Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Backpacking Mexico and Belize: A slightly different tropical adventure, Pt 4: Birding Belize: Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

Thousand-foot Falls

It's January here in Wisconsin and I'm dreaming of birding in tropical America. Since I can't get there right now, I'll relate a story of birding there instead.

But quickly, here's the link to all my photos from this trip on Flickr:

Dec 2012:
I'm in the midst of a trip to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and we're about to cross the border into Belize.

Crossing the border into Belize is no easy task.  It costs money. A lot of it.
One thing to understand, when crossing a border in tropical America, there is always a fee of some kind. Sometimes there is more than one fee. Sometimes corrupt officials will try to get you to pay more than the fee so they can bolster their pockets.  In any case, you should find out what the fee is before you get there.   The other catch to crossing into Belize from Mexico is that the border is in no-mans land. On the Mexican side, Chetumal is the closest town.  On the Belizean side, Corozal is the closest town.  That's a distance of several miles between cities, an area in which no buses run.   The main means of transportation across the border is by Taxi.  These are people who easily recognize Americans and attempt to charge them ten times what the actual fee is.   We managed to cross inexpensively by jumping aboard a Collectivo (a van that runs on a flat fee split between all the occupants. the more people, the cheaper it is).  Once in Corozal, we caught a bus to the old Belizean capital, Belize City.

One thing you should know about the Belizean bus system.  It's almost worse than Panama.

These buses are retired American school buses. As such, they are noisy, diesel-spewing and uncomfortable to ride in.  Oh yea, one more thing, there's no such thing as full bus!
One bus we were on was packed beyond standing room only, and we stopped and picked up 5 more people....

Belize City is a typical Central American city. It was the Capital city of Belize until 1961 when hurricane Hattie wiped out 75% of the buildings. It's not too bad by most standards, but not a place you want to spend a lot of time if you like having a wallet with money in it.  The couple hours we spent in Belize City were at the bus station, napping.  We caught the first bus we could that headed westward along the second of only two main highways in Belize.

The bus rides of course were interesting. Traveling from Chetumal to Belize City, we birded our way along, out the bus window.  Water birds were plentiful. Ibis, Herons, Jabiru and Wood Storks, Tropical Kingbirds on the wires, a few hawks here and there. There was always a lot to see.  Tired as we were from traveling, falling asleep often meant missing a good bird (our only Jabiru of the entire trip was out the bus window).

Our trip out of Belize City, westward was mostly uneventful. The lowland scrub and wet savannah habitat held a few birds, but nothing special. We kept a sharp lookout, but failed to see the desired Savannah Hawk.

Our route took us through the new Belizean capital city of Belmopan.
50 miles inland and 250ft above sea-level, Belmopan is much safer from hurricane damage than coastal Belize City, and, at around 20,000 inhabitants, is roughly 1/3 the size of the former Capital.
From there, we caught a bus to the small mountain town of San Ignacio.

San Ignacio is a pretty little village set in a mountain valley with a river flowing between it and its sister city of Santa Elena.  Upon arriving in town, we hired a taxi driver to take us to the rental agency we had rented a car from.   When hiring taxis, one thing that is extremely important is to agree on a price beforehand.  It took a while, but we eventually argued him down from his ridiculous price of $25.
He then proceeded to take us on a ride all over town, bouncing between San Ignacio and Santa Elena, attempting to put on the max amount of miles.  Naturally, the rental place we wanted to go was the very last place we stopped.  He then tried to charge us an exorbitant fee, that we politely declined and paid him what we had originally agreed upon (of course we had to listen to him complain for a while).

After obtaining our rental car, we headed out of town, up into Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve to find a campsite for the night. It took a while to get up to where we were going and it was well after sunset by the time we arrived at Douglas Da Silva.  We drove around a little, scouting, looking for a good place to pitch our tents and finally found one.
The next morning, we awoke to the fresh, cool mountain air and the smell of pine trees.

Our campsite

We explored a little

Perched on a Granite extension of the Maya Mountains, Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve has an interesting history.  It covers just over 100,000 acres and has been somewhat protected for tourism interests.  It's all that's left of an old reserve that covered over a million acres of pine forest.  The predominant tree within the reserve is Honduras Pine interspersed with significant stands of broadleaf forest.   The stories heard from some of the first explorers of the region tell tales of vast spectacular pine forests with tall trees, stretching for miles. This, however, is not the sight that greets visitors today.  In 1949, a wildfire ravaged much of the reserve and destroyed almost all of the trees, almost wiping out the stands of timber.  The forests are slowly regenerating, but are being impeded by infestations of Southern Pine Beetle. Today, the forests are only a shadow of what they once were.  Most of the trees are small and short and more than 85% show signs of the beetle.

Being at tropical latitudes with a subtropical climate, MPR gets an appreciable amount of rain. This often turns the roads to mud, which requires a 4WD vehicle.

Once we packed up our tents, we headed for Caracol along the long, winding road.

Caracol is an ancient Mayan city at the western edge of MPR that was discovered in 1937.
The city was one of the most important regional political centers during the Classic Period.
Now being continuously excavated, it serves as a regional tourist destination.  If you arrive early, before everyone else, you can bird the ruins in relative peace.  The birding is better in the morning anyway. ;)

The road out to Caracol is long and winding, but runs through a beautiful valley, crossing back and forth over a small stream:

The ruins themselves are some of the best we came across during our trip and were our favorite stop.

But let's get to some of the gorgeous birds we saw!  On the way in, we were fortunate enough to come across a few spectacular Scarlet Macaws and a pair of King Vultures!

Birding at the ancient cities is often quite good and often, the best place to be is at the top of the highest pyramid, above the canopy.  We saw more than one Orange-breasted Falcon in this way.
The best thing about the pyramids that were open to climbing is that you can bird at every level of the surrounding forest.  Low canopy found this White-whiskered Puffbird:

Boat-billed Flycatchers were slightly lower:

While Yellow-winged Tanagers were high in the canopy:

After spending most of the day birding Caracol (bird activity started dropping off around noon), we headed out to bird other parts of the reserve.  A stop at the Thousand-foot Falls (photo at the top of this post) added Orange-breasted Falcon to our Belize list.  The views from the overlook were quite spectacular.

That night, we found a random trailhead to pull off on and camped for the night.

The next morning, we explored a slightly different, shorter, scrubbier habitat.  This gave way to Rufous-capped Warbler:

And Rusty Sparrow, possibly my favorite sparrow after Rufous-collared:

A stop at Blancaneaux Lodge for a quick meal (and a rather expensive one) and we explored a few areas for Stygian Owl, without luck.   Returning to the area the next morning got us gorgeous views of the local specialty, Azure-crowned Hummingbird:

Acorn Woodpeckers were fairly common throughout the area:

On our way out, back to San Ignacio, we stopped at a small ravine with a stream running through it. Here, we picked up a couple Woodcreepers, some Euphonias, and this beautiful Royal Flycatcher:

Upon our return to San Ignacio, we returned the rental car, booked a room in a small, inexpensive hotel in town for the night. The small cafe next door provided excellent food for dinner, as well as breakfast the next morning.  Doing a little bit of exploring, we found, to our delight, a small, french-style bakery a few blocks away where we bought fresh bread and pastries for the next few days of traveling.

Belize was good to us. It had gorgeous mountain streams and rivers, spectacular views and waterfalls, lots of awesome birds, and the best part? almost everyone speaks at least some english.  Many locals also speak Spanish, and a good number speak a local Creole dialect that is a combination of words from English, French, Spanish and a couple of native languages. It really is rather interesting to hear spoken.

If you choose to visit Belize, you should keep in mind that it is expensive!
In Belize, there are no chains. That is, there is no Wal-mart, no McDonald's, nothing like what you'd expect in the US.  Belize produces nothing and imports everything, so all goods and food are twice as expensive as they would be otherwise and all stores are run by Orientals. The Belizean Dollar is at two to the American Dollar, so for Americans, everything is half price. This makes the cost of most things come out to about what you would pay if you were in the US.  That goes for hotel rooms too.

So if you go, make sure it's within your budget. Oh, and rent a car. It's much better than trying to get around via the uncomfortable, packed bus system.

Til next time!

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