE.

The February 2024 Hicatee Health Assessment brought together partners from Wildlife Conservation Society, Turtle Survival Alliance, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic and Savannah Field Station to assess the health of the captive turtles at the HCRC.

Special Thanks

The BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program exists thanks to the support of partners and individuals who believe in the importance of providing work-training opportunities to young professionals aspiring to have a career in conservation. Thanks in particular to Zoo New England for providing funding for this new and critical position.

Pictures provided by Jaren Serano, Abraham Alvarez, and Heather Barrett.