News from Belize — Plants and Animals

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On the third day we got up early, a common pattern in the rainforest, to band birds with William. William is BFREE’s resident mammal and bird expert. This area of the world is an incredibly important area to have protected, as it is the wintering ground for many of the beautiful birds that we have in the United States. In fact, many of them actually spend more time in Belize, and as William says, “They’re OUR birds.”

When it comes to netting birds, it is important to be aware of their habits. Depending on whether you are trying to snag a ground bird or a canopy bird, or even something larger like an eagle or an owl, there are specific techniques used to target them. We were aiming to catch understory birds so the nets extended from about 7 feet above the ground to just above it. A guiding principle of any sort of bird capture like that is to keep the birds safe. It is important to keep the net off of the ground to eliminate some of the danger of death by ants or other animals on the ground.

BFREE provides very valuable habitat for scientists wishing to research the effects of agroforestry on the forest. BFREE has started a mixed crop of shade grown coffee and cacao. Not only are they researching ways this is affecting the forest around it, but also the results on how the species move between the two areas. Many of the changes that scientists have seen after the maturing of this forest is that there is not the stunning loss of biodiversity like there is any type of monoculture; many of the canopy birds continue to use this area.

We caught several birds right away, all of which are incredibly beautiful. We caught a Violet Sabrewing, a giant purple hummingbird, a Variable Seed Eater, a finch- like bird with a thick bill, a White Breasted Wood Wren that looked pretty much like the wrens at home, and a White-Collared Manakin, a small olive green bird similar in appearance to the female Painted Bunting. We also caught, but did not record or band, a long-billed hermit and a striped-throated hermit, both of which are hummingbirds with wonderfully exotic-looking curved beaks. Definitely a treat for those who only ever see the Ruby-Throat, though they are beautiful. For many of us, it was the first time seeing birds so close, even getting to touch the frail bodies which look so sturdy hopping around or flying across oceans. It was a wonderful experience, with the Violet Sabrewing being the star of the show; it was William’s first time netting one in 8 years of birding.

On to the plant lovers out there- Dr. Evans gave a short presentation on some of the plant species that are abundant in the forest. We discussed many species, one of which was Qualmwood, a legume which occupies a significant amount of growing space in the forest. Gumbo limbo is a very distinctive tree with curling red bark that is common in tropical areas. The Ceiba is another tree which, besides its grandeur and charisma, is one of the most interesting trees we learned- from a cultural perspective. Many of the local Mayans believe that it is the gate to the afterlife. Legend has it that the soul travels up the tree after death. Figs are common throughout the forest, their green fruits litter the ground with rotting-sweet smelling fruit. A few of us tried them, hoping for a treat like the Brown Turkey or the Black Mission but it was a vain hope. When a gap forms in the forest, several species are quick to come in and establish themselves, taking advantage of the presence of light, which is a limiting resource, especially for many tree species. Cecropia and the Rubber Tree are both species that come in quickly. In times where there is a high level of disturbance, such as a hurricane, when there are many gaps opened in a short period of time, the forest structure often shifts, as more opportunist species put down roots. Perhaps the favorite tree species of the group is the Mamey Apple. A big ugly grey-brown fruit, the interior is a candy apple red and tastes like a sweet potato. It seemed to be a big hit among us, and I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s willingness to try new things.

In the afternoon we went to the Cacao Plantation with Elmer. He is the caretaker of all of the cacaos that BFREE is propagating and growing. Cacao has existed in this forest for as long as anyone can remember. The Mayans have used it for centuries and there is a possibility that the cacao has always grown naturally in these parts. There are 2 main varieties, one of which has a white seed and the other of which has a purple one. Both species are found in undeveloped areas of rainforest. All of the plants that are grown in BFREE are the progeny of seeds collected on the property: this crop is truly “local”. We got to break a cacao fruit and try the insides. The reaction to them was mixed; upon the initial opening of the seed there were exclamations of disgust and horror as the insides met the light of day, looking something like a very maggoty mass. All of us dug in anyway: how often are you going to get a chance to do that? I loved it, I think it tastes like a wonderfully sweet combination of mango and milk, almost ice-cream-like. However many others did not favor it so much, complaining of the texture. It was kind of gooey and you have to suck around the seeds. If you bite into one (what is roasted to create chocolate) the flavor is apparently incredibly bitter. Most of us avoided doing that.

That night we went on a night hike. Unfortunately, there were 10 very tired students walking in a forest crawling with bugs at night. Despite the best of intentions there were going to be no spottings of the more charismatic mammals that come out at night, like the jaguar or the tapir. However we did see, towards the beginning of the hike, a kinkajou high up in the canopy of the cacao plantation. It was difficult to see at night, not only because of the dark but also but because it was obscured by leaves. This was a common problem that I hadn’t thought of before arriving; even if you can hear the animals, or see them partially, you will never see them fully because they are always obscured by leaves.

These photos are courtesy of Ashley Rodriguez: Tori Haugvoll with a mango, “hot lips” flower, David Pride crossing the Bladen River, Dr. Evans, and bunks at BFREE surrounded by mosquito netting.

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