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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 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.


female grackle

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.

2 ospreys

osprey 1

flying osprey

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.


mystery shorebird

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.

2 terns

tern diving

I liked this successful fishing catch, a Butterflyfish in silhouette. The shallow protected waters inside the reef made visibility good for fishing birds.

tern fish

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.

3 wide frigates

3 frigates
Once I saw a mass of Frigatebirds by the dock, swooping right down to the water (one immature bird was missing a forked tail - what might that be about?).

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.

max fish

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.

frigate cormorant


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.
pelicans many posts

pelicans post

In the late afternoon they'd take to the air and go fishing.

pelican flying

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).

2 woodpeckers

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.

woodpecker hole

baby woodpecker

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.

woodpecker holes

Other birds on the grounds -

White-crowned Pigeon:


A flycatcher of some sort?:

A Barn Swallow! I thought they'd all have migrated north by now.

barn swallow


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.


nesting sea

boobie feet
All around are hundreds of Boobies and Frigatebirds, nesting cheek by jowl in the same trees, just a pecking distance apart. They panted in the midday tropical heat. The Boobies here are nearly all the white color phase (elsewhere they are brown). They don't show their feet much, as a way to keep cool, but I assure you, they are red, as you can see through the branches.

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.

booby nest

This gray/brown slightly downy chick is close to fledging after 3 months.

baby booby

Nearby, Frigatebirds chicks share the Ziricote tree canopy.

baby frigate

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).

nesting fly

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.

male frigate

While the adult and juvenile Boobies fill the empty branches of this tree,

boobies tree

the Frigatebirds soar above.

circling frigates


We returned to Blackbird Caye by evening. The Blackbirds were settling in to roost for the night.

night grackle

Originally posted to Birds and Birdwatching on Sun Jun 01, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Shutterbugs.

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