Chapter 4. North-central Belize
(Bert) The Old Northern Highway starts close to our campsite, so we begin birding shortly after sunrise. When we stop the first time, Stan describes a very small dove he just saw. It’s a good description of a Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, a dove that should be relatively easy to find, yet is hard to separate from female ground-doves of other species and therefore not often checked off on our lists. A Gray-crowned Yellowthroat poses in good light for a digiscoped photo. Birding is particularly good and we stop frequently, inducing Chuck to walk the road ahead of us since he likes the exercise. When we finally catch up with him, he shows us an excellent photograph he just took of a Gray Fox walking toward him. He also tells us of the two Gray-necked Wood-Rails that attempted several times to walk along the road, only to be scared off by passing vehicles. Joanie finds an interesting animal track that is cat-like. Bladimir, who is joining us for today’s birding, says it is too small for a Jaguar and the toes are not round, but oblong. I photograph it beside a ballpoint pen as a measuring rod and later confirm his suggestion that it is the track of a Puma. Penny finds one of the most elusive of today’s birds, a male Gray-throated Chat. A few others get to see the bird before it goes into hiding again. She comments, “What a waste! Any bird would be new to me,” suggesting that the privilege of seeing this special bird could have gone to others in the group who have it on their short list of birds most wanted to be seen. It was on my wish list for Belize birds and I missed it again, but I’m glad Penny had the honors.
Earlier in the morning I heard a Bright-rumped Attila calling its “Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, … Whoa!” call. Now a few miles down the road we hear the call again and it’s close enough that we might see it. We try playing its song and that brings it in closer, giving us a good view. Our last prolonged stop is at a pond we visited last year. It is again filled with many birds, including Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Purple Gallinule and jacanas. Having spent many hours moving only a few miles, it is time now to continue non-stop to Altun Ha. Yet the deplorable road conditions – more potholes than road surface – prevent us from gaining any speed. I pause once to see two male and two female Purple Martins on a wire and then for a good collection of birds on a pond, including rarely found Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. At Altun Ha we encounter bus loads of cruise ship tourists. We decide to allocate 90 min. to lunch and visiting the ruins. Fifteen minutes before our rendezvous, we are huddled under the bathroom overhang, sheltered from the rain than made sightseeing a wet experience. I had looked for birds and found only a few species, enjoying mostly a good view of a Yellow-olive Flycatcher dancing between raindrops pitter-patting on tree leaves. One of the best birds of the day comes a mile or so after we leave the parking area. Spied earlier by others in the group, when I get to the spot the Crane Hawk is gone. Continuing on, I stop another 100 yd. farther when I see a black hawk in a tree. Leonard confirms that it has red legs. We stop and bring out the spotting scopes and enjoy a sustained look at this raptor, seeing not only the red legs but the red eyes as well. I even get digiscoped photos of the slim black hawk. By the time we return to Orange Walk and tally up our day’s list we come to an impressive day total for this area: 123 species.
(Shari) The drizzle starts about noon and becomes a downpour by 2. The first 5 yr. we made this trip, we had no rain whatsoever. Last year we had quite a bit of rain at the beginning of the trip and this year we have even more. The locals call it unusual and they are sick of the rain. I personally like it, since it keeps the temperature cool. I actually wore slacks yesterday. I fear it will get hot real soon. Tailgunner Bob and I are the only ones left in camp. Joanie and Mark have a leak in their water tank and Bob is going to fix it. I walk by about 9:30 and he is just putting the tank back in. Then I see that it is out again. Apparently he has to fix some more. Poor Joanie and Mark are now without water for a day or so. Talk about roughing it! The birders left this morning at 6:10. Of course, I was up already since it is the Tuesday after Malaria Monday. I walk to the restaurant to inform Victor that 20 of us will attend dinner tonight. When the time comes, we walk to the restaurant with our raincoats to protect us from the drizzle that is still falling. This is the first year I ever used my raincoat and I have used it three times so far. Plates of food are already on the table and as soon as we arrive we can start spooning chicken, salpicon (a pork and tomato dish), and shrimp skewers on our plate. If our plate has room we can have refried beans, mashed potatoes, chips and salsa, rice and beans and fry jack. The food keeps coming out. When we think we can eat no more, a dessert like bread pudding is served. This is all simply delicious and only costs $7.50 per person, the last real remaining bargain in Belize. I am glad we have a little bit to walk back to R-Tent-III so all the food can settle.
(Bert) The road to Honey Camp starts from our RV campground and Tony, the son of the owner, leads our car caravan with his small lightweight truck. Most of us are driving SUV’s which soon are tested on the muddy road, especially as we begin to circle the large lagoon. The heavy rains yesterday and much of the month have excised a toll on the road, the heavier trucks having pushed deep ruts into limestone muck and each passing vehicle deepens the ditch until the center hump scrapes low clearance vehicles. After surviving eight or ten of these bad spots, Tony’s truck hangs up on a particularly deep one. He jacks up the body high enough to put several rocks under the wheel and tries moving forward again, to no avail. We try pushing forward and then backward, but cannot dislodge the truck since the wheels do not get enough traction. On Tony’s suggestion, I take him on ahead, using a double-ended driveway to get around the bad spot. We quickly come to the residence where we intended to bird and the manager has a tractor to come to the rescue. The truck is easily pulled out and our problems now turn to Bob #3’s Honda Civic. With the lowest clearance of our fleet, the Civic must have scraped its underside and now has a portion of the 4-wheel drive mechanism hanging precariously. I’ve led most of the group to the lagoon birding site and now watch as Bob, Chuck and Tony use rope and wire to tie up the dangling parts. When we move the vehicles to the place by the lagoon, Tony goes to work at an attempt to fix the vehicle.
Honey Camp lagoon looks like a lake with three wooded islands and has an old history. The Maya used the lagoon for ceremonies and residence from 1000 to 1500 A.D. Two settlements have been discovered, on the banks and another on the islands. Now it is a favorite relaxation and swimming area for local people coming from Orange Walk Town. While Bob’s vehicle is being tended to, we bird. In the grassy fields Bladimir identifies a Plain-breasted Ground-Dove which some get a less than satisfied look at. Most of the birds we see, however, are near the buildings. A flock of 30-40 Cedar Waxwings remain for hours in a fruiting tree. We see a good variety of other species, mostly ones we’ve seen on previous days. A few of us are standing near an orange tree watching a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird when suddenly a second appears and immediately starts mating. The affair is turbulent and the convoluted twisting and turning drops them to the ground, at first giving the appearance of a vicious fight. I try to grab my camera to record the event that ends too quickly.
Tony is not able to repair the Civic, so resorts to removing the offending part. We begin our trek back, this time completing the loop around the lake on a much better road that I had scouted out while others were birding. In route, I hear on the handheld radio that they have spotted a White-necked Puffbird. A hundred yards farther Joanie also sees one and we stop to get a good view. We stop again at a land bridge between two lagoons and find Snail Kites and a Purple Gallinule. Someone sees a snake slicing through the water surface and then we all watch it climb quickly up a tree branch that extends into the water. Bladimir identifies it as a Black-tailed Indigo (Drymarchon corais).
(Shari) Arleen and I start cracking eggs at 9:30. On each plastic bag I write someone’s name and put two eggs inside. By 10:30 Tailgunner Bob has lit the two outdoor stoves and we set a pot of water to boil on each. By noon the birders are back and everyone has brought omelet ingredients and are now filling their baggie with their preferred mix. Twenty minutes later the omelets are done and we all enjoy a delicious and unique brunch. I don’t think anyone went home hungry. This afternoon is clean up and a nap before Bert’s talk on antbirds. He amazes me with his fountain of information. I think a lot of people can hardly wait to see an ant swarm since he made it sound so spectacular. I have never seen one but then I do not go birding at the places where you would expect to see one. Maybe I should. It sounds like my kind of birding. Just sit on a chair and watch the birds come in following the ant trail. The birds do not eat the ants but eat the insects that the ants scare up in their foraging through the leaf litter on the jungle floor. I guess birders can watch the same ant swarm for hours at a time.
(Shari) My favorite TV show is The Apprentice. This year whole episodes of it and other shows are broadcast in their entirety over the Internet. However my computer will not receive them, although Bert’s computer does. I ask Bearded Bob, my in-house computer guru to try to fix it for me. Alas, even his expertise does not solve my problem. His final solution: a) reformat my whole hard disk, or b) buy a new computer. Since I do not like either of those scenarios, I will live with watching my show on Bert’s computer when he is gone. Bob did put a new browser on my computer and fixed my accounting spreadsheet. He had developed this wonderful spreadsheet two years ago to help me keep track of everybody’s expenses. However I royally messed it up so he fixes it for me. All I have to do is E-mail it to him. He fixes it and emails it back to me all within 15 min. Both of us have Internet satellite dishes, so it is easy. Then he takes two of his “girls” to the market, grocery store and bakery. He offers to treat us to an ice cream, but Arleen and I are good girls and decline the offer. In our drive through town we find this wonderful restaurant and ask if we could bring a group over on Sunday for the Super Bowl. The day has cooled down with the cloud cover that came through this afternoon and it is pleasant sitting outside with our margaritas. As it gets dark, everyone takes off in their own directions, some going out to eat and others going inside their rigs to cook their supper. Bert and I do the latter and I have prepared Belizean chicken with recado rub and rice cooked in coconut milk.
(Bert) As we stand on the causeway looking out at the lagoon the first impression is the large number of Snail Kites, juvenile and adult, perched atop flooded branches and flying over the water. The lagoon is broad with recent rains, pushing far up on shore and close to buildings on the island. Scanning the water surface with spotting scopes we see ducks, a general rarity in Belize except for Crooked Tree. Today we tally 40 Ring-necked Ducks, a dozen or so Blue-winged Teal and a single female American Wigeon, as well as both species of Whistling-Ducks. Crooked Tree is probably the best place to see Vermilion Flycatchers. I count an impressive 19 today. At a flooded pond behind Bird’s Eye View Lodge, we find the Southern Lapwing still present now for three years, the one and only of its kind ever found in the country. Sitting and standing under shade trees with scopes scanning the pond is a leisurely way to spend a few hours and we see nearly three dozen species from that spot alone. I only get a quick glance at a small raptor that scares up the shorebirds, thinking it might be a Merlin or Sharp-shinned Hawk, neither of which I’ve seen in Belize. When I ask the others about the bird, I find no one else that saw it. A couple of hours later, on another part of the island, that same raptor flies directly over our heads and we agree it is a Merlin. In his book Jones says of Merlin, “few records from more than 20 mi. inland.”
The heat of the day is upon us and after lunch at a shaded spot beside the lagoon, half of the group has returned to our campsite. I lead those that remain to a wooded area with tall trees on the Kiskadee Trail. I remember how much cooler it is under these trees and the slight breeze it induces. For the next three hours we remain sedentary, only wandering a short distance from one particular spot where the birds seem to meander through every few minutes. Usually birding at mid day and early afternoon is a bust, with hardly a bird to see. Now, however, we register a respectable list of sought-after species: Plain Xenops, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Gray-headed Tanager, Barred Antshrike, Royal Flycatcher, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Bright-rumped Attila and at least ten others. This added bonanza pushes our day total to over a hundred species.
(Bert) The guard at the lowered gate tells me an American bank has closed down NOVA here at Ladyville, as well as its other two operations in Belize. I had heard earlier of its closing, but didn’t get details. The guard says NOVA employed 400 people, a significant number for a country with under 300 000 people and substantial unemployment. As I seek entrance for birding and tell him I’m an American tourist, he hopes I’ll buy the operation so he and others can keep their jobs. My request is transferred to another by phone, who in turn calls a third and in a half-hour a fourth person drives up to the gate. I tell him our plans and he gives us permission to enter, warning us about the recent rains and the condition of the muddy dikes separating the shrimp ponds. Entering, we see the hot sun has dried the roads and also dried up most of the rainwater retained in the drained ponds. We see a few egrets, herons, night-herons, White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbills and can imagine how these hundreds of acres of square ponds – the facility itself is 3500 acres – must have been swarming with long-legged waders.
Looking over a large dessert-like pond we see an “island” in the distance and above it clouds of dozens of Fork-tailed Flycatchers and a large flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers look like swarming insects. In fact, we see hundreds of these warblers throughout the morning, by far exceeding the total I’ve seen in Belize in seven years. A lone Common Black-Hawk perches on a pond pole and each time we get closer, it alights and glides to another pole. Later when passing this way again, I get several photos of it, including a good one in flight.
Two of our best finds are whittled out of a feeding flock of 69 Least Sandpipers. Focusing on the details through our spotting scopes, Mark and I agree on a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Leonard disagrees until we recognize he is focused on another peep and now we see a Western Sandpiper as well. The Semipalmated is a first for me in Belize and the Western is only my second, the later also found at an abandoned shrimp farm.
I first think a falcon perched on a distance lookout tower is an Aplomado, but through the scope we see the anatum subspecies of Peregrine Falcon, and even better find for Belize. We continue driving the extensive system of dike roads, being careful to remember where we are in labyrinth. Beyond the ponds another road heads east and passes small trees. Taking that I reach a dead end and soon discover we have reached the Caribbean Sea. Mangroves ensnarl the littoral zone and we hear a warbler that Mark recognizes as Yellow. Cindy and Joanie see the singing bird, a Mangrove Warbler, the subspecies with the chestnut head that is so different you’d think it must be another species. The strong vocalist prompts Bearded Bob and me to get out our recording microphones and we each capture its song on our iPods, along with the dull roar of tumbling surf. Magnificent Frigatebirds soar above us, a transient flock of Brown Pelicans pass by and Leonard, alone, sees a non-calling Ruddy Crake. Just as we are about to leave, Mark finds a vireo he is unfamiliar with and has he relates the details to me while we drive away, I recognize the description as Yucatan Vireo. Our last animal as we exit the shrimp farms is a crocodile stretched full-length on the surface of a pond. When I take one step too close for a better photograph, it swings its powerful tail and rockets into deeper water. A juvenile American White Pelican is in a nearby irrigation ditch.
Returning to camp, I ask Nancy how her birding went this morning with Ray. She tells me of their exciting discovery of a pair of Gray-throated Chats and Ray shows me his photographs of the colorful male. I’m sure there are not many birders who can claim seeing a pair at one time and viewing them long enough to retrieve a camera from the car and leisurely snap a half-dozen photos.
(Shari) “Maybe we should take a lunch,” Darnelle quips as Tailgunner Bob’s directions to the restaurant get complicated. Ten of us want to eat at the restaurant that six went to last night and said the food was so good. And the food is good, but maybe that is because we are absolutely starved by the time it is served. I think they had to go out to buy the shrimp before they could make it, though they tell us it is because it was frozen and needed to thaw. The four that came late are served first and our eyes say we are hungry as we watch them eat their grilled pork chops, grilled fajitas and pork steak. Still we wait for our garlic shrimp and grilled fish. We wait for over 75 min. since we arrived and my beer is long gone. Finally the food appears and it is good. The evening is enjoyable with the lively conversation around the table as we wait. Today has been hot and I hear all the generators this afternoon keeping the inside of our rigs cool. This is the first day I have needed it and someone said the temp outside was 97º. Shade or sun? I don’t know. Luckily it only lasted for a few hours and by 4 PM I can sit outside first enjoying my book and then enjoying conversation with my neighbors. Tailgunner Bob is busy trying to determine the cause of two generators that won’t start without a jump. He has replaced the solenoid in one but that made the problem worse. The latest word is that it may be weak batteries. Let’s hope that’s all it is. Bert has filled the tank with fresh water so that I can wash clothes in the morning but when we get home from dinner he notices the pump is continually running and we lost over ¼ of our tank. He looks outside but cannot see where the leak is originating so we shut the pump off hoping to stem the loss of water. What next?
(Bert) A few months ago the causeway leading to the island was 3 ft. under water and even in December, 8 in. covered it, requiring residents of Crooked Tree to reach mainland by boat. The unusually and untimely heavy rains even continued in January, as we’ve evidenced on our Belize stay. Lagoon water levels remain high and have a dampening effect on our birding by boat today. With no exposed mud flats and water as deep as ten feet over thornbrush that should be shoreline, the birds are pushed back deep in the snarled brush and out of sight. While we usually see four species of kingfishers and sometimes a fifth, today we locate 17 Belted Kingfishers, only 2 Ringed and none of the others. We miss Sungrebe, Agami Heron, wood-rails and lots of other species that usually hang out along the edge of the lagoons and creeks. Although we find 12 species of herons, egrets and ibis, they are all in low numbers. We do see a dozen Limpkins, locally called the “clucking hen,” because of its call. They are calling now and a few days ago we heard the calling at night at Hill Bank and along the New River, a good omen since locals believe that clucking hens calling at night forecasts the onset of the dry season. Among the memorable sightings from the boat is a pair of Black-collared Hawks perched on each side of their nest, a Great Black-Hawk that allowed a close approach and best of all, three Yellow-lored Parrots that flew over close enough to see the yellow lores. Mark says this is #999 on his lifelist and he requests that we find Agami Heron for his thousandth, a near impossible task, given the water levels on Spanish Creek.
With time on our hands between infrequent sightings, our boat driver and birding guide Lenny tells us about the fish in the lagoons. Primary species are tarpon and snook, followed by five species of cichlids, three species of catfish and the best tasting “big snook” also called a teakhead bass. The number one species has changed, however. A few years ago they discovered tilapia in their waters and the numbers grew with concern until they found out that the fish are plant eaters and so far have not diminished the native fish numbers. Their numbers have grown, however, to the point that they are the most common fish. After our boat ride, we return to a Belizean dinner that includes the delicious tilapia.
I thought most of our group would head back to camp after lunch, but almost all want to continue birding in spite of the heat of the day. We head to the good birding spot on the island that we visited two days ago. I stress that we remain quiet, talking only in whispers, since our group is large and the birds we seek are elusive. The first 15 min. seem dull, but then the sightings start. We see many of the same birds we saw two days ago and add Collared Araçari, Masked Tityra and White-collared Manakin. The best of all is a flycatcher I cannot identify at my first brief glance, but I’m pretty sure I can narrow it down to a few possibilities. Since the bird is calling, I try a two selections on my iPod, first Eye-ringed Flatbill and then Yellow-olive Flycatcher. When I play Northern Bentbill I know the buzzing low key long trill is identical to what I’m hear coming from the deep forest. I continue trying the call periodically to see if it will induce the songster to come closer. It does, and we get an incredibly good look. A few miss it on the first perch and, instead, see it on the second. We are all congratulating ourselves on the great find when Leonard walks up and asks if my personal radio is still working. I say, “Yes, of course,” as I reach for it in my pocket. Then I get his meaning. We had this great bird and didn’t call him to the site. The bird seems to have left, though. I move a hundred feet down the trail when Joanie motions me back, saying the bird is calling again. I try the iPod song again, and once again the Northern Bentbill responds. Now, Ray gets a good look – he missed it the first time even though he was standing beside us – and then a second look even closer. Finally Leonard sees it too. All of us birding in this part of the woods have now gotten incredible views of this skulker, including my best views ever and even one photo.
(Shari) “That will be $40 please,” I think to myself after I fix our water leak. The $40 is a joke between Bert and me when we fix something that would have been a $40 minimum charge at a repair shop. When I awake this morning I check the fresh water level and we had lost another quarter tank during the night. I go outside and turn every knob there is to turn in the water compartment. I think the leak may have been coming from the loose connection between the hose and the tank since it was loose but that does not make sense. Maybe it was the low point drain. In any case, knock on wood, I fixed it. Juanita and I are the only ones left in camp this morning as the whole group went to Crooked Tree for an excursion on a boat and then lunch. I am able to do only one of my three loads of wash because of our water situation. The rest can wait until tomorrow after Bert fills the tank.
Tonight I share the snack duty with Leonard. He is bringing cheese and crackers and I plan to make tortilla rollups and salsa to go along with our margaritas. Bert talks about identifying Myiarchus flycatchers before we have margaritas and snacks. We pass sign-up sheets for the manatee boat trip and lunch and Monkey Bay dinner before Bearded Bob takes money for the Super Bowl Pool. He has made a grid of 100 squares with each square costing 25 cents. Most of us buy 4 squares and randomly pick the numbers on the grid from a bowl. Each of us has hopes of winning in 1st, 2nd and/or last quarters. The day has been hot, although I lasted without turning on the air conditioner. By 4 PM it has again cooled off and we can enjoy the outdoors until 6 when the mosquitoes realize there is new white meat for them to feed on. I start to do my mosquito dance in an attempt to keep the little buggers from me. I only have shorts and no insect spray on my bare legs and I think they hone in on all that fresh flesh. The locals tell me they are only out for about an hour or so but I have never tested that theory. We break up the party and head indoors. It is homemade pizza for supper tonight.
(Bert) Although I’ve been to Lamanai nine times, travel has always been by boat. I’m curious about the 2-hr. bad road to the Maya site and that’s what some of us drive today. A few days of dry weather has improved its condition and it is easily passable with high clearance vehicles. We first come to a small village called Guinea Grass and I ask a resident if that type of grass grows here. He points to nearby grass and agrees. We pass through disturbed forest and wetlands. At one stop we hear Black-throated Bobwhite calling from deep in the forest and find a Central American Coral Snake (Micrurus diastema) crossing the road. I take several photos of the slithering creature that can’t seem to get traction on the smooth mud surface, and although I’ve read that coral snakes are mild tempered, I take care not to get too close, as a poisonous bite can be fatal.
The habitat changes to open savannah and I comment to my riders that we should see more hawks and, particularly, an Aplomado Falcon. Seconds later, Leonard reports seeing a falcon and training our binoculars on the bird we see it is an Aplomado. Two minutes later I see a hawk soaring over the field and get excited when I see the white tail and rufous shoulders of a White-tailed Hawk, my first time to see this bird in Belize.
In the expansive Mennonite colony of Shipyard, we stop at a farm pond loaded with whistling-ducks, teal and a few Lesser Yellowlegs. During the past half hour we have seen a constant procession of horse drawn Mennonite buggies, each carrying a family dressed in their Sunday best clothes, now returning from morning services. Men nod a friendly greeting as they pass, but women avoid looking in our direction. Curious children stare, yet remain quiet. One man stops to ask me what we are doing and I tell him about the birds and our Lamanai destination. He tells me that the other road, the one through San Felipe, is in better condition. Eventually we reach Lamanai and on the entrance road through the woods, Mark finds a Hooded Warbler. I tell him this should be good habitat for Kentucky Warbler as well and within a minute a Kentucky appears at the same spot, followed quickly by a Worm-eating Warbler. I’m 2 for 2 on predicting birds this morning. At the ruins I meet Emir, here with a group from Ambergris Caye who this morning traveled by boat from island to shore, then bus to the New River, then boat again to Lamanai. Emir tells me the archeologist that uncovered the famous Mayan mask temple in 1979 is here working on the old Spanish church ruins. He mentions a new dig at the little known ruins at Cacabish and that the area is covered by tall trees and good for birding. On our return trip, we take the road to San Felipe, attempt to find Cacabish and, instead, wander around along a very muddy cane field road. We’ll have to leave this potential birding site to another trip.
(Shari) The day is a good one to hang out clothes and I notice I am not the only one washing. In between loads I read, knit and play computer games. This is a hard life. Bert returns at 3 and takes a nap, waking just in time to leave for our Super Bowl party. Bearded Bob is already at the restaurant when we arrive and is arranging tables for the group. We order beer, appetizers and dinner as we settle in on the game. I am thrilled when the Chicago Bears take off in the first seconds of the game to make a touchdown. Unfortunately their good start does not continue and they go on to loose the game. I don’t even come close on the betting pool. Chuck wins for the first and second quarters, Juanita gets the third quarter and her husband Bob gets the big pot for the final quarter. Not fair, I say. Again tonight our meals take forever to arrive. At least we have something to occupy our minds and we do have beer and chips. Bert and I order a conch ceviche, which is delicious, but the steak on my sandwich is dwarfed by the bun it is served on. Bert’s chicken fajitas look great though. After the game we head straight home, since tomorrow starts early and is a full day.
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