Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Pursuit of Wild in Belize!

Karyn and I just returned from an excellent trip in pursuit of wild birds, wild fish, wild animals, and wild culture in Belize. We found most of that and more on our 12 day adventure into the sea and into the jungle. We were traveling with two biologist and birding friends of ours Heidi and Jay, which made for a great wildlife obsessed adventure. We tallied many fish species including two turtle species, nurse sharks and three types of rays, over 250 bird species, 3 Mayan ruins, many new fungi (Heidi is also obsessed with mycetes!), and both annoying and non-annoying insects. The only real disappointment of the trip is the relatively few mammal species we found and no sightings of poison dart frogs. This post is the first of a series of posts covering our trip. This post will provide a general overview. Look forward to future posts on raptors, water birds, jungle birds, and Mayan ruins, so check back soon for an update

Bird nerds! Jay, Rob, Karyn.

The trip to Belize required an overnight stop in Houston. We had hoped to pick up a few bird observations while there, but arriving after midnight and flying out in the morning didn't help. Rock Pigeons from the terminal would be all that we would see. That would change a few hours later as we landed in Belize City. As we rode in the taxi on the way to the docks, the species count started to grow.

The first destination, and our home for three nights, was Caye Caulker a one hour boat ride out from Belize City. Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and Laughing Gulls escorted us on our way, while Royale Terns and Sandwich Terns welcomed us to the island.

Caye Caulker waterfront.

First lunch on Caye Caulker - Jay, Heidi, Rob.

We had made reservations beforehand at the Tropics Hotel, a beachside hotel not far from the arrival dock. We chose the Tropics as they also operated the snorkel tours in which we wanted to participate.

Beachside hotel on Caye Caulker.

Little did we know that the hotel butted up against the Oceanside Nightclub. The Oceanside runs Karaoke from 9pm until midnight, then dance music until 4am! After the bar closes, the party moves out in front of the hotel. On the final night the party moved into the hotel. Heroin and prostitutes in the room between Heidi's and ours. Nice! The beds were also the worst I have ever slept on. $20 a night wasn't worth it. Other than no sleep at night, our stay on the island was fabulous. No cars on the island, just walking, bikes, and golf carts. We birded morning and night. The snorkel trip to the Hol Chan marine reserve was great. Swimming with Southern Stingrays, Rough-tailed Stingrays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Nurse Sharks, Green Sea Turtles, Hawksbill Turtles, and tons of fish was outstanding. The coral formations were some of the best I have seen. The Caye Caulker Marine reserve was equally fantastic. We snorkeled there on a custom birding/snorkel trip we put together with some local conservationist's. They didn't have a great boat, but did provided us access to the Caye Caulker Forest Reserve for birds and some excellent snorkel locations.

After three short days it was time to put the sea behind us and head into the jungle.

Returning to the mainland we rented a car and headed to Crooked Tree. This is a hardcore birding destination with not much else to do. There is not a single nightclub in the place! We stayed at Tillet's Village, a huge step up from The Tropics hotel. We were the only ones there and received excellent service. They did try to jack the price up on us, so if you plan to stay there make sure you work that out in advance. The advantage of Crooked Tree is boating the lagoons. Boats provide an excellent way to cover lots of ground and see birds up close, many that you would never see walking on land.

Tillet's Village, Crooked Tree.

Dinner at Tillet's Village. Karyn, Jay, Heidi.

The first night we boated the northern section of the lagoon with the guide from Tillet's Village.

First boat ride at Crooked Tree.

Sunset at Crooked Tree.

The highlight of the first boat ride was seeing 20-30 Snail Kites, Northern Jacanas, Herons, and Egrets. At sunset we watched hundreds of White Ibis fly into their roosting site. Fork-tailed Flycatchers watched us from short grass. On the walk back from the boat we found numerous Common Pauraque jumping for insects.

The next day we hiked local trails finding many land based species, but the highlight was the Vermillion Flycatcher. They were everywhere!

Vermillion Flycatcher. Crooked Tree.

On our final day at Crooked tree, we got up very early for a dawn boat ride to Spanish Fork on the south end of the Crooked Tree lagoons. This was arranged through the Bird's Eye View lodge, a higher end lodge. The guide was excellent and this boat ride was clearly one of the highlights of the trip. We were in search of the Kingfishers and the Agami Heron. We would find four of the five Kingfisher species and one juvenile Agami Heron among many, many other species I will highlight in a later blog post.

Spanish Creek Boat Ride. Crooked Tree.

Our days quickly passed - time to move on to our next destination, the Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve. While seeing Jaguars in the wild is an extremely rare event, we had to give it a shot. We stayed at Nu'uk Chi'el just off the road into the preserve. This was another step up in quality. minutes after our arrival we were amazed by the sight and sound of more than 50 parrots flying overhead. The cottages are managed by one of the five famous Mayan sisters. They are well known for their artwork and we would later find many references to the five sisters. The owners were interesting to listen to as they told their stories. Aurora told us her life history and the story of the five sisters, while her husband told us the challenges of being a leader of the community under a crisis (many teenage suicides in the past few months). We enjoyed their company and their cottages. They use no pesticides so the grounds were covered in flowers, many insects, and of course, tons of birds. Many tanagers, toucans, aracaris, flycatchers, and warblers welcomed us there. Heidi found two different tarantula species!

Dinner hut at Nu'uk Che'il near Cockscomb.

The trails of Cockscomb were our best chance of seeing a Jaguar. Unfortunately we would not. We did find a popular prey species of the Jaguar, a Red Brocket Deer.

Red Brocket Deer. Cockscomb.

We also added Howler Monkeys to the trip list. The birds cooperated by presenting many new species for the trip. We hiked up to a lookout in the sweltering heat, then hiked back down in the rain. We later swam in the river as we watched the fifth Kingfisher species of the trip fly by - the Amazon Kingfisher. Therefore we saw all five possible kingfisher species on the trip! We expected poison dart frogs, but we didn't see any. We did find this forest frog and a few toads.

Frog on Cockscomb trails.

The trip continued to fly by. It was now time to head for our final destination, the San Ignacio area. Here we would diversify our focus from birds to spend more time at Mayan ruins, which just happen to be great places for birds! The accommodations continued to increase in quality. We chose the Mayan Mountain Jungle Lodge. It cost 3-4 times what the Tropics Hotel charged, but was hundreds of times better! Great environment, great food, clean rooms, etc. The owners spent time talking to each table at breakfast and dinner. They even made box lunches for our daily adventures. On the grounds of the lodge we also found some very rare species for the area including a Black-throated Blue Warbler. A Blue-crowned Motmot greeted us daily as well as nearly a dozen Ladder-backed Wrens.

Maya Mountain Lodge near San Ignacio.

Blue-crowned Motmot.

Next up was a trip to the Caracol Mayan ruin. This involves a 50 miles drive on a rough gravel road. The road is tough on vehicles and has a reputation for attracting Guatemalan bandits as it is near the border. Therefore a military escort is "highly recommended". We chose to forgo the military protection and head in an hour and a half early. Therefore we had the place to ourselves until the convoy arrived.

Tropical rainforest on drive to Caracol.

Road to Caracol.

The temples were fantastic. I'll focus a later blog post on the area. This city was one of the power centers of the Mayan empire and thrived for 1500 years. It was fascinating to imagine the city at the height of its prosperity.

Caana temple. Caracol. Jay, Heidi, Karyn climbing down.

Strangler Fig.


Montezuma Oropendola nest near Caracol. Heidi, Jay, Rob.

We wanted to stay longer, but the military escort on the return trip was less optional. The man with the gun explained how important it was that we leave. He made very valid points. If something did happen, it would impact the whole local tourist economy for years to come. We reluctantly agreed and departed on our way. It was interesting that the very next day at a ruin that straddles the border with Guatemala, there would be no escort, and no guards at all. We were free to walk to Guatemala if we wanted to.

Next up was El Pilar, a Mayan ruin which remains largely unexcavated. The book says it requires a bit more imagination. It was great to see the contrast from the fully excavated Caracol. It too was very enjoyable to explore and we could stay as long as we wanted. We found tons of birds along the road to the ruin and at the ruin.

Unique approach to birding ON the road to El Pilar. Jay, Heidi, Rob.

Karyn preferred the car.

That afternoon we hit one more ruin just outside of San Ignacio - Cahal Pech - "Land of the ticks!".

The final day arrived. How could it go so fast... The schedule for the day was to once again brave the rough road toward Caracol, but turn off toward 1000-foot falls. Orange-breasted Falcons were rumored to nest here. We would not be disappointed in our pursuit as two falcons demonstrated their aerial skills by first stooping on a Turkey Vulture, then later delivering food to the nest - a Squirrel Cuckoo!

Orange-breasted Falcon with Squirrel Cuckoo at 1000-ft Falls.

From the falls we headed back toward Belize City spending the night in Belmopan. A quick 45 minutes in Guanacaste park in the morning, then a dash to the airport for the long, but uneventful flight home.


April said...

Beautiful pics, I'm sure it's even better in person. Keith and I had dreamed of a trip to Belize, so I'm bookmarking this! Can't wait to see/read more.

Amy said...

Awesome intro to the trip, I can't wait to read more. That oropendola nest is crazy!