Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 4)

After an incredible day birding the Caracol ruins deep in the Chiquibul Rainforest, we made our way back to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Taking advantage of our high clearance vehicle, we drove down a horrible track to an area known as Big Rock Falls – an ideal place to set up camp for the night
Rio Frio Cave - en-route to Big Rock Falls

The following morning we rose just before sunrise, broke down camp, and birded the immediate area on foot. A sharp contrast from yesterday’s tropical rainforest, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve was predominately pine forest (Honduras Pine) with a significant amount of mixed broadleaf forests. As flocks of Mealy Parrots screeched overhead, we walk around some prime open habitat which proved to be quite birdy. Acorn Woodpeckers and Yellow-tailed Orioles were joined by our first Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Baltimore Oriole of the trip, Azure-crowned Hummingbirds zipped by and both Brown and Green Jays called ahead of us in the distance. This area was particularly scrubby yielding a nice variety of warblers and sparrows including Rufous-capped Warblers, Rusty Sparrows and the distinctive call of a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat which was soon followed by a rewarding view. When we got back to the 4x4, we set off for Thousand Foot Falls.

Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
Thousand Foot Falls
If you’re thinking it looks a bit taller than a thousand feet, you’re absolutely correct – it actually measures 1,600 ft and is Central America’s tallest waterfall! Although the view is worth the trip alone, we were also here for a specific bird – the Orange-breasted Falcon. We parked ourselves at the overlooked waiting for the falcon but it never showed. We passed some time and birded the surrounding area – it was mid-day, getting hot and birds were inactive. Two Hepatic Tanagers were the most interesting. We headed back to the overlook and asked the gate keeper if he knew when the falcon would be around. We didn’t expect him to know but sure enough, he told us wait 15 minutes. He called it – soon enough we were watching one make several passes across the valley and in front of the waterfall and it was soon followed by a second individual!

The rest of the day was spent driving the gravel roads back to San Ignacio periodically stopping along the way to get out and explore the surrounding area. Arriving back at the main junction in the reserve, we ran into a nice feeding flock consisting of the typical species along with two new trip birds – Plumbeous Vireo and Grace’s Warbler. Interestingly, it’s not that often you get to see a Yellow-throated and Grace’s Warbler in the same tree!

4x4 came in handy
Continuing on we made several more stops in broadleaf forested patches picking up a an interesting trio of Plain Xenops, Northern Royal Flycatcher, and Worm-eating Warbler in one flock and several Golden-hooded Tanagers further up the road. Upon arriving in town, we settled down in a hostel for the night and prepared for our trip into Guatemala the following morning.

Once again, sorry for the lack of bird photos – the others in the group focused more on the photography! Some of the next posts will certainly have more bird photos as I start talking about Rio Lagartos and all of the birds of the mangroves.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 3)

After a successful day birding along Vigia Chico Road, we spent the entire following day traveling. Our first bus took us from Felipe Carrillo Puerto to the border town of Chetumal. After a quick, uneventful border crossing into Belize, we hopped on a second bus towards Belize City. Unlike Mexico’s clean modern buses, Belize uses retired school buses from the U.S., which remind me of Panama’s ‘Red Devils’, though a lot more modest.

Belizean buses
Although it was great to be able to practice my fading Spanish in Mexico, it felt even better to be back in an English speaking country, which really makes logistics a whole lot easier. Unlike the rest of Central America, the official language of Belize, a former British colony, is English.  Only 4% or so speak English at home though as the majority speak Spanish or Kriol.

Eventually we started seeing Magnificent Frigatebirds circling overhead - a good indication that we were arriving in Belize City. Due to the notoriously high crime, we were glad to spend very little time here and quickly boarded our next bus. The trip west towards San Ignacio offered quite a different setting than the tropical broadleaf forests of the Yucatan. Leaving the mangroves of the coast behind, we entered extensive savannah-wetlands which provided a different array of birds including Vermilion Flycatchers.

By late evening we arrived in San Ignacio – the base point for exploring some of the top birding spots in Belize. There were two focal areas that we wanted to check out – the isolated, infrequently visited Caracol Ruins and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. In order to get to these areas, our only option was to rent a car. For those who know me, I enjoy the challenge of spending practically nothing at the same time as seeing incredible birds. I thought about it for a good two seconds and deciding that renting a car is a must. There was no way I wanted to pass up the chance. We picked up our 4x4 in town and drove into the night along terrible mountain roads into the heart of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Before setting up camp, we made a quick stop at a nearby lodge known for hosting Stygian Owls. Sure enough, we heard a single Stygian call a couple times from the parking lot – not a bad start! We never did get a view of one for the duration of the trip.

The rental car
The following morning we got up at first light and birded the area around D’Silva Forest Station as we waited for the guards to wake up. In order to drive the 60kms to the isolated Caracol Ruins, you need to be escorted by armed military personnel due to past issues of birders/tourists being robbed by Guatemalan thieves. Seeing that they only escort people once – 8am, we had to wait. It was lightly raining and unproductive around camp. Amongst the obnoxious Brown Jays and Melodious Blackbirds, we picked up several Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, Acorn Woodpeckers, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, and a half-dozen species of warblers among others.

We didn’t feel like waiting any longer so after a quick chat with the guards, we had permission to go early on our own. Never hurts to ask! Seeing that it was a two hour drive, we ‘tried’ to make good time to get to the ruins early but driving along a deserted road through pristine rainforest proved to be a difficult task. Flocks of Mealy Parrots screeched overhead, Gartered Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, Stripe-throated Hermit, Violet Saberwing, Crimson-collared Tanagers…then we came to a sudden halt. A bird we didn’t expect to get on this trip – Scarlet Macaw! Four individuals teed up across the forested valley in a tall tree offering excellent looks. Although not a lifer, it was great to see them again!

Along the way to Caracol
We continued onwards ticking more trip birds including our first (of many!) Ocellated Turkey of the trip as it ran across the road into the thick vegetation. We came around another bend and came to another halt – sitting right in front of us in top of a tall tree were two King Vultures!

One of two King Vultures
Eventually we made it to Caracol and aside for a few workers, we had the entire place to ourselves. Before even leaving the parking lot, we started picking up several trip birds including two Red-lored Parrots that were sitting out on an exposed branch. After sifting through a decent sized mixed flock working the edge of the parking lot, we headed down the trail to the ruins.

Main structures at Caracol
What a sight…this was our first (of three) Mayan sites that we visited during the trip and certainly my favorite. It offered an excellent combination of good birds, lack of people, and isolation. Most of our time was spent sitting on top of the largest structure enjoying distant views of a Great Curassow and a couple mixed flocks conveniently moving through at eye level. These flocks contained countless birds including Squirrel Cuckoo, Blue-crowned Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, Emerald Toucanet, Black-cheeked and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Wedge-billed and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatchers, Yellow-olive, Least, and Brown-crested Flycatchers, Black-crowned and Masked Tityras, White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, numerous Lesser Greenlets, the attractive Band-backed Wrens, Tropical Gnatcatchers, several species of warblers, Crimson-collared and Yellow-winged Tanagers, Yellow-throated and Olive-backed Euphonias and so many more. On our way back to the car, it was great to watch a Kentucky Warbler skulking in the undergrowth – a different perspective than watching them in Southern Ohio!

View from the tallest structure
I think it's safe to say that Caracol was my favorite part of the entire two weeks. Seeing that I didn’t expect this blog post to be so long, it looks like I will finish Belize in another post.