Chapter 3. Northern Belize
(Shari) The first group departs at 7:45, a civilized hour according to Penny.
We stop at a Pemex station in Mexico to fill our tanks with the cheapest fuel we
will find in close to two months. I get out of the rig to help Bert line up our
tow car’s tank with the pump nozzle. The station attendant asks if I want the
tank filled. I say yes and notice he attempts to start filling without zeroing
the pump. I point this little fact out to him and he immediately goes to zero
the tank. If I had not seen this ploy I would have paid 150 pesos more than I
received. Chuck has a 20-liter container and has the attendant fill it. The pump
clicks to 20 liters but Chuck’s container is not full. When it finally gets
full, the pump is over by 10%. Another rip off! Leonard is distracted and the
attendant tries to shut the pump off in the middle and say it broke and that the
pump was at a higher number than it actually was before restarting it again.
This all happens at the gas pumps. We are at the diesel pumps and after hearing
the stories I strike up a conversation with a Belizean. He agrees that this
station is notorious for rip offs and it is the employees who are doing it. He
does not know about the 20-liter container however. He says that the attendant
that is fueling our tank is one of the honest ones. Some comfort! The bad news
is that we get scammed. The good news is that we are still paying less for fuel
than in the United States. Group One travels on to the border and I take all the
passports to get the Mexican forms and our visas stamped double entry. It is far
too easy this year with no questions asked. We are done so soon that Group Three
has not even arrived yet. After getting ourselves out of Mexico, we enter
Belize. I hop out of R-Tent-III with my list of everyone’s rig and license
number. One by one we get our vehicle sanitary spray accomplished and that too
is done in record time because all the attendant has to do is copy the
information I gave him onto his receipt pad. Next is customs. No forms to fill
out. Our passports are stamped and we are shuffled to the next desk. Things are
just going too good when it comes to a screeching halt. For the next two hours
we either wait in line for our car information to be laboriously copied onto a
ledger or we wait in our rigs for who knows what. Everyone is done at customs
and we wait. We wait some more. Bert goes outside and comes back saying that the
attendant is recopying everything he laboriously copied during the first hour.
We wait and we wait some more. Finally we are ready for rig inspections. I offer
the inspector some chocolate candy before he even opens a cabinet door. Since so
much of our stuff was confiscated last year, I want to butter him up. He asks if
I have any fruits or vegetables, alcohol or cigarettes. I say no to cigarettes
and show him my vegetable bin with onions, peppers, celery and carrots. He takes
my shriveled peppers and leaves. Not one cabinet did he open, nor did he want to
see in any underneath compartment. We are on our way. Next stop is the insurance
building. Here all our paperwork is ready for us and it is only a matter of
paying. All in all the procedures today were painless and could have been done
in record time had not the recopying occurred (why?) or the clerk been so slow.
After everyone is parked I take a group on a tour of the town. Nancy asks about
obtaining meat, since the meat market is closed in the afternoon. One of the
vendors tells us of a meat store. This is one I had not heard of in previous
years so we check it out. It is wonderful. They cut the meat right in the shop
as you watch. I get two pork chops, two fish filets and two chicken breasts with
pricing comparable to the U.S. We close the day with a bird talk and a “Welcome
to Belize” Piña Coladas party. When we get back to our rig and read e-mail, we
find out that we are not done with yesterday’s accident reporting. Darn!
(Bert) After much correspondence with and about the Belize agricultural and customs check and many warnings to our fellow travelers about the increasingly strict standards and food confiscations, almost nothing is taken this year. The detailed list of food and drink that we are not allowed to bring into the country was many pages long and the quantities allowed, if any, would be consumed in a week or ten days. Yet this time the officials just poke around a bit in the refrigerator and look at the counters, but do not search elsewhere nor even inspect the storage compartments on the underside of the RV’s. Not surprisingly, they took Shari’s half eaten green pepper and Arlene’s oranges and another’s bananas, but little else.
So, the inspection is brief as is the vehicle pesticide spraying, the immigration paperwork and the insurance stop. Yet, it still takes us over four hours at the border. This year’s hang up is vehicle importation. One man, and then two, painstakingly fill out forms in triplicate and then duplicate the information into a log book with an incredible amount of details about our vehicles. Unfortunately, as each rig’s information is recorded they cannot proceed to agricultural inspection since the same officers must do the inspection. After a couple hours of paperwork, the agents are ready to show it their superior. Apparently, he nixes their attempt to record RV and tow vehicle on the same form, so one official now must recopy all of the information on yet another triplicate form. After another hour, he comes out to inspect the vehicle contents, the operation that went most smoothly this year and was the major difficulty last year. In seven years of crossing from Mexico into Belize, no two years have been the same experience.
Finally settled into our campsite in Corozal, I give a talk on Belize history, geography and ecosystems. Then Bob & Cindy present an award to the person who came closest to guessing the number of topes (speed bumps) we crossed in route to Belize this year. The range in guesses is broad, but Joanie comes closest, only one number away from the actual count of 516 topes. The highest daily count was 179 topes in the stretch from Tampico to Poza Rica. They also counted a morbid total of 17 dead dogs along the highways, evidence to the lack of concern for and the ill health of dogs in Mexico.
(Bert) At sunrise we head to a country road in Corozal District. My target bird is Lesser Goldfinch, perhaps not a life bird for anyone, yet a very local and therefore difficult bird to see in Belize. Recent rains have made a mud bath of the dirt road and the cane trucks and harvesting equipment have impressed deep ruts. Jim spots an interesting bird just outside the village and we evacuate cars to find a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perched in a tree. The owl is within a few hundred feet of where we saw a pair last year. From here we walk the road, with drivers leapfrogging cars at our leisurely pace. The birds are active and easy to find. Among the best we see are Green-breasted Mango, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Grayish Saltator. We stop at the field I saw the goldfinch last year, but cannot find any among the dozens of White-collared Seedeaters and Blue-black Grassquits. Again, we hear briefly a quail like call, but are unable to get near the source, nor does it repeat its call. Maddeningly, we couldn’t identify it last year either. We drive farther down the road through the cane fields and stop again at a cluster of trees. Up to ten Fork-tailed Flycatchers put on brief aerial performances with scissor tails and then alight on the tops of trees or on fence posts and display their long trailing plumes. Next to one of the flycatchers we see two male Lesser Goldfinches in bright yellow and contrasting black plumage. Jokingly, I announce I’ve seen my bird for the day, implying we can leave now. Not surprisingly, others disagree and we continue on to another farm road turnoff. Someone motions me in their direction and asks if I can identify a song. It is a simple 2-note whistle, the second note sounding slightly off key. I cannot recall a song like that, so we advance down the muddy path trying to get closer. A farm hand passes us and then a loud vehicle moves along the road, as the bird sinks deeper into the shrubby field edging. Briefly, the 2-note call expands to a 4-note whistle. Apparently, the bird takes flight and only Leonard sees it disappear. He does not recognize the bird, but the 4-note whistle is vaguely familiar to Cindy and me. Cindy finds it on her song playback and when she tells me what it is I remember hearing the bird a couple of times last year too – a Striped Cuckoo.
(Shari) This is my sleep-in day - the day I can get up when I please - the day when no one bothers me - the day that I catch up on my sleep. Do you think this all happens? No, no, no! I am wide-awake at 3 AM. I took my first malaria pill Monday and now the pattern starts. The first night is okay. For the next three nights I can’t sleep. During the following nights the sleep pattern gets better and by Sunday I am back to normal. But guess what? Malaria Monday comes again and I have to take another pill. Oh well. I do get a lot of work accomplished. I have all the accounting sheets complete and road logs updated by the time Bert even gets up. I return to bed, hope for a few winks, but am up again by 7 to start the day. It is a nice day anyway and I do household chores, even baking a loaf of sourdough bread. After lunch, Bert and I drive to Orange Walk to visit with Mr. Reyes and make arrangements for our boat trip to Lamanai and Hill Bank. He has extended his boat and all of us will be able to get into it. Another boat will tag along with our luggage and food. Later we visit with Victor at our next campground and inquire about a group meal before we head home. During this evening’s meeting, Bob and Cindy pass out homemade blackberry jelly. Yum! Mel and Beth started this tradition a few years back and Bob and Cindy thought it was a neat idea. Last year Bob and Cindy made us all homemade salsa. Thanks, Bob and Cindy from all of us.
(Bert) An overcast sky delays sunrise and the birds are slow in making appearances. We hear both Couch’s and Tropical kingbirds, a nice exercise after our lesson a few days ago on differentiating these near identical species. When we reach Four Mile Lagoon, I’m asked to identify a dove and even before I look for the bird I guess it is a Pale-vented Pigeon since Leonard’s scope is aiming at the same tree across the water that I looked at last year. Turns out I am right, the same species in the same tree one year later. Three parrots fly over the lagoon and many of us note the yellowish hue to the tail feathers marking these as Yellow-lored Parrots, often called Yucatan Parrots. A Black-crowned Night-Heron flies by and another rests at the shoreline. It took us 45 days to find this species in Belize last year and it was at the opposite end of the country.
Birding at the beachfront of Corozal Bay we see a first-winter Herring Gull flying, an uncommon sighting for Belize. We continue on to the ferry, which only holds three cars at a time, requiring a long wait for the operators to crank our car caravan across the New River. A Morelet's Crocodile lounges beside the river and a Ruddy Crake calls nearby. Cindy, alone, pursues the crake with a playback recording and eventually sees the obscure rail. At the densely wooded edge of Copper Bank, dozens of birds entertain us, among them Rose-breasted and Blue grosbeaks, Grayish Saltator, Black-headed Trogon, and many more of the hundreds of Olive-throated Parakeets we’ve seen today. An hour earlier I suggested to the group that we should be on the lookout for Yucatan Woodpecker, carefully separating it from the more common and easily dismissed Golden-fronted Woodpecker look-alike. Now we find one, smaller bodied, shorter tailed, smaller bill, more rounded head, yellowish-white nasal tufts – a convincing identification.
We drive to the location where we have seen nesting Ornate Hawk-Eagles for the past two years. Parking two-tenths of a mile away, we walk quietly to the nest well-hidden in a tall tree. One of the hawk-eagles perches elegantly on the sturdy branch supporting the nest and we align spotting scopes to peer through the foliage at the fierce-looking raptor with the ornate crown. Then it is on to the Cerros Mayan site, which in prior years was our ending spot, but this year we pay admission and explore the ruins. Although not substantial in area or temples, the site is significant because it is much older – inhabited already in 500 B.C. - than many others and served as an important trading site, exchanging goods from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, the Zapotecs of the valley of Oaxaca and the Teotihuacanos of central Mexico. Ornately designed masks adorn the façade of the structures and the highest temple offers a grand view of Corozal Bay. Cerros is one of very few Preclassic sites that has ball courts and he hike a trail through secondary forest to look at one of them. At mid day, birds are few, adding only Greenish Elaenia to our list.
(Shari) Another productive day! I wash R-Tent-III. Well, more accurately, I worked to wash R-Tent-III. Well, actually, I worked sometime in my life to pay for the young man to wash R-Tent-III. I just could not stand the dirt and was about to at least wash the lower compartment doors when I struck upon the idea of asking our guard to wash the rig. He said he would do it for US $20. He probably would have done it for less if I had offered less but I was delighted. So I am in the cool air-conditioned R-Tent-III, making bread, cleaning the frig and packing for tomorrow’s trip, while this good looking young boy washes the grimy filthy road dirt away. I am thinking Bert’s birding is costing us a lot of money since I have to pay for things he should be doing. I start to smell sewer or is it propane? I continue doing the dishes and when I dump the dishpan in the sink, the sink does not drain. I look in the bathtub and it has about 5 inches of water in it and our dirty clothes are sopping wet. I TOLD Bert last night about our water situation. Maybe I have to pay the boy to empty it now. Or I could empty it? No, I’ll wait for Bert to do it.
(Shari) The vote was 21 to 1. I was the ONLY one who wanted to take a later boat to Lamanai. So here I am getting up in the dark and stumbling around to get ready for our overnight side trip. Bert wisely does not talk to me. We meet at the dock and Emir is our boat captain for the next two days. First we motor down river and bird for two hours passing the rum factory and then the sugar cane factory. With one of the workman at the dock, Emir exchanges a bottle of orange pop for a bag of raw sugar and we pass it among ourselves for a taste. Then we motor back past the dock. Gees, I could have gotten on the boat when it passed the dock for the second time.
(Bert) By 7:15 AM all 22 of us are in the boat, heading downstream on the New River toward the rum factory. The first lifer for many in our group is the colorful Gray-necked Wood-Rail feeding along the shoreline amongst Black-necked Stilts and the first of the 18 Northern Jacanas we see today. Circling a small island we see a small grebe lurking in the shadows, expecting it to be the usual Pied-billed until we see its pumpkin irises. We circle in closer to the overhanging mangroves so that I can photograph the first Least Grebe I have found on the New River in seven years and a first for boat driver Emir as well. Not much farther, Emir excitedly exclaims, “Sungrebe” and all eyes search the tangle infested shoreline for the black-and-white necked and headed bird that is not a grebe and avoids the sun.
(Shari) We travel about 15 min. when Emir turns off the engine. Apparently the fuel filter is cracked and he wants to hold it together with a rubber band. Nancy to the rescue! The rubber band does not work so we motor back to the dock where Emir takes a filter from another boat. We then return to our birding upstream and reach the Lamanai ruins four hours after we left the dock this morning. We are just in time for a delicious lunch of stew chicken, rice and coleslaw.
(Bert) We now head upstream, traveling faster until Emir spots a Black-collared Hawk perched near a broad expanse of water lilies, the same area I remember seeing these pretty hawks other years. Our driver stops again in a channel where he knows Lesser Nighthawks roost and within minutes he spies on sleeping on a horizontal limb extending over the river. I suggest we speed up so that we can reach Lamanai before the day’s heat intensifies, but when he accelerates the engine falters and we learn of a problem with the fuel line. Although operational, Emir decides to head back the three miles to the dock to replace the line. Now with it fixed, he guns the dual 210-hp engines to their full performance and the speedboat serpentines through the narrow river channels at 42 mph, as measured by Glenn’s GPS. We don’t slow down again for a half hour, stopping when the Jabiru’s nest is visible. Each year we have seen this nesting pair, this time with one sitting on the nest and its mate standing proudly on the edge of the enormous nest in an old Ceiba tree.
After lunch at the picnic tables at Lamanai, we wander around the Mayan ruins and along the shaded trails. The Yucatan Black Howlers are out in good numbers and I align my spotting scope on several, including a few very young monkeys. We find Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and one of the birds I hoped to find here: Slaty-tailed Trogon. Overall, though, the jungle is quiet and mostly we explore the ruins. Finally after a long lull, Nancy sees and describes a bird that vaguely resembles Rufous-browned Peppershrike in coloration and browsing through the bird plates someone suggests Tawny-crowned Greenlet. That perks my interest since this species is a hard-to-see bird. I play its clear whistle song, but it does not respond. Yet, other birds start showing up one by one. The first I can get still in my binoculars is a drab brown one fairly high in the dense tree foliage. Its sedateness and posture reminds me of Rufous Phia or Rufous Mourner. When I get my spotting scope on it I can see the uniform colored undersides and throat and the thin red line through its crown, good marks for a female Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. A male and another female show up. More birds come in and we see, sometimes only briefly, Black-headed Trogon, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, and Long-billed Gnatwren. Also, the Tawny-crowned Greenlet finally makes a showing and I get my best ever view of its dull orange crown, contrasting pale face, greenish-brown back and warm brown undersides. Now that we have gotten its attention, it remains in the area mostly hidden and constantly whistling. When we meet back with others that went off on their own, Cindy mentions the vocal Blue-black Grosbeaks and Blue-winged Warbler she found and Bearded Bob tells me he saw an Agouti and four Coatis.
(Shari) The day is cool and even I walk into the jungle. I have not seen the Masked Temple for 6 yr. and I want to observe what changes have been made in its restoration. I start out with the birders but quickly become bored and walk alone to the temple. Passing under a troop of howler monkeys defending their territory with sounds like a cow in heat or in terrible pain, I stop to watch. They moan and bellow and if I had not known what they were I would have thought I was being stalked by a panther. Punctuated with grunts, they make a noisy racket as if announcing to everyone within miles that this is their tree. I return to the picnic area and take a nap on the picnic table as I await the birders return. At 3:30 we head to Hill Bank research station and our overnight stay. We get on the boat in a slight drizzle that increases as we motor the 45 min. to our destination. Not every couple can have a private room so we divide the group into either their first or second choices. Two couples share a room and three couples are split between men and women. I am with the women in a large room with three others and only two single beds. Bert is with the men but they too do not have enough beds. We tell the manager and shortly more beds arrive. Emir takes off in the boat to spend the night at Lamanai with his girlfriend and we meet in the dining room for a delicious dinner of pork chops, rice and chocolate cake.
At 7:30 we divide into groups and some go for a night walk with Bert while others pile into the truck for a night ride with Bladimir. It is still drizzling, but we want to take the ride anyway. Another truck was supposed to be here but got hopelessly stuck in the mud on its way to the station. Needless to say, I am worried about getting stuck also. We are hoping to see a jaguar tonight or maybe a tapir but, instead, come up with a pauraque, a curassow, a Limpkin and a Mottled Owl. Bert’s later group watches a boa constrictor crossing the road. I think I am happy I missed that sighting. By the time we return, the people sitting in the bed of the truck are soaked. Nancy calls it another one of her bonding experiences. Judy and I tiptoe back to our rooms. Our other two roommates are already asleep. It is 8:30 PM.
(Bert) By boat, we continue on to Hill Bank, land at its dock and carry our overnight luggage to the cabanas and dormitories. Rainfall discourages us from a bit of late afternoon birding so, instead, we watch from the dry extended porch. In the evening, half the group rides in the back of a pickup truck for night birding and spot-light mammal searching. Meanwhile, I lead the other half for a walk along the entrance road. The only success we have is near the New River lagoon where we hear unidentified plaintive calls for help, which ultimately are identified as calling Limpkins. When the truck returns with announcements of their successes, our half-group climbs aboard and Bladimir takes us to the same spots where we also see a Limpkin perched atop a dead tree, a male Great Curassow roosting, and a Mottled Owl. We miss the Common Pauraque, but add roosting Great Kiskadee, a Leopard Frog and a 4-ft. Boa Constrictor that crosses the muddy road and slithers ever so slowly into the wet grass. We head back to the buildings, now quite wet, especially when a deluge poured over us as we watched the curassow. In the cabana, I get out of my wet clothes and crawl into bed, my fellow roommates long since asleep.
(Bert) Pre-breakfast birding begins at sunrise. We trudge along the muddy road, wearing raincoats to deflect the warm drizzle. I lure in a pair of calling Barred Antshrikes with my iPod, giving the group their first good look at these antbirds, commonly heard and less commonly seen. Ahead on the road, a merciless Melodious Blackbird harasses a perched Roadside Hawk, pouncing with extended claws on the raptor’s back and deflecting before the hawk can react.
Back at the buildings I hear a bit of the history of this place. A logging camp until the 1950s, mostly seeking mahogany, the kitchen, dining hall and staff quarters and out buildings are original. The dormitories and cabanas were added when this became open for research and birding visitors. Now the mahogany and wildlife are protected. Once heavily hunted for Ocellated Turkeys, this past October the first wild bird returned to the camp area. Nicknamed Hillary – for Hill Bank, not the senator – the female turkey has adopted the staff and now us birders as family. After breakfast when we bird the old logging camp settlement, Hillary follows us wherever we hike. When we stop under a house on stilts to avoid the drizzle, the turkey comes underneath also and climbs three stair steps a few feet away from where Judy is sitting. Earlier I had remarked to Jim that we should check out the local Gray-breasted Martins for migrant Purple Martins. Now, an hour later, we find one male Purple in a small flock of Gray-breasteds. Lime green Curassow Crest is just coming into bloom and while searching among the honeycreepers and Orchard Orioles feeding on it, I see a Golden-winged Warbler, one of the warblers least often found in winter in Belize. Bladimir hears Common Tody-Flycatcher piping and we soon get a good look at these attractive yellow birds with black backs and heads offset by a striking yellow eye. I’m surprised when Bladimir says he sees an Azure-crowned Hummingbird because I’ve only seen these in the Belize mountains. With patience, we eventually see one perched long enough to align a spotting scope and I take some sharp digiscoped photos. Another bird that keeps us captivated is a becard that we first think is a White-winged Becard – because we cannot see the white line connecting eye to bill – and later identify as Gray-collared Becard by song and, eventually, the white line. The becard is a rare to locally uncommon species according to Jones. Finishing out the morning’s birding is a flock of 13 Cedar Waxwings, a species that only penetrates south to Belize every few years, and a flock of 6-7 Brown Pelicans, far inland and undoubtedly following the New River to this terminus.
(Shari) We all have been joking about our primitive accommodations and try to outdo each other with quips like “Did the maid turn down your bed last night and leave a mint on the pillow?” or “Did you use the telephone next to the bed to call room service?” I hear of black ants on toilet seats in the women’s composting bathroom and lumpy beds, but most people are enjoying their experience in the wild. This research station is about 45 min. from the Lamanai dock, traveling by boat up the unsettled, jungle-edged twisty New River.
(Bert) After lunch and a short nap for most of us, Bladimir and I decide to take the group by trucks to Irish Creek, a few miles from here. The birding turns out to be particularly good. First hearing their calls, a pair of Plain Xenops is so intense on courtship that they ignore my iPod songs and remain barely visible through the dense foliage. Above us soars a King Vulture, a few Lesser Swallow-tailed and Vaux’s swifts, and a high-flying unidentified hawk-eagle. Mark briefly sees an American Pygmy Kingfisher deep in dense underbrush, causing Joanie to rush to his side, yet unable to relocate the kingfisher she most wants to see. Just before we climb on to the pickup beds for the ride back, I spot a sedate White-necked Puffbird and put into my scope for a close-up view for all.
(Shari) Our food has been delicious and the birding has been good, so I hear. I came back on our night prowl last night and two of the birds I saw were lifers for Leonard. I tease him that I saw them before he did. Judy has brought baby wipes and has found many uses for them from freshening up to wiping her 3-legged stool. She has this little lightweight chair and she uses the wipes to clean its legs. When she runs out of the baby wipes she uses toilet paper to wipe her “stool.” She is doing this as she hears a motor and remarks, “I wonder if that is our cruise ship.” It is a funny way to refer to our 25-passenger open-air boat with two 210 hp engines.
(Bert) By 4:15 we are all back on the boat and as Emir accelerates downstream it’s like the air-conditioning has just been turned on full-force, a welcome relief to the now sunny late afternoon. The ride to Lamanai is under spacious blue skies and scattered white clouds. We stop only for a pair of Laughing Gulls, somewhat surprised to see them this far from the Caribbean. Our stop at the Lamanai dock is brief and we continue downstream at fast pace, intent at reaching Shipyard by dark. About half way there the engine falters and will not restart.
(Shari) The quips really start on our way home in the boat. I notice that Emir is constantly looking back at the motor. I even ask if anything is wrong back there, but I get no answer. Those of us upfront surmise it is water sloshing around on the floor from when the drain plug fell out. All of a sudden the motor stops and Emir cannot get it started again. Darnelle says, “Do not worry, the caravan company advertises that they always know where you are in case of a family emergency at home.” Glenn has his GPS and tells us our rate of drift is between 0.8 and 0.9 mph. We calculate that we should make the dock at 9 PM tomorrow night. Darnell asks, “How long after March 19, 2007 (our expected arrival back into the United States) will the caravan company start to panic? Engineer Ray informs us that we don’t go faster with our front end facing forward but the stable position is sideways. Chuck uses the lid to one of the iceboxes to keep us on track and away from the banks of bushes and trees. Joanie says that she does not wish to be impaled as we pass one of those nasty looking thorn bushes. Bladimir tells us to be quiet as he hears a jaguar. I too hear grunts in the woods on shore and wonder if jaguars can swim. Bearded Bob says they can and that they eat birders drifting in a boat. We wonder if Bladimir’s wife will worry about him when he does not come home tonight. He says she does not even know he is coming. We ask Efraim if his wife will worry and he says no, too. Surely someone will miss us, but when is the question. Emir informs us that when refueling he dropped his screwdriver into the gas tank and now the line is clogged. Emir continues to try his cell phone and more one-liners turn up, “Change to Cingular, the company with less dropped calls.” He keeps saying that just around the bend he will get a signal. What bend? “Can you hear me now?” Leonard has this handy multifunction jackknife and we wonder if it has a propeller. I mention that this must be a dream that I am stuck in a boat with 21 of my closest friends. Bearded Bob corrects that to, “21 of my closest EX-friends.” Glenn comments that the current has picked up, “The good news is that we are now drifting 2 KM per hour.” Someone retorts that the bad news is it will be another 14 hr. before we arrive.
(Bert) Emir had refueled with a supply brought upriver earlier in the day and while attempting to measure the fuel level with a screwdriver, he dropped the tool into the tank. Had he fished it out after the incident we would not be faced now with a blocked fuel line. “Up the creek without a paddle” is a literal description of our predicament. Almost no one travels the river at dusk, yet alone nighttime. Emir attempts to reach either his family in Orange Walk Town or his girlfriend in Lamanai. Out of cell phone range, we continue to drift 1.4 kph, according to Glenn’s GPS. At this rate we will reach Orange Walk Town the day after tomorrow. Eventually Emir is able to send a text message to his girlfriend, requesting help for our stranded boat. During the long wait, which extends into hours and darkness only lightened by diffuse moonlight through a clouded night sky, we lighten our spirits with colorful remarks, some so good they prompt me to write them down. Darnelle cheerily says, “Don’t worry! We were told that the head office for the caravan company always knows were we are.” With tongue in cheek, Cindy remarks, “Everybody that didn’t get on this birding caravan is going to be so jealous.” And when the boat rotates while drifting, now stern taking the lead, Mark remarks, “Well, Bob is no longer the Tailgunner.”
(Shari) Emir tells us he did get a text message out to his girlfriend who will call the dock and George is expected in 20 min. That was 40 min. ago. Sixty minutes and still no George. Ninety minutes and no George. Emir says George does not know the river very well. Oh great! Now George is lost too. Emir tries his cell phone again. Everyone is hearing motors in the distance but minutes later nothing shows up. I finally stop getting my hopes up. The sun has set and nighttime settled in long ago. We start telling stories of bad things that have happened in our lifetime and take solace in the fact that it is not raining and the bugs are not biting. I ask if anyone is hungry since we have a few sandwiches left. Darnell says that maybe we should conserve them for breakfast. We decide to stay away from the topic “Toilet.” It could be worse.
(Bert) In an hour our drifting as slowed and Bladimir and Emir push off the trees and thornbushes that edge the river, attempting to keep us in midstream. Darkness now secure, we hear a low-pitched noise, perhaps described as growling, but much more like a deep purr. Bladimir, who has heard this before, says it is a Jaguar. Darkness now complete, we periodically beam hi-power lights on the trees and along the shoreline, searching for wildlife. We continue to hear a chorus of Limpkins, but see nothing besides the dark shadows of vegetation and, one time, a flight of Proboscis Bats leaving their roost. Emir occasionally tries his cell phone again and we get a report that help is on the way. With each sound of a distant motor, someone announces the rescue boat has arrived. Nonetheless, each sound depletes uneventfully and we remain drifting listlessly. Now more than two hours since sunset, I can tell that Shari is on edge. I’m almost always optimistic, rarely worrying about anything. Shari takes the opposite approach and conjures all conceivable scenarios in an attempt to solve immediately a problem she is sure will escalate into disaster. We continue to drift aimlessly, now slowed to a quarter of the “speed” we were at first.
(Shari) About two hours after our motor stopped, I really do hear a motor. Judy says, “Women and children first.” The rescue boat pulls along side and this very hyper kid transfers a big tank of gasoline into our boat. A direct line with a rubber hose goes into this tank to our motor and we are off again. Some people still want to bird, but it is 30 min. later than our expected arrival time at the dock.
(Bert) Finally we hear a motor we are all sure is the rescue boat. I aim my hi-power beam like a rotating searchlight and within minutes the speedboat arrives. He moves a barrel of gasoline onto our boat and they attach a hose to the outboards. The engines start immediately and we head to the dock. While using light beams to get his river bearings, Emir spots a perched bird and we stop long enough to identify it as Yucatan Nightjar and make particular note of the strikingly white underside of the tail. We see another a few hundred yards farther downstream, but at this rate of stopping for birds we will spend the whole night in the darkness.
(Shari) I am at my breaking point. In my book, birding is over for the day and I have to tell Bert twice before he gets it. When arriving at the dock we all make a mad dash to the bathroom and then our cars. As we depart I can still hear Mr. Reyes hollering at his son Emir.
(Bert) I tell Emir to push on, but he stops once more. This time Shari, now tensely upset with this evening’s turn of events, tells Emir to keep going. In ten minutes we reach Shipyard, the half-way point and it is not until 9:20 that we reach the boat docks, chilled from the night air, hungry again, bathroom wanting and physically exhausted from two long days of birding and a bit more adventuring than we’d hoped for. Still an hour’s car drive to Corozal, we are quite relieved to be finally back in our RV’s at 10:30. Thankfully, tomorrow is a free day without agenda.
(Shari) Arriving at church at 7:20 AM, we learn that today is a special service starting at 9. We go to the market before returning to R-Tent-III. Back to church, we attend the Mass of Thanksgiving for Patronal Festival: A Celebration of 125 years of Ministry at St. Paul By-the-Sea Anglican Church. The church has well over 200 people in attendance this morning. All the school children are there in their uniforms with many of their parents and grandparents in the pews watching. The children sing, dance and put on a drama about the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. They recite the Ten Commands in their Kriol accent and the gospel is read in Kriol. The service is special indeed but very very very very long. Three hours later we return home. I am exhausted and take a nap before enjoying the late afternoon social hour.
(Bert) St. Paul’s By-the-Sea has a special service today, starting at 9 AM instead of the usual 7:30. The church is packed with 200-300 people, including dozens of school children that give special performances in song, recitals and a skit that reenacts Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The children are dressed in their neatly pressed, spotlessly clean school uniforms. As they sing, I notice their facial features and can guess the spread of family backgrounds: Caribbean blacks, Mexican Spanish, Mayan, Chinese and all combinations thereof. Today, they are all Christians by their love. The service becomes a marathon in length at 2 hr. 40 min., with a guest preacher from Orange Walk, commissioning of servers (10-12 year old girls and boys that wear red and white robes and assist in the service), a baptism, communion, and the presentation of commendation letters to faithful pioneers of St. Paul’s. I especially enjoy watching the children who perform admirably and with confidence. After church, we visit the grocery store and then I spend the afternoon catching up on the backlog of journals to be written for our recent excursion up the New River.
(Bert) I’ve seen the signs and often wanted to visit the places. Today we explore new sites and perhaps will find interesting birding as well. The first is Four Mile Lagoon. Two lagoons seem to share this name, at least on old maps. The northern one connects to the Río Hondo, the river that separates Mexico and Belize. In his log book for 1765, Captain James Cook wrote, “A magnificent lagoon at the south side of the river” and referred to it as La Laguna de Cuatro Millas. Now the pretty blue lake attracts land developers eager to sell home lots along its shore. Some immigrant Americans and Canadians have done so, yet most lots remain vacant. This morning the tall palm trees attract wintering warblers – we check off nine species – plus Altamira Orioles, White-fronted Parrots, Blue-gray and Yellow-winged Tanagers. I wander over to the next property, an RV campground I looked at six years ago and find Bill, the same owner I talked to then. Bill is subdividing his land and selling off the lots. I tell him the Captain Cook story and he says he has not heard about it before. While developing his property he has discovered many artifacts: Mayan pottery, a nickel-sized ivory button perhaps left by pirates, a copper key slot perhaps pried off an unfound treasure chest, an iron dagger once part of a British musket and, while snorkeling in the lagoon, rounded pieces of iron ore that served as ballast from transport ships. All of these artifacts fit the history I have read about Four Mile Lagoon.
In Corozal I ask directions to Santa Rita, a Mayan site I’ve read about. It’s just at the edge of town, set on a hillside close to the Northern Highway. A pleasant park, about a square block in size, with tall fruiting trees spreading over grass covered mounds that hide ruins beneath, the trees attract Masked Tityra, Baltimore Orioles, Grayish Saltators, Yellow-throated Euphonias and a dozen other species. Climbing the main temple, small by comparison to other Mayan sites, we can oversee Chetumal Bay and Corozal Town, once part of the broad ancient Maya city called “Chactemal.” I’ve read that Santa Rita dates to 2000 B.C. and was still occupied at the time Spanish explorers reached this area. Part of a key trade route, the Mayans traded honey, vanilla and cocoa.
After a quick stop back at the campground, two cars head in another direction in an attempt to find Noh Mul, another Mayan site. I’ve seen the sign, a tiny 6-in. square still showing half its lettering, but from the north I only see the backside, so I get out of the car to verify I am really at the proper turn. I stop again in one block when the dirt road seems to convert to a driveway. Reassured by a local resident, I continue with Bearded Bob driving his car behind me. We enter cane fields and the road erupts in deep ruts that I try straddling. With sharpened machetes, cane workers are hacking off the fire-charred stalks at their base, skinning the stout stalk of its outlying leaves and throwing it on an aligned pile of others for later retrieval onto overloaded trucks. A mile farther, the ruts are water filled and the mud oozes. Joanne scans the cane road with her binoculars and reports that the conditions do not improve. I decide to retreat, rather than get stuck. Bob and Cindy suggest an alternate route to Noh Mul, seeing traces of cane roads on a topological map. We take the road to Douglas, in much better condition, finding Fork-tailed Flycatchers in route and explore the side cane roads. Only one seems worth pursuing. After a mile or two I stop when Joanie sees a hawk and jump out to watch the black-hawk glide and tip its wings just above us. She and I see the white rump feathers and I see other field marks – bill, feet, leggings – that convince us it is a Great Black-Hawk. With time running out, we never do get to Noh Mul. We’ll need drier weather to visit that ruin.
Back in Corozal, I refill my gas tank. Even after halving the pump counter to convert it to U.S. dollars, the price of 15.075 gal is $71, and the attendant tells me the price just dropped and is a bargain compared to 9 months ago. Entering our bird sightings into the computer, I see we have passed the 200 mark for Belize. Trip-to-date species counts are: Mexico 194, Belize 201, combined 273.
(Shari) Since I am not familiar with Orange Walk Town - we stayed only a few days here last year – Sonja, the owner of the campground, takes me on a tour. On my map I mark the laundry, meat market, produce market, bakery, grocery store, bank, and two restaurants. Sonja picks up two of her godchildren who are waiting on the side of the road in front of a small taco shop. Antonio, 6, and Leticia, 10, ask lots of questions. While Sonja shops for groceries they ask me how old I am. We start to count and stop at 6 for Antonio, then 10 for Leticia and seem to go on forever before we get to 62. I really never realized just how old 62 is until put in this kind of perspective. I arrive back to camp just in time for margaritas. Seems I missed Bert’s bird talk on woodcreepers. Catching the tail end of it, it seems boring to me. He is playing the calls on his iPod and all the calls sound alike. Bert tells me I missed the best part, the first two-thirds of the talk.
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