Belize – July 2013

Birds & Bugs, Bikes & Bruises

belize

This year we decided to go on holiday with my sister and family to Belize, a country new to us.

Belize is located on the NE coast of Central America. It is bordered in the N by Mexico, to the S and W by Guatemala and to the E by the Caribbean. Its mainland is c180 miles long and 68 miles wide. It has an area of 8800 square miles of land and a population of c328000 and has the lowest population density in Central America. The habitats are diverse from jungles to offshore coral reefs; therefore it has an abundance of birds and other wildlife. It is an English speaking country, although Creole and Spanish are also spoken.

My sister and family flew out a week before us but due to work commitments we couldn’t join them until July 5th.

The weather was very hot throughout with temperatures in the 30’s and often very sunny at the coast. Away from the coast in the jungle it was very humid and there were a few rainstorms, but it was the beginning of the rainy season so to be expected.

LIFERS in CAPITALS

Th 4th July 2013

HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Bridgette, Michael and I left for Heathrow at around 7am for our lunchtime flight to Houston, Texas with United Airlines. Everything went fairly seamlessly until we arrived in my favourite airport hub in the world where we were met by our dear old friends Homeland Security. All I can say is thank goodness we were overnighting in Houston, there are no same day connections to Belize. It was Independence Day and under a sign advertising world-class service there was one booth open for all non-US citizens. After a rising tide of dissent in the 200+ crowd they eventually opened two more booths but it still took the best part of two hours to get through. Many people missed flights so I guess we were lucky on that score, however it did put paid to the couple of hours Texas birding I had planned. At the airport I saw five Great-tailed Grackles and a Northern Mockingbird with another at the Double Tree Hotel where we were staying. In the half hour before dusk I managed to see one each of Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture. We had a meal although it was 1am UK time before slumping into bed.

Fr 5th July 2013 

BELIZE BOUND

I got up at 5am because I couldn’t sleep, managed to persuade to lady at the coffee stand in the foyer that wasn’t yet open to make me one, and then I headed out to the garden to see if I could add any birds. There was just one, a Carolina Wren singing in the pre-dawn darkness under lights. At 6am we were on the bus to the airport adding 6+ Cattle Egrets to the holiday list on the way. By 9am we were Belize bound, landing at Philip S W Goldson International Airport in Belize City 2½ hours later, but actually just 1½ hours on the clock because Belize was an hour behind the States. Totally different to the U.S. we were through passport control in 15 minutes and were serenaded by a Caribbean band as we queued. We weren’t quite at our final destination yet because we had to get a Maya Island Air flight to Dangriga. I asked if they could get us on an earlier flight, as we had a 2 hour wait. Initially they said no but no sooner had we gone through than a tannoy called us to the gate and we were straight aboard a 12 seater Cessna and taking off on the short flight to Dangriga. I saw a Great Egret as we took off.

Arriving at Dangriga airport we were greeted by Patrick who was to drive us the 45 minutes to Jaguar Reef Lodge, our first destination, where my sister and family were waiting. At the airport a GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER was my first lifer of the holiday. I also added Magnificent Frigatebird, Great Kiskadee, White-collared Seedeaters (probably the commonest bird in Belize) and TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD, to the list on the transfer.

Tropical Mockingbirdbz-tropical-mockingbird
White-collared Seedeaterbz-wc-seedeater

Arriving at the Lodge we were greeted by my niece and sister, were given a welcome drink and invited to take lunch. After lunch they placed us in a tiny flat with 2 beds in one room. Bridgette complained that this wasn’t what we’d booked so we were briskly transferred to a first-floor 2-bedroom apartment with a balcony overlooking the sea and given $100 to cover their mistake, so already we were in pocket.

Whilst Michael and Bridgette settled in I decided to take off birding. Before I had left the grounds I had seen Brown Pelicans, more Frigatebirds, Blue-Grey Tanagers, which were nesting in the tree outside, and Clay-coloured Robin. I left the grounds and turned left along the Sittee River Road. On a patch of land cleared for development I saw a pair of PLAIN CHACHALACAS, the only Chachalaca in Belize, a Common Tody-Flycatcher, a beautiful BLACK-HEADED TROGON, a Ruddy Ground-Dove, a Dusky-capped Flycatcher and a Long-billed Hermit, a hummingbird. Other wildlife included a Black Iguana, a pair of Central American Whiptail lizards, the male in blue breeding colour and a Basilisk, whilst butterflies included ORANGE-BARRED SULPHUR, LITTLE SULPHUR, Cloudless Sulphur and Gulf Fritillary.

Plain Chachalacabz-plain-chachalaca

Deciding that it was far too hot to walk very far after a tiring couple of days I went and found the rest of the family at the pool bar, where you could sit in the cooling waters and drink beer whilst watching a continual passage of Frigatebirds, Pelicans and Vultures. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours!

Birding! Why?bz-birding

Sat 6th July 2013 

BIKES & BRUISES

I got up early as I always do on holiday as this was my time for birding. Bridgette was diving this morning with Sian and Michael decided on a lie-in.

I headed out and was soon racking up new species for the holiday list including Pale-vented Pigeons, a gorgeous male HOODED ORIOLE, a male GREY-CROWNED YELLOWTHROAT, two Muscovy Ducks, an Anhinga, a GIANT COWBIRD and a YELLOW-WINGED TANAGER and also a RED RIM butterfly. Not bad, four lifers before breakfast, it was going to be a good day, or that’s what I thought.

Carol called Michael and I after breakfast as there was a beautiful BOA CONSTRICTOR on a sunbed even before the Germans got there. Bridgette would’ve freaked if she’d been there.

Boa Constrictorbz-boa

We joined Carol, Ty and Jared to go for a bike ride. They had already sussed out routes the week before. The Lodge had a shed full of free to use cycles; you just had to pick one. We set off along the gravel and dry soil road in the direction of Sittee River Marina.

At the Marina we bought cool drinks and a juvenile ROADSIDE HAWK and a Green Heron went on to the holiday list. Also here was a Raccoon with two young, a Green Iguana, a Basilisk, a MEXICAN BLUEWING butterfly and a Pipefish species.

Green Iguanabz-green-iguana

Then the day went downhill, we started to ride back to the Lodge, Jared and Michael rode off with the exuberance of youth, Carol and Ty went to look at the beach and I was left alone. I should explain that these bikes didn’t have brakes or gears, pedal forwards, go forwards, pedal back, stop, but what happened was my own fault. I saw a dove on the overhead wires, looked up at it, didn’t see the rock in the road, and the next minute I cart-wheeled through the air and face-planted on the unforgiving road. It knocked the wind out off me, I was bleeding from cuts all up my left arm, had bent my right thumb right back, cut my lip and bruised my ribs on my left side, but all I was worried about was my bins and camera. I still hadn’t got up by the time Carol and Ty arrived. Eventually I got on the bike and shakily rode back to the Lodge. I went to the room and cleaned up and then went and sat in the hot tub to ease my bruises until Bridgette got back and I sheepishly explained what I’d done. I discovered that she’d been seasick on the way back from diving, and shortly after lunch Michael got stung three times by tiny jellyfish with a big kick.

After lunch I didn’t move from the pool until teatime when I felt a little better but the aches still haven’t gone away as I write 3 weeks later. I did add Social Flycatcher to the holiday list whilst in the pool though.

Sun 7th July 2013 

LOVELY BOATING WEATHER 

I awoke feeling battered but that wouldn’t keep me from my early morning walk. Carol had told me that the gardens of Hamanasi, the lodge next to us could be good, so I walked along the beach to there. I met their security guard, Francisco, as I entered the gardens and after a friendly chat, during which I got his life story, I managed to escape him and do some birding. Melodious Blackbirds were new for the holiday, as were two Roseate Spoonbills that flew over and a noisy Brown Jay. Everything else was fairly common though, three juvenile Clay-coloured Robins begged for food and a pair of Tropical Mockingbirds were with a juvenile. I had noticed that the Tropical Mockingbirds here had plain dark wings and didn’t show the white wingbars that the field guide depicted in 8 out of 10 birds. When I spoke to Charlton (Castillo), a local bird guide, about it he said it was just how they were locally but there were no other mockingbirds to confuse them with.

I returned for breakfast as we were all booked on an early boat up the Sittee River to hopefully see some birds and other wildlife.

The guide picked us up and we drove the short 15 minute drive to the marina where the boat was waiting. It was a very hot day again.

Once aboard we headed up river at a steady pace watching for birds and wildlife on the way, occasionally stopping if something good showed up.

Green Iguanas were seen quite regularly lolling around in the upper branches of riverside trees. New holiday birds included Mangrove Swallows, a Belted Kingfisher, a pair of BROWN-HOODED PARROTS, three male Masked Tityras, four Olive-throated Parakeets, a White-tailed Kite, five Bare-throated Tiger Herons, two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and a Common Black Hawk.

Five Proboscis Bats showed well roosting on a riverside tree trunk, we had seen these before in Costa Rica, where they called them Brazilian Long-nosed Bats, but the Latin name is the same. We also saw an American Crocodile and a tiny HERALDICA HAIRSTREAK butterfly, which perched on the boat for most of the trip.

We returned for lunch and spent most of the afternoon mucking about in the pool until the fierce heat had cooled a little, then I went for a walk along the Sittee River Road, shunning taking a bike this time.

Bare-throated Tiger Heronbz-btt-heron
Proboscis Batbz-proboscis-bat
Heraldica Hairstreakbz-heraldica-hairstreak

I saw the first Yellow-bellied Elaenia of the week almost immediately, one of the more recognisable of this difficult group of flycatchers, because of its scruffy crest. Then a very dark pigeon flew over and I could see it wasn’t one of the common Pale-vented Pigeons. It landed in a tree at the beach edge with the sun behind it, but once I saw its snowy white crown I knew it was WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON. I was pleased to get this one as I had missed it when I went to Key West in Florida.

I walked a bit further and came to some plots, between the road, a mangrove swamp and the sea, cleared for development. The lots were from $90,000 US but I don’t think I’d want to build a house here, open to flooding, mosquitoes, tidal waves and hurricanes. However it was a nice bit of habitat with pools forming where the land wasn’t draining (another good sign) and there were quite a few birds around. This included House Wrens and a Green Kingfisher, which were holiday ticks and a Common Black Hawk at a nest site and a loud Roadside Hawk amongst the commoner species. As it was getting dark I decided to return in the morning.

White-crowned Pigeonbz-wc-pigeon

Mon 8th July 2013 

FACING MY NEMESIS 

Bridgette, Michael and most of the rest of the family were snorkelling today so I had until early afternoon to amuse myself.

First thing I walked back to the development area before breakfast. A CINNAMON HUMMINGBIRD was feeding on flowers and perching on overhead wires as I left the property. A Great Blue Heron flew over and a Plain Chachalaca showed well. At the development area birds different to last night included a Black-headed Trogon, seven Brown Jays, a Blue-gray Tanager and two Double-crested Cormorants just offshore. On the beach and amongst the mangroves were some of the colourful Halloween Crabs and dozens of Fiddler Crabs dashing down their holes as I walked along. I also saw a Zebra Longwing, a common tropical butterfly. The birding got even better a little further along the road. I heard a pair of falcons calling and saw them flying towards me. They reminded me of Eurasian Hobbies. Then they perched together at the top of a nearby tree. I could tell from the prominent supercillium that they were APLOMADO FALCONS. I managed just one shot before they flew off so it’s not the best. In some bushes below where they were sat three small greenish birds were moving about but just giving glimpses. They had double white wing bars and one was singing. Eventually I got good views, they were MANGROVE VIREOS, but again they were not very photogenic so my best shot looks like a Mystery Bird photo.

I went back and breakfasted alone then decided I would face my Nemesis and get back on a bike and take a long circular bike ride, birding along the way.

I set off towards Hopkins and took the first left for Kendal, which bisected the marshes, before crossing a bridge and turning left for Sittee River marina. There was not much to see crossing the marsh but every bush seemed to have one of the tiny black and white male White-collared Seedeaters singing. To my ear they sounded a lot like our Willow Warblers when they sang. At the left turn to the marina I stopped as I could hear birds in the undergrowth beside the track, eventually I was able to see a RUFOUS MOURNER. A little further along I stopped to watch a couple of Groove-billed Anis and as I did a Muscovy Duck flushed out of a ditch almost causing me to fall off again. A little further still eight Kingbirds were on the wires together, I knew COUCH’S KINGBIRDS were in the area but separating them from Tropical Kingbirds is very difficult. The Belize field guide uses the same picture for both species because they are almost inseparable but it also says 1 in 5 birds is Couch’s. I had a flash of genius and checked my iPhone where I had a U.S. iBird Pro app with calls, Couch’s was on there, I played it and instantly two of the eight responded. When I later spoke to Charlton he said that he thought that Couch’s had a squarer tail, but he also said he wasn’t even sure they really existed as a species, splitting gone too far maybe.

Groove-billed Anibz-ani

I carried on to the marina, bought a cold drink, and then cycled along the road through the houses between the sea and the river, before returning for lunch. I saw little else that wasn’t common other than a couple of big Black Iguanas loafing beside the road.

After lunch I met with the family and we made our habitual retreat to the pool during the hottest part of the day. A Sandwich Tern (or Cabot’s, if you follow IOC rules) was offshore and new for the holiday. One of the one’s that got away here, whilst we were in the pool was a large tern species, which I saw on a couple of days, it was either Royal or Caspian Tern but was always too distant to be sure without optics.

In the early evening I went off for another ride along the road bisecting the marsh, there was no stopping me now. A male Grey-crowned Yellowthroat was again singing near the bridge. I added Variable Seedeaters to the holiday list and a SPOT-BREASTED WREN, which was bathing in a puddle, was a nice life tick to end the day on.

Tue 9th July 2013 

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE 

Today was transfer day, we were moving from the comforts of the coastal lodge to the humidity of the upland jungle at Mama Noots Eco Lodge in the Bocawina National Park.

I thought I’d have one last go at adding a couple more species before the 10am transfer. I headed out on foot this time along the same road as last night. I stopped when I got to the beginning of the marsh. An early morning jogger called out “Good morning” to me and in doing so flushed a PINNATED BITTERN from just a few yards from where I was stood. It flew to the other end of the marsh where it landed in reeds beside the road. I had really good flight views and when it landed it started calling but it didn’t show again. Other birds included nine Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a Common Black Hawk, two singing male Grey-crowned Yellowthroats, three Green Herons, three Great Egrets and a Muscovy Duck. As well as birding I should have been paying attention to the weather. Tropical storms happen very quickly, the sky had darkened considerably and by the time I heard the roar (I’m not kidding!) it was too late. The rain hit in a deluge, I ran for the only tree for miles, as did a passing motorcyclist, but within seconds I was soaked to the skin. I tried keeping my camera and books dry within my bag but it didn’t really work, at least my bins were waterproof. It soon became apparent it wasn’t going to ease and as there was no lightning nearby I headed home. I spent the rest of the morning using the hairdryer to dry stuff out but my field guide would never be the same again. On the plus side the PINNATED BITTERN was a real bonus bird.

Our transfer bus arrived on time and I grabbed the front seat so I could bird on the way, with everyone else happy, talking and sight-seeing. In Hopkins a Common Ground Dove and a Little Blue Heron were new and there were five Great Egrets in the marsh we crossed but no sign of the hoped for Jabiru. The water levels had just risen too much for it as it had been there a week earlier.

When we turned off the main road for the rough road up to Mama Noots two adult Plain Chachalacas and a chick were beside the road.

Disembarking from the air-conditioned minivan we could feel the rise in heat and humidity here. We were greeted by Stephanie Arnold, who was a very charming hostess throughout our stay. In The Wild Fig restaurant/bar which had no windows just mozzie screens we were given cold drinks whilst check-in formalities were completed. Bridgette and Carol concerned about snakes were told not to worry but we should just be “Jungle Savvy” when we were out on the trails. Then we were shown to our accommodation at the top of the grounds. In the grounds STRIPE-THROATED HERMIT, a hummer, was a tick and Blue-Black Grassquit was new for the holiday, a Black-headed Trogon showed well and Great Kiskadees, Social Flycatchers and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were almost always on view.

Golden-fronted Woodpeckerbz-gf-woodpecker
Great Kiskadeebz-great-kiskadee

We decided to make the most of our stay by immediately setting out on the toughest trail of all to Antelope Falls, where there was a pool you could swim in at 922 feet. It had stopped raining now and on their advice we had switched to long trousers and long-sleeved shirts to minimise insect bites. We bought the necessary permits for the Bocawina National Park at the rangers hut by the main gate for $10BZ each and then set off.

It started all very gently going over a river and then past the Mayan ruins of Maintzunan. Then the trail started to climb through thick jungle up a well-defined if muddy path, which required ropes as you got higher and higher. I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard going, Bridgette felt quite rough and had to stop a few times, with me lying through my teeth, saying “Look you can see the top now”, which translated meant “We’re all going to die”. We soon became soaked in sweat because the clothes protecting us from bites were causing us to overheat. It was a case of the lesser of two evils. Eventually we made the top in pretty good time and it was lovely to soak our feet in the cooling waters and get our breath back, the younger ones were swimming and jumping into the pool off a rocky ledge. As to the birds we heard plenty but saw little with Buff-throated Saltator the only bird seen well. Others were just frustrating flashes of colour and taunting calls and songs. We also saw many strange bugs, butterflies, fungi and plants. The only butterfly we identified was a BLUE CRACKER.

I may have been the last up the mountain doing a good job bringing up the rear, but I went down that hill like Indiana Jones and went straight to the bar. Stephanie gave me a glass of water and a bottle of beer without me even having to ask. I was really surprised that no-one joined me, everyone else disappearing for showers and a change of clothes. I didn’t care, the local Belikin Beer tasted good, and I wore my sweat and mud-stained clothes like a badge of honour.

In the evening we enjoyed a good home-cooked three course meal and a few drinks before all retiring at around 9pm.

We found out that the bugs were vicious and that the fans in the rooms just circulated warm air and the site, which was on solar power, was prone to fairly regular power cuts. With hindsight we should’ve upgraded to one of the huts with a mozzie cage so we could’ve sat out untroubled, although tiny little black no-see-ums passed through the mesh with ease and dotted us with bites in the night.

Wed 10th July 2013 

REALLY WILD! 

As ever I was out early, the dawn chorus sounded wonderful and exciting, full of unrecognisable calls and sounds. Two Yellow-winged Tanagers and a Long-billed Hermit were right outside the front door. Near the jungle’s edge at the start of the Bocawina Falls trail there was a beautiful Crimson-collared Tanager and two noisy Red-lored Parrots. Eventually everyone else rolled out of bed and we all went for breakfast. There were two new birds for the holiday whilst we ate, a stunning Golden-hooded Tanager and a Purple-crowned Fairy, a hummer, which I had seen in Costa Rica, but never as close as this one was.

After breakfast we decided to all walk up to Bocawina Falls, a much easier trail. As we left the grounds there was a Streak-headed Woodcreeper by the car park. Alongside the river we saw a Stripe-throated Hermit, a Spot-breasted Wren and a Black-headed Trogon showing well, close enough to see its pale blue eyering. We discovered a GIANT METALLIC CEIBA BORER, a 2” long beetle, which sounded like a small Chinook when it took off.

Giant Metallic Ceiba Borerbz-beetle

Near here I could hear a White-collared Manakin lek going on, the unmistakeable crack, which I had heard before was great to hear but the bird didn’t show. We heard another further along the trail but that was equally elusive.

Through the thicker jungle up to the falls, we again heard more than we saw, but a damselfly with white-tipped wings which rotated like a helicopter was interesting. Arriving at the falls we watched some other guests rappelling down it on ropes, trying to pretend it was fun as they got soaked through and bashed against the rocks. A huge Blue Morpho butterfly danced around us as we sat cooling down and taking drinks. We walked a little higher and some of the family had a swim, but the carnivorous insects persuaded me to remain clothed.

On the descent Michael, Jared and Sian went off in a hurry leaving us four oldies to enjoy the stroll. I spotted a BAT FALCON, a bit like a small Hobby, hunting above us in a jungle clearing. At this point I also spotted the sky which was a worrying purple colour and the first spot of rain started to fall. I also spotted a huge bird of prey, very high up with a white underside, moving at speed and quickly going out of sight. This was very frustrating as I was pretty sure it was King Vulture, which was high on my wanted list, but I couldn’t nail it. We decided to get a move on and made it to the restaurant to join the others just minutes before it became torrential. This made up our minds to take lunch and wait it out.

It didn’t really improve much throughout the afternoon so we sat out under the porch and watched the world go by. A large tree in the middle of the grounds attracted two Keel-billed Toucans and four Red-legged Honeycreepers, including a bright male and another BAT FALCON flew over.

We chatted over what to do over the next few days and decided to hire a car as it was a cheaper option than the organised trips run from here. We wanted to visit the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich and had been quoted $770 US for the seven of us. In the event car hire, petrol, ferry and guide cost us $200 US all in, so there were obvious savings to be made if you were prepared to drive, although it wasn’t problem free, but more of that later.

That evening after dinner a COMMON MEXICAN TREE FROG was on the door frame of an adjoining apartment.

Thu 11th July 2013 

XUNANTUNICH 

I went for an early walk as Bridgette was leaving on the transfer bus at 8am to pick up the car that we had organised from Dangriga.

I had a good couple of hours adding a few new species and getting a bird that was on my hated “Heard only” list. In the car park at first light there were two Common Pauraques, a nightjar species. Great Black Hawk and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher were also new for the holiday. As I entered the Bocawina Falls trail I could hear a LONG-BILLED GNATWREN, it has a distinctive call and it was on my “Heard only” list from Costa Rica. I was determined to see it this time, and I did after a patient wait. As its name suggests its bill is about ½ as long as its body length, a nice little bird, worth the wait and on my list! Returning to the room I added Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a pair of Black-headed Saltators and 10+ Vaux’s Swifts flew over the grounds. Unfortunately my “Heard only” list gained another species; I didn’t i/d it until I got home thanks to Charlton’s input, a mournful drawn out “hoooo” heard from at least three birds. They were SLATY-BREASTED TINAMOUS, I thought they were owls, if you listen here you’ll know why.

Bridgette arrived in a Toyota people carrier, which quickly became known as the “Mystery Machine”. It was a mystery where several integral parts of it were, but we did find the internal door handles in the glove-box. It left a lot to be desired but its condition had been noted by the hire company and we were only paying $75 US per day, which worked out pretty cheap for seven of us. It seemed to have a petrol tank the size of an eggcup and the thirst of an elephant, and we had a couple of episodes of running on fumes between the very scarce petrol stations in this part of Belize. However we were mobile and free to get around unaided.

We loaded up and set off for Xunantunich with a rough idea of the general direction to go. We stopped to watch a pair of White-tailed Kites at Middlesex, had our first COLLARED ARAÇARI on overhead wires at Camalote, stopped so Carol could do a Geocache in the wonderfully named Blackman Eddy and added Feral Pigeon to the holiday list in Santa Elena. We also got a bit lost in San Ignacio when we found the Hawksworth Bridge closed. It is a one lane suspension bridge built in 1949 and imported from Middlesbrough, England, which crosses the Macal River, linking San Ignacio to its sister-town Santa Elena. However the diversion wasn’t particularly well-signed but eventually after asking for directions we got back on course.

We arrived at Xunantunich and found we would need to cross the river on a hand-winched ferry to get to ruins on the other side. As soon as we stopped a cheerful official guide named Alberto Panti found us and offered a guided tour for $70 US for the seven of us. He was very good value and eased our way across the river and on to the ruins. Entrance was $10 BZ each. The Mayan ruins were spectacular and the photo speaks for itself. It was like being on the set of Tomb Raider. The climb to the top of the main temple was very hot going but worthwhile. In the near distance we could see Guatemala. There were a few birds to see here including a Violaceous Trogon, which was new for the holiday and a WEDGE-TAILED SABREWING, a hummer, was a lifer. A horrible squealing alerted us to another lifer; a GREEN-HEADED TREE SNAKE had caught and was swallowing a frog. It was nature in the raw and Bridgette did a huge loop to avoid it.

When we left the ruins we stopped to do another Geocache but it was in a hole in a tree, no-one would put their hand in there after seeing the snake, so I did it. It held a bottle-opener ring which I gave to Alberto who was delighted to receive such a simple gift and said he would impress all his friends with it. Back at the river crossing both Black Phoebe and a Neotropic Cormorant were both new for the holiday. We did a little souvenir shopping in the riverside market before heading home, just making it to the Dangriga petrol station having done 35 miles on empty! Important tip – if you hire a car and see the chance to fill it up, do it!

Xunantunichbz-xunantunich
The Magnificent Sevenbz-m7

Fri 12th July 2013 

MIXED FORTUNES WITH A HAPPY ENDING 

I was out at first light; it was too hot to sleep anyway. I walked a bit of the Bocawina Falls trail. I hadn’t gone 50 yards before I saw two rails on the trail, they were unmistakeably GRAY-NECKED WOOD RAILS, a target bird. The light wasn’t good enough to take photos so I filmed them instead which worked quite well. When the rails had gone I was surprised to find a small Terrapin in a puddle on the trail, it snapped shut on my approach and stayed shut. A little further on an Agouti ran across the path in front of me. Finally I had good views of a White-breasted Wood Wren.

At breakfast Stripe-throated Hermit, Purple-crowned Fairy and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird were around the flowers close to the restaurant.

We had decided to go to Blue Hole National Park and go cave tubing, i.e. travelling along an underground river in a tyre, however when we got to the gate as we left the warden flagged us down – the “Mystery Machine” had a flat back tyre. It was also at this point we discovered it had a jack but no jack lever and the spare looked decidedly ropey. Fortunately the kind warden had a jack and a truck full of tools and he helped Ty to change the tyre. So we were on our way again and saw a nice Squirrel Cuckoo further down the drive. We stopped at a garage and got the flat re-inflated and bought supplies for the day.

Arriving at Blue Hole N.P. their credit card machine would not accept any of the cards we proffered, their problem, not ours, and we didn’t have enough cash on us to go cave tubing (I tried desperately to hide my disappointment! J). Instead we bought N.P. permits and hired head torches and were going to walk some of the caves instead. After we had stumbled about in the dark for an hour we went back to the car and drove to the actual Blue Hole pool where you could swim. It was actually more of a Brown Hole as the warden told us because of the recent rains. Only Michael and Sian braved the muddy waters and the rest of us sat in the shade. I spotted a BRIGHT-RUMPED ATTILA, a flycatcher, in trees above the pool. Then I went on a short walk and had some good birds in the space of 15 minutes. I saw three White-tipped Doves, a pair of Black-faced Antthrushes, a Great Crested Flycatcher and a pair of GRAY-NECKED TANAGERS.

We decided to have a drive towards Santa Elena and explore some of the parks and waterfalls, however as we approached the Blue Hole visitor centre, Ty who was driving heard a horrible rumbling noise. We pulled in and were horrified to find that the front tyre was now flat and down to the rim. Thankfully park staff were on hand to provide a jack and help change the tyre again. Bridgette rang Michael, who had rented us the car and complained about our two-flat day. He agreed to meet us at Dangriga garage to sort things out. Things got a little worse here as Bridgette managed to drop her purse containing all our cash in the car park without noticing. We drove fairly slowly back to Dangriga garage using the reinflated tyre and the spare. As we waited for Michael Bridgette realised her loss wondering what to do. Michael met us at the garage, drove us back to Mama Noots and took the car for repair to return the next day. He made a series of calls to friends, park staff and the police and eventually managed to locate Bridgette’s purse, which would be delivered to a local farm for her to collect in the morning. We were thankful for help, effort and honesty of the Belizean people today.

With the day being pretty much a write-off I went for a walk around the grounds. In the hollow below the dam which provides water for Mama Noots I found a pair of Dusky Antbirds, a Yellow-Green Vireo, a White-necked Jacobin, a hummer, and a Scrub Euphonia, a small colourful finch. I also found a TARANTULA HAWK WASP that had stunned a Tarantula twice its size and was dragging it across the path.

After dinner we all went for a night walk to see what we could find. Best find was a tiny REDBACK COFFEE SNAKE, not much bigger than a large earthworm, but possibly still poisonous so we didn’t pick it up just in case. We also found the ever-present Common House Geckos, frogs, several spiders, Leaf-cutting Ants, Bats and lots of blood-sucking insects.

Redback Coffee Snakebz-coral-snake

Sat 13th July 2013 

NOW WE ARE THREE 

Today Carol, Ty, Jared and Sian were flying home so left on the 6:15am transfer to the airport. Bridgette went with them to pick up the “Mystery Machine” and fetch her purse from the farm. We were due to spend two more nights in the jungle but because of the stifling humidity coupled with the fact we had all been badly bitten we had arranged to go back to Jaguar Reef Lodge for the last two days to unwind a bit. Stephanie was very understanding and even reimbursed us one of the days, we weren’t the first to check out early and we certainly wouldn’t be the last. It would be good to go back outside of the rainy season when things are more bearable.

Whilst Bridgette fetched car and purse I had time for some final birding although it was somewhat hard going on a dense jungle trail near the Mayflower ruins in heavy rain. I managed to shelter through the worst of it. Best birds were a group of three Collared Araçaris, two Bat Falcons and a good range of hummers.

Bridgette arrived back, we said our goodbyes to Stephanie and headed back to Jaguar Reef Lodge at Hopkins where we were greeted like old friends.

After lunch Michael rested up whilst Bridgette and I headed out to Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve. Arriving at 4pm it was the wrong time of day to be going but we thought it might be good anyway. We added Dot-winged Antwren and Grey-chested Dove to the holiday list and saw two new mammals. The first a small group of BLACK HOWLER MONKEYS, two adults and a baby, and as we were leaving we had a close encounter with three GRAY FOXES in the car park.

Sun 14th July 2013 

BUMPING UP THE LIST 

Our last full day – Bridgette was going diving, I had booked a morning’s birding with Charlton, the local bird guide, and Michael opted to work on his tan poolside. I met Charlton at 6:30am together with an American couple, John and Lisa, two archaeologists who work on Xunantunich for three months each year. Lisa was very loud, at one point John asked her if she had to be so noisy, she said “It’s only because I appreciate the birds” to which he replied “Well appreciate them more quietly then!”, to which I had to stifle a laugh. A Northern Rough-winged Swallow flew over as we set off in Charlton’s truck. We stopped by the same dead tree I had thought should have something good in this time last week and today it did, a superb LAUGHING FALCON.  Just a little further on we stopped at an orchard that was alive with birds. There was a Greyish Saltator, a Common Black Hawk tending a chick at a nest, a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher, a Black-cowled Oriole, a GREEN-BREASTED MANGO, a hummer, with a nest, Crimson-collared, Yellow-winged and Blue-Grey Tanagers and 10+ Red-lored Parrots flew over. I spotted a Bare-throated Tiger Heron looking rather incongruous on a playing field. Five White-fronted Parrots flew over, an American Crocodile was seen in the river and a Green Kingfisher was spotted. Then Charlton drove down a very rough grassy trail where he was trying to find a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, but every one of the 19 vultures we checked were Turkey Vultures. We did have a nice male Red-legged Honeycreeper here and five Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and three Muscovy Ducks. Two Bat Falcons were sat in a roadside tree showing well near to the Serpon Sugar Mill. A Wood Stork was in the field opposite.

Common Black Hawkbz-black-hawk

We rejoined the main road and stopped before the right turn to Hopkins where a flock of hirundines had gathered; there were 6+ Tree Swallows and 3+ Purple Martins and also an Eastern Meadowlark perched on a fence post. We turn right for Hopkins and stopped again after a short way. A Black-headed Trogon was showing well, but better still Charlton had found us a LESSER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE. A little further still it got even better when he found two GREEN JAYS, a beautiful bird that was high on my wanted list. Also along this stretch of road we had two Brown Jays, a flyover Red-winged Blackbird, a Cattle Egret, the first for a while here, a Snowy Egret and a Great Egret. In Hopkins itself there was a White-winged Dove on the wires.

The end of the guided tour included the same boat trip I had already done, and although Charlton and I asserted that we wouldn’t get much from the boat, Lisa in particular was keen. We were right, we didn’t see a lot although four flyover White-crowned Parrots were new for the trip. Other notables included two Masked Tityras, three juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Herons, ten Olive-throated Parakeets, a Bat Falcon and another American Crocodile. Two of the smaller MORELET’S CROCODILES were on a pond as we left the marina to return to the Lodge. I thanked Charlton for the morning out, he was a friendly, knowledgeable guide and I would recommend him. The trip was organised through the reception at the Lodge and cost $70 US.

We all met up for lunch and decided to spend our last afternoon back at Cockscomb as Michael wanted to try and see monkeys, which we didn’t in the end. Michael however is an excellent bird and bug finder, he found me two lifers during the afternoon. He found CRESTED GUAN and RED-CROWNED ANT-TANAGER. Other good birds included White-collared Manakin, this time I heard it lekking and found the bird, a Black-faced Antthrush, an OLIVE-BACKED EUPHONIA, a pair of Dot-winged Antwrens, a pair of SULPHUR-RUMPED FLYCATCHERS, a pair of Red-legged Honeycreepers and a male Passerini’s Tanager. We also heard but did not see Montezuma’s Oropendolas, but we did see some of their hanging nests and finally two Grey Foxes again. So that was that, we went back to the Lodge to pack, had a nice evening meal and retired early.

Mon 15th July 2013

HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM (AGAIN!)

No two ways about it getting home was a trial, as mishap followed mishap, but we made it home safe and that was the main thing.

On the drive to the airport we were searched at a police checkpoint, who were looking for drugs, which delayed us a little, but fortunately the minivan in front was also destined for the airport so we followed it in. The flight from Dangriga was problem free, we checked in at Belize City and everything was back on track. Eventually however it transpired that our United flight to Houston would be delayed for five hours, due to a problem on the flight down. An old man got sick on the plane and had used 3 of the 6 plane’s oxygen bottles, but they couldn’t fly with less than 4 onboard, and replacements had to come from Houston. As a consequence we would miss our connection to London.

United booked us on a later flight, but told us we would have to collect our bags at Houston (which we didn’t), so we had to go through security twice, which caused us to only have 15 minutes to make the gate. The gate had closed, but thanks to a seasoned traveller with us, we persuaded them to take us onboard. So we just made it, but we weren’t sat together, however this was OK for me as I got a Premium seat. Then the in-flight entertainment didn’t work for the first couple of hours and of course our luggage wasn’t on the flight, it came home two days later.

None of that detracted from a really good holiday in a country with great wildlife (excluding mozzies), friendly people, nice beer and sunshine. I definitely want to go back and would recommend it as an introduction to Central America. I probably did less organised birding than usual but still managed 120+ species and 30+ lifers, as well as other new wildlife. There’s not so many pics as usual because it was too hot to lug the scope around to digiscope. A Diving and Snorkelling report by Bridgette is below. As ever if you want any further information drop me a line or if you find any errors let me know.

I also have a lot of unidentified pics so if anyone can help with any of these that would be good:

http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=262634 http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=262635 http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=262637

DIVING and SNORKELLING

by Bridgette

Belize has the second biggest barrier reef after Australia and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. We were staying on the coast nearest the Southern Cayes. 

Sian and I booked two separate days with two dives each day with the Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort.

We were looked after very well with all equipment available for hire and the dive guides were at all times attentive and cheerful, their knowledge of the dive sites clearly being shared with us all. They were mindful of divers experience and would keep close care of all within our party.

The first day’s dives took us on the Southern Barrier reef to Curlew Bank (dive max 18 metres) and Abyss (dive max 21 metres) which were drift dives. Our dive party consisted of six divers of various experience and nationalities with dive guide Martin. Descending to the reef with visibility up to 30 metres it was such a pleasure to be swimming in warm waters of 28°C. The reef contained corals and sponges in so many colours and shapes along with numerous species of fish, some crabs and lobster. I was impressed with the Azure vase sponges up to 2 metres in height. The highlights of these first dives were two Hawksbill Turtles that calmly made their way through the reef and below us off the reef wall we were lucky to have several ‘flybys’ of Eagle Rays, beautiful, large, effortless, majestic. They were often accompanied by the obligatory Remoras.

Eagle Ray & RemoraOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Between the two dives we travelled to one of the atolls stopping at a small jetty for snacks of fresh fruit and biscuits with soft drinks. In the water below the jetty Seahorses so cleverly disguised into their surroundings were also new to us along with various species of Pipefish. Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds were sat on branches watching over us. Our second dive gave us the same variety of life along the reef on top of the abyss wall, dropping off to deeper blue. On return to the boat we witnessed a pair of turtles mating on the surface – lots of flailing about in the swell!

Fish species seen on our dives were Goliath Grouper, Rock Hind, Red Hind, Bar Jack, Great Barracuda, Yellowtail Snapper, Midnight Parrotfish, Stoplight Parrotfish, Yellowhead Wrasse, Trunkfish, Sergeant Major, Four-eye Butterflyfish, Blue Chromis, Blue Tang and Nassau Grouper.

Hawksbill TurtleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second day’s diving was at South Water Caye – mid-reef and Jason’s Wall. The horizon when we set out was rather ominous with thunder clouds and some lightning bouncing off the far horizon. It was raining lightly as we reached our drop point so the dive guides directed us to stay together to aid pick up if conditions worsened. However, the storm went the other way and we had good conditions. Visibility was as good as ever. On our descent we were promptly alerted by our guide, Big Daddy, to a Loggerhead Turtle circling below us, we all made a safe descent to watch him for a few minutes. Similar species were again seen.

On our surface break, again at a beautiful atoll, one of the guides had speared some Lionfish. Because they are not native to the area they have no predators and are destroying the native life so people are encouraged to kill them. Our guide cut them up and was feeding a Pelican at very close quarters and threw pieces into the air for an opportunistic Frigatebird and several fish species – I guess Mike would have liked me to have got good close up photos but the dive proof camera may have to be on my birthday list.

On all our dive trips a school teacher from USA called Lopez made himself known to us all. He visits most summers, staying in Hopkins for several weeks, supporting the local community and enjoying his passion for diving. I wish to thank him for sharing some of his photos of our dives.

I was joined on a day’s snorkelling trip by Michael, Carol and Jared. Heading out to shallower waters our guides spotted some moving shadows in the water – we had found a group of five West Indian Manatees. A guide slid into the water to assess if they were staying around, yes, so we got the signal for us all to slip into the water without too much splashing. We all eagerly joined him in the water, finning quite hard trying to get within sight of the Manatees that were travelling at a fair rate. They continued in a large arc resulting in them passing under and by us all several times. We also spotted a large ray lying in the sand with just it’s eyes showing, observing it quietly for a few minutes it then became aware of us and lifted out of the sand to glide upwards and out over the reef – it was identified as a Rough-tail Stingray, approx 2 metres across and slightly longer long nose to tail. We later saw a slightly smaller one. Our snorkel trip continued with an astonishing array of fish, corals, sponges and fans. Michael unfortunately was struggling with a slightly inferior snorkel and his fins cut into his toes. After our surface break again with fruit, biscuits and drinks I swopped snorkels and some kind person lent him some dive socks, this made for a really good second snorkel with a new found confidence and greater experience to be had. By the second trip everyone was more confident and were all keen to raise attention to new sightings for the entire group. We were treated to a second swim with the Manatees at the end of the trip.

West Indian Manateesbz-manatees

Recommended Bird Guide

Charlton Castillo       charltoncastillo@yahoo.com

Recommended Book

Birds of Belize – H. Lee Jones/Dana Gardner – Helm Field Guide

© Mike & Bridgette King 2013 The Gloster Birder

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