Chapter 8. Northern Belize
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Shari) At 7:15 AM, right on the button, we depart the gates of paradise and head for Belize. After 45 min. on the Mexican side of the border, I tell the group we have only accomplished Step 1 on their hand out, i.e., park on the side of the road and wait for instructions. Since the last time we went through, Mexican immigration has instituted a new procedure. We now have to fill out a form that repeats the information on the form we filled out when we entered Mexico in January. Henry, the manager of the Belize campground, meets us at the border, and talks to the guard/attendant. We are issued the forms and I walk back two blocks to where the group is parked and ask each person to complete the form. Gathering passports, visas and the new forms, I return to the guard/attendant, who then stamps each form, passport, and VISA, by hand with ink that no one can read. Finally we are ready to cross into Belize. Here again the procedure changes, and vehicle insurance is obtained first. I hop out of R-Tent-III and start that procedure while others follow Bert’s instructions. I determine it is cheaper to purchase insurance for the motor homes and trailers for only the three days that we will be driving them in Belize and purchase a month for the autos. That means each person has to purchase four policies. The issue that irritates us so much is that each policy is painstakingly written by hand. When asked why more worn out carbon sheets cannot be used between the blank forms, we are told the writing must be original. After a very long time, Bert radios me and tells me to send people down to him when they finish at the insurance. He does not believe me when I tell him no one has finished yet. VIN numbers, license plate numbers, passport numbers, make and year of car are all laboriously copied on a sheet of paper for each vehicle for each policy. Then the same information is copied on a sticker that goes on the car. The same information is copied on a receipt that is given to us. The long length of time gets so ridiculous that half of us decide to depart and go to a different place to obtain insurance (where we went last year, but thought maybe had closed). No sooner do we start to walk, when a man says it is too dangerous to walk. He says we might get robbed. We are in a group, in broad daylight and only have to walk within sight of another building, which I have done many times in the past, so this seems ridiculous. But we accept the ride anyway. Here we show our passports to a cute young lady behind a counter who, by the way, tells us the road is not dangerous to walk. She again writes things by hand in a ledger and stamps our passports. Next we go to the customs station that handles vehicle entry. Here the same information written again by hand, is copied again by hand into a ledger and on a form that is handed to us, and on a receipt. So now we have at least six pieces of paper with our name, VIN number, license number, etc. Every year I know this is going to happen and every year I get irritated by the complete inefficiency of the system. One by one we do eventually complete all the necessary paperwork. Each of our vehicles is inspected for foodstuffs. Some years they take more foods from us than others. This year we get off easy, and the agricultural agent confiscates only a few fish, oranges, bananas and avocados. We are now in Belize. After lunch, I take the group around Corozal and show them the French restaurant (now closed and waiting to be sold), the market, the laundry and the grocery store. At 5 PM we have our Welcome-to-Belize party and invite four other couples to join us. They are traveling together and were part of some of our previous caravans. I introduce the two groups and we spend a lively 90 min. talking. Bert and I then join the other group for a dinner out and reminisce about past times and compare notes on current ones. This other group contains some very dedicated birders and at times my eyes glaze over when they talk “bird” too much. But mostly we share laughs, memories, and stories and it is good to see them again.
(Bert) In last night’s meeting Shari carefully went through border crossing procedures and, as has been the case now for five straight years, the procedure is different this morning. Nonetheless, we finish before noon and therefore are on schedule. I don’t have much time to bird at the border, but I always take note of what is the first species I see in a new country. The easy guess would be Great-tailed Grackle, an omnipresent species wherever we travel. But today I am surprised that it is an Indigo Bunting flying with a Common Yellowthroat. We arrive at the campground in the heat of the day, yet by 5 PM when we have our “Welcome to Belize” Pina Colada party the cool Caribbean breeze is refreshing. We have special guests today at our party – Woody, Gwen, Chris, Coen, Brenda, Pat and Jim – all birders that have traveled with us on previous caravans and whose names you’ve seen if you have been following these journals for years. Shari introduces them, as well as our present group, each with a funny story or personal characteristic. Later I hand out the current checklist, marking the species we have already seen in our travels this past 37 days through Mexico: 436 species to date.
(Bert) Yesterday, our birding friends told us of the huge gathering of birds at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary owing to the low water level and the expansive mud flats. And, indeed, this morning the number and diversity of birds is amazing. Thousands of egrets and herons of nine species, hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants (and one Double-crested!), dozens of Wood Storks and at least nine Jabirus – the most sought after bird of the refuge. As I scan the tern flock for oddities I count 249 Caspian Terns, a significant gathering. We get many good views of a half dozen Gray-necked Wood-Rails, a colorful orange, black and gray giant of a rail. Clearly, the rarest bird of our trip is one that showed up at Crooked Tree a few months ago, an accidental visitor from South America. Through the scope, we see it distantly across the lagoon and walk to that side trying to relocate it. Then I see the Southern Lapwing on the grassy shoreline. Large and ornate, the lapwing is a patchwork of gray, brown, black and white with a startling large red eye, a white face fronted by black, a gray crown and, topping off this show-off is a long spiked plume trailing behind its head. From Crooked Tree we drive to Altun Ha, a prominent Mayan ruins not far from Belize City. We arrive in the heat of the day, but spend our time under the shade of the jungle on the edges of the ruins. One of the easiest birds to see, and we find at least six, is Black-headed Trogon. Three local kids are quick to tell us these are Black-headed and not Violaceous by pointing out the drawings in our book. They call it Ramatutu in their native Mayan language, but otherwise talk to us in English. Later at the cenote we see a crocodile, but not many birds. Back at the ruins a Great Crested Flycatcher allows easy photographing.
(Shari) I have a glorious free day today with nothing to do except a little shopping for our picnic lunch tomorrow and a good book. It is a good day to relax with the cool Caribbean breezes entering R-Tent-III through its open windows. The birders arrive home around 5, just in time for a short Happy Hour and discussion of our trip to the jungle tomorrow.
(Bert) The dawn bird menagerie at a small orchard beside the dusty rock road in the Mennonite farming community includes Tropical Pewee, Clay-colored Robin, Blue-gray Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard orioles and a variety of warblers. Many flocks of White-fronted Parrots and Red-billed Pigeons parade by, often stopping atop the trees so that we can better study them. In a nearby pasture sixteen Fork-tailed Flycatchers perch on grass stalks just inches above the ground. They all face into the wind and their excessively long tail feathers trail downwind like weathervane cocks. In another grassy field and also hidden in trees White-collared Seedeaters sweeten the air with melodious song. We find a flock of Black-headed Saltators that seem to have pink centered white feathers protruding from their months until I realize they are eating morning glories, a behavior I’ve not observed before. I also see a lanky long-legged weasel called a Tayra running along the road. While waiting for lunch, I find a pair of cooperative Yellow-throated Euphonias investigating a fence post for at least 15 min. We join the SOB’s for a lunch that Shari has prepared and then complete our journey to La Milpa, a private reserve in western Belize near the Mexico and Guatemala borders. As we make the turn into the driveway, I stop quickly to call attention to the small flock of Blue Buntings feeding on the grass. Ocellated Turkeys, wild although they behave tamely, parade the expansive lawn surrounding the cabanas and dormitories where we will spend two nights. In late afternoon Vladimir takes us on a short walk, looking for birds in the flowering and fruiting trees, most spectacularly dominated by Red-legged Honeycreepers. Our best finds are numerous White-bellied Emeralds and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and one each of Long-billed Hermit and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing – misleading names, but all hummingbirds. Two Olive-backed Euphonias are another highlight. I see a small bird crisscross the gravel road and then see it land and we all get to view a Green-backed Sparrow for the first time this trip. We eat our dinner – home cooking prepared by local Belizean women – under an open-air palapa and looking out near one of the cabanas, only dimly lit after the sun has set, I see a Gray Fox in the shadows. But later on our ride on benches on the back of a pickup we spotlight other animals: several White-tailed Deer on the lawn, a Central American Wooly Opossum in a tree, two fiery-eyed Northern Potoos that look like extensions of a dead branch, a Yucatan Nightjar and an Ocellated Turkey trying to sleep high in a tree.
(Shari) “You are 45 min. late. Don’t you know we would worry about you? Where were you?” A chorus of voices greets the SOB’s as we pull up to the meeting place for lunch. We were to be here with the lunch at noon but I had forgotten just how deplorable the road is and it takes us 45 min. longer than anticipated. I tell them they sound like me when I holler at Bert for coming back later than expected. At least I know they are hungry. I had made 40 sandwiches this morning and that along with chips, cookies, bananas, Sue’s candy and lemonade makes a nice lunch. After we eat, we drive to La Milpa for our vacation within a vacation. I always enjoy my two-night stay here. Unique in its semi-tropical jungle like setting with its thatched huts, Howler monkeys, solar power and terrific food, I find it extremely relaxing. After we settle in, our guide Vladimir takes us for a short bird walk before dinner. I actually participate in it this year since, I find the temperature balmy and not hot. After a quick shower, we meet at the “Chigger Bar” for beer and sodas before we dine on scrumptious chicken, rice and beans, wonderful mixed veggies, crisp tossed salad and oatmeal cookies. After dinner, a truckload of eight goes for an open-air night ride. Bert goes tonight while I settle in with a Nora Roberts book.
(Bert) We are up at dawn, some sipping an early cup of coffee under the palapa, and then walk the grounds, again seeing the honeycreepers and hummingbirds feeding on the pink flowering moho tree, but the pre-breakfast viewing is subdued compared to the last few years. After a hearty breakfast, Vladimir takes most of the group on a hike through the jungle, pointing out trees and plants and explaining their traditional medicinal uses. The “hardcore” birders follow me along another jungle path. We see and hear almost no birds until we reach a clearing in the woods. Just at the edge I see a dozen mixed Red-crowned and Red-throated ant-tanagers and soon note that we’ve stumbled upon an ant swarm. Large black ants parade through the forest, across the leaf litter, up and down the branches, forming columns and battalions of marching soldiers, all moving in the same direction. Excited birds feast in the wake, usually not eating the ants, but devouring other insects disrupted by the flood of ants. But, we can see some of the ant-tanagers picking off ants from the branches, popping them down their throats like jellybeans. The clearing edge is a bit more open then the deep forest so we get a better view of the ant swarm, especially when the parade crosses the foot path. Accompanying the ant swarm, we identify Blue-headed Tanager, two Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, a female Barred Antshrike, a female White-collared Manakin, in addition to Wood Thrush, Clay-colored Robins, Gray Catbirds, Ovenbird, and Hooded Warbler. But the best of all is an elusive bird that only Judy R. sees at first. Tantalizingly, she calls out detailed field marks of a bird walking under the thicket of twisted branches, marks that I don’t recognize as a bird I’ve ever seen. While we try to locate what she saw, Judy thumbs through her field guide and announces, “It’s a Black-faced Antthrush.” That gets everyone’s immediate attention and especially Cindy’s, since that is one on a short list of target birds she most wanted to see on this trip. All binoculars are aimed low to the forest floor. My eyes pop out when I see the bird gently strutting through the tight mesh. Walking on relatively long legs and a body shaped a bit like a chubby Sora with an erect stubby tail pointing upward and a thick elongated bill, the chocolate brown and black feathers are prettier than the illustrations and the blue orbital ring stands out brightly in the dimly lit forest floor. This is definitely an “ooh and aah” bird worthy of several exclamation points. Lee Jones, in Birds of Belize, says this bird is seldom seen and I’d certainly have to agree as it my first in five visits to the country. In the clearing we see a soaring raptor and it drops low enough to see clearly the multiple bands on its wings and tail and a light-colored head, a very good look at a juvenile Black Hawk-Eagle. We expect to see other soaring birds, but do not, so head back for lunch.
In the afternoon we hike a jungle road toward a garbage pit hidden in the forest on all sides except the entrance. Along the way we are entertained by a troop of two dozen Coatis. Although they are moving parallel to the road and just about twenty feet into the forest, we catch only brief glimpses of body parts. Once and a while I see a long snout separating a pair of eyes staring down my binoculars. We watch them for at least ten minutes and I take multiple photos, but all of them are out of focus since the camera lens zeroes in on the many intervening branches and not the target animal. The dump pit is a smorgasbord cafeteria for vultures and a long list of other birds. We sit on three-legged stools or stand in a tight group across the narrow entrance to the pit some 25 ft. ahead of us – just enough distance to allow the timid birds to fly freely in and out of view. The entertainment goes on for over an hour and we have multiple opportunities to study 18 species, highlighted by King Vulture (a juvenile and an adult, both perched), Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Kentucky Warbler, Gray-headed Tanagers, and Green-backed Sparrow. In addition, a Central American Agouti feeds at the edge of the pit for more than a half hour. On the way back, Judy R. lingers behind and has the marvelous opportunity of seeing an ocelot cross the road. Who says lighting doesn’t strike twice, for this surely has been a remarkable day for Judy. Those that didn’t fit on the pickup bed last night go for a nocturnal ride after dinner. They see the opossum and nightjar as we did, but they add a Mottled Owl and many Great Curassows.
(Shari) I don’t think I slept much last night but I must have. I never heard the electricity turn off after it ran out of battery power and I never heard Bert snore. Carl and Sandy, who share the room next door to us, heard Bert so I really must have slept tightly. I walk over to the dining area and have a cup of coffee before the birders stream in from their early morning trek. They are all excited and saw many things with the word “ant” in them. After a filling breakfast of eggs, sausages, beans, Johnnycakes, and fruit, part of the group goes birding with Bert and more of the group goes on the medicinal plant walk with Vladimir. We learn about the Give-and-take plant - the poisonous tree where just touching it will give you a bad itchy rash - and the making of thatched roofs. We smell a leaf that Vladimir says is allspice. Judy R. finds it all extremely interesting and Charlu, our botanist, takes five pages of notes. Our 45 min. walk turns into 3 hr. and we arrive back just in time for another delicious lunch of beef stew, mixed veggies, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and watermelon. I know I gain 2 lbs. at this place. The birders go off on a walk with Vladimir and I retire with Nora Roberts (her books are great girl reads). Soon it is time for dinner, another great meal, before our nighttime open-air truck trip. Vladimir shines his high power flashlight into the jungle and we get views of curassows roosting in trees, owls, hawks, nightjars, deer and an opossum. It has been a full day, but I am not too tired. It takes me a long time to fall asleep and the fan blowing the big net over the bed bothers me. I just must not be sleepy.
(Bert) Cindy, Judy R. and Virginia take a car in the direction that a jaguar was sighted yesterday. Not surprisingly, they miss the cat, but are rewarded with hearing a Pheasant Cuckoo and a Vermiculated Screech-Owl. I hear less exciting birds – Common Pauraque and a couple Collared Forest-Falcons – and then join others on another walk to the garbage pit. Later we hear that two others - staying at the lodge, but not in our group - headed this morning in the same direction as last night’s owl prowl and found another jaguar, seeing the back two-thirds as it disappeared into the jungle. So, our group has missed two chances of seeing a jaguar, but I’m not surprised since we’ve never seen one on previous trips either. Vladimir, in 5 yrs. of working at La Milpa, has seen two jaguars per year, most just fleeting glimpses, so the odds of us finding one are pretty slim.
After breakfast we drive to the La Milpa ruins, an unexcavated Mayan settlement. On the way the first carload sees an ocelot, maybe not as exciting as a jaguar, but certainly rewarding. Most of our group follow Vladimir as he draws on his extensive knowledge of the Mayan people and explains the significance of the ruins we pass around and over. Alone, I hike to a “sweet spot” I remember from previous years. True to form, I again identify a dozen species while standing in one spot. Best of the list are Bright-rumped Attilla, a Black-throated Shrike-Tanager (I see two males and two females at different locations today), Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Mealy Parrot. Vladimir’s group finds Dot-winged Antwren, a species that has eluded me so far this trip.
Following another hearty lunch, our stay at La Milpa comes too quickly to a close and we are back on the rough road home. We stop at San Felipe to visit a school, an event we’ve planned for some time. We’ve carried children’s books and school supplies thousands of miles from our homes in the U.S. and Canada. And, now for the fourth year in a row, we give these materials to a Belize school. Two years ago I met teacher Ramiro Peralta and he told me about their need for books. I had seen the school library and its small collection of unsuitable donations – WordPerfect 3.0, Learning Pascal, Selling Real Estate in the U.S. – and the near absence of simple story books for beginning readers or textbooks geared to the early years. We unload boxes and boxes of books and then take photos of us behind the pile, joined by Ramiro, now school principal, and his assistant principal. Then Ramiro leads us on a school tour and we manage to disrupt all of the classes, its students anxious to meet the Americans and the Australian-accented Canadians. Seeing the eyes of the polite children and the overwhelming gratitude of the teachers is a hearty reward for us.
(Shari) “Take my picture, take my picture,” many kids shout as we walk throughout the school visiting the different classrooms. Every year we bring books for a different Belizean school, nearly doubling their library with our donations. Books are expensive to buy and to ship, plus they do not last long in this hot humid climate. Some kids are shy; some are much like kids all over the world. But all of them are appreciative and say “Good afternoon” and “Thank you” many times over. The teacher in one of the youngest classes even has all the kids line up for a picture. They wave and shout and tell us what they are studying, showing us projects on geography and parts of speech. After the school visit, Bert and I need to check out a place for next year’s caravan. Will it have comfortable rooms, will it have electrical outlets, how many private rooms exist, what are the dining arrangements, etc.? We are told how to reach its location, but need to ask two separate times, if we are on the right road. I say road but it sometimes is not more than two tracks between grasses: bumps and rocks you would not believe. It takes us 2 hr. to travel 25 mi. About 15 mi. ago, I had already decided we will take the boat to this place next year; this is just too painful and too hard on the car. The accommodations are very pleasant and the breeze off the large lagoon cools the temperature. It seems like a pleasant enough place to bring a group. And if the birding is good, I suppose it will not matter much anyway. The trip in and out is worth it when I see something ahead on the “road.” Since I am driving, I stop the car and tell Bert to look at it in his binoculars. I often do this and things turn out to be dogs or cows or even people. This time we hit pay dirt. Bert excitedly says, “It is a spotted jaguar.” I can hardly wait to get my hands on the binocs to see for myself while he takes pictures. We watch for a while and then slowly go forward. So far the animal does not know we are behind it. But soon she turns her head to look at us and I stop the car again. For a second time, we take pictures and get good long looks before she continues down the road. Once more we follow. Once more she stops. This time she turns and we observe a marvelous side view. Never in my lifetime did I expect to see this animal in the wild and never, for sure, did I imagine getting such a good long look. She must decide we are not a threat for she continues forward, but as soon as I follow, she quickens her pace and disappears into the jungle. We savor this moment for the whole agonizingly slow trip back home.
(Bert) Still not done with this daily saga, it’s hard to believe how much we have packed into one day. Shari and I in one car join Bob, Cindy and Virginia in another on the road to Hill Bank, a narrow one-lane, two tire-track farm road bumping through Mennonite territory. Bob, et al., stay at Hill Bank for the night and we return alone. We don’t look forward to the ragged ride back, but are soon rewarded with a sighting that would have made worthwhile a trip ten times longer. Shari is driving – so she can’t complain about my speed or the many bumps – and she stops suddenly, exclaiming, “There’s something big in the road ahead.” I put up my binoculars and shout, “Jaguar.” She grabs my binoculars while I reach for my camera. I crack open my door – the windshield being far too dirty to aim through - to photo the rear end of a jaguar slowly lumbering along the tire track heading away from us. Shari drives farther and I again photo the jaguar’s rear end; it still hasn’t detected our presence a quarter mile behind. A third stop and we see the jaguar turn its head to watch us, but continues onward. We slowly gain ground on the giant cat and get even better views, especially when it turns sideways and we see a full body pose. More photos, another cat march and car roll, and the jaguar stops again and turns once more for another photo opportunity of its full length. One more approach and still closer, but this time the jaguar turns and walks into the jungle. I check the car clock; we’ve watched the jaguar for an amazing five full minutes. Top that!
(Bert) After several solid days of birding and a late evening last night, I sleep in this morning until 7:20, the latest of the trip. My morning is filled with catching up on journal writing and household errands. In the afternoon Shari and I drive to Orange Walk to arrange tomorrow’s boat trip and make plans for next year’s trips and camping sites. In late afternoon I give a talk on special birds we hope to see tomorrow, with tips on where to look for them and how to distinguish each from look-alikes. Tom, who taught ornithology as a college professor, found a road kill trogon and brings it to our meeting to show us how it uses its wings in flight.
(Bert – Part 1) The boat moves quickly toward the opening of a narrow side channel, driver Orlando cuts the engine and we glide noiselessly between the mangroves. Orlando and the 13 birders look in every direction and especially into the narrow tunnel separating the overhanging mangrove branches from the surface of the New River. We are looking for a Sungrebe or an Agami Heron, both of which have been seen here a few times before. In the midst of a dark tangle, Bob B. and I see a dark heron with a wide slash of chestnut across its belly. Bob exclaims, “Agami Heron,” and all eyes turn. The excitement pushes the heron deeper into the mangroves and only Cindy gets another look. Most herons are show-offs, large waders proudly displaying their fanciful feathers. Not so for the Agami. The most rare and most reticent, this one avoids public areas and quickly retreats if discovered. But we are persistent and look into the snarl heavily shaded by the leaf canopy. Roots and branches are denser than the gaps of open space separating them, so at best we would only see fragmentary flashes of the heron. After 15 min. of searching, only Bob gets a momentary second look. So Orlando moves the boat around to the other side of the thin peninsula. Again we search the mangroves and again Bob is the first to see the Agami. This time the lanky bird is wading at the edge, bent over as it ducks under the protruding roots, and we all get a full view of the mosaic of green, pale blue and chestnut with offsetting yellow face and bill and blue plume. Amazingly, a few minutes later and farther along the river “Agami Bob” sees a second Agami Heron and while we are delighting in this discovery, another tour boat – this one loaded with tourists from one of the many cruise ships anchored at Belize City – motors swiftly behind us. The driver spots a common Green Heron, announces such to the passengers and incorrectly assumes that is our interest also. So much the better for us, as the big noisy boats compete with our smaller quieter group, often scaring away our prizes. The river ride brings us to many other great bird sightings, too much to detail here, but I must mention one other memorable family: an adult Jabiru tending two half-grown chicks in a nest. I’ve seen this strategically placed nest on each of my visits since 2001, high in a massive Ceiba tree, conveniently thin leafed, but on the horizon a half-mile distant. Yet the 5-ft. Jabiru – the largest flying bird in the Americas – easily stands out at this distance.
(Shari – Part 1) “Are they here?” Van asks our guide for the New River and Lamanai trip. We are on a boat and Romey, our guide, has pointed out bats on a tree. I even know what I am looking for and do not see any. So Romey drives the boat closer until we can touch the tree if we want to. Sue sees the eyes and nose of the bats and Van still does not see them. Van takes his finger to point and you never heard four women scream so loud in unison, as at least 10 bats take to flight. The first thoughts entering my head are they will get caught under the canopy and then under my hat and then under my shirt. Poor Sue is inches away from them. No wonder she screams. The men all laugh, but I am sure they get a surprise too. Shortly, Romey enters a tributary of the river that is seldom used by boats. Last night at the birding workshop, Bert told the group about the birds they might see today. I clued in on the Agami Heron, since he has never seen it. Guess what we see. Yup, an Agami Heron. It is a big beautiful bird with a rust belly; made special by the fact Bert had never seen it. I can hardly contain my excitement and anxiously await meeting up with him to mention our find. When arriving at Laminai, Bob B. tells us his group saw two Agami Herons. Now just what are the chances of three sightings of this heron this year and no sightings for each of the previous four years? What a bummer….
(Bert – Part 2) Birding is again good on land after we dock at the Lamanai ruins. As we often do, the birders mostly ignore the Mayan ruins, seeking the surrounding jungles and the tunneled paths connecting sites. Our group gets separated and four of us slowly walk one of the narrowest and most canopied when Judy S. sees something stirring up the leaf litter on the forest floor. Even though the site is off 40 yd. we are on higher ground and the spot we search has less brambles, so it gives us good viewing. I soon discover multiple birds tossing leaves and eventually recognize we’ve stumbled on another ant swarm. A half-hour of watching gives us excellent views of Tawny-winged (2), Ruddy and Ivory-billed woodcreepers, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-tanager and, most amazingly, our second sighting of a Black-faced Antthrush, this time with extended views of its full body. Watching over this procession is a Blue-crowned Motmot, perched silently low on a fallen branch. Judy is ecstatic at seeing the motmot since she was absent on our previous sightings and this stunning bird was on her want-to-see list. The birding session is so overwhelming for her that she gives all three of us big hugs, tears of joy in her eyes. When the group gathers again at the dock, joining the SOB’s who came on a later boat, we compare stories about what we’ve seen. We hear of Plain Xenops hanging from a vine, twelve woodcreepers of five species, a quietly perched White-whiskered Puffbird, and calling Stub-tailed Spadebills. Virginia takes the prize with her incredible single-person-sighting of a Pheasant Cuckoo, an extremely elusive bird that would have been a lifer for all of us, as it was for Virginia. I catch up with Shari who is dejected because she thought she had again one-upped me on a life bird. Non-birder Shari has seen a few precious birds before I have, the most notable being an Ocellated Turkey that generated stories and e-mail for a full year. This time she and others on her boat saw an Agami Heron, certain that it would be a life bird for me. Bursting her bubble, she finds out that I had seen two only hours before she did.
(Shari – Part 2) We leave the ruins of Lamanai after 5 PM and move full throttle half way home, before we slow down for our nighttime nature ride. We are not disappointed as our high beam flashlight finds eye shine (the red reflection of eyes looking into the light). We spot a nightjar, Potoo, Kinkajou, many crocodiles and an owl that the SOB’s think was a Stygian Owl. We look at it very carefully, compare it with the picture and description in the bird book and all agree with that identification. I call Bert on the radio but he does not answer. We look at it some more before it flies away. I call Bert again and tell him. Soon his boat is behind ours, but we are well past the owl. Soon I spot more red eyes and again we have an owl in our light. Bert hears my call this time and comes back to us. He tells us we have a Mottled Owl with a Kinkajou chasing it. Van tells him that we are happy to share our finds with their boat. We sure are, since once we find them, we don’t know what they are. We arrive home at 9 PM, a long but unique day.
(Bert – Part 3) Our Lamanai trip each year always requires a much longer journal entry than other days; our sunrise to sunset and beyond birding experience is just so jammed with memorable experiences I have difficulty reining in my keystrokes. We leave the dock at 5:15 PM and move quickly toward the Mennonite settlement, the halfway point on the New River. Then both boats slow to trolling speed and we scan the skies for nighthawks and the riversides for late feeding kingfishers and herons. As darkness falls, Ron manipulates a bright light from the stern and I do the same from the bow, both of us scanning the trees and river for wildlife. Each year brings a different mixture of sightings and this one brings its own surprises. The other boat sees an owl and later gives me enough details to convince me they’ve seen a rare Stygian Owl, especially when Sue and Bob and Shari describe the centrally placed ear tufts. Our boatload spots a high count of seven Northern Potoos, as well as a Mottled Owl and two Yucatan Nightjars. The other boat finds less potoos and more nightjars. Pairs of eyes reflect just above the river surface in a dozen places, but only if yours are aligned with the spotlight. After ten seconds, the eyes slip below the surface as the crocodiles submerge. We shine on spider eyes and see glimpses of an unidentified opossum slinking below a potoo, but undoubtedly the most entertaining animal is a monkeylike arboreal mammal related to raccoons and coatis. We’ve caught the eyes of a Mottled Owl atop the canopy when we notice the furry mammal twisting through leaves and branches below. The owl takes flight when the animal approaches too closely and we continue to study the mammal, unable at first to see enough to identify it. Then it hangs by its prehensile tail and 3 ft. below we see a rounded monkey face feeding on the fruits in the mingling leaves. The Kinkajou certainly is an entertainer. On the remainder of the ride back to Orange Walk, our pilot guns the engine, lights out, and follows the silvery river of a full moon. As we swish through the winding river, the cool evening air, the purr of the engine in an otherwise silent night, the perfect circle of light sometimes at our left and sometimes at our right and most beautifully reflecting straight ahead is a fitting climax to a wonderful day.
(Bert) A day to write journals, enter bird sightings into the computer and catch up on some of my e-mail, I don’t escape from R-Tent-III until late afternoon. I join Shari in visiting the market and grocery store and then buy gasoline. I get a little less than 12 gallons of gas and hand the attendant a US$50 bill, receiving two dollars back in change. At US$4.08 per gallon, paying for gas is always a shock. Later, we enjoy ice cream compliments of Mel and cake compliments of Shari and celebrate Ron’s birthday.
(Bert) Three 225-hp Yamaha outboard motors push the torpedo-shaped boat across the smooth Caribbean, through Corozal Bay and directly toward the rising sun. I’m sitting at the stern, the engines purring behind me and a sack of green peppers, a crate of bananas and a bag marked “La Gitana Gypsy brand all purpose flour – milled in Belize” laying on the floor in front of me. Forty passengers spill over the 28 seats and into the aisle and cargo area. Many in our group will be spending the night at resorts on the island; Tom, Charlu, Shari and I are visiting for the day only. I scan the turquoise sea for wildlife, but only see a few Royal Terns and a cormorant. The only other boat is a tug pulling four barges. Otherwise it’s all empty water reaching to the northern coast of Belize. We stop briefly at Sarteneja, but with none getting on or off we pass up the dock. Rounding Rocky Point we turn southeast and now the sun hits me on my left face and I put up my hand to avoid sunburn. After two hours on the water, we turn into a lagoon of Ambergris Cay and dock at San Pedro. We rent a four-passenger golf cart with oversized tires and tour the island, first the resort end and then the more remote northern end, driving narrow dusty roads first and a rutted, bumpy trail second. If I were to remain overnight, I think I’d want to stay at the resort where Carl and Sandy are. It has a small but thickly wooded bird sanctuary with a lookout tower. Most of the island has been cleared of native vegetation so the prominent birds are grackles and White-winged Doves. But in this little woods we see many Black Catbirds and a small variety of other species. Then we do the tourist thing: shopping and eating lunch at a good restaurant. San Pedro ends at a river channel and we drive the golf cart up onto a ferry big enough for two carts and a few bicycles. A dark shirtless man strains on a rope to pull us across the narrow channel and then we lumber onto the other shore while he holds the raft steady. The ride northward at midday is stifling hot whenever we stop to look at birds or the seashore, but cooler when we are moving. Tom and I get a quick look at a Yellow-backed Oriole, but too short a view of an ani to tell whether it is Groove-billed or Smooth-billed. We find a pair of Ospreys attending a nest. Many newly completed condos are for sale, as is vacant land. This island is quickly changing to a tropical resort spot and, undoubtedly, will be less of a wildlife habitat.
(Shari) I have dreams of shopping, sitting on the beach with a pina colada, looking at model condominiums, and eating lunch at a quaint seaside resort as 16 of us board the ferry to Ambergris Cay, two hours by boat from Corozal. The 40-passenger ferry holds at least 45 to 50 people and I share a seat made for two with another woman and two children. It is a long boring ride across the sea, made longer by the fact we are low, inside and unable to see out the windows. None too soon for me, we arrive on the hot dusty shore of the small island. The entire group, except Charlu, Tom, Bert and me, decided to remain the night on the island. They go their separate directions, each in a different hotel to drop off their stuff before sightseeing. We four “day trippers” start to walk to the main section of town, looking for a golf cart to rent. After finding one, we engage it, hop on and start our tour of the island. The island is long and narrow. In one direction is housing and resorts. The town is in the middle and more housing, resorts and wilderness are on the other side. We drive the cart through the housing district first, then past three of the resorts our group is suppose to be occupying before stopping at one of them to reconnoiter for next year. This one has a people perch in a bird sanctuary. Bert, Tom and Charlu take off for it while I talk to the manager in the office. After I finish with business I find the three of them only about 20 ft. from where I left them. My dreams of pina coladas and shopping are beginning to fade. They found some bird or other that I am sure Bert will describe in detail. I climb the tower to get a view above the tree canopy of the preserve. I walk around the whole perimeter, down to the shore, around the little villas, and back to the cart. I find my three lagers still at the tower. I tell Bert that I am ready to move on and soon we are being cooled by the air as we speed down the road in the golf cart trying to miss potholes, slow for topes and avoid hundreds of other golf carts meandering the streets. Upon spying a market, I tell Bert to stop. Finally, a bit of shopping! The day is not lost yet. However, I find nothing calling my name and walk into one of the air conditioned shops to wait while Tom and Charlu finish purchasing two really nice wood carvings. It is now time for lunch and upon the recommendation of the man at the tourist bureau, we find a small restaurant off the beaten path. Bert and I share the special of grilled grouper along with a side of chicken quesadillas. Back on the golf cart, we ride out of town towards the wilderness. Crossing the river with a hand pulled two-cart ferry is a hoot. Seems it would be cheaper and easier just to build a small bridge. We bump and rattle around passing many places that have “open house”, “models” and “For Sale” signs that I guess only tempts me because our cart only stops for birds. Soon I am anxious that we may miss our return ferry if we do not start to backtrack. Luckily we are at the end of the road anyway. Retracing our path, again we only stop for birds and reach the ferry well before our 3 PM departure time. I hop out and do a little shopping before the boat ride back. It has been a nice day, but too short. I call it more of an overview of things to come. I am jealous of Judy and Ken who did not even take binoculars and the rest of the group who are staying overnight. Next time we will do this differently. Meanwhile I will dream of shopping, sitting on the beach with a pina colada, looking at model condominiums, and eating lunch at a quaint seaside resort.
(Shari) Today is a free day according to the schedule, but 12 of the group have stayed over night on Ambergris Cay. I feel like a mother who has just put her first-born child into kindergarten. All day I wonder if they are having a good time. I wonder what they are doing and of course I am jealous. I can hardly wait for them to return to hear about all the fun things they did. Meanwhile I keep busy with two loads of wash, cleaning the bathroom and defrosting the fridge. Even though we are on a vacation, that mundane stuff still has to get done. Sandy and Carl later tell me about the snorkel trip they had. Ken and Judy talk about the dinner they ate. Sue and Bob say how wonderful the beach was. Wow! I guess they did not miss me. Van says they toasted me so many times that they got drunk. Joan has invited us to her house for dinner. She wants to do something nice for the group because we have brought a lot of business their way. She serves us a tasty macaroni dish and Belizean cake for dessert. She also has coke, different varieties of rum and champagne. We sit outside in her front yard well into dark while Henry entertains us with stories of Belizean politics.
(Bert) Back on planes and boats, our fellow caravaners return from Ambergris Cay with stories of swimming on the beach, snorkeling on the reef, eating leisurely breakfasts with a view to the sea or just plain relaxing. Meanwhile, I’ve caught up on journals and bird checklists. Our group total now stands at 500 species, plus an additional 12 subspecies.
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