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

 

 

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Parade of Leafcutter Ants

2013

Leafcutter Ants, Belize

Leafcutter ants are productive farmers with an elaborate society based on ant-fungus mutualism; i.e., a symbiotic relationship between the ant and the fungus. One day last month I had the joy of watching some especially clever ants taking a shortcut.

 

The ants get safe, underground living accommodations from the fungus, including a means to feed their ant larvae. And in turn, the ants keep the fungus fed and cleaned. Although the ants don’t actually eat from their fungal garden, they chew up the delivered leaves to decompose for the nest.

 

Many colonies contain approximately one million ants, but there can be as many as 8-10 million ants.

 

The ants bite off a piece of leaf and carry it back to the fungal garden, their underground nest. This is what we humans see as each ant carries a leaf chunk down the trail. An underground nest can grow to more than 98 feet (30 m) across, with additional chambers leading off of that.

 

Leafcutter Ant carrying leaf spear

There are many tasks in a community this large, and each individual has a specific role including the queen, several castes of workers, foragers, and soldiers.

 

Next to humans, they have the largest and most complex animal society on earth.

 

Leafcutter Ants Wikipedia

 

I’ve seen leafcutter ants in many tropical venues, and always on a forest trail or in grass. They often have a conspicuous trail, because there are so many ants moving back and forth that eventually they wear down the vegetation, as seen here.

 

Leafcutter Ant trails in grass (bottom right and leading from plant on top left)

 

Lodge Pool, Belize

 

One day Athena and I were swimming at the lodge pool, when we noticed little morsels of leaf parading across the floor tiles. There weren’t that many, maybe one ant every foot (.30 meter) or so. I don’t think other people would have even noticed them, but I am always on the lookout for leafcutters, because I think they are one of the most amazing creatures on earth.

 

The stamina! The industriousness! The tenacity of a leafcutter ant is completely inspiring. Their strength is astounding. They can carry 12-20 times their body weight.

 

After some investigation, we discovered they were taking a rainforest shortcut through the pool area. They entered at one end of the pool enclosure, walked across the pink floor tiles, and exited at the other end. This was about a 50-60 foot long (15-18 m) trail. They traveled along the floor edge, near the plantings, under the lounge chairs.

 

There were places where water was on the floor, which upset the parade. A simple small puddle threw off their scent. Here they circled around for a half minute or so, but would then stabilize, get back on track, and eventually find their way to the exit rock.

Leafcutter Ant disoriented by water spot

Each one took the exact same trail, and they all vanished at the same place. The exit rock is in the center of this photo below–there was a gap between the second and third rocks, about the size of a fist.

Rock exit, between second and third rocks

 

Ant with leaf exiting, in shadow of rock on right

As the plot thickened, we went outside the pool enclosure, thinking there would be a continued trail. But instead they were gone. They had vanished underground, reached their destination. There we stood in our dripping pool clothes, fascinated.

 

It was a very hot, humid day; all the birds were resting, all the humans were resting. But the leafcutter ants, they just kept marching.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Leafcutter Ants, Costa Rica

 

Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

Tapir Time

Baird’s Tapir, female adult, Belize

Tapirs are large, four-legged mammals found primarily in the jungles of Central and South America. They are rare. How very exciting it was then, to have ten minutes in the wild with this magnificent animal.

 

Adding to the difficulty of finding them, they are nocturnal, and classified as Endangered or Vulnerable. Currently there are five tapir species in the world, with one small population in Southeast Asia and all the rest in the New World. The list of extinct tapir species is far longer than the extant list.

 

Tapir Wikipedia.  Pronounced TAY-peer. We observed the Baird’s Tapir species.

 

Athena and I were on a night drive, standing in the back of a pick-up truck in the jungles of Belize. We had two guides: one was driving, the other was spotting, i.e. shining a strong spotlight on the trees as we drove along.

 

Five minutes after we began, the driver stopped and turned off the truck. None of us spoke. With the aid of the spotlight, we could see branches moving a few feet ahead, and just then a long snout reached out of the thicket.

 

In spite of our excitement we stayed silent, inviting it to come out so we could see it better.

 

Then another snout, this one considerably smaller, peered out from behind the branches; and the mother and juvenile cautiously but steadily walked out of the forest. Their eight hooves clopped as they tentatively walked in front of our truck and crossed the narrow road.

 

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

As they crossed, the adult tapir wiggled her wet nose, sniffing our scent as she determined if she and her youngster were safe.

 

Apparently she knew we were there only to admire, for she led her youth forward and they casually continued to eat the leaves. Baby tapirs are striped and spotted; this juvenile, with no more baby skin, was estimated to be 1.5 years old.

 

Baird’s Tapirs, Belize, juvenile facing camera

 

The largest native herbivore in the New World tropics, tapirs are usually wary of humans, for they have been hunted close to extinction, and their forest habitat continues to disappear. But we were in a preserve where they are surrounded by forest and protected.

 

Here we were all safe in the dark rainforest, with moths and bats and low-hanging palm fronds casting eerie shadows. We were fellow mammals curiously looking at one another.

 

Their long proboscis noses wiggled and sniffed.  On both tapirs the elephantine snout sniffed the leaves and tore them from the branch, shoveling the greenery into the mouth.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

 

As we continued to watch, I was frequently reminded of other mammals. The elephant came quickly to mind. Tapirs use their prehensile noses for grasping, just like the elephant with its trunk. Their gentle disposition also reminded me of elephants. The clopping sound of their ungulate hooves reminded me of horses.

 

When they walked very close to the back of our vehicle, I remember wondering if they could charge like their perissodactyl relative the rhinoceros.

 

An adult tapir weighs about 500 pounds (227 kg).

 

Baird’s Tapir, front hoof

Tapirs have a very thick skin which aids them when the wild cats pounce on them. Their tough skin can retract, rejecting the cat claws. And if a cat still insists on hanging on, the tapir will violently run through the jungle slamming the cat against a tree.

 

But that night there was no slamming or charging. Mosquitoes were biting, moths and bats were swooping, but the tapirs just meandered along…no hurries, no worries.

 

They walked a full circle around us, first crossing the road in front of the truck, eating leaves on our right, then crossing the road in back, and eating the leaves on our left. Soon after that, they vanished into the forest.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Baird’s Tapirs, eating

 

Thirsty Butterflies

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterfly, Belize

We had been birding the Belizean tropical jungle for days, when a new phenomenon greeted us one dawn morning: clouds of butterflies congregating around the ground.

 

Up until then, we had been seeing that same species, the Dark Kite-swallowtail butterfly, flying around all week. One or two, here and there, on flowers–like usual.

 

But this day they were in clumps of 40 and 50, always on the earth.

 

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize

 

Rainforest

There were hundreds, and as we headed down the road to our destination–to watch toucans feeding–we watched them flutter all around, quite magical.

 

They were all on the road and the dirt, and as our truck trundled by I was nervous for their safety. They could easily be run over.

 

I asked the guide, “Why are all the butterflies around this morning? And in such big groups?” It was 6 a.m., no one was especially gregarious yet.

 

He explained that due to the rain we’d had the night before, the ground was moist, and the butterflies were drinking the water.

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Hours after we’d watched the toucans, we came upon the local village’s small airport hangar, and found a drainpipe surrounded by the swallowtail butterflies. It’s hard to make out, but that dark smudge in the bottom right of this photo, right of the drainpipe, is all butterflies…at least a hundred. They were having a drinking party.

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies at base of drainpipe between building and road, Belize

 

Every butterfly has a proboscis and a pair of antennae. The proboscis is a mouth part, used for sucking. It is a long tube (technically, two tubes) with muscles; part of the digestive system. We don’t always see a butterfly’s proboscis because it can be coiled-up, out of sight.

 

Their antennae, generally club-shaped, have a different function: as receptors, and for balancing.

Butterfly anatomy

from enchantedlearning.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

That day, each individual was using its proboscis to suck water from the ground.

 

The butterfly uses the proboscis not only for sucking water, but also for sucking nectar and sometimes, for extracting minerals. If you’ve ever witnessed a butterfly landing on a person’s skin, the insect is seeking the mineral salt in human sweat.

 

It was windy and the gusts were blowing their long-tailed wings, but each individual steadily continued to drink the rainwater, undeterred.

 

Everyday in the rainforest it was very hot and humid and we were always hot and thirsty…but who would’ve guessed that the butterflies were thirsty?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 2 of 2

Brown Basalisk Lizard in Belize

In addition to the abundant bird species found in Belize, as featured last week, there is also an impressive array of reptiles, mammals, and insects. Welcome to Part 2 of the Belize Wildlife series.

 

 Part 1 of Belize Wildlife. 

 

Native to Belize, the brown basilisk lizard is known for its ability to “walk on water.” With large hind feet and web-like toes, they fly so quickly across the water’s surface that it produces the illusion of the lizard running on water.

 

A quiet river boat ride revealed this basilisk lizard basking beside the river. Like most lizards, the basilisks have varying colors.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

The green iguana, which is not always green, was prevalent in many parts of the country. They are the largest lizard in Belize. We came upon this one on the outskirts of Belize City, he was about three feet long (.91 m) without the tail.

Green Iguana, Belize

Deeper into the jungle we were greeted by a troop of Gautemalan black howler monkeys. We had been birding in a Maya ruin, Lamanai, when we found the howlers lazily enjoying figs overhead. They were quiet in this scene, but other times we could hear their eerie, formidable howling from miles away.

 

Click to hear the black howler monkey.

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Maya ruin, Lamanai, Mask Temple

An old abandoned sugar mill in this same Maya ruin had been taken over by aggressive vines, supporting numerous varieties of bats, bugs, and birds.

 

Bats, Lamanai

 

 

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

 

Leafcutter ants, my favorite kind of ant, were also in the rainforest. Columns of ants steadily marched down the trail, each ant carrying a piece of leaf they had chewed and cut.

 

The largest and most complex animal society on earth other than humans, leafcutter ants carry twenty times their body weight, as they dutifully deliver their leaf piece to the communal mound.

 

Leafcutter Ants

 

Where there are ants, there are antbirds.

Dusky Antbird, Belize

 

Life in the rainforest can be brutal. Assassin bugs are known for painful stabbing and lethal saliva.

Assassin bug

 

One dark night after dinner, we found this bad boy on our doorknob. Fortunately it was outside and not inside, and I was wearing a headlamp so I could see not to touch the knob.

 

Belize Scorpion

 

It is the abundance of bugs that attract birds–there were beautiful flycatchers here.

Vermillion Flycatcher, Belize

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

 

Heading east out of Belize’s rainforests, the traveler eventually finds the dazzling waters of the Caribbean Sea. There’s nothing more calming after jungle mosquitos than a cool sea breeze.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

The coast of Belize is comprised of a series of coral reefs, with 450 cayes and seven marine reserves.

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Sea mammals we found snorkeling were southern stingrays and green sea turtles.

Southern Stingray, Belize

Green Sea Turtle, Belize, Ambergris Caye

 

Snorkeling with Southern Stingrays, Belize Barrier Reef

 

While walking the white sand beaches, black spiny-tailed iguanas were a common sight. This frisky pair scuttled up and down a tree trunk.

 

With over 600 species of birds and a plethora of other wildlife, Belize is a tropical menagerie. Thank you for joining me on this two-part adventure.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Northern Jacana

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 1 of 2

Agami Heron

Situated on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize has many geographical features that culminate in a land rich in fauna and flora. Please join me for a two-part wildlife series, visiting this exotic country.

 

We’ll start with the birds of Belize; and in the second part, next week, we’ll look at all the other wildlife.

 

There are 603 different bird species in Belize…that’s a lot for a small country of 8,800 square miles (22,800 sq. km.). The large country of Canada, for perspective, has 686 bird species.

 

Parrots and toucans say “tropical” right from the start.

 

Mealy Parrot

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Olive-throated Parakeet

 

Positioned between South and North America, Belize is part of a corridor called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This is a natural land bridge between the two continents, crucial for animal migration. It contains 7-10% of the world’s wildlife species.

 

Caribbean Sea from Belize boat

 

In addition, Belize is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, offering a plethora of coastal sea life. The Belize Barrier Reef is approximately 190 miles (300 km) long, and is part of a larger reef system yielding hundreds of species of fish, coral, and invertebrates.

 

Where there are fish, there are fish-hunting birds. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Belize Barrier Reef is a playground for birdwatching and many other water sports and activities.

 

Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and more, Belize

Birds found along coastal Belize include the waders, like herons, as well as pelicans, frigatebirds, shorebirds, and many more.

 

Little Blue Heron

 

Boat-billed Heron

 

Some bird species live in Belize year-round, and others migrate here for the winter. This summer tanager below, for example, spends the winter enjoying Belize’s warm weather and a diet of bees and wasps; then flies north in summer to breed in parts of Central and North America.

 

Summer Tanager, Blue Hole Nat’l Park, Belize

 

The turquoise waters of the Caribbean are not easy to leave behind, but nonetheless we headed westward to the interior of the country, finding a luxuriant terrestrial habitat, well worth the effort.

 

Inland lagoons and rivers attract jabiru, kingfishers, raptors, spoonbills…to name just a few.

 

Jabiru, Belize at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Green Kingfisher, Belize

 

Snail Kite

 

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Thirty-seven percent of Belize’s land territory is protected, more than most small countries.

 

Belize Wikipedia

 

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected wetland, one of my favorite places in Belize. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is another protected nature reserve on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains.

 

Rufous-tailed jacamar, Belize

 

Yellow-throated Euphonia eating a banana, Belize

 

There are also many Mayan ruins in Belize, an additional source of open space and wildlife in jungle environments. Here we saw many species of trogons and songbirds, and bigger woodland birds like oropendulas and guans.

 

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

 

Montezuma Oropendola, Belize

 

Crested Guan

 

Hummingbirds thrive here. Of the 300-350 hummingbird species in the world, Belize hosts an amazing 26 species (there are about a dozen hummingbird species in the U.S.).

 

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

 

Ascending into the mountains, the habitat and weather change, yielding rare falcon species, hawks, and owls.

 

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

 

White Hawk, Belize

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Join me next week in the second half of this two-part series, celebrating all the other delightful wildlife we came across.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, all taken in Belize.

Black-collared Hawk