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!

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

Vibeke and Jamie enjoying lunch in Placencia during a 2019 Field Course!

Congratulations to long-time BFREE supporters, field course leaders, researchers, and board members, 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, as board members, 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 2006.

From Judy and Dan Dourson, BFREE Staff Members 2006 – 2016 (this needs to be edited): 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 trailess, 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 the 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 created 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.
 
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, his wife Vibeke, working with them to plan and execute 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. He passion for teaching brought hundreds of students from the US to BFREE on study abroad programs for over more than a decade. Jamie and Vibeka have continued to support BFREE in countless ways, believing in us and our mission. They are both true partners in conservation.


From Marlyn Cruz Sierra, BFREE Staff Member ’06-’12 (this needs to be edited)Working along with people who share an incredible passion for what they do is one of those experiences that you will always cherish. Dr. James is that person, he transmitted this passion and love in the work and project he did when I participated as an avian technician at BFREE that 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.


James Abott and Jamie at BFREE.

From James Abbott, UNCW Alum and (this needs to be edited) :


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

From Liberato “Gato” Pop, BFREE Staff Member ’06-’12 (this needs to be edited)I would like to say that Mr. Jamie has been a great mentor for me in guiding and the continuous trainings that he has taught me and that he has encouraged me to continue what I love and that’s working with nature. I want to thank Mr. Jamie and Mrs. Vibeke for their support toward our bird banding project for the past years at BFREE.


From Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director: In my early days at BFREE, Jamie mentored me on presenting at professional conferences. He helped me develop the presentations, practiced them with me, and even sat front and center to cheer me on when it was my turn at the podium. Both Jamie and Vibeke have been incredible supporters of BFREE’s mission and staff over the years.


Jamie and Lisa Ramsden reunited at a 2017 BFREE event 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!


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

A Tribute to Sonny Garbutt

Sonny Garbutt and Jacob Marlin

A few days, we learned the sad news of Sonny Garbutt’s passing. I first got to know Sonny over 20 years ago when he helped with a baseline study on the health and status of the Monkey River Watershed along with other watershed residents and Dr. Peter Esselman.  The team based out of BFREE for a portion of the study, and I was fortunate to join them as an “assistant/cook” during a foray up into the Bladen Nature Reserve a few days walk from BFREE. It was then that I first felt his strong, but calm presence. His genuineness and unique sense of humor, and his encyclopedia level knowledge of the Monkey River and the natural world.

Over the years Sonny became a part of the BFREE family. He helped with construction projects here at the field station, captained boats for our student groups out on the Belize Barrier Reef, and sometimes provided lectures and told stories related to marine and freshwater conservation topics, sharing his passion for the sustainable use of Belize’s marine resources. He welcomed us and our field courses into his community and his home – always sharing his love for Monkey River and the sea that touches its shores. Sonny also become a close friend of my family and would spend time with my kids over the years, including leading a small group of us down the Bladen River from BFREE to Monkey River Village on an epic two-day canoe trip that we will never forget.  He touched our lives in so many ways.

Rest in Peace Sonny, you will be missed.

Jacob Marlin and the BFREE family

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!


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.

Educational materials shared with young Belizeans across the country!

By Ms. Ornella Cadle, Hicatee Awareness Month Committee Coordinator

Proud Hicatee Heroes show off the coloring sheet and board game included in this year’s educational materials. 

Each October, BFREE ambassadors and partners visit schools to present on Hicatee Awareness Month. Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, outreach looked a bit different this year. While traveling to various schools for outreach wasn’t a safe option, we wanted to ensure the incredible resources still reached students’ hands across the country. BFREE emailed electronic resources directly to over 400 principals and teachers in Belize. The following schools in the Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo Districts received resource packets reaching nearly 500 students in their classrooms. 

  • Church of Christ Primary School, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Moriah Learning Center, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist School, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Golden Stream Government School, Golden Stream Village, Toledo District
  • Belize Rural Primary School, Rancho Dolores Village, Cayo District

A dedicated committee of volunteers and BFREE staff members created this year’s resource materials. The committee met for several months to build a packet of creative, engaging, and informative educational resources.

A highlight of the materials included; 

  • Coloring sheet of the Hicatee Hero mascot
  • “Hicatee and Ladder Migration Game,” displaying different predators for the hicatee that you must pass by answering true and false questions correctly.
  • “Mr. Hicatee” sing-along video featuring a conversation between Mr. Hicatee and a man named Damien who wants to learn more about the problems that Mr. Hicatee encounters in his daily life and how he can help.

Various news sources including, Breaking Belize News, The Reporter Newspaper, Cayo Scoop, and Heritage Education Network Belize, have featured Hicatee Awareness Month materials throughout the month. Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee Coordinator Nelly Cadle says, “I am very proud to be the Committee Coordinator and work with such a talented group of people. I truly believe that our hard work has paid off and that we could reach a lot of young students. However, our job is not done, we still have more work to do to save the Hicatee, and I look forward to continuing our efforts to conserve this national treasure of Belize!” 

We would like to say a special thank you to our friends – the Hicatee Heroes at Santa Fe College’s Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida. Their Quarters for Conservation project helped fund the production of all materials for this year’s Hicatee Awareness Month.

If you have any questions, please send an email to education@bfreebz.org or call 671-1299. Visit www.bfreebz.org/2020-hicatee-resources/ to view all educational resources and additional information on hicatee conservation.

I’m a Hicatee Hero! Are You? This fun video features young Hicatee Heroes from across all six districts in Belize making the Hicatee Promise. Produced by, Monique Vernon and edited by, Simon Deniard. Hicatee Graphic by Belizario Gian Carballo.