Life List Birding

Jabiru Stork by Richard Kostocke - La Paz Group

Jabiru stork taking flight from the Blue Creek rice fields, Orange Walk District, Belize

The name “Jabiru” is derived from the Tupi–Guarani family of languages from South America and means “swollen neck”; an apt description. This is the tallest flying bird in South and Central America and is second in wingspan (excluding pelagic flyers like albatross) only to the Andean Condor.  This denizen of wetland habitats is a voracious, opportunistic forager on a wide variety of animal matter, living or dead.  Needless to say, an impressive bird and I was ecstatic to see it!

It was past the mid-point of our Belize vacation, and as good and enjoyable as the birding had been, life birds (new species that I had never seen before) were fewer and farther between than I had anticipated/hoped.  I guess that was to be expected given that I have visited the Neotropics several times previously.  I had already seen many of the common, easy, widespread species (e.g., many if not most of the hummingbirds, parrots, motmots, etc.) that make birders new to the Neotropics giddy.  After talking to the local guides, apparently most of my desired life birds were the tough ones (hard to find, rare, skulky, etc.).  As I went through my list of target birds, they just kind of smiled and shook their heads. Continue reading

That Thing About Uber

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For what it is worth, a confession. I deleted this app with the intent to never use it again, and then I switched to this one. That felt good. Then last week I was up in the mountains of Escazu, in Costa Rica, and I had to change my mind. At 3:30 a.m. a local taxi driver who was supposed to pick me up to take me to the airport did not show up. After a few minutes I finally relented and downloaded the app I had deleted. And something unexpected, something very good happened. Continue reading

Laying Eyes on the Ocellated Turkey

Ocellated Turkey Details Photo Credits: TL: Leander Khil, TR: Seth Inman, BL & BR: Richard Kostecke

When we first met recent guest (and now contributor) Richard Kostecke at Chan Chich Lodge he shared that the Ocellated Turkey was a life list bird for him. Like many birders we’ve met here, he was thrilled by the fact that this near-threatened species is so prevalent around the lodge and throughout our 30,000 acres.

This is especially true during the past several months, when we see the parades of chicks running behind the attendant adults throughout the property.

As a parting gift Richard had sent us a link about the species from Cool Green Science, a site we frequent ourselves.

Found only on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) certainly bears a resemblance to the American wild turkey.

But it’s a different species. It is smaller and lacks the “beard” typical of the more familiar wild turkey. Its mating call is higher pitched than the usual “gobble.” The most striking difference, though, is the color.

The vibrant, almost unreal color: iridescent feathers, large spots on the tail, a bright red ring around the eye and a blue head covered with red and yellow nodules (nodules that swell and become brighter in males during the breeding season).

It’s a turkey as conceived by Dr. Seuss. Or perhaps Alexis Rockman. Continue reading

Early Classic Period Puzzles

Early Classic Period Polychrome Vessels

Almost from its inception there have been archaeological studies of the Maya sites at Chan Chich by nature of the lodge’s stated purpose to protect the area from further lootering. Professor Thomas Guderjan lead some of the early field seasons (1988 and 1990) studying the Maya Settlements in Northern Belize. At that time, the two Dos-Arroyos Polychrome Vessels illustrated above were some of the only artifacts found on site, but the subsequent seasons, spanning close to 20 years at this point, have yielded extensive data and additional artifacts.

These two vessels remain on display in the restaurant area at Chan Chich Lodge. Although both had been repaired by Guderjan’s team, the one on the left had broken over the years. Just before this season’s team fully dispersed, I took the opportunity to request some puzzle practice.  Continue reading

The Technological Wow Factor of Archaeology

Crist’s post about this fascinating National Geographic article last week touched on its excellent graphics but barely began to scratch the surface of the amazing technology that would certainly have left the readers of the early issues of the magazine speechless.

In addition to the world-class photography, the interactive 3-D graphic of the frieze above uses SketchFab technology to allow viewers to not only zoom in and out, but to turn the object around in all directions, as if handling it in person. Do take the time to play with it! Continue reading

A Fitting Celebration Of Henry David Thoreau’s Bicentennial

Today marks the birthday noted here, and I have just read another excellent essay marking the occasion. It happens to coincide with receiving a couple of excellent photographs from Richard Kostecke, a recent guest of Chan Chich Lodge who will soon be a contributor to this site. I’m confident the birthday celebrant would appreciate both the photos and the person. I am mixing things up a bit by sharing these photos with the essay, but I hope the point will be well taken:

Six years before he moved to Walden Pond in 1845 to ponder life and live deliberately, Henry David Thoreau spent two weeks canoeing rivers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The voyage was an epiphany for him. Continue reading

Come Back To Belize, Meg Lowman!

We have mentioned Meg more than once since we met her a few years ago, because our interests are aligned. Thanks to this public radio station for reminding me that Meg is due for a visit to Belize (I say wishfully) for a 20-years later discovery trip, and we will be happy to see her at Chan Chich Lodge when the time comes:

megmalaysiaFor over 30 years, Dr. Meg Lowman –Canopy Meg, has designed hot-air balloons and walkways for treetop exploration to solve mysteries in the world’s forests, especially insect pests and ecosystem health. Meg is affectionately called the mother Continue reading

Keeping Species Populations Healthy

 

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Lion cubs in Kenya. Radu Sigheti / Reuters

At Chan Chich Lodge we are aware that the half million acres of forest surrounding us are essential habitat not just for the specific jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays and jaguarundis we have the good fortune to see with some frequency. Rather, that scale of acreage is essential for species survival. We are in a large forest corridor that is increasingly rare and unfortunately fragile in other locations throughout the Americas where they still exist. We do what we do with that in mind. Thanks to Ed Yong, at the Atlantic, for this context on extinction:

Imagine if every animal and plant on the planet collapsed into a single population each, says ecologist Gerardo Ceballos. If lions disappeared except from one small corner of Kenya, the prey they keep in check would run amok everywhere else. If sparrows were no more except in one Dutch forest, the seeds that sparrows disperse would stay in place everywhere else. If honeybees became isolated to one American meadow, the flowers that they pollinate would fail to reproduce everywhere else. None of those species would be extinct per se, “but we’d still be in very bad shape,” says Ceballos. Continue reading

Walking In Wildness, For The Sake Of The World

PreservationThis book to the left, first published the year I was born, was always on the coffee table in the home I grew up in. I have mentioned a high school exposure to Walden–the writing, the place, the idea–and I have been thinking about that recently as I ponder Chan Chich Lodge’s own little aquatic wonder. Thinking, of course, while walking, frequently encountering living relics of prehistoric wildness on those walks. Douglas Brinkley’s tribute to the legacy of Thoreau–the walker, thinker, writer, conservationist–as we approach the bicentennial of his birth a few days from now, is perfectly timed: Continue reading

Snake Kings And Other Discoveries

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CALAKMUL In the seventh century A.D. the Snake rulers presided over this capital city—in what today is southern Mexico—and its largest structure, a pyramid 180 feet tall. From Calakmul they managed an intricate web of alliances. CONSEJO NACIONAL PARA LA CULTURA Y LAS ARTES (CONACULTA), INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGÍA E HISTORIA (INAH), MEXICO

Discoveries in the lands once populated by the Maya continue apace. As Chan Chich Lodge completes three decades of archeological exploration, the wonders of three millennia are uncovered. The stories that capture my interest the most, related to the Maya, are about the man-nature relationship.

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JEROME COOKSON, NG STAFF
SOURCE: DAVID FREIDEL, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS

Erik Vance published this story last year, and when I read it then I remember thinking that it was the best article I had ever read in National Geographic. Partly, the graphics are better, if that is possible, than the typically excellent quality the magazine is known for. Also, the topic is more topical for me now. Chan Chich Lodge is situated exactly where the o in Holmul is on the map to the left. The lodge’s Maya foundations are situated at the periphery of where the snake kings once ruled.

And we now have an ethnobotanical initiative linking Maya foodways to our surrounding nature conservation. That initiative is linked to the lodge’s food program, with some high expectations related to our abundant forests. But mainly, with regard to this article, the writing illuminating the topic is excellent:

…Two warring city-states were locked in perennial conflict, grappling for supremacy. For a brief period one of those city-states prevailed and became the closest thing to an empire in Maya history. It was ruled by the Snake kings of the Kaanul dynasty, which until just a few decades ago no one even knew existed. Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings…

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Masks from the tombs at Calakmul were meant to ease the passage of the Snake elite into the next world. Royal visages made of green jade, more valuable than gold to the ancient Maya, evoked the annual agricultural cycle and regeneration. CONACULTA, INAH, MEXICO (BOTH) PHOTOGRAPHED AT (LEFT TO RIGHT): NATIONAL PALACE, MEXICO CITY; MUSEO DE SITIO DE COMALCALCO, MEXICO

Understanding Tapir

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Fossils of Macrauchenia patachonica, as depicted in this artist’s reconstruction, baffled Darwin. The odd mammals disappeared about 12,000 years ago. Credit Jorge Blanco

I am sure I remember seeing these in my childhood collection of books with pictures of prehistoric creatures. Like many boys, the saber-tooth tiger was a favorite, which may explain my preoccupation with the big cats at Chan Chich Lodge. When you favor cats, you get to know their diet, so creatures like these in the image above were also among those I was fascinated by, which would explain why the tapir I have seen in the forests surrounding Chan Chich are among my lifetime favorite wild animal sightings. Thanks to Steph Yin for this story:

Strange Mammals That Stumped Darwin Finally Find a Home

It looked like many different animals and, at the same time, like no other animal at all.

From afar, you might think it was a large, humpless camel. Tall, stout legs ending in rhino feet carried a body weight potentially equal to that of a small car. Its neck stretched like a giraffe’s before giving way to a face resembling a saiga antelope’s. From this face extended a fleshy protuberance, similar to a mini elephant trunk or a tapir’s proboscis. Continue reading

Yellow-bellied Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco

 

On a trip to Acadia National Park, I photographed this unusual  Dark-eyed Junco. It had a very distinct yellow belly and yellow up into the chest.  I showed the photo to the Park Ornithologist, Seth Benz, and he had this to say about it.

“It is an oddly colored Dark-eyed Junco. The yellowish underside is unusual.
I don’t know of anyone marking juncos using picric acid (which turns white feathers yellow).

Continue reading

Rich Versus Ostentatious

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Ocellated turkey / Pfauentruthuhn (Meleagris ocellata) | Detail of the side of a male individual.

I am not even a novice birder, which is strange considering that my work is primarily dedicated to birders. But birds are well placed in the pantheon of natural wonders that I worship, and a photo that I just received from a recent guest of Chan Chich Lodge (a photo similar to the one above, which I have commented on before) helps explain why. During seven years in India, where the peacock is the national bird and so is in its natural habitat, I got accustomed to their ostentatious display.

Peacocks are often awkward animals, noisy and bumbly in places and at times (as when in the habitat of tigers) I have wished for silence. Those otherwise annoying behaviors are compensated for by their plumes. The colors in the image above, belonging to the ocellated turkey, are rich but only during mating would these birds ever be described as ostentatious. The more time I spend in Belize, and specifically at Chan Chich Lodge, the more I see the beauty in humble display of rich color.

Suddenly, Lyft

Lyft1.jpgWhen I decided to delete that app it was without hesitation. I wanted to avoid sanctimony, but the point of making a show of my resolve was a simple message, i.e. that manners matter. Even though that app had been extremely useful to me over the past year, it was not so useful that I could ignore its founder’s behavior once I finally paid attention.

So now I am paying attention, and need a new app. And where better to start looking? I liked the message of that story, for reasons akin to my boyhood preference for Bjorn Borg over John McEnroe. I believe in disruption and I believe in winning, but if one is going to develop new rules of the game, then they should definitely be better rules that lead to better behavior. Continue reading

Maps, Walking & Health

Emily has been reworking the maps for nine miles of walking trails surrounding Chan Chich Lodge. On a typical day I walk 45 minutes at dawn, and 45 minutes at dusk and I have tended to stay on the same trail for the last year. Now I am looking forward to the various loops I had not yet wandered onto, and checking the maps. I tend to believe in the link between nature and health, and especially when walking is involved the benefits are a broader form of wellbeing. Gretchen Reynolds, writing the Phys Ed column for the New York Times has this to say:

For Exercise, Nothing Like the Great Outdoors

Long walks can improve moods and reduce anxiety, but the benefits may be greatest if the walks take place outdoors rather than in a gym, according to a new study by researchers in Austria. And while the Alps may be a particularly fine place to hike, a vigorous walk in the woods or paths near home may provide the mental boost we need to keep us moving.

We all know, by now, that for optimal health, we need to move. Continue reading

Elevating the Food Program

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This week, I have been assisting Amie with a kitchen renovation plan. This feeds into one of the 2017 goals of Chan Chich- to elevate the food and beverage program by taking inspiration from traditional Caribbean, Belizean and Mayan foodways, creating a cuisine that we’re fondly calling Mayan Soul Food. The improved agricultural practices and updated kitchen are important building blocks to achieve these goals. Emily is mainly working on the agricultural side, communicating with colleagues at Gallon Jug farm to better align their supply with the Lodge’s demand.

Between dining hours, I have been asking Chef Ram the minutest details about refrigerators and convection ovens and walking the kitchen to measure every wall and shelf. Currently, I am creating a 2D diagram of the proposed kitchen in SketchUp, a modeling software used for drafting construction and architectural drawings, that will help Chan Chich Lodge form a stronger argument for a kitchen renovation and to create a visual to reference throughout the process.  Continue reading

Adapting to Change

The jungle is constantly changing. Large mammals break through low growing plants, fungi break down fallen material, and birds, insects, and monkeys are constantly roaming about the canopy.

The most recent edition of the Chan Chich trail map was produced in 2006. However, since then, the wildlife has continued to go about its business making small modifications to the landscape over the past eleven years. Not to mention, the occasional tree fall from storm interrupting the balance. As a result, because of the organic, unpredictable movement of nature, this map isn’t as accurate as it was a decade ago. Now, Alana and I undertaking the task of updating the maps to reflect how the trails look now.

Continue reading

Deleting Uber

Uber.jpgShame on me for waiting until today to finally do it. I started hearing one year ago from friends and family about why they had decided to stop using Uber. But Uber was just then ramping up in Kerala, India and I found it compelling enough to abandon car ownership. When I saw the details recently on what a creep Uber’s founder and largest shareholder is, that should have been enough. But, it was this article that finally compelled me. Thanks to the New York Times reporter Kevin Roose for the perspective:

As Uber Stumbles, Lyft Sees an Opening, and Bites Its Tongue

It has been a rough, scandal-filled year for Uber. But don’t expect John Zimmer, Lyft’s president, to gloat about his competitor’s misfortunes. Continue reading

Archaeology Lab 101

Much of the scientific rigor involved in archaeology is related to the careful documentation of what often appears to be a proverbial needle in a haystack: tiny flakes of chert stone, potsherds, or obsidian can be found in the layers (or lots) of a dig unit.

In this tropical environment we’re dealing with wet, loamy earth, so those stone or pottery fragments are frequently covered in mud, and who better to clean much of these items than interested novices. Continue reading

Recipe For Reconciliation

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Anthony Blair Dreaver Johnston, a Mistawasis Nehiyawak elder, works closely with the university to advise on indigenous matters. Credit Cole Burston for The New York Times

The New World, as the Americas are often called, was new to the Europeans–aka explorers, pilgrims, pioneers, settlers, colonialists, conquistadors–but of course was the long time homeland to a diverse mix of indigenous people from the very north of the hemisphere all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. Continue reading