Last September, Nick Brokaw invited me to visit his field site in La Milpa Belize to help him with some of his field work. I quickly blocked out the dates in my schedule at that time and took the steps to make it possible (booked a flight etc.). Graciously, Nick invited to cover all my expenses for the ~2 week stay (I guess in exchange for my help in the field). For that, I am eternally grateful. Here I document the journey with a personal journal. It is my pleasure to share this you, and I hope you enjoy. Comments are welcomed at the bottom of the post.
Nick has been working in Belize since the late 1980's. He established a series of 4 1-ha transects in differing forest types, with the objective of capturing the variation in environment (i.e. topography and soil conditions) and vegetation community composition and structure that is present in the Rio Bravo conservation area. I invite you to check out his website: ecologynwbelize.org. Below, I also point you to two documents he has written on the area: 1) Environment and Vegetation of La Milpa, Rio Bravo, Belize (left), where he explains the environmental variation in the area and how that relates to differences in forest structure and diversity, and 2) Trees of La Milpa (right), Nick's field guide to aid in the identification of common canopy trees of the area.
Day 1 - 2/20/2019
I emerged from the plane out to a small airport with no skybridges or formal gates; exactly what I expected. The temperature was warm, the humidity was lower than I had experienced earlier in Miami. I cleared immigration as a dark-skinned lady with braided hair looked over my documents and stamped them without a single question. Several other immigration officers processed the passengers from inside small wooden and glass square booths.
I passed a smiling young man outside a duty-free store, he said “It’s way more expensive outside”. After quickly relieving myself in the Men’s room with one single urinal, I went back to the store and perused the collection of humanly vices. I purchased a Cuban cigar for 14$ and then waited for my luggage. Several airport workers could be seen scanning bag-tags and placing the luggage on the single baggage carousel – one of those flat kinds that snakes around in an S-shape. Out came my bag: A single duffle bag, packed three-quarters of the way full of field gear – combat boots, camo pants, field jacket, binoculars, several pairs of underwear and socks, botanical loop, compass, pocket knife, tablet, reading material, field notebook – those were the items on Nick’s list. I went over to the customs officer. He was large, bearded fellow in olive green army pants with a pressed white shirt. I gave him my customs form that showed I had nothing to declare, and the receipt for the Cuban cigar. He asked me “Are you traveling with a drone” then spelled it out, “D-R-O-N-E”? I replied in the negative and he said, “have a nice day, sir”, wherein I replied, “You as well, sir”. I passed another customs officer on my way out, exited the small, quaint, very Central American airport, past the two-dozen or so Airportistas holding signs of various sorts with names, and looked to the right, where Nick said he would be waiting. We made eye contact immediately, and I lifted my arm. We went toward each other and greeted one another with an awkward, but warming hug. His bony, elderly frame with shoulders a bit higher than my caught me on the cheek as showed my excitement in seeing him again. It has been several years since we last saw each other. He introduced me to his nephew, also Nick and niece, Abby and instructed me to place my luggage in a white pickup truck nearby.
I did so and we gathered our team up and got hit the road, with our driver, Melvin, who is staff at the La Milpa Ecolodge, but not without first reversing to double check for any belongings left behind. Apparently, Nick had left something behind on one of his previous journeys and said “I have learned my lesson”. We stopped a few miles down the road to get water and snacks. We headed Northwest toward the Rio Bravo conservation area. Through the outskirts of what was apparently Belize city, although it didn’t look like much of city; it was quite rural. Flat, xeric green lands, palms and various tree species scattered about, intermixed with various types of land use, some agriculture, some cattle ranching, a few large cornfields all passed across the window of the white Toyota pickup (one of the awesome Diesel Hi-Lux kinds you cannot get in the US) we were packed 5-deep into as we went down the sunbaked white asphalt road at about 60 mph. We passed through a several small towns, stopping for stretching and bathroom breaks occasionally, a sugar refinery with 20 or so large trucks loaded with cane outside, a slew of Mennonite settlements, another small town which a small school and collection of small houses was basically only. The driver stopped to drop something off at a friend’s house. “About 30 more minutes”. We passed a house with a guy perched high on a porch. Melvin and Nick told us he was watching for people passing with cattle to check their papers and immunizations. They also pointed out the hills to the right, “That’s Mexico they said”
We came the Linda Vista, which had a few general stores, a major Mennonite area, that abuts the Rio Bravo conservation area. We stopped at a hardware store / machine shop area where Nick got out and talked to an old friend. Here he would get a truck, so we could access the reserve. We went to check out the hardware store. They had about everything you would ever want in there. Dirt bikes, machetes, power tools. There a half-dozen, old white guys sitting around a round table in the corner drinking coffee. Several young men behind a breast-high counter with a few computers on it. I talked to one of them. He asked, “are you headed out into the wildlands?” I said, “yes, do you ever go out there?”; “No, I have horrible allergies and if I get bitten by bugs I practically die”; “Oh, right on”. He had a thick kind of accent. I could not quite put my finger on what it was. But he was friendly and welcoming. We smiled, talked about fishing a bit. He said his Father does some of that… stream, ocean. Bass, snappers. I told me I liked his hardware store and maybe I’d be back and left with a God Bless.
Nick drove the other truck and we followed. Now, Melvin, myself and Young Nick. I was smelling my cigar, just waiting for the opportune time to light it up. We went into the reserve. A short, indigenous-looking guy came out of the ranger house to open the gate for us. It was a counter-weighted simple gate that swung open as soon as he slackened the rope that was tied to the railing on the porch of the ranger house. A few, ten or so more minutes down the road, now dirt, and we arrived at the La Milpa ecolodge. A beautiful place, well-maintained with thatch roofed, wooden bungalows. We unloaded the luggage, chose rooms and Nick gave a quick tour. I lit the Cuban cigar and young Nick; Abby and I had a look around. We saw a hummingbirds, wild turkeys, Curacaos, a hawk, several vultures and a heron over by the “crocodile pond”. No croc to be seen. We saw a kingfisher, a turtle, a leafless Plumeria. Several other trees with named placards, and fenced climate station, and we had made the round. I saw Melvin sitting at the table and I sat too. We talked politics as I puffed the cigar. Now about halfway gone it was getting a little spicy and I was getting a little sick from it. I kept going with it. I would not put it out yet. I thought to myself “Got to man up, smoke it like a true Cubano”. We talked religion, a bit of politics, The New World, Belize and how it speaks English and not Spanish, Naked and Afraid, women. Its funny how field stations bring out the real nitty of the gritty in conversations.
I came to the room, splashed water on the face and went to eat dinner. Chicken, pasta, greens – a kind of spicy cabbage salad- it was consumed quickly and hit the spot. A quick cup of coffee in the dining hall, looking at the collection of naturalist books they had. We talked about the highlights of the day. Seeing a Jabiru on the way in, the Mennonites, other details. Excited for the coming days, we all turned into our cabanas to rest.
Day 2 - 2/21/2019
The first day in La Milpa and I rose with the sun. The first little bit of grey morning light peeked into the cabana room from the attached meshed-in porch. The time was 6:19 and I was well-rested, as it had been surprisingly cool during the night. I immediately put on my field clothes – the camo pants, a t-shirt, shin-high socks, my combat boots. I went through some of the other belongings I brought and readied my field pack. Four water bottles, my compass, botanical look, pocket knife, bandana, field jacket to wear over my t-shirt inside the forest if it gets dense; binoculars. Check, I’m ready to go. I set out and walked down toward the dining hall area. There was an agouti there hopping around, and then sitting on its back legs while it munched on a seed, then discarding it and doing it again. It foraged with a ferocity and urgency of a new day dawning on the La Milpa Belizean forest. I head Howler Monkeys in the distance, and many bird calls. I passed the hummingbird feeders outside the dining quarters and there were already many birds frequenting, a few zoomed past my head. I ducked through the wooden screen door into the dining hall, filled my four water bottles with water from one of those water dispensers with the big plastic jugs. I grabbed a small, white porcelain coffee cup and filled it from the hot aluminum coffee brewer with small orange light, I added some off-white colored condensed milk from a pitcher and had a sip. It was glorious. I finished the cup rather quickly and filled it again. Two cups and back out the door. I did not know where I was going but I was going.
A quick jaunt over to the croc pond. The vultures were not there yet. I spotted a warbler, a few honey-creepers, some other small birds, oh – an orange Icterid that looked kind of like the Trupials I have seen in Puerto Rico, but different. (I later identified it as the Altamata Oriole - Icterus gularis) I took off down the road a brisk-pace, alone, but determined to see what this place was like. I have seen a few tropical forests in my short career, but I always approach a new one in the same way, head on. I dive right in, without fear, but with a cautious skepticism yet an open mind, as if to ask myself, “Let’s see what this place is like? What kind of life does it hold?” I did not go more than a few hundred meters, before I had the opportunity to get off of the dirt road. There was a cleared path into the forest off to the right that was about as wide as the road. I took it and increased the pace a little, now at a light jog, my backpack bouncing around with the weight of the water bottles. I slowed to see few plants that looked familiar, spot a bird up in the binoculars – there was a magnificent red gross-beak of sorts, very red, the deep, vibrant passion-evoking rouge that only nature can produce. I got back to a brisk walk. The path forked, I took the narrower path the right past a wooden sign with an arrow that said “Lagunita”. I thought to myself, “maybe I’ll find it”, but I was doubtful. This place was dry. Leaf litter crackled and crunched as I walked over it. There was a Karste, limestone bedrock, protruding in places through a thin blanketed layer of humus and organics, which seemed to be tucked into its nooks and crannies.
Trees abounded, growing out rising and falling topography as I went. Palms of several species – the large-fronded Attalea cohune, the distinct palmate-fronded Sabal maruitiiformis, and several other smaller ones – were scattered throughout tropical broad-leaved vegetation. I saw several species I knew, many Rubiaceae, Melastomateaceaes, and Myrtacs in the understory; several Sapotaceae fruits scattered about, I spotted the distinct trunk of a Burseraceae, and there were several large Mahogany trees. I went over several limestone hills, through an open portion of the forest, where it was clear had some ancient history of land-use, and around. I came to a dirt road and decided to turn around. Breakfast was in 15 minutes and I was over a mile from the station. I high tailed it back, running most of the way, and arrived with 2 minutes to spare. The two elderly ladies sharing the station/ecolodge with us were birding with one of the staff members. I greeted them with a good morning and glanced at what the bird they were looking at, but was disinterested, so I went for breakfast. Nick, Nick and Abby were there near the table and we all sat down. The food was served – re-fried beans, scrambled eggs, a link of chorizo and a tortilla sectioned into quarters. I scarfed it down quickly with a some of the hot sauce on it, then the side of papaya and cantaloupe. I was ready for whatever Nick Brokaw had in store of us.
Nick mentioned that we would take it easy on the first day, and proceeded to explain his transect method, drawing several diagrams in blue ballpoint pen on some scratch paper he had brought with him. “Here is the transect, you see. One hectare, 1000m long by 10m wide. We have PVC poles in the center of the transect every 20 meters, numbered from 1 to 51. Each 20m by 10m section, we call a cell. And in each cell, we have map, measured and identified all the trees >10 cm using their position, the distance along the length of the transect, and their distance, their perpendicular distance from the transect. The transect has two sides, left and right, oriented from the transect start….” He went on to explain the subsampling methods for small trees, lianas and epiphytes, and palms, fielding a few questions as they came up. I had none.
We loaded up in the truck. A low-riding white, 1992 Toyota Tacoma. Nick indicated that he was going to take us to the La Milpa Archaeological site first, and then we would do some work in one of his transects but be back for lunch. We drove about 10 minutes down the road and stopped as the road ended. There a staircase up a slope through well developed forest with a canopy height of over 40 meters. Nick shared, “The one thing about the Maya is that they always seemed to build their civilizations near to well-developed forest”. It was true there were many large trees, their canopies swayed in the wind. We went up the contrasted stairs, rather quickly and there was an open forest, somewhat cleared but with many large trees, some larger than where we left the truck below. Nick pointed out some of the species, several Sapotaceaes and Euphorbs, a few large Mahoganies. “That’s the real Mahogany – Swietenia macrophylla, a lot of people call other things mahogany, but this is the real one.” He pointed out, “All around us the hills that you see are Mayan structures.” It was clear that they had been covered in sediment and some trees were growing out of them, but I could see it. “Look here, you can see a ‘looters trench’ where looters have dug into the ruins in search of artifacts, see the stone work?” I did. It was clear that we were standing in the remnants of an ancient civilization. Now it was a ghost town, just four gringos and an old-growth tropical forest. We saw a rope going up one of the slopes to the right and Abby, young Nick and I took off to summit the ruin. It was the tallest one around.
We pulled ourselves up the steep slope, it was a least a 60-degree slope using the rope. It was perfectly flat on top. There were some fig trees and some other small trees growing on the top and down the sides. Young Nick pointed out an epiphytic cactus and asked me “is that a cactus?” I replied, “Yes sir, it is”. We had a quick look around and were amazed at how flat it was. We reveled in the fact that we were actually standing on top of an old Mayan ruin. I grabbed an odd-looking leaf of something I did not know and went back down the rope to ask Nick what it was. It had a long petiole. When I got down Nick was off across the “plaza” taking some photos. I approached him and asked him what it was, “Oreopanax” from the Arailaceae. We talked about the panaxes – Dendropanax, Schefflera, which used to be Didymopanax. "Why'd they do away with name", Nick wondered. We waited for the others to come back down. Young Nick had dipped into a looters trench about halfway up the ruin. We perused the area for a bit longer, checking out the various things to see – an official archaeological dig, used by researchers from the University of Texas, a big leaf-cutter ant nest, a site where researchers from Cal Polytechnic hooked up some physics instrument to measure cosmic ray signals of the ruins. It was all good. We headed back across the “plaza” – the thing was big, at least a mile or so long – ruins rising on all sides. They looked like hills, nothing more, yet in places you could see the stone work. My imagination thought back to how it used to have looked, but the details were ungraspable. We saw a few monkeys near the truck and headed out from the La Milpa ruins.
We went in the truck only a few minutes back the way we came. Nick explained the necessary use of snake gaiters. We entered the forest to check the transect, getting caught up in a swarm of stingless bees that had taken home on an extremely large relic of a rotting, dusted Mahogany stump. Young Nick and Abby took the brunt of the invasion, getting them all in their hair. Nick and I were wearing baseball caps. We brushed off and continued toward the transect. Nick pointed out these “Choultunes” – subterranean Mayan dwellings akin to peyote huts or something. Who knows what they were for. There was one that had collapsed about two meters, forming a hole the size of large car. Others just had small carved out access holes, just big enough for a human to go into, like a manhole carved into the Karste. We ended up finding the transect. First a pole, number 24. We needed cell 21. We navigated there, strung a meter tape and started on some of Nick’s field checks. He had several of those. We did a few then left for lunch, leaving some of the field gear in the field as we would be back afterwards.
Lunch was had back at the station. A delicious serving of ropa vieja with coleslaw and some red juice. We joked that it was the “bug juice” from summer camp. We all ate well, the headed back to the field. We did field checks the rest of the afternoon, looking at tree species along the way. Does that tree have lianas? What about ephaptic plants? We struggled to see into the canopy a few stories overhead; or necks became strained, the heat was wearing on us, but we worked several cells and did a good job. Before we knew it, it was time to go, past 4 o’clock. We stopped a small pond on the way back and check it out. A different mix of species. The mosquitos were coming out. We made the loop, “the orchid trail”. I saw a single orchid, not in flower, there may have been more. We headed back to the station. A solid first day. We showered and relaxed for about and hour until dinner at 6:30. A pork chop topped with some pineapple chutney of sorts, a mix of greens, some potatoes which I doused in hot sauce, and a slice of pineapple upside down cake for desert. It hit the spot. We turned into the cabanas. It was not even 8:00 PM. I was tired though, and eager to do it all again tomorrow.
Day 3 – 2/22/2019
Another day dawned in La Milpa with the calls of birds notifying the rising of the sun. I first woke up at about 6:00 AM but did not rise until close to 6:30. I put on my jogging shorts and an athletic t-shirt, one of that polyester kind that don’t get wet, grabbed my iPhone and headphones and exited the cabana. I went down to dining quarters, past the same Agouti I had seen the previous day. I took down a few glasses of ice water and headed out. I passed over the crocodile pond, still no croc to be seen, but I paused to appreciate a few birds, there was a fat little bunting-type, yellow bird on the bridge. I approached closer, it moved to the handrail, then I went even closer and it called out as if flew over to a tree. I set us for a jog, I had about 45 minutes before breakfast (served at 7:30 each morning). I ran at a brisk pace back toward the gate at the road entering the reserve. There were 3 mule deer on the road, who spotted me running toward them and quickly dashed into the forest. I ran on, determined to work up a good sweat in the hopes of dropping a few pounds that I had gained over the last several years. Life as an academic “desk ecologist” can be brutal, sedentary, lots of computer time. Miami traffic did not help the situation; the time not spent at the desk was usually spent in the car. The few PhD years so far have been far less active than those of my 20’s. I ran regularly, fast and for distance during my masters in Puerto Rico. I did miss it and was grateful to be able to unplug and unwind. Just field work, good food, lots of cool plants, and some much-needed exercise. No worries. I did an out a back – probably close to 3 miles. I got back five minutes before breakfast.
I filled the coffee cup, and out came the food. Fry jack – a Belizean type of sopapilla without sugar, scrambled eggs, a small piece of ham, refried beans and side of pineapple and bananas. As we all ate the breakfast rapidly, Nick explained what we would be doing today. “We will go back to the La Milpa transect and finish the field checks, starting at the beginning and then we will go to another transect.” We picked up our lunches, which were filled in plastic receptacles we brought down the night before and we loaded up in the white pickup truck. Less than 10 minutes down the road and Nick parked. We dawned the snake gaiters and entered the forest. Past the Choltunes; Nick noted the time it was to see how long it would take us to go the 1 km transect length. There were boisterous Howler monkey growling in the distance. We followed the small PVC poles backward into the forest to the start of the transect, orange flagging marked the way, and Nick replaced it as needed writing the pole number on it with a Sharpie, some of it was quite old. 40 minutes later and we were at the start of the transect. We talked about various things- getting lost in the forest, old trips he had taken to La Milpa, the setting up of the transects, tree species. Nick pointed out a “chicle” tree – Manilkara zapota, Sapotaceae – that was scarred in a spiral fashion up the trunk. He describes how the “chicleros” had come through La Milpa as late as the 1990’s. He said they would go through the forest scoring the trunks of trees to bleed out the latex of the trees and collect it in buckets; how they would set-up make shift camps to cook down the latex they had collected and then carry it out on mules. All with little or no permission from the Programme of Belize, which owned the reserve. It didn’t seem to bother the trees that much, the Manilkara looked like it was doing well in the forest there, albeit scarred. They did climb high on it to make the scars. Apparently, as Nick shared with us, the chicleros were quite the woodsmen, entering and leaving the reserve at liberty and getting the latex from every adult Manilkara in La Milpa.
We got to work on the field checks, working our way back down the transect along the sequentially number poles. Most of the field check were basic checks that did not take very long. We did still have to string the tape in many cases. We checked tree species, made sure they were at the correct position and distance on the transect, assessed them for liana and epiphyte presence, and occasionally measured a diameter. Most things checked out readily and Nick jotted down the data. It was nearing lunch time, the day had become hotter, and our energy was running thin. We found a nice place to lunch. I took off the snake gaiters, hot damn things as they are I needed a chance to let my legs cool down. They make nice cushion to sit on. Two pieces of fried chicken – a wing and a leg, a hefty portion of white rice cooked to perfection and few slices of cucumber and tomato made up the lunch. I washed it down with some water which was still cold from the morning. It hit the spot. We took some time to relax, we shared a few stories. Nick shared how he took a trip to Peru with his father and Robin Foster, where Robin did a ton of collecting, preserving plants in formaldehyde because he could not dry them properly. Robin ended up leaving some of the collections with a Peruvian family, while they went up river to collect more. When they returned, they found that the family had removed the collections from the bag with the formaldehyde allowing them to mold and ruining the work. Needless to say, Robin was mad, but they did their best to recollect in a hurry and replace the lost work. The whole story came about because Nick was explaining how Al Gentry named a plant after his father, Stylocerus brokawii, in the Buxaceae. Apparently, it was the missing link at the time between the some of the species in the Annonaceae and other plants. It was an entertaining story. We enjoyed a few more minutes in silence, the wind swaying the trees, the Howler monkey were back calling not too far off now, some birds were calling. I rose, re-dawned the snake gaiters and we got back to finishing the transect work.
I was stringing the tape between two poles on one of the transect cells, where young Nick had stopped the far pole out for me. When I came to the pole he was just staring off in the distance toward the Howler monkeys. I looked at him and he said, “I want to go see them so bad”. I told him to just go, then, and to hurry. To go straight over there and com right back. They did not seem too far off. He snuck off toward the growling. I saw his red back disappear in to a sea of green. Nick was back behind me asking for something. I went back, and we assessed a few trees for lianas and epiphytes. I hoped young Nick would not be gone too long, before they noticed, and I got in trouble. To make matters worse, Abby was asking Nick about directions if she were to get lost. “Which way to the road again?”. We were not far from the access trail we had taken to the transect at this point, having worked substantially backward from our morning hike in. It was not more than a few minutes before the howler monkeys started calling more ferociously, they were really going nuts now. I knew young Nick had found them. Just at that point, Nick noticed he was gone. “Did he wander off? You all saw that he just wandered off, right?” I chuckled and explained that I had given him permission to go fuel his curiosity, after all I could see it was killing him. Nick decided we would go, too. I reeled in the tape measure, and we set off toward the calling. We did not travel very far, when young Nick came returning. I had dodged a bullet, young get got to see the Howlers and we quickly got back to work. I strung the tape for the next cell and we continued. We worked for another hour or so, finding a tree here, looking for another there, checking number and species. Then we had completed all the field checks. We went back to where the truck was parked and loaded up.
We drove back through the camp, across it and out the road, we headed west into the Rio Bravo conservation area. We drove for about 15 minutes, over rolling hills, mostly downhill. The white limestone dust kicked up as the truck rolled along. We reached a cleared area, where they had mined rock material for the road construction and parked. Nick explained that this was the Cohune Ridge transect, name after the palm. He also explained that in the Creole folk language ridge simple meant forest and little to do with topography. He pointed out that we had come down an escarpment where two tectonic plates had created a topographic division in the landscape. We set out and bushwhacked through the manmade forest edge. We dropped down a steep slope and proceed for a about a hundred meters, following flagging before we reached the first post. The forest type was different than that of the La Milpa transect, the soil was more alluvial, finer and blacker. Large Cohune palms dominated the canopy and understory. We searched for a few trees, here and there. We found the posts of the transect, in order. I wrote the post numbers on flagging and hung it beside older, worn out flagging. Some of the species were the same. Pipers were still prevalent in the understory, Cryosophila palms also. Many species were different, though. There was the ant acacia Vachellia collinsii, with the insect galls and very distinctive red and white diamondback bark. Its long slender stems corkscrewed into the canopy connecting to a wide and flat extension of doubly-pinnate leaves, characteristic of the Fabaceae family. It was nearing 3:00 as we were about 10 cells deep in the transect and we decided to head back in search of internet.
We arrived at the station, quickly changed our boots, without showering. I changed my shirt too, and we hit the road again, heading out the reserve to the nearby Mennonite hardware store. Circle R it was called, the same one where we rented the truck from the fellow on our way in. We sat down, and each bought a soda. Nick talked with one of the employees at the establishment about the internet. After about 10 minutes it became apparent that it was not in order. I tried to connect with no success. Nick wanted to send a few messages to his family and friends, most importantly his wife, Sheila. We decided to load up and head a bit further to the next possible place. Another 20 minutes down the road. While the first stretch was mainly forest and a large cattle pasture on the left , this time we passed though the heart of the rural Mennonite settlement/township. Grain silos, garages with tractors, small modest houses with pickup truck outside and clothes on the line, a few businesses with signs here and there, a restaurant, a feed store most everything was geared toward an agricultural lifestyle. We past a place where they were turning limestone in to lime sand. We came to the Linda Vista shopping center. Two gas pumps, another hardware store and a grocery mart. I check for Wi-Fi and there was an unlocked network. We sat at a picknick table outside and check the email. The connection was slow but worked alright enough. I check my email, nothing important. I thought “hell, I’m on vacation, and I have one of those out of office notifications anyways. I would respond though if it was warranted, but only if it was absolute necessary”.
The place was hustling and bustling, at least by the local standard. Mothers with children in minivans were in and out grabbing a few bags of groceries. Single males on motorcycles and picks ups stopped in and left, usually quickly buying fuel or a few small items. Most were white and Mennonite. There were dark-skinned Latinos intermixed. Behind us were several other people using the internet on their cell phones. I went to check the supermarket with Young Nick. Things were similar to the States, and similarly priced. Its 2 to 1 dollars Belizean to US. Young Nick noticed that Kraft Mac n Cheese was $2.10. I purchased some of the famous Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, two small bags of sunflower seeds and a coffee ice cream cone. There was a soft-serve machine behind the counter and people outside were eating the ice cream. It was very good, very creamy and smooth. The total was $10.40 Belizean or $5.20 US. I went back outside. Abby had a taste of the ice cream. Nick decided he wanted to go into the store, he came out several minutes later with a small bag. It was nearing 5:30 and they whole place was closing very quickly; doors were locking, and people were clearing out. A school bus came by and about a dozen people got on, and it left as soon a it arrived. The shop workers emerged, locked the doors and got on motorcycles and left. We left too. Back through Mennonite country, past the grain silos and single-story country homes, past the circle K, past the cattle in the fields, through the gate, and back to the station, as the sun was setting. Young Nick and I enjoyed the open air in the bed of the pick-up truck. I chewed a few sunflower seeds. They were salted just right.
We showered quickly and hit the dining hall for dinner. A large plate of spaghetti and meatballs was for dinner. Nick showed us some photos on his laptop over dinner. A few Li-Dar DEMS of the conservation area, mostly wildlife – a hook-billed shrike, the Fer-de-Lance, a crazy type of vulture, the Maya, camera trap images of panthers. The spaghetti and meatballs was good. Young Nick ate what others couldn’t. Abby, Young Nick and I played some kind of dice game after dinner before returning to the cabanas for the evening.
Day 4 – 2/23/2019
A new day dawned in La Milpa as the first light showed into the cabana at just after 6:00 AM. I got up and went the bathroom down the deck and relieved myself. I had slept well but was still a bit tired and sore. My ankles itched and burned from what I suspected to be an encounter with an Anacard, which I probably encountered during my run the previous day, even though I did not run through the forest. I scratched them and decided to sleep a while longer before breakfast, which was in an hour and half. I felt my body needed it, so I crawled back into the wooden constructed bunk bed. It creaked. I rose around 7:15 and readied myself for the day. Camo army pants, t-shirt, I grabbed my dbh tape and put It in my pocket, a fresh handkerchief, baseball cap. I put on some socks and my combat boots and I checked my backpack for everything I would need. Binoculars, meter tape, long-sleeved shirt, water bottles. I went down to the dining hall to fill them. No sign of the Agouti today. There was Nick. “Good morning”; I wished everyone else a good morning as well. I filled each of the three 1-litre water bottles I had with ice and water. Then I grabbed a coffee cup and filled it with coffee and milk and sat down at our dining table outside.
It was already warming up and sun was making its way over head. The humming birds were zooming past our heads toward the birdfeeders on either side of the outside dining room area. The amicable Latina cook ladies brought out our breakfast: scrambled eggs with chorizo, a quartered tortilla, and plate of fruit, which was mostly pineapple and banana with a small slice of kiwi. We joked about how each plate had a single small slice of kiwi. Jokingly, Nick offered to trade me my kiwi for his banana. I quickly at it and replied, “too late”. We ate our breakfast as Nick described the plan for the day. “We will go back to the Cohune Ridge transect and finish checking things, and then we can go and explore this gorge area at the end of the transect.” He described how the gorge was situated at the edge of the escarpment and was best accessed from the end of the transect. We took our plates back into the dining room building, and each grabbed our lunch for the day. I filled the coffee cup once more and enjoyed it on the porch as the others went to grab their day packs. I watched the birds come to feed on several pieces of orange that were situated on a table and twigs for them. After a few minutes I made my way to the white pick-up truck that was parked behind the building. Young Nick was there in the bed. I joined him, then along came Abby a few minutes later, and then Nick.
We headed off toward Cohune Ridge, which was about 15 minutes down the road. Young Nick pointed out a speed limit sign that said 15 MPH and commented how it was odd that it was in miles per hour. I glanced through the cab window of the pickup to see that Nick was doing 30 MPH. It was all good. The sun felt good on the face and arms, and it was not long until we parked at the place where rock material had been taken to build the road. We dawned the snake gaiters and headed into the forest, past a dozen Cecropias growing at the edge. The was an eye-level sapling that caught my eye as being different, because it had a red petiole. Nick assured me that it was a Cecropia and pointed out the nectar glands at the base of the petiole on the stem. We found the path we had trampled down on our way in there the day before and followed it. The ground dropped sharply about 10 meters over about as much distance and held trees and whatever we could to balance ourselves as we made it down to the shaded understory under the canopy of tall adult Cohune palms. We followed the poles back to where we had left off the previous day, down past pole 11. We were looking for cell 14. Nick gave me some flagging and marker and I marked each post with a new piece of flagging and/or re-wrote the number of the post on the existing flagging. At one or two places the transect would take a jog, or there would be a small break in the transect. We would take our time to sort it out, always fining the next pole or whatever we needed to, a small tree here, a large palm there, “What’s the number on that tree?”, what’s it’s diameter?”, “which side of the transect is it on?” “assess it for lianas and epiphytes”. We completed the various “relatively-minor tasks”, as Nick called them and came to where the transect took a break over a hill, around post 38. We traversed a ridge down to the other side. Nick ID-ed a landmark tree and we found the next post 39, under a fallen tangle of lianas.
We decided we would lunch here. We each took out our lunch receptacle and got comfortable. It was some pepper-pork, thinly sliced, with rice, and a banana. I had doused mine in the hot sauce earlier that morning. It gave off a fragrant odor in the tropical heat but hit the spot. We ate our lunch talking over various ecological theory and monumental studies. Nick began by explaining Janzen-Connell to his nice and nephew, Abby and Young Nick. I chimed in with details, and some opinions as it were, where I saw fit. We talked about Steve Hubbell and the BCI plot, his 1979 Science paper. “As I recall, the main thing that paper showed, is that tree species tend to be clumped,” Nick thought back seeming to pull information from the depths of the mental archives, “which was big at the time, because people who did not measure the trees in the forest were suspecting them to be over dispersed, due to the variety of dispersal mechanism they have”. We talked about Joe Connell and the barnacles, Dan Janzen and his famous American Naturalist paper, as well as other monumental studies that advanced Ecological Theory through good old-fashioned field work. Bob Paine and the Echinoderms (sea stars) as keystone species came up, as did how Simberloff and Wilson fumigated mangrove islands with methyl bromide. You would never get away with that now a days. With that we got back to work on the field checks. There were not many left, and we followed the transect down to the end, taking care to mark and re-label the posts. This transect had 51 cells.
Near the end of the transect, Nick started talking about the book, the Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, conjecturing with some imagination that now we were going exploring for the entrance to lost world, as if we might encounter some dinosaurs in the gorge for which we were headed. We bush wacked a few hundred meters and then came to an alluvial fan deposit area in the forest, which quickly turned into a dry stream bed. It was clear that water flowed down the channel in the we season. The rocks were slick with algae and moss. A high diversity of ferns and mossed grew on them A Selaginella fern was spotted by Nick. We positively IDed another fern in the genus Adiantum. We went up for about a kilometer, wherein the stream channel became very steep and narrow. We decided to turn around, but not before staying a while to converse and enjoy the spot. We looked at a few of the plants around – the Rubiaceae Alsies yucatanensis, discussed learning foreign languages in college – young Nick is on his way to Pitt next year, majoring in Environmental Science. Then we made our way back down the gorge, it was a little mini-canyon. We came to the alluvial fan and headed South to hit the road, which we found after several hundred meters. It greeted us in the form of a giant culvert, which allowed the water from the gorge to flow under the road. We climbed up on it and made our way back to the truck a few kilometers back to the East/ North. I took off the snake gaiter and put them in my pack. I walked with Nick and young nick and Abby walked ahead of us. Nick and I talked about the Luquillo LTER, NSF and grants, colleagues, work in academia vs other sectors – government, other scientist positions etc., and the state of affairs in tropical forest ecology as we saw them. It was not long before we got to the truck. It was about 3 o’clock.
We made one stop on the way back to the station. A small l lagoon habitat, which was not far off the road there. The water was dark, and several Pachira acquatica trees rose out of the more flooded areas. Cohune forest dominate up to its edge. There were several mud wallows where cloven-hoofed tracks could be seen, which Nick suspected were made by Tapir. We walked around its edge and spotted a kingfisher in the interior of the lagoon, which Nick suspected was the Amazonia kingfisher. Green and white with a giant beak – probably a female. They are very distinct. We saw a giant tree about 100 meters away and went over to it. It had humongous buttresses and was about 2 meters in diameter and about 80 meters high, I had a nearly leafless canopy, but could be immediately be identified as a Bombacaceae (now in the Malvaceae). There was only one species it could be Psuedobombax ellipticum. We appreciate its stature for several minutes then left the lagoon the same way we came.
Fifteen minutes later were back at the La Milpa ecolodge. I showered and took 30-minute power nap. Then I headed down to the dining room for a cup of coffee. Abby was there talking on her phone, I guess the Wi-Fi was working okay. I took a spotting scope from the deck and set it up for viewing. I managed to get a few birds in view, which were still feeding on oranges laid out for them. A local man named Maruicio, came we struck up a conservation, us three. He told us the species of birds we were seeing. Two species of Euphonias, the blue-hooded and the yellow-capped, along with a two honey-creepers, the Green and red-legged. A wild turkey came strutting through the camp. It was magnificently colored with a blue skinned head and neck and yellowly-ornate face skin. Pretty wild. I went back to read a book in the cabana before dinner.
6:30 and time for dinner. We went back to the dining quarters and took my seat. There was a new elderly couple had arrived today, along with a single man, also older, with a distinct Castilian Spanish accent. We shared the outdoor dining room with them. Dinner was an entire baked potato, steamed mixed vegetables, a green salad and a barbecue chicken, with a roll, and a scone for desert. We all had our fill and Nick assigned our “homework”. He took from his breast pocket three handwritten lists, each on a quarter piece of white scratch paper. The lists had several plant names which we were to study for tomorrow. “Tomorrow we will begin the census tagging work, so please study these species”. On this list were the following names: Alseis yucatanensis, Pseudobombax ellipicum, Drypetes brownii, Brosimum alicastrum, Pouteria reticulata, Pouteria amagdalina, Pouteria campechaiana, Protium copal, Manilkara zapota, Pachira acquatica, Rinorea sp., and Piper psilorhachis. Abby, Young Nick and I put the lists in our pockets, cleared the table, and sat down inside to play the dice game again. Young Nick won. Then we retired to the cabanas for the evening to study the plants on the list in the book Nick provided.
Day 5 – 2/24/2019
Another day dawned in La Milpa. I did not wake up until 7:00 AM and the light was already shining into the cabana. Young Nick’s bed was vacant. I rose and immediately put my field clothes on. The camo army pants and t-shirt and the combat boots. Most of my belongings were in order from the day before. I checked and the dbh tape was still in the pocket of my pants. We were good to go. I briefly looked over the list of plants Nick had given us the night before in his book, and then went down to the dining hall area. There was an elderly couple waiting for their breakfast and a solitary middle-aged man. I greeted them good morning and went to grab some coffee. Nick was by the coffee machine filling his cup, I said “good morning”. I went to our table and sat down for breakfast. Out came the breakfast – scrambled eggs with refried beans and a sausage link and three still-warm pieces of fry jack, accompanied by a side plate of papaya and pineapple. I ate all that was served and went back for a second cup of coffee. Then I filled my water bottles with ice and water. Abby was there doing the same. With that done, we all headed to the white pick-up truck, which was not parked in the usual spot.
I saw Melvis had just washed his white pickup truck , a newer, nicer, Diesel-version of the Toyota pick-up we had, at the nearby shack which seemed to serve as an automotive / work shop. He backed up and made sure to not be in his way as I neared the other truck. He pulled forward, rolling his window at the same time. He had a big smile on his face. He asked if we were headed back to the field. I said we were and asked what he had planned. He indicated that he would be doing various chores associate with the maintenance of the place, and we both smiled as I said, “No bad days in La Milpa”, a saying I had been repeating since our arrival from the airport at various interactions with him. I then said, “carpe diem”, which got a kind-of weird, confused look from him. I explained how it meant seize the day in Latin, which he seemed to like. He smiled again and then went on his way. I went over to the white pick-up and Abby and Young Nick arrived shortly after. I pulled up Nick’s “Trees of La Milpa” on my smart phone and continued to study the species. It was certainly not a comprehensive text, but it did have most of the common species, and all the major suspects. We loaded up in the pick-up truck and headed out.
Not long after we arrived at a new parking spot. We had not yet visited this area of forest and we were headed to the “Upper escarpment” transect, an area of forest where the soil was not as well-developed, thinner as Nick said, but still had what he considered old-growth forest. He said it would be about a thirty-minute walk into the forest. We started and after not long we were stopping to look at plants. A small Protium copal here, a rattan that was clinging to other plants as it fought for light toward the canopy a few meters down the road. It was a well-established trail about two to three meters wide, although it looked like it could use some maintenance. Several tree falls would make it impassable in an automobile. Nick pointed out where a gigantic Pseudobombax had died. The trunk could be seen on the ground, and it was at least 2 meters in girth. There was a second one next to the prone corpse of tree, not quite as large, close to a meter in diameter and at probably 20 meters tall. It was in flower. Nick joked about the morphology of the flowers, relating them to a shaving brush. We walked on, and soon Nick pointed out a PVC pole that marked the where the transect went off into the forest to the left. He said, “this is where the transect crosses the road.” We wanted to get to cell 4, and post read UE 15. We had nine cells to go back toward the origin of the transect, about 200 meters distance. We started descending as gentle slope through the forest, cutting across it at a slight angle. We proceeded for a ways until we found the next post and so on. At post six, there was a massive treefall, with a tangle of lianas that had fallen into the transect, so we went around to the right. We ended up at cell 4.
We dropped our packs, drank some water and got situated for censusing of the transect. Nick briefly explained the objective, which was to census the transect for small stems (those 1 to 10 cm in diameter). All large stems had been tagged previously. He also assigned tasks. Abby would put on tags. Young Nick would give position and distance measurements of stems tagged, and I would measure them. I strung the tape between the two poles taking care to get it as straight as possible. There was a big tree right in the middle of the line toward the beginning of the 20m cell, however. Nick decided we would start the tape on the other side of the big tree, so we could be directly on line, so he positioned the tape to start at 2.2 meters on the other side of the big tree. We began to census the stems but realized that we first needed a censusing pole. It is good practice to use a pole that marks 1.3 meters height, so the point of measure can be easily determined for straight trees. I grabbed my survival knife and went off the transect. I found the straightest piper stem and cut it down. I chopped the top of it off and scored it at 1.3 meters. We proceeded with the censusing. I think we tagged 15 to 20 small stems in that cell – Pouteria reticulata, Rinorea guatamalensis, Brosimum alicastrum, Pouteria amygdalyina, Sideroxlyon foetidissimum, Manilkara zapota, Zygia sp. We counted the pipers, the small palms, those in the genera Crysophylia and Chameodorea. We moved onto the next cell, repeating the process. We were getting the hang of things and having a nice flow. We had almost completed that cell when it was already past noon. We decided to eat lunch.
The lunch was two pieces of chicken, the same bbq chicken we had the previous night and six dinner rolls each. We surely wouldn’t starve but taking down the six dinner rolls would be a tall order, even though they were normal-sized. Earlier in the morning back at camp, I had removed mine from the saran wrap in which the came from the kitchen and placed them in the receptacle containing the two chicken pieces. Two of the six were soggy with the chicken juice so I ate them first, followed by the two pieces of chicken – a wing and a leg – then I worked on the remaining four. Nick, Abby and Young Nick were talking about their family, about Nick’s farther, who was apparently quite the character. They were making sure to explain things to me, so I didn’t feel left out of the conversation. I was enjoying listening. Nick asked me about my parents, and I replied to his question with a mouthful of dinner roll. Young Nick and I ended up eating all of the rolls allotted to us, Abby and Nick each ate all but three. The dinner rolls became the brunt of the joke, and we all hoped that tomorrow we would have a more elaborate lunch.
We continued censusing, completing that cell and two more. The final cell was the treefall gap cell. It took out about 20 minutes to string the tape. There were ant-infested Cecropias at about eye-level. Nick ran into one of them and the ants attacked him down into his shirt. We tagged them and several other trees, including a smashed Rinorea. By the time we finished it was past 4:00 PM. We felt good, as we had made it through that gap area. Tomorrow we would begin the next cell. We had done 4, which was a good day’s work. We talked and joked about various things as we hiked out. On the way out, there were several spider monkeys in the canopy near the road. We stopped to appreciate them. They taunted us aggressively, hanging from the canopy with their tails. They broke off pieces of plants and dropped them in our direct. “They don’t throw things you see,” Nick said, “The archaeologists say they will throw things at you, but they merely break pieces of the plants off and kind of the drop them toward you”. I agreed. They were a bit intimidating, convulsing aggressively, but curiously watching us. They would whorl around the canopy acrobatically, as monkeys do and then repeat the process. We watched them for minute or two then made our way back to the parked truck, where Abby and Young Nick were waiting.
We drove back to the station, spotting several birds along the way, including an oscillated turkey. It looked like the same one we had seen yesterday and was roughly at the same place. We arrived at the station. We showered, and I went down the dining area for a cup of coffee. The coffee was not brewing, the staff and guests must have had a late lunch, so I went outside to see what birds I could see in the spotting scope. The fruit that had been laid out to attract birds was practically picked clean. A few birds visited, but I did not see anything new, so I dropped into the nearby hammock. Surprisingly, I felt a frog jump and hit me in the head. I caught it and showed it to one of the staff who was walking by into the dining area. He grabbed a book and we identified it as the Golden striped tree frog. It had a nice pattern of coloration on it back. I place it in a nearby bush. I remembered that I had collected a piece of plant from the forest earlier that day, something neither Nick nor I knew, but which we suspected was an Annonaceae. I looked in the Trees of Guatemala book, which was not too much help, but did serve to narrow the possibilities to two genera: Guatteria and Rollina. Then I looked in the Checklist of Belizean plant book, which made me think it was Rollinia mucosa (Jacq.) Baill. Who knows? It was time for dinner.
Tonight, we would dish up buffet style. Ribs, with the same BBQ sauce as the chicken, salad, mashed potatoes, and pineapple upside down cake for desert. We all ate well. Nick had his passport with him, because the lodge was doing some type of paperwork for traveler registration. We looked at his visa stamps. Lots of Mexico, Belize, and Panama, too many to count. They were practically stamped on top of one another. One stamp for Madrid. All but three pages were filled. We finished dinner. We took our plates in and Abby, Young Nick and I played the dice game, which I won. There is some strategy, but it has a lot to do with how the dice roll. We turned in for the night. Abby and Young Nick were excited for tomorrow. Nick had said we will go to town again.
Day 6 – 2/25/2019
A new day dawned in La Milpa. I rose at 7:00 to see that there was a fog that had settled over the camp overnight. It made me think of the Bob Marley song, “Misty Morning…… can’t see no sun, I know you’re out there somewhere having fun”. The lyrics eerily ran through my brain like record player. I knew that the fog would burn off soon enough. The sun was already beginning to shine brightly in the distance, but there were visibly more clouds in the sky than any of the previous days. I got right into my field clothes and readied myself for the day. The Anacard burn on my legs was still annoying me, but worst of the itching and burning seemed to be behind me. I was careful not to scratch it as I pulled my socks up to mid-calf and laced up the combat boots over them. I grabbed my back, making sure I had the rain poncho and headed down to the dining quarters. There were about a dozen people already there, a mix of local tour guides and tourists. Two groups had come yesterday evening as part of some guided tours of the area, and this was the busiest I had seen the place.
I went past the groups seated in the outside dining area, and into the inside area. I filled a cup with coffee at the coffee station and saw Nick there. He was excited to share with me that he had figured what the only tree were unable to identify was in the field yesterday was. “Astronium”, he said “Astronium graveolens”. He then explained how the juvenile leaf morphology does not have some of the defining characteristics fully developed, such as the leaf margin etc., but it was visible in the photographs that it was Astronium. We would serve ourselves breakfast again buffet style, scrambled eggs, refried beans, tortillas, Vienna sausages in some type of red sauce and fresh fruit. We all made out plates and went back outside to eat. The breakfast went smoothly, we returned the plated in exchange for our lunches, already dished up into our lunch receptacles and made our way back to the truck. The sun was shining brightly at the truck and we were all in high spirits. Today would be a short day of field work, because we would head back into the Mennonite village in the afternoon to explore a bit and to use the internet once again at the Linda Vista Shopping Center.
We loaded up in the white pick up truck and headed down the road to the Upper Escarpment (UE) transect, where we would do some censusing of the small trees in Nick’s transect. The dust on the road was about half as much as normal, because the light rain that had fallen over the night had wetted the ground. There was a coolness to the air as the pickup truck motored along at about 30 miles per hour. Young Nick and I put on our snake gaiters as the truck went along. We did not talk, we just enjoyed the morning and the forest ambiance as we went. After a number of minutes, we arrived at parking spot, the same one as the previous day. We all unloaded and headed into the forest. Nick and I began looking at plants and discussing various ones. We searched for that mysterious Annonaceae we had seen the day before. We didn’t find it immediately. I double checked some plant IDs with Nick - Vitex, Psuedobombax, Brosimum, Protium, others… We headed down the forest road toward the transect. Not long after that, Nick found the Annonaceae in question. We took a few pictures. It had the smell of Annonaceae. Anyways. We moved on. We came to the area where transect crossed the path. We ducked into the forest following the transect back to its origin. Nick wanted to go to cell 1 to assess lianas and epiphytes on the trees in the first several cells. Then we would come back to cell 9 and continue with the censusing work on the small stems. We followed the transect down, left our packs at the beginning of cell 9 and continued down toward the start of the transect. Nick grabbed the datasheets other things we needed.
Not long after we arrived at the origin. The large trees with tags had low numbers, 15, 11, 6 – there was tree 1. Nick reflected “This is where it all began”. We found the trees we needed and assessed them easily. Occasionally one of the trees was dead. Apparently, there was a hurricane that had come through the area few years earlier, causing some damage to some large trees. That was evident by some gaps in and around Nicks transect in this forest area. It had been becoming a bit grayer in the sky and it began to rain. At first a few solitary rain droplets, then a more consistent frequency of them. We scrambled from cell 3 where we were now back to cell 9, where we had left our packs – about 100 meters gently uphill. By the time we had arrived there was a steady light rain, what I would call a dry forest rain. Nick said, “he wished it would rain more”. It was the dry season in La Milpa, and Nick pointed out that it can rain quite hard during the wet season, but that was not the case today. We all got out our ponchos to wait out the rain. I did not like wearing mine, so I put it back in my pack, I did put the rain cover on my pack, however, and I put my backpack on. My shirt was already wet, and the poncho was making me feel hot and claustrophobic. In about twenty minutes the rain subsided. We conversed about various things until deciding to get back to work.
It took us a while to get situated with the censusing. I ran the tape between the poles of cell 9 and 10. There was a kind of side hill, and the large blowdown gap that we censused through yesterday had deposited debris in this cell, making the tape hard to string. It took several tries until it was to Nick’s liking, then we began the work. I would tag trees, Abby would measure their position and distance, and Nick would measure their diameters. We censused the cell and then decided that we would call it a day. It was nearing noon, and we were all eager to take it easy and go into “town” for the afternoon. We hiked up the road and had lunch up there. Lunch consisted of the familiar pork meat, the same that we had had a few days earlier, and rice. I had nabbed some fruit and a tortilla off the breakfast buffet to add to my serving. Over lunch, Nick shared stories of how he went on some adventures in the Darian gap, and other expeditions and wild things he had done. We talked a little more about Al Gentry, and it was not the first time his name had come up on this trip. Nick suggested I read “A parrot with no name” for a few stories of the guy, as we walked out toward the truck. We drove back to the station, and Nick and I looked for the oscillated Turkey we had seen on the road the two days before on the way back but did not spot it. When we arrived, it was 12:45 and Nick said we would head to “town” at 2:00 PM.
We showered and got ready and I spent the rest of the time, about an hour or so, getting some new tags ready for the tagging of stems in the future. 2:00 PM came around and we loaded up once more in the white pick-up, Young Nick and I in the back and Nick and Abby in the front and we headed out. I chewed sunflower seeds and spit the shells out of the bed. Young Nick had his camera and was snapping pictures as we went. 10 minutes down the dirt road, in the opposite way to the UE transect, and we arrived at the gate to the conservation area. We waited a few minutes and it was clear the fellow who was manning the gate was not coming. I approached the deck and yelled “Hello”. Nick cautioned me to not touch the gate. I was honestly going to open it if would not have said anything. I got back in the truck and shortly after, the short, indigenous-looking man emerged and asked us “where do you stay?”. I told him “La Milpa” and we were off. We motored around, past the cow fields, where 4 Mexican men were spraying herbicide from herbicide applicator backpacks in one of the cow fields. The dirt road turned to pavement and we passed the circle K. We took a right, past several houses, the community center. We stopped to look at a dead snake in the road. Young Nick, Abby and I got out to take close look; Nick pulled the truck over. It was an adult Fer de Lance, probably dead at least a full day. Ants were crawling all over its smashed head. The markings on it back were unmistakable, brown, black and tan diamonds; large reptilian scales. We got back on the road, past the gravel yard, past the Linda Vista Shopping Center and adjacent graveyard. There were less than 20 tombstones, right off the side of the road, which I thought was a bit odd.
We pulled in to the driveway of a two-story house. There was a sign that said “Linda Vista Taco-Burger & Motel”. I asked jokingly, “What’s a taco-burger? Aren’t all tacos that use beef, technically burgers?” Abby responded with some technical retort, “I’m pretty sure it means tacos AND burgers”. We entered up the stairs and into a house. There was and elderly man and woman there behind the counter. They had all kind of stuff on display, most of it old and kind of dusty. Nick had said we were going to get some souvenirs, but this was more like walking into a garage sale, where everything had a price tag. There four aisles and some display cases up front. Behind was an elderly man, who greeted us when we walked in. There was also an elderly woman with her back turned to us, laboring over a sewing marching. I could see how the shop served its purpose in the area, however. I perused the shop. They had an area for clothes, things were arranged by size. There were two large spools of cotton insulation hanging on the wall. A few racks of semi-disorganized shirt and the such. In aisle two there was a collection of Belize knick-knacks, shot glasses, magnets, a few t-shirts, some of it newer, most of it not. The tile creaked underfoot, it needed re-grouting. I found a few things of interest in the front display case. It was clear that we should spend a little money here and support the local economy. There was a small collection of stickers nestled in a display case containing some old Timex watches, some old jewelry and other trinkets. Four stickers that saying Belize in various ways and a Patch. It was $12.50 Belizean. I gave the elderly lady 20$ Belizean and she gave me my change. Young Nick bought some kind of hand made sitting pad or something, a set of earrings and sticker. Abby bought a luggage tag, which was pretty cool. Nick bought a Belize magnet. I walked over to where he was making his purchase from the elderly gentlemen. As I walked up, Nick was adding up his change, which he said was two dollars short (Belizean). It too the gentleman a second but then he placed another 2-dollar bill on the change stack. I asked him his name. He said it was John Klassen. Nick and I both introduced ourselves. I asked him where he was from and he said, Chihuahua, Mexico. Nick asked him how long he had been living there. He said, “Oh about 40 years”. The elderly lady, his wife, corrected him and told us, “We have been living in this house for 50 years.” Mr. Klassen replied, “well I must’ve missed a few days and nights then, I guess,” then smiled. Nick and I had a laugh. We all exited the establishment.
We hit the road again, to explore a bit. I did not know the destination. We went down the hill away from the Linda Vista shopping center, but we would come back for the internet. We could see the whole valley as we descended off the plateau. It was a nice view, very green. The looked to be a vibrant economy of ranching and agriculture, a very rural landscape a few small forest patches and with forest bordering along the western edge. We turned off the main paved road near the bottom of the hill. We past several barns, a few grain silos and many cattle herds grazing in fields. A patch of forest began to appear on the sides of the pick-up. Royal palms intermixed with various species we had seen in the forest. The truck came to a stop, I got up and turned around to see a medium-sized fresh water lake. I could see the other side, but it was long and skinny and extended off into the distance. The water was clear, and the area was free of trash and other pollution. A small green shack stood next to where we had parked. Nick pointed out several plants, a few of the trees that hung over the truck. Most of them we had seen before. There was a large Lysiloma. He continued, “…but the real interesting thing about this place is, if you see off in the distance, around the lake, there are red mangroves.” I said, “No way, you’re kidding,” and I was immediately skeptical. He gave me his binoculars. I had a look, but had a hard time seeing the leaves. There were the characteristic stilt roots, but the bark was white on them, not the usually reddish color. I walked around until I could get a good close up confirmation, and sure enough, Red Mangrove. Wow. Nick explained that people thought that the ocean had come up that point at some time in the past and they had established in brackish swamp area, which then became freshwater and they have been there ever since. We walked a short distance looking at the various other species, Ucar, Mahogany, Alseies, Licaria, Sideroxylon, Pouterias, Tabernamontana … We could go forever… We saw over 30 species in a short 15-20 minutes, but we had to go to catch the internet and get ice cream.
Again, into the pick-up we went. Back past the cattle fields, up the hill and to the “Linda vista shopping center”, which was basically a small grocery store and hardware store and two gas pumps. We parked, I used the bathroom, and Nick took out his computer. We set up at the same picknick table outside the store as before. Abby, Young Nick and I went inside. They browsed the hot sauce selection – a great gift idea – as we were kind of on that kick after the Taco-Burger place. I purchased an ice-cream cone and coconut water in a can for $3.50 US. I enjoyed them as I check my email on my smartphone. I replied to one email. Nick took care of his business and we were headed back to the station by 5:20 PM. Many Mennonites and Latinos came and went in the short half hour we spent there. We enjoyed people watching them, trying to get a feel for the everyday life in the area. We made one last short stop on the way back to camp, at the Circle R for some wire and a Coca-Cola for the gate operator. Abby gave the Coca-Cola to the short, indigenous-looking gentleman responsible for opening the gate when we arrived. He asked if we were staying at “Texas camp”, and Nick said “No, La Milpa”. He chuckled, pointed at me and said, “ahh-ha”, which was awkward. I was confused, but we were already down the road toward the station for dinner.
We arrived and had a few minutes to kill. We went to the cabanas to tie up any loose ends and then went down for dinner. We ate our servings of chicken, rice and coleslaw with flan for desert. There were no other guests. They all must have left. We went over to the croc pond to see if we could see the crocodile. We shined out flashlights and saw eye shine as we approached, but it disappeared as we neared. We went up on the bridge to see what we could see but on our first pass there was nothing. Nick and I were looking at an adult Pachira aquaitca tree, admiring how it managed to find water in the vast expanse of the whole forest area at La Milpa, when Young Nick and Abby spotted the croc. It was right near were we had seen the eye shine, not far from the small wooden bridge. By the time Nick and I got there it had sunk into the murky water. We went back to the dining hall looking up at the brightly glowing stars. Nick retired, and Young Nick, Abby and I played the dice game. It did not last but a half an hour and Nick won. After that we turned in for the night.
Day 7 – 2/26/2019
Another day dawned in La Milpa. It was a misty morning again as I looked off the deck of the cabana building at 6:30 AM. I got up and relieved myself in the urinal of the bathroom down the deck. I saw that Nick was already up and working in the back of his cabana room. As I entered the bathroom the smell of the composting toilets hit me. It was stronger than I had remembered. I went and crawled back into bed for the last few minutes of shut eye before breakfast. I rose again at 7:30 and readied myself for a day of field work. The camo pants, now slightly soiled, went back on. I pulled a fresh pair of socks from my duffel bag and put them on pulling them snug up to the mid-calf. I laced up the combat boots. I readied my field pack. I rolled up the poncho, which was drying form the day before, and packed it along with the meter tape and water bottles. We went down for breakfast. I grabbed a cup of coffee. We were falling into our groove and everything at La Milpa was now becoming routine. There were four plates laid out where the buffet was served the previous day, each with scrambled eggs, re-fried beans, a sausage link and a tortilla. Young Nick and Abby had already grabbed theirs. I grabbed the remaining two plates and went outside with them. Nick came shortly after I sat down at the table and we began eating. While we ate, Nick shared a story about how we went on a 6-week expedition with the Royal Army from Great Britain to a remote location in Belize in 1991. He described how everything they did was regimented and dictated by Army code which could be found in a book that they all carried around. He shared other various stories about the characters of the camp, both Army and civilian – there were several other biologists that accompanied him on the expedition. Abby asked several questions, while Young Nick and I listened. Nick explained that several new species were described, and various scientific works were completed, some of which could be found in the collection of books at the station, such as the Reptiles and Amphibians of Belize book. Half way through breakfast, a Coati crossed camp about 50 meters from us. We awed at it as it hobbled along at a fast pace, it’s ring-furred bushy tail could be seen at our distance. We finished our breakfast and brought our plates back but needed to make some tree tags before heading to the field. Nick did not think we had enough of them. They are those soft aluminum tags on which you can write the number. I wrote out another batch of 30, while Young Nick and Abby twisted the wires and strung them together for holding.
We got our lunches and readied ourselves. I brushed my teeth quickly and went down to the pick-up truck. Abby was there already and began to talk while we waited for the other. Then out came Melvis. We shared a bit of our previous day’s adventures and he shared with us some of his. Apparently, he saw a 12-foot crocodile at a different Mennonite swimming hole that he visited yesterday. I gave him a high five with an enthusiastic “Carpe Diem”, which he returned, just as Nick was arriving to the pickup. We all loaded up and headed out for the day. Young Nick and I put on the snake gaiters as we went down the road. The day was heading up quickly, as the sun was rising overhead. We parked at the same place as the previous two days and made our way down the road toward the transect. Nick and Abby talked about some family paintings. Apparently, Nick’s father was an illustrator, who had quite a collection of paintings, which ended up in a Museum in New England somewhere. We moseyed on down the road, looking at various plant as we went. There was something I had not seen before and I asked Nick what it was. He said, “Wow, that’s Platymiscium, it’s not so common in this forest type, but it can be seen in higher abundance in the wetter areas on the other side of the reserve.” It had a compound leaf with 5 leaflets and kind of swollen nodes. I had thought it was a species in the Burseraceae, but Platymiscium is a Fabaceae. We moved on, making our way down the hill toward the origin of the transect. There were a few field checks to finish in cell 3, one’s we failed to complete yesterday due to the rain. We would start there.
We dropped our packs at cell 10 and headed to cell 3. We assessed several trees for lianas and epiphytes in cells, 3, 5, 6, and did a double check of cell 7. The cell with the large treefall. Many of the large trees in the data were apparently dead. There was one that was leaning under the weight of the trunk of a fallen tree. It was still alive. We moved to cell 10, I ran the tape between the posts – got the line approved by Nick with some minor adjustments – and we and began censusing. I was responsible to tagging the stems with the aluminum soft tags and green nursery tape. Nick was responsible for measuring diameters and Abby was responsible for position and distance measurements. We moved methodically along the line, telling our data to Nick, who wrote it down in his field notebook. We censused two complete cells and then decided to have and early lunch. It was 11:30 and we had worked pretty good for the morning.
We found a spot to eat, near a downed log, aka a “picknick table”, as Nick referred to it. We began eating our lunch and Nick brought up a thinking point. He described the species abundance curve of a tropical forest, with a few common species and many rare species. He said that this was a naturally inherit property of just about every forest, or community, for that matter. He then talked a bit about Hubbell’s neutral theory and how this pattern could be reproduced with simple mathematics and computer simulations, without considering species or environmental differences, i.e. “purely due to chance”. Young Nick was a bit skeptical, saying that he had a hard time believing that anything was due purely to chance alone. Abby gave no opinion but seemed intrigued. During lunch about 4 spider monkeys swung their way through the canopy, coming over us to curiously have look. One of them had a baby clinging to its back. I eyed them up in the binoculars. The females had darker coloration than the males, who had white stomachs and were slightly larger. They moved with easy throughout the canopy. They stopped and peered down at us, momentarily scratching themselves and puffing their chests out at us. Over time they grew more accustomed and less interested in us. We watched them for a good ten to fifteen minutes and were back to work shortly after noon.
We had the goal of censusing four cells, and the last two went smoothly. The forest was open as we ascended the gentle slope back toward the road. We saw many of the plants we had already seen -Pouterias, Manilkaras, Rhinoreas, Trichillias, etc. Two new species were seen, a Blomia prisca and a Lonchocarpus guatamalensis. We completed the remaining two cells by 2:00 PM and then decided we would walk to the end of the transect – to cell 50. We made our way back to the road on which we had walked in. There the transect took a short break. We found it on the other side of the road. Nick described how it traversed the ridge of the upland area, finishing just before the escarpment, hence the name of the transect “upland escarpment”. We followed the transect along, finding post after post. We came to where a tree had fallen over the transect. Apparently, these cells had already been censused, but the data was missing species identifications. We identified all the individuals (small trees) in the transect for which we could plainly see tags on. Then we continued or way. The transect was becoming more obscure and it was clear that this part of the transect had not been censused in the immediate past. We flagged several points as we pressed on. Down a slope and up another.
We came to a steep ravine where several huge trees emerged, including a massive Mahogany. Nick had told us we would come to this ravine and that the transect would stop and start on the other side. We admired the large trees. Young Nick and I went down into the ravine and back up the other side to look for where the transect began again. Nick and Abby went around to the right to see if there was an easier way to pass the ravine. About 15 minutes later we reunited on the other side, found the transect and continued up the slope. We followed the transect for about another 100 meters, following the tagged trees and occasionally fining a PVC post, finally determining that we had come to the end of the transect. We saw several large trees in the last 100 meters. A large Metopium, several Pouterias, a large Pusedobombax, a huge Manilkara zapota with the characteristically slashed trunk. The terrain was rocky, jagged limestone beneath a thin soil/ organic layer. We set the bearing out to Northwest and walked about 500 meters to the road. We were back at the truck fifteen minutes after that. It was 4:00 PM. We drove back to camp.
We showered and relaxed until dinner time. I went down to the dining area to bird watch from the porch using the spotting scope. I saw a few honey creepers and the usual suspects. I eyed in on a few grass quits (later identified as Yellow-faced Grassquits - Tiaris olviceus), which I had not seen before. Their plumage was a dark jade green color, tending toward brown in places, and the males were slightly blue on the chest; their beaks were thick and short. They grazed the seeds of the grasses with a reptilian like ferocity. I watched them for many minutes, then I grew weary and took a short siesta in the nearby hammock before dinner. 6:30 came around and we all grabbed our plates from inside the dining building. We took them outside and began eating – a large plate of spaghetti, topped with parmesan cheese. A few slices of tomato and cucumber accompanied the spaghetti and small plate of chocolate cake was the desert. We all consumed it quickly. Abby gave what she could not eat to Young Nick, who gratefully ate it. Nick talked about bajo forest and how it is defined and the environmental characteristics that make it different from the other forest types, principle flooding during the wet season, accompanied by fine soils which make the areas “edaphically dry” in the dry season. These environmental conditions lead to stunted plant morphologies along with a different species composition. We planned to visit one tomorrow. We made other plans for the remaining two days, because Abby would leave at the end of the month. Abby, Young Nick and I went to look for the crocodile. We spotted it this time, with its head just above the water. It was small, probably 4 to 5 feet in total length, a juvenile. We wondered how it got there. We went back to the dining room to play the dice game, which Young Nick won, then retired for the evening.
Day 8 – 2/27/2019
A new day dawned in La Milpa. The day was misty again in the morning when I rose at 6:30 AM. I went to the bathroom to relieve myself, and then looked out over the camp. The fatigue of the daily routine of field work as setting in, so I decided to rest for a half an hour more. I rose again shortly after 7:00AM. I dressed and went outside on the deck. There was Nick, I greeted him with a “good morning” and we immediately began talking. We discussed odds and ends. Data gathering and data analysis of ecological data, specifically the data from his transects that we were collecting on this trip. I had jokingly stated while we were working in the field a few days back, “give me the data and I will do the analyses”, even though I am up to ears in analyses, both of data I have collected personally and of several other projects that use data from secondary sources. He kind of approached the subject gingerly in conversation, but he indicated that he could not share the data with me, because “Sheila was guarding them and was meticulously curated and analyzing them as they became available”. Sheila is Nick’s wife. I told Nick that I was merely joking, and we both laughed it off. We discussed a few other odds and ends, and then it was 7:30 and time for breakfast. I readied my pack and went down to the dining cabana. The Agouti was there this morning off to the right under a tree, hopping around and foraging for seeds in the grass.
I entered the dining cabana and filled a coffee cup with coffee and milk. I grabbed a plate and headed outside to our designated dining table. I then helped Nick bring the rest of the plates, cups and cutlery out to the table. Abby joined us shortly after the table was set to dine, and Young Nick shortly after. It was the usual. Scrambled eggs, refried beans, fry-jack, a slice of cheese and side plate of fruit – watermelon and pineapple today. We started talking about various things, some of which I cannot recall. Nick did ask me to explain to Young Nick and Abby what a “functional trait” was in terms of plant ecology, which had come up in conversation a few times in the past several days. I did my best to explain how different “morpho-physio logical” characteristics help explain the species differences (and functional redundancy) along key axes of ecological life-history variation for plants. Things like seed size/mass of wood density are good predictors of how species perform, generally, in relation to one another and help us interpret their ecologies in the field with environmental variation. I went on to reflect a bit on how it’s amazing how much more that adds to the understanding of the ecology of plants, but also how much it confirms many patterns that were previously described by tropical forest ecologists not using them. We cleared the plates and got ready for the field. I filled my water bottles and went to the truck.
We would go to a new transect today – the Rio Bravo transect. We would work the morning there and then go a “bajo” to explore a different forest type. We went out the usual way from the camp. Young Nick and I put on the snake gaiters as we drove, and we spotted a gaggle of curacaos off the road as we went. We drove about 20 minutes, past the parking spot from the previous day, down the first escarpment, past the parking spot for the “Cohune Ridge transect”, and on a little further. We saw a snake sunning itself on the side of the road and stopped briefly. It was about 7 feet long, and about 5 cm thick at it widest point. I was mostly black with some yellow markings. We later identified it as a Black Rat Snake (aka the Thunder and Lightning snake – creole name). Nick, Young Nick and Abby got out to check it out, and it slithered off into the forest before they could get too close. I was content to watch from the bed of the truck. We drove a little further down the road and there was an over grown road that went off to the left of the road. We parked at its entrance. We all got out and began walking. We walked for about 30 minutes, crossing over several treefalls and taking trails around others before turning off the overgrown road, off-trail into the forest at some orange flagging. We proceeded at a slower pace through the forest and down a gentle slope with thick vegetation and exposed limestone in areas. We found flagging after flagging for about half a kilometer.
As we were descending, there was a small snake in a tree, at about eye-level, which I spotted. It was only a few feet from me. I mentioned to the others that I had spotted a snake, and they came to have a look. It was a small snake, less than three feet long and only a few centimeters in diameter at its thickest part. It was mostly dark colored, but had a beautiful coloration toward the tail, first yellowish then grading into green and blue toward the tip. It did not appear venomous. I later came to identify it as a Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus) . I took some gloves I had in my bag out, which were dusty with soil, because I had used them to protect my hands while digging roots. I was frightened, but I was going to grab the snake (Got to face your fears). One, two, three… and I grabbed it by the tail. It squirmed and contorted as I held it. I was waiting for chance to grab the head but was never able to. It kind of veered around and tried to bit, but missed, it’s mouth was small and there were no visible fangs. It squirmed in the air, as I held on to the end of its tail and tangled itself into some vines. We admired its coloration and beauty. Young Nick snapped a few photos. We decided we had terrorized it enough, and let it go. It quickly slithered off away from us and we continued with our descent.
We came to the bottom of the slope and there were palms. The soil was sandier and darker, resembling that of the Cohoune Ridge transect. There was an abundance of this spikey rattan, and the spikey palm, Bactris major. We gingerly made our way through and found the transect at pole 14. We began censusing and ended up completing two cells. The work was hard, and the day was hot. We tagged many stems, probably around 60 in the two cells. Most the trees were entangled in lianas and the forest was considerably scrubbier than the Upland Escarpment or the la Milpa transect. The habitat resembled the Cohune ridge area, but the forest was not dominated by the Attalea cohune palm. Instead, it was made up of various woody stems, mostly small trees but some larger, intermixed with palms at low densities. By the time we had censused the two cells, it was after 1:00PM. We at lunch quickly, which consisted of two ham sandwiches, and piece of the previous night’s chocolate cake. I snagged a couple of extra fry jacks from breakfast too. We talked about Amazon (the company), Jeff Bezos, ecology, and other various random topics. Then we headed back to the truck.
By the time we made it back to the truck it was 2:00 PM. We went back to camp for a quick stop before heading out to the Bajo trail. Nick dropped his pack which contained lots of the census gear. We loaded up again. We stopped briefly to check out “Texas camp” which is very near to our camp, in the woods off the main road. It is a major archaeological camp utilized by the University of Texas in the summer for the archaeology field courses. Nick gave a quick tour, as he had spent a few summers in there. He has also collaborated with many of the archaeologists that work in the area. There was an arrangement of about a dozen wooden buildings of varying sizes, constructed somewhat-haphazardly but sturdily. Most were small dormitory-style rooms that shared a thin plywood wall and had open ceilings and screening for the windows. There were a few other larger dining hall and lab-type buildings. It looked kind of like a temporary boy-scout or 4-H type of camp. Not necessarily the place I would like to spend to spend my summer, but Nick assured me that it was awesome when it was operating at full force, “perfectly functional” and “better than a Ritz Carlton” were how he described it.
We got back in the truck and drove another 5 minutes down the road to the bajo trial. We walked along for about an hour and half, looking at the vegetation. The bajo is an “edaphically dry” area in the dry season that floods in the wet season. The soils in these areas tend to be finer and less well-drained than the typical karste soils of the other forest areas (i.e. upland areas). This creates a shorter forest, hence the name, and results in a different mix of species. There some that are only found in the transition zone to the bajo and others that are exclusive found in the bajo. Many of the mesic forest species do not exist in the bajo, in favor or more dry-forest type species. The canopy got successively lower on the walk, as the trail looped around. It started at about 40m and went down to about 20m at its lowest point. Nick and I botanized, looking at many species we had seen and some new species, such as: Terminalia amazonica (Combretaceae), Cesalpina gaumeri (Fabaceae), Cupania rufescens (Sapindaceae), Matayba oppositifolia (Sapindaceae), Jacquinia, Pouteria durlandii (Sapotaceae), Acosmium panamense (Fabaceae), and Hametoxylum campechianum (Fabaceae). There were some that we did not know. As we walked along, the stem density increased, and the presence of understory sedges increases as well. It was very interesting to see how the forest structure and composition changed over that environmental ecotone. We finished the hike and made it back to camp by 4:00PM.
We showered and got cleaned up. Young Nick, Abby and I took the opportunity before dinner to make up a new batch of tags. We made 120 of them. Then dinner was served a the usual 6:30 time. It was a delicious helping of diced potatoes, green salad, and chicken with chocolate cake for desert. We all ate our servings quickly as we were hungry from the day. We had planned to back out to orchid pond, well more of a lagoon, to look for red-eyed tree frogs. Nick had seen then there in the wet season. We drove out the other way from camp, toward the La Milpa ruins for about 10 minutes. We parked, and the forest was pitch black. The stars shown brightly. We entered the trail, crossed the small bridge and looked around. No frogs to be found. There were some terrestrial frogs and toads making noise in the lagoon, but none of them were out in the forest. The forest was dry, likely too dry for them. I have heard they hibernate in the dry season. We looked around some more, but gave up and headed back to camp, after admiring the stars for a good several minutes. We did spot a rabbit on the way the back, a sort of consolation prize if you will. We got back to camp, Nick retired, and Abby, Young Nick and I went to look for the crocodile. We snuck up slowly and this time we got a good look a it before it sunk down into the lagoon. Its head seemed too large for its body, and its little arms could be seen floating in the water, but its hind quarters were deeper in the lagoon and not visible. I doubt it is more than 5 feet long. As we neared it, it initially disappeared into the lagoon. We went back to the dining quarters to play the dice game. It was a quick game, which Abby won. Then we went to bed.
Day 9 – 2/28/19
Another day dawned in La Milpa. I had a difficult time getting to sleep the night before – restless thoughts and insomnia plague me sometimes, and the previous night was one of those nights. The rest I did get was good, however. I rose at 7:00 AM but still felt slightly fatigued, physically from the field work and mentally from a night of less than great rest. That was okay, because I still planned to have an excellent day in the forest. I put on the field clothes, pulled my socks up to mid-calf and laced up my combat boots. I checked my field bag to make sure things were in order, which they were. I then went down to the dining cabana for some much-needed coffee. Nick was there at one of the outdoor tables looking something up in one of the books. They have a small collection of about 50 naturalist books and field guides at the La Milpa ecolodge, which includes many good references on plants and animals. Nick put the book away as we greeted each other with the morning salutation. We both went inside to grab the plates of food. The breakfast was the same as all the previous days, except there was a new bread item – biscuits instead of tortillas or fry-jack which we had had before. Young Nick and Abby joined us, took their plates, and we situated ourselves outside to eat breakfast. They talked as we ate about various things, mostly related to family things. I was content to just listen and enjoy my breakfast and coffee. I finished the first small cup of coffee and went back for another. I enjoyed being able to drink coffee at liberty. Breakfast concluded, and we took our plates back inside and collected our lunches. I filled my water bottles and went out the truck to start the day.
To my surprise Abby was in the bed of the truck with Young Nick. She had ridden up front with Nick, who was the driver, for the entirety of the trip thus far. Today was her last day in the field with us, so I guess she wanted the experience of riding in the back of the truck. I got in the shotgun seat and we pulled out. I turned on the radio, just to see what was on the airwaves. I found two Mennonite talk radio stations on the FM frequencies. One was talking about spanking your children and discipline… “The bible provides the perfect manual for raising children”, one person said. I scanned to the other frequency, just in time to pick up the DJ saying, “you’re on the air” in a Mennonite, Old-German English accent. A lady came on the air, talking about how she was studying the book of Leviticus. I am all for the practice of religion and think it a beneficial activity for all humans, but now was not the time nor the place. I switched off the radio, Nick and I joked a bit about it and began conversating. It was not long before we were parked at the entrance to the overgrown road leading to the Rio Bravo transect. I exited the 1992 low-riding pick-up truck, put on the snake gaiters and we all began to walk down the road. We looped around a few large treefalls which were blocking the road and were overgrown. We came to where the road started to slope down gently, and Young Nick shouted out that he had found a snake.
We approached behind him to have a look. It was a small, slender snake, about two feet in length, and definitely a juvenile. It was brown with black diamonds on its back and had the “cats’ eye” denoting that it was venomous. It did not seem to mind our presence, but we kept a few feet distance. Young Nick took several pictures with his camera, and I got a few with my phone. We both thought it was the Fer-de-Lance – the most venomous snake in the area. Nick was not convinced, telling us not to jump to conclusions. We took a few more pictures, admiring its beauty, but we certainly were not going to try to touch this snake. It moved slightly and was not on the edge of the road heading into the forest. It did not move fast. I picked up a small stick and touched the snake with it. It promptly coiled up in the typical rattle snake fashion and began shaking its tail which was lighter colored, but without rattle. That was enough for us. We concluded it was the Fer-de-lance (aka el matabiologo), and that we need not mess with it any more. We moved on down the trail, dipped into the forest at the flagging and followed it down to the transect. We went a few cells down from where we started yesterday to cell 16 and began censusing. Today I would measure where the stems were on the transect. The distance along the 20 m cell where we strung the tape (i.e. the y coordinate) is called the position, while the perpendicular distance from the tape (i.e. the x coordinate) is called the distance. I measured the position and distance for about 40 trees in the first two cells, then it was time for lunch. During that time, there was a light rain for about 15 minutes, just enough to moisten the forest. We all got wet, and I did not even try to avoid the rain. It was refreshing.
We ate lunch just before noon underneath a Sabal palm tree. It consisted of the same biscuits as we had for breakfast, 3 of them. Two were filled with shredded chicken and lettuce and tomato and one was filled with peanut butter and jelly. I had grabbed a fourth biscuit, as there were extras after breakfast. I ate the three make-shift sandwiches and choked down the dense biscuit washing it down with water. I was the first to finish lunch. Nick had gone back to check something in the data, but it was taking him some time. About ten minutes into lunch he caught back up with where we were and ate his biscuits too. We rested for several minutes and then got back to the censusing. We censused two more cells, which were a bit more difficult than the first two, because they were over grown toward the start of the cell (in the first 5 meters). The first cell had a nasty tangle of this spikey rattan, which I had to beat down with the PVC measuring pole we carried with us to be able to string the tape through to the second pole. The second cell had a tangle of vines overgrowing the first 5 meters, which I just powered my way though, stringing the tape along with me. I was no worse for the wear, but I was soggy and sweaty by the end of the day.
It was nearing 4:00 when completed the censusing of the four cells. We made out way out of the rio bravo area and back to the truck, but not without first getting a few group photos, at the request of Abby. We found a large Psedobombax we had passed before. Young Nick set up a tripod for his camera, set the timer and ran back to get in frame. About 10 photos were snapped in succession. By the 10th one, everyone but Nick made some kind of comical pose. We made out way out of the forest via the flagged route and then by the overgrown road. We loaded up in the truck and made it back to the station. We arrived just before 5:00 PM. We all showered and then Nick gathered us up and told us we would have a party down at the dining cabana for Abby’s departure.
Down there was a refrigerator full of beer and sodas which one could drink, provided they were tallied on the honor system. We all situated ourselves at one of the tables. Nick drank a beer, while we drank Coca-Cola, and shared with us pictures from a recent 6-week sailing adventure he took down the coast of California and the Baja. The pictures were great, and I listened as Nick explained them. I made a few of the soft tree tags also. The time passed quickly and then it was time for dinner. Vladimir told us we could grab our plates, as dinner was served. Pasta, a pork chop, salad and an oatmeal cookie were on the menu, and we continued our conversation about Mexico and Baja California as we ate. The night was pleasant as the temperature cooled off. We took our time, sat for a little while, and then cleared our plates. Then, Young Nick, Abby and I played the last few of the dice games to declare the ultimate winner. After one game were all tied with 3 wins collectively over the last several nights, so we played a rubber match, which I won. We all turned in for the night.
Day 10 – 3/1/2019
Another day dawned in La Milpa. It was a sunny day when I rose at just before 7:00 AM. I put on clothes for the field. I chose the pair of Carhartt pants I had brought instead of the camo pants, because I had gotten poked by some spikey plants (I think it was that spikey rattan or the Bactris palm) through the pant yesterday and had to remove several spine tips from my knee. I put on a long-sleeved shirt, fresh pair of socks pulled up to the mid-calf and laced up the combat boots – not too tight, just snug enough. I readied the day pack including my camo overcoat and baseball cap. I then turned my attention to gathering my dirty laundry, most of which was in a laundry sack already, but I made sure any other dirty articles were added to the sack. Today we would do laundry and take care of a few errands in town in the morning and then head out to the field. I made my bed and went outside. Young Nick was there reading in the hammock and Abby was there next to him sitting a wooden chair. From the deck we were on, we spotted the Coati trotting across the camp. Today was Abby’s last day: She would leave to the airport after breakfast. I asked if she was ready to go, we discussed the highlights and lowlights of her trip, but before we could get too into the conversation, Nick came along and indicated it was time for breakfast.
We all walked down to the dining cabana. The Agouti was out in its usual spot foraging for seeds, and several curacao were near it. I quickly set the table with silverware and glasses, while the others grabbed the plates of food. I went back for a cup of coffee before sitting down. Refried beans, 3 fry-jacks, and Vienna sausages in a red sauce were for breakfast, with a side plate of fruit. We all enjoyed our last meal with Abby, discussing various things about the trip, Belize in general and reflecting on the time thus far. A fox passed across camp as we ate, which Abby spotted and pointed out to us all. There was also a Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) eating fruits from a nearby tree. It could be seen at eyelevel, less than 10 m away. The day was beautiful, clear sky and heating up fast. We cleared our dished, but we were not in too much of rush to get going. Vladimir, a staff at the ecolodge would take Abby to the airport. We visited for a little while longer, while we did various thing to get ready for the day – filling of the water bottle etc., then we loaded Abby’s luggage in the truck with Vlad, gave our final farewells and she was off. It was just the two Nicks and I for the next week or so. We got the laundry and headed for town in the white pick-up. It was just after 830 AM. I rode shotgun and Young Nick rode in the bed.
On the way toward town, just before the gate operated by the older Indigenous guy, Nick informed me the call him “Merengue”, we spotted a herd of peccaries. Nick almost did not see then ahead of us, until they started to flee into the forest. Nick reversed to see if they were still around, but they were long gone. He said they were probably the collared variety, because the white-lipped kind would be making a bunch of noise as they ran. We heard nothing. We approached the gate, there was Merengue, sitting and writing in a notebook. He did not acknowledge us immediately, but after about a minute or two went over to let us through the gate, which he let up slowly. We pulled through and looked at him, he asked, “Donde va?”, and Nick replied “Linda Vista”. As we sped on, Nick joked that you could tell that guy anything and that sometimes he felt like saying Mexico City just to be smart with him. We went past the circle R and turned right down the road. We passed the Circle R fertilizer manufacturing plant; Circle R was a company of many businesses. Nick looked off to the right in search of a familiar driveway. After a few, he turned right, and we went uphill a long rural drive past all kind of “farm trash” – old tractors, a broken-down school bus, a work shed full of miscellaneous things, a minivan missing wheels propped up on blocks, trailers etc. We parked in front of a modest farm house and out came a middle-aged Mennonite lady. Nick introduced himself, asking the lady if she remember him, and then talking about his wife Shelia, who had met the lady previously. The lady replied that she remembered Shelia, and that Nick vaguely looked familiar. She introduced herself as Anna Newfeldt. We asked if she could do our laundry for us, and she replied indicating that it would be her pleasure, because laundry is one of her favorite jobs to do. We talked over the details, exchanged pleasantries and were on our way. We would pick up the laundry tomorrow in the morning.
We drove down to the Linda Vista shopping center, that little place with a grocery and hardware store. Apparently, it had a bank and a post office too. Young Nick wanted to check out machetes and we needed to get some snacks for the field. Young Nick and I immediately went into the hardware store. I told the red bearded Mennonite fellow, whom I had spoke to one before, that we were looking for machetes. He showed us them. They were the slender variety. We had already seen the machetes from the Circle R hardware store earlier and Young Nick indicated that he liked that style better. Those were the cane field machetes, with a fatter, heavier and two-sided blade at the tip. I bought one, though and a file for $18 Belizean. We went over to supermarket to get snacks. We found some Nature Valley bars, the 36-value pack. We also bought some almonds, raisins, and sunflower seeds, all of which were packaged in simple bags. The total was $75 Belizean. We went outside to join Nick at the usual picknick table stop out front of the stores. He was there on his computer, probably checking his email. I responded to a few myself using my phone. The sun was out in full. Mennonites and Belizeans alike were tending to their daily errands. The place was hustling and bustling. Then sure enough, John Klassen pulls up right in front of us and get out with another gentleman. I greeted them. I asked if he remembered us from the day before, which it appears he kind of did, but had to think about it. I offered him a few sunflower seeds, of which I was de-shelling and eating profusely now with a fat wad of them in my check. He took a few, hesitantly, saying that he didn’t want to take more because he would get the shells all over the store. I shook his hand and He went inside. Nick and I joked, “what are the odds?”. Pretty high in this small town I guess. Nick wrapped up things, Young Nick sent a few post cards from the post office, which were hard to find in the grocery mart; I think he wiped them out, buying all five they had. We left and headed back toward the way we came.
Next, we stopped at the circle R. Nick wanted to visit the gentleman who had loaned us the pick-up store, who’s machine shop is just next door. Young Nick went to buy his machete there, ended up coming back with 3 – gifts for his buddies back home. We checked out the machine shop. They had three sizes of lathes, all kind of tractor and automotive parts, tools galore, a giant drill press. They were working on repairing two separate tractors. On one of the radiators had just been replaced, on the other they were messing around with the loader arms. We talked with the gentlemen, a father, son and cousin, briefly, then went on our way. We headed back to the reserve, through the gate, and back to camp. We stopped briefly to leave a few things and grab others, then headed to the field. It was about 10:30.
By 11:00, we were hiking up to the transect; the upland escarpment line. We went to the end, which we had scoped out a few days earlier. It was about 400 m bushwhack up a hill, and we found it no problem using the opposite compass bearing we had come out. It was nice piece of well-develop forest with many large trees, but also a somewhat thick understory of small trees, shrubs and palms. Metopium brownei, Manilkara zapota, Drypetes lateriflora, Pouteria amygdalina and reticulata, Pseudolmedia spuria and Psuedobombax elliptica (along with others) comprised the canopy trees. Myrcianthes fragrans, Nectandra coriaceae, Diospyros yatesiana, Pipers and Chamaedorea palms were found in the understory. On top the hill, the soil was thinner and there was exposed, jagged limestone rock. The wind swayed the trees. We censused one cell, ate lunch, then censusused two more. Lunch consisted of two tuna fish sandwiches and an oatmeal scone/cookie from the night before. It hit he spot. We finished the work by 4:00 and headed back to the camp. Young nick took the wheel, and Nick and I rode in the bed. Back at camp, we showered and relaxed a bit before dinner. I got caught up on a few things related to work and email. We ate dinner at 6:30: Chicken, potato salad, and rice. No desert tonight. We talked over the days work and Nick and I conversed about various things career and science related. We made sure to keep Young Nick in the loop, explaining things to him, like what the LTER is and the various sites. Nick and Young Nick turned in for the night. I spend an hour or so going over Gentry’s field guide to Amazonian flora to brush up on some of the plant families. Then I headed to bed.
Day 11 – 3/2/2019
A new day dawned in La Milpa. I awoke at the usually 6:30 time but decided to sleep a bit longer. I was in a deep sleep, dreaming at 7:25 when Young Nick woke me up and told me that it was nearing breakfast time. I got myself ready quickly for the field, checked that my field pack was in order and headed out to the deck area. I met both Nicks and we all went down for breakfast at the dining cabana. We grabbed out plates from the inside. Scrambled eggs, a smaller than usual dollop of refried beans, a slice of cheese and two tortillas was served with a side of two orange slices and two pineapple slices. The day was already at full sun and the birds were out in full force. Hummingbirds buzzed around us as we ate. The feeders were empty, but the birds checked them anyway. We ate and discussed the plans for the day. Nick would go back to see Anna Newfeldt to fetch our clean laundry. Young Nick and I would stay behind to make tags, and then we would hit the field for the day. We finished eating and Young Nick and I stayed at the table to work on the tags, while Nick went off to take care of the errands.
We made about 200 tags in about an hour and half. We worked steadily. Young Nick twisted the tags while I inscribed the numbers in the soft aluminum with a ball point pen. We strung them onto pieces of wire in packets of 40. It was pretty mindless work, so we listen to several short podcasts are we worked, so we could get caught up on current events. The New York Times “The Daily” was the choice and they talked about the battle with China for the 5G network, Michael Cohen’s recent hearing, and the failed North Korea Nuclear disarmament agreement. Before too long, around 9:30, Nick came back to where he left us at the breakfast table, exclaiming, “I went on a wild goose chase.” He proceeded to give us the details of how Merengue had been inordinately friendly to Nick this morning and took information on the truck and asked for Nick to buy him “cigaros”, which Nick determined to be cigarettes; how he successfully retrieved the laundry from Anna Newfeldt, how he stopped by John Klassen’s place to look for a needle and thread but it was closed; searched for a needle and thread from several other places but was unsuccessful; and stopped by this Mennonite thrift store called ‘Hidden Chest Treasure Trove’. We finished the tags, and all did the remaining tasks to get ready for the field. Water, Lunch, check. Field equipment/ supplies check. We loaded up in the white pick up and headed out. Young Nick drove, and Nick and I rode in the bed.
We headed for the upland escarpment transect but we stopped along the way to check out a tree that was in bright yellow flower. We had seen it on the way back from the field the previous day and the bright yellow flowers caught our eye. It was devoid of leaves, but we could see the Fabaceous flowers, several of then on a long inflorescence, 10 or so inflorescences per branch. I looked through my binoculars to see that it was being pollinated by insects, probably bees. No doubt it was in the Fabaceae. Nick ducked into the forest briefly. A minute or two passed. Then he emerged indicating that it was a “Schizolobium”, except he pronounced it “Skitzo”, like Schizophrenia, which was news to me. You know you just read these names in books, and I had never made that connection. I had thought it was more softly like “Shizo”. Anyways, we had it id-ed. Upon looking in the book later, I know that Nick went to see if it had a long thin buttress, which is characteristic of the species. We motored on to the parking spot for upland escarpment. We fastened out snake gaiters and started down the road. We came to our flagging and took the bearing due east toward the transect.
It was warm out and the vegetation was thick. We bushwhacked probably less than half a kilometer and we were at the bottom of the slope. I recognized the area. I had taken a bearing more northeast than east and we intersected the transect nearer to the end than we had anticipated, but it worked out. Nick had several field checks in the latter cells, which we completed quickly. We moved down on the transect form the end toward the origin. We looked for pole 47 but it could not be found so we skipped both cells 47 and 46 and started on 45. We censused cell 45. The landscape was falling away, downhill toward the start of the transect into a steep ravine. The density of stems in the understory, at least in the 2m belt along either side of the transect line, which we were censusing, seem to be thinning. We tagged less stems. We strung the tape for the next transect, then broke for lunch. Rice, chicken and potato salad from the night before was found in our lunch containers. It was pretty good, but we joked about the potato salad, something was a little off about it, but we all still ate it. About halfway through lunch a pack of about 5 spider monkeys came over us to curiously investigate what was going on. I think they smelled out lunch. The curiously hung around for about an hour or so as we resumed out work on the transect.
We censused two more cells and came to a break in the transect. We had scoped this part of the transect out several days earlier. We could see to the next pole about 40 meters across the little arroyo at eye level. It was flagged. We made our way over to it, but first stopped to check out a massive Mahogany tree that was growing just about at the bottom of the ravine. We measured its dbh at about 2 meters from the ground to avoid any buttressing. It was 1.43 meters. We looked up at its majestic stature and conjectured about its height. Nick said that people tend to overestimate heights and exaggerate distances. It was probably true. He estimated that the tree was about 40 m. I said it was maybe closer to 60. I carefully extended out our 5-meter carpenters’ tape along the stem, trying to keep it straight and rigid. After a few tries I had it fully extended at 5m. I then tried to estimate the lengths along the stem. I counted about 14, so the length up the visible stem was about 75 meters, but it twisted and turned a bit and toward the top, the branches extended out much more than they rose vertically. We split the difference content to agree that it was about 50m tall, which may have been a slight overestimate, but was still as accurate as we could get. It was getting close to 4:00PM, so we made it across the arroyo and censused one last cell. I went pretty quickly, and we were making our way out before 5:00. We knew roughly were the road was, based on the bearing we came into the forest on. We decided to follow the ravine out, which ran roughly north-south, to see where it went. After several hundred meters it turned into a gentle trough and then disappeared. We meandered on a northwest bearing for another half a kilometer or so, seeing if we could intersect the road. We began to grow impatient with the bushwhacking and shifted our course to due west bearing. We found the road in 200 meters. We were running more parallel it on our previous bearing. We came out about several hundred meters from where we entered.
We loaded in the truck and headed back to camp. We arrived around 5:30, showered and had about 30 minutes to kill to before dinner. I went down to the dining cabana, got a cup of coffee and saw Vlad there. We talked briefly about the day. “No stress. No bad days in La Milpa”. A group of visitors had come to the ecolodge. They would stay the weekend. We also had three guests that Nick had corresponded with previously.
Mr. Latimore Smith, his wife Nell, and a friend Kate. We met Latimore and began talking with him. He was gentleman from Louisiana, who was very knowledgeable about Belize and had done some fire ecology in the southern American pinelands. He and his wife were recently retired from The Nature Conservancy. Kate is a dentist in Louisiana. The two ladies joined us shortly after Latimore, and we all ate dinner. Kate came with three toothbrushes, floss and toothpaste, as is customary to receive at a dentist’s office. A gift we all appreciated greatly. We dished up buffet style as was customary when larger groups were at the station. A group of about a dozen people ate inside. The menu consisted of seasoned chicken, broccoli, salad, and diced potatoes with a bread pudding cake for desert. We talked about the Mayan and their effect on the forest, logging in Belize (in the Chiquibul), conservation, and various other things along those lines. It was nice conversation. We made plans for the coming day. The ecolodge was in high spirits with the new influx of people and energy. Young Nick and conversed with Belizean guides who had arrived, and Vlad, mostly about snakes. They were able to confirm our pictures of the Fer-de-Lance. Shortly after that, we all retired for the night.
Day 12 – 3/3/2019
Another day dawned in La Milpa. I awoke at 7:00 AM naturally and felt rested. The sun was rising in a clear, cloudless sky. I prepared for a field day as usually but did not take any of the usual field equipment. I left behind the meter tape, carpenter’s tape and dbh tape. I readied my binoculars around my neck and botanical loop, and I put my small notebook and pencil in my breast pocket. Today, we would go around with Latimore Smith, Nell and Kate. The day pack was slightly lighter than usual as I headed down to the dining cabana for breakfast. I went down at 7:20, got the customary morning cup of coffee, and found Vladimir there at the picknick tables in front of the birdwatching station, which was freshly adorned with fresh fruit for the birds, mostly orange slices hung up on some branching twigs and laid out on a small table for the birds to feed on. Red-Legged Honeycreepers (Cyanerpes cyaneus) and Yellow-Crowned Euphonias (Euphonia luteicapillia) were already visiting. We talked very briefly greeting each other, but other guests required Vlad’s attention, so he went to attend to their matters. The other guests were up early birdwatching and started trickling in for breakfast. Nick and Young Nick came down and we all sat around our dining table with our three new friends. We all went to get our breakfast, buffet style, as was the norm when larger groups were being served. The breakfast was scrambled eggs, refried beans, tortillas, a sausage link and fresh fruit. We all ate breakfast, enjoying conversation about the beautiful morning, some of the bird species, and our plans for the day. We would go out to the La Milpa ruins to see the area and the various plants around the Mayan site, then we would explore the forests nearby.
Everybody got ready and we left the station at about 8:30 and went in two cars down the road toward the ruins. Nick drove, and I rode shotgun, while Latimore and co. followed behind us caravan style. I mentioned a few plants I was interested in seeing. We all got out and Nick began by giving a brief overview of the Maya and their effects on the forest, and the various details of the specific site. Young Nick and I had heard most of it before, but still were able to comprehend new and useful details. Nell and Latimore asked many questions, and Kate asked a few as well. We began walking toward the ruins, and the endeavor quickly turned into a botanical excursion as we looked again at the flora of the area. There were several things that we were seeing for the first time; new insights were being had and new individual plants were being observed. Latimore and Nell drew on their knowledge of the southeastern flora and we did out best to relate to how they were relating to the ecosystem. Nell jotted down names on a small notepad. I also wrote down some botanical names and drew small sketches of important characteristics. I had been wanting to do this earlier in the trip, but it’s better late than never. For example, Nick pointed out a plant I had requested to see again, Stemmadenia donnell-smithii, a large Apocynaceae. It stood tall and sturdy on the right-hand side of what would have been the Mayan plaza, near the entrance. It’s large doubly-paired fruit, typical of species in the Apocynaceae, made it easily distinguishable. It was good to see it again, writing things down aids in the retention of information. We went around the Maya ruins area for remainder of the morning; the time passed quickly. We encountered and identified various species, fielded questions on a range of topics from Latimore, Nell and Kate, conversed with them, took picture, view the wildlife (leaf cutter ants, spider monkeys, various bird species, etc). Nick even got some pictures for his Trees of La Milpa book, photographing an Oreopanax in flower and a Myoxylon balasam. We hustled back to the station for lunch, arriving a few minutes before noon.
Lunch was served again buffet style. It was chicken, rice, amarillos, and vegetables; all were pleased with the quality of the food, which was delicious. We ate, continuing our conversation about the various ecosystem attributes and relating on many levels. We discussed the plans for the afternoon, agreeing to visit a nearby bajo and to look for some Oak trees. Lunch concluded and we all took about an hour of down time before reconvening. I went into the dining cabana and took down a book from the shelf, A Natural History of Belize. I read about the Chiquibul, and the flora and fauna contained there, and how it was slightly different in patterns of land use and conservation than the Rio Bravo area. I learned various tid-bits of information, like how the Chameodorea palms are threatened due to the Xate trade of their leaves (harvesting of their leaves for floras arrangements), and habitat destruction. looked through it for about a half an hour before growing tired in the tropical heat. The temperature was not at its peak for the day. I made my way out to the hammock on the deck and had a short rest for about a half an hour, but never really fell asleep. Shortly before 1:30 I had a look around the camp. The croc could not be found in the crocodile pond, but there was a grey fox feeding on a piece of papaya it had finagled from the kitchen somehow. I went over by the truck to find Nick and pointed it out to him. We watched it for a few minutes. Then, Latimore and Nell came by; they indicated that Kate preferred to take the afternoon off. We all loaded up in Latimore’s jeep and headed back down toward the la Milpa ruins.
About 3/4th of the way to the ruins we stopped and a small, overgrown, ex-logging road headed off into the forest. The vegetation was already clearly stunted, and the stem density of the area was very high. We followed that road into the bajo for about a kilometer, observing the floristics and several other ecosystem attributes. At about a half a kilometer the soil became hummocky, with a series of small microtopographic depressions of about a foot fissured around small clumps of sedges growing in the understory. Nick said this was called “gilgei” and was result of the wet-season flooding, dry-season drying and the fine, lower-land soil texture. This in effects creates a hydro-xeric habitat that is stressful to plants and stunts their growth, hence the name bajo. We saw many cool plants on the short hike into and back out of the bajo. Cesssalpina gaumeri, a small Vitex gaumeri (Lamiaceae), Ouratea lucens (Ochnaceae), a few Acacia (Vachellia) species (collinsii & others), Mourirri (the anomalous Melastome), the usual Pouterias etc., Erythroxylum aerolateum (false coca), Croton, Ardisia many orchids and epiphytic plants, ferns, and more (things we did not know). We headed back toward the ecolodge but stopped at a “barrow pit” for a while to check out this large Oak tree, which Nick knew about, but was visible from the road. It was a Quercus oliodes (live oak), and it had the typical oak leaf. The area had been scraped to harvest rock and sediment for road construction, which left it barren of vegetation. The soil was unusual, somewhat granitic and red with a coarse, granitic sandy slope left exposed. On top of the dugout area, was a large oak. It was as if the “borrowers”, borrowed up the base of the oak, but spared it. There were a few smaller saplings of the species around it as well. We saw some Annoncacea (Xylopia fructescens), Myricaceae, Verbenaceae and few things we did not know. We wanted to explore the area further, but a wall of Metopium (poisonwood, Anacardiacae) prevented us from going into the forest. Latimore had told us he was highly sensitive and to avoid the Metopium.
We headed back to the ecolodge and made it just before 4:00 PM. We showered and got cleaned up from the field. I took the time before dinner to rest, taking a short nap and then reading a book, which was some much-welcomed down time. At about 6:00 PM I went down to the dining cabana and had a soda, a refreshing Orange Fanta. There was Vlad, who asked me how my day was. I responded, “Great, No bad days in La Milpa,” which was certainly holding true. He chucked and said, “We should make some t-shirts with that on them.” I mingled around until dinner. Young Nick and I gave Nell and Kate a tour of our cabanas/ dorms which were slightly different than theirs apparently. Nick and Latimore had a drink or two over in their cabana. I went about trying to identify the bats I had seen outside our cabana, which I had seen feasting on figs from a nearby Ficus tree the evening before. There were two books that were semi-useful, but I was overwhelmed with the diversity of bats in the Neotropics. With a little help from Vlad, I learned that they are the greater white-striped bat (sometimes referred to as the greater sac-winged bat, Saccopteryx bilineata). Dinner was ready and served before we knew it. We all dished up our plates with mashed potatoes, salad, barbecue pork ribs and bread rolls, with a piece of chocolate cake for desert. Dinner was pleasant, and the conversation was lively, about all kinds of things mostly related to naturalizing (skunks, armadillos, other animals; plants) and conservation. I spent a short time conversing with Latimore Smith before heading back to the cabana for the evening.
Day 13 – 3/4/2019
A new day dawned in La Milpa. Young Nick and I both rose in the nick of time for breakfast, just before 7:30. I awoke from a deep, dreamy sleep with the premonition that I was just about to miss something, and I was. I woke Young Nick up gently, telling his that breakfast was about to be ready. I, then, readied myself at my usual pace which does not take too long; field pants, calf-high socks, combat boots, t-shirt and field jacket. I made sure that I had the necessary gear in my field pack, the usual stuff, meter tape, dbh tape, carpenters’ tape. Binoculars. Check. I went down to the dining cabana without lacing up the combat boots. The birds were out and about and as I went down I heard a Morse code-type call, pee-breeepp-peep-peep-peep. I used the binoculars to quickly eye into the tree, where two ivory billed woodpeckers were hopping on a tree and pecking away. Their heads were bright red, and the sun showed through the plumage with a reddish glow. I continued down the concrete path/stairs, past the Agouti, in its usual place foraging on Dracaena fruits. I went for a cup of coffee and saw the group of about a dozen birders, with huge cameras and spotting scopes off near the crocodile pond. I saw the breakfast was ready, so I dished up my plate with the usual breakfast: scrambled eggs, refried beans, a slice of cheese, a slice of salami, 3 fry-jacks, and some fresh fruit. I went out the table outside where the two Nicks and the three folks from Louisiana were sitting. They saw that I had gotten food and then went in for it themselves. We all ate and enjoyed the breakfast. The folks from Louisiana commented how the fry-jacks were like "beignets" without the sugar, and the Salami and beans were overly salty. Several other things were discussed including Mr. Latimore Smith asking several questions about the census methodology. In fact, when I sat down, initially, it looked as if Nick had drawn a diagram and was explaining the methodology to him. Latimore would go with us to the field for the morning.
We had initially planned to take our lunches to the field, however the kitchen staff at the ecolodge had forgotten to make them for us. It was alright, because we would have to bring Latimore back to the ecolodge anyway. We did the usual readying for the field, filling of water bottles etc. Nick and Young Nick went back to the cabanas to get ready, and I took the opportunity to have another cup of coffee and enjoy the morning birdwatching at the bird fruit buffet. At 8:30, we all met at the truck. Nick and Latimore loaded in the cab, and Young Nick and I hopped in the bed. We set out down the road for the Upland Escarpment transect. The sun was now rising overhead and already bearing down with a tropical intensity as the day heated up. The dust from the limestone gravel road kicked up behind the truck. Nick and I smiled and said few words as we went. We dawned the snake gaiters as we moved along. “Yup, boy! Another day.” Before long we arrived at the parking spot, after a passing it and doing a short detour, because Nick evidently wanted to show Latimore something further down the road. They were interested in seeing the Montezuma Oropendola and we had heard them down near the Rio Bravo transect. We parked and got out of the truck. Nick and Latimore put in their snake gaiters, and we headed off walking. A few hundred meters down the old logging road, and we cut into the forest on a due West bearing, as we had done before.
I knew the lay of the land and led the way. Nick joked how I “refused to follow”, which was partly true. Several hundred meters through the forest, and we arrived at the bottom of the slope near cell 50 of the transect. Nick said he left his knee brace at cell 48, so I went to look for it. Sure enough I found it right there by the post and gave it him. The first order of business would be to replace post 47. Nick had a piece of broomstick he had salvaged from the junk pile near the maintenance shack at the camp. We triangulated a few trees to see where the missing post should be, but things were not computing exactly correctly. Then after several minutes, Nick found a PVC pipe prone under some leaf litter. We double checked to make sure the pipe was in the correct place and I drove it back into the ground with a hunk of limestone. We strung the tape and began the censusing. Latimore was on measuring diameters, I was on mapping, Young Nick was on tagging and Nick took the data. Latimore learned quickly, he was a natural, and we caught our stride before long. We completed the first cell in about 30 minutes and headed on to the next cell. We repeated the process, and toward the end we found a few new species in somewhat of a cluster near a fallen piece of a tree canopy. Thouinia paucidentada, which I had been trying to see, was a highlight for me. For Nick a Pitcramnia, which we tagged, was exciting because it was a new species registered for that transect. We completed the checks for small palms, pipers and lianas and epiphytes for all large trees and then headed back to the truck, and made out way back to the camp for lunch. We made it back with 10 minutes to spare before noon.
The lunch was different than usual. It was tostadas/tacos using corn tortillas and chicken with a variety of toppings – cabbage, a spicy jalapeno relish, and pico de gallo. We all joked how it was not so bad that we had had to come back for lunch. We ate out lunch, took a short 15-minute break, which I spent in the hammock near the dining cabana. I also sharpened my machete. Then we headed back out to the forest at 1:00 PM. We parked again at the same spot and went down the logging road several hundred meters past where we had gone in earlier in the morning. We would try to by pass the hill and hit the ravine on the other side, where the transect was situated. We were shooting for cells 40 and 41. We had done cell 42 a few days back. We traversed on a roughly East azimuth We came to the start of the ravine and followed it down a ways and then veered off to the east. We found the transect, and post 42. There were several large trees that had fallen over the transect, one of which had tipped up, creating a tip-up mound of exposed roots at least 2 meters high. It had dominoed and knocked over at least to smaller trees. It was a mess. We located post 40, which was on the other side of the tip up from post 42. Then we looked for the post 41. Nick and I looked for about 15 minutes and then he eventually found it. I was ready to give up and go to a different cell, but not Nick. We had both worked up a sweat in the search, it was difficult moving around in the area, due to the several large trees had fallen on top of one another. They were over eye level off of the ground in a few places. It was a mess, but Nick exclaims, “It doesn’t get much better than this!”, an expression that he shared that one of his early-career colleagues would inevitably say the worse conditions became. Neverless, we censused that the two cells. There were several small stems (1-10 cm dbh), many of them pioneers such as Cecropia, Croton, and Psychotria, or small trees that managed to survive the toppled giants, some of which were bent and sprouting up from under them, like Cessalpina or Pseudolmedia. Somewhere during the work, I said to Young Nick, “This is it. This is what I came for… to census treefall gaps with the famous Nick Brokaw!” Both Nick’s smiled and chuckled. Despite the work being somewhat difficult in terms of tree census work, it was fun and we all were enjoying ourselves. We finished the work just before 4:00 PM and felt satisfied, then made our way out and back to the truck. On the way back to the truck we came across a large Cojobia arborea, which must have been 40-50 m tall. It had a a Cassapuoa tangled along its trunk. Nick would later describe the scene, as “a sight of arboreal magnificence.” By 5:00 PM, we were back at camp.
We showered and got cleaned up. Then I went down for a soda. At the ecolodge, they have soda and beer available on the honor system in a refrigerator outside. I grabbed a purple Fanta, tallied it in the notebook and opened it. There was one of the birder tourist ladies, that asked, me what flavor it was. I told her “purple”. She looked confused. I explained, that it was hard to put an exact flavor to it because it was not grape, then offered her a sip. She declines, so I encouraged her to smell it. “It smells like the old cough syrup, Dimeatapp, you know?” She agreed and then seemed to understand what I was saying. She clearly thought it was unappetizing, turned her nose up then she shared how a patient recently spilled orange Fanta in a hospital she worked in and it stained the floor. Another man, overhearing our conservation shared, “the average pH of a soda pop is 5.5, very acidic. I said, “well then it’s a purple acid party in my stomach, yummm” and guzzled the soda down. It was about 300 mL from those old school glass soda bottles that are extinct in the US. It went down refreshingly. I put the bottle in the recycling bin and went to the hammock to relax before dinner. I had about 45 minutes, which I dozed off for about half of. Dinner drew near, and folks started congregating. Melvis was back at the station, and he and Young Nick came by the hammock. We conversed about the day and other various things, then went to dish up our plates. BBQ chicken, beans, salad and potato salad were served for dinner. Desert was the pineapple cake we had had before. I poured myself a cup of coffee to go with that. Then Nick, Nick and I went over to the “school house” to see if the Wi-Fi was working there. Nick check his email on his laptop and we did on our phones. Nothing earth shattering. I guess the outside world is doing fine without us, I thought. I reflected further on how was staring to miss the daily grind though but was feeling refreshed and ready to get back it. We discussed a few other things, like the NCAA hockey rankings, DU is sitting int 6th place with 19 wins and 8 losses. Then, we all retired to the cabanas for the night to rest.
Day 14 – 3/5/2019
Another day dawned in La Milpa. I awoke just after 7:00 AM. Young Nick was already awake, outside of our room reading his book in the hammock, as had become his habit. I had gotten a solid night’s rest and was ready for a new day. The was a slight mist over the camp, which would burn off very quickly with the daily heating of the Belizean landscape. I got ready, putting on the field clothes, combat boot and field jacket I had grown accustomed to wearing. I took a few extra minutes look over Nick’s guide to the trees of La Milpa and to check and make sure my field pack was in order. I went down to the dining area, where both Nick’s were sitting and beginning to eat breakfast. I dropped my pack and went into the cabana. I dished up a plate with scrambled eggs, refried beans, sausage link, a bread roll and few slices of watermelon and papaya. I filled a cup of coffee on my way out of the dining room and went to the outside table area where we usually ate. Shortly after that, Latimore, Nell and Kate came along. They got their food and then joined us for breakfast. The birding group came along after them and congregated in the few tables behind us. The hummingbirds and other wildlife were out in full force, but no sign of the Agouti this morning. There were probably too many people around. We ate and discussed plans for the day. The folks from Louisiana asked for suggestions on what they should do but were leaning toward heading to a nearby town called Lamanai. Nick gave some perspective, ultimately recommending it as a good plan. We would go back to the Rio Bravo transect to do some census work there. This would be our last full day of field work. Young Nick and I realized that we were running low on the premade aluminum soft tags. We made about 80 of them to make sure that we got through the day. It took just over a half an hour. Young Nick twisted the wires on them, and I wrote the numbers. We worked at the breakfast table, there as we continued conversation with Latimore and company. Latimore even twisted a few wires, himself. We all got ready for the field. I was already ready, so I took the opportunity to sharpen my machete quickly with the file. We loaded up and departed camp just before 9:00 AM. I rode shotgun while Nick drove and Young Nick was spread out in the back of the truck his back on the tailgate and face in the breeze.
We drove a little way, traveled down the escarpment, catching a brief view into the distance which showed nothing but forest. We parked at the entrance to the second logging road, the one that enters to the Rio Bravo transect. The Rio Bravo transect is across and down road from the Cohune Ridge transect. We got out and put on the snake gaiters and then headed down the road, following the trails which circumnavigated several very large treefalls that blocked the road. We walked for about a half an hour and then made our way into the forest at the orange flagging tape. We followed the flagging down the transect, entering the transect a post 14, then we followed the transect, which runs roughly parallel to the Rio Bravo on down to post 22. We would start there, where we had left off several days back. The first cell was overgrown with bamboo and rattan, but the machete came in handy there and allowed use to string the tape and get to work. The next cell was more open and easier. The density of stems was not super high, but there were rarely two consecutive stems of the same species, which was different from the previous transect. The second cell ran just next to a ground water stream that was trickling freshwater in to the Rio Bravo. It was not too large, but water was flowing out a steady rate. It was crystal clear, and Nick and I commented that one might be able to drink it. There were many palm individuals around, mostly Cohunes, Cryosphyila and Bactris. Near to the river area, it was evident that there was a sort of seasonal riparian flood zone, where the river grew to encompass a greater width. Few large woody trees were present in these areas and transect always maintained a large enough distance from them. We censused those two cells then broke for lunch. Lunch was the usual, beef pieces with potatoes, with a large portion of white rice and side of the potato salad. Neither Young Nick nor I could bring ourselves to eat the potato salad. We all joked about how enthused we were about it. The lunch did do the trick, however, in subsiding the hunger. We did not wait long after eating to continue working.
Before lunch, it became clear that at this point the transect took a 90 degree turn. We followed the tagged trees, eventually finding the pole for cell 24. We censused that cell and two more. We saw several cool new species including, Licaria peckii (Lauraceae), Vitairea lundellii (Fabaceae), Aspidosperma megalocarpon (Apocynaceae), Caseria comersoniana (Salicaceae) and Pterocarpus rohrii (Fabaceae). We check all the existing large trees in the transect for the presence of lianas and epiphytes and came to a good stopping point at about 3:00 PM after completing five cells for the day. We were running out of tags anyways and had a bit of a hike out of the rio bravo river valley, mostly uphill. We started out walk out, back the way the way we came, and arrived at the truck just before 4:00 PM. Young Nick drove us back, while I rode in shotgun and Nick rode in the bed. I found some reggae calypso music on the radio, after scanning though several Mennonite stations, and we listened to that. Young Nick unintentionally fishtailed the 1992 pick-up a bit on one or two of the curves, but we made it back in good time and in good order. I went over to the maintenance shack, where Rene, Marcos and another worker were hanging out. I repaired the small, slender dbh tape, where the tape end grommet had broken off. A little wire and some electrical tape to hold it back on did the trick. Then I asked the gents if they could show me how to sharpen my machete. They all had machetes of their own, which were razor sharp. Marcos put an good edge on it using an angle grinder, and then Rene worked the edge over a bit more with a file. It was very sharp. I went back to the cabana, took a shower and got cleaned up.
There was about two hours left before dinner. I went down to the dining cabana and had a cold soda on ice. I considered that a bit of a reward for a good day’s work in the forest. The hummingbirds (the Roufus Tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), the White-necked Jackobin (Florisuga mellivora), and the Wedge-tailed Saberwing (Campylopterus curvipennis)) aggressively fed at the feeders nearby, also enjoying a bit of sugar water. I settled into the hammock for a bit of rest and relaxation. I stayed there for about 45 minutes or so, until the kitchen staff came to start preparing the dinner meal. I went for a short walk around the grounds, saw a few more birds, then made my way in to the schoolhouse in search of Wi-Fi. I was able to check the email, nothing too urgent, but that was about it. The functionality of the internet at the ecolodge does not go much beyond that. By that time, it was time for dinner. I once again headed over to the dining cabana, where I found the two Nick seated at our dining table. I sat, and we started talking and not long after Latimore arrived. He gave us the lo-down their adventures at Lamanai, which we heard a second time shortly after when his wife, Nell, and her friend Kate arrived. In the meantime, one of the kitchen staff told us that dinner was ready and we dished up our plates. Grilled chicken, pasta, vegetables, salad and bread pudding for dessert. We ate our fill and conversed a bit more. I had a cup of coffee, and then we all retired for the night.
Day 15 – 3/6/2019
A new day dawned in La Milpa. It would be our last full day in La Milpa, Belize. I think we all could agree that the Rio Bravo Conservation Area had treated us well. I awoke just after 7:00 AM and readied myself for the day. We would not be going to the field to do census work but would do a bit of exploring. As I readied myself, I reflected on the area and I was grateful to have walked the Earth and explored the same forest that the Ancient Maya had inhabited over ten Centuries ago. I put on camo field pants, the combat boots, and the field jacket, and went down for breakfast. I arrived down there shortly after 7:30, and both Nick’s were there sitting at the table. I went and filled a cup of coffee and brought it back to the table and sat down. Shortly after that, Latimore came and joined us, and he was followed by Nell and Kate. One of the station staff informed us that the breakfast was ready, so we went and dished up our plates with the usual refried beans, scramble eggs, sausage link, slice of cheese, tortilla and fresh fruit. I would certainly be missing these breakfasts. Latimore and company would be leaving today, with a late-night flight back to Louisiana. They were in high spirits and we exchanged a few more stories of our adventures in the Rio Bravo, future potential trips, other travel destinations, conservation and ecology. I was impressed when Latimore brought up Hutchinson’s paradox of enrichment (the classic ecological study where G.E Hutch added nutrients to phytoplankton/Daphnia microcosm communities and found that doing so resulted the dominance of a single species), when we were talking about richness/diversity gradients in plant communities (basically Rio Bravo vs. the Southeastern US). We ate and enjoyed our last few minutes together, then we took a group picture. I gave Latimore one of my cards, he seemed surprised, “Oh you a card-carrying gentleman are ya?” in deep Louisiana southern drawl. He had given me his a few days earlier, a thick-square business card with a colorful painting of a pine savanna with the words “Southern Wild” in yellow cursive. The Smith’s then gave Nick a hardwood cutting board, that they had picked up on their way to La Milpa at a Prison woodworking shop. We had seen in in the back of their car when we went around with them a few days earlier. Nick was very grateful, and it was cool to see them share that moment. We said or farewells and loaded up to head to forest. Nick was driving, and I was in the shotgun with Young Nick in the bed.
We rolled along the dusty dirt road. The plan was to head back to the Upland Escarpment transect and enter as usual. There was ravine which we had been curious about. The transect crossed it, and we were curious as to where it went. We decided we would follow it down and see where it leveled out, hopefully traversing the escarpment in the process, then we would head west to find the road. As we were driving along, we came around a curve, and about a two-hundred meters, we saw some moving on the road. Nick and I saw it at the same time, and Nick immediately slammed on the breaks and turned off the vehicle. We both drew our binoculars, which were at the ready and focused on the big cat. It was a bit startled initially and bounded from the middle to the side of the road, but then took a long look at us. It sat for a moment. We drew it into focus. It was dark but spotted. The tail was lighter. I stood about 2.5 feet tall and its torso was about a meter long. Nick passed his binoculars to young Nick, and he took a good look a it. After not too long, it took a final look at us in the truck, still several hundred meters away, then sauntered over a small dip and into the forest. We all thought it was a Jaguar, but we wanted to confirm with some evidence. Nick commented, “Sometimes you can fool yourself into seeing something if you really want to see it.” We pulled up to where it had crossed the road, and looked at its tracks in dusty, limestone road. They measured about 3.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches long. We took another minute to process and discuss the siting and then continued to our parking spot near the UE transect. We got out and entered the forest. The two Nicks dawned the snake gaiters; I decided I would go without them today.
We entered the forest just after 9:30. We headed due east toward the transect and up the rise to cell 50. From there we traversed the ridge, heading south, south east. We indentified the plants as we went. Bursera simaruba (a large one), Protium copal, Brosimum alicatrium, Manikara zapota, Drypetes brownii, Matayba oppositifolia, Calophyllum brasililense, Calyptranthes chyrachulia, Alseis yucatensis, Pouteria reticulata, Trophic racemosa, Castilla elastica, Ficus maxima, Psudolmedia spuria, Vitex gaumeri, Forchameria trifoliata, Talisia olviformis … (there were others). While traversing the ridge, we came across a randomly-tagged, small Pouteria reticulata. Nick and I both thought it was an odd siting, given the remoteness of where were working, and the fact that Nick was not aware of any other tree ecologists working in the area. The tag was number 36, and the tree was about 8 cm dbh, hardly a canopy individual. We deduced that it was not done by a forest ecologist, because the nail was an iron nail and the angle of the nail was incorrectly pointing up out of the stem, rather than downward. Nick joked that we were like Sherlock Holmes, in that “Sherlock Holmes could tell if a guy was a drunkard by looking at the lock on his entry door.” Nick put a little orange flagging on the tag, as if to say, we have also seen your tag, whoever you are. We did not think too much more of it, and continued down the ridge, which was now becoming steep and steeper. The ridge ended up leading us to a ravine that ran east-west, which we followed down about half a kilometer. It spit us out in the ravine we had intended to follow roughly running North-south. It was overgrown vegetation, evidencing that it was likely formed in previous geological era, where the rains and streamflows were much greater than today. Large blockages of coarse wood debris were intermingled with giant (i.e. 4- to 5-meter tall) Piperaceae (probably Potomorphe, a genus of Pipers), Cecropias, and sapling of the larger tree community. We followed the larger ravine down a kilometer or two, and it started to level off and widen. There was rocky substrate that was sandy in places, with large Cohune palms, Disoscorea vines, and liana tangles prominent. We made our way though that and continued past a colony of leaf-cutter ants, who were hard at work moving pieces of leaves and other various materials down their paths. We decided that we should head west to catch back up with the road, having seen a good bit of what we came to see. We did so for a about a kilometer and then came to road. Surprising we were less than a kilometer down the road from where we had parked the truck. The hike had been a success. As Nick had wanted, “we incrementally built from the known to the unknown.” This is key, because one can easily get lost if you try to hike off in directions at larger distances.
We made it back to the truck shortly after 11:00. We enjoyed two coconuts that Marcos, one of the staff at the station, had placed in the bed of the truck earlier in the morning. I opened then with the machete I was toting, which was plenty sharp after the gents back at the station helped me put a good edge on it a few days ago. We passed them around sipping the juice. We headed up the road to check out a few other things, including a large Bucida buceras, which apparently had an Eagle’s nest in it some time ago. The nest was no where to be found, but the tree was still there. We deduced that they had recently cleared around it as part of road maintenance, cutting the strangling roots of a small Clusia and several lianas from the base of its truck. We headed back to camp, with Young Nick driving, Nick in the shotgun and myself in the truck bed. A few sprinkles spit down, threatening rain. We pulled into camp, and Young Nick stopped abruptly near the croc pond. The small croc was out sunning itself a portion of a fallen tree canopy within the near side of the pond. It was a good spot by Young Nick and we got out to check it out. We decided to try to get close, but the crocodile saw us and flopped in the water. We parked and went to hit the showers. We got freshened up and went down to dining cabana for lunch. We ate ropa vieja, rice with a few black beans in it, Amarillos, and coleslaw for lunch. It followed it with a cup of coffee to my contentment.
Young Nick and I decided we might head into town. First, we cleaned out the truck; we would be returning it to its rightful owner Jacob in the morning. I swept the bed of the truck out, while Nick used a hand broom to sweep out the cab. We headed out, past the unmanned gate - I guess Merengue was on leave or taking an afternoon siesta. Our main mission was to fill up the truck with gasoline, but we would also grab an ice cream cone and check the Wi-Fi at the Linda Vista Shopping Center. We checked the gas price at the Circle R, which was $9.63 a gallon (Belizean), then we headed to the Linda Vista Shopping center. Up and over the hilly road, with forest on both sides. “This was where we saw the large Fer-de-Lance dead on the road,” I said to Young Nick, who was driving. We picked up two hitch hikers on the side of the road, near the gravel quarry operation the Mennonites had. We spoke in Spanish and they indicated that they headed to the shopping center, which was not far. They hopped in the back and we continued on. We parked, and all got out. I went into the shop and got myself an ice cream cone – strawberry. Our Belizean friends bought two Fantas. We went back out the pick-nick table out front and checked the emails, sent a few messages, etc. It began to rain. A hard, tropical downpour. I thought I had left the passenger window open on the truck, but fortunately I had closed it. We checked the gas price at Linda Vista. They had two operable gas pumps, Circle R had one. The price was $9.70 a gallon. There was a break in the rain, so we got back in the truck and headed back to the Circle R to fill up the tank. It rained harder as we drove into the storm. The wet Brahma cattle in the fields were huddled up in the corners, near the road as we passed. Young Nick and I talked about driving, seat-belts, and the country vs. the city. We arrived at the Circle R and a jovial Belizean fellow of about my same age from the next town over pumped the gas for us while it rained. Nick backed the truck in, so he would not have to get wet. I told him to fill it up. He wrote us a receipt for the amount of gas pumped which I took inside and paid for. Just over 12 gallons for $58 and change US. We headed back to camp, past the unmanned gate, and made it back just after 2:00 PM.
I took the afternoon to read and rest. I got a solid nap in and packed my things up for the coming travel day. Dinner time came around and we all headed down to eat. We conversed with Melvis a bit, before dishing up. Nick joked that Melvis had a Jaguar in a cage and released it for us just before we drove down the road earlier in the morning. Either way, we all still considered it a good omen. Melvis told us how he had to kill 6-foot Fer-de-Lance a few nights earlier, because it kept coming around the camp. He said he distracted it with his light and then smacked it on the head with big Mahogany stick. I told him his was a brave guy for doing so. Dinner became ready and we served ourselves plates of mashed potatoes, ribs, salad, broccoli, and chocolate cake for desert. We reflected on how this would be the last supper. Nick asked a few questions about my current research and direction with the PhD, and we talked about how they would go off to Chetumal by bus tomorrow. I had a cup of coffee and then retire back to the cabana to finish packing my things and get some rest for the coming travel day.
Day 16 – 3/7/2019
Departure – Another day dawned in La Milpa. Both Nicks were headed across the border to Mexico, via bus, and I was headed back to Belize City to catch a flight back to Miami. We awoke at the usual time, around 7:00 AM. Our bags were packed from the previous night. We completed the final packing steps and brought out baggage down to the old, white pick-up, then went to have breakfast. We dished up the usual breakfast food on our plates. These would be the last fry-jacks for some time. I took 3 good-sized ones; they were still warm. The two Nicks and I enjoyed out last breakfast together. They talked about Mexico, a bit about Sheila (Nick's wife). Nick asked me about my next steps, and about my research. It was back to the real world, back to the PhD grind. I told him that "I will submit my first chapter when I get back," which seemed good enough for the discussion at the moment. Melvis and Marcos were buzzing and generally joking around. "Carpe Diem, Melv!". He would drive us into Orange Walk, where we would drop the Nicks to catch their bus, and then he would take Marcos and I onto Belize City. We squared up everything with Vlad and Mauricio and then we hit the road. I rode shotgun in the brand new Toyota Hi-Lux that Melvis was driving. Nick and Nick followed us down the road to the Circle R.
Melvis, Marcos, and I arrive at the Circle R a few minutes. There was Jake. He spoke fluent Spanish (slang and all) with Melvis, through the passenger side of the truck, where I was seated. He is very particular about having the truck returned with an absolutely full gas tank (we're talking to the brim). Nick pulled up to the gas pump behind us and topped it off with another gallon or so. We pulled up near their truck and transferred the luggage over. Nick went off to say farewell to some of the folks in Jake's family. There he got news that Anna Newfeldt had requested that we stop over by her house. We suspected it was regarding the two pairs of missing drawers from Young Nick's laundry. We went over there, but found nobody to be there, so we headed out to Orange Walk. I played DJ as Melvis drove. I chose some older reggae I had on my phone, Steel Pulse, Bob Marley, Buju Bantan, Gregory Issacs etc. Melvis sang along to many of the songs, which played more or less in the background as we went. Various jokes were had, and short stories shared. After about an hour through the Belizean country side, past Mennonite rice fields, small public schools, various little stores, and a few small villages, one Rum and one Sugar refinery, and over several speed bumps, we arrived in Orange Walk. We took the road around to he bus station, which was kind of tucked behind a few small wooden houses as an open dirt lot. I helped unload the luggage, taking it to an open spot, in the waiting area - a few wooden benches arranges around some small snack shops. I gave my farewells to both Nicks with a firm hug and hand shake. Then I used the restroom, which cost 1$ Belizean, paid to a pair of local ladies sitting outside the small concrete structure that housed them, then I loaded back up with Melvis and Marcos.
Another hour so, maybe longer, and arrived at the airport. Along the way, the population density was gradually increasing. More farms and homes on small plots of land were cropping up on either side of the road. They were intermingled with Oak and Pine savannas, both with short canopies. There was little broadleaf, evergreen forest like the forest found in La Milpa. We passed more schools, including The Agricultural High School of Belize and some-type of Christian academy with the words "Psalm 143" painted above the main entrance to the schoolhouse. Both looked similar with a crowd of congregated students outside. We passed more factory, small farms, various small towns (which I later found out they call Villages). Then we came to airport, which was at the end of a long stretch of road that paralleled the airstrips. We passed a few small personal jets, on the right hand side, and Melvis pointed out an all black one that he said was the Prime minister's. "The guy has everything all black, for a big, powerful black man, ya know? Black cars, black buses, black plane, like that." Interesting, I thought. We stopped at the airport drop off, and there several obvious tourists outside smoking cigarettes. I said goodbye and that I hope to see you someday in the future, grabbed my luggage and went to check in for my flight.
Not long after, I realized that I had left my cell phone in the car with Melivs. I felt terrible was slightly freaking out. I did have plenty of time though. I tracked down an airline agent and she called the number for Progamme for Belize in the phone book. We were able to get Melvis' phone number and I called it but no answer. I left a message, and went to proceed with my flight check in. Moments later he called back, and said "Dude??", but indicate he would double back. I checked my bag and went back to where he dropped me off to wait for him. I did not wait long, about 10 minutes, and pulled up flashing his lights. I joked that I really was just missing him already and had left my phone, so I could see him again, but then apologized. He laughed halfheartedly, but didn't seem too amused. I was glad to have not lost the phone. I went thorough the customs and security. I waited about and hour to board the plane. I was randomly selected for a secondary security check, where they looked in my bag and patted me down, but still got to board before most of the other passengers. The plane was only about half full. In another hour and half I was back in Miami. Trip complete. Successful journey.
The two weeks spent with Nick and his niece and nephew were a well-timed and welcomed break from the PhD grind. I thank Nick for his time and effort mentoring me (he served on my Master's degree committee), setting an example of how to do tropical foerst ecology, and teaching me so much on this trip to Belize. It was an amazing experience. Young Nick and Abby, it was a pleasure meeting you both, and thanks for putting up with me. I also thank the Programme of Belize for conserving the area of forest we worked in and the staff of La Milpa Ecolodge / field station. Thank you for reading. ♠
James "Aaron" Hogan is an ecologist interested in plant biodiversity, forests and global change.