I sorta stumbled my way into Belize, as many folks that end up living there do. After graduating from The Ohio State University in spring of 1998, and planning to head to a masters program in the fall, I was looking for some kind of field experience in the tropics for the summer after becoming addicted to the experience while I was in Costa Rica. I perused the birding magazines looking for ecolodges to contact, even volunteering to wash dishes and do laundry for room and board. It was the Lamanai Outpost Lodge/Lamanai Field Research Center that gave the best response, offering to pay my airfare and provide accommodation for a week to discuss setting up a birding tourism and research program. I arrived in September 1998 and didn’t leave until the summer of 2000.

Banding birds in Belize.
Banding birds in Belize. Early 1999.

The Landbird Monitoring Programme was an extremely broad-ranging study. Really, it was a variety of studies just trying as best as possible to document the species that were present in this extremely biodiverse, but relatively unknown area and make some sense of how those species interacted with their environment. All of my work was supported by leading birding tours, with additional funding provided by the Lamanai Outpost Lodge and funding for genetics work from Dr. Patricia Parker from The Ohio State University. The basic tenets of the fieldwork there were as follows:

  • Basic field observations, including something so simple as birding, but also including point counts and line transects.
  • Mist-netting, with general methods following those established by MAPS (the work, however, was not affiliated with MAPS in any way). Standard measurements were collected for all captured birds, and most were fitted with unique color bands. A blood sample was also collected.
  • Sound recording.

All work was permitted by the Belize Ministry of Natural Resources. Unfortunately, I did not have my own US Geological Survey (USGS) permit for banding birds in the United States (my prior experience as a student was working under other permitted biologists), so migrant birds did not receive an aluminum band. I was fortunate to take the head of the USGS responsible for bird banding into the field while in Belize, and we discussed adding that permit, but I left Belize permanently before that happened.

I documented the presence of more than 300 species of birds at Lamanai, including a number of species not previously known to occur in the region. Among these was Yucatan Nightjar, found readily during much of the year during night surveys along the New River Lagoon. While many of the birding tours I led were independent, I did co-lead or assist on tours for a number of companies, including High Lonesome Ecotours, WINGS, and Field Guides.

Gartered Trogon. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Gartered Trogon (Trogon caligatus). Photo by Marcus C. England.

Las Cuevas Research Station

Las Cuevas Research Station is located in the Chiquibul National Forest in the southern part of Belize. The station is extremely difficult to get to. I don’t recall how I got involved at that station, but I started doing some work there in early 1999, and made repeated visits to the station during the entirety of my time in Belize. Because of its isolation, the fact that it is located in the middle of the largest contiguous tract of rainforest left in Central America, and much of the birdlife was relatively unknown, my time spent at Las Cuevas is perhaps the most cherished in my entire career as a biologist.

Run entirely on a diesel generator, the power only came on for a few hours in the evening. After the power shut off, until the sun came up in the morning, you had absolute silence and darkness except for any sounds and bioluminescence produced by wildlife. Big cats are not rare here, and this is the only place I have observed a Jaguar in the wild.

During my visits from 1998 to 2000, the station was operated by the Natural History Museum of London. It is now operated by a Belizean non-profit organization.

Las Cuevas Research Station in 2003.
Las Cuevas Research Station in 2003.

Return Visits

Since 2000, I have returned to Belize three times:

  • In 2001, a co-led a birding tour through much of the country and into Guatemala with High Lonesome Ecotours. Locations visited on the tour included Lamanai, Pook’s Hill, Chan Chich, Las Cuevas, Placencia, and Tikal in Guatemala.
  • In 2003, I returned on a self-funded trip. I spent some time at a resort in southern Belize at the invitation of the owners, who were investigating setting up an arrangement similar to the one had at Lamanai. I then spent a week and a half camping in the courtyard outside of the Las Cuevas Research Station. In addition to birding, I had the opportunity to assist two biologists from The Peregrine Fund who were releasing a Harpy Eagle into the wild.
  • In 2012, I revisited the country with my wife. This was predominantly a vacation, but we were hosted at the start by H. Lee Jones (author of Birds of Belize, a long-time friend, and colleague) and his wife in Punta Gorda. Dr. Jones then traveled with us for another visit to Las Cuevas, where we were well taken care of the new owners. From there, we headed north to Blancaneaux Lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge, northwest to Tikal and Lago Petén Itzá in Gautemala, then returning to Belize where we stayed in a waterfront cabana at Lamanai Outpost Lodge.
Morning deck birding with Lee Jones at Las Cuevas Research Station in September 2012.