Chapter 3. Northern Belize
(Bert) Rain knocked on the roof and a black shroud hung heavily on the Caribbean. Ghostly flocks of swallows winged northward across the water, partially illuminated by the lights of the park. We assemble our first group of rigs in warm rain, dampening our T-shirts like wet laundry. Through the water logged streets of Chetumal the taxis spray like ski boats, trailing a double wake. When we meet Henry at the Belize border he tells me the cold front is expected to dump rain tomorrow too. One would think this is the wet season, as this is our first experience with rain in these parts. The first steps in our border crossing move like clockworks: refueling at cheaper Mexico stations, filling our forms and getting visas stamped, crossing the bridge and spraying insecticide on the undercarriages of rigs. But after driving to the next station and walking to the immigration office, confusion ensues. The manager changes his mind about where we are parked and which border officials will conduct processing. After much discussion with him and repeated explanations on my part with our group, we move the back half of our chain of vehicles and people to another border location. Lines now form at five stations and slowly more forms and ledgers are completed and pet vaccinations and importation paperwork paid and validated. A couple of hours later, vehicle inspection begins, starting in our line with my vehicle. It seems like an easy agricultural check until the inspector asks me to open the storage bays in R-Tent-III. Alarmingly, she tells us “You can’t take that in,” referring to my cargo load of soft drinks. I had stocked up with a month’s worth of diet drinks and bottled water. She allows us to take the bottled water, but confiscates the diet drinks. That’s a new one on us, never questioned in prior years and not listed on the importation bans on the Belize web site. The inspection continues with other vehicles, but it seems we have been the hardest hit. Another hour or so later we pass through the final border guard station and park again at the insurance office. Fortunately, I had applied beforehand for liability insurance for everyone in the group and signing and paying the premiums is a fast process, especially since the company triple staffed the office in our behalf. Still, it is after 2 PM before we arrive at the RV park and laboriously park in the soft grass sites. After everyone is settled in, at 4:30 under our awing and protected from light rain, I conduct the second half of my parrot identification workshop, followed by a Welcome to Belize piña coladas party.
(Shari) I keep trying, but never succeed, in getting us through the border crossing (a) without getting frustrated (b) knowing the procedures, (c) making it quick and (d) without getting frustrated. I am to meet Henry, our Belizean campground owner at the border. He has not yet arrived, so I talk to the Mexican border guard, who after a bit of coaxing, allows me to have 21 blank red and white forms. His rule is to have the person in front of him before issuing a red and white form. But I convince him that I will bring them back completely filled out. I trudge back the two blocks to where our RV’s are parked – oh, did I tell you it is raining outside? - carrying my Wal*Mart bag of passports, 21 red and white forms, the personal radio that Bert and I communicate through, and my umbrella. Bert hands back everyone’s passport with the red and white form while Henry - he has shown up by now - helps me fill out mine. I then get on the CB and tell everyone what to put in each blank. Bert then collect the forms, passports and Mexican tourist visas and I trudge back to the man in the border hut. Surprise, the man is different - a shift change - and he is unwilling to give us the double entry permit without 100 pesos. Henry says this is not right and tells me to say that I talked with an official in Chetumal who said all I needed to do was show our documents. After awhile of stalemating, the border guard acquiesces and starts to stamp our passports and red and white forms, however slowly and grudgingly. He mumbles to a friend about us but continues to stamp and initial. I finally get that all accomplished, return to the group and distribute the documents. We are ready to cross, now on step 5 of my handout. When we get to the border, the outside of our rigs are sprayed for “bugs” and each rig continues to step 6 while I wait for the last rig to get sprayed, so that I can pay the bill. Meanwhile Bert is handling 3 or 4 issues at a time and looks a bit frustrated to me when I rejoin him. People are asking questions out the gazoo and since the officials have instituted a new policy with a new form to fill out, I am not much help. In midstream, an official decides to process half the group at another location. Our task is to turn around half our train, on a track going in one direction only. Bert decides who has the easiest job of turning around and tells them to go with Henry. Soon I hear a border official asking where the half is that is to go elsewhere. We look up and no one has listened. Oh my, we have lost control of the group. We finally get through immigration and onto customs where we get our vehicle permit. This procedure has not changed and is a laborious process where an official writes, by long hand, passport number, VIN number, car make and model, length of stay, name and address. This is handwritten two maybe three times - a receipt, a piece of paper that we sign and a logbook. When our half of the group has finished this task we are told to go to our vehicles for our inspection. We know from previous years that dairy, fish meat, some fruits, beer and liquor are at risk for confiscation. The female official enters R-Tent-III and proceeds to open every cabinet in the place. She keeps saying how nice it is. She is in no hurry even though seven rigs are waiting for her inspection. She asks questions and I answer them as briefly as possible not offering any more information than is requested. She leaves our rig and I am thinking, “Home free!” Wrong! She wants us to open our lower compartments. She sees Bert’s three cases of soft drinks and informs us we cannot take them into Belize. Darn! Bert gets bent out of shape, which I am sure, does not help the situation. I reluctantly remove our soda and am sorely tempted to open every one of the lids. I am told to put them next to the fence. Bert thinks he is finished so he proceeds to move through the gate until we hear someone tell us the official is not done with us. I think by now she is really upset and will tear our whole rig apart looking for contraband. But she does not. Luckily she passes the rest of group through and now it is 12:30 and we can move on to the next step. And you thought we were finished! Ha, ha! Our next step was historically the most time consuming but this year it is the fastest. Bert had e-mailed our vehicle information to the insurance office a few weeks ago and the paperwork is all waiting for our signatures and payment. We are out of there in record time. Because of the rain Henry’s RV park is a bit muddy and we are afraid the big rigs will get stuck so we try to keep them up front. Also, Henry wants us to park in the back lot because of security, the bathroom, and he needs room for the Panama caravan that arrives on Saturday. It takes us so long to park that my schedule is now 1-1/2 hrs behind. I take a group on a tour of Corozal and then come back to take another group. By the time I return, Bert is just about to start the second part of his parrot talk. I am starved and really ready for piña coladas and snacks. Finally, I can relax.
(Shari) Bob #6, bearded Bob, Tailgunner Bob, Bob B. Too many Bob’s! What to call them each to separate them all because each one is unique? In my mind #6 should really be #2 since this is his third trip. (Maybe #3 then). But he bought a previous cavavaner’s rig that had #6 already on it, so he is #6. I think bearded Bob is a good one and I know he will tell me if he doesn’t approve of the moniker. Anyway, he and I did errands today. But that was after having the luxury of turning over and falling back to sleep a few times and finally getting up at 7. Even though I could not sleep, I love the feeling just knowing I do not have to get up and I can take my time just to diddle around. Only seven other birders went with Bert this morning and the rest scatter in all directions, bird watching locally, errands in town, washing vehicles and just piddling like me. I catch up on paperwork and about 10 gather up Bearded Bob - he has this beard that would compete with Santa Claus - and I trundle off to arrange for propane. Belize is English-speaking, but some people barely speak it. Or I do not understand their Caribbean accent. Anyway, when we get back into the car, Bob says he gives it a 30% chance of the propane delivery actually happening. I agree. Then it is off to the airport. I pick up our tickets for Tuesday making sure everything is in order. As we exit the terminal – one room including a Fed Ex office and barbershop - Bob points out a 14-passenger plane sitting on the runway and wonders if that is our plane. It looks so little. But I know we fill the plane and we have 14 passengers so I bet that is ours. Oh dear, oh dear. And I hate to fly. That task accomplished we drive to the market where I pick up some bananas at 9 for 50 cents. That is dirt-cheap but the apples make up for it at 50 cents a piece. We check on the price of gas so that Bert can determine a formula for reimbursements when car-pooling. The gas is US $4.69 per gallon. We had heard it could go up to $6 a gallon in Belize so I am pleasantly surprised. After dropping Bob off, I remember I have to call to make arrangements for a boat trip and visit with Joan, Henry’s wife, for a while. I tell her my Spanish joke and she laughs too and says men are all alike regardless of the culture. She then proceeds to tell me a Belizean soap opera that happens to me true. She knows of a man that was fooling around on his wife and the wife found out and then proceeded to beat him. When she finished the story a nice looking man walks in and Joan introduces me to him as the man in the story. He heartily agrees that the story is true and says he will never cheat again but that he did enjoy the beating. I return to R-Tent-III and Bob takes our car and washes it. Isn’t that nice? He has been so nice to me so far that I wonder what he wants. He would say that he is just nice. It is approaching 5 PM, the magic hour I start to worry when Bert has not returned. Bearded Bob knows this from experience and walks over to chat with me. It starts to rain at 5:30 and we continue our conversation under the awning. He says that Cindy can’t die in a wreck because he has forgotten where they put their money and he would have to go home. Now that is not very reassuring. The mosquitoes come out at 6 and I have to go inside. Bob’s departing words are “We are not going out to look for them until dawn. I am not driving those roads at night.” He thinks they are probably in Orange Walk now and will be home in 30 minutes. While inside I try to call my dad on the satellite phone but he does not answer. I use the phone to retrieve my cell phone messages or I should say to find out that I have no new messages. FINALLY, headlights appear and our group is home. It is 6:30 PM and I am sure Bert will tell you the story.
(Bert) Our birding site today, Shipstern Nature Reserve, is only 39 miles from our campsite, which doesn’t seem far away until you see the roads we take to get there. Our first barrier is the New River, crossed by a hand-crank ferry. While we wait for the ferry to reach our side we watch a pair of Rose-throated Becards and a very vocal Red-billed Pigeon that curiously circles over me when I imitate its call. When the ferry pushes its planks up against the shore we drive our vehicles aboard and two men crank a wheel-linked-to-cable mechanism. On the road again, we try not delaying for birding until we reach our destination. We head east, then south, then north, as we drive around Progresso Lagoon, since there is no road over its connection to the sea. Secondary broadleaf forest surrounds us, frequently interspersed with sugar cane fields and, later, corn, bean and other vegetable fields, tended by Mennonites. The road – if you can call this a road – is a broad white limestone base seriously potholed, causing Don to comment that driving is like playing a computer action game for race car enthusiasts, except top speed is 30 mph. A few Mennonite horse-drawn carts that we encounter seem to make as quick progress as we do.
About 2-1/2 hrs after we left this morning we arrive at Shipstern and are greeted by Romel, a reserve warden. He introduces us to the features of the nature reserve and I suggest that we hike the Thompson Trail through the forest to the savannah and lagoon. Carlos will be our trail guide and we start from the headquarters buildings. Judy locates a wren, which I identify as White-bellied, a nice start to birding. But once on the trail, we find water more common than birds. The accumulation of rain has left 2-8 in. of standing water over many sections of the trail, forcing us either to slog through it or pick our way through the dense under story on either side. Part way along the path, Don and Cindy decide to return to the headquarters to bird there, while the rest of us continue. We persist for another hour, finding a Violaceous Trogon and hearing a Blue-crowned Motmot, but are forced to backtrack as well when water gets deeper and forest nearly impenetrable. We take the Botanical Trail on our return and study the many signs marking the great variety of trees in this forest. Birding is slightly better around the headquarters and better yet when we hike a trail at the Sartenja National Tree Park. This entire part of northeast Belize was nearly flattened by a 1955 hurricane, so the secondary forests we’ve visited have grown up since that time. The National Tree Park includes the best accessible stand of mahogany trees left in the country and we see many interspersed with myriad other species. Birding again seems dull until I imitate a pygmy-owl and we finally see one of our target species: Tropical Gnatcatcher. My hooting agitates a dozen other birds that now surround us, a surprise showing when it seemed a minute ago that the forest was devoid of birds.
Next we head to the Caribbean coast at Sartenja. The turquoise water looks refreshing, except near shore where the water is foamy and heavily silted with limestone, perhaps the result of the rains. Tom sees a distant bird on a wire and thinks it a frigatebird. Most of us doubt the possibility, but when we drive to the spot, we indeed find a Magnificent Frigatebird that thinks it is a swallow, awkwardly balancing its large body on the thin wire. Our return trip is slowed by stops for birds, notably the dozens of Indigo Buntings, mixed with Blue Grosbeaks, White-collared Seedeaters and a few Blue-black Grassquits feeding along the roadsides and fence rows. Our last stop is at a pond where Cindy’s carload thought they saw Muscovy Ducks earlier. Instead, we find a large flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. We are still a long way from camp and looking at a map we decide to return via Orange Walk instead, anticipating much easier travel once we reach the city bypass. However, it turns out the short drive to Orange Walk is over the worst road yet, severely potholed and muddied by cane trucks now lining the road during harvest. By the time we are finally on good road, premature darkness from black rain clouds slows our return. It is with relief we finally return to camp 12 hr. after our start, a day long in adventure, but short on birds.
(Bert) “Wow! Look at its long tail … and it’s so big … look at that red bill!” The apparition has us all puzzled, except for Dorothy, as she runs to the car to retrieve another book. But, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me start from the beginning of a spectacular morning. Our early morning birding starts just a couple of miles from our Corozal campsite at a canal leading to Four Mile Lagoon. Timidly, the first birds stir from nocturnal roosts and we tick off common species on our list. When we reach the lagoon I see a Pale-vented Pigeon across the water, conveniently perched in the open. Aligning a spotting scope on the bird affords each of us a prolonged frontal view that is rare for this fast moving dove. Backtracking along the canal, Dorothy questions about a presumed martin on the wire and, standing closer, I identify the Purple Martin, a northbound migrant. A few minutes later we notice another bird among the many swallows on the wire. Now we have a local Gray-breasted Martin near the migrant Purple, a nice comparison.
Back in our cars, I ask Woody to take the lead, as he and Gwen know a good spot to find Ruddy Crakes. When we stop again, Cindy and I play recordings of the rail, but get no response. Waiting quietly beside the water-filled roadside, about five minutes later we hear the call again and everyone looks at Cindy and me to see if it is coming from us. No, it’s coming from the marsh. Then we hear another from the other side of the road. A ten-minute vigil gives us lots of chatter, but no chatterer. So, we move on to the ferry, having to take our five vehicles across in two ferryloads. The first three vehicles continue on the road to Copper Bank and stop when I see a small flock of parrots. While we debate over White-fronted versus Yucatan, four parrots burst into view, ricocheting in front of us across invisible barriers, two short-tailed amazons and two extremely long-tailed parakeets. Our mouths drop open in surprise at green wings trailing blue tipped primaries and secondaries and followed by a kite string tail. A parakeet perches briefly and the strange dark collar necklace is obvious, as is the striking contrasting rose red bill. I instantly know this parakeet is not on the Belize country list of bird species, but it has no name in my mind. Dorothy recognizes it and rushes to her car to retrieve a different bird book, one for the U.S. that depicts exotic introductions. There it is: Rose-ringed Parakeet. The birds vanish as quickly as they appeared, just as the last two carloads pull up. We decide to pursue in the direction of the parrots and find many more, but none of the Rose-ringed. We also are delighted to see Orange Oriole, Yellow-tailed Oriole, and Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, and, at another stop, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Cinnamon Hummingbird and Bronzed Cowbird. We drive a few miles in the direction of Cerros Mayan site, but stop where others last year found a nesting Ornate Hawk-Eagle family. We hear an adult calling just as we arrive and Cindy relocates the nest, high in a tree, but we see no evidence of nesting. After a long wait to see one of the hawk-eagles, Cindy says she sees one hidden deep in the foliage. I bring my scope and place it in front of her so she doesn’t loose her bead on the hawk. She refinds it in the scope and all of us get a chance to view the hawk-eagle with a kingly top feather so deserving to be called ornate. Knowing its position, we can now find it also with our binoculars and shifting our positions we find a spot where we have a clear view of the whole bird – good enough for a photo with a long telescopic lens. Wow! What a way to top off an incredible morning of birding!
(Shari) Hearing the only too familiar gurgle of gray water backing up into our shower, I make a mad dash to shut off the washing machine and think I am going to give Bert another whipping with that wet noodle. If I am going to finish the wash, I will have to empty the tanks myself, since Bert will not be back until noon. This is definitely not a pink job. After lunch we drive to Orange Walk Town to arrange for out next campground. Last year the owner told us of all the plans he had to improve the place. This year we notice they are still plans and everything looks like it did last year. He assures us that he will string water hoses and electrical cords along the ground before we arrive next week. After chatting with him we go to the New River waterfront and confirm our boat arrangements for tomorrow, all the while wishing that the Internet was more prevalent in Belize. When we arrive home, we set up for our little anniversary party for Kent and Linda’s 48th. As we eat Sunshine Cake we talk about our travel day tomorrow. It is our first side trip and one where we have to pack for a one night’s stay. It is pretty late before we finish our tasks and turn out the light.
(Shari) What kind of Wagonmaster on a birding caravan does not have binoculars? That is the situation I find myself in this morning. I can only think that I left them in the glove compartment of our other car that is now in a locked storage shed in Port Aransas, Texas. Cindy generously lends me an extra pair of hers. Dawn is breaking and we are already on the road, carpooling to the dock of the river for 35-mi. river trip. There is not a cloud in the sky and I wonder if the day will turn into a scorcher. But we are blessed with a cool breeze all day long. Upon reaching the Lamanai ruins, after a 3-hr. bird trip upriver, the birders scatter and I visit the craft shops. More merchandise is displayed than other years, but the prices are way too expensive and nothing parts me from my money. I sit under the palapa enjoying the breeze off the river and read a book until the group gathers again for a delicious chicken dinner. Later, I see the group peering upwards into a tree. Ralph is making a “click, click click” sound and has called in a trogon and a Keel-billed Toucan. Both birds are worthy of being on my life list. We watch the toucan for a bit and notice how he has to turn his head sideways just to look around. If he did not his big bill would hit the tree and he could not turn. In previous years I have watched it fly, lowering its bill downward as its wings propel it upward, an odd top-heavy flight profile. The bill has all the colors of the rainbow swirled around and in striking contrast to its very shiny black body. I never tire of looking at this natural work of art.
At 2:45 we climb back into the boat to finish the last 15 mi. to our overnight stop at Hill Bank Field Station. When we talked about arriving in a boat last year, the manager said “No problem, mum, just use the dock.” Orlando, our boat captain and guide, cannot find a dock. Unless it is the pier separated from land by a good 30 ft. Orlando circles around a bit before two men indicate that we should get off on the pier that is not attached to land. We have to get out of one boat and into another. The two men then pull us to shore. After four or five trips like this we are all grounded. We are shown to our rooms, six dorm-like rooms for couples and two large rooms, one for the remaining women and one for the remaining men. Exhausted, I flop on the bed and immediately fall asleep while the birders get in a walk before dinner. After eating, the rain starts and I decide not to go on the night trip even though I enjoy them so much. I am just too exhausted. This ol’ body just does not like to get up at 5 AM and today it has never recovered.
(Bert) Raindrops ping softly on the tin roof of the cabana as I write this journal for yesterday. The others are all asleep at 4 AM, but I sit on the porch under the dim light powered by a vast array of solar panels. The rain increases tempo and the roof’s downspouts pour thin waterfalls, silvery in reflected light against a darkened backdrop of forest and lagoon.
An action-packed day, it started early as usual with our drive to Orange Walk where we board an open-topped boat powered by twin outboard engines for our trip along the New River. First, heading north toward the rum factory, the birds are plentiful and easily spotted. At a secluded marsh we hit the mother lode of birds and I ask Orlando, our driver and birding guide, to let us alight on the embankment. Ashore, we step into a surreal Jurassic scene of Muscovy Ducks in flight, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks feeding, Solitary and Spotted sandpipers poking in the mud, a Gray-necked Wood-Rail skirting the edge of a small pond, several enormous Bare-throated Tiger-Herons perched high in an old gnarled tree. A flock of Black-necked Stilts flash black and white across the marsh, where below probe two immature White Ibis. Many more birds fill our list before we lumber back into the boat and start our river journey inland to Lamanai. Along the way we encounter a perched adult Great Black-Hawk and spend more time puzzling an immature hawk overhead before I conclude it is a Common Black-Hawk. We search the best habitats for Sungrebe and Agami Heron, but this year find neither. Now Orlando throttles up the engine and the boat slices through river water, tilting sharply to the left and right as we follow the bends in the channel. Arriving at the new boat landing, the entrance way to the Mayan ruins has been enhanced by colorful beds of tropical plants and flowers and sweeping stonework steps, modern bathrooms and a museum. I judiciously selected a travel day when the tourists on the boatloads of cruise ship offloads were not competing with our birding interests. So today we have only a few others walking the ruins grounds. Birding at mid day is slim pickings, but we score a number of eye-beckoning finds, notably Keel-billed Toucans and both Violaceous and Black-headed trogons. On the more elusive list, the group accompanying me gets to see Eye-ringed Flatbill, Long-billed Gnatwren and Green-backed Sparrows. Later I hear Judy found Plain Xenops and Cindy got four Barred Antshrikes and a pretty male Golden-winged Warbler, and Tom heard a Thrush-like Schiffornis. These bird names are as strange as the shapes and calls of the birds themselves.
In mid afternoon we continue upriver to Hill Bank, but upon our arrival we see no place to put ashore. Recent rains have raised the river to the point that the rickety and low-slung dock no longer reaches land. After Orlando makes several passes along the shoreline, we attract the attention of staff and help is on the way. Alighting on the marooned dock, two helpers wade through the water, pushing a boat to transport us in groups to land, followed with our luggage. After settling into our rooms, we begin a one-hour late afternoon bird walk. Orlando finds both Masked and Black-crowned tityras on adjacent tree branches and after struggling to find the exact location between concentrated foliage, we all get to make the comparison. Best of all, Bladimir zeroes in on a single Yellow-headed Parrot which later joins three others. The endangered parrots – with only partially yellow heads - are the endemic belizensis subspecies, the first of this variety I’ve seen in the country.
After dinner our plans for a nocturnal drive through the forests are threatened by a tropical downpour, yet as quickly as the rain begins, it ends. We board the beds and cabs of two pickup trucks for a starlit ride on narrow two-rut roads, each vehicle heading in different directions and scanning for wildlife with high-intensity spotlights. Our group finds little at first, but then, excitedly, Linda cries out, “Pig,” the first word coming to mind when she sees a Tapir feeding beside the road. Simultaneously, Charlu also sees the Tapir from inside the cab and our driver backs up and we view the unusually large black mammal hustle deeper into the forest just as my spotlight finds a second one with just head and shoulders protruding from the dense foliage. It’s my first sighting of this mammal in the wild and a species I would not have expected to find. We illuminate three nightjars and I photograph two, later deciding they are Common Pauraques. On our return trip, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron walking the jungle road and, presumably, far from water, is a surprise. When we return to the research station, I hear from Bob that their truckload found a Boat-billed Heron, a Kinkajou – a monkey like relative of the raccoon - and a Mottled Owl. On foot, Bob leads a few us back to the owl perch and it still rests on the low branch in clear illuminated view. After a long fun-filled day and night and a quick cold shower, it takes only minutes for me to be fast asleep.
(Shari) 4 AM: Thud, thud, creak, creak, creak, slam, thud, thud, thud … Some one is up in the “boys” room next door and I bet I know who it is. The footsteps disappear into the darkness and rain and I fall back asleep. Thud, thud, thud, thud. That someone who is awake is now sitting outside my window, listening to the downpour as well. I have visions of our upcoming 3-hr. boat trip before falling back to sleep. Thud, thud thud. The someone moves again and disappears into the darkness. Finally the rain stops but the weirdest noise takes over. It is a high-pitched gargle emanating from the tree outside my window. I know it from yesterday to be the black bird with the yellow tail called an oropendola. Then I hear another very strange noise drifting into the window. This one I recognize immediately as the caw of a Yoder trying to be funny. I guess I just better get up and be done with it. I spend the day leisurely reading my book and writing journals while the group enjoys numerous walks with Bladimir, their guide. At 3:45 we gather our things to start the boat trip back. We travel fast to Lamanai where we wait about 30 min. to refuel and nibble on sandwiches and sweets. It is 5:30 when we depart and darkness is fast descending. Charlu wants to see a Limpkin and while stopping for it Bert hears the distinctive call of the Collared Forest-Falcon. We follow the loud “help help help” sound and are treated to a beautiful view of the big bird. For the next 2 hr., in the darkness, Bert, Lee, Bob and Ralph shine flashlights along the riverbanks and into the trees. We are rewarded with some fine nighttime sightings and by the time we reach the dock, I only hear good comments about this first trip.
(Bert) On our pre-breakfast walk we hear a bird I’ve heard another time on this trip and many times before. The cadence reminds me of a Whip-poor-will, but with less intensity and different emphasis. Bladimir identifies it as a Yellow-billed Cacique, a species much more easily heard than seen, as is also the case this morning. The White-bellied Emerald is more conspicuous, a small hummingbird with a showy green back and, on the flip side, a clean white belly. A pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers explores a barren tree in plain view.
We head back for 7:30 breakfast, a hearty meal of scrambled eggs, refried beans and homemade bread, which I cover generously with Marie Sharp’s excellent mango jam. By 8:30 we are out birding again along a coastal path that eventually leads into the forest. Our first sighting is a very long crocodile floating in the New River Lagoon. A while later, Bearded Bob comes up to me saying, “Well, I got a positive ID on the crocodile … George … He lives around the corner here.” At “the corner” we hear Barred Antshrikes and then have a chance to see one of the black-and-white “jailbird” males. A few of us become separated from the larger group that Bladimir is leading, until he comes back to me requesting help on a vireo he cannot identify. I’m surprised, as Bladimir is a much better at identifying his local birds than I am. When I see the bird I know why he asked. I postulate, “Warbling Vireo, but see if we can rule out Philadelphia Vireo.” We get a better look and now I’m confident it is a Philadelphia, and others come to look at the bird that rarely visits this part of Belize and, in fact, is the first time anyone on our six Belize trips has seen one. Another highlight of the morning is coming upon a Green-breasted Mango building a nest. I take several great photos of her working diligently and awkwardly with her oversize bill.
Coming upon a patch of tall trees adorned with a vine - called Curassow Crest because of its short spikes - we see many birds attracted to the yellow-olive blankets of flowers: Red-legged Honeycreepers, Orchard Orioles, a White-necked Jacobin and a Blue-winged Warbler. Just inside the forest we encounter an ant trail that attracts Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, a Hooded Warbler and a Ruddy Woodcreeper. For identification, I tell the group to zero in on the gray feathers surrounding the eye, a unique feature separating this from other woodcreepers. Those standing near me hear a Black-headed Trogon, but I am later told that part of our group sees it from another location, courtesy of Ralph’s unusual ability to call in this bird with a vocalization of his own invention. We are caught in a rainstorm and we seek shelter, one group under a palapa near the river and ours in a workshop. The palapa group tells us later that they watched a River Otter play near shore. Our shed covered a huge pile of mahogany planks recently confiscated from poachers on the reserve. Their technique was to use chains saws to cut down two large trees, mark lines along the trunk and chain saw the wood into 2x8 8-ft. planks which they intended to carry out of the forest. Having been caught in the act, their tools were confiscated, but after paying a wrist-slap fine the tools were returned. Conservation groups are pushing for more severe penalties.
As expected, early afternoon birding is slow, but the three tiny birds we see deep in the rain-dampened forest are winners – all tennis balls of feathers, but strikingly different in colors. The most elusive, a drab brown Stub-tailed Spadebill bounces from branch to branch in quick jerks, moving faster than tracing binoculars. The Red-capped Manakin eludes us at first but then poses on a distant branch, but clearly in view. I’ve tried to photograph this species before, but always failed to bring it into sharp focus. Such is the case again today – too small a target and too much conflict with branches intersecting my tunnel vision. A bit farther along the jungle path, we find the only other manakin of Belize: White-collared Manakin. Similar in size and shape, this version is a ball of yellow and white supported on orange twig-like legs.
In late afternoon we are ferried the 15 ft. back to our boat and Orlando guns the engine to full-throttle, shooting across the choppy waters of the New River lagoon. We stop at Lamanai and wait for gasoline that is being transported there by truck. Meanwhile, a mystery hawk flies and hovers high above us. The gloomy gray skies, still threatening of more rain, show no color in the dark hawk, but judging from its profile I speculate dark phase Short-tailed Hawk. The raptor kites so steadily in one spot that I can align Judy’s scope on the spot and even zoom in with high magnification. Now I can discern the shade differences between underwing coverts and the primaries and secondaries and I can see the yellow legs and cere. Almost all short-taileds I’ve seen in Belize have been light phase and I’ll have to check my records to see if I’ve ever recorded dark phase.
On the river again we recheck the traditional Jabiru nest site, vacant yesterday, but now occupied by an adult sitting in the nest. The distant view and the setting sun give us a good profile view that would have been undetectable, were it not for this stork’s immense size. Announcing the end of day, a Collared Forest-Falcon moans its mournful and repeated plea of “Help” and we have the unusually good fortune of seeing it perched atop a leafless tree on the horizon. Now with darkness setting in, we see Limpkins finding roosting sites. In semidarkness we hear them calling and with my light beam I locate the caller. Later we find the fiery eyes of a Northern Potoo in Lee’s beam and adding my more intense light we all can clearly see the wood like bird. We hit upon a nightjar and it takes flight and lands again, then repeats the sequence, enough so that we notice the absence of white feathers, but for the tip edge of the tail. With other marks on the resting bird we narrow our possibilities to Yucatan Poorwill. Much farther along the river we spotlight submerged crocodiles but for bulging eyes, the bright eyes of a dimly illuminated moth and hundreds of spiders, the latter glowing like green stars across a short-shorn meadow. The climax is a Yucatan Nightjar, identified in spotlight by its cinnamon and white collar. Now, Orlando shifts to fast speed and we sway to bends in the river as he guides the boat by the watery reflection of starlight only. I tilt my head back, stargaze at the millions of burning points and am particularly delighted to see the complete Orion constellation, including the hunter’s legs, head, and bow and arrow, a fitting finale to an action-packed two-day river adventure.
(Bert) I’m surprised that the church pews are almost empty until I hear that most of the congregation drove to Belmopan earlier this morning for the funeral of one of the pastors. Now, Shari and I along with five others from the caravan fill one pew and represent nearly half of those in attendance at the Anglican church. I’ve mentioned this before in our journals, but it always strikes me that such a diverse cross culture is represented here: black Caribs, Hispanic, British, Mayan, and Anglo Americans retired from the U.S. I recognize many of those in attendance and they me. In fact, they know we are from the birding caravan and the pastor even looked up my web site and knew how many bird species we saw last year, he being a birder himself. We always feel welcome at this congregation and, in fact, when it comes to the prayers part of the service, we are included in the request for safe travels.
(Shari) We almost double the number of worshippers at St. Paul’s-by-the-Sea Anglican Church with our seven people squeezing into one pew. It always seems we are here when something unusual has occurred, resulting in a guest priest. This morning’s 7:30 service is conducted by a retired Belizean - whose name I can find nowhere in the printed bulletin - because most of the regular parishioners are at a funeral service in Belmopan for the Diocesan Youth Coordinator. The service starts with the singing of a hymn without accompaniment. No one can sing in the group and the printed notes are not the melody we sing for any of the six songs this morning. The priest leads the singing and I think we sing the same melody for all but one of the songs; about a three note up and down whole note plodding cadence. Bill, where are you with your guitar when we need it? The song we sing properly, Bert knows and sings lustily and for those that know Bert’s singing, they know I mean lustily. At the time of the sermon, a chair is brought down from the altar and placed by the pews, where the elderly priest sits as he delivers the message about how one gets closer to God. During the prayer section, the priest prays for our group of travelers and after service those in attendance warmly welcome us. Bert and I spend the day on catch up work before we have a Welcome Piña Coladas Party for our wayward Tailgunners. They arrived Friday night while we were gone, taking only 3 days 3 hr. to travel all that way through Mexico. I would not have thought it possible to travel that fast by RV. It would have been faster if they had not made a wrong turn near Veracruz that consumed two hours wandering through back roads. They slept three nights parked at Pemex gas stations en route and were pretty tired when they arrived. So we “gave” them the day off, Sunday, and debrief them over pizza tonight. Lots of our group had $1 bets on the time they would arrive. After I found out when they left the USA, I could no longer change my bet but we let everyone else change theirs. Guess who won? Yup! If I could have changed my bet I would have guessed they would not arrive until Sunday or Monday. Who would believe 3 days? Of course there are shouts of foul play and cheating until I give all the money to the Tailgunners for their transmission fund.
(Bert) A few days ago, Ralph and Dorothy discovered a new birding spot west of Corozal and that is where we head today. I’m particularly keen on finding Lesser Goldfinch, a species infrequently reported in Belize, but known to occur in this quadrant. The rural road takes us beside cane fields interspersed with fallow cornfields, clumps of trees, and wide weedy patches. Each copse is an oasis in a desert of monoculture sugar cane. Our first stop brings us a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls cuddled side by side and willing to turn their heads in my direction for a photo shot. Cindy and Judy report fly-by Yellow-headed Parrots a bit of a distance away from where I am standing. At another stop at a tree thicket, we are amazed at the variety of species represented: Green-breasted Mango, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Masked Tityra, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Blue-winged Warbler, Grayish Saltator. In fact, we tally up 32 species while standing in one spot. Later, while walking along a farm road adjacent to an abandoned field, I identify another Philadelphia Vireo – first none for six years, now two within three days. (Maybe I’m just getting better at identifying this bird, after all the experience I had with this species on our Manitoba caravan this past spring). Also in the field are a plethora of White-collared Seedeaters, Blue-black Grassquits, Indigo Buntings and an out-of-habitat Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Far away, Cindy and I hear quail singing a familiar chorus that we have heard on our recordings. She gets out her mini iPod and plays Singing Quail songs which to us sound identical to those in the wild. This gives us pause, as I know of no record of Singing Quail in the Corozal District and few records in the country. I wish we could see the singers. But I do get marvelous looks at Lesser Goldfinch, including a brilliant yellow and black male in the spotting scope. At the edge of the cane fields I hear, and then see, a couple of Gray-crowned Yellowthroats and, later, a Green-backed Sparrow. From the open fields I hear the familiar song of Eastern Meadowlarks. At yet another stop in trees above a cow pen, we watch a secretive vireo that eventually gives us enough clues to piece it together as a Yucatan Vireo. By about 10:30 AM the show is over and we see few birds thereafter.
(Shari) I hear Bert leave this morning and I roll over and try to fall asleep again. But, I cannot. Getting up, I make some coffee and walk over to Ralph and Virginia’s, friends from previous caravans and also going on our Alaska caravan this summer. I want to say goodbye to them as today they are leaving for points farther south. I mean, much farther south. They are on the Panama caravan. I have a wonderful chat with them and walk back to our rig. It is not yet 8 AM. I write journals and e-mails, and do two loads of wash, hanging it outside along a rope on the awning. The company I am to use for our boat trip on Thursday sold their boat two weeks ago and, ever since, I have been trying to get a replacement. I finally get in touch with the new owners and they intend to honor the contract from the previous owners. That is one thing I won’t have to worry about any more. Bert comes home actually 15 min. early. After a quick lunch we go to town for some groceries and gas. Arriving home, I flake out on the couch. It is a bit warm today and since the electricity cuts out every time we turn on the air conditioner, we resort to either fans or diesel generator. We are getting a good sea breeze, so we tough it out with only fans. Bert has a bird workshop before he turns the meeting over to me, to discuss our next two side trips. We linger outside since there are no flying insects and the early evening is intoxicatingly pleasant. Going inside just means work. Later one of the group comes over and we decide her husband should see a doctor for the bronchitis that does not seem to be getting any better. Bert takes them to the doctor in town, who works at night, while I finish the dishes and pack. Bert reports the diagnosis is good and they purchased some medicine.
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