Chapter 5. Northwestern Belize
(Bert) Bright headlights of my SUV push back the gray wall of fog; the dim ones stretch farther along the pavement, but still it is hard to separate roadway from roadside. Just beyond Trinidad, an hour and half later, dawn is but a dim glow on the horizon and the morning mist foreshortens our birding percept. A Red-billed Pigeon comments on breakfast, “Woow! You kook goood” in a plaintive dove like coo, and the Ruddy Ground-Doves chime in, chanting an incessant “Per woop, per woop.” Pairs of White-fronted Parrots call noisily in hurried flight over our heads, urgently flapping their short wings as if late for an appointment. In the boughs of the massive tree above us calls a flycatcher identified by voice as a Tropical Pewee. Vehicles moving again, the habitat changes to pine savannah, a mixture of grasslands dotted with pines and sprinkled with palmettos. By the dozens, White-collared Seedeaters and Blue-black Grassquits frequent the barbed wire fences. The male grassquits have a peculiar habit, uniquely identifying them from a great distance. With each joyous outburst of song, the black ball of feathers bounces a foot into the air and alights again on the same perch. On a post, it looks like dotting an i.
Don directs us to a deeply hidden Black-throated Bobwhite, which we can see with binoculars, but cannot find it in a spotting scope. The ground-doves have my interest and I am intent on finding a Plain-breasted, as they frequent this area, but are difficult to separate from look-alike female Ruddies. In the search, Dorothy notices the scaly head on one dove. That makes it a Common Ground-Dove which, perhaps, is not an exciting bird in most areas, but a significant discovery here at the extreme edge of its range. Later, I find the Plain-breasted too.
In the pines we get our first look at a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers, a non-migratory subspecies related to the ones in the U.S. Clinging to a hole in a utility pole, a Gray-breasted Martin peers in at its mate, apparently intent on nesting. Five minutes later we turn back to a squawking battle of two Acorn Woodpeckers angrily attacking the martins who apparently usurped their industriously drilled home. The woodpeckers win.
Near Blue Creek Village we stop at the bridge over the Rio Bravo and hear a Ruddy Crake, but yet again cannot see it. Judy and Lee take us to a spot they are convinced they found a Black-headed Grosbeak, but I express doubts since there are very few Belize records. I play its song and we get a good look – and photos – of a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a nice find if not the rarest. Just short of Tres Leguas, when we reach forested hills on the Rio Bravo Escarpment, we stop again. To our great surprise, a Magnificent Frigatebird soars above the forest, an out-of-place oddity far from sea.
Upon our arrival at La Milpa we are quickly motioned out of our vehicles to a spotting scope aligned on a Harpy Eagle. What a thrill to see this reintroduced bird free flying in the wild! Its eyes follow us intently as it calls wildly, each time raising its wings in hooded stance. Next to us are Ryan and Todd, two of the researchers undertaking the project for the Peregrine Fund (http://www.peregrinefund.org). We met them here last year soon after they released ten Harpy Eagles into the wild. Now they want to relocate the bird we are watching, an adult female. They plan on capturing the bird and moving it to a more remote location within the Rio Bravo Conservation Area, where hopefully it will eventually mate with another wild eagle.
As if the Harpy Eagle was not enough excitement for a day, when we resume birding at 3:30 the first bird our guide Bladimir identifies is a Giant Cowbird, a species we’ve often tried to find in Belize over the years, but did not. Upon seeing the black bird we comment that we might have dismissed it as just another grackle or Melodious Blackbird. Bladimir says grackles hardly ever occur in this wooded area and directs us to notice the dark red eyes on the Giant Cowbird, my fourth life bird of the trip. Many good birds follow, but I’ll jump to the end of the day. We split into three groups for night birding. I lead a group down a narrow forest road, spotlighting the trees and listening intently, but in 45 min. all we come up with is the distant call of a Great Tinamou. From a car, Bob, Cindy, Judy and Shari only find a single Mottled Owl. The real success comes from the truck carrying six birders sitting on benches. Incredibly, they see two female Great Curassows roosting together, three single Northern Potoos, a Gray-headed Kite, a nightjar and five separate Mottled Owls.
(Shari) Tailgunner Bob comes over at 8 AM, wanting to use the satellite phone to call Tripp Lite in the United States. It seems David’s air conditioner does not work and he thinks that the problem may lie with the inverter. The company is willing to ship a unit to Belize but David does not want to wait without an air conditioner for the week it will take to get here. He and Eulene decide to leave Belize and travel home. It is sad to say goodbye to them. Bob, Arlene and I pile into Bob’s car, now already an hour behind schedule for the trip to La Milpa Field Station. The rest of the group has already left and we are expected by 12:30 but arrive late, just as the group is finishing lunch. Luckily some lunch is saved for us and we can partake of the delicious chicken and rice that Belizeans cooks so well. It is stifling hot today and I tell Pat B. that she will be happy to know that this is as hot as it gets. Later I go with Bob, Cindy and Judy on a nighttime drive just to be able to sit in the air-conditioned car. Luckily by the time we return, it has cooled off and actually I am cold as the fan blows over my body on the bed.
(Shari) Pitch black in our room at 3 AM, with no electricity, and I have to go to the bathroom. Groping for the flashlight, I shine it onto my shoes looking for anything inside that does not belong there before I slip them onto my feet. Panning the flashlight from side to side in front of me, I slowly make my way the 10 ft. to the bathroom door. I look around the corner before turning and see a long shiny 30-in. black skinny thing on the floor. Letting out a scream, I run to the bed, shake Bert awake and tell him there is a snake in the bathroom. I give him the flashlight and tell him, “Go get it!” He gingerly walks to the bathroom and looks inside and I hear him say, “It’s my belt.” Now what business does his belt have cavorting on the bathroom floor? I start to giggle and since I hear no sounds from the room next door, I assume Pat and Bob did not hear the commotion. Wrong! By the time I meet the birders for breakfast, everyone has heard the story. The rest of my day is leisurely spent writing journals and reading. This afternoon I play Pegs and Jokers with Bob and Arlene. We teach Ramon how to play and beat him royally. I tell him that the stakes are a free room for next year. He good naturedly agrees.
(Bert) Calling Mealy Parrots warn us of their presence as we enter the ancient Mayan site at La Milpa. “Watch out, watch out!” they scream at us in hoarse voice, but they remain hidden in the tall canopy until a Black Vulture uncharacteristically chases them into flight. Then three Spider Monkeys move swiftly through the tree tops, branches bowing heavily. Black legs and arms and tail clasp holds like a spider crawling across its web. In the next tree Black Howlers move more slowly, sprinkling water or urine to the forest floor 70 ft. below. Bladimir locates a treed Crested Guan and Woody and I try to photograph it, but the black shape against a dark green forest in dim light provides less contrast than our cameras can detect. Northern Barred-Woodcreeper and Black-cheeked Woodpecker are much easier to see, the woodpecker so intent on drilling a hole that I keep it in scope view for ten minutes. A call that I would surely have missed, had not Bladimir pointed it out, belongs to a Great Curassow. The extremely low-pitched bass note is almost undetectable to ear and more felt than heard. The feeling reminds me of a teenager’s turned up volume on too large speakers when he parks near me at a stoplight.
I walk ahead to where Judy has been birding alone and she points out a bird currently highest on her wish list – a Northern Bentbill – and a species we missed altogether last year. From below I see the unusual bill and then its greenish back. Other birders now gather to see the odd flycatcher, but attention quickly diverts to a pair of Dot-winged Antwrens that are easier to see, and then to an active Chestnut-sided Warbler. Within minutes, the same cluster of trees yields two or three Lesser Greenlets, a Long-billed Gnatwren and a Red-capped Manakin.
Walking through the forest and loosing sight of the others, I am struck by the cathedral feeling of vaulted domed archways, tall spires, inverted flying buttresses supporting tree columns. Instead of cathedral bells, birds chime and whistle as I walk softly on the stone floor of a broken Mayan temple.
After lunch, a siesta on the porch hammock feels inviting, so swaying in the gentle breeze, hearing the seedeater serenade, I am soon asleep. I’m interrupted by a dream of a man calling, “Jaa-birrrr-ruuu ssttorrr-kkk,” but then awake with a start when I recognize it is not a dream, but Bladimir shouting. I clumsily roll out of the hammock, pull on my sneakers, grab my binoculars and run – untied shoelaces flaying – to the lawn where all eyes are looking up at the two enormous Jabirus gliding slowly northwestward. After the excitement wanes, I head back to the cabana, but barely reach the hammock when Ramon yells, “King Vulture.” Looking above me I see a Short-tailed Hawk and, correcting him, he says, “Not that one, the other one!” Sure enough, nearby soars a King Vulture. This place is so birdy a guy can’t even take a nap without interruption!
As is typical, late afternoon birding is slower, but we are pleased to identify Yellow-olive Flycatcher, twice find one or two male Green Honeycreepers among Red-legged and watch a small flock of Black-faced Grosbeaks high in the canopy after being frightened by a Roadside Hawk. On our return we hear a distant Slaty-breasted Tinamou calling a breathy single note hoot at dusk.
At dinner I hear that Cindy and Judy had a successful afternoon sitting for three hours at the garbage dump site – a small, but deep, pit surrounded by forest. Among the best of more than two dozen are: Gray-headed Dove, Thrush-like Schiffornis (seen as well as heard!), Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Tawny-winged Woodcreeper.
(Shari) I was outvoted. Everyone, but I, wants to eat breakfast at 5:30 AM and be on the road to Chan Chich by 6. I hear Ramon’s truck at 4 as he drives to start the generator. The fan starts up in our room and I am freezing. It must be in the 50’s outside. I decide not to roll over and fall asleep again, but instead get up, dress and join Bert in the dining area. I read as he writes his journal. On the road to Chan Chich I count 87 Ocellated Turkeys and 11 curassows and two deer. I am glad that I came early. Arriving at the resort, I join half of the group with Bladimir as a guide, adding Giant Cowbird, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper and Mealy Parrot to my life list - this all in the first 30 min. Don and I walk back to the dining area as we both seem to suffer from hypoglycemia due to the pancakes from breakfast. Don buys me some cream cheese and toast, which we enjoy on the veranda of the beautiful resort. After our snack, I walk the manicured paths to the swimming pool and read some of my book as I watch a gardener sweep the roof of the screen over the pool with a very long large palm frond. I retrieve my swimming suit from the car and take a picture of bananas growing on a tree. The gardener tells me that they will ripen in four months and then the whole tree will be cut down since another one is growing beside it to replace it. After lunch, I take a swim in the lovely pool. The day never reaches above 73 degrees so the water is cold at first but refreshing nonetheless. Too soon, it is time to leave this idyllic place in the jungle. As we pile into our cars I hear excited voices talking about their day and the many life birds they have seen these past six hours. My only regret is that I was not with the group that saw Tody Motmot. If I had seen it, I would have another bird before Bert. On our way back we stop at a beautiful place where the jungle meets a lagoon. The underbrush is cleared and the group gets out to bird. I decide to stay in the car since my swim washed off all my bug spray. All in all it has been a wonderful day and we are a bunch of happy, if tired, campers this evening.
(Bert) A broad parkway forms from a narrow, well graded gravel road shouldered on each side by a wide short-grass border, terminated by the tall forest edge. This is the road to Gallon Jug and prime habitat for browsing Great Curassows and Ocellated Turkeys. Amazingly, in the dim morning light we count 14 curassows and 87 turkeys in route. At the bridge just beyond the gatekeeper, we see our first Amazon Kingfisher resting on the railing. The grand entrance passes through fenced farmlands and grazing cattle, reminding me of the ranch estates in the beautiful rolling hills near Brenham, back home. Entering Chan Chich, we are awed by the beauty of this forested resort, the quaintly attractive cabanas, the manicured grounds and the first class amenities. We split into two groups, one lead by local guide Reuben and the other by Bladimir. I join Bladimir and we have great success on the wooded and streamside trails. Most impressive is the great look we get of a Rufous Mourner – another life bird for me – followed shortly by the larger but nearly identical Rufous Piha. After much coaxing by Bladimir’s uncanny imitation whistle, a Thrush-like Schiffornis comes within good view, another brown bird to add to the mourner, piha, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, woodcreepers and Wood Thrush – a morning of rufous birds according to Bob B.
Bladimir identifies a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, but two of us challenge him on the id, both of us sure it was a female Green-breasted Mango. Friendly bantering pursues as we discuss what each of us saw. I mark down mango. A half hour later we see and hear a hummingbird we all agree is a Scaly-breasted. This one persistently moves between close perches, probably intent on nesting in the selected tree. We get a fleeting glance at a Purple-crowned Fairy whose loud wing beats Arlene and I had been hearing for the past few minutes, and I understand later that Cindy also saw a fairy with her group, one of the few this much-traveled birder has added to her life list on this trip. We also hear that Reuben chose a too long trail, loosing more than half of our highly independent group somewhere scattered along the way. By lunch, all eventually wander back to the swimming pool area for a delicious outdoor barbeque. After eating, I walk to a spot where Don had taken great Red-capped Manakin photos. Since this bird has always been a challenge for me to photograph – too distant, too dark, too hard to focus on red – I hoped I could find the same bird. Indeed, I do. My results are good enough for a cover page on Birder’s World. In a brief hour of afternoon birding with Reuben, three of us watch a Gray-necked Wood-Rail, a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars and several close Pale-billed Woodpeckers. But the best is a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper that allows me to take baby steps in its direction, each time snapping a closer photo until I’m within 8 ft. of the bird, still using my flash and not upsetting the woodcreeper.
On the way back to La Milpa, we stop at Laguna Seca. The palms in the cohune forest have tall trunks, unlike the nearly trunkless ones at the La Milpa ruins. One of them holds a Bat Falcon, perhaps in the process of nesting. Our best bird here is a Yucatan Flycatcher. Later, on the side of the road we stop to see the Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched near last year’s nest and we also see a small flock of Scaled Pigeons, but moving too fast for much in the way of identification marks.
Dorothy tells me she heard a Barn Owl over the lawn by the cabanas and dining hall. That’s the first report for any of our Belize trips. It’s my turn to join on the night-birding truck and we meet with great success, listing four White-tailed Deer, three roosting Ocellated Turkeys, two Crested Curassows, three Mottled Owls, one Yucatan Nightjar, one Common Pauraque, two Northern Potoos, an unidentified “eyes-only” mammal and a weird jungle sound like mammals fighting.
(Shari) If it is not my next door neighbors dropping flashlights in the middle of the night, it is the freezing temperature that keeps me awake. At 3 AM, I am so cold that I have to get up to put on my jacket. Then I crawl up into a ball but can only stay in that position so long before my muscles are sore and I wake up again. Finally morning comes and I get dressed. I have never had it so cold here. It makes it wonderful for walking and birding though. We leave our thatched cabanas after lunch and make a short stop along side the road to look at a Jabiru nest with four chicks before we drive the horrendous road home. I am the driver for the return trip and I find it very tedious, dodging all the potholes in the gravel road. Finally we hit pavement and smooth sailing home. Arriving at 5 PM, we unpack, do a quick load of wash, and eat a light supper. It has been a wonderful three days but it is also good to be home in R-Tent-III.
(Bert) When we gather for pre-breakfast birding, Pat B. points to Plate 43 in her copy of Howell & Webb and describes what she saw earlier from the porch of her cabana. Her observations of overall shape and color and the vertical yellow line preceding the wing provide a good description of Speckled Mourner, a species Bladimir says he has seen only twice before at La Milpa. Although Pat is new to Belizean birds, she had the good fortune of being with us yesterday when we found Rufous Mourner and Rufous Piha and heard our discussion of differentiating field marks. Her 2-day trifecta of these very similar and mostly featureless brown birds and the Thrush-like Schiffornis she also saw yesterday – the fourth bird in the Webb lineup – is remarkable and certainly unprecedented in our caravan birding trips.
This morning we continue to see new species and get better looks at others. A brilliantly green hummingbird, Canivet’s Emerald, poses for us in bright sunlight. On the opposite side of the road and in dark shade, a Northern Bentbill is exposed enough to give us the good close-up looks we missed two days ago. This one even gives me a chance to take a few photos, but the dark contrast prevents a good shot. A Bright-rumped Attila – a bird that is prettier from the rear than the front – exposes its yellowish rump. Bladimir moves slowly along the road, not wanting to enter the forest before 10 AM since he anticipates we will see the first lift of raptors about that time. Bearded Bob has been teasing him about seeing a King Vulture and Bladimir says not until 10. Ten minutes early, at 9:50 the King Vulture soars high above us, so fast Bladimir and I give directions several times to get everyone on the bird. The huge black and white vulture glides smoothly over us and provides an excellent view, even including a hint of the colorful head. Next in the show is a raptor that has us clicking off field marks to coalesce on a name. When I see the puffed white rump feathers I’m sure it is a Double-toothed Kite, and when we open our books the other features narrow it to a juvenile. We enter the broadleaf forest, finding a Gray-headed Tanager before the path narrows to single file. The group separates and those behind me have the good fortune of seeing a Schiffornis feeding in the foreground, while hearing another calling forlornly in the background. At the research buildings, Bladimir points out several roosting Greater White-lined Bats which I photograph.
After lunch we leave La Milpa, but stop along the return trip at rice fields near Tres Leguas. With each passing truck, especially those with poor mufflers, hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Blue-winged Teal rise from their tall marsh grass hide and into the air in colorful flocks. Soras screech from the marsh, one of which Cindy shares with us in her spotting scope, and twice I see singles hurriedly cross the gravel road. Linda reports a Wilson’s Snipe and, independently, at another marsh location Cindy sees one also. This is the first time one has been found on any of our trips to Belize. I wish I could have seen one, but I miss both, even though I am standing nearby. Across the marsh on a wooded ridge we see large white birds on a nest and zeroing in my spotting scope reveals an adult pair with four half-grown nestlings. Everyone gets a good look at this Jabiru family, yet Arlene still is enthralled with the nest full and would have watched longer than the 20 min. I had the scope aligned. A raptor soars above us with upturned wing tips, its color pattern causing Cindy and me instantly to think Swainson’s. But we try to dismiss the thought and make the field marks fit a more likely candidate. I quickly jot down the features I observe before the hawk disappears over the horizon. Later I ask Cindy her recollections and we seem to rule out all other options, yet have field mark agreement with Swainson’s Hawk, a migrant not expected in early February in Belize. Later I decide I just don’t have enough evidence for this rare find, so I don’t put it on the trip list.
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