Congratulations Drs. James Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson on your retirement!

Vibeke Olson and Jamie Rotenberg

Congratulations to long-time BFREE supporters, field course leaders, researchers, and adventurers, Drs. Jamie Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson on their recent retirement from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Extraordinary husband and wife team, Jamie and Vibeke, have been visiting BFREE for nearly two decades as professors bringing field courses, as researchers, with their graduate students, and as supporters. 

Their impact on BFREE has been significant. BFREE is a better place because of Jamie and Vibeke. So from your BFREE family, congratulations! We look forward to this next chapter in your lives and can’t wait to share in a few of your upcoming adventures.


Messages from your BFREE Friends and Family:

Judy Dourson and Jamie on a UNCW-BFREE Field Course in 2007. Photo Credit: Lisa Ramsden

From Judy and Dan Dourson, BFREE Staff Members 2006 – 2013:

We first met Jamie (Dr. Rotenberg to most) in December of 2006 in our first few months as field station managers of BFREE.  He arrived along with close friend and cave diver, Sam Meachum, to lead the first of many expeditions into the Bladen Nature Reserve to establish survey protocols for what would be an extensive, long-term study of neotropical migratory birds and the signature species, the Harpy Eagle.  Jamie’s tenacity and determination were on full display when he limped into BFREE after one particularly grueling expedition, hiking over 8 hours through trail-less, brutal terrain to reach BFREE only to discover a very painful broken collarbone.  Dr. Rotenberg’s tireless commitment to the Avian Monitoring and Harpy Eagle study produced numerous grants to fund the study.

By far our most elaborate scientific collaboration with Jamie was in 2016 when Dan became a co-investigator for a National Geographic Waitt Foundation Grant that focused on the potential relationship between land snails (Dan’s research focus) and Harpy Eagles.  With over 30 participants, the expedition was a technological feat that entailed creating a mobile lab to process snails, portable generators hauled deep into the jungle to provide power for advanced drone technology and elite cavers from Poland who dropped into a 300-foot sinkhole during the expedition.

Jamie hiking through the Bladen River during the 2016 National Geographic Waitt expedition. Photo credit: Kasia Biernacka

While Dan’s interactions with Jamie would revolve around their shared passion for the biodiversity of this exceptional region of the world, my time spent with Dr. Rotenberg centered on the development and implementation of seven field courses.  In true fashion, Jamie always knew how to shake things up and challenged me to expand my own horizons as Director of Educational Programs at BFREE leading to new field course locations like Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary or Tikal in Guatemala. I met Jamie’s lovely and spunky life companion, Vibeke, while working with them to plan and execute an innovative course for biology and art/architecture majors focused on the art and architecture of Maya archaeological sites and structures and the biodiversity found around these anthropogenic structures.  Another creative collaboration with Dr. Rotenberg focused on Environmental Psychology with both environmental sciences and psychology majors. 
 
Our field course adventures were always informative, stimulating, sometimes challenging, and full of surprises but it was those challenges that strengthened the bonds of what is sure to be a lifelong friendship.  It is with great delight that Dan and I welcome them into the wonderful world of “retirement”.  We look forward to learning more about what new adventures await and how we can participate. To quote my comedian spouse, Dan, “After all, snails and birds rule, everything else drools!”


Jamie and Jacob Marlin proudly hold the 2012 Partners in Flight Award for Bird Conservation that was awarded to BFREE.

From Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director:

From the first time Jamie came to BFREE back almost two decades ago, he has played a key role in so many of our conservation programs. From leading our bird research and monitoring efforts, including the rediscovery of a wild breeding population of Harpy eagles, to training young Belizeans to be bird biologists. His passion for teaching brought hundreds of students from the USA to BFREE on study abroad programs for more than a decade. In 2014, BFREE was honored to have Jamie join the board of directors, where he currently serves as vice-president. Over the many years, Jamie and Vibeke have continued to support BFREE in countless ways, always believing in us and our mission. They are both true partners in conservation. Congratulations to this dynamic husband and wife team!


Jamie examines a bird for data collection during a research trip to Belize.

From Marlyn Cruz Sierra, BFREE Staff Member 2012 – 2014:

 Working along with people who share an incredible passion for what they do is one of those experiences that you will always cherish. For me, Dr. James is that person. He transmitted this passion and love of his work and projects when I participated as an avian technician at BFREE, so it never really felt like “work.” He was always very communicative and incredibly organized. He was unselfish with the wealth of knowledge he possessed, willing to give you an opportunity for growth, and cheering you on while you accepted new challenges.


Gato Pop center and Jamie top right along with the Harpy Avian Team in 2008 at BFREE.

From Liberato “Gato” Pop, BFREE Staff Member 2006 – 2015:

I would like to say that Dr. Jamie has been a great mentor for me. He has guided me through numerous trainings to become an expert avian researcher. He has always encouraged me to continue what I love and that is working with nature.

I want to thank Dr. Jamie and Dr. Vibeke for their support of our bird banding project for the past years at BFREE.


Jamie and Vibeke pose with students from UNCW during their BFREE Field Course.

From Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director:

I admire how well Jamie and Vibeke have participated in each other’s professional and personal interests over the years. Although they have focused their careers on different continents, they remain a strong team supporting one another by each being engaged in the pursuits of the other. Jamie picked Central America and the sciences for his research while Vibeke chose Europe and the arts for hers. Instead of allowing their differences to divide them, they used them as an opportunity to explore the world together. With that model in mind, I’d say the sky is the limit for their shared retirement. Congratulations, Jamie and Vibeke!


Jamie and Lisa reunited after a decade at a 2017 BFREE Fundraiser in DC

From Lisa Ramsden, UNCW Alum and BFREE Field Course Participant 2007:

Dr. Rotenberg fostered my deep love of tropical ecosystems and birds through his classes at UNCW. I am so thankful that I particpated in his Environmental Psychology course that took students to Belize and that I was able to visit BFREE. It was a truly eye-opening experience for me. I feel so lucky to have taken a variety of classes with him and to have gotten the wonderful experience to intern with him on his Painted Bunting project. Congratulations on your retirement, wishing you all the best!


James and Jamie in Belize

From James Abbott, UNCW Alum, BFREE Field Course Participant and Assistant Researcher:

Congratulations Dr. Rotenberg on your retirement. You have been an amazing mentor to me. I believe that even more than the knowledge, experience, and skills, you passed on to me; the biggest influence I carry with me everyday is your attitude toward life and teaching demeanor and style. Those have and continue to shape my career in environmental education. Not to mention my unofficial role as the painted bunting ambassador to all of southeast VA – our region’s newest breeding bird. I cannot thank you enough for everything you have done for me and I hope we can meet up again someday at BFREE and enjoy a field station harpy eagle together.


BFREE Birding Club T-Shirts For Sale!

You asked, we answered! BFREE is partnering with Bonfire to create and sell t-shirts that support our conservation programs. Our first t-shirt design is in honor of the BFREE Birding Club and sports a beautiful Rufous-tailed jacamar. Anyone can join the BFREE Birding Club! The best part – you can pick from five different styles of shirts and nearly twenty different colors! Profits from each sale will directly support BFREE’s conservation programs. Shirts are mailed every 4-weeks directly from the Bonfire warehouse. If you have a question about shipping please do not hesitate to contact us!

Bird watching is the ultimate connector.

The BFREE Privately Protected Area is home to more than 80 species of migratory birds and hundreds of resident species. When we scour the branches for our feathered friends in Belize, we are reminded that some of them have migrated from your backyard to ours. Our location is critical for wildlife, and with your support, we can make a difference in protecting critical wild spaces for all of our furry, scaly, and feathered friends!

Restore Our Earth — Happy Earth Day!

The Bladen River at BFREE. Photo by Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti

Today marks what is now the most widely observed secular holiday across the globe, Earth Day! Celebrated April 22nd annually, organizations and individuals come together to demonstrate support for environmental protection. This year’s earthday.org theme is “Restore Our Earth.” The theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change but that it is up to every one of us to Restore Our Earth. 

“Restore” is not a new theme for us at BFREE; in fact, it is a significant theme to all that we do. 

Restoring tropical rainforest. Our cacao-based agroforestry program was created as a strategy to conserve and restore tropical rainforests in Belize. 

Restoring watersheds. BFREE has partnered with the Monkey River Watershed Association working to conserve and restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed. 

Restoring habitats. Through extensive management and protection of the BFREE reserve, our rangers are restoring habitats to ensure BFREE remains a hotspot for biodiversity. 

Restoring wildlife. Our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center is restoring local populations through captive-breeding and release programs. 

Our success in restoring wildlife and wildlands is because of our relentless stewardship, innovative strategies, and your support. As we celebrate our 25th Earth Day at BFREE this year, we know that there is still plenty of work to be done – but together, we can Restore Our Earth. 

Happy Earth Day! 

BFREE’s Bounty of Birds

For the past three years, BFREE has had Harpy eagle visitors in late February. So that means we are spending a lot of time looking up! Scouring the tops of trees like Ceiba and Prickly Yellow where we’ve seen them previously perched in hopes that 2021 will be good to us. We’ve recorded 20 separate observations within the BFREE reserve since the first one in September 2016. The most recent was by Sipriano Canti last November.

To us, it is spectacular to witness this enormous and awe-inspiring raptor. We are reminded that having Harpies around means that BFREE and the Maya Mountains remain healthy and intact enough to support this top predator.

And the Harpy isn’t the only bird indicator that the BFREE reserve is an oasis for wildlife. Our Ranger team has diligently recorded Scarlet Macaw sightings on an almost daily basis since August 3, 2020.

We don’t want the rangers to have all of the fun though! So some of the staff have started to document birds using both ebird.org and printed observation sheets. As a 2021 challenge, Nelly Cadle and I began recording a list every day. Doing this helps us to become better birders while also documenting which birds inhabit BFREE. We often ask Tom Pop for help with IDs because he is excellent at identifying birds by song and calls. Lenardo Ash has also become interested in birding and has started recording sightings with us. Finally, we can always count on Sipriano Canti to snap pics and record bird observations around BFREE because he and his ranger team are constantly on the move and have the greatest opportunity to spot amazing birds and other wildlife.

Being at BFREE nurtures our love for this country’s incredible wildlife and inspires us to continue our role as stewards of this rare and spectacular place.

Below are photos BFREE staff took of birds at BFREE in 2020 and 2021.

Let’s Celebrate World Migratory Bird Day in Belize! 

Join BFREE in the great world-wide celebration of migratory birds during the entire month of March!

Below are educational resources and additional information for you to use in your classrooms. We encourage celebratory events throughout the month of March such as educational presentations, cleanups, and other habitat restorations as well as bird walks, and creative art activities

Educational Resources:

Coloring Page
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Make a Bird Mask
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Bird Count Data Form
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
BFREE Bird List
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
WMBD Facebook Photo
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Migration Game
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Wings of Hope Film
CLICK TO VIEW

Classroom Activity Ideas:

  • Host or join a trash clean up, this can be done around your school, in your community or along the beach! Bonus challenge, have class competitions to collect the most trash or create an art project with the plastic collected.
  • Download the bird count and bring your class outside to record data from around your schoolyard.
  • Have a school-wide plastic-free challenge week. Challenge your students to go a full week without using any single-use plastic at school! 
  • Host a movie party, watch Wing of Hope, Yochi, or Birds of Belize to get to know more about the incredible birds in our country.
  • Share Migratory Bird Day in Belize on social media! Share the Facebook banner or post on Instagram and tag @bfreebz so we can see your activities!

Scheduled Events:

  • February 22: “Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution” Presentation to students of Natural Resource Management from Independence Junior College
  • March 1 – 31:  Join BFREE in celebrating World Migratory Bird Day in Belize the entire month of March
  • March 4 – 6: BFREE presentations and activities for Primary and High Schools in Independence Village
  • March 14: Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) and Next Gen Croc Club will host a beach clean up in Seine Bright

What is World Migratory Bird Day:

World Migratory Bird Day in the Americas is coordinated by the organization, Environment for the Americas, which promotes bilingual educational materials and information about birds and bird conservation. Environment for the Americas celebrates the migration of nearly 350 bird species between their nesting habitats in North America and wintering grounds in Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Now in its 26th year, World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) has grown from a one-day event to hundreds of projects and programs year-round and encourage individuals and organizations to join them in selecting their own date to celebrate WMBD. BFREE has selected the entire month of March to celebrate WMBD in Belize and we invite you to join us!

We are inspired by the phase-out plan to ban single-use plastic in Belize that became effective on 15 January 2020. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment, Sustainable Development and Immigration, Hon. Goodwin Hulse, signed into law the Environmental Protection (Pollution from Plastics) Regulations, 2020 that is set to reduce plastic and styrofoam pollution through the phasing out of single-use plastics in Belize as a control measure to protect the terrestrial and marine environment from harmful plastic contamination.

With this in mind, we at BFREE are celebrating WMBD by embracing the message, “Protect birds: Be the solution to plastic pollution.” 

We invite you, our partners country-wide to join BFREE in tackling the challenges of plastic pollution in the environment by sharing with your classrooms the many ways that plastic can harm birds and by offering some ideas for ways that we can reduce our use of plastic items.


The Truth Behind Plastic Pollution:

Since plastic was introduced in the 1950s, an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons have been created. Only about 9% of plastic materials are recycled, leaving more than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastics in landfills or polluting the environment. “One of the main types of debris in the marine environment today is plastic. We know fishing gear, plastic bags, bottle caps, utensils, and other plastic pieces are entangling and being ingested by birds. Plastics harm birds in marine environments, as well as other habitats. As human use of plastics grows, so too does the amount of plastic pollution that invades most ecosystems around the globe. “Plastic debris such as fishing line poses a serious risk of entangling birds, which can entrap them and cause serious injury,” says Dr. Susan Bonfield, Director of Environment for the Americas. Migratory birds also have a high risk of directly ingesting plastics. It’s been estimated that 80% of sea and shorebirds have consumed foam, pellets, thread, and other items. In addition, small bits of plastic, known as microplastics, pose a hazard to birds and smaller organisms throughout the food chain due to the toxins they concentrate in the environment.

The Spectacular Journey of Birds:

In addition to raising awareness about issues important to bird conservation, World Migratory Bird Day is also a celebration of the spectacular journeys that migratory birds take as they travel between nesting and non-breeding sites around the world. Global partners at the Convention on Migratory Species in Bonn, Germany recognize that “World Migratory Bird Day joins our voices as one for the protection of the birds we share. With raised awareness of threats such as plastic pollution to birds, it is our opportunity to take action by making changes that help birds, whether personal or more broadly.” Although WMBD is traditionally celebrated in Canada and the U.S. on the second Saturday in May, in reality every day is bird day, and programs, festivals, and other events occur throughout the year, whenever it works best for organizers—and the birds. “Ultimately, the goal of WMBD is to connect people to nature through birds,” says Miguel Matta, WMBD Coordinator in Latin America.


About BFREE:

The Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) operates a biological field station in the rainforest of southern Belize. Our mission is “to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.” We strive to successfully integrate scientific research, environmental education,  conservation, and create sustainable development opportunities for alternative livelihoods for Belizeans.

About Environment for the Americas:

WMBD in the Americas is coordinated by Environment for the Americas, which provides bilingual educational materials and information about birds and bird conservation throughout the Americas. Their programs inspire children and adults to get outdoors, learn about birds, and take part in their conservation. To learn more about migratory bird habitats, download WMBD educational and promotional materials in Spanish and English, and search for activities planned in your area, visit http://www.migratorybirdday.org/

Miguel Matta, Latin America World Migratory Bird Day Coordinator, Environment for the Americas, Boulder, CO, USA. Email: mmatta@environmentamericas.org

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”.

2019 Field Season Wrap Up

We are wrapping up another incredibly rewarding year of hosting field courses at the BFREE Field Station. 2019 brought seven colleges and universities from the US and one from Belize. Altogether, just over 100 students and 20 instructors spent between 4-10 nights at BFREE. They could be found immersing themselves in the jungle hiking both day and night, working on independent research projects,  learning about the critically endangered hicatee turtle, tasting cacao fresh off the pod, swimming in the river, snacking on johnny cakes, and searching for the elusive Harpy eagle. 

Most field courses require students to work on independent research projects in order to receive an introduction to environmental field methods through hands-on learning. Students gain a basic understanding of field methods necessary to discuss and research various environmental issues. Some will come prepared with a question in mind before they arrive at BFREE, however, for many once they arrive with one sweeping view of the jungle, the possibilities of research are endless. Below are just a few examples of the independent research projects students worked on this year. 

  • 1. Are howler monkeys most active at dusk or at dawn?
  • 2. Does the height of the tree determine the size of its buttress?
  • 3. Will the trees near the river or a waterbody grow taller than the ones that are not near a waterbody?
  • 4. Will a foreign liquid throw the leafcutter ants off their trail?
  • 5. Does the higher density of insects/food source in an area coincide with a higher density of birds in that area?

A special thanks to each of our instructors that make our Faculty-Led Field Courses a success. We look forward to having you back next time! 

2019 BFREE Field Course Group Photos

The University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, N.C.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA

Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia

Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, FL 

Flagler College, St Augustine, FL

Independence Junior College, Independence, Belize

Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Nebraska

PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS

We would love to see the photos you took during your time in Belize. Please share them via social media on             Instagram @bfreebz or by email to contact@bfreebz.org.