Life in the Lot

Yesterday, July 29, 2017, I went out on a long walk and had a minor, but meaningful, experience. One certainty of being in Belize–life can be found anywhere. Even seemingly barren landscapes not far from the road. On this particular evening, I chose to investigate a slightly flooded lot to see what I could find, and wasn’t disappointed. Signs of life were evident even as I stepped in; green intermingled with brown, old dead plants that had been felled made way for fresher, greener fronds. Clumps of weeds grew up from the standing water, and a ring of trees surrounded the entire lot, some yellow leaves to balance out all the green.

Naturally there was some fauna along with all the flora–I had to step over a trail of red ants as I walked in. Once I was actually inside the lot, I had a quiet stare-off with a white, black, and yellow kiskadee before it flew off. Other birds came and went as I observed. A dragonfly flew by, and a lizard scurried out onto a fallen branch, bobbing its head. In this particular instance, however, it was not what I saw, but what I DIDN’T see that had me the most intrigued. Birds sang, animals scurried about in the bushes, and frogs croaked to each other, even as cars rumbled nearby. In the future I hope to see more in places like this, but for the moment, it is satisfying to be reminded that non-human life can flourish and thrive anywhere.

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Welcome to the Jungle

July 2, 2017. Today I was out with my brother, mom, stepdad, and some old family friends at their old farm in the mountains, one I’ve visited many times since I was a girl. After lunch, my brother and I headed off on our own to visit the waterfall where we’d swam so often. While at first it was gray and rainy, to the point I had to wear my brother’s sweaty, used rain poncho, it was still nice getting out. Seeing the grove of orange trees, trekking along the brown and green jungle, and seeing many grasshoppers and hotlips plants made it worth the puddles we had to wade through.

Sadly, once we reached the waterfall, we found it to be VERY overrun. Dirty brown water gushed over the rocks, and even over our usual dry spot, washing away any hopes we had of swimming today. It wasn’t all for naught though–as we crossed the bridge to go back, I spotted a beautiful little gray and orange jumping spider peering up at me with its many shiny orange eyes. Once we were back in the jungle, getting closer to the main road, my brother found a baby helmet head lizard on a tree. Naturally, he had to pick it up for a video, pointing out the lizard’s bony dewlap, changing coloration, and wide open mouth as it angrily tried to defend itself. The day may not have gone the way we hoped, but we still got to get some fresh air, stretch our legs, and see some amazing things; proving that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

A Lizard’s Tail

June 25, 2017. Out near the Municipal Airport, I observed a lizard, which I later learned to be a baby black-spotted iguana, on the sidewalk. I kept a few feet between us, to better observe its behavior. The lizard seemed fairly unfazed by humans though-it barely moved at all when a young woman and man on a bicycle passed. It also didn’t respond when a car drove by. But naturally, it started to walk away after a while.
I took a chance and decided to follow the lizard. The little creature was largely nonplussed by my presence, allowing me to get close enough to get a good look at it. The lizard was roughly the size of your average house lizard, with a brownish-gray body that had black stripes. It also had a green head with an orangeish tinge on top, and black marks near its eyes. The iguana’s lack of immediate fear towards me and other approaching humans told me that it has likely had a lot of contact with humans, and is probably used to it at this point. As I crouched down to get a better look at it, the lizard looked right at me, perhaps studying me as well.
Finally, though, the baby iguana seemed to have had enough of me. When I tried to get a better picture of it on my phone, the lizard jumped off into the grass, running off. A pity, but ultimately unavoidable. Just being that close to it, close enough to have gotten a good look was a privilege. Since iguanas are so common in Belize, who knows? I might one day see the little fellow again, or one of its siblings/offspring.

Baby Bird Study

On June 20, 2017, I observed something astounding right outside my very own house. We have always had lots of birds flying over, or even nesting in, our yard, and today I had the honor of seeing a seedeater nest. Every now and then I would glance over at the nest to see if there were any eggs and/or chicks. My efforts were rewarded with two tiny hatchlings; which were almost completely featherless, their eyes still closed tightly. It was obvious they were still very new to the world—they craned their necks, beaks wide open to beg for food when I stood next to them. They later did the same when my brother got near. I’m going to keep watching the hatchlings over the next few weeks, to keep an eye on their development.
June 21st, Wednesday. Early in the afternoon, I actually got to see the seedeater father return to his nest. He didn’t stay long though, flying away almost as soon as I’d seen him. Later, 2:50, I got closer to the nest, close enough to see that one of the babies’ eyes were open. I also noticed, for the first time, the slight beginning of feathers on their little bodies. While of course they still have some downy fluff, there were barbs going down their backs, and on their wings.
June 23rd, Friday. Today, from a distance, I actually got to see BOTH seedeater parents return to the nest at different points during the day to feed their babies. Early afternoon, the black and white father flew to the nest, and about two hours later, the mother was visible with her brown and green plumage. Later that afternoon, 4:00, the father was back at the nest. He flew onto a telephone wire as soon as I walked outside, and once I approached the nest, I saw that the chicks were turned to face his direction, eyes wide open. They continue to show signs of growth; the barbs that will become feathers growing longer. Also, they are not as small as I believed before—could this simply be their normal growth rate? Or was I mistaken on the rate of their growth?
June 26, Monday. Today I didn’t see any sign of the birds. I didn’t even see the seedeaters’ nest until I looked down, seeing it near the tree. I searched the area, but didn’t see the hatchlings, or any remains of them. The fact that the nest was on the other side of the tree makes me think that maybe it blew away and/or a basilisk lizard took off with one or both birds. Though it could simply be that they finally matured and flew away on their own?
Over the last few days, I have observed the hatchlings’ feathers growing in more—orangish hues alongside the gray, and less downy fluff on their heads. In addition, I have seen both parents at the nest at various times. To feed their children, yes, but also perhaps to encourage them to take flight? I can ascertain from this and my prior recordings that growth comes faster than I thought in seedeater chicks. What I thought would take a few weeks was only a few days. Those babies aren’t babies anymore, and my hope is that they’re now somewhere out there, spreading their wings and getting ready to start a new cycle.

Bird Rescue

During the month of April, I got to participate a wonderful and enriching experience as a volunteer in the Belize Bird Rescue. Every Monday or Tuesday I hopped on a bus early in the morning, enjoyed a scenic ride through beautiful Cayo, then met my hostess, Nikki Buxton, at the bus station, where she took me to the scenic green Bird Rescue (and bed and breakfast) she ran with her partner, Jerry Larder. Most weeks ran from Monday to Thursday morning, with me leaving in the afternoon, taking a bus back to Belize City. Most of the work I did was in the morning, starting at seven and going until eight, or nine. Not that it was hard to wake up, what with the birds squawking and singing as soon as the sun came up.
Most of what I did was helping with food prep – putting freshly made corn and beans into the baskets, along with things like vegetables, orange wedges, coconut, and every now and then even some specially-made cake for the birds. Once food prep was done, I would help change the birds’ food and water, going around to the different enclosures and putting in the fresh food, clean water, and taking the old trays and scraps back to the kitchen for rat food, or put them in some of the outside feeders. My least favorite birds to feed were the Yellow-Headed Parrots, since they tried to bite my fingers when I was feeding them. Not fun! The birds on the balcony – a Red-lored Parrot, another Yellow-head, and a Cockatoo, were a bit easier.
There was one incident during the first week where the Yellow-Head got upset when I started sweeping the balcony floor, but other than that, it was smooth sailing. Some of the other birds I helped feed were the Keel-Billed Toucans and Aracaris. Their food was different from the parrots – things like papaya, noni, and watermelon. It was a little strange, being so near the national bird of Belize, and seeing its beautiful plumage of black, yellow, and green so close. Truly a breathtaking experience.
Caring for the nursery birds was another job I did almost every morning. I would wheel the more sickly parrots out of the nursery, then change their food and water. During the first and third weeks, there were a bunch of chicks kept inside the guest house, as food for the owls and other raptors. During this time, I would wheel the chicks outside during the morning, and change their food and water. Letting the woodpecker out for the day came next. Paloma, the Pileated Woodpecker, was a ‘soft-release’ bird-we would let her out of her enclosure during the day, and during the evening put her back inside.
While most of my work was the same most days, I got to do various other tasks on different days, and even got a new duty every week! Feeding the mealworms and beetles cabbage was one of my first jobs, and later on picking up oranges from the ground, in order to feed the birds. Ironically though, my favorite job was not one related to the birds, but feeding and watering the rats and mice. Oscar and I would give the rodents moldy bread and fruit peels, and once or twice even cleaning out their containers. The rats and mice were so cute I always looked forward to caring for them-especially the babies! Almost a pity they were just kept there as owl food.
Another one of my favorite tasks was helping in the transfer of parrots from one enclosure to another. I only got to do this twice, but both times were vastly different-the first time I actually got to handle a net, so that I could capture the birds myself, and place them inside carriers. The second time, when we were moving Scarlet Macaws, my job was to record the parrots’ I.D. number and weight as they were read to me. This particular case I liked more, because the enclosure we were moving the parrots from was big and really nice, and I got a nice show as the macaws flew overhead, a flash of red across the air. Not the first time I’d gotten to go inside with the parrots-I’d done that before with some of the other parrots during feeding time, but certainly the most fun I’d had doing so.
In spite of the sticky, gross heat and sometimes long hours, I enjoyed this experience, and the tasks I got to do at the Belize Bird Rescue. Whether it was helping to weigh baby owls, cleaning the bird baths, or even just collecting food trays in the afternoon, I always found ways to keep myself busy. Not to mention, it was nice sleeping in a different bed for at least a few nights every week, be it the Hummingbird Room in the Guest House, or the volunteer house where my fellow workers, Barbara and Michel, were also staying. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t get more time to work there; since the season was picking up, more volunteers were coming in. There was no longer any room for me, and while I was disappointed, I had had a wonderful time at the Bird Rescue. I hope that I can find an opportunity like this again soon, I could certainly use the experience!

Jaguar Project

In February of 2017, I had the tremendous opportunity of volunteering at the Belize Jaguar Project at Mountain Pine Ridge, in the beautiful Cayo District of Belize. Working alongside three other volunteers, I got quite the unique experience.

Our work was simple – we were monitoring Jaguars, along with other cats, such as cougars and margays, in certain areas, with the use of camera traps. Our days started early during the cool hours of the morning, dew still glistening on the grass and pine cones in the early morning sunlight. By seven we were set with boxes full of our basic equipment, clipboards, pens, markers, batteries, empty flash cards, and the like.  With lunch/snacks, water bottles, sunscreen, and bug spray, we would set off in the truck by eight in the mornings, driving along bumpy roads into the dense jungle. And that’s when the fun begun!

Depending on what location or locations we were observing for the day, the five of us could split into different teams, with two people hiking through the woods to observe certain camera traps, while the other three would go around to different locations. The work was pretty routine-the first step was to make sure the camera traps in each location were working properly, by holding an index card with the current date on it in front of the camera for at least 30 seconds. After this, we would check the inside of the camera, turning it on to make sure that it had automatically taken a picture of us, and check to see how many pictures were on the memory card in total. We would then turn the camera off, clean the inside of it, and change the batteries if necessary before replacing the memory card with a new, empty one, and turning the camera back on. The next step was to ensure all the settings were in place; for example, putting in the right date, and having it so three pictures were automatically taken every fifteen seconds. Finally, we had to test to make sure the camera was working the way we wanted.

To test it, we had to close the camera, then once again stand in front of it with the index card for 30 seconds. If the camera was working correctly, it would automatically take three picture of us, and we could leave with our findings. Later after returning home, we could look over the pictures in order to see how many animals we managed to catch on camera. Of course we saw Jaguars, but also other animals as well-Mountain Lions, Ocelots, Gray Foxes, Tayras, and once or twice even a Tapir! Checking the camera traps wasn’t our only job, however. Some days we also did habitat assessment.

On days when we did habitat assessment, we would go out into patches of forest with tape measures and other tools to plot out potential areas to place more cameras. We trekked through greenery and climbed down cliffs to try and cover all the directions-using a compass and sticks to plot out our course. We would try and determine the covering of the ground, whether it was soil or leaf litter, as well as the layout of the area. All in all, this was a rewarding experience, and offered me more insight into conservation. Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time on this particular project, I’m glad I had this opportunity, and hope that the project will keep going for many more years, so that Belizeans and non-Belizeans alike can enjoy seeing these beautiful animals for a long, long time. Seeing how many Jaguars, and other wild animals, we managed to capture on camera gives me hope that they will thrive in the wild for years to come.

Duck Tales

On a trip to Central Park on August 13, 2016, I took time to visit the duck pond, studying the ten ducks that were there. During most of the twenty-minute period, at least two ducks stayed on a rock preening themselves, while the others were swimming. In the first minute or two, one of the ducks looked right at me, opening and closing its beak as if it were studying me too. This same duck later went for a dip, leaving only two ducks on the rock. I noted certain characteristics among the ducks-for example, two had purplish feathers on their wings, while another had lighter-colored brown chest feathers than the others.

As I was leaving, I noticed other things in the pond. For example, as I was packing up, I spotted a small turtle swimming close to the ducks’ rock. Later on, I saw other ducks on the shore, almost close enough for visitors to touch. Finally, orange and brown koi fish were swimming happily nearby. It’s such a small thing, but it shows how diverse ecosystems, even small ones, can be. If you’re willing to look long and hard enough, you never know what you can find.