Chapter 12. Western Belize
(Shari) Many of you former guests who are reading these journals will not believe this. I needed two blankets last night and someone said the temperature was 54º this morning. Belize, to my delight, has been uncharacteristically cool. The whole time in Dangriga was tolerable if not cool. Today, feels like a pleasant summer day in Wisconsin. I doubt it even reached 80. We move again to Orange Walk stopping for lunch at Amigos. Upon our arrival at the campground, true to form, the electricity at one of the poles affecting four rigs does not work. Some can’t understand why these people don’t check these things out first, especially since we probably more than double their quarterly income in one week. At least the grass has been mowed if not the burrs removed. I try to say how I have noticed improvements over the years, but as pointed out to me, that means little when electricity is expected and not received. Marlene says I should tell everyone the campground is dry and then they will be pleasantly surprised. We did have a week of dry camping on one trip and for a month previous to our arrival, everyone worried about how they were going to manage. So that was not a good situation either. I find the truth is the best, flavored with a caveat. After all we take trips like this to experience a third world culture. But every year we reach a point when the good ol’ USA looks really really good.
(Bert) I feel bittersweet about the drive north from Dangriga, saddened by departure from my favorite birding areas, but looking forward to our visits to La Milpa, Lamanai and Crooked Tree. A refreshing cold front came in last night, dropping the temperature to the low 70s. For driving, I’ve switched to shorts and a T-shirt. I meet the IVTET guard at the gate and see him bundled up in an undershirt, heavy shirt, sweatshirt and heavy pants. He looks cold and says he is. Again, Hummingbird Highway is beautiful, this time with winds tossing cohune palm branches like 30-ft. arms of giant octopi. When we stop for a late morning breakfast at Amigos I have to go back to the RV for jackets for Shari and myself, as the breeze blowing through the screened restaurant is cold. We arrive at the campground outside Orange Walk Town and at 5 I present a talk on identifying parrots from a distance by call, flight characteristics and habitat.
(Bert) We drive from Orange Walk Town to San Felipe, mostly in darkness. Although I’ve birded the Blue Creek rice fields many times, I’ve never found Grassland Yellow-Finch, a species reported here a few times several years ago. We drive two-tracks through grasslands, sparse pine-palmetto savannah and along the dikes of rice fields in search of the finch, finding instead hundreds of White-collared Seedeaters and many flocks of squawking White-fronted Parrots and Red-lored Parrots. At one stop I hear a Striped Cuckoo that stays too far away to see. We meet one of the owners of the rice fields – he is from London, Ontario – who explains the rice growing process, starting with what we are observing now as his partner flies one of their two planes low over the water-covered fields dumping rice seed. We can see the seed floating on the water, where it will sprout in a day, the water will be drained in two days and the tiny plants will take root. We ask him about Jabirus, but he says they don’t come until harvest time.
Our best find is when we reach the edge of the rice fields at Booth’s River and see an American Pygmy Kingfisher make several passes across the river. Back on the main road at the bridge over the river I identify a Philadelphia Vireo, a bird we don’t see every trip. Beside fallow rice lands, a dozen Fork-tailed Flycatchers and a single Scissor-tailed rest on wire fences, swinging their long tails in the breeze. The Edenthal marshes are very dry and we find only a few Blue-winged Teal and a small gathering of shorebirds at the last water puddle. A half-dozen Long-billed Dowitchers are a nice addition to our trip list.
Arriving at La Milpa Station of Rio Bravo Conservation Area, I’m happy to meet Bladimir again, who I count as a good friend and one of the best birding guides in Belize. Since I met him last he has been promoted to La Milpa manager and I soon start noticing the improvements he has instituted. He introduces me to Rudy and Edgar who will be our guides, along with Bladimir, the next few days. We begin afternoon birding with a slow walk along the graveled access road. New to our list, we add overflying Purple Martins. Bladimir hears a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet and it takes several minutes for everyone to find the 3.5-in flycatcher in the canopy of an 80-ft. tree.
Atop another tree, this one stripped to a barren trunk and a few leafed twigs is a hawk. Our first thought of Roadside Hawk is quickly converted to Gray Hawk, by grayish color and profile. Bladimir disagrees, saying it is too small and also knowing that Gray Hawks are not expected in these wooded areas of La Milpa. We maneuver for better lighting and the sunbeams pierce scattered clouds. We see the chest banding is red not gray and can begin to see the throat and facial markings that are convincing evidence of Double-toothed Kite. Our 10-min. study of this hard-to-find raptor is satisfying. High above the grassy lawns surrounding the cabanas and dining hall we watch Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts intermingle with Vaux’s Swifts.
(Shari) Dee and I look at each other, each thinking “Did you see what I just saw?” We are on our way to La Milpa Research Station where we are to stay 3 nights and 4 days. Half of the group is traveling with me at a respectable time of 9 AM. The other half went with Bert at 5:30 to bird along the way. We usually beat them to the station taking 2 ½ hours to travel 47 mi. Dee is riding with me and I have a delightful time conversing with her. She has given me some things to think about and I will call her my personal therapist from now on. Anyway, as we are on the dirt road through the jungle about a mile from our destination, we see a spotted cat-like animal run across the road about 5 ft. in front of our bumper. Wow! How exciting! It is too small to be a jaguar but bigger than a cat. I know Belize has two such wild animals and later Dee finds it in a book. We saw an Ocelot. We can hardly wait until bird count tonight, just knowing Bert will quiz us to death and we will have all the answers. However he disappoints me, and just says “That is very good.” I take it as a dismissal and make a big deal of our sighting, since to me it was spectacular. Then I jokingly say, “I just don’t want to talk about it anymore”. And go into a pretend pout. After another delicious meal, we return to our thatched cabanas or dormitory rooms. Heather says she feels like she is 8 years old again going to camp. The lights literally will go out when the batteries that store the solar energy run out of power, sometime around midnight. I expect all will be fast asleep, especially those that got up early.
(Bert) At dinner time I conduct a bird count and Shari interrupts, anxious to list mammals first. She blurts out that Dee and she encountered an Ocelot on the road into La Milpa. Waiting for details, I don’t respond and am immediately accused of not showing sufficient excitement and not exclaiming the oohs and aahs the remarkable sighting deserves.
When darkness sets in, we load the backs of two pick-up trucks with six passengers each and set out in different directions in search of night animals by flashlight. Our group finds a Northern Potoo and a sleeping Crested Guan, a poor showing compared to other years. Still, it is much better than the other group whose list only includes a spider and a frog.
(Bert) We are barely into the La Milpa Maya site when we find warblers in the canopy, easily viewed through a gap in the trees. We find Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, American Redstart and, best of all, Tennessee Warbler.
One of the reasons I arranged our itinerary with La Milpa toward the end of our Belize stay, rather than at the beginning as I usually have done, was to increase our chances of finding White-throated Thrush. Bladimir says the dry season has been late in arriving, rains continue and the leaf fall has barely begun. He has yet to see or hear the thrush. In a part of the Maya site where the understory has been cleared, but the canopy is dense and high above us, Bladimir hears a call he says is the thrush. I have the song, but not this call on my iPod collection. I play the song and a few minutes later we see the White-throated Thrush fly over our heads to the opposite side of the forest opening. Although well hidden, we can focus a scope on the location and I take digiscope photos and then reposition myself for more shots with my long lens.
Gordon and Maxine are keen on seeing a Tody Motmot, although it is not the easiest bird to find in Belize, especially this far north. Bladimir knows two spots where he has found them before and we visit the first and I play my recording. No response. We hike to the second location, one deep within a cohune ridge. This time the recording brings a response and we are quite hopeful when the responding motmot comes closer to our location. We must almost be in range of seeing the bird, but the understory is heavily leaved. We try to coax it closer, yet it resists. The Tody Motmot remains well heard, though not seen.
Late in the afternoon I see a bird perched atop a barren tree and recognize an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Is it an early migrant or rare winter visitor? Since last night was disappointing along the main road, Rudy and I decide to try the 3-mi. Maya site road which is more densely closed in by forest. Not far from the start is the dump pit where kitchen workers throw fruit and vegetable food scraps. Hoping to find coatis, we find none. But while the truck engine is turned off I hear a distant Vermiculated Screech-Owl and am gratified when Rudy and Edgar concur. Quietly, we listen for several more minutes but it does not call again. Shari has been boasting for two years that she saw the screech-owl and that I had not. Well, I am now half way there in that I’ve at least heard one.
Accustomed to seeing only night birds and large roosting birds, we are surprised to find small roosting birds too. Harder to identify from below with only tail, belly and a part of the breast to view in the flashlight, we see Swainson’s Thrush, White-collared Manakin and Slaty-tailed Trogon perched on high branches. If we can have lists of “heard-only” birds, why can’t we have “smelled-only” mammals. If so, we can add Collared Peccary to that list as their scent is powerful in one wooded section along the road. At a widening in the forest we scan 100 yd. across the grassy field and pick up two glowing eyes in the forest edge about 6 ft. from the ground. Too far away to see the bird’s body, we surmise it is a Yucatan Nightjar.
(Shari) This part of the trip is my vacation. I am able to sit back and relax and let the staff and Bert take care of schedules, white boards and meals. No road logs to do. Payment has been prepaid. All I have to do is read, cross stitch, play cards and have a beer or two. Meals are delicious as usual. The weather is spectacular. In fact last night we just about froze. No need to use the fans. I love it.
(Bert) At 5 AM I am putting gear into my car when I hear a Mottled Owl from one direction and a single “Woof” from another. I tell Gordon it could be another Mottled, but when Bladimir tells me he heard it also and we compare notes and then play a recording, we decide it was a Black-and-White Owl.
With headlights on, a few minutes after 5:30 we are on the gravel road to Gallon Jug and Chan Chich. At first light we begin to see a few turkeys and then we find a flock on the wide grassy strip separating deep forest from gravel road. A tom turkey has his tail fanned and parading in front of 11 females, some of which turn in its direction and others ignore his advance. We also see a pair of curassows, the male black and the female brown. By the time we pass Gallon Jug and reach the entrance road to Chan Chich, I have tabulated 47 Ocellated Turkeys, 4 Great Curassows and 42 White-tailed Deer.
Birding at Chan Chich starts out slow – very slow. We have been birding for an hour or two when Ken calls “Hummingbird” and I turn my binoculars on the branch where he is looking. It’s not a hummingbird, but it is small enough to be one. Dark brown back with rusty tail and a flycatcher stance, it is new to me and I am delighted when Rudy names it Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, a bird that has been on my wish list for years. Surprisingly, a few hours later we find another in a different part of the forest.
Rudy suggests we hike to a spot where a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles nested when he was a birding guide at Chan Chich. He leads the way to Trish’s Hill. On the way, Gordon and Maxine add a lifer – hard to do with a life list as long as they have – when Gordon sees a Black-throated Shrike-Tanager leading a mixed flock. At the lookout the nest is no longer in use, though the view across the forest canopy is colorful, especially where the quam trees are in yellow bloom.
Back on the entrance road we can hear a hawk calling high above us and then saw a Black Hawk-Eagle circling. The hawk-eagle continues calling and lands in a tall tree. Advancing across the suspension bridge I take closer and closer photos until I can make out the white feathers in the dark crest and the bands in the tail. It takes flight and I capture the wing and tail banding in outstretched feathers. At the opening for Sac Be Trail I photograph a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher almost on the exact same branch I photographed one in 2006. In the dark woods surrounding the trail we hear a Rufous Piha and do not find it before we head back to the swimming pool area for a suburb barbeque lunch prepared for us by the resort.
Some stay to swim, others to lounge around the pool or casually visit the resort and six of us continue birding. On the Sylvester Road we pass through bajo forest and the road is wide enough to create a forest edge with a gap to the sky, apparently open enough for Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and we are delighted to see one and compare it to the much more common Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. Nearby a Thrush-like Schiffornis appears at the forest edge, somewhat hidden by intervening low branches. I take multiple photos with flash, not hopeful at getting one in focus of this tough-to-photograph bird. I display my takes and am surprised that several are in good lighting and nicely focused.
Coming back on the River Trail we encounter a troop of Central American Spider Monkeys swinging through the canopy. A young one makes a deliberate attempt to reach the branches above us and comes in nice view of my long lens. We find a pair of Dot-winged Antwrens close enough to photograph and just about the time we need to head back to the lodge we find three other birders with binoculars aimed at a large patch of bamboo. Glossy blue light bulbs of two male Blue Buntings glow in the dull green bamboo slivers.
On our drive back to La Milpa we again see Ocellated Turkeys (8), Great Curassows (2) and White-tailed Deer (20). I’m surprised to see two Gray-necked Wood-Rails cross the gravel road just before we reach the La Milpa entrance – an odd find for a forest that I thought was far from water.
On tonight’s pickup truck ride we again find the same roosting turkeys and the same nightjar. New though is a yellow and white bird we cannot identify from the bottom up, even when we examine photos in the camera display. Owls are out tonight and we see four flying, some or all of which are Mottled Owls. At the turnaround for the Maya site we stop, turn off the truck engine and all lights and listen quietly to the night sounds. To our left, deep in the forest, we hear crunching noises and things falling from the canopy. After listening for 5 min. we break silence and Rudy tells us we were hearing kinkajoos eat and sloppily drop parts of fruit or nuts.
(Shari) Today is a vacation within a vacation within a vacation. The early group left at 5:30 this morning for the 1 hr. drive to Chan Chich. We late risers leave at 8:15. The early group saw deer, turkeys and Crested Curassow on the way up. We saw deer, turkeys and Crested Curassow on the way up. Many of us head for WI-FI upon arrival. My computer does not connect. Apparently my Vista operating system is the reason. But my better-than-sliced-bread i-Phone retrieves my E-mail without a hitch. After getting E-mail, I head for the pool. The water is way too cold for me, so I sit under the umbrellas and cross stitch until the birders come for lunch. The grounds here are beautiful and Janice mentions that she read that Chan Chich is one of the top 10 resorts in the world.
We depart at 3:30 and are blessed with another fantastic animal sighting. Another one of those “Did I really see what I really saw?” kind of things. One hundred feet from our car a large grayish brown animal darts across the road in front of us. My first thought is a deer, but they don’t have long tails and they run differently. After thinking about it some more, we know it was a Puma. I have done pretty well for mammal sightings in Belize. And I suppose I get the same kick out of seeing them as the birders do about their lifers. We can hardly wait for bird count again this evening. This time Bert does show more enthusiasm for our sighting. Later when he tells us about his lifer for the day, I say “Wait a minute? I am not sure that bird should be here. Did you get a picture? What color was its bill? Where did you see it? Was anyone with you? How do you know it wasn’t some other kind of warbler? Did you see the eye ring?” He has all the right answers though and realizes I am baiting him.
(Bert) I’ve been getting up so early lately that I find myself unable to sleep to 5 AM, so I get out of bed and head outdoors with my high power beam, iPod and binoculars. I listen for owls and immediately hear two near the entrance sign, one an obvious Mottled Owl and the other I’m quite sure is Black-and-white Owl. I play my iPod and the Black-and-white is a perfect match.
On our morning pre-breakfast walk, Bladimir hears a Green-backed Sparrow near the road and halts us in our tracks. We remain quiet and the sparrow comes to the edge and eventually almost everyone gets a look at this shy bird. I’ve learned many bird songs from Bladimir and this morning with his help I master the call of Yucatan Flycatcher and to imbed the sound with the bird, we watch it calling. After yet another scrumptious breakfast, for which I couldn’t resist second helpings, we try a portion of the Mahogany trail in a further attempt to find a Tody Motmot. No response. I know Gordon and Maxine are disappointed, but I also know how hard it is to get this species in Belize. Although many checklists include the bird and I’ve seen it several times, it is never easy.
We head to the garbage dump. Birders cannot resist garbage dumps because birds can’t resist them either. Earlier birders saw a King Vulture. When we arrive Red-throated Ant-Tanagers are the most obvious. Hearing a White-breasted Wood-Wren is easy, seeing one takes work, and photographing one is very difficult. Unless … you visit a garbage dump. Even then, the wood-wren dips in and out of the garbage and easily hides for minutes and then makes a quick short flight to another pile and about the time I get my camera in line it moves yet again. While I’m busy trying to photograph Worm-eating Warbler, American Redstart and Hooded Warbler, others are watching Gray-headed Tanagers. Someone says a young coati is approaching and just as I turn my camera in its direction, up pops a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper. I digitally catch the coati as well as it climbs down from a limb and descends into the pit. I’m walking with Bladimir on the way back from the dump when we hear a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. For eight years I’ve visited Belize without finding Ruddy-tailed; now on the ninth I get them three times.
Too soon we must leave La Milpa, one of my favorite birding sites in Belize. I set up the tripod with my camera mounted and I take a group photo on the steps of the dining hall. We say our good-byes to Bladimir, Rudy and Edgar, hoping we will see each other again soon.
(Shari) After lunch we have to depart our peaceful spot and make the long bumpy drive home. When we get to Orange Walk Town, Bert and I drive to the laundry so I can make a map to its location for the group and get their hours of operation. Then we drive to the New River boat dock to make arrangements for our trip on Sunday. When we finally arrive at camp, I am told that the electricity went out while we were gone and Pat and Paul at least lost their food in their refrigerator. Oh dear, another incident report to be written. I go around to every rig to determine the extent of the damage. Luckily only the one lost any food. The batteries of the rest lasted long enough to keep the refrigerators in operation. But I think we are getting tired of experiencing the third world culture. I hear comments like, “Why didn’t the owners check since they knew we were gone? Why did it happen at all?” I have to remind myself that things just are not as smooth as we are used to. Those stars and stripes sure will look good in two weeks. We will be able to drive on smooth roads, use electricity that is constant, won’t have to buy water and decontaminate our fruits and veggies, be able to throw things in a washer and dryer, etc. My, it is hard to be on our best behavior for 65 days.
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