Life as I see it: work, play and in-between.

Of Birders and Breaking the Rules

In a prior Tumblr, "A Blue Morpho … and a Jaguar," I mentioned a trip to the lush rain forest La selva Maya, or the Maya Forest in Belize.

The Maya forest ecosystems are among the richest in the world, extending from Chiapas through the Peten, Guatemala to Campeche, Quintana Roo (Mexico) and Belize. This region includes pine and oak forests to tall evergreens and humid lowlands. Tropical rain forest is the most common environment found there.

I took a trip with a fairly large group of serious “birders” courtesy of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. La selva Maya is home to a diverse and truly amazing bird community. We stayed at Chan Chich Jungle Lodgea perfect choice and very comfortable. I recommend it highly to anyone traveling in this region.

Keep in mind, I am a novice birder. My colleagues carried with them telescopic lenses, sophisticated binoculars, detailed field guides, and years of experience. They were eager to fill-up their "life lists" with new bird species and other wildlife, and to do so before their fellow tourists.

I had drilled myself in the proper etiquette of birders well in advance. The Audubon "Birding Etiquette" web page gives you a good idea of what behaviors are expected.

My experience is that birders like to stand silently in groups in the midst of a beautiful forest, not far from one another, all staring intently in one direction waiting for a rare bird(s) to come into view, and for significant lengths of time. I quickly got tired of such a punishing stance. One day, I decided to break ranks.

"Oh, look, what is that bird down the road?"

I had turned in the exact opposite direction to discover a small group of magnificent Great Curassow slowly making their way along the forest’s edge.

Follow this link for more stunning photographs by Peter W. Wendelken on Flickr of birds that call La selva Maya home.

This turned out to be the case the entire week-long trip. Every evening we would gather for cocktails before supper to report our discoveries and to fill up our “life lists.” Mid-way through the trip someone remarked:

"Go with her. She is seeing all the really great stuff."

My “hints” for people on birding trips:

  • Break the rules once in a while (without being rude, of course);
  • Go on walks by yourself now and again (which is how I saw the jaguar);
  • Don’t think for one minute wildlife don’t “see” you when a you are standing with a large group of people bearing funny-looking contraptions like binoculars and telescopic cameras.

Case in point regarding the last suggestion: during our trip, a fellow tourist and his magnificent camera with a two-foot long telescopic lens were singled-out by a troop of spider monkeys one afternoon, and pummeled relentlessly from the treetops with nuts and other forest detritus.

What did his fellow birders think of that … I guess I’ll be polite and not say (smiles).

A Blue Morpho … and a Jaguar

I spotted my first Blue Morpho butterfly in La Selva Maya near Chan Chich Jungle Lodge in Belize in 1997. I have been hooked on butterflies ever since seeing this butterfly - the size of my hand - perched on a decaying log with its wings folded up and invisible to the naked eye. Then suddenly, it unfolded its wings to reveal a stunning, iridescent blue (photograph courtesy of National Geographic).

Chan Chich is one of the premier jungle lodges of Belize. I traveled there during the Christmas holiday with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. December is a comfortable time to travel to Belize in terms of temperature and weather. The website is enticing:

"Come and retrace the footsteps of the Maya, wander our extensive trail system and discover the unforgettable flora, fauna and Maya history unique to this tropical paradise. With an unparalleled abundance of wildlife (and the best chance to see the elusive jaguar in its natural habitat) Chan Chich is an extraordinary destination for naturalists, birders and for those seeking an authentic retreat to the jungle."

In addition to the lovely large Blue Morpho, I also spotted a jaguar while roaming the trails near the compound, after a restful afternoon nap in a hammock.

There I was, a novice “birder” with a new set of binoculars in hand staring down a fork-in-the-road, when I noticed a pair of yellow eyes staring intently back at me. I froze. Not believing my eyes, I kept raising and lowering the binoculars to be sure I was seeing accurately. The jaguar was stealthily making its way down a trail in my direction, and it had halted, waiting to see which trail I would take before making its own decision.

Suddenly, it dawned on me I was alone, and this was a forest, not not a zoo. Adrenaline surged and I sprinted uphill on another trail that led me back to the lodge.

Suffice it to say this was a highlight of the trip, and an experience jealously coveted by my vastly more experienced VENT trip colleagues. I received a special certificate to commemorate the experience.

Actually, I did have one additional heart-stopping experience when a fer-de-lance - an extremely venomous snake - leaped toward me from the side of a trail during an evening walk in the nearby woods.

After a delicious but filling supper, a small group of fellow travelers decided a walk would do us good before bedtime. After startling the snake well into our stroll (which then caused us to leap backward a few feet), our native guide told us not to worry, this snake was “not harmful.”

When we returned to the lodge and read our guidebooks, however, we learned otherwise. As one online snake guide reports, "This highly dangerous snake is responsible for a high mortality rate. It has an irritable disposition, ready to strike with little provocation." And yes, some snakes do “leap” when they become startled or angry; I’ll never forget the “thud” when this one landed on the trail after leaping at us.

In the end, this was a somewhat dangerous but delightful trip and I’d do it all over again. See the Chan Chich website for details. I also began supporting the nonprofit organization, the North American Butterfly Association after this trip and I urge everyone to do the same.

For more about this trip see, "Of Birders, and Breaking the Rules."