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

Conservation Via Valuation

When we consider that cat sightings play an important role in why our guests come to Chan Chich Lodge, this type of valuation is something we can get behind whole heartedly. Thanks again to the Anthropocene for this interesting piece of daily science. And thanks again to Panthera.org for their role in the research.

The lesson of the $300,000 bobcat

What is a bobcat worth? There’s a few ways of thinking about that question. One answer, of course, is that a bobcat’s value is intrinsic, their lives not something to signify with a price tag. Fair enough. But for the sake of discussion, and because there’s already a market for their hides, let’s run the math: in the state of Wyoming, a bobcat is worth roughly $300 dead and up to $308,000 alive. And in that vast difference is a tension — some would call it a flaw — in the way these marvelous cats, and many other species too, are presently managed in North America.

The calculations come from a study recently published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation. Led by Mark Elbroch, a biologist with Panthera, the wild cat conservation organization, and also featuring researchers from wildlife advocacy group Wyoming Untrapped, the researchers totaled the revenues generated in 2015-2016 from selling trapping licenses in that state — $152,000 — and divided them by 1,160 bobcats killed, then added the average sale value of pelts. The final per-bobcat value came to $315.17.

Then Elbroch’s team turned to the example of a bobcat living along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park, where his predilection for hunting waterfowl made him popular among wildlife lovers. They surveyed 46 photographers who traveled to Wyoming in winter 2015-2016 and the outfitters who guided them. Between outfitters’ fees, money spent on food, lodging and travel, and revenues from selling pictures, the bobcat generated $308,105, or a thousand-fold increase from his worth as a source of fur alone.

The researchers don’t argue that every living bobcat in Wyoming is worth more than $300,000.

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

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

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.

Archaeology in Miniature

After spending a few days participating in the 2017 CCAP dig I went to visit the lab where the artifacts are cleaned, sorted and tagged. While Phil and I were doing the most basic work, Tomás and Mnemo were carefully cleaning out a burial pot that had been found in the chamber next to our new unit.

Using dental implements and small wooden sculpture tools, they were essentially repeating the process that we’d begun in our unit a few days earlier – carefully excavating the packed earth layer by layer – albeit in miniature. 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.

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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

Getting Your Archaeological Feet Wet

Day #2 at CCAP began with the same sense of camaraderie as Day #1 as we continued the process of clearing out topsoil, clipping roots, hauling soil and stone, and yes, working on walls. Each conversation with the team was informative, as we discussed the upcoming step of closing out the “lot” we’d started and opening the next one of the unit – basically as we approached the change-over of levels for the precise documentation required at an archaeological dig.

We were quite close to that point when we stopped work for lunch, returning with high energy to move on to the next stage. But it’s green season in Belize, and Mother Nature had other plans for the day. Continue reading

A Day In the Life of the Chan Chich Archaeological Project

When Crist wrote about the Chan Chich Archaeological Project in April it was in anticipation of the group’s arrival. Now that we’re several weeks in I’ve had the opportunity to assist them first hand, in part as a “guinea pig” for guest involvement as citizen science participants. Fellow contributor Phil Karp (a veteran of many citizen science programs) was enthusiastically up  for the experience as well.

The team of archaeologists and field school students, led by Texas Tech University associate professor Dr. Brett Houk, is studying the ancient Maya at Chan Chich and surrounding sites. Several weeks into their dig they’ve made significant progress, and they gamely accepted the challenge of taking novices into their ranks.

We began at the beginning, well known to be the very best place to start, with a new “lot” located next to a well-established excavated area. Continue reading

Night Vision

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After my first few nights at Chan Chich, I quickly learned that the jungle activity changes a bit in the night time. Bats swoop through the air, the sounds of howler monkeys reverberate off of the trees, and cane toads hop across my path.

So of course, when the opportunity arose to go on a night ride I was eager to see what would be in store for me. While I knew it would be foolish to hope for a jaguar sighting, I set out taking comfort in the fact that at least my chances would be higher than if I had stayed in for the night. What I didn’t count on, however, was my inherently poor ability to spot wildlife in the darkness.

Continue reading

Some Science On Ramon

RamSci1Ramón and Maya Ruins: An Ecological, not an Economic, Relation

 J. D. H. Lambert and J. T. Arnason
Science

New Series, Vol. 216, No. 4543 (Apr. 16, 1982), pp. 298-299

RamSci2Observations on Maya Subsistence and the Ecology of a Tropical Tree

Charles M. Peters
American Antiquity
Vol. 48, No. 3 (Jul., 1983), pp. 610-615
We have a sizable team, including our staff members of Maya heritage as well as those who know the forest ecology as part of their work, plus two summer interns, a chef, and a design director among others–all looking into this tree and its fruit. These journal articles, less dry than some academia and fresher than their age would suggest were brought to my attention by Nicoletta Maestri who I thank for the article below. For my team mates and me this is food for thought on our path to determining how this tree, introduced millennia ago by Mayans, plays into the future of Chan Chich Lodge:

Brosimum Alicastrum, The Ancient Maya Breadnut Tree

Did the Maya Build Forests of Breadnut Trees?

The breadnut tree (Brosimum alicastrum) is an important species of tree that grows in the wet and dry tropical forests of Mexico and Central America, as well as in the Caribbean Islands. Also known as the ramón tree, asli or Cha Kook in the Mayan language, the breadnut tree usually grows in regions that are between 300 and 2,000 meters (1,000-6,500 feet) above sea level. The fruits have a small, elongated shape, similar to apricots, although they are not particularly sweet. Continue reading

Laguna Seca

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Yesterday afternoon, Emily and I went on a walk at Laguna Seca with Luis, the nature guide who picked me up from the airport on the first day. This experience is one of many guided walks offered at Chan Chich Lodge.

The tour started as soon as we hopped into the truck. Throughout the 25-minute drive to Laguna Seca, Luis would stop whenever he saw a bird among the trees along the road. He would intricately describe what and where he was looking, because to the untrained eye, it seemed like he stopped the vehicle for no reason.

How he can spot an olive-colored parakeet in olive-colored vegetation in his peripheral vision I will never know, but he – along with the several other guides at Chan Chich – offers an invaluable skill to the property and the nature surrounding it.  Continue reading

Graduation Day in Sylvester Village

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Earlier this week I did something that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated would be part of my Chan Chich experience: I attended a primary school graduation.

Sylvester Village is a community where employees of Chan Chich and Gallon Jug Farm live with their families. The Casey Community School is where many of the village’s children go for their first years of education. As one might imagine, the school is not very big. In fact, this year the school only had one kindergartner. Growing up in suburban America, this was very different from my early education which had about 24 kids in a first grade class with multiple classes per grade. However, perhaps the biggest difference from my experience was the school’s emphasis on community.

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