Chapter 4. Belize cayes
(Shari) The 14-passenger single engine Cessna looks very very small. As it comes in for a landing, we women look at the plane and then at each other as if to say, “This is it? Isn’t it too small?” Walking sideways between the 3-seat rows, my 5-ft. 5-in. frame doubles over at the waist to avoid bumping my head as I make my way to the front of the plane between Bert and Cindy. Bearded Bob has the co-pilot’s chair and I am not sure that makes me feel any more secure. Our pilot uses every inch of the runway to become airborne. Once we are up, the view is fantastic. Flying over Corozal, we see our RV’s parked below, looking like decks of cards on a green tablecloth spread next to the sea. We cross over cultivated land and some that looks like swamp before we head over the clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean for our short 20-min. flight to Caye Caulker. Upon landing, I call for a taxi which turns out to be a 6-passenger golf cart and another cart pulling a trailer for our luggage. Eight of the group walk and bird to the hotel while the rest of us take the “taxi.” Since it is only 8:30 our rooms are not ready, so we walk across the street for some delicious ice-coffee. An hour late, our rooms still are not ready so we return to the restaurant for breakfast. I order a lobster omelet that turns out to sound better than it tastes. The birders return and now they are hungry so they too order breakfast. Finally our rooms ready, many of us don swimming suits and spend the rest of the afternoon in or around the pool before meeting above our room at the palapa on the deck at 5 PM. This is the life and I am embarrassed to call it work. The temperature is just right, the water is refreshing but not cold, the sun feels sinful as it warms my body while the ocean breeze cools it. We discuss tomorrow’s schedule before we split out into two directions for a tropical dinner in open air restaurants on the beach next to the Caribbean Sea. I taste a sample of Cindy’s fried conch and Bert’s whole grilled fish and they are delicious.
(Bert) From the air, we can see our RV’s parked at the edge of Corozal Bay and then I find the outlet of the narrow winding New River near the hand drawn ferry. The forested land looks so flat and the distances covered so quickly, in contrast to our snail-paced jarring movement by car a few days ago. I see Four Mile Lagoon, Progresso Lagoon and more roads crisscrossing the Mennonite farms than I thought existed. But eastward of the spot where we visited Shipstern Nature Preserve, civilization ends: no roads, no buildings, no hint of people, just dark broadleaf forest sprinkled with lighter green palms and interspersed with mudflats, watery marshes and small pools. Near the coast, a few dime-sized islands dot half-dollar lagoons and one of them is speckled with white, undoubtedly an egret nesting colony, as I also see a flock of them slowly winging across the gray blue water. Now we are over coral reefs, transparently exposed through the crystal clear turquoise Caribbean. The blue deepens to ultramarine before we reach Caye Caulker, an island diminutive from the air. The half-mile runway crosses the island and we smoothly pull up to the small terminal building about 20 min. after departure.
Many of us start birding immediately, letting Shari and other riders transport themselves and the luggage via golf-cart taxis to the hotel. Within minutes we find a Bananaquit, coboti subspecies, a particularly pretty lemon yellow and white bird, soft in texture and spry in movement. Next I hear a familiar call, “Peeee-eh-wheeee,” signaling an Eastern Wood-Pewee. We bird the loop trail through the CCBTIA Mini-reserve and find a Yucatan Vireo with intense curiosity for my recording of another. Our walk along the palm shaded shoreline yields Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and many others. When we reach the resort hotel I see Tom standing on a pier terminated with hundreds of terns. I join him and study the flock, pulling out the two that are different from the multitude. With a shorter stance, reddish legs and lacking the yellow bill tip, the two are Common Terns. After brunch, most of the rooms are still not ready, so Lee and I walk north along the island, finding little at first in the hotness of mid day. But then under a high, broadly branched set of trees, we find several Yellow-rumped Warblers and, more interestingly, a Mangrove Warbler, a subspecies of Yellow that looks so different you would think it should be a species in its own right - its brilliant yellow body sharply offset by a blood red head. Now back at the hotel and checked in, we take a quick swim in the pool – the only one on the island – and then head off for more birding in the direction of the airport. In a brush and vine covered vacant lot we see a large form move through the trees and disappear. We move on, but Tom stays behind. Within minutes we hear him yell a single word “Hawk” that sends us scurrying back. Zeroing in on the spot he designates, I see a Gray-headed Kite and quickly make sure everyone else is focused on this great find. In his Belize book, Jones’s brief comment is “Uncommon on mainland,” suggesting this kite may never have been reported on the cayes. We continue on our walk, delighted to find a Prairie Warbler that rockets round robin from bush to tree to bush, giving us brief but oft repeated looks at its yellow and black plumage. A better prize is our first good view of a Black Catbird, a regular resident of the cayes, but infrequently found on the mainland.
(Bert) Boat captain Gilbert guides his 38-ft. boat cautiously up to the dock and we quickly board. While floating in calm water we eat a breakfast snack and then pass over the reef where the waves break, entering rougher seas. The turquoise water reaches to the horizon, devoid of other boats and all else, but for a few flocks of Sandwich Terns, several flying fish and a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. Choppy water, yet few white caps, persist for a half hour, but flatten on the leeward side of Turneffe Atoll where Gilbert throttles the twin 200-hp Yamaha outboards to 28 mph, according to my GPS. Within the atoll we slow to a crawl and stand up to stretch. The mangrove-covered islands are unpopulated but for a shack or two and we see little else, but will return later for a closer look. Onward toward Half Moon Caye, first rougher seas, then calmer, but a long two hours leaves us anxious to be on land again. The island is everyone’s image of paradise: coconut palms swaying in a gentle breeze, frigatebirds smoothly soaring over acres of white sand, beckoning warm water tossing on coral reefs. We take to the hiking trail toward the breeding colony, stopping to watch two Prairie Warblers and many Hermit Crabs carrying their fist-sized shell homes on their backs. Close to the rookery we see our first Red-footed Bobby perched above us in a tree. I photograph my life bird, somewhat obscured in the branches, but red feet prominent. The highlight, though, comes upon climbing the ladder up to the observation platform just at the edge of the rookery and eye level with the tree tops. Not eight feet from the railing sits a booby on her nest, unconcerned about our keen interest in her: the baby blue dagger-like bill, peculiarly large dark eyes, and pure white body hiding bright legs beneath her. Nesting Red-footed Boobies are everywhere, interspersed with Magnificent Frigatebirds and above us soars dozens more frigatebirds and boobies. Enhancing the visual impact is the crackling dry rattle of the male frigatebirds, an unbirdlike emission that could hardly be called a call, much less a song, but more like the crackling of a fire. I click dozens of photos, each pose inviting yet another click. The proud male frigatebirds inflate red balloon sacs, puffed up to impress the white-pouched females who mostly ignore them. I see only two juvenile frigatebirds and one juvenile booby, our arrival just preceding hatching time. Reluctantly, I descend to ground level, the last to leave the tower. I bird back with Tom and deep in the mangroves and gumbo limbo I hear a White-eyed Vireo, but when I play a recording, in comes a curious Yucatan Vireo followed by a Mangrove Vireo. Yet, the White-eyed continues to sing. Later I hear that Lee found a White-crowned Pigeon, the only one of us to see one.
Some stay to find more birds, or rest after lunch, and the rest of us ride the boat to the coral reef on the point. Just after we jump overboard, Bearded Bob and I discover a Spotted Eagle Ray coursing just above the short sea grass, a stealth bomber with flapping wings in a watery medium. We snorkel in warm clear water, among hundreds of brightly colored fish. Junior, our snorkeling guide, points out Yellowtail, Blue Tang, Four Eye Butterflyfish, Bluehead Wrasse, Parrotfish and many others. I’m particularly impressed with an enormous Red Snapper hiding under a coral outcropping and when I swim down to its level I’m surprised by its menacingly long sharp teeth and decide not to tempt my fate with a closer approach. Hiding in another crevice is a Spiny Lobster: all dangling appendages and so different from the sleek streamlined bodies of swift swimmers.
Our return trip is over smoother seas and moves more quickly, with less bounce. We decelerate at Turneffe Atoll and coast slowly to watch a pair of Osprey on a nest, a treed pedestal above the mangrove forest. Another high nest brings more intrigue. Shared by a blue heron and a white heron of equal size and proportions, the nest holds a rare mated pair of the blue form and white form of the same species: Great Blue Heron and Great White Heron. On the way back to Caye Caulker and out of sight of the atoll, we see a line of four White Ibis winging just above the rolling waves in the direction of Turneffe. A half hour later, Cindy spots a circling mass of distant birds, obviously feeding on a concentration of fish near the surface. With bouncing binoculars I can make out the angular black bodies of frigatebirds and I surmise the smoother and smaller dark bodies are Brown Boobies since I’ve often found this combination here in the intercoastal waters. By 5:15 we reach the Caye Caulker dock, again anxious to set foot on solid ground. The night air is cool, almost chilly, when we walk to a restaurant built over the water. Fried conch is my order, and delicious it is. A long day at sea, sleep comes easily and early this night.
(Shari) Two hours turns into three and we still don’t see land. Thirteen of us are on a boat traveling to Half Moon Caye to see the nesting colony of Red-footed Boobies. As we bounce on yet another wave, I whisper to Pat Y, “I hope this bird is worth it.” Our captain Gilbert, as did his boss, promised the trip was only two hours long. Never liking to blind-sighted like this, I am upset. Finally the sea calms down and land is sighted ahead. One sea-sick body, one headache and many tired bones clamor to get off the boat. As Bert slowly birds along the path with the group, I speed ahead to the observation tower with the intention of getting the life bird before he does. Almost scaring me to death as it scampered in front of my path, I stop to take a picture of the biggest hermit crab I have ever seen. I reach the tower and climb the steps to the platform above the canopy of trees. I am rewarded with a nesting booby not 10 ft. ahead of me. Male frigatebirds are in display trying to attract a mate with their red neck pouch all puffed out, as if they are God’s gift to women. The boobies have a wonderfully powder blue bill, white body of feathers and gaudy reddish-orange legs and feet. Since most of them are sitting on their nests, taking pictures is easy. Meeting the group upon my return, I sashay over to Bert and tell him, “I got the bird before you did. Ha! So there!” By the time I return to the picnic table area, my head is splitting and Pat Y gives me some Advil. We are served a delicious lunch of stewed chicken, potato salad, watermelon, rice and beans and coconut tarts which I wash down with a nice cold bottle of Coca-cola. Since my head is still pounding, I back out of the snorkel trip. Snorkeling is one of my favorite things to do, but I decide it would not be a wise move at this time. I promptly fall asleep on the picnic bench awaking 45 min. later, much refreshed. Asking whether she would do this trip again, Judy says she vowed never to spend so much money for one bird. She, however, did and was glad she did it. Later I talk with Pat and Eulene and ask them how we could make this trip better in the future. I, for one, would not make the long boat trip a second time to see the bird and would instead snorkel closer to the island, but I’m glad I did it this time. Again we meet under the palapa to discuss tomorrow’s agenda before heading as a group to a restaurant built over the water. Tonight I have fried conch and whole fish.
(Bert) We pick up three golf carts and then passengers and head to the dump site soon after day break. Yellow Warblers abound and among them we get a good look at a Mangrove Warbler. A first-winter male Common Yellowthroat is not one I run across often and it looks strange with only a black mask and no gray separator from the crown. From the dump we head to the south end of the island, skirting the shore. Hummingbirds are consistently Cinnamon and are common but fast flying. We search in vain for Rufous-necked Wood-Rails at their known haunts, but are later told that our 8 AM arrival is too late in the day. On the return trip we find a Whimbrel and again see the odd couple side-by-side: a Willet paired with a Marbled Godwit. And we see the couple twice more in the afternoon. Jones considers the godwit a rare winter visitor to Belize.
(Shari) “An American lady, a tour guide, is taken off the island by force as she is handcuffed to the airplane seat so that she would not bolt back to the hotel.” I think this could be the headline on the Caye Caulker Gazette as I reluctantly board the flight back to Corozal. I have had such a wonderful time on this small island that I really do not want to leave. This morning I slept until 8, leisurely got dressed, watched a little of the Today show on American TV and had coffee around the pool with Arlene and Bob. After the group returns from their early morning bird excursion, half of us have breakfast at one restaurant and half at another. We have three golf carts for the day and drive them on every road Caye Caulker has to offer, stopping at every bird we see. I get another life bird to add to my list. A Mangrove Warbler with its rust colored head and yellow breast is an impressive bird, but very difficult to find since the dumb thing never stays still long enough to train my binocs on it. Finally I am successful and it stays for a few seconds as the sun reflects a brilliant yellow belly. We take the short 20 min. flight home and Henry and Joan meet us at the airport with vans. Back at camp we find a gazillion little flying bugs attached to the rear of R-Tent-III. I mean, the whole rear end is covered with the little devils and hardly a spot of fiberglass shows through the mass. The good news is they don’t bite. Bert has been trying to fill our fresh water tank for the last THREE hours. I feel like I have to problem solve the situation for him. Because we have an empty tank when it showed full we must have a leak. I tell him to determine where the leak is. He just stands there doing nothing. Again I mention to look for the leak. After raising my voice a notch every time I say “Look for the leak,” he finally looks under the rig and points to a large stream of water coming out of a tube. I tell him to turn one valve after another until the stream stops. He gets the stream to stop so he found the leak. Hurrah! Now I tell him to fill the tank. He comes in and tells me water is gushing out of the faucet and the pump is off. I tell him that is because he is going directly from the faucet outside and is bypassing the tank. I tell him he must not have turned the fill knob to the fill position. We traipse outside again and sure enough that is what happened. Now folks, this does not transpire in whispers and silence. I am sure those parked close to us hear our heated exchanges. A few days ago I mentioned that about now the honeymoon wears off between couples, between each other and between us. I guess our honeymoon just wore off. Both of us are tired and want to go to bed. I am awaiting water so that I can do a load of wash. He just wants to go to bed and when tired I know he does not think straight. I am sure he has his side to the story but this is my side and right now it is my reality. I too am tired.
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