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 available until the end of July and will be shipped direcetly from Bonfire on August 3rd.

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! 

March 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment

Over the last six years, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) population of critically endangered Central American River Turtles, Dermatemys mawii, has grown from the 22 founding adults and subadults to 45 breeding adults. Sixty-four clutches of eggs have been deposited from 23 reproductive females resulting in 693 eggs, and over 650 hatchlings. The total current captive population at the HCRC is 345 individuals. Of them, 282 turtles representing 4 cohorts (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) have been identified for release.

The 2020/2021 egg laying season is almost complete, and in addition to the numbers mentioned above,  we have added 15 clutches totaling almost 150 eggs so far. Our success in breeding and hatching large numbers of D. mawii has provided extensive morphometric data on hatchlings, determined best practices for reliably reproducing the species in captivity, and pushed us towards advancing the next phase of the project which is reintroduction of head-started animals back to their historic range. As part of that initiative, surveys of various rivers were initiated in 2019, and continued in 2020, to help identify potential release sites. In preparation for releases, disease testing of animals raised in captivity is a priority to ensure that they do not pose a health risk to existing wild D. mawii populations.

The Value of Health Assessments

Both individual and population level health screening are important considerations for these programs to ensure that the individuals selected for release are healthy and fit to increase their likelihood of survival post-release, as well as do not pose a health risk to remnant wild populations. Health assessment and pathogen screening also provide baseline data and a reference point for understanding disease ecology in captive and free-ranging animal populations.

With all this in mind, our spring 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment was geared toward sampling a subset of captive turtles in different age classes to collect samples for later diagnosis specifically looking for pathogens. The HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, along with HCRC Assistant and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon, implemented the health assessment with the support of Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett.

Prior to our Health Assessment at the HCRC, the team joined up with Day Ligon and Denise Thompson in Central Belize to collect samples from a group of wild individuals to provide a reference and for comparison. All samples were collected under a permit provided by the Belize Fisheries department. Samples will be exported from Belize to the USA, and will be analyzed in a lab in the Wildlife Conservation Society Molecular Laboratory at the Bronx Zoo in New York.   

Acknowledgements

Thanks to our project partners who made these important events possible.

  • Turtle Survival Alliance
  • Turtle Conservation Fund
  • Global Wildlife Conservation
  • Wildlife Conservation Society
  • Jacksonville Zoo
  • Day Ligon and Denise Thompson

Dry Season at the Turtle Ponds by Jonathan Dubon

HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon hold eggs they collected from the Hicatee ponds.

As the dry season rapidly approaches, we at the HCRC have a lot of work on our hands to keep our program running at its best. We have several mini-projects currently being conducted, such as improving the husbandry, daily maintenance of the site, taking care of about 400 critically endangered Hicatee turtles, and managing 100+ eggs (so far this year)!  We also spend our time brainstorming ways to improve water quality to help our turtles live healthy and happy. One of the ideas we are implementing is improving solar energy to pump more freshwater into the ponds by building a solar tower. We have dug and constructed the foundation for the tower, and in the coming weeks, we plan to finish constructing the braces and the tower itself.  


Nesting Season

A clutch of eggs collected during the 2020-2021 nesting season.

The nesting season began in early November 2020, and we have since collected 12 clutches of eggs or 108 total eggs. We recently discovered the 13th clutch; however, we will not collect it yet and are conducting a natural hatchment experiment on it first. We are unsure how many eggs are in this clutch, but I estimate anywhere between 7-11. Tom Pop, HCRC Manager, and I have also found three old clutches of eggs from last season which may not have been fertile. Adding up every clutch, our grand total is nearly 1,000 Hicatee eggs laid at our breeding facility!

Wildlife at the Turtle Ponds

Working at the HCRC in the middle of the jungle has its many benefits. Not only do we get to see cute and adorable Hicatee turtles every day (yes, we all think they are adorable), we also see other exciting wildlife.  Most common are green iguanas, pond sliders, the great curassow, crested guan, cat-eyed snakes, and speckled racers. Tom and I were recently pruning the fig trees around the turtle ponds when we heard some familiar birds in the trees not too far from us. We listened as we continued our work, and the calls were getting louder and louder. As we looked up, we saw a huge flock of beautiful and magnificent Scarlet macaws that had flown directly above us. We immediately looked up and started counting at least 20 macaws perched above the turtle ponds, so close we could see them clearly, even without binoculars. If you thought it couldn’t get better, it does! A few months ago, I witnessed my first wild Harpy eagle perched on a tree in the cacao farm just a few meters from the HCRC.  An amazing lifer, right!? 


It will be a full year since I started my fellowship position at BFREE this June. I’ve enjoyed witnessing all of the seasonal changes, the wildlife, and the opportunity to learn more about the Hicatee turtle. 

Creating a Cacao Agroforestry System by Lenardo Ash

Young cacao trees in the nursery.

Who could possibly disagree with the restoration of degraded tropical forests while conserving the genetics of a rare cacao species? BFREE’s reforestation efforts involve the planting of Criollo cocoa trees, as well as temporary shade trees, fruit trees, and other permanent shade trees (emergents) in small naturally degraded areas of the forest.

As BFREE’s Cacao Fellow, I have spent significant energy working in and documenting the plant nursery. This year we plan to produce 5,000 Criollo cacao trees. Bags in the nursery have already been filled with soil, with one of our soil’s main components being compost. The compost at BFREE consists of vegetable peels, eggshells, food remnants from the kitchen, and other organic waste produced during pruning and weeding.

Cacao Fellow, Lenardo Ash stands in front of a selectin of germinated cacao seeds.


For me, one of the main highlights for this year will be continued experimentation with the grafting of Criollo cacao. I am working to graft Criollo budwood to rootstock of the four existing Criollo phenotypes found on the property. First, seeds for the rootstocks are collected from the existing agroforestry demonstration area made of Trinitario cacao, which was planted about 15 years ago. Once the Trinitario seeds are collected, they are germinated, planted in bags, and ready for grafting within 3 months. We will then move the new Sapling trees to the farm approximately 6 months later. Criollo tends to grow a little slower than typical cacao varieties, so we expect to graft them 3-5 months after germination. They should be ready for transplanting after an additional 7 months.

Tree Species in the Agroforestry Plots

Some of the hardwood tree species that we are using in the agroforestry farm are: Barba Jolote (Cojoba Arborea), Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), and Jobillo (Astronium graveolens). The leaves of these trees are spaced so as to let ample light penetrate to the leaves of the grafted cacao in the understory. Certain plants have also been selected because they help with soil fertility (soil carbon, fixing nitrogen, phosphorus content, and soil aggregation) these include Madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium), Bri-bri (Inga edulis), Tiger bush (erythirina latissima ), Pigeon Pea, (Cajanus cajan, Bananas (Musa acuminata), Plantain (Musa paradisiaca), and Coconut (Cocos nucifera). All of these tree species are dispersed around 5,354 grafted plants, most of which are the Purple to Orange phenotype. The BFREE phenotypes were named by Elmer Tzalam and refer to the color of the pods at two stages while young and growing. Therefore, the “Purple to Orange” Phenotype is purple when it is young and orange when it is ripe. The total area being managed at the moment is around 3.74Ha.

Biodiversity in the Agroforestry Plots

The cacao agroforestry is showing signs of increased biodiversity presence. I have spoken to BFREE’s Head Ranger, Mr. Sipiriano Canti, and he has been setting some camera traps in the agroforestry area. He mentioned that the cameras have captured images of all five wild cats in Belize (Jaguar, Puma, Margay, Jaguarundi, Ocelot), Baird’s Tapir, agouti, Tyra, and Kinkajou, among other species. During the day, there are many species of birds that feed on insects and nectar on the farm. Some nests have also been observed in the madre de cacao trees. I believe that we will see more positive outcomes from this initiative, and I am very excited to be a part of this extraordinary project.

BFREE Fellows Participate in Ranger Weekend

BFREE’s Science and Education Fellowship program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined and a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources. Each Fellows are assigned one of three focal areas based on their interest and experience, Wildlife conservation – Hicatee Conservation, Sustainable Agriculture – Cacao Agroforestry or Protected Areas.


Lenardo Ash (Sustainable Agriculture/Cacao Agroforestry) and Jonathan Dubon (Wildlife Conservation/Hicatee Conservation) are BFREE’s current fellows and have been learning a lot in their focal area. They also have the opportunity to take place in unique professional development opportunities during their two years. This may include trainings, conference attendance, presenting information to groups, and various field experiences.


With strict restrictions due to the pandemic, there were few opportunities for Fellows to travel during 2020. We decided to start the new year off in 2021 by creating training opportunities right here at BFREE. Lenardo and Jonathan joined BFREE Park Rangers, Sipriano Canti and Apolonio Pop for a ranger training weekend. Friday afternoon, the team hiked to their camp spot about two miles from the main facilities. They set up camp and then immediately went to deploy camera traps in the area. The weekend was spent exploring the properties’ many trails while monitoring camera traps and searching for tracks and other signs of wildlife along the way.


The Fellows learned the basics of surviving in the jungle with skills like building a fire and locating water vines. Canti described traditional uses of plants and trees found along the way. The team also updated and posted Private Property signs throughout the area. They explored creeks and lagoons in the area while discovering the many types of habitat that exist within the BFREE property.

BFREE Fellow, Jonathan Dubon during the Ranger Weekend in January 2021.

Some highlights for Jonathan were visiting a pretty lagoon where they saw an Agami Heron. Canti named it “Live Lagoon” because of the little spring that supplies the lagoon with fresh water. Jonathan was also excited to capture an image of a male Tapir on one of the camera traps they set. Volunteers and interns have always loved Ranger Weekends at BFREE, and we are excited to extend this opportunity to BFREE Fellows for the coming years!


Pigeon Pea’s Role in a Cacao Agroforest

While on a hike, Sipriano Canti noticed a Pigeon Pea tree covered with dried seed pods. He, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett collected many of the pods. Soon after, Mark Canti and Lenardo Ash removed seeds from the dried pods and placed them in bags filled with soil. The bags will be placed in the plant nursery where seeds will become sapling trees. Eventually, saplings will be moved to the cacao agroforestry project to provide shade for cacao trees.

About Pigeon Pea

Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), is one of many tree species of shade tree that has been planted at BFREE. This is a legume that can be used as a food crop (dried peas, flour, or green vegetable peas) and a forage or cover crop. Pigeon pea is an important crop for green manure. Green manure is created by leaving uprooted or sown crop parts to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch and soil amendment. The woody stems of pigeon peas can also be used as firewood, fencing and thatch.

Pigeon pea will provide shade for young cacao trees. As the cacao trees grow and require more space, the Pigeon peas will will be removed and only cacao trees and permanent shade trees will remain. For example, Belizean hardwoods like Barbajalote and Mahogany will continue to provide shade over the long-term.

About Cacao Agroforestry

Agroforestry practices like these can make agriculture permanently sustainable on a site and can play a critical role in biodiversity conservation. By integrating cacao trees with other short and long-lived trees, we lengthen the time that crops can be grown on a given piece of land. At BFREE, we continue to explore cacao-based agroforestry as a method for restoring rainforest habitat.

Want to learn more?

Check out: Integrating Landscapes: Agroforestry for Biodiversity Conservation and Food Sovereignty.

Edited by Florencia Montagnini is Volume 12 of the Advances in Agroforestry Series produced by Springer Publishing.

BFREE Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti, holds Pigeon Pea seeds and a pod in his hands.

Pale-billed Woodpecker Sighting

Gato Pop taking a photo of the Pale-billed woodpecker at BFREE.

Liberato (Gato) Pop was a BFREE Avian Technician from 2006 – 2013. He began working with us when he was just 16 years old as a member of the Harpy Eagle research team. Gato now works as a Park Ranger for TIDE but continues to do contract work with us from time to time. He regularly helps teach field courses and he also documents our resident and migrant birds.

This month, he began a monitoring project to document which birds utilize the young cacao agroforest. Our intention is for him to continue to collect data in coming years, so that we can understand how the bird population changes over time.

Gato’s visit in February was his first time to BFREE since early 2020. The first bird he noticed was a Pale-billed Woodpecker, which, while a wonderful, resident bird, is not an unusual sight. Still, he was thrilled and immediately searched with his binoculars for a band on the bird’s leg. He located the band and began taking photos to document this finding. This bird, he explained, was the only Pale-billed Woodpecker that he and William Garcia, previous BFREE Bird Project Leader, ever banded. Since the program ended in 2013, he estimates that they placed the band in 2011 – 10 years ago!

Pale-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus guatemalensis)

are the largest woodpeckers in Belize and have a full red head. They commonly eat large larva of wood-boring beetles which they remove from the trunks and limbs of large decaying trees. Much to Jacob Marlin’s dismay, they are also very fond of burrowing into cacao pods. The one Gato spotted was in the forest opposite the cacao searching for food on a dead tree.

While woodpeckers are more long-lived than smaller birds, we are excited to know that this woodpecker has utilized the BFREE Privately Protected Area for so many years. We also thankful to Gato Pop for documenting this sighting!

Banded Pale-billed woodpecker spotted at BFREE by Gato Pop while conducting bird research in February 2021.

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.

Land Snails of Belize Book Receives Five-Star Reviews!

In 2019, we shared that 17 new land snails were discovered in Belize by husband and wife team, Dan and Judy Dourson, and their colleague, Dr. Ron Caldwell.

Before the team’s research began in 2006, only 24 species of land snails were reported from Belize. Over the next decade, a total of 158 native land snails with 17 species new to science were documented. The Dourson’s spent seven of those years living at BFREE, and the BFREE Field Station became home-base for the snail research team for over a decade.

The long-term research resulted in the development of the first field guide for the region, Land Snails of Belize, A Chronicle of Diversity and Function, and the first comprehensive publication since the early 1900s for Central America. The book is presented as a reference to both the biologist and citizen scientist alike and includes a brief history of research in the region, status of current research, how to collect land snails, shell morphology, anatomy and terminology, and species accounts. The book contains more than 750 color images and diagnostic features highlighted for each of the 158 species.

Five-star reviews for the book, Land Snails of Belize:

Since the release of their book, we have heard from many just how useful this resource has been. But don’t just take our word for it, read some of the reviews below! And be sure to pick up your own copy here: Purchase Land Snails of Belize on Amazon

“I just received my copy of this book and I write to commend you. I am not a malacologist so I can not speak to the technical taxonomic aspects of the work. However, I have written a few natural history books and collected many hundreds more. Based on this, I think that you have produced a masterpiece of natural history- a work that will inspire me and many others to learn about and work on this fascinating group. Thank you. I look forward to seeing some of your other books on this topic.”

– Adrian Forsyth, author of, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America

“There are many photo guide books for marine shells (and mammals, birds, reptiles, and so on) in Central America, but none for land snails. These guide books are useful for biologists and those of related professions to keep track of all the taxa and to teach students or explain or show something to someone who is not an invertebrate expert. And they are wonderful for nature lovers who want to identify something in their backyard. Land snails in the tropics have an amazing amount of diversity, and we’re just starting to understand their different niches, behaviors, and relationships.

This book is up-to-date with most of the (albeit limited) studies on land snails in Belize. The scientific names are correct (at least for now), the organization of the book is very clear to follow, the descriptions are useful, the photos are fantastic, and the maps with known localities are incredibly useful. This is a valuable book for invertebrate enthusiasts in the tropics. The background at the beginning regarding snail behavior (as well as throughout the book, where relevant), along with associated pictures (wolfsnails attacking prey, various animals interacting with snails like the snake on the cover) are very useful, making this more than just a book on identifications and bringing these snails to life. It also has beautiful drawings and close-up photos of shell patterns and ridging for identification, including different colormorphs of the same species.

In addition to land snails in Belize, there are some useful sections regarding freshwater invertebrates (also, alas, understudied in this region of the world) and slugs. For invertebrate enthusiasts, this is a great guide with beautiful photos and some funny sketches. For anyone who works with these critters in and around Belize, it’s an absolutely excellent resource.”

– Anzu

“If you are interested in the snail of this region you must get this. It’s also well done, informative in general ways, and the ways of snails. A great work, and necessary if you’re a snailologist. (FYI that’s not really a word).”

– B. J. Stephen

Land Snail Citizen Science in Belize:

If you are in Belize, visit our blog, Un-Belizeable Land Snail Activity to learn how you can participate in citizen science. Submit your snail findings by email to contact@bfreebz.org. Download Land Snail Diversity of Belize card here.