Tropical Ecology

“From the top of the temple down to the river”

One of the many amazing things about Belize is how awake and ready we are to hit the ground running when that 5:30am alarm goes off!

We began our day with a walk through the Belize Botanical Gardens, where we saw Jackfruit, Ginger, Tamale leaves, Angel’s Trumpets and the Lodge’s Solar Panels! After breakfast we were lucky enough to see Collared Aracari Toucans by the deck!

Xunantunich - El Castillo.

Xunantunich – El Castillo.

We then traveled to Xunantunich where we hiked on and up Mayan ruins. It was breathtaking! We explored the residential areas for nobility — El Castillo (“the castle,” in Spanish) is 130 feet above the plaza floor. It is the second-tallest building in Belize. The Mayans were at their peak around 500 or 600 A.D. Approximately 7–10,000 people lived at Xunantunich, with around one million inhabiting the country.

After an awesome morning, the day just got better!

After lunch we grabbed life jackets and paddles and met at the beach on the Macal River. We jumped in canoes and spent several hours floating and paddling (about seven miles). The wildlife was plentiful and we were surrounded by bird noises, iguanas, rapids, bats and teachers talking.

When we got off the river we were treated to visit to a local ice cream joint! So delicious! We had all kinds of flavors new to us — sour sop, sweet corn, and crab. Also flavors we knew such as coconut, pineapple, chocolate, etc.

We headed back to DuPlooys to learn about figs and get ready for dinner!

Tree frog

Tropical Ecology

“Oh what a Day!”

Tuesday, July 24 and Wednesday July 25, 2018

Tuesday — The day begins at “0-dark 30.” Even thought most of us were up before 4am, everyone seemed to be awake and cheery. Liz saved the day on our first flight by responding to a medical emergency. GO LIZ! Happy to report the passenger who fainted is fine.

We landed in Belize, met Nathan (our guide), Bruce (our bus driver) and Nora and Armin (our Belizean educators). Our first stop was to meet former participant Ryan Elijio!

The group with Ryan.

The group with Ryan.

On to the Community Baboon Sanctuary, where we saw a mom and baby Howler Monkey. They came to say “Hi.” Mom came first and we were amazed that she came close enough to touch, BUT THEN the baby followed in her exact same path, and we were so close we felt as if it saw our souls! We learned the names of many plants and tasted cashew fruit. We also learned they make wine from it!

We went on to duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge where we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a night walk where we found a sleeping Basilisk Lizard down by the Macal River.

Peanut-headed Bug.

Peanut-headed Bug.

Wednesday — We took a bird walk where we spent much of time looking at plants and insects. We tasted Velvet Apples (Diospyros discolor) and had fry jacks for breakfast. We then drove to the Mountain Pine Ridge where we hiked to the Domingo Ruiz Cave. We found a Peanut-headed bug on a tree and got to see its beautiful eye spots.

The eye spots of the Peanut-headed Bug.

The eye spots of the Peanut-headed Bug.

Jason was  “done for the day” with that find!

Group in Domingo Ruiz Cave.

Group in Domingo Ruiz Cave.

Later in the cave we saw a baby bat snuggled next to its mom and we could hear their wings when we sat in the pitch dark. We later sang in the dark because it sounds so good in the cave!

Rio Frio Cave.

Rio Frio Cave.

The Rio Frio Cave was an amazing experience and contrast to Domingo Ruiz Cave. Rather than being deep and subterranean, it was huge and open to a river on both ends! And we watched in amazement as a katydid ATE a cicada!

Katydid eating a cicada!

Katydid eating a cicada!

We finished out the day playing in the waterfalls at the Rio On Pools, and returned to duPlooy’s in time for quick showers and a meeting before dinner. Then, off to a night walk topped off by looking at insects attracted to a sheet and bright light that Jason set up.

And RACHEL wanted to send a BIG birthday greeting to her mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!


Tropical Ecology

“Airport July 24, 2018”

The group heading to Belize!

The group heading to Belize!

We have made it to Fort Lauderdale and are eagerly awaiting our next flight. The teams are currently researching birds and plants we will see from the bus. Lots of great laughter already!

Shannon working on her journal.

Shannon working on her journal.

Tropical Ecology

“Getting Ready”

The countdown is on.

Twelve teachers from across the state are packing their bags with everything they need for the upcoming Tropical Ecology Institute. Convertible quick dry pants, umbrella, camera, binoculars, water bottle, rain gear, sunscreen, snorkel gear … and the list goes on and on. It is at this point that we all begin to wonder “Will all of this fit into my duffel?” And yet every year, somehow it does.

Thirty-one years ago the first Tropical Ecology Institute for educators took place. While today’s trip takes advantage of advances in technology, improved roads, and access to new locations in Belize, at its heart, is it the same experience. It is designed to give educators a first-hand experience in tropical ecology, which will improve their ability to teach students across North Carolina. It is not a vacation in the tropics, it is an immersion in the tropics.  While participants gain new factual knowledge, they also develop a deep appreciation for Belize and her people, and learn new skills to take back to their classrooms. Teachers return refreshed, inspired and more committed to improving science education across the state.

We cannot wait for it to begin.

New England

“The end. The beginning.”

Today is the end — the end of our time together in Maine and New Hampshire. The end of our time experiencing these wild landscapes. The end of sharing our daily experiences with each other. The end of achy feet and sore muscles and smelly clothes. The end of our Educators of Excellence Institute to New England. But, as the saying goes, every end is a new beginning. The beginning of our memories. The beginning of our planning and collaborations. The beginning of our lifelong friendships. The beginning of sharing our stories and pictures and inspirations with our students and friends and families. We are excited for what lies ahead.

Grateful to be enjoying our big breakfast together as the rain pours down outside.

As the rain poured down outside (and we all expressed deep gratitude that we made it off the trail before this weather system moved into the area!), we gathered for a well-deserved, hearty breakfast at the AMC Highland Center. We didn’t have to rush our eating in order to have time to stuff everything in our packs and lace up our boots for another long hike. This morning was different. This morning as we gathered together we could take our time — time to reflect on what we will take away from this trip and how we will use these experiences in our classrooms. It was inspiring to be able to brainstorm and share our knowledge with one another, and to see creative sparks fly among so many passionate educators all in one room. How bittersweet it was, knowing that this would be the last time (until our reunion in November) that our “trail family” would all sit in a circle, sharing time together.

On our way to the airport, we shared our last meal at the Gypsy Cafe where we talked about our regrets and our appreciations. It’s important to verbalize the things we may have regrets about, to acknowledge them so we can leave them behind and move forward in positivity — maybe we wished we looked at our watches or phones a little bit less, or journaled a little bit more. Our few regrets were drowned out by waves of appreciations for each other — lots of stories of kind words, smiles, and the ready laughter that were so abundant on our trip. We feel proud of ourselves for taking risks to try new things, for being brave in difficult situations, and for the commitment we make to translate these experiences and places into opportunities for our students (and colleagues) at home. We also shared how we feel connected to this land, and invigorated by time spent in wild places. It is our hope that we can continue our adventures back home in NC and be the guides for the next generation of environmentally literate citizens, helping them to feel connected to, and compassion for, the natural world.

Our task regarding creativity is to help children climb their own mountains, as high as possible. No one can do more.

~Loris Malaguzzi

Remember that time we all piled in one car to sit on the side of the road watching a moose and her baby?

The fabulous educators of the New England Institute- view from Celia Thaxter’s garden on Appledore Island, ME.

New England

“On the Road Again…”

Each AMC hut prides themselves on the daily chalkboard interpretations of place, croo names, and (not pictured) the menu for the day.

We awoke this morning at Mizpah Spring Hut at an elevation of 3,777 feet. After filling our bellies with croo-made pancakes, we had a relatively easy 2.7 mile hike down to The Highlands Center Lodge at 1,900 feet. On the way, we heard many songbirds, saw some red squirrels and a chipmunk, and transitioned into the hardwood forest. In the forest, we saw several tiny American toads; they were so cute, and camouflaged perfectly with the leaf litter on the trail!

As we descended from the Presidential Range, the terrain began to feel much more familiar to us. We traded the gray, rocky landscape above tree line for various shades of green below. We were surprised to find lots of water along our path in the forms of small springs and creeks. This culminated into the highlight of our hike: a stop at Gibbs Falls. It was a lovely respite. Our team stopped and sat quietly, listening to the peaceful sounds of the rushing, cold water. The cool air surrounding the clear pool beneath the falls refreshed us as we bolstered ourselves for the final half mile of our hike.

Quiet contemplation at Gibbs Falls

Before long, we began to once again hear the telltale signs of civilization. Our time on the trail ended with a sign marking the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously used mountain trail in America. As we emerged from the forest and onto asphalt, the feeling was bittersweet.

Our hike retraced historical footsteps along the Crawford Path.

The final steps from the trailhead to the Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center – a tasty lunch and hot showers await! (Photo: Josh Reed)

We checked into the AMC Highland Center, ate our lunch of salads, soups, and sandwiches, and then all of us made a mad dash towards our first hot shower in several days. After a bit of time to relax and reflect on the last leg of the trip, we took a stroll around Ammonoosuc Lake, a small, spring-fed body of water that is just down from the main building. Along the trail around the lake, we saw lots of wildflowers (including lupine and two different colors of lady slippers (a spring ephemeral wildflower), tadpoles, evidence of spotted salamanders, and an owl pellet.

Beautiful lupine along the Ammonoosuc Lake trail (Photo: Josh Reed).

As we finished our stroll, we took the opportunity to dub one another with creative trail names. This is a common practice for through-hikers along the Appalachian trail, but a person cannot create his/her own trail name, so this turned out to be a great demonstration of our camaraderie and admiration for one another gained throughout our adventure.

As we wrapped up our final evening group meeting, we watched as the clouds turned dark, indicating a storm on the horizon. The looming dark skies contrasted with the beautiful weather our group has been thankful for throughout our many adventures this week.

New England

“5 Miles on the Appalachian Trail”

We began our early morning with a fun-filled, Harry Potter-themed breakfast hosted by the Appalachian Mountain Club “Croo” (crew) at Lakes of the Clouds Hut at the base of Mt. Washington. Immediately after breakfast we began our strenuous nine-hour hike up mountains, down rocky slopes, and across alpine meadows.

The beginning of the steep hike up from Lakes of the Clouds to Mt. Monroe (you can see the Mt. Washington Observatory behind us in the distance).

We hiked across (or around) the summits of Mt. Monroe, Mt. Franklin, Mt. Eisenhower, and Mt. Pierce, and ended our trek at Mizpah Spring Hut. We worked tirelessly as a team all day — supporting each other with gear, shoulders to lean on, and words of encouragement.

Frances shares her passion for plants with us when we discover a patch of “bog cotton” along the trail. Now it is one of our favorite plants from this new environment!

Our group ended the day with a delicious meal and tired feet. Dinner was filled with laughs and a great sense of accomplishment. As we fall asleep tonight (which won’t take long!), we can reflect back on all the different habitat types we hiked through — from the treeless alpine zone, to krummholz (trees stunted in their growth due to extreme weather conditions), to the boreal forest. Tomorrow is a new (and shorter!) day and we will hike down into the northern hardwood forest.

Look how far we’ve come! Five miles (9.5 hours) later, we arrive at our destination- Mizpah Spring hut.

New England

“The toughest mile…(so far)”

Today was a day of surprises. We ascended Mount Washington this morning, and were scheduled for a visit to the Alpine Garden. This was not your ordinary garden.

Almost to the Alpine Garden.

The Alpine Garden (almost): not many readily visible flowers unless you look very closely! Renee holds a Snickers bar with a wrapper that says “cray cray” which pretty much epitomized the weather conditions we experienced today.

Instead of 85 degrees and sunshine, this garden thrives in 45 degrees and lots of wind. Instead of a lush meadow full of flowers, we found rocks. Lots of rocks. But if we looked closer, we could see some tiny, tenacious, treasures — miniature alpine flowers like cranberry (which we sampled, and we can verify that they tasted like craisins), sandwort and Diapensia (a relative of our pixie moss). Mostly it was very cold, very windy and very unexpected.

The summit of Mount Washington – site of the highest human-recorded land wind speed — 231 mph.

The summit of Mount Washington – site of the highest human-recorded land wind speed — 231 mph.

Looking down from the inside of the Observatory tower.

Looking down from the inside of the Observatory tower.

Once at the top, we got treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mount Washington Observatory. It was so neat to see how all of our data that appears at the click of a mouse is painstakingly collected by lots of instruments and dedicated souls.

We also met the observatory cat named Marty!

On our way down, with the help of AMC Air Quality Scientist Georgia Murray and her intern Lauren, we learned about some of the citizen science monitoring that is happening with the alpine flowers. We will be able to help collect observations the next few days. Documenting the phenology (timing of plant stages) helps keep a record of changes in timing as the climate warms.

Learning about monitoring phenology of alpine wildflowers. In the distance you can see the white roof of our destination hut, Lakes of the Clouds.

AMC Air Quality Scientist Georgia Murray (with her back to the camera in a red backpack) teaches us about monitoring phenology of alpine wildflowers. In the distance you can see the white roof of our destination hut, Lakes of the Clouds.

Though it wasn’t far, the rocky, downhill trail was a challenge for many of us, but we helped each other along the way and made it to Lakes of the Clouds Hut safely in time for dinner!

Tomorrow we have our longest-mileage day ahead of us, and we don’t anticipate having cell signal to post the blog until Wednesday.

We will fall asleep tonight after a spectacular sunset with the fading glow on the horizon.

Sunset from Lakes of the Clouds hut.

Sunset from Lakes of the Clouds hut.

New England

“Lobster Rolls and Momma Moose make our day”

The morning was cool and cloudy but warmed up nicely to reveal blue skies. It is our final day on Appledore island. Nature can be calming and nature can be cruel. I think some of us are leaving with the sense that we are glad not to have been born a seagull. The nesting colony of gulls here face numerous hardships, but also enjoy unlimited beauty. Blair witnessed a vicious gull attack where one herring gull attacked another, presumably to dine on its one and only chick. A battle ensued and gulls were tossing and flopping about, with locked beaks and making perilous sounds. The battle ended in successful defense by the parent of the one chick. Whew!

The wind turbine that helps generate some electricity for the island. Not pictured are the many (gull poop covered) solar panel arrays that generate the bulk of the power for the island.

We finished our time on the island with two tours. Our first one highlighted the sustainability features of toilets, electricity generation, water usage, and hot water generation. Over the years, Shoals Marine Lab has been installing solar panels, a wind turbine, rain water catchment systems, and composting toilets to conserve valuable resources in a remote location. The rain water can currently only be used for watering Celia Thaxter’s historic garden because the rooftops are covered in gull droppings. Celia Thaxter was the daughter of the owner of the once-grand Appledore hotel, and she hosted many different artists in her home, including Childe Hassam. Shoals Marine Lab keeps the garden up to preserve a part of the island’s hotel-era history (which ended abruptly in 1914 with a devastating fire). Though people can’t drink the rainwater captured from the rooftops, Celia’s garden has benefited from these additional nutrients and the flowers were spectacular.

“The earth laughs in flowers.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Frances channeling the spirit of Celia Thaxter in her garden. Photo: Renee Pagoota-Wight.

Once on land (and back in New Hampshire), we quickly descended upon Sanders Fish Market for quintessential lobster rolls. Everyone ate with vigor and we continued our journey north to Joe Dodge Lodge (at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center). Sadly the only wildlife we spotted along the drive were two roadkill porcupines, and one (fortunately) live red fox. We cannot wait for “luxurious” rooms and showers (which were limited on the island to conserve water).

And then, as we were closing our day on a quiet wetland boardwalk near the lodge, our meeting was interrupted in the best possible way — when a momma moose and her yearling calf decided to join us at the pond! (OMG!!!!!!) Our unexpected visitors left us thrilled and excited to see what other surprises these new terrestrial and alpine environments hold for us over the next few days!

*Note: We may not be able to post blogs again until we get off the trail again on Wednesday.

New England

“An Unexpected ‘Tern’ of Events”

This morning we went hiking around the northern coast of the island. We traveled with Lab Coordinator Bonnie Clarke and External Relations Coordinator Alexa Hilmer as they guided us on a two-hour tour. Bonnie focused specifically on the geology of the island, highlighting the fact that the island is mostly granite with portions of other strikingly visible igneous and metamorphic features (e.g. dikes).

Standing in the same spot as Childe Hassam, overlooking Broad Cove. You might notice that the tide during our visit today was higher than in the painting.

In part two of the hike, Alexa continued our discussion of the American impressionist painter Childe Hassam. She brought prints of some of his paintings from Appledore and we had fun trying to find the specific location and the exact vantage points (lines of sight) where he sat to create his masterpieces. Even today, almost a hundred years later, we continue to be inspired by the same, ever-changing views of light on rocks and water.

One of our animal observations from the hike was that the gulls on the northern cliffs definitely seemed more anxious of humans than those nesting around the dorms and labs. We got to witness two gulls locking beaks in a heated battle for territory and dominance. It was neat to see up close some of the behaviors we had learned about the day before!

When hiking through the gull colony it is best to heed President Theodore Roosevelt’s policy — “speak softly and carry a big stick."

When hiking through the gull colony it is best to heed President Theodore Roosevelt’s policy — “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

As the morning continued, we hiked south towards Smith’s Cove. This southernmost tip of the island contained some phenomenal evidence of both glacial movement as well as metamorphism within the granite. And (perhaps most importantly?), since the southern end of the island is not a nesting area for gulls, our team got to enjoy a momentary respite from the attack birds as we examined and discussed the rock formations.

A peaceful image of our group on the rocky southern coast of Appledore Island.

The group captures our best interpretation of “attack gulls.”

After our great morning walk, we had the opportunity to hear from the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) student interns. In addition to two-week course offerings, undergraduate students also have the opportunity to apply for research intern positions that allow them to research for 10 weeks on the island. Some of the topics the 2018 interns are researching include: sea animals eating plastics; parasites that possibly influence green crab behavior; the effects of sound vibrations on hermit crabs; and seal populations and entanglements. We hope our students back home will have such amazing opportunities for themselves in the future!

After lunch and a seal identification crash course from Alexa, we were able to put our skills in identification to the test with a boat tour of neighboring Duck Island. Staying a safe (and federally-mandated) distance away we were able to practice distinguishing the different characteristics of the Harbor Seal and Gray Seal as we viewed them “hauled out” on the rocks and bobbing in the water near our boat!

The highlight of the day was our attempted visit to the tern colony on White Island. Last night, Dr. Liz Craig taught us about the Common, Roseate, and Arctic Terns; These three tern species are the subjects of conservation and restoration programs on the Isles of Shoals. We were prepared to visit the island via small inflatable rafts that required a water landing (our feet would get wet) and then we were going to explore what promised to be a loud and messy tern colony. Some of us were dressed better for this adventure than others.

Compactor bags make great ponchos, protecting against not only rain but also lots of bird poop from angry terns.

Compactor bags make great ponchos, protecting against not only rain but also lots of bird poop from angry terns.

Alas, It was not meant to be. We learned first hand what Eisenhower knew when he said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The weather was not cooperating, so we did what teachers do best and improvised our plans. Liz (who is now everyone’s rockstar role model) captured a few baby terns and brought them to us on the boat, which was securely moored just off shore!* Can you imagine?! We got to participate in taking measurements and banding baby terns aboard the boat. We learned the importance of banding to help scientists follow bird flight patterns and better understand their nesting behaviors. Everyone had a “tern” to hold a baby chick and we all hope to “retern” again someday!

Josh holds a newly hatched Common Tern chick in his hands.

Josh holds a newly hatched Common Tern chick in his hands. If you look closely you can still see the tiny white “egg tooth” on the end of its bill. This helps the chick peck a hole into its eggshell from the inside so it can hatch!

*Please note — no chicks were harmed during this quick, educational adventure. After being measured and banded, they were safely transported back to their nests on land.