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April 2011

"At places such as Crooked Tree and Cotton Tree, 
 and with wildlife as small as Manakins, as large as Manatees"

Above: in a forest in southern Belize, a White-collared Manakin
Below: in a bay in central Belize, the snout of a Manatee

(Both photos by Marie Gardner during the April 2011 FONT Tour in Belize) 



A Feature of Photos from the April 2011 FONT Belize Tour

Birds & Other Nature during the FONT Belize Tour in April 2011 

A List of Belize Birds     Mammals in Belize  (with some photos)

Amphibians & Reptiles in Belize & Guatemala  (with some photos)

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Central America


The following, relating to the FONT April 2011 Belize Tour, was written by Armas Hill, the tour leader:

Upon our arrival at the airport in Belize, for our April 2011 tour in that country, getting our vehicle at "Jabiru Auto Rental" was truly an omen.
About an hour later, as we arrived at a place called "Crooked Tree", and from the causeway, on the lagoon, we saw as many as 25 Jabiru, at once!
During that day and the next, we estimated that we saw about 50 of the large Jabiru storks, about half of what is said to be the population of that bird in Belize.
And Belize has, certainly, the most Jabiru of any country in Central America.
During a previous tour at Crooked Tree, it's interesting to note that we saw no Jabiru, not a one. We had to go to another place to see a pair, with young, at a nest. That tour was also in the spring, but a notable difference in April 2011 was that it was drier than usual. 
The lagoon at Crooked Tree, during our two days there, could be seen shrinking, as the dryness and heat at the end of the dry season continued.
And as it shrank, that lagoon and the area were teeming with birds, thousands of them. In addition to the dozens of Jabiru, there were hundreds upon hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants, Limpkins, Snail Kites, Jacanas, various egrets, herons, ibises, and other waterbirds. Among them: Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, terns, sandpipers, grebes and ducks, including Blue-winged Teal that would soon go north and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that would stay in the area if it did not dry up completely.

The fish and other food for the thousands of birds were concentrated in, and by, the remaining shallow water. Small Talapia, by the score, could be seen in the evening, leaping from and back into the water.   

We were told when we arrived at Crooked Tree that the water level was too low for the boat-trip that we had planned to take to see the not-often-seen Agami Heron. But we were not to be so easily deterred. "There must be another way", and the next morning there was, when we rode in a hardy vehicle across a lake-bed that was a mile wide and eight miles long. At times, in that lake, there can be water as deep as 6 to 7 feet. 
Then, beyond the lake, we continued in the vehicle through brush where there was not even much of a walking trail until we came to the creek, where, upstream, from quiet canoes, we saw, yes, the not-often-seen Agami Heron!
Also along that creek, birds that were with us included Boat-billed Herons, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, and some kingfishers of various sorts including the American Pygmy Kingfisher.

Prior to the creek, as we crossed the grassy lake-bed we encountered a cow that had died, surrounded by dozens of Black Vultures. Atop that cow, there was an adult nearly all-white King Vulture.
As we re-crossed that lake-bed, on our way out, we saw two adult King Vultures.
Also, elsewhere, in the grass, there was a Dickcissel, pausing on its way north, from South to North America. We don't see that species often in Central America.  

When we were venturing back into the brush for the canoe-ride along the creek, I was reminded of some other such ventures "into the wild" during some of our previous tours in Central America.
The first such venture that came to mind was of another boat-trip in the Darien lowlands of eastern Panama, during which we also saw Agami Heron and American Pygmy Kingfisher, in addition to Red-throated Caracara, Crane Hawk, Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, and Greater Ani in addition to other notable birds. And also, as we went along that stream in the forest with local "Indians", we saw a big Boa Constrictor.
During another such remote venture along a small river in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border, I remembered us seeing a number of "good birds"" in an area where loud Scarlet Macaws nested. Swimming in the water by us, during that trip, there was a big Baird's Tapir.
In remote southern Costa Rica, in the La Amistad International Park, near Panama, our ventures into the wild have been not on boats, but instead land vehicles. There, where there were no people, we've seen in trees toucans, bellbirds, and an unusual daytime Kinkajou. Along a rushing stream, a Sunbittern.
Over the years, it has been wonderful to go in such a way, where not many go, and I was glad to do it again in Belize in April 2011.

In all, during our time in April 2011 in the Crooked Tree area of Belize, we found a nice total of 118 species of birds.
Not only were the waterbirds plentiful, but we also saw a nice number of landbirds in the forest and other habitats. Some were migrants, notably warblers on their way north, but others were residents, including some "Yucatan" specialties at the southern edge of their range including: the Yucatan Jay, Yellow-lored Amazon, Red-vented Woodpecker, and Gray-throated Chat. Nice to see, also, were Rufous-breasted Spinetail and a Plain Xenops that maybe without realizing it, posed well for photographs as it fed, at eye-level, on insects on a branch.
Fork-tailed Flycatchers, when they pose, are always nice birds to see. 
From where we had breakfast, we were easily distracted by the bight red male Vermilion Flycatcher. Also red, there, in a nearby tree, was a Northern Cardinal, also a resident at about the southernmost place where a Northern Cardinal would be. 
It was not the Northern Mockingbird that was there at the same time, but the more-southerly Tropical Mockingbird.

After dark, at Crooked Tree, we enjoyed our looks at Pauraques
Mammals in that area after dark were Gray Four-eyed Opossums, seen nicely, and the smallest of bats in Belize, the Proboscis Bat, weighing only 5 grams. Other bats can weigh as much as 65 grams. Most are in between.

In northern Belize, we were, as noted, at Crooked Tree. In southern Belize, we were at "Cotton Tree", the Cotton Tree Lodge - a wonderful place to stay and to bird along the Moho River. The tree is not "cotton" by the way, but rather a Belizean name for the large Ceiba Tree.   
Appearing like cotton, however, were the abundant Inga flowers in the trees on the grounds. Inga flowers, at times, can be extremely attractive to birds, particularly hummingbirds, but to other birds too. 
Many hummingbirds were feeding on the Ingas in the trees. Most were Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. Most colorful were the male White-necked Jacobins. Also at the Ingas, adding their colors, were migrating orioles and warblers, feasting before traveling north. 
There was yet more avian color at the grounds of the lodge, as an assortment of tanagers was there too: the Passerini's, Golden-hooded, Yellow-winged, and Blue-gray.
Often heard was the Striped Cuckoo. Usually when it calls, it's hidden, but not so when it was at the top of a tree outside our rooms.
Near the lodge, in the forest where we walked on a network of trails, we enjoyed some excellent birding. We flushed (and saw!) a Little Tinamou. Seconds later, we watched a Mayan Anthrush walking on the ground. The most colorful denizen of the woods was the male White-collared Manakin. We saw a few of them rapidly zipping about and then perched on horizontal branches around us. 
Other birds for us included: Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Northern Royal Flycatcher, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Dusky Antbird, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Yellow-throated Euphonia, and Yellow-billed Cacique. Not bad for a walk in the forest.
Maybe the most pleasant sound was that of the Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, with an alternate name, from that sound, of the Laughing Woodcreeper
The loudest bird sound in the forest was from one of the smallest of its birds, the White-breasted Wood Wren. We enjoyed seeing that small bird a few times.
Another bird sound of the tour that's "so much of the tropics" was that of the Montezuma Oropendola. The Keel-billed Toucans, up in the trees, can sound so much like repetitive insects.     

In all, we found about 75 species of birds at the "Cotton Tree". Among them, there were virtually no waterbirds, only a Pied-billed Grebe that swan downriver. 

Earlier mention was made of a bat that weighs only 5 grams. Another mammal was seen during our April 2001 Belize Tour that is considerably larger, the West Indian Manatee
Typically, an adult Manatee is 9 to 10 feet long, and weighs about 1,000 pounds. They can, however, be as long as 13 feet, and can weigh about 3,000 pounds (with females larger than males). As reference, 2,000 pounds is a ton. 

We went out one morning on a boat to a spot offshore favored by Manatees, above, we were told, a warm spring under the water. A few Manatees were there, about a half dozen. 
We probably saw that many, usually singles, sometimes in pairs. 
Because they have a slow metabolism, Manatees can only live in warm water, usually occurring where is from 6 to 18 feet in depth.

The West Indian Manatees in Belize are a different subspecies than those in Florida, being the "Antillean Manatee", Trichechus manatus manatus. 
In Florida, they migrate to warmer waters when the water temperature dips to under 67 degrees F.
Elsewhere, those in Central America and in northern South America, does not need to do such a migration as water is warm all year. There may be some movement related to wet and dry seasons.

What we saw were Manatees coming to surface of the water to breathe. We saw, at times, their snouts, their full heads, their backs, and their paddle-like tails. They generally don't stay up for long, so sometimes they are not easy to see well (but a few times we did). 
And, though they may be hard to see well, they, assuredly, are more difficult to photograph!  But Marie Gardner did - during our April 2011 tour, as in the photo below.   

An Antillean Manatee in Belize,
showing part of the head & back 

A large resting Manatee can stay submerged for about 20 minutes. Otherwise, and it varies by individual or the time of day, surfacing to breathe can be every 3 to 4 minutes. 
In the water, by using both their tail and flippers, the large animals are incredibly capable of complex maneuvering, including somersaults, rolls, and swimming upside-down. 
A Manatee typically swims with up-and-down motions of its body and tail, like a whale or dolphin. Although they typically swim at a speed of 2 to 6 miles per hour, they have been known to do faster sprints.

During an average day, a Manatee spends 6 to 8 hours feeding, and from 2 to 12 hours sleeping. When resting, a Manatee can lie on the floor of the sea or bay. 

Typically, Manatees eat daily from 4 to 9 per cent of their body weight. They are herbivores and can eat a variety of plants, but their favored food is seagrass. 
They have a flexible upper lip that they use to bring their food into their mouth. They grab and tear the plant with their lips. 
The Belizean name for the Manatee is "Sea Cow". They do graze on seagrass as cows graze on grass and hay.

The West Indian Manatee, or "Sea Cow" is an endangered species, that we considered ourselves fortunate to see as we did.        

Another mammal that is endangered, and for which Belize is well known, is the Jaguar. Nearly everywhere in the country where there is a post card rack, there's a photo of one. 
Throughout our tour, nearly everywhere we went, people had stories about them. In Central America, Belize is a stronghold (if such a thing exists) for the Jaguar.
Even though it is a small country (about the size of Massachusetts), Belize is a country where wildlife, even large wildlife, such as Jaguar, Puma ("the Red Tiger"), and Tapir (the national animal) still exist in fairly good numbers, and certainly more so than in other Central American countries (even those famous for their "nature").
Partly, Belize is as good as it is in that regard because its human population is low (less than 250,000), and partly because it is said that about 70 per cent of the country is still forested.

A place in Belize that's well known for Jaguars is Cockscomb. With serrated hills and pinnacles that rise up to 3,700 feet above the nearby Caribbean, giving the place its name, the topography does resemble, in a way, a rooster's skull. 
With not quite enough precipitation to be a true "rain forest", the rough terrain is covered with what is instead called a "moist tropical forest".
With whatever the habitat is called, the Cockscomb Basin was established in 1984 as the only designated sanctuary anywhere for Jaguars. At first, it was a nearly 4,000 acre preserve. It was expanded to over 100,000 acres in 1990s. 
Now, it is the home to a roster (not a "rooster") of large creatures such as tapir, peccary, deer, howler monkey, iguana, curassow, and all 5 regional wild cat species: Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, and Margay.

When we visited Cockscomb in April 2011, we saw and heard a number of birds, but encountered none of the large creatures just noted, even though we drove the road at a good time around dusk. 

It is difficult to cross paths with a Jaguar in the wild. We have done so during 6 previous FONT tours: 3 in Brazil, 2 in Mexico, and 1 Guatemala. In Belize, during a previous tour, we've come across fresh tracks. 

But, this time, in Belize, we did enjoy an encounter of sorts with a Jaguar. An animal that had been an orphan was at a large enclosure at a place where we stayed called "Banana Bank". 
We spent some time observing the magnificent animal, named "Tika 2"
When we stayed at Banana Bank during our first tour in Belize, back in 1992, "Tika 1" lived in that enclosure, and did so for a number of years until it died of "old age". 
"Tika 2" resides now at Banana Bank as there was not room for her at the Belize Zoo. She's being well cared for, and seemed fine. Not minding, apparently, being alone, as in the wild Jaguars are truly solitary animals.
As I said, at every place we went, there were stories, usually about encounters with Jaguars. But at Banana Bank, there was the animal - that was once a youngster at a place only 5 miles away.

Here at FONT we don't usually highlight captive animals. But now, as an exception, here are some photos of "Tika 2":    




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