My most lasting impression of the jungle is how incredibly alive it was. There is more rain and more sun, and plants and animals grow fast there. Finding animals in your house is commonplace if you live in the tropics. In the northern U.S., our ideal seems to be to completely separate our indoor environments from nature. I won't get into a discussion of whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, because I think there are arguments both ways, but the bottom line is that in places like Massachusetts, it is pretty much possible. Sure, we might get mice in the pantry or ants in the kitchen or squirrels in the walls or chipmunks in the dining room or raccoons under the fire escape on occasion (yep, they all happened, even the chipmunks). But these tend to be isolated incidents. We call an exterminator or set out traps or poison, and most of the time the creatures go away.
In Belize? Forget it. You could build the nicest house imaginable and you would still find yourself living alongside animals. The tropics probably aren't the place for you if you can't learn to love your ceiling geckos.
So in the spirit of gecko appreciation, here is a collection of animal anecdotes from Belize. There won't be quite as many birds as usual. You're welcome.
Howler monkeys are found all over the Central American rainforest, and they are loud. They "howl," but it really sounds more like a roar. They live in small family groups and they are territorial, so most of the howling will be rival groups howling at each other over the best trees
Howler monkeys are also nomadic, moving from place to place to find fresh fruit and leaves (they eat mostly leaves, which is interesting for such a large animal. Leaves are not particularly nutritious). As a result, days or weeks would go by when we wouldn't hear them at all, and then suddenly they would appear somewhere in the area and howl constantly for several nights.
One day, the howler monkeys moved into some trees right next to the main part of the lodge, where they were visible to everyone. I got some videos.
Pook's Hill kept their hummingbird feeders constantly filled, and the hummingbirds put on an amazing show all day, every day, zipping across the open porch and sometimes coming amazingly close to my head.
In the evenings, as dusk fell and the hummingbirds retired to their nighttime roosts, bats took their place. Nectarivorous bats, predictably, love to drink from hummingbird feeders. They, too, would fly all around the porch and through it, coming amazingly close to people's heads. The only difference was that it was dark.
I think bats are absolutely fantastic; they're like birds with fur! And they eat mosquitoes! (Well, these particular bats eat nectar, but my goodwill for their insectivorous cousins transfers to them). Some guests were less enthusiastic about having so many bats around, but most of them got over their anti-bat feelings when they saw the bats drinking from the feeders. One memorable night, there seemed to be way more bats than usual. They came in droves, seemingly crazed by the sugar water, and they completely ignored us; we could stand by the railing right next to the feeder and they would still come. We shone a flashlight on the feeder to see them better, and still, they came. Eventually they began to land on the red, flower-shaped feeder ports of some of the feeders, and you could see their little arms aligned along the edges of the ports as they bent their heads to the nectar.
The bats never stayed long at the feeder; each drink lasted a split second, and then they were gone. It was hard to see them properly. It became a challenge among the guests to get the best photo of the bats. Lots of beautiful photos of the hummingbird feeders, sans bats, resulted. This was my best shot.
The Belize Zoo
I am not a zoo person; it bothers me to see wild animals living in small enclosures. The Belize Zoo was an exception. Yes, it was still a zoo; there were still cages; the birds still couldn't fly free. But the Belize Zoo does a couple things really well that I have not seen at other zoos.
First, all of the animals at the Belize Zoo are native to Belize. This means that they are living in the climate they are naturally adapted for. It also means that tourists and Belizeans alike are getting to know the fauna of the country they are in, instead of coming to gawk at exotic species out of their natural habitats. The Belize Zoo does lots of outreach, and they have a big focus on teaching Belizeans about their natural heritage, instilling pride in them, and encouraging a conservation mindset.
The second thing that sets the Belize Zoo apart is that most or all of its animals were rescued; either they were orphaned or injured in the wild, or they were illegally kept as pets, or they were used in movies and are too tame to be released. It is still sad that these things happened to the animals in the first place, but at least the zoo keepers didn't go pluck animals out of the wild for the sole purpose of putting them on display.
Third, it's cool to walk around the Belize Zoo because of how integrated it seems with the nature around it. Trees grow in between the enclosures, and walking along the paths feels almost like walking in the forest. People go birding at the zoo, which seems like cheating until you realize that there are many birds to look at that aren't part of the exhibits. The Zoo is one of the top eBird hotspots in the area. My two checklists are here and here, and they don't include any of the captive birds. They do include a Black-throated Blue Warbler, which eBird flagged as rare for that date and location. Who knew?
Vicki, the owner of Pook's Hill, has a fantastic moth light. Mounted on a tripod in front of white sheet on one of the few dry nights, the light would attract an amazing number and variety of moths. I know next to nothing about moths, and I have my work cut out for me learning birds without getting into moth ID. But I do think they are beautiful. If anyone wants to take a shot at identifying these, go ahead!
Overheard in the Pook's Hill office
Guest: Excuse me, do you have a protocol for dealing with scorpions?
PH Staff: Well, we usually just move them outside. Do you have one in your room?
Guest: Well, I already brought it outside. Just wanted to check that that was the right thing to do. Thank you!
Apparently Pook's Hill does offer complimentary scorpion removal services for guests less animal-savvy than this one.
Mammals without wings
Belize has all sorts of cool mammals. A lot of them are nocturnal, and even the diurnal ones are skittish, so they tend to be less visible than the birds. But I did have a few cool mammal encounters.
Coatis (also known as coatimundis), are a raccoon-like mammal with a long tail found in Central and South America. They climb trees, using their tails for balance, and they travel in large groups. On a few of my walks through the jungle, if I was moving very quietly, I would come upon a group of coatis foraging in the underbrush on the forest floor. If I stood still and quiet, they often would not notice me. Sometimes the group would be in the process of crossing the trail. I would watch as adult after adult came across, their long tails sticking straight up into the air. Then there would be a short pause, and then some much smaller baby coatis would scamper across to catch up.
Eventually, I would sneeze or swat a mosquito, or the wind would change, and the coatis would see or smell me. And then, oh my goodness, the squeakings and snufflings that went on! Up into the trees they would go, one after another, wheezing and chirping and making all sorts of alarmed movements. Then they would sit on branches and vines, watching me. It was always such a delight to find them.
The animal below is a tapir, also known as a "mountain cow," and it is the national animal of Belize.
One day, as I was walking by the river, I came upon a trail of tapir tracks deeply embedded in the sand. From the different sizes of the tracks, it looked like a mama tapir had walked here with her baby. Vicki has many cement casts of tracks on display at Pook's Hill, and she is always excited to find new tracks, so she set me up with some cement, and I and a visiting biologist and one of the managers went to fill the tracks. The video below is of me filling one of the tracks. Video creds to Mison Ferguson, manager at Pook's Hill and budding cinematographer!
The trail cameras that I was responsible for were another way to observe mammals that wouldn't let themselves be seen. Every week was like a treasure hunt when uploaded the pictures from each camera onto the computer. We had coatimundis, agoutis, lots of gibnuts (a large rodent that sort of looks like a cross between a pig and a guinea pig), and a few armadillos, mice-opossums, and skunks. We also had an ocelot (!) that would appear on one of the cameras almost every week. One week, it came right up to the camera and sniffed it. I wondered how many times the ocelot had been hiding right near me as I walked, fully aware of my presence, when I had no idea it was there.
Other visitors to my room
As I brought my suitcase into my room on the first night in Belize, I was greeted by a remarkably large millipede on the floor under my bed. I think millipedes are cool, so I bent closer to examine it. It noticed my movement and curled into a tight ball. The extremely large spider (maybe a small tarantula?) next to it that I hadn't seen also noticed my movement and scuttled across the floor, inches under my nose. Removed the millipede from the room with a cup and a piece of paper. Removed the tarantula from the room by opening the door, sitting on the bed and waiting for it to find its own way out.
The next night, I noticed some hairy legs poking out of the drain in the ground outside my door. But the tarantula never came back into the room. That I knew of.
A Close Call
Two owls began to call from the trees on the edge of the clearing. I heard them from the main porch at Pook's Hill and jumped up. I was determined to record an owl before I left Belize, and these were the first owls I had heard since I got there. So naturally, my recording equipment was put away neatly after a day of use.
I ran the hundred yards up the hill to my room and arrived panting. I strapped on the recorder and headphones and ran back down to where the owls were, thankfully, still calling. It was pitch black and I couldn't see them, but there were definitely two; they called back and forth in a lovely duet. The best place to record from turned out to be in a grassy area near some parked cars, not far from the house where the kitchen staff and some of the guides lived. I approached as close to the trees as possible and recorded, cursing the noise from a nearby generator and from the insects, which were deafening at night.
Here is the recording I made, edited only slightly, of the two Black-and-White Owls.
The grass was wet from a rain shower a few hours before, and as I walked through the grass in my flip flops, my toes got damp and chilly. Earlier in the day, I had been properly dressed in a quick-dry shirt, field pants, and hiking boots, but it was almost time for dinner and I had already taken a shower and changed into comfy clothes. Hence the flip flops. I was absolutely not dressed for the field, so I was thankful that the owls had so cooperatively called from right near my room. I could just stand on the nice, safe, mowed grass in my flip flops, no trail walking necessary.
The owls stopped calling and I returned to the porch to socialize with guests. One of the guides, Mario, appeared, in a hurry and with a frightened look on his face. All talking stopped. He showed us a picture he had taken just moments ago of a Fer-de-lance snake, which he had found on the ground. Right next to the stairs to his room. Right near where I had been standing to record the owls. In flip flops.
[Follow-up and clarifications: they killed the snake. As a general rule, snakes found at Pook's Hill are left alone, and if this one had been found on a trail in the jungle, it would not have been killed. Since it was found so close to the staff house, right where people walked every day, they felt it was too dangerous to leave it alone. Fer-de-lance bites are extremely dangerous and definitely fatal if not treated promptly. However, Pook's Hill has an antivenom kit, and there is a hospital eight miles away. After this, I stopped wearing flip flops anywhere except on the porch and on the road, and always with a flashlight.]
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Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.