Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Water Birds of Belize

This is the third post in a series based on Karyn and I's recent trip with two birder/biology friends to Belize. This post is focused on water birds, while the the previous posts included a general overview of the trip - The Pursuit of Wild in Belize - and a post focused on - The Raptors of Belize. I intend a few more posts in the series including one on Mayan ruins and another on the remaining birds not covered in this and the raptor post, so be sure to check back.

Having spent time on Caye Caulker and in the lagoons of Crooked Tree, we did quite well in our observation of water birds. The two top desires from a water bird perspective were to see an Agami Heron, which would be a life bird for all of us, and to see all five Kingfisher species including another group lifer, the Pygmy Kingfisher. I am happy to report that we were successful in each of these endeavors!

The Herons.

We were successful in seeing every heron species in the country, with the exception of the Bitterns. They are a bit more secretive and difficult to track down. The highlight of course was the Agami Heron. We had chosen to go to Crooked Tree specifically for this bird, although as one of the top birding locations in the country we were happy to see many others. On our first night there we were disappointed to hear that it was the wrong season for Agami Herons. The water level was too high. They were expected to be far up in the creeks. Regardless, we booked an early morning boat ride to head as far up Spanish Creek as we could go in a 3-hour tour. We arranged with the guide to omit much of the usual lagoon tour that we had seen with another guide a few days before, and head straight for the creek. Wow, we had an amazing tour seeing four of the five kingfishers and all of the herons, including the Agami!. It may have been a juvenile, but none of us were complaining. Look at the size of that beak! The Boat-billed Heron was another prize. Green Herons were probably the most abundant bird on our Spanish Creek boat trip, tallying over 60 sightings. Wow.

Juvenile Agami Heron. Crooked Tree.

Great Blue Heron. Crooked Tree.

Tri-colored Heron. Caye Caulker.

Little Blue Heron. Crooked Tree.

Green Heron. Caye Caulker.

Boat-billed Heron. Crooked Tree.

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Caye Caulker.

Black-crowned Night-Heron. Crooked Tree.

Pale-throated Tiger-Heron. Crooked Tree.

The Egrets.

The egrets may not be as exciting as we have all three species here in Idaho. With that said, they are amazing birds and fun to watch. In addition to the Great and Cattle Egrets pictured below, a number of Snowy Egrets also presented themselves.

Great Egret. Crooked Tree.

Great Egret. Crooked Tree.

Where else would you find a Cattle Egret?

The Kingfishers.

Belize has five kingfisher species, one of which is present in Idaho - the Belted Kingfisher. For our first few days on Caye Caulker, Belted Kingfishers were all that we would see. Even the first day at Crooked Tree presented only Belted Kingfishers. We were once again told it was the wrong season for the others. That would change on our boat ride to Spanish Creek. We would see Belted and three other species - Ringed, Green, and Pygmy Kingfishers. Later in the trip we would see numerous Amazon Kingfishers completing the list. The Pygmy Kingfisher was fantastic. It was in low light as the sun had not yet fully risen, but we watched it on its perch then watched as it dove in the water after prey. A nearby Green Kingfisher was visible at the same time for size comparisons.

Pygmy Kingfisher. Crooked Tree.

Green Kingfisher. Crooked Tree.

The largest - The Ringed Kingfisher. Crooked Tree.

Ringed Kingfisher. Crooked Tree.

The Others.

Not to dimish the other water birds, there were some fantastic finds. Numerous Sungrebes presented themselves, which is a rare find. Our early morning start definitely helped.

Sungrebe. Crooked Tree.

The White Ibis as another fantastic find. We had a few on Caye Caulker, but on our first boat ride in Crooked Tree we watched as hundreds flew into the roost for the evening. The picture does not represent the volume of birds. The tree looked full as we watched many additional groups of 50-60 birds each come into the tree. Listening to the racket they were making was amazing. We reported a conservative number of over 360 birds! There could have been double that.

White Ibis and Neotropical Cormorants roosting for the night. Crooked Tree.

White Ibis. Caye Caulker.

Another favorite is the Northern Jacana. They were everywhere at Crooked Tree. I love their long toes which help them walk on floating vegetation. Their wings are a beautiful greenish yellow when they fly.

Northern Jacana. Crooked Tree.

Northern Jacanas in flight. Crooked Tree.

I've always wanted a great photo of a Roseate Spoonbill, but they are always so far away. This is better than I've captured before, but still not what I wanted. They are such funky birds.

Roseate Spoonbills. Crooked Tree.

Clearly Belize is a fantastic place for water birds, specifically Crooked Tree.

Anhinga. Crooked Tree.

Gray-throated Wood-Rail. Crooked Tree.

Willet. Caye Caulker.

Limpkin. Crooked Tree.

Wait, I forgot the Frigatebirds, Pelicans, and the Cormorants... Too many birds, too many pictures...

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

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.

Jungle.

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.