Monday, May 6, 2019

Belize! Part V: Black Rock Lodge

Belize! It wasn't that long ago, but it kinda seems like it? So much good 5MR birding since then! Anyways, to continue with the Belize trip...after leaving the Tropical Education Center/Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge and the pine savanna behind, it began to get serious. As we headed west, actual hills and topography began to appear, which we had seen no sign of until then. The flat, lightly-treed savanna gave way to forests...we were now in a very different part of the country. I was amazed to see a Black Hawk-Eagle cruising low over the road while passing through San Ysidro, as I had only seen one before and that one was something like a thousand feet higher in the sky. We were on our way to Black Rock Lodge, one of the most heavily birded sites in the country, where we would spend five luxurious (by my scumbag standards) nights. Black Rock offers great birding on their property along the Macal River (and along their entrance road), and is situated within an hour of a number of other birding hotspots - I would highly recommend it to anyone who plans to bird in the greater San Isidro area or western part of the country.

We arrived in the area pretty early so decided to detour to DuPlooy's Jungle Lodge for lunch. DuPlooy's, which has been recently bought out and renamed Sweetwater or something like that, is another well known birding site and is also adjacent to the Belize Botanic Gardens. I had looked into staying there, but the price was considerably higher than what Black Rock offered, and Black Rock seemed to have comparable if not better birding on site. Lunch was mellow - outside and way up in the forest canopy. I was amazed to see that there was a group of tame Red-throated Ant-Tanagers coming in to check out the trash and lunch plates left behind by guests. This would be the first of 25,000 occasions I wished my camera had not stopped working...we also had good looks at Golden-crowned Warblers from the dining deck, which we would not end up seeing anywhere else.

It was hot and we were too busy with Annie to attempt any actual birding except to and from the car, so it was straight to Black Rock after that. The drive in is a mix of pastures and young forest until the road comes close to the Macal River, and after that the forest closes in for the rest of the very scenic drive (see above photo).

So, as you know I don't have dozens of crushes to share or anything like that, so will abandon any linear narrative here and just mention some of the birds and experiences from the Black Rock area.

I got 10 life birds at Black Rock, which I will list in increasing order of stoke: White-bellied Emerald (common), Ornate Hawk Eagle (poor looks at an immature), Sepia-capped Flycatcher (one and only of the trip), Ruddy Woodcreeper (much more interesting than the average woodcreeper), Northern Schiffornis (heard a great many, got really good looks at one), Dusky Antbird (two or three), Black-crowned Tityra (one on the entrance road), Ocellated Turkey (saw one individual on two occasions on the entrance road), Black-and-white Hawk Eagle (one seen from the farm area by the river), Red-capped Manakin (several, all males).

The manakins were just absolutely crippling and one in particular was absurdly tame. I was floored. Full on birdgasm...that one left a mark. I had kind of forgotten how fantastic manakins are, but the Red-cappeds here (and some confiding White-collared Manakins) rekindled my love. Black-and-white Hawk Eagles are very uncommon and could have easily been missed even if I had specifically been looking for them, and I fully expected to miss them entirely...but amazingly I had high quality looks at one soaring above the Makal River one afternoon. Looking at eBird data, this was the rarest lifer I got on the trip. The turkey was a big bonus, one of the most charismatic birds on the continent.  While they are common and easy to see in a number of places in Belize, none of those places were actually on the itinerary, so this was a significant bonus lifer.

My incapacitated camera briefly came back to life for a few minutes one afternoon. A flock of Olive-backed Euphonias obliged for the occasion.

This is one of a number of species I saw in Belize that I had only seen previously in Costa Rica back in 2012-2013. Many euphonias can be challenging to ID, but male Olive-backeds are really distinctive.

And with this Yellow-bellied Flycatcher photo, the camera fell back into a coma and I was once again free to bird unencumbered. Both Yellow-bellied and Least Flycatchers were fairly common and widespread; I did not see any other Empidonax.

Now back to your regularly scheduled digiscoping...geri birding anyone? The big fruit feeder at Black Rock's veranda brings in quite a bit of goodness, like this Yellow-winged Tanager. Oddly, I didn't see anything at the couple of hummingbird feeders they have up, I feel like there is some (substantial?) untapped geri birding potential there. Other stuff that came to the feeding platform included Collared Aracaris, Brown Jays, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Variable Seedeaters and Olive-backed and Yellow-throated Euphonias.

This Tropical Pewee was remarkably faithful to using this stick as a launchpad for sallies...forest flycatchers aren't exactly the easiest digiscoping targets so I was surprised to get a few hey-this-isn't-total-rubbish photos through the scope.

Other non-lifer highlights of Black Rock:

White-whiskered Puffbirds. There are so many White-whiskered Puffbirds here. Many of them are ridiculously approachable. They are just begging to be crushed, imploring anyone who passes by to photograph them to their heart's content. I did not know such a bird could be so common and confiding.

Raptors. The raptor scene here is something else. Aside from the lifers mentioned above, we also had Black Hawk Eagle (yes, got the Hawk Eagle Hat Trick here), Great Black Hawks, White Hawks, Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawks (entrance road), White-tailed Kites (entrance road), Bat Falcons (hunting dragonflies over the canyon every day - one of the guides said they were Orange-breasted, how embarrassing), King Vulture (regular) and of course the common vultures. Bring your scope to lunch! I somehow managed to not go up the canopy tower, though I fully intended to, and that is probably a fantastic place to scan for raptors from late morning through the afternoon.

The Vaca Falls Trail. This is a very easy, fairly long trail that I spent a lot of time on. I never got bored with it - very, very good birding, and not just in the morning. There is also a great side trail just past the single unlocked gate that you have to open and close to get through, which cuts southwest (to your right) through the forest and rejoins the main trail again further upstream. Be warned that the trail map of the property they provide you with is awful.

Guides. Other than the falcon miscue (and there really is a pair of Orange-breasted in the area, though I did not see them) all my interactions with the guides were very good, even though I never ended up going birding with retrospect, I would have in order to access Elijio Panti NP and see Tody Motmot and maybe Nightengale Wren. Freddie gave me the lowdown on how to see Ocellated Turkey and I pretty much owe him for that bird.

Food. The food was very good, generally increasing in quality as it got later in the day...the dinners were great. I wasn't so in to the communal eating thing (I hate people) but they are all about accommodating the shit out of their guests there, so if you want your group to have your own table I'm sure that can be arranged most nights. Since we had a toddler that's all we did after the first awkward/disastrous dinner there.

One day we headed out to Thousand Foot Falls on Mountain Pine Ridge to check out that area, which is a very unique habitat. I had read a lot of trip reports that mentioned how gnarly the roads there can get after a lot of rain, but we had no problem with the Isuzu and only engaged the 4-wheel drive for a particularly large puddle right before the waterfall. We ended up not birding much on Mountain Pine Ridge but, most importantly, saw one of the resident Orange-breasted Falcons, which the resident caretaker correctly predicted would be visible perched on a far ridgeline after the clouds coming up out of the valley cleared. I was very grateful to have the scope with me here, as otherwise it would have just been a raptor-shaped speck. And yes, it was a high quality waterfall.

Gratuitous family photo with cloud-cloaked waterfall.

Eventually the view changed from a dense cloud bank to a faraway falcon - this is the view from the Thousand Foot Falls overlook.

On the way back from Mountain Pine Ridge we stopped at Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, which we wanted to check out because Annie could see a bazillion butterflies close up and because it is considered the best place to see hummingbirds in the entire country. It was pretty expensive (I think $20 U.S. per adult) but the butterfly propagation operation they have going on is pretty interesting and the hummingbird situation was as advertised.

With my crusher dead, I had to digiscope for photos, which was ridiculous since many of the birds were comfortable with people standing 10 or 15 feet away. Crushing FOMO was raging but there was nothing to be done except for wallow in the midst of exotic hummingbirds. White-necked Jacobins (left and center) were by far the most abundant species, which I had no problems with because they are facemelting and I have only seen a few before. A hulking Long-billed Hermit (right) or two frequently visited also.

Here is a White-bellied Emerald, of which there were several. The other hummingbirds here were Rufous-tailed (obvi), Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, several Violet Sabrewings (great to see those again) and a couple Green-breasted Mangos. Birders who come visit in spring and summer will probably see the pair of Plumbeous Kites that nest there annually, though we were too early for them. There is good forest birding on the property in general, though we did not check out the trails.

White-necked Jacobins are widely distributed and aren't particularly rare in many parts of their range...but they are absolute cripplers! I had to get a facelift after having so many buzz around my head, as my skin partially melted off from their sheer brilliance.

Army ants! I love army ants. They are the faunal spice of the Neotropics. This swarm was on the march a couple different days near the parking area while we were at Black fact, while we were leaving, the managers were getting to ready to abandon their office because it was getting overrun by the swarm! If you think honey badger don't give a fuck (remember that?), wait until you meet an army ant column. The attendant bird flock didn't hold anything crazy but it was pretty sweet nonetheless. A couple of guides commented when the swarm first appeared that it was probably going to rain the next day...which sounded bizarre...but they turned out to be right. I am a believer ants predict the weather. You show me ants, and I will show you rain.


  1. Does Frank make it rain too then? This is all awesome but also makes me sad knowing your camera was jacked for most of it. Good job digiscoping what you could.

    1. Yes he does! I really should have talked about Frank more...mistakes were made.

  2. Just knowing that there exists a thing called White-whiskered Puffbird brightens my day. Thanks for that.