News from Belize — Arriving at BFREE

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Sewanee student Maren Johnson continues her periodic reports from Belize:

We got to BFREE in the middle of the Bladen and they hadn’t told us, but they canceled their subscription to internet… but we were in the middle of the rainforest, so there was no way to contact anyone to tell them there was no internet.

So after we got to the airport in Belize City- which is not the world’s biggest airport, let me tell you, we had to take a connecting flight. The gates were marked by pieces of laminate papers. We then boarded a Cessna Caravan, which if you care to look it up, is not a large plane. We flew for about an hour. The most striking thing about this plane ride was the amount of NOTHING there was. It seemed to be an unbroken expanse of trees. For minutes we would fly, with the coast to our left, and nothing beneath our wings. As we neared our destination, there were some shrimp farms, but there didn’t seem to be any buildings for the people that worked there. It was very disconcerting- I never realized how developed our part of the country was. It seems like there is never any place where you are very far from somewhere else.

We landed at the world’s smallest airport. I actually have no idea if that is true but it sure seems like it. We pulled up “curbside” as iguanas moved out of our way. It was one room with a restroom and the parking lot out back was gravel and unmarked. There was also a dilapidated old plane out front, which was a little disconcerting. But it seems like that is a pretty common thing in Belize, you leave anything that no longer works where it stopped working, as there is no trash pickup and certainly no way to transport it somewhere else.

We were in the Stann Creek District of Belize, and it was further into the heart of nowhere than any of us has ever been, I’m pretty sure. We took a half-hour bus ride (an old Blue Bird that I guess was no longer usable in the US) which then dropped us off on the side of the road. With the sun beating down on us, and the gravel road ahead dusty and cracked, we began our trek into the Bladen Nature Reserve.

It was a 6 mile hike to get to the research station, since they do not have the vehicles necessary to transport 12 people. We began in the Tropical Savanna which, as a visual, looks somewhat like the long leaf pine savanna for those of us that familiar with that ecosystem. It seems to be maintained by fire, as there was evidence of recent burning on the trees and surrounding vegetation. Overhead there were scissor- tailed flycatchers, which if you have not seen, should be on the Birder’s Life List, they really are one of the most stunning birds, I think. They remind me of something out of a Dr. Seuss book, with long tails reaching behind them, almost like kites with long trailing ribbons.

Another interesting thing about this hike, was the abrupt change between habitats. Most of the time you pass through various ecosystems without even realizing that you are in a landscape in flux. But here there was a very clearly defined transition from the Savanna to the Rainforest. All at once the trees go thicker, and the air was cooler from the respiration of the trees. However, with this, there was also an increase in the humidity. At the same time, the sound changed completely; the air was filled with clicking insects. Far away some Howler monkeys declared their territory, giving Dr. Evans an excuse to explain how they are the loudest terrestrial organism. We stopped along the way looking at different species, such as Wild Ginger, Myconia, Heliconia, and Piper. However his favorite perhaps, might be the Ant Acacia, a charismatic species because of the mutualism that they have with a species of ant. The ants live in the hollow thorns and they protect the Acacia from any harm and in return they get shelter from the plant, which also produces little pouches of ant food called Belgian bodies. We were finally there when we reached the Bladen River, and we had to cross it to get to the station. The water was cool, but not cold like many of the Mountain streams back home. We got to our bunkhouse and settled in, and we got to know the station a little bit- especially where everyone’s favorite building, the kitchen, was.

The next day (May 25), we were greeted by the Montezuma Oropendola. They are not only quite beautiful but are also one of the most easily distinguished, distinctly vocal species where we were staying. We took a tour of the facilities; they have a cacao farm and a turtle pond as well. The turtle is the Hicatee, and it is an endangered species in the rainforest. They have a huge electrified fence to keep big cats out, apparently they don’t mind the crunch of turtle shell. Unfortunately they are very skiddish, so none of us actually got to see one. Then we hiked out to a spot in the forest called Forest Hill. This is a outlier of the Maya Mountains, and is a huge limestone mound in the middle of the forest. Because there is this difference in the slope, and the soil is composed differently, it contains a different forest than the other parts of BFREE. Past this is an area of the Bladen River known as Blue Pool, a huge spot where the current of the water has cleared out a nice swimming area for those willing to make the hike.

After lunch we did our River Ecology class. We learned the fish in the river and we practiced developing hypotheses as at the end of our stay we would have to develop and perform an experiment which would end up being our grade, since this is the second half of our semester. Then a few of us trekked back to blue pool to swim, while others of us took advantage of the downtime to get organized and write in the Rite in the Rain notebooks that we have to turn in at the end of the course. We met up with one of the BFREE staff members and he taught us how to set up traps for small mammals. These were simple, collapsible, metal contraptions that we put balls of peanut butter and oats in. He told us the best ways to distribute them: near where there are places to hide, away from ants, and under some sort of shade. We also learned how to set up camera traps, which are the cameras that are motion-sensitive and often are the ones that get video footage of the bigger mammals, especially the big cats like jaguar or puma.

After dinner William gave a presentation on the Harpy Eagle. After the country started a reintroduction program, eagles slowly started showing in up the Bladen. Researchers began watching these large birds and BFREE was part of an important study. One of the most important things that came out of this research was the outreach to local peoples, teaching them about these birds and their role in the forest. Harpy eagles have become an object of Belizean pride, and we could hear that in William’s voice as he spoke. Conservation is very important to the staff at BFREE and that is why they make it their life’s work.

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