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La Milpa entrance

La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Center entrance

La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Center is about 70 miles north of duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge.  Maps show a road going directly between the two locations.  However, locals warned us to not even think about it as the road was impossible to drive, especially after all the recent rain.  So, we headed east and slightly north on the Western Highway, north a short distance on the Burrell Boom cut-off, north-northwest on the Northern Highway to Orange Walk town, and finally southwest to La Milpa.  Yes, we pretty much drove in a circle to get just a little north of where we started out.  Thus, the 70-miles distance became much more and took most of a day to travel.  However, Jeremy and I enjoyed the drive and found some interesting birds on the way.

Tricolored Munia

Tricolored Munia

The first life bird on the day’s journey was mine, a Northern Jacana.  Next, it was Jeremy’s turn with a very cooperative female Snail Kite.  The kite flew around a little pond, actively foraging for snails.  What a treat to see a bird demonstrating the trait for which it is named.  The next new bird was a real puzzler.  We both knew that we had never seen it before and neither of us had any idea what it was.  And, it just was not in our book, Birds of Belize.  There was a flock of about a dozen of them in the tall weeds on the edge of a ditch by a rice field.  Jeremy and I both got photos and later someone was able to identify the birds as Tricolored Munia.  Have you guessed the rest of the story?  It is a non-native introduced species, probably established from escaped caged birds, and it is spreading rapidly in Central America and Mexico.  Like many exotic species, it is feared that they may become troublesome, especially as agricultural pests.

Oscellated Turkey

Oscellated Turkey

We arrived at La Milpa at 3:30 PM and immediately liked the research station which is operated by the Programme for Belize, a non-profit organization focused on conservation.  This was different from any other place we had stayed in Belize.  Security had been obvious at all the resorts.  At Jungle Jeanie, they even had dogs to accompany the security guards on their rounds.  Everyone had said that Belize is very safe and they just want to keep it that way.  However, at La Milpa there were no guards and not even keys to the rooms!  One guest who had apparently stayed there many times said, “I’ve never seen a key here.”  The atmosphere was very casual and academic.  A group of botany professors and students from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland, filled most of the rooms.  Meals added to the feeling of being back in school with buffet style serving, shared tables, and returning our own dishes to the kitchen.  If you wanted a beer or soda, you just helped yourself by taking one from the refrigerator and writing your name in a log book.

La Milpa Maya site

La Milpa Maya site

The guide who had been recommended to us was not available, so Jeremy and I were really on our own with birding at La Milpa, but I still added nine birds to my life list.   The first afternoon I was thrilled to see two Great Currasows at the edge of the woods and an Ocellated Turkey up close (both lifers) as well as a Keel-billed Toucan and both Red-capped and White-collared Manakins.  On Wednesday, we explored the nearby La Milpa Maya site, the third largest in Belize.  La Milpa has not been uncovered or reconstructed and I found it difficult to imagine what it was like 1200 years ago.  The most interesting description of the site that I have found is by a young man who was a volunteer in 2010 with the Field School program administered by the University of Texas, Field Notes From a Maya Ruin.  It was not as birdy as we had expected, but we enjoyed walking the jungle trails and seeing a gorgeous Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, a life bird for both Jeremy and me.

Red-capped Manakin

Red-capped Manakin

Owl Butterfly

Owl Butterfly

Back at the field station, jungle life right on the grounds delighted us. Red-capped Manakins seemed to be everywhere, a huge owl butterfly flew into a building and was later rescued, Red Foxes cried on the walkways. And, there was the “magic tree,” perhaps a type of fig. You could watch this small tree for hours and keep seeing new birds as they came to feast on the small fruits. The weedy areas around the edges attracted birds, too, including one of our new favorites, the brilliant Blue Bunting. There were very few artificial feeders at La Milpa, but careful planting of native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs brought the birds in close to the buildings and walkways.

Blue Bunting

Blue Bunting

All too soon, it was our last morning in Belize.  We had breakfast at La Milpa, birded for an hour, and then started towards the airport.  We saw one more trip bird and a lifer for Jeremy, a Bronzed Cowbird, on our leisurely drive to Belize City.  The entire 12-day trip (January 11-23, 2014) was wonderful and I look forward to my next visit to Belize.

White-collared Mankin - female

Female White-collared Mankin

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Spider Monkey at zoo

Spider Monkey at The Belize Zoo

Monkey sign at zoo

The zoo had wonderful signs like this everywhere!

Jeremy and I said goodbye to Phil, Katherine, and Kitty at the Belize airport, and then headed straight to the zoo. We had just finished a wonderful week of birding and working with Belize Audubon on the official Forsyth Audubon trip.  Phil and I wrote a series of posts about the trip on the Forsyth Audubon blog.  I wanted to stay longer than eight days, so I was very happy that Forsyth Audubon President and fellow Belize traveler, Jeremy Reiskind, also wanted a few more days in Belize.  The Belize Zoo calls itself “The best little zoo in the world” and we agree.  It was clean, interesting, and the animals appeared to be cared for very well.

An added bonus was the many wild birds seen at the zoo.  Many enjoy sharing fruit served to the zoo animals.  One of our favorite birds was a Common Tody-Flycatcher who flitted about just a few feet from the platform by the Howler Monkeys.  We appreciated the Rufous-browed Peppershrike, too, a life bird for both of us.  We could have stayed all day, but we wanted to reach duPlooy’s before dark.

Common Tody-flycatcher

Common Tody-flycatcher

DuPlooy’s Jungle Lodge is located on the Macal River in the Cayo District near San Ignacio, close to the Guatemala border.  DuPlooy’s had the best accommodations of the entire trip, the food was excellent, and birds were easy to see at the fruit feeders on the deck by the bar/restaurant and in the adjacent Belize Botanic Gardens.  On our first day, we just relaxed and enjoyed exploring the lodge area.  New life birds that we found for ourselves included Gartered Trogon and Black-crowned Tityra.  I was also thrilled to finally see Belize’s national bird, Keel-billed Toucan, a life bird for me, but one that Jeremy had seen previously in Nicaragua.

Collared Aracari

Collared Aracari

Yellow-winged Tanager

Yellow-winged Tanager

The second day, we opted for a little help and spent the morning with local guide, Philip Mai.  The roads were difficult due to the unusual amount of recent rain, so Philip made up a new route.

Olive-throated Parakeets

Olive-throated Parakeets

Jeremy and I enjoyed the teamwork with Philip.  And, Philip was so pleased with our results that he might add our route to his regular itinerary.  Special birds that morning included flyover wild Muscovy Ducks that we all saw well.  Olive-throated Parakeets made several appearances, including a pair right over our heads preening each other.  We found both Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles.  For me, the highlight was a field with at least a dozen Fork-tailed Flycatchers, the bird that I’d most wanted to see.  It was magical watching them float over the field foraging and then perching on sturdy weeds.  That morning I added seven birds to my life list.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

I knew that duPlooy’s caters to birders, but I didn’t expect the extent of help that we received.  One afternoon on my way from my room to the bar/deck, a woman with a laundry basket on her hip ran after me calling, “Ma’am, ma’am, would you like to see a Squirrel Cuckoo?”  Of course I did and the woman showed me exactly where the bird was.

Squirrel Cuckoo

Squirrel Cuckoo

A fun part of the daily routine at duPlooy’s is feeding the Kinkajous.  I just happened to be on the deck at 5:30 one afternoon when an employee handed out bananas.  After all the kids got one, one banana was left, which was handed to me.  Two Kinkajous came in for the treats and I stood back and watched the kids feed them.  After the kids had given away all of their bananas, I stepped up and began feeding the Kinkajous.  Then, all of a sudden, a third Kinkajou seemed to realize that he was late to dinner and came tearing down the tree and onto the deck.  He grabbed the small piece of banana from my left hand and then crawled onto my arm to get to the banana in my right hand!

Feeding the Kinkajous at duPlooy's

Feeding the Kinkajous at duPlooy’s. Photo by Cecelia VanHof.

Our three days at duPlooy’s went too fast and I was sad to leave. But I was also excited to head north towards La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Center for the last leg of our trip where more birds and adventures awaited.

Variable Cracker - Hamadryas feronia

Variable Cracker – Hamadryas feronia

Dirce Beauty - Colobura dirce

Dirce Beauty – Colobura dirce

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