Birding Notes from Ambergris Caye

On the last full day of our trip to Ambergris Caye, I had the chance to go on a birding excursion to a Mayan ruin site outside the town with Professor Paul Patev and Belize fellow Alyssa Ferrell. Despite the blazing mid-day heat, we were able to observe several exciting species. As sometimes occurs when birding, some of the most exciting species we saw were not at the destination itself. On the way to the ruins, we made a stop at a sandfill that looked promisingly “birdy”. Sure enough, in addition to several other species, we saw the striking White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) and the undeniably odd Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) in the brush and standing water along the side of the road. Upon arriving at the ruins, we had looks at several woodpeckers, orioles and flycatchers. Although the birds seemed unperturbed, I found that even under the shade of the trees, the noonday sun was uncomfortably hot. Wanting to sit down for a minute, I walked over to a comfortable looking tree bough low to the ground, only to be greeted by a sign hanging from the branch with the label “poisonwood”. After a short search on Google, I believe this was probably Metopium brownie, commonly known as Black Poisonwood, which contains the same irritating urushiol found in the poison ivy of Massachusetts.  As we were exiting the area, we were lucky to get long, close up looks at a Tri-colored Heron, which was standing on the boardwalk just ahead of us. By its plumage and slightly confused behavior, I’m fairly confident this was a juvenile bird. Young birds will often allow for closer approach than adult birds. Due to the agitated behavior of a nearby pair of stilts, I believe they nest in that same area as the herons there.

In addition to listing birds, I noticed two aspects to birding on Ambergris Caye that surprised me. First, Eurasian Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto) seem to be established on the island. This species is not even listed in my guidebook to birds found in Belize, so I’m guessing it exists only in isolated patches or its presence is a very recent occurrence. It is also possible all the birds I saw were escapees and the doves are not currently breeding on the island, but this seems unlikely to me. I do not know what the potential implications of this new species are for the many native avian species of San Pedro. My second observation was the curious lack of gulls along the shoreline, especially given the fact that fishermen frequently clean fish in the shallow water along the beach. I suspect the fishermen do this, in part, to give tourists a chance to interact with the incredible Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana) that will swim right over people’s feet to get pieces of fish. However, I would expect gulls to similarly take advantage of this handout given the usual scavenging behavior of many gull species. The abundant Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) certainly seemed to have no hesitation in diving for nearby scraps. I began to wonder if these large, opportunistic Frigatebirds might outcompete gulls for resources on San Pedro, as they seem to behave in a similar manner to the latter.

I left San Pedro marveling at the species that can be seen both above and below the surface of the water. I naturally hope to return someday! After all, I still need Roseate Spoonbill on my life list…    

 

Life List

Mangrove Warbler

Although birding was not the primary purpose of our trip to Belize, it would be difficult to spend any amount of time there and not notice interesting avian species not found in Massachusetts. In addition to the species I found walking along the beach, I had the chance to observe species on the trip to Lamanai, at the bird sanctuary, and during a birding expedition on Ambergris Caye, and I added many birds to my “life list”. A life list is a term birders use for the list(s) they keep of all the bird species they have observed worldwide, usually accompanied by the date and location of the sighting.  

Mangroves

Mangroves

Two of the species I saw were named for the tree that comprises one of Belize’s most threatened habitats: the mangrove.  On the way to Lamanai, we had the opportunity to take several boat trips through the mangroves, and spotted many Mangrove Swallows (Tachycineta albilinea) flying over the river. According to one ornithological source, they are fairly tolerant to human disturbance. (http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/conservation?p_p_spp=523436). This species is similar to the Tree Swallow (common in Massachusetts) in appearance, but with the addition of a white rump patch, making the two easily distinguishable. Swallows are a type of aerial insectivore, and their long, pointed wings make them very graceful in flight. I spotted another species named after a littoral tree on our last full day on Ambergris Caye—the Mangrove Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Mangrove Warblers are currently considered conspecific with the widely distributed Yellow Warbler, but this was still a very exciting find for me!

Mangrove Swallow

 

There are actually several species of mangrove tree that grow in the country, and they support an incredible variety of wildlife, as well as being essential for the maintenance of healthy corals reefs.  As other fellows have mentioned in their blog posts, the mangroves are threatened by development on the cayes; this was easily observable on Ambergris Caye, where several land reclamation projects are currently underway. This process can be complex and costly to reverse, although in some places trees are being planted. (http://www.sanpedrosun.com/community-and-society/2014/06/03/placencia-mangrove-

planting-project-honors-adrian-vernon/) While San Pedro is a tourist destination mainly for the stunning barrier reef, the mangroves support the beautiful fish and birds that make the island so special. While preparing for a presentation in the Coral Reef Ecology class I took in preparation for the trip, I came across an article published in 2008 stating that “Scientists estimate we’ve already lost 30 to 60 percent of the world’s mangroves.” (http://www.whoi.edu/cms/files/Oceanus_JP_McMahon_46507.pdf) The article also mentioned that many people fail to see the value in these forests, but encouragingly I found all of our guides in Belize seemed knowledgeable about the benefits of these trees.

 

One of my favorite birding moments of the Belize trip was a sighting of a bird I had already seen many times in Massachusetts—an adult Green Heron (Butorides virescens) feeding his/her two chicks in the nest over the river. In Belize, these birds are known as Green-backed Herons, a name I find slightly more descriptive than Green Heron. The nest consisted of a small and surprisingly haphazard-looking  pile of twigs sitting in the branches of a tree overhanging the river and the chicks were as odd and fluffy as one might expect heron chicks to be. A picture of the nest and young can be seen in Alyssa’s post entitled: In Touch with Belize: Lamanai. Another of my favorite birding moments also occurred on the trip along the river: my first sighting of a Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa)! These strange birds have large feet adapted for walking on the top of aquatic vegetation. Unlike some of the song birds that can be a struggle to identify, this species is unmistakable. To quote my field guide: “highly distinctive” which I consider just another reason to like them.

 

 

All images of birds taken from http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu

I recommend this site for information concerning neotropical bird species!

 

 

 

 

Marine Reserves Necessary, Diving Hol Chan

School of grunts

School of grunts

Green moray eel

Green moray eel

Group underwater shot

Group underwater shot

Our last day dive was at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We returned to where we first started. After practicing our diving techniques for the past two weeks, we were all way more confident than the first. The first day, the 11 of us were broken up into two groups: the newly certified and the advanced . No one was allowed to take cameras until everyone displayed their ability to dive. I was part of the newly certified group, since I had just got my open water certification the weekend before the trip. My group only ventured around the sea grass beds in the shallows, trying to avoid the channel. It was wicked cool to see all the fish and turtles swimming around, but didn’t get the full effect of the marine reserve until the last day. Before breaking off into the same groups, we all had a photo shoot. This time our cameras were allowed. I have a subscription to Dive Magazine. Within it, they post people with their magazines in exotic locations. I thought that we should get a group shot underwater to try and get our picture posted. I enjoyed the small groups a lot, because when the 11 of us are in the water together checking out the same area it tends to get claustrophobic. Constantly bumping into people is annoying, never mind getting a fin in the face. After separating and heading out, we swam through the sea grass beds and got to the channel, you were greeted by large schools of fish and a wall of corals. The walls were filled with all kinds of fish and inverts living within. The fish swam around like they knew they would not be fished there. They ranged from small to large. Marine reserves prove to be the best area to encounter the greatest percentage of marine life. There was a great deal of green moray eels, and their heads where the only things really seen during the day. Some corals had their polyps displayed, while others were not out yet. The coral polyps would be out for our night dive later on (I must add watching the corals feed on the blood worms from our flashlights was pretty sweet). There weren’t too many gorgonians, and the corals did not have too much algae cover. There really needs to be more marine reserves in the world. It is upsetting to know less than 1% of the ocean is actually protected. Reserves can help fish grow larger, stay healthier and reach greater abundance and diversity. This was definitely proven true swimming at all the different dives sites located around San Pedro. Coral sites absolutely covered in algae had little signs of inverts and far few fish. Many were small in proportion. Sometimes it takes some hands on experience to really learn and this trip was incredible to partake and learn from. The sustainability of the ocean, marine life and coral reef is necessary and all need to be aware.