Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Belize! Part IV: Crooked Tree to The Tropical Education Center

By our last day at Crooked Tree, I already considered our visit there Great Success, and if and when I go back to Belize, I would absolutely be down to go back...especially in February or March, when the lagoon is seething with birds and Agami Herons are more dependable. As railer as it was to leave Agamiless, Hooded Warblers were a heartening sight, and brought me comfort on most days during the trip. Come to think of it, I'm almost always having a good time when there are Hooded Warblers around.

This American Redstart was exceptional, pivoting back and forth at this one spot, keeping its attention on me and tail fanned the entire time. Maybe it was trying to tell me something, like "You will never see an Agami Heron" or "Oh hey we met at Point Reyes a few years ago" or "Nikon sucks go Canon".

Yucatan Woodpecker was a prized lifer, one of *nine* I was able to squeeze out of the Crooked Tree area. A marvelous mini-Melanerpes...perhaps belonging in its own genus, Mellownerpes.

Eventually it was time to leave Crooked Tree and see a new part of the country. We got Bird's Eye View Lodge to drive us back to the airport, where we were dropped off at Hertz. After a few minutes we got into our sweet new diesel Isuzu (I didn't know they still made Isuzus, let alone diesels) and were off to the Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge, aka the Tropical Education Center, aka the TEC. I chose to stay two nights at the TEC for four reasons: 1) its proximity to the Belize Zoo, which we figured would be fun for Annie to visit 2) since it was on the way to Black Rock Lodge, it eliminated a long driving day, which is ideal when you are driving around with a toddler 3) it isn't expensi and 4) it gives good access to pine savanna, and the chance to clean up on any specialties of that habitat we missed at Crooked Tree.

The drive from Belize City was easy and uneventful. We ate lunch at Cheers, which is just past the TEC/Belize Zoo on the George Price Highway, and also an eBird hotspot. The food was deec but I suspect something I ate there didn't treat my stomach well later that night...it was brutal, actually...but it was the only place where we saw Tennessee Warblers and Giant Cowbird for the trip.

Eventually we got checked in to the TEC and did a little exploring before sunset. The TEC itself provides good birding opportunities and an extensive, well-marked trail system. One of the highlights of our time there was the evening parrot flight. The number of parrots flying over, commuting to evening roost sites, was really impressive...not massive flocks mind you, but a constant, dispersed stream of birds.

The vast majority were Red-lored, which seems by far the most abundant parrot species in much of Belize. Thankfully their calls are easy to learn, so most birds could be identified by ear before they were close enough to see well.

They were all in pairs. Many of them flew quite low, giving good looks, which is not something to take for granted when it comes to parrots in flight.

Great birds they are.

Besides all the Red-loreds going over, we also had a single adult Yellow-lored Parrot squawking in a nearby tree. It was nice to see a brightly marked individual after seeing Drabby McDrabberson at Crooked Tree earlier in the day.

While looking at the Yellow-lored Parrot, I heard a distinctly new parrot noise, more screechy and raucous than anything I heard before. With jaw clenched, hands trembling, lip quivering, I raised my binoculars with sky high hopes...YELLOW-HEADED PARROTS!!! They were flying low and right towards us.

In fact, they came a little too close for crushing purposes, but that's not something I will complain about. This was a great LIFE BIRD, one I had been really hoping to see. While they have declined greatly and disappeared from parts of their historic range due to habitat loss and the parrot trade, they are still readily findable in much of lowland Belize.

Not an ideal photo, but it is an ideal lifer. This was the only pair we saw on the trip.

The TEC is in a huge swath of pine savanna, good Yellow-headed Parrot habitat. It's also where Black-throated Bobwhites make their bobhomes, and I spent quite a bit of time and energy looking for them, but that pursuit ended in bobfailure. Luckily, wandering around in this habitat did at least connect me with a lifer Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (I'll spare you the awful picture), which also ended up being the only one of the trip.

A handful of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons lurked at the pond. I also heard Boat-billed Herons both nights we were there, but couldn't locate their day roosts.

In retrospect, the TEC was not quite as birdy as it maybe is at other times...it looked great, but birds were simply not as abundant as I thought they would be. That said, one of the commonest birds in the area was, of all things, Thick-billed Seed-Finch. Frankly, I was unprepared for their sheer abundance and sweet, casual songs...I won't make that mistake again.

I did have one mixed flock at the TEC that left me glassy-eyed and slack-jawed...it wasn't massive, but it contained several Yellow-backed Orioles (life bird!), another target I had been drooling over. I don't really associate orioles with conifers, so it was interesting to see these big facemelters take their time foraging in the pines. The flock also contained Yucatan Woodpeckers, Green Jays, a Hepatic Tanager, a Golden-olive Woodpecker, and a surprise Gray-collared Becard, which I've only seen once before and are fairly rare in Belize. It wasn't exactly an "it's happening" flock but it was fully gripping, and in retrospect included an impressive three species I didn't see on any other occasion on the trip.

After the flock oozed away from the trail, I then pished up my lifer Green-backed Sparrows...everything was coming up Steve!

Elaenia. Have any of you considered naming your first/next daughter "Elaenia"? I think it's legit. First of all, no one else is going to have that fucking name, so 10/10 for originality, and it isn't nearly as bracing/esoteric/wince-inducing as "Apple" or "Blanket" or some shit, nor is at as trendy as "Wren" or as common as "Phoebe". It basically sounds like an established name with a nice exotic-but-modest flourish at the end. For real, you can use it, go ahead, just give credit where credit is due.

Granted, elaenias aren't extravagantly beautiful, or talented singers, or really anybody's absolute favorite birds, but they are perfectly fine birds...and in the end, isn't that all we can hope for from our children? That they turn out to be perfectly fine beings? This is a Yellow-bellied Elaenia, a great example of a perfectly fine bird.

The TEC has a range of lodging options that are pretty reasonably priced; we stayed in one of the two houses overlooking the pond, which was pretty sweet and no, the mosquitoes were not that bad. Annie and Billy weren't so into the rain and falling tropical fruits banging on the metal roof at night, but I thought it added character.


TEC has a lot of confiding agoutis, which are like mini capybaras. They don't get hunted around there so they are pretty nonchalant, as are the Russet-naped Woodrails. A gray fox there early one morning was another nice sighting on mammal front.

I was hoping to have some more amphibian encounters but they were relatively few...and yes, it was for a lack of trying. Having a toddler with you in the tropics is not conducive to night hikes or night anything really. I saw a rad reddish toad (raddish toad) here at TEC but didn't have anything on me at the time to photograph it with...so all I have to share is this very humble frog. Brian Freiermuth suggests it is a juvenile Leptodactylus. Having no idea how to identify any frogs found in Belize, or almost anywhere else frogs exist, I am not one to argue.

The fungus scene in Belize was good, there were a lot of mushrooms out, not that I could say anything intelligent about them. This smurf thing was one of the best ones.

Oh yeah, I doubt they will read this, but my boys Juan Carlos and Gilbert really helped us out and went above and beyond their duties when we had to deal with some medical stuff (I ate the smurf thing). Thanks TEC!

JK I didn't eat the mushroom but we did have to semi-urgently take care of some stuff.

We spent a morning at the mostly-great Belize Zoo, where Annie got to see things like tapirs ("mountain cows"), real Jabirus, this wooden Jabiru, and Harpy Eagles, which she oddly did not have much interest in but the big female had a great deal of interest in her. I had seen one or two Harpy Eagles at a zoo before but it was a privilege to be in the presence of this one, who had chosen to sit on a perch very close to us. I felt like I should bow or something...talk about a spellbinding animal, I can only hope I see a wild one someday. That is some bucket list shit right there...

Right, the zoo. The zoo was good. Great for kids, unless your kids hate animals. All wildlife native to Belize. They've got everything from Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl to jaguars. Anyhow, I didn't see any unusual free-flying birds at the zoo but I don't doubt that good stuff is possible there. BTW I've read in a couple places that in the past the zoo has been really aggressive about making photographers with vaguely professional looking gear pay $$$ to have their cameras out there, but I got a copy of their current photo policy and that shouldn't be a problem any longer.

After leaving the Belize Zoo/TEC area, we took a detour down the Monkey Bay Sanctuary access road on our way to Black Rock Lodge. On that road, destiny had a cruel twist of fate planned for me...my six month old (and apparent piece of shit) Nikon D7200 died after I took a single exposure of a Crane Hawk. Crane Hawks are magical beings, it is known, but I suspect Nikon is to blame this time. Life was mostly pain on the photography front after that, just as the birding really picked up again.


  1. The shroom looks to be Lactarius indigo ("Indigo Lactarius" is a common name), or a neotropical equivalent.

    1. Which would have been completely edible, BTW.

    2. It does look quite similar doesn't it? I reckon you're right, was surprised to find out it has such a huge range.

  2. Any decisions yet on Nikon vs Canon? That redstart knows what's up.

    Sick collection of birds and non-birds, hard to believe you were attached to a toddler on this trip. Not sure about the prominent butthole on the agouti tho.

    1. Biding my time, not excited about throwing down so much cash at once, but the decision has been all but made. My current setup is that Im using my camera that has since been repaired but have to use my old, backup lens (long story), which is perfectly capable of taking great images but the autofocus works at a glacial pace.

  3. It’s funny, I had the exact same experience and reaction with an Isuzu when I was in Belize. Perhaps Belize is to Isuzu’s as Japan is to rock n’ roll bands that peaked in the U.S. 25 years ago.

    Apt observation about Eleania, and parenting. On that front and with Jen’s comment, maybe you should include a ‘how to bird with toddler’ portion to your trip reports. Or HBP installment.

    Was it just me or was the orange juice much much better there in Belize?

    1. It's really hard birding with Annie, I owe Billy a lot for getting to bird as much as I did...I don't think I have much in the way of birding with toddler tips except it is possible to strategize an activity and what time it takes place to coincide with a good napping window. That way, toddler can sleep in a carrier and you can bird uninterrupted for 90 minutes or whatever.