Chapter 8. Belize Lowland Broadleaf Forests
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Another early morning finds Judy in the passenger seat while I try to catch a few extra winks in back. This works until Bert misses a tope and we go flying. I tell Judy it is her job to warn him about those bumps but when he hits another one, I give her a flunking grade. It only takes us 40 min. to reach our first stop. The birders pile out; I nap until Helen asks me to walk to the river with her. We bird on a wooden platform under the shade trees and check off Vermilion Flycatchers, Amazon Kingfisher, phoebes and flycatchers. Stopping to eat in an air-conditioned restaurant (a treat in and of itself), Bert and I order Belizean. My plate has rice and beans with chicken and his has split peas with pigtail dumplings. We finish our day's journey at Dangriga and our air-conditioned room feels good after a day in the low 90's. Armed with a bottle of One Barrel Rum and a can of peanuts, we walk to Bonnie and Dave's room for Happy Hour. Sitting on their porch that overlooks the palm trees and the sea, we can't think of a better place to be right now. Good view, good company! Bob tries to butter me up since he wants us to do the Central Mexico trip next year. I enjoy the attention so certainly will not tell him that in all likelihood the trip is a go.
(Bert) In prior years, we never gave justice to Guanacaste National Park, the birds being mostly sedentary during our early afternoon visits. This year's schedule allows us to be at the park at 6:45 AM. We arrive in thin fog stretching spider web wisps across the massive branches of Guanacaste, Strangler Fig, Neotropic Cedar, and Stinking Toe Bukuts. Light rain falls on the big-leafed canopy, catching the drops before they reach us 75-ft. below. The rain irrigates the dense growths of epiphytes clinging to the supporting tree branches, eventually trickling to the understory of plants we often see in our homes, chosen because they adapt equally well to the limited light of jungles and living rooms. In the first half hour we find an Ovenbird and two Agoutis along the path, the other wildlife sleeps late in the foggy morning. We hear a melodious song, repetitive and persistent and just a dozen feet from where we stand. I whistle its song, it whistles back, or maybe it would whistle again anyway. Nonetheless, each verse directs us to the wren's location. Yet many minutes go by before any of us can see the songster right in front of us. Eventually I get enough glimpses of body parts to confirm its identity as White-breasted Wood-Wren. We continue on, reaching the river, and see an Amazon Kingfisher perched on a snag. Surprisingly, this is the first we've seen on the trip. Dave finds a Smoky-brown Woodpecker and then takes the rest of us to the spot along the path where we get to see it also. We hike another trail and often encounter Bright-rumped Attilas, sometimes revealing their location by their varied and unusual song. A life-bird for me, Dave and I find a Sepia-capped Flycatcher and I get a brief look at a Stub-tailed Spadebill which I can now identify by call note as well. I hear a hawk-eagle and at a nearby opening in the woods, we see many birds soaring. Amongst the vultures, I get a brief look at a Double-toothed Kite, but then we are distracted to a low flying Black Hawk-Eagle, clearly displaying its black and white bands on tail and wings. This very satisfying look, also captured by my camera, is the best I've had of this raptor. Back at the park entrance headquarters we see that Lee Jones's new book on the birds of Belize is finally out - I had ordered a copy but it was not available before we left the U.S. - and Bob buys one. Thumbing through the hawks section we are immediately struck by drawing of a Red-tailed Hawk - the mystery buteo we saw perched on Pine Mountain Ridge yesterday. We check the range map and see a small circular range right where we made our observation and the only place where the U.S.-common hawk is found in Belize.
(Bert) With great expectation of seeing Scarlet Macaws, we arise hours before dawn and drive to Red Bank. We arrive just as the sun casts its morning light across the forest canopy. Little children from the village meet us and try to sell us expensive embroidery. Then an older child comes out and asks us if we are waiting for a bird guide. "No," I say, "We are waiting for the Scarlet Macaws." She tells me they no longer come here. I tell her we saw them here last year. She retorts, "The villagers burned the forest and the birds no longer come." She retrieves the guide and he confirms her story, but he says he has seen a few at another location and for a fee (about US$100 for him and for a village tax) he would show us where to drive and then hike in the jungle for a mile. Ill prepared for a hike - we came in shorts and T-shirts expecting to see the birds from the village edge - we decline his offer. It seems the village people still don't have an appreciation for the valuable resource at their doorsteps: the largest concentration of free-roaming Scarlet Macaws in the world. They have a history of shooting the macaws to eat them and now they have damaged the environment where the birds eat. Leaving the village, our two cars split up and bird in opposite directions. Ours heads down another village road toward the foothills. We have the good fortune to stumble on a good birding spot and stand there for over an hour, entertained by Yellow-bellied and Greenish elaenias, Variable and White-collared seedeaters, a Yellow-olive Flycatcher and dozens more tropical birds. New to our list, we see a pair of tiny Dot-winged Antwrens, the male black and the female brown, both with white spots on the wings. We also watch soaring Plumbeous Kites and a Bright-rumped Atilla feeding in a tall tree. Except for the much wished for macaws, we probably have done as well at this new location, totally 51 species in a few hours.
(Shari) Afraid she might have missed something good, Judy says, "I hope the others are back so I do not have to worry about what they have seen." We took two cars this morning to find Scarlet Macaws. Even I got up at 4:30 AM to make the 4:45 departure. We want to be at Red Bank before dawn, so as to not miss the flight of the 200 or so birds that are known to flock there. I have seen Bert's pictures from last year, and feel this trip to be a worthy one, even for non-birders like me. This is probably the biggest flock of Scarlet Macaws in the world and the natives used to shoot them for food until the Belize Audubon Society educated them to their importance. If the locals can earn money from tourism, they will save the birds. It makes us wonder what happened during the past year, since the birds did not show up. A young girl trying to sell overpriced embroidery tells us the fields behind the hillside were burnt and the birds no longer fly through. We can however, get a guide for a price. Caught unawares, we opt out and head home. But our passengers are disappointed and Bert takes them down a road for some exploratory birding. Both Helen and Judy get lifers while I read a book, but we are back by noon. Dinner tonight is at our favorite restaurant in town. However, our experience is not up to snuff. Apparently the two owners, both sisters, are at odds with each other. I always thought one of the sisters to be the brains and brawn behind the operation and she was not there. The other sister is rather surly. It is hot and stuffy with flies buzzing around our bodies. Two of the three fans do not work AND the electricity goes out before we receive our meals. We eat by portable lamps in semi-darkness with the doors locked and closed. She says, "Bad things happen when the lights go out." Oh, great! The group is spooked for sure and I know our meals are rushed for fear of robbery, car theft or worse. My pork chops are delicious though.
(Bert) We pick up our guide Julio at the turn off for Cockscomb Basin and drive the gravel entrance road, stopping once to watch the Chestnut-headed Oropendolas build their nests. Each year they choose the same tall open-canopied tree, tear down the old nests and begin anew constructing a long tangled mass of grass in a community of other oropendola nests on the same tree. At the park headquarters and dormitories, the birds assault us in numbers and varieties, so much so that we often find we are each watching a different species and giving confusing directions to each other. We quickly tick off many warblers, flycatchers and a nice selection of tanagers, including Crimson-collared, Passerini's, Blue-gray, Yellow-winged and Golden-hooded. In one tall tree, almost bare of leaves, climb three fat Crested Guans, outsized like an elephant on a pogo stick. In another tree, this one densely leaved, we find hummingbirds and elaenias feeding, including at least three White-necked Jacobins. Hiking one of the trails, some of us get brief looks at elusive doves: Blue Ground-Dove - often heard, infrequently seen - and Scaled Pigeon - neither seen nor heard often. At a clearing forced by a small creek, Dave sees an oropendola flying and then thinks he sees it perched at a very distant tree. I set up my scope on a rickety bridge and discover a much better find - a Rufous Piha - but the bridge wiggles so much with our movements that few others get to see the bird before it disappears. Perhaps the most entertaining birds of the day are the White-collared Manakins. It's easy to note their presence. Their wing-snapping trick sounds like a cracking whip or a small firecracker and we can hear them deep in the forest. Seeing them is another matter, however. At several locations we get a few glimpses of the birds, but it isn't until our afternoon walk when we finally find a lek - the same location as last year - and can watch the manakins in action. The male has cleared a small patch of jungle floor, a 3-4 ft. diameter circle of bare ground. A few broken off stubs of wood project vertically at three or four points around the circle. First we see the butter yellow and cream white male in a tall tree on the opposite side of the trail. While perched, he snaps his wings, zips in a tight circle of flight and resumes his perch. This is repeated many times, sometimes with longer sallies, and then he dives toward the lek, but stops at a low branch short of the bare patch. For few moments, he appears to be checking out the scene, perhaps noting if any female is watching for the upcoming performance. Then he swings low over the circle, stopping on one of the upright stubs. In quick succession, he jumps from one stub to another, crisscrossing the lek, snapping his wings, letting out a squeaky call and the a low flat sound that we quickly identify with a loud fart. Over the next half hour, we are entertained by repeat sequences from high perch to lek performances, all exerted to attract a mate. Back to hiking, our guide suggests a trail to the waterfalls, but even though he is English-speaking we misunderstand what we offers, thinking this will be a short round-trip walk. Instead, it is several miles in the heat of the day and uphill, only to be followed by a return on the same path. Worse yet is the near complete absence of birds. Almost back to the start of the trail, we hear a high pitched and piercing "swit" call emanating from multiple birds in the forest. With a bit of luck I finally see one of the songsters and am delighted to observe the dazzling purple sheen on a Violet Sabrewing, a large hummingbird with a dark and curved bill. Later, overhead, I hear a parrot, recognizing its call, and our guide says cho chó, which represents both the Mayan name and the bird's call. We name it Mealy Parrot. An overcast sky darkens the jungle prematurely so that by 4 PM it is hard to see the birds. Getting separated from the rest, Bonnie and I find a Royal Flycatcher, but the others who also wanted to add this bird to their list are further back on the trail. Julio comes to tell us that they have found an ant swarm, so we quickly return. In addition to the ant-tanagers always present at these events, we see many woodcreepers and at first have trouble identifying them because they show too many conflicting field marks. Then we decide we are actually watching a mixed flock of Tawny-winged and Ruddy woodcreepers. We watch them until it is almost too dark to make out their features. On the return hike I hear the distant coke-bottle-blowing call of a Little Tinamou, a bird I've only heard on recordings heretofore. We finish the day with an impressive bird list, sure that there are many others that we have missed. Perhaps another day!
(Shari) Usually by this time into the trip, I am complaining a great deal about the heat. This year has been wonderful in that regard and today, usually the very steamiest hottest of side trips, is pleasantly cool. Still not liking early mornings, Robby, Katy, Kobb (Have I ever mentioned Kobb is a dog?), Don and I travel to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary at 9:00 instead of the ungodly 6 AM when the rest of the group left this morning. Packing an ice chest, two drink containers and a whicker basket that contains our lunch into the back of Robby's car, I hop in too. As we pass the entrance, I tell Katy to keep Kobb's head down, since I doubt animals are allowed into the park. Keeping Kobb in the car, we meet up with the group on a trail I always wanted to hike but never did because of the heat. This morning it is cool and I walk all the way to the river where I am treated to the sight of a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird on a nest, through the scope. If all birding were like this, I too would be hooked on the sport. After lunch Helen joins our car and we go to the factory of Marie Sharp. Meeting us at the door the very pretty Belizean woman greets us and introduces herself as Marie Sharp herself. She takes us through her factory and this year the workers are processing their famous hot sauce. The sauce is so potent that our eyes begin to water as we watch two men pouring the orange liquid from the big vat into smaller 5-gal. containers. About ten women work the line that fills small containers via a funnel, adds labels, and inserts them in boxes. These samples are then shipped worldwide and, in fact, I bought ten of them at the Belize Zoo for $1.00 each. The atmosphere is definitely unlike any factory that you conjure up in your mind. Watching the women work and giggle, I am reminded of the times I help out in the church kitchen making goodies with the other women. Ms. Sharp gets paid well for her free tour as we all come out the door laden with jars of sauce and jams.
(Shari) I hear a big thump and a loud hiss before I see smoke coming from the passenger side of the car. I think this could be serious, especially when Bert stops the car and jumps out. I am squeezed between Helen and Don in the back seat and I cannot get Don out fast enough. Not only worried about what happened I am concerned about the gas tank if the smoke has something to do with fire. Finally we are out and I see we got a flat tire after hitting a piece of metal on the road. I go back to sit in Bob's car with the women and remark that at times like this I am glad I am female. Here we are in air-conditioned comfort while five men try to fix the flat. Of course we have never had a flat in this car and we need to get out the instruction booklet even to find where the jack is located much less how to get the spare tire out from beneath the car. Enrique, an agronomist and sometime guide, who was suppose to take us to Scarlet Macaws, has his foot on a big gouge at the side of the tire, in an attempt to keep the air inside. Meanwhile, like a little kid taking toys from a toy box, out come scopes and chairs and boxes and water bottles and jackets and binoculars and and and until Bert reaches the floor of the trunk where the jack and tools supposedly are located. The jack handle is not strong enough to undo the lug nuts, but Bob has a star jack that works. Soon the tire is changed and all the stuff that was removed gets put back. Enrique takes us to a tire shop only three miles up the road where our tire is patched for only $4.00. The morning has been a complete waste of time since the Scarlet Macaws were caged and not ones in the wild and we could not get permission to traverse the shrimp farms to see a Jabiru. Our disappointments are not finished. Seeing the captain of our boat traveling towards us, we stop. He tells us the waves are 4-5 feet high and snorkeling would not be good. Talking with the group, we decide to cancel that outing as well. I sit around moping in my room the remainder of the day, while Bert goes with Cindy and Judy back to Cockscomb to bird.
(Bert) Yesterday, Shari got a lead on finding Scarlet Macaws, so at 9 AM we meet Enrique at the Marie Sharp factory. We discuss plans with Enrique, but he starts talking about macaws at Mountain Pine Ridge, way too far to travel today. Shari asks him about the nearby macaws he mentioned yesterday; however, we are disappointed to learn that he was talking about a caged bird. He suggests an alternative: see Jabirus at a local shrimp farm. But that too turns out to be a dead end since we can't get permission to visit. On the way back I hit a piece of angle iron lying at the edge of the road and it punctures the side of my tire. With much effort we change the tire and get the damaged one repaired at a nearby shop. So far the day has been a disaster, so to recoup, I join Cindy and Judy for another visit to Cockscomb Basin. Although afternoon birding can often be quite slow, we see a number of memorable birds. The first is a Rufous-tailed Jacamar perched on a low branch near a grassy area. I start taking pictures, step a bit closer, try the flash, step closer, and continue until I'm so close the bird is bigger than my camera frame. It does not fly away until I turn to leave. The next posing bird is a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird resting on a vine strung between two trees. It too remains still for many minutes. Afternoon birds are harder to find because they are so still, but if they can be found, I always enjoy the long time I have to study them. A bird that has eluded me often is the Rufous-breasted Spinetail. I've learned its call and notice that I frequently am in their presence, yet never seeing them because they rarely come out of the tall grass and reeds growing above marshy ground. This time I hear a couple very close to the path I hike and I wait patiently to see if by chance one of them pops up. Suddenly, one jumps out, sails past me and the path and stops just long enough at the opposite side for me to get a good look at contrasting gray head and rufous back and breast, and a bit of its ratty tail. The last treat of the day is a Collared Forest-Falcon perched in the open on a tall, sparsely leaved tree adjacent to the hiking trail. This is the first adult I've seen on the trip, although, as I've said before, we often hear this forest-falcon. Usually, if seen at all, they remain well hidden in the forest, as implied by its name. This one gives me a long, satisfying observation.
(Bert) Rain falls as we finish loading the car; a cold wind blowing along the coastline. Cold by Belize standards, the 65 deg. air is nothing compared to the sub-zero weather of U.S. this time of year, but for Belizeans it means sweaters and coats. Light rain continues as we drive inland to the foothills of the Maya Mountains, reaching Blue Hole National Park by 7 AM. We find Bob and Cindy, Dave and Bonnie, already at the wayside entrance to the park, sitting under the canopy over a picnic table. Israel, our guide this morning, is also there, but it doesn't look like they have found many birds in the rain. When they mention the sighting of Gray-breasted Dove it perks my interest and I hope we get a chance to see it too. Except for Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, few birds venture out in the rain for the next two hours. A good view of a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper is a first for many of the group. When it lightens, I see the dove in the dark trees, a lifer for me. Without Israel's help, I doubt we would have separated this species from Gray-fronted Dove as the drawings in all three field guides are contradictory and none exactly match the brown crown and purplish nape and forehead that we observe. Israel is also a big help when he identifies a female White-winged Becard, a bird we did not expect to find this far north. Howell and Webb append the drawing of this bird to Plate 71 for Central American species and this is the first time I've seen any species depicted on that page. We also see a Blue-winged Warbler, not nearly as rare, but a first for the trip. We move our cars to another parking lot and along the road we get a clear view of a White Hawk on the distant hillside, a white spot in a green background, and then a Mealy Parrot closer up. With the lifting of the rain, we begin hiking slowly along the forest edge, enjoying the unusually cool weather. The birds are anxious to begin their delayed morning foraging so we see many species, starting with Green-backed Sparrow, Long-billed Gnatwren and Olive-backed Euphonia. Again we are treated to the mating display of the White-collared Manakin, this time with an even a clearer view of the male on the lek. Further on the trail Bob and I surprise an Orange-billed Sparrow, but unfortunately it leaves before the others get a chance to see this brightly colored bird. We have better luck with a Dusky Antbird, not nearly as pretty, but equally elusive. At the entrance to St. Herman's Cave, we find rough-winged swallows. These are Ridgway's according to Israel as also proves to be the case when I take many close-up photos that reveal the darker overall coloring and the white supraloral spots (near the eye). Despite the rain-delayed start, this morning's birding again proves that Blue Hole National Park is a great place to observe birds.
(Bert) We again visit the Anglican church in Corozal that we've attended each of the prior years we've been in Belize. We recognize many of the people, especially the school principal and the couple from Oregon who retired here several years ago. He says there about 350 expatriates living in the area. Each time we visit the church, I always find something intriguing about the difference in cultures here. Today it is the way they sing the hymns. Since there is no musical accompaniment, someone - and quite often a different person each time - starts off the first verse and within a few bars everyone else joins in. But no matter who starts, they start at a lower key than the hymn calls for. And many times the melody chosen does not match that printed in the hymnbook. In fact, sometimes it seems to change from verse to verse. Later this evening, Bob gets pollo asada to share, others bring side dishes, and we enjoy a delicious communal meal. I hand out the list-to-date of the 373 species seen so far on this trip. We've found 11 species more this year than we did up to this point in 2002 when we did a somewhat similar route.
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