Chapter 6. Belize
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2003 All rights reserved.
(Bert) I think I could write a story every time I cross the Mexico-Belize border because every experience is a new one. In Shari's orientation last night she outlined all the steps required for border crossing and the order we did them last year, even handing out a checklist for everyone to follow. So much for plans! Since last year the Belizeans have built a new set of paper processing buildings for cargo carriers and tourists. Campground owner Henry, who is usually quite helpful, hasn't a clue to what the new procedure is and as far as I can tell we are the first caravan of RV's to be processed through the 3-week old new buildings. Our exit from Mexico proceeds smoothly with the usual "propina" for stamping our tourist visas for double entry. Once into the Belize free zone and after fumigation, Henry suggests I line up the caravan along the exit road. No sooner do I get the first five rigs lined up, but a Belizean carrying a 2-way radio tells me I can't park there and must go to the cargo area. A U-turn gets us to the right place only to find out we are in the wrong place, but after consultation could be the right place anyway. Confused yet? We've only begun. One official processes vehicle entry permits, another handles our passports, two others watch, and when it starts to rain, we stand outside the small new building built for one official. The passport-handling person writes faster in his logbook so his line moves through quickly, but RV's proceed at the speed of the slow writer. No computers here. Meanwhile back at the border, Shari is dealing with insurance purchases and fumigation receipts. Some of us have to walk back a quarter mile to the border; others have to pull forward. Once into the cargo area, the personnel aren't prepared for RV's towing rigs that cannot be backed into parking spaces like semi trailers. Nonetheless, everything seems to be moving faster than the usual snail's pace. But something is missing. Where is the customs desk? Where is the vehicle inspector? Chris and I have a discussion about why the U.S. has an advantage over most of the rest of the world: our monopoly on efficiency. Competition in the U.S. requires efficiency or you are out of business. Belize, like many third world countries lacks efficiency. Each Belizean knows how to perform his/her job, but knows nothing about the worker next to him/her. More by chance than direction, I find the customs officer only to discover that Jim and Pat are already in line. I gather up everyone else and tell them we have yet another hurdle to jump. While walking among the rigs I chance upon the vehicle inspector. I take him into R-TENT where he asks for some paperwork and then about cigarettes, liquor, beer, bicycles, food and equipment not attached to the motorhome. We tell him we have four beers in the refrigerator. He looks at the cold beer and then leaves to ask similar questions of the some of the others. While some are still standing in lines at one of the five stages of processing, scattered over a quarter mile radius in four buildings and a parking lot, I happen upon an agriculture inspector and his apprentice. I express surprise at his appearance since I haven't met an ag inspector in the previous two years. He informs me that his fellow workers often fail to tell him when someone new is at the border. So the two enter R-TENT and they confiscate Shari's basil plant. Shari asks if she can cut off the basil leaves (for cooking) before they take the stems, roots and pot. They comply. The trainee suspects our lettuce to be contraband and also a moldy bag of celery and a partially used carton of milk. The boss says we can keep the produce - he could have had the moldy celery for my part - and the milk if we drink it soon. About a half hour later both inspectors disappear and I can't find them anywhere. Although they haven't checked a third of the vehicles and haven't dealt with the uncertified, uninspected, unchecked, undocumented two cats lurking in one of the vehicles, we finish our paperwork and leave.
(Shari) It is 9AM and some of us have not even completed Step 3 on my crossing-the-border handout. Spending only 15 minutes on the Mexican side of the border, I think to myself this year's crossing will be no sweat. However, the Belize side is another story. One week ago, a new building opened and no one thought of what to do with a caravan. Unaware of the problems Bert is having, I await my charges at the insurance building. No one shows up for what seems like an hour. Soon Ray and Marianna walk up and tell me that Bert is not allowed to park the caravan on the street. The caravan gets split and some are parked up front and some are God knows where. All vehicles however have gotten pesticide sprayed, but none have paid for the service. I get the first batch of people started on obtaining insurance, and then Ray, Marianne and I walk in search of next procedural step. A good half-mile later we approach a man sitting in a guard booth with about seven rigs of the caravan waiting in line to enter the fenced cargo area. Another guard is stamping passports. Bert hands me the vehicle papers and sends me back to the insurance hut. Don walks back with me and we decide to pay for everyone's agricultural spray and get reimbursed later. But, here is the problem: five people have already paid, only license plate numbers denote who is who and the amounts vary depending on vehicle type. I write down the license numbers and amounts on a scratch piece of paper, pay the bill and decide to sort out the mess later. Next, we head to the insurance hut where two clerks handwrite vehicle information on a form for the days we need insurance. Then we walk back to the guard in the booth who stamped the passport. He looks at the receipts and sends me to "Immigration," wherever that is. After asking some people sitting on a loading dock, we find that "Immigration" is the man sitting at the small, unmarked desk in the unmarked warehouse. He now writes all the same vehicle information that the insurance people wrote down an hour ago and gives us a piece of paper to join the eight other pieces of paper I have received so far. Some in our group have not realized they need to do this step, so Bert gathers them up and sends them to the warehouse. Next comes the agricultural check for pets, liquor, fruits, vegetables, chicken and pork. In previous years, this step was no big deal. However, today, two agents peruse our cupboards and fridges and confiscate some citrus, warn us about other products and finally let us pass without inspecting the last four rigs. It is a good thing we had no time to shop yesterday in Chetumal. Finally after 4-1/2 hours at the border, we are on our way. After parking, lunch and a quick nap, I take three carloads of people on a driving tour of Corozal, pointing out the highlights of the town we will call home for the next two weeks. It is 5 PM and time for pina coladas while Bert walks us through the next week's agenda.
(Bert) Leonard points to the crooked trees growing near the shoreline as the small outboard motor pushes our boat on the shallow lake. He tells us about the indigo dye derived from the tree and the origin of the name Crooked Tree for the village and wildlife sanctuary. The lake is so shallow the propeller churns up black mud, especially when Leonard points the boat toward the marshy area and river. Within minutes clear skies turn cloudy, light rain mists and transitions into heavy rains. Those who came prepared shield themselves with raincoats and umbrellas; others enjoy the warm rain. After the brief storm, the sun intensely warms our wet clothes and the light breeze dries them quickly. A wet and bedraggled Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is difficult to identify even though we view it at close range. Perched on a snag and spreading its two-tone wings to dry, it soon morphs into the picture we see in our field guides. A little further along we watch a Black-collared Hawk, a handsome new bird for those that haven't visited this area before. Way off in the distance Leonard spots a Jabiru and it doesn't take detailed directions for the rest of us to see the large black and white stork even at this distance of a third mile. When we get closer the stork takes flight and is joined by a second and together they cavort in aerobatic sallies. In all we see four Jabirus today and get many close-up views of Snail Kites. From a rarity point of view, the best bird is one we could have seen at home. Chris spotted it first, but Leonard passed it by on our way to the Jabiru. Fortunately it is still hidden in the same snarl of branches when we return and both boat loads of birders get to see at least fragments of the Least Bittern as it hangs nearly upside down with its bill pointed toward the water surface, intently fishing in spite of its eavesdropping audience. For Leonard, a birder and boatman who searches this area daily, it is his first sighting of this bittern species.
(Bert) At 4 AM the roads are empty and the towns quiet, but by 5 the workers are lined up for buses and cane trucks are moving at snail's pace on the blacktop road, heading to the sugar cane mill. We pass through Orange Walk Town as its inhabitants arise, through Yo Creek and into the Mennonite farmlands near the Guatemala border. Still in the dark, we see a Lesser Nighthawk in the headlights and we stop beside the pocked caliche road to listen for night birds. Pauraques call frequently, Jim hears a screech-owl, many of us listen to a Collared Forest-Falcon and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, but the strangest is an owl that at first sounds like a Mottled Owl, but then changes his rendition to a more complicated pattern of hoots. By elimination, we deduce we are listening to a Black-and-white Owl. With sunlight, we can now see several farm paths into the fields and beside wooded edges - good habit to explore. We hear the birds, but they are skittish and not easily viewed. In the more open field across the road we get better looks at Acorn and Red-vented woodpeckers high in the trees and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats and White-collared Seedeaters in the brush. Along another farm road we find Common Tody-Flycatchers, bright yellow birds with black masks and startling whitish eyes. Separately, I find male and female Green-breasted Mangos, the female sporting a green vest edged in white scallops, the male with decorative red-violet outer tail feathers. Jim motions me toward the group that has gathered further down the road, all birders staring into the dark forest edge. They've discovered an ant swarm and the accompanying troupe of birds that delight in the insects disrupted by the army of ants. I've already missed the Stub-tailed Spadebill and Yellow-billed Cacique, but I'm in time to see the female Gray-throated Chat, the Northern Barred-Woodcreeper and the pair of Barred Antshrikes sporting bad hair days. An American Pygmy Kingfisher is amazingly patient with me as I take a dozen excellent digital photos at close range. We make a few other stops on our way to La Milpa, most uneventful birdwise. At the last stop Don and Jodi's truck won't start, nor will it continue running after being jump started from Ralph's SUV. The battery is completely defunct. Talking to a local resident in San Felipe, we hear of a store in Blue Creek Village, 10 miles distant. Arriving at the Mennonite store we are amazed at the quantity and variety of goods being sold, and especially of the many choices of batteries available to Don. He selects one and with Coen's help it is soon installed in his truck and we are on our way again. We arrive at La Milpa in time for a late afternoon walk. The highlight is seeing three trogon species in the same tree - Black-headed, Violaceous and Slaty-tailed - an act not likely to be repeated. In an evening walk, we use flashlights to find animals - mostly insects - but have the good fortune to find a Mottled Owl that stays perched long enough for me to photograph.
(Shari) The two carloads of late starters leave the campground at 8 AM, a good four hours after the birders. It takes us 2-1/2 hours to traverse the road to La Milpa, passing the birders three-fourths of the way to our mutual destination. On the gravel road to the field station, our group spots some funny looking birds pecking along the side of the road. Looking like turkeys, we decide they must be the famous Oscillated Turkeys that Bert does not have on his life list. We all can hardly wait to ask him if he saw the birds. Bert has taken my list of who goes where and I assign cabanas and dorm rooms the best I can from memory. Some will have to wait until Bert arrives to finalize their arrangements. It looks like some sharing will have to occur since the field station rented one of our reserved rooms to a New York couple and their son. Vladimir and Roen did not know we were going to arrive for lunch and they say they will have to put something together for us. Expecting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we are pleasantly surprised to find fried chicken, rice and beans, tossed salad and watermelon. By the 3:30 afternoon field walk, the last of the birders arrive and we all clap when we see Don and Jodi. Their truck battery died and had to be replaced along the way, a solvable problem but hassle nonetheless. Dinner is big, with tasty Belizean chicken, rice and beans, roasted curry potatoes, coleslaw, wonderful crispy roasted vegetables and a yummy banana cake for dessert. Conversation centers on the fact that Bert did not see the turkeys and I did. What a hoot! After the night bird walk, weary eyes hit the pillows awaiting a dawn awakening. The solar panels make and store electricity for use until about midnight. At that time, my portable fan shuts down and sleeping in the loft - Bert, Virginia and Ralph have the downstairs beds - becomes a bit sticky and uncomfortable until the generator kicks in during the early dawn hours.
(Shari) After a delicious breakfast we pile into our cars for the short drive to the ruins. Here Vladimir gives us a tour and tells a little of the history of the mostly unexcavated and unrestored area. Unbelievably, we see lying on the open ground some original pieces of pottery and stucco wall carvings dating from 700 B.C. The jungle is thick and steamy and after two hours we are ready to go back. Again we have a big delicious lunch and most of us flake out in the cool shade awaiting the 3:30 afternoon bird walk. I find it more comfortable to wait on the dining veranda along with Joanne, Wally, Richard, Sue, Steve and Dan. A game of gin rummy keeps us occupied until dinnertime where we again are well fed. The talk is lively and fast and the bird count off is interesting since Bert has still not seen the Oscillated Turkey and we all enjoy rubbing salt into his wound. Retiring to our cabanas for the evening, it is yet too hot to sleep. Some go on the evening walk but Virginia and I sit on the porch and read, awaiting sleepiness.
(Bert) Birding before breakfast is a treat we haven't had much during this trip because we usually have to drive to the birding site, but staying here within the Rio Bravo Conservation Area gives us a chance to see wildlife from our doorstep. The grassy open area is dotted with flowering Mango and Moho trees, seeding Mahogany and many others that attract birds. Standing in one spot between trees, a colorful bird parade flies by, stopping long enough for us to align spotting scopes on their perches. Parrots, warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, hummingbirds all join the parade. After a hearty breakfast, served buffet style, we drive a few miles to the Mayan ruins of La Milpa. Unlike ruins of Mexico, these are still covered. Collapsed buildings, heaps rounded in time, now forested above and around, the Mayan city is hidden from view. One group follows Vladimir and learns about the hidden city; another follows David in search of birds that enjoy the relatively cooler shade of the jungle. An oft-repeated story, I again miss seeing a Stub-tailed Spadebill, but do get to see Olive-backed Euphonia, Golden-crowned Warbler and an Emerald Toucanet, among others. Birding before breakfast, birding after breakfast, birding in the afternoon, birding at night, stopping only for meals and a siesta, this has certainly is a birding day. The afternoon walk commences without a whisper or a wing beat, quiet as a hot summer day hanging listlessly in humidity. But then Virginia L. finds a male Red-capped Manakin. On prior trips I've often seen the dull-plumaged and not easily recognizable female. Now perched directly in front of me is the male, unmistakable in his fire engine red head and jet black rotund body and stubby tail, set off by a yellow chin and yellow thighs. The bird remains stationary, almost too close to see through the spotting scope, but set in surroundings too dark to photograph well. Like the rest of the forest, the manakin is reluctant to move, content to rest in the shade and conserve his energy. Lurking in the jungle and keeping their distance from us, we see the partially hidden long black bodies and busy long tails of three Tayras. The blond elongated weasel-like heads offset the blackness of the rest of their bodies. This has been a good day for mammal sightings. At the ruins most of us watched Central American Spider Monkeys crawl through the canopy, stretching their limbs like their namesake, and heard Yucatan Black Howler monkeys often from miles away, but sometimes much closer. A Gray Fox met us near the entrance and another one ran up the hill behind the cabanas. Lee found an Agouti, others saw Coatis at the dump, three of us saw the Tayras, and the night-owling group watched three Kinkajous. A few Deppe's Squirrels and Yucatan Squirrels climbed trees while we searched for birds. John and Joanne found an opossum and several White-tailed Deer browsed on the lawn after dusk.
(Bert) In the past three days I've often heard the clear whistle "Hey, Ricky!" - unique and easily identified as it reverberates through the jungle. Yet seeing the singer is another matter. This morning, on the same trail that was so dull at 3:30 yesterday, I get my chance. In a minute opening in the dark woods perches a chocolate brown flycatcher devoid of differentiating feathers, glamorously uninteresting, but beautiful in its haunting song, a drawn-out farewell call to a lost lover, "Haaaay, Rick-key!" First silent, then singing lustily while I watch from 15 ft., the Thrush-like Schiffornis will be a treasure long remembered. But more is to come. Entering a broad opening in the forest canopy, we have a clear view of the cloudless blue sky. Don shouts "Hawk!" and guide David announces "Hawk-Eagle!" and all eyes, then binoculars, point skyward. The profile, white wing windows and pinched in wings and banded tail bring us to the conclusion it is a Hook-billed Kite. But then David hears its call and immediately deduces Ornate Hawk-Eagle, an excitingly fanciful raptor at close range, but even at a great distance, a thrill to see soaring and calling far above us. While still staring skyward, a King Vulture soars into view. Later we get a closer look and can see the distinct black and white feathers and its gigantic 6-ft. wingspan. After a great morning of birding, followed by lunch, we check out of our rooms and drive back to Corozal.
(Bert) A free day today, I use mine to catch up on journals and bird sightings data entry. In the afternoon a few of us visit the school in Corozal where we delivered books last week. Val, the principal, gives us a tour of the elementary school and tells us about the education system in Belize. Six-year-olds start school knowing either Spanish or Creole from home, but not English. So their first task is to learn a new language. Interestingly the Spanish-speaking kids learn Creole from their new playmates before they pick up English from their teachers. Thus, many of the children know three languages within a few years. St. Paul's Anglican School, like many others in Belize, receives teachers' salaries from the government, but must provide for everything else - buildings, books, desks, teaching materials - from the church, the parents and the community. Having met Val last year, I knew of her need for children's books: expensive to buy, costly to ship, easily deteriorating in the tropical climate. Together, the caravan participants brought over 1000 books, plus toys, clothing and teaching aids to Belize. Now we get to meet the teachers and the students. The kids exuberantly pose for photos, yelling "Cheese" and sticking up a two-fingered V behind their companions' heads. Prompted by Val, they welcome us in unison and say thank you for the books. Eighty percent of them will finish eight grades. Those ambition enough, smart enough and with parents who can afford the tuition will be able to continue to high school, but there are not enough openings or funds for many to reach that stage. I inquire about Val's son who last year was applying for scholarships to universities in England and the U.S. She says he is now working in Miami, trying to raise money for college. Our tour takes us to the small kitchen, newly completed in January. Last year I learned that many kids come to school without having eaten breakfast and they do not go home at lunchtime because there is nothing at home to eat. Hence, the children are too hungry to learn much in school. So with the help of church members, they started a school lunch program that now serves meals to a third of the 150+ students. Next our tour takes us to Val's own class, patiently and quietly studying on their own. She says when she is out of the classroom, the kids choose a leader who maintains discipline and writes the names of any misbehaving on the board. Seeing how studious they were this afternoon, I doubt names appear on the board very often. The last stop is seventh graders singing under the shaded eaves of the church, the blue Caribbean as backdrop. With lyrics copied into their notebooks, the children enthusiastically sing several stanzas of "Oh when the saints go marching in," with one half singing one line and the other half responding with a second. The Belize school system lacks many of the benefits of our U.S. and Canadian schools, but it certainly is making the best of what it has. We went away impressed.
(Bert) Lamanai - 700 temples, 5 excavated, others buried beneath ruble hills hidden in the jungle, some dating to 1500 B.C., a thousand years before most other Mayan sites - is one of a thousand cities collectively containing one million Mayans in Belize by Classic Period, 250-900 A.D. By 1200 A.D. most sites were abandoned, but Lamanai was still occupied when the Spanish and English arrived. Now we come to Lamanai to see the birds and the monkeys and The Mask. The Mask, a 10-ft. square stone face of an undocumented Mayan ruler, remained hidden from view by successive temple renovations by succeeding rulers and when unmasked it showed brilliant color until a rainstorm washed away the paint and the artistic details. Still, the part we see is much more detailed than we've found at most ruin sites in Mexico. The roar of a howler monkey brings us back to the present and unlike prior encounters, this time we see the howlers lumbering through the forest canopy. Careful not to stand directly beneath them - defecating is a defense - we can watch them eating, playing and caring for their young, and of course roaring like a drunken sailor using a bullhorn. A military helicopter - probably U.S. - flies low over the jungle, causing the two or three birds we thought we were watching to multiply into dozens of upset citizens. Birds hide so well in the thick foliage that we pass most of them unnoticed. But now, Black-faced Grosbeaks scold from nearly every tree, a couple of Ivory-billed Woodcreepers climb tree trunks, a few warblers add color to the canopy and a Plain Xenops hangs upside down in the under story. Then the jungle reverts to silence again. The boat that brought us to Lamanai took over five hours from the dock near Orange Walk Town. Our slow troll up the New River hesitated not for lack of engine power, but for our slow tour of the bird life along the winding river. Twice we encountered a Sungrebe, the first one taking flight to escape - a rare event for this species - and the second ducking out of sight in the mangrove snarl at shoreline. A Gray-necked Wood-Rail gave us a longer opportunity to view its collage of steel gray, rufous and brown feathers offset by a banana yellow bill and peppermint red legs. But now, back in Lamanai, we continue our jungle trek, getting prolonged looks at Slaty-tailed Trogons, patient birds that pose prettily for our binoculared eyes. An Olive-backed Euphonia becomes Pat C.'s 200th life bird for the trip, an impressive milestone for her first birding trip to Mexico and Belize. At 5:30 we climb back in the boats, see the sun set orangely over the small lake, then head downriver at dusk. Even as the first star appears, herons and egrets continue to fly to roosts. When it would seem too dark to navigate, a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks whistles overhead. We bring out the high-powered flashlights and illuminate a dark shadow poking above the shoreline canopy, revealing a Laughing Falcon at rest. Pauraques call and a couple of times we see their light-reflected eyes and dark shadows low over the marsh grasses. In the darkness, a Ringed Kingfisher catches a fish and in our flashlight beams we see it swallow the catch, close enough to our boat for me to take a flash picture. Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Boat-billed Herons shift roosts, upset as our boat churns down the narrow river. Finally, a better prize shows in reflected beams. Like the anatomical trees in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the large fiery eyes of a Northern Potoo glares menacingly at us, but closer approach shows a body color and shape that could easily substitute for an extension of the dead tree trunk on which it rests. Our good fortune brings us views of three different potoos, a new record for me in one evening. Our last eye-shine bird of the evening is a Yucatan Nightjar that is close enough for us to see the tawny hind collar and white fore collar and the details of its wings and tail. Emir pilots the boat on a cool ride back to the dock, illuminated only by starlight - no moon tonight - and an occasional flashlight beam on tight or swallow turns. After a 14-hour birding adventure today, I'm sure we will have some late sleepers in our group tomorrow.
(Bert) A free day, no agenda, random thoughts: The price of gasoline in Corozal is US$3.41/gal; diesel is US$2.50/gal. We've driven 2732 miles in our RV since leaving Texas. Our collective trip list of bird species is 548, plus 19 additional subspecies or forms. Of the 548, I've seen 450 on this trip and I'm sure Coen and Chris are ahead of me. The elevation of the part of Belize - the lower part of the Yucatan peninsula - we've visited so far is between sea level and 300 ft. Tomorrow we will be somewhat higher when we skirt the edge of the Maya Mountains, which reach 3600 ft. Belizeans speak five major languages: English, Spanish, Mayan, Creole and Garifuna. The Belizean dollar is fixed at a 2:1 ratio with the U.S. dollar. Everyone accepts U.S. dollars. British Honduras became a colony in 1862 and gained its independence from England in 1981 and renamed Belize.
(Shari) A vacation within a vacation is how I always describe our plans for the next four days. I can feel the excitement in the air as we gather in the early morning hours to make our way to the south of Belize. First stopping at the zoo to bird watch and see the animals and then eat lunch at the shaded picnic tables, we make our way the 200 miles to Dangriga. It is another hot one today and I for one will be happy when we reach the ocean. First we must stop at Guanacaste National Park however, where I and a few other SOB's sit in the shade while the birders hike. Richard and I talk to each other practicing our Spanish, Joanne knits, and Sue reads from her book. Brenda points out a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, yet another bird to add to my life list that Bert does not have on his. We just keep rubbing salt in his wound, poor man. The group still won't let him forget his inability to see an Oscillated Turkey. We arrive at our resort by 3 PM and after some juggling with rooms and an errant air conditioner, we finally get to rest and cool off before meeting again in the restaurant for dinner.
(Bert) Newly completed, the paved bypass of Belize City is shorter and faster than the construction zone we've driven the prior two years. So we arrive earlier and just after opening time at the Belize Zoo. Mistakenly expecting a cool morning advantage, by 9 AM the heat index is high and the humidity begs rain. The birds and zoo animals are active, however. Except perhaps for grandiose zoos like San Diego or Chicago, the Belize Zoo is my favorite. Specializing in the native birds and mammals of Belize, the zoo gives the appearance of a jungle without bars, with animals roaming freely. Actually, black wire screening separates us from the wildlife, but melds into the dark shadows to all but disappear during our search for animals. Birds pass freely through the screening, delight in the free lunch and ample water, and have grown accustomed to humans, thus allowing us closer approach. Red-capped Manikins and Common Tody-flycatchers are easily viewed. While searching for Thick-billed Seed-Finches, which others find but not me, I see Green-backed Sparrows and a fat little furry mammal. I push my way through the underbrush, but only catch its back in a photo of a Central American Agouti as it slips away. I'm still birding near noon - others have headed to the picnic area for lunch - when I find a Blue Ground-Dove, first for the trip, but have no one else to show it to. After lunch we head to Guanacaste National Park, famous for its big trees , but bird activity in the heat of the day is a bit thin. A highlight is seeing a Dot-winged Antwren singing so close to us that we can't focus binoculars on it. The vocal bird entertains us for 15 minutes before we move on. The grassy entrance area hosts many birds in the tall trees, including Yellow-throated Euphonias, Black-headed Trogon, Red-lored Parrot and Wood Thrushes. The drive along the Hummingbird Highway is as spectacular as I remember from previous years. The winding highway climbs to dramatic views of the jungle canopy dotted with palms and it dips to clear swallow streams crossed by one-lane bridges. Orange orchards intermix with jungle in the flatter valleys, but everything is lush, dense and vibrantly green. Orange trees are everywhere as we drive the coastal plain into Dangriga and reach our resort at the edge of the Caribbean.
(Bert) Probably the most famous of Belize's National Parks, Cockscomb Basin is often referred to as the Jaguar Preserve. Jaguars and the wild cats of Belize still prowl here, but seeing one is unlikely. Instead we come to see the birds and the other treasures of the deep jungle preserve. On the entrance road we are tempted to stop for oropendolas, hawks and other fly-bys, but we keep on to the Visitor's Center where the birds are even more plentiful. There, it doesn't take long for us to find singing Piratic Flycatchers, scarlet-rumped Passerini's Tanagers and a Golden-hooded Tanager. Dividing into two groups gives us a better chance of seeing birds along the hiking trails, nicely grassed and fairly wide. I'm surprised how many birds we are able to view through my spotting scope. Even a Plain Xenops - typically jumpy and well hidden in deep foliage - yields to a scope view for at least three birders lined up behind me before it disappears deeper into the jungle. After a picnic lunch, over half of the group has had enough of the heat and humidity and head back to Dangriga. The rest of us again split up into two groups, led by our guides, and bird in the heat of the day. Surprisingly, this is when I add a few life birds to my list. Lee sees a quick movement in the underbrush and points me in the right direction. Then I catch a glimpse of the movement as well, just enough to suggest this is a good bird. I call over Chris and soon we are all looking in the same brambles, searching for movement. Slowly, the pieces fit together and the views get better and more complete: we've got a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, a big name for a little gnatcatcher-sized and shaped bird. We pass through a part of the forest that is alive with the sound of hummingbirds, but for twenty minutes none are in view. Then William finds one perched above and ahead of us along the trail and he lines my scope up with the hummer. It's a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird according to William, but we have some debate over Webb's drawing until his greater experience with the bird convinces us that the drawing in the book is misleading. This hummingbird is a much more attractive bird with a vivid polka dot breast than depicted in the drawing. I even notice that the autofocus on my digital camera picks up on the well-defined spots when I photograph through the spotting scope. While watching the Scaly-breasted perched high in a tree, a Little Hermit performs a mating ritual flight dance in front of it. How odd to see one species trying to attract an unrelated species! William leads a short distance into the jungle to a beach-towel-sized patch of forest floor devoid of branches and leaf litter. This bare patch of ground is a lek for the White-collared Manikin. Cleared by the males, they perform a wing snapping flight over the patch in order to attract females. The sharp wing snap is a combination branch-breaking, fire-cracker popping, whip snapping sound that can be heard long distances in the forest.
(Shari) The heat of Cockscomb is just as oppressive this year as last year, although I did make it all the way to the river before throwing in the birding towel to await our scheduled lunch. A few others join me at the picnic table and I notice it is even too hot for Joanne to knit. We just sit under the shade and conserve our energy. The birding groups return from their guided hikes and we all dig into the delicious chicken lunch that the resort has packed for us. Half of us decide to make it a short day and head back, first stopping unannounced at the Marie Sharp factory. Marie herself is not there but her son graciously gives us a tour of the place. This year the women are bottling hot sauce. Bottles are filled, cleaned and capped by hand before reaching a conveyor belt to be machine labeled. After labeling, two women remove the bottles and put them into small boxes for shipment. Noticing that the bottles on the line today have a Japanese label, we are told Japan, the U.S. and Mexico are the biggest buyers of the product. After our tour we squeeze into the air conditioned office to sample the line of sauces and jellies and each of us buys a good number to take home. We may not be charged for the tour but we pay for it anyway. Supper tonight is again at our favorite restaurant on the river where Bert has pork chops and I have fried shrimp. As we eat, a little girl comes into the restaurant asking us if we want to buy what is in her pail. She has a name for it, but I can neither understand it nor pronounce it. Finally she takes the dishcloth off and we notice she is selling candy. I buy a piece, break it with some difficulty into smaller pieces to share, and after tasting it, decide it is the Belize version of peanut brittle.
(Bert) The boat ride up the Sittee River is smooth, relaxed and comfortable, except perhaps for the heat and humidity that rise by the minute. An occasional increase above trolling speed brings quick cooling relief, but mostly we churn slowly to see the birds, trees, iguanas and other riverside residents. A few cottages and lodges along the river sometimes have docks with catamarans and other pleasure boats, some owned by Americans and Canadians that have moved to Belize. It's a beautiful morning for soaring raptors and, of these, Common Black-Hawks lead the parade. We've seen more here in an hour than we've seen the whole trip. Once we see four adults soaring simultaneously and a juvenile perched in a tree. The pointed wings of a raptor attracts our attention and then we see the rufous red tips of the long wings, attractive enough to earn a position on the back cover of Howell & Webb. I've seen a Plumbeous Kite before, but only the bottom side as I looked up into the canopy in the jungle. Seeing this kite soar is a thrilling sight. Captain Norlan says he sometimes sees White-crowned Pigeons along the river, so we start paying closer attention to the doves. Almost all we see are Pale-vented Pigeons, but then Brenda calls out "White-crowned" and we focus our binoculars in a tall riverside tree. One jumps out and flies across the river, tilting its head just enough for us to see its white crown on an otherwise dark bird. More take flight and one stays secure on a limb long enough for us to see its crown also. We are at the southern limit of this coastal pigeon and lucky to have found them. On the fast return trip, refreshingly cooler, we again see the Plumbeous Kite, this time posed prettily on an open perch. Almost at the same time we see a King Vulture soaring high above us, but close enough for us to make out the red head.
(Bert) The guide for our impromptu trip this morning said he would meet us at 5:30 in front of the resort, but we are ready and he is not. I drive into the city while Woody takes a halfway point and Coen stays back at the parking area. Fifteen minutes of searching the streets where he would have walked does not turn up our guide, so through the CB's we decide to try to find the new birding site on our own. With map in hand and without a wrong turn, we reach the little village and I ask two ladies where the gravel pit is. Coincidentally, the turnoff is the same intersection where I am stopped. Another two blocks and we see a few people with binoculars raised and know we must be at the right spot. Piling out and pointing our binoculars toward the hillside we too see the Scarlet Macaws browsing the treetops: spectacular splashes of rainbow colors, dominated by red, on a bed of green foliage. The macaws swing their grandiose tails in the air, curve their heads and necks around the branches, hang upside down and twist in all sorts of postures as they feed. Then a few take flight, flying above the canopy with kite tails flowing behind, amazingly graceful for such large birds. Our position along the edge of the village is a good vantage point for viewing other birds above the forest canopy, especially through the spotting scope. We sort through the many pigeons flying by and note Pale-vented and Red-billed and then see a new one: Scaled Pigeon. True to its name, the scaly breast shows clearly in the scope, as does its bright rufous plumage and red bill. In the distance I hear a Laughing Falcon boisterously calling and in a few minutes it flies into view. Another one joins it and they laugh hysterically. What a pair! Pat C. spots a raptor prominently perched on a dead tree at the horizon. I get my scope lined up on it and quickly recognize the Gray-headed Kite, but it takes to flight and we can even then see the contrast between grays of head and body. We move on to another road edging the village and overhead watch a flock of Swallow-tailed Kites, scissoring wings and tail across a blue sky. On the return trip we stop to watch a patient Aplomado Falcon posing from an open perch.
In the afternoon we ride on Norlan's big speedboat to the Barrier Reef, the longest in the Americas and second in the world only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Even Chris, as intent of a birder you will ever find, expresses enjoyment in the snorkeling experience as a diversion from birding. While all of us can identify hundreds of bird species, none of us seem to know the names of more than a couple of the colorful and fanciful fish swimming at arm's length from our masks. Leaving the reef, we stop at Man-O'-War Caye to see hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds intent on mating rituals. Males with throats like bloated red balloons attempt to stimulate white-throated females, but most females seem indifferent to the show. Overhead they circle, swoop and glide in near collision courses, all close enough for full-frame photographs. A few Brown Boobies join the throng, but mostly it is a frigatebird show and one that entertains us for an hour.
(Shari) Bert is long gone before I get up this morning. He and a few others have gone to maybe see a Scarlet Macaw. Now that bird is worthy to be on my list but the 5 AM departure time convinced me otherwise. Instead, I have a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, enjoying the company of a few others. Last year our snorkeling trip was cancelled due to high seas and bad weather. It looks like it is a perfect day today for the outing. After lunch, we all get into the big boat for the 45-minute ride to an island on the barrier reef. This is the second largest reef in the world and one teeming with colorful fish to look at. Unlike the year before last where the captain took us to the reef and we snorkeled from the boat, we need to swim a bit before reaching the reef. It is not a long swim, the water is shallow but I go over weeds, which I do not like. After a short while I reach the reef and start to see all sorts of fish. Those that do not snorkel enjoy the long sandy clean white beach. This is Jodi's first time to snorkel and she does an admirable job. The allotted time for snorkeling must be just right because no one is rushed and no one complains that it is too long. We get back into the boat and before heading home we stop at another island loaded with mating frigate birds. The male bird puffs out a red area on his neck, wiggles and snaps it to attract a female. Wally asks me which bird I would pick. Of course the biggest, reddest flashiest one out there, I tell him. It is some sight and I remember it from two years ago, but still find it funny and gross at the same time. As we return to the resort, I hear comments that this was a fun day. I have to agree and tongue in check say this outing is the only reason I do these caravans. I just love to snorkel.
(Bert) Like peering through the glassed windows of a zoo-sized terrarium, we stand patiently in the narrow path, studying the dark jungle through a dense under story. Sometimes the jungle is so quiet the sound of footsteps and whispers of other birders seems overwhelming. Other times, the White-collared Manakins are firecrackers, jet planes and bullets in the fast action of a computer game on steroids. I don't see the lek, but it must be somewhere near the intersection of the two paths at St. Herman's Cave. We can often hear the ritualistic wing-cracking snaps, frequently see the bulleting birds and sometimes see the soft round bundles of buttery yellow and creamy white feathers of the male as he rests briefly on a horizontal limb. Sex is on the minds of birds today. While manakins are fast at attracting mates, in another part of Blue Hole National Park we see a pair of Blue-black Grosbeaks breeding. I photograph a nest of a Crimson-collared Tanager that Virginia L. finds, and the nest of a White-breasted Wood-Wren found by May. Our guide Israel points out the stringy grass strands of a nest in production. Aligning my spotting scope on the overhanging branch 20-ft. above me, I can see the Eye-ringed Flatbill fly in, add a strand and exit quickly. Nearby, a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper explores trees for food and stays in the area long enough for all of us to get multiple views of this short-bodied and short-billed species. From the parking lot we get a broad view of the open sky. Coen gets everyone's attention focused on a huge raptor soaring low at the horizon. Large size, unusual forward-stretching wings and a pattern of black-and-white bands tells us we are watching something special. A quick survey of Webb's drawings confirms we just saw an immature Black Hawk-Eagle, a life bird for almost everyone. With all this excitement, we almost overlook the White Hawk soaring in another sky. But later we get an even better look at a White Hawk. This one perches 25-ft. above us and beside the trail, on an exposed perch. It watches us intently at the manakin lek, but shows indifference to photograph taking, birder's chatter and a string of passerbys.
(Bert) A free day, I use it to catch up on errands and prepare for tomorrow's departure. Shari and I drive to the border to review the procedure, or to find out if the border officials know what the procedure will be. Yes, they do and it seems it will be a simple exit. We'll see. Half-way through our late afternoon bird count off Coen, Brenda, Jim and Pat return from their boat trip to Ambergis Caye, a popular resort island that also harbors a few birds hard to find on the mainland. They find 58 species, add Black Catbird and Caribbean Dove to our trip list and relate a delightful experience touring the island in a golf cart.
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