Chapter 8. Western Belize
(Bert) One of the prettiest hiking trails in Belize is the Living Cycle Trail at Guanacaste National Park, about a 2-hr. walk at the woodcreeper pace of birding velocity. Replete with narrow bridges crossing rivulets flowing with recent rains, footpaths climbing and descending over uneven terrain, the loop trail meanders under a tall and shading broadleaf canopy. I have a chance encounter with a Lesser Greenlet so close I can barely focus binoculars on it. Gwen comments on its small size, juxtaposing the illusion our binoculars and scopes create, compared to seeing birds with eyes alone. Eyeball to eyeball leaves no doubt that the vireo has an eye ring centered in a gray head which contrasts with olive back and pale yellow sides, and I snap a close-up photo to prove it. Well timed this morning with the liftoff of raptors, the trail breaks into the open at a limestone outcropping. While other eyes point south, I get a quick glimpse of a Black Hawk-Eagle on the northern horizon. We await its return. I see it again, this time high above us. At this distance the wing pattern coalesces to the boldest stripes, the forewing becoming black and the hindwing appearing white, and the multi-banded tail becomes mottled. Its distinctive profile cuts the clear blue sky, showing the pinched in wings as they meet the tail and the paddle-shaped wings arching forward, much like Hood-billed Kite, but more subtle. The raptor whistles a distinctive combination that I syllabically associate with “Quick, three beers” or just “Three beers.”
We reenter the dark forest, passing a well-marked Black Poisonwood Tree, an understated reminder not to grab just any tree for balance when descending a steep slope. Each time I’ve hiked this trail, birds have been sparse, but the beauty of nature’s flora compensates and for fauna we have an agouti staring back at us from 50-ft. up trail and a pair of Yucatan Squirrels chasing across the labyrinth above us. Among the few birds we encounter, one is a keeper. The Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, smallest of its family, creeps up an exposed tree branch. Bill sees the wedge-shaped bill, I note the buff supercilium and the ratty tail that combines with legs to form a rigid tripod. Absent is spotting on the breast as illustrated by Webb, but also lacking on drawings by other artists. I had announced our plan to meet again at the entrance at 11:30, and our subgroup returns at 11:29, perfectly timed, but Lee says he still deserves one additional minute of birding.
At out next campground near San Ignacio, during our late afternoon social, Cindy presents me with an unusual Valentine’s gift: a dead bird, not everyone’s delight, but exciting to me. In the zip-lock bag, crawling with ants, the Mangrove Cuckoo curls uncomfortably, but painlessly as death came quickly from a vehicular encounter near Ladyville. Always on the lookout for road kill, Cindy retrieved the specimen, knowing its rarity in Belize. Actually, Jones states, “Status poorly known; at best very uncommon and local resident along coast and lowland waterways west to New River in northern Belize.” Ladyville is near the Belize Airport and the Belize River, a likely habitat by Jones description.
(Shari) Freezing in bed, I am forced to get up right after Bert leaves, just to put on my robe for warmth. I don’t think this cold spell can last since the sky is clear with nary a cloud appearing. As I often say, I wish I could bottle it. However I can’t complain about our weather this year, YET. We only had two or three days that I would consider hot and even they were bearable. I have a leisurely morning and walk over to talk to Tailgunner Bob and Arlene but they are not at home. I know he is around since I heard him thump my tires at around 7:30. As I walk back I see a big Happy Valentine heart on my windshield. I wonder who put it on there. Tailgunner Bob says that Judy has one too so that eliminates any woman on the caravan telling Bert a secret. I positively can say that Bert did not put it there so it must be Bearded Bob. I tell you, it made my day and I think I will keep it in the windshield all year. We depart after lunch and drive the short 40 mi. to San Ignacio, keeping the caravan in sight as we negotiate the many turns in town. Parking goes extremely smoothly. I start a load a wash before our Happy Valentine Day Rum Cake and margaritas.
(Shari) Opening my eyes to darkness, I am wide awake. Last night I told Bert that I did not want to tag along on today’s birding trip. But since I am awake now anyway, I might as well get up. I get out my long pants, long sleeve shirt, hat, fanny pack, camera, water bottle, insect spray, trail mix, and borrowed binoculars. It sounds like that game, “I am going on a trip and take my ….” No wonder I don’t go that often. The morning is cool and some wear jackets. I join the group and we depart in the fog, birding along the road to our destination. I describe a bird I saw and after looking in Dorothy’s book, I think it is a Black-crowned Night-Heron. Bert looks dubious because it is not supposed to be in this area. Others say they saw a Green Heron so I suppose that is what I saw too. Arriving at the Belize Botanical Gardens, I separate from the group and wander the paths on my own. I stop at the orchid house and a replica of a typical Mayan hut. In the United States we see restored teepees of the early American Indians and houses of the early pioneers. Here, though, it is sad because I have seen whole villages along the rural areas in Mexico from Palenque to Chetumal, populated with people in these houses made from saplings. The structure consists of two rooms, a sleeping area strung with hammocks and/or palm fronds on the floor for beds and the living/kitchen area having an open fire depression and a small table with pottery bowls and wooden ladles used for preparing food. The walls are literally vertical saplings no bigger than one to two inches in diameter, laced together with palm leaves. Since these sticks do not grow perfectly straight, one inch or more gaps appear in the walls, allowing air, rain, light and anything else small enough to crawl into the two interior rooms. I can only think that as soon as a baby is born, it gets bit by a mosquito and so goes his life. At 10:30, I am too hot to continue my walk and go back to the car in the shade and read a book until the rest of the group joins me for lunch. The resort has a wonderful deck high above the trees overlooking the river and we sit comfortably, with cool drinks watching Masked Tityras and Rose-throated Becards until we are called into the dining room for lunch. Returning home Bert works on our broken satellite modem and I go along with Don, Bill and Tom to the grocery store, market and bakery before attending Charlu’s presentation about snakes. She does a great job showing us the differences between the poisonous and non-poisonous snakes of Belize but I don’t care what she says, the only good snake is a dead one in my book.
(Bert) My photos of Olive-throated Parakeets feeding in legume crops are ghostly pea soup: a concoction of bright greens, olives and yellows stirred in the tendril wisps of gray fog. Like pulling pudding plums, we pick seedeaters and buntings from the suspended morning mist. The cricket call of Yellow-faced Grassquits reaches our ears, but it’s Blue-black Grassquits and White-collared Seedeaters we see mostly. Two Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks wing through the fog, only the white flag on extended wings marking their identification. Another mile, another half-hour, the fog lifts. A Bat Falcon perches on a lofty limb. Two Collared Forest-Falcons call and after most of us leave the spot, Dorothy and Don each tell me their carloads saw the two. The last section of rocky road is steeply uphill, causing tires to spin in the loose gravel on the upside and brakes pump on the downside. We reach the Belize Botanical Gardens, park and walk. Through the delightful gardens, replete in hundreds of trees and shrubs all meticulously identified by label, we walk with silent footsteps on the soft yellow-orange woodchip strewn paths. At the pond darkened by overhanging trees, Blue-winged Teal feed in the shadowed shallows and a Least Grebe silently slips below the surface. A Gray-fronted Dove calls softly from the trees beyond the pond. At the far end of the gardens, we climb single file up a steep trail into the rainforest, heading toward the fire tower. I freeze when Bill taps me on the shoulder and nods toward a spot ahead and to my left. Briefly and repeatedly, birds pop into view and I struggle on the narrow path to let those behind me see the show too. Fortunately, the parade moves to my right and along our row of observers, showing us Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Barred Antshrike and Spot-breasted Wren feeding together in the under story. From the tall fire tower we can see over the forest, extending from hillside through the valley to the distant horizon. We search for raptors, first seeing a large swift that transforms into a Bat Falcon on closer examination: stiff sickle wings and a white collar – think White-collared Swift – but add a rusty midriff and soaring absent of wing beats – think Bat Falcon. We hike the Macal River trail and end up at the resort in time for lunch. While waiting for its preparation, we sit on the lofty deck overlooking forest dropping toward the river and are entertained by the close and repeated approach of Masked Tityra, Rose-throated Becard – an exceedingly dark subspecies almost absent of rosy throat – and White-eyed Vireo. Through his camera’s large display, Woody shows me photos of a hummingbird and later back at camp he puts them on a CD for me to view on my computer. As Woody noticed first, what I thought to be only one species, turns out to be two, Green-breasted Mango and Violet Sabrewing, the latter not listed on local checklists. After a restful afternoon for some or one filled with errands for others, we meet again at 4:30 to hear Charlu give an excellent presentation on the snakes of Belize. We learn that most are not poisonous and how to recognize those that are. Curiously, the few poisonous ones – Fer de Lance, rattlesnakes and coral snakes – have many non-poisonous look-a-likes easily mistaken on quick glance. In my tramping through Belize, I’ve encountered very few snakes and no poisonous ones; I’ve found many more in Texas.
(Bert) Like Chan Chich, Chaa Creek is a beautiful resort with first class amenities in a superb natural setting. In route, we take the same road as yesterday but without the dense fog. When Dorothy tells me of a House Wren she and Ralph found, I backtrack to the spot. Although I miss the wren, I photograph a Scrub Euphonia and watch an adult Ruddy Ground-Dove cuddling a half-grown chick. At the turn for Chaa Creek, we pause to look skyward at a large kite silhouetted against the bright sky. When it disappears, I quickly sketch its profile and adding Dorothy’s mental image, we match it to Plumbeous Kite, our first of the trip. We are interrupted by a herd of horses trotting down the gravel road, passing us, followed by the ATV-mounted ranch hand pushing them forward. Crossing into Chaa Creek, I see a White-crowned Parrot and Woody aligns his scope on it. Tom remarks how dark this parrot is compared to the others we’ve seen. We continue our morning walk through the immaculate grounds of Chaa Creek. Woody and Gwen visited this place many times last year, enjoying the many birds they saw here. But today is the exception, and one of the slowest birding days of the trip. Even the local naturalist who we encounter along the road says his 6:30 nature walk produced few sightings. Along a trail beside the Macal River, passing through Giant Bamboo high enough to produce a canopy, we find our best cluster of birds. I hear Yellow-billed Caciques calling and when I play their song, two come to investigate, giving us a good close-up look of this grackle-like bird with the straw yellow bill. Better still is a pair of Crimson-collared Tanagers lighting up the bamboo with their brilliant red colors offset by jet black. Doubling back on the trail some of us get ahead of the rest and are watching a trogon when we hear an excited voice over the 2-way radio announcing a motmot sighting. Charlu was photographing a flower when through the camera lens she saw the motmot in the background. Although we have heard a few motmots during our trip, amazingly we have not been able to see one until now. Some trips these long-tailed beauties – Blue-crowned Motmots – are a dime a dozen, but now we all, except poor Gwen, get to see one quietly perched in the dark shadows. Back at the trogon spot we are surprised to see two perched side-by-side and even more amazing is that they are different species: the Black-headed sporting a blue eye orbital ring and Violaceous Trogon showing bright yellow around its eye. What a unique comparison! We break for lunch at the Chaa Creek open air restaurant and then I try to see the Band-backed Wrens that delighted Kent this morning with their nest building activities in the crest of a palm tree. But the birds must be taking a mid-day break, as they are not to be found.
(Shari) Not much happens in my neck of the woods today. Washing, talking, joining the group for lunch, scouting out a few close birding sites with Bert, reading and E-mail are my activities for the day.
(Bert) At the edge of the city, the sign proclaims, “Welcome to El Pilar – Occupation Period 250 BC - 1000 AD.” While walking through Plaza Copal, built over 2000 years ago, I read a sign noting the first monuments were erected 700 BC and the city’s occupation predates Tikal. The glory of the ancient city lies buried beneath the jungle, Gray roots of giant trees ensnarl the limestone bricks like elephant trunks. Only the angular shape of the landscape reveals the secrets lying below: the flatness of the plaza, the paired slopes of a ball field, the tall squared peaks of a temple. Plaza Copal stretches like a football stadium planted with tall trees, but cleared of the under story and carpeted in clipped grass. Our arrival is in fog, lifting as we walk along the narrow gravel road bordering the eastern edge of the monuments. A raptor perches atop a dead tree trunk and in the poor gray light of an overcast sky we struggle to see enough features to identify the bird. As light intensifies, we discern the wickedly hooked bill, the pattern of bars on the tail, the light nape and, eventually, the barring on its underside: our first Hook-billed Kite of the Belize trip. Seeing few other birds, we hike into the Maya ruins and up crude stairs until we reach Alta Vista, a high point above a temple capped with even taller trees, but completely open on its western half. We are high above the tree canopy and our breathtaking view encompasses the skyline of broad jungles stretching to the hills of Guatemala. In fact, a buried causeway connects these temples to others submerged in Guatemala jungles. Sunlight pierces through the gray clouds, stirring the first honeycreepers and tanagers to tree blossoms above us and in our canopy purview. Virginia and Lee pick out a Green Honeycreeper, but all the rest are Red-legged. Dusky-capped Flycatchers call from many places today, and a few show themselves atop the canopy as we look down. Flocks of mostly-green White-fronted Parrots wing across the green sea of treetops and Olive-throated Parakeets feed within closer view. We linger on the beauty, but eventually move down from the promontory and into the darkened city again, wandering back to the side road where sunlight attracts more birds. The birding day starts slowly, yet the many sights and sounds of White-collared Manakins offer entertainment. Well hidden in the dense dark snarls of twisted vines and branches, the butterball topped with whipped cream bounces between perches, snapping wings and chirping a short song. High above us I hear the song I learned a few days ago and ten minutes later we watch a Black Hawk-Eagle soar over. My best bird of the morning tries my patience. Our eyes catch the bowing of branches and darkened profiles of small birds in the tortured brush, yet the obstructions are myriad and the movement too quick. A split-second shot at one gives me a female manikin and five minutes later two or three multisecond views of a full body at rest yields a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher.
We walk back to our cars and break for lunch. Sitting under the cool canopy we find a Tropical Gnatcatcher above us and watch a Yellow-faced Grassquit on the periphery. Later we walk through a treed tunnel completely arched by foliage a few feet above our heads to the South Groups of the ruins, opening on Plaza Copal. In park like surroundings I photograph a feeding Olivaceous Woodcreeper and a silently perched Great Crested Flycatcher. Still later, we hike El Pilar Creek Water Trail, cleared of major debris, but narrow, leaf-strewn and sometimes obscured by fallen trees and slipped vines. The trail is rigorously up and down, bending to a thin stream. Clear water tinkles musically over a minuscule waterfall, and then slowly meanders over a gravel bed wedged through a greenhouse of tropical plants not unlike those kept in northern homes. Leaves rustle from the wind currents propelled by the juxtaposition of cool forest and hot sky. When we again reemerge from the jungle, Tom, Charlu and I watch a dark hummingbird move between perches on a leafless tree. I take dozens of photos in an attempt to choose between Green-breasted Mango and Violet Sabrewing as the name for this beauty, finally catching a view of its red violet tail feathers marking it as mango, yet puzzled over the postocular spot and the white under tail coverts not described or depicted in the two bird books we are carrying. Although the birding day started slowly, it built momentum and transformed into a pleasing excursion.
(Shari) Belize only allows a stay of 30 days without an extension. When arriving in Corozal on January 25, the border officials told us we could get our extensions at any immigration office in any town. Henry told us the Guatemala/Belize border would be the place. Today Bob and Arlene take me to find the office and determine if I can get the extension for everybody at once or if each individual must show up at the office. Our first stop is the gas station where we ask the attendant where the immigration office is located. He tells us at the border. I think maybe he does not know so we go to the police station and there too we are told we must drive to the border. Figuring that we have plenty of time, we go to the bakery, shop for half-price Nike shoes, and search out the French bakery downtown. At 11 we head for the border. As soon as we arrive, we are accosted by young men who want to help us cross the border, exchange our money or take us on a tour. We tell them we are only interested in information and they soon loose interest in us. After hearing our predicament, the first clerk at departures takes us to the next desk and has us tell the next clerk what we want. He shakes his head no and says he cannot extend our stay and ONLY the immigration office in Belmopan can do it. I look at my watch and realize we can still drive there and get the information. The distance is only 23 miles from our campground and 33 from the border. However traffic is slow and we don’t arrive until 1 PM. The man in immigration says yes we can do it here but each individual should present himself for the extension and pay $25. I talk and talk and I think I convince him to let me, as tour leader, do it for everyone. I ask if he will be working on Monday, get his name and tell him that I will see him then. By now we are starved so I treat Bob and Arlene to lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant where we have the special of the day: cole slaw, beans and barbeque ribs with two huge tortillas. On the way home we find a meat processing plant where we buy steaks, lunch meat, and smoked pork chops and a chicken outlet where I buy fresh chicken breasts all at prices lower than I would pay in the states. What should have been a 30 min. task, took us all day but we learned a lot.
(Bert) We bird this morning in the foothills of the Maya Mountains at the edge of Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. After I miss two turns on the unmarked road, I let Woody take the lead since he and Gwen have been to this site before. Following a rough rocky road steep enough for me to shift to 4-wheel drive, narrow enough to hope for no oncoming traffic, forested enough to make the serpentine path like a snake through tall grass, and dark enough to require headlights even after sunrise, is part of the adventure. We start our birding in a mist just heavy enough for us to seek shelter under broadleaved trees and to keep spotting scopes covered except to focus on a few birds. A good start is the White-necked Jacobin tangling from a thin vine, nearly impossible to find with the naked eye but full frame through my scope. Woody takes a nice digiscope photo, the first of many good shots taken today. My best is a series of two dozen close-ups of a White-collared Manakin. My previous attempts the last few years all met up with white and yellow stirred into a bright spot surrounded by near darkness. This time the orange legs and the tiny head – like the blowing spout of an inflated yellow balloon – show in sharp detail. Tailgunner Bob gets great photos of a Long-billed Hermit feeding on Frijoles Rojo. However, the real photo prize goes to Don who manages to digitize images of a Purple-crowned Fairy. Between the five of us with new digital cameras, we have managed to photograph most of the species we have been finding in Belize and we talk about exchanging our best to create a CD for the group. One species I’ve not photographed is Stub-tailed Spadebill, although I think Don has tried. We see one today put on a good show for us and everyone in our group gets to see the bird except Bob B. When we move on, he laments, but I tell him that is why many of us keep coming back to Belize: to find the ones we’ve missed and to learn better the ones we have already seen. The morning is filled with good sightings. A few of us see a White-winged Becard here at the northern edge of its range. Arlene is the first to see and call out a King Vulture soaring overhead. Dorothy identifies a Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher for us. We get several chances to watch Dot-winged Antwrens and, independently, find Blue-black Grosbeaks at three locations. Later Cindy, who birded separately, reports White-whiskered Puffbird and Hook-billed Kite, and Virginia adds Bananaquit and Gray-headed Tanager. The total list surpasses 80 species and includes many of the most sought after.
(Shari) Bob and Arlene, who ride with us today, can attest to the fact that I am crabby this morning. My alarm went off at 5 AM, but I kept hitting the snooze until it was almost too late to be ready by our 6 AM departure. I want to join the group today, headed to a place 6 mi. down a dirt road into the jungle and up a hill. The scenery is worth the early morning start, but Bert is telling me to do this and do that and do it this way and not that way, so I cannot enjoy the ride. Finally after the second wrong turn, he gives up on logging the route until our return trip and leaves me to take pleasure in the narrow rough road canopied by tropical palms, plants and vines on each side. Our headlights are needed since the vegetation is so thick not much light shines through. At the end of the road is a beautiful resort built on a hill, overlooking a river. A wooden walking bridge over the river and 300 ft. into the jungle connects the dining area with two thatched cabanas built on six cement poles high above the ground. Here well-heeled tourists can find solitude and peace to recharge their batteries before returning to the dog eat dog world of civilization. We are spending the day birding the meadow and river path before we break for lunch and head home. I stay awhile with the group watching a White-necked Jacobin and a Black-cheeked Woodpecker until I find it too slow and walk back to the open-air lounge above the dining area. There at the flowers is a Long-billed Hermit and I am even treated to a Purple-crowned Fairy. I join in conversation with Don, Tailgunner Bob, and Kent until lunch is served. Homemade bread, still steaming from the oven, hot vegetable soup, braised beef over rice and coleslaw await us in the downstairs dining room. The group is famished, hot, tired and thirsty and can hardly wait to dig into the food. Since other guests are arriving this afternoon, we must depart by 2:30. Not a problem; we are tired. After short naps, Bert gives a talk about the geography of Belize and bird habitats, before we retire to R-Tent-III for dinner and a movie.
(Bert) Coincidently, there are two Blue Holes, one a deep hole surrounded by the coral reef fifteen miles from land and the other a deep water-filled pit in the karst, set in thick jungle on the mainland. Israel tells us the inland Blue Hole filled nearly to the brim with recent rains and it took two weeks for it to drain through underground stream labyrinth. Climbing the steep steps into the hole we can see the evidence of the flood: plants flattened, wooden debris shifted haphazardly, drain lines etched. Now the depth is back to normal and the water crystal clear but for its blue glow. Canopied by tall leafy trees, it is so dark in the Blue Hole that I rest my camera on the metal pipe railing and set the shutter to ½ sec. Back on the ground level jungle, I hear a Little Tinamou and several dove species and three or four Black-faced Anthrush individuals. Virginia #1 reports seeing two Green Jays kick out a White Hawk. That’s a scene I would have liked to witness! High atop a dead limb we focus spotting scopes on a Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallow, seeing the white ocular spots bridging its bill and the darkened undertail coverts, subtle distinctions from the Northern Rough-winged. A sought after bird, we walk the Dusky Antbird Trail, listening and looking for its namesake. None are found, so I play a bit of its song. Within seconds one appears for us to see flitting in the semidarkness of the forest. We are about to regroup and head to another parking lot when I notice Woody and Don focusing cameras on a bird perched just below the canopy. I arrive in time to click one photo of a Slaty-tailed Trogon before it takes flight.
On the St. Herman’s Cave Trail, we anxiously pinpoint a Wilson’s Warbler, such a common bird in parts of the U.S. and Canada as to be often ignored, but a species I’ve only found once per year in the Belize winters. Nearby, guide Israel finds a Cinnamon Becard that quickly hides, but reappears when I call it with a song. It’s a life bird for most, but best of all for Cindy. Judy has earnestly been searching for an Orange-billed Sparrow to no avail. She finds none again today, but Bearded Bob, birding alone, has the serendipity to find two different individuals. Meanwhile our group is studying a large black bird perched a quarter mile away on a dead tree. Israel found it, but it is too distant for him to id. Woody lines up his scope and he and I identify it as Giant Cowbird, which Israel confirms. For six years we’ve searched for this species and not found it. Now this is the third birding location where we’ve seen them this trip.
I hear the last of the dove calls I’ve tracked and ask Israel for confirmation on Gray-chested Dove. That completes the list of Blue Hole doves, all identified by me this morning without a single one in sight. An impressive list if I say so myself: Pale-vented, Scaled, Red-billed, Short-billed, Blue Ground-Dove, Gray-fronted, Gray-chested and Ruddy Quail-Dove.
Raindrops splash, increasing in density as we seek shelter under the broad leaves. Five minutes into the rainstorm, the leaf supported droplets coalesce and pour from the leaves, dripping on my cotton shirt. Soon I’m getting wetter under the trees than in the open, so we move on along the trail. In an open area where the canopy is absent, we see steam rising from the under story, an inverted waterfall of mist rises like from a hundred whistling teakettles. At St. Herman’s Cave I photograph the deep dark entrance and notice the surrounding plants glisten from fresh rain.
After lunch we hike the Jaguar Creek trail, finding little of interest except for a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. I hear later that Cindy, Bob, Virginia and Judy found an ant swarm that attracted good birds. Meanwhile, our carload hike back to the cave because I want to play a Nightingale Wren recording, hoping for a response. Instead I conjure up a rainstorm and this one is neither gentle nor short. Nothing beats the tranquility of a rain forest when raindrops pitter patter on leaves of different shapes and sizes, producing beats and rhythms like an orchestra’s percussion section. Without rain’s end in sight, we hike the quarter mile back to the parking lot, drenching shirts and pants and shoes in warm rain by the time we climb into the car and head home.
(Shari) Believing the lady at the market when she said the pine green skinned oranges are sweet, I bought 10 for 50 cents. I intend to make fresh squeezed orange juice this morning. I doubt that these green oranges can be anything other than sour but when I cut them open, the fruit is a deep orange and tastes sweet and juicy. Today is wash day and I do two loads, drying them outside on a rope strung between the posts of our awning. The shirts and pants dry quickly as the sun beats down on them and by noon everything is dry. Bob, Arlene and I are the only ones left in camp and we have a leisurely day. After lunch we play three games of Pegs and Jokers, each of us winning one game. The birders dribble back between 3:30 and 6, tired but happy. Bert and I join Bill and Don for dinner at the best restaurant in Belize. The build-out of this Mexican restaurant is the best I have seen in this country and is tastefully decorated. The bathrooms are clean. An indoor dining room contains wooden tables and chairs; however, we choose to sit on the white plastic chairs with plastic tables located in individual verandas overlooking the city. Sharing a bucket of beer, shrimp fajitas and tortilla chips while the sun sets and the lights of the city below twinkle back at us makes us forget that we are in a very poor country.
(Bert) It is said the Mayans built Xunantunich to protect access to the Belize River. We wait on the San Jose Succotz side of the river for the ferry to begin operation. It’s a pleasant place to wait as the clear river rushes by, tossing up white caps when it breaks against boulders. A pair of Amazon Kingfishers meet on a branch overhanging the river and mate quickly. In a high bare branched tree two parrots stop briefly and I notice the yellowish tail feathers as they land, knowing this is the species I see least often. Tom says they look like two different species. We identify one by the red shoulder mark and the dark eye patch as a male Yellow-cheeked Parrot (also called Yucatan) and the other is the female. At 7:30 the ferry operator motions to me to bring ahead my SUV. Down the steep embankment and on to the rickety planks I stop half-aboard to keep the ferry tilted toward shore and wait for the Don’s car to reach the lowered planks before moving to the other side of the ferry. Two vehicles and its passengers fill the ferry, so the operator turns the crank to move us across on the cable system. We wait for Woody’s truck and then drive the mile to Xunantunich, pausing for a flock of Green Jays and several Keel-billed Toucans. Parking the cars and walking uphill toward the ruins, Gwen and Virginia see an Eye-ringed Flatbill but we cannot relocate it and instead are attracted to a singing Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. When we finally reach the flat main plaza of Xunantunich we are over 300 ft. above the river, and rising another 130 ft. – 13 stories - above us is the monumental El Castillo temple. With a series of tall steps wrapping around all four sides of the tower, we cannot resist climbing to the top. Near the precipice a 9-ft. X 30-ft. frieze depicts Mayan history between 800 and 900 A.D. The stonework is sharp and undamaged, an artifact usually allocated to museums, long since removed from the original construction site, so here atop the temple it adds grandeur to the place. From the top our unobstructed view extends to Guatemala in the west and Belize elsewhere, unbroken jungles but for the village of San Jose Succotz nestled in the Belize River valley to the south and the thin line of a gravel road threading to the northwest. Down from our lofty stand, we walk through the cool forest surrounding the excavation and find Judy and Gwen intently watching two Golden-crowned Warblers and then add Worm-eating Warbler, Plain Xenops and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper to the day list. Having many errands to attend to, Judy and I leave early, but later hear that Virginia and Don found a Royal Flycatcher.
(Shari) Ninety percent certain that Leandro at the immigration office will stamp everyone’s passport for a 30-day extension, Bert and I depart for Belmopan at noon. Arriving at 1, I am relieved to see Leandro at the desk and that he remembers me. He is working on a stack of passports from another group and tells us to return in 2 hr. As we wait for the extensions, Bert and I attempt to find a campground in Belmopan. We locate the field he was told about, but unfortunately it has no facilities. We return to immigration but Leandro has not even started the group’s passports yet. I decide to wait in the air-conditioned office and carry on a long conversation with a precocious 3-year-old boy from Hong Kong who knows Chinese, English and Spanish and now lives in Belize. He is a darling and tells me he is the youngest of three, his name is Sammy and he can count the chairs. Finally our passports are finished and we can return to San Ignacio. While I drive the tedious road back, Bert naps. We return at 4 PM and I immediately start on the main dish for our potluck tonight.
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