Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Raptors of Belize

As a Raptor Biologist I feel it is my duty to create a blog post dedicated to the many raptors we observed on our recent trip to Belize. This is a follow up to my first post on the trip - The Pursuit of Wild in Belize.

We tallied 29 raptor species for the trip, but not the most wanted, the Harpy Eagle. They are extremely rare in Belize with only one known nesting pair. We saw all but one of the possible falcons in the area, missing only the Aplomado Falcon.

The Vultures.

We would see all four possible vulture species in Belize. The ubiquitous Black Vulture is seen everywhere, sometimes in groups of 30-40 soaring birds.

Black Vulture.

Often mixed in with the Black Vultures are the second most numerous species, and one that is seen in Idaho, the Turkey Vulture. While Turkey Vultures are also in Idaho, the non-migratory subspecies we observed in Belize is unique from the migratory subspecies found in Idaho.

Turkey Vulture.

Another species often intermixed with the Black and Turkey vultures is the closely related Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. It is very similar to the Turkey Vulture in flight. Unfortunately I would fail to get a decent photo of its unique face. The biggest of all the vultures is the King Vulture. They are more difficult to observe and photograph as they are often seen flying high overhead. We observed them on at least four occasions including both adults and juveniles.

The Kites.

The most numerous of raptors we observed was the Snail Kite. While we mainly observed them at Crooked Tree, we did report a total of 60 individuals in one evening! They were amazing. They forage for snails over water. You might assume, as I did, that snails would be rather easy prey, but there is a bit more skill involved. The snails climb up out of the water onto the reeds to lay their eggs. If they see a Kite coming, they simply drop off into the water where they are safe. Thus, the kites do have to be stealthy. With that said, we did watch many successful attacks.

Snail eggs on plants - pink = non-hatched, white = hatched.

Juvenile Snail Kite.

Adult Snail Kite.

The other kites were much less numerous with only one or two sightings each - Hook-billed Kite, White-tailed Kite, and Double-toothed Kite.

The Hawks.

The most ubiquitous of the hawks in Belize is the Roadside Hawk, although it is not always seen on the roadside. We probably observed 30 or more of these during our travels. On the Trogon Trail in Crooked Tree we tallied eight birds on a two mile hike. Some of those were juveniles still partially dependent upon their parents. They were vocalizing back and forth regularly.

Adult Roadside Hawk.

Juvenile Roadside Hawk.

Adult Roadside Hawk.

Black is a popular color for hawks in Belize. We saw the Common Black-Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Black-collared Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, and even the Crane Hawk is black. And some "black" hawks we saw remain unidentified. They do each have their unique markings, unique flight style, and unique habitat so it is not quite as hard as it seems. Helping matters is that not all juveniles of these species are black and some, as in the Black-collared Hawk have very distinctive non-black markings.

Juvenile Great Black-Hawk.

Black-collared Hawk.

But there are other colors as well, such as the White Hawk and the Gray Hawk, but we wouldn't see the Bi-colored Hawk.

White Hawk.

Gray Hawk.

The Falcons.

Belize is a falcon paradise. Whether it was a Peregrine Falcon stooping on a Magnificent Frigatebird, an Orange-breasted Falcon stooping on a Turkey Vulture, or an Orange-breasted Falcon delivering a Squirrel Cuckoo to the nest, falcons stole the show. We even saw a few American Kestrels which are supposed to be rare in Belize this time of year. The most pervasive would be the Bat Falcon. Our first pair were apparently nesting on the tower at the airport! We would also see them at a few of the Mayan ruins we visited. I wonder of the Mayan culture had any special acknowledgment of these birds?

Orange-breasted Falcon.

Female Orange-breasted Falcon delivering Squirrel Cuckoo to the nest.

Bat Falcon on airport tower!

Laughing Falcon.

The Owls.

Owls are generally harder to add to trip lists. Their general nocturnal nature make them very difficult to find. The fatigue from our daily routine coupled with the uncertainty of hiking in unknown lands in the dark, limited our pursuit of these species. A few of them did grace our presence. At the Mayan Mountain Lodge we heard both the Vermiculated Screech-Owl and a Mottled Owl. We narrowed the Mottled Owl down to a single tree, but our lights weren't bright enough to find it in the 60 foot high canopy. A diurnal species, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was a bit more accommodating. We found three of these guys during our travels. One was particularly photogenic. I was fascinated by the fake eye-spots on the back of its head. I am definitely painting those on my goshawk tree climbing helmet!

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl fake eye-spots.

The complete raptor trip list:

  1. Black Vulture
  2. Turkey Vulture
  3. Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
  4. King Vulture
  5. Osprey
  6. Hook-billed Kite
  7. White-tailed Kite
  8. Snail Kite
  9. Double-toothed Kite
  10. Black Hawk-Eagle
  11. Black-collared Hawk
  12. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  13. Crane Hawk
  14. White Hawk
  15. Common Black-Hawk
  16. Great Black-Hawk
  17. Roadside Hawk
  18. Gray Hawk
  19. Short-tailed Hawk
  20. White-tailed Hawk
  21. Laughing Falcon
  22. American Kestrel
  23. Merlin
  24. Bat Falcon
  25. Orange-breasted Falcon
  26. Peregrine Falcon
  27. Vermiculated Screech-Owl
  28. Mottled Owl
  29. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl


Unknown said...

Hi Rob,
You should consider Hidden Valley Inn for your next visit, we are home to many raptors, including the Black and White Hawk Eagle, Grey Headed Kite, Orange Breasted Falcons, Solitary Eagles and much more including the elusive Stygian Owl. We work closely with the Peregrine Fund each year when they do their OBF releases from their hack site. Check us out
Beverley Daguise ~ GM Hidden Valley Inn

Unknown said...

Hi again Rob,

I forgot to mention that we have King Vultures up here as well visible from King Vulture Falls. Beautiful birds!

Kind Regards

wolf21m said...

Beverley, Thanks for stopping by. We did consider Hidden Valley, but it was a little outside of our price range. It is a beautiful area. 1000-ft falls is one of the places we saw the King Vulture.

Unknown said...

Rob, these are phenomenal pictures! Thanks for diligently posting your adventure!