Sunday, 22 February 2015

Belize 2015: first day at Chan Chich

The next morning my eyes open long before dawn and my ears take in the night-time soundscape of the forest at Chan Chich. This is one of my favourite places in which to wake up: I love to lie in the guides' cabin here and just listen to the forest come alive. Owls often sing in the pre-dawn: Spectacled Pulsatix perspicillata, Mottled Ciccaba virgata, Vermiculated Screech Megascops guatemalae and Central American Pygmy Owls Glaucidium griseiceps have all been heard on past mornings. Sometimes a Pheasant Cuckoo Dromococcyx phasianellus gives its disembodied trill. As the sky lightens Yucatán Black Howler Monkeys Alouatta pigra frequently roar. And just before first light, a Strong-billed Woodcreeper Xiphocolaptes promeropirhynchus will usually sing just two or three times, to be answered by a rival on the other side of the clearing and yet another deeper within the forest. But today I am out in the lodge clearing, coffee in hand, well before first light. It's great to be back!

Our first surprise is a newcomer to the lodge: Band-backed Wren Campylorhynchus zonatus, a bird of drier, non-forest areas. This is one of suite of dry-country birds that have arrived over the decades since the lodge opened. A lone male apparently arrived towards the end of 2014 and – like most wrens – began singing to establish his territory while he built a series of nests to offer to a potential female. It is new for Chan Chich. Huge Crested Guans Penelope purpurascens sit prominently in the canopy trees, giving spectacular views with the low sun shining through their red dewlaps. WE manage to scope three Brown-hooded Parrots Pyrilia haematotis that fly into the crown of a tall Strangler Fig.

White-whiskered Puffbirds Malacoptila panamensis
The rest of the day is spent exploring the trails and becoming reacquainted with the signature birds of the Chan Chich forests. After breakfast we start at the suspension bridge, with wonderful looks at a pair of perched White Hawks Pseudastur albicollis and an immature Double-toothed Kite Harpagus bidentatus. Species from the quintessentially Neotropical families dominate: hummingbirds, Furnariids, woodcreepers, antbirds, tyrant flycatchers. Blue Ground Doves Claravis pretiosa and White-whiskered Puffbirds Malacoptila panamensis are all over the place this year – impossible to miss.

In the Cohune Attalea cohune forest, Chan Chich
Our afternoon consists of a short walk around the Back Plaza where we find a beautiful Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker Celeus castaneus and a singing male White-throated Thrush Turdus assimilis. We reach the Aguada as the light begins to fail. As usual, there are wintering migrants like Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina, Hooded Warbler Setophaga citrina and Louisiana Waterthrush Parkesia motacilla as well as a resident male Rufous-tailed Jacamar Galbula ruficauda. A Great Tinamou Tinamus major and a Scaly-throated Leaftosser Sclerurus guatemalensis sing, but we are unable to find them in the gathering darkness.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Belize 2015: arriving at Chan Chich

Gallon Jug from the air - looking SSW
Chan Chich is Mayan for “little bird”, and there are lots of them on the property – some 340 species*. Opened in 1988, this private reserve extends over 52,000 ha and adjoins the even larger 93,432 ha Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area run by Programme for Belize. Most of this area, with the exception of 1,200 ha of cleared agricultural land at Gallon Jug, is cloaked in humid forest of various kinds. Access to the reserve is by air or a private unsurfaced road.

I have been visiting Chan Chich annually since first being shown the place by Rick Taylor in 2001. In the 1990s, Rick had continually regaled me with stories of this mythical place, accounts in which Chan Chich was typically accompanied by words like “the best jungle lodge in the world” or “wait until you see...”. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chan Chich is that it has changed so little over the years. Sure enough, the original builders (including Norm, the latter-day barman) have moved on, the incredibly birdy dump has been filled in (for health reasons), the mahogany poles of the suspension bridge have been replaced by steel, a few extra cabins have been built, and our old guides' quarters have been crushed by a tree toppled by Hurricane Richard. But the atmosphere of the pace remains the same, in large part because the staff date from the 1980s and 1990s.

Jaguar Panthera onca
We typically drive in to Chan Chich from Crooked Tree, a trip that takes us about five hours. This may seem like a poor use of birding time, but in fact the drive in has provided some extraordinary sightings over the years, from huge clouds of migrating Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica to Yucatán speciality birds like Black-throated Bobwhite Colinus nigrogularis, and from scarce wintering waterfowl feeding in the flooded rice fields at Blue Creek to a Jaguar Panthera onca flashing across the road. In fact, this is one of the best places in the world to encounter Jaguars. It also gives an idea of the size and relative isolation of this conservation area and provides an opportunity to see the Mexican and Mennonite villages along the way. The sterile Mennonite lands contrast starkly with the lush, vibrant humid forest. Over the years, the forest boundary has been pushed back several kilometres by Mennonite bulldozers to make way for pastureland and soy bean fields.

Adult Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus
This year the drive in is fairly quiet as far as Blue Creek, but as soon as we pass the Rio Bravo barrier the action begins. A toilet break gives as close looks at two White-necked Puffbirds Notharchus hyperrhynchus in a roadside Cecropia. These are often hard to find at Chan Chich but we will end up seeing five by the end of the tour. As we study them, a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle Spizaetus melanoleucus soars over the road showing its characteristic white leading edge while a Black Hawk-Eagle S. tyrannus sails in the opposite direction. A little further on, Moez spots an adult Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus, an uncommon and thinly-spread winter visitor to these forests.


* Steve Smith and I are compiling a checklist of the birds of Chan Chich based on specimens and documented sight records. We currently have verified records for some 340 species.

Belize 2015: Crooked Tree Lagoon

Great Black Hawk Buteogallus urubitinga
The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a low (3–15 m), flat, seasonally flooded wetland in central Belize. In 2000 it was designated a 6,637 ha Ramsar Site and is now co-managed by the Government of Belize and Belize Audubon Society. No trip to Belize is complete without a boat trip on Crooked Tree Lagoon. The birding varies markedly with water level. In my experience, at this time of year low waters produce better birding, with a good chance of seeing shorebirds, kingfishers and specialities like Jabiru Jabiru mycteria, Sungrebe Heliornis fulica and Agami Heron Agamia agami. High water levels – like those we have today – are typically less productive, but good for migratory wildfowl, especially diving duck. Over the years, the local boatmen-guides Lennie and Michael have become so experienced that even with high water they always have something of interest to show, thus ensuring that every day is a good day for a boat trip.

Roosting Proboscis Bats Rhynchonycteris naso
But before we head out on the boat, we like to explore the adjoining pine savannas in the cool of the morning. Arriving at a clearing at dawn, the first sound we hear belongs to Yucatán Jay Cyanocorax yucatanicus, but these birds seem to have become shy and will not grace us with an appearance. Next we hear the harsh calls of Yucatán Parrot Amazona xantholora and, by manoeuvring a little, we are able to get a wonderful scope view of a bird perched on a pine top just 50 metres away. The rest of the parrots are all White-fronted Amazona albifrons – we were lucky to have the one Yucatán. Before returning to The Bird's Eye View for breakfast, we pick up one or two more widespread dry-country birds.

Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius
Before we have even boarded the boat, Moez has picked up a couple of Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata drilling into the mud in the marsh next to our lodge. With the boat trip under way, we quickly find many of the lagoon's emblematic species: Bare-throated Tiger-Heron Tigrisoma mexicanum, Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis, Great Black Hawk Buteogallus urubitinga, Gull-billed Gelochelidon nilotica and Caspian Terns Hydroprogne caspia, Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus. There are plenty of Ospreys Pandion haliaetus, all of them wintering birds of the North American breeding subspecies carolinensis, in contrast to those on Ambergris which are largely resident ridgwayi. Then, surprisingly with this level of water, an Agami Heron trying to keep well out of sight along a weed-choked channel. On the large area of open water beyond, we see some 80 Fulvous Whistling Duck Dendrocygna bicolor and a dozen Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris, birds only seen here occasionally. In Spanish Creek, a roost of Boat-billed Herons Cochlearius cochlearius numbers over 20 birds. We have been on the water for almost three hours, so must get back quickly for lunch and our long drive to Chan Chich. On the way, a distant Sterna tern catches my attention: Forster's Tern S. forsteri! Not common here, it is the only new bird for Belize that I will see during the trip. Michael tells us he has never seen one – can he be right? Since it is flying fast in the direction of the lodge, we speed after it to get a photograph. An exciting end to a really good boat trip. 

Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Belize 2015: Caracol & Mountain Pine Ridge

Rediscovered by a mahogany prospector in 1937, Caracol is now known to have been one of the most important Mayan regional political centres during the Classic Period. At its peak it was twice the size of present day Belize City and powerful enough to conquer the much better known site of Tikal in 562 AD. Constructed on the Vaca Plateau, Caracol overlooks the surrounding lowlands and the highest structure – indeed, the highest man made structure in Belize – Caana, affords panoramic views over forested terrain and into Guatemala. Spreading over 200 km2, the largely unrestored complex is today covered with secondary forests that provide excellent habitat for birds. It is a wonderful place to enjoy a wealth of typical Central American humid forest birds along with regional specialities like Tody Motmot Hylomanes momotula. Until 2006, this was a reliable site for Keel-billed Motmot Electron carinatum, but the birds appear to have disappeared.

Our Caracol day began when dawn finally caught up with us near the Macal River. Apart from the dozen or so Pauraques Nyctidromus albicollis that we had flushed off the road as we drove over Mountain Pine Ridge in the darkness, our first birds were Ocellated Turkeys Meleagris ocellata, Crested Guans Penelope purpurascens and Great Curassows Crax rubra that we surprised as they strolled along the entrance road. On reaching Caracol, the sounds of dozens of parrots and toucans were amplified by the early morning mist. As usual, we had difficulty eating our picnic breakfast, and by the time we had supped the last coffee we had already found a score of new species. The morning was our usual mix of Mayan archaeology and birding, by the end of which we had obtained definitive views of three species of parrot, seen all four Belizean trogons and sampled a wide a selection of tropical residents and migrants. As often happens at this time of year, the overnight arrival of a minor cold front had depressed activity slightly.

After lunch we made our way back to the Macal River, the only place on our itinerary where one might reasonably hope to see Scarlet Macaw Ara macao and were rewarded with scope views of two pairs. A side trip to the Rio Frio Cave added Green Shrike-Vireo Vireolanius pulchellus and an exceptionally good view of a male Black-throated Shrike-Tanager Lanio aurantius.

Mountain Pine Ridge has a number of special birds. The taxon notius of the Plumbeous Vireo Vireo plumbeus complex is Belize's only endemic. There are outlying populations of north temperate species like Greater Pewee Contopus pertinax, Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis and Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra, all of which are hard to find. It has traditionally been the easiest place anywhere within its patchy range to find Stygian Owl Asio stygius, and the presence of breeding Orange-breasted Falcon Falco deiroleucus, Montane Solitary Eagle Buteogallus solitarius and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle Spizaetus melanoleucus has made it an obligatory birding stop. The ecology of the raptors of this area is fully described in the excellent Neotropical Birds of Prey.

Adult King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

♂ Orange-breasted Falcon Falco deiroleucus, 1000' Falls

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Belize 2015: Ambergris Caye

Another spring, another exciting trip to one of my favourite wildlife destinations: Belize. February is the usual slot for my annual birding trip for Tucson-based Borderland Tours. All thoughts of winter, the effects of an overnight bus and two days of travel, the dehumanisation of the absurd Miami Airport “Homeland Security” regime are instantly banished as you board the Tropic Air Caravan flight to San Pedro. And after fifteen minutes over the Caribbean, you are on Ambergris. Even though it has changed beyond recognition in recent years, the island retains the atmosphere of a place to relax. Of course, co-leader Moez and I are not here to relax: we're here to work. Throwing our bags into our rooms, we want to take advantage of the last hour of light by hurrying to the nearest available habitat: the desalination plant. Here we find our first Black Catbird Melanoptila glabrirostris as Mangrove Warblers Setophaga petechia sing their evening melodies. A Clapper Rail Rallus crepitans bellows and a dozen Lesser Nighthawks Chordeiles acutipennis emerge from the mangroves. The birds tell us that we can only be in the Yucatán. 

Mangroves S of San Pedro, with a newly cleared plot.
Next morning we await our pre-dawn taxi to scout potential new birding areas. The dry forest and mangroves have been rapidly cleared south of San Pedro to construct holiday homes, so we are looking for new areas further north. Unusually, our driver does not show up. Still, this is Sunday morning and yesterday night the town celebrated St. Valentine's Day. We take the opportunity to swallow breakfast, then flag down a taxi to “the cut”, where we cross the new Sir Barry Bowen Bridge to the northern part of the island. The habitat is in much better shape here and we quickly find Yucatán endemic Orange Oriole Icterus auratus as well as Plain Chachalaca Ortalis vetula. As the sun burns hotter, we enquire where to rent some form of transport and some friendly hotel guards offer us their bicycles – the perfect way to bird. As we pedal northwards we hear Yucatán Woodpecker Melanerpes pygmaeus and Yucatán Flycatcher Myiarchus yucatanensis and stop to admire a Yucatán Vireo Vireo magister, dapper Mangrove Warblers and a pair of Black-cowled Orioles Icterus prosthemelas. We have already racked up at east 30 Black Catbirds. Bananaquits Coereba flaveola are typically scarce on our Belize itinerary, but we find nearly a dozen here, all of the distinctive Yucatán island subspecies caboti. We have not found Caribbean Dove Leptotila jamaicensis or Caribbean Elaenia Elaenia martinica, species which have all but disappeared south of San Pedro, but they undoubtedly persist here. On a side road to the west across coastal lagoons the beautifully intact mangroves deserve our attention, but we are out of time. Eight Stilt Sandpipers Calidris himantopus feed with the water up to the top of their legs as an immature Hook-billed Kite Chondrohierax uncinatus cruises past – we had already seen a soaring female. This area looks perfect for White-crowned Pigeon Patagioenas leucocephala, although we are perhaps a little early in the year. It is time to return to the hotel to set up logistics and meet the group.

♂ Mangrove Warbler Setophaga petechia
Next morning we're out at first light and ready to show the group the best of the island: the San Pedro Municipal Dump. We know just what our tour participants want to see. As we walk through the adjoining cemetery, the smouldering refuse and abundance of flies look promising. This is insectivore heaven and soon we have seen dozens of migrant warblers and at least 20 Black Catbirds. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus is unusual, but the 60 White Ibis Eudocimus albus are staple dump birds, their immaculate white plumage and ink-dipped wing-tips contrasting with their surroundings. A Yucatán Woodpecker announces its presence only a few metres from us, as do Yellow-billed Caciques Amblycercus holosericeus. As we wander back, we have great views of perched male and female Double-toothed Kites Harpagus bidentatus. A lone drake Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis – unusual on the cayes – is the only bird on the water, but a huge American Crocodile Crocodylus acutus has hauled itself out on the sand.

In the afternoon we take a snorkelling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve where we get to swim with Green Moray Eels Gymnothorax funebris, Nurse Sharks Ginglymostoma cirratum and Southern Stingrays Dasyatis americana. We drift over a couple of full-grown Green Turtles Chelonia mydas, close enough to touch as they graze placidly on the seagrass. It can't match the dump for birding, but has its charms.

The next morning we have time to study a couple of Yucatán Vireos before jumping on the flight back to the mainland.

Yucatán Vireo Vireo magister