Chapter 9. Central Belize
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Shari) At 6:15 AM we all are ready to travel again. It has been a nice ten days but we have other places to see. We have never taken the RV’s deeper into Belize until this year. Today we are going to San Ignacio. We drove it last year in our cars and so anticipate no problems. Belizean roads are relatively good and not much traveled. We stop at the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center to bird and sightsee for a few hours before continuing to our campground. The campground is very nice and even has good electricity for the air conditioners. Thank goodness, since today may not be as hot as yesterday but it still is hot. Last I looked, I read 94° on the thermometer. We gather in front of Sue and Bob’s for margaritas and a discussion of the nest few days’ activities before Bert and I retire into R-Tent-III for a rare dinner home. I prepare fish that I bought last May. I think it is time to finish it, don’t you?
(Bert) As we experience this morning, the main highways of Belize are better than most Mexican roads, being wider, straighter, flatter and better paved. Taking our RV’s, we leave Corozal, drive the new bypass of Orange Walk and then the bypass of Belize City that was completed a couple of years ago. We pass cane fields being harvested and see dozens of loaded trucks, each holding 11 tons of sugar cane. Far fewer trucks are on the highways and parked at the sugar cane mill this year and we’ve been told that the crop is less profitable and farmers are considering other crops. Beyond the cane fields are fallow grasslands mixed with pine trees. The savannah continues along the Western Highway and we stop midway at the Belize Zoo which most of the group visits. Five of us bird at the nearby Tropical Education Center. At these two spots the lowland pine forest is denser and more protected. The Center has a small pond, mostly evaporated this year, and we find a Solitary Sandpiper and Gray-necked Wood-Rail and study a Louisiana Waterthrush through the scope. About 100 yds. away, we notice another birder with her binoculars carefully examining a tree beside her. When she opens her field guide, Bob points his scope on the page and sees that she is considering the parrot drawings. Then aligning with the tree Bob finds the parrot she is watching. This is one we haven’t seen on the trip so far: a Yellow-lored Parrot and an endemic to the Yucatán peninsula. The heat of late morning starts to beat on us and we seek the tree cover of a trail, but see few birds. I stop for a good view of a rusty brown bird that looks like a Blue Bunting, but larger and with a thick bill. I’ve usually seen the male, so at first I don’t recognize the female Blue-black Grosbeak. Back at the lodges, Ron notices a snake climbing a small banana tree. I move forward to photograph the pencil-thin 3-ft. yellowish Parrot Snake with a bright green head, a black eye line through the beady yellow eye - a very attractive reptile. After lunch we complete our journey to San Ignacio in Western Belize, a few miles from the Guatemala border.
(Bert) Today is a symphony with a slow beginning, a dramatic climax and a surprising encore. The mountains of Belize are much lower than those we visited in Mexico a month ago. Yet the change in elevation is enough to put us into pine forests once we reach 1300 ft. elevation. The gravel road up is arduous, much too difficult to take our RV’s, so we’ll be spending the night at a mountain resort. After an hour’s drive, we level off at about 2000 ft. but now can hardly see a hundred feet ahead of us as we move through the bottom of the clouds. We stop briefly and find several Rusty Sparrows, new to our list. When we reach 1000 Foot Falls all I can do is describe from memory the scene in front of us, for all we see is a wall of white. The caretaker says it will clear, but who knows when, so we double back a few miles and arrive early at the resort. Rick is our guide for the afternoon and our first good sighting is a kite flying high above us. He quickly identifies it as Plumbeous Kite and I ask him how he identified such a distant bird. As I suspected, it is the awkward floppy flight - seemingly the actions of a bird having difficulty flying - that keyed him in to its identity. We see a couple more of these kites, the others perched, including one at a nest. Now that the clouds have risen, we head back to 1000 Foot Falls and can see the broad tree-filled canyon and the plunging waterfall. After several minutes search, we locate the pair of Orange-breasted Falcons that claim this canyon as theirs. They are perched on the other side, invisible to the naked eye, identifiable as raptors with binoculars, and color-marked to Orange-breasted through a spotting scope set at 60X. We head to another canyon and its falls, aptly named King Vulture Falls. And, in fact, when we arrive we quickly spot a few King Vultures on the opposite canyon wall. An adult and a juvenile in the scope are clear enough so that I can see the odd-shaped yellow orange head as the adult preens. Eagle-eye Judy S. spots another raptor below us on our side of the canyon. Through binoculars, its gray-black color makes us suspect we’re seeing another Plumbeous Kite but we can’t be sure until we align a scope on it. When I see the large bill with an extensive bright yellow cere, I suspect we have something much rarer. I retrieve my more powerful scope from the car and align on the perched bird. Now I’m more certain of the ID, but we reference the field guide drawings to confirm all the clues. The bill size and color, the thin yellow eye orbital, the tail length and the overall size and color all match Solitary Eagle. Curiously, through one scope we see the front of the bird and another we see the back and we immediately recognize we are focusing on two separate birds. Suddenly one takes flight, moves to the second and copulates. Now we have two birds in view through the scope. We watch the eagles for more than a half hour. We’ve never had a confirmed sighting of a Solitary Eagle on any of our Mexico and Belize trips and, in fact, both Howell in his book and Jones in his label the eagle as rare. Darkness sets in and we return to the inn, bubbling with excitement over our good fortune. But the concert is not over yet. In the midst of our before-dinner gathering, Craig suddenly bursts into the room exclaiming, “Stygian Owl.” We race out to the front lawn to see him spotlighting the owl atop a pine tree. I retrieve my spotting scope and my high intensity beam and now both scopes offer excellent views of this elusive owl with its peculiar centrally located ear tufts. Everyone gets a good look before the owl takes flight and we see it winging across the top of the pine forest. What an encore to a marvelous day!
(Shari) Following two hours after the birders, we leave at 8 AM. Having another vacation within a vacation, we are traveling in an area I have never visited. Much different than the flat coastal areas or the jungle, the Mountain Pine Ridge actually has pine forests. Unfortunately in recent years a beetle has decimated the pine and many of the trees are tall sticks. The day is misty and as we climb we reach the clouds and all we see is fog. At least it is cool. Reaching the resort we are overwhelmed with its beauty. Who would think such a wonderful place would be hidden two hours from the nearest city on a bumpy road? Landscaped to perfection, windows surrounding the main reception area, beautiful swimming pool and hot tub are just some of the features of the resort. Craig, the manager, gives us an introduction. He and his wife Lisa specialize in running resorts that are not doing well, and turning them into profitable enterprises. They have accomplished their two-year goals and just signed on for another two years. He tells us the resort owns 7200 acres and has 90 mi. of trails for our enjoyment. Only allowing 24 people at one time on the property gives the impression that it all belongs to us. He gives us suggestions on different areas to visit while we are here and we all go off in separate directions. After a scenic detour, my carload with Mel, Beth, Ken and Karen come back for lunch. Served in a glassed dining room and seated at long mahogany tables, we overlook the swimming pool and garden. After lunch I join the birders and we travel to 1000 Foot Falls. I am awe struck by the beauty of the place. Looking out over a deep canyon on two sides, the falls cascade down a 1000-ft. escarpment into the jungle below. Here we see the famous Orange-breasted Falcon. Not quite getting my fill of the place, we depart to King Vulture Falls where we again see a beautiful falls, a King Vulture and a rare glimpse of two mating Solitary Eagles. It is time to return to the lodge for dinner, but listening to the excited chatter of the birders, I get the impression this was a very successful afternoon. Some soak in the hot tub before a dinner served by candlelight and then retire to a fire glowing in the fireplaces in the individual cottages. Now, a person could get used to this.
(Bert) Not agreeing on a departure time, our various vehicles leave the inn at times ranging from 5:30 to 10 AM. We drive through the remains of a pine forest mostly denuded by a pine beetle infestation. The land is rough and red, the contours are rolling and dipping low to a half dozen narrow streams of clear rushing water. Our two vehicles stop only a couple of times, once to watch two Plumbeous Kites bathed in early morning light and seeing the male take flight, revealing his pretty rust wing linings and flying to his mate and copulating. Spring must be in the air! We stop also for an Ocellated Turkey and a Red-tailed Hawk, the latter a non-migrating oddity to this locale. We meet the early risers at the parking lot for Caracol and begin hiking through the jungle towards the Mayan ruins. We see so many birds, we barely walk a quarter mile in two hours. The ones that give us pause are Dot-winged Antwren, Golden-crowned Warbler, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Stripe-throated Hermit and Purple-crowned Fairy. We also watch a Deppe’s Squirrel, a small dark animal, nimbly feeding in the tree branches. While viewing the ruins, the group separates and when we coalesce at where we departed from the trail, we see Ken intently motioning us to his spot in the woods. He has seen a hawk drop its prey on the path and the bird is now perched 20 ft. up in an adjacent tree, watching the silent rodent. As we gather, the bird looks alternately at its dinner and us and we get a remarkably good view of what I’ve now identified as an Ornate Hawk-Eagle. My scope view of the hawk-eagle is so close that its colorful head and raised crest fill the field-of-view. The raptor takes flight and the rodent scurries away, screeching loudly in its escape. The hawk-eagle rests on the branch of another tree, somewhat more distant but still in good view. Again I align the scope and take more photos. Suddenly the hawk-eagle springs from its perch and makes a quick swipe at a squirrel, missing it and landing in another tree. I line up with the bird yet again and take more photos. Finally we move on, but the hawk-eagle remains. Meeting for lunch, we hear stories of what others have seen, most notably Judy R.’s discovery of Keel-billed Motmots and Cindy’s great find of a Tody Motmot. In our own way, each of us savors our particular experience at Caracol today.
(Shari) Jeez, I am awake at 6 AM! I just cannot sleep late any more. I read awhile in bed. Bert is long gone I think or maybe he awoke me when he left. At 7 I walk to the reception area and pour myself a cup of the ever-present coffee, grown and roasted at the lodge. I sit with Bill for a while watching the birds at the feeder through the slight drizzle of rain. Soon Karen and Van walk over and I join them for breakfast. After Mel and Beth eat we depart our little paradise in the mountains and start the long painful drive down the mountain to our campground. I arrive in time to make a cake for Ken and Judy’s 48th anniversary. We celebrate it under the palapa at the RV Park at 5 PM and discuss the details of our next few days. Although we’ve visited all these places, we have not timed the drive to Dangriga from San Ignacio and do not have a good feel for where to eat lunch or have a break, when to leave, etc. Plus I want to have the snorkel trip on the day of best weather so we have to be flexible on when the birders are to go to the Jaguar Preserve. Also this year we have a large number of SOB’s that like to depart later than the 6 AM birder time. Sometimes I think I need a flow chart to get everyone coordinated to the right place at the right time. This always takes longer than Bert thinks it should, but has to be done. Task completed, I call my dad for his 90th birthday. I have been having trouble getting a connection via the satellite phone here in Belize and I am thankful tonight it decides to work. We have a nice long chat and he tells me he had a cake, people sang and they made his favorite meal, lasagna. I wish I could have been with him this special year. Not too many people get to see 90 years of life.
(Bert) Voted by our previous groups as one of the top birding spots on our trips, we arrive at Blue Hole National Park and meet our guide Israel in the parking lot. The birding is so good we don’t leave the lot for over an hour. Israel’s remarkable ability to recognize immediately the calls and songs of every species in the park is uncanny. In particular, we hear and see Short-billed Pigeon, Long-billed Hermit, Piratic Flycatcher and Blue-black Grosbeaks. Karen spots a small black bird high in a tree and I puzzle over the more-than-normal amount of white spots in his wing and its high perch, but Israel tells us this is a Variable Seedeater and he regularly sees it at his location. We have so many good sightings today, I find it hard to choose which ones to write about in this journal. Down the path aptly named Dusky Antbird Trail we walk in a humid tunnel through dense brush, short trees and long vines. Even at 9 AM, the temperature and humidity is so high, my glasses steam up and sweat pours down my forehead. We are lured by the call of a Little Tinamou that deceptively seems close enough to see, but is not. However, we also hear the Dusky Antbirds and soon get a good view of this dark lurker, one of several through the morning. In between bird sightings, Kyle, a young journalism student from the U.S., interviews us about our impression of Israel and our experiences on this birding RV caravan. He hopes to form his notes into two stories for publication. On another trail, but at an open spot, I find a White-necked Jacobin, a large and attractive green and white hummingbird. Near the cave, Cindy and I are enthralled by the strange calling birds around us, but are stymied in getting good looks at the hiding birds. Standing side by side, I see a Northern Bentbill but she misses it; she sees a Tawny-crowned Greenlet but I don’t. Independently, we both watch and hear a wing-snapping White-collared Manakin near a hidden lek. On the hike back, Israel gets my immediate attention when he hears a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher. After an immeasurably long time of peering into the dense shrubbery, intermittently wiping the sweat from my brow, I get several clear views of the enticing bird and am well satisfied. Noon arrives; the heat and hunger encourage us to leave. But Cindy and Bob stay a bit longer, resting at the picnic table near St. Herman’s Cave. Cindy recalls that I said the only place we have ever heard a Nightingale Wren was near this spot. So she takes out her sound system and plays the enchanting song. When she turns off the recording, the song continues in the mountainside beside her. Wow!
(Shari) “Oh! Ah! How beautiful!” We all think the same thing about the blue butterflies at the butterfly farm. As big as my hand, iridescent blue on one side and brownish gray on the other, they flutter silently in front of our eyes. On our tour this morning, Mel, Beth, Bob, Sue and I learn that hundreds of butterflies are raised here at this well-manicured compound. Our guide tells us over 1500 eggs are laid every day by all the female blue morph butterflies. We watch the butterflies emerge from the pupa, eat pineapple, sit on our sleeves and hats, and lay eggs on leaves. Peering into different plastic ice cream buckets, we see the separate cycles of the egg after it hatches. The small caterpillar eats, grows and changes colors before it again spins a thread attaching itself to a napkin and forming a pupa. Taking about three months from egg to butterfly, only three weeks remain of its life to manufacture, fertilize and lay eggs. It is just fascinating. After our tour we eat at the restaurant under the cool shade and fans of their palapa.
(Bert) Not far from Blue Hole is another national park – Five Blues – that is infrequently visited. In fact, no warden resides and, except for a sign and a grassy parking spot next to a roofed picnic area, the national park is not noticeable. The entrance road is long and rough, threading through orange groves and briefly touching a swallow river. We spend several hours this morning birding along the dirt road because the orchard and grassy surroundings are teeming with seedeaters and other birds. Although we’ve seen these all before, now we get opportunity to study more closely White-collared Seedeaters, Blue-black Grassquits, Yellow-faced Grassquits and Variable Seedeaters, all of which are similar sparrow-like birds. In one field we hear many birds calling and puzzle over their identities, especially over a call that sounds very much like the Black-headed Trogons we heard yesterday. We play the recordings of the trogon and the Barred Antshrike, trying to match one to what we are hearing at three locations in the field. Finally, one of the callers gets nearer to the road and I see a male Barred Antshrike as it calls, ending the mystery. We eventually finish our leisurely drive and arrive at the edge of the jungle and take a narrow road almost overtaken by the encroaching forest. We hear a pretty song familiar from yesterday and Cindy identifies it and plays it back from her recording. I imitate the song and this encourages the Blue-black Grosbeak to come closer. If ever a bird was aptly named, this one is. Black in the shadows, reflecting blue in bright light, the bird has a grossly thick bill. And what a sweet songster! We still move slowly as the birds are all around us. Usually hiding in the shadows, this time we see a Violaceous Trogon perched in morning sunlight, turning on its colors like an electric rainbow. Most of us hike toward one of the lakes – hence the name Five Blues – but Cindy holds back when she hears a wing-snapping White-collared Manakin. The lake is clear and refreshingly tempting for a swim, but we resist, and instead hike part way around one side until we reach a short pier and a diving platform protruding from the jungle. The only bird at the lake is a Great Egret, but the scenery alone is worth the hike. When we return to Cindy, she tells us she has identified two leks and I photograph one that is close enough to the path. A 2 ft. diameter circle cleared of leaf litter and twigs becomes a barren piece of ground and the performing ring for the manakin’s mating ritual of snapping its wings and making other comical noises. Late for our rendezvous with the non-birders, we retreat to the cars and try to hurry out of the park, but the rough road restricts our speed. We arrive a half hour late at Marie Sharp’s and the group has already completed their tour of the factory used for making hot pepper sauces and tropical fruit jams. They continue on to the seaside resort where we will be spending the next few nights and we get a quick tour ourselves before we join them again for the evening.
(Shari) Since last year, Marie Sharp has doubled the workers to her small operation. She started making hot sauce in 1981 and now sells worldwide and just landed a Wal-Mart contract. She hired an automation expert that intends to make her labor intensive operation more mechanized in only six months. Next year they may not even allow us to tour the factory. Already things have changed and we no longer are able to visit the mixing room where habanera peppers are chopped, blended and cooked. We do see the mixture cooking, however, and big blue vats covered with net are cooling. A small group of women are operating a gravity run bottle fill, cleaning, labeling and packing the hot sauce. The warehouse is jam packed with cooling vats, packed boxes and the bottling operation. Other years the floor was clean and the cooking and cooling was done in another room. There is talk of adding onto the building and I can see why. It always amazes me that such a small operation, reminding me of a bunch of women in a church basement making Christmas treats, can sell so much product. Of course, we sample all the goodies and must make Ms. Sharp pleased with our purchases. We arrive at the resort at 2:30 and settle into our rooms. Bert and I then go to arrange for our snorkeling trip tomorrow and tell Roamy at the café that we are in town. She informs us that she is closed tomorrow and after I express my disappointment, she decides to open the restaurant just for us and hopefully she will make one of her famous delicious pies. Needing a place to park RV’s here next year, Bert and I then reconnoiter the town. We find a few possibilities, make some contacts and get permission for our first choice. We arrive back in time for an impromptu Happy Hour. No one is on the resort’s veranda, but I see Mel and Beth sitting out on their deck. I invite myself up and soon ten of us are squeezed in the small space. Tonight we have dinner at the resort. Sitting at one long table, we chatter away happily, each of us ordering off the menu or having the day’s special.
(Bert) Since our visit last year to Belize, another national park has opened and it is only a short drive from where we are staying in Dangriga. At the entrance road we see Bob on the highway with his scope pointing to the roadside and Cindy telling us they’ve found a Striped Cuckoo. We hurry to the scope and get a quick look at the strange head of the cuckoo before it takes flight. Bob and Cindy tell us they got better looks and also heard the elusive cuckoo, labeled “fairly common” in the field guides, but one we’ve hardly ever seen and a first for me. What a great way to start the morning birding! The national park protects unexcavated Mayan ruins and coincidentally offers high jungle habitat that keeps us busy a couple of hours standing in the ruins’ central plaza. We’ve seen so many birds already on this trip that now we are mostly getting better views or filling in the gaps for those birders that have missed a few earlier. Nonetheless, it’s hard to resist getting thrilled each morning over another Keel-billed Toucan in morning sun, gleaming bright reds, yellows and greens from its oversized bill or a Violaceous Trogon that calls from a low branch and poses undisturbed for photos. On the hiking trail it’s not birds-as-usual. We find a hotspot in a small opening between the trees and watch the birds on parade. By incredible good fortune we see our first Shining Honeycreeper, followed by several Red-legged Honeycreepers and then a Green Honeycreeper, another first of the trip. The Shining is a lifer for me since its range is farther south than I’ve traveled, but where we stand is marked with an asterisk in Howell’s range maps, an isolated area north. A Yellow-bellied Flycatcher poses nearby, allowing multiple photographs. On the way out of the trail we again cross the little stream and Ron tells us he has seen a Prothonotary Warbler. Although I’ve watched them often in the states, I’ve not seen this species in Mexico or Belize, so I sit on a picnic table and wait for its return. In only a few minutes the bright yellow bird appears, feeding at the shrubs overhanging the stream.
(Shari) After a leisurely morning, we get ready for our snorkeling trip. Two of four years Norlan has canceled the trip because of wind and choppy seas. Today looks like a go even though dark clouds move across the sea and towards us. He tells me it is only a small rain cloud and it will pass, but we may get wet before we want to get wet. The boat speeds on over the water and we only find a few sprinkles before the sky clears with beautiful sunshine. During a short stop at the dock where Charlu rents snorkel gear from a resort, Judy S. tries out her equipment. She has not snorkeled in many years and after a few tips from others and me she gets the hang of it quickly. Norlan drops us off on the reef and tells us to swim with a buddy. This is the first year Bert swims with me, but he gets frustrated because I am always going in the wrong direction and away from the schools of fish. Either, I am stopping to take a picture with a disposable underwater camera, looking at a fish or trying to swim where he wants me to go. The waves have other ideas and without my fins I am not strong enough to compensate. I swim over to where Judy and Norlan are looking and find that Judy is doing a better job than me. After about 60 min. we are tired and swim back. Judy beats me by a long shot and at times I wonder if I am going to make it. Norlan keeps encouraging me and telling me that I am almost there. I am delighted when my hand touches the steps on the boat and I can pull myself up. The boat then takes us to the frigatebird colony. Every year I cannot help but laugh at all those birds doing their mating ritual. We know immediately what island is theirs when we see the black cloud of birds hovering around it. As we approach we can see the individual birds either sitting in a tree trying to attract a female with their puffed up red neck, flying around, making clicking sounds or fighting over a stick. It is just too funny. The ride back is a little choppy and we are glad to reach land. After a quick shower we drive to the café for our dinner. I order the pork chops, as I do every year, and they do not disappoint me.
(Bert) Our afternoon itinerary is quite a change of venue, a jump from tropical jungles to tropical islands. Norlan’s fast boat takes us from Dangriga to South Caye on the Barrier Reef in about 45 min. The calm Inner Channel ripples smoothly below us, without bounce. After a brief stop on the island, Norlan drives to open water and we can see clearly through the 4-12 ft. of sea above the coral reef. He points out a Spotted Eagle Ray that looks like it is at least 6 ft. across, although it might be magnified by the water medium. Shaped like a dark Stealth bomber, the animal wings smoothly and swiftly beneath the surface. Norlan anchors the boat and we pile out into the warm water with our snorkels, masks and fins. The underwater world is as trilling as always, replete with a dozen varieties of colorful fish, ornate sea fans waving in the current, coral mounding on coarse white sand. Shari bought a throw-away underwater camera and takes several pictures, but then hands it to me as she can’t get close enough to the fish. I use my fins – she doesn’t use any – and dive lower to try photographing. Until the film is developed, we’ll have to wait to see what I’ve captured. After plenty of exercise, we are back in the boat and headed to Man O’ War Cay, a small island famous for its nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds. A perpetual motion machine, the air churns with black wings and black tails and the white throats below pointed heads and long hooked bills of females and the red balloon air sack throats of the males. Hundreds more rest on every branch of the island trees. We hear them, smell them and of course see them. This time many more Brown Boobies roost with the frigatebirds and I count 62. Someone asks me how many frigatebirds I think are on the island and I say it looks like a thousand, but birders tend to overestimate flock sizes of large birds and underestimate those of small birds. So I guess there are 600 frigatebirds. No sooner than I’ve made the statement, Tom, who has been strangely silent for the past few minutes, announces he has counted 620. The northeast winds have picked up now at dusk and our ride back is bumpy, especially for me at the bow of the boat. In fact, I sometimes grab the rope tied to the bow and squat on the deck riding like a horseless cowboy when I see a particularly white-capped swell ahead of me. It saves me from a spine shattering bounce. Fortunately, those behind me at the stern have a smoother ride.
(Bert) The all-time favorite birding site of each of our birding caravans, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is ours today. Also known as the Jaguar Preserve from Alan Rabinowitz’s book Jaguar and his research on the giant cat, this is about as dense and tall a jungle as any we visit on our trips. The checklist I’ve prepared and supplement each year lists 241 species for the late February early March timeframe of our annual visits. If we spent a week instead of a day in the sanctuary I think we could see almost all on my list. This year’s total, supplemented by those Cindy sees alone tomorrow, comes to 102 species. Not usually early risers, Bob S. and Sue join us this morning for birding. We should have had them along earlier in the trip, as they are good spotters. Bob finds a Crested Guan in a tree and Sue is the first to notice a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, a species that turns out to be particularly common here this year as I see eight today alone. Along the trail I hear several Blue Ground-Doves, but cannot see any. Bob stops on a short bridge and says, “There’s a dove in that far tree.” Sure enough, he has located one of the blue hooters and I’m able to align my spotting scope on the rotund blue gray dove. My biggest surprise of the morning’s hike is a vireo I see above the trail. Although I had not expected one, I’m quite certain that it’s a Yellow-green Vireo. We match the field marks to the book and confirm the ID. This is either a rare wintering bird or an early migrant since it is not expected here until the end of the March. At an intersection of two trails we hear several Rufous-breasted Spinetails and Barred Antshrikes. The spinetails are particularly difficult to lure out of the twisted underbrush that is so dense we can see only a couple of feet into the mass. I set my iPod to one species and Cindy sets hers to the other. The mixed duet orchestrates a chorus of songsters and soon we have a spinetail moving swiftly above us, around us and then right in front of our eyes, giving us a momentary rare close-up view of this ratty tailed, chestnut bodied, gray headed furnarid. Most of the group leaves after lunch, but diehards Cindy, Bob, Tom, Charlu and I stay through the hot humid afternoon. Our pace slows as we take a shaded trail through dense jungle, following a thin stream. Mostly we sit on three-legged stools, hearing many birds twittering around us and occasionally seeing one pass us by. Although slower paced, we see a number of good birds, including Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and a pair of Green Honeycreepers. I hear six individuals of Thrush-like Schiffornis, my favorite jungle singer. Another songster eludes me for more than an hour. I hear the song often and can even whistle an imitation, but I cannot place which species is the performer. Then a small bird flies to a perch fifteen feet above me in the trail. The short tail and the muddy yellowish tennis-ball shaped bird mark it as an immature manakin, but the fuzzy spot of pinkish red feathers surrounding the eye is confusing. Then the bird sings the song I’ve been hearing for the past hour. We check our field guides. Lacking a drawing of immature manakins, by elimination we deduce this must be a Red-capped Manakin and are surprised that an immature bird would be singing a territorial song. We play a recording and it matches the manakin, so we know we’ve got the right bird. After exiting the trail and walking back to the open area near the museum, Tom and I are watching a waterthrush when I see a much better find. Strutting casually across the lawn is a Gray-chested Dove, a bird I’ve found much easier to hear than actually see. This one is complacent enough for me to take many photos, a pleasing end to a wonderful day of birding the jungles of Belize.
(Shari) The SOB’s are to leave at 9 AM but no one is around. Darn! If I would have known this, I could have left at 10, but now I think Bert will worry if I do not show up on time. In the U.S. we are so used to being able to call 911 or an emergency roadside service with our ever-present cell phones that I probably am over concerned about driving alone. If I am going to have a flat tire or road troubles, I hope it is the road into the park where lots of people travel. My fears are compounded with the fact that Bert did not leave me directions and I do not know how far down the road Cockscomb Basin is located. Nothing bad happens, I find the place and arrive on time. I look at the gift shop and chat with the birders who come in early. At 11 I start to get lunch ready. I take out the plates and flatware and put on the tablecloths. I find the cookies, rolls butter, and two big bins of macaroni salad. But where is the chicken and a knife to cut the watermelon? I look in the car and in the ice chest at least four times, each time hoping I may have missed something. I even asked when loading the car, if I had it all and they assured me I did. Where or where is the chicken? There is nothing to do now but to eat what we have. The only complaint I hear is my own. This group is just so nice. As soon as I get back, the hotel hears about their mistake. To my surprise, it was not a mistake. They say they gave us fish salad. Well maybe four of us had one tiny piece of meat in our salad, but it wasn’t fish. It was chicken. I told them (I say “them” because I had to repeat my story to at least three different people) that the lunch was unacceptable and not up to par of other years. It certainly was not worth the money we paid and I wanted a refund. About an hour later, Pauline comes to my room and apologizes. She says that is one of their standard lunches but is sorry we did not like it. She offers to give us chicken tonight or tomorrow. I tell her we do not want chicken tonight or tomorrow because we have other plans. So she does the right thing and gives us a refund. The group will be happy and I can now use the money to buy a chicken dinner for all in Chetumal. After Happy Hour on the veranda, Charlu, Tom, Bert and I go to the café for dinner. Groups are so different. Other years most liked the café for the third night. This year most like the resort. Go figure!
(Bert) “We call that shit,” said Pablo after carefully hesitating for the proper English word. We each have a momentary flash of surprise at his choice of words and then quickly recognize Pablo is completely serious and has no recognition that “scat” would have been a more appropriate selection. Nonetheless, the rest of his explanation certainly has our attention. Charlu had asked her favorite question, “What is that?” This time she is referring to the large fresh twist of animal droppings that lies in the middle of the path we are hiking. Our guide Pablo tells us that it comes from a jaguar who passed this way earlier in the morning and that the long hairs visible in the scat probably come from a Gibnut, an animal I’ve heard Mayans refer to before, but until I read Rabinowitz’s book did not know as Paca. Four of us – Charlu, Tom, Sandy and me – are hiking in what has been proposed as a new national park near Red Bank. Our main target is Scarlet Macaws, which we have the good fortune of seeing shortly after arrival at the traditional native village at the foot of the Maya Mountains. The thatch roofed plank houses cluster before a gentle slope solidly forested to the high horizon. Pablo, a local villager and guide, first hears a macaw and then points in its direction. Near the crest we can see the macaw feeding in the crowns of the pink-flowered Matepa trees. Next a flock of four Scarlet Macaws wings gently above the canopy, heading west. A bit later four fly east, perhaps the same flock, and still later another flock of five fly at a different location. Each occurrence catches our breath and brings out exclamations: “Incredible!”, “Wow!”, “Amazing!”, and “Oh, how beautiful!” It’s hard to capture into words the awesome sight of a 3-foot stream of red, yellow and blue feathers flagging across the green backdrop of a remote jungle. From the village we drive a narrow path for a few miles and stop to begin our hike. The trail cuts through a jungle being cleared for agriculture. While our eyes scan the forested foothills for macaws, our ears hear the repeated “chuk – chuk – chuk” of an axe chipping through soft wood and then the slow woosh and cracking clicks of yet another giant tree pushing aside leaves and snapping branches as it falls to the forest floor. The juxtaposition of preserving a forest for the protection of native wildlife and historic pre-Mayan artifacts against the human needs of feeding a subsistence farming village with a growing population is separated by no more than ten feet. I photograph a proud native as he stands erect, balancing one hand on a machete that reaches nearly to his waist and a foot resting on the two logs he has hacked from the tree. One hundred families live in Red Bank and three hundred children attend their school, which soon needs to be increased. Their main crop is corn, most of which is consumed for food and a bit is sold outside the community, probably their main source of income. The hacking of the past few weeks has leveled the forest to the muddy edges of the Swasey River and the soft hilly soil is soon to become a much-eroded riverbank removed of stabilizing roots. While this continues, we scan the hillsides watching a White Hawk soar a mile away – a white flag with black tips swinging across a solid green background. Eventually we hear another macaw and then see two more fly across the foothills, over the cornfield, across the river and into the forest on the other side. Pablo has witnessed the macaws almost daily all his life and says that one time – from this very spot – he saw nearly 200 pass overhead. Undoubtedly, this is by far the largest concentration in Mexico and Belize, a species which Howell labels “endangered due to relentless capture for the pet trade” and says is “likely to be found only in remote areas, in pairs or singly.” Red Bank has more to offer besides Scarlet Macaws. Along the Swasey River we find an Amazon Kingfisher, a species that has eluded us this year. And we hear many doves – Ruddy, Blue, Short-billed, Rock, Gray-chested, Red-billed - including a new one to our list: Ruddy Quail-Dove, identified by low ‘wooo’ similar but slightly different from that of Gray-fronted Dove. When we hike another path we pass through a low area and a patch of mud where Pablo points to a few tracks left by a Tapir. The imprints look as big as a cow’s. At the end of the trail we overlook the river and a huge boulder with water rushing around both sides. Carved into the rock is the sculpture of a human face. No one knows its origin, but it certainly is ancient and is one of the main reasons this area is proposed for the protective status of national park. On the hike I stop once more, this time to look at an unusually shaped large flower growing from a vine hanging about 15 ft. above the ground. With some skepticism we hear Pablo’s identification of the flower as a Pitcher Plant, a carnivorous insect-eating plant. I’ve always associated pitcher plants with low lying marsh plants, but Pablo opens a book to show us a black-and-white drawing similar to our observation. Then he collects another flower and opens up the basal tube, releasing a trapped fly. Charlu is in high heaven over this unusual discovery and we have an entertaining Happy Hour many hours later back in San Ignacio when we imagine how Jay Leno or Monty Python would describe this strangely shaped flower.
(Shari) Everyone finds their way home today while Bert takes a group to search for the Scarlet Macaw. He gets up at 4:15 for a 5 AM departure. I am afraid to go back to sleep for fear I may miss Bob and Cindy who are to pick me up at 6. After dropping Cindy off at Cockscomb for some last few hours of birding, Bob and I drive the 85 mi. to Punta Gorda. We want to scout the area for next year’s trip. The road is excellent most of the way. About 15 miles before the town, Bob and I echo, “Oh, oh!” Ahead is a narrow bridge made of wooden blanks, with a gravel dirt road beyond. We wonder if RV’s will be able to cross that bridge. We tell ourselves the orange-laden trucks do it, as do the buses. Part of the road is narrow and would be difficult if we met another wide vehicle, but we think doable. We take note of the possible RV sites to scout on our way back. Heading to the hotel with which Bob has contacts, we talk with the owner. She gives us some possibilities and we look at those sites. We find a couple on our own, get names and contacts and pretty much decide on a spot. Getting permission for two of three places we are satisfied with our trip. PG, as people in the know call the town, is a quaint seaside town. It is so different from Corozal and Dangriga that you wonder if it is in the same country. Clean, relaxed and pleasant to look at, it strikes me as a great place for a week’s stay. I am excited about the snorkeling and fishing opportunities and Bob is excited about the birding opportunities. And he says he is not a birder! I am not going to believe that line again. We look for a toucanet to taunt Cindy and Bert, but have no luck. We do see a Crested Guan cross the road, which is a funny sight to me probably since its shape is unlike birds that cross the road at home. I am starved since all I had since 4:30 this morning is a granola bar. We really do not have time to stop to eat since we promised Cindy we would pick her up at 12:45. I buy some Cheetos and Bob offers me his cheese crackers. When we arrive in Maya Center we stop at a restaurant. They say they are closed but make us some tortillas and chicken anyway. Cindy says she had good birding, but then she is like Bert, most birding is good. When we see Bert, I tell him PG is a no go because the road is impassable, it is too hilly and we did not find anything suitable. His whole body sags in depression. He so wanted to take the RV’s down there that I cannot keep up the hoax for long and tell him the truth. We arrive back to camp and find many people have already dumped their RV waste tanks. I was worried about that one and thought I might have to work up a schedule to share the single dump. I will say it again; this group is so good. After another impromptu Happy Hour, Carl, Sandy, Bert and I go out for some pretty good pizza.
(Bert) As countries go, Belize is among the smallest. Today we drive across the width of the country and half its length. San Ignacio is at the western edge of Belize – a few miles from Guatemala - and midway between the north and south borders with Mexico and coastal Guatemala. On our return to Mexico today, we drive diagonally (northeast) across the country toward Belize City and then north to the border, a total distance of 148 mi. Getting out of the country is much easier than coming in and we check out at each of four stops, pay US$18.75 each in exit fees, completing the process in about a half hour. Reentering Mexico is simple and fast, but we are surprised this year that agricultural inspectors board many of the vehicles and take an assortment of fruits and vegetables with little pattern to their selection. They remove limes from one RV, but ignore them in another. And they pass us by completely without any questions or agricultural check. A few miles farther takes us to our campsite, again on the Caribbean waterfront at Chetumal, a spot where we will relax for a day before continuing northward.
(Shari) Crossing back into Mexico is relatively painless. In fact, someone asks if we are missing something because it was going so smoothly. First we have to get ourselves out of Belize, then pay the departure tax, then get our vehicles out. As we drive across the border into no man’s land, a guard checks us to see if our passport has been stamped. Then we have to enter Mexico. This time no papers are checked at all, but most rigs get stopped for a fruit and vegetable confiscation. Someone has limes taken and someone else does not. I wonder if the guards take what they need for supper. We have never been searched at this border before. Because there is no place to park a whole caravan at each step, Bob B. goes on ahead, while Bert and I wait close to the border to see if anyone has trouble crossing. The last procedure is getting sprayed for reentry. This happens 3 km from the border in front of a little shack. If I did not know to stop, I would pass it right by. But then who would ever know anyway? After all get over the border, we catch up to the group and get our RV sprayed also. Some get gas, others go shopping and we get into the campground about in the middle of the pack. As I sit here writing this journal, I am reminded of the last time I was here and the medical attention we needed. We have had more minor medical needs on this trip than any other trip. We have had to seek advice or treatment in San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, and Chetumal in Mexico and Corozal and San Ignacio in Belize. We have had lip sores, two urinary track infections, an ear infection and now a tongue infection. In each case we have gotten excellent treatment and all the patients were diagnosed correctly, treated with care and concern and quickly got better. In spite of my attempt at humor the last time I wrote about my experience here in Chetumal, I do not hesitate to use the clinic again today for someone’s care. Again the patient says she was treated with concern, respect, and competence; however, the receptionist had to translate because the doctor knew little English. After I do a little shopping in the most wonderful superstore of the whole trip, I settle down at the palapa for some margaritas. The breeze blows gently off the sea and we do not retire until after dark. The phone works here in Mexico and my dad and I have a nice long conversation without having to say “over” each time we are done speaking in order to compensate for the satellite’s delay in transmission. Bert and I try to get some fish at a local restaurant, but all the ones in walking distance are closed for the night. So it is Spam salad sandwiches and a lettuce salad for us tonight.
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