The Blackbirds awoke me every morning, and hour earlier than I needed to be up for breakfast and the dive boat, with a scoffing array of whistles, beeps and squeals. These were the numerous Great-Tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) who seem to congregate at every scuba-dive resort I've ever been to in the Caribbean. Their insistent calls from first light until sunset are linked to diving for me, a major passion, so I actually welcome the noise, even at the crack of dawn on vacation.
I spent two weeks out at the deep-sea atolls of Belize earlier this month. These rings of mangrove-covered coral cayes are rare in the western hemisphere, and remote from the mainland, requiring a 1.5 - 2.5 hour boat ride, past the barrier reef out into the open sea. Terrific coral reef diving. I paid attention to birds on this trip too, seeing more diversity than I expected. Some were totally and tropically exotic, but I was surprised to see some familiar ones too.
Follow me below the coconut fluff for my collection of seashore Belizean birds.
(All photos by me. In Lightbox...click to enlarge)
First we'll wander around Blackbird Caye on Turneffe Atoll, where the resort is located, named for the multitude of Great-tailed Grackles there.
The males are pure black but the females are brown, and half their size. The grounds of the resort have a variety of fruiting native trees as well as coconut palms and lots of Brown Anoles. Ample foraging, so, lots of Grackles.
I discovered quickly that it's fairly quiet in the heat of the day, and that birds became more active the evening. Hence, the dusky sky in many of my pics.
A pair of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) lives on the caye. I'd see them most often perched on a palm by the beach, occasionally in flight over the water.
The other raptor on the caye faced the other direction, soaring low over the grasses by the lagoon. This is the Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus).
The resort rakes the grounds of fallen leaves and seaweed to deter biting sand flies, but further down the beach were drifts of dried turtle grass washed up from the lagoon. Shorebirds foraged through this for bugs. They were mostly Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), some in breeding plumage, some not.
A Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia) sometimes foraged with them, and another bird I can't identify.
I was surprised there were no gulls along this shore. Too far out from land? Maybe their niche is filled by other, more specialized, birds? Instead, there were lots of Royal Terns (Sterna maxima), perched on the dock and fishing most days.
I liked this successful fishing catch, a Butterflyfish in silhouette. The shallow protected waters inside the reef made visibility good for fishing birds.
Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) were always visible in the sky, sometimes close by. Their aerial contortions are awesome, made possible by their deeply forked tails. I've learned that the males are all black, females have white breasts, and immature birds have white heads and breast. Frequently I saw a female and immature flying in tandem; females commonly assist their offspring for as much as a year after fledging, and only nest every other year.
When I walked out onto the dock I saw why: Max, one of our dive guides, was cleaning the Lionfish he'd speared during the last dive, tossing up waste bits...the Frigatebirds snatched them right out of the air.
Frigatebirds are notorious for their kleptoparasitism, but the research I've read finds they depend on stealing for just 5-40% of their energy. Mostly they pluck fish from shallow water as they glide by. However I saw an immature Frigatebird actively harassing a Double Crested Cormorant, diving at it as the cormorant surfaced. I saw another (or same) youngster shadowing a pelican off the same beach by the resort.
Brown Pelicans are common for many of you but not for us in Washington state. I enjoyed watching these floating in the shallows and maneuvering for a perch on the few posts, the gray youngsters, white-necked females, and partly dark-necked males.
In the late afternoon they'd take to the air and go fishing.
Besides the Grackles, there was a variety of other terrestrial birds on the grounds. Tropical Mockingbirds (Mimus gilvus) appeared to be nesting. I saw one climb into a nest in a tree by our cabin but I couldn't get a good look through the foliage at activity there.
I saw one Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus), a colorful treat for me since we have no orioles at home.
Far more common were the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, which had no golden plumage at all. They are the Turneffe Atoll subspecies (Melanerpes aurifrons turneffensis), although some sources call them Velasquez's Woodpecker turneffensis (Melanerpes santacruzi turneffensis).
They were just fledging youngsters while we were there. The disharmonious screeching of the fledglings who alternately clutched awkwardly onto any surface and flapped short distances between them was a constant noise in the background. The adults coaxed them out of the holes and brought them food, like on the roof next to us.
Down the beach I saw a Seagrape tree filled with rows of sapsucker holes. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is reported in Belize, but I never saw a bird at this tree.
Other birds on the grounds -
A Barn Swallow! I thought they'd all have migrated north by now.
One day we took a boat trip an hour away, even further east, to Lighthouse Reef Atoll, for several magnificent dives. We stopped for lunch on Half Moon Caye.
Boobies! Half Moon Caye is protected for the sake of a large successful Red-Footed Booby colony, one of the few in the western hemisphere. In 1928, the British established it as a Crown Preserve during colonial times, and now it is a National Monument. The Red-footed Booby is the smallest of the three booby species and the most oceanic. They are almost never seen while they're out fishing, but during nesting season they congregate in close quarters in this small fragile native forest. They prefer the tops of orange-flowered Ziricote trees for their nests. A short walk through the forest takes you to a platform where you can view the canopy. I knew I was getting close when the fishy poopy smell mingled with prehistoric groans and screeches above.
The Boobies start nesting in December, each pair incubating their one egg for two months. The young nestlings are white down-covered, like this one, a late hatching.
This gray/brown slightly downy chick is close to fledging after 3 months.
Nearby, Frigatebirds chicks share the Ziricote tree canopy.
It was fascinating to see all the Frigatebirds and Boobies nesting together, mostly in a state of truce. In each nest one parent is always present to protect the egg or chick against iguanas, rats and Frigatebirds (yes they will cannibalize neighboring chicks if opportunity arises).
The calm between these birds breaks down in the evening when the Booby parents who have been out all day fishing, sometimes a hundred miles away, get mobbed by Frigatebirds on their return to the trees. The "Man-o-War" birds know exactly when and where the Boobies are going, so it is a predictable gauntlet. Here is a link to a video footage of what happens.
As fierce as the Frigatebirds are in the air, on land their tiny feet and weak legs make it almost impossible to walk, nor can they take off reliably from the surface of the sea.
While the adult and juvenile Boobies fill the empty branches of this tree,
the Frigatebirds soar above.
We returned to Blackbird Caye by evening. The Blackbirds were settling in to roost for the night.