Chapter 11. Southern Belize
(Shari) Leaving with Ralph and Dorothy 3 hr. ahead of the group, we make good time to Punta Gorda on an excellent road until we hit the nine miles of gravel that cuts through the Indian Reservation. It takes us 45 min. to do this section and I have to laugh when we come across a speed bump to slow us from 12 mph to 5 mph. Our fuel gauge shows that we have a third tank of diesel and since I fear we might need the generator a lot to keep me cool, I convince Bert to buy 20 gal. outside of town. As we fill up, a group of people ask if they can look inside the motor home. I tell them it is okay if it is one at a time and that they just stay up front. Ooh’s and aah’s are breathed and I hear speculation at how much the unit costs. I keep quiet. They are off by a factor of 2 but they don’t have to know that. Soon after leaving the gas station, the rains start and it pours. For months I have been in communication with the landowner about my fear of getting stuck, but she assured me that the land is good solid gravel and dries quickly. We find a place to pull off and while we unhook our tow vehicles, the landowners find us. We leave Ralph and Dorothy behind as we scope out the situation. When we travel down the dirt road and into the parking spot, I am pleasantly surprised with what I see. Good solid ground, bigger than I remembered and most importantly, an unblocked sea view. We return to retrieve R-Tent-III and Ralph and Dorothy. Because of the fundraiser for the Police Crime Watch program, people are all over the entrance to our spot and gawk at our rigs. Bert stops short of parking and assesses the situation. Deciding to park in the section closest to the ocean, he maneuvers R-Tent-III between two trees, a small palm and a mound of dirt. So far so good. He wants to park parallel to the water but I am afraid there will be complaints from the group because it is a nice spot and not everyone can have as good a view. I want him to go on the other end and point R-Tent-III to the sea. So he needs to turn around to angle park with our front end to the water. By this time I am not sure what he is going to do and decide to leave it up to him. Well, without guidance, he gets stuck. It must take an hour, but inch by forward inch and then inch by backward inch, he gets unstuck and ends up parking the way he intended to from the beginning. I feel bad for him and bad for the property owner since our tire tracks made a mess. Eternal optimist Ralph says, “The rest of the group should be happy that you got stuck and not them.” Three hours after our arrival, I take the car down the road to meet the rest of the group. I find a wide place in the road where I can see oncoming traffic in my rearview mirror. In only about five minutes I see Bearded Bob’s headlights and pull out in front of him. He has been our “temporary wagon master” since he and I had logged the route last year. I hear no complaints so he must have done a fine job. I inform him that the motor homes need to pull off to unhook and that small ones and 5th wheels are to follow me. I lead the group to the U-turn and into the congested driveway. Talk about gawkers! After getting the first group in, I return to retrieve the rest, minus two. Tom and Charlu pulled off, Bearded Bob does not know when and he had not heard from Tailgunner Bob since he left. Everyone is parked, the weather is cool and soon I hear Tailgunner Bob on the CB. Ralph tells him to unhook and I go to lead him and Tom through the U-turn. More gawking occurs in the ever more crowded entrance road. Later, we have a margarita party and discuss the next week’s events. The property owners talk about the town and introduce their son-in-law who will be our guide on a couple of the days. He talks about the boat, the level of difficulty of the trips and the birds that could be seen. Soon everyone is chattering away and seems to be happy about their stay in Punta Gorda. All the past week I could sense apprehension about this leg of our journey. I suppose because neither Bert nor I had done it before in addition to the dry camping situation. But all worked out and I sense everyone is pleased.
(Bert) Surprise spreads across their faces. They stop in mid task and look in wonderment as our RV’s drive past their homes. On the Southern Highway we’ve driven through pine savannah countryside, sparsely populated with people living in plank houses with thatched roofs. After passing the Bladen River the landscape transitions to lowland broadleaf forest, all second growth along the highway. As we near Punta Gorda we start seeing more people and their stares. When I stop at a Texaco station for diesel a small crowd gathers. They all want to see the inside of R-Tent-III, so we let them stand inside at the front door, one by one expressing amazement of a home on wheels. I ask one man if he has ever seen a motor home like ours and he says no. I say, “Ten more are coming behind me, some almost as large as ours.” We are the first caravan to have traveled this far south in Belize and I doubt that any tour buses visit this area. Shortly after leaving the gas station we climb slightly and now have a broad view of the palm tree studded forest pushing to the edge of the Caribbean. The scene reminds me of Hawaii. When we arrive at the field we will be using as a campsite, we first pass a soccer field with the game in action and a hundred spectators watching. Their attention turns to the big RV’s lumbering along the narrow muddy driveway a few feet from the water’s edge. Some must move their cars so we can get past them. Our group arrives in shifts spread over a couple of hours and by the time all are parked we each have spacious surroundings in a grassy field nicely planted with young trees and a few older palms. The sea breeze lowers the temperature just enough so the heat is not noticeable and most of us have a view of the Caribbean when we stand in our rigs. Although not a birding day, I add a species to the trip list when I see a Palm Warbler exploring the grass in front of R-Tent-III. I see it as a propitious sign of good birds to come now that we are at the southern end of Belize, in view of Guatemala and, according to our hosts Larry and Karol, in sight of the coastal Honduras mountains on a clear day. Roberto will be leading birding trips on three days this next week and at the Margarita Party he tells us a bit about the places we will visit and answers lots of questions about the boat we will take two days from now.
(Bert) The beauty of Lubaantun is what strikes us first. We stand at the entrance looking up to hills of disheveled building blocks, some now randomly orientated, but many still forming the steps and walls of Mayan temples. Trees grow toweringly from rubble heaps and flowering shrubs decorate the sides. When we reach the main plaza, we stand on a broad-leafed grass carpet, carefully trimmed to a few inches and spreading uniformly to the edges of the temples. From various viewpoints we have long vistas across the tops of dense jungle. Tall trees provide us shade from the rising sun and fruiting trees attract the birds. Golden-winged Warbler others see, but I miss. Don photographs a Black-crowned Tityra, but I miss that too, as there are many birds in all directions to divert my attention. Next is a colorful bird that is given multiple names until I finally see it too and get a good view of the Painted Bunting, the first for the trip but for one that Woody alone saw in Dangriga.
We stand at one spot for a couple of hours, barely moving 20 ft. in any direction, for the puzzling birds continuously move in and out of the flowering trees. Some we identify quickly – Bright-rumped Attila, Black-headed Saltator, Blue-gray Tanager – but the flycatchers and vireos puzzle us and speculation abounds. We sort through Myiarchus and feel confident we are watching both Dusky-capped and Great Crested. I see a drab tyrant flycatcher with a light-colored bill and simultaneously others say they are watching an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher in the same small tree. My bird fits that description but for the bill, which shows up light-colored on my photo as well. Only after pouring through several bird books do I find a drawing showing a light bill, all others showing dark ones.
The vireos are even more confusing. We are confident of the White-eyed and the Yellow-throated we find. Yet two others are more challenging. Both seem larger and more elongated. Through repeated looks, we mark down the drab one as a Yucatan Vireo. That bird is farther south than Jones’s range maps show. The second large vireo is even more confusing. Its yellow undersides make me consider Yellow-green Vireo and when I finally get beneath the bird I see a white belly surrounded by pale yellow, so become convinced it is the Yellow-green, which on March 6 would be an early migrant. However, when I later review my photographs, it looks more like Philadelphia Vireo with a more petite bill, a more chubby body and a yellow throat. This morning’s birding in beautiful gardens has been wonderful, but I wish I knew exactly what we were seeing.
(Shari) Surprised to see Tailgunner Bob walking around this morning, I take my cup of tea over to his rig to chat. He and Arlene did not want to leave me all alone here today. Isn’t that sweet? We decide to go to the Seafront Inn for breakfast and then tour the town. Three women with little children are sitting on the sidewalk in front of the inn when we arrive. They have woven baskets, jewelry, embroidery work and woodcarvings for sale. I find it all so expensive but feel so very sorry for the women that I decide to buy a basket for $5. I unfortunately only have a $20 bill and no one can make change. After a delicious breakfast we drive to the dock to get information about the ferry to Livingston, Guatemala. After learning that the ferry leaves only on Tuesdays and Fridays, costs $40 round trip plus a $3.50 exit fee, and does not return from the same town, necessitating another ferry trip to another town and then a transfer to another boat, I decide it is not worth the effort and cost. We park along Front Street near the market and shop. Again women sit on the street below a raised sidewalk with a few fruits and vegetables at their feet. Some are nursing babies; others are talking while their babies sleep, wrapped in a shawl tied from the railing on the sidewalk. I want to take a picture and Bob tries, however the people get pretty irate and ask for $5 US for the picture. I only buy some tomatoes, green onion, a cucumber and a pineapple since there is not much of a selection. The stores cater mostly to the locals and sell dry goods, hardware, cooking utensils, etc. Only two have items for the tourist trade but again I find them too expensive. A woman approaches me with baskets. Dressed in a maroon satin dress, she looks ready to go to a party. I buy a basket from her and tell her that her dress is pretty. Smiling with pride, she tells me she made it herself. Soon after we get home, the birders come back. Bert and I decide to eat out tonight. We find Dorothy and Ralph at the Chinese restaurant and we join them. They had about finished eating, but sit with us while we eat. The food and company are excellent and we return full and satisfied. I am so very tired that I am ready for bed but have to wait up for the night guard. When he arrives at 9 PM, Bert gives him the personal radio, the flashlight and a bag of snacks that I put together and says goodnight. I am asleep 2 min. later.
(Bert) The loud hissing of the boa constrictor surprises me and I jump back a foot. “Did you get a good picture?” someone on the boat asks me. “A little too good,” I reply. I’m standing on the small raised deck at the bow of Roberto’s speedboat and Roberto had just reached to touch the tail of the huge snake we saw in bushes besides the Moho River. “Don’t bring it into the boat!” warns Dorothy, a proposal that certainly isn’t my interest either. The boa is not the only wildlife we see today. Fifteen of us boarded the boat at Punta Gorda and driver Roland headed south along the coast toward Guatemala and then entered the Moho River of Belize. Black Howlers complain from the tall trees and we see two of them high in the canopy. A Neotropical River Otter swims in front of the boat and dives out of sight. We hope it will resurface at the bamboo growing beside the river, but it stays hidden. A Praying Mantis appears on the top edge of the hull and I encourage it to walk on to my clipboard and then pass the board around the boat for all to get a close look. Sleeping Proboscis Bats cling to the side of a tree stump pushing from the river bottom. And then there are the birds. Roberto is good at identifying bird calls and when he points out Bright-rumped Attila I ask him how he remembers that one. He says he just does, so the rest of us try to think of a method. We decide it sounds like an inflating, accelerating “Giddy up! Giddy up! Giddy up!” followed by a deflating abbreviated, “Whoa!” I’m impressed with the cheerful quail-like melody of the brightly colored Yellow-tailed Orioles, a song I more easily remember. We pass along red mangroves, tallest here in the Toledo District and densely lining the river shore. Seeing birds in thick leaf cover is hard, so our attention is drawn mostly to birds in flight – Mangrove Swallows, Plumbeous Kites, Swallow-tailed Kites, Osprey – or perched prominently – Common Black-Hawks, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Herons. We see a startlingly bright yellow bird swiftly moving from perch to perch, low along the riverside. I excitedly call out “Prothonotary Warbler,” as this very pretty bird is infrequently encountered and only a few have seen it so far on this trip. This individual puts on a lengthy performance, staying a few yards ahead of the boat and then shooting across the river to show the other half of our passengers. Don and I both take photos of the fast-moving warbler, hoping a least one will show as something other than a yellow streak. Elsewhere, we stop to puzzle over a dark raptor perched high beside the river. It’s peculiar bare face, long profile and banded tail challenges us for minutes until we find an illustration that matches. Hook-billed Kites are unusually varied in plumage – perhaps a dozen or more varieties – and this one is a dark morph.
We stop at Santa Ana and debark for a break that soon becomes lunch and a siesta under shade trees. Local women wash clothes in the river, attended by toddlers playing beside them. The women stand waist deep in the water, vigorously pounding the clothes on flat rocks. Nearby, a fleet of dugout canoes is pulled up on shore. Earlier we had encountered young men in these boats who showed us their catch of snared iguana and speared snook, both destined for the dinner table. The village is made up of the thatched roof board houses we’ve seen often now in rural Toledo District. One of the residents has a pet Great Curassow that I photograph. Back at the river, while I’m resting on a rock a young girl passes me, cheerfully saying hello and then gingerly climbing into a dugout that shifts wildly with each movement. She uses a board to pull the boat across the river, climbs out and then disappears for minutes. When she returns the dugout to my side, I ask her what she did on the other side and she holds up a fist full of cilantro she picked from the garden next to the cornfield. Although she wears a stylish pair of jeans and pretty blouse, nothing else about her lifestyle indicates the modern world and her customs seem unchanged for a dozen generations of ancestors. At 2:30 we board the boat and leisurely return downstream, adding more bird species to the day list that eventually reaches 101. Back at camp Bob #2 asks if we saw a Sungrebe on the river. Although we had hoped to, we did not. Proudly he tells me he did and when we look at Cindy’s map we see he found it at the bridge just beyond the village where we had stopped earlier. In the carload of four who took the road today instead of the boat, he was the only one to see the bird, the first of the trip.
(Shari) As I look out my window this morning I see the mountains of Honduras many across the Caribbean Sea. They are laced in a haze but loom large above the horizon. A three-mast sailboat seems to be anchored out on the water and Bert tells me later that it is a study ship. The scene is lazy and quiet as is my day. I visit with Pat and Bob - they stayed home today - and admire their rig. It is a camper shell on top of a truck body and is quite cozy. The birders return at 5 and we then all join for pizza, salad and beer at the Seafront Inn.
(Bert) The floral garden beauty of Nim Li Punit resembles Lubaantun and like the other Mayan ruins site the birds are attracted to the fruiting trees, especially in the early morning. A flycatcher easily dismissed as just another kiskadee by most, makes a noisy fussing call and I know it is different species. I tell our group to look at its oversize bill and, if it turns, to look for its brown back, since this one is a Boat-billed Flycatcher. The pair of loud Myiarchus flycatchers also clues me in that they are different from the other two species we’ve seen most often. These are Brown-crested Flycatchers. Blue Ground-Doves are more often seen than heard this morning, a turnabout from most days. The Masked Tityras are abundant and one pair is intent on gathering nesting material. Again, we see Giant Cowbirds perched in the highest of bare trees and even at a great distance their red eyes reflect sunrise. When we leave Nim Li Punit we stop at a small lake in the Boden Creek Reserve, finding American Coots, which we have not seen for some time, and a single Ring-necked Duck, a mundane find in winter Texas but a rare discovery here in Belize. Next we visit Big Falls and although the heat of the morning is taking its toll on bird sightings, we walk through dark woods along the turquoise Rio Grande and among orange trees in an orchard, finding a few good birds. I’ve now learned the song of the Bright-rumped Attila, after yesterday’s word game, and hear one singing and later see it for nice confirmation. We find the second Ochre-bellied Flycatcher of the day and hear a Gray-chested Dove. Many birds, including two more Great Antshrikes, which were hard to find in central Belize are much more common here in southern Belize.
(Shari) Arguing who will pay for breakfast, Bearded Bob wins. Actually I win, since he pays. Thank you Bob! We had joined Kent and Linda and had a wonderful relaxing time, eating and discussing everything from birds of course to the book I am reading now by Dan Brown, called Angels and Demons. After we eat, we do errands: dropping the laundry at the Laundromat, getting money from the ATM, buying produce from the vendors at market days. Today lots of vendors are out displaying their many varieties of fresh fruits and veggies. I find my bananas and lettuce and talk with a nice young man and his son. I ask permission to take his picture in front of all the produce. After seeing it, his son wants a picture also. I tell them that I will come back on Friday or Saturday to give them a print of the pictures. Bob then takes me to the Titanic Bar and we visit with the owner who had written me last year after reading our journals. He has a wonderful little restaurant and bar on the second story of the market overlooking the Caribbean. It is almost noon when we return. Later in the day Bert and I scout tomorrow’s birding trip and I show him the different places we had visited. At 5 the group meets to discuss what else but the birds they have seen and the birds they want to see. We finish the day watching a great movie called Empire Falls. The movie follows the book nicely and I am reminded about how precious relationships can be and how life can interfere, influence, and change the course of your existence without any control on your part.
(Bert) We had birded since sunrise and by 10 our list is only 49 species, all of which have now become rather common to us. I did take some nice photos, though, of Mangrove and Yellow-throated vireos, Common Black-Hawk and, out of boredom, Great-tailed Grackle. Only half our group birded here today and half of those had gone home by now and half of those left were waiting by the vehicles. So, it’s only Bob #2, Tom and Charlu with me now. The tall woods close to the beach and the wet forest marsh seem like excellent habitat, yet we see almost none and hear only a few birds. Bob sees a dark bird in the dark forest and says it has spots on its wings. I jump to attention because that’s a partial description of the species I’ve been searching for all morning. I cannot find the bird he saw briefly, but I hear the target bird deeper in the forest. I replay my sound track to be sure it really is Western Slaty-Antshrike. It is. Bob describes a black bird. Now a brown one appears, dots and all. The size of the bird and the oversized bill quickly convince me we’ve got the female. It disappears and we think our viewing is over. Just then the male arrives carrying nesting material and it lands next to the beginnings of a nest. In nearly complete forest darkness, I click a few profile photos of the male and then the female bird on its nest, both looking identical in silhouette. When we walk back to the vehicles, we wonder what Lee’s reaction will be, since this would have been a life bird for him, one of the few on the trip. When we tell him, his chin reaches his ankles in disappointment. I’ve never seen Lee so dejected. Since the birds were nest building, I suggest hiking back to the spot with Lee in hopes that we can relocate them. On returning, we find the birds within seconds. This time our views are even better and I take at least 50 photos of both the male and female. When we get back to camp we tell those that had returned early and they immediately drive out to the spot under Lee’s direction. By the end of the day, almost everyone has seen the birds, although Cindy and Judy have not after two tries.
In the afternoon, we collect the books from the recesses of our storage compartments. We’ve been lugging these children’s books for thousands of miles and for at least two months. Last October, I got over 250 from a 5th-grade class in Wisconsin who collected them throughout the year. Others in our group got books from grandchildren or from their teaching days. Each year we take nearly a thousand books to Belize and this year they are destined for Cattle Landing Saint Philip Roman Catholic School. When Principal Vincent shows me her existing library, I recognize our contributions will more than double what she has on the shelves. Two boys help unload the boxes of books from my SUV and we take pictures of thirty kids and their teachers in front of the school and more photos of the teachers and caravaners in front of the books.
(Shari) Tailgunner Bob works on our dash air conditioning this afternoon and bypasses the heater. I guess that is a band-aid fix until we can get it into a shop. The day is hot and still and my generator clicks on at 11. The birders return early, just in time for Bert to talk to the customs official who comes to pay us a visit. In spite of what I was told in Belmopan, our vehicles also have to get extensions to stay longer than 30 days. He says if we gather up the paperwork he will lengthen the stay without a fine or charge. It seems that everyone we talk to has a different story about rules and regulations. This guy seems to know what he is talking about and even gives us a 4-page legal size document listing all the things we cannot bring into the country. Essentially it is everything in our kitchen; rice, flour, soft drinks, beer, fruits and veggies, meats, but canned goods are ok. He also gives us the E-mail address of the person who can possibly wave some restrictions for us. From past experience I do not have much hope in getting a response. We have tried this route with animal quarantines and visa extensions on numerous occasions, with no reply. Maybe this address will work. Carol and Larry take us to a little school of 33 children in eight grades with a teacher/principal and a teacher. We tell them that we have books to donate and notice our donations will more than double their library. Of course they will take the books so we go back to camp and while Bert loads our books I knock on everyone’s door to let them know we are taking them. Linda drives Bob and Pat and we go to the school. With the help of the bigger boys we unload the books and put them on a bench in a classroom. Kids are kids all over the world and as we take a group picture someone always has to put “devil’s horns” above someone’s head and then of course giggle like mad. Tonight we try another restaurant with Arlene and Bob and each of us has a delicious meal; garlic chicken, garlic shrimp, three big sweet and sour smoke pork chops and a whole fried fish.
(Shari) “Other indigenous people tell them they are living in Shangri La,” says Dona as she tells us about her Cux Lin Ha village and resort. Started about eight years ago to help the native people, it is now a thriving condo resort and hostel. She and her husband taught them the skills needed to build the resort including masonry, carpentry, plumbing and electrical. Now the complex is part of Resort Condominiums International, a timeshare outfit that sells time in Belize that can be traded all over the world. Built close to American standards, each of the one-bedroom units has air-conditioning, a kitchenette and hot and cold running water. A beautiful pool, complete with waterfalls adorns the back of the lodge. Bob, Arlene and I went there for lunch and have a very filling delicious meal served family style. Adjacent to the resort are thatched homes complete with cement floors, doors and running water. The homes were built by the native people for themselves, housing 20 adults and 43 children. Construction was made possible with interest free loans. Dona tells us that the families pay off their loan at the rate of $20 per month or 10% of their salary, whichever is the highest. The first thing they want, of course, is running water, then a mattress, then electricity, then a refrigerator and now one family has a TV. She suspects soon a microwave will join the list. She also says that as soon as electricity is put in, culture is broken. We meet one of the ladies, with a year-old baby hung from her forehead in a shawl. The baby is sick and Dona thinks it may be malaria. She either gave the baby medicine or intends to, I did not get that part. I take a picture of the woman, who has five other children, and she wants to see the photo. When I show her, she has to smile. After a very interesting afternoon, I return to a hot R-Tent-III. Needless to say the generator goes on and I lay under the fan waiting for the coolness to take over. Luckily by 5, the day itself has started to cool off. These last two weeks have been scorchers for me and I am extremely thankful for our generator and air conditioning. Yesterday the vendors found us and a couple of families sat on the ground at the gate with their goods spread out at their feet. I think I saw Gwen and Charlu buy something from them. Also two boys came on bikes with food to sell. I bought two sweet buns from one and six tamales from another. Today the boys are back and brought a friend selling some hard kind of bread that I did not buy. The sweet bun boy today has Johnny cakes, a biscuit type roll. Bert buys six of the rolls and I buy 10 more of the tamales. Wrapped in banana leaves and still steaming, they are delicious. Whatever we do not eat for dinner tonight, I intend to freeze. I wonder what tomorrow will bring us.
(Bert) Black-faced Antthrushes call, one on each side of Blue Creek. One is real, the other an identical copy whistled through the teeth of our guide George. We wait creek side, staying stationary while the real antthrush comes from deeper in the woods to the edge, but keeps just out of sight. The duet lasts for at least 10 min. when a boy and a dog walk the other side of the creek and the shy antthrush recedes. We walk on a path along the creek, seeing a few birds, but not many, until we reach the remnants of a canopy walkway suspended across the river. The hurricane in 2001 damaged the structure and it is no longer in use. A hummer hovers at flowers and its tail clearly marks it as Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. Woody sees it retreat to a nest on a low branch. I photograph the backside of the bird on the nest. When Pat B. asks me if it is a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, I’m surprised. She directs me to the front side of the incubating bird and I see the scaly throat and breast. Puzzled, I still mark it down as Rufous-tailed but add a question mark.
My attention is diverted when I hear a familiar song coming from the hills. I cannot place the singer and ask George. When he says Nightingale Wren I immediately remember this strange song, like a young boy first learning to whistle and having no sense of music, each note random and off-key. I call to Cindy – she really wants to hear this wren again – and to the others. Most of us hear the pretty song, but Bearded Bob says it is out of his hearing range and later I hear two others, somewhat separated from the group didn’t know we were listening to this special bird and missed the rare opportunity. I feel bad that I didn’t check with everyone and, unfortunately, the serenade was brief. We continue hiking toward Blue Creek Cave, the boulders and incline becoming too challenging for some, but the reward great for those that complete the trip. The cave mouth opens wide and tall, floored by pools of clear water wiggling with small fish and strewn with huge boulders and smaller rocks, making the approach tricky. Two White Hawks and a King Vulture soar above us, high up against the cliffs, riding the first thermals of the morning. We double back on the road we came, stopping where we have a clear view of the hillside. We wait in the hot sun for raptors to rise on morning thermals, but our wait is too hot and only another White Hawk entertains us.
By 10 AM, most birders have had enough of the heat to return to camp. Seven of us continue to Rio Blanco National Park, a rough six miles on gravel road. Our noon arrival is poor timing to see birds; nonetheless we are intent on exploring this new area. The trail leads to a series of little waterfalls and one large one, a refreshingly cool spot where we rest briefly in the shade. Only a Black Phoebe and a Northern Waterthrush are avian visitors, so we hike a loop trail in the dense woods. On a side spur we work our way partially up a dry rocky waterbed, stopping when the climb becomes too steep. A Wedge-billed Woodcreeper gets our attention for a while and then I only hear birdcalls. Playing a few songs of the birds on our wish list, I try Paltry Tyrranulet on two different selections. One is a simple whistle that George says is usually followed by a more complicated song. In the long recording it remains a whistle only. When I turn off the iPod, the whistle continues. I check my machine, but the song is coming from the woods, not me. The singer comes somewhat closer, never in sight range, and we confirm the whistle matches the recording. I guess I’ll count that species as a half-lifer: heard but not seen.
By the time we finish the loop trail, Judy is very hot and the swimming hole entices her. She says she will jump from the rock cliff, plunging 25 ft. to the deep water beneath, adding that she often did it as a kid. I tell her she is older and wiser now. Bearded Bob counters, “Older, but not wiser.” Judy removes her hiking shoes and glasses and birding gear and stands at the cliff edge. And stands at the cliff edge. And stands at the cliff edge. Finally after many minutes we put away our cameras set to record the dramatic event, as the wiser Judy has backed away from the edge. Instead she goes swimming at the shallow pools upstream and is soon joined by Bob, Charlu, Cindy and Tom – in that order of motivation. George and I decline, but from the photos I take the swimmers are joyous as kids playing in the local swimming hole on a hot summer’s day.
A couple hours later on our return trip I stop at a marshy area with a small open pond. Playing a series of crake and rail calls, I soon have three Ruddy Crakes calling from different directions. Bob, Cindy and Judy leave in their car and just at that moment a Sora calls. This one gets to within 4 ft. of George and me, but we cannot see it in a 10 min. effort. Finally, it moves away, sight unseen, and calls again from 20 ft. out. Just as I retreat toward the car, intent on leaving, a Clapper Rail lets out a burst of clicks. I return again, but the sounds do not repeat. A good spot, I record the GPS coordinates for another year.
(Bert) Concern about hiking conditions keeps most away from today’s bird trip. The word “swamp” connotes mud, deep water, insects, snakes and other irritants. For a few it has the allure of a place not visited, an adventure waiting and, perhaps, a bird not yet found. In first morning light, our guide Roberto and six of us start down a lane between fenced cow pastures. At the edge of the dark forest we continue on a wooden slat boardwalk raised four feet above the ground. We walk quickly, still fresh with new day energy, muffled footsteps of rubber boots and tennis shoes treading over hardwood planks cut thin by chain saws. We reach the headquarters building and a scattered tent camp and makeshift kitchen where a group of young Brits are preparing for another day of boardwalk construction from the building to the river. We start over the newly built section, quickly changing to upright posts alone and then only a pair of strings marking the planned route.
An hour into our hike, we reach the river and stop to see a constant procession of Wood Storks fly over our heads, following the waterway and heading to lofty tree perches. A Belted Kingfisher and then a Ringed fly by. Roberto spots an American Pygmy-Kingfisher lurking low in a riverside bush. Finally we’ve got the last of the kingfishers, this fairly common pygmy eluding us until the last scheduled birding day in Belize. A little while later we add Green Kingfisher to the day list. Now, we begin the more arduous hiking along the river, poking our way along sometimes muddy, sometimes brambles, sometimes low ceiling trail. Fortunately, the wetlands are mostly dry and Lee, in tennis shoes, manages always to find a spot to place his shoes without ever getting his socks wet or muddy. We pass grassy mudflats where shorebirds gather and through the scope I mark down six field marks that identify a group of three Lesser Yellowlegs, separating them from the more expected Greater Yellowlegs. As we make a turn in direction, a surprised Wilson’s Snipe takes flight and this time – the first time in Belize! – I finally get to put the species on my country list.
Stopping occasionally to observe the many waterbirds, we are three hours into our hike when we first see Aguacaliente Swamp, not at all the way I pictured it. Stretching more than a half mile is a flat and solid golf green, bright yellow-green grass only a fraction of an inch high, flat and hard enough to lawn bowl and terminated by a shallow lagoon replete with hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants, Great Egrets and Wood Storks, mixed with smaller numbers of Snowy, Little Blue, Tricolored and Cattle Egrets. We see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and then a Black-crowned, perhaps the first of the trip, as I don’t recall seeing it earlier. An adult and juvenile White Ibis are in the mix and dozens of Killdeer and 10+ Northern Waterthrushes feed in the grassy field and along the bramble edges. Overhead, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures soar and a pair of Roadside Hawks mate on a dead tree limb. Floating on the water are flocks of Blue-winged Teal and two Pied-billed Grebes mirror above and below the surface. Beyond the water starts low trees and brush again, followed by a palm tree forest, ending in the low foothills beside Blue Creek where we were yesterday. We walk the golf course green until prickly thorns prevent continuation, then double back. We could circle around the lagoon in the opposite direction, but checking our water supply most of us have finished one bottle and are into our second by this time, so we decide we don’t have enough for the additional hours the hike would take. Instead, we head back the way we came, stopping to rest in the shade and see what few birds are still active in the late morning heat. With only rest stops, the hike back takes us two hours and we reach our cars by noon. The hike and the terrain were much better than I anticipated, and the scenery and birds were well worth the effort.
(Shari) Only the die hard birders went off today to hike the swamp while nine of us meet at the Titanic Bar for breakfast. Before I climb the steps to the restaurant, I look for a little boy and his father. I want to tell them that I forgot the picture I promised and find out how long they intended to stay so I could bring it later. I cannot find them in the crowd of people and I feel bad that I cannot keep my promise. We finish our breakfast at 10 and it is so hot that I immediately turn on the generator and the air conditioner. Later in the afternoon we go to town and buy water and a banana cream pie before our travel meeting and margaritas. The wind picks up, blowing away any sand fleas, and it is the nicest evening we have had to sit outside. My bun boy is back tonight and I buy five of his mother’s sweet rolls for breakfast and a snack for our security guard. He tells me he is saving his money for a sports shirt to play soccer and that it costs BZ$16. I give him $2. He still has to save some more money though. The other boys are not around tonight so lucky thing I got all the tamales I wanted last night.
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