Chapter 9.  Maya Mountains

Day 38 – February 21 – Mountain Pine Ridge, Cayo District

(Editor Bert) I’m torn on the decision of whose journal to put first today. Shari and I write our journals independently and we don’t know what the other has written until we are done with the task. Sometimes we write on the same subject and whoever’s is first, gives away the punch line for the second writer. Since each of us today has started with a teaser quote, I’ll give you my quote first, but then revert to Shari’s journal first.

(Bert) “Bob, this is Bob. Have you seen Bob?” The 2-way radio message came from the second car, addressed to the fourth car, asking what happened to the fifth in our car pool through Mountain Pine Ridge. We were nearing the end of a spectacular day of birding when we lost track of one car. …

(Shari) “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! There is a birding emergency at the lookout. REPEAT: A birding emergency at the lookout.” I never saw 19 people move so fast in my life almost mowing down some other tourists on the way down the steep steps. Patient Cindy has spotted an Orange-breasted Falcon and, of course, it is a life bird for most of the group. Ho, hum, I’ve already seen it last year. We arrived at 1000 Foot Falls after a horrendous 3-hr. drive on a horrendous road. I tell Ralph, who came in a Toyota sedan that he had better treat that car to some premium gas when he gets down the 2000-ft. mountain. I cannot believe where he takes that small white car and it keeps on a truckin’. We are greeted at the resort with cold washcloths for our faces and limeade for our throats, just in time for a filling lunch. Linda says she will have to do some serious birding this afternoon to make room for supper. Pat Y says her room with the fireplace is just lovely and she thinks she will stay the year. I agree. Too bad we’d end up in the poor house however. This resort has 7200 acres of unspoiled private land and 90 mi. of roads and trails for the exclusive use of its 24 guests. At 4, I order a glass of wine and sit out at the pool. The group returns and tells me that Bert is out looking for a lost car. It is Tailgunner Bob who is lost. Later I see Bert enter the grounds towing the white Malibu. Apparently it hit a rock and all the oil in the transmission spilled out. Nothing can be done about it now so we all pile into the dining room for a candlelight dinner of blackened snapper or baked chicken.

(Bert) “Bob, this is Bob. Have you seen Bob?” The 2-way radio message came from the second car, addressed to the fourth car, asking what happened to the fifth in our car pool through Mountain Pine Ridge. We were nearing the end of a spectacular day of birding when we lost track of one car. Our early morning trek up into the Maya Mountains was over rough gravel roads, but at 2000 ft. the hardened red mud formed deep ruts and the descent toward 1000 Foot Falls was fun driving my high clearance 4-wheel drive SUV, but hardship for the two low slung sedans. We stop along the road to bird and while trying to track down a Rusty Sparrow I heard singing, we see a Swallow-tailed Kite soaring gracefully in the uplift of the mountain slope. We continue to the falls and although the skies are clear and the view far reaching, we are unable to detect the presence of the Orange-breasted Falcon pair that resides beside the falls. Of course, finding a 14-in. object when our view must be at least a half-mile across the narrow valley is not a trivial task. Instead we watch King Vultures soar in the uplift and take photos of the thin waterfall plummeting even farther than its 1000-foot namesake. We drift towards finding other birds and I soon have a crowd around me when I announce a Plumbeous Vireo and Black-headed Siskin. We are watching a Hepatic Tanager, when over the radio we hear, “Cindy has found the Orange-breasted Falcon and it’s in the scope.” Making a mad dash back to the precipice and down the steep steps to the concrete lookout platform causes a local guide to announce to his guests, “Birding Emergency!” as we dash past them. I align my scope on the distant spot across the ravine, describing the remote location “at the right edge of the lighter green, adjacent to a twisted trunk, half way up, near the bend.” Cindy must have found the perched falcon by continuously scanning the horizon with her scope, because even with mine zoomed to 60X, most birders have difficulty finding the miniscule falcon in the eyepiece. But I can make out the orange belly and dark chest band and when it turns I can just see the orange breast. Later, someone finds the second falcon on this side of the falls and we get a much closer view. Birders are still lined up behind the scope for a second and third view when I announce it is time to head to the inn for lunch.

In mid afternoon we drive to King Vulture Falls and, true to its name, three King Vultures rest on the flat rocks above the plummeting falls. We drink in the scenic view and Arlene comments that anyone would love to be on our trips, even non-birders, because of the beautiful places we visit. Our guide Rick knows of a place he has seen Lovely Cotinga, so we head to that hillside with a broad overview of the tree tops. Twenty minutes of searching the canopy produces nothing, when suddenly Dorothy finds one. Even at a great distance the electric blue glows brightly and through the scopes we can see the contrasting darker blues. If ever there was an “ooh-and-aah” bird it has got to be the Lovely Cotinga. The bird changes locations and we move the scopes, with lines forming behind each to get multiple chances at seeing the beauty close up. I try for several digiscope photos, but the distance and resolution and my particular camera – wish Woody was here with his camera – give me poor results. Yet, I’m not going to delete these photos because the bright blue fuzzy spot is my evidence of a fantastic find.

Finally the cotinga flies and our car caravan exits also. But a bit later down the narrow twisting path through woods and brush we recognize we are missing one car. “Bob, this is Bob. Have you seen Bob?” No response. We wait. We try again. No response. Since the narrow road does not permit a U-turn, I lead the group back to the lodge and Rick and I drive back to the last birding stop – not a short distance away. Getting near the cotinga meadow I see Lee walking alone and he tells us the car is inoperable. At the dead car, Tailgunner Bob tells me he thinks he scraped on a rock, punched a hole into the pan, lost his transmission fluid and cannot drive. Fortunately, I have a trailer hitch on my SUV and his car has the tow bar still attached. So I tow his car up and down the steep hills all the way back to the lodge, arriving just as the sun sets over the horizon.

Day 39 – February 22 – Caracol Nature Reservation, Cayo District

(Bert) Only Shari groaned last night about my announcement of 4:30 breakfast and 5 AM departure. But with Tailgunner Bob’s car out of commission, she stays back from our trip to Caracol and gets to sleep late. Just as the sky brightens, yet the sun hides behind the dark horizon clouds, our cars cross the Macal River and we stop briefly to bird. White-necked Jacobin, Black Phoebe and Golden-hooded Tanager form a nice trio to start the day list, but the allure of Caracol draws us onward, so we leave while we are still seeing good birds. At Caracol, a few bird separately, but most of us follow Rick along a jungle path. A treeful of Collared Araçaris start us off, followed by flocks of noisy Mealy Parrots. In the dark forest, birds are unexpectedly few this morning, but two are memorable sightings: a Green-backed Sparrow patiently staying in the open path before us, and a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper climbing the trunk of a nearby tree.

The forest edge breaks into the open at a plaza surrounded by tall structures and we climb the 90+ steps to the top of the highest pyramid, giving us a 360 deg. panoramic view of the Caracol Mayan site and the surrounding jungle canopy. We see only a Bat Falcon and a White-crowned Parrot for birds, yet the view is worth the climb. Rick tells us Caracol was rediscovered when a logger was searching for mahogany, yet only recently has the surface ground been removed to reveal the structures almost completely intact. Only sections where massive tree roots crumbled the limestone blocks are there breaks from the rigidly straight lines of steps upon steps, walls and platforms. In the absence of bird sightings, Rick tells stories pulled from the Mayan inscriptions and facades on the temples, altars and steles. The most fascinating is a story from the Popul Vuh, the Mayan “Bible”, about the origin of the ball game, a legend I’ll relate here.

A Mayan man bounces a ball on the ground, playing with it day after day, so much so that the underworld gods are upset with the incessant pounding and threaten to kill him. To put an end to the noise, the gods demand a test and, if the man fails, they will kill him. For the test, he must smoke a cigarette, keeping it lit all day long, and at the end of the day he must hand over the lit cigarette to the gods. The man lights the cigarette and smokes, but it is consumed and he fails the test and the gods cut off his head and put the head on a stick. A maiden walks past the head and the head spits on her and she becomes pregnant. She gives birth to twins and when they have grown, she tells them the story of their father and the ball game. Again, the twins start the ball game, but the bouncing ball disturbs the underground gods and they want to kill the twins. So they send a mosquito with a message to the twins. But a frog doesn’t like what is happening, so the frog eats the mosquito. A snake doesn’t like what is happening, so the snake eats the frog. A Bat Falcon doesn’t like what is happening, so the Bat Falcon eats the snake. The twins see the Bat Falcon and shoot arrows at the falcon and put out its eyes. The Bat Falcon begs for the return of its eyesight, so the twins put a black mask over the eyes of the falcon and to this day, the mask is still visible on the Bat Falcon. But the Bat Falcon throws up the snake and the snake throws up the frog and the frog throws up the mosquito and the mosquito delivers the message to the twins. They each must smoke a cigarette in front of the gods, keeping it lit all day and, at the end of the day, give the cigarette to the gods. But the twins know the story of their father, so they catch two fireflies and put one on the end of each cigarette, keeping them glowing there all day and then hand the cigarettes back to the gods. The gods are fooled and the twins win the contest and they can keep the ball game.

This morning we’ve already heard Black-headed Trogon and Violaceous Trogon and gotten a long look and photographs of a Slaty-tailed Trogon. I’ve not seen Collared Trogon in Belize, but Rick knows an area of the ruins where they reside, so he imitates their call and I occasionally play a recording. Intermittently, I also play Tody Motmot since it stays in the same area. After nearly an hour birding the area, a few see a Tayra – a weasel that looks like a cross between a wild dog and a wild cat - scamper around a pyramid and out of sight, and we find a few birds, but no trogon or motmot. Finally, we hear the motmot, but distant. Maneuvering toward the motmot sound, we suddenly hear and see the Collared Trogon. After getting our leisurely fill of watching and photographing the perched green and red separated-by-white trogon, we try again for the motmot in the same area. It calls, not with the single notes I’ve been playing, but with a rapid series of notes. We shift position along the path and search through the under story looking for the smallest of motmots or its movements, but it stays silent and unmoving. I move my position and I switch to the motmot recording of repeated notes. A feathered jet rockets across the path, shoots by me at the knees, finds a perch, stopping to hoot a return call and hides again in the forest. I shift positions again and repeat the sequence. This time the tiny motmot comes toward me, stopping to perch 15 ft. in front of me at eye level and I get my first look, eye-to-eye, at a Tody Motmot.

(Shari) Unable to believe that I am actually making this hike, I take the lead. It is just Arlene and me taking the Mot Mot Trail, hoping to see the Toady Mot Mot before Bert does. We stop every few hundred feet and sit on our chairs to listen and look but find nothing. When we walk, we have to look down at the trail in order not to stumble over an exposed root, rock, misplaced log or, heaven forbid, a snake. The path is prime habitat for snakes and I mean prime. Littered with fallen leaves I just know that some snake is lurking around every corner. Following a map, I consider every 5 min. or so to turn around. Why don’t I? Finally we reach the half way mark, the point of no return and plough onward. I am very relieved to see the path open up and a mowed section going up a hill. We arrive back at the lodge 2½ hr. later, hot, tired and thirsty with only four birds under our belts and no mot-mot. We look in the bird book in the sitting room next to the bird feeders to figure out just what birds we did see. We identify an orange-crowned tanager, a violet saber wing and a black and white puff bird. Bert will probably never believe it. At the feeder I take a great photo of an acorn woodpecker drinking upside down at the hummingbird feeder and see a yellow backed oriole (again Bert will never believe it). I think it is time to quit birding today since I do not want to overtax myself with any more lifers. ;) Arlene, Bob and I have a delicious lunch before retiring to our rooms to read and rest and then come back for a swim. It is a tough job, this being a Wagonmaster. But heh, somebody has to do it. Soon the group joins us and later I play word Yatzee with Pat Y and Gwen. I probably should not have won the game, but I did. Pat helped me a lot so maybe she should take the credit for the win. Soon it is time for dinner but after my two already big meals, some tortilla snacks, a Bloody Mary and a beer, I am not very hungry. It is one of those rare times I leave some morsels of food on my plate when they take it away.

Day 40 – February 23 – Hidden Valley, Cayo District

(Bert) Like rosebuds, the yellow flowers of the St. Johns Wort pinch tight, waiting for morning sunbeams. A bit farther down the path the first beams have pushed wide the five petals and reveal the stamen sunburst. A Rusty Sparrow sings and the birders line up with the narrow window through the low brush from which it can be seen. I miss this one, but another calls from the opposite side and I can see it clearly through the grass stalks. We descend the grassy path toward the stream surrounded by palms and tree ferns, finding there a Rufous-capped Warbler resplendent in bright yellow capped with rich chestnut. A wren duet performs in two overlapping melodies: on the left sings a White-breasted Wood-Wren and on the right a Spot-breasted Wren. The wood-wren comes tantalizingly close, yet hides enough to make it a real challenge to find it partially hidden in the thick foliage. Patient Virginia #2 shows Linda, then lines up Gwen and Arlene with the slender corridor to the singing bird. After our 2-hr. morning walk, most are already at the breakfast table when I mention to Rick that we still have not found Yellow-backed Oriole. While I’m photographing Dorothy and Ralph in front of their cottage #1 – an inside joke about Dorothy’s drive to be number one – Rick motions me to a tree next to the inn. Minutes after my request, he has located the oriole with a pure yellow back and black wings and tail. After breakfast we drive back to the meadow where we found the Lovely Cotinga two days ago and Virginia #1 found it yesterday. Our attention is immediately diverted to the sky where a light phase Short-tailed Hawk soars above us. Entranced with its beauty, we see a second bird appear and have the good fortune of seeing a dark phase Short-tailed – black undertail coverts and white primaries - fly with the light phase – white undertail coverts and black primaries. Rick hears a distant Red-capped Manakin and when we walk closer to the forest I hear the whistle call also. We try to locate the singer, then hear a second one nearby, but neither come to the wooded edge, so Rick suggests a forest trail where he has seen a lek. Unlike grouse and White-capped Manakins which have leks – mating ritual zones – on barren patches of ground, Red-capped Manakins dance on an inner leafless tree branch. The bird is on territory when we arrive at the tree. While he does not dance, he firmly remains fixed to his spot while we watch and I photograph. A bit farther down the path we hear more whistling and find two males on another branch. One leaves the perch and assumes various positions in a circle of surrounding trees. Tom catches up with me and tells me a second male appeared at the first lek as well. That’s two singing Red-capped Manakins, plus four visually identified male red-cappeds, all in the space of a half-hour. We have one more stop before lunch, at a path leading to another waterfall. Here the pine forest is untouched by the pine beetle that destroyed most of the pines on Mountain Pine Ridge and here the pine-oak forest is dark and thick with tall trees. Our path descends and ascends steeply and from a higher ridge I play the songs of Yellow-bellied and Northern Beardless tyrannulets, our designated target birds. Instead, I see a small brown bird with an odd facial expression moving between branches far below us. My first thought is spadebill, but its shape is not right and then I see a flash of yellow. Bob B. gets a look at the bird and we start thinking Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher. It continues to jump between perches and more of us see its body shape and facial markings. Finally, it turns its yellow-rumped back to us and I confirm what we suspected. Back at the dinner table I mention our finds to those that did not join us earlier and Virginia #1 is envious of our Red-capped Manakin discovery as it would have been a life bird for her.

(Shari) Up at 7, I wander over to the dining room and eat breakfast with Tailgunner Bob. His leg is bothering him and therefore he decided to remain back from the early morning birding trip. Just as I am sitting down to do E-mail, the group comes in for breakfast. I sit with them until they leave again to go out birding. I pack, do E-mail and write and the time just flies. Soon the group is back for lunch and it is time to drive down the mountain. Before we depart we take a picture of Rick’s 3-year old daughter, holding the doll Bert gave to her father earlier. She loves that doll and holds it so close to her, making a darling picture. We log another route and get back into camp only 10 min. after the rest of the group. Immediately I start another load of wash and hang it outside hoping it will dry in the next 3 hr. After a travel meeting and some unscheduled margaritas, Bert and I watch another movie.

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