Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2015—Jan 03, 2016

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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A quick twenty-minute flight and the small, bustling Belize City is long gone, and a green carpet covers the earth. Chan Chich Lodge is set in this extensive tropical forest that is continuous through three countries. Our drive through the open pastures of Gallon Jug was interrupted by Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed flycatchers minutes after landing. These would be the first of nearly 200 species of birds we would see in a week based at the exquisite Chan Chich Lodge with wonderful grounds, beautiful cabanas, delicious food, excellent staff, and its most valued asset, miles of untrammeled forest.

Central American Spider Monkeys

Central American Spider Monkeys— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Before the sun was up for our first full day of birding, the Howler Monkeys and Common Pauraques reminded us that we weren’t on familiar ground anymore. As the night faded, the Strong-billed Woodcreeper screamed from the edge of the lodge clearing, declaring the start to five wonderful days of birding in tropical forest. There were amazing numbers of Central American Spider Monkeys around the lodge and on all the forest trails we walked; they were feasting on the abundant fruit. Also coming in for fruit were some beautiful tropical birds—Black-headed Trogon and Bright-rumped Attilas among the visitors. Decades of protection have rendered the Ocellated Turkeys that stroll the grounds indifferent to the two-legged visitors gawking at them. Crested Guans and Great Curassows are also benefactors of this protection and are easily found in the clearing and forest edge around Chan Chich. As we worked our way down the entrance road, we found ourselves at Trish’s Hill. A Gartered Trogon called from the forest and before long, a beautiful male was perched for scope views. A screaming Hawk-Eagle stayed hidden for several minutes before flying right past us; it was a juvenile Black Hawk-Eagle. After birding in the afternoon, we walked back to the lodge at dusk, and Whitney found a young Fer de Lance on the road practically under her feet, concluding an exciting day.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Ornate Hawk-Eagle— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

The next morning we rode out to the escarpment for raptor watching. The first hour was quite slow, and we watched the adult Short-tailed Hawk make several passes, hoping each time it was something different. Finally, a little action with a group of three King Vultures, as well as Turkey and Black vultures. A couple of Bat Falcons chattered and raced by, dive-bombing the Short-tail and providing some entertainment while we waited for the thermals to bring the birds up. A large raptor was spotted—a Great Black Hawk—a good bird, but not our primary quarry, which were Hawk-Eagles. Finally a shrill whistle, high in the sky, alerted us to a Black Hawk-Eagle declaring this patch of forest as his own. Soon his mate joined him and they cruised the air overhead, occasionally nipping into Guatemalan airspace. The Green Heliconian and Mexican Cycadian (butterflies) entertained us while we waited for the star to appear. Then there it was, a beautiful Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, fairly low but rising rapidly. After a couple of minutes of viewing, it disappeared into the stratosphere, escorted by the Bat Falcon. The last day of 2015 found us cruising through Gallon Jug on our way to Laguna Seca. A fruit tree near the airstrip hosted Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, Orioles, Kiskadees, Social Flycatchers, Yellow-throated and Yellow-rumped warblers, Blue-gray Tanagers, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and others. Pulling ourselves away from this productive tree, we enjoyed other open country birds as well. Roadside Hawks were a dime a dozen, and there, as usual, was a Laughing Falcon around, peering down at the ground, looking for its favorite snake prey. We also saw Brown-hooded and White-crowned parrots along the way. A distant soaring Crane Hawk was another good find. At Laguna Seca we birded the forest edge at the lake, finding a few new birds like Stub-tailed Spadebill and a cooperative pair of Dot-winged Antwrens. A couple of stunning male Slaty-tailed Trogons sat obligingly for scope studies. Our best find of the morning was spotted by Brew: a Pinnated Bittern crept through the marshy edge as it hunted unsuspecting frogs. Northern Jacanas were prowling Laguna Seca too. After a wonderful morning we had to make our way back to the Lodge; nobody wants to miss a meal at Chan Chich where the food is excellent, but an Ornate Hawk-Eagle had other plans. It sat there over the road, allowing us to clamber out of the truck, study it in the scope, and exalt in our luck. But it wouldn’t leave! We drove closer, parked under it, drove past it, and studied it some more. Finally, after hundreds of photos were taken, we moved on with the Ornate Hawk-Eagle still there, ignoring us as it digested its morning meal.

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Night drive! One never knows what will appear out of the black to delight us. In Gallon Jug we had a cooperative Northern Potoo, several Mottled Owls, a Coyote, many disgruntled Ocellated Turkeys trying to sleep, an Opossum, and great looks at a Barn Owl that flew out of the hanger. My favorite bird was the Black-and-white Owl that finally appeared after much urging. It would seem that a little squeak finally convinced it to take a look. It flew by and perched on an open limb, turned around to get a good look at us, and after a minute or so melted back into the forest.

The first day of 2016 saw us walking in the shorter forest with limestone soil along Sylvester Village Road. The birding was a little slow, but a cooperative Purple-crowned Fairy allowed excellent looks in the scope. Then a Gray Fox in the trail entertained us with its interest in us and our squeaking. After a minute or so it quickly dashed off the trail, replaced by a Jaguarundi. With jaws agape we admired this weasel-like cat for a minute or more, even taking turns at the scope! A trip highlight for sure. We tallied all of our bird sightings, helping with the Gallon Jug Christmas Bird Count. One of our best sightings was of a tiny flycatcher; our Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher was the only one reported for the entire count. Amazingly, on a couple of mornings we actually saw Black-faced Antthrushes! One of which actually walked across the road!

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Black-cheeked Woodpecker— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our final full day of birding found us along the Sylvester Village Road early, hoping for a few Yucatan endemics, which would remain elusive. We were serenaded by a raucous group of Plain Chachalacas. After breakfast we birded around the temples that surround Chan Chich Lodge. A cooperative Blue-crowned Motmot was our best find. Not satisfied with our night drive, we took a night walk out to the suspension bridge that evening. The UV light found a couple of large scorpions along the road, one of which was clutching a tiny cricket meal that was still very much alive. Rosalie spotted some eyeshine in the forest. As the creature came a little closer, we were able to discern a Paca, a large, shy agouti that is rarely seen. Pacas are tan-colored with white stripes and spots on their sides, much like a fawn. We also found a mother Spider Monkey and the kiddo trying to get some sleep up in a palm tree. Spider eyeshine was abundant—thousands of eyes twinkled at us along the roadside that night.

Some of the many species of birds we observed during our week at Chan Chich included White-tailed Kite; Gray-headed Kite; Ringed Kingfisher; White-necked and White-whiskered puffbirds; Lineated, Pale-billed, and Chestnut-colored woodpeckers; Red-lored Parrots squawking daily at the lodge; Plain Xenops; Cinnamon Becard; White-collared and Red-capped manakins; Mangrove Swallow; Long-billed Gnatwren; Wood Thrush; fifteen species of North American Warblers; Golden-hooded Tanager; Black-throated Shrike-Tanager; Blue-black Grosbeak; Montezuma Oropendola; and three species of Euphonia. The hummingbird feeders at the lodge always hosted a variety of squabbling sprites. White-necked Jacobin and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were dominant while White-bellied Emeralds and Long-billed Hermits had to get a sip on the sly. Sadly, an amazing five days were over too quickly, and we had to leave the forest behind. Thanks to everyone for an amazing trip and great camaraderie. I look forward to our next birding adventure together. All the best in 2016.