Chapter 8. Maya Mountains
(Shari) I am surprisingly awake, considering I got up at 5:15 for our early morning departure. Today is the beginning of a 2-night, 3-day side trip up the mountain to Hidden Valley Inn. This is one of my favorite places (read luxury, swimming pool, all inclusive resort). The ride up is bumpy and takes 2 hr. to go 42 mi. Hopefully we can bypass the bad main access road to Thousand Foot Falls by going through the resort property. Bert gets the key to the gate and we proceed for the next 45 min. through some of the 7200 acres of Hidden Valley. Thousand Foot Falls is really 1600 feet and quite beautiful. At 10 AM, the Orange-breasted Falcon is supposed to make an appearance. Last year patient Cindy spotted it first. This year Mark offers a free drink to the first person to spot it. That is incentive for me and I look for a while but give up after a few false ID’s. Penny gets the honors and finds the bird. Unfortunately some of the group miss seeing it because the message never comes through the radios about the sighting. Hopefully they will see it this afternoon. We arrive at noon and are greeted by the new manager of the resort, Karen. She gives us some bad news in that she is missing one room because she is over booked. She has only one option and that is to put one couple at another resort, a half-hour distant. We so not like that option and come up with variations of sharing but still we are not quite satisfied. This group is good at problem solving and Chuck comes up with an idea I should have thought of first. Why not have one of the other couples not “related” to us go elsewhere? I had asked when the other four rooms were occupied and for how long, but never thought about one of them moving since Karen seemed so reluctant to offer that. Why do we have to split up? It is not our fault, but the resort’s fault in this situation and certainly our reservations came in first, arranged 11 mo. ago and finalized 5 mo. ago. I bring up the point to Karen and she says she will ask. At 3 PM, the problem is solved and our group is in the rooms as booked. While the group birds this afternoon, I swim in the pool, read my book and catch up on sleep lost last night. The group returns and we chatter away at our candle lit tables during dinner, joking that we had to need to sleep immediately if we want 8 hr. of sleep tonight. Bert wants us up for breakfast at 5 AM.
(Bert) Waiting for the main event at Thousand Foot Falls, we add soaring Swallow-tailed Kites, a brush-sitting Rusty Sparrow and treetop singing Black-headed Siskins to our trip list. Yellow-faced Grassquits are easily heard, much less seen prowling through the grass. At 9 AM, right on time, the warm-up act – a pair of King Vultures – soars above our heads, close enough for several of us to get good flight photos. Most, however, are anxiously awaiting the appearance of the star of the show: Orange-breasted Falcon. Naturalist and caretaker Pedro has worked at Thousand Foot Falls for 16 years. The falcons were already here when he arrived. Almost every morning, at around 10 AM, the falcons appear near their nesting site beside the 1600-ft. waterfalls, the highest in Central America. From one of the lookout points, four spotting scopes and a half dozen binoculars scan the falls, the broadleaf forest of the valley and the pine forest at the crest of the mountains. Mark offers a free drink to the first person to find the falcon. A 14-in. object in a mile of forest is certainly the proverbial needle in the haystack. When 10 AM elapses Bearded Bob moves his scope to the upper lookout and most of the group gathers there. A half-dozen of us persist until 10:10 when Penny exclaims, “I’ve got it!” Afraid she’ll loose the spot if she takes down her binoculars, she tries to describe what she sees. The rest of us stand behind her and sight down the direction of her glasses and jump back to our scopes. I pick up the bird in my scope first and Judy is a quick second. Then Mark finds it too. Excitement ensues. Stan calls on the radio to the group above us. We shout to them to come see the falcon. Each in our little group sees the perched bird through the scope and then it takes flight, circling the valley and gradually using the warming air currents to spiral up higher and higher until it is above our heads and moving away from us over the brink of the next mountain fold. We climb the long series of concrete steps to the higher lookout only to face the dejected looks of the birders there, asking us why we didn’t tell them about the falcon. Apparently no one heard Stan’s radio transmission – perhaps because the other group was also talking on their radios – and no one understood the meaning of our shouting and excitement. Bearded Bob suspected it was the falcon and somewhat belatedly aligned his scope where he saw us looking. He found the bird just before it took flight. An exciting moment for some of us turned into a dejected attitude as we left the falls area.
From Pedro I learn that up to six pairs of Orange-breasted Falcons reside in Belize, including Thousand Foot Falls, Branchmouth Park in San Ignacio, Caves Branch, and Black Rock where Chuck photographed one and three others also saw it. A fifth location is King Vulture Falls and the sixth is nearby, but may also be the same pair as is at King Vulture Falls. Ray and Nancy saw another pair in Guatemala a few days ago when they took an overnight trip to Tikal, but most of the group still hasn’t seen Orange-breasteds. When we meet up with Rick, our birding guide for the next three days, I ask him the best time to see the falcon at King Vulture Falls. We arrange our afternoon birding schedule accordingly and drive to the falls at 4 PM. King Vultures greet us in the air, perched on trees and standing at the top of the waterfalls. The cool breeze blowing through the trees from our promontory lookout over the valley and the steep waterfalls is refreshing. A feeding flock of 50-75 White-collared Swifts fly haphazardly above us. At the appointed time an Orange-breasted Falcon appears out of nowhere. It is joined by another falcon, a smaller one, and as they soar high over the valley we debate the identity of the second. The distinctly smaller size makes many suspect Bat Falcon, but the amiable aerodynamic behavior of the two falcons suggest a mated pair. Rick tells us the female Orange-breasted is larger than the male, a characteristic of many in the hawk family. This time to everyone’s delight – and my relief – we all get to watch the Orange-breasteds for at least 15 min. until we start diverting our attention to other birds and scenery.
(Shari) “This better be worth it,” I quip through half slit eyes as I eat my bowl of granola and yogurt at 5 AM. I notice everyone is a bit subdued this morning (night?) but we do leave the parking lot at 5:40 only 10 minutes later than planned. We bump along the road for the next hour with some commentary from Stan who repeats things that guide Rick is telling him. We reach the military check point at Douglas da Silva and from here on to Caracol we will be escorted, a requirement that began last October after a rash of robberies and one shooting targeting tourists. The Guatemalan bandits have been captured and the robberies stopped, but the escort service remains. The military lead car, followed by “Judy Andretti” her new nickname because she keeps loosing the rest of the caravan as she zooms off in her new 4-door Jeep. Often I use the radio to let Judy know the rest of us are out of sight while she tries to keep up with the lead car. Some escort service this is when it continues to loose its clients. Penny will be happy as we arrive at 7:30, a time she says is the best for birding anyway. The ruins of Caracol were studied extensively since 1985 and archeologists are continually working on them. As more and more things are learned Caracol increases in stature and now this Mayan location is considered as important as Tikal. Occupied since 600 B.C. with its height around 600 A.D. when 115 000 to 150 000 people lived at the location. About 10% of the structures are now unearthed and are quite impressive. I don’t know why - probably a reason as innocent as that the temperature is cooler - but I like these ruins better than Tikal’s. The grounds are lovely and the structures very stately, denoting strength, beauty and power. Back at the picnic area Glenn says, “I hate it when she’s right.” Iris told him to take his raincoat but he made a calculated guess that it was not going to rain and he was wrong. Now he is back to retrieve the raincoat. Later a Sepia-capped Flycatcher is spotted and early lunch diners jump up, abandoning their plates of food just to see it. We are told about a “fly in” and later Bert counts the number of species seen at that location just within a 60-min. timeframe. I go over to look, but only see a bird that looks like a woodpecker. I am told it was an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper but by the time I get my binocs focused on it, it has flown. I see streaks of black and gray fly and flitter around but I never get a good look. I leave the area in frustration. I guess I missed a black shrike tanager, a xenops – Barbara told me how to spell that one - and a dot-winged wren. Oh well! At 2 PM the birding has to stop since we must all leave the area with a military escort again. No stopping to bird along the way either. Gees, that’s too bad, I think to myself happily. Just after the checkpoint, four cars decide to see the caves on the Rio Frio. The one lane road gets narrower and narrower and muddier and muddier. Three-quarter mile seems like 5 mi. and with each foot I envision four cars all getting stuck. Bert says that there is an opening at the end. When we reach the end, the opening is there all right but totally muddy. Bert uses 4-wheel drive and we get turned around. The rest just stay put, walk the remaining two blocks to the caves along the muddy road before negotiating their return. Later I hear phrases over the radio like “This looks more solid to me” and “Go a bit farther, you have me in total mud here.” Thankfully no one gets stuck and Glenn even says that it was worth the effort. I don’t know, since I refused to walk the two blocks in the mud in spite of Bert’s urging me to do so over 1000 times. After checking out The Five Sister’s Resort, we return in time for dinner and bed.
(Bert) When Rick points out a Black-throated Shrike-Tanager in close proximity to an Olivaceous Woodcreeper he and I both know we might be on to something good. In quick succession we find Golden-crowned Warblers and Tawny-winged Woodcreeper. More birds are flitting through the understory, in and out of view. … Black-and-white Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler … We stand in a clearing of the dense forest that surrounds Caracol Maya ruins; the birds move along the periphery of the cleared path and now follow it as it turns along the entrance way. … Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Ivory-billed Woodcreepers … We walk slowly, keeping pace with the feeding flock. … Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet … Each time I see the shrike-tanager, I know we are staying with the mixed flock, for it is the sentinel, the one keeping the flock orientated. The momentary flashes of wings and bodies give us partial clues to identifying the birds. … Eye-ringed Flatbill, Hooded Warbler, White-breasted Wood-Wren … Most move so quickly and so many different species are present that it takes us many minutes to put the pieces together and be sure at what we are seeing. … Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Plain Xenops, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper … Using our radios, we call again to the others who are exploring the ruins or resting at the picnic area. … White-whiskered Puffbird, Dot-winged Antwrens, Magnolia Warbler … Others join us, even Shari, who quickly looses interest as these birds are too fast moving and unwilling to pose prettily for prolonged observation. … Olive-backed Euphonia, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bright-rumped Attila … Now we get down to the hard species, the new ones, the ones we are slow at identifying … Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaners, Dusky Antbird, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, and finally the one that thrills me the most, a new life bird for me, a pair of Plain Antvireos. When we gather for lunch at the picnic tables, with birders calling out names, I write down the list of birds in the mixed flock. It comes to 26 species observed during the one hour we watched them feeding together. The best I’ve ever seen!
(Bert) Even though yesterday was a long birding day and I stayed up past 9 PM to enter bird sightings into my computer, I’m up again at 3:45 AM. Fortunately, we have separate rooms so I can turn on the light and continue on computer work. By 5:30 I’m anxious to go outside and listen for night birds. A pauraque calls and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl toots persistently. With my high-beam search light I scan the tops of the pine trees, hoping to find a Stygian Owl, a bird that has eluded us this year. I see none. Getting out my sound equipment, I record the calling pygmy-owl and during the session a distant Collared Forest-Falcon calls also. On playback I can hear both even though the forest-falcon must be at least a quarter mile away. Without the generator running, only a few lights are burning on battery power, everyone else is asleep and the still silence is only broken by the three nocturnal birds.
At 6:30 a few of us early risers begin a bird walk, only be turned back by rain and lack of raincoats. We decide breakfast is more appealing. By the time I finish my bacon and eggs, refried beans and fried tomato I’m anxious to restart the morning walk now that the skies have cleared. I check the bird feeders and photograph a Yellow-tailed Oriole and then we hike along the Motmot Trail, a prettily wooded path beside a trickling mountain stream. We hear Rufous-capped Warbler and Plumbeous Vireo and watch a female Red-capped Manakin before turning back to meet the others for our 9 AM drive along the many roads interweaving Hidden Valley. I go through the list of birds we have not seen and compare it to the possibilities, zeroing in on Plain Wren, a bird I’ve never seen nor heard. Rick knows a place where they occur, a low spot, fairly open and edged by a cane break. I review the drawings in a field guide and decide Plain Wren is not plain at all, more closely resembling a White-bellied Wren with a longer tail. Before he plays a recording, Rick warns us that the wren will only come out for a few seconds and then retreat into the tall, dense grasses. That’s exactly what happens. The first toot of the recording stirs the bird’s curiosity and turns on its sound machine. It sings to us for at least 20 min., giving us very few chances to get a peek at the bird. Almost everyone gets to see it; a few don’t, though it continues to sing even after we leave the area. We drive to Bull’s Point, a place where the original land owner whose first name was Bull took friends to picnic and enjoy the distant horizon from the promontory. From our vantage point at 1880 ft. we can see Belmophan to the east and Spanish Lookout to the north and Guatemala on the horizon. We can also see unusually bright lime green patches cut into the dense forest where in the 1980s local villagers grew marijuana until the government put an end to the practice. Rick, who is Mayan, relates a story of how his poor father grew marijuana out of economic need and as a young boy Rick planted what his father told him was tomatoes, but he never saw the tomatoes grow on the plants. Before we leave the point, Rick finds a very distant falcon perched in the open, but only visible to us through a narrow gap in the proximate trees. We align two scopes on the spot and Rick calls it an Orange-breasted Falcon. I take poor digiscope photos at 180X and at 360X and later blow them up on my computer. I still can’t make out the orange above the black chest band, but I can decipher the taller profile and the deeper light area of the breast, consistent with Orange-breasted Falcon. That makes five sightings of six Orange-breasteds during our trip so far.
Before we leave Hidden Valley we again check the feeders at the lodge, getting our last looks at Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed orioles, Green Jays, and Acorn Woodpeckers. After an extremely long 2-hour lunch, interspersed with humorous stories and wisecracks from our jovial group, we load up our cars and head back to our San Ignacio campsite.
(Shari) “I think the average age of this group is 4 years old,” Darnell says as someone ribs another. It is funny how groups take on a personality of their own. This one is just like a close-knit family with a lot of ribbing and joking. Later Mark tells another joke and Darnelle revises her statement to “Make the average age 3 years old.” We are waiting and waiting for our lunch. I try to hurry things along by asking questions like, “Can we sit down now?” or “Who is going to take our orders?” I even replenish water glasses and some give me a tip. I get a whooping 5 cents from Penny and only 1 cent from another because I only gave him a half glass. We all get a kick out of it and at least it helps pass the time. Finally two hours after we sat down for lunch, we’ve finished and are ready to make our trek down the mountain and back to camp. We arrive two hours before our margarita party and travel meeting where I discuss our next camping spot.
(Bert) I sleep in late, since it is a free day. That means by 4:30 AM I’m on my computer writing journals and entering bird sightings and reading e-mail. While some go birding for a half day, others catch up on errands, as do I. The wash lines string with drying clothes and cars are washed to reveal the paint hiding below. I generate a report of our Belize findings to date: 355 species, plus 3 for which we are doing more research. When some of us gather at 5 PM, even though nothing is scheduled, I hear a story about Judy’s morning at Pook’s Hill. As usual, she was sitting in a secluded area waiting for birds. She heard Little Tinamous calling from two directions and hoped they would come out into the open. Instead, she saw a jaguarundi stalking, perhaps for the tinamous. Some birders find wildlife by hiking trails, hoping to see what scares up. Judy waits for wildlife to come to her.
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