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!

 

 

 

 

Reef Check Fish Count

On Monday we began collecting data for ReefCheck at a site called Buena Vista. I was assigned to the fish count, and the night before I spent anxiously reviewing fish i.d. and worrying about how I was going to count large schools of snappers or grunts. I have some experience estimating flock size when birding, but the flocks I count usually don’t fly in tight circles, whereas schools of fish often seem to swim in a circular pattern. As it turned out, my anxiety was unnecessary. Between Alyssa and I, we tallied two grunts and three snappers. A couple of butterfly fish rounded out the count. If I came to San Pedro as a tourist instead of a student, I think it would be easy to appreciate the splendor of the barrier reef and not notice the declining health of this underwater habitat. Oftentimes, I found myself marveling at the beauty of a particular site when I climbed back onto the boat after a dive, and it was only after reviewing the video tapes that I began to recognize the extent of the damage to the reef, including the amount of algal cover and the numerous patches of diseased coral. The fish count seemed depressingly low to me, but I am curious to compare the data we collected from Buena Vista to the data collected on previous fellowships. One very enjoyable part of the dive was a beautiful French Angel spotted off the transect line and recorded as a rare animal. I think part of the reason that creating awareness of the crisis facing coral reefs around the world is that even an unhealthy reef is gorgeous and fascinating to the untrained eye. Reef Check selects certain species to serve as indicators of the overall impact to the reef, but non-indicator fish often appear abundant. I have seen more Blue Chromis, Creole Wrasse, and Atlantic Blue Tang than I could count. On Tuesday we surveyed a shallow water site called Coral Gardens, and the difference was startling. Grunts were seen in the dozens, and multiple species of snapper, including the silver and yellow Schoolmasters were tallied. After a surface interval on the boat, I went “freediving” with a nurse shark, stingray and two barracuda . Coral Gardens was an  encouraging conclusion to our study.

Birding on the Beach

Day four in San Pedro, and already I have seen an amazing variety of animal species.

I got my first lifebird of the trip as the puddlejumper we were on touched down in San Pedro. Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) are one of the most conspicuous birds on the island, due in part to the sounds they produce, described by my bird guide as follows: “a seemingly endless variety of grating, raspy notes, clear notes, and penetrating shrieks, chips, clacks, whistles, and screeches, often given repeatedly in various combinations”. (Birds of Belize) Many fellows have commented on their tendency to give these vocalizations around 4 in the morning. Personally, I find their “penetrating squeaks” preferable to the mockingbird that sings outside my window at dawn in Massachusetts. However, some fellows were excited to find a Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus), a species still missing from my lifelist: “The highlight (of the birding trip) for me was definitely a mockingbird who was checking himself out in his reflection in the window”. Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), my second lifebird of the trip, appear ever-present this time of the year, soaring over the town and water.

Informal birding along the beach has turned up Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and multiple species of tern. I have yet to see House Sparrows (Pandion haliaetus) or European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) on San Pedro, but Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) are abundant. Other animal sightings include lizards, butterflies, and bats.

The plan is to travel by boat to Lamanai tommorow, so I’m sure I will many more species to report!