First birds sighted at the Belize Airport: Tropical Mockingbird on the fence, Great-tailed Grackles everywhere, Tropical Kingbirds and Hooded Warblers round out the Airport list!
Now it's into the van and off to the Ramada Royal Reef Hotel, birding along the way. Arriving at the hotel we discover it's the final day of the First International Music Festival being held on the Ramada's grounds. Little did we know that this would mean room-vibrating-Reggae-music going on til 5 a.m. the next day!!! Argh, it's a sleepless night - but the birds will be there in the morning!
The hotel has a nicely landscaped garden area that surrounds the pool area, and this is where our early morning walk takes us.
Darting about the tops of the trees we find some old friends from back home: Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, and American Redstart. We also make some new acquaintances with the local inhabitants: Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Blue-gray Tanager, White-collared Seedeater, Great Kiskadee, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove and Ruddy Ground-Dove.
On the ocean side of the hotel: Brown Pelican, Caspian Tern, and Spotted Sandpiper. Yellow-crowned Night Heron is spotted under the palms. Barn Swallows, Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures fly overhead.
Birding from the van on the way to Xunantunich we see: Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture on the ground in a field, Great Egrets, Snail Kite; Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sharing the power lines with Belted Kingfisher. Great Black-Hawk and Common Black-Hawk perch in close proximity to each other providing a good chance for comparison between them. Northern Jacana with young in a flooded field! Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets in the background.
Farther out of town we find the familiar Cattle Egret and Tricolored Heron. But what's that flying overhead!! The van screeches to a halt and we all pile out... the thermals are full of soaring shapes!
Our leader is excited, "There's the King Vulture!" he exclaims. "And a Solitary Eagle!" Wow! Turkey and Black Vultures and a lone Wood Stork round out the kettle overhead! Good birding!
Reluctantly we get back in the van and continue on our way.
Groove-billed Ani start appearing (we will see many of them) as we get closer to the ferry that will take us to Xunantunich. Unfortunately the ferry isn't running due to the high water and swift current (a destroyed canoe is being pulled from the water by an outfitter). Despite our disappointment in not getting to see Xunantunich we are rewarded with Mangrove Swallow, Green Kingfisher and Social Flycatcher along the river!
Along the rutted dirt road to the Panti Trail: more Groove-billed Ani, Vermillion Flycatcher, Couch's Kingbird, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Brown Jays, Bronze Cowbird, Blueblack Grassquit and Roadside Hawk! Squirrel Cuckoo, White-tailed Kite and mysterious unnamed hummingbirds await us along the Panti Trail. (we feel sorry for Edward our driver/guide because as he is doing his best to tell us all about the medicinal properties of all the plants - we're more interested in the tree tops, binoculars glued to our eyes! Crazy American Birders!)
After a short walk along the Panti Trail we again board the van and head to Cahal Pech (the "tick place"). It's amazing that this 15 person van without four-wheel drive can climb these 45 degree muddy rutted inclines!
Immediately upon entering the clearing in front of Cahal Pech we focus in on a ficus (?) tree to the left. White-crowned Parrots are spotted! Swainson's Thrush and Yellow-winged Tanagers flit amongst the leaves.
We spend some time climbing the excavated Cahal Pech and bird our way back to the parking area. Masked Tityra are seen as well as Yellow-green Vireo, Plain Chachalaca, Red-eyed Vireo, White-throated Robin (Thrush), Red-throated Ant- Tanager, Spot-breasted Wren and Barred Woodcreeper! Good birds one and all!!
It's dark under the trees as we head down the main trail. Worm-eating, Black-and- White, Prothonotary and Blue-winged Warblers are found. I think I see the familiar Red-bellied Woodpecker but realize it's actually the Golden-fronted Woodpecker! Further along the trail.... Smoky-Brown woodpecker, Dusky Antbird, Yellow- bellied Elaenia, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper and Olivacious Woodcreeper.
As we are chasing the Woodcreepers around the parking/picnic area for better views - I see an unfamiliar shape fly into the trees to the right. What the hell is that?!
I call everyone's attention to the new arrival and we oooh and ahhh! It's a Black- headed Trogon! Our first Trogon of the trip! Great way to wrap up our visit to Guanacaste!
Back in the van, long drive back to the hotel, we're all tired but happy. It's been a busy, hectic day of birding in Belize. Tonight we'll be able to sleep soundly - the music festival is over. Tomorrow we leave for four days in Chan Chich! I can't wait......
We board the van for the short trip to Belize City's Municipal airport and hit the tarmac with binoculars in hand. Airport birding is good!
We find Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Common Black-Hawk, Yellow-green Vireo, Hooded Oriole, Groove-billed Ani, Frigatebird, Plain-Breasted Ground- Dove and our old friends Osprey and Willet.
We take the single engined puddle-jumpers due west for a thirty minute flight to Gallon Jug. The jungle looks vast and green from above.
Landing at Gallon Jug, we wait for the other two planes that carry our fellow travelers. No time to waste - let's bird while we wait! In the immediate vicinity: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Brown-Crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Turkey Vulture, Tropical Kingbird, Roadside Hawk, Cattle Egret, American Kestrel, Eastern Kingbird, Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher!
The other planes arrive and we excitedly tell everyone about the sightings of the last few minutes. They scramble around and confirm our observations.
The "bus" is waiting to take us to Chan Chich and we can't wait!
How can I describe Chan Chich? A Disney-esque view of Tarzan's world built in the clearing of an ancient Mayan market square? Roughing it in luxury? The Garden of Eden in a tropical rain forest? My meager words can't describe the place. It must be seen and experienced to be believed! The accommodations are first rate, the water is safe, the food is exceptional, the grounds are immaculate, the service outstanding, your hosts are friendly and helpful to the n-th degree! AND THE BIRDS ARE EVERYWHERE! I must go back soon!!!)
After heartfelt farewells to our hosts Tom & Josie Harding, we slowly begin to walk down the road.
Scrub Euphonia, Scaled Pigeon, Yellow Warbler, Melodius BlackBirds, Social Flycatchers, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Dusky Antbird and White-Tailed Kite see us off on the rest of our journey.
An Ornate Hawk-Eagle had been heard earlier in the morning, but it would not allow itself to be seen by us as a going away present.
The water level was very high at Crooked Tree, seemingly four to six inches (or more) deep in places across the road leading in. We are met at the sanctuary headquarters by Sam, our Belize Audubon Society leader for our visit.
We follow his jeep to his newly created "hotel" (two rooms with a view) for lunch. Delicious chicken 'n rice, and plantains prepared by his resident chef (his wife). The Grapefruit juice is great! (and I don't usually like grapefruit). But the birds around his yard are great too: Tropical Gnatcatcher, Baltimore and Yellow-backed Orioles, Vermillion Flycatcher, and White-tipped Dove join us for lunch.
Back to the Crooked Tree HQ, we board a single engine outboard tour boat for an excursion around the lake(?). Wildlife seems few and far between due to the high water. Lots of Jacana can be found but our target birds are missing! No Sungrebes! No Black-Collared Hawks! No Boat-billed Herons! For what seems like forever we cruise round and round with no luck. But wait! One lifer flies overhead! It's a wild Muscovy Duck! This one is a joy to see, unlike the common/domestic ones back home.
Finally heading back towards the dock, a shape is noticed in the trees to the left. We slow to a crawl and stop and look. It's the elusive Black-Collared Hawk! Perched in all his glory! Beautiful!
Sam our guide keeps promising that we will see the Boat-billed Heron too! He guarantees it with a smile! We wonder if a full color picture awaits us at the HQ, or maybe he has a tattoo of it on him?
When we finally reach the dock, it's a joy to stand of firm ground and stretch! (those wooden seats on the boat were HARD). We climb back into the van and follow Sam's lead further into town. Soon we pull up along side the road, kids play in the front yard of home to our right. To our left, behind another house, we see a stand of trees in what appears to be the middle of a lagoon. And there, as promised, mixed in with other herons and egrets is the Boat-billed Heron! It's a rookery or roost of somekind, and it's Sam's ace in the hole for birds! It's great to have a local guide!
Leaving Crooked Tree we drive slowly, scanning the underbrush along the road. We've been lead to believe the elusive Gray-necked Wood-Rail is found here. Mort, our leader, quickly calls for our driver to stop! He's seen the Wood-Rail slinking back into the bushes. I catch a very brief look at it (not enough for me to tick it off) and it appears as if no one else even got that much of a look. We sit and wait for awhile but the Wood-Rail remains elusive and does not return.
It's been a long day of birding, flying, sitting and waiting and we head on back towards the Ramada Royal Reef where we hope we can get a good nights sleep without the Music Festival from last weekend.
The phrase "forty miles of bad road" keeps repeating in my head. The weather has finally turned against us! After seven days of excellent weather, today is overcast, misty, drizzling and rainy. The "road" is bumpy, washed out and muddy. I am still amazed this van continues to tackle these conditions and survives to drive another day!
The birds are few and far between!
Only two new species of note are seen throughout the long day. We all finally get good looks at the Grey-necked Wood-Rail when we drive up behind a family of them crossing the road. And Acorn Woodpeckers make many appearances at the camp area at the turn-off to Rio Frio. The first Woodpecker seen was actually in a bucket hanging on the side of a building! It kept poking it's head out, very strange sighting indeed!
Rio Frio is a cave (more like a tunnel actually) that is the largest river cave in Belize. Well worth the visit and a great photo opportunity! Don't forget your camera!!!
"Forty miles of bad road" starts to play again in my head as we drive on thru the rain. We return to the hotel road weary and van tired.
Thank you Belize, I WILL return!
[Personal thanks to: Tropical Audubon Society trip coordinator Jean St. John and trip leader/birder extraordinary Mort Cooper; fellow adventurers Jack & Judy (who had to leave the trip too early), Jorge and Maggie, Ellen, Tracy, Ginger, Todd, and Marty. Hats off to our Belize driver/resident birder Edward who put up with this bunch of crazies from the States. And a heartfelt salute to Tom & Josie & Norman who make Chan Chich such a wondrous place - I Shall Return!
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