Chapter 11. Coastal Belize
(Bert) My favorite drive in Belize, Hummingbird Highway has an enchanting name although not apposite. It could more correctly be named Palm Highway or Tropical Highway or, in more recent times, Orange Grove Highway. Winding through the northern foothills of the Maya Mountains, a lazy serpentine of gentle curves and mild uplifts and downhills, the smoothly paved road penetrates palm jungles and fruit laden orchards. Everywhere we see a sea of green, undulating hillsides, tightly woven vegetation, native and introduced, vibrant with fresh rains. We pass Blue Hole and on the left perches a Gray Hawk on the same wire I have found it many successive years.
For the entire length of Hummingbird Highway, we follow a tank truck prominently lettered “Crude Oil”. Shari read in a local paper that oil was discovered at Spanish Lookout and six wells gush high quality crude. The truck carries its precious cargo to a port off the Southern Highway and, I’m told, ships carry it to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. Passing us in the opposite direction we count five more tank trucks.
We arrive at the technical school, ITVET, just before 3:30 and wait a few minutes for yellow school buses to leave the parking lot that we will use as camp the next six days and nights. We meet Stansmore, the new manager who started this past fall and he tells us about the flood that brought the water level to 8 ft., swamping the classrooms up to the light switches, leaving over 2 ft. of sticky silt and destroying a million dollars (U.S.) of electrical equipment used in the classrooms. Later, Derek elaborates more, explaining that it was a freak tropical storm coming from the Pacific Ocean side, carrying immense quantities of rain that inundated the mountainsides, overflowing the rivers in a rush to the sea. At the inappropriate time of 3 AM, it caught Dangriga unawares, forcing them to their rooftops and carrying others in currents strong enough to rip off clothing. Except for an absence of decorative vegetation the school grounds seem to have recovered and the buildings have been cleaned and school is in session, albeit without the technical tools necessary for the intended training.
(Shari) If we take a break along this route, I think the vines will start to grow over my feet. In the two years since I have been along the Hummingbird Highway, I have forgotten its beauty. Driving in and amongst the foothills to the mountains of Belize reminds me a lot of Costa Rica: thick, lush jungle forest of palms and vines. Green is everywhere I look. Some small towns punctuate the landscape but mostly the area has few people. We follow an oil tanker truck most of the way. This is a new thing. Oil has been discovered near Spanish Lookout and besides the tanker in front of us, we count five going in the opposite direction. Later we learn that the country gets 50% of the profits. I wonder if that is the reason I see so much new fancy construction.
Since the area experienced a devastating flood on June 1 of last year, I do not know what to expect upon our arrival. Will we have electricity? Is the school open? Will there be guards at the gate? Will the water run? Is it still a muddy mess since I understand the water lever reached 12 feet after 18 inches of rain? We are met by the new manager of the school and are pleasantly surprised at the facilities. All the scrubs and trees are gone and the parking lot is no longer clean gravel but mixed with ground, but the buildings look freshly painted - they had been cleaned - and school is in session. We have to wait for 10 min. for the school buses to depart before we can begin the parking process. By 5 we are gathering to learn about our schedule while here. Our free day has transformed into a Marie Sharp factory tour, visiting a school to drop off the children’s books we brought with us and a LEO. Debbie, Derek, William and Vanessa join our group and tell us a little about themselves. We have known them for nine years and Debbie was instrumental in our first visit and Derek had much to do with subsequent visits since he instigated the facilities for us here at the school. We enjoy seeing them every year and notice the progress of their kids. William is a 2nd year student in high school, enjoying math and science and Vanessa is 8 years old. I remember passing her around to hold when she was a baby. Sid, a guest that year, especially enjoyed her. Jane and Dee treat us to ice cream after our social. No need for supper tonight. I still have four meals in the freezer from Texas.
(Bert) Early morning heavy showers subside by our 5:30 AM departure time for Red Bank, but it is still heavily overcast when we arrive an hour later. I go in search of Pablo and meet a young lady who says she will call him; I later find out she is his daughter. In the meantime, through the spotting scope we study two Plumbeous Kites perched on the crest of the hillside back of the Maya village. When Pablo arrives, he tells us the macaws sometimes do not appear under these weather conditions and agrees to lead us to the area anyway.
Past rains heavily damaged the red dirt road around the foothills, so the government brought in equipment to repair and widen it. Still dirt and still steep, more recent rains have cut furrows in the low spots, but we are able to drive much farther than we have other years, stopping at the little creek where we usually started birding. Now, though, the narrow footpath is ten times wider and cornfields and black bean fields extend where forest once was dense and penetrable only with machete. In fact, most of the flat lowlands now have been converted to milpa farming, leaving the forested hillsides still intact. Pablo has been working for years at getting the government to designate the area as a national park and he still remains hopeful that it will happen.
The rains come as we are walking. Out come umbrellas and raincoats. We continue down the path in the rain and then through rows of corn until we reach a thatched palapa with open sides where we stand and watch the downpour. Gordon and Maxine see a bedraggled bird at the edge of the field, its breast and belly feathers pinched into dark vertical streaks and making it hard to recognize as Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. On the hillside, Betty spots a White Hawk waiting out the rain from the limb of a canopy tree. When the downpour has settled into at thin drizzle, the hawk stretches its terminally banded tail and black-tipped wings and leaps from its perch, commencing a low, slow effortless glide into the valley.
Pablo hears Scarlet Macaws and far in the distance the big birds fly toward fruiting trees. He explains that around December 1 a few macaws come to Red Bank to check out the fruiting condition of the Quamwood and Polewood trees, returning with the flock about mid December. They stay while the food supply lasts, usually to the end of March. I ask Pablo where the macaws roost at night. He says he does not know but has tried to find out. Once he hiked for two days in the direction the macaws fly, but did not find the place. Since his hike was through the jungle where there is no trail and he has to use a machete the whole trip, I asked him how far he hiked in two days. He says about 7 or 8 mi.
A Great Tinamou calls in the distance, only a very few birds are moving and, hiking back in light rain, we see distant macaws again, but most of the group have had enough of rain birding and head back in their cars. Later I hear John’s vehicle has trouble climbing the slippery dirt road and three push the car uphill. On the other side of the mountain they get a rewarding close-up view of several macaws. Meanwhile, interrupted frequently by showers, Tom, Charlu and I follow Pablo to the Swasey River. Here, too, the forest has been replaced by cornfields to the delight of hundreds of Variable Seedeaters, White-collared Seedeaters and Blue-black Grassquits. On a sparse shrub I find a Philadelphia Vireo and ask Pablo if he has ever seen that species. He says no. At the river, amongst the black boulders are four white birds standing together, one each of Snowy Egret, Great Egret, White Ibis and juvenile Little Blue Heron. In a remnant patch of forest a Stripe-throated Hermit returns several times to the same perch, so I take a couple of photos.
On the way back to his village, Pablo tells me about his correspondence with Birder’s Exchange of the American Birding Association. Several years ago on one of our visits Cindy and Bob delivered binoculars and a birding book to Pablo, who had neither at that time. Pablo wrote Birder’s Exchange thanking them for the gifts and asking for three pairs of binoculars to teach local children about birds and protecting their precious macaws. ABA sent the binoculars and in June 2007 they asked him to e-mail photos of the children using the binoculars and told him the website where the photos would be posted. We live in two different worlds: one where technology is taken for granted and another where it just barely exists. Pablo does not have an e-mail address, does not have a computer, cannot connect to the Internet, has not looked at a web site, nor has anyone else in Red Bank Village. His one-room house is plank board and thatched roof without a floor or door. Only once has he seen other parts of Belize when he accompanied a school busload of kids on a 1-day tour that, remarkably, included Caracol, the dam in Mountain Pine Ridge, Spanish Lookout, Crooked Tree, Altun Ha and Belize International Airport. I ask Pablo to get his children, Jones’s Birds of Belize, his binoculars and I will take digital photos. He comes back with his daughter and three sons, all younger. Tom and I lend them our binoculars for the photo – since he has already given the others away – and I take photos of the five of them watching birds in a nearby tree. I also give reading books to each of the children, from one child who has not yet learned to read to two that are in high school. The oldest girl is quick to select the one with the most text. I will e-mail the photos to Birder’s Exchange.
Some days I have little to write and others too much. On the way back we stop at tall piles of orange rinds dumped by the juice factory trucks next to a small pond created by excess rain. While we study the Blue-winged Teal, yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper and hundreds of Least Sandpipers, a car pulls up from across the highway and Corwin asks, “Aren’t you the person I fixed the radiator for two years ago?” I immediately recognize him and we talk about the demise of Croc O’dile Isle where we parked the motor home while we waited for a radiator fan from the U.S. Corwin offers to take us there. Croc O’dile Isle went out of business last year, sold off its assets and is now abandoned, although one of the crocodiles resisted capture and happily dominates its own pond near the parking lot. The 100 acres lies within Commerce Bight Preserve and the sale was granted because the Croc O’dile Isle was also to be a preserve. Who knows what will happen if a resale occurs. So little of these lowland littoral forests still exist along the Belize coast. Most of it is virtually inaccessible or has been replaced by resorts, fancy housing developments and beaches. Historically, Commerce Bight has supported many bird species not easily found in this central coastal part of Belize, such as the Northern Bentbill we hear calling during our walk. Corwin agrees and would like to see it preserved. We wish Belize Audubon Society would consider acquiring the property.
(Shari) Our intention is to come right home after arranging our Marie Sharp Factory tour and LEO for Friday. I had e-mailed the factory but never got a response. Now the girl manning the gift store said she received the e-mail. Why did they not respond to me? Typical Belize. So Larry, Marlene and I trudge out there to confirm the tour. I then buy my gift items so as not to contribute to the crowd buying after our tour. We head to the laundry and confirm the hours of operation: 7-7, 7 days a week. Then to the restaurant where I learn Ronnie has sold the place and now has a diner called Octopus Garden in Hopkins Village. Next stop is Pelican Beach to get information on snorkeling for Ken and Jane. It smells so good when we arrive that we decide to eat lunch on the deck overlooking the sea. I have a really good egg and bacon sandwich and Marlene and Larry have the carrot soup. Now we decide to drive to Hopkins Village. The road has been damaged by all the rains and by the time we travel only half way down the potholed bumpy gravel road, I decide this will never work for a LEO. I do want to say hello to Ronnie though and see her baby boy. I am told she will be right down from the upper story where she lives and cooks for the café. She never comes and after about 20 min. we leave. If the road had not turned me off of having a LEO there, her lack of response would have. We then drive the road to Mama Noots where we had a LEO two years ago. Again I don’t remember the road as being so terrible and before we even get to the restaurant, we turn around. I guess it will be Riverside Cafe for our LEO even if I cannot vouch for the food. I get home not much before Bert does. I hear tales of rain and mud and pushing John and Janice’s car up a slippery hill. But most important, the Scarlet Macaw and Keel-billed Toucan were seen. We close the day with a social outside. The rain may dampen birding but it keeps the temperature down to manageable.
(Bert) One of the forest doves, those that can be identified by call but are hard to see walking through the densely entangled roots and plants of the forest floor, is slowly retreating on the gravel entrance road near the administration building. I align my scope on the bird and several get a close look at a Gray-chested Dove before it rounds the curve. We barely get started in our walk around the dormitory and dining hall when I hear the rain splattering on distant forest canopy leaves. The sound advances and we duck under the covered porch just before the downpour reaches us. Twenty minutes later we venture out again, hearing and then seeing a pair of Blue Ground-Doves perched in a Cecropia bough - pale blue-gray male and dusky brown female. A White-winged Becard makes a brief appearance. We continue down one of the trails, enduring occasional sprinkles. I hear Piratic Flycatcher at many places, but this year I cannot see them in the canopy. Variable Seedeaters are common, especially in the grass. I see a slightly larger black bird feeding atop the Combretum vines and we get a good view – and good photo – of a Thick-billed Seed-Finch. Overhead flies a juvenile Black Hawk-Eagle. We turn a corner on the trail and a Gray-necked Wood-Rail is in the grassy path. Anxious for a good photo, Mike hustles down the trail in pursuit of the walking bird. We turn toward the river on the Wari Loop and see a guan in a Quam: three Crested Guans in the Quamwood tree that is just beginning to show its yellow blooms. After waiting out rainstorms twice more and photographing Boat-billed Herons, we return to the parking lot. While we eat lunch, a Gray Catbird and an Ovenbird beg to be photographed, willing to pose within 8 ft. of the lens.
Most of the birders have already departed; Gordon, Maxine, Mike and Jill are willing to try one more trail, but when the rains come again they head back too. That leaves Tom, Charlu and me to wait out the heaviest of the downpour and then continue in lighter rain, hiking uphill to the waterfalls and eventually Ben’s Bluff. With no rain birds to stall us, we reach the falls in a half-hour and then begin the more rigorous uphill climb to Ben’s Bluff, passing tree ferns, broadleaf forest and then opening to dense ferns below scattered pine trees. Midway along the trail of ferns I see a kite fly to the apex of a tall, thin tree trunk. I take a photo and keep walking, taking more photos as I get closer. The Gray-headed Kite ignores us hikers as we pass by below. Now an hour into our afternoon hike we see more pines showing evidence of a past fire and an understory so dense in vibrantly yellow-green ferns it would take a machete to pass amongst them. We reach the top of Ben’s Bluff and thrill to the view of Cockscomb Basin. Not a road, not a building, not anything manmade is in sight. Even with the overcast skies and the foreshortened horizon, we can see Outlier (elev. 1920 ft.) and many other mountains and ridges, although Victoria Peak (elev. 3675 ft.) is out of sight in the clouds. The rain has stopped and a cool breeze sweeping over the bluff cools the rainwater and sweat from our clothes. Another – the same? – juvenile Black Hawk-Eagle soars below us and a couple of Turkey Vultures. Far in the distance on another ridge we hear a roar, not a Howler, not a jaguar, but I’m not sure the source. Closer, a Great Tinamou calls hauntingly. A single White-crowned Parrot wings over the canopy. All else is still and peaceful.
We begin the descent, much easier down than up. In a small cluster of pines I see a Rufous-capped Warbler, a species that occurs at higher elevation, but not below. The Gray-headed Kite has not left its perch and I take more photos because the lighting is better now. We stop at the waterfall and watch it plunge with fresh rainwater, and then continue downhill, stopping only for a Blue-crowned Motmot and to hear a Thrush-like Schiffornis reverberate through the jungle.
Before we leave I check at the visitor’s center about a sighting a hiker told me about. The staff member confirms the story: yesterday someone floating down the river on an inner tube saw a flock of 20-25 Scarlet Macaws fly overhead, a sighting by the local checklist that does not occur annually. Back on Cockscomb’s entrance road our car passes a Roadside Hawk and when we stop a second one flies toward it. I suspect it will push the other from its perch and, instead, it lands on its back and copulates in seconds and flies off to another tree. We stop once more for me to photograph a Keel-billed Toucan and then are on the Southern Highway. In a flash of yellow we see a bird collide with the windshield and we stop immediately. We had been looking for a dead bird for a prop for Tom’s talk on bird flight and now we have a fresh specimen. Expecting a meadowlark or a Social Flycatcher, we are surprised when the bird turns out to be a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I never knew the axillaries were bright yellow. Later at 5 PM social, Tom demonstrates the flight feathers of the grosbeak, comparing it to soaring birds and explaining how a bird flies and the purposes of the various wing and tail feathers.
(Shari) A nice SOB (Spouse of Birder) day, we first visit the Marie Sharp factory. As many times as I have heard the story, I still learn something new. In 1981 an American asked Marie to plant him some habanera peppers. As peppers do, they proliferated and the American would not take them all. Not wanting them to rot, she made some sauce. It was good, so she made more. People asked her to make it hotter, so she did. Others wanted it still hotter. She bottled the sauce, took it to a Belize City street corner and gave away free samples. Now she ships all over the world, including the United States and has a line of products that include the sauces, jams, concentrated fruit drinks and new since the last time of our visit, corn chips. The cash register sings as our group makes their purchases.
After lunch we take the children’s books we brought with us to a school in Dangriga. The kids are so polite and stand to attention and in unison say “Good afternoon”. The kids line up on the steps of the 10x14 ft. building used for the library, each student holding a book for us to take group pictures. This is the eighth year we have brought books with us, and hopefully have made a significant impact on a least nine schools. We also gathered up some clothing to give to Debbie so that she can distribute it to the needy. If we had known what was needed, I am sure we could have brought more. Most of us are traveling poor and light.
At 4:30 we head to Pelican Beach Resort for drinks and popcorn. To many in out group it is a pleasant surprise to find such a picturesque resort on the Caribbean in a rather poor town. After soaking in the atmosphere and the sea breeze, we stagger our departure from the resort so as not to overwhelm Riverside Café. Unfortunately, even staggered, the restaurant staff cannot keep up and actually loose John, Janice and Charlu’s order. John is ready to go home, until Janice tells the owner to just give him something that is the quickest. Mind you this is about 90 min. after we arrived. Luckily some of the time was spent listening to and later dancing to the African-influenced Garifuna music performed by three young men singing, playing drums and shaking gourds with seeds inside. The beat of the drums hurts those with hearing aids and I have a difficult time trying to keep the strumming soft. “You too will get old and need a hearing aid”, I tell the young leader and he laughs. He does have personality though and explains the instruments, dances, sings and gets us to participate in moving our feet, shaking our booty, raising our arms and bending our knees lower and lower. Soon over 15 of us are parading around the small restaurant keeping our own time to the beat and Americanizing the steps to suit us older folk. Too bad the service was so poor or it would have been a perfect day. Happily, though, the management gives free lemon pie with the three delayed orders.
(Bert) Like most other Belize schools, Solid Rock Christian Academy is run and financed by a local church with teacher’s salaries paid by the government. This one charges a small tuition of $55 BZ ($27.50 US) per month and additional funds are raised by the church. Solid Rock is where we take this year’s load of children’s books, a program we started on our second trip to Belize in 2002. We have over 400 books this year, bringing our total well over 8000 through the years. After unloading the boxes in a temporary building all of the school kids gather and we photograph them holding books. The principal tells us more about their school, which has been ranked the 5th best in the country in standardized tests and now after graduating its fourth class of eighth-graders can boast that all of them went on to high school. Then we head to Derek’s high school where he teaches Industrial Woodworking and Drawing. Derek is quite proud of the work he does and the students’ accomplishments. He shows us the stools the students are making for classrooms and an electrical saw table that would cost US$1000 in the U.S., but is more than twice that by the time they can get one to Belize. The schools struggle financially and his department has needs only exceeded by the computer labs, so Derek is always on the lookout to “beg, borrow and steal” tools and equipment for the classroom.
I head into the village in search of an Internet café to send e-mail. I’m walking along the canal street at Riverside Café when I hear, “Hello, Mr. Bert”. Looking up I see Norlan, the boat captain who took us to the barrier reef and up the Sittee River annually 2002-05 until he separated from his wife and moved out of the area. I ask him, “Did you move back to Dangriga?” He answers, “Yes”. I ask, “Are you married again?” He smiles and says, “Yes”. I ask, “To Aurora?” He smiles deeper and says, “No”. I tell him I talked to his mother-in-law a few years ago and learned about what happened to his boat. Now he tells me he has two more boats, both smaller, and that he is helping in research for an American university. They are radio tagging sharks at Glover’s Reef and tracking how far the sharks travel.
In my e-mail I learn that the pair of Crested Caracaras at Running W just fledged two young, so on Day 40 we saw one of four caracaras in the country. I see that part of my journal for Day 29 has been posted to MexBirds, following a discussion about the difficulty of finding Pink-headed Warbler. And, President Obama sent me an e-mail – along with a few million others in his address book – that he has submitted his budget to Congress. And, in regards to Day 12, that scientists now confirm the Monarchs from east and west populations mix in Mexico, whereas it was previously thought the two groups stayed separated during migration.
My notes from five years ago say I paid US$4.08 for regular gasoline, then the highest price in Mexico or Central America. Now it is only US$2.805.
(Bert) Six of us – Paul, Mike, Jill, Tom, Jim, Betty and I – are the early risers, departing at 4:30 AM to search for owls at Mayflower Bocawina. We reach the Maya ruins area by 5 and as we are putting on our birding gear, Tom hears an owl. I listen. A Black-and-white Owl calls from the direction of Mama Noots. In the dim beam of small flashlights on a moonless morning we walk along the muddy road, avoiding water puddles. I think the owl is much closer than it actually is, but each time we stop to get a sound bearing the hoots are still distant. Finally, at the edge of the spacious lawn at Mama Noots the owl is within a few dozen feet in the canopy at the wooded edge. I try to tempt it to come within sight, using my iPod recording. Instead, it goes silent and unseen.
We walk back to the Maya site as the first stray slivers of light feed grayness into our blackened surroundings. A Common Pauraque calls from the distant darkness. We stand in the grassy area surrounded by uncovered temples. To the north a Collared Forest-Falcon begins its mournful morning plea for help. To the south, nearby, a Bright-rumped Attila pours out its colorful song. We isolate the large tree from which it sings and in the dim morning light we peer into its sparsely leafed boughs, trying to source the incessant melody. Even after a 10-minute search we cannot see the Attila. A Barred Forest-Falcon gives a brief bark and a Clay-colored Robin begins a lengthy chorus, accompanied by the double-notes of two Blue-crowned Motmots. It is 5:55 AM, when a Lineated Woodpecker starts to work on a tree limb, or so we hear. Activity awakens and we hear in succession Black-faced Antthrush, Violaceous Trogon, Gray Catbird, the double-tap of Pale-billed Woodpecker, Olive-throated Parakeets, Short-billed Pigeon and Spot-breasted Wren. At 6:15 I see my first birds, a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers, but it continues as mostly heard-only birds for the next 15 min.: Blue Ground-Dove, Masked Tityra, White-bellied Wood-Wren, Great Kiskadee, Scaled Pigeon.
Single file, we take the birding trail through the former banana plantation, now heavily overgrown. I suggest to Jill that she take the lead so she can be the first to see a Little Tinamou I suspect hunts here. Later she thinks my reversed role was so she could clear the path of spider webs built overnight. We hear a Little Tinamou and I even play an iPod selection, yet it keeps its distance. A Black-faced Antthrush calls not far to our left. I play the first few notes of its song and it immediately flushes, wings whish past our ears, flashing a blur of rufous and black before our eyes, and flies deep into the forest on our right, resuming its calling far in the distance. We double back to the Maya site, meeting the late risers who just parked at the Visitor’s Center. We head to the Antelope Falls Trail and in the opening near the stream we watch a White-necked Jacobin insect catching in midair. Far from any flower, fifty feet above us, the hummingbird suspends like a helicopter for many seconds and then darts in a flash to capture prey we cannot see.
On the forest trail, through the sunlit gap above us, Tom sees a raptor fly over. It lands on a bare branch in a direct line view 75 yards ahead of us and I pronounce Gray-headed Kite. Paul aligns his 600mm+ for a perfect shot and when we look at my bird book some question whether it had a thin terminal band on the tail. Paul expands his digital photo to show the quarter-inch white tail tip and all are convinced.
I am distracted by a calling Green-backed Sparrow when I find a Cinnamon Becard and it quickly becomes a player in a three-ring circus of birds as my camera, set on multiple shots, shutter stutters two Cinnamons, a White-winged Becard, an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, several Olive-backed Euphonias, climaxed by the Gray-headed Kite swooping in on the party.
Next it is the Bocawina Falls Trail and from 10:30 onward our birding is never dull, a continuous steam of highlights, like the Violet Sabrewing feeding on red flowers of banana trees. I hear fussing birds and wonder what has them agitated. A Spot-breasted Wren scolds loudly and when I source the sound I see a cat run away along a fallen log suspended 6 ft. above the canopy. By size and profile it must have been a Margay moving quickly enough to blur its spots.
By mid day everyone has turned back toward camp, but Tom and Charlu persist with me. We never reach the falls, so good is the birding. Twice I am sure I’ve identified Streak-headed Woodcreeper, although I am not aware of that species on the Mayflower Bocawina checklist. We stop frequently for long periods as birds come to us. One especially memorable spot starts with ant-tanagers not fussing like the oft-heard Red-throated. I study them more closely and recognize Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers. The mixed flock includes Dot-winged Antwren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Sepia-capped Flycatcher and Blue-black Grosbeak. Probably the best bird of the day is pointed out by Tom. He calls Rufous Piha, but when we study the slight differences – subtle absence of eye ring or yellowish throat, the way the thinner gray bill adds paleness, the slight hook at its tip, and a guess at the bird’s size – we conclude it is Rufous Mourner. Too bad it doesn’t call to clinch the discussion.
I finish my Mayflower Bocawina day with 86 species and with other birders the total to 109. Adding the birds I saw in route and at camp, I want to get a few more birds for the day list to see if I can surpass 100 species, so I walk from ITVET toward Stann Creek. It is getting too dark to see birds but on my return I have a surprise when a Muscovy Duck flies over ITVET toward the river, 97th species for the day.
(Shari) I have always said that Belizeans may speak English but they don’t speak English. Here is an actual conversation I had today. On Thursday I had asked the Culinary Department at the school if they would make a traditional Hoduc soup meal for us like they did two years ago. The answer was yes. I told them I would get back to them with the exact number attending but I guessed it would be between 20 and 23. At 12:20 PM I went to their office to tell them I had 27 people (Debbie, Derek and kids were also going to attend). No one was around. Unbeknownst to me, Friday was a half day for the school. I talked to two remaining male teachers about my predicament, plus two guards and they assured me they would contact the manager. Today I had Larry take me to the manager’s house. I talked with an older woman.
“Is Ms S here?” I ask.
“Yes, mum”, she replies.
Then there is silence until I finally ask “Can I speak to her please?”
“She is not here”, she replies. Didn’t she just say she was here?
“Do you know when she will be back?”
“At what time?” I ask.
Very long silence, so I prompt her for an answer, “At 2 or 3 or 4?”
“Four”, she replies.
I try to give her my message of 27 people at 6 PM tomorrow but I doubt that message will get delivered although I am assured it will be.
To be on the safe side, I go back to the house at 5 and speak to a young
girl. I have the same conversation, almost word for word but this time before I
ask what time the manager will return, I ask “Where is Ms S?”
“Belize City,” I learn. Again I ask the time of return and this time it is 10 PM. Again I leave my message.
The next day, I again return two more times. After more questions and concerns about the dinner, the young girl tells me, “She probably forgot”. The manager still is not back and at 4 PM, when I see no activity at the school, I cancel the dinner.
This type of conversation happens over and over. The Belizeans are very reticent about giving up information. Some author I read recently explains it as each word costs them $1 and they only have $5 in their wallet. They also do not want to disappoint and therefore they agree with anything you say or think you want to hear. This makes it very difficult to get directions, arrange dinners, confirm guides, etc.
(Bert) This morning we head to the Caribbean beach and start our birding with many common seashore birds: Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Semipalmated and Black-bellied plovers, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Sandwich Tern, etc. The best is American Oystercatcher, a hard bird to find in Belize, but a regular here at Dangriga. We move down the sandy road to the edge of Gra Gra Lagoon National Park, although you would not know it from any trace of signage. In past years the best birding was the mangrove forest between the road and the sea, tall trees above lower mangroves with snarled roots partially submerged in standing water and so dense it was virtually impenetrable. In shock, I see the forest has been murderously cut, the dead carcasses piled high and dry, baking in the sun. The opposite side of the road is still intact, a much shorter growth and now more exposed to bright sunlight. The first birds we see are Magnolia Warbler, Great-tailed Grackle, Melodious Blackbird and Social Flycatcher, unanimously unrepresentative of mangrove forests. We poke around for some of the birds we came here to see and find one each of Yucatan Vireo, Mangrove Vireo and Mangrove Warbler. I see a black-hawk move in the trees and a bit later two take to the air. Again, the debate of Common versus Great ensues, but this time it is easy as the birds are calling Commons.
We come to a beach and a few mudflats filling in gaps in beds of erect reeds, shoulder height and healthy green. I hear a Ruddy Crake. Gordon asks me to play a recording to see if we can coax the shy rail from hiding. Instead, we hear a Sora and soon it walks out of the reeds and poses for photos. The silent crake remains unseen. Before we leave this beach we add a Whimbrel to the list.
Taking the short entrance road to Gra Gra Lagoon, the trash is piled deep and
I cannot tell if the sign warning of a $1000 fine for dumping came before or
after the trash. Gra Gra itself remains as pretty as every, a lagoon surrounded
by dense mangroves, with many channels separating tiny islands. Plans were for
boats and kayaks to take us into the lagoon and for a visitor’s center to be
erected on the spot we found Rufous-necked Wood-Rail one year, but nothing has
changed, probably for the better. The lagoon protects valuable mangrove habitat.
It’s a shame, though, that mile after mile of the swamp’s extension to the sea
is being stripped to bare sand in anticipation of some developer expanding the
resorts and luxury homes that have transformed the beach south of Hopkins
Village. Now expensive homes for foreigners, built mere inches above sea level,
will substitute for mangroves as the buffer against inevitable hurricanes.
Again, most of the birders have turned back and only Gordon, Maxine and I continue to the end of the road. I talk to the gate guard and he lets us pass into a project of waterfront canals and beachside lots, some 200 for sale, with no evidence of any sales or development. At the far end we are blocked by a wider canal leading into the mangrove swamp. A cluster of Australian Pines whistle softly in the sea breeze and we find three Palm Warblers weaving in and out of the thin needles. In the swallow bay we see Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins break surface. We continue walking beside the canal, peering across into the dense mangroves. Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers chatter loudly, but we seen no mangrove activity. After 20 min. of searching, I comment to Gordon, “Not much activity now”. The last syllable barely hits the airwaves when I notice a movement in the mangroves and out flies a long sleek bird. In midair I recognize Mangrove Cuckoo and, delightfully, it comes to rest on a short clump of beach grass. I quickly take multiple photos. Gordon and Maxine comment that this is only the second time they have seen Mangrove Cuckoo and relate the story of the first in Florida and adding that the cuckoo responded to a tape recording. I turn on my iPod and immediately the cuckoo jumps to a higher perch, affording me even better photos.
We meet 24-hour guard Danny on our way out and he tells us about the white owls he sees fishing and crabbing most evenings and the owl that keeps him awake at night until he goes out and hollers at it. I open my book to owls and he points to Barn Owl and Vermiculated Screech-Owl. We consider coming back this evening.
On our return we stop once more at the northern edge of the designated national park when I see Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures circling low overhead. I hear a familiar call, one that I used to hear in springtime in the Navasota River bottoms of Texas. “Pizza” it calls emphatically. Is there any other bird that makes that distinctive call? Gordon and I venture toward that caller and an appropriately sized and colored bird takes flight and disappears into the mangrove swamp. Found at the early edge of northern migration, this is my first record of Acadian Flycatcher in Belize.
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