NYCCT – Study Abroad blog

William Garcia discusses aging bats with NYCCT group

William Garcia discusses how to determine the  age of bats with NYCCT group

New York City College of Technology (NYCCT) student, Tasnuva Ahmed, created a blog (Study Abroad – Belize) of her 10-day field course with BFREE in January 2014.  Traveling with 4 other architecture students and her professor, Lia Dikigoropoulou, Tasnuva documented all aspects of the group’s experience in Belize with photo and video.

Tasnuva Ahmed videos the Bladen River

Tasnuva Ahmed videos the Bladen River

Notes from the Field Spring 2013


Students from Independence Junior College in Belize.

New partnerships, bold new field courses and new additions to the BFREE experience along with annual/biannual courses punctuate BFREE’s 2013 field season.

Student from Nebraska Wesleyan University working with cohune.

Student from Nebraska Wesleyan University working with cohune.

In early January, Dr. Jerry Bricker and students from Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) participated in BFREE’s newly developed field course, “Field Study Methods in Tropical Ecology”. Designed to optimize BFREE’s premium location adjacent to 1.5 million acres of pristine rainforest, students spent the first few days observing and participating in field research methods presented by BFREE staff biologists. From bat netting to mist netting for birds to aquatic surveys and land mammal survey methods, students experienced authentic research in the tropical rainforest. Throughout these activities, observations were recorded, and mini research projects were developed with input from both professors and resident researchers. Research topics varied widely from ant behavior to bioluminescence. Students’ research results rounded out the week with one “Star Wars”-like presentation by a pair of students studying bioluminescence who made a grand entrance to a darkened dining room wielding the rotting fronds of a cohune palm glowing like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre!

Otterbein University returned once again in mid-January with a new twist to their multidisciplinary course combining Tropical Ecology and Cross Cultural Experiences. A senior research project in psychology and sociology compared the attitudes toward the environment and the natural world of school children from the U.S. and Belize. Conducted during a homestay in the village of San Felipe, the survey looked at the impact of television and other technologies on attitudes toward the environment. After completing their survey, Otterbein students spent time teaching the Belizean kids outdoor games like Red Rover and Duck, Duck, Goose!

Collaboration between BFREE and Ya’axche Conservation Trust has provided students the rare opportunity to experience Belize’s Crown Jewel of protected areas, the Bladen Nature Reserve. YCT rangers led hikes for most of the BFREE field courses along the Bladen River Trail in an area of the reserve that permits access for educational purposes. These guided hikes focused on the challenges of managing Belize’s highest protected area with limited staff and resources as well as how local people use forest resources in daily living practices fostering appreciation for the necessity to protect such pristine environments like the Bladen for future generations.

Students from Otterbein swimming in the river.

Students from Otterbein University swimming in the river.

Sterling College students and faculty were welcomed for the sixth year at the end of January. Aquatic specialists, instructors Farley Brown and Charlotte Rosenthal, returned to previous research sites near Blue Pool and along the Bladen River to survey the aquatic life and flow of the Bladen River. Students participated in a variety of activities presented by BFREE staff biologists; including snail survey work, bat netting, bird netting and a tour of BFREE’s Agroforestry project: a shade-grown, organic and bird-friendly cacao and coffee farm.

The month of February welcomed local community college students from Independence Junior College (pictured at top) and their professor Abigail Parham for another weekend of field activities lead by BFREE Avian Biologist, William Garcia and Avian Technician, Liberato Pop. We were pleased to be able to offer field experience FOR Belizeans LED BY Belizeans!!

The month of March indeed came in like a lion for BFREE as we hosted two courses simultaneously on site. Both courses featured bold new arenas for BFREE. Next month’s News from the Field will feature a closer look at University of Florida’s School of Environmental Law’s cutting edge masters level course as well as an exciting new focused field course from University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

BFREE Avian Technician Receives Prestigious Internship

gato in oregon

Gato in Oregon.

BFREE is proud to announce that Avian Technician, Liberato “Gato” Pop, started his international Bird Banding internship with Klamath Bird Observatory in Oregon, USA during early May 2013. With the support of BFREE staff members, Gato began working toward the internship in January and has navigated through the process of applying, interviewing, obtaining a 6-month travel Visa, and deciding to leave his home for half a year to pursue this goal!

Klamath Bird Observatory (KBO) Interns engage in a variety of bird monitoring and research methodologies (e.g., bird banding and nest searching) depending on annual project needs. Interns gain skills in bird identification by sight and sound, survey methodology, orienteering and general field biology skills, meticulous data collection, and data entry. Interns also contribute substantially to KBO’s research and monitoring efforts. Upon successful completion of the program, Gato will be eligible to pursue his bird banding certification by the North American Banding Council and additionally hopes to be certified as a banding trainer.

Experiences like this are ones that BFREE has worked hard to try to link Belizeans to. Gato lives in Bladen Village, a small community of approximately 300 people. His village is one of the six communities buffering Bladen Nature Reserve in which BFREE has focused outreach efforts over the past seven years. By offering educational programs in village schools and to community members and by training and employing locals to become parabiologists (and in this case, avian technicians), BFREE seeks to involve Belizean stake-holders in the pursuit of the organizational mission to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.

gato sushi

Gato making sushi.

At just 21 years old, Gato found BFREE five years ago when he was 16. His father, village leader of Bladen that year, saw BFREE employee William Garcia putting up posters advertising the opportunity to train and work as an avian technician. Gato eagerly applied and, a few weeks later, he officially joined BFREE’s avian research team. Since that time, Gato has become an integral part of the avian team and has shown a special affinity for his work with Belize’s wild Harpy eagles.

Gato is one of 13 individuals who have completed avian technician training with BFREE and is one of three who are currently employed by the non-profit. Avian Program Coordinator, William Garcia, has taken advantage of multiple opportunities to receive additional training abroad; he also participated in a KBO internship and has worked with Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. in Kentucky, USA each summer for the past three years. Newest avian team member, Marlyn Cruz, will begin her first international internship with Copperhead Environmental Consulting this June.

BFREE would like to express sincere thanks to organizations like Klamath Bird Observatory and Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. for providing once in a lifetime opportunities to motivated and talented individuals like Gato, William and Marlyn.

Creature Feature: Oropendola

oropendola 2Photo by John Swartz,

Arguably one of the most interesting birds in the Bladen Nature Reserve, in terms of its song, nest-building skills and appearance, is the Montezuma’s oropendola, locally known as yellow-tail. Just upstream from the BFREE crossing is a rookery of around 100 nests, hanging high above the tranquil Bladen River.

oropendola 1

Photo by John Swartz,

The extraordinary song of this outlandish-looking bird consists of eerie vocalization that begins with a few high-pitched thin notes followed by a sound like the crumpling of brittle paper, and ends with an explosive, rich, hollow gurgling that carries for a considerable distance. This distinctive song is produced while the bird falls forward, remaining attached to the limb in a flipping motion – a bizarre feat to behold!

Considered a signature species of the rainforest, the bird’s nest-building skills are legendary. The four-foot long nests are constructed from thin strips of palm leaves skillfully woven into safe and sound brooding baskets. Like many of the bat species in the Maya Mountains, the oropendola is a frugivore, eating a variety of wild figs, sapodilla fruits and mammay apples, and is therefore considered an important agent of seed dispersal in tropical rainforests. These incredible birds are just one of the over 350 species of birds documented at BFREE.

A Rodent’s Role in Seed Dispersal

Klinger Trapping Crew (5)

Long-time BFREE board member and US Geological Survey Ecologist, Rob Klinger, is an invited speaker for the 50th Anniversary meeting for the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica during late June.

Below find the abstract for Rob’s presentation.

“Community Effects Of Variation In Strength Of Seed Dispersal And Seed Predation Relative To Seed Predator Abundance”  

Authors: Rob Klinger and Marcel Rejmánek

Seed predation and seed dispersal are often studied as individual effects, but the degree to which their relative importance co-varies with seed predator abundance and how this influences seed fate has not been well-studied. Therefore, we used observational and experimental approaches to investigate the numerical response of a small mammal seed predator, Heteromys desmarestianus, to disturbance induced changes in food availability, and evaluated the degree to which removal and fate of seeds of eight tree species in a lowland tropical forest in Belize were related to the functional response of H. desmarestianus to varying seed densities. Observational data revealed that the total proportion of fruits removed was determined primarily by the numerical response of H. desmarestianus to fruit availability, while removal rates and the proportion of seeds eaten or cached were related mainly to the form of the functional response. The numerical and functional responses interacted though; spatial and temporal numerical responses by H. desmarestianus to total fruit availability resulted in variation in the form of the functional response. Experimental reduction of H. desmarestianus abundance by 90% allowed us to assess the degree to which their rates of seed predation and dispersal limited seed to seedling survival of the eight tree species. In general, the proportion of seeds that germinated was influenced more by high rates of predation than by limited dispersal. Reduction in abundance of H. desmarestianus resulted in an order of magnitude decrease in fruit removal rates and an order of magnitude increase in the absolute and relative numbers of seeds that germinated. However, the proportion of seeds cached remained relatively constant across all periods and between control and removal plots. The results indicate that seed dispersal and seed limitation can occur simultaneously, and their relative strength will be determined largely by the dynamics of seed predator populations.

BFREE’s Cacao Nursery and Reforestation Project Featured on USFWS Blog

bfree cacao nursery belize

BFREE’s cacao nursery and reforestation project was featured on the US Fish and Wildlife Services blog. Partners with BFREE, the US Fish and Wildlife Services highlighted work BFREE has done in overseeing the project as well as which species of birds will benefit from the reforestation and how local farmers will become more economically sustainable for the local community.

nursery farmers belize cacao bfree

Read the full story here at the US Fish and Wildlife Services blog.

Tracking BFREE’s Migratory Songbirds

Connecting Northeastern Forest and Tropical Rainforest

MapforBFREE_2013BFREE is home to over 300 bird species; many of these make their summer homes in the USA and Canada. These migratory birds journey thousands of miles, twice annually, between their summer homes in the north (where they buildnests and raise young) and their winter homes at BFREE in the jungle. Amazingly, many of these birds weigh only a few grams – the weight of a dime! Yet they undertake amazing migrations every spring and fall. Scientists have been studying migratory songbirds at their breeding sites and at their wintering sites, but up until very recently we have been unable to directly track the migrations of small birds. We could see them at major ‘stopover’ sites along their migrations, but we had no idea where each individual was going or where they were coming from. This all changed with the miniaturization of a device called a ‘geolocator’. This tiny unit, weighing less than 1g, passively records the locations of small birds each day, allowing scientists to document, for the first time, the migratory behavior of songbirds.


At BFREE, we are studying the ecology and migrations of one of these amazing migratory songbirds, the Wood Thrush. We are catching Wood Thrushes in the jungle around BFREE and giving them small ‘backpacks’ – geolocators – that will record their migration north and back again. The backpacks are very small, and do not affect the birds’ survival. The downside of these small backpacks is that they do not transmit information. We have to recapture the birds in the following year when they return to BFREE in orderto download the migration and breeding site information from the geolocator. However, this is not as impossible as it sounds! Wood Thrushes, like many migratory songbirds, are site-faithful in winter, which means they return to the same patch of jungle each winter. So far we have retrieved 28 geolocator backpacks from Wood Thrushes at BFREE! This gives us amazing insight into their migrations and breeding sites.

For example, we have found out so far that the BFREE Wood Thrushes head to the USA in the summer – breeding in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia, and Maryland. These birds can probably be found in mature deciduous forests in these states in the summertime. We have also documented that all the BFREE Wood Thrushes fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico during their spring migration. This is a direct flight of around 600 miles that the birds accomplish in one day!


This is the first time migratory birds have been directly tracked between Belize and their North American breeding grounds. Why is this important? According to Breeding Bird Surveys in the US and Canada, populations of migratory birds are declining at an alarming rate. Wood Thrushes in particular have recently been added to the endangered species list in Canada. Their populations have declined by 60% in the last 40 years, across North America. Why are Wood Thrushes, and many other migratory species, disappearing? Scientists trying to figure out the answer to this question struggled because once birds left their breeding or wintering sites, they didn’t know exactly where they went. What areas are important migratory routes for specific breeding populations? Is there a structure linking specific breeding and wintering areas? More specifically, how flexible are migratory birds in their migration timing? Are they getting out-of-sync with their insect food in the north as climate change drives warmer spring in North America? These are all questions that we can now answer with information from tracking Wood Thrushes with geolocators. This year we have deployed over 80 geolocators on Wood Thrushes and we hope that many of these birds will come back to BFREE next winter and help provide information critical to conservation of their species.

Creature Feature: Bio-Luminescing Fungus


On one of his nightly walks through the jungle, BFREE Resident Biologist Dan Dourson stumbled upon what is now known to be quite a rare sight, the fruiting bodies (mushroom) of a bio-luminescing fungus species! The unlikely light source emanated from mushrooms growing out of a rotting cohune wood and aged seeds in BFREE’s organic cacao plantation.

Fungi, an interesting group of key organisms, facilitate decay of dead plant material, returning important nutrients to the ecosystem. The main body of any fungi, the mycelium (the bulk of the organism) is actually found living underground while the fruiting body or “mushroom” is the part most commonly seen and can be compared to the orange of a tree. While it is not uncommon for the mycelium to glow, it is exceptionally uncommon for mushrooms! Worldwide there are only 71 species known to possess this unique ability and one of them is right here at BFREE!

The mystery mushroom was identified to genus as a species of Mycena after sending images to a leading expert in bioluminescent mushrooms, Dr. Dennis Dejardin of San Francisco State University. These Mycena dubbed “Fairy-stools” emit a blue-green light that is an amazing experience to behold. At this very moment, dried specimens of this mushroom are enroute to Dr. Desjardin for further examination. Wouldn’t it be great if it turns out to be new to science?

The phenomenon of bioluminescence is natural light created by living organisms occurring in approximately 25 different phyla, many of which are entirely unrelated. Arthropods, certain crustaceans, several species of mollusks including the land snail Quantula striata from Malaysia, deep sea fish, marine microorganisms known as dinoflagellates, fungi and several varieties of slime molds all are known to possess this aerie quality. The most familiar animals in Belize possessing this unique power are the fireflies and headlight beetles whose light organs located on the abdomen and thorax regions of these insects are used to communicate and attract potential mates and in some cases, lure in prey to eat.


Several hypotheses of bioluminescence function in fungi include attracting hungry invertebrates which may aid in spore dispersal or used in attracting predators of mycetophagous invertebrates (organisms that eat mycelium). Some scientists speculate that glowing fungi are nothing more than by-products of some other metabolic process. In high elevation montane forests of the Maya Mountains, the jungle floor glows at night, a result of bioluminescent mycelium growing in decaying oak leaves and other decomposing vegetation.

Biological lighting differs from other light sources such as light bulbs and candlelight in being cool, producing little or no heat during illumination. Bioluminescent light is the result of a biochemical reaction during which two types of chemicals, luciferin and luciferase are combined together. The luciferase acts as an enzyme, allowing the luciferin to release energy as it is oxidized producing the light. There is ongoing research involving bioluminescence in the areas of evolution, ecology, histology, physiology, biochemistry, and biomedical applications.

So if you are wandering the jungles at BFREE at night (especially in the rainy season), take the time to turn off your headlamp and look around….you never know what might be glowing!

Birdathon Belize

birdathon belize bird raptor research institute

“Birds of Belize” author, H. Lee Jones, and a team of experienced birders spent the early morning hours on March 24 at BFREE as part of Birdathon Belize – a competition and fundraiser for the Belize Raptor Research Institute (BRRI). Lee was joined by Victor Bonilla, Emanuel Chan and previous BFREE employee and expert birder, Wilfred Mutrie, to create a strong team of four. The team’s goal was to identify 203 birds in a 24 hour period which would surpass the Belize record of 202 in one day. For every bird counted, a certain amount of money is donated to BRRI. The rules are strict; everyone in the group has to see and/or hear 95% of the birds in order to add the bird to the count for that day, so teams have to stay together and remain quiet. The team started at 4:00am and by breakfast at 7:30am had reached 98 birds, 2 birds shy of their target while at BFREE.

After breakfast they stopped at the river and within 15 minutes had added 10 more birds to their count! The remainder of their day was strategically planned to ensure they put themselves in areas to identify specific birds within their allotted time. They were to stop in the Savannah between BFREE and the Southern Highway, then on to Aqua Mar Shrimp Farm to locate various shore birds, with a stop immediately following in Punta Gorda where they were sure to see Laughing Gulls and a particular heron roosting in the mangroves. The day would end at the Southern Highway junction known as “The Dump,” in order to bird in a wet area, overgrown with reeds where they were sure to catch sight of a variety of species at dusk. We look forward to hearing if they break the record and are excited that the majority of the birds were spotted right here at BFREE!

New Species of Plant Named for BFREE Co-Founders, the Marlins

sedgeThe Marlins have a new plant species named in their honor! In the current issue of Kew Bulletin, co-authors (Wesley Knapp and Wayt Thomas) and I pay tribute to the Marlins and their accomplishments by naming Rhynchospora marliniana. We felt it especially appropriate to honor the Marlins and their contributions by naming a species that is widespread and common in Belize.

We are pleased to name Rhynchospora marliniana in honor of Jacob, Kelly, Sofia, Shaman, and Hyla Marlin. The Marlins are leading advocates for the conservation of biological diversity in Belize. Their founding of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), and their development of what is now an active and important biological field station are especially notable among their many achievements.

Adding prestige to the Marlins’ recognition is the place of publication of Rhynchospora marliniana. Kew Bulletin is the flagship scientific journal of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, and one of the leading international journals of systematic botany in the world.

The beaksedges (Rhynchospora) comprise the largest genus of flowering plants in Belize. At least 46 species of these grass-like plants inhabit the country. Beaksedges occur in a variety of habitats, but are most diverse in savannas. Up to 16 species co-occur within a single savanna, and different savannas have different sets of species. As well, beaksedges often dominate these savannas. Floristically and ecologically, Rhynchospora is a very important genus.

On my first trip to Belize, Jacob Marlin introduced me to Belizean savannas. He showed me the savanna in the Deep River Forest Reserve, a short distance south of the BFREE border. There, I would make my first collection of what was to become Rhynchospora marliniana. However, I didn’t realize its status as a new species at that time. That recognition happened a couple months later, on a trip to the Mountain Pine Ridge in western Belize. There, in a savanna remnant, I found growing side-by-side Rhynchospora marliniana and R. plumosa, the species with which it had been confused. Quickly, I realized that two beaksedges were present. Their co-occurrence while maintaining their distinctions was compelling evidence of the existence of two species instead of one, one of them being new to science.Rhychmarliniana_drawing

In the time since my discovery on Mountain Pine Ridge, my co-authors and I conducted the thorough research on Marlins’ Beaksedge to document its status as a new species, its geographic distribution, and its ecology. During the course of additional trips, I found several more populations of it. On every one of these trips, Jacob, Kelly, and their children helped me with my research on Marlins’ Beaksedge, unknowingly. I say “unknowingly,” because I kept the naming a surprise until after publication.

Now, the Marlins have a species that bears their name. Marlins’ Beaksedge fittingly pays tribute to BFREE and many other accomplishments in Belizean conservation. More importantly, it serves as a reminder of the power of the few individuals who made these accomplishments possible through their vision, dedication, and perseverance.