clare-hill.com The story of Clare Hill's voluntary work adventure in Belize

21/07/2008

Crooked Tree continued

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 10:45 pm

Crooked Tree is a beautiful place. It is an island in the middle of 4 natural fresh water lagoons.  We drove over the causeway with water lapping right up to the side. The rainy season. It is all part of a 12 square mile reserve, and is home to 2/3 of the species of birds found in Belize. (The Motmot needs jungle!) After the rains stop, the lagoon begins to dry out, till in March through to May it is a narrow channel about 2 inches deep, with hundreds of fish crammed into a small space. The whole of the rest of the mud flat is apparently covered with thousands and thousands of migrating birds. Birders come from all over the world sporting £2,000-worth of bins and telescopes – puts ours to shame!

Before the causeway was built, in the 1980s, you could only get there by boat. People tended to use wooden dugout canoes. It has a Mayan ruin recently discovered on the western mainland shore, but from more recent times it was the first inland dwelling of the loggers. There are wonderful old, huge trees on the island, and in particular one species which has wide crooked limbs. The loggers were told to go round the lagoon until they saw the large Crooked Tree. That was the place to alight your craft, and thus became the place name!

The pace is slow, the people very friendly and welcoming, and home to about 900. The island itself is a reserve and all visitors pay BZ$8. Half goes to the village and half to the government. In 1984 it became a Wildlife Sanctuary, and then in 1998 it was declared Belize’s first Ramsar site based on the wetland’s significance, especially as a waterfowl habitat. Currently it protects some endangered species, such as the Central American River Turtle (Hickatee), Morelet’s Crocodile, the Mexican Black Howler monkey, West Indian Manatee, and Yellow- Headed Parrot. We saw none of them!

Cashew nuts are the main crop (despite mango trees over 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide and dripping with fruit; the driver said that people didn’t know what to do with them, and it reminded me of our bumper crops of apples at Ellemford). He told us a fun story. Cashews have their nut on the outside bottom of a small pear-shaped globe, and are called the Devil’s Nut locally. God had made all the wonderful fruits and nuts, and the devil thought that he could do it, too. He made the cashew, and showed it to God, who just laughed and asked how will it reproduce? In a fit of pique the devil stuck the nut onto the outside.

We passed a sweet little wader, yellow legs, brown wings, and yellow underside of its wings in flight. Its local name is the Jesus Christ bird because it is so light it can walk on the lily pads. Its official title is Northern Jacana, and it makes a raspy creaky noise. Our driver then paused outside a dilapidated wooden building, typical style of being on stilts (there’s a photo somewhere!) with the sign Police Station painted on a wooden board across its middle.  He told us that it used to be the police station but now the local bobby uses his own house, including keeping prisoners there. It was abandoned after the last prisoner in the building crawled out of a hole in the floor early in the morning, went to the shop to buy himself some food, and then crawled back in again!

We slowly moved along the dirt road, passed a painted concrete house here, an adapted container for a truck there (metal, which must be unbelievably hot to live in – temperatures in April /May can between 95 – 105 F and still humid), a neat little wooden one on stilts, with another falling apart close by, and all around beautiful big broadleaf trees and little ponds, pigs up to their hunkers in mud, horses standing in the cool of the water, roaming free, cows and henny- pennies. We rounded a corner and saw the lagoon in front of us with Birds Eye View Lodge on the left and a smart new three storey building on the right. We later discovered that this was the owners’ house, who had recently had it built and returned from NY City in 2004 to retire. The Lodge was about three feet from the waters edge – in the rainy season! – and run almost single-handed by Christina. A couple of young American backpackers were checking out as we arrived, so we were the only people there. We got the cheapest room, which was still spacious and looking onto the lagoon, air con and fans, and bothered the obliging Christina for a sandwich Belizean style! We had not been sure what we were going to do when we set out – return to BC that evening or stay over – and had had a rather longer trip than we had anticipated. The lunch was most welcome. We also arranged to take a guided bird walk at 6.30am the next morning. They were a bit apologetic about how early ithe start was, and I held back from saying that if you want to do the dawn chorus in Scotland in the midsummer, you need to start your walk at 4am latest! (The boat trip was US$100 per person which was unbelievable. But the following morning our guide, Leonardo, told us that you don’t need to go at this time of year because the warblers and waders aren’t here anyway.)

We grabbed our bins, or at least, Conor did – I use a monocular cos I never seem to be able to get bins into focus, and end up squinting through one lens anyway. As soon as we went outside, we saw two black vultures (they have grey heads) beside a dead fish at the water’s edge. We disturbed them and they flew off. We turned away, and then they swooped back, picked up their catch and were away. They were watched by a Black Duck which kept sentry duty on a post by the boat jetty. The lagoon, about ¼ mile wide to the mainland here, was rippling in the welcome breeze.

We began to walk around, and even we were beginning to be able to recognise some of the more common birds. The Vermillion Flycatcher is unmistakable. The male in particular is a brilliant pillar box red, with a black back and wings. Stunning. Lots of Mockingbirds (greys and whites with a black band across the bottom of its tail feathers) fly all around, and we could hear the familiar song of the Brown Robin – the birding equivalent of a cover version of our native robin’s song in the UK! The Melodious Blackbird is, as its name suggests, easy to recognise too. The Tropical King Bird is dead common (!) and very pretty, as are the little Seedeaters that we first spotted outside the Blue Hole. Tiny Hummingbirds occasionally swooped by, the size of your little finger, hunting from one hibiscus to another, flashing green or gold or red or blue. The afternoon was hot and balmy, and we sauntered happily through the lanes, absorbing the atmosphere and sense of tranquillity that exuded everywhere. One tree had a pair of Spiny Iguanas, the male considerably bigger than the female, and both with clear bands and raised spiny backs. They were still there the following morning when Leonardo told us that they are officially now called Black Iguanas. We all agreed that ‘spiny’ is a better name. Though the local name for iguanas is Wish Willy! As we made our way around to the causeway we saw a Green Iguana crossing back and forth across the road, and it was considerably larger. The following morning Leonardo told us that they can be up to 7 feet long, (Wish Willy!) and both types shed their tails like lizards. He also said they go into the water rather than up a tree when hassled, which surprised me. A large red-headed Turkey Vulture wobbled on a telephone wire, while the Whistling Ducks (they do whistle in flight) kept the Northern Jacanas company around the pond by the Lodge. Despite looking hard we didn’t see any turtles anywhere. Later on we saw the self-same Whistling Ducks incongruously dotted around the open branches of a very large tree. Tree ducks!

Christina prepared us a lovely supper and we then sat in the dark up on a verandah (covered in Deet!) enjoying the full moon on the water. The cicadas were increasing their vibrato by the minute, with the low drone of the frogs holding the base notes. The geckoes meanwhile were feasting off the insects attracted to the lights around the building. And as usual we collapsed early to bed. Can’t seem to do late in this heat – but then doing early is a treat when you get up in the pleasant cool of the morning.

After a banana and coffee to keep us fortified before breakfast, Leonardo came to guide us on or bird walk. He is a tall man with a strong frame,  about 35 years old, whose two speeds are amble and stop. His whole body is like an extension of his ears and eyes, constantly alert. He had a well-thumbed bird book with him to show us what we could hear, or just see through the foliage, and a small sack on his back with butterfly charts in it. We didn’t cover a lot of territory in our hour and half, just a couple of fields, but we saw loads and loads of birds we didn’t know about at all. We explained to him that we are complete amateurs but really enjoy it! It didn’t seem to faze him.

There was a lovely line of black martins on the electricity wire outside the Lodge, swooping and dodging and lining up again, interspersed with the Long-billed Gnat Wren and Toady Flycatcher. The more familiar birds of yesterday were there of course, plus the following:

Green heron

Roadside hawk

Black Swift

Pale vented Pigeon

Swallow

Ruddy Groundel

Groove-billed Ani….

Black Cowled Oriel

Golden fronted Woodpecker

Rufus Sabrewing (like a hummingbird)

Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Rose-throated Becard

Lovely Cotinga

Red-winged Blackbird

Greyish Saltator.

We could hear at least 2 Trogons but unfortunately they were too well camouflaged to see them.

(Who names these things? And it was almost as much fun finding them again on the plates of the bird book as I checked on the spelling! )

Leonardo also showed us the magnificent Bullet tree, the patron tree of  Puerto Rico, and how the fence posts are made from Log wood which is incredibly hard, doesn’t rot in the wet and humidity, and is resistant to termites. (Mr. Amir said that the wooden houses in BC, despite looking a shambles, are very strong. Maybe the same wood?)

Long-tailed Grackles abound everywhere here, as in Mexico, and look like scrawny blackbirds, very slightly longer in both body and fanlike tail feathers. Their name is onomatopoeic, and they are often sitting at the top of trees. Suddenly Leonardo said “Look up in that tree.” The grackles were as usual in the foliage on the right, but on a bare branch on the left was a beautifully silhouetted green White-fronted Parrot. It had a red flash on the side of its head and was very exciting.

I am reminded of a quote from a book which caught me in the early eighties, which I had on my kitchen wall for a few years. I cannot remember the words exactly, nor who wrote it, but the gist of it was:

“Those who love the tizzy of seeing a bird for the first time, should remember that the tizzy does not belong to the bird; they should ever be beginning things…”

At lunch time, I thought I was about to make a “I think I saw the Loch Ness Monster” – type comment to the owner of the lodge. I had been sitting gazing at the lagoon when I realised something had broken the surface of the water out in the middle. I told her I was wondering whether it was a large fish, a turtle or a crocodile. She asked me what I had seen, and I said the surface broke over about 9 inches or a foot, and then whatever it was submerged again. Definitely a crocodile she said!  And that at night you can see their eyes shining in the water.

We were told that turtles and crocs (Halligatas in Creole) sun themselves on the islands in the bird pond behind the Lodge that we had spent so much time gazing at. A drenching rain cloud had recently been over, so despite our quick scurry over there before we departed, none was to be seen.

Leonardo was our driver back over the causeway to the Northern Highway to catch our bus back to BC. And wowee, just as we were setting off we had two more treats. I had seen a large white bird fly over the Lodge earlier in the afternoon, and wondered if it was some sort of heron. As we sat in the car, about to drive off, the same bird flew in low overhead from the right, a large fish in the osprey’s talons. It swooped down and round a big tree about 20 yards away, flew back towards us, and to our amazement landed on a bit of dead branch right above and beside where we were sitting. Golly!  Feeling very lucky, we set off and rounded a corner as Leonardo made an excited “Look” again. In a swampy pond was a large Bare-throated Tiger Heron, a bigger, greeny brown version of our common grey heron with a white throat. Leonardo told us that he had hunted for one of these with an American birder for 3 hours in a boat a couple of weeks ago, and not found one.

We left Crooked Tree feeling very replete.

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