REPORT NO. 21 OF THE LUTMAN'S TROPICS 2000 TRIP

Monday, May 8, 2000. Belize Day 4 of 8. Trip Day 32 of 38. LAGUNA SECA. THE JAGUAR. THE NIGHT RIDE

It's 5:35 am and we're out the door early again, heading down to the River Trail. We hope to see some birds we missed the other day.

At about 6:00 am, we are down by the water-lettuce pond. Sharon gets a Gray-necked Wood-rail, but I don't see it. We hear a little girl or boy, then a young man (one of the workers at Chan Chich Lodge) comes hurrying by, carrying a little girl piggy-back, a machete and a little cooler. He says, "Excuse me for the interruption," and passes on through on the path. His little brown-eyed girl is a cutie. A little later, he comes back, apologizes again, and zips on through, with only his machete.

At 6:27 am, down by the river, Sharon sees a bird like a Great Blue Heron, and I'm trying like crazy to see it. I am hurrying along the path, looking for a hole in the greenery closer to where the bird is standing on a log. Sharon sees tan and brown striping on the chest, with a bill yellow at the base, tapering out to maybe gray at the tip. And maybe with a crest. It flies just as I get on it, and as it flies, Sharon sees wings that are striped or spotted, like a Cooper's Hawk, instead of having solid gray or blue wings, like a GBH.

The only thing I see is a bird with something like speckles or spots or streaks around the chest.

We take this information back and the bird that makes the most sense is an immature AGAMI HERON*. I wonder how much people agreed with us because of how much we wanted them to. This would be cleared up in the next day or two.

Later, as we're heading back toward the lodge, we see a bird with white dots on the black wings, but it has no white bar, so it is a DUSKY ANTBIRD*, a dark gray little bird with two rows of white dots per wing. Very handsome.

Sharon goes into a mini-tirade because there are two similar ant-following type birds. One of them has a white wing bar in addition to the white dots, on a patch on the wings. Sharon is upset because the one with the dots AND the bars is just called the Dot-winged Antwren. She maintains that common sense suggests that the one with ONLY the dots should be called Dot-winged Antwren.

Back up in the main plaza, we see a PLUMBEOUS KITE* on a snag. We have breakfast and climb into the ASIA, a nice little bus made in Korea or Japan. Each seat has its own A/C vent, sort of like an airline seat. Great view through large windows. Each window slides open. Two other couples join us. Jose, the driver who brought us in from our arrival flight at Gallon Jug, will drive them to Laguna Verde, where canoeing is the featured feature. Then he will drive us to Laguna Seca for some marshy birding, and a slightly different set of birds to try for.

We take off and about 100 yards before the suspension bridge, a large dark cat bounds across the road from right to left. Jose stands on the brakes, "JAGUAR! He's THERE, just through the brush. You can still see him! Now walking farther back! " The other two couples strain to see, but the Jaguar is gone.

So what did I see? A large dark cat, but with even darker rectangular spots (called rosettes), streaking across the front of the bus. I question Jose about the color, "Are young jaguars black, then change colors as adults?" No, that's not quite it. It's just that some jaguars are dark, called melanistic. And we saw one. Fantastic.

To give you an idea of how likely this event has been, Jose tells us that he saw one in January, one in February, none in March, none in April, and this is his first in May. Three jaguars in 4 1/2 months. And he is out on the roads a lot.

Way cool. Jose says something cryptic about a Jaguar Certificate, and wouldn't that be just fine.

A little later, we get a fantastic look at a female Currasow, with her crest up. She is black with brown on her body. We get a couple of Roadside Hawks and a nice Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Sharon spots a pigeon or dove high in a tree. Jose says, "See that yellow bill?" I can't see it at all. Then he says, "That's a RED-BILLED PIGEON*."

Jose lets off the four canoe people, and Sharon and I get out and bird. We get MANGROVE SWALLOWS*, and see a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a few other birds, including a single gull of some kind.

Jose gets back in and we take off for Laguna Seca. We describe a bird that has started calling at night, and he asks if it sounds like "this," and whistles a bird call. "Exactly," we yell. "Common Pauraque," he says. Ah, now we understand. This is a bird that sleeps in the day, and chases insects at night.

At 9:30 am, Jose gets us a couple of OLIVE-THROATED (AZTEC) PARAKEETS*. While we are looking at the parakeets, Jose points out a "male Hook-billed Kite." "How do you know it's a Hook-billed?" I ask. He describes how the back edge of the wing goes forward again as it comes in to meet the body. In a bare tree, we get another Roadside Hawk.

Sharon has requested that we stop at the Gallon Jug post office, and she buys half-a-dozen thirty-cent Coconut Beetle stamps, to stick on some postcards. Then she reaches over, grabs the cancellation stamp, and "cancels" her Chan Chich map brochure. A wonderful feature of the post office boxes is that they are made from old Coca Cola wooden cases.

The owner of Chan Chich and its 133,000 acres, Barry Bowen, a 7th-generation Belizean businessman, also owns the Belize Coca-Cola distribution. I couldn't help noticing that the bar features Coke, but has no Pepsi. Now I see why.

From our parking place at Laguna Seca, we see Black-cheeked Woodpecker. We then set off for our walk around the marsh. As we approach the water, we can see Northern Jacana on the lily pads. Suddenly Sharon and Jose get looks at a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, but I can't get it before it flies away. That happens.

We get Anhinga as we walk under a vine with stickers on it. Jose says it's a "Hold-me-back," because that's what it does if you catch your shirt on it.

Jose, Sharon and I begin scanning the grass growing out of the water for our highest target bird of the marsh. None of us can get it, so we move on a little. Then Jose gets one and sets up the scope on it. I can just get it with my binoculars as Sharon is looking through the scope. By the time she relinquishes the scope, the PINNATED BITTERN* is back down, out of sight. Pretty cool anyway.

A Barn Owl flies out of its tree and over the marsh. We get a great look at the cream and gold colors on its back as the sun slowly changes its angle on the big owl. Beautiful. We follow it all the way across the water and into the trees beyond

Next we get clean views of the flight of a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, in addition to seeing a young one in a nest. We hear a Brown Jay calling from across the water. Jose sets up the scope, scans the open water and comes up with a Belted Kingfisher, far across the water on a little stump.

We finish up our walk, load into the Asia and drive up to a trail where we try for another of the big target birds here. We walk in, Jose calls and calls, but we get no Tody Motmots today. We are done birding, so we go back to the Asia, and head out. Suddenly Jose stomps on the brakes, and a discontinuous black blur starts streaming across in front of us. "WHITE-LIPPED PECCARY!" Jose yells, and starts counting. "1-2-3..."

Sharon joins him and they count together out loud. I fumble crazily for my video camera, sure that I'll miss the string of black wild pigs, as they grunt their way across the road. I think I finally get the right setup at about number 25, and luckily for me Jose and Sharon stop counting at 49! I got them. Some I focussed on one pig as it ran across, others I held the camera focused on one spot, and let the blurs cross through the sights. Very exciting.

We head back and on the way into Chan Chich, we find a Brown Jay in a nest. There is lots of nesting going on right now, all over the area.

After we get home, Sharon harasses me into taking video of several Oropendolas doing their pendulum thing. It turns out to be the only such video I take, so thanks, Sharon. We also get a couple of Red-legged Honeycreepers, which we never get tired of. And of course, Sharon has to put our jaguar and peccaries onto the Sightings Board for all to see.

We come back from our walk following the pendulum video, shower and go to the bar at 6:30, waiting for dinner at 7. I celebrate the Jaguar Sighting by having a drink called a Jaguar, for $14 Belize ($7 US). Josie presents us with a cool computer printout that certifies us having seen a Jaguar. I ask Tom about the dark Jaguar, and he says that there are some melanistic ones about. Everybody is incredibly envious. Later, we have Jose autograph it, because he was our verifier. [And much later, Darrell Smith of the Seattle area sent us an email that the NEXT afternoon, while he and Lorna were returning from the Escarpment in their car rental, saw a melanistic Jaguar cross the main road about 6:10 pm further toward Gallon Jug. We're both guessing it was the same one].

Josie talks us into going on the 8:00 pm Night Drive in an open-back truck just built for such occasions. It has back to back cushioned seats running the length of the truck bed. There are handrails all the way around so we won't fall out. The lead riders on either side are given incredibly strong spotlights (Sharon says to tell you that they are 300,000 candle-power, for all you lighting engineers), connected to the 12V battery of the truck. These puppies are BRIGHT

I don't really want to go because I figure the chances of seeing a Mottled Owl are about 1 in 6. This from an estimate that they see owls only about one drive in three. And there are two kinds of owls they see -- Barn and Mottled. But Sharon wants to go, plus the Jaguar has had its effect, so now it sounds like fun. Besides, it's been an incredibly lucky day so far. Josie "yells" at me not to complain if I don't see my owl, and to stop ranting about my stupid statistics. Love the harrassment.

So we are off on our night ride.

Just as we're leaving, Tom tells us that he apologizes for the 30 or so film crew members who will be driving in while we're driving out. They will be shooting a commercial on the Chan Chich property featuring the new 2001 Acura SUVs. It's not till a little later that we really know why he was apologizing.

We see a frog, a line of leaf-cutter ants in the road, a sleeping parrot, a number of white-tailed deer, a possum crossing the road, all before we get to the pastures.

We also meet a couple of the incoming cars, kicking up dust, which make us cough, and try to make masks by breathing through our tee shirt sleeves and so forth.

We turn right at the pastures, and then we get an Ocelot, pouncing on field mice. The cat is not bothered in the slightest by two incredibly bright lights shining right in its face while it's hunting. We also get a fawn lying down in the field, about twenty or thirty yards from the Ocelot. I don't wanna watch (but nothing happens). We also get a nice pair of Barn Owls, then a really good look at several Pauraques. Both sitting on the warm road, and flying. They have black patches with white streaks on the top of their wings, out towards the tip.

And they make that wonderful buzzing call.

We turn around and head back, and I'm glad for the Ocelot, but really wished that we had seen the Mottled Owl. Oh well, this has been lots of fun. I get ready to complain to Josie.

Suddenly a feather flurry breaks through the upward pointing spotlights and Jose jams on the brakes. To our amazement, the little MOTTLED OWL* perches right beside us, out in the open, on a branch. He sits for three or four minutes allowing me to look at him with binoculars, then take some video.

Hey (sister Shirley's husband) Jerry, please buy me one lottery ticket for the Powerball Lottery. We'll split it.

He finally takes off, and we resume our drive homeward. We hear a neat double whistle from the left, and the driver says Great Tinamou.

Also on the way back, we meet a guy from the film crew (the director, or whatever, but clearly the guy in charge) who is lost, "Can you tell me how to get to Chan Chich?" Our driver tells him, and he takes off. We again resume our return trip, and can see a car following us from a distance, using just his parking lights, so as not to disturb us. Very responsible, and we appreciate it.

When we get back, I can't help but notice that one of the Acuras has Ohio plates. It's very dusty, and there are about 30 people here now, having dinner out on the porch, and talking. It'll be fun to see what they do the next couple of days, then see if we can recognize the commercial when it comes out.

"Holly-woooooood!" - a Japanese submariner off the Southern California coast, from "1941," the Steven Spielberg movie, as he spots a beach with carnival rides.

Lifers Today: Agami Heron (non-adult), Dusky Antbird, Plumbeous Kite, Red-billed Pigeon, Mangrove Swallow, Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet, Pinnated Bittern, Mottled Owl.

Upgrades Today: Great Currasow (PREVIOUS: medium-distance, looks at both male and female as they went into the forest; NEW: long, close look at female, with her crest up), Common Parauque (PREVIOUS: orange eyes on the night road in Texas; NEW: well-lit night views of birds sitting on the ground, and several flying around from close range)

Handsomest Bird: Dusky Antbird

Most Difficult Bird: Pinnated Bittern (sticks his head up very infrequently, and when he does, he looks very much like the 20 or so acres of marsh grass he's in the middle of)

Rarest Bird: Agami Heron, Mottled Owl

Most Remarkable Bird: All the difficult and rare ones listed above.

Mammals:

1 Jaguar (on road to Laguna Verde and Laguna Seca),
1 Troop of 49 White-lipped Peccary (wild black pigs) near Laguna Seca,
1 Ocelot (night ride, in pastures near Gallon Jug farm).

Lifer Totals: Today 8, Belize 49+8= 57, Trip 218+8= 226

Upgrades: Today 2, Total 3

Sharon and Bob

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