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Tropical Ecology

“A Jam-Packed Day”

Day three was jam-packed with adventure. We started with an early morning bird walk, followed by breakfast where two collared aracaris (a type of toucan) graced us with their presence at the bird feeder. We loaded the bus for a short ride to Xunantunich Archeological Reserve. This ancient Maya site sits on the edge of the Mopan River where we crossed by hand-cranked ferry — the ferry workers have to turn a crank to move the ferry across the river. After a mile walk, we entered the historical site, where we viewed different structures that were used for ceremonial purposes. We climbed to the top of the largest structure on the site, El Castillo, where the king would have performed rituals. While at the top you could see Guatemala in the distance. Below, on the plaza between the buildings, we viewed a ball court where ancient Maya would have played.

group sitting on tall stair-stepped stone structure

Group photo with El Castillo at Xunantunich.

When we returned to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge, Rita, who is Ketchi Maya, shared her culture including an authentic tortilla-making lesson using a Maya grinding stone. We shaped and cooked the tortillas on a traditional Maya wood-burning oven. We ate them for lunch with plantains and grilled habanero peppers.

three people making tortillas

Corinne and Neysy learn how to make tortillas from Rita.

After lunch we headed down to the Macal River where, in groups of three, we canoed down the river, enjoying the flora and fauna along the banks. On our journey we collected figs to investigate later. At the end we were able to stop and take a dip in the cool, refreshing water. As we headed back to the lodge, we stopped for a local ice cream treat at the Ice Cream Shoppe in San Ignacio.

three canoes on a tropical river

Canoeing the Macal River.

woman swimming in river

Mary enjoying the cool water of the Macal River.

Back at the lodge, Melissa, Megan and Andy led us in an engaging activity where, in groups, we dissected the figs that we found earlier in the Macal River. We learned all about the fig wasp, which has a mutualistic relationship with the fig, and its life cycle. We finished the day with a delicious dinner and a short night walk led by Nathan.

four people looking closely at a plate of figs that are cut open

Meredith, Corinne, Scarlett and Kaylie dissect figs.

group waving arms on porch

The group re-enacting the fig life cycle… Shawna is the female fig wasp. Can you tell?

Tonight we pack up for the next stop at the Jaguar Preserve! For the next two days, it is unlikely we will be able to post new blogs. So stay tuned for a big post on Saturday detailing our time exploring the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary!

Tropical Ecology

“First Full Day”

A man holds a grasshopper in his hand

Andy was happy to capture and show off the grasshoppers and their flashes of color (salmon pink, bright magenta, yellow, etc.) underneath their wings, which are used to startle predators.

Our first full day in Belize began very early with a bird walk at 5:45 am. We were rewarded for rising early with coffee, and then we headed off to explore the land surrounding the lodge. In addition to seeing Belize’s national bird, the keel-billed toucan, we saw a white-necked jacobin, a golden-fronted woodpecker, a spiny-tailed iguana and giant grasshoppers that were similar to our lubbers back home. And the plant life did not disappoint either. We saw starfruit and avocado trees, lobster-claws, and got to taste a velvet apple, a type of fruit that looked like a fuzzy peach with the leaves of a persimmon, that tasted reminiscent of a floral pear.

A group of teachers hikes down a sandy road in open pine forest.

Hiking in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve felt similar to our sandhills region in North Carolina.

After a delicious breakfast, we loaded into the bus and drove to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve where we hiked along the road and then through the jungle — up what we now lovingly refer to as “death hill” due to the steepness and narrowness of the path, the low-hanging branches we had to limbo underneath, and the ever-present heat and humidity — to the entrance to Domingo Ruiz Cave. Once in the cave, we saw stalactites and stalagmites, bats, spiders and kissing bugs; then we sat for a minute in perfect darkness and silence to fully appreciate the majesty of the space.

group of teachers sitting in a cave

Our group sitting inside Domingo Ruiz Cave immediately after our moment of silence in total darkness.

The next cave we visited was named “Rio Frio” (cold river). This is where Late Preclassic and Classic period Maya may have performed sacrifices and other religious ceremonies. Unlike Domingo Ruiz Cave, this one was open on both ends, so we had natural light to aid us as we climbed over rocks to reach a sandy beach along the river running through the cave.

A large open cave entrance with vines hanging down from above

Rustina, Andy and Jeff at the grand entrance to Rio Frio Cave.

silhouette of a woman looking out from a cave into the light

Meredith looks out towards the light and forest from inside Rio Frio Cave.

After a lovely picnic lunch outside the Rio Frio Cave, we headed to the Rio On Pools to cool down after a taxing morning of hiking. We changed into our swimsuits and then got to play like children, clambering over smooth granite rocks, sitting under small waterfalls, sliding into the different pools and swimming around the crevices.

Teachers gather around the base of a small waterfall over smooth granite rocks.

Most of the group at one of the small waterfalls in the Rio On Pools.

We returned to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge where most of us spent our free hour enjoying the infinity pool, and we then had our daily meeting where we discussed highlights of the day and what we learned from our experiences and our top notch tour guides, Nathan Forbes and Zhawn Poot.

After our fabulous dinner, we are headed off on another night hike. Fingers crossed we find some new creatures to observe.

Tropical Ecology

“We made it!”

After three years of waiting, we finally landed in Belize. The early morning was worth it — we took off from RDU at 5:05 AM. We had a layover in Atlanta and then had our final leg to Belize. Our first day was full of animal sightings including howler monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, spiders and lots of birds!

group in bus

We loaded our bus full of excited teachers and lots of luggage!

After visiting the Howler Monkey Preserve, we continued our way to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge for some rest and air conditioning. We had our first group meeting by the pool and created some group goals for the trip. Some of our goals included taking risks and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. After a delicious Belizean dinner, we took our first night hike of the week and saw a fishing bat, a marine toad, and our first scorpion!

scorpion in Nathan's hands

Our guide, Nathan, showed us how the scorpion fluoresces under UV light.

Now off to bed for some well-deserved rest.

Tropical Ecology

“Back to Belize”

Way too early on Monday morning, 12 educators and three Museum staff will meet at the RDU airport to head to Belize! This amazing group of educators has been waiting since 2020 to make this trip.

grid of 12 head shots

These awesome educators are ready to get to Belize!

One of our trip participants, Corinne, had this to say about getting ready for our adventure:

A week out and preparations are well underway! Here are some necessities, not including clothing, that will be coming with me. Outside of my “I need to be prepared for the weather this close to the equator” items, my gear also includes a couple of books for our Belizean teachers and fun pencils and erasers as a donation to a local school. Now we cross fingers that it’s under 50 lbs all packed!

The Museum has been sharing the wonders of Belize with educators since the start of the Educators of Excellence program in 1987. Its extensive tracts of reserved land provide habitat for a vast array of plants and animals; its friendly people represent diverse cultures including Maya, Mestizo, Creole, and Garifuna; and its barrier reef is home to a rainbow of fishes and other marine life. Everyone is excited to experience all that Belize has to offer and gather information, ideas, and inspiration to bring back to North Carolina students!

Yellowstone

“An Indescribable Experience”

How does one describe the indescribable? Language does not possess the capacity to capture the totality of the past ten days and all that we experienced. In an attempt to express how we have been impacted, some words that have emerged over the course of our time here include awesome (in the true sense of the word), renewal, humbling, surreal, grateful, overwhelming, inspired, connection, relationships, and sublime, to name a few. Such words only begin to reveal the deep meaning found in such a short time and the experience that is indelibly imprinted upon each of us. We are — as people and as educators — forever changed in ways both known and unknown. While we are all changed in different ways, it has been the combination of the people we have met and learned from, the vast and diverse landscape, and the abundant and varied wildlife and lifeforms we have experienced that have produced a life-altering effect.

Furthermore, it is not coincidental we have been so profoundly impacted; it is thanks to our thoughtful, knowledgeable and dedicated leaders, Melissa, Greg and Martha, all of whom have not only given their time but have truly given all of themselves. Their passion, insight, patience and flexibility have been unwavering and instrumental in making this trip like nothing else, especially Melissa who, even after forty visits, exudes awe, wonder and joy for the wild majesty that is Yellowstone. From all of us, thank you!

 

three people in front of mountains

Our trip leaders — Martha, Greg, and Melissa.

Yellowstone contains worlds within worlds, rich with life and history on a scale that is immeasurable. First arriving in the park after an especially early flight, we emerged from a sleepless haze and were quickly introduced to the impressive mountain landscape, winding rivers, and fascinating wildlife: bison, pronghorn antelope and elk. The excitement was palpable. The massive Roosevelt Arch stood as a gateway to the unknown as well as a reminder of the long and complicated history of the land. Our first five days in the Lamar Valley and surrounding area was a foray into our first world within the park. This vast landscape of rugged, looming mountain peaks with steep and stark cliff faces covered in dense groves of Douglas fir trees, sloping into expansive valleys blanketed in lush grasses patchworked with sagebrush and rushing rivers, is truly a sight to behold. Dense layers of clouds could not fully hold back the rays of sun creating a kaleidoscope that shimmered down to the Earth and cast shadows that undulated like waves across the sea.

Each day in the Lamar Valley was full of wildlife and wonder. Despite the cold and wet, a sense of curiosity and inspiration quickly spread throughout our group as new friendships bolstered the shared excitement. Our first full day we were greeted by a moose near our rustic accommodations and shortly thereafter a mother grizzly bear with two playful cubs on a hillside near the road — a truly special and memorable experience that already made us question, how could things get much better? This question was a recurring theme each day, yet somehow each day managed to unveil new depth and beauty. Over the following days, we tracked wolves and witnessed a pack attempt to get a baby bison (but mama bison was not having it, and fought off seven wolves, and baby was quickly surrounded in the safety of the herd); a mother grizzly bear nursing her cubs; baby foxes playing on logs; baby pronghorn antelope with their mother; elk lying in the school football field; and countless birds, wildflowers and breathtaking vistas. The frequency and quality of sightings and unique animal behavior observed was truly astounding and elicited a joy and levity that even unseasonable weather and functioning on minimal sleep couldn’t detract from.

sagebrush, meadows, and hills at sunset

Sunset in Lamar Valley.

people walking through grassy hillside with mountains in the background

Hiking in the northern range.

While the daily exhilaration of the natural beauty was otherworldly, another aspect that made the experience even more special was the amazing experts we met and who took time to help us learn about what we were seeing on even deeper levels. Ranger Michael, Kira, Dan, Rick, Pat and others were such an integral part of making our experience even more special and rich, and each added something that could not be quantified or even described because they did not merely share information, they shared their passion, their insatiable curiosity, and a new lens to look at the park and at life itself through. Even more, they showed us ways we can learn from their lives to enrich our students’ learning and show them new possibilities for their future, and the positive impact they can have in myriad ways. The gift of each of these experts is truly a blessing, the impact of which will help grow the next generation of researchers, conservationists, ecologists, geologists, naturalists, biologists and so much more.

three people in NPS uniforms in front of a geyser

An impromptu meeting with the park’s geology crew in Upper Geyser Basin.

After days immersed in the awesomeness of the northern range, we entered a new world in the park as we headed down to the outer rim of the caldera, through the canyon and into the Yellowstone volcano’s caldera. In the Yellowstone River canyon, rushing river rapids carved through volcanic and hydrothermally altered rocks, exposing among the cliff faces of the canyon a historical account of our planet going back millions of years. The story told is one of dynamic change, volatility and the power of nature that has not only shaped the landscape, but also the subsequent life that has existed, from the tiniest microbes in the most extreme environments to the ways people live on and use the land.

Heading into the caldera, geothermal features unfold across the land, making the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins truly otherworldly. Seeing features such as the Dragon’s Mouth made clear how indigenous peoples didn’t just see rocks and water, but the source of creation itself and built their sense of existence and their culture in relationship with the Earth. The Earth is not a resource to consume, it is sacred and to be revered, honored and respected — a lesson we all would benefit to learn.

From the caldera, we drove out of Yellowstone to experience the majesty of Grand Teton National Park, just miles away. While close in proximity, the Tetons stand as a world all their own. Walking into the Jackson Lake Lodge, tired and desperate for coffee, our bodily concerns immediately faded from thought, and time and space stood still as the mountains enraptured us. Later, a walk to Taggart Lake provided a truly breathtaking view and moment of transcendence and peace. It was in countless moments like these that we felt a unity and connectedness with all of life, an experience of the sublime. After a brief day trip in the Grand Tetons we made our way back up to the geyser basin and Old Faithful, then on to the North Entrance to finish out our time in Yellowstone, a time and place like no other.

people in front of erupting geyser

Watching Old Faithful at dawn.

erupting geyser with spraying water and steam

Sawmill Geyser in eruption.

mountains reflected in a still lake

View of the Tetons from Taggart Lake.

There is the Greek maxim, “know thyself,” and Yellowstone is a place that instills in one a new and deeper understanding that is born out of experiencing the interconnectedness that we all share, for knowledge is relational. Amidst the landscape, the relationship between one individual and the hills, the rocks, the wildlife, the sky and so much more are all-consuming. Each sensation is not only stronger, it speaks of who we are and what it means to be human in the most humbling way. It opens you to the simultaneity of our insignificance and our significance, and contained in this paradox you find yourself in a truer sense than had previously been known. So, back to the question posed at the beginning of this post: How does one describe the indescribable? One doesn’t; it can only be experienced.

group standing in the Roosevelt Arch

We finished our trip where we started — at the Roosevelt Arch — the same people but changed for the better by our experience in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone

“Geysers Galore”

Shortly after sunrise, the group enjoyed a mostly private viewing of Old Faithful erupting at precisely 7:17 a.m. The geyser is famous for erupting at a (mostly) regular interval and its high sprays do not disappoint. Afterwards, we enjoyed a hike in the Upper Geyser Basin, seeing several other thermal features including surprise eruptions from Spasmodic and Sawmill Geysers. We had a rare opportunity to talk with one of the park’s geology crews that was out in the basin collecting data from meters at the features. They talked with us about the research they are doing using the data, and how they are responsible for collecting items that fall away from the safety of the boardwalk.

group hiking on boardwalk

Hiking through Upper Geyser Basin

group in front of steam

Watching Spasmodic Geyser

The basin’s landscape could be likened to a moonscape — white geyserite covers the ground and little plant life. Trees that surround the features are bleached white over time by geyser spray and by soaking in mineral-rich water through their roots. Don’t let these features fool you! They are filled with microorganisms called thermophiles that thrive in the heat. Soon afterwards, Andy taught us about the bioprospecting of these creatures and how they have been used in scientific research since the 60s. This research unlocked the door to DNA sequencing, the Human Genome Project, medical advances, and other practical applications.

The morning was rounded out with a visit to the visitor center and the Tribal Heritage Center. The Tribal Heritage Center showcases the arts and crafts of indigenous tribes whose culture and history are tightly interwoven with the park. Today’s artist-in-residence, a Shoshone and Arapaho woman, shared her intricate beadwork with visitors. She explained how the patterns and colors in the beadwork have meaning to the garment’s wearer. One more viewing of Old Faithful and ice cream and then we were off!

We stopped at Fountain Paint Pots for a brief walk to see various thermal features including Celestine Springs, Leather Pool and Red Spouter. What makes this spot special is the proximity of the different types of thermal features to one another. We also spotted a coyote carcass near a geyser, reminding us just how volatile these features are. After lunch, we explored Obsidian Cliff and learned about how Native American tribes used the precious resource from Becqui. In addition, Scott schooled us on how invasive species are impacting native species in the park. The day was finished with our arrival in Gardiner for the night and a final group meeting. During the meeting, tears were shed, goals were revisited, regrets were let go, and connections were deepened as we shared the immense impact the trip has had on each of us. Conversation continued over dinner as we prepared to leave this transformative experience with hearts full of gratitude and joy.

Yellowstone

“T is for Tetons!”

The team turned the vans southward today, headed for the Tetons. Early morning coffee at the Jackson Lodge invigorated the crew and everybody was ready to take in the beauty of these picturesque mountains. At the Willow Flats overlook, we took scenic photos and Greg and Melissa shared with us some of the human and geologic history of the greater Tetons region. Melissa also had her “Sound of Music” moment among the beautiful wildflowers of the Jackson Hole valley.

15 people in front of huge mountains

Group with the Grand Tetons

Next, we braved the crowds at Taggart Lake for a “perfect weather hike” – a 4-mile loop to the lake and back. Many pictures were taken lakeside as South, Middle and Grand Teton peaks provided the perfect backdrop. Those that bird (and they know who they are) enjoyed a plethora of birdcalls (Hello, Green-tailed Towhee!) and special sightings such as two darting MacGillivray’s warblers. The weather was almost warm, and we enjoyed shedding heavy coats and thermals. Swallowtail butterflies flitted and tent caterpillars wiggled in the midst of the vegetation. The aspen-lined trail followed the hillside down along babbling brooks, finally emerging into a sage-covered valley.

people hiking down a trail with mountains in the distance

Group hiking the trail to Taggert Lake

After a picnic lunch, our next stop was the Laurance S. Rockefeller preserve. The visitor center provided the group a moment of quiet reflection. Some chose to sit outside in nature reflecting and journaling. Others took a brisk 3-mile loop hike to Phelps Lake; another exquisitely mountain-framed loch. Laurance S. Rockefeller believed in the power of nature to restore and sustain the human spirit. He envisioned a place where visitors could experience a spiritual and emotional connection to the extraordinary natural beauty of Phelps Lake and the Teton range. This vision was enhanced by sensory rooms inside the center where we experienced the sounds and sights of the Grand Teton National Park. A quote from a poem by Terry Tempest Williams on the wall outside the soundscape room states, “Nature quiets the mind by engaging with an intelligence larger than our own.”

buildign in meadow

Visitor Center at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve

On the way back north, we stopped for some excellent pizza at Leek’s Marina on Jackson Lake. As the sun was setting, we had our penultimate group meeting on the shore of Lewis Lake. Martha gave us the challenging task to describe our Yellowstone experience in three words. While no single word could do this journey justice, some of the words mentioned were reflective, grateful, invigorating, humbling, restorative, flora and fauna, and splendor. Another quote from Terry Tempest Williams’ poem in the Rockefeller preserve summarizes our experience well: “We see the Great Peaks, mirrored in water—stillness, wholeness, renewal. Reflection leads to us restoration.”

Yellowstone

“Let the Sunshine In…”

We all emerged from our little yellow cabins to eat breakfast together and head out to hike Pelican Creek Nature Trail on Yellowstone Lake. Our daily physical/weather team today took a temperature reading of 38 degrees! We were bundled up and ready to keep exploring. Some of us journaled, some sketched the scene out in front of us, and others enjoyed the view while letting their minds wander.

Excerpt from Talicia’s Journal Entry:
“I’m losing track of the time. All the days are packed with new adventures, new discoveries, and new knowledge. I sit at the edge of Yellowstone Lake observing the view. The mountain caps are covered with snow. Pelicans perch on the island not far from view. Are they taking it all in too? I close my eyes and feel the breeze blowing gently across my face. I listen to the water swoosh, swoosh, swoosh- waves bouncing back and forth in a rhythmic dance. I’m without words to adequately describe its beauty, so I take it all in. The cool sand beneath me, sediments of earth’s history- shades of mocha, cocoa, and cream, a beautiful mix around me…”

Next, we headed to meet National Park Service fisheries biologist Pat Bigelow at the marina. She told us more about the NPS’s conservation efforts to reduce the Lake Trout population that unfortunately made its way to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem after being introduced here by humans. These fish outcompete the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and disrupt the delicate food web, causing a variety of negative effects to many other species. Forty-two species of Yellowstone predators (including grizzly bears and white pelicans) prey on cutthroat trout because of the shallower waters they inhabit. Lake trout, which typically stay in deeper waters, escape this predation thereby further exacerbating the pressures on cutthroat trout.

group on boat

Learning about the gill nets NPS uses to remove lake trout from Yellowstone Lake

A few more stops along the way to our next destination included lunch at Angler’s Bluff, the Continental Divide at Isa Lake, and Kepler Cascades.

After cold and wet conditions all morning, it was delightful to make our way through amazing geothermal features of the park in the Upper Geyser Basin. We stopped at Black Sand Pool, otherwise known as Thumper. The sun above us and the earth beneath us warmed both our bodies and spirits as we laid on the ground and felt the “thumps” or vibrations of the pressurized water and steam escaping from below.

people laying on the ground

The group laid down on the ground near Black Sand Pool to feel it thump.

We also saw a number of geyser eruptions including Daisy, Beehive, and OId Faithful. Did you know that Yellowstone National Park is home to more than half of all the world’s geysers? It is no wonder that people travel far and wide to see these unique and powerful displays of nature!

After a quick dinner, we headed to Grand Prismatic Overlook for an evening hike. The thermophiles (heat loving microorganisms) living in the pool give this water the beautiful rainbow-like colors for which is it famous.

people overlooking colorful hot spring

Sunset at Grand Prismatic Spring

It was the perfect place to have our end of day group meeting where we discussed highlights of the day and personal obstacles and triumphs we have experienced so far on this trip. We are heading to bed at the Old Faithful Inn, ready for another great day tomorrow.

Yellowstone

“The Beauty of Yellowstone People & Places”

Good evening from Yellowstone! We are writing tonight from the magnificent Yellowstone Lake Hotel after spending five cozy nights at the Grizzly Lodge in Silver Gate. We started our migration south bright and early and headed into Lamar Valley one last time where we saw several mountain goats on the side of the road. After several stops along the way for wildlife viewing, we came upon a wolf jam — a traffic jam composed of people watching wolves. We set up our spotting scopes on a hill and quickly spotted a lone, collared wolf in the sage, who turned out to have quite a story. Also watching on the hill was Rick McIntyre, renowned wolf interpreter, author, and storyteller. We were super fortunate that he was willing to take a break in the wolf spotting to entertain us with the story of that wolf in the sage, named Wolf 907, and some of the Yellowstone wolfpacks. His passion and moving stories made the wolves so relatable to the human experience. We know these stories help us make connections to these beautiful animals as we see ourselves in them. This is another example of the beautiful generosity of all the people we have met here at the park, from experts to fellow visitors.

group in meadow

LIstening intently to Rick’s stories in Lamar Valley

The afternoon yielded a 4-mile loop hike along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We entered what could only be described as three different worlds. First, we saw the amazing Canyon with breathtaking views, and learned about the landscape that inspired painter Thomas Moran. As we turned the corner on the trail the landscape transformed completely. Steaming mud pots reeking of sulphur fumes could be seen around us, and we were fascinated at the changing landscape and high ground temperatures caused by these features. We descended a little further down the path to a serene lake, Clear Lake, where the lodgepole pines were mirrored in the turquoise blue water. The view captivated us, and we stopped for a moment to reflect and spend some time journaling. Our hike ended with a trek along a muddy path studded with wildflowers, and we loaded into the vans for our next adventure!

waterfall in canyon

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Talicia in front of a Carolina blue lake

Talicia in front of beautiful Clear Lake

The thermal features of the park are stunning to behold! We joined throngs of visitors walking boardwalks alongside bubbling, gurgling, steaming, stinking pits of water and mud. There were fanciful names for some of the features, including Dragon’s Mouth Spring, which looked like the entrance to the underworld. It is actually steam and other gases exploding through the surface water, causing it to crash against the walls of the cavern. One last stop before the hotel! We congregated at a peaceful spot near the Yellowstone River to hear about Yellowstone cutthroat trout from Sharon and to visit the gorgeous harlequin ducks in the rapids.

steaming hot spring

Dragon’s Mouth Spring

We were hungry and the good kind of tired after our hike and all the day’s adventures. Reflecting on the good will between the park visitors sharing information and spotting scopes, as well as their personal expertise and animal stories, we were reminded of the statement from the rangers at the Yellowstone Visitor Center that we humans are part of the Yellowstone migration story. We are so grateful to be a part of this magnificent place and its magnificent story.