Two Night Drives

Black and White Owl, Belize

It was the same territory we had traversed every day in this Belizean rainforest, but a very different world opened up once the jungle night unfolded.


Night drives involve a vehicle with a strong spotlight hooked up to the battery, and one or two guides who drive and spot. Athena and I stood in the back of a pick-up truck–hanging on, dodging palm fronds, and swatting at mosquitoes.


Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

Tapirs were a great find, and one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip. More about that: Tapir Time.


But we came upon so many other creatures too.


Mottled Owl, Belize


Owls and bats are a big draw on night drives, and the Belizean forest did not disappoint. I’m always happy to see bats because it means there is a balance in the ecosystem. We saw about 20 individual bats on our two night drives. The lights on the vehicle brought them in, for the insects, then they’d spin away into the black oblivion.


We spotted this spectacled owl with a snake. When we drove off, we watched the owl carry the Fer-de-lance snake, highly venemous, back to a palm tree where we suspected there was a nest.


Spectacled Owl with Fer-de-lance snake


Owls and bats are not the only nocturnal flyers. There were also common pauraques and northern potoos, bird species in the nightjar family (Caprimulgiformes).


Pauraques were especially prevalent in this rainforest. When they aren’t flying, they are on the ground, camouflaged in leaf litter; this parent was hiding a little one.


Common Parauque adult sitting on top of chick


They feed on insects, and were attracted to the constant bug flurry around the lodge’s landscape lights. I heard them every night, so loud that sometimes they woke me up.


Sound of pauraque in night forest. 


At one point, the driver spotted a wild cat called a margay. We had a two-second look at it before he or she disappeared into the forest. Camouflage spots, quick and stealthy…gone in a flash.


Margay. Photo: Brian Gratwicke, courtesy Wikipedia.

They are small, the size of an ocelot, native to Belize, and nocturnal. Their populations are declining, so we were happy to see this rare wild cat.


There were large moths and small; beady eyes looking out of the tangled trees; lots of croaking frogs. We came upon a raccoon who was hunting high in a tree; and deer in their nighttime mode, frozen in place by the spotlight. This mammal emerged out of the shadows and it took a few seconds to see it was a tapir.


Tapir (center) coming out of the jungle shadows


Every day we saw cattle in a pasture on the edge of the forest. At dawn we were there chasing parrots and toucans, while the cattle unabashedly stared at us. When we came back at night, their shining eyes were still staring at us.


Cattle in pasture


One night we were walking on the lodge grounds when we heard a plop, and found this cane toad, a native.


Cane toad, Rhinella marina


It’s cooler at night, and the moving vehicle creates a wind that feels luxurious after a long, sweaty day. But the best part of the night drives is seeing this mysterious nocturnal world come alive.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except margay.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize



79 thoughts on “Two Night Drives

    • I am not a night person either, Hien, but it is fun to stretch the day once in a while. As for photography, that’s the really tricky part as I’m sure you know. Many thanks!

    • I love owls too, Jill. At one point we were literally between a pair who were conversing. Yes, I agree with you, creatures that come out after dark are indeed always interesting. always a joy to “see” you, thank you.

  1. I saw pauraques in a South Texas wildlife refuge and was about two feet away and it took me about a minute before I could tease out their bodies blending so perfectly in the brown leaves. So cool. Thanks for the armchair trip to Belize.

    • Pauraques are really a treat, and as you say, Cindy, it takes some time to spot them, they camouflage perfectly. Athena didn’t know she had a nestling pauraque in the photo until she processed the photo–the little one was so hidden underneath the mother’s body. I’d never seen so many as here in this lodge. The lodge is very remote and deep in the jungle. Thanks for the pauraque exchange, always a pleasure to hear your wildlife stories.

  2. What a collection! You had to really want to be there, with the clinging on to the pick up and swiping at mosquitoes – this doesn’t sound the most comfortable outing, but I know you enjoyed the nighttime sightings! The cat must have been thrilling to see!
    Thanks for this one, Jet, and have a wonderful weekend!

    • Yes, you do really have to want to do night drives, and we both do. There is always something really fun. We do night drives at home too, in the mountain forest. I find them great fun but have learned that most guests don’t care a whit for it. lol. I remember reading about some of your night adventures on recent outings, you know the thrill of the woods in the dark. Sending warm smiles and thanks your way, pc, and for Mrs. pc, too.

    • Thanks for your warm comment, Teagan. Athena works constantly when photographing, and as you guessed, night drives are a challenge. I’m glad to share the night drives with you, and I always love getting your hugs on the wing. Cheers, my friend.

  3. As I listened to the sound of the Parauque, which for some reason conjured up the thought he might have hiccups or be chuckling, I thought what a terrible night watcher I would be. Firstly my lack of coordination would likely not have me standing long beside you and Athena. If the palm fronds didn’t knock me out of the Jeep my lack of balance would likely do it. The photos are mind blowing, especially at night! The owl and the snake especially left me gin smacked no to mention the ‘kitty cat’ that had me leaping back from the screen. What an adventure you took me on. And you didn’t even have to pick me off the jungle floor.

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Sue, gave me a big smile. It’s a true delight to share this adventure and have you vicariously along on the ride. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed your fun thoughts. My warmest thanks, and sending best wishes for a great weekend for both you and Dave.

    • It’s really fun to receive your comment, Thomas, and I’m happy you enjoyed the night drive post. We felt pretty lucky to have found all the owls, and of course Athena’s quick work with the camera was great. Thanks so much, Thomas.

  4. looks like a wonderful
    flashlights in the darkness
    adventure in the jungle, Jet!
    enjoyed the sounds and skillfully
    captured sights from your fast
    fingered friend. smiling to all
    those wild creatures, including one’s
    that go moo in the night 🙂

    • Your comments are always such a poetic delight, David, thank you. Athena has a whole lot of equipment she’s operating for the nighttime shots, so we’re all lucky she got those owls, as you say, her skill was much enjoyed. Loved your last line: the creatures “that go moo in the night.” I have a warm smile spread across my face. Thank you, as always, dear friend.

  5. oh wow! an awesome adventure as always, Jet! thanks for taking us for the ride. Athena’s night photography is superb. the sound of the Parauque was a complete delight! thank you! 🙂

  6. Pingback: Two Night Drives in Belize— Jet Eliot |

    • Those tapirs are yes, I agree Jo, so loveable. I think one of the things that makes owls mysterious is they’re so quiet. Fierce hunters, and yet so silent. Glad you enjoyed the night drives, Jo, thanks very much.

  7. On my walk home I spotted a fox running down the hill like the dickens. Was a little worried he might be rabid. Further up I realized why. Eau du Skunk hung in the air!
    Love these night time tours. Must be a blast.

    • Yes, the night time tours are a blast, Jan. And your story about the fox and the skunk amplifies why. Great story, thanks so much for bringing a smile to my face this morning.

  8. Well, I guess that you saw all the nocturnal usual suspects, it also reminded me of many hikes in the rainforest. Some other creatures you’d find them in your abode! As Bob Hope used to say…Thanks for the memories. 🙂

  9. Its like the night shift are a bunch of new critters!! I wonder If they are unionized?
    I would love to use a pair of those night goggles. I think it would allow the animals to do their thing better and also stop the bugs from biting so much.
    You always dive right into your subject matter Jet with a perfect 10!

    • Night goggles would be fun, wouldn’t they. We are careful not to blind the animals for too long with the spotlight, but headlights have to be used. Really enjoyed your visit, thoughts and wonderful comment, Wayne. I’m one of those people who do dive right in, appreciate your perfect 10 score. I feel the same about your eagles, whales, and bears, my friend.

    • There is a lot going on in the jungle at night, that’s for sure. Way more than can be photographed. Glad we could have you along for the adventure, Sherry. Thanks so much.

    • You’re right, montucky, it is quite a trick to catch the creatures at night. She has an extension on her flash nicknamed a “beamer,” which helps. But as you can imagine, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle to get everything firing properly. I’m delighted you enjoyed it.

    • Loved your thought here, Donna, on wondering how many animals we didn’t see who were watching us. Glad, too, that you liked the spectacled owl with snake photo. Athena had to be really quick on that one. My warm thanks.

  10. This had to be a special excursion indeed. The audio clip makes it easy to imagine being kept awake by the pauraque. I’ll bet you had to rest up after this trip given the sleepless nights. Athena’s talents seem to be expanding with these night shots. I’m certain that would take some special talent and perhaps preparation. Great job!

  11. Fascinating post. Your opening sentence is fabulous!!! Really draws the reader in to the mystery of the night-time adventure. You Are an Awesome Writer!

  12. Thank you for sharing another fascinating account of natural night-life in Belize. I love the photographs, always amazed at how Athena manages to capture the spirit and true colors of these subjects, surely not the easiest to find and capture. And Jet, your narratives always put me in a great place to appreciate the wonders of this outdoor world.

    • Thanks so much, ACI, for stopping by. That photo of the black and white owl is beautiful, thank you. We were in between two of them conversing, and it was a pretty cool moment.

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