2010 Tour Narrative
In Brief: Unbeatable views of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle shortly after it had eaten part of an Ocellated Turkey and a once-in-a-lifetime view of a stunning male Lovely Cotinga were the stand-outs on this year’s Chan Chich tour. But every day had memorable highlights, and the list of favorite sightings was almost as long as the 196 species recorded during our seven days of relaxed birding. The weather was interesting in the wake of a strong cold front: instead of the usual tropical heat and humidity, it was downright comfortable nearly every day, even a bit chilly on a couple of mornings. Our stay was made thoroughly enjoyable by the helpful staff and guides at the lodge, the wonderful food, and having the time to relax and recoup between our outings.
In Detail: After seeing a few nice things on the grounds of our Belize City hotel, such as Cinnamon Hummingbird, several wintering warblers, a Western Tanager (rare in this region), and our first taste of tropical birds such as Social Flycatcher, we were off to Chan Chich. We first birded the open areas of the Gallon Jug farm, getting great views of Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and scores of Orchard Orioles and Mangrove Swallows.
Once settled into our rooms at the lodge, we started our routine of alternating slow walks down the trails, wandering among the Maya ruins near our cabins, sauntering down the entrance road towards the suspension bridge over Chan Chich Creek, and simply enjoying the parade of birds in the Firebush, palms, and water fountain visible from our table at breakfast and lunch. The orange flowers on these bushes were especially attractive to a territorial Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, but Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits came by frequently, too. The fruits of these bushes were loved by the handsome male White-collared Manakin and by an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and Olive-backed Euphonias; on one morning a gorgeous Golden-headed Tanager came in as well. The tree right behind it with slightly larger fruits frequently had Black-headed Trogon, and the red fruits on the palms were especially loved by up to four Black-cheeked Woodpeckers at once. What great birding from our table!
Stepping out from under the verandah roof, we could see the blooming African Tulip Trees and mistletoe-laden Breadnut trees, all full of birds. The former were continually dominated by a few aggressive Green Honeycreepers, but Black-cowled Orioles, Wedge-tailed Sabrewings, and occasionally a Purple-crowned Fairy would sneak in for a drink; the orioles also regularly came in to the little water fountain. The mistletoe, on the other hand, was favored almost strictly by the three species of euphonias—Olive-backed, Yellow-throated, and Scrub, all lovely. The large flock of almost tame Ocellated Turkeys moved among the cabins at various times of day, being predictable only in their gathering late every evening to roost in the trees over the temples and in their morning flight as they dispersed to their forest foraging routines. Every morning before dawn a Strong-billed Woodcreeper moved through the compound singing its squealy, meowing song, but usually before there was enough light to see it. We finally lucked into its favored mixed flock one day, getting fantastic views of as many as three of these giants. One day, a groundskeeper got our attention and led us just a few yards down a trail very close to our cabins to show us a mind-blowing Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched in the forest understory. In disposing of plant litter, the grounds crew had flushed the bird off its Ocellated Turkey prey. The eagle seemed little bothered by our presence and apparently had had its fill. It came in the next day as well to finish up on the turkey, and was just as cooperative for the birders who had missed it the first day. Rarely does one get to see this most beautiful of raptors so well.
Birding on the nine miles of trails meant entering the forest understory, where birding can be difficult, but each trail had its own characteristic forest types and mixes of bird species. On those trails with taller trees, we came across several canopy flocks, each led by a pair of the handsome and regionally endemic Black-throated Shrike-Tanager which we saw very well. One flock offered a fleeting glimpse of a Green Shrike-Vireo, rarely seen in the winter when it is silent, and other flock members included Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, Lesser Greenlets, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Eye-ringed Flatbills, and many others. One particularly memorable flock had as many as 75 individual birds; trying to see them all was futile, but the phenomenon of a giant mixed flock was a wonder to witness, boggling the mind even of our guide Gilberto, who had been birding here for 20 years. Other trails had denser understory vegetation, and here we had great looks at birds like Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and Tawny-crowned Greenlets. One Black-faced Antthrush came in very close, and we used the opportunity to compare its song with that of what is currently considered the same species in Costa Rica and Peru (they were very different, reinforcing the opinion that this one should be split as Mexican Antthrush). Another close encounter in the understory was with a Thrush-like Schiffornis that caught, tenderized, then ate two caterpillars in the low vegetation just a few feet from the whole group. We heard many of these sing their curious whistled song from well off the trails and saw a couple moderately well, but this was fantastic.
The shorter, denser forest along the Silvester Village road is where we had some nice Yucatan specialties, such as Gray-throated Chat, Green-backed Sparrow, White-bellied Wren, and Yucatan Flycatcher. In the shorter canopy here we also finally got closer views of Lesser Greenlet and our best views of Long-billed Gnatwren, and, when the sky became visible one late morning, two beautiful soaring King Vultures came into view. Where the ruins offered some structure and topography, Tody Motmot and Blue-crowned Motmot were present. It seemed there were Pale-billed Woodpeckers everywhere, and we finally saw one of the Lineated Woodpeckers (the rarer of the two large ones here) as well as the handsome Chestnut-colored and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers.
Birding near the creek was also productive, once resulting in a Sungrebe in one direction, a Gray-headed Dove overhead, and a Central American Agouti underfoot (actually stepping on one birder’s foot, though we never saw whatever predator it was escaping from—perhaps just as well!). And just down the trail from there was one of the two army ant swarms we encountered, this one hosting amazingly tame Ruddy, Tawny-winged, and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers.
We also made some forays away from the lodge and its trails to the farming area of Gallon Jug, two lakes and the ridge overlooking the entire property called The Escarpment. The visit to Laguna Seca was truly delightful, with the Northern Jacana living up to its lily-trotter nickname and Blue Bunting, Pinnated Bittern (rarely seen here), Slaty-tailed Trogon, and wonderful scenery. We returned here on one afternoon to see the Lovely Cotinga, which had become the hit of the week among the other birders staying at the lodge. One of the guides had spotted the bird in a fruiting tree a few days earlier and figured out that it came only in the late afternoon. We arrived on our last afternoon to a small tree still full of the little avocados (it looked to be a Nectandra salicifolia tree), and first spotted Crested Guans before seeing the cotinga, just sitting there on a low branch. We probably watched the bird for over 20 minutes as it sat on the same perch, sometimes swaying in the wind, often in full sunlight. It occasionally regurgitated a pit, apparently having just finished eating several of the fruits and content to allow its crop to grind off the nutritious pulp while we enjoyed its beauty.
The Escarpment trip paid off with a most cooperative Royal Flycatcher chasing and catching butterflies from the forest edge, four Double-toothed Kites that interacted and rose above us (one actually perching nearby), a Great Black-Hawk almost overhead, a pair of Bat Falcons, distant views of Ornate and Black Hawk-Eagles (both were also heard quite well), and Short-tailed Hawk. Our drive back was interrupted by a White Hawk, which eventually perched over the road for fantastic views. The driving to and from these areas was also fruitful, with a tree full of Montezuma Oropendolas one day at Gallon Jug, Giant Cowbirds in a field, ridiculous numbers of Great Curassows on the road margins, and nighttime views of Northern Potoo and a heard Yucatan Poorwill.
Each day we enjoyed the numerous migrants from North America, such as both waterthrushes, abundant Hooded and Kentucky Warblers, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and Blue-winged and Black-throated Green Warblers. After a week of birding the same area, just as we thought we’d seen all of the birds, the last morning pulled some surprises. A pair of Cinnamon Becards showed up where the White-whiskered Puffbirds had been a couple days earlier, while a Tropical Gnatcatcher appeared in a busy canopy flock joined by the usual species. The last bit of birding back at the lodge produced our only Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle (which we watched in the spotting scope as it soared in the distance), followed by King Vulture and Short-tailed Hawk right overhead. We’ll miss this place.
- Rich Hoyer
Updated: March 2013