Highlights of Belize
Well my season in Belize is all wrapped up. I didn’t do any reporting while I was there, hoping to snag some pictures from guests, but the time ran away and I am home again. It was a good season, overall. Here is the first of some highlights.
When the days of preying on the Spanish fleet, loaded with gold and silver pilfered from the natives of Central America were over, the Baymen of British Honduras, as they called themselves, were pressed for a way to make a living. There was one valuable item, easy to harvest. This was the logwood tree (Haematoxylum campechianum) Despite its name, this is a shrubby tree, with a twisted trunk, which grows along stream banks, in swamps and along the shores of lakes and ponds in southern Mexico and northern Central America. The sap of the logwood tree was used extensively for dyeing textiles. By altering its pH, the sap could be made to produce a variety of colours, from reddish-yellow to purple.
Since the logwood grew along the banks of rivers, and the only way to travel in Belize those days was by canoe, it was a simple matter to harvest it and float it to the mouth of the Belize River, where it could be loaded on ships and sent to England. This became the main industry in Belize from the 1670’s to the 1780’s.
Travelling up the Belize River, a party of Baymen headed up a tributary known as Black Creek. They discovered a long, narrow lake (in Belize lakes are called lagoons) which splits, leaving a large, central island. Unlike the surrounding terrain, the island was high and dry even during the rainy season when rising waters from the Belize River would reverse the flow of Black Creek and fill the lagoon and surrounding forest with floodwaters. On this island the Baymen established a logging camp, and named it after the tree they sought, the Crooked Tree.
Centuries later, Crooked Tree village is accessible by road most of the year, and is surrounded by a large protected area known as Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Logwood ceased to be a valuable commodity when other, cheaper dyes were discovered. The main industry of the village now is cashew products. The fruit of the cashew tree produces a single seed, hanging from its underside. This fruit is also used to make jam and a notorious fermented beverage known as cashew wine. It is said the hangover from drinking too much of this wine is without parallel.
Other sources of income to the village include a little cattle ranching and tourism. The big attraction here for tourists is bird-watching. The lagoon goes through an annual cycle of flooding and drying. When it is in flood, wading birds inhabit the shores and swamps, and the lagoon hosts a large population of ducks, both tropical and migratory and neotropical cormorants, while snail kites, black hawks and black vultures hover and soar overhead. Ashore, one can spot flocks of parrots, and a variety of insect-eating birds, such as cattle egrets, vermilion flycatchers, tropical kingbirds and many others. But it is when the lagoon starts to shrink that things get interesting.
As the water-level falls, the swamps dry up and then the lagoon becomes a shallow, weedy network of channels. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of birds make use of the shrinking lagoon to gain access to the fish, snails, frogs and other inhabitants. Great flocks of egrets mix with white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, wood storks and the famous jabiru stork, a huge pterodactyl of a bird with a wingspan up to nine feet (nearly three metres).
We were staying at the Bird’s-Eye View Lodge on the shore of the lagoon. The dry season had progressed to the point where our guide Leonard wasn’t sure if the boat would have enough water for a pre-dawn birding tour. As it turned out, we got the last tour before they pulled up the boats for the remainder of the dry season.
We met in the early twilight for a cup of coffee or tea and quickly boarded the boat. Even before we got underway Leonard was pointing out a variety of birds, and we could see great gatherings farther down the lagoon. I won’t bore the reader with lists of species spotted, but this day we were lucky to see something very unusual.
The northern jacana is a small, chicken-like wading bird with huge, long toes, allowing it to walk on the floating vegetation as if it was walking on water. I’ll let you figure out this bird’s nickname…
The jacanas are a very pretty bird with black head and neck, rusty back and wings, with bright yellow bill, forehead and underwings. They have a comical walk as they place their toes on the weeds. The males make a nest and encourage a female to mate, which then lays a single egg. Then the female leaves to find a new mate and a new nest for her next egg. The chicks are speckled brown and are found with their father who raises and protects them as they search for food together.
As we squeezed down the narrow, shallow channel towards the big flocks ahead, Leonard drew our attention to a group of jacanas, three adults and three chicks. They were standing in a circle looking into the middle and chirping excitedly. In the centre of the circle, barely sticking out of the weeds, was a pair of nostrils. Occasionally a whole snout would emerge, revealing a pair of eyes. It became clear that we were looking at the submerged head of a boa constrictor (the only animal whose latin name is identical to its English common name).
The large snake had swum out in the dark and buried itself in the weeds, with only its eyes and nostrils emerging occasionally, ready to snap out and throw a few coils around a hapless egret or duck which waded too close. As long as the jacanas stuck around and warned the others, this snake would go hungry. Of course, jacanas have to eat too, and we knew they would soon fly off. After that, either the snake would eventually get its meal, or a jabiru stork would spot the snake, and the would-be predator, well, would be prey. Such is life in the Crooked Tree Lagoon and I was lucky to be there to see it.