Chapter 10.  Coastal Belize

Day 41 – February 24 – Dangriga, Stann Creek District

(Bert) Orchard Orioles and Aztec Parakeets adorn the pink cassia trees at the entrance gate. Walking along the orchard road, we see lots of birds, but are relieved to get out of the hot sun and into the cool shade of the tall trees bordering Barton Creek. A Collared Trogon calls nearby: a double, sometimes triple, hoot that I learned for the first time two days ago. We hear the trogon call for a half hour, but never see it even though it must be less than 50 feet away at times. The call is often intermingled with those of Violaceous and Black-headed trogons. By the time we’ve completed our morning walk and stopped for a 10:30 brunch at Caesar’s Place, we’ve seen 55 species and a host of birds that would have been exciting three weeks ago, but by now have become commonplace. Returning to San Ignacio, I ready R-Tent-III for departure and by 1 PM we on our way to Dangriga, a town built at the edge of the Caribbean. Derek greets us enthusiastically when we arrive at the new institute for which he heads the board of directors. We’ll be using their parking lot for the next week, as the technical school has not yet officially opened and no students or teachers are in residence. Although Derek has made wonderful arrangements for us, including water and electricity, he did not envision the immense size of some of our RV’s and we struggle to get through the entrance gate and maneuver in the parking lot. We are the first RV caravan to penetrate this far into Belize and Derek certainly hopes more will come, as tourism is one of the subjects that will be taught at the institute. Bearded Bob unloads the complete computer system he is giving the institute and others unload the many used computers and peripherals we have been carrying for Tom and Charlu, gifts from one of their sons. We are relieved of the weight and cargo space the equipment occupied and Derek is happy to have them for the computer technical training classes. After everyone is finally settled into parking spots and all electrical cords find outlets strong enough to turn on air conditioning, Shari and I drive into Dangriga at night. The streets are buzzing with people, light pours from the open shops as we find our way to the river and our favorite Dangriga restaurant. “We’re back,” we announce to the owner of the small café and she responds, “You’re back.” We talk briefly and make the arrangements for the group to come tomorrow night, giving her advance notice so that she can do extra grocery shopping. On the way back I stop for gas at the Texaco station, paying BZ$150 for my SUV tank full, which still sounds like, and is, a lot of money when I divide by two to convert to U.S. dollars.

(Shari) Before we depart this afternoon, I do one more load of wash and hang it outside to dry. It is still, hot and muggy this morning and only will get hotter. I am heat exhausted by the time Bert returns. He dumps the tanks while I take care of the bill. Bearded Bob helps Bert and gives me his chair under the shade to use while I wait. I just seem to be zapped of energy and am very grateful for his help. I would like to say we travel without incident, but about half-way down the road, we hear that Tom and Charlu have had another flat tire. Tailgunner Bob stays back with them as the rest move forward to our “RV park.” I have “RV park” in quotes because we “park” in the empty lot of a brand new technical school not yet open. It was touch and go whether any facilities would be ready, but each of us has water and electric and a dump is available some distance away. The turn into the lot is quite a challenge and parking is another. One by one we squeeze into our allotted space. By now I am really, really hot and am afraid, not very friendly. I retire to R-Tent-III and lie under the fan while Bert socializes without me. Unfortunately we still have to drive to town to arrange for our group dinner. If I do not tell Ronnie at the Riverside Café that the group is coming, we would overwhelm her small restaurant and she also would run out of food. This gives her time to shop and prepare. I also request that she make lemon meringue pie. Bert asks if we are going to eat here tonight but since I am so zapped of energy and now have stomach cramps, I decline. I crawl into bed at 8 and promptly fall asleep.

Day 42 – February 25 – Dangriga, Stann Creek District

(Bert) Except for our stay on the cayes, a habitat we’ve not much explored is mangrove forests. Today we head to the littoral zone near Dangriga where the mangroves are dense, but also support a high canopy of other trees. Appropriately, the first bird of the morning is a Mangrove Warbler and a bit later we hear the low-pitched call of the Mangrove Vireo. Judy finds a Sedge Wren, but no one else can refind it. She redeems herself when she finds a Plumbeous Kite and this time the bird is still present when we all rush to her position. However, we debate the identification as we collect a mixture of field marks that don’t fit. The bird remains low, hopping from perch to perch in the mangroves and slowly moves up and parallel to the road. I meet Don and see he has been taking photos, so I ask to examine them through the camera display. Just as I start, the raptor takes flight over us and I see the red lining in its wing, consistent only with Plumbeous Kite. But when I check the camera, I see clear evidence of a Crane Hawk: long red legs, long banded tail and a red eye. So, our mystery bird is actually two birds.

Previously, we’ve not seen many shorebirds, but today in the mangrove swamp, the lagoon and the seashore we find Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted and Solitary sandpipers, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plovers and Killdeer. After the other birders head back to camp, Tom and I linger along the coast. Tom notices that the frigatebirds have gathered into an aerial mass and he counts 71. Intrigued, I watch them too and even more seem to gather, so I count 77 and then recount to 81 frigatebirds in one group with a half-dozen more stragglers in the opposite direction, all suspended in the uplifting air like kites on strings. Tom and I drive into Dangriga, since I am intent on finding a House Sparrow at the only location where we are likely to see this bird on our Belize itinerary. Driving slowly up and down the dilapidated residential area, we see and hear none. However, we chance upon a fruiting tree which has enticed a host of birds. A Southern House Wren sings heartily, competing with a singing White-collared Seedeater. The best birds are adult and immature male Hooded Orioles at the extreme southern tip of their distribution range.

In the afternoon, Derek gives us a tour of the ITVET technical training school. Although not yet open for its first classes, the buildings are complete and most of the equipment is in place. Derek and the two other board members that accompany him are obviously proud of the school and their pride is justly placed for this facility would be the envy of any educational board in the U.S. The school will focus on skill training in areas of greatest local demand, particularly directed toward tourism. Computer labs, modern kitchens, craft teaching rooms, mechanics, woodworking, electrical and mechanical training rooms are all part of the tour, and the equipment and building construction we see is all top of the line. Belize schools focus on the first eight grades, allowing only those with high test scores to continue to high school, and financial constraints prevent many of those qualified to start, much less finish in these schools. So the work force is overwhelmingly unskilled, under trained workers. ITVET, Derek, and his board of management will make a difference to Belize.

(Shari) I am up at 6:30 and still feel tired with stomach cramps. I do not know if it is because I feel bad or if the day really is hot, but I snap on the air conditioner as soon as I get up and keep it on all day. Since I have to collect some more money from the caravan, I finish their receipts for prior expenses. Luckily we are able to get Bearded Bob’s satellite signal and I also can do E-mail. At 3, Derek, the chairman of the governing board and the person who we have known since our first visit here in 2001, gives us a tour of the facility. We are at ITVET, a new Belize technical school. The school will be hosting 120-250 students teaching them employable skills in the culinary, tourist, carpentry, mechanical and electrical departments. The courses were developed in England and are used in Jamaica, Trinidad and Belize and graduates will be certified in those countries as well as England, Canada and parts of the U.S. The purpose is to reach those students (a) who do not qualify for high school, or (b) want to improve their skills, or (c) want to learn a new skill, thereby making them employable and taxpaying citizens. The facility is quite remarkable and equipped with modern equipment from computers to an industrial kitchen and welding and carpentry tools. I can see why Derek is so very proud. Towards the end of the tour I retire to R-Tent-III because I still have stomach cramps and feel tired. After resting awhile, the group goes out to dinner and even with cramps I am hungry, eating every morsel on my plate. Bert gets a slice of the warm lemon meringue pie and as my little taste can attest, it is delicious as usual.

Day 43 – February 26 – Red Bank, Stann Creek District

(Bert) “The macaws left the area about two weeks ago,” Pablo tells us. They arrived in December to feed on the red fruit of polewood, but when it is depleted the Scarlet Macaws leave the area to feed elsewhere. Since the forest fire that burned the hillside behind Red Bank a couple of years ago – apparently started by mischievous youths – less fruit has been available. In spite of the sad news, we decide to hike a forest trail a mile from the village. Before we leave, though, Judy says she has found a Crested Guan and to our great delight the big bird is perched in prominent view on a horizon tree, its long tail, chunky body, stretched out neck and cockscombed head nicely outlined against the blue sky. Then in the opposite direction Cindy sees a hummingbird move on a nest. Finding the nest nestled on a short branch among tree leaves is nearly impossible with our binoculars, but Cindy knows the location and aligns her scope on the spot. Seeing only its head and bill we debate the possibilities, but eventually narrow it to Scaly-breasted Hummingbird. We move to the end of the road, park our cars and begin hiking. Not 15 min. along the trail, Pablo excitedly exclaims, “I hear a macaw!” and rushes up the hillside path toward a cliff viewpoint over the forest. Like flaming red and yellow arrows, three Scarlet Macaws wing across the green jungle. They alight on a huge tree, I align my scope and while others are getting a close-up view, I photograph two of the macaws mating. Woody gets even better photos digiscoping through his spotting scope. In fact, he is so proud of his guan and macaw photographs that he says he can quit birding for the day, since he’s already gotten more than he expected. We continue the morning hike and get separated, birding in small groups. Most of us are still together when we see a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron fly to a tree branch and stay within stone’s throw of our binoculars. Later, some get a good look at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Judy finds a Blue-black Grosbeak, but I’m birding elsewhere with Lee. We catch up with Cindy and Bob at an Orange-billed Sparrow, but it must have pushed farther into the bush because I only see a Worm-eating Warbler, although we can still hear the sparrow. Climbing up to the cliff side where we were earlier, we study a perched hawk and after much study of its back and tail, it finally turns its head enough so that Tom sees the dark malar lines that distinguish it as a juvenile Common Black-Hawk. Then the three macaws return, flying in the opposite direction and choosing a different, more distant, tree for perching. For nearly an hour the macaws stay in clear view through our scopes. We backtrack along the path and find Don birding from his lawn chair. Although he has been at that spot most of the morning, he was not aware he could see the macaws from there. Taking my scope to a better view 30-ft. away, he now too gets to add Scarlet Macaw to his Belize bird list. While he is engaged in digiscoping, I wander off to the creek and see a pigeon well-hidden in dense brush. I can see its head, but little else. It is enough, though, to identify the bird as Gray-chested Dove, a secretive species I’ve heard a good number of times, including earlier today, but only saw one other time.

(Shari) “I am looking for a party,” I tell Don as I walk around camp with a glass of wine and a box of pretzels. I have been alone since early dawn and am starved for company. Obviously I am feeling better but it looks like most everyone is pooped from the day’s outing. I find Cindy and Bob outside and sit with my pretzels and wine under their awning. Soon Bert joins us, as well as Tom and Don. Looks like I found my party. Time flies by and when I ask Tom what time it is, he tells me 18:20. Oh my, I rush up, gather my things and head for R-Tent-III. I usually call my almost 91-year-old Dad at 6 PM and I am now late. I reach him within 18 rings (that is good) but he still is so confused on where he is and what he is doing. Tonight he told me he just got back from fishing and that Shari and Bert were visiting. I asked him if it was snowing and he said yes. Other than that he sounded strong and healthy so I try not to worry. I know he has good care at his assisted living facility. I make some smoked pork chops and we eat dinner while we watch a movie.

Day 44 – February 27 – Cockscomb Basin, Stann Creek District

(Shari) Blessedly cool. So cool that I can keep my windows open all the day long. Actually, I have only used the air conditioner four days so far. The birders left early and I suspect that I am the only one left at camp. I walk outside and am surprised to see Pat Y’s door open. She tells me that Lee is sick with dizziness and nausea. We go on the Internet and read that ginger is good. I give her the piece I have in my freezer and she makes him some “tea.” Later she reports that he is doing much better. Another couple comes home early and she tells me that she has the start of a urinary track infection. We decide to go to the clinic. It seems the Belizean people find it difficult to say more than five words at a time, so I must ask a myriad of questions before I learn the facts. We walk into the clinic and I see a sign that says pharmacy. A woman and a man are talking and do not acknowledge our presence. Since I am not a patient person, I interrupt and ask if we can buy some medicine for a bladder infection. We are told that we must see a doctor first for a prescription. I am surprised since last year we bought medicine without a doctor. I ask how we can see a doctor and the man points to the left. We go left and find a blank wall. Looking around I see a woman mopping the floor and ask her how can we see a doctor. She points right. I ask, “Where.” She points right again. I ask if it is around the corner and she says, “No, in the next building.” At the next building I still do not see anything looking like a doctor. Again I ask the first person I come across and he says I must take a number. I ask, “Where do I get a number.” He says around the corner. Around the corner I see a counter with a young girl talking on a cell phone who again does not acknowledge our presence. Again I run out of patience and interrupt with “How can we see a doctor?” She says we have to take a number. I ask how do we get a number? She doesn’t say anything but starts to get a clipboard. I ask, “Do we have to sign in,” and she says “Yes.” I ask how long the wait will be? She says she does not know, the doctor has not started yet. I ask when does the doctor start. She says any minute. I ask then how long after he starts will the wait be. She says she doesn’t know. I ask how many people are ahead of us. She says those and points to the clipboard. I ask how many is that and she answers two. Okay, now we have the facts. At 15 min. each, maybe we have a 30-min. wait. We decide that maybe we do not want to wait since we might catch something worse so I ask again where we can just buy some medicine. She says something I do not understand but catch “pharmacy in town.” I ask where is the pharmacy and she points down the street. I ask how far down the street and she says next to the Scotia Bank. Goodie, I know where that is. We head to the pharmacy and two clerks are talking across the counter to each other, again not acknowledging our presence. By this time I really don’t have any patience so I interrupt and tell the gentleman that I need some medicine for a bladder infection. He tells us of two kinds and I recognize the word Cipro. We get it and next store we buy two gallons of cranberry juice. On the way home we stop at Marie Sharp’s to arrange for tomorrow’s group tour. We sit outside under Bearded Bob’s canopy to escape the rain, which by now is falling by the buckets. Soon those pesky black flies eat me alive so I escape to R-Tent-III to make a pizza and watch another movie.

(Bert) “Bert, can you come over here?” I follow Dorothy away from our river outlook, walk down a path, and gaze into the forest, but I cannot find the bird she describes. Supposing it has left, we return to the river. A bit later she calls me to the spot again, this time because she is seeing many birds. I join her and others and immediately recognize she has stumbled on an ant swarm, an event high on every tropical birder’s wish list. The first bird I recognize is a Bright-rumped Attila, followed by a succession of other birds quickly hopping through the tangled underbrush. Each look is but a few seconds and in light dimmer than one candlepower. Even though we can see only about twenty feet into the snarled web of leaves, roots, vines and branches obstructing the view, the ant swarm produces a constantly revolving scene of many male and female Red-throated and Red-crowned ant-tanagers, Ruddy and Tawny-winged woodcreepers, two Melodious Blackbirds and two Gray-headed Tanagers. Even better is a brown bird with a distinct dark mark running from its eye to the back of the head. Pat B scrambles for her book, opening to Plate 38 and we easily recognize the bird as Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner. Back to watching the show, we add both sexes of Barred Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Eye-ringed Flatbill and a couple of Spot-breasted Wrens to the entertainment list. I see a female Hooded Warbler and Dorothy recognizes a female White-capped Manakin, Black-and-white Warbler and a Smoky-brown Woodpecker. Forty-five minutes have passed when I notice spiders racing across the footpath. I think nothing of the first few, but when the spiders continue to escape I become aware that the ant swarm is headed my way and the spiders lead the panic crowd. For this is the reason birds follow antswarms. While I’ve seen ant-tanagers pop ants into their mouths, mostly the birds are after the other insects uprooted by the armies of ants marauding their home sites. When the show finally plays out after an hour, I list the birds I’ve identified and Dorothy reminds me of others I forgot or missed, including a large woodcreeper, probably Ivory-billed. Then I add the species I heard while we watched: Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Gray-chested Dove, Blue Ground-Dove and Short-billed Pigeon. When I total the list, I’ve recorded 22 species at or near the ant swarm. While we see many more birds today, it’s hard to top the ant swarm story.

Day 45 – February 28 – Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Stann Creek District

(Bert) The first hour we see and hear nothing. Shortly after 5 AM, I find a glowing pair of eyes reflecting from a Common Pauraque resting on the ground between rows of orange-bearing trees. Then nothing more, until we reach the Mayan site at Mayflower Bocawina. Just when the first hint of morning glows in the eastern sky, I hear the “woof” of a strange owl. I flash my light towards Cindy, Judy, Tom and Charlu, hoping they would come to me. They do not, so I go retrieve them. They thought the real owl was just another one of the recordings I had been playing. We hear the owl more times and I shuffle through recordings again, finding the one that comes closest to matching the wild one: Striped Owl. More sounds of the night we hear. A Central American Pygmy-Owl toots six monotone whistled notes, faster than Ferruginous, and repeats short sequences of two to six notes, separated by a minute or more. It calls from various close locations, we cannot zero in on the source, but later I hear Charlu found the tiny bird, so small she at first couldn’t believe she was face to face with an owl. Little Tinamou, Blue-crowned Motmot, Clay-colored Robin, Collared Forest-Falcon, Pale-billed Woodpecker and Brown Jay join in the dawn chorus. When a flock of Collared Araçaris flies over, we identify the first birds by sight at about 6:30.

An hour later, other cars arrive carrying those that didn’t want to get up in the middle of the night and we now scatter to hike the park trails. As always, independent Judy finds something alone that the rest of us miss. This time a Little Tinamou walks just ahead of her on the new trail through the banana trees. Tom and I walk the same trail 5 min. later and only hear the bird. Dorothy reports that she saw Prothonotary Warbler on the same trail and also sees Black-faced Antthrush, the first to see rather than only hear the bird on this trip. When I hike the Antelope Trail, I encounter Woody, Gwen, Lee and Pat heading the opposite direction. They decide the trail is too narrow, muddy and leaf-littered to continue, but I am intent on hiking the 2.9 km to Antelope Falls since I missed it last year. The steep uphill climb is more arduous than I anticipated, especially since the recent rains washed out all of the steps poorly constructed with stubby 2X6’s shoring up ground now flowing as mud. In the high humidity, I work up a sweat that drenches my cotton shirt. I hear, yet not see, the rushing stream beside the trail until I reach the base of the waterfall where I welcome the cool breeze. The water plummets a couple hundred feet, then curls around black rocks. In the forest darkness, I prop my camera on a rock and photograph the clear water pouring around the boulders, using a very slow shutter speed, thereby creating a blurred motion of rushing water. On the easy hike downhill, I can concentrate on the birds, finding a spadebill and ant-tanager. It’s easier to hear the birds then see them and I notice groups of Violet Sabrewings at one site and Long-billed Hermits at another. These noisy hummingbirds are quite vocal and seem to concentrate in dark woods. Then I hear a familiar click-chip, a call I’ve heard at other sites but didn’t have the patience to wait for the bird to come closer. This time I’m lucky and the Orange-billed Sparrow is only 20 ft. away in relatively sparse undergrowth. To keep it close by, I imitate its sound by putting my tongue on the roof of my mouth and pulling it off with a sucking noise. The “tsik” note seems to work as I watch the bird for several minutes. Where everything is somber shades of black, gray and dark brown, the bright orange bill stands out like a torch at midnight. I struggle to photograph the sparrow, but that kind the bird – and darkness - is not. So, I contend with absorbing the sight into memory. It seems this species resists large audiences, for previous sightings have only been by individuals: Bearded Bob found two at Blue Hole, Cindy had one at Red Bank, Judy (finally) found one at Cockscomb, and now I am alone when I get mine at Mayflower Bocawina.

(Shari) I hear Bert leave this morning at 4 AM and I cannot go back to sleep. Malaria Monday does it again! The preventative medicine I take interferes with my sleep patterns. As soon as the week wears down and I get back to normal, it is Malaria Monday again and the cycle starts over, but always seems a little worse. I do E-mail, eat breakfast, do last night’s dishes and take a shower. Looking at the clock, I notice it is only 7. Yikes, feels like it should be noon. I talk awhile with Bob and Arlene and then Bearded Bob comes over to look at our satellite problem. He checks the voltage at transmit and receive ends of the modem and then he checks the cables. Noticing that the cables are connected through a splitter, he and Tailgunner Bob reconnect the cables with a straight through connecter. Guess what? The satellite works. I am so happy that I give him a great big hug and tell him I owe him a dinner. Later we drive to the orange juice factory to arrange a tour there on Thursday. Then we drive to town to buy fresh fruits and veggies at the market. When I get home it is only 10 AM and I am starved: early lunch for me. At 3, eleven of us drive the short distance to Marie Sharp’s hot sauce factory. The factory seems closed and despite my assurances yesterday when I arranged the tour that the line would be working, the bottling was completed earlier in the day. Our tour is not as good as I recall from prior years and I’m disappointed we don’t get to meet Marie Sharp, as she is in Dangriga signing payroll checks. We are given an amusing and interesting history of the company and then walk around to view the bottling machinery. I learn that the brand El Jardin in Texas is a private label of Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. Returning to the office, we eat samples of the products and buy many bottles to take home. I notice a big cake on the counter and I get the feeling that we are intruding on time allotted for a little party, so we leave within the hour. At 5, we gather in one of the ITVET buildings where Woody and Gwen have set up chairs, tables and barbeque grills for Penny’s birthday party. Penny is a Springer Spaniel and I think she is 15 years old. This is the fifth year I have celebrated her birthday because Gwen has this party every year. “Doggie Caviar” is served - wieners and beans - and we all eat our fill before singing “Happy Birthday” to Penny and finish with chocolate cake and ice cream.

Day 46 – March 1 – Dangriga, Stann Creek District

(Bert) Rains washed out the road to the birding site we planned on visiting today, so seeking an alternative, I suggest a snipe hunt since I still haven’t found a Wilson’s Snipe in Belize. I must be the only one in the group, as others found snipe again near the Dangriga coast. We head to that spot this morning and while the others are preoccupied, Ralph shows me where they saw snipe, but no birds at all are there now. Alone, I walk the road and then the coast and come upon a Wilson’s Plover, new to the trip list. I motion to Dorothy and she comes to see it too. The rest of the group arrives and we scan the mudflats until we see three Wilson’s Plovers, adding to Whimbrel, Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling and a few other shorebirds.

Next we head to the coastal mangroves north of Dangriga and just as we start our walk, I lose most of the group. Looking back, I see binoculars aimed at a tree and rejoining them I see they discovered a Prairie Warbler, considered “scarce on mainland” by Jones and the first I’ve seen in the country away from the cayes. Continuing along the sandy coast, we hike past mangroves painted bright orange by lichen; the twisted branches are eye candy to the camera lens. Deep in the mangrove forest, skylight reflects off dark pools of brackish water forming mirror images that confuse the eye in separating reality from reflection. Looking to the blue Caribbean, a mixed flock of terns, pelicans and cormorants rest on a row of posts that perhaps once formed a pier long since destroyed. We pick out a Caspian Tern and three Sandwich Terns among the many Royals and through the scope we discover the Caspian is banded. I digiscope the band and later with the computer I enlarge the photo to 500 or 1000 X, but cannot see numbers on the metal band. When we turn inland along a canal, the trail is overgrown with grasses and squeezes between thorny bushes, but we push forward to a series of the ponds of an abandoned shrimp farm. Nature has taken back control: sedges, grasses and mangroves push to pond’s edge, mauve lily pads float on still blue water and white flowers poke above the surface. We push through the thick grass until we come to a dry pond where we climb down the embankment, walk across dried mudflats and up the other side, our goal a ramshackle building where a man stands staring at this motley group of binocular carrying tourists approaching his backyard. He directs us to a road leading from his house and hiking in the now hot sun we get within sight of where we left the cars. Ralph, Bearded Bob and I walk quickly to retrieve the vehicles while the others wait in the cool shade. The birding site has changed and gone wild since a couple of years ago when I last visited it. The trek was a bit more adventurous than I’d planned. Next time we’ll take the road.

(Shari) Looks like I am the only one left in camp again on this cool morning. I do not turn on the A/C until 11 and that is good. Today is voting day in Belize and there is a holiday atmosphere in town with people milling about talking politics. Since Belize only became independent from Great Britain in 1981, I expect most people find it an honor, a privilege and a duty to vote. I am proved wrong on that account when we go to the Riverside Café with Bearded Bob this evening. (Cindy went with Judy to stay the night at Cockscomb). While we wait for our garlic lobster, one of the female owners of the restaurant informs us that she did not vote, doesn’t intend to vote, and doesn’t even care who wins. She says she works hard for her money and that all government is alike. So much for pride and duty!

Day 47 – March 2 – Five Blues National Park, Stann Creek District

(Bert) “Look at the yellow bird at the top of the tree,” I exclaim. Binoculars raise to the spot and Dorothy is quick to call, “Common Tody-Flycatcher.” I disagree, “The tail is too short for a tody.” I point out the white supercilium, but then see that Dorothy is right also. “No, I mean the yellow bird that is atop the tree, higher than the tody-flycatcher; it’s a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet.” That gets Gwen’s attention and she pushes to the front of the group. Gwen has seen so many birds in Belize that few life bird challenges remain and the tyrannulet is one of them. The bird feeds in the high foliage, giving only a few brief unsatisfying glimpses and then hides for a minute or two. I thumb dial my iPod and find the yellow-bellied song. I get an immediate response, and a second bird shows up as well. Now we have many clear views of the petite yellow bird as it hops from branch to branch. The cluster of trees remains popular with other birds as well, notably a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a flock of Keel-billed Toucans, a Passerini’s Tanager and a pair of White-necked Jacobins. Birding is good in the orange orchards where we find Baltimore, Orchard and Yellow-tailed orioles in the trees and Blue-black Grassquits, White-collared Seedeaters and Yellow-faced Grassquits in the grasses. Along the river we watch Green and Amazon kingfishers, both green, but one species with white spots and the other without.

We continue driving to Five Blues National Park on a shake-rattle-and-roll road where top speed doesn’t reach double digits. After parking at the entrance lot, we walk to the lake along a grassy path surrounded by tall jungle. White-collared and Red-capped manikins sing and whistle from within its depths. A Slaty-tailed Trogon calls, but a yellow-bellied trogon simultaneously appears in view and confuses the identification. Some think it is a Black-headed because of the large white blotches on the tail, but I call it a Violaceous. The bird moves to another branch and the blotches form a more intricate pattern and we see the yellow orbital ring. For added proof it is Violaceous, it calls and the familiar song is distinctly different from the one we heard earlier. A pair of Smoky-brown Woodpeckers put on a good show nearby. At the lake we soak up the pretty scene of a paisley blue surface reflecting tree leaf patterns in the shadows transitioning to a reed-choked shallow lake basking in the bright sunlight. In the distance I hear a Ruddy Crake trilling up and down scale.

When we get back to camp I talk with Cindy and Judy, hearing the exciting tale of their encounter at Cockscomb with a Neotropical River Otter they watched for 15 min. and the Jaguarundi that Judy watched twice in the same area, perhaps in pursuit of the otter.

(Shari) Wearing hairnets, long pants, long sleeve shirts and putting our cameras, watches, rings, earrings and purses in pockets, all in the interest of safety, nine of us start the tour of the Belize Orange Juice factory. From the weigh-in of the trucks, through the sorting and washing of the fruit to the cutting, squeezing, evaporating and bottling of the juice we are taken all over the factory during our 2-hr. tour. I am very impressed with the operation and the company’s attention to quality control from the lab’s measurement of sweetness to the sanitization of the bottles. We may be in a third world country, but the orange juice factory is first rate.

Day 48 – March 3 – Dangriga, Stann Creek District

(Bert) A few days ago our 2-hr. owl prowl produced only one pauraque along the entrance road to Mayflower Bocawina National Park. What a change this morning when we see and hear 24 Common Pauraques in the hour before first light! After sunrise, I am slowly walking toward the start of the Bocawina Trail when a large woodcreeper suddenly lands on the trunk of a cecropia directly in front of Tom and me. First I note the large slightly curved dark gray bill, wide at the base and tapering to the tip, ruling out Ivory-billed. Then I notice the smoothly brown back shifting to rufous primaries and tail, also eliminating Ivory-billed. Knowing Northern Barred-Woodcreeper is a contender I check the underside and see only unstreaked brown and not the rigid horizontal baring easily seen on the Barred-Woodcreeper, so that species is eliminated also. I call to Cindy and she walks quickly in our direction, but the woodcreeper flies to another tree and I get a second look, confirming the features I’ve already noted. I cannot get a good look at its head or breast, but it seems fairly plain. I again check out the large gray bill, unwilling to accept that I really am watching a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, but the field marks are so obvious. It flies away and I open my field guide to woodcreeper plates just as Cindy arrives. She knows I have something good when I have to open the book. The Strong-billed Woodcreeper is not expected to occur in this part of Belize, since it is a higher elevation species and we are only at 174 ft. above sea level here. Jones mentions no records for Stann Creek District, so this bird is a complete surprise.

Little Tinamous seem to be calling from everywhere this morning and I count seven as we hike. The best is very close, so close we believe we should see it. We peer over the edge of the trail, gently sloping deeper into the forest. Cindy sees a dark bird with yellowish legs. Tom and I see it again. It’s just a glimpse, but I note the grayish pigeon-sized bird, tailless, creeping slowly, but quickly being hidden by the dense undergrowth. We continue to hear the tinamou calling, but that quick look is all we get. Within the next half hour we also hear at least three Ruddy Quail-Doves, a bird I’ve found nearly impossible to see, although I now hear them occasionally since I’ve learned there call. We’ve become keener on listening for Orange-billed Sparrows and today is our lucky day to see them in numbers. We find six of them at various times, with the sum total of observation time about 12 seconds, although Tom says he saw the last pair for a minute. We come to an opening in the jungle, an area cleared for banana trees with an open view to the hillside. Three White Hawks soar high above, dissolving almost invisibly in the white clouds. Cindy stays back while Tom, Bob and I hike to Bocawina Falls. While Tom hikes to the upper falls, Bob and I watch a motmot that we try to wish into a Keel-billed, but my photos of the distant bird relegate it to the more common Blue-crowned. Nearing the banana field again, I hear a song I recall from playing my recordings. I’m pretty sure I know the bird, so I dial its song and confirm it’s a Striped Cuckoo. When we finally catch up with Cindy at the car, she tells us of the ant swarm she found and lists lots of good birds she heard or saw, starting the list with Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Dusky Antbird, and Northern Bentbill.

Day 49 – March 4 – Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

(Bert) At 6 AM we start out engines and race to Cockscomb, assigned to teams and subdivided into smaller units with assigned territories. Tom and I bird together and when my wristwatch ticks past the 6:45 starting time we are half-way down the trail toward the Wari Loop. The contest commences. Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Short-billed Pigeon, Barred Antshrike, … so the list begins. The fast pace continues and we record more than one species per minute for the first half hour. I’m surprised when we check off the hard-to-find species as well: Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Lesser Greenlet, seeing all of them as well as hearing them. And, we clean up on the doves with a sweep of hearing Scaled, Pale-vented, Blue, Gray-fronted, Gray-chested and Ruddy Quail-Dove, including a beautiful view of one Scaled Pigeon reflecting sunlight on its sparklingly fish-scaled breast. We encounter part of the competing team: Cindy, Bearded Bob and Bob #2. Graciously and excitedly, they tell us of the Great Antshrikes they just saw on the path we already traveled. We double back to the site and play a recording, but do not find the birds. We take the Wari Loop through the denser section, away from the river, and our walking accelerates as the bird count slackens. We hear Thrush-like Schifornis, see Orange-billed Sparrows and add both ant-tanager species.

Just before 10 AM the rains begin and we seek shelter under big leaves. Tom is prepared with an umbrella, but I stand in the raindrops spilling off the slippery leaves. After 15 min., the rain slackens and I walk back to Tom’s position as he motions in another direction. An Ivory-billed Woodcreeper probes a Cohune Palm, oblivious to the rain running down its back. On the soggy trail, we bump into Cindy’s group again. Bob #2 holds a makeshift umbrella made of elephant-eared leaves and Bearded Bob snaps a photo of me in my drenched clothes. Tom and I continue in the reduced rain to a oxbow where we see Green Kingfisher and then to another watery spot where we saw Boat-billed Herons one year and Bearded Bob photographed some earlier today. We find the herons again. We stop briefly at the river outlook, adding a few species, but the pace has dampened with the downpour and continued rain. We stop again for the Great Antshrike but strike out. However, two hundred yards farther on the trail we find Barred Antshrikes, Rufous-breasted Spinetails and with the ruckus they make, I get a good look at a female Great Antshrike and a flash of a male. The rainstorm intensifies and we walk back to the picnic area, as birds are hiding quietly and none are added to our list. When I find our scattered groups, I tell them we will postpone the count-off so we can return to camp to dry off. I tally my list – 60+ in the first 3 hours, 71 by the 11:30 finish – and think we may have a winning total, but not sure since good birders are on the other team as well.

At 4:30, I call off the species from the Cockscomb list, the territory captains respond “Yes” if identified, and I record which of the teams got each species. Cindy’s team heard Little Tinamou and, most impressively, Ralph and Pat B. – my team - saw two Slaty-breasted Tinamous. After finishing the first three columns, of six, I notice that Cindy’s team has a slight edge, ahead of us by two species. After the fourth column, we are tie. We are now into the Passeriformes and my team starts to take the lead, as Linda keeps saying “Yes” to the species they found in the open areas around the headquarters buildings. After I mark the last species – Olive-backed Euphonia – for our team, I tally the count. My team – Ralph, Pat B., Tom, Don, Tailgunner Bob, Linda and Kent – are the winners by seven species. Better yet is the total count for all participants: 112 species between 6:45 and 11:30 AM, but mostly before the 10 AM rainstorm. Shari hands out candy pieces to the winning team, but then I say we are all winners with a 112 total, and she gives the others candy as well.

(Shari) “They finally let me out of my cage,” I say as I walk around talking with the others at Mama Noots. Cindy, Bob and Judy saw a Black-and-white Owl last night so 100% of the group wants to go tonight. Good excuse for a party, I say. The restaurant is lovely with a screened room - read no bugs and cool! The wait for our food is a long one but no one seems to mind as we chatter away. There seems to be a party atmosphere and even Bearded Bob buys a round of drinks for everyone (I think). At least I did not pay for mine. The food is delicious, starting with a fresh green salad and followed with chicken and shrimp, mashed potatoes and fresh veggies. If that is not enough, a plate of chocolate cake, ice cream and a warm oatmeal cookie finishes the meal. But alas, no Black-and-white Owl tonight. Instead we see a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird sitting on a nest in the dark. Not a lifer for me, but cute nonetheless. 

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