Belize - March 2009
Belize - Central America: 3 – 10 March 2009
In March 2009, Jan, Erik and I took a birding trip organized by Mark Pretti to Belize. Please check my photo's under Belize.
Participants: Mark Eising, Jan Bless, Erik Heymann, David Heymann, Analice Decker, Alan Haney, Don Hahn. Our guide was Mark Pretti from Arizona.
Locations in Belize: Belize Airport, Road to Crooked Tree, Crooked Tree Preserve, Crooked Tree Lagoon, Crooked Tree Savannah, Road to Mama Noot's, Monkey Bay, Belize Zoo, Mama Noot's and Bocawina National Park, Road to Five Sisters, Blue Hole Cenote, Five Sisters resort, Road to Caracol, Caracol, Rio Frio Cave, 1000-Foot Falls, King Vulture lookout, Road to Airport.
Day 1: 7 a.m. After spending 1 day and 2 nights in Houston with Jan to pick up Erik, we meet Erik's brother David at the International Airport of Houston, who had flown in from Austin. The flight to Belize was uneventful, although the views of the jungle and rivers from the plane were spectacular. Also notable about the airport in Belize City is that you taxi to the gate along the same runway where you land. It is immediately friendly and the immigration/customs building is classic tropical informal.
The four of us looked around and found the dirt road that Mark Pretti had informed us about, by a hotel behind the parking lot. If you are looking at the parking lot from the airport, the hotel is back and to the left. A dirt road runs from here away from the airport along the Coast Guard station. It winds through the area for several hundred yards until you come across a fairly large body of water.
The hotel was very accommodating, letting us put our luggage there while we birded the road. In no time, we had various flycatchers (vermilion and social flycatcher, tropical kingbird, kiskadee), tropical mockingbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, clay-colored robin, black-cowled and hooded orioles and the grayish saltator. Soon we had rufous-tailed hummingbird, blue grey tanager, green and ringed kingfisher. The stars of the show were the great black hawk and slaty-tailed trogon. The grounds of the Belize Coast Guard station had black iguana and groove-billed anis. After two hours of birding, we retired to the airport for nachos and beer.
Around 4 pm, the others arrived: Don, from Cottonwood, Arizona, Alan, from Wisconsin, and Analice from the East Bay area. Of course, our intrepid guide, Mark Pretti, was with them. After introductions among the group at the airport, we piled into a van with our driver Michael and headed out towards Crooked Tree Preserve and the Bird's Eye View Lodge. On the way through tropical grasslands, we stopped for great views of fork-tailed flycatchers working a field, and wood storks together with herons, northern jacana and a belted kingfisher. After a short time, we slipped down a side road to see the most amazing sight: a nesting Jabiru, with 3 young in the nest. Nearby was a roadside hawk.
The rest of the drive produced some fun birds, like white-fronted and red-lored parrots and olive-throated parakeets. We soon crossed the causeway at Crooked Tree to the lodge. After settling in, we found mangrove swallows and grey-breasted martin, and various warblers in the bougainvilla at the lodge. American redstart is ubiquitous. We then walked the road towards a small group of houses on nice parcels of land, finding some of the local specialties, like greenish elaenia, melodious blackbird and rufous-tailed hummingbird. Mark Pretti showed us the distinction between turkey vulture and the lesser yellow-headed vulture in flight. He also showed us the bat falcon on its favorite perch in the trees to the left of the road as we walked away from the lodge.
Just before dinner, we gathered in the living room for lengthier introductions. It turns out that Don was mayor of Cottonwood for several years, and Alan is a forester in Wisconsin, who has tracked neotropic migrants for 30 years. These people are not the luxury travelers from America who demand everything, but down-to-earth people with a love of nature.
Dinner was basic but very good, with chicken and fish, plus cashews in some form or another, including wine. After dinner, we stepped out into the cool evening to see common pauraques along the road. That night, we were serenaded by the many limpkins across the lagoon.
Bird's Eye View Lodge is just on the edge of the Crooked Tree lagoon, which fills up with runoff from the mountains every year, and dries up during the dry season. The land around the lodge is a combination of wetlands and savannah, with low shrubs, some trees, and cattle. As the lagoon shrinks, the birds and mammals have easy pickings of the fish and snails that fill the lagoon water. Empty snail shells are everywhere, and it appears that the animals have their favorite eating places, where there are large concentrations of shells.
Day 2: Up at the crack of dawn. After breakfast, we walked the road again and picked up some wonderful stuff, like Yucatan woodpecker, white-fronted parrot, blue-black grassquit, common tody flycatcher and spot-breasted wren. Melodious blackbirds are common. Back to the lodge for breakfast and then out on a boat to the lagoon.
The lagoon brought grey-necked wood rails, neotropical cormorants and mangrove vireo, bat falcon and collared black hawks. As we got deeper, snail kite, roseate spoonbill, osprey, gull-billed tern, glossy ibis, bare-throated tiger heron, boat-billed flycatcher and boat-billed heron. David found the amazing American pygmy kingfisher. Overhead were Montezuma Oropendola and ringed kingfisher. The best place was Spanish Creek, which apparently does not dry out in the dry season. Mark Pretti spotted a rare sungrebe, but the rest of the group did not get a glimpse of this bird.
After lunch, another walk on the road, producing many of the wood warblers that we have seen in Texas – waterthrush, ovenbird, yellow warbler, magnolia warbler, hooded warbler, redstart, etc. In addition, short-tailed hawk, red-billed pigeon, Baltimore oriole and rose-throated becard. We also finally got the secretive rufous-breasted spinetail after calling it out along a stand of bushes.
There are surprisingly few biting insects, especially with all the standing water. After dinner, we had a few beers with the local staff and also took a look around the lagoon. The pauraques were as always under the lights catching insects.
Day 3: Another quick walk along the road to see the green-breasted mango and a few other birds. We were then picked up in the van to see nearby savannah country. This is lovely country, with grasses and small trees. We saw many familiar species here, but also tropical peewee, buff-bellied hummingbird and cought the Yucatan jay as well.
After this nice morning walk, we gathered our stuff for the drive to Mama Noots. Mama Noots is located in a clearing in the jungle in Bocawina National Park, much farther to the south. It is the brainchild of Nanette, who built it over 15 years in the jungle. It is a little jewel in the middle of the rain forest.
To get there, we had to drive past the airport, then through Belmopan, then along the Hummingbird Highway to the southern highway. The Hummingbird Highway is another revelation. While the immediate roadsides are one orange farm after another, the distant hills are covered with original forest and the green carpet is a joy to see. We stopped to catch a glimpse of the stunning king vulture.
On the road between the airport and the zoo, we encountered a brush fire on the side of the road set by farmers to clear the land. Suddenly, the van comes to a screeching halt and we jump out to get a fantastic look at the aplomado falcon. This bird has adapted to brush fires, because the fires cause smaller animals to flee and reveal their position. The falcon flew to a perch where it sat looking in the air around the smoke for flying insects. You could not ask for a better view of this gorgeous creature. Like always, I immediately got my camera and sneeked carefully as close as I could to the bird to take pictures.
Soon we came to the famous Belize Zoo, but as it was too crowded with tour vans, we decided to take our lunch at a spot near the Sibun River just down the road. It was a fortuitous choice.
Lush greenery on both sides of the road. After eating by the river, we walked up the road towards a huge stand of incredible quomwood (?) trees with their bright yellow flowers. There were many familiar orioles here and we stopped to look at a perching plumbeous kite. We were about to leave when Erik walked toward a tree covered in vines off the path. Suddenly, a black bird with a red patch flew in. So we walked closer and in a minute, out came the Passerini's tanager, male and female. Then suddenly the golden-hooded tanager came in and then the variable seedeater and all of a sudden there was bird mayhem. It was one of those moments that justify all the days of trying.
Back in the van, we were about to have another incredible treat. The driver heard the display call of the white-collared manakin, and we stopped to take a look. Soon we could see something white and brown jumping around on the forest floor. The group got great looks at the bird, actually two males, as they displayed on their territories for a female, with that unmistakable clicking sound of their wings. Totally satisfied, we went on to the zoo.
The Belize Zoo is rightfully famous with its winding trails and habitats for various endangered animals. Lots of tapirs, howlers and of course the cats. But disappointingly little in the way of birds, except for plain chachalaca, bronzed cowbird, yellow-billed cacique, Louisiana waterthrush and the always wonderful worm-eating warbler. The jabiru cage, for example, was nothing compared to seeing the real thing in the wild on its nest. It was time to move on to the jungle.
We arrived at Mama Noot's in time to see that it is an amazing place. Self-sustaining in power and water, beautifully manicured gardens, trees covered in fruit and birds, jungle all around. It didn't take long to pick up great birds: yellow-winged tanager, red-legged honeycreeper, blue-black grassquit and slightly later, the black and white owl. Pauraques sing all night. Fireflies lit up the grass.
Mama Noot's is the jump-off point for several excellent trails in the Bocawina, and we had concentrated on three – the main road, Bocawina falls trail and the trail to Antelope Falls. Day 3 closes with the sound of birds and insects in the forest, including the loud hoot of the black and white owl.
Day 4: Before breakfast, we walked the property and the main road. Immediately, there was pale-billed woodpecker, and then chestnut-colored woodpecker. Then long-billed hermit and little hermit. Then dot-winged antwren, dusky antbird, keel-billed toucans, collared aracari, crimson-collared tanager, blue-crowned motmot, grey hawk, swallow-tailed kite, chachalacas, woodcreepers, chestnut-sided warbler, white-crowned parrot, squirrel cuckoo, black-headed trogon.
After eggs, we set out on the Bocawina trail. It rained hard, and there's not much to see, except that David spotted an anteater (Northern Tamandu)! In a tree across the creek. Further down, a few hummers – white-breasted emerald is one. Then some familiar finches – indigo bunting, blue grosbeak. Then we came to the falls and we cought wedge-billed woodcreeper.
Before the afternoon walk, Jan, Erik and I went up the property to a small foundation. From there, it is easy to see the swallow-tailed kites that wheel around in the mountains.
In the afternoon, we again tried the road. This time red-throated ant-tanager. We can hear grey-chested dove in the bushes and catch red-billed pigeon. Vaux's and white-collared swifts above. Yellow-throated euphonia. Then black-headed saltator.
Day 5: We walked down to the Antelope Falls trail and the Mayan ruins and road. Our best new birds are white-throated Jacobin, grey-headed kite, white-necked puffbird and piratic flycatcher. The group is looking a little tired and we return to lunch without much to show. The food wakes us up, however, and Jan, David, Mark P, Erik and I resolve to get up to Antelope Falls. We hit the trail around 2:45 and briskly make our way to the base of the falls. Short-billed pigeon. We hear little tinamou. Then we see thrush-like schiffornis.
The climb up the falls is steep and for some of us somewhat difficult. The view at the top is spectacular – you can see the lodge and even the ocean (!), where there is a lovely pool for swimming. The light in the forest is just stunning and finally Jan gets a view of a blue-crowned motmot. We cruise back down the trail when movement catches our attention. Soon we can see we are looking at the black-faced antthrush. We are excited to see this shy bird without using any calls.
Running down the trail, we stop to see the white-breasted emerald that David and Erik saw the day before. This time there is another hummer, somewhat bigger. Mark P. is temporarily puzzled, but then exclaims, in a hoarse voice full of excitement: “It's a f...ing violet sabrewing!” This bird really showed off its coloring.
That afternoon, a short walk down to the Mayan ruins. We had placed a marker where there is a grey-chested dove's nest and Mark P. and I want to see it, and we were successful. Meanwhile, David had spotted honeycreepers at the river bridge. We got to look but they were gone. Erik decided to walk out onto the sand spit in the river to rest. When he looked up he saw a huge grey bird take off from a perch. He did not get a good look at it, but the size and flight suggested one of the huge forest raptors. When he reported this to the group, you could tell that Erik was still quite impressed and somewhat flabbergasted.
Day 6: After an early morning walk, Erik ran into the forest quickly to see if there was anything to look at. Suddenly he is confronted by the stub-tailed spadebill, golden-hooded tanager and perhaps golden-crowned warbler. Mark P., David and I run back in but cannot find these birds. Instead, we see a pair of smoky-brown woodpeckers. Back in the garden, black-cheeked woodpecker. I help Jan with his nr. 150 bird. He is already well over the number that he was expecting to see on this trip. It is time to go.
We pile in a van and head off toward Belmopan. On the way: white tailed kite. Before we reach the capital, we stop at a national park called the Blue Hole. It is a small park with a gorgeous cenote. We were immediately greeted by orange-billed sparrows and we could hear blue-crowned motmot and black-faced antthrush. In the cenote, we see sulphur-rumped flycatcher, violaceous trogon, white-breasted wood-wren and purple-crowned fairy. It is yet another totally magical moment.
We walk around and catch another puffbird, red-capped ant-tanager, white-collared manakin, golden-crowned warbler and tawny-winged woodcreeper. Then back to the van for the drive through San Ygnacio to Five Sisters.
On the way to Five Sisters, we stopped at a butterfly farm, operated by Tineke Boomsma, a Dutch lady, who finally got a chance to talk Dutch again with Jan and me. The butterflies were incredible and we got a lenghty lecture on the breeding process of butterflies. Olive-backed euphonia in the yard.
From here, the road changes to dirt and potholes, and the landscape changes to pine forest. We stop to see laughing falcon, and arrive at the lodge in mid-afternoon. After getting settled, we ran down to the Five Sisters waterfalls for a swim. It is perfect, exactly what we needed. Cool, clear water, with beautiful hills and pine trees all around. Birds of note are the plumbeous vireo and azure-crowned hummingbird.
The overhanging terrace of the lodge gives a great view over the falls and the margarita's taste great. Dinner that night at the lodge was very good and we had a joke-telling session. The Dutch boys were pretty raucous and everyone was in a good mood.
Day 7: The next day, early morning birding brings a few great birds: golden-olive woodpecker, rufous-capped warbler, yellow-faced grassquit, yellow-backed oriole, green jay. We piled into the van and sped off towards Caracol, the biggest ancient Maya ruines site of Belize.
On the way, we picked up two soldiers in the Belize Army. They came along because of recent robberies by Guatemalans on the road. This area is quite close to the border. There are many lovely streams to cross and near one I call out to stop the van. And yes, after five seconds of patience, a male ocellated turkey pups up out of the grass to cross the road. Even Mark Pretti was thrilled about that! After some time, we arrive at the Mayan ruins of Caracol.
Like Tikal, these ruins are completely covered by jungle, and discovered fairly recently. The archeologists estimate the place had about 150,000 inhabitants, which is a fairly large city. It has evidence of habitation since 2000 BC, but most of the main buildings are from the 2nd century AD. Our guide tries to explain it all to us over the loud shrieks of the howler monkeys in the trees. We went to look at them – two troops arguing over territory. Of course, I take my photos (and video) patiently, leaving the group to continue the tour.
The main plaza of the ruins is impressive with large temples, palaces and the observatory, plus a huge reservoir for their water. Here we found a mealy parrot and some other great birds. Strolling about, we caught sight of a hook-billed kite. Resting for lunch, we see black-faced grosbeak, blue ground dove and scaled pigeon.
On the way back, we stopped at Rio Frio cave. The cave itself is impressive, with two openings and a river going through. Here we see the northern barred woodcreeper.
We can tell the group is now very tired of 7 days of travel, so after lunch it is time to find the orange-breasted falcon, the rarest raptor in the Americas. Mark P. finds the bird in a matter of seconds. The place to find it is at the top of some amazing falls, called 1000-foot Falls. Here, we also saw king vulture again, and a very far-off nest with black and white hawk-eagle. At another spot, we try to get the plain wren, and see glimpses and hear the bird, but cannot positively ID it. We have another great look at two king vultures and I am the only one to see the orange-breasted falcon again, this time flying close by.
Back at Five Sisters, we can hear the ferruginous pygmy-owl. A female is spotted on a pole near the hotel, and soon the male comes in to do his part for the survival of the species. I am somehow able to catch a remarkable picture of this scene.
Day 8: In the early morning, I help Jan with spotting rufous-crowned warbler that hangs around the lodge at that time. Then we make the long drive back to Belize Airport. On the way, we stop to see the rusty sparrow. At the airport Jan and I say goodbye to everyone, because they are heading back home and we are ending this wonderful trip on Ambergris Caye for another 4 days of chilling and of course more birding!