Dioramas, Red-Footed Boobies and Changing Times in Coastal Belize

This is my final blog post related to Carnegie Museum of Natural History, finishing up with a topic that has interested me for the last four-and-a-half years.

CMNH diorama 2Natural history habitat dioramas can provide passage to another place, and another time. In 1932 the artisans at Carnegie Museum of Natural History created this habitat diorama “Red Footed Booby.” It represents Half Moon Caye off Belize with a group of  Red-Footed Boobies in part of their nesting colony in gumbo-limbo (copperwood) trees. The birds are perched precariously on loose nests of sticks. In foreground, a downy chick has fallen to the ground and calls to its distressed parent.

It’s a beautiful scene, its pink light and lavender shadows artfully painted by Ottmar von Fuehrer, depict a sultry tropical morning. Enormous rain clouds roll in toward verdant forest across the bay. It’s a primordial scene – which wouldn’t have changed much in tens of millions of years – and, like most early habitat dioramas, not a trace of humanity is evident. In the words of Ruth Trimble, who wrote about it in the 1932 edition of  Carnegie Magazine:

The group shows a small and typical section of the huge nesting colony on the shore line of Half Moon Cay, where the mangroves and cocoanuts (sic) give way to the low brush that covers the western end of the island.

The fact that this particular diorama is such a faithful representation of a specific location started me wondering what it was like today and how the Red-Footed Boobies were doing there.

Half Moon Caye Map

Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is located about 50 miles (80 km) south-east of Belize City and is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site. The reserve was established in 1996, by the United Nations World Heritage Committee after formally adopting seven marine protected areas along the Belize Barrier Reef and its adjacent atolls under the UNESCO charter.

The caye sits within Lighthouse Reef, one of three atolls on the Belize Barrier Reef. Lighthouse Reef is oblong, about 35 km (22 mi) long from north to south, and about 8 km (5.0 mi) wide. It forms a shallow sandy lagoon of 120 sq km (46 sq mi), between 2 to 6 meters (6 to 19 ft) deep. The caye itself is tiny by comparison – just 0.168 km2 (0.065 sq mi), or slightly more than 41 acres.

Satellite photo of Half Moon Caye on Lighthouse Reef

While Belize is now a sovereign nation, between 1862 and 1964 it was a British Crown called British Honduras and had long before been settled by the English. While this relationship brought political attention and trade, it also was an attractant to scientists. One who came, in the very year British Honduras was founded, was 27-year-old British ornithologist Osbert Salvin (M.A., F.L.S. &c.), who came to collect seabirds. He met up with an American (Mr. R.), a temporary resident of Belize who was interested in learning how to skin birds. Salvin wrote about it in an entertaining account in the scholarly journal The Ibis.

Little touches in his account give a sense of what it was like. The coffee…

At the first trace of dawn we were glad enough to turn out, and, coffee over (before which one does as little as possible in the tropics), the schooner was again got under weigh. (pg. 374)

…the desire to dispatch as much as they could…

Osbert Salvin
Osbert Salvin as a young man

Bald-pate Pigeons (Columba leucocephala), in small flocks of three and four, flew across the bows just out of shot… A few Shags (Phalacrocorax floridanus) now flew round, and I shot several as we came to anchor… The boat being now loaded, we returned to the schooner and commenced securing the spoils, skinning the birds and blowing the eggs while we were gradually beating up to an opening in the eastern side of the reef… (pg. 374)

These accounts are all punctuated with insightful anecdotes about the birds’ behaviors. It’s the information specific to Half Moon Caye that’s interesting as part of an understanding of the diorama:

The northern end of this Cay, which is long, and shaped as its name implies, is occupied by the pilots, who have their houses scattered about under a grove of cocoa-nuts. There are but few mangroves; but the southern portion, as well as nearly the whole windward side, is covered by low “bush.” A large colony of Boobies (Sula piscator) hold entire possession of this portion of the island, every tree having four or five nests in it. (pg. 381)

Despite the presence of some human habitation even at this time, boobies were clearly very abundant.

The whole afternoon was taken up with skinning a series of the different plumages of the Booby and the few small birds I had secured; but just before sunset I again walked round the island to watch the Boobies returning to roost from their fishing-grounds. They came trooping back in flocks of twenty or thirty, the greater portion from windward, and flying at a dashing pace. They did not settle at once, but kept sailing round and round till after sunset. While watching them, I recognized a single immature bird of the common species (Sula fiber), its browner throat enabling me to detect it. I saw no others there, but afterwards at sea several flew round the schooner. Having pretty well finished the day’s work, we slung our hammocks in the rigging, and slept soundly till dawn. (pg. 382)

Ruth Trimble
Ruth Trimble (right), Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Jumping forward seventy years to 1932 Ruth Trimble, an ornithologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, wrote in Carnegie Magazine about another trip – in 1926 – that followed up on Salvin’s work.

In 1926, almost sixty-five years later [after Salvin’s trip]… Ernest G. Holt, then a member of the Carnegie Museum, undertook an expedition to this same region to study this same region to study its bird life and to collect specimens and materials for a habitat group of the red-footed booby. Mr. Holt found the boobies still in possession of the island, although somewhat reduced in numbers, possibly because of their unsuspecting nature made them easy prey for the pilots and cocoanut (sic) planters who had invaded their stronghold… The group shows a small and typical section of the huge nesting colony on the shore of Half Moon Cay, where the mangroves and cocoanuts give way to the low brush that covers the western end of the island (pg. 45).

In the 1930s, the population of boobies was declining, but still large. This is the point at which a visitor to the Carnegie witnesses the window on world, frozen in time. In 1962, at just two years before the end of the British Honduras, Stephen Mims Russell undertook a PhD on the distributions of the birds of the area.

A colony of Red-footed Boobies has been established on Half Moon Cay for over a hundred years, and individuals of this species are. often seen among the keys and occasionally along the coast- of-British Honduras. The number of birds in the colony has undoubtedly varied considerably. Salvin (1864: 379) thought there were “several thousands” in May 1862. A study of this booby on Half Moon Cay in 1938 (Verner, 1939) revealed 1389 nests and an estimated 3300 individuals exclusive of nestlings. The hurricane in September 1931 reportedly killed many boobies and it may be assumed the powerful hurricane of late October 1961 also reduced the size of the colony.

Add another wrinkle to this story. The red-footed booby has a number of color phases (or morphs) which, like panthers and jaguars, are the result of genetic differentiation. All Red-Footed boobies have red legs, and pink and blue bill and throat pouch. The white phase (top picture) has mostly white plumage and the flight feathers are black. The black-tailed white phase is similar, but with a black tail. The brown phase (below) is brown all over its body. The white-tailed brown phase is similar, but has a white belly, rump, and tail. The phases frequently breed together, but in most regions one or two phases predominates.

In 2000, Julianne Robinson wrote:

Half Moon Caye which supports a colony of the rare white phase of the Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) and numerous neo-tropical migrants. Half Moon Caye Natural Monument was first recognized for its resident and nesting population of the Red-Footed Booby. There is only one other island in the world that supports this rare species. For this reason, the nesting area on Half Moon Caye was declared a Crown Reserve in 1924.

Red Footed Booby Galapogos.jpg
The brown phase of the Red-Footed Booby on the Galapagos Islands

There are other changes to the vicinity, principle among them is a new influx of tourists. Every year 14,000 visitors come to see Half Moon Caye National Monument. They come mostly to see wildlife, dive and relax. With that, of course comes infrastructure.

Andrew Lyons Half Moon Caye
Buildings on Half Moon Caye. Photo: Andrew Lyons 2017. Source: Google Maps.

There are buildings, shaded picnic tables and a nature trail that weaves through the southern part of the island to an observation platform bringing you up to eye level with nesting boobies and frigate birds. Fortunately, this tourism support is well maintained by the Belize Audubon Society who runs a visitor center on the island. The Society is carrying on a tradition that’s been going since 1928, specifically to protect the boobies.

Under the National Parks System Act of 1981 Half Moon Caye comprising of 41.5 acres was designated a Natural Monument on March 4, 1982, together with 9,658.5 acres of its surrounding waters. It was the first protected area in Belize to be designated under this legislation. Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site. Belize Audubon Society website.

While the environment represented by the Carnegie’s 1932 diorama is different from today’s in some fundamental ways, it evokes the same joy and connection that it must have 90 years ago. In 2020, when climate change and rampant loss of biodiversity brings into question the future of wildlife habitats such as coral reefs and atolls, it’s important to remember – and celebrate – the good work people are doing to redress the imbalance.


Belize Audubon Society. 2020. Half Moon Caye National Monument. https://www.belizeaudubon.org/?page_id=3616

Robinson, J. S. 2000. Lighthouse Reef Atoll: Conservation and Protection Project. Internal publication PROARCA/CAPAS

Russell, S. M. 1962. A Distributional Study of the Birds of British Honduras. PhD, Louisiana State University. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/740

Salvin, O. 1864. Fortnight amongst the Sea-birds of British Honduras. The Ibis. 6: 372-387

Trimble, R. 1932.  The Red-footed Booby Group. Carnegie Magazine 6:44-45



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