Agami Heron Study at BFREE

Agami Heron at the Agami Lagoon - Photo by Rick Hudson

Agami Heron at the Agami Lagoon in September 2015 – Photo by Rick Hudson

During 2016, BFREE began gathering data on Agami Herons and their nesting site on the edge of BFREE’s property, the Agami Lagoon. Students, staff and other visitors have helped with the project by recording their observations and specifically by counting pairs and nests. Because Agamis are only at the lagoon during their nesting season – from approximately late May through the end of each year, many visitors were only able to document the birds’ absence. However, because there is also a healthy population of Boat-billed herons year-round, we have begun documenting their numbers as well.

Juvenile Anhingas in a nest near 9 nests of Agami Herons in September 2016

The Agami Lagoon is rich with wildlife. Three fledgling Anhingas were seen on a nest very close to the Agami Herons in September 2016.

9 nests with adult Agami Herons were identified in September 2016. 5 fledglings and 4 eggs were also observed.

Nine nests with adult Agami Herons were observed throughout September 2016. Five fledglings and four eggs have been confirmed in the nests.

BFREE began this research after learning of the newly formed Agami Heron Conservation Working Group in late 2015 from Dr. Emily McKinnon, a bird biologist who completed her PhD research at BFREE. At that time, the working group had no documentation of nesting sites in Belize and they were eager for us to being collecting information that would help better their understanding of how many colonies exist.  Heather Barrett is currently representing BFREE and reporting findings to the Working Group. We anticipate that the study will continue to develop in coming years.

The Agami Heron (Agamia agami) is a medium sized heron with stunning plumage. This reclusive bird is sometimes known as the chestnut-bellied heron, due to the color of its neck and underparts.

Information from the Agami Heron Conservation Working Group on the current conservation status:

The Agami Heron is considered to be Vulnerable by Birdlife International / IUCN Red List because the population is expected to decline rapidly over the next three generations due to loss of its habitat (as predicted by a model of Amazonian deforestation) and possibly also due to hunting (BirdLife International, 2012). Unfortunately, in fact, nearly nothing is known about population size or trend. However there can be no doubt that habitat destruction is its greatest threat, and that of the Amazon one of particular importance as it covers so much of its overall range. There is no information that suggests that the overall population is large, despite its large overall range. Perhaps more importantly, it is now documented to be a congregatory species, apparently dependent on few large colony sites scattered over its large range. This clearly makes it vulnerable to disturbances at those sites as well as to loss of feeding habitat associated with colonies and in the nonbreeding season. Evidence suggests that in some places (Peru) egg collecting affects local populations. Only a few colony sites now are known, and it is likely that its dependence on relatively few nesting sites, any of which may be subject to habitat loss, makes it vulnerable.

Click here to read the full Agami Heron Conservation Plan.



Hicatee Health Check

Hicatee Health Checks 2016

Dr. Shane Boylan (left) performs ultrasounds on the female turtles to determine if there were eggs or follicles present. He is assisted by Dr. Thomas Rainwater while Tom Pop and Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand of Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic look on.

Between September 17 and 19, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team joined BFREE staff in Belize during mid-September to perform annual health checks on all of the turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The team consisted of Dr. Shane Boylan and Dr. Thomas Rainwater who were joined by Dr. Isabel Paquet, a veterinarian based out of the Belize’s Cayo District, Felicia Cruz and Gilberto Young of Belize Fisheries Department, Robert Mendyk of the Jacksonville Zoo, Dr. Ben Atkinson of Flagler College, Jacob Marlin and Tom Pop of BFREE, as well as Richard and Carol Foster, who were there to continue gathering footage for their documentary film.

Currently, there are 54 Hicatee at the center, including: 20 adult reproductive females, 16 confirmed males, many of which are either reproductive or just becoming reproductive, 6 sub-adults whose sex is yet to be determined, seven juveniles hatched in 2015 and five hatchlings from 2016.

Examinations revealed that 13 individuals previously thought to be female due to coloration have now been proven to be males because they have developed the distinct yellow head associated with adult male hicatee and are showing other signs of male sexual maturity.


Ms. Felicia Cruz, Belize Fisheries Officer and Dr. Ben Atkinson, Flagler College hold new recruits at the HCRC.

Ultrasounds performed by Shane Boylan, DVM from South Carolina Aquarium showed reproductive activity (eggs and follicles were present) in 20 of the females.  Based on these tests, we are hopeful that December will bring between 60-100 eggs. Additionally, the seven juveniles and the five recent hatchlings are all in good health and are continuing to grow.

In coming months, we will deploy a remote video camera powered by a solar system well as battery-operated camera traps in an attempt to document the females nesting. No nesting footage has ever been recorded on the Hicatee. In fact, this is the first time a captive population of Hicatee has been studied with such detail which will allow us to expand the existing knowledge on the species.

The captive breeding program continues to exceed our expectations and we anticipate it will continue growing exponentially. Current infrastructure is needed and will require immediate and extensive expansion. If you are interested in supporting our efforts to conserve this critically endangered river turtle as a donor, partner or volunteer, please contact Heather Barrett at

Hicatee Health Checks 2016

Robert Mendyk of the Jacksonville Zoo assists with measuring an adult male Hicatee.

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).

Emily Buege – Fish Research on the Bladen River

Emily Buege and Melito Bustamante during their cichlid study.

Emily Buege and Melito Bustamante in the Bladen River while studying cichlids. Pic by Tyler Sanville

My name is Emily Buege, and I’m a master’s student in the geography department at the University of Alabama.  I’m finishing my first year in the program with my thesis fieldwork at BFREE!  Originally from Dakota, Minnesota, I grew up on a state park, so I’ve always been close to nature.  I obtained my undergrad degree in biology just down the road at Winona State University (WSU) in spring 2015.

At WSU, I met Dr. Jennifer Cochran-Biederman (then Mrs.), someone who would become one of the most influential people in my life. Jennifer’s master’s thesis had been on the diets of cichlids in the Bladen River and she based out of BFREE. In 2012, I participated in a student trip to Belize that she organized for Winona students. Never traveling to the tropics before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Having the BFREE experience lessened the appeal of more tourist-based attractions for me.  The wildlife is only part of that experience; the scenery, food, company, and accommodations were also big factors that drew me back for my master’s.

I’m interested in all animal taxa – butterflies to jaguar – but I chose a fish-based master’s project because my advisor is a river specialist.  My initial plan was to study African tilapia – a highly invasive and destructive species throughout Belize (and much of the rest of the world).  I got to Belize and found 3 individuals within reasonable working distance from BFREE, which isn’t exactly enough for an entire study!  So, I redirected my research to nesting sites of native cichlids. (Hopefully it’s a testament to BFREE that I was willing to change the entire focus of my study rather than my study site!)

Emily and Sarah Praskievicz in the Bladen River.

Emily and Sarah Praskievicz in the Bladen River. Pic by T. Sanville


During my time in Belize, I closely analyzed the habitat in the stretch of river near the BFREE crossing and up to Blue Pool.  Melito Bustamante, my field guide, and Sarah Praskievicz, my advisor, worked with me during different phases of my study. We noted locations of as many cichlid nests as we could find, and I hope to build a map that reveals the condition types each of four main species prefers to nest in.  I’ll be using the data I collected while in Belize to shape my thesis over the next year.

When not in the river, I went for walks in the forest.  Melito is an incredible birder, so when we went for walks together, I learned an incredible amount about the bird community here – toucans, tanagers, tinamous.  I also encountered a tayra (aka bush dog) near the river; I had never heard of that species until I read about it in a book the night before we sighted it!  Another highlight that was different than my last trip was that I had the incredible opportunity to really get to know the staff!  I’ve really connected with people I would never have gotten the chance to meet if I weren’t doing this project.

For me, this whole experience has been a lesson in taking life one day at a time.  I’m a planner, so I struggled when my project changed.  On top of that, I developed an ear infection, Melito got sick and had to leave, and other various challenges arose as I worked through my time at BFREE.

If I were to offer advice to other researches it would be to prepare for everything to go according to plan, but know that it might not!  Also, work hard, but don’t let opportunities to experience great things slip away.  Finally, get up early and go birding or stay up late and get to know the staff.  It all goes by so fast, and you don’t want to leave feeling like you missed out!

A note of thanks:

I want to extend a big thank you to everyone who helped me out during my stay!  Between seeking remedies for infections and looking for help in the field, I feel that I kept everyone at BFREE busy.  I’m so grateful for all the physical and moral support that I’ve received throughout this experience. Also, many thanks to both my advisors, Dr. Sarah Praskievicz who helped me immensely with the execution of physical habitat sampling and Dr. Peter Esselman who provided invaluable biological guidance in selecting not one, but two, projects. THANK YOU!

P.S. Despite a somewhat chaotic change of research topic at the beginning of my trip, I’m still hoping to continue on with a PhD after my master’s. I’m not sure what animal taxa I envision working on next, but there’s a neotropical river otter that I’ve caught on my fish cameras that seems to be asking me to study it!