Chapter 10. Coastal Belize
(Bert) Our last morning in Punta Gorda, I want to go back to The Dump and listen again for the presumed Virginia Rail, this time prepared to make a recording. Mark, Leonard and Barbara accompany me, all three experienced at identifying the rail by call. Even before we arrive we have our doubts about the identity because Barbara thought she heard another one the morning we visited George’s yard. Leonard and Barbara suspect there must be a similar sounding rail in Belize as the chance of two discoveries is too much to believe. At 5:30 AM we begin our listening and occasional playback of various rails and crakes. For the next hour we hear Soras, numerous Ruddy Crakes – I record one of them – a Clapper Rail, two Striped Cuckoos, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Spot-breasted Wren, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-lored Parrots and a flock of Plain Chachalacas – all heard, none seen. We do not hear the strange rail we heard and briefly saw a few days ago. Leonard and I think we hear a Least Bittern and find it is a good match for my recording, but when we meet up with Mark, who was birding a quarter mile down the road, we find out he had been playing a Least Bittern recording. Scratch that off our lists! With the sun now up, we see a dozen more birds along the road, most notably a Northern Harrier flying low over the marsh, before we quit birding at 7 AM.
Shortly after 10 AM we are on the Southern Highway, heading north to Dangriga. I wonder if our radiator fan will be waiting for us. Getting the fan was not an easy task. The process started weeks ago when I went to the Freightliner web site and logged on with my VIN for the chassis, a number that uniquely identifies R-Tent-III. In the customer assistance web page I sent an e-mail to Freightliner technical support and almost a week later Freightliner responded with the name and e-mail address of an international dealer in Ohio who could send the fan corresponding to the part number they gave me. I immediately e-mailed back to say I wanted the part shipped to a Colorado address and the next day they said I could use the same dealer. I e-mailed Virginia to ask for permission to have the part sent to her and ask her and John to bring it with them as part of their luggage when they fly to Belize in a week. Meanwhile I tried to get the fan from a parts dealer in Spanish Lookout, but he did not have that part number, nor a cross reference table. The same day I got Virginia’s okay. So far, so good. I e-mailed the Ohio dealer with all of the information except my credit card. The e-mail bounced – bad address. I called the dealer on our satellite phone, which has a built-in delay of about 3 sec., making it somewhat awkward to talk. The dealer didn’t know if he had the part and then asked me how I would pay for it. I told him credit card. He said he would FAX me a form and I should FAX it back to him. No way! I explained our desperate situation, but the dealer said he could not sell me the part and hung up on me in mid sentence. So I called the office of our caravan company and asked them to help. Within 24 hours the required part was delivered to Virginia’s house. But now I wonder: is it the right part?, will it pass through customs? I’m beginning to sound like Shari.
Shari and I drive to the Dangriga airport. Bearded Bob is already there waiting for his three guests to arrive: Jon, plus Virginia and John. I am relieved to see a big box taken off with the luggage. Virginia tells me they had no problem getting the fan through customs. I head to R-Tent-III and open the box. Tailgunner Bob says it’s the right part. I track down Corwin and he tells me he will replace the fan tomorrow morning. So far, so good.
(Bert) We start this morning’s birding with our newly arrived guests John and Virginia and Jon. One habitat we haven’t seem much of on this trip so far is coastal Caribbean, so when we visit Gragra Lagoon National Park we see North American shorebirds that winter in Belize, adding to our trip list Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern and Willet. Jon studies the Willet and declares it a Western, a subspecies that might someday be split to form a new species. We bird along the entrance road and peer into the mangrove swamp, finding Mangrove Warbler, American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and Prothonotary Warbler. Ray finds a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, I get a quick glimpse of it, and we continue to search for another 20 min. but cannot relocate it. Birding is progressing happily when a pickup truck pulls up and two large and muscular men approach the group and ask for the leader. I’m pointed out and step forward and one of the men scolds me for not registering the group beforehand. This comes as a surprise since we’ve birded at this national park many times before and no sign marks the entrance, nor announces any rules and regulations or entrance fees. The gruff man claims there are official rules and asks (demands?) that we attend the 10 AM signing of the official policy agreement. It seems a strange request, but I say I will and we continue birding.
After another half hour we move the cars farther down the road and stop again at a short path through wetlands to the coast. Just than the pickup truck stops again and this time the presumed refuge manager asks me to come with them to their office in Dangriga, just at the edge of the park. I oblige, but a few of the others in the group are suspicious and Bearded Bob drives his vehicle behind the pickup truck heading in to town. I talk to the driver about their plans for the park and he tells me they intend to offer canoe trips into the lagoon and the mangrove swamp beyond. He also tells me where they intend to locate their office – the current one is falling apart after being eaten by termites – and I suggest they choose a different site since the proposed one is exactly the wetlands where we have been seeing many good birds. He acknowledges this is good advice. We reach a home in the village and get out, but now the conversation becomes suspicious. The presumed manager tells me this is not the office, it is somewhere else, that there is a sign for the park we should have noticed and that we will need to pay something, or else we will be in trouble with the police. This is getting too bizarre and I am no longer sure what is legitimate, if gruff, management of the park and what is a scam or hustle for money. I tell the man this is getting too complicated and that we will just leave the park and not get involved further. As I head to Bob’s car, the man just shrugs and says nothing more.
Back at where the others are birding, I announce over the radio that they should return to their cars and we are leaving. I find out later that this was a most inopportune time, since Jon had just located a Collared Plover, a rare coastal migrant that I’ve not seen in Belize and most others have not seen anywhere. Instead, we head through Dangriga and bird at Pelican Beach Resort, a place we stayed for several years before we brought RV’s this far south into the country. Amazingly, we find a Prairie Warbler in the exact same tree we saw it last year. Prairie Warblers are expected on the cayes, but rare along the mainland coast. We continue birding along disturbed forest bordering the airport, seeing little at first. One particular spot catches my attention when I start seeing multiple birds. Other birders join me and soon I call on the radio to the whole group. While we are lined up along the road, looking into the cleared land now being retaken by forest, we watch a parade of species feeding on the fruiting trees and gathering insects in the grasses. The final tally at this one spot reaches a surprising 30 species and includes some new ones for our newly arrived guests. I still wish I could have seen the Collared Plover, however.
(Shari) “Music please, Maestro,” I think to myself as I begin to sing “On the Road Again.” R-Tent-III is fixed! All is good with the world. I awake this morning to cool weather and think that the men will at least not swelter as they lay under the rig to replace the fan. Tailgunner Bob arrives at 7:30 and true to his word, Corwin arrives by 7:50. They immediately get to work and have the fan replaced in short order. Now I am to turn on the engine. I say a little prayer and turn the key. I step outside and as soon as I turn the corner in the back, I hear the whooshing sound. Oh no, I scream inside. The fan did not fix the problem. The men listen for awhile, wiggle nuts and bolts, scratch their heads. They just cannot figure it out. I shut the engine off. More wiggling and scratching. Maybe the engine is cold. I am told to turn it on again for about 10-20 min. to warm it up. Whoosh, whoosh!
Croc comes out and offers his ideas. He asks me if anyone has checked the level of the hydraulic fluid. All heads turn to me. How in the world would I know? But I do know my husband and I said probably not - he is not here since he took the group birding early this morning. I shut down the engine. Tailgunner Bob unscrews the cap on the big hydraulic reservoir and brings up the dipstick. No oil even registers on the stick. I am asked if we carry extras. I am sure we do, but I have no idea where Bert keeps the stuff. I start methodically opening underneath compartments and the third one I open contains a big plastic see-through container with all sorts of goodies in it. Sure enough, I find a quart of hydraulic fluid. Bob pours that into the reservoir and still the dipstick does not register. Apparently the reservoir is dry. Bob and Corwin go into town to buy a gallon of the stuff and pour that into the tank. It takes the whole gallon and still the stick does not touch oil. Now I start the engine again and step outside. What a wonderful sound. It is purring like a kitten. Now where in the world did all that fluid go? We see no leaks. We just had the rig serviced in Texas before we left. Did Bryan Freightliner never check the fluid level? Anyway, Bert comes back and we move the rig to join the others at the ITVET School. What a pretty sight! My mood is dramatically improved and I can joke with the group as we wait for our food at the restaurant. Those that ordered the pork chops love their meal. Those that had lasagna or shrimp think the plate is scrimpy and those that had veggie fajitas are disappointed that no tortillas are included. I am disappointed that Ronnie, the owner, does not have her famous lemon or banana cream pie. But not much can dampen my spirits tonight. God has been good and has watched over us again. Can you imagine if we had broken down on the gravel section of road 90 mi. from nowhere? No mechanic. No tow truck. No place to keep the rig. What a mess that would have been. Also isn’t it fortuitous that Virginia was coming down from the U.S. just now and could bring us the part? I should trust more, I know. It would save me a lot of worry and aggravations. All I can say right now is “Thank you Lord.”
(Bert) “I wonder if the Scarlet Macaws are still there,” I think to myself each year I visit Red Bank. The flock of about 200 macaws known for Belize always seems to be threatened one way or another: the dam construction at their nesting sites, burning of the forest, and clearing of their feeding grounds for Milpa farming. So, I am incredibly delighted when we see 20 Scarlet Macaws as soon as we stop behind the village and look up into the hillside forest. The macaws are roosting in a large spreading tree at the crest of the ridge. Even at a distance of a quarter mile we can see with naked eyes their long tail feathers and through binoculars and the scope we can catch the splash of flashing colors. Twenty in one tree sets a new record for me and when our guide Pablo meets us he tells me he saw 50 yesterday. We watch the macaws until pair by pair they take off and wing grandly over the ridge to feeding grounds beyond. Throughout the morning we encounter small groups of the macaws flying above us as they shift from one feeding spot to another. It certainly is a worthwhile trip for the macaws alone, but we also encounter a good number of other birds. A Plumbeous Kite sits on a nest, its mate nearby. Several of us closely examine and photograph some Passion Flowers and when Juanita comes to examine them she finds a hummingbird nest on same small branch. How could we have missed that? Two eggs lie in the nest and on our return this way we find a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird sitting on them.
Again we find a fruiting tree that seems to be the gathering spot for more
than a dozen species, mostly birds we’ve seen often before, although new for the
three newcomers. Even well-traveled Jon gets lifers, as he has not visited
Belize before. The checklist I distributed includes the 119 species we’ve seen
at this spot on previous trips. Today we add 31 to that list. The best birds are
a Piratic Flycatcher that Ray finds and Penny also sees, two widely separated
single Olive-sided Flycatchers, both a light phase and a dark phase Short-tailed
Hawk, three swift species including Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift and a reddish
raptor that Jon and John decide is Double-toothed Kite.
After lunch most of the group heads back to Dangriga and ten of us continue south to Bladen Reserve and BFREE. At the entrance to the access road we park our cars and wait for a rugged truck with a shark’s teeth jaw painted across the front. It takes a truck with this ferocity to tackle the deeply rutted, muddy and waterlogged 2-track that masquerades for a road. Three in the cab with driver Don and the rest us hanging on to the metal barred cage built on the pickup back, we ride the bucking bronco like a kid’s thrill ride at Disneyworld’s outdoor adventure park. First through a palmetto savannah and then through dense woods and crossing Bladen River without a bridge, the last forest surrounds the bunkhouse where we will sleep tonight. Women in one room, men on the other, Mark and Joanie to share the small center room until they find out only one bunk is made up, so Mark gets a private room. The outhouse is not a house, but rather a thatched roof supported by four posts and a wooden hutch with a hole cut in for the toilet seat. A high 10-ft. wide fence separates the outhouse from the bunkhouse and a small rotatable board, red on one side and green on the other, signals occupancy. We quickly settle in to our accommodations, get a quick orientation from hostess Judy and begin birding, hiking first through the forest to the lagoon where Boat-billed Herons and Agami Herons occur. Mark sees an Agami just as it flies away and all of us see and hear the Boat-billeds. In fact, Jon and Joanne report two dozen seen from the canoe when they paddle the length of the small lagoon.
The remote area where we are birding is sandwiched between three preserves and together they comprise the largest protected territory in the country, a section even larger than the largest contiguous protected reserve in Costa Rica. Most of the area is either closed to everyone except scientists or is so remote that it cannot be accessed except by several days travel by foot through the jungle. Although we see few birds this late afternoon, we feel special to be able to bird here. After dinner in a darkened kitchen and dining area, illuminated by two florescent light fixtures powered by batteries charged during the day from solar panels, we go on a night walk through the jungle on a trail stumbling over the rocky debris of Mayan ruins, heading to the Bladen River. We use flashlights to scan the path ahead for fer-de-lances, happily finding none. We hear a Mottled Owl and find it perched above us a bit farther along the path. Other than the owl, the only other sounds are the Bufo marinus toads which I later record so that I can practice distinguishing them from Vermiculated Screech-Owls. At the Bladen the river moves swiftly and our lights find small fishes swimming in the clear water. Lights catch wings of small bats seeking insects above the surface and after a long wait we see a Greater Fishing Bat, Noctilio leporinus, fly over the water, appearing as large as a nighthawk. By 9 PM everyone is in their bunk bed, some more successful than others at falling asleep amidst the cacophony of thunderous snoring.
(Bert) I slept solidly through the night, but now at 5:30 I hear the loud snoring has not subsided and I crawl out of my bunk and find my clothes in the dark, trying not to disturb the others. By the time I’ve gathered all my birding gear and exited the screen door, most of the others are up also, especially when Mark’s clock sounds its alarm like a fire siren in the quiet jungle. The birds are awake too and without ambient background noise I use the opportunity to record the dawn chorus. I recognize most of the songs and later when I meet up with birding guide Wilfred and play back the recordings, he identifies additional birds. Thus, I’ve recorded Blue-crowned Motmot, Ruddy and Northern Barred woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Lesser Greenlet, Bright-rumped Attila, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet and Rufous-tailed Jacamar. My favorite, though, is a Gray-chested Dove duetting with a Ruddy Quail-Dove. Joanie and I take out the canoe and I paddle gently through the lagoon, hoping to see the Agami Herons, but find only the many Boat-billeds. One pair faces each other with raised crests in a mating ritual. Most take flight or shift to higher branches when we glide beneath them. This place seems to hold the biggest concentration of birds of Belize places I’ve visited, as we see birds constantly throughout the morning. Northern Bentbills are particularly numerous and we see six species of woodcreepers and five species of vireos and a dozen flycatcher species.
After lunch we pack our bags for the arrival of the shark-toothed truck. Some of us hike along the forested entrance road, with Bearded Bob far in the lead. He is developing a reputation for birding skills he otherwise denies, this time finding a Tody Motmot, Long-billed Hermit and Orange-billed Sparrow on his own. The truck passes us up, retrieves our baggage and returns to carry us out the bad road which somehow seems rougher today. We return to Dangriga in plenty of time to join the others for a group photo, perhaps the only day when all of us have been at the same spot at the same time. We say farewell to Barbara as she will fly back to Michigan tomorrow.
(Shari) A group of ten travel to Crocodile Isle for lunch. This is the place that R-Tent-III was stored while it was broken. The owner, a former RV salesman from Houston, and his wife started developing this “eco theme park” 5 yr. ago. The land was a swamp that they reclaimed by using layers of old tires and sand. Now it has wonderful paths along a river, tent pads for backpackers, rest rooms, a dump and a wonderful restaurant and bar. I order a hamburger and it is the best I have ever had in Belize. The owners are trying to save the endangered fresh water crocodile. They have captured little crocs and have put them in a moat around their restaurant. They feed them chicken and when they become 7 ft. long they will reintroduce them into the wild. They have plans for a petting zoo and places to keep other animals that cannot make it on their own in the wild. An iguana lives in a cage with rabbits. Both the iguana and rabbits are pregnant, fat and lazy. The iguana supposedly has 50 to 150 eggs and I can see round shapes through the skin as she sits in the sun. Tailgunner Bob and I buy another gallon of hydraulic fluid. He puts the whole gallon in the reservoir of R-Tent-III before the dipstick registers. Now where in the world has all that fluid gone? I had better buy more just in case. We have a farewell for Barbara tonight and I made a cake. Her month is up and it seems to have gone so fast. She says she enjoyed her time and now she has to go back to Michigan where the temperatures are below zero and prediction of more snow. Yuck! We will miss you Barbara. By the time I get back to R-Tent-III, I am thinking about not making dinner when we hear a knock on our door. Derek, the chairman of the board of ITVET, has a pizza for us. He says it is not Domino’s delivery but his wife Debbie made it. It is even better than Dominos and just hit the spot for us. Thank you Derek and Debbie and William and Vanessa too.
(Bert) I promised Croc I’d check out the birds at Crocodile Isle and this morning I do so. I’m surprised at how birdy this place is. I find 59 species between 9 and 11 AM when I walk from the crocodile enclosures to Freshwater Lagoon, all on his property. His “yard list” includes such oddities as Scaled Pigeon, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Northern Bentbill, Long-billed Gnatwren and Thick-billed Seedfinch. The best, however, is a pair of Sedge Wrens, my first for Belize and the first for our trip list.
Back at camp, Judy is anxious to tell me that while she was sitting on one of the trails at Cockscomb this morning a Northern Tamandua, a yellow and black anteater, came toward her. She sat quietly and the poor sighted anteater walked to within inches of her foot. Wondering what it would do next, Judy quietly said, “Hey, I’m here,” whereupon the anteater turned and slowly moved away. As if this wasn’t exciting enough, when she left the spot and began walking the trail, she saw a jaguar walking ahead of her on the same path. The jaguar turned its head, showing a grayish face, and looked at her. It kept walking and occasionally turning back its head toward her. I think Judy has seen more wildlife, especially cats, then anyone on our trips.
(Shari) An SOB – spouse of birder - day, this morning we visit the orange factory and learn about juice making from start to finish. First we are taken to the lab where ten random fruit are picked from the truckload, juice squeezed and titrated with phenolphthalein and base to determine acidity (sweetness). It has to register between 9.2 and 13 or the whole truckload of oranges is rejected. The truck is weighed full and then empty before the grower gets his money. Our soft spoken female guide is hard to understand and we have to listen closely especially in the noisy factory. We see the oranges pierced for their oil and washed and sorted. They are cut and put in an extractor where the juice is squeezed. The water is then evaporated from the juice and we can see the varying stages through plastic tubes by the intensity of the orange color. The men in our group seem to be fascinated and ask many questions. From there we are taken to the bottling plant where we get a demonstration even though nothing is being bottled. It is quite an operation and the tour is enjoyable, but then again I like factory tours.
This afternoon we visit the Marie Sharp factory. Today she is making squash (a concentrated fruit drink) and hot sauce. The young girl who is our guide takes us around the small plant to see the bottling of squash. At one table a group of women are recapping jars that are empty, but dirty. Apparently a shipment was sent to Japan and the Japanese did not like the bottle so returned the whole amount. Now they have to rebottle the sauce and intend to rewash the bottles for another day. Our guide is so soft spoken I cannot hear a word. Darnelle and I exit the tour before it finishes because the smell of hot peppers has gotten to us. My eyes are watering and it seems hard to breathe. I don’t know how the workers can stand it all day long. We enter the new showroom and Marie Sharp herself waits on us, telling us about the different items and spreading samples out on a table for us to try with crackers. I buy a case of jams (mango, papaya, guava, coconut, orange marmalade and mixed fruit along with a few small bottles of hot sauce. I also try her new product line: orange squash and grapefruit squash. We return with our purchases and many people back home will benefit from our gifts. During social hour tonight we discuss the Cockscomb Contest that Bert has planned. He and Cindy, team captains, have chosen teams and on Sunday we are to compete to see which team can get the most birds. Even I am excited about this competition because we have such powerful guests. Cindy and Bob have three of their birding friends staying nearby plus Bladimir, our guide from La Milpa, is coming down plus Lee Jones who wrote the book about birds in Belize will also be in attendance. Wow! I think the teams are well balanced but if my team looses I am sure the benefit of hindsight will allow me to complain about how the teams were picked. Isn’t it human nature to do that? Very few people can when served lemons, make lemonade, me included.
After our social, 17 of us get a real treat. The culinary and the hospitality sections of ITVET put on a dinner and show for us. Our master of ceremonies does a wonderful job of welcoming us and introducing the participants for tonight’s shindig. A husband and wife singing team start the program. Her alto voice and his tenor harmonize as they sing two songs accompanied by guitar. Later a group of young people show us another culture in song and dance. A section of Belize was settled by a people called Garifuna who can trace their mixed ancestry to South America and Africa. The dominant blood line is African as noted in their skin color, music and cuisine. Two drums made from hollowed wood and deer or jaguar skin are tapped with fingers while the young people dance and sing to the beat. It is all very catchy and many of us are nodding our heads to the beat. Finally it is time to eat our Hudut, a traditional fish stew in coconut milk broth served with boiled and pounded plantains and rice. I watch William, the young man sitting next to me, as he tells me to put the plantains and the rice in the bowl along with the stew. Wow, is it good! The meal doesn’t look like much food but by the time we are finished we are extremely full. I think it must expand after we eat it. Again after our meal our entertainers do an encore. I am very impressed with the professionalism of these young people and the great job they did tonight. Remember they are high school age and this is their first year learning how to put on a presentation. Just everyone made us feel welcome and even special. Now a host never can do better than that.
(Bert) Today we bird Cockscomb, the crown jewel of the Belize national parks and my favorite place to visit. Small groups split off in multiple directions, mostly to the areas they intend to bird during our competition on Sunday. I bird with Bob, Juanita, Jim and Ramona. We first try the open areas around the visitor’s center, leaving soon because the fog and overcast skies make it difficult to see anything except dark colorless outlines of birds. Birding is better along the trail to the river. We see a Pale-vented Pigeon carrying nesting material and Jim finds the location of the nest, a bit of information that might be useful during the contest. I begin to concentrate on the harder to see birds, since my foursome has missed some of these when we birded in a larger group. These are ones often heard, but less frequently seen. We get good views of Blue-crowned Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Barred Antshrike, Dusky Antbird and Long-billed Gnatwren. I check out the one place in Cockscomb known for harboring Boat-billed Herons and here we get to see two of them without the obstruction of foliage that usually blocks our view. An enormous crocodile lies on the opposite side of the stagnant pond, keeping one eye peeled on us.
In the afternoon, many have returned to camp and others have scattered. For the first time during the trip, I bird alone for a few hours, an opportunity for me to see, rather than just hear, shy birds such as Gray-fronted and Gray-chested doves. The biggest surprise happens when I play back the song of a White-breasted Wood-Wren I had just recorded. In pops a female antbird, somewhat like a Dusky Antbird, yet distinctly different. Unlike the Dusky and all but one of the others in Belize, this one has a noticeably yellowish throat contrasting with its darker, warmly brown body and has light feathering around the eye, almost an eye ring. I look at a field guide and my description perfectly matches Slaty Antwren. In fact, Howell suggests, “female, plain; note pale throat and eye ring.” Yet, Jones’s range map only includes the high elevations of Belize and a hundred miles south of Cockscomb. Late in the afternoon I meet Lee at our camping site and I ask him about the Slaty Antwren. He says the bird is at low elevations in countries south of here, so the surprise is more of its northward extension than its elevation shift. I’ll give him a complete description for his NAB seasonal report and I’ll be curious if he includes the record.
(Bert) Lee is already at the edge of the Mayan ruins when I park my car in the darkness. He tells me he has heard Spectacled and Black-and-white owls, so I am anxious to get started. We walk quickly to the opposite side of the ruins – not a long distance since the understory has been removed on only a small section of the covered ruins – and Lee plays his recording of Black-and-white Owl. Almost immediately an owl responds. I’m ready with the iPod-Sennheiser system and recording everything, including his comments. A second owl calls from the tree just behind where we stand and high-intensity beams quickly find the Black-and-white Owl. Having never seen one before, I’m surprised how big the owl is. Except for its ominously dark facial disks, it reminds me of a Barred Owl and its deep bass voice resonates similarly as well. What an exciting way to start the day, and the sun hasn’t even shown yet!
A fruiting tree in the ruins attracts two Violet Sabrewings, first spotted by Joanie. Soon we see a Stripe-throated Hummingbird and then three White-necked Jacobins in the same tree. And then the menagerie of hummingbirds includes a Green-breasted Mango. How impressive!
We are distracted by a raucous flock of Brown Jays, clearly excited about something. We think owl and move to the base of a covered temple, looking up at the spot of riotous commotion. The jays seem to be circling a spot at the top, yet no amount of searching reveals an owl or other raptor. Then John sees the snake lying just at the edge of the temple top. It’s a long Boa Constrictor seemingly climbing into a hole. Coming just over the edge, it raises its head and looks back at those of us that climbed half way up the ruins. John takes close-up photos; mine are a bit more distant. I’ve had my close encounter with a Boa (see 2006 visit to Moho River) and don’t need a rerun.
We return to a flowering tree near Mama Noots where many birds gather. I set up my three-legged stool and watch for a while before I head back to camp for errands (like getting the nail out of one of my SUV tires). Others stay longer and I hear later from Mark and Joanie that they saw 53 species at that one spot.
Dinner is at Mama Noots, a delightful combination of good food and good conversation. Afterwards, and now about 8:30, we get our binoculars and flashlights and search for owls, under Lee’s direction. Not finding any at Mama Noots, we walk the muddy road to the Mayflower Bocawina ruins, going directly to the spot where we found Black-and-white Owls before dawn this morning. Right on cue, the owls hoot from the tree adjacent to where they were earlier. Bladimir – he and his wife arrived this afternoon for tomorrow’s contest – aims my spotlight on the first owl and quickly finds the second as well. This is even a better look than I had this morning. I again record their calls. We backtrack to the road and Lee tries to get a response from a Spectacled Owl. Belatedly, the owl responds from somewhere near the stream, separated from us by dense forest. We shift locations several times, hoping to get close enough to see the owl, but have to suffice with the calls alone. I’m happy nonetheless, since I’ve not heard Spectacled before tonight. We hear a car horn honking and I think Shari is impatient for us to return – we’ve been out for an hour and a half. Instead, when we walk back along the road we see that Tailgunner Bob is stuck in the mud at the edge of the road. With a bit of pushing by five of us men and Bob following Lee’s advice about continuing to drive the car even though he is in the ditch, Bob gets his car out and back on the center of the slick mud. By the time I return to R-Tent-III it is almost two hours past my bedtime and tomorrow will be an early day.
(Shari) I know where the 2 gal. of hydraulic fluid went. I am a worry wart and Bert often gets irritated. But I just could not understand where TWO gallons of oil could disappear without a trace. As Tailgunner Bob and I went into town for some groceries I started quizzing him again. Are there any hoses close to the radiator that could have been loosened? Is there any other system that uses hydraulic oil? Could there be a pinhole leak under pressure? Etc., etc. Probably to get me off his back or maybe he started thinking too, he said he would crawl under the rig and look. Soon after we get back, he knocks on my door and says he was wrong and that the hydraulic hose would have been disconnected and not the transmission hose. Now we might have a problem. Did we save the oil and then put it into the transmission reservoir? That would have meant putting hydraulic fluid in the transmission - a big no-no especially since we use Transcend (a synthetic in our transmission). Now I have visions of the two oils mixing and becoming gooey and bingo in the middle of nowhere our transmission quits. We have to wait for Bert to tell us what he did and how much he used and where he got the fluid and what it was. We know he filled the transmission reservoir because Bob says it is overfull and he has to drain some. Luckily when Bert comes home he says he used the Transcend and only put in a quart or so. So they drain some fluid out of the transmission and now the mystery has been solved. The hydraulic hose was disconnected during the radiator repair and therefore fluid was lost and Bert added Transcend to the transmission instead. Good thing we did not save that oil. Later, ten of us go to Mama Noots for dinner. I thought all our adventures were over, but I was wrong. After dinner a large group goes out to look for owls. After waiting an hour, Bob, Arleen and I decide to go home and start out in Bob’s car. About a quarter mile into the route back, we slip and slide on the muddy road and get stuck. Boy, is it dark outside! Bob honks the horn three times in suggestion and we wait. We wait. We wait some more. It is really, really dark out here. About 30 min. later we see some flashlights and the group of birders is walking toward us. They have nice rubber boots on their feet and don’t mind the mud. They see our predicament and offer many solutions but finally decide to push us. We slip and slid our way out of the mud with the help of at least six men pushing on the driver’s side of the car to keep us out of the ditch. I am glad to get home and am glad I did not have to get out of the car to walk in all that mud.
(Bert) The rules for the two teams, one organized by me and the other by Cindy, is that only birds identified by sight or sound between 6:15 and 11:15 AM count toward goal. We’ve split out teams into multiple groups of 2-4 birders each and spread out across the open areas and multiple trails at Cockscomb, hoping to cover a diversity of habitats. Some of us arrive early and hear a few birds that won’t count, but we also don’t find the rest of the morning. Lee and I are birding together and when our watches click past 6:15, Lee starts rattling off bird names as fast as I can mark them on the list. I recognize most of the bird calls too, but it typically takes me 10-15 sec to assign a name to the call I’m hearing. With Lee, the recall is instantaneous, as it would be for me if I were birding in Central Texas. Having birded repeatedly for 14 years in Belize, I guess you could say this is Lee’s “backyard.” Nonetheless, his skill is amazing.
We’ve hiked parts of two trails and Lee is ready to turn back on one of the paths we’ve been walking. I suggest we continue to the stagnant pond where the Boat-billed Herons hang out. He says he didn’t know about the spot, so I am happy to show it to him. We quickly find the Boat-billeds and check them off the list. By 8:30 Lee and I are already at 98 species, the most amazing of which is a Uniform Crake, the second in my life and only one of less than a handful that Lee has seen.
Other good finds of the morning are White-whiskered Puffbird, calling Rufous Mourners, a pair of Rufous Pihas – I hear later that many others got this bird today also – Green Shrike-Vireo, and excellent looks at three Orange-billed Sparrows. By 9:30 we’ve reached 109 species. Strangely, it isn’t until species number 116 that we find an American Redstart, one of the most common neotropical migrants in Belize. We hike the trail toward Victoria Peak, doing only the first part since the whole hike is a 3-day experience. It’s a trail I’ve not hiked before and excellent for birding. At one of the few openings to the sky we see three Plumbeous Kites circling with a Double-toothed Kite. I can see the Double-tootheds very thin tail and the way it fluffs out with white feathers at the base, a unique feature for identifying this kite. At 10:45 we start doubling back, since we are a long way from our starting point. By now, additions to the list are slow in coming. At 11:09 we hear a surprising bird, one Lee has only recently discovered at Cockscomb; a Gray-throated Chat is calling. Lee gives it the mnemonic “Please tell me that you care” with the last word stretched out long and with pleading emphasis. The contest ends after our 126th species and we continue walking back. At 11:28 a Great Curassow crosses our path, a great find for Cockscomb although not countable toward the contest. By the time I reach the parking lot, my legs are worn out. We’ve hiked 10 km.
The count-off isn’t until this evening as we gather for Shari’s travel meeting, followed by appetizers. I call off the bird names and each subgroup announces if they have found the species while I keep count of which team they belong to. After reading off the first two of the six columns the race is close: Bert’s team 35, Cindy’s team 31. Bladimir joined up with Jon and together they are tough competition, but I think Lee on my team will be the edge. The birders that covered the open areas and identified mostly by eyesight did quite well with hardly a miss, although we are disappointed we missed Yellow-faced Grassquit as we saw one after the contest ended. When we get to the fifth column on the bird list, our lead takes a spurt. Mark and Joanie birded a high bluff of pine forest – the other team didn’t – and came up with five species our groups have never found at Cockscomb in previous years: Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Grace’s Warbler, Rufous-crowned Warbler and Hepatic Tanager. Leonard adds some significant finds with Prothonotary Warbler and Gray-headed Tanager, and he also sees a Great Antshrike, a species that Lee and I only heard. Lee has a discussion with Bladimir about a disputed Blue Bunting identified by call only and we eliminate it from the final tally. Personally, I ended the morning with 131 species, 125 of which were during the competition hours. In the end, it is Lee’s uncanny ear that probably gave us the biggest advantage and our team wins with 160 species to the other team’s 139. The combined teams tally a total of 174 species between 6:15 and 11:15 AM. One additional species was seen before 6:15 and another after 11:15, making the total morning count within the Cockscomb boundary 176 species.
Jim asks me how many of the birds Lee and I identified were by hearing. We had 126 species during the competition. Of these, 47 birds (37%) were heard only, 43 birds (34%) were identified by call and seen later, and 36 (29%) were identified by sight first. Of course, if I had done the competition without Lee, the heard-only number would have been smaller as he could identify by call at least a quarter more birds than I can.
We enjoy a potluck dinner together, many of us have Jon and Lee sign their bird books and we collect in two’s and three’s for candid photograph mementos. For me, today was the climax of an incredible birding experience in Belize.
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