Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Curious Naturalist's library: Belize

Later tonight I'll be setting off to lead a two-week birding tour to Belize. Having prepared for some 25 trips to the country, and done a little research there myself, I have consulted scores of books and papers on the subject, and have often been asked to recommend books that will help the curious naturalist get the most out of a trip. With time pressing, I have updated my old Amazon list below. Those marked with an asterisk are the ones I will actually be taking with me.

A Neotropical Companion (2nd edition) by John Kricher
The best introduction to the natural history of the New World tropics. This is a book to take on your trip, to consult and to read while you travel. Hugely informative and encyclopaedic

Central America: A Natural and Cultural History edited by Anthony G. Coates
A series of essays that range from the geology of the region to the faunal interchange, to indigenous peoples and independence from the Spanish – a good primer.

Traveller's Wildlife Guide: Belize by Les Beletsky
A general overview of Belize for the naturalist. No, it does not include everything, but it can be used to identify a proportion of what you see and, at the very least, help point you in the right direction. I don't use this general guide myself, but it is popular amongst tour participants and is probably the best option for those with a casual interest in nature.

*Birds of Belize by H. Lee Jones & Dana Gardner
If birds are your interest, then this is the national field guide, covering all 574 species recorded in Belize at the time of publication. Unusually for a Neotropical bird guide, it also depicts boreal migrants such as shorebirds and wood warblers. National maps are handy just be aware that on every trip you will see a handful of species that are well out of range.

*A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America by Steve N. G. Howell & Sophie Webb
But if you take your birding seriously, you will want Howell and Webb too. One of the best field guides to any avifauna, it will come in handy for future trips to neighbouring countries. Not the lightest of field guides and now nearly twenty years old, but still worth its weight in gold. A masterpiece!

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Allen Sibley
And to really nail the birds, you should carry a North American field guide. I find Sibley's Eastern guide fits the bill since it's light and portable and you are unlikely to see any western migrants here.

*A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico (2nd edition) by Fiona A. Reid
For mammals, Fiona Reid's guide is definitive. As with Howell & Webb, it will come in handy for those planning to travel to the rest Central America.

*A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Maya World: The Lowlands of Mexico, Northern Guatemala and Belize by Julian C. Lee
For herps, Julian Lee's guide to the amphibians and reptiles of the Yucatan is the best portable option.

The Amphibians and Reptiles of the Yucatan Peninsula by Julian C. Lee
If you want to know more about herps then this weighty tome by the same author is essential reading, though you will probably not be packing it for the trip. Besides, it is in the libraries of many of the wildlife lodges.

Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatan and Belize by Jonathan A. Campbell
And if you really want to be comprehensive, Campbell fills a similar niche, for home use.

Reef Fish Identification by Paul Humann & Ned Deloach
The world's second largest barrier reef sits off the coast of Belize, so you should at least take a snorkelling trip to Hol Chan or Shark-Ray Alley. If you just want to identify fish, this is the standard guide.

The Reef Set: Reef Creature, Reef Coral Identification & Reef Fish (3 volume boxed set) by Paul Humann & Ned Deloach
If you are planning on really exploring the Belizean reefs, by diving, then you might as well splash for the three volume set that includes the fish guide...

Coral Reef Fishes: Indo-Pacific and Caribbean by Ewald Lieske
This is the volume I use for fish. Light and portable, it won't break the bank and lets me identify most of what I see. Plus I won't need to buy a new guide when I go to the Indo-Pacific...

*A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Mexico and Central America by Jeffrey Glassberg
A wonderful book that is compact enough to carry in the field. The annotated photographs will enable identification to genus and often species. A great way to while away the hot midday hours when birds tend to be less active.

The Orchids of Guatemala and Belize by Oakes Ames & Donoval Stewart Correll
The botany of Belize is not well covered. This is a 60+ year old guide using line drawings. Taxonomy is, of course, well out of date. However, orchid lovers will want a copy.

Native Orchids of Belize by Ian McLeish
This larger 1995 book has both line drawings and photographs. Again, probably one for the specialist only.

Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya by Victoria Schlesinger
If you are at all interested in the cultural significance and uses of nature ethnobiology then this book is a must.

The Maya (8th edition) By Michael D. Coe
A readable introduction to the ancient Maya, and as much as most people will want in order to grasp some idea of the meaning of Belize's Mayan sites.

The Ancient Maya (6th edition) by Robert J. Sharer
An authoritative account of the ancient Maya. At 900+ pages, this is not one for the backpack but, read before and after the trip, it will enhance your understanding of of Belize's history and culture.

Belize 1:250,000 Travel Map by International Travel Maps
Don't get lost! Having helped supply their cartographer, Kevin Healey, with information on Latin America in the early 1990s, in my experience, the Canadian company ITMB always seems to publish the most helpful and accurate travel maps. No exception here: the Belize map integrates relief, roads and parks in a clear and practical format. Have a great trip!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Getting ready for... Belize

Birding Caracol in February 2002
Tomorrow night I set off on a fortnight's trip to Belize, leading my annual tour for Tucson-based Borderland Tours. I first visited the country in March 1997, to work with the Belize Forest Department in Belmopan as a consultant for the World Conservation Monitoring Centre on a Darwin Initiative project on Central American Plant Genetic Resources. In 1998 and 1999 I got several further opportunities to return, this time to carry out rapid biodiversity inventories of the nascent Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, in Toledo District.

Coming down Caracol's Caana, the highest man-made structure in Belize, with Joe Thompson, January 2006 (Photo: Pepe Clavijo Michelangeli)
Shortly afterwards, I was invited to co-lead my first bird tour to Belize by Rick Taylor and since then have returned annually, usually for Borderland Tours, but sometimes leading small private groups. These groups have included world-listers eager to mop up a few elusive species (although Belize has no avian endemics - yet), as well as those who simply want to enjoy a pleasant birding and cultural experience at some of the best managed ecolodges in tropical America.

After twenty-odd trips to Belize, I always get excited about preparing for a new trip. Although the country is small and conditions for birders are comfortable, even luxurious, there is always the chance of something special: a new country record, a Jaguar, or simply an encounter with the country's speciality birds such as Orange-breasted Falcon, Stygian Owl or Tody Motmot. If nothing else, it is a chance to spend some time with old friends at lodges like Hidden Valley Inn and Chan Chich. Time to pack! 
At Chan Chich with the Heseltines, February 2003

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Early spring: Oxlip in flower

Oxlip Primula elatior

I noticed this Oxlip a plant of wild stock, kindly given to us a couple of years ago by our local nursery pushing up its flower spike on 1 February. With an extraordinarily mild winter, Hazel and Butterbur have been flowering along the lanes since the beginning of January.