Chapter 6. Central Belize
(Shari) Unfortunately Bert wants to get to the zoo when it opens which means we have to depart at 6:15 AM. Ugh! Our first group makes good time and finds that Sue has a new and better place for us to park. We are closer to her house where there is less traffic from her restaurant, away from the mud and where we can all be together. A nice palapa is behind us for our use and we gather there for Bert’s talk on honeycreepers or is it woodcreepers? I don’t know. The breeze is nice and the scenery is beautiful, overlooking an orange grove with the mountains in the distance. Of course, people try to distinguish the birds from their chairs. While Bert completes a bird count, I retreat into R-Tent-III and make a cake for tomorrow. At 6 we go up to the restaurant where we have previously put our order in for barbeque chicken or ribs with rice and potato salad and tortillas. Bert and I are not the only ones with this idea as we meet lots of others up there too. I had warned them to come at various times so that we would not overwhelm the kitchen and it seems to work better this year. At least we do not have to wait forever for our food. From 5 to 7 is Happy Hour and we can have two drinks for the price of one. Plus each drink comes with a red napkin that can be thrown into a very small basket for another free drink. We all try our luck. Bert gives me his as does Bearded Bob but I miss the basket every time I try. Tailgunner Bob got a free one though, so we know it is possible. Last year I also got a free one. I wonder what I did.
(Bert) “What’s that on the nest?” Juanita asks. We are standing in front of a small pond, searching for a crocodile or turtles, when she diverts our attention to a clump of leaves and twigs at eye level and ensnarled in underbrush. I immediately guess Green Heron as I’ve seen them in similar nests. To my surprise it is a Gray-necked Wood-Rail, a species that I would have thought nested on the ground. I radio others who also are wandering around the Belize Zoo and they come to watch the nesting rail. I’m told later that they meet Sharon Matola – the zoo was created in 1983 through the efforts of Sharon as a way to save the animals used in filming a documentary on tropical forests and now is aptly called the best little zoo in the world – and she says she’s known the birds were in the zoo, but has never seen a nest. The event makes her day, she says. Note, this bird is not in a cage. In fact, most of the birds – as well as two Gray Foxes and several agoutis – are outside the cages, being drawn to the attractive environment and adequate food and water sources. Those animals that are in enclosures are in such heavily planted natural settings that you’d think you are seeing them in the wild. I’m particularly delighted to photograph an Ocelot lying in the morning sunlight and try photographing a Jaguarundi jogging in the deep shadows of its extensive enclosure. We come upon several sparrows and debate whether they are Olive or Green-backed sparrows, two nearly alike species. The issue is settled when one sings the Green-backed song. I’ve kept a 7-year running list of the species we have seen – outside the cages – at the zoo and across the highway at the Tropical Education Center. This year we are adding Olive-throated Parakeet, Green Kingfisher, Grace’s Warbler, Red-throated Ant-Tanager and Black-cowled Oriole to the list, now numbering 91 species.
Cindy and Judy birded different areas today and made some good finds. When we meet at dinner she tells me of the Great Antshrike near the Sibun River and the White-tailed Hawk on the Coastal Highway. We will bird those areas in a few days and I hope we get to see these birds too.
(Bert) Monkeys outnumber people at the Community Baboon Sanctuary. First settlers mistakenly called the local monkeys baboons; their proper name is Yucatán Black Howler (Alouatta pigra), a husky monkey that colonizes in troops of 2-12 members, lead by a dominate male with an amazingly loud territorial call that can be heard a mile away. We are leisurely floating down the Belize River in canoes, occasionally using our paddles to move closer to the bamboo covered shores or to avoid an overhanging branch. Once and a while, we can hear distant howlers and twice we find a monkey in a tree. From the few we see along the river, it is hard to imagine the 2000-2500 howlers that inhabit this sanctuary. The idea for a protected reserve began in 1985 with mutual agreement of the farmers in several adjacent communities, including Double Head Cabbage where we launched our canoes from the muddy shore, Scotland Halfmoon Village adjacent to the lands we pass now and Bermudian Landing where we will take out the canoes two hours from now. The habitat looks good for the pygmy-kingfishers which so many want to see. I diligently search for them in the tangles along the shore. Bearded Bob says we aren’t finding any because the water level is so high and the edges are too deep for the minnows to be visible to the tiny kingfishers. The Ringed Kingfishers are prominent, however, following us downstream with Gatling gun calls. High in the trees dinosaur-like Green Iguanas lounge in profusion. There must be hundreds of these huge reptiles. I’d like to see one of them jump from the branches and splash into the water as I’ve seen before. None do so. One does a high dive jump, but lands loudly on the muddy shore. Wow, that looks like it must hurt! Striped Basilisks are even more common than the iguanas. They go unnoticed until we get close and then run off hastily along low branches or across the water, running so fast they do not sink below the surface, a characteristic that earns them the common name “Jesus Christ lizard.”
We hear more birds then we see. Rufous-breasted Spinetails and Barred Antshrikes are constantly calling along the entire river, none visible however. The joyous song of the Yellow-tailed Oriole is about the prettiest melody of any tropical bird. We hear them singing several times and occasionally see their equally attractive yellow and black plumage. Now that we are familiar with the 2-note call of the Striped Cuckoo we hear it more often, twice along the river today. Probably the best bird of the river trip is Blue Seedeater, which Cindy identifies in flight and Joanie sees also. The rest of us still want to find this very local bird and hope to get it at tomorrow’s location which again includes a bamboo forest.
After lunch we go to the Visitor’s Center and Follett leads a tour of the forest intermingling with Bermudian Landing. Later we remark that we too easily could have dismissed Follett as a transient bum panhandling for money. Looks are deceiving and behind the straggly long graying black beard and the diminutive body clad in a white T-shirt and blue jeans is a remarkably intelligent man with an impressive scientific vocabulary, extensive knowledge of local history, medicinal plant remedies and quite a story teller. We even hear that his son graduated from a U.S. university with a Ph.D. in ecology. Today he leads us to the local howler troop. The protected monkeys here are remarkably tame and we even feed some of them bananas. Photographing black objects in nature is quite difficult, lacking contrast. Yet now when I can get within arm’s length of the howlers, I get sharp photos of their human-like facial features.
(Shari) “I’ve got Eunice’s number in case we get lost,” Bearded Bob quips as his canoe goes sideways down the river. He, of course, is referring to our last outing on a river when, after our outboard motors failed, Emir kept trying to call his girlfriend Eunice on his cell phone. Arleen and I wave goodbye to our adventurous 15 who chose to do the 2-hr. float trip on the Belize River this morning. Stan helps canoeing novice Judy into the tipsy boat. Everyone first has to step into a rowboat before stepping into his or her canoe to avoid most of the mud. The rest of us wait for their return at the “lodge.” I am always amused at how marketers make something fancy out of something ordinary. This “lodge” is a collection of a few old cabins built years ago and is run down, needing a good paint job and many repairs. However, the setting is pretty on the bank of the river as we wait for our canoeists return here at 10:30. We eat a nice lunch of coconut chicken with rice and beans and a cabbage tomato vegetable before driving the two blocks to the Baboon Sanctuary. Here we visit the museum and meet our guide, Follett, who is also the founder and proprietor of the place. He looks very scruffy with his unkempt beard and skinny demeanor and none of us would guess just how much he knows, how interesting he becomes and that he has a son who earned his Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Connecticut. He takes us on a walking tour, explaining the history of the sanctuary and uses of the many plants that we pass along our route. Unfortunately it is noon and very hot. I see Nancy take off her long sleeve blouse then put it back on and then take it off again. Each of us weigh the idea “bugs or heat?” Penny chooses bugs as she walks around with her shorts and sleeveless blouse. I choose heat as I keep my long sleeve shirt and long pants on. Tailgunner Bob gets light headed and Bearded Bob goes to get his car to pick up a group so they do not have to walk back in the sun. The rest of us follow our guide to a family of howler monkeys. The guide has some bananas and the monkeys come down to retrieve them. Many could feed the monkeys if they wished. I just snapped pictures. We had intended to visit the winery after the sanctuary but only one car pulls off to sample the homegrown fruit wines. The rest of us are too hot and tired and just want to get home to air conditioning. At the Belize airport, Leonard has picked up his wife Barbara who will be joining him for the next 28 days or so and we have a social at 5 to welcome her. I made a cake for the occasion and it is quickly devoured. As Joannie says “Life is short; eat dessert first.”
(Bert) “This place has more birds per erg of energy expended than any other,” remarks Bearded Bob, as he leisurely sits in a chair and watches the birds pass by. We had driven our cars down the dirt road 1.75 mi. from the Western Highway to the Sibun (pronounced “say boon”) River and then walked back a hundred yards to a fruiting fig tree, the spot where we spent so much time last year. Matching Bob’s appraisal, a profusion of birds feed on the tree and a confusion of bird names come from our lips as we announce multiple birds seen simultaneously by the group. From Streak-headed Woodcreeper to Ochre-bellied Flycatcher to Yellow-billed Cacique, we see species after species moving quickly through the leaves. Lower to the ground, Rufous-breasted Spinetails call constantly. This place is undoubtedly the easiest location in Belize to see the shy spinetails that hide so successfully elsewhere, but here can be approached within a few feet. Mark and I study a becard carefully and get a good close-up look at its head, confirming White-winged Becard, a southern Belize species that is expanding its range northward. The most sought after bird is the Blue Seedeater which occupies a tiny range in Belize. We move slowly along the access road, paying particular attention to the bamboo thicket that is the habitat for this rare seedeater. With patience, Joanie finds a cinnamon brown female and an hour later Mark sees another. I find a couple of look-alikes – Variable Seedeater and Thick-billed Seed-Finch – plus one dark blue bird that may have been the male Blue Seedeater.
Birding is so leisurely – we have only walked a half-mile in 5 hr. – that I get my bird song recording equipment out of the car. After last year’s expedition, Ralph and Dorothy sent me their Sennheiser microphone. I already had a suitable adapter and now I connect it to my iPod and record a persistent singer calling from deep in the shrubbery. I record about one minute of song and then play it back, since I’m not sure if this thing works, nor the identity of the bird. It works! The song is clear and distinct with no background noise. The bird darts out of the shrubbery, across the narrow road and into the bushes at the other side. Responding again to the recording, it flies back to the original site and this time I see the bird, a Green-backed Sparrow. Wow, this thing really works! A little while later I try recording a Black-faced Antthrush and again I get a clear soundtrack. On playback the antthrush walks out from the deep forest and across a narrow clearing, making it easy for us to see the bird as it calls in response to its own recorded call. A third time, I record a Yellow-tailed Oriole singing along the Sibun River and again, the bird sings a duet to itself.
Most of us return to our nearby campsite for lunch. Some return to the river for a Big Sit, lounging on lawn chairs and stools along the gravel river banks, under cool shade, watching the crystal clear water flow swiftly past. Remarkably, from 2:30 to 5:30 they record 50-60 species, barely moving from one spot. Their total includes 18 warbler species playing in a puddle.
In the evening, we meet at the dining hall of Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and enjoy a delicious healthy meal prepared by Mathew and Marga and their intern Anna. Marga tells us the fascinating history of Monkey Bay from its original purchase as a cattle ranch to Mathew’s work in the Peace Corps to the conversion of the property to a wildlife preserve and its use as an environmental education site. After the meal, I lead a bird countoff. The day’s total at the sanctuary reaches an incredible 135 species. Last year I had prepared a bird checklist for Mathew from my lists, Steve Howell’s and other sources. Today we’ve added Crested Guan, White-necked Puffbird, White-winged Becard, Red-eyed Vireo (pending details), and Cedar Waxwing, bringing the revised checklist for the 1000-acre sanctuary to 235 species.
(Bert) Except for guests staying at Gales Point, the Coastal Highway is largely ignored by birders, yet offers a few species hard to find elsewhere in Belize. Our first stop is the Sibun River where we can scan the canopy at eye level from the high bridge over the water. The birds are just beginning to wake and are reluctant to stir from their singing posts. I hear Couch’s Kingbird, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Pale-vented Pigeon, Bright-rumped Attila, Ruddy Crake and many others. When the rising sun strikes the tops of the trees, the birds come out of hiding: Common Tody-Flycatcher, Thick-billed Seedfinch and White-winged Becard, among many others. We move on down the red gravel road until we reach the pine savannah. Here the dramatic change of habitat will offer us something new. And it does. We hear a Chipping Sparrow in the tall pines and Ray and I head across the grass in its direction. Before I can find the sparrow, I hear another song that I recognize as Grace’s Warbler and soon find the songster. While I still want to find the Chipping Sparrow, I’m being called back to the road by the radio. It seems Joanie heard a sparrow and then Mark found one, but they aren’t sure what it is. In this habitat, any sparrow would be interesting, so I hike back to the spot on the road where they are lining up spotting scopes. I take one glance through Bob & Cindy’s scope and am quite sure it’s a Grasshopper Sparrow. Since I haven’t seen this species before in Belize, I go to the car for my scope to study the bird further and to take several digiscope photos. While others debate the id, they eventually deduce the same by its characteristic Ammodramus shape, yellow-orange eye spot, buffy breast and pale central crown stripe. Jones states Grasshopper Sparrows are resident along the coastal plain that includes where we bird today. While watching an Acorn Woodpecker attack a pine tree, I notice a drab sparrow that hops out of the brush and conveniently perches on a dead limb just above us. Ray and I study the bird and particularly its undertail coverts, which in this case make it an Olive Sparrow and not its look-alike relative, Green-backed Sparrow. Just to be sure I photograph the bird and record its song. The song is a quiet sweet rendition, not like any of my archived recordings of either species. (Later, when I study the photos, they confirm it is an Olive Sparrow, but the recorded song is not described in any of the reference material I have, including Rising’s book on sparrows.)
We finally get to see Yellow-headed Parrots, albeit at a distance in flight, and we hear them at many locations. Most label it BVD, “better view desired.” Beyond the pine savannah, we stop at Egbert’s place and he sells a few mosquito swatters to the group, made from a palm tree. He and his brother live in a ramshackle unpainted single-room building perched high off the ground on stilts. Behind the building is the orange orchard Egbert helped plant when he was younger, before he left for a job on a nearby farm. Not liking “city life” he and his brother returned to this place completely remote of neighbors and the only house we see along the 23 mile stretch of Coastal Highway. Egbert, named after his grandfather, invites us to search the orchard for birds and says we should be here early in the morning when so many birds visit. Even now that the day has heated up, we find birds in the orchard, including our first Yellow-faced Grassquit of the trip. I also get nice photos of Black-cheeked Woodpecker and Common Yellowthroat .
We make a brief stop at Plantation Creek and immediately after exiting our cars, Cindy spies the Olive-sided Flycatcher perched on the same high limb we found it last year. Shari and her carload, having left 4 hr. after us, catches up now. We decide to speed up our birding pace and we arrive at Gales Point and Manatee Lodge by 11:30. The cool breeze passing under the palms feels good and from the long pier into Manatee Lagoon we watch a man paddle a tiny boat loaded with six large hunting dogs and presumably somewhere in the boat, his morning’s catch of three gibnuts, the local name for Paca. A few of us board another boat and head to Manatee Springs, an upwelling in the lagoon and far from shore, it is marked by three 20-ft. wooden sticks bordering the edge of the deep springs fed from the distant mountains. The fresh water from the springs, plus two streams flowing from the mountains, feed into the salt water, making the lagoon brackish. West Indian Manatees gather at the springs to feed and periodically we see them rise to the surface for air, first a dark shadow, then a snout breaking the surface and within seconds a quiet descent. We had expected something more dramatic. A young German student is standing in a nearby boat, holding a GPS and a stopwatch. She is studying the manatees behavior. After our final sighting, she tells us the manatee with the tracking device stayed below the surface for 5 min. After a delicious lunch, we return to camp, with only one brief stop for birds, a noteworthy sighting of three Cedar Waxwings at Plantation Creek.
(Shari) “Just think of all the fun you will have when you get there,” Juanita says as we bump along the rough road to Manatee Lodge. I tell my passengers we are halfway there and all they can say is, “Is that all?” It does seem to take forever. I am in luck today in that I have four other people who wanted to leave late. The birders left at 6:10 and we left at 10. We still catch up to them 30 min. before the end of the road. I pass them up birding at a bridge and we continue jostling along as the road gets narrower and narrower. Finally we hit a rundown town and we wonder how people live under these conditions. The outside temperature says 94º. Fortunately, Manatee Lodge is on a peninsula surrounded by brackish water. A warm water spring feeds the bay and the manatees, from which it gets its name, like the heat and congregate there. The lodge is quite nice and the breeze off the water is very cooling. Eight of us take a boat to see the manatees but I think each of us is a little disappointed. It certainly is not like whale watching and we could barely see the manatees as they came up for air. We do see a nose or a body or a tail but never the whole thing at once. Some of the animals have radios on their back and are tracked by a couple holding an antenna in another boat anchored not far from us. The water is shallow, maybe 5 feet deep where we are anchored, and three sticks protruding from the water mark the spring, which is very deep. Maybe five manatees are in the area during the time we watch. Bearded Bob asks our guide if this is the best view we will get and when he answers in the affirmative Bob says “Let’s go get lunch; I am hungry.” No one contradicts him and we motor back to the lodge to find the rest of the group already eating their Sunday “dinna” as it is called. The owner of the lodge calls it a special Creole Sunday dish and it is good except we have had it many times in the past: stewed chicken and rice and beans. I think I am ready for a good ol’ fashioned pizza. We drive home after “dinna” and complete chores before our 5 PM social and travel meeting. We run the travel meeting in two groups since half of the group does not show up until 5:45. They just love the birding at the nearby Sibun River.
Next Day Table of Contents