A couple months ago, one friend asked for my help identifying a bird he had seen. "Blue on the top, white belly, white stripe along the wings, a bit lighter around the eyes," he said. I asked him how big it was: "Was it bigger than a robin?" and found out that he didn't know what a robin was. I realized I'd have to back up a little bit.
We eventually figured out that his bird was a Blue Jay, but I was surprised by how long it had taken me to get there. For starters, when he said "blue," my mind immediately jumped to birds like the White-breasted Nuthatch and Black-throated Blue Warbler, which are more blue-gray than blue.
A Blue Jay is really, truly blue, but it's a bird I'm so familiar with that it almost didn't occur to me as a possibility. Then, when my friend looked closely at the photo of a Blue Jay I sent him, and said he wasn't sure that was his bird because he didn't remember it having black on the wings like the bird in the photo. I realized I didn't know how to respond. If size, shape, behavior, and general color pattern pointed to a Blue Jay, I wouldn't look farther. I had never stopped to consider the details of Blue Jay plumage.
This conversation made me realize that I needed to step back a little and think about how I identify birds, and that I also wanted to help beginning birders learn to see the bird's most important features more quickly. This idea lay dormant for a while, until I was asked to write a bird identification pamphlet for Pook's Hill Lodge, where I was staying in Belize. I wasn't trying to write a field guide: I'm not that good, and besides, a wonderful field guide to the birds of Belize already exists (if you're going to Belize, this book is necessary!) Instead, I tried to create an introduction to birding, using examples of birds found at Pook's Hill, so that visitors, intrigued by the beautiful birds around them, could make a start at knowing what they were seeing.
I owe a lot of credit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on this one: the basic layout of my guide is based on their "Bird ID Skills" series, which focuses on similar features of birds to those that I wrote about and goes into a lot more depth than I was able to do. I would also like to thank H. Lee Jones, for writing such an incredible and comprehensive field guide, and Dana Gardner, whose illustrations in Birds of Belize provided the references for my own drawings.
That said, here is my bird guide. Read from left to right across the rows, from the top row to the bottom row.
Eventually you guys are going to figure out that this "Part 1" thing is a clever trick to get you to keep reading. But I promise there will be a part 2 to the food post eventually, and there will definitely be a Belize, Part 2, since I have a lot to write about.
From November 12th to December 12th, I was in Belize, staying at Pook's Hill Lodge. That's in the Cayo district of Belize, which is inland and pretty much centered North/South. Here's a map. The red star is the approximate location of Pook's Hill. It's about eight miles (very long miles, through the jungle and over an extremely bumpy dirt road) from Belmopan, the capital, and about two miles from the village of Teakettle.
Belize is a small country on the eastern coast of Central America. It's bordered to the West and South by Guatemala, to the East by the Caribbean Sea, and to the North by Mexico. As of 2014, Belize had a population of about 340,000. In terms of land area, it's about the same size as Massachusetts, whose population in 2014 was almost twenty times that of Belize. As you can see from the map above, Belize's villages and towns are largely tightly clustered together along the main roads, and there are large expanses of land that are extremely sparsely populated. As a result, much of Belize remains wild, and the country is quite progressive in terms of environmental legislation and conservationism, although it still faces problems from poaching, logging, and development.
I went to Belize mostly for the birds, and the bird diversity there is stunning. The country has about 600 species of birds, in part because it has a wide range of habitat types, from cloud forest and montane coniferous forest to mangroves on the coast and subtropical broadleaf forest inland.
I did find birds. Here's a picture of one of them, a female White-whiskered Puffbird that posed nicely in a tree near my room one morning.
But before I dive into the bird stuff, I want to talk a bit more generally about Belize and what I was doing there.
I was staying at Pook's Hill as a volunteer, which means that in exchange for staying there, I helped out around the lodge with whatever projects were going on. On the best days, this meant leading guests on bird walks. A lot of people come to Pook's Hill to watch birds, since the lodge sits on a large nature reserve and almost 300 species have been documented there. But many of the people came were just beginning to look at birds. It gave me so much joy to introduce them to some of the magnificent birds at Pook's Hill. It was even better because I was learning at the same time. Sometimes we'd run across something that I didn't recognize, and then the fun was in looking it up in the guidebook and figuring it out together.
Most mornings, if I wasn't birding with guests, I went out on my own walks to record bird songs and calls with equipment that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology lent me for the trip. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an online archive of natural sounds, called the Macaulay Library, and they've recently linked it to eBird. Now every recording that someone submits becomes its own "digital specimen"––with details about location, time, date, recording equipment, species, age, sex, behavior, and other information pertinent to the recording. And all these recordings are available for free, as an increasingly valuable archive to be used for fun, for education, or for science and research.
I'm going to write more about the audio recordings later, but as a teaser, here are a few checklists that I've already uploaded audio to.
As I mentioned, many of the guests who come to Pook's Hill lodge either aren't birders or know only a little about birds. But for many of them, coming to a tropical place full of bright, colorful birds is inspiring, and they want to learn more. So one of my other projects while I was in Belize was to write and illustrate a pamphlet designed for the beginning birder. I wrote about how to look at birds, focusing on color pattern, shape, size, and behavior, and I tried my hand at drawing birds, which is something I hadn't really done before.
I plan to post the pamphlet here as soon as I can get it into a format that will make sense to view online, but again, here's a teaser. The illustrations are mostly in black and white, but I did this Keel-billed Toucan in color because really, how could you not draw a toucan in color?
Every Sunday, I'd take a break from recording and bird walks and pamphlet-making, because Sunday was trail cam day. As part of a study by a student at the University of Southampton, Pook's Hill has been managing six motion-activated trail cameras. The object of the study is to obtain a census of animals, particularly mammals, that are using the human-created trails, with the ultimate aim being to determine the extent to which human activity on the trails (or tourism in general) affects these creatures. So every Sunday I would hike out to collect the cameras, come back to the office to offload any pictures that had been taken that week, and then hike back out to replace the cameras on various trees along the trails.
It rained on and off for most of the time that I was in Belize, so these hikes meant a lot of mud and a lot of mosquitoes. (Eventually I decided I'd prefer the heat to the mosquito bites, and so I hiked in long sleeves and long pants). But it was well worth it, because trail cameras offer an incredible opportunity to "see" wildlife that's otherwise too reclusive or too nocturnal to find. Almost every week, we would have a photo or two of an ocelot on the cameras. We also got great looks at Great Curassows, Great Tinamous, and a Blue-crowned Motmot, which are all birds that are quite hard to see normally––it took me until my very last day to see a Curassow with my own eyes, and even then it was only a brief flash of feathers on the path in front of me. There were so many other animals, too, and it was a wonderful reminder of all the wild things living right next to us.
The most thrilling parts of looking at the trail cameras came when we looked at the time stamps on the images: in a few cases, the camera took a picture of an ocelot or a group of coatimundis just minutes or an hour after a hiker had passed by. When I walked the trails myself, it made me wonder what was watching me.
The picture above shows my other ongoing project at Pook's Hill: replacing and repainting signs for an "arboretum trail," a sort of self-guided interpretive nature walk. Several years ago, a group of botanists created this trail, posting signs at the base of certain trees along a small stretch of trail and preparing a booklet with more information about each of the tree species. But when I got there, many of the signs were overgrown or missing. So I created new ones! These signs have just been painted and outlined and are waiting to be attached to their posts.
I had fun with these signs: I got to learn the names and uses of some of the trees, including Mahogany (the national tree of Belize), Red Gumbolimbo (often called the "tourist tree" because of its peeling red bark, which is thought to have evolved as a defense against climbing vines), and the Rubber Tree (whose sap really does make rubber––the ancient Maya used it to make rubber balls for their games). I also learned how to use a power saw and re-taught myself how to use a drill (which was made substantially more difficult by the fact that the two pieces of wood I was screwing together were joined at a 45-degree angle and could not be laid flat. Hence the cinder block in the picture).
When I wasn't hiking or sawing or birding, I observed lots of cool critters (lizards, howler monkeys, large spiders, geckos on the ceiling, leaf cutter ants, you name it), and got to visit some maya ruins. I made chocolate, held a boa constrictor (at the zoo), touched a boa constrictor (in the wild), and got hit by a bat (the flying kind, not the baseball kind). I also got to meet some fantastic people and see a little bit of Belize, which is an unusually diverse country, in terms of both the people and the flora and fauna.
Now I'm back, and I miss everything but the mosquitoes. Here are a few more pictures, and there's more to come, I promise.
A striped basilisk, also known as a "Jesus Christ lizard" because they can run across water. These little basilisks were absolutely everywhere, especially on sunny days when they liked to sun themselves on rocks along the road. They never failed to make me smile, with their ridiculously long tails and toes. They also have an uncanny ability to stand completely motionless; you can't even see them breathing.
Jump to a Post
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.