Saturday, March 31, 2012

To my dear friends

Dear Friends,

The time has come to let you know that this is my last post, and Belize Field Notes has come to an end. After more than 25 wonderful years in Belize, Bruce and I are returning the USA. It is a difficult decision, more than a year in the making.  Advancing age, health and family issues, and research opportunities  have all contributed to to our decision.

I want you to know that I have loved writing this blog and sharing my love of Belize, its wildlife and the Gallon Jug Estate and Chan Chich Lodge with you. Many of you have visited and I've met you personally. You know the places, people and animals I have highlighted. Other readers are planning to visit. I am sorry I will not be able to meet you in person as that has always been a special pleasure. We've made some wonderful friends over the years in this way. 

The main take home message I want to leave you with is that Gallon Jug Estate is a very special place.  Thanks to the excellent protection and responsible ownership that this property has enjoyed during the past nearly 30 years, wildlife flourishes.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for so many heavily human-impacted places in Belize, in the region, in the Americas, in the world.  Our grateful and sincere thanks go to the memory of Sir Barry Bowen and Lady Bowen for making Gallon Jug and Chan Chich possible and viable, for so many years.  And to think -- we were lucky enough to live here.

Thank you for your interest in Belize's wildlife and its wildest place and for joining me at Belize Field Notes. Do please, visit Chan Chich Lodge. We hope to get back from time to time, and who knows, we may yet meet!

With warmest wishes from Gallon Jug,

Friday, March 23, 2012

Back to Back Cats

Our one remote camera came up with these nice images of an ocelot and a puma walking a trail in the Gallon Jug Estate.  It's wonderful to see these cats as they go about their nightly business and know that the Gallon Jug Estate harbors so many of these magnificent animals.  That makes another reason why our area is unique!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hatchlings on the Way

This is a basilisk lizard (Basiliscus vittatus to be precise).  A female -- readily determined since she lacks the spectacular crest of the male.  Common in the tropics and Gallon Jug, well known as "the Jesus Christ" lizard for its ability to walk on water. Here she is in the gravel, right next to the staircase of our house.  And what, you may ask, is she doing?  If you look carefully (picture on the right) you can see she is poised over a hole she has excavated and is depositing eggs.  Within a hour or so, she'd apparently finished.  The area was completely covered over and you'd have no clue that there was a hidden nest.

The interesting thing is, since 1997, a basilisk lizard has excavated her nest cavity here at this exact -- so far as I can tell -- spot.   Is it the same female lizard?  Do they live that long?  Or do the hatchlings return to their nest site to dig their own nest hole?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bats' Night Out

Last week was "Spirit Week" at the Casey Community School here in Gallon Jug.  It was kicked off on Monday, commemorating the second anniversary of the accident which claimed the lives of beloved teachers, Mike and Jill Casey, their two children, Makayla and Bryce, and Sir Barry Bowen, the owner of Gallon Jug and Chan Chich. Dear friends all and sorely missed.

The week was filled with fun activities for the students, including  Pajama Day and Dress Like a Wild Animal Day on Wednesday.  Wednesday also included a lecture from Dr. Bruce Miller about bats and why they are important.  That evening, the students accompanied Bruce into the field for a night of "batting" and the opportunity to meet some bats "up close and personal."  They listened to bat echolocation calls recorded via special equipment and were able to see a few small  bats, captured and released from the harp traps (see above; two tiny bats are clinging to the canvas capture bag).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Struttin' His Stuff

 Spring is definitely here ... and the Ocellated Turkeys are courting.  Watch as this male struts his stuff, before a bevy of seemingly disinterested females.  This sort of display -- fanned tail, stomping and vocalizing -- goes on for weeks.  The males seem indiscriminate in selecting their object of affection, displaying to people and vehicles alike that pass by.  When you visit Chan Chich Lodge, you will have no problem finding these beautiful turkeys -- they are common and readily seen, right around the cabanas.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Shower of Gold

The skies are clear, the sun is shining with gentle easterly breezes.  Yes, dry season is a upon us and it is one of the nicest times to visit Belize and Chan Chich Lodge.  And the Shower of Gold orchid is blooming! This particular one was photographed in our back yard. Since this was a "rescue orchid" found on the forest floor, we tucked it in the crotch of this spanish cedar tree.  It's taken hold quite nicely and just beginning to flower -- a great sign of "spring."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

More Fun with Time-lapse

Here's one of our hummingbird feeders and you can see it is doing a brisk business.  We have five species that use it, though not on a regular basis.  The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and the White-belled Emerald are year-round users.  The Green-breasted Mango and the White-necked Jacobin are seasonal, appearing sometime after Christmas and staying until October or thereabouts.  Finally, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, familiar in many parts of North America, is an infrequent seasonal visitor.

When we first put out the feeders 20 years ago, we had no takers.  We dumped out the spoiling nectar weekly.  It took a Ruby-throat, familiar with feeders in North America, to show the way.  It's amazing that a tiny bird on migration recognized a feeder, but it did.  Once the Rufous-tails saw the Ruby-throats cleaning up at the feeders, they were quickly on board.  And from there it just grew and grew.  These days we often go through a quart of nectar daily ... and that is conservative!  If we kept the feeders constantly topped up, it would be twice that!  When they are ready for more nectar, the hummers fly to the doors ... or the windows ... or bombard us to make sure we get the message!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Butterflies by the Dozens!

For those of you in wintery areas, you may especially enjoy this time-lapse clip I did recently.  This time of year is beautiful here in Gallon Jug/Chan Chich.  These vivid red flowers line our driveway.  You may recognize them as a variety of kalanchoe.    Kalanchoes are recognized as "medicine" in Belize, though I've never tried it myself and am not exactly sure what they are supposed to cure.  Being succulents, I like kalanchoes as they thrive in our rocky soil and don't require much care. As you can see, they are in bloom this time of year and must be nectar-rich -- they have attracted butterflies by the dozens!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tiny Tiny Gecko

I was so delighted to find this little creature on my kitchen floor recently.  It is a hatchling gecko,   Sphaerodactylus glaucus to be exact.  Geckos in the genus Sphaerodactylus are the tiniest reptiles in the world with the adult S. glaucus  not a great deal bigger than the baby pictured here.  They do seem to like being in houses.  Every place we've lived in Belize, there have always been a couple on hand -- we call them "house geckos."  Sadly though, there is a much larger introduced species of Asian gecko that has become common in Belize, and even in Gallon Jug.  They are voracious, and while I appreciate that they eat roaches and other creatures I'd just as soon not live alongside of, I'm afraid they also eat this tiny lizard.  Certainly their numbers have diminished in recent years, so it is a rare pleasure to be able to photograph this little fellow.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Baby on Board

A few weeks ago, Chan Chich Lodge guest snapped this unusual photograph of a Short-tailed fruit bat (Carollia sp.).  Liz took this great photo in the Upper Plaza, right next to the Lodge.  Short-tailed fruit bats are very common throughout tropical Central and South America.  They play a very important role, consuming fruits and dispersing copious numbers of seeds in their droppings.  Many of the seeds are important colonizers helping the forest to regenerate in denuded areas.

What makes Liz's photo so charming and unique is the baby on board.  Can you imagine the energy and strength it takes to fly carrying a baby one third your size?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

White Heron ... or Egret?

This mystery bird has been hanging around Gallon Jug for the past several weeks.  More specifically, along the Rio Bravo in Sylvester Village.  My neighbor Alan finally snapped photos of it, which took the ongoing local debate to a higher level.  At first glance, you'd assume it was a Great Egret (Casmerodius albus).  Common enough and readily seen in Gallon Jug during the winter months.  Something about the bill doesn't seem quite right though ... and it is using a slightly different habitat than we are accustomed to seeing for Great Egrets.  This bird seems to prefer shady areas along the river rather than the more open areas where we Great Egrets are more readily seen.

That habitat preference seems a bit more Great Blue Heron-ish (Ardea herodias) and it sort of has the Great Blue's form.  In fact, there is a rare white morph (=form) of the Great Blue Heron called Würdemann's Heron found only in the Caribbean .  And it's apparently not been recorded inland.  So is this Würdemann's Heron?  Our references were inconclusive.We consulted an upcoming ornithologist here in Belize, Roni Martinez, to get his opinion.  This is what he had to say:
"This bird is almost certainly a white morph Great Blue Heron ... note the white plume originating on the back of the crown and the gray, not black, legs. Great Egrets have black legs and do not have neck/crown plumes. Also, the bill is too thick for Great Egret."
 The Audubon Society Master Birding Guide  shows yellow legs and yellow bill as a field marks for the "Great White Heron" (aka Würdemann's Heron).  The photographed bird clearly has dark legs. The same reference says "yellow bill, black legs and feet" on the immature Great Egret.  That said, I do agree that the bill appears heavier.

  Roni replied:
"The legs on the Rio Bravo bird are definitely darker than normal but they are not black. The bill is right on for Great White, and the single head plume by itself eliminates Great Egret. The Sibley Guide has an illustration of a Great White Heron that approaches the bird in the photograph. Also check out the bill shape and color in the photo at  

"I am no expert by any means on Great White Heron, so you should get a second opinion from someone with more experience with the species. Keep in mind that soft part colors (legs, bill, eyes) on Great White Heron are likely to be more variable than in a true species like Great Egret. Various intermediate stage between the Great White morph and the Great Blue morph are frequent (e.g., Wurdemann's Heron), and the Great Blue morph does have dark legs."
 So what do you think?  Opinions?  Guesses anyone?  Alan is going to try to get another photograph of it ... thanks Alan!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Summary of the 2011 Gallon Jug CBC

The 2011 Gallon Jug Christmas Bird Count was held, in conjunction with the National Audubon Society, on December 31, 2011.  This marked the 22nd year of the Gallon Jug Estate Christmas Bird Count (GJE CBC) since it began in 1990.  Over the years there have been ups and downs in species, individual birds counted as well as in the number of participants.  Along with the variation in number of observers, there has been a range of good, bad and mixed weather conditions that influenced bird activity and detectability.

Species numbers have ranged from a low of 171 to 238 (Figure 1), averaging 203. Individuals  counted have previously ranged from 1718 to 4772 (Figure 2), averaging 2,849.  This was one of the years when intermittent heavy rain impacted bird detectability and bird activity as well as “observer” activity.  All participants experienced rain that seemed to begin just when we thought it was safe to step out of the vehicle again.

Given the slow start of the count day and the many hours of light to heavy rain, we were pleased that the 183 species recorded this year was not the lowest on record (2006 and 2007 were tied at a low of 171). However, the number of individuals counted was at an all time low with 1,646.  An additional 35 species were recorded for the Count Week, but not seen on the count day.

Figure 1.  Summary of unadjusted species recorded for each year of the GJE CBC.

Figure 2.  Summary of unadjusted individuals recorded for each year of the GJE CBC.

This year’s Top 20 are listed in Table 1 and can be compared with 2010.  During the 2010 CBC there were scant frugivores (= "fruit eaters") as a result of the impact of Hurricane Richard (October 24, 2010).  As the forest regenerates, the birds are returning and many of the frugivores that had evidently moved elsewhere in 2010, made it back into the Top 20 list for 2011.

The top species this year as in 2010, was the Ocellated Turkey. While the individual numbers recorded this year were somewhat lower, many were no doubt huddled out of sight under vegetation trying to stay dry.  This was not the case for many of the observers who were soaked to the skin.

Notably low this year with only 10 counted, was the Gray Catbird, ranked 5th in 2010 with 94 individuals. Last year the White-whiskered Puffbird was notable with a record 32 individuals recorded.  The average number of individuals of this species per count for the previous 20 years was only 9. This year we had none.  However, 2 White-necked Puffbirds were recorded.

Table 1. The 2010-2011 Top 20.  Comparison of species with the highest individual numbers.


Ocellated Turkey

Olive-throated Parakeet

Montezuma Oropendola

White-collared Seedeater

Brown Jay

Red-lored Parrot

Tropical Kingbird

Cattle Egret

Social Flycatcher

Turkey Vulture

Roadside Hawk

Keel-billed Toucan

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Pale-billed Woodpecker

Plain Chachalaca

White-breasted Wood-Wren

Black-headed Trogon

Melodious Blackbird



Ocellated Turkey

Cattle Egret

White-collared Seedeater

Melodious Blackbird

Gray Catbird

Turkey Vulture


Tropical Kingbird

Montezuma Oropendola

Wood Thrush

Clay-colored Thrush

Brown Jay

Black Vulture

Olive-throated Parakeet

Mangrove Swallow

Vaux's Swift

Great-tailed Grackle

Ruddy Ground-dove

Blue-black Grassquit

We had a total of six parties (aka “teams” or groups counting birds) with a combined time of 34 observation hours. Party results ranged from a minimum of 20 to a high of 72 species and individuals ranged from 38 to 624. Last year the number of parties and hours counted were significantly higher.

In order to compare the CBC results over time, the data is standardized by the number of party hours for each species. This is how results are posted on the National Audubon Society's CBC  web site for each year’s results. Party hours for the GJE CBC have ranged from 22.75 to 77.25 with an average of 52 per count year. By using the data standardized per 50 hours, even  with reduced hours of counting due to the rain, this year’s count of individuals, while down a bit, was actually not bad.

Figure 3. 2011 GJE CBC summary based on standardized number of individuals.

Based on the effort all participants put forth and standardizing the data we actually had an increase in species per party hour over last year (Figure 4).  So while there were fewer of us for a shorter time, we counted more species than the teams did last year under considerably more favorable weather conditions.

 Figure 4. 2011 GJE CBC GJE CBC summary based on standardized number of species.

As always we thank all participants, including Chan Chich Lodge guests and guides, and our Corozal contingent who traveled to be here on Count Day.  One their way to Gallon Jug, they stopped at the rice fields near Blue Creek to see the Gadwalls and Redheaded ducks, rare species for Belize.  They reported that Gadwalls were still around but the Redheads had apparently moved on.

Thanks also to Chan Chich Lodge for their continued sponsorship of the GJE CBC. We wish to especially acknowledge Victor Emanuel Nature Tours as they have contributed to all of the GJE CBCs since the beginning.  Our special thanks go to VENT leaders Brian Gibbons and Bob Sunderstrom who provided the VENT trip report that contributed to the Count Week birds, as well as their efforts during the day of the count.

Submitted by:
Bruce W. Miller PhD.
Carolyn M. Miller MSc.
Gallon Jug, Belize
January 10, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rainy Day in the Neighborhood

If these vultures look a little dejected, it's because they are soaking wet and have been for the past few days.  Seems we had near record rain ... and over the Christmas Bird Count too.  Still, we managed to muster a few teams of hardy souls, braved the elements and conducted our count on 31 December.  Those of you facing snow and ice on your Christmas Counts likely do not feel too sorry for us.  Even so, torrential downpours beginning late morning and lasting throughout the afternoon put a "damper" on bird activity.  We are still tabulating "count week" birds and I'll post the results next week. Stay tuned!