In this two-part series for the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, Belizean multimedia journalist, Carolee Chanona, explores Belize’s famed St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park and reports on the park’s conservation efforts which are supported by birding activities.
When some people think of tropical birding “meccas,” countries like Colombia (over 1,900 bird species) or Brazil (over 200 endemic bird species) may come to mind.
But did you know that Belize also has a formidable birding industry with upwards of 600 species of birds?
In Belize, birders can go from high-elevation mountains, littoral forests, tropical jungles, and coastal habitats, in search of an array of tropical avifauna, including flycatchers, hummingbirds, tanagers, toucans, and more.
In areas where bird watching activities are popular, you’ll often find local community members heavily involved in conservation efforts and sharing how their involvement has resulted in wider community engagement and capacity building.
During a recent visit to St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, Cari-Bois learnt more about how residents in nearby communities are actively contributing to its upkeep and the influence birding plays on these efforts.
Getting to know St. Herman’s and its rangers
Just 12 miles from Belmopan – the capital city of Belize – St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park is home to over 200 species of birds and easily accessible by private or public transportation via the Hummingbird Highway.
At the park, visitors can self-explore or hire a tour guide from one of the nearby communities of St. Margaret’s or Armenia.
During Cari-Bois’ visit to the park, long-time ranger Edgar Batz – one of the park’s eight rangers – gave a guided tour and showed off his impressive birding skills.
By simply tilting his head towards the thick foliage along the Dusky Antbird trail – one of the park’s trails – Batz was able to determine the presence of some birds.
Also actively involved with the Belize Audubon Society since 2017, Batz shared that he was inspired to get involved in conservation after being a participant of a community outreach activity during his childhood.
Batz recalled, “I actually remember coming to St. Herman’s with a school trip in primary school and loved it.
“In high school, I had an internship opportunity to spend a few days on Blackbird Caye. That made me realise that wow, I can actually make a career out of the outdoors.”
From primary school-aged children of Junior Bird Clubs, to second-generation bird guides, residents of communities surrounding the park – like Batz – are exposed to birding from a young age.
A sustainable, non-extractive form of eco-tourism, birding activities have offered opportunities for locals from communities like Armenia Village, and St. Margaret’s Village, to sustain their livelihoods while contributing to opportunities which help conserve the park’s natural resources.
Guests often hire local tour guides, and pay entrance fees, to the park which stimulates economic activities in the surrounding areas and directly fund the national park’s continued management.
Belize Audubon Society inspires and supports conservation activities at St. Herman’s
While Park Rangers like Batz are widely known for their maintenance of the site and guest interactions, they also wear many hats beneath the Belize Audubon Society’s conservation programs.
Throughout the year, they collect data for biodiversity research and monitoring with point count collection of birds and wildlife captured on camera traps, community outreach and environmental education to stakeholders—especially those in the communities that buffer the park.
Miguel Sho – a full-time Park Ranger since 2016 – has worked his way up the ranks to the Belize Audubon Society headquarters in Belize City.
Sho is now a voice for St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park but for all seven of Belize Audubon Society’s co-managed protected areas.
With the Belize Audubon Society’s community outreach programmes dating back to over 40 years ago, an encounter with the society during his childhood was an inspiration for Sho to get involved in conservation activities at the St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park.
Sho recalled, “My dad and I participated in the Christmas Bird Count (held by the society) in Punta Gorda, and that’s really where my curiosity for birds began.
“After that, he started teaching us more, when he could. By the time I was a teen, I knew I liked birdwatching, even if it wasn’t something I practiced outside of these citizen science events.”
With Sho now having the capacity to lead and assist annual Christmas Bird Counts in his community, he said it feels like a full-circle moment.
Covid19 affects the Belize Audubon Society’s outreach efforts
In 2019, the Belize Audubon Society’s Environmental Education programme engaged over 10,000 people with the majority coming from the society’s Nature School Program.
Cari-Bois spoke with Dareece Chuc who is the Programme Director for Environmental Education and Community Outreach at the Belize Audubon Society.
She said, “Our outreach was definitely impacted because of COVID, even up to 2022. Moving classes online meant suspending our (extracurricular) Junior Bird Clubs with the schools we work with at St. Herman’s.
“Finally, in 2023, we’re looking forward to restarting those monthly meetings at St. Margaret’s R.C. School and Armenia Government School.”