Chapter 9. Southern Belize
(Shari) Two and a half hours into our travel day, the buzzer goes off. The sound is familiar but I wait for Bert to confirm it is indicating “low water level.” Yup, here we go again! Water is streaming out of the back end of R-Tent-III. I am so depressed right now that I cannot even write a journal. I am sure Bert will fill you in.
(Bert) LOW WATER. “Oh no, not again,” I think to myself. We left San Ignacio shortly after sunrise, stopped for two rest breaks and just turned south on the Southern Highway. The lead vehicle in our foursome, we are a mile south of Silk Grass Village. I quickly pull to the edge of the right lane – there is no shoulder – and see the rerun of our Veracruz experience. Am I dreaming? Is this really happening again? We gather up two buckets to catch the radiator fluid as it pours out. The flow is slower than last time, but that is not reassuring. Jumping into action, I tell Shari I intend to drive the car back to the IVTET technical school and get Derek and Debbie’s telephone number – we’ve known them for 7 yr. and you may recall their names coming up on previous years’ journals - and call them from the school. Back 12 mi. and at IVTET I get the number. The electricity is out everywhere – the whole country I find out later - the phone is a payphone and I don’t have a Belize phone card, so I drive to a Texaco station, buy a card and ask the clerk how the phone system works. It’s Sunday morning, so I’m not sure I’ll find them at home and I’m relieved when Debbie answers. I start to explain about our radiator problems and she tells me she knows about it, since she has been reading our daily journals. I ask her for advice on a mechanic who I could contact on Sunday and she suggests Labelle whose husband is a mechanic in Silk Grass Village. I drive to the location she described and ask the young man at the balcony of the house if Labelle is home. He says they are in the U.S. After I tell him our problem, he says he will look at it. He introduces himself as Corwin and we drive the mile to the RV. Crawling under the engine compartment, Corwin sees where the radiator is leaking and says he can fix it. I’m a bit leery of his skills. I learn he has fixed radiators before, although when he asks if I have a radiator manual I’m still doubtful. Is there a radiator mechanic in Dangriga that I could get on Sunday? No. With no good alternatives, I take Corwin up on his offer.
We fill the radiator with water from our water tanks, since the nearby house has no water because of the electricity outage. Then I make a Y-turn in an orange orchard entrance road and drive back to the mechanic’s shop where Corwin is house sitting. He and his friend get started on removing the radiator, using some of my advice on how I watched the Mexican mechanics take out the multiple pieces of rubber and metal guards and the other parts connected to the radiator. It’s again a 3-hr. ordeal, with frequent scrambling for the necessary tools gathered from his heavy machinery tools, my supply of smaller tools and two trips to a nearby shop for ones we don’t have. When the radiator is stretched out on his workbench we can see the toothpick-sized hole from which water is spitting out. We drive to Crocodile Isle where Corwin sometimes works – his real job is as a logger, frequently fixing the vehicles as they break down, in addition to working as a snorkeling guide on the cayes which he’d like to pursue further if he could get a boat, and he has been doing odd jobs for the newly opened resort in his spare time – and I meet Croc and Patsy, fellow Texans who’ve moved to Belize to build a tenting resort in a mangrove forest that among other amenities offers crocodile viewing. I find it amazing who I meet in my travels. Turns out, Patsy is from Independence, Texas, a place where I’ve birded and found a cemetery with an old tombstone for John Ernst, the name of my uncle and a long list of ancestors, although I doubt this one is related. Croc successfully sold RV’s on the Katy Freeway in Houston before driving one to Belize, now for sale a few feet away from where R-Tent-III awaits repair. Corwin picks up the solder he needs and we head back to the shop. I watch him fill the hole with solder and test for leaks.
Putting back the radiator, Corwin and his friend attach hardware cloth - a mesh screen made of galvanized metal - to the radiator face. We hope this will prevent stones or bits of the eroding fan from hitting the core. Three hours off, three hours on. It’s now dusk as we drive to Dangriga to the Texaco station to buy 4 gal. of antifreeze which when doubled with water will fill the reservoir. Under the light of Shari’s flashlight, Corwin adds the fluids. I add transmission fluid to replace what ran out when they disconnected the air conditioning cooler. I crank up the engine and we see no leaks, but hear a strange noise. The fan blade is not hitting its housing, nor the newly installed screen. It’s a cycling hum, something related to air currents. Whatever it is, it’s new and doesn’t sound good. We know the fan blade is chipped and cracked, so that could be the fault. Also, the screen could be changing the way air hits the radiator. We decide to remove the screen, a task that turns out to be harder than when it was installed on the workbench. I’m on my second battery for my high-intensity spotlight before they finish the task. I start the engine again and we still hear the ominous noise. We already had plans to replace the fan blade; this now makes it absolutely essential. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
(Shari) After praying hard most of the night - I woke up every few hours thinking about our situation - I finally get up at 6 AM. By 7, moving 4 mph, we are limping down the road to our storage place. Bert says it is only a mile and a half. After a half mile the pavement ends. After another half mile the road gets narrower. After another half mile grass grows between the tire tracks. Since I am following R-Tent-III with the car I only get glimpses of the road ahead and every time I look I only see more jungle in the distance. Another half mile, then another half mile. I envision the back end of R-Tent-III going up in smoke. I wonder how expensive it is to tow us all the way back to Texas. Finally I see some buildings and we have arrived at Croc and Patsy’s place. Bert came across this fellow yesterday and he is allowing us to store R-Tent-III in his secure parking lot with a 24-hr. guard. I meet the guard. He and his wife and two little girls live in a 14-ft. x 14-ft. wooden building perched high up on stilts. Inside are two hammocks and a mattress. I suppose there is some sort of cooking arrangement inside, but that is all I can see through the open doorway and two open windows. Seems to me, if the guard steals R-Tent-III and resells it, he could live in luxury for the rest of his life. We wait for Croc to arrive and hope he can arrange some sort of electricity because I do not think our batteries will stay “up” for six days. When he arrives, he tells us he does not have electricity, but promises to turn on our diesel generator if he notices low batteries. Meanwhile we pack our car and I remove all the money I have hidden in the nooks and crannies of R-Tent-III. This amount of money that I am carrying also could feed and clothe the guard’s family for 2 yr.
We leave Croc’s by 9 AM and arrive in Punta Gorda a little after 11. The road is worse than it was last year but I already know, via e-mail, that the caravan made it safely. Only Ramona is around when we arrive and she fills us in on the news. Dona shows us to our room. It is so convenient that the place we had arranged for camping also has rooms for rent with little kitchenettes. AND AIR-CONDITIONING! It feels like a scorcher today but when Bert and I drive to town to arrange for guides, the thermometer only reads 85º. It feels like 95º. We buy a few groceries: Spam, cheese, crackers, apples, eggs, bread, salsa and chips. We can now have Spam and eggs, or Spam and cheese, or eggs and cheese or cheese and chips or…. Such variety! When we return, we put on our swimming suits and join Glen, Iris, Bob and Arleen in the pool. The water is wonderful and makes the heat bearable. In fact, after a while I am even a bit chilly and need to stand in the sun. Tonight we don’t have to worry about which of the variety of menus I can make since Dona is cooking for us. She has a delicious buffet of baked barracuda, pork roast, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, fried plantains, three salads, homemade bread, pumpkin pie and apple pie. It is an all-you-can-eat deal, but with all that food I don’t need seconds of anything.
(Shari) Bert leaves at 5 AM and I roll over. At 9:15 I see that there are a few hens in the hen house and one rooster. Tailgunner Bob stayed home, as did Arleen, Ramona, Barbara and Juanita. I think Ramona washes and reads, Juanita irons, Barbara washes and then plays pegs and jokers with Bob, Arleen and me. Soon Bert and the gang are back and it is into the pool for us all for a stint at keeping a beach ball afloat. In the evening we take the bumpy road out to town for dinner, first stopping at George’s to arrange his guiding services. George is a jack-of-all-trades and tells us of his canoeing experiences. Last year he won US$2000 in a race and this year he is trying for the $10,000 grand prize in the annual Baron Bliss contest. He thinks he has a good chance and then he wants to try for the Olympics. What a thrill that would be and a source of pride for his country.
(Bert) Although the morning started well, it didn’t take long for things to go wrong. I should have planned it differently, but here’s the way it evolved. This is a long story, so you may want to save it for a time when you start drinking a big cup of coffee or a long draft of beer.
First the good part. At about 5:30 AM we are standing in the dark along the gravel road to San Antonio, listening for night birds in a swampy rice field known locally as The Dump. Paraques call from afar and several Soras are closer. Targeting the more elusive rails, I play a variety of rail and crake recordings. The Soras respond as do an unknown bird and one other that Leonard is sure is a Virginia Rail. I play my recordings of that species and the rail responds several times. We walk a bit in its direction and I continue trying to coax the bird closer. “That’s it!” someone behind me exclaims as a rail flies in front of them, landing somewhere in the swamp just beyond our side of the road. Mark and/or Joanie saw the bill and body shape and agree that it is Virginia Rail. Mark, Leonard and Joanie all agree on the calls as Virginia’s. When we return to our cars and announce our conclusions, Cindy responds that this would be the first record for Virginia Rail in Belize. Wow! Do we have enough evidence to make that claim? What else could it have been? We will probably have to return to The Dump another morning or evening to get a recording of the rail.
Starting the climb into the foothills, we drive long sections of bad road connecting the native villages of Manfredi, San Antonio and Santa Cruz, stopping at Rio Blanco National Park for a pit toilet break. Up to this far I’ve driven before, but not beyond. This year we want to get farther up the foothills in search of the mountain specialties. We continue upward and westerly, passing through Santa Eleana and Pueblo Viejo. Here my directions run out and I think the village we want is beyond Pueblo Viejo, so we continue until we reach what I assume is San Jose, our final destination. I ask the first person I see if he knows where we can find Mr. Sho. He points farther into the village. I stop again when the only people I see are young children staring from the door to one of the thatched roof plank houses. I ask for Mr. Sho and the giggling girls run inside. Out comes a young man and answers to my question that Mr. Sho is not here and got a ride to another town. I tell him that we had arranged for Mr. Sho to be our guide in a deep forest to see birds. He’s confused and I’m confused. He introduces himself as Martin Sho and is not sure what forest his father was referring to. Looking for another arrangement, I ask Martin if he can be our guide. He explains that he is waiting for a friend and that they intend to cut down a tree for lumber for his house. Meanwhile, Bob and Cindy tell me they do not think we are in San Jose and they show me on the topo map that we are probably in Jalacte, only a kilometer from Guatemala. That would mean in somewhat over 20 mi. we drove across Belize from the Caribbean to its western border with Guatemala and climbed from sea level to 1000 ft. I return to Martin, who is now met by a man on horseback leading a second horse. In Spanish, the horse rider tells Martin he cannot find a tree to cut down, so the day’s plans are canceled. Martin can now be our guide and the horseman wants to come along. The two pile into my car and we head a mile or two back down the road and stop beside a cornfield. They are going to lead us to tall forest. We start on a cow path, churned into deep mud by dozens of hoofed feet. We try to cling to the edges between the mud and the brush. Cindy, Judy and a few others find it too much trouble and turn back to bird elsewhere. The rest of us continue to a fork in the cow path. Conversing with a Belizean is difficult, not so much because of their accented version of English, but because of their concepts of time, distance and difficulty are quite different from our own. Martin describes a long trail that wraps around a small mountain and returns to the road and a second, shorter, one that follows a stream and cuts along the edge of the mountain. It should be sufficiently short, an acceptable time and a cleared path to meet our needs. We elect the shorter route, while Chuck decides to go with the Spanish horseman at least part way along the other path. We trudge through secondary forest, cross over a pretty mountain stream by stepping on stones, walk through a corn field, cross another stream and stop in our tracks while Martin uses his machete to clear a path through the forest. Fighting our way through the brambles, we reach another branch of the stream. So far we’ve seen soaring Black Hawk-Eagle, Bat Falcon, Turkey Vultures and a few others, such as Passerini’s Tanager and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper. Not much else, though. Beside the steam, birds are singing and a few are in sight. I find a male Western Slaty-Antshrike and as I describe its position to others, it takes flight. It returns for a quick flyover, but no one else gets a good view of what would be a life bird for most if not all the others.
From here the trail gets worse and the morning is becoming warmer. The trail heads uphill thorough the forest along the steep edge of the creek. We climb over felled trees, crawl under others, step deeply and step highly, mostly in soft dark earth that is sometimes slippery from moisture. Iris is fatigued and finding the balancing act difficult. We are frequently assured it is not much farther to the road. Birds sing all around us. We cannot find them in the dense foliage and do not recognize their strange sounds. Most of the group have also lost interest and pay scant attention to a pair of Dot-winged Antwrens flittering close by. The concentration has turned to hiking the difficult trail. We come to a clearing where the local villagers have cut down the forest and planted beans. I ask Martin about the beans and he opens one seed pod, revealing black beans that he says they grind up and then fry up as refried beans. Another forest path, another stream – Joanie gets her foot wet – another trail. Martin proposes a shortcut through a cornfield. How would we know better, so we follow. At the end of the field we face another stream and Martin hacks a path through the streamside brambles so we can cross. Now it’s a field densely grown over with 6 ft. ferns. Martin hacks some more. The next field is corn again, much shorter and we can see the horizon for the first time in two hours. Long returned to the cars, Chuck calls frequently on the radio and this time the signal is strong. We must be getting closer. Finally we break free and are on the gravel road again, about a quarter mile from the cars. A few wait in the shade while we retrieve cars to pick them up.
While returning Martin and the Spanish horseman to their village, I ask
Martin if he and the villagers have any source of outside income. He says they
raise corn. I ask him how they shell the dry corn cobs, describing to him an old
corn husker my grandfather used when he was young. As kids we loved to turn the
big crank, put full cobs on one end, see the shelled corn fall into a basket
below and the empty cob spit out the other end. Martin says he knows of such a
machine, but they do it by hand, putting cobs in a sack, hanging up the sack
from a tree and beating the sack with sticks. They put the shelled corn in sacks
and on a hard day’s work he can produce up to 20 sacks of shelled corn. Then
they carry the sacks on donkeys along a road leading to Santa Cruz, Guatemala,
where they sell the corn to the Guatemalans. I give Martin $50 BZ ($25 US) for
being our guide. He eyes the money and excitedly tells me we should come back in
a day or two and he will clear another path and take us through the forests
again. I thank him, but say no since our other days are already planned. I
wonder how many days he has to work in his village to earn $50 and suspect it is
Our day is not done yet and I have more stories to tell. All the other vehicles have headed back and only Stan accompanies me. When we reach Pueblo Viejo, I stop in front of the police station to mark down the GPS and odometer readings. While I’m writing, a man walks up to the passenger window and we soon find out he is the policeman for the village. He knows everything! He knows we passed this way early this morning, he knows all of the cars except mine have returned. He knows we travel in RV’s and he knows which resort we are staying at in Punta Gorda, 20 mi. away. He also knows that Bearded Bob turned off 100 ft. from where we stand and headed to Pueblo Viejo waterfalls a few hours ago and has not come back the same way. I know our caravan is conspicuous – according to Martin, the first vehicles of our type to show up in his village in several years or maybe in his lifetime – but I wasn’t aware that nearly everything about our coming and going is known. Stan and I find Bearded Bob and his carload at the beautiful waterfalls and eat our lunch in the cool shade, watching a Louisiana Waterthrush, a dozen Red-legged Honeycreepers and a few Green Honeycreepers. Two horseman show up on haggard horses and Judy lets them look through her binoculars, much to their surprise on what they can see with them. We decide to try to find San Jose, using Cindy and Bob’s topo maps. At Santa Cruz, I see the possible turnoff but have doubts since it is a narrow two-track heading straight uphill. It looks good by the topo map and a villager tells us it is just 2 mi. and 10 min. to San Jose. While Bob sings “On the way to San Jose” through the radio, I lead our two vehicles up the hill. The uphill part was the easy part. We have more steep hills, mud holes and then I stop to get out and inspect a creek crossing without a bridge. Two foot diameter hard rubber culverts cross the road, partially filled in with large rocks and a few dips. It looks firm enough to me. Stan is less sure. I walk back to Bob and say I think I can make it. Bob asks, “Then why is Stan waiting on the other side?” Laughing, I get into my SUV and slowly crawl across the rocks and culverts, up and down the dips and piles. Stan climbs back in the car and Bob follows behind. On the last hill I take a photo of the village nestled in the green valley before us. While the 2 mi. estimate was only a bit understated, it took us twice the allotted time to traverse the difficult road. At the first house I reach, I ask the young women if they know where Alfredo Sho lives. They direct us farther into the sprawling village. At my next stop I ask two men for Alfredo Sho and they point the house where I stopped and at the same time Alfredo comes to greet us. I tell him we ended up this morning in Jalacte and met Martin Sho. Alfredo says he does not know Martin, even though they share the same last name and are nearly in adjacent villages.
We discuss the possibility of another trip on Friday and Alfredo describes the place he has in mind for birding. We would pick him up first – a two hour drive from Punta Gorda – and then drive 7 mi. on a logging road that shows on the 20-year-old topo maps as a thin dotted line. We decide to check out the road before committing to another ill-conceived birding excursion. We find the start of the logging road 4 mi. beyond San Jose and proceed for nearly a mile on the deeply rutted road, with ruts made by vehicles much wider than our SUV’s. Although I think I could make it to the end, I doubt the other vehicles could. And, besides, we still seem to be a long way from deep forests, the place where we hope to find the birds missing from our trip list. We decide there must be a better way to spend Friday and return to camp for a late afternoon swim in the pool.
(Bert) The first American Pygmy Kingfisher flies by as we are climbing into kayaks. Joanie is delighted finally to see her nemesis bird and we see two more shortly thereafter. As we anticipated, Joe Taylor Creek is the place to find these tiny, brightly orange kingfishers. The second surprise is a flock of Cedar Waxwings flying over the marsh, the farthest south I have seen them and another addition to the list of locations we have found the erratic this year. The creek is narrow and deep, often the same in each dimension, about 20 ft. Smooth like mirrored glass, it takes no effort to paddle a few strokes and then drift silently while we search for birds in the mangroves. George is our guide. We pass his house, built on stilts and perched in the swamp at the edge of the creek. We scan his small yard for Gray-necked Wood-Rails and Clapper Rails, species he says he sees there almost every dawn and dusk. This time they are hidden. Western Slaty-Antshrike is another bird we are after and George soon tells us he hears its song. George whistles a response. In fact, he not only whistles the melody the slaty-antshrike is singing, but also four or five other melodies, all variations on a theme. The bird joyously responds, yet stays in the dense forest aligning the creek. The single monotone whistle of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet rings from high in the trees. Even I can imitate this one, although it isn’t the perfect copy that George whistles. The two of them whistle for a quarter mile along the creek. I wonder if the bird sees us; we surely cannot locate it. George recognizes the calls of other birds and converses with them with perfect imitations: Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Bright-rumped Attila, Thrush-like Schiffornis.
At a level and partially open side of the creek we climb out of the kayaks, pull them ashore and hike slowly through the forest. Slaty-Antshrikes are here and this time we get to see them close in the trees above us. Both the black male and the chocolate female sport spots on their wings, much like Dot-winged Antwrens, but these birds are larger. A schiffornis joins them, close enough for me to video. A Northern Bentbill calls. We work our way along the narrow path until we have circled back to the creek. George says we can continue on the other side if we can cross the creek by stepping across on the rocks. For the men it is not difficult, but the short stride women must make a too long step. We anticipate one of them might fall into the creek, so I want to get a photo of the action. Instead, as I try to find a suitable rock to stand on, I slip on mud and my shoe dips into the creek. I photograph each person as George grabs their arm and pulls them across in a single leap. None of them get wet.
We find a singing Thick-billed Seed-Finch, which sounds a lot like a White-collared Seedeater to me, a complicated joyous chorus. Hermits are also calling from the dense woods and we first think they must be Long-billed and then see they are Stripe-throated Hermits. We eventually reach a small opening in the forest and hear what we think is a Long-billed Gnatwren. While searching for the gnatwren we see Yellow-throated Euphonia and Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet. The gnatwren proves more elusive. After a long unproductive search, Nancy, who usually is my time keeper, says, “Wellllll, it’s time to go.” I look for George and see him at the forest edge when he waves to us to come quickly. The bird flies across the path and lands in a spot where we can all see it, then moves to another for an even better view of the Long-billed Gnatwren, an odd shaped tiny bird with an overlength bill and long cocked tail, a bird that often appears drab in dark forest shade, yet really is quite colorful in the bright light we see it in. This time it is good we didn’t heed Nancy’s suggestion. It’s a life bird for her and a lifetime good view for most of us.
(Shari) No one takes us up on the offer of breakfast in town so Bob and I drive to the mechanics shop instead. Our car is making a clanking noise every time we change gears and Tailgunner Bob wants to have it checked out. The mechanic says the U-joints look good and suspects it is the play in the disconnect. Later Bob compares the play in our disconnect with the play in Ray’s and ours has less so he is afraid it might be our differential. Gees, what next? He “thinks” we should make it home okay but…… Heck, we may not even make it home okay with our RV. Today is a lazy day until 4:30. Bert gives a wonderful talk on mixed flock feeding behavior. I think he should call it “integration at the dinner table.” Remember the “fly-in” I talked about when we went to Caracol a few days ago? That was a mixed flock and a really good one. Bert tells us why this happens, who is the leader, what kind of birds participate and which ones just happened to be present when the flock passed through. I really enjoyed the talk even though I lost interest in the fly in. Maybe if it had been cooler, less buggy, less humid and not raining I would have stayed longer. For dinner tonight I have made baked potatoes for the group and everyone signed up for a different topping. It was a success this summer for our Alaska caravan and is a success again tonight, if I say so myself.
(Bert) Within minutes after leaving the dock in Punta Gorda we add Sandwich Tern to our trip list. We head to the Gulf of Honduras just as the sun rises over the Caribbean and then head inland on the Moho River. At the river’s mouth the shore is lined with mangroves and here we find a perched American Pygmy-Kingfisher, a new bird for those that didn’t join us in the kayaking yesterday and a more prolonged, closer look for those that did. Ahead of us, over the river fly a few Chestnut-headed Oropendolas. The next good find is a pair of Prothonotary Warblers, our first for the trip and a species not easily seen in Belize. For fellow Texans Glenn and Iris - and I’m sure also for a few others – it is a life bird, even though they nest in East Texas. Mark says it is the 29th warbler species we have seen on the trip. We stop at Boon Creek Village and disembark to stretch our legs. Along the grassy shore a juvenile and an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron pick for food. The oversized birds look a lot like our bitterns and even “hide” the same way by stretching their bills and necks skyward, blending their striped bodies with blades of grass. A flock of Montezuma Oropendolas have erected hanging nests in a tall tree. Giant Cowbirds lurk beside them like vultures, and in this case they aren’t waiting for food but for a chance to deposit their eggs in the oropendola nests. In one of the fruiting trees, Mark finds a Bananaquit, the first for our Belize trip list, although we did see two in Palenque, Mexico, earlier. Brown-crested Flycatcher, distinguished by call and then features, gets added to Belize trip list too.
Back on the boat, Glenn makes a fantastic discovery. In a tall dead tree he notices one stubby branch that looks different. In fact, it is not a branch at all, but rather a Northern Potoo. Were it not for seeing its short hooked bill, you could easily mistake the bird for dead wood. Because we missed night birding on the New River when the boat broke down, we also missed our best chance to see the potoo. Our second best chance was at La Milpa during our night birding from the truck. Finding one by chance in the daytime is rare and, in fact, our boat captain Roberto says he has only seen a potoo once before on the river.
Our day list continues to grow and we decide to push for 100 species. By the time we break for lunch we have done so. At the new resort where we stop, Jim finds a euphonia which he describes to me a half hour later. His description is perfect for White-vented Euphonia, a bird I have not ever seen. Mark and I search for it briefly, not really expecting it still to be hanging around the same tree. Hopefully we will have chance at another Punta Gorda location tomorrow. We take our last break at the Mayan village of Santa Anna where the native women are washing clothes by pounding them on the rocks while standing waist deep in the river. We add a few more warblers to the day list and a Passerini’s Tanager. With the most intense heat of the day now upon us, Roberto propels the boat faster, turning on nature’s air conditioner. We see the potoo again, still on the same dead limb. We also watch a Gray-necked Wood-Rail feed on the shoreline. Finally again at the Gulf of Honduras we add Brown Pelican to the day list, ending with a remarkable 115 species from the boat or immediate shoreline. Back in our cars I ask Tailgunner Bob if he will stop at the police station. No, it’s not a legal problem. I want to see the few House Sparrows that hang out at the station. Roberto told me they came from Honduras, where they are common, and that for some reason they have not spread in Punta Gorda beyond the police station. It’s the first House Sparrows we’ve seen in Belize this year. In the evening when I gather reports from the two groups that did not join us on the boat, I combine lists and get a total of 148 species for the day in the Punta Gorda area.
(Shari) I am bored. I don’t have my STUFF, since R-Tent-III is in Silk Grass Village and I am in Punta Gorda, 100 mi. away. I alternate between reading a book, working on the computer and needlework but I am still bored. I walk outside to see if anyone is in camp. Everything is quiet. I go back to my book, finishing it just when Bert comes back with tales of a successful boat trip. We then go swimming and meet ten others at the pool. Do you know how hard it is to keep a beach ball up in the air? Finally we pass 10 successive hits and make it to 20 times before we decide to quit. We’ll never beat that record. I find a group playing bridge and another one playing Euchre in the dining area. I am taught Euchre and find it similar to 500. Pretty fun! At 5:30, the local Mayans in the village are making a barbeque for us and serving it around the pool. The money they raise will go towards buying a refrigerator for their store. The food is delicious and includes chicken, stew beans, coleslaw, flour tortillas, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, cake, molasses cookies and fruit drink. I am very full and do not go back for the seconds offered.
(Bert) Getting to George’s house is a bit tricky. He lives in a swamp along Joe Taylor Creek. He has no driveway and no sidewalk. Instead, a series of cracked and split planks supported on posts and old car tires zigzag from the road to his small house on stilts. Fiddler crabs crawl under the house; blue crabs with red claws feed in his front yard. Two puppies play with visitors. This morning George keeps his ferocious watch dog tied up to his car parked in the street, so that it doesn’t disturb us unduly. The reason we’ve come is to look for his yard birds, Clapper Rail and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, two birds I have not seen before in Belize, nor as anyone else in our group. As I’m balancing on the board walk, a small black bird scurries through the marsh. It looks like an oversized Black Rail. Ray and Nancy think it is a young chick since chickens are common household animals in many village yards. At the house and along the boardwalk our group waits for the daily morning appearance of the birds. After a long wait, I retrieve my iPod from the car and play a Clapper Rail recording. Two clappers loudly respond from the swamp behind the house. Well, at least we know they are here. Nothing happens for a long while, timekeeper Nancy is starting to get fidgety and tells me if we start to leave the bird will come. I hand George a list of the birds we most want to find today, so that he can choose where to bird. While we are discussing the list, a Clapper Rail calls from the opposite side of the creek. I find it with my binoculars; others cannot see through the mangrove snarls. It flies across to our side and we see it several more times moving through the low parts of the swamp. I even photograph it. While we are discussing our find and the missing Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, George explains that the wood-rail looks uniformly black, unlike the bird book illustrations and appears much smaller than the purported measurements. In fact, his description closely matches the little bird we dismissed too quickly as a chicken when we arrived. Besides, he doesn’t raise chickens.
We drive to a trail along the Rio Grande and again hear Western Slaty-Antshrikes. This time I have my recording equipment and I point my microphone toward George has he whistles his perfect repertoire of slaty-antshrike calls. As he finishes, I turn around and record the real bird calling its response. We hike into the tall forest, following a narrow tributary. A Yellow-olive Flycatcher comes close enough for me to take a rare flash photo, perhaps the only one I’ve ever taken of this species. I record a calling Stub-tailed Spadebill. When I catch up to the group, they are watching a Rufous Mourner, my first for the year, and this one selects a number of close perches so that we can study it, although the mourner doesn’t have much to look at, being a uniformly brown bird, several shades lighter than the similar Schifornis and a bit smaller than the similarly colored Rufous Piha. We complete our loop after a tedious climb up 200+ stairs to a fancy resort lodge newly named Machaca Hill – they are constructing a chair lift as we climb the stairs – that is positioned on 15,000 acres of resort land along the Rio Grande and Caribbean. While walking down the paved driveway, Iris sees the Golden-hooded Tanager on her want list.
After debating what to do next, we decide to chase after the Mallard that Cindy, Bob and Judy found and photographed yesterday. Mallards do not occur in the wild in Belize – in fact it is illegal to purchase or own a domestic one - so the origin of the pristinely plumaged and uncaged male Mallard is in question. We may have a first country record. Unfortunately, the location they found the duck is quite remote and it takes us over an hour to ramble through the bumpy country roads. We certainly begin to wonder about the logic of five carloads of birders chasing for hours to see a Mallard when most of us see hundreds or even thousands each year in the U.S. and Canada. The heat index today, according to the web weather forecast, is 112º. Staying in the air-conditioned car is better than standing in the hot sun. We reach the narrow creek where Bob photographed the Mallard, but it doesn’t take us long to see the duck is now up against the thatched house, accompanied by a few mixed breed Muscovy ducks and the owner of the house. Bob goes up to ask her about the Mallard. She tells him she bought it as a chick in Punta Gorda. So much for a new bird record for Belize! I guess we can say we contributed to the ornithology of Belize by sleuthing the origin of a purported first record.
We drive another hour, reaching Blue Creek still in the heat of the afternoon. We wait out the heat in the shade of trees along the mountain stream. By 3:30 the birds become more active. We catch glimpses of the white in the tail of a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, new to our trip list. Another hummingbird puzzles us for 20 min. as we watch it perched, first through binoculars and then George’s spotting scope. I even take digiscope photos. We conclude it is a female Green-breasted Mango or a female Violet-crowned Woodnymph, the only two reasonable Belize contenders. For other possibilities, I’ll need to study the photos when I retrieve my Costa Rica field guide still stored in R-Tent-III.
(Shari) I cannot sleep tonight. My mind buzzes with thoughts of broken radiators, cracked fans and differentials clanking. I pray hard that all goes well, and my prayer list is long: 1. the right part arrives, 2. the installation goes smoothly, 3. the part fixes the problem, 4. we make it back to the United States without any more incidents, and 5. the car holds together until Texas. I can’t stop thinking about it. Funny, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I could more or less function and put it out of my mind. Now as the time approaches to get answers, I am a nervous wreck. I am not in the best of moods and try to stay away from the “public.” This morning I have to go into town and get some groceries or I do not eat today, so we four hens and a rooster pile into Tailgunner Bob’s car and attend Saturday market. All the Mayans have their freshly picked produce spread on the side of the street. Each vendor has just about the same stuff and I wonder how anyone can make a living with all the competition. After we buy our fresh veggies and fruit, we go to the Seafront Inn for breakfast. We are back home by 9:30 when I do a load of wash and hang it up to dry. The rest of the day I mope, read, E-mail, and play Spider solitaire and FreeCell on my computer. At 4:30 Bert gives a hummingbird talk and we have margaritas along with our travel meeting.
(Bert) No place on earth that I’ve visited is quite like Aguacaliente Swamp. Last year I described it as a golf course. This year when I take others to it, they agree on the description. It’s the combination of vibrant yellow green grass, fresh as spring rain, and the flat pools of clear water edged by trees and then distant mountains that gives the designed appearance. Yet this is a wild place, reachable only after an arduous long hike – or at least it seems long when performed at a heat index of a hundred degrees. The first part is easy: an almost 2-mi. boardwalk suspended 3 ft. above the floodplain, surrounded by forest of 40-ft. trees that grow shorter as we approach the lagoon. We start at first light, hearing and some seeing a Black-faced Antthrush beside the boardwalk. A Muscovy wings noisily above the canopy. A Pale-vented Woodpecker hits its characteristic double-tap. The walkway ends at the lagoon where large flocks of Wood Storks rise to the sky, silently flapping their long white wings tipped in black. We rest from our walk, the high humidity already wearing us down only an hour after dawn.
Ray and Nancy stay back for boardwalk birding while George, Bearded Bob, Leonard, Bob #3, Judy and I continue hiking the lagoon border. A path of sorts meanders though the snarled brush and the hot weather has dried up most of the mud in the past few weeks. During the wet season we wouldn’t be able to reach the swamp by land, only by canoe, and later in the dry season it would be even hotter than it is today, so in that sense we have picked the best time to visit. A pygmy-kingfisher perches a dozen feet in front of us, allowing me a good photo of this tiny orange bird with its oversized bill. Out of nowhere Chuck appears, on another of his fast hikes. He asks which direction is the swamp and quickly disappears again. We trudge along slower, so that we can search the lagoon and borders for birds, finding mostly herons and egrets.
Chuck passes us again on his return. He says he got to the swamp, but his description sounds like the first grassy spot and not the large area we reach in another half hour. Here we see a thousand birds, including hundreds each of Great Egrets, Wood Storks, Neotropic Cormorants and Blue-winged Teal and smaller numbers the other herons - including two Black-crowned Night-Herons – dozens of Black-necked Stilts, 20-30 Killdeer and at least a half dozen Northern Waterthrushes. The best find – thanks to Leonard and his scope – is five early migrant Pectoral Sandpipers, my first for Belize and a life bird for local guide George. I walk across the expansive lime green floodplain of short grass, following the perimeter of the lagoon. About a half mile to the other end I search for a path through the thornbrush, finding none. I return along the brush side, picking up flycatchers and warblers along the way. Stirring a kettle, a mixed flock of a dozen large birds spirals up with the warm air currents. I see four Plumbeous Kites, two Wood Storks, two Osprey and several vultures rising higher and higher until it is hard to identify the species. When I meet up again with Leonard and George we look to the sky and this time see eight Plumbeous Kites at one time, easily identified by shape and their maroon wing patches. I hear one more Striped Cuckoo - the bird that was so hard for me to identify at the beginning of our Belize trip – making it ten cuckoos calling this morning during our hike.
By the time we wearily return to Judy’s car – to our amazement and a testament to her fortitude, Judy hiked all the way to the swamp and back – it is 12:20, over six hours of walking and birding, and I’ve consumed three and half bottles of water, sweating off all of it. Judy says she can mark that hike off her list of things to do. Bearded Bob and I agree it was easier than last year and I still think it is a fascinating place to see and experience.
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