Friday, December 18, 2015

Belize - Monkey Bay to San Ignacio

Feb 5

Since we didn't have too far to go today, we spent some time walking the road at Monkey Bay again, trying to get better looks at a few species and maybe pick up a few new ones. Since Yellow-headed Parrot was our only real target here and we'd seen it the evening prior, it was nice to bird without any pressure! We did add a few new birds for the trip (Gray-headed Dove, Wedge- and Strong-billed Woodcreepers, White-collared Manakin, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Thick-billed Seed-Finch) and got better looks at some skulky species like Rufous-breasted Spinetail. After a few hours it was time to head back, pack up our gear and head to our next spot! Monkey Bay has it's own bus stop, and we waited in the hot sun for a while before a bus turned up - and passed us. The express buses in Belize only stop at the stations, so we had to wait for one of the 'milk run' buses... Not long after that a pickup truck stopped and asked if we were going to Belmopan. He agreed to drop us off at the bus station so we hopped in! My first experience with hitchhiking was a success, and we got dropped right at the station, unfortunately we missed the bus to San Ignacio and had to wait for another one.

Not something you expect to see in Belize!

 First hitchhiking experience

Again we were harassed by taxi drivers saying the bus would be another 2 hours and was very slow, the taxi would get us there in under an hour. We eventually negotiated a decent price and hopped a cab to San Ignacio, where we had a rental car lined up. Unfortunately the only 4x4 they had was a very old standard, which normally I'd be fine with but from what I'd heard about the roads on our next leg I wasn't sure about it! We ended up getting a rear-wheel drive Toyota 4Runner, which ended up being a beast on the rough roads of Mountain Pine Ridge. With that we were off, soon leaving the farms behind and getting into the (rather large) Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. According to eBird this area held quite a few target birds for us, and we decided to kick off our time with one of the best ones! We made a beeline for Thousand Foot Falls (beeline is a relative term as a lot of the time you can't drive faster than 15km/h on the terrible roads), making it there just before it 'closed'.

Driving through MPR

 Although there were still about 30 minutes until official closing time, there was nobody around! We wandered down to the overlook, took a few pictures of the impressive falls (which are actually 1600 feet or ~500m), and waited. Given how late in the day it was, there weren't many birds around, with only a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers, some Turkey Vultures and a swirling flock of ~60 White-collared Swifts to entertain us (although the warbler and swift were both new for the trip). After a half hour or so of waiting, we decided to call it quits and walked back to the car. There was a guestbook at the little entrance building that we wanted to sign but couldn't find a pen. While waiting for Janice to find a pen I decided it was worth one last shot, and I went back down to the overlook. A large bird caught my eye, and getting the bins on it I discovered it was a King Vulture! I had missed this bird in Costa Rica back in 2006, so it was a bird I had really been hoping to see on this trip. I called Janice over, and while watching the vulture circle above the falls, a smaller bird cruised into my binocular view. Holy $#!+!!! Orange-breasted Falcon!! That was basically my response when our main target came into view, made a few circles of the falls and then took off upriver! This is one of the few reliable places to see this incredibly rare bird in Central America (the population estimate for Mesoamerica is only 30-50 pairs, although they are more common in South America).

The lookoff at Thousand Foot Falls

With that bird under our belts we figured we'd try our luck with another target - Stygian Owl, which had recently been reported from a lodge not far off the main road. Despite waiting around until well after dark we didn't have any luck, and had to find a campsite for the night. On their trip in December 2012, my friends had camped at a set of caves a little ways from the main road, so I thought we would try there. Unfortunately the road had been completely washed out, as we discovered about half a km or so down it, and I had to back out in the pitch dark! We eventually settled on camping at the Rio On pools, which had a nice sheltered picnic area with enough space for my tent.
Running trip total: 265

Feb 6

Our plan for today was to visit the famous Caracol ruins, which are nestled in some great forest but are unfortunately only accessible by following a military convoy which goes in at 9:30am and comes back at 2pm. This is due to safety concerns as Guatemalan bandits have attacked tourists heading in to the ruins in the past. Arriving at the ranger station at 7, we managed to talk the guard into letting us in early, and we actually had an escort partway to the ruins as a military truck was heading to another station anyway. Before leaving we picked up Acorn Woodpecker for the trip, they were quite vocal around the ranger station! Heading into the ruins, the road goes from bad to worse, and just when you think it can't get any worse, it turns into smooth pavement! Didn't see that coming.

The road to Caracol goes from this...

To this! Why not pave it the whole way?

The birding along the road into the ruins was pretty fantastic, and I really regret not spending our extra time in the morning just cruising the road, as the birding in the ruins themselves was not nearly as good! Along the road we picked up Great Curassow, Ocellated Turkey, Gray-headed Kite, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Mealy Parrot, Crimson-collared Tanager, Rusty Sparrow and Wilson's Warbler for the trip, and had a random Brown Pelican flying high (Caracol is about as far inland as you can get in Belize). We ended up getting into the ruins a full 2 hours earlier than the convoy would have, and the park people were pretty surprised to see us there, but gave us our passes anyway, and we were off! It was pretty cool to explore the ruins without anyone else around, and despite a downpour mid-morning we had a pretty good time. Although the ruins were the clear highlight here, there were birds to look at as well! New birds for the trip included tropical species such as Bat Falcon, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, White-whiskered Puffbird and Slaty-tailed Trogon, but also some birds I usually see in Ontario like Wood Thrush, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Golden-winged, Kentucky and Worm-eating Warblers (although those last two are pretty rare in ON). After we felt that we had picked through every mixed flock in the area, we retired to the top of the tallest monument for some hawkwatching and general canopy birding (the Chestnut-colored Woodpecker was actually seen up here). It was a bit slow (although a few King Vultures were nice!), and we eventually went back to do another lap of the ruins before lunch, once the main group of tourists arrived and swarmed the place.

 Bat Falcon

The view from the top of the tallest ruin

The tallest ruin - before the hordes arrived

We left just before the 2pm convoy, and it was soon evident that the morning rain shower had made the road even worse! A quick stop along the river yielded our first Black Phoebe, and not long after that we ran into a group of vehicles stopped on the road - one of the tour vans was stuck on a muddy hill. After a bit of a wait, some people in a 4x4 towed it out, just in time for the next tourist van to slide sideways into the ditch on the same section! That eventually got towed out as well, and at this point one of the military guys asked me (the 2nd last car) if I had 4-wheel drive. If you remember my previous day's retelling, we clearly did not, and they seemed quite worried about this, giving me tips on what to do. I guess they didn't realize that coming from Northern Ontario we deal with snowy/icy hills all the time, which I think are much worse than a little mud! After a little slipping and sliding we made it up the hill no problem, to a round of applause - I think people were just happy they didn't have to deal with getting another car out of the muddy ditch! At this point it was the late afternoon, and we did a bit of casual cruising along the main road, picking up Sharp-shinned Hawk along with some of the more common pine-forest species. Then it was back to the Stygian Owl spot for some dinner and to wait for dark! Since we weren't quite as tired today, we gave it until later in the evening and eventually heard the owl call a few times! Unfortunately we didn't get to see it, so that'll have to wait for another trip. After this success we called it a night and went back to the Rio On pools to camp, where we ran into an older couple from California who were truck-camping their way through northern Central America, and chatted with them around their campfire until we were really too tired to stay up any later!

It was hard to believe the road could get any worse, but it did!

The falls above our campsite at the Rio On pools
Running trip total: 288

Feb 7

We still had a few targets left in the area, and spent the morning slowly making our way back through the reserve along the main road, making little detours here and there down promising-looking side roads, which proved to be a good strategy! My notes mention the A-10 line was especially productive, as it went through a few different habitat types, so if you are in the area it is well worth a stop! New birds for the trip were Golden-hooded Tanager, Plain Xenops, Black-faced Grosbeak and our main target - Black-headed Siskin. This species is found in the highlands throughout northern Central America but this would be our only shot at it on this trip (or so I thought; we ended up seeing a single bird a few days later in Guatemala). There were plenty of other birds to keep us entertained as well, and by late morning we had made it out of the forest, and with a quick stop for lunch we made it back to the rental place with an hour or so to spare before our car was due back.

 Along the road in MPR

It turned out that the rough road (read: one gigantic pothole) had cracked the bumper, but the guy at the rental place let us go without any issues, likely as they had sent us into the reserve without a 4x4! After a few long days of birding and travelling, we spent the afternoon relaxing at our hostel (Bella's Backpackers), where a lack of change for a $50BZ bill ($25US) meant we got $5BZ (10%) off the room. There was a nice, relatively cheap restaurant nearby which was the source of our dinner and breakfast! We called it a night early as tomorrow was planned to be a long travel day into Guatemala.
Running trip total: 292

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