Belize Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2005—Jan 03, 2006
Posted by Paul Wood
If you look back over previous tour lists for Chan Chich, you will see a remarkable consistency in the number and kinds of species that we see year to year. This guarantee of a broad range of species, some of them endangered or difficult to find in less protected areas, is what keeps us coming back as a group year after year, not to mention Chan Chich’s idyllic setting in the midst of one of the largest remaining forested tracts on our beleaguered planet.
However, having returned here year after year for the last 15 years, as a leader I can tell you it would be very foolhardy to “guarantee” anything?and the usual disclaimers apply! The actual mix of species is extremely hard to predict, and the relative abundance of species can change quite dramatically from one year to the next. Also, while we might see 150-200 species during our stay at Chan Chich, the actual pool of possible species is probably nearer 300. So while there are regulars on our lists, there are always birds that make an appearance only rarely.
From a leader’s point of view, this is one of the ingredients that keep things fresh. Since changes require explanations, one’s perceptions of the place are constantly being enriched and modified. Even after 15 years, I have more questions than answers! The other ingredient that always adds spice is the group of people. The mix of backgrounds and experiences, as well as the different expectations and levels of interest, made this an exceptionally rewarding group to lead, so I thank you all for a very stimulating and enjoyable week together.
My general impression was one of dryness and below average water levels in both rivers and lakes for the time of year. Though there were some good rains reported during 2005, this does not seem to have made up for an overall deficit as we move into the dry season. The quantities and timing of rainfall can have profound effects on the flowering and fruiting of trees, and thus affect food availability for fruit-eating species. The general scarcity of some frugivorous birds such as pigeons, parakeets, toucans, manakins, and some tanagers might reflect a lack of fruit locally. Whether or not this is just an annual “blip” or a more sinister reflection of general climate change is open to speculation. We did get some great looks at large fruit-eaters such as guans, toucans, parrots, and trogons, but overall abundances seemed lower and, while we did see several perky male Red-capped Manakins, we could only find one or two females of the White-collared Manakin.
One of the things I love about the Chan Chich trip is knowing that once there, I don’t have to worry about packing or unpacking for six glorious days! This also pays dividends from the birding point of view, since you will all have seen just how different one day can be from the next. Staying put definitely improves your chances of finding some of the tougher species. The quest for the Tody Motmot is a case in point, since it took us four days of trying and several fruitless searches! Persistence did pay off in the end with scope views of not one, but two individuals on the same day, with a cooperative Blue-crowned Motmot providing some icing on the motmot cake!
Other things did not make us wait, however, and on the first day we were lucky enough to see a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles displaying over the suspension bridge, and to find two well-attended ant swarms. Species such as Ruddy, Tawny-winged, and Barred woodcreepers, as well as the Gray-headed Tanager, can be tough to find away from swarms of army ants. Thereafter, we had to wait four days before finding another along the Bajo Trail, though a few of you sneaked in another one on your last morning on the River Trail.
Birders are never happier than when they are watching birds, or so the theory goes, but it is even better when you can sit in the same place day after day and let the birds come to you! We spent three wonderful afternoons in such a spot along the Sac-Be trail where it meets the river, and watched as a procession of birds came down to drink or bathe before tucking themselves in for the night. This provided us with some superb views of shy warblers such as Kentucky, Worm-eating, and Hooded, with up to six Kentucky Warblers at a time, and Wood Thrushes must have numbered in the dozens. Occasional visits by the Purple-crowned Fairy took our breath away, and odd visitors such as Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Thrush-like Schiffornis, and Sepia-capped Flycatcher added to the expectation.
It was during one of these sessions that Victor spotted a Great Tinamou hugging the ground close to the water’s edge. We were able to watch this bird uninterrupted for at least 20 minutes?an unprecedented amount of time for seeing any tinamou, and certainly an experience most of us are unlikely to repeat any time soon. Normal encounters with tinamous amount to haunting, disembodied voices at dusk, or a brief glimpse of a bird darting across a forest path during the day.
Our Hidden Valley Extension adds a variety of species that cannot be seen at Chan Chich, but there are a few specialties that everyone hopes to see. These include Orange-breasted Falcon, Stygian Owl, and Keel-billed Motmot?three of the rarest birds of the region, and by no means “guaranteed.”
Upon our arrival at Hidden Valley, we walked along a ridge above the lodge to make the most of the late afternoon sun, without any expectations in particular (at least on my part). Suddenly, a rather stocky falcon appeared flying low along the ridge, and I had already decided it was most likely a Peregrine?until it started calling! I couldn’t believe our luck; within an hour of our arrival at Hidden Valley we had found the Orange-breasted Falcon in a spot where even the managers who live there had never seen it! To our delight the bird flew onto the ridge and perched atop a dead pine tree, as we inched ever closer with the telescope. First we had a back view, and then, after circling back to the same perch, a full frontal!
I was once again convinced that only those who have never seen an Orange-breasted Falcon are likely to confuse it with the similarly colored Bat Falcon. This bird is definitely built more like a Peregrine than the sleek Bat Falcon, and is much stockier and more powerful looking in flight. When perched, the oversized feet are also a dead giveaway! The next day, we caught only a brief view of a silhouetted bird at the mist-shrouded Thousand Foot Falls, and failed to see one at all at King Vulture Falls?these being the two “usual” spots!
Other highlights up on the ridge were a pair of Stygian Owls at roost, no fewer than 14 King Vultures coming down to drink and roost near the falls, and a splendid male White-winged Tanager?actually the first one I had seen in Belize!
Caracol boasts a bird community very similar to that at Chan Chich, though quite a few additional species can be found here due to its more southerly location and generally more humid forest; these include species such as Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Crimson-collared Tanager, and Variable Seedeater. But most birders go in the hope of finding the rare Keel-billed Motmot, a species with a very limited distribution in northern Central America. Despite several hours of trying, this was one motmot that got away, and we reluctantly gave up the search. However, David did catch up with the Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner that had eluded him the previous week, so all was not lost, and we also got some great scope views of a Collared Trogon as consolation. As a final flourish, two stately Jabirus flew across our line of vision on the way back to Belize City the next day, so no one was complaining!