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.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.

People often talk of nostalgia, of the good times where an unexpected event was shared between a group of people. Tonight, our band of merry scientists have something to bond over for the rest of our lives. Not only was it the last dive of the trip but also it was something that was truly unique, a night dive. We had been pushing for one all trip and finally we got an opportunity. Our entire time down here, the weather had not agreed with us. Today though, it was our chance and we could not have asked for a better night to dive. We had a fairly calm current going out. Although we had to kick a little bit harder on the way out, our return was nice and easy with no effort at all. Along the way, we saw lobsters, sting rays, parrot fish, snappers, and many other aquatic life. I personally saw a lion fish. The sighting of the night was by Dr. John. He saw a moray eel having a little late night snack on a parrot fish. It was a really cool experience at about three quarters of the way into the dive. We stopped at a sandy spot, gathered round together and turned off our flashlights. Slowly we waved our hands in the air and the bio-luminescence turned on like tiny black lights all around us. It was something to be seen. Although not everyone enjoyed the dive as much as the group(its pretty scary in the dark ocean at night), everyone can say that it was an experience that they’ll never forget.

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.

In Touch with Belize: Lamanai

The day trip to the Mayan ruin city of Lamanai was one of the things to which I was most looking forward from the start of the trip, and I must say it did not disappoint.

We arrived at the dock around seven o’clock in the morning, just slightly earlier than our usual dive schedule. Lamanai is on the mainland, and therefore requires an open-ocean boat crossing from Ambergris Caye where we are staying. Vince was our captain for this leg of the trek, a very stoic sort of man with a good sense of humor. He is apparently one of the only boat captains skilled enough to navigate the mouth of the river from the ocean into the mangroves. The open water crossing was fun, and we were blessed with very calm waters on the way over to the mainland.

John, Zena, and Jimmy en route to the mainland.

John, Zena, and Jimmy en route to the mainland.

Once we were into the mangroves, Vince handed out johnny cakes and juice for breakfast, and we took an easy cruise through the trees and vines, stopping to admire various flora and fauna on the way.

From there we arrived in Bomba, a tiny village on the bank of the river. Here we boarded our bus, a decommissioned and repainted school bus, which was to take us to yet another river for yet another boat ride. The bus ride was done at mostly breakneck speed down the tiny, uneven dirt road, swerving to avoid oncoming bicyclists and trucks, with occasional (abrupt) stops to check out wildlife and local landmarks. Highlights included a very poisonous snake called a fer-de-lance, some bright green parakeets, and a crocodile.

Our chariot awaits in Bomba. Plus Jeff and a very friendly dog.

Our chariot awaits in Bomba. Plus Jeff and a very friendly dog.

Crocodile!

Crocodile!

About an hour later we were at the dock where we boarded our next boat with our tour guide/boat captain, and we set off for Lamanai. This was another long journey through the mangroves, with plenty of stops to look at the sights, including a spider monkey, baby green herons in their nest, and two different types of kingfisher.

This guy was really hamming it up.

This guy was really hamming it up.

Have you ever seen anything cuter than a baby heron?

Have you ever seen anything cuter than a baby heron?

When we arrived at Lamanai, we docked and disembarked from the boat, and were served a lunch of the local staples: rice, beans, stewed chicken, and potato salad. We had some time to poke around a small museum of artifacts and information about the Mayan civilization and culture, and then it was off through the jungle.

A bad shot of a cool artifact in the museum.

A bad shot of a cool artifact in the museum.

As we walked towards the temples, we saw some interesting wildlife, parrots, turkey vultures, monkeys, and my personal favorite: a tarantula which the tour guide lured out of its hole using a long, thin stick. I have done a little research and am confident that it was a decently sized brachypelma vagans, the Red Rump Tarantula. In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I am a spider enthusiast and seeing a wild tarantula, especially such a beautiful species, was a giant thrill for me.

The first temple we arrived at was Mask Temple, notable for its giant Olmec-influenced face carvings to the left and right of the stairs. We climbed to the top of this one quickly and easily via the back stairway. Our second stop was High Temple, a 108 foot tall structure that looms above the trees. I was admittedly hesitant to climb it, even with the aid of the rope that has been installed to help with ascent and descent, but my colleagues were certainly not going to let me sit something like that out. As always, once I was safely back on land, I appreciated their prodding and support more than I did on the way up. It was truly awe inspiring. As we left the High Temple site, we passed through a ball court where ancient games were played, and past a working archaeological dig site, all roped off, which I found kind of exciting. The last temple, and my personal favorite, was Jaguar Temple, named for the jaguar faces wrought in stone flanking the path up the center. This one is the most intricately shaped of the structures, with various areas of flat grass on different levels, and winding paths up and around the main pyramid shape. This temple is also marked by a huge tree growing right on top of the temple stones, and a staggering view of the ocean.

Mask Temple!

Mask Temple!

At the foot of High Temple.

At the foot of High Temple.

Your brave author found the top of High Temple a little scary. Does anyone want to add one of the group shots?

Your brave author found the top of High Temple a little scary. Does anyone want to add one of the group shots?

Jaguar Temple.

Jaguar Temple.

Renee graciously demonstrating the view from the top of Jaguar Temple.

Renee graciously demonstrating the view from the top of Jaguar Temple.

After our treks up and down the temples, it was time to get back into the boat and repeat our long journey back to Ambergris Caye. The bus ride was perhaps even more terrifying, and the ocean considerably less calm, but after such an amazing day, it was hard to be bothered by anything so trivial.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I was really moved by the experience of walking in the shadows, literally, of a civilization which came and went so long ago that the timeline is difficult for me to grasp. To tread the same ground, and look at the same great stone pyramids, and to think on how they might’ve lived in their prime, was something which I will certainly not forget.

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!

Diving San Pedro Canyon and Esmeralda

Today I woke up all ready to take on the day. It was bright and sunny, with a slight breeze. Perfect diving conditions to head out. The past couple of days had been very windy, creating unfavorable diving conditions. Everyone met on the dock to take off in the boat for 9am to the first dive site: San Pedro Canyon. Not long after, one by one, our team was diving off the boat into gorgeous 85 degee water. Buddies linked up and decended to the bottom to be greeted by a few nurse sharks swimming around. Soon after we were on our way to practice our bouyancy. We also practiced getting really close to the corals without touching them, which is necessary to count invertibrates that hide in the corals for reef check. To do this, I would take a deep breath while diving down and then slowly let it out, while hovering over the corals. Venturing around the reef was exciting. The underwater world is so amazing to watch. Indicator fish that swim around the reef included colorful parrot fish, round butterflyfish, big lipped nassau grouper, any other grouper, delicious snapper and blue/ yellow striped grunts. We have come across all these fish while divng as well as many others. Queen angelfish is a beautiful fish. It has bright neon blue green and yellow colors. They tend to swim in pairs like the butterflyfish, while Sergeant majors like to swim in schools. They are a silver fish with black stripes and some yellow accents. Blue tang are fierce with it’s scalpel-like barb near its tail, which will cut you. Damsel fish are very territorial and will chase fish as well as you out away from its home. Black durgeon is a black fish with wave like dorsal and anal fin, which is so fascinating to watch swim. Big eyed Squirrel fish are red with huge ugly eyes. Other fish encountered are the bluehead and creole wrasse, rock beauty, trumpet fish, skip jack, and blue chromis.

There was about one hour between the first and second dive. On break we all snacked on chips and salsa, cantope, kiwis and some weird cherries. Once we were back in the water, we were once again greeted by groupers and more nurse sharks. I have seen what feels like tons of sharks on this trip. They are so cool. Anyways, Esmeralda was a good dive. We got to chase more fish around as well as encounter a green moray eel. It looked to be at least 4 feet long, if not bigger. He stuck his head out of the rocks and came out to say hello. I have yet to see one of those so I was extremely excited. All in all, today’s diving was incredible. A night dive was planned, but was called off due to a fast current. Not long after the boat left Hol Chan for the night dive we started to see lightning off in the distance. Probably a good idea to call it off, safety first.