Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The best Christmas Birdcount in Belize? The Mountain Pine Ridge CBC. Blog #6

Male Collared Trogon
For birders Christmas time is a very important part of the year in addition to the food, family gatherings and gifts, between December 15th and January 5th birders across the world take part in Christmas birdcounts. A Christmas birdcount is when volunteers across the globe go out over a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds within their circle. I decided to participate in the MPR CBC, this would be my second time going to Mountain Pine Ridge. I was stoked!

MPR CBC circle
So my journey began in Belize City as per usual. I hooked with Ms Luz's team, another team that was doing the MPR circle, so we boarded the van and headed up towards Cayo. We stopped a Hattieville to stock up on rations for the count I got the usual birding staples bread, cheese and canned sausages. By the time we finished shopping and fueling up another member of the team joined Scott Forbes. On the road again we made another stop at Cheers to pick up Chrissy Tupper the last member of the team and she brought along an ice box full of food, perfect right? We arrived at Hode's place a little after 8pm where we met with the chief Roni to finalize the plan for the next days count. We headed to the Moonracer Farm where we would spend the night, it's just outside the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve and is a great place to stay especially if you're looking for birds (Mottled Owl, Spectacled Owl, Violet Sabrewing on site) and the owners Marge are Tom Gallagher are some great people. Check it out: Moonracer farm

After having some of the wonderful food that Chrissy brought me and Scott went for a short walk to try and find some owls but we only managed to come across some spiders and a couple bats so we headed back and settled in for bed.

My alarm went off at 3:30 am, the time had come for the CBC to begin, by 4:00 we were on the road off the the edge of the MPR reserve off the Depair Cairn. The team I was with included Roni, Fidelio and myself small but strong.

Fidelio, Roni and myself

We began birding before the sun came up, we managed to pick up a pair of Collared Forest-Falcons, Ruddy and Northern Barred-Woodcreeper all by ear. As the sun began to rise over the valleys of the Pine Ride the light got better and the birds began to come in. Early on we had some pine ridge specialist such as Rusty Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warblers and even some Scarlet Macaws.

We continued down the road now by foot as road worse, but the worse the road gets the better the birding usually is. We were now at the edge of the reserve, were the Mountain Pine Ridge meets the Chiquibul National Park. Pristine broadleaf forests, the tropics at its best.

The boundary line 

Birding the edge of the reserve

The migrant passerines were ever present Magnolia Warbler, Summer Tanagers, Black-throated Green Warbler all wintering in our Belizean forests. Present also were our local species we had Crested Guans, Barred Antshrikes and Dot-winged Antwrens. Our count was going well we were constantly scanning the treetops and understory for any signs of movement and our ears were constantly alerted by the calls of flocks of Brown-hooded Parrots and White-collared Swifts. We then came upon a tree with quite some activity a pair of White-winged Tanagers, some good looks at a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet while I was checking out the Tyrannulet Roni said "guys I think you just missed an Elegant Euphonia" and Fidelio said " I saw it too" so it was just me who missed the Elegant Euphonia, damn! :( the Elegant Euphonia is one of the hardest breeding birds to get in Belize and it slipped away. Well that's one on the list for next time. I did manage to secure two lifers Orange-billed Sparrow and Golden-Crowned Warbler

Rusty Sparrow

Male White-winged Tanager
A bad shot of our most beautiful tanager, the Golden-hooded Tanager
After shedding a tear for the Euphonia and grabbing a bite to eat we continued birding along. Green Shrike-vireos and and a Great Antshrike were almost missed because the Crested Guans were busy calling loudly from the valleys. Moving back up away from the Chiquibul we came across some more activity on the road another lifer for me, a female Green Honey appeared alongside Olive-backed Euphonias a White-bellied Emerald female Wedge-tailed Sabrewing and even a Black-crested Coquette, I would have missed it too if it hadn't been for Fidelio who pointed it out my third lifer for the trip so far. Being the smallest hummingbird in Belize it can easily be looked over.

Male Olive-backed Euphonia

White-bellied Emerald 
If you've been to or just heard of the Mountain Pine Ridge you would know that the roads aren't quite forgiving we had a first hand experinece on the bad roads when the 4WD decided to quit working. We were stuck for a bit but we managed to get out Fidelio and Roni are both MPR specialist so this wasn't their first time getting stuck.

The MPR is a Forest Reserve so logging is still allowed with the proper permits sad but necessary I guess. We came to a clearing that was made by the logging company where is it was perfect to scan for raptors.

Logging activity in the MPR

We were graced by the presence of two beautiful Scarlet Macaws flying overhead, a Double-toothed Kite soaring above alongside a Short-tailed Hawk but the bird that really go us screaming like little Girls was a Black and White Hawk-Eagle right above our heads.

Scarlet Macaws

Short-tailed Hawk

Black and White Hawk-Eagle
High fives were given all around,the Black and White Hawk-Eagle is a top tier raptor (lifer for me) and we were all happy that we could've gotten it on our count. Acorn Woodpecker, Ovenbird and Grace's Warbler were all added to out list to get us up to 100 species. We jumped in the pathfinder again a continued on the roads of MPR  picking up some good species along the way such as Plumbeous Vireo, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Olive-sided Flycatcher, sadly no Greater Pewee.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Rufous-capped Warblers

At the end of the Bradley Road we stopped for lunch at a vista overlooking one of the Macal River tributaries. From nearby we could hear the light calling of a Collared Trogon, Roni located it and photographed then I went down to do the same. This Trogon stayed right there and allowed me to photograph him a living breathing creature looking at me with the same inquisitive look I was giving him.

Lunch Lookout

Male Collared Trogon

The next stop was Cooma Cairn a lookout tower and ex British military compound. But we had one little issue it was hot and we driving up some hills and the pathfinder began to heat up so we had to let it cool down a bit perfect excuse for a quite nap. We made it up to Cooma Cairn no issues just the car needed water which we managed to get from some kind gentleman who were working at near the compound.

The beautiful view from Cooma Cairn 

Fully hydrated 

One of the many creeks 
  While taking in the wonderful views at Cooma Cairn we picked up some more species, Philadelphia Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler all were added to the list before we got on our way back to meetup with the other teams. We drove back almost the entire 5 miles without the engine on just coasting up and down the hills in the MPR  to keep it from overheating. What a way to end the off the birdcount. We had some amazing birds, some of the most beautiful views in Belize and hang out with two of the coolest people I know.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Belize's 1st Pelagic Trip, Warbler Mania on Halfmoon Caye Blog #5

So this has been what many Belizean Birders have been waiting for, a Pelagic Birding Trip. For those of who don't know a Pelagic is a trip that goes out in the open ocean look for seabirds (boobies, shearwaters, storm-petrels etc)

This trip has been in planning from the beginning of the year and thanks to the chief Roni Martinez and the Belize Audubon Society the day has come. We boarded the Booby at the Old Belize Marina to start our journey out to the Lighthouse Reef Atoll we had a pretty solid group of birders Roni Martinez, Fidelio Montes , Isaias Morataya, Diego Cruz, Eduardo Ruano, Marcos Corado, Meshack Eliah, Eric Tut and myself. Before the trip even started Eduardo, Marcos and I managed to stumble upon a Brown Noddy in Belize City.

The Booby 

Brown Noddy 

So we took hour two hour journey and our first stop within the Lighthouse Reef Atoll was at a caye called Northern 2 it was supposed to be some sort of mega resort on the atoll but it never really took off ( thankfully) so now the island is abandoned buildings that have become fishing camps and an abandoned airstrip. A perfect stopover point for migrating birds before long we were picking up migrants such as Palm Warblers, Blue Grosbeak, Dickcissels, Merlin, Peregrine Falcons and my first pair of lifers an Acadian Flycatcher and a Prairie Warbler. Other than birds we stumbled across an Allison's Anole an Anole that's found only on a few Islands in the Caribbean.

Allison's Anole 

Acadian Flycatcher

Royal Tern 
After birding the island a bit we had lunch which for us consisted mainly of bread, canned sausages and cheese followed by some fresh coconut water (can't beat that haha) and some talk about HAARP, conspiracy theories and evolution. After Northern 2 we headed across to Sandbore Caye where I fell of the pier with my camera and phone luckily a managed to save my camera but my phone was finished. Well I little fall can't stop the birding jam so I took off my shoes and continued birding the island where we had good looks at some nesting Ospreys, a whole drove of Palm Warblers and a Yellow Warbler that was having us thinking Orange-crowned Warbler.

Brown Noddy at Sandbore


Palm Warbler 

Confusing Yellow Warbler 
After Sandbore Caye we headed to Halfmoon Caye. On the way we passed a very sad sight, a ship that had run aground on our beautiful Belizean barrier reef. It's quite an eyesore and a remembrance of how we are slowly destroying mother earth. The good thing was that  Brown Pelicans, an Osprey and a Merlin were on the ship.

We docked at Halfmoon Caye, set up camp and went to do what we do best, birding. We managed to pick up some good birds although we were losing light. We had a Mourning Dove, Male Painted Bunting and some more of the warblers we had earlier in the day. The Sunset at Halfmoon Caye was beautiful, so beautiful that I managed to capture just the end of it.

We settled in to camp had some some great birder talk, made dinner with headlamps as there is no electricity for the campsite, the coffee addicts (I wont call any name) made their coffee and we headed off to our tents and hammocks. Halfmoon Caye gets a lot of wind and that night was no different, we had strong winds blowing throughout the night at one point my tent was beginning to collapse on me so I had to get out and fix it. We survived so it was all good.

The wonderful sunrise at Halfmoon Caye

The day was here PELAGIC! time. But before the pelagic we did an early morning walk on the caye, we picked up some great migratory birds like the very shy Swainson's Warbler, a beautiful male Painted Bunting, Black-throated Green Warblers, Palm Warblers, Ovenbirds, Cape May Warbler and the list could go on, by the end of the checklist we has about 24 species of warbler! But the highlight of the morning birding came about when I was showering, Eduardo uttered two words that made the entire team stop what they were doing.... Townsend's Warbler!!!!! Within 10 seconds the whole team was there, some even in their towels haha. The Townsend's Warbler winters on the Pacific coast of Central America but somehow one wonder out to the most eastern part of Belize, amazing stuff. This was the first record for Townsend's warbler for Belize on eBird and we had photos.

Townsend's Warbler

Female Hooded Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Male Painted Bunting
Red-footed Booby
Magnificent Frigatebird

Red-footed Booby

Cape May Warbler

After breakfast and coming down off the high that was caused by the Townsend's Warbler we boarded the Booby once more, our plan was set we were going to head out 5 mile north east of Halfmoon Caye in search of some pelagic birds. The sea was pretty rough but that was expected we were prepared for it  well at least some of us haha. We stopped at 2.5 miles out an tossed some bait fish and waited for a bit, all eyes glued to the horizon scanning diligently for any signs of life. The boat tossed and turned in surf but we continued looking, after we had no birds we continued east another 2.5 miles, by that time one of our birders had already lost their breakfast due to sea sickness. We threw out some more bait fish and waited a bit longer but we hadn't come across any pelagic species except 2 Red-footed Boobies so we turned around and headed back to halfmoon.

The blues of Halfmoon Caye

Back on land we had another 2 hours to spare before we went back to the mainland, we were at one of the 4 atolls that are in the Western hemisphere so we had to get some snorkeling done. The reef right near the island is pretty good for snorkeling we had Barracudas, puffer fish, parrot fish ( a lifer?) and even the very beautiful Rock Beauty.

Back to camp we began packing up to leave one of the most beautiful places in the world. While we were packing up we had an unexpected visitor a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, one of the most beautiful species of warbler. He was right in the coconut tree over Eric's hammock, like he just wanted to tell us goodbye.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

That time had come, back to the city, we were back aboard the Booby getting ready to endure the 2 hr boat ride back. We passed by a flock of terns feeding nothing too special but as we passed near where the cruise ships dock this large bird began to fly towards us, the flight seemed almost falcon like it had white under the wings and was quite brown, it flew right by the boat and Roni yelled "jaeger" (a huge mistake because this was one of the target birds for the pelagic trip so all the birders went to one side of the boat and almost toppled it haha) all of us managed to get some brief looks at it, just as fast as it came it disappeared but we were certain it was a Pomarine Jaeger! pelagic species check! and only a mere 10 miles from the mainland imagine that. That was the icing on the cake for this trip.

The Crew

We managed to complete Belize's first pelagic, we had some amazing birds, everyone had a life birds but most of all a group of people who are passoniate about birds came together and did what we love. Birding is more than just about birds but also about the people we meet and bond with I'm thankful we have such a tight birding community in Belize and I'm looking forward to the next pelagic trip.

eBird Checklists:

Friday, 22 September 2017

Operation Black Phoebe Blog #4

Where the Roaring River meets the Belize River 

From I began birding I've always wanted to see a Black Phoebe. Something about this bird had me drawn to it, I mean it's a black flycatcher with a contrasting white belly who loves rapids a strange combination but cool none the less.

I had some free time so I decided to use it to search for the Phoebe. This first step was to find where this little bird would be so I went to my trusty friend called eBird to look for recent sightings.

eBird map of Phoebe Sightings 

 As seen on the map above the Cayo district is definitely the place to go for Mr Phoebe. The latest sighting at that time was at the Xunantunich ferry so I was planning to go there but then I realized it's like a 3 hr bus ride which wasn't a problem I mean it's a Black Phoebe. To be sure I checked with the chief Roni to see if I had a good chance at Xunantunich. He told me to try Guanacaste National Park instead and if I wasn't successful there to try Ian Anderson's Caves Branch. So I adjusted my plans, I contacted my friend Jose from Guanacaste and we were set to meet up in the morning and start operation Black Phoebe.

Guanacaste National Park managed by the Belize Audubon Society 
I arrived at Guanacaste a little before 8 which is very late for birding. I missed two buses because of my social life the night before but I was here and ready to find this Phoebe. I stopped at the office and chatted with my uncle the park manager.  Soon Jose arrived and we were off to look for the Phoebe, this was my first time birding the park but Jose is a ranger there so I was in good hands. 

On the trail we started to hear some birds, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Hooded Warblr and the usual Spot Breasted Wren. We reached our first stop for the Pheobe, a lookout over the Roaring River, we had looks at  Boat-billed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee and Social flycatcher the 3 derby flycatchers that inhabit Belize but no Phoebe. 

We continued moving along the trail, we had a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers, a summer Tanager calling from it's winter home, a pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers and some Black-headed Saltators calling in the distance.
Pale-billed Woodpecker 
We reached the next stop for the Phoebe, it was where the Roaring River meets the Belize River, a beautiful piece of the country. Here we had brief looks at both Amazon and Green Kingfisher, some Neotropic Comorants, Spotted Sandpipers ( I swear these are everywhere) and to my surprise a Band-backed Wren a lifer for me came right in front of us I had some good looks at the highly arboreal wren but didn't get a good shot but mien was I happy that I saw this bird he was right alongside the Phoebe on the list of birds I must see. We got the Wren but again to Phoebe.

Roaring River 

Horrible shot of the Band-backed Wren (Lifer!)
Immature Gray Hawk
We dipped on the Black Phoebe in Guanacaste but I did manage to score the Band-backed Wren. The next stop was at Caves Branch which Roni had arranged for us the day before. We stopped for a quick breakfast in Belmopan where we had a small flock of migrating Eastern Kingbirds. We hit the Hummingbird Highway(the most scenic highway in Belize) on the way to Caves Branch, we were on motor cycle so birds easier to spot. We stopped for a strange look raptor, it had a very long tail almost resembling an accipiter but it turned out to be and immature Gray Hawk, there was also and Ornate Hawk-eagle calling in the area but no looks at him.

We arrived at  at Caves Branch a wonderful lodge nestled in the jungle near the Caves Branch River, perfect Black Phoebe Habitat.  We were greeted by a nice lady by the name of Ella and she gave us a short but sweet tour of her botanical garden which was filled with epiphytes a group of plants that I believed is often overlooked. But Ella is very knowledgeable and passionate about them and she's willing to share that knowledge with anyone willing to learn. So I'll have to come back to get my full tour and learn quite a bit more. Pineapples and Orchids are both epiphytes something new I learned that day.

Beautiful, isn't it?

Ella showing me and Jose around.


After the wonderful tour we were given access to the lodge grounds to search for the Phoebe, we headed straight to the river. But right beside the river was a pool and guess who was hanging out there? Yes! the Black Phoebe himself like he was just waiting there for us, it was an epic moment. Two years ago I'd never thought that I'd jump on a bus and on the back of a motorcycle to go find a bird but I did and it was an awesome experience. 

Black Phoebe lifer!!!!!!!!!

I was so excited that a messed up my camera settings and only got a moderately good photo. We stayed around to try and get a couple more shots but nothing great. We picked up  Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night heron and even a Buteogallus soaring high that gave us some ID trouble (write in the comments if you know what it is).

Yellow-crowned Night Herons

Buteogallus sp
 After caves branch we headed to St Herman's Blue Hole to try out the Dusky Antbird Trail. We had White-tipped and Gray headed doves, Red-troated Ant Tanagers, White-collared Swifts, a pair of Northern-barred Woodcreepers and a Lesson's Motmot giving a very weird vocalization.

Very simple park rules

Red-throated Ant Tanager

We moved over to the main office of the Blue Hole and did the lowland trail for about 30 minutes. It was pretty hot and bird activity was very low but we did have a good look at a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper and some other critters like a pair of Gray Foxes and a Rainbow Ameiva. After this we decided to call it a day so we headed over to Wingstop in Belmopan to get some drinks and food, this best way to end a good day birding.

Gray Foxes
The day was a real exceptional one I got to hang out with my good friend Jose, if you're ever going to Guanacaste to look for birds make sure you ask for Jose he knows that place well. Caves Branch has a drove of information for those who are willing to learn, meeting Ella who is as passionate about epiphytes as I am about birds was great, birders should go there and learn about these plants, they go hand in hand in birding. Operation Black Phoebe was successful and the day went 10 times better than I had expected.

I wanna thank Roni Martinez for the info on the Phoebe and arranging for us to visit Caves Branch, Ella Anderson for giving us that wonderful tour and giving us access to Caves Branch ( I will be back).

eBird checklists: 

The best Christmas Birdcount in Belize? The Mountain Pine Ridge CBC. Blog #6

Male Collared Trogon F or birders Christmas time is a very important part of the year in addition to the food, family gatherings and gif...