Chapter 7.  Central Belize

Day 28 – February 11 – Belize Zoo, Belize District

(Shari) Blankety blank blank blank ***|###! The d*** disconnect won’t work again. Bert spends some time under the rig on the rough gravel road, trying to get it disconnected at our Orange Walk campsite. Finally he has it. Blankety blank blank blank ***|###! It seems Bert spends hours under the rig on the rough gravel parking lot, trying to get it reconnected at our new campsite. In between time, he is helping people get situated at our new campground. When I say new I mean really new, since it is not even finished and no one has camped in it before us. Only a rough roadway of sorts has been bulldozed out in the field. Even if it were smooth - which it is not - or level - which it is not - or hard packed - which it is not - we still would not fit since the pads and road are too narrow. So the little rigs go one way and the big rigs another. There is absolutely no electricity here and soon I hear generators buzzing all over. It is a hot one today. I make sure Kent and Linda can plug into someone else’s rig, since they do not have a generator, and Pat and Bob plug into ours. Bert goes back under our car to fiddle with the disconnect and I go to the zoo with the group to arrange for tickets. As I wait for Bert, I shop in the gift store. Bad idea! I spend close to $100 on gifts for various folks and some earrings and a sun visor for myself. Bearded Bob sees me sitting on a bench and offers to take me back to the “campground.” I immediately take him up on the offer just to get out of the heat, if nothing else. Now I see Tailgunner Bob under our car and Bert inside of it. But, it looks like they have the problem fixed. Hurrah! I could kiss that man. I turn on our generator and sit under the A/C vent for a while. Some local girls come over and want to look inside and admire how nice it is. At 5, 18 of us meet at the restaurant. Today’s special is barbecue chicken or a rack of ribs. Since they are out of the ribs, we order the chicken. It takes a long time, considering it had been prepared already this afternoon, but finally we are all served. Getting a reduced rate on our drinks and a red napkin - it is Happy Hour - I take the red napkin up to the bar and am told I must shoot it across the aisle into a tiny little basket before I can claim a free drink. Of all of us who try, Woody makes a basket and I make one out of 5 tries (other people gave me their napkins). So I get a free beer anyway. After dinner I put on long pants and a long sleeve shirt, spray myself with bug spray and head out with the group for a nighttime tour of the zoo. Our expectations are high, anticipating seeing the animals prowling around their natural habitat at night and making growls and other scary noises. We are royally disappointed because the animals are locked in cages at night and all we do is walk the dark paths with flashlights, dripping sweat and listen to our guide tell us things we mostly already know. Some of us are very happy that Kent wants to go back and quickly follow him to the entrance. Sitting on the benches, we wait for the rest of the group to finish and soon see our guide, but no group. We all think, “My goodness, the guide lost the group.” Bert is a bit disgusted with the guide and goes to find the lagging folks. Soon we are back into our air-conditioned rigs all awaiting the cold front that is expected tonight. Hurrah!

(Bert) Not much went according to plan today. The first incident I didn’t hear about until we arrived at our next campsite. One vehicle scraped the gate leaving Orange Walk and damaged its black tank. My first frustration is the parking situation at the campsite. Last year’s promises of a well-designed camping area fell by the way and even the bare ground parking is limited by soft spots from recent rains. I had hoped we could all park quickly and then start birding at the Belize Zoo, but it takes at least an hour to get the rigs settled into spots. Next not-according-to-plan problem is the drive shaft disconnect again. I thought I had it connected, until loaded with passengers and a string of vehicles behind me, I stop dead in the driveway, drive shaft not turning. The others go on and I retrieve Tailgunner Bob, who by now has most of the black tank problem solved. Bob looks at the disconnect and sees the problem. While I hand him tools like a nurse assisting a surgeon – pliers, wrench, WD-40, electrical tape – he adjusts the mechanism and a half-hour later has it sliding in and out as it should. When I reach the Belize Zoo most of our birders have made the rounds and are heading back, but I stay to bird and see the animals. I’m surprised how consistent my sightings are to previous years. The Gray Catbirds are in greatest numbers at the Tapir enclosure, the Melodious Blackbirds hang out with the peccaries, the female Red-capped Manikin hasn’t strayed more than 50 ft. from prior years. After everyone else has left, Bill and I still bird and I’m intent on finding Hepatic Tanagers that no one has reported as yet. I head to the tall pines near the pond and within a couple of minutes Bill spots the female and I identify the male Hepatic. All of these species and many more have been at the same locations six years running. We add five species to the 6-year cumulative list for the zoo: Mangrove Vireo by sight and call, Summer Tanager by yellow bill according to Linda, Squirrel Cuckoo by Cindy, Great Black-Hawk soaring overhead and Worm-eating Warblers at two locations. Bill and I check out the Tropical Education Center and find a dozen species in a brief high noon visit, a good number considering the timeframe. Best, though, is not a bird but a Gray Fox scampering down the driveway and then encountered again along the access road.

Back again to the not-according-to-plan agenda, we gather together for dinner at the campsite restaurant and enjoy the setting and food, but must wait too long for service. Our cheerful and perky waitress has her hands full as she single-handedly handles food and drink orders for all sixteen of us simultaneously. The nocturnal visit to the zoo that I had arranged starts 15 min. late when the guide fails to show up and open the entrance gate. Then he shuffles us through the zoo paths, speaking before we all gather, includes a bit more in the itinerary than time allows and finally looses the group as most of us head back to the parking lot. On the plus side, I much enjoy seeing the nocturnal animals, as they are much more active than daytime. Two pacas, reminding us of last night’s dinner, skirt the edges of their enclosure and my photos illuminate their striped sides. The kinkajous are curious and particularly intrigued with Tom’s tiny light which they poke at with tiny noses. A dozen White-nosed Coatis sleep precariously perched on a bare branched tree. A rare mammal I’ve not seen in the wild is a Greater Grison and the long white line separating face from back is striking as it prowls at night. Best are the cats because they are so active and I enjoy most the spotted Margay and sleek black Jaguarundi – another I’ve not found in the wild. When its time to leave, the guide persists while most of us head back. Then in an attempt to help us find our way in the dark maze, he leaves his small group and catches up with us at the gate. We gather in our cars, but he is still wandering around the zoo retrieving the others. After waiting with engines running and air conditioning cooling, I go into the darkness with another zoo attendant to find the tardy group. When I do, the guide is still conducting his tour, not aware we are waiting and tired after two hours of walking. By 9:15 I am back in R-Tent-III, anxious for a cold shower and sleep. I hope tomorrow goes according to plan.

Day 29 – February 12 – Coastal Highway, Belize District

(Bert) From our first trip to Belize in 2001, I remember the Coastal Highway as a pot-holed, washboard, ungraded gravel road. Then we knew nothing about the roads and finding our position on the country map was difficult since few villages, roads or rivers were identified with signs. Even as of this date, some of the oft-traveled roads are not shown on any map. Getting lost on the Coastal Highway is nearly impossible, however, because no roads intersect it, and virtually no driveways meet it since almost no one lives along the road. But we still wonder where we are, so Cindy, Bob and I use a GPS and the detailed topological maps to trace our progress and identify the rivers and creeks we cross. The first is the Sibun River. In the dim early morning light, sounds reach my ears more easily than colors attract my eyes. I hear Blue Ground-Doves “boop” from distant trees and draw attention to this as well as the calling Ruddy Ground-Dove and White-tipped Dove as a way to reinforce my workshop presentation a few days ago. We study a small patch of Curassow Crest because of the birds it attracts. Flitting in an out of view is a Yellow-tailed Oriole, more easily identified by its yellow wing patch than the thin yellow edge to its tail. The black bird with a vivid red rump, Passerini’s Tanager, causes the group to “Ooh” like a crowd watching fireworks, each time it comes into view amongst the yellow flowers. From the bridge over Soldier Creek we look down at a fast moving stream snaking around a limestone boulder and see a Black Phoebe frog-leaping from rock to rock, the bird only black from our lofty perspective and its white belly hidden. Amongst bamboos growing riverside I find an Olive-backed Euphonia. We continue on the gravel road, now passing through a vast pine savannah. Knowing that different habitat attract different birds, I halt our car caravan several times to look and listen. At one stop I hear Yellow-headed Parrots approach and we have the good fortune of them passing directly overhead so that we can match visual field marks to the soft, complaining call. For comparison, a pair of loud Red-lored Parrots flies over, calling “Quick, quick, so quick.” We see and hear more Blue Ground-Doves and, in fact, more than I’ve noticed in any other Belize location. At another stop, Woody mentions he saw a Chipping Sparrow, casually dismissing the importance of his sighting since it is so abundant at his Ontario home. I have a much keener interest, since it is infrequently found on my Belize travels. While searching for the sparrow for the group, I see a quick succession of good birds: Olive Sparrow, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Grace’s Warbler and again the Chipping Sparrow. The group manages to see all except the Olive Sparrow, which made only a 2-sec. appearance.

We continue to the “T” and make the only decision along the highway, electing to turn left toward Gales Point, a narrow peninsula of land with water visible on both sides of Main Street. The succession of dilapidated wooden houses causes many of us to think of sharecroppers in the poor south of early 20th century U.S. By our standards, these homes would be unlivable, but we see them occupied with kids bicycling and playing, mothers scrubbing wash by hand and men idling away a Sunday afternoon. We stop at noon at Manatee Lodge occupying the tip of the peninsula. We meet the youthful manager and ask permission to eat our lunches here on the picnic table and then hear her talk about experiences in Belize as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2001 and her life now at Gales Point. Doubling back, we stop at an orange orchard, with the only notable find a flock of circling White-collared Swifts. We spend more time at Soldier Creek where Don leads one group riverside to a Thick-billed Seed-Finch he miraculously manages to photograph. Cindy and I hike along a bamboo encased dry riverbed, finding excellent habitat for Blue Seedeater, but no birds whatsoever. When I return to the top of the bridge, Dorothy asks my opinion on the likelihood of finding Olive-sided Flycatcher. I answer that it could be expected in migration, but not wintering here in February. Yet, she gives a credible description of the bird she watched perched prominently on a distant dead tree. Fortunately, the bird returns to the same tree and, through binoculars, I see why she made the identification. I quickly retrieve my spotting scope and for the next 20 min. we detail our sighting and I digiscope photos that are poorly resolved, yet show overall features. In the coolness of today’s overcast skies following last night’s rain and cold front, we have continued birding much longer than I anticipated. Now in mid afternoon, we are ready to make a quick return on the bumpy gravel road, so we head back at “man-speed”, the ride-over-the-bumps rate that evokes comment from most wives. The threesome in our car sees three Fork-tailed Flycatchers in route, but I later hear that others saw dozens of these splendid birds.

(Shari) What a glorious day! Actually it is on the cold side but hey, who is complaining? The cold front came in as promised and brought with it some rain in the morning and clouds the rest of the day. I have kept the windows open all day long, am able to wear my crop pants for the first time this trip (no shorts) and if I go out for social hour, I will have to wear a jacket. Now if I could only bottle it. Charlu did not go birding this morning with the group and comes over to show me her purchases of the trip. She saw some hand made pillowcases at Lamanai that I missed. Bob and Arlene come over next and I help them with their computer. This ol’ gal still remembers how to teach some computer stuff. It does feel good to help someone though. Usually Bert is always taking charge of that department and I stay out of it. After the birders return, I walk over to the restaurant looking for a party to join. Lo and behold, Kent and Linda and Don are eating breakfast (at 4 PM). Yes, Jean, Don had two - I repeat TWO pieces - of cake, one chocolate and one carrot. I told him it was a slow journal day and that I was going to tell Jean. I know he took pictures of the cake so hopefully he told you and showed you via e-mail before you read this. Since it is so cool outside I can run the oven, so Bert and I stay home and eat pizza and watch “Good Fellows,” a movie that comes on two sides of the DVD. After watching one side I thought it to be a short movie. Then I notice we never saw side one and never missed it.

Day 30 – February 13 – Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize District

(Bert) The small brown bird is so non-descript as to leave one helpless seeking field marks, yet is a precious prize because it isn’t on my life list, nor easy to find. From Steve Howell’s visit more than a decade ago, we know the species has been found in this tract and we know that it prefers the native bamboo habitat. From its brown color I surmise it is a female, as all males are blue-black in this near identical group of sparrows and buntings. Fortunately, yesterday’s image of the grossly large bill on the Thick-billed Seed-Finch is firmly impressed on my mind, so it is easy to dismiss that possibility from the list of look-a-likes. The petite bird exploring the leaves of the horizontal branch is not large enough to be Blue-black Grosbeak, nor does its rich brown color match the dishwater shade of Variable Seedeater or the streaking pattern of Blue-black Grassquit. It’s harder to rule out Blue Bunting, but something about its behavior, habitat, facial expression and bill color just doesn’t feel right, and, besides, Blue Bunting is not known to be in these whereabouts. By deduction, that leaves only one species: Blue Seedeater. It’s the only one I see this morning, but on a return visit this afternoon Judy finds another female and Cindy sees two male Blue Seedeaters prowling through the bamboo.

Certainly, the seedeater is the prize of the day. Nonetheless, we are entertained longer, under the umbrella of a huge tree near the Sibun River, by the constant parade of birds feeding in its canopy. With each movement, binoculars aim at the disturbance, but come down quickly half the time since the bird is another Red-legged Honeycreeper or, perhaps, the female redstart. The other half of the population is a rotating kaleidoscope of Tropical Pewee, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Variable Seedeater, Black-and-white Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Barred Antshrike, Yellow-billed Cacique, Gray Catbird, Yellow-bellied Elaenia and half a dozen others. The male Variable Seedeater feeding on a lime-like fruit gives us pause, as it certainly has the diagnostic white spot on its wing, but its rotund black body also sports a white slash on its wing at the shoulder. Binoculars find it and so do Don and my cameras. No species fits this description and the white mark is deemed aberrant.

(Shari) I cannot believe how cold it is. Yes, I said cold, not even cool. It is barely 60º inside R-Tent-III when I get up, so I put on my jacket for a little warmth. I decide it is a good day to bake cookies for tonight’s Valentine’s party and use up the rum in a cake - one of the bottles we got free at the rum factory is not very good. By the time I finish the baking and cleaning, Pat Y. comes over to discuss plans for tonight. She is such a big help and has even arranged prizes for the games she has developed and later helps me blow up party balloons and arrange centerpieces. Bearded Bob stops over to give me some bananas that he bought in Belmopan. The ones I exchanged with him the other day still are not ripe. He and Cindy have bought some maps of Belize and they want to show them to Bert. They have been extremely helpful to Bert in that regard with their professional mapping expertise. I might also add that they have been very generous in distributing ABA binoculars, vests, jackets, and books to the various birding guides and preservation agencies in the country. In fact, Sharon from the Belize Zoo seeks them out tonight to give them her thanks personally. At the party, Dorothy is so sweet and has brought Valentine suckers for everyone. She gives Bert a special one that says “To My Teacher.” She is such a good birder though; I think maybe she teaches Bert sometimes. While we wait for everyone to arrive, we guess how many candies are in a jar. Later Pat Y. tells us that Gwen guessed the closest without going over. After forming teams of paired men and women, we initiate a take-off on the game Scattergories. We have 10 questions to answer in the first category pertaining to caravans and the answers must all start with the letter L. We score the game and exchange partners and play another with 10 questions in the category birding, all starting with the letter M. We have a good time with a lot of good-natured banter before we enjoy the delicious appetizers everyone brought. Even Bearded Bob has to admit the activity was entertaining. He scored high enough - I might add because he had me as a partner once ;) - to obtain a neat caravan backpack. Dorothy wins a backpack too. Is it because she had Bert as a partner once? As I say goodnight I hear many thank you’s for all the good fun and a few stay back just to extend the evening.

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