Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2007—Jan 03, 2008
Posted by Paul Wood
In my opinion, the length of a bird list at the end of a tour is a poor indicator of peoples' individual experiences, or of the relative success of a tour. However, given the constant interruptions to our daily activities by frequent and unpredictable showers, I admit that the list took on a greater importance this year. First, I was curious to see just how much the weather (most likely the result of a La Niña event) had really eaten into folks' potential lifers—one of the core experiences of the traveling birder (though not necessarily the most important). Second, as I never tire of pointing out in my reports, the ups and downs of bird abundances from one year to the next, and the annual batch of "mysterious absentees," yearly fuels my conviction that large-scale changes in bird distributions could be taking place without anyone noticing. Unfortunately, without large-scale monitoring over a wide area, these patterns are difficult to verify.
Certainly, the weather was a constant irritation this year, since heavy rain repeatedly forced us under cover and turned trails into soup, and stubborn cloud cover kept the forest interior in a kind of constant twilight. This forced us to spend a lot of our time in relatively open areas, or along the forest edge. Overall, there is no doubt that the weather did depress bird activity and that our bird list was below average. Compared to last year, for example, we recorded 18 fewer species (including the Hidden Valley extension). This represents about an 8% difference, which, however, suggests a high degree of dependability despite the unusually adverse conditions.
All clouds, however, do have their silver linings and, as always, there were a few things to raise the eyebrows even of the veterans. For example, in all my years birding in the Maya forest, I have never had so many close encounters with the ethereal White Hawk. Our first encounter was a bird following a troop of spider monkeys through the canopy, in the hope of pouncing on insects or other prey disturbed by the boisterous primates. The next day, a bird perched at the edge of the forest by the bridge, providing scope views for all, and provoking a flurry of "digiscoping." We even had a bird perched on our night drive, and saw the bird on four of the five days. These are the things that first-time visitors may take for granted, and why I am here to assure you that this was a rare event. Despite the general lack of good soaring weather for raptors, we also managed to record the rare King Vulture on four out of five days, with four together on the 30th, and an unusual perched bird in the plaza on the 2nd.
The plaza could be usually depended on for some local color, like public plazas anywhere in the world. The "downtown" tulip trees were a magnet for nectar junkies, with Green Honeycreepers, protesting hummingbirds, gaudy orioles, and the punk-crested Chestnut-colored Woodpecker. Ocellated Turkeys, though they rarely get a mention, are definitely the fashion setters and would turn the head of any peacock. Red-lored Parrots were a constant vocal backdrop, like vendors at an open-air market; trogons, toucans, and oropendolas snacked in fruiting trees, hermits made lightning visits to heliconia fuel stations, and Crested Guans loafed in their arboreal park benches. Giant Cowbirds monitored the oropendolas' nests, like criminals "casing a joint," and Pale-billed Woodpeckers worked in small demolition crews dismantling dead limbs and tree trunks. At the restaurant, male Red-capped and White-collared manakins made cabaret appearances, while human onlookers were secretly wondering what had happened to their lunchtime specials!
I will always remember David's daily disbelief at the sheer size of the local Crested Guans, as well as their apparent indifference to people. Throughout much of Central and South America, guans are among the most endangered and elusive birds, and this is another experience first-time visitors might fail to appreciate. This is definitely not normal, and shows that tourism has at least had a positive impact on the quality of life for some rare and precious species. One of my personal favorites is the Brown-hooded Parrot, which was often around in the plaza and some years can be very hard to find or be absent altogether, and it was also unusual to see Royal Flycatcher almost every day. We also got some good looks at the rare Strong-billed Woodcreeper in the plaza.
Birding within the forest was harder and we searched in vain for ant swarms to provide us with entertainment. I am not the only one, it seems, to have noted that ant swarms have been scarce in recent years, and this is bad news for birds that follow them. This meant that certain woodcreepers, such as Northern Barred, Ruddy, and Tawny-winged, were harder to find, and only Merrill and Lynnette saw ant-following Gray-headed Tanagers on the last day. On the bright side, also thanks to a disbelieving Merrill, we kept up our impressive record of finding the taciturn and inscrutable Tody Motmot.
We were also lucky on our night drive with unexpected good looks at both Vermiculated Screech-Owl and Mottled Owl, perhaps the one time that the overcast conditions favored us, as owls are bolder on moonless nights. Nightjars, on the other hand, are more visual hunters and so there were fewer Pauraques and Northern Potoos. Gallon Jug also provided some daytime highlights with Laughing Falcon, copulating White-tailed Kites, streamer-tailed Fork-tailed and Scissor-tailed flycatchers, and droves of Ocellated Turkeys.
HIDDEN VALLEY EXTENSION
At Hidden Valley, prayers for a break in the weather went unheeded and, to our chagrin, the rain got stubbornly worse over the next few days. Our first day up on the Pine Ridge, however, was not the expected washout. The rain was mainly a fine drizzle, and thanks to some patient searching and excellent local knowledge on the part of Rick, we managed to track down a pair of Stygian Owls. At Thousand Foot Falls, we had given up on the Orange-breasted Falcon and were beginning to bird our way back to the lodge when Rick's eavesdropping skills had us scurrying back to the lookout, in as dignified a manner as possible. A local guide had finally spotted a bird hidden among the pines, and Rick had overheard the "eureka." Though rather distant, and not at all obvious, the bird at least sat motionless until everyone had convinced themselves of what they were looking at.
In the afternoon, no King Vultures were apparent at the King Vulture Falls, but we did find a very distant pair of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles perched atop an emergent tree in the forest across the spectacular valley. We also added other Pine Ridge "specialties" such as Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Plumbeous Vireo, Grace's and Rufous-capped warblers, Hepatic Tanager, and Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed orioles.
With little respite from the rain, we set out for the Mayan site of Caracol under cover of darkness. Recently, all those traveling to Caracol are advised to do so accompanied by an army escort. The service can be arranged in advance for private groups; otherwise it means waiting till 9 a.m. for the official tourist convoy. We were the first to arrive, and for a couple of hours, at least, had the place all to ourselves. The rain did not deter us from climbing the enormous Sky Palace, and the cool drizzle was actually refreshing. At the top, we were rewarded with all three toucans, as an Emerald Toucanet appeared in a cecropia tree that had been visited by araçaries and a Keel-billed Toucan. However, on such a wet, overcast day there was little chance of raptors soaring over the forest, so we spent most of our time exploring the ruins and birding at ground level. Other highlights were scope views of a Blue-crowned Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and close-ups of a very persistent Squirrel Cuckoo searching out and eventually catching a giant katydid. Philadelphia Vireo and Swainson's Thrush were also nice additions to the migrant list.
We departed with the official convoy at about 2 p.m., with the dirt road now converted into a slippery, treacherous surface. Having been forced to stop by a struggling vehicle in front of us, we were unable to regain traction and had to bail out while a generous passer-by winched us out of the mud. While we were waiting here, Merrill lost his footing on the glassy surface and his fall shook up all of us, as well as Merrill! Luckily, we got back without serious injury, but, as a result of this incident, we have reluctantly decided to withdraw Caracol from our future itineraries—at least until the Belizean government does something to improve the road. In our area, at least recently, climate change has resulted in fairly frequent rain, not to mention some impressive downpours, during the normally dry period, and we can no longer depend on the road being dry enough to guarantee a safe trip. This unpredictability means that, as a general rule, we can no longer depend on sunny conditions for our mid-winter trips to the Tropics, as in the past, and raingear will need to be packed along with the sunscreen for the foreseeable future!