First day in Belize!

Hook-billed Kite (Photo courtesy of the Belize Raptor Research Institute)

Hook-billed Kite – adult male, light type (Photo courtesy of the Belize Raptor Research Institute)

I am taking a hiatus from field work in Florida for about two months, and working in Punta Gorda, Belize as a volunteer for Belize Raptor Research Institute (also, check them out on Facebook!). BRRI staffs a hawk watch at the Cattle Landing soccer field north of Punta Gorda to monitor migration of raptors through Belize, focusing on the Hook-billed Kite. Belize is a very unique country in that nearly half of the land is protected and about 70% of its native forest is still intact. While the count site is good for counting migrants, it also adds to the knowledge base for resident species. In the last few days, Hook-billed Kite numbers have increased, and totals will peak in November. Mississippi Kite and Peregrine Falcon migration is mostly complete, and Broad-winged Hawks will continue through the month. The more common migrants that I am used to from up north (Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel) come through in very low numbers here; the most numerous migrants are Mississippi Kites, Peregrine Falcons, Osprey, and Hook-billed Kites.

Getting off the plane yesterday in Belize City was like stepping back in time to when I was very young and lived in Guam…thick muggy air that my mom used to refer to as “syrup-y.” After checking in at customs and getting my bag, I headed outside to catch a ride into town. My first species of the trip was Eastern Kingbird; a few were gathered on the fence at the airport. A group of Cattle Egrets was foraging in the field, and Turkey Vultures were flying around…not so different from Florida yet, besides the cab driver whose Creole accent was pretty impossible to decipher. On the quick ride to the bus station in town, I got a good look at a few Magnificent Frigatebirds, and poking around town at the bus station didn’t turn up much else besides Rock Pigeons and a Eurasian-Collared Dove. I chose to wait for the express bus to Punta Gorda.This bus is a quicker route with fewer stops than the bluebird school buses that make the trip a few times a day. It was also my last chance to experience air conditioning for awhile. Unfortunately the bus windows are tinted and the front window has a shade on it, so trying to look out for birds makes you want to vomit. I did manage to see a few Roadside Hawks though and a variety of larger flycatchers sitting on power lines. Besides this, for the next six hours I experienced what I can only describe as the gravity-defying powers of the express bus. This bus can apparently drive freely in the oncoming lane and pass on blind curves at high speeds. If you are unlucky enough to be walking or biking on the road, you will promptly get blown off by the loud horn, but not hit, because there is some kind of magical force-field around the bus that allows it not to run people over; by my estimates we should have annihilated at least 30 people.

A little before 9 pm, I was waken by the bus fare collector out of a dead sleep and swiftly escorted off the bus at Waluca’s, the local hang out spot for the BRRI folks. I was greeted by Victor Bonilla’s smiling face and a few of the other hawk watchers inside. A few drinks later and I was in zonked out in my new bed. Around 2 am I was waken by the horrendous sounds of Howler Monkeys outside the window. This is by far the most confusing sound to wake up to.

Today I trekked into town with another volunteer and some locals we met last night. I got a good tour of town and visited the market, where you can get fresh fish and fruits/veggies daily. There is also a very large celebration happening for the funeral of a famous musician from Punta Gorda. Today into tonight is basically a giant party, followed by the burial tomorrow. Later in the day I got some birding in to see more of the common local birds. Highlights this morning were Blue-gray Tanager, Social Flycatcher and Great Kiskadee, Common Black Hawk, Montezuma’s Orependula, Brown Jay, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Black-cowled Oriole. Most of these birds were seen on the road near my house with very little effort, and they were most active in the rain. Over the next week I will focus on getting photos of these!