Chapter 10. Central Belize
(Shari) Today is not one of my favorites on this trip. We cross into Belize this morning and after nine times of entering Belize from Mexico, it is never the same. I am awake early and sit one more time under the palapa to enjoy the sea breeze with my coffee and biscotti. Our departure is not until 8, late for us. I want to get to the border after 9 when the bosses are present.
I collect passports and tourist visas and after parking on the side of the road, walk three blocks to the border. There I find an official that speaks English and we exchange pleasantries as I try to butter him up to get the precious “doble entrada” stamp on our passports. At first he says it will cost 200 pesos per person. I politely tell him I have done this nine times and never have had to pay for it before. After awhile he shows me a piece of paper that I need and says without it, I will have to cancel my visas and get new ones when we return. I remember getting a piece of paper when we entered Mexico back in January and radio back to Bert to have everyone have theirs ready. I walk back and Pat helps me put the white paper inside its respective passport. I return the three blocks and give the passports back to the official. He now wants to see my guide visa. I need to have a guide visa to bring a group through Mexico. I tell him I have never had to before. We go around with this awhile and finally he says he wants to see all people individually. I call on the radio to have the group join me at the border. One by one he stamps our passports and we return to our rigs to cross the bridge out of Mexico.
In Belize, our first stop is fumigation. Here I write license plate numbers on a sheet of paper while each rig in turn is sprayed for pest control. After the last rig is through, I pay the bill receiving individual receipts for each vehicle. Our next stop is immigration where we officially are stamped into Belize. Then our vehicles have to get processed. This is a time consuming process as each vehicle is written in a log book by hand: name, passport number, VIN number, make, model, year, color, license plate are all laboriously entered on a ledger, sheets separated by carbon paper for copies. The same information is then written on a receipt and then again in our passports. Needless to say, all this takes time. Meanwhile an official corners me and says we have to pay for parking. Again I say we never had had to before and tell him I have no money and walk away. I think this is not the end of this. Our next step involves an agricultural inspection and we are informed we must pay $20 per vehicle for the inspection. Again I say, we have been here eight previous times and have never had to pay a fee. Bert wants to see the regulation in writing. We are taken to the office of the manager and he has the inspector find the regulation book. In the book it does mention inspection fees but for yachts and boats, but not cars and RV’s. He tells us it was a recent amendment. He lowers the price of the inspection to $10 for small units and $15 for large ones. That is better than the $20 per vehicle, but still seems silly. The inspector checks our vehicle first and looks in the refrigerator but finds only a cabbage that he can confiscate. He goes on to the next getting more and more lax as he goes down the line. Marlene cannot even give away her limes and sprouting potatoes by the time he reaches her. Next we move to another checkpoint where we again are boarded for the official to look for cigarettes, guns and liquor. He finds none and passes us through.
Our last step is insurance and this process is smooth since Bert had e-mailed all the vehicle information weeks ago. Our policies are all waiting for us and all we have to do is pay for them. I take 11 people to the grocery store and the rest follow Bert to find a place on the side of the road to wait for us. When we finish shopping, we find our group waiting on the shores of the Caribbean. We hook up and drive the final 100 mi. to our destination on Western Highway. We made it and we are to be welcomed into Belize with Piña Coladas. Larry had fixed the margarita maker and told me it may last five minutes or five years. It lasted five minutes. Darn! Our Piña Coladas are on the rocks tonight instead of slushy and Larry takes the margarita maker back to try another fix for our next social.
(Bert) Despite having negotiated dozens of border crossings, no two crossings are alike. Shari carefully explained the procedures last night and I prepared a step-by-step procedure to hand out. It changes at step 2 when Mexican officials ask for a form most of us have long since buried deep in our RV. It is a receipt of immigration payment that is a duplicate of the receipt stamped on our visas. Identically, both say we have paid, yet this time one is not enough; they want both. Another step changes in Mexico and two more steps change in Belize. Nonetheless, we are through the borders by 1 PM and done with insurance policies and grocery shopping by 2 PM, enough time to drive half the length of Belize by 4:45 and still enough time for our Piña Colada welcome to Belize. When we crossed the border I made note of what was the first bird I saw in the country, as I have other years. This time there is nothing exotic about it, as it is a Turkey Vulture, the second most often seen bird in Belize. Better though, during our party Yellow-headed Parrots and an Aplomado Falcon fly overhead.
(Bert) Noisy parrots are gathered in treetops and flying over when we arrive, mostly White-fronted and Red-crowned, as well as Olive-throated Parakeets. I park the car at the Sibun River and walk back to the favored trees: two tall, smoothly rounded trees spreading hundreds of branches and thousands of leaves, a dense canopy and subcanopy where birds feed intently. An overcast sky keeps us cool but dims lighting and we often cannot make out coloring on the birds. Birds are everywhere in the tree and we often are looking at different ones as we try to explain where a bird is perched. A favored find is the Yellow-billed Caciques, looking much like Melodious Blackbirds but with straw yellow bills. Lower, at eye level in the shrubs it is easier see the birds and I’m surprised when we find a Ruddy Woodcreeper and a Sepia-capped Flycatcher; the latter is not on the checklist I prepared from our own experiences, contacting others and a web search. For a relatively small tract of land, especially when considering the most birded area is only a quarter mile of road through an opening in the forest the checklist includes 268 species.
Someone asks me which bird is resting on bare branches on the top of a distant horizon tree. I see a round shape and pale blue color and announce male Blue Ground-Dove, which also fits the calling notes I recognize. The bird does not move, so we do not see other features, but when we get much closer it turns, lengthens in body and grows a longer tail. How could I be so wrong at first: I now recognize it as Plumbeous Kite which only matches my former identification in color.
At a fruiting tree we watch a dozen Clay-colored Thrushes and I notice two White-throated Thrushes among them. This is an exciting find for me, as I have never seen White-throated in Belize and even rearranged our Belize itinerary to increase my chances of seeing them at La Milpa. Also, White-throated Thrush is not on the bird list for Monkey Bay.
In search of seedeaters, we walk along the road toward bamboo stands, on the lookout for Blue Seedeater, a rarity in Belize that can be found here. I see a pair of Thick-billed Seed-Finches and at an opening in the forest we see two more. I hear a forest dove and am pretty sure it is Gray-chested Dove. To confirm, I play a recording on my iPod and I am quite surprised when the dove alights from the forest floor and briefly perches in front of us before flying back into the darkness.
Later when we are doing a bird count, Betty tells me she found a pair of Blue Seedeaters, male and female. And while I am giving a presentation on the ants, ant swarms and antbirds, Gordon and Maxine chose instead to revisit Monkey Bay and coincidentally they encountered an ant swarm, finding Gray-headed Tanager, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Northern Barred Woodcreeper and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner. They also found a male Blue Seedeater. Altogether we added three species to the Monkey Bay bird checklist and 87 species for the day.
(Shari) Sleeping was surprisingly cool last night. I meet Larry and Marlene at the restaurant for a delicious breakfast. Dee joins us after walking back early from birding. By noon it is beastly hot. Bert and I move R-Pup-Tent away from Jane and Ken since the only air conditioning they have is open windows and I do not think they would enjoy smelling the exhaust from our generator. The air conditioner barely keeps up and I find it cooler outside under Larry and Marlene’s awning when I go to play games at 2. We show Dee and Milo how to play Pegs and Jokers. Marlene and I whomp them pretty good. I just hope they forget about it by trip’s end. Ha!
(Bert) I had known about the tilapia farm from birding reports by others, but only had a vague idea of where it was. So, many months ago I used Google Earth to find the ponds, recognized the roads and yesterday drove to the site to get permission to bird there this morning. We are immediately struck by the sheer number of birds we can see: hundreds of Blue-winged Teal, dozens of Wood Storks and Neotropic Cormorants, 18 Great Blue Herons standing on a few dredge mounds and many more elsewhere, hundreds of Great Egrets, small flocks of Least Sandpipers and 10-15 Spotted Sandpipers. In smaller quantities we find Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, a Willet, Green Heron and Little Blue Herons. Overhead fly Gray-breasted Martins, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Mangrove Swallows and Tree Swallows. An Osprey flies past us with a fish in its talons. A cormorant arises from below the water, carrying a fish broadside in its bill. A large flock of dowitchers circles the ponds several times, coming in for a landing, but soon taking off again. From their soft “tu tu tu” calls given in flight I suspect they are Short-billed. A real surprise is one American Avocet, a species I have not seen in Belize before. After careful inspection of the huge teal flock, I pick out one male and three female Ring-necked Ducks. In the wooded peripheral I can hear a Collared Forest-Falcon and flocks of Red-lored and White-fronted parrots.
We head in another direction, toward the more active tilapia ponds and a worker tells us Jabirus are on the opposite end. Too far to walk in the time we have available, we get back into our cars and drive. In a mixed flock we see hundreds of Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets and Tom finds a flock of Black-necked Stilts. And there stands a Jabiru, a giant amongst its peers.
(Shari) We only have 40 mi. to travel, so depart after lunch. I notice quite a few new buildings in and near San Ignacio. Tourism must be good. Too bad they don’t fix the pot holes and the eroding shoulders in the road. As we turn into the campground, we notice the forest next door has been leveled. Gone is our shade and I bet lots of the birds we used to see at this campground. Our groups arrive 30 min. apart to enable us to dump our tanks before parking. I realize that tomorrow is Sunday and the laundries may not be open so Bert goes around inquiring who has wash while I bag our dirty clothes. Jane and Paul are the only ones to accompany me to the laundry before returning for our social.
(Bert) The day starts with four Blue-crowned Motmots calling from different directions and it gets better. We carpool to Baking Pot Ferry and wait for the operator to bring the ferry barge to our side of the Belize River. One by one, three vehicles drive up the planks and on to the ferry, filling available length and leaving Jim’s car for the next trip. The shirtless young man turns the wheel geared to a flywheel which pulls us across on a stretched cable. A Green Kingfisher wings low to the water, a Lineated Woodpecker taps noisily on a riverside tree, a large flock of Bronzed Cowbirds spread as dark blotches on a distant leafless tree. On the opposite side we wait for Jim’s car, then find the birding so good we stay for a half hour and tally 37 species, including a pair of Green-breasted Mangos, flocks of parrots and a calling Collared Forest-Falcon.
A few miles in the direction of Spanish Lookout I see a hawk in a lone tree in a grassy pasture. I’m quite sure it is a Red-tailed Hawk – confirmed later through the scope – that I want to stop. This non-migratory hawk is not easy to find in Belize, especially in lowlands. While watching the hawk we see the back side of a pigeon and through the scope most think it is Short-billed Pigeon, but I don’t want to accept that because it is out of habitat, although I must admit that from the back side its coloring and bill certainly seem to fit. Eventually it takes flight and perches facing us. Now it is obviously a Pale-vented Pigeon. Before we leave this spot we see a pair of Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, a species I have trouble separating from female Ruddy and Common. This time it is easy with both male and female side by side, probably my most convincing look at this species.
As we pass through Spanish Lookout we notice everything is closed on Sundays, including Western Dairies where we hoped to get ice cream on our return. We see dozens of Fork-tailed Flycatchers and a few Scissor-tails as we drive through the Mennonite farmlands. Strangest is a fence line of Barn Swallows so out of plumage they are barely recognizable. At Aguacate Lagoon we spend a lot of time studying a Slaty-tailed Trogon and then watch a Black-headed Trogon. A young man showing his girlfriend a shotgun makes booms so loud that the birds frighten and we head on beyond the forested lagoon, through recently cleared land under new cultivation and continue to a secondary forest and then a patchwork of primary forest. When I visited this forest two years ago the farmers were busy cutting down huge trees. Now I see more of the older mature trees have been removed and there are many new side 2-tracks leading into the forest, presumably for more removal of trees. We find Gray Catbird and White-collared Seedeater, species that are not primary forest residents. After a half hour of birding, most leave, perhaps because birding has become dull. Tom, Charlu, Gordon, Maxine, Ken and I remain to check out one of the logging roads. We again hear the Rufous Piha we heard earlier and this time it is closer, so we follow the sound, seeing it take flight once and disappear again. We hear the piha crying periodically throughout the next hour, often close by, but not in sight. What I do hear and see, though, is several Green Shrike-Vireos, one of the prettiest birds in Belize. Much more often heard then seen, it feeds in the sunshine of the canopy where its green and yellow feathers dissolve into fresh foliage. Found in dense forests, it is nearly impossible to see from below because of 80 ft. of intervening leaves. Here, though, where the logging roads cut out the adjoining tree we have a clear view to the top.
The good birding keeps us much longer than we anticipated and when we finally leave we drive directly to the ferry and beyond, in search of the Crested Caracara that has been seen the past two years in this area. Driving slowly, we do not see it. We turn the corner onto the Western Highway and continue searching. When Maxine spots a Limpkin we pull off to the side. We have Running W Farm on both sides and a marshy area where we see Wilson’s Snipe, Northern Jacana, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. Not finding the caracara, Gordon takes off in the car with Maxine and me. Within a minute we hear Tom on the radio, telling us he has the caracara in sight but needs a scope. We double back quickly, I set up my scope and sure enough, it is the Crested Caracara on a dead tree far out in the field. This is my first sighting for Belize as the species has only been documented in the country since 2000 at two or three other locations (probably single occurrences) and only at this location since 2007 on a somewhat regular basis. Perhaps there are only two Crested Caracaras in the country and we just saw one of them.
(Bert) San Ignacio is asleep when we pass through the empty streets at 5:30 AM. A bicyclist pedals in Santa Elena and three workers stand at a bus stop in Georgeville, each carrying a sheathed machete hanging from a belt like a saber. Turning the corner on to Hummingbird Highway the sun rises on the horizon. The gracefully curving highway slides past orange groves – more extensive than two years ago – lying in the flatter valleys, the steeper foothills still clothed in dense stands of cohune palms and broadleaf forest. Arriving at Blue Hole, we find the gate still locked and the drivers park their cars across the highway on a side road. The forest sings with the steady beat of Violaceous Trogon, the muted “mot-mot” of Blue-crowned Motmot, the isolated drum beat of Blue Ground-Dove, the chatter of Black-headed Saltators, the chorus of “It feels so good” performed by Short-billed Pigeons and the more complicated counter melodies of Dusky Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrushes and Barred Antshrikes.
The rising sun goes into hiding as dark clouds close in on us and we have barely started birding when the rains come. We seek shelter under a sturdy roof covering a concrete table at the parking lot and others find another sheltered picnic table near the pit toilets. The rainstorm is brief, perhaps 10 minutes, and we begin birding anew. I follow the call of a Dusky Antbird and play its song when we are gathered on the trail tunneling into the dense understory. The antbird comes to us to investigate: in dark shadows a dark bird with a few dots of white light on its wings. Later at that same spot Gordon discovers an Orange-billed Sparrow and we rush to join him, just in time to see of these colorful sparrows with bills so bright they seem illuminated. For shy birds, the two sparrows are surprisingly close to us and they seem larger than I recall from previous sightings. I wish I was carrying my camera.
The darkened sky adds little light to the densely treed picnic area. Jill draws my attention to a perched bird directly above us, describing it as having a long, thin bill. From this angle it looks like a black hardball with a black pencil sticking out of it. I step aside for a more lateral view and recognize a Rufous-tailed Jacamar. The rains come again and we hustle to the picnic table shelter, crowding closely together. This time the rain pours more persistently. A Wood Thrush seems oblivious to the water hitting its feathers and continues its feeding behavior. When the rains subside, an Ovenbird walks nearby. I lead the group to the Blue Hole, descending the steps to the deep cenote and underground river. Above us I hear the unmistakable song of a Nightingale Wren. The off tune whistler alternates verses with my iPod, often changing position in the trees, but not venturing closer or in sight. It seems to delight in the music contest and sings verse after verse. When we move to the parking lot at the other entrance, another Nightingale Wren serenades us, but we still cannot see the singer.
Walking the trail to St. Herman’s Cave, the forest is unusually quiet of bird songs. Perhaps the prolonged rains and continued darkness have dampened their spirits. When we break into a bit of sunlight at a patch of Tiger’s Claw a Purple-crowned Fairy feeds anxiously, right before our eyes. Just as we reach the start of the short uphill climb to the cave, Gordon quietly draws our attention to an owl perched on a broad tree limb above the cave entrance. In perfect frontal view, a Spectacled Owl stares back at us. Paul and I quickly take photos and Charlu retreats to call those that turned back on the trail too soon. They get back in time to see the unmoving owl. I’ve heard but not seen a Spectacled Owl in Belize and I’ve seen two of them in El Salvador, but this is by far the best view I’ve had. Maxine uses the radio to reach Mike and Jill who are back at the parking lot. They tell us they will come the quarter mile to see the owl. Meanwhile a guide leads two young people toward us and we motion them to be quiet and then show them the owl with the spectacled eyes. One of them takes out a 35 mm camera for a snapshot that undoubtedly will show an undifferentiated forest and a dot where the owl rests. We ask them to wait before entering the cave and they stay for awhile and then 30 sec. before Mike and Jill arrive they start up the short hill anyway, scaring the owl off. Paul relocates the owl at a much more distant spot and after a couple of minutes of directions Mike sees it too and takes a photo through his 400 mm lens. Had I only seen one bird today, it being the Spectacled Owl, I would judge this as an outstanding birding day.
(Shari) Five of us meet the birders at Caesar’s for lunch and shopping. Caesar’s is the best gift store I have found in Belize. It has beautiful wooden bowls and sculptures, wonderful Guatemalan printed materials made in table cloths, runners and placemats, ceramic pots and games and some T-shirts. But it is definitely upscale and too much for my budget. Where would I put a carved coffee table anyway? The birders dribble in at various times. Jim, Betty, Val and Milo even beat us, since the rain drove them away from birding. I have a great American lunch: hamburger and fries with beer to wash it down. I told my table mates that I might buy the napkin holders sold at the gift shop and Ken said he would make me one. All I needed was the lumber. Milo told us about a scrap pile 100 yd. down the path. I give my bill to Bert to pay, telling the waitress that I am a kept woman. Then Ken upgrades me to trophy wife, when the waitress does not know what a kept woman is. Ken and I got off in search of wood. We find some scrap pieces that one man says we can take and another says we have to ask at the gift store. I tell the clerk that the pieces come from the scrap pile and a man said we could have them. I did not lie and so she said okay. On our way back, driving with Ken and Jane, we stop at the Running W to buy meat, Three Flags to buy ice cream for the group (Dee and Jane are going to treat us for Fat Tuesday tomorrow) and sausage rolls at La Poplar Bakery. Dee and Milo sit under the palapa and we join them at 5:30. Soon most of the group is out here having a bird count. Here Dee and Milo thought they were going to have peace and quiet on a rare free night. This group is too social for that.
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