Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Belize! Part II: Birding Around Bird's Eye View Lodge and The Crooked Tree Pine Savanna

Yucatan Jay was one of the first species of the trip to really get the pupils dilated. This was one of the main target birds at Crooked Tree - in Belize, they are restricted to the northern part of the country - and we had no problem finding them once we got into the right habitat, the pine savanna on the west side of the village.

Yucatan Jays cruise around in big, noisy groups, and are not at all retiring like some tropical jay species. We saw flocks several times. Immature birds are easily identified by their bright yellow bills and yellow eyerings, which makes one constantly think of a Yellow-billed Magpie head attached to the body of another exotic bird. This pretty stationary group was working a modest antswarm and gave great looks, but were oddly the only bird species attending them.

Yucatan Jays have obvious similarities with some birds I have seen before - Purplish-backed and San Blas Jays - which are both in the same genus and generally follow similar design templates. On the other hand Green Jays, which we also saw here, are in the same genus but look nothing like them and were much less enthusiastic about perching out in the open. They were quite unlike the U.S. birds  that make up such a crucial component of South Texas Geri Birding in both behavior and appearance (different subspecies).

Mmmmmm so lifery...these were gripping birds. I hope to greatly expand my nascent relationship with Cyanocorax jays in the coming years. I think getting to know that intriguing genus will furnish a lot of good memories.

Yucatan Jay pro tip...Leonard, one of the BEV guides, told me they regularly come to roost in the evenings in the big trees at the campground next to BEV (where the Woodcreeper Trail starts), so although the light could be challenging they can potentially be found there without venturing out to the outskirts of the village.

Typically, when I go on birding trips to tropical places, I end up owing my friends a number of hjs. Owing other people a bunch of hjs is potentially awkward, but since they are my friends, we usually can enjoy the hjs and laugh about it later. I owe Billy an hj for Yucatan Jay and another for this Tropical Pewee, which was my first. This was one of the handful of lifers I got that I would go on to see regularly and didn't require putting in much effort.

I missed multiple opportunities to crush Roadside Hawks into oblivion due to the comatose camera, but at least I did get a photo that was reasonable enough to share here. Belize turned out to be great for raptors, and predictably Roadside Hawk was by far the most hawk common species, but not having seen them for a few years I was happy to be in their midst again.

Another target species of the Yucatan Peninsula flavor was Yellow-lored Parrot, which (in Belize anyway) have an affinity for pine savanna, much like Yucatan Jay. This species was admittedly a BRAIN BIRD only a few months ago but I was all about getting a lifer parrot. Billy, Annie and I all  took a shortish guided trip to the pine savanna for a morning to look for this and other area specialties. It was a quiet morning for some reason - even Leonard thought so, but we were able to find a young Yellow-lored parrot. They are aptly named, as the yellow lores are the best field mark, but otherwise look similar to the more widespread White-fronted Parrots.

Leonard was a solid guide and generally knew his shit. Another lifer for me that morning was Yucatan Woodpecker, which the BEV guides refer to as "Red-vented Woodpecker". It conveniently dropped into a tree I was already watching because it was filled with Yucatan Jays. Additional nice birds found in this area, which we birded both with and without Leonard, included Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Barred Antshrikes, Olive Sparrow, and Grace's Warblers. There was also an alarming abundance of Acorn Woodpeckers, which made me wonder if I was caught in some portal to my own 5MR...the verdict is still out on that. I think Black-throated Bobwhite is possible here as well but we had no joy with them.

The Pine Savanna tour is pretty cheap if you are interested in having a guide take you out there, but I should warn that the way the trip is priced in the BEV trip list is per person, when the price they charge is actually per person per hour...this seemed deceptive but since this was only supposed to be a two hour trip (which we exceeded by a bit) we didn't feel royally ripped off or anything. A couple lifers always take the edge off.

You can walk there from BEV in less than 45 minutes if you don't stop and bird too much, or if you have a car you can drive out to the habitat in just a few minutes. This habitat is very different than what is near the lagoon and is worth checking out. You can access it by taking the helpfully named "Yucatan Jay Avenue" west out of the village and passing Beck's bed and breakfast, around 17.773495, -88.548095. You can also access this habitat from the main road that goes west from the village to the Western Lagoon, roughly at 17.777639, -88.552676. Note that a drivable sandy track connects these two areas.

I was beside myself when I found this American Pygmy Kingfisher on the Limpkin Trail, quietly sitting in a wooded area low over a tiny ditch that no other kingfisher would deem a reasonable place to be looking for food. This was one of those times where I was just looking where I hoped a certain bird would that I had never seen before...and it actually was there. I probably would not have noticed it otherwise - it is humorously small and never budged or made a peep. I guess being the #7 U.S. birder does have some benefits in other countries.

As advertised it turned out to be pretty was sitting in deep dark shadows but this is still probably a better picture than almost anything I've ever gotten of a Belted, which I can see from my embarrassing. Anyways this turned out to be the only pygmy I saw and one of my favorite lifers of the trip.

My first trogon in Belize was a Black-headed, near the beginning of the Woodcreeper Trail. Black-headed Trogons are pleasantly common and widespread and will readily cripple any seekers. As trogons are wont to do, this one was simply surveying its domain. They look a lot like Gartered Trogons, but the blue eye ring is one good way to tell them apart from this angle.

And yes, for the record, I could have crushed this species flat later in the trip if the camera wasn't in paperweight mode. Life is pain but looking at confiding trogons will always bring your serotonin levels up.

One bird I really wanted to see again was Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, which I'd only seen previously at one place in eastern Mexico a number of years ago. Luckily, I escaped the irony of having my photos of them taken from me again (a cartel stole my camera that trip)...while my camera was doomed on this trip as well, it survived long enough to capture the soul of this LYHV.

While we were eating lunch, Billy pointed out a Great Egret that caught a huge fish on the shoreline, but eventually it decided that it was too big to swallow and simply left it on the shore. An hour or so later, this giddy vulture arrived on the scene, flew right by me with the fish, then landed at the start of the Limpkin Trail.

Just look at this thing bellowing. It was very focused on picking apart that fish and let me get all close and snuggly. I'm crazy about the head of this bird. So similar to a Turkey Vulture in structure, wildly different in color.

Full zombie mode.

Though an easy ID close up, that isn't the case with birds further away. A really useful field mark is the conspicuous white primary shafts on the upperwing, which you can see well here and may be visible when head color is not.

If the bird is soaring high enough - LYHVs often stay fairly low to the ground - the shape of the tail can be helpul as well. LYHV doesn't have quite the prominent wedge shape that are so classic on TUVUs.

Creatures of second growth and disturbed habitats, we saw Plain Chachalacas near BEV and at a great number of other places during the trip.

I was impressed by the abundance of warblers wintering in the country - we had 23 warbler species on the trip, not including Yellow-breasted Chat of course. Magnolia Warblers (above) were particularly abundant Neotropical migrants, along with Least and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Wood Thrushes, American Redstarts, Northern Waterthrushes, Hooded Warblers and Black-and-white Warblers.

Melodious Blackbird is the blackest of blackbirds, and a more accomplished singer than many of them as well. This is one of the true generalist species in the region and seem to be present anywhere there isn't a completely closed forest canopy.

Up next, the Crooked Tree boat trip!


  1. Yes that kingfisher is rad, my Fave if the post.

    So how does the HJ protocol work on group trips? Do you administer them and there on the spot, after sufficient time lifer-looking, wait til evening wind down? Have one big circle-up at the end of the trip? I don’t want to end up in a glorious Lifer-assisted situation and then make it all awkward.

    That LYHV’s color pallet seems to be: rotting mango

    1. You know I've always liked the idea of the big group hj exchange at the end but typically people are owed multiple hjs so trying to pay hj debts all at once just doesn't work due to physiological limits. The classic is just doing it right there on the spot, but since that isn't always possible either it is best to keep a ledger of hjs owed, so they can be doled out at reasonable times and places.

    2. That’s very practical Steve. So I’m addition to bins, crusher, multi-pocket best, etc., you’d recommend birders bring a little 5 oz. bottle of lotion into the field? (12oz. of birding I’m the tropics for the first time).

  2. I visited Belize in pre-birder days, and it still haunts me to think of what I missed. So, thank you for bringing my ghosts to life. They look incredible!

    1. Ah yes, the ghosts of lifers never seen...those ghosts tend to be very persistent, but luckily there is a way to make them disappear!

  3. “This was one of the handful of lifers I got that I would go on to see regularly and didn't require putting in much effort“

    HJ aside, I hope...

    1. oh yeah, that's not something I would just phone in, how inconsiderate