Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 30, 2006—Jan 05, 2007
Posted by Paul Wood
Looking back over 18 years of leading trips to Chan Chich, there is a remarkable stability in the kinds of species seen on our New Year’s tour. However, I learned long ago that there is no room for complacency, and there are no guarantees, since the abundance of certain species can fluctuate quite alarmingly from one year to the next. Species that may have been common one year may become scarce the next, or vice-versa. Some seem to disappear entirely, while others fluctuate. Quite a few are just plain rare! It is these changes, some dramatic, some more subtle, that keep the guide on his toes, and make it so worthwhile to keep coming back to the same place year after year.
Of course, the other thing that keeps a guide on his toes is the group, and this group was no exception. There were some sharp eyes, as well as much kindness, willingness to share, and the sense of humor necessary for any group field trip?qualities much appreciated by the guide and which contributed greatly to our overall success. Measured in terms of numbers, we recorded 220 species as a group, with 180+ on the Chan Chich portion of the trip?enough to deal with in a week’s effective birding! Individuals’ totals varied, as always, but some must have been approaching the 200 mark. A good list, however, is just part of the birding experience and forms only part of a good plot.
Mixed species canopy flocks, maneuvered by Black-throated Shrike-Tanagers, were in reasonably good supply, as were the mid-level flocks of Dot-winged Antwrens, Tawny-crowned Greenlets, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers. But understory flocks of ant followers were scarce, and we failed to find a well-attended ant swarm during our stay at Chan Chich, for the first time I can remember. In turn, we had a harder time finding ant specialists such as Tawny-winged and Ruddy woodcreepers, and Gray-headed and Red-throated ant-tanagers, all of which were scarce. The Barred Woodcreeper simply escaped us.
The plaza was constantly busy with large mixed flocks of Olive-backed and Yellow-throated euphonias in the abundant tangles of mistletoe, and larger fruit predators such as Red-lored, Mealy, and White-crowned parrots. Other spectacular fruit eaters such as the Crested Guans, Collared Araçaris, Keel-billed Toucans, and Slaty-tailed Trogons were not abundant?but all put in some stellar appearances. Violaceous and Black-headed trogons were more frequent, but we had to wait till the eleventh hour to see our first adult male White-collared and Red-capped manakins at Chan Chich. Pride of place among fruit eaters, though, must go to the female Lovely Cotinga on New Year’s Day, which, for me, stole the show. I can think of no better way to start the New Year than to walk from the lodge to the suspension bridge, and then edge back home along the picturesque Logger’s Trail. A male Rufous-tailed Jacamar was another highlight of this trail, allowing all to have a good drool, as well as a good study of a male Green Kingfisher.
Other birds, such as the Tody Motmot, can be harder to find and study. Though they will sometimes sit motionless for long periods, they may just as likely dematerialize before everyone gets a good scope view. Most were actually very lucky and hit gold on our first attempt for this plain, but charismatic species, though one or two had to wait patiently till the last afternoon for their turn. Blue-crowned Motmots are actually equally as difficult to see at Chan Chich outside the breeding season, when they are quiet and elusive, and we only heard this species on a few occasions.
Gallon Jug and Laguna Seca provide a welcome relief to the enclosed environment of the forest with the broad, open, breezy vistas that our species generally prefers. Though it was mostly cloudy, with even a little drizzle at times, this was a day with much to remember. A pair of Black-collared Hawks at Laguna Seca did much to make up for a scarcity of raptors, and we had great scope studies of Purple Gallinule, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Northern Jacanas, Ringed Kingfisher, and the blue-eyed Neotropic Cormorant.
Back at the lodge, a pair of Royal Flycatchers could often be seen quite easily from the porch of certain cabañas, prompting some “social” visits to cabaña 4. We also saw additional Royal Flycatchers in the service area and along the Sylvester Village Road. Having announced the Sylvester Village Road to be a frequently “birdy” walk, our first morning there was rather quiet, though we did linger in and near the service area for a while, enjoying Crested Guans, Black-headed Saltators, a Black-headed Trogon, another Royal Flycatcher, and a fleeting Worm-eating Warbler. It was a little late when we arrived at the road, and the deathly silence preceded what turned out to be an early downpour. When six Brown Pelicans soared over the road, I knew it was time to turn back! The second attempt, however, vindicated my original claims. Tore, he of the bionic stick, spotted an immature Double-toothed Kite preening atop a dead snag, where it soaked up the early morning sun for a full half hour, as we maneuvered the scope into better and better positions. While here, Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Araçari, and Violaceous Trogon provided further distractions, and we were again rewarded with a male Gray-throated Chat, as well as Rose-throated Tanager, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Tropical Gnatcatcher. These last four species are more typical of drier Yucatan forests to the north, as are Mangrove Vireo and Yucatan Flycatcher, which were heard only. Here they are confined to low forest known as “bajos.” Later, two Double-toothed Kites were seen soaring together above the canopy, and we found yet another Royal Flycatcher. The icing on the cake was a splendid male White-necked Jacobin that perched conveniently above the road and allowed some prolonged scope views, and a cooperative male Blue Bunting fed nonchalantly along the forest edge.
Back at the lodge, a sunny interlude brought our first adult King Vulture soaring over the lodge at lunchtime. In the afternoon, we stayed relatively close to home along the Temple Loop and Logger’s Trail. With the light fading fast, we made our last attempt for Scaly-throated Leaftosser and Tody Motmot, getting another good look at the Tody Motmot, but only shadowy glimpses of the scandalous Leaftosser.
Our night drive was blessed with good weather and a good moon, at least intermittently, but hampered by spotlights that waned all too rapidly. We did squeeze in a pair of Pauraques, and scope looks of at least one Northern Potoo before the lights left us with only the moon to guide us!
Chan Chich often has a sting in the tail, just when you think it’s all over?! Our first male White-collared Manakin turned up at the last breakfast, to everyone’s delight, and Ruth was further rewarded with male Red-capped Manakin and Cinnamon Becard on a final morning walk to the bridge. Even after all these years, leaving Chan Chich is always a hard thing to do?there’s a sense of leaving much behind, but also having much to go back for, a sense that if you could just stay one more day?
Hidden Valley Extension
Hidden Valley is a complete contrast to Chan Chich?a pine forest environment at 2,000 feet above sea level on an ancient granite outcrop that possibly was once an island. Birding at Hidden Valley can be a little unnerving. Though ostensibly in a completely different habitat from Chan Chich, lowland forest is never far away, and creeps up the steep valley sides carved by some spectacular waterfalls. One can therefore at once be in pine forest with Acorn Woodpecker, Grace’s Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Yellow-backed Oriole, and Black-headed Siskin, but encounter lowland forest birds such as Northern Bentbill and Golden-hooded Tanager seemingly out of context. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Rufous-capped Warbler, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Rusty Sparrow, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and Yellow-backed Oriole add to the unusual mix of species.
However, one of the main draws of Hidden Valley is a chance to see the Orange-breasted Falcon, one of the rarest birds of prey in the Americas. Though we have had a remarkable success rate with these impressive birds, many make the trek and fail to see them. By the laws of probability, it ought to get tougher as time goes on, and so I am never confident by any means.
At the 1,600 Feet Falls, conditions were promising: good visibility, a little heat haze, but none of the dense mist that often hides the falls from view. The unshaded lookout was too exposed to the midday sun, so we retreated to the top of the hill and set up the scope under cover. The local keeper, Don Pedro, swears on the birds’ appearance at 1200 and 1400 every day. This, of course, only increases the tension! Initial scanning yielded nothing, so there was nothing for it but to start combing the hillside systematically with the scope. I was rewarded much more quickly than I thought when after only a few minutes, to my own and everyone’s disbelief, I latched on to a distant bird sheltering beneath the canopy of a pine tree. Closer inspection revealed a second bird, and there was ample time to fine-focus as the birds sat out the hottest part of the day in the shade. Later, one of them zipped by the waterfall below and was gone, but one bird still remained until we left. A little icing on the cake came in the form of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Golden-hooded Tanager, and a perky Plain Wren.
Our search for the Stygian Owl, another very rare bird found on the Mountain Pine Ridge, had so far turned up fruitless, however. After counting at least six King Vultures sunning themselves at the falls of the same name, and watching a flock of around 50 White-collared Swifts slicing through the ravine in tightly coordinated formation, in the afternoon we resumed our search for the owl until dusk, but to no avail. As a last resort, I sent word out among the lodge workers that a reward would be forthcoming for finding an owl at roost. Maybe, we would have time for a last minute search on our last morning, failing all else.
On the road to the Rio Frio caves, we spent a productive early morning birding lowland forest along this ravine that ends in an impressive cavern. We were lucky with a pair of gorgeous Orange-billed Sparrows, and then did well with a whole series of “difficult” flycatchers such as Eye-ringed Flatbill, Greenish Elaenia, Northern Bentbill, and Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet. Dusky Antbird and Plain Antvireo were added to the list of skulkers, while Dick and Rick sneaked off and saw a White-whiskered Puffbird. We also had scope views alternately of Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and White-bellied Emerald, two hummingbirds not seen at Chan Chich. Another unexpected addition here was the endemic Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallow.
After a picnic brunch, activity died down and we decided to head back to the lodge for a midday break, and spend the rest of the afternoon in search of the Stygian Owl. After a welcome rest, we were greeted by the news that a Stygian Owl had been found, and within a few minutes we were all lining up for scope views not far from the lodge. Word of a reward had certainly done the trick, and brought a broad smile to Carlos’ face, as well as ours. This bird is worth every cent!