Chapter 6. North-central Belize
(Shari) With a 2 PM departure and only 35 mi. to travel to our next campsite, our day should be relaxed. It starts out that way as we get up late at 7 AM and eat a leisurely breakfast, write and read some journals, shop for fresh veggies and fruits and bleach for our water tank. While I vacuum, Bert washes the bugs off the rig and shakes out the rugs. Unfortunately it has started to drizzle and then hard rain, and by the time he comes in he is soaked. Looks like everybody is raring to go and get out of the rain and muck before we get stuck. Bert takes R-Tent-III to the front of the line, while I bring up the car to be attached. I cannot pull the transmission disconnect lever out and call Bert to help me. He cannot do it either, so taking off his shirt, he crawls on the gravel underneath the car and fiddles with the disconnect. After fiddling for 10-15 min. he must determine it is too uncomfortable and so he pushes the car to grass where he crawls under again, this time armed with WD-40. He uses up what is left of the can and borrows some from Woody and asks me to get a screwdriver. Oh, oh! He pounds with the hammer and pushes with the screwdriver and pulls and finally the lever pulls out. Three men then push the car back to R-Tent-III so it can be connected. Bert is a mess, all muddy, full of leaves and wet so I get a big towel for him to sit on. We take off and hear on the CB that Judy and Bearded Bob are not with us. A little while later, Don drives up in his car and tells us he is stuck in the mud at the new campground and that we had better have the caravan park on the side of the road while he takes Bert in to check it out. Still raining cats and dogs, the guys go off and leave us at roadside. Soon I hear a 2-way radio message requesting me to send the little rigs in first. Next the 5th-wheels go and finally we get our turn. The rain stops just as we settle into our spot. Isn’t that nice? As I walk up to the campground - we decided we would get stuck so parked in the driveway - I see that Woody is stuck but is soon pulled out by the park owner’s tractor. What was supposed to be a nice relaxing day turned into not one of our best. Oh well! I make arrangements with Sonia, the campground owner, to use the front room of the restaurant for our margarita party and we gather to listen to Tom’s excellent talk on how birds fly and imbibe in well-deserved drinks. Arlene has made virgin strawberry margaritas but everyone wants the hard stuff. Next time we will add tequila to her batch too.
(Bert) Today was to be uneventful, a day of rest, a day to catch up with errands. I begin with writing journals of a week ago, mostly from notes I’d written in route, but after Shari wakes up I start on the errands. As we approach our 2 PM departure, I run into our first snag. We cannot get the drive shaft disconnect to disconnect. In the rain, crawling around underneath our Nissan Xterra, wearing only shorts and wet, tattered SAS shoes, I spend a half hour using WD-40 and a hammer to try to loosen the disconnect mechanism. Finally it breaks free and can be towed. Rain pours while in route, so much that I cannot see the RV caravan in my rearview mirrors. Half way there, we see Don in his Jeep Cherokee, waiving his two-way radio. Don left early, almost two hours ago, and now he communicates that his motor home is stuck in mud at the next campsite. We continue in the rain to Orange Walk and park on the side of a muddy gravel road a short distance from the campsite. I ride with Don to his RV and after assessing the situation, I decide we can bring in the smaller, lighter RV’s first. That completed successfully, I direct in the 5th-wheels, now with Tailgunner Bob’s assistance. Woody’s truck slips in the mud, coming to rest in what seems to be a safe place. Kent’s 4-wheel drive truck fairs better. We decide to keep the oversize motor homes parked along the driveway, since from personal experience I know it is possible to get them stuck in a half-inch of mud on flat ground. By now I am completely drenched and muddy, so I take a quick shower before attending Tom’s talk on “How birds fly.” Tom - who taught ornithology when he was a professor at an Anchorage college - does an excellent job explaining avian aerodynamics using the wing of a road kill Yellow-crowned Night-Heron as a prop.
(Bert) I’ve been to the Maya site at Altun Ha before, but by the southern route. This morning we reach it by the less traveled, more rural Old Northern Highway route. At our first stop at a creek overflowing from yesterday’s rain, we hear a Thicket Tinamou and are searching to see a Green Kingfisher when Pat B. exclaims, “King Vulture.” Walking to where she stands we see the vulture perched prominently on a high tree and with binoculars I have the best view ever of this species but for the Belize Zoo. I can clearly make out the bright white eye and multicolored naked head with its strange yellow-orange wattles on the bill. A short while later, we see a couple of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures and, of course, we see our usual omnipresent Turkey and Black vultures. I don’t recall ever having seen all four Belizean vulture species in the space of a couple of hours.
Our car-truck caravan separates as we view different ponds along the road and through our 2-way radios I hear the other group sees a Wilson’s Snipe. I’m anxious to see this common U.S. bird because I’ve not seen one in Belize and this is now the third sighting in the past three days. But the bird and the birders leave the scene before I backtrack to their location. It now becomes my chant, “Seeing any Wilson’s Snipes?” as we continue searching the succession of flooded ponds. We find many Wood Storks, a pair of Least Grebes, many Common Moorhens and a Purple Gallinule, but no more Wilson’s Snipes. Doves are in good supply and variety – Pale-vented, White-winged, Scaled, Red-billed, Plain-breasted and Ruddy – but we are mystified by one dark sedentary pigeon-like bird that we stare at with four spotting scopes. It rarely happens that I cannot identify a bird that I have time to study, but this one has me stumped and when it flies away 10 min. later I still don’t know what it was. We continue on the much pot-holed road until it becomes tedious, but make one more worthwhile stop when I spy a White-necked Puffbird perched on a utility wire. The patient bird, as most puffbirds are, provides a close and prolonged view for the many in our group who count this as a life bird. Morphologically, puffbirds resemble kingfishers, but are puffed up and have shorter bills.
We arrive at Altun Ha and encounter eight busloads of lightly and brightly clad tourists, fresh off the cruise ships docked at Belize City. I have trouble identifying with them and they us. They think we dress strangely in long pants and shirts and hats – to ward off insects – and staring at the forest instead of the ruins. One asks, “Are you mountain climbers?” and another, thinking we’ve found a monkey, asks what we are looking at. When I say “Ant-tanagers,” he says to the others in his group, “Oh, it’s just a bird!” Partly to avoid the tourist chatter and partly to find birds, we walk down a closed forest path toward the lagoon at its terminus. Trogons abound at Altun Ha, mostly Black-headed, but here I see a well-hidden Violaceous. Noting that no one else sees the bird, I look around and select Pat Y. for the first one I’ll put in my stand and align with the bird. You have to know Pat and Lee to understand this situation. Lee is the serious birder and Pat sometimes tags along, but often has trouble finding the birds, especially if Lee impatiently tries to help her. So, I give Pat three carefully worded instructions and within in seconds she is describing the brilliantly green back on this Violaceous Trogon. When Lee wants to see the bird too, I ask Pat to show Lee, but her good directions lead no where for Lee, who spends many minutes before finding the trogon. I chuckle to myself at the amusing turnabout. The lagoon is within site, but the waterlogged trail reaches a depth of 6 in. and only Cindy proceeds, since her boots rise above the watermark. While we wait to hear what she finds at the lagoon - speculating for which species we would be willing to get our shoes and feet wet - a half-dozen tourists arrive with a guide. All previous groups had turned back at this impediment, but this one includes two attractive ladies in shorts and halter tops who are intent on proceeding, especially when Cindy radios back that she sees a turtle. Off with the tennis shoes and white socks, the two slosh through the water, accompanied by the guide in his leather shoes, passing Cindy on her return.
I hear on the 2-way radio that Judy has found a fruiting tree, abounding in birds. Bill, Cindy and I make our way to her location and spend the next hour seeing dozens of birds of 19 species all feeding in the same Strangler Fig encircling a tall cohune palm. It seems every Yellow-throated Euphonia has a red berry pinched in its bill. The best bird, however, is a flycatcher which I am convinced is Caribbean Elaenia, uncommon on the cayes and hardly ever reported on the mainland. The bird moves quickly in the canopy, giving me frequent but short glimpses during 20 min. of viewing. The field marks that give me pause are the infrequently raised crest, the noticeably pale lemon belly, the almost unnoticeably faint wingbars and the reddish lower mandible. These and other features are consistent with Caribbean, ruling out its very close look alike, the Yellow-bellied Elaenia. I manage to capture a few out-of-focus photos and will likely report this discovery to Lee Jones for possible inclusion in North American Birds quarterly reports.
(Shari) The night is extremely quiet but I have trouble sleeping. Bert leaves with the group and I start on accounting tasks. Bearded Bob - I may call Evel Knievel since he drives fast on bumpy roads - knocks on the door and asks if I want to go to town. I am always ready to do that so off we go to the big metropolis of Orange Walk, the second largest city in Belize, but it is not much to write home about: very few paved streets, no nice grocery store that we could find and a very small fresh produce market near downtown. People mingle everywhere and I wonder why they are not working. We visit a lumberyard that Mel and Beth told us about last year and admire the craftsmanship on the tables and chairs that they sell. Asking the price of a small collapsible table I am amazed to hear that it is US$37.50. I suspect most of the products are exported because no one that I saw could afford such a table. As we are returning home we see a building that says it is the Cultural Museum of Orange Walk. Bob and I enter and spend the next hour reading and looking at the history of the town from early colonization by the British because of the mahogany trade, through chicle production, sugar mill factories and independence as recent as 1981. Below the street and adjacent to the river is a beautiful well-manicured park with no people in it. It is the prettiest place I have seen in this area and seems a shame that no one is out enjoying it. I spend the rest of my day reading and recharging my batteries getting ready for a LEO (let’s eat out) tonight at the restaurant at the campground. Fried shrimp, pork stew (salpicon) and stewed chicken with mashed potatoes, eggplant and squash, rice, beans, tortillas, chips, salsa and bread pudding, all for US$7.50 each, served family style. I hear one woman say that she has worked so hard at eating that she has broken out in a sweat. No one can complain that they went away hungry. All is delicious and I am happy that I planned a LEO here.
(Bert) Before we reach the lagoon, we can see water creeping beneath the bordering scrub, much higher than I’ve seen in prior years. Rains have overfilled the lagoon, mudflats are submerged, shoreline his hidden beneath edge trees. Half a dozen Snail Kites are visible at one time, most perched on the low, waterlogged trees. Among the coots and jacanas we see a first year Purple Gallinule in mixed plumage. While tarrying along the causeway, looking at birds flitting on the brushy border of water and land, I see an adult male Tennessee Warbler in complete alternate plumage, a stage not expected until April according to Sibley. At the resort and boat dock I ask Verna if she has seen the Southern Lapwing recently. She says, “Oh, yes, it was here this morning,” and points through the window to the pond in her backyard. I go outside and see that others in our group already have binoculars and spotting scopes aimed at the pond. We saw the southern hemisphere transplant at Crooked Tree last year, several months after its surprise arrival, and now I see the same bird again. Bearded Bob comments, “This may be the most photographed bird at Crooked Tree,” while I add another dozen shots to my collection.
Twenty of us board Leonard’s new boat, which easily accommodates our numbers. He explains that the high waters will limit the number of birds we will see this morning. Without exposed mud flats and shoreline, many of the birds will be elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Common Iguanas are still seen clinging to the tops of the trees, as is a pair of Black Howlers. Perched in one of the shoreline trees is a Myiarchus flycatcher that Cindy and I first mark down as Brown-crested, but Dorothy convinces us it is a Dusky-capped. Debates on this genus of look-a-likes are common and seem to be renewed with each sighting. Raptors are our most frequent sightings. Leonard pushes the boat into the submerged bushes to get us closer to a pair of Bat Falcons and a nesting pair of Black-collared Hawks including one on the nest, with last year’s discarded nest also visible. We get an even closer look at another Black-collared and Don is delighted with the full-frame photos he is taking. An immature Great Black-Hawk has our attention and, fortunately, flies closer to us for an even better look. When I study my photos later, I can see the telltale absence of the dark malar stripe that separates this from the Common Black-Hawk. We watch and photograph a Snail Kite holding a large snail shell in its bill and then transferring it to its talons just as it takes flight. We get our fill of Limpkins on this boat trip and I stop marking numbers when I reach nine. Uncharacteristically, kingfishers are sparse and we still have not found American Pygmy-Kingfisher on this year’s caravan. We reach Spanish Creek and search for Agami Heron, but it seems hopeless in the flooded waters. Instead, Leonard spots a Prothonotary Warbler and during the long search for a second view, most of us see it flying darkly under the mangroves, but only Gwen gets a convincing look. Prothonotary is listed as occasional in winter in Belize and the very few times I’ve come across this warbler here confirms that status. During our swift ride back to the dock, I chart our course on GPS, wanting to trace the path on Cindy’s topological maps when we return. The myriad twists and turns Leonard took through the lagoons and channels make us wonder where we have been or even which direction we are heading. Back at camp, in late afternoon I present a workshop on identifying Belizean doves and pigeons by call and then go back to my computer work of entering the many bird sightings we’ve accumulated.
(Shari) When one goes to bed at 8 PM, it is no big surprise to be wide awake by 3 AM. I come out to the front of R-Tent-III to read for an hour before going back to bed. No sooner am I back than I hear Bert get up. I guess he will push the evening bedtime to 7 PM tonight. I think I just may watch a movie by myself. I have a nice morning alone since just everybody but I went on the boat trip today. Sonja treats me to lunch at the restaurant and I have delicious venison, mashed potatoes, rice, orange juice and bread pudding. These people are trying so hard to make our stay comfortable and nice. Yesterday Bearded Bob and I asked about having gibnuts for dinner and Victor said he did not have any. Today he tells me he found some gibnut in the freezer and will serve it tomorrow. I am told from all sorts of people that it is a delicious meat and was served to the Queen of England on her visit. The locals call it “Royal Rat” and it looks like an opossum about the size of a small dog. Bert tells me the proper name is paca. I saw a captured one in a cage when we arrived and today it is gone. It might be the one that Victor “found” in his freezer today. I wish I had taken a picture of it when I had the opportunity. I’ll report tomorrow on it. At 4:30, I join others for Bert’s workshop on dove calls. After he is finishes I am more confused than when I started, since all the calls sound alike to me. Maybe there is a slight difference in “syllables” or beats but that only narrows the field into two. I guess I won’t be out there identifying them by call anytime soon. My granddaughter has outgrown her Barbie dolls and gave me about 27 of them with all sorts of clothes. I packaged them in gallon baggies and put a fancy long dress, a shorts outfit and a pants outfit in each package. I have been giving them out to little girls that I meet. Today I give three dolls out and one of the girls says something about her sister. Out comes another doll. Then another says something about her sister. Out comes another doll. The little boy gets a Mexican bingo game and mentions his brother. I finally have to tell them I am out of gifts. It is cute though and I see them really hang on to those dolls and they don’t want to part with them even to show their mothers. After our social hour, we eat a light dinner and watch a good movie, called the Virgin Queen, which Judy taped on PBS. Since it is four hours long, we only watch the first half before bedtime.
(Bert) Other years we only spent one day at Crooked Tree, observing wildlife from the boat and the causeway, but not from the roads and trails. Today we get to see more of this wonderful wildlife sanctuary. The whole village lies within the sanctuary and the “streets” connecting houses have well marked trail labels: Jacana Trail, Limpkin Trail, etc. Fruiting trees adorn front yards and attract birds. On one I find a non-breeding plumage Tennessee Warbler – we saw the breeding plumage bird again today at the causeway – and a pair of Indigo Buntings now coming into full breeding plumage. A dark hawk flies overhead, low enough so I can see the length of its legs just touch the wide white band across its spread tail and diagnostic of Common Black-Hawk. On the Trogon Trail we stop at a wooded area cleared of under story and attractive to birds feeding in the leaf litter. We peer across the barbed wire fence at the floor of the dark woods and see Clay-colored Robin, Gray Catbird, Wood Thrush, White-tipped Dove and Northern Waterthrush. In the sunny area we see a brilliantly red Northern Cardinal, one of my most common yard birds when I had a house in Texas, but here in Belize quite hard to find. A flock of Yucatan Jays noisily make an appearance. The juveniles are particularly attractive, not only for their azure blue and black bodies, but also for their wide yellow eye orbital and bright yellow bills.
When the secondary broadleaf forest abruptly transitions to pine savannah, the birds play out and the strength of the hot sun becomes noticeable. Some cars in our group head back to camp, but two vehicles take another trail to the lagoon where a cool breeze wafts below a spreading tree canopy and the water view makes an attractive setting for lunch. We walk a distance from our parked cars and a Limpkin strolls casually in front of my SUV, providing an unusual photo opportunity. After lunch, Ralph takes his carload back, but I stay with my three riders and explore more of Crooked Tree. On the Kiskadee Trail, Tom finds a nesting hummingbird and I take a dozen photos which we then examine in the viewfinder. Based on the spotted breast, red-based bill and white post ocular spot, we determine the sitting bird is a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird. One more good bird gets added to the day list when we watch a Collared Araçari, the big-billed relative of the toucan. In the evening, when I finish entering today’s sightings into the computer, I run a report on our trip-to-date species counts: 201 in Mexico, 298 in Belize, 350 total.
(Shari) Yesterday, mentioning to Victor that I would like a tour of the sugar cane factory, he calls his niece’s husband, David, who is an engineer at the factory. David comes at 8 AM to give some of us a tour. Kent, Linda, Bearded Bob, Pat Y., Tailgunner Bob and Arlene and I join him for the royal treatment and the $1,000,000 tour. The tour lasts 2-1/2 hr. and we see the cane from its first dumping into the bins of knives to its last packaging for shipping. It is a wonder that no one gets hurt and tours are allowed. Even though we have to wear hardhats and eye protection, we walk all around the factory, up and down slippery, sticky dirty steps, down steel catwalks and around coils of hoses above steaming vats of syrup. Each separate division has a safety chart posting the number of days without an accident. The lab had an accident yesterday; some boards said 30 days, 50 days, and the longest at 300 days. I don’t think the factory would be allowed to operate in the United States without instituting additional safety features. The fascinating tour ends with a warehouse full of hills of pure light brown crystal – like the sand dunes of White Sands - awaiting shipment on a barge to the United States where it will be further processed into refined white sugar. Distilleries purchase some of the molasses for fermentation and bottling of rum. Ten percent by weight of sugar cane is made into sugar. The rest is water and waste, which is ground up and used as fuel for the steamers that boil the liquid until it evaporates and crystallizes. Even the dirt is refined to “mud” and shipped out as fertilizer. After our tour, David takes us to the rum factory. Unfortunately it is shut down right now but we do see the vats and bottling plant and are pleasantly surprised when one of the brothers who own the plant gives us three bottles of rum to take home with us.
When I pay our camping bill, I am invited into Victor and Sonia’s kitchen to share in some escabeche (onion soup) with a chicken leg that they are having for dinner. Onions are cooked in a chicken broth with a little vinegar and the soup is very unusual and surprisingly good. At Bill’s birthday party it is hard to get control of the group to take care of “housekeeping issues.” I know not all heard or paid attention to the directions for tomorrow’s travel. I present Pat Y. with the prize for solving the clue game; we sing Happy Birthday to Bill and eat cake and cool whip before joining Don, Bill, Kent and Linda for dinner at the restaurant. Bert and I are the only brave ones to eat the famous gibnut and find that it tastes like a pork roast. Victor tells us the BB pellets are free.
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