Kicking off the Field Season

The beginning of the year means the start of a brand new field season for BFREE. Kutztown University helped kick-off 2020 with an incredible group of 15 students and two instructors ready to embark on a two-week adventure in Belize. The group arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the evening with Ernesto and Aurora Saqui in Maya Center Village where they participated in a traditional ceremony to welcome in the new year. From there the group spent eight nights at BFREE giving them enough time to really make the jungle feel like a home away from home. In addition to the week-long stay at BFREE, the group ventured to the coast for three nights in Placencia. We were excited to partner with our friends at the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) for a presentation led by Dr. Marisa Tellez, Executive Director, and Co-Founder. The group joined Dr. Tellez and a local boat captain for an evening on the water looking for crocs. This was a great opportunity for our group to learn more about research and educational outreach taking place in southern Belize.

SUNY Potsdam Student Group Photo

The next group to arrive was from SUNY Potsdam. Led by Dr. Glenn Johnson, the group spent an entire week at BFREE. They developed independent research projects which is one of the main activities for our field courses. The students generally spend their first day at BFREE thinking of a research question before starting to collect data. Below are a frew of the research projects that stuents have worked on so far this year.

  • Are insects attracted to different colors at different heights along the observation tower?
  • What is the dragonfly diversity at BFREE?
  • Are insects more attracted to cow dung or tuna?
  • Are leaf cutter ants more active in the day or night?

A highlight of SUNY Potsdam’s time at BFREE occurred on their first morning with a tapir sighting along the Bladen River. The group was just finishing breakfast when they got a call from Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, who spotted. Everyone was able to arrive in time to watch the Tapir as it slowly moved along the rivers’ edge. Students also had the opportunity to learn the traditions of basket-weaving using Jippy Joppa palm with Ofelia and cooking on the fire hearth with Edwardo.

Birdwatching with IJC

Last weekend we hosted our first student group from Belize in 2020. Led by Natural Resource Management teacher, Ms. Abigal Parham-Garbutt, Independence Junior College brought a group of 37 including instructors and students from Accounting, Agribusiness, Information Technology, and Natural Resources Management departments. Ms. Parham-Garbutt first visited BFREE in 2006 as a student herself when she was enrolled at the University of Belize. In 2011, she brought her first student group to BFREE and has continued to do so ever since. Students learned about the majestic Harpy Eagle, Central American River Turtle (Hickatee), Cacao based Agroforestry, small mammals, fruit phenology, migratory and native birds, insects, and snakes. Ms. Parham-Garbutt said, “Experiences like these are certainly one of the best ways to engage students in understanding how the forest works, how people can co-exist with nature and how blessed we are in Belize.”


Ranger Training at BFREE

The new year started off on the right foot with a workshop for BFREE park rangers in Basic Navigation
Skills. Dr. Rob Klinger, BFREE Board Member and Ecologist, spent a morning teaching concepts and
methods associated with navigation using compasses. Because BFREE park rangers are required to
patrol all areas within the 1,153 acre privately protected area, this training is essential for their
confidence in navigating the property with authority. Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, and Pedro Teul made
up the team of rangers who participated in the day-long workshop.

Rob Klinger and Marcos Kuk using a compass in the BFREE Classroom.


After completing the morning’s lessons and testing their abilities, Rob moved the team into the field
where they were able to immediately put their knowledge into action. The rangers joined biology
students from Kutztown University in the 100-meter square cacao grid where they verified the accuracy
of coordinates for the small mammal community study before students placed each trap. This attention
to accurate positioning ensures the grid of 100 flagged points don’t shift with the use by each class
which in turn helps guarantee that the data collected is as consistent as possible over time.


The BFREE park rangers benefited greatly from the workshop and from the efforts of Dr. Klinger. We, at
BFREE, would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Klinger for offering this important and timely training.

Hicatee Health Check

This year’s first Hicatee health check  took place on April 4th and 5th at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC).

The HCRC, a joint effort between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is a captive-breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle (more commonly known as Hicatee). Captive-breeding offers the potential to produce offspring for release and repatriation into areas that have experienced widespread declines or extirpation. Additionally, specimens maintained in captivity provide valuable opportunities for studying aspects of the species’ reproductive biology, diet and behavior that would otherwise be difficult to observe or study in the field.

The April health checks assessed the nearly 100 hicatee turtles in captivity at the HCRC.  First, hatchlings 9 months to 2 years old followed by the 45 adults from each of the two ponds were weighed, measured (plastrons, carapace, tail, and nails), checked for overall physical conditions, and reproductive evaluations were performed.

The team consisted of Dewey Maddox, Veterinary nurse, and Emily Fyfe, Senior Herpetology Keeper, from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Robert Mendyk, Curator of Herpetology at the Audubon Zoo, Dr. Isabel Paquet-Durand, founder and director of the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic, Dr. Raymond Carthy, Nichole Bishop and Dr. Sean Sharp from the University of Florida, Vanessa Kilburn from Toucan Ridge Ecology & Education Society, and Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, Jaren Serano and Tyler Sanville of BFREE, as well as volunteers Will Jones and Tybren Vialdores and Aimee Mitchell.

BFREE aims to complete bi-annual health checks on the turtles housed at the HCRC to help further inform and influence conservation strategies and actions. The next health check is scheduled for September 2018.

Currently, Dermatemys mawii is classified as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), listed as endangered under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Special note for our friends in the US: If you find yourself near The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, be sure to visit the Emerald Valley Aviary where you can see three hicatee, the only place in the US where this rare and unusual turtle is on exhibit.

 

Soaring with Solar

After 23 years of BFREE being an off-the-grid solar powered field station, nothing has changed, except now we have a centralized 7.5 kw state of the art solar system which is 7 -10 times more productive and has energy storage capacity more than 20 times what was on-site before. The system also has a backup autofunctioning natural gas generator for times when the sun just isn’t shining.

The system was designed by Rick Groves of Clean Energy Events based in Wilmington, N.C., USA, and Jacob Marlin. Additional design and technical assistance was provided by Wes Gubitz, as well as Marco Valle of Pro Solar Engineering based in Belmopan, Belize.

The installation took place during the first week of March. Pro Solar staff installed the photovoltaic panels, batteries, inverters, and controllers as well as the backup generator while Jacob Marlin, Rick Groves, Wes Gubitz, Glen Dell, and Beth Furr, plus all the staff of BFREE  laid wire and set up breaker boxes at various locations around BFREE. Of course, there were weeks of prep work in advance with BFREE staff digging trenches and pouring cement footings for the installation of panels, a cinder block and cement generator house, and a power house that houses all of the electrical components (the brains of the system).

During the week of installation, everyone around the field station stepped up to help. Even students from Lees-McRae College pitched in during their field course when it was time to pull wire across the garden. After the installation, Pro Solar Engineer, Marco Valle, returned to BFREE to offer an afternoon training session on renewable energy and maintenance of the system for staff. 

In the coming months, power will continue to reach additional buildings around the field station and all visitors will begin to benefit from this important and timely upgrade. This includes more lighting, fans, charging stations, and a multitude of other improvements to the infrastructure of the field station.

BFREE wishes to express much gratitude to Rick Groves, Wes Gubitz, Glen Dell, and Beth Furr for their hard work, and positive attitude to ensure the installation went perfectly! The Pro Solar team was extremely professional and skilled. The resulting system has surpassed our expectations and we are thrilled by the immediate and obvious benefits to all station users. 

Special thanks to Dr. James Rotenberg and students in his Fall 2016 Environmental Studies class at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They created an initial design for the solar system as part of their semester long project on sustainability.

Soaring with Solar

After 23 years of BFREE being an off-the-grid solar powered field station, nothing has changed, except now we have a centralized 7.5 kw state of the art solar system which is 7 -10 times more productive and has energy storage capacity more than 20 times what was on-site before. The system also has a backup autofunctioning natural gas generator for times when the sun just isn’t shining.

The system was designed by Rick Groves of Clean Energy Events based in Wilmington, N.C., USA, and Jacob Marlin. Additional design and technical assistance was provided by Wes Gubitz, as well as Marco Valle of Pro Solar Engineering based in Belmopan, Belize.

The installation took place during the first week of March. Pro Solar staff installed the photovoltaic panels, batteries, inverters, and controllers as well as the backup generator while Jacob Marlin, Rick Groves, Wes Gubitz, Glen Dell, and Beth Furr, plus all the staff of BFREE  laid wire and set up breaker boxes at various locations around BFREE. Of course, there were weeks of prep work in advance with BFREE staff digging trenches and pouring cement footings for the installation of panels, a cinder block and cement generator house, and a power house that houses all of the electrical components (the brains of the system).

During the week of installation, everyone around the field station stepped up to help. Even students from Lees-McRae College pitched in during their field course when it was time to pull wire across the garden. After the installation, Pro Solar Engineer, Marco Valle, returned to BFREE to offer an afternoon training session on renewable energy and maintenance of the system for staff. 

In the coming months, power will continue to reach additional buildings around the field station and all visitors will begin to benefit from this important and timely upgrade. This includes more lighting, fans, charging stations, and a multitude of other improvements to the infrastructure of the field station.

BFREE wishes to express much gratitude to Rick Groves, Wes Gubitz, Glen Dell, and Beth Furr for their hard work, and positive attitude to ensure the installation went perfectly! The Pro Solar team was extremely professional and skilled. The resulting system has surpassed our expectations and we are thrilled by the immediate and obvious benefits to all station users. 

Special thanks to Dr. James Rotenberg and students in his Fall 2016 Environmental Studies class at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They created an initial design for the solar system as part of their semester long project on sustainability.

Hicatee Health Check

This year’s first Hicatee health check  took place on April 4th and 5th at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC).

The HCRC, a joint effort between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is a captive-breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle (more commonly known as Hicatee). Captive-breeding offers the potential to produce offspring for release and repatriation into areas that have experienced widespread declines or extirpation. Additionally, specimens maintained in captivity provide valuable opportunities for studying aspects of the species’ reproductive biology, diet and behavior that would otherwise be difficult to observe or study in the field.

The April health checks assessed the nearly 100 hicatee turtles in captivity at the HCRC.  First, hatchlings 9 months to 2 years old followed by the 45 adults from each of the two ponds were weighed, measured (plastrons, carapace, tail, and nails), checked for overall physical conditions, and reproductive evaluations were performed.

The team consisted of Dewey Maddox, Veterinary nurse, and Emily Fyfe, Senior Herpetology Keeper, from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Robert Mendyk, Curator of Herpetology at the Audubon Zoo, Dr. Isabel Paquet-Durand, founder and director of the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic, Dr. Raymond Carthy, Nichole Bishop and Dr. Sean Sharp from the University of Florida, Vanessa Kilburn from Toucan Ridge Ecology & Education Society, and Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, Jaren Serano and Tyler Sanville of BFREE, as well as volunteers Will Jones and Tybren Vialdores and Aimee Mitchell.

BFREE aims to complete bi-annual health checks on the turtles housed at the HCRC to help further inform and influence conservation strategies and actions. The next health check is scheduled for September 2018.

Currently, Dermatemys mawii is classified as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), listed as endangered under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Special note for our friends in the US: If you find yourself near The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, be sure to visit the Emerald Valley Aviary where you can see three hicatee, the only place in the US where this rare and unusual turtle is on exhibit.

International Turtle Conservation and Biology Symposium

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) was featured in the 15th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Fresh Water Turtles.  The meeting, which is the largest gathering of non-marine turtle biologists in the world, was held in historic Charleston, South Carolina and attended by over 300 participants.

Heather Barrett and Peter Paul van Dijk at the Turtle Survival Center. Peter Paul was honored during the symposium with the John L. Behler Turtle Conservation Award

Turtle Survival Center Field Trip

Field trip participants visited enclosures throughout the Turtle Survival Center

The pre-symposium field trip to the new Turtle Survival Center was a highlight. The TSC is owned by Turtle Survival Alliance and represents a new and important direction for the organization. The Center is a captive setting for turtle and tortoise species that are critically endangered and that face an uncertain future in the wild. The TSC is dedicated to building up robust captive populations of these species. On Sunday, hundreds of participants were bused from the conference hotel to the TSC in order to tour the Center’s many facilities including the various complexes, the incubation room, and areas that are still being developed.

Hicatee Presentations

Symposium activities officially began on Monday. BFREE staff were honored to be invited to present the latest news and outcomes at the HCRC.  As part of the Captive Husbandry session, Jacob Marlin detailed the development of the HCRC as a facility and described what has been learned on site about the reproductive biology of the Hicatee.

Heather Barrett presented “Country-wide Efforts to Promote the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in Belize, Central America.” She outlined the recent history of conservation outreach for the hicatee including the formation of the Hicatee Conservation Network and the

Each TSA project country is featured in a poster at the Turtle Survival Center

production of a documentary film. Heather’s session was followed by a special film screening of “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” This was the first time the new documentary by Richard and Carol Foster was shown publicly. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee,” was well received by the audience who was eager to view rare underwater footage of the turtle and appreciated the breadth of information covered in the short film.

In addition to BFREE staff presenting HCRC findings at the conference, Nichole Bishop, Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Florida, described her research related to the 2017 hicatee hatchlings in her talk, “Is Coprophagy an Important Management Decision for the Captive Breeding of Herbivorous Turtles?”

The symposium offered many opportunities for conversations and brainstorming on issues relating to the hicatee and other endangered turtles and tortoises. The symposium was an uplifting and inspirational event and BFREE staff left feeling impressed by the countless individuals dedicating their lives to the conservation of turtle species around the globe.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses 

 

For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!