Chapter 5. Belize Coastal Savannahs & Lowland Forests
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Shari) After stamping all our passports one by one, the border guard returns them to me and I issue a small sigh of relief. Traveling from one country to another is always stressful and I often wonder if some snag will hold us up. This year the Mexican guard did not even ask for a fee to stamp our passports for return. I radio Bert on the handheld radio to gather the troops and come get me to continue our crossing into Belize. Following the steps outlined on the handout we talked about at our Margarita Party-grill out the other night, we proceed to get the undersides of our vehicles sprayed for pests, fill out a Belize Visa form, obtain stamps in our passports, obtain vehicle permits, endure an agricultural check, get pet permits and acquire liability insurance. Starting at 8 AM at the Mexican border, we finish our tasks at 11:20AM and move on out to the campground. I take two carloads of people on a tour through town, finding that the fruit market moved and the laundry closed. Change occurs everywhere. Our favorite French restaurant is still open and booked for four nights solid. People are finding out about this hidden gem. Since all of us are low on food - Belize border officials check and take fresh fruits and vegetables and open packages of meat - we stop at the grocery store, the fruit market and the bakery. At 5 PM it is Pina Colada time and a big discussion on the activities for the next week.
(Bert) True to form, the 2003 border-crossing checklist that we handed out is obsolete. The procedure has never been the same twice since we started doing this four years ago. But I will say this, the newest procedure seems more sensible and organized than prior years. Yet, with the obligation to stand in eight different lines for eight different types of paperwork, all without the aid of a single computer, Belize border crossing is still a lengthy procedure. We are camped beside the Caribbean in time for a late lunch. Shari leads a group into town for grocery shopping, while I wash the shady part of R-TENT-III and then the car when she returns. I remove a few of the layers of road dirt, but the car still looks like it could use another washing. At our Pina Colada party I discuss the busy birding schedule we will look forward to in the next few days.
(Bert) Along the shore of the lake our small boat putters slowly, then stops and glides. Perched in the Logwood trees - historically famous for the indigo dye taken by early British settlers - are herons and egrets and ibis, including a Glossy Ibis that is very rare for this region. Jacanas and Blue-winged Teal occupy the shoreline; Limpkins hide further into the crooked wood. Snail Kites perch higher and near the tops of the trees bask colorful Common Iguanas. We head to the opposite side of the lake and get our first view of a Black-collared Hawk, content to perch before us. Nearby, but at shore level, Judy identifies a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails, feathered in soft tones of black, gray and rufous, offset by a big yellow bill and bright red legs. A Mangrove Cuckoo, a second rarity for this area, makes a quick appearance and we follow it with our boat until it alights on a perch for all to see. "Mangrove" plays highly as an adjective today as we also see Mangrove Swallows and hear Mangrove Vireos. The water channel narrows into a river and the parade of birds continues as we sit in the canopied shade, leisurely birding. Robert, our guide and navigator, makes special effort to find an Agami Heron, checking all if its usual haunts, but perhaps it is still too early in the season to find them for his efforts go unrewarded. Instead we find many Black-crowned Night-Herons, Boat-billed Herons and a single Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. Perhaps the real show belongs to the kingfishers though. In a few hours time we see a dozen Ringed Kingfishers boisterously calling as they fly along and across our route, nearly as many Belted Kingfishers and three Green Kingfishers. One special bird that we hear at three different locations, but never see, is Rufous-breasted Spinetail. I try to imprint its song in my mind, deciding it is somewhat reminiscent of a Yellow Warbler and I apply the neumonic "Get, get, get-cha" to keep it in my memory. Nearing lunchtime, Robert leaves the Spanish River and heads back to the lodge, where we enjoy a delicious Belizean-style meal including my favorite fried plantains.
(Shari) I spend the day planning for our early Valentine's Party at 4 PM while the group enjoys an outing at Crooked Tree. They come back on a high, since the day provided lots of lifers and cooling clouds. We guess the number of candies in the bag, and cry "fowl" when Bert wins. After he shares his candy however, everybody is glad he won. I mean, I never tasted candy so awful and as soon as the party is over, the bag goes into the garbage. We arrange teams by rhyming words and take 20 minutes to make up a poem set to song. Bert's team wins and gets their first choice at the white elephant table. Dan cooks the hot dogs I bought and we enjoy grilled dogs, baked beans and my Kailua cake before mosquitoes chase us inside.
(Bert) Our start is uncommonly early at 4:30 AM. I want to get the birding started in the Mennonite farming region of western Belize at dawn and the side roads to that region are rough and potholed, so 25 mph is top speed. Unlike last year, the pre-dawn birding starts out slowly, with only pauraques calling. But with the morning light the White-collared Seedeaters begin to sing a cheery chorus and eventually we can see them perched on grass stalks. Taking a narrow farm road deeper into the farmlands, edged in remnant forest patches and brushy fencerows, we find a variety of new species. We see our first Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, a species we will find often in subsequent days. We separate the new Plain-breasted Ground-Doves from the oft-seen Ruddy Ground-Doves and this year I am able to get close enough to a few to photograph them. We pick up a few more of the birds depicted on Plate 39, which I describe as the page of weird flycatchers. Today it's Yellow-bellied Elaenia seen only by Judy and Cindy and Yellow-olive Flycatcher, seen by more of us. One of Judy's favorite wish-list birds, Barred Antshrike finally makes an appearance, first by call and then by sight. The male, dressed in jailhouse black and white, and the female, feathered in tones of red-brown and tan with a frazzled black-and-white face, are a mixed marriage if I've ever seen one. On Helen's wish-list is Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a species Don one-upped her in Texas. Now Helen gets her chance to even up the score as we watch one display its inordinately long split tail. At Gold Button Creek we get swallows in the scope and identify Northern Rough-winged Swallows, carefully separated from the Ridgway's we will see later in the day. These two subspecies are nearly inseparable, the former being the migrant and the latter being the resident. Birds aren't the only wildlife we see. Two unusual lizards are intriguing, both in the basque-headed family. The Basilisk we come across several times and get a very good view of one that uncharacteristically stays frozen long enough for us to see its long legs and toes and its odd shaped head. One that only I get to see is a Hernandez's Helmeted Basilisk, where the head is even weirder and whose range is restricted to this small section of Belize. We see a Gray Fox and observe two more when we reach our destination in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area. A White-tailed Deer grazes at the edge of the forest at dusk. This evening on a walk along a gravel road through the jungle we use flashlights to find wildlife and are delighted to find a Kinkajou crawling through palm fronds high in the canopy. With a monkey-like face and a long prehensile tail, this mammal is surprisingly related to raccoons. A long, and often hot, day sends everyone to a quick shower and early bedtime and sound sleep, disturbed only by Shari dropping a flashlight and Judy knocking over a fan in the middle of the night: sounds that carry through the thin walls of the cabanas and across the grassy lawn separating our sleeping quarters. Except for these interruptions, only the chirping of a few insects rises above the absolute stillness of the jungle. No motors, no electrical hum (the generator is turned off), no tires on highway pavements, no people partying, no street lamps, no nightlights - only starshine and silence fill the jungle void.
(Shari) Although it is Valentine's Day, Bert does not acknowledge it. In fact, he gets me up at 3:45 AM, since we have to leave by 4:30 AM. I am not an early morning person and needless to say, I am crabby and tell Judy to sit in the front seat with Bert while I take the back seat to nap. No late group leaves this year, so I have to tag along with the birders as they stop and start, stop and start along the road. I stay in the car, napping or reading with the air conditioner going by mid morning. Finally Don and David wear out and after lunch, we shift cars and Don drives to the "camp." Immediately flopping down on the bed in our assigned thatched roof cabana I fall asleep and do not wake until Bert comes in the door. By now, it is time for supper. No one wants to miss meals at this place since they are so good and tonight does not disappoint. A tasty chicken stew with coleslaw, fresh vegetable, delicious dinner rolls and bread pudding are on tonight's menu. We joke easily with each other now and the sounds of laughter can be heard frequently. Bert finally found his Ocellated Turkey and now I suppose I have to find another bird that he does not have on his life list, to taunt him with during the coming year. Unfortunately that gets harder and harder to accomplish. The group goes out on a nighttime walk and I return to bed. White filmy mosquito netting descends from the ceiling and engulfs the bed with its protective screen. I suppose I will be happy for it, but right now I find it annoying as I try to get into bed without tangling myself up in the folds of material. Thankfully the night is cool and soon I am fast asleep.
(Bert) Excellent birding before breakfast and just outside our sleeping accommodations is a luxury. The fruiting trees are where dozens of colorful tropical birds dine for their breakfast. We enjoy a 3-ring circus of performers highlighted by Red-legged Honeycreepers, Red-lored Parrots and Keel-billed Toucans. More new species include White-necked Jacobin (a large hummingbird), Collared Aracari (a saw-toothed painted toucan), and Black-crowned Tityra (a tropical flycatcher). On the ground, pecking in the mowed grass, are three hen Ocellated Turkeys that seem tame until approached within 10 feet. Before our 7:30 breakfast we see almost three dozen species, most of them in one cluster of flowering trees, and observed through one or another of the four spotting scopes we point upward. After a scrumptious meal, we drive a short distance to the La Milpa Mayan ruins. Unlike others we've seen so far on our trip, these ruins are unaltered since their discovery. The main plaza, flat but for the substantial trees growing through the once-plastered surface, is surrounded by tree-covered hills. These hills are not natural, but instead they are the blocked-limestone temples covered by a thin ground layer accumulated through 1150 years of forest takeover. This is the largest, in area, Mayan site in Belize, probably maintained a population of 50,000 inhabitants and was continuously used for 1100 years. The rainforest in this part of Belize is a lowland broadleaf forest and, according to our guide Bladimir, is a dry rainforest with about 60 in. annual rainfall. Later in our trip we will visit rainforests with twice that rainfall. Birds are a bit sparse in the deep forest, but they usually are among the "best" birds because they are rarely seen. My best today is a Stub-tailed Spadebill, an aptly named feather ball with a wide bill, abbreviated tail and obvious eye ring. Well under 4 in. from bill tip to tail tip, a brown object hiding in dense underbrush in a dark forest is not easy to see. Besides Bladimir, I am the only one that gets a good look at the bird, although everyone hears its quick 3-syllable song. It seems these forest birds require many hours in the field and often multiple visits to Belize before they can confidently be added to a life-list. For the group I recorded the spadebill at five locations in Belize and Mexico in the past four years, but on none of these occasions did I get to see the bird. So I'm trilled to finally get a satisfying look. In the afternoon we again stick to the deep forest paths, maintaining long lulls in bird activity, but punctuated with some exciting finds. My list of the best heard and/or seen species includes Ruddy Quail-Dove, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Atilla, and Black-throated Shrike-Tanager. Bladimir frequently whistles a forlorn "Hey Ricky" call and has a Thrush-like Schiffornis answer back, but usually from a distant point far beyond the 20 or so feet we can see into the forest. His efforts are rewarded toward the end of our hike when one appears on a tree in the middle of the path. In a competitive sense, my best birds of the afternoon are a pair of Yellow-bellied Tyrannulets at the very top of the canopy. Cindy and I are the only ones to see these, as the rest of the group are tracking the Schiffornis. The reason this bird is special is that it is the last of the species that Shari has seen, but I haven't until now. Looks like Shari will have to do some more looking. She comes along this evening when we sit on the back of a pickup truck and drive the entrance road, using a high-beam flashlight to search the trees. Before we reach the road, we scan the lawns and find seven deer and a Gray Fox, highlighted by eye shine. Our first bird is an Ocellated Turkey precariously balanced on a too-thin branch high in the tree. Strongly locked claws must keep this top-heavy feather ball from tottering over while asleep. Next we see a Crested Guan in much the same type of perch, but even higher. We have three other sightings this evening, all of individual Mottled Owls. One is patient - and curious - enough to allow me to walk up to it and take a flash photo.
(Shari) After breakfast, I settle into the hammock to read another great Nora Roberts novel. (I wonder where she finds her men.) I think the birders feel sorry for me, but they shouldn't. I enjoy the alone time with the friends I meet in the pages of a book. The day is so very cool and quiet with only the sounds of nature to break the stillness. I snap a couple of pictures of three Ocellated Turkeys pecking nearby and watch some birds play in the pink and yellow flowers next to me. Meeting the group for lunch and dinner, they tell me of all the new things they saw and probably think I had a boring day. Not so! Later, piling into the open bed of a white pickup truck, the night air cool on my skin, eight of us armed with two high intensity flashlights, set out for a nighttime excursion in the jungle. We are not disappointed and immediately we see six deer and two gray fox. A few minutes later a big fat Ocellated Turkey shows up in Bladimir's beam. Bert never saw an Ocellated Turkey last year at all and took quite a bit of ribbing for it. This year they are all over the place, even in a tree, but Bert still is taking quite a bit of ribbing for it. Next the flashlight lights up a Crested Guan, which is obviously disturbed as it tries to hide its red head behind the tree's big leaves. After a quick couple of pictures, we leave it alone to sleep. Cindy wants to see a Mottled Owl, as this would be a lifer for her. Soon she not only sees one, but three. My goodness, they are cute! Returning to our cabanas, 90 min. after we left, we all agree this was a worthy trip.
(Bert) "So, if I spit my gum out here, it will grow?" asks Judy in deadpan seriousness. Bladimir has just explained that the tree we are standing in front of was used to extract chiclet and we all break out in laughter at Judy's unusual sense of humor. We continue our walk through the jungle, stopping when we see a Slaty-tailed Trogon resting on a high branch and patient enough for us to align spotting scopes on the large and colorful bird. The morning's highlight comes when we reach a small clearing in the woods, an opening to the sky where we can watch for hunting raptors. A powder blue sky fluffed with white clouds is circumscribed by the high trees, giving us two stages for birds: the fruiting trees and the open window. On the tree stage we see honeycreepers, a Squirrel Cuckoo, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, and a female Black-throated Shrike-Tanager. On the sky stage soars a White Hawk, King Vultures and a juvenile Hook-billed Kite. The vultures are the best prize: first one, then three together glide open-winged and effortlessly across the window opening in the forest. With broad and long 6-ft. black-and-white wings, the King Vultures certainly are showstoppers. We hike to the road and continue to watch the sky. Our persistence pays off when we a soaring Black Hawk-Eagle pulls in its wings and begins a tremendous plunge downward for hundreds of feet. Next a Double-toothed Kite soars overhead, giving us enough time to study the difference in its wing profile compared to the Hook-billed Kite we saw earlier. With the heat of the morning now turned up a notch, the butterflies and hummingbirds take over the act. On the gravel road we see a thin 2-ft. Mexican Vine Snake that remains motionless with its head raised 6-in. from the road surface. After I photograph him, Bob picks it up with a stick and moves it to the grassy shoulder. At the entrance to the field station, we see a Laughing Falcon and a dark-phase Short-tailed Hawk both in the scope at the same time. The Laughing Falcon takes flight and calls as it glides over the camp just as we arrive for lunch.
(Bert) After non-stop activities the past week, we need a break to catch up on errands. But Judy, Cindy and I take time for a 2-hour birding visit to the nearby canals, adding only Wilson's Plover to our list now numbering over 300 species. Later in the day I visit an Internet Cafe and get gas for the car. The price of regular gasoline in Corozal is US$3.72/gal. and diesel is US$2.74/gal., each up 10% from last year.
(Shari) Did you know a crocodile keeps growing all his life? His life expectancy is 80 to 90 yrs. and by that time he is 12-14 ft. long. If he looses a tooth, he automatically grows another one. We learn this from our guide Emir on our two-hour riverboat trip to the Lamanai ruins. I, along with Katy, Robby, Chris and John are taking the later trip. We meet the birders for lunch and then tour the ruins. The howler monkeys are in great form and put on quite a performance for us as they amble from tree to tree with a little baby in tow. I walk with Judy and the two of us get a good list of birds before I abandon her and join Helen at the picnic tables. Keel-billed Toucans are neat, but even they become common after awhile. At 5:30 we head back down the river, getting to the halfway mark at dusk. Now the fun begins and why I go on this trip every year. Motoring down the river, surrounded by jungle and jungle noises is great and creepy at the same time. We scare up a Boat-billed Heron and the noise it makes sounds like a deranged man about to sever the head of a human. That alone is worth the trip. Reflecting in the beam of the high intensity flashlights, we see the red glow from the eyes of opossums, owls, egrets, a potoo, and many crocodiles. The air today has been cool and tonight we are bundled up in our jackets as we creep along the river's edge on the lookout for nighttime wildlife, knowing we are safe inside the boat. It has been a long day and we are tired, but satisfied when we return home.
(Bert) Like stars in the sky, a hundred eyes reflect back the light of our high intensity beam as we pan low over the field from our position in a boat on the New River. But before I describe our nighttime cruise, I'll go back to the beginning of the day. We boarded our boat at 7:20 this morning, first heading downstream briefly, stopping to photograph the exquisite bloom of the Provision Tree. Perhaps the cold morning air makes the birds reluctant to start the day's activities, for the first 20 minutes are quiet. We all wear jackets, something I haven't done for over a month. I don't recall it ever being chilly in Belize, but since this trip in prior years was always a hot one, the cool air is a welcome replacement. Turning about and heading upstream and inland, we pass the dock, go under the highway bridge and see a strange hawk fly across the river. When I announce Collared Forest-Falcon, all eyes strain to see the markings: the long lanky body, exaggerated tail length separated into bands, barred underside and mottled white collar below a too-small head. We have heard these forest-falcons often in the early mornings and at dusk during our trip and when Judy asked when we would see one, I told her she had to hear 50 before she'd see one of these secretive birds. In prior trips I've seen several adults, but this is the first time I've seen one in juvenile plumage. Further along the river we find our first of the six Gray-necked Wood-Rails we see today. Our birding guide and boat driver Orlando tells me he had not seen any in prior weeks, but that yesterday's drop in river height by two feet has allowed the wood-rails to use the muddy shoreline and bring them into our view. We continue to see birds on our slow cruise, marred occasionally by the many 25-passenger speedboats racing to Lamanai. On the side of the boats are names such as "Ecotour" but the cruise-ship day-trippers see nothing of the ecological preserve as they zoom by. They miss what we see: small crocodiles camouflaged between jetsam; a basking Basilisk; six Proboseis bats sleeping on the sunny side of a tree trunk; orchids, bromeliads and Snake Cactus clinging to Logwood Trees; Purple Gallinules and Northern Jacanas gingerly walking on water with the support of lily pads and a pair of Jabirus nesting in a distant tree. They especially miss Orlando's secret. Twice, when speedboats pass, Orlando repositions the boat away from the perch, not wanting to reveal the location. We return to the riverside tree and look up at a thick upright branch that is not a branch. With wood-like feathers and a ragged stump-like head, the Northern Potoo would go unnoticed but by the most observant birder. The potoo sleeps away the morning, undisturbed while I photograph it, not moving an inch between now and when we see it again at dusk. But, again, I'm getting ahead of my story. In the still chilly air and with added wind chill, we quickly boat the rest of the distance to the Lamanai ruins. Disembarking, we wait for the other boat, carrying late starters Shari, Robby, Katy and their friends, and our lunch. In the interim we find Black Howlers crawling through a massive Guanacaste tree. As I am photographing the monkeys, Robby shows up with his camera. For him, the monkeys were the main reason to make the boat trip, and his reward is quick. We see and hear the boisterous black monkeys throughout the afternoon, coming across small groups ambling through the tree canopy wherever we walk in the thick and tall jungle. In the darkest of the forest, lurk the most rarely seen species. Identification is mostly by body shape and fleeting views, especially today under an overcast sky. None of these lurkers stay fixed long enough to describe its position to another birder, so we must mostly pay close attention to movement and quickly align our binoculars with the spot. Two prizes for me are a female Dusky Antbird, identified by shape and a quick view of its bicolor tawny feathers and a Plain Xenops, again identified by shape and its peculiar habit of hanging upside down from the twigs. Other birds, such as the perched Slaty-tailed Trogon and the many Wood Thrushes bouncing through the main branches, give a more sustained view. The sky is darkening, especially today, the cruise-ship day-trippers have all left on their speedboats and our boat is the only one left on the dock. Orlando takes the first third of the way back at high speed, pausing briefly for a couple Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, a Black-collared Hawk, a Bat Falcon and a Laughing Falcon. We search in vain for an American Pygmy-Kingfisher, strangely missed all day. When darkness finally closes in, I hear the first pauraque and we begin using the high-intensity flashlights. Scanning low over the river, we find the protruding eyes of crocodiles so often that we soon tire of it. Higher up, the fare is more varied. To my great surprise, twice we encounter a Gray Four-eyed Opossum, a mammal I'd not seen before. Tottering through the snarled underbrush on the riverbank, the white spots above the eyes gives it a masked appearance and, I'm sure, its 4-eyed name. Our spotlights find other creatures: a roosting Wood Stork, large flocks of Cattle Egrets polka-dotting a dark tree, the fiery eyes of a perched potoo, the sparkling eyes of a Sphinx moth fluttering on an outstretched twig. Owls are strangely absent, but for one that we see toward the end of our nighttime cruise. The short stature, but long tail, marks this as one of the pygmy-owls, but I'll have to check my books to choose which one. I started my story with the hundred eyes starring back at us from the grassy field. Curious what they are? Although we didn't leave the boat to investigate, I know from other experiences that these are spiders building webs in the dew-laden grass.
(Bert) Not much happening, a free day to catch up on errands.
(Bert) Gray Catbirds sure like the Belize Zoo grounds, flying in and out of the cages. Fifty-feet inside the entrance I see four at one time and count about ten in a few hours. A Common Tody-Flycatcher makes its first appearance on our trip list and we seen a number of other good birds the first hour, including a Green-backed Sparrow illuminated by direct sunlight. This sparrow is a serious lurker, and I've not previously seen it come out of the shadows of thick underbrush. So, this time its green back really is green. The numbers of birds - except Melodious Blackbirds - and the variety seems less than previous years. I wonder if the substantial increase in the number of visitors is the reason. Ever since the cruise ships multiplied, we seem to run into tourists more frequently at sites that are readily accessible. The zookeepers have added a new resident since last year: a Harpy Eagle, donated from Panama where someone raised it as a pet. This is likely the only time I will ever see this species, since it is nearly extinct in the wild. We eat lunch on picnic tables, watching forty 6-year-olds on adjacent tables, out on a school trip. Then we drive to the resort in San Ignacio where we will spend the night. Although the temperature has been relatively cool, only reaching into the low 80s, the swimming pool is still refreshing and I follow it with a hike to the river and then the place where Judy said she saw a hummingbird nest. Standing on an old table pitched against the building, I can just barely see into the nest and I take a few photos of the two chicks, still so close to birth that they can barely raise their heads. Soon the parent Rufous-tailed Hummingbird appears and perches on the edge of the nest, a photographic serendipity.
(Shari) Starting our vacation within a vacation, we start our trek south stopping at the Belize Zoo before reaching our hotel in San Ignacio. This leg of our trip is new for Bert and I, and I know how a customer feels as he wonders just what is in store for him. But as David always says, he is like a car, "He goes where he is towed." I need not to have worried because the hotel is wonderful, set on a cliff above the river. The grounds are immaculate, with paths meandering down to the river, tree and plants labeled with placards telling a bit of history and use of each. Queen Elizabeth stayed here in 1994 and guess what? We get the Queen's room. It is basically the same as the other rooms, just a little bigger. Two beds, air-conditioning, cable TV, wooden floors, ceiling fan and lots of windows overlooking the grounds. So we get to sit on the "Queen's throne" when ever we want. Ha! Meeting in the bar, for Happy Hour, I discover a new drink. Taking a sip of Bob's One Barrel Rum on the rocks, I fall in love with it. Hinting of coconut and Kailua, it goes down smooth. After drinks, we move to the dining room and have a taste of the local cuisine. Cindy orders liver: YUCKY! (at least my taste buds). But most of us order the whole red snapper that is deep fried. Accompanied by rice and vegetables, we find it very tasty.
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