Saying goodbye to 55 Hicatee turtles

No, more like saying see you later!

By Jonathan Dubon

Watching your children grow up and eventually moving on may be hard for some, but it is something that takes place by nature. Although I am not talking about real children, it still feels the same when I release Hicatee turtles that I have helped to take care of over the past 2 years. The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a multi-pronged conservation effort for Hicatee, with one of the tasks being head-start rewilding.

On April 1st, I along with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, loaded 55 juveniles and hatchlings from the HCRC at BFREE, to be taken to a creek in north central Belize – roughly 4-hours’ drive. Upon our arrival, we met with the Feste Films crew and locals from the nearby community to conduct our releases. There was a turnout of around 15 community members, including adults and children. Feste Films documented our release as a part of their upcoming four-part series ‘Belize Uncovered’ to be available online later this year. The well-known local chef, Sean Kuylen, and International Journalist, Gelareh Darabi, were the interviewers for the film and so participated in all the day’s activities.

Community participation

Before the actual release of the turtles, we gathered and talked about why we are releasing turtles and how important they are to the environment and to the culture. I asked the children “why do you think releasing juvenile Hicatee turtles is important?” I got responses such as: “because they are getting scarce”, “it is better for the wild environment” and the one that stood out the most to me was “because they are critically endangered”. We visited this village in August of 2020 and did a much smaller release, and many of the children who attended then, also attended this time around. To know that information shared a couple years ago is reiterated and remembered means that we are on the right track.

I also mentioned to the community that we are not just releasing turtles to say we do, but we are releasing them to be a part of a long-term studying and monitoring project since this is an active study site for us. All our turtles that were released have unique identification codes, which are placed by scute notching and inserting PIT tags (a microchip inserted under the skin of the turtles). This will allow us to accurately collect data for each turtle and monitor their growth rate, age and so forth.

When it was time to place the turtles in the water, we let every child who attended release a turtle. Hopefully, this will spark a love and passion in them for protecting this species. We only released 10 of the 55 at the creek’s bank where everyone was gathered. After which, Tom and I got into 2 canoes and went up stream to release the remaining 45.

Reflecting on the day

Tom was asked, “How do you feel to release these turtles? Are you sad that you are saying goodbye?” He replied, “I am happy and excited to release these turtles. Even though they have been under my watch and care since being hatched, and I have tried my best to raise these turtles, there is no better caretaker than mother nature herself. I believe with the help of the community and everyone else, we can help them to grow and reproduce on their own. Then we can say we have successfully reintroduced Hicatee turtles into the wild.”

Overall, it was a wonderful and amazing experience that not many can say they have gotten the chance to be involved in. When we were driving off, the mood of everyone was so cheerful and bright, not because we were leaving, but because we accomplished something so important and unique. I look forward to more releases in the future and spreading information with people who may not know.

Agami Heron Study

Since 2016, I have served on the Agami Heron Working Group. This is a group of scientists and conservationists from throughout Central and South America working together to better understand a very secretive and therefore under-documented bird. My role is to ensure that we collect and submit annual nesting data on a small colony of Agami herons. Because the lagoon acts as nesting habitat for Boat-billed herons and Anhinga, we include them in our observation data.

In order to minimize disturbance of the colony, we make infrequent, short visits to the lagoon. Our goal is to determine if nesting has begun for the Agamis. The Boat-billed herons and Anhingas generally nest earlier in the year – March through May. Around the time that they finish their season, individual Agami herons begin to arrive and appear to investigate the area but do not stay.

In late June or early July, pairs of Agamis arrive and begin rebuilding their nests. They use the same nest trees and often the same nests as the Boat-billed herons. They do not appear to use the Anhinga nests which are usually situated higher in the nest tree.

Data Collection

The instructions for documenting the Agami nesting habits are straight-forward, but the timing of their nesting always has made the process a bit tricky. Our data collection begins when the birds are on the nest; however, we can’t visit too frequently. So, it is sometimes difficult to identify the most accurate start date. When we observe the birds on the nest, we document the date, number of nests, number of birds, and other habitat data and then quickly and quietly depart. We return ten days later to do another count.

When eggs begin to hatch and hatchlings grow, we continue to our count: focusing on number of eggs and number of hatchlings. We also look for evidence of parental care, possible predation, and growth stages. At the end of each successful year of data collection, reports are submitted to the Working Group for review.

About the Agami Heron Working Group

The Agami Heron Working Group established an action plan for the conservation of the Agami Heron in 2015. The plan can be accessed in EnglishFrench or Spanish. The Group will continue to provide an information exchange and coordination point for those interested in research and conservation of the species. 

World Migratory Bird Day 2022

BFREE celebrated two important bird days on Saturday, May 14 – Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day. Global Big Day is an opportunity for citizen scientists to gather essential data about the birds in their area. While World Migratory Bird Day uses a different theme each year to draw attention to challenges migratory birds face across the globe. The 2022 campaign focused on light pollution’s impact on migratory birds. Activities to mark the day were under the theme “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night”.

BFREE staff and students from Lakeland University were excited for the opportunity to participate. We split into three teams to cover as much of the property as possible. Lakeland University began early at the observation tower and were rewarded with an assortment of parrots, raptors and small birds.

In addition to the observation tower, we explored other areas including the garden and orchard, the Agami Lagoon, the cacao agroforest, the boundary line, and various spots along the Bladen River. During our day-long adventure, we observed some beautiful and interesting birds. A few of the many birds we enjoyed included: Common nighthawk, Swallowtail kite, Keel-billed motmot, Amazon kingfisher, Sepia-capped flycatcher, Yellow-headed parrot, and the Great currasow. We observed a total of 117 bird species. Because all participants were not eBird subscribers, we submitted one checklist at the end of the day.

The BFREE Birding Club keeps growing! BFREE participating staff were: Nelly Cadle, Thomas Pop, Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, and Heather Barrett.

Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, Explains the Process of Adopting a Tree from the BFREE Farm:

By Mark Canti

Hello, my name is Mark Canti. I’m the BFREE Cacao Fellow, and I oversee the cacao adoption program at BFREE in collaboration with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. I’m always very excited when I learn that a new tree has been adopted from our farm, and I am eager to tag the newly adopted tree. 

I first create a personalized tag for the tree by engraving the adopter’s name or the adopter’s chosen honoree on an aluminum tag. Then I grab my gear, including the newly created tag, a GPS device, and my camera. Next, I need to select the perfect tree. I’m looking for healthy trees that have at least 70% shade and are at least 1-1.5 meters tall. Once the tree has been selected, carefully tie the tag to a tree branch and record the GPS coordinates. Finally, comes my favorite part of the process. I’m very passionate about photography, and I really enjoy the opportunity to photograph each tree. My dream is to capture wildlife such as a beautiful bird like a warbler when I’m taking each photo. I like that the pictures I take can help the new adopters feel as close to being on our beautiful farm as possible. 

I’m very proud to be part of the Adopt a Tree program, and I would like to thank everyone who has adopted a tree from our farm so far. I hope I have the opportunity to select and photograph a tree for you! 

If you would like to adopt a tree from the BFREE Farm, please visit the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund’s website and select HCP#11.

Adopt a Cacao Tree – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND (hcpcacao.org)

Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

The cacao nursery at BFREE

Each year the cacao nursery at BFREE is restored and prepared for the new planting season. Any old plants or trees are removed and fresh liner is laid, the area is weeded and trimmed, and damaged poles are replaced. Additionally, the nursery was expanded to hold more bags and the irrigation system was modified for more efficient watering.

Soon after those preparations were made, came the task of filling thousands of nursery bags. Lucky for us, ARCC participants showed up just in time to help fill bags with a sand and soil mixture. Because of them, a huge job became much more manageable.

BFREE Cacao Fellows are assigned to the management of the cacao nursery, so Mark Canti has replaced Lenardo Ash as caregiver to the young cacao and shade trees. Once bags are filled and put in place, Mark waters and fertilizers the soil to prepare for seed planting. In the coming months, he will be responsible for ensuring the successful growth of the nursery trees.

Shade trees are just as important to this project as cacao trees, so both short-term and long-term shade tree seedlings are included. Therefore, five varieties of short-term shade trees were planted: Pigeon Pea, Plantain, Bananas, Erythrina and Madre de cacao. Long-term shade trees include Bribri, Jobillo, two species of Barbajalote, and Mahogany. We continue to search the property for other types of seedpods and saplings.

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.