How a stocky masked falcon in Belize helped an all-American girl cross the line from non-birder to birder
Published: July 1, 2008
|"What's that?" Shannon asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, she added, "Is that an Osprey?"|
Focused on a female ground-dove that had Ruddy sympathies, I gave her question less attention than it deserved. "Well, an Osprey just flew over," I mouthed, thinking that would put the matter to rest.
Linda, who was standing next to Shannon, was more attentive. She looked at the large, mask-faced raptor calmly perched about a hundred feet away and said, "No, that's a Laughing Falcon."
"Oh, wow!" said Shannon. "That's the bird I wanted to see!" If it wasn't apparent before, it was undeniable now. Shannon, a public relations executive, had become the world's newest, most enthusiastic birder. All it took was a five-day trip to a forest lodge in Belize, birding's answer to Bob Marley, and 35 years.
"Machaca Hill Lodge?" I remember saying to Shannon over the phone. "Never heard of it."
"It's pretty new," she replied. "Originally built for the fly-fishing crowd, but the new owner wants to focus on ecotourism and would like to learn more about the lodge's birding potential. They're one of my clients, and I was hoping that you and your wife would be willing to come down and spend a day or two birding."
"How'd you pick me?" I asked.
"Found you online," she said.
"What are the arrangements?"
"We'll pay all your travel and lodging costs. Linda will have to pay her airfare."
The price seemed right. And it had been nearly a decade since Linda and I had had the opportunity to bird Belize - that compact and highly birdable country tucked into the forested underside of the Yucatan Peninsula.
That is how Linda and I came to join Shannon on a five-day birding junket over the Easter holiday. And while trips like these are supposed to spawn articles that persuade readers to visit, I quickly concluded that this time, the story wasn't the lodge (which, for the record, is terrific) or even the birding around the lodge and the town of Punta Gorda (which is likewise terrific).
It was the pert, young, been-everywhere-done-everything account executive. Her job was to remain anonymous. Her role in arranging the trip was supposed to go unspoken. But she had become a birder. The catalyst, not the reaction, was the story.
Shannon, age 35, resident of Miami, graduate of Purdue, product of her parent's ranch in Wyoming, is the classic all-American girl, a Picabo Street with all the trimmings. In fact, she could pass for the sister of America's Olympic medal-winning downhill skier.
In Shannon's brief but event-packed life, she has taught downhill skiing and English riding and helped operate her parent's backcountry hunting and fly-fishing operation. She hikes, climbs, mountain bikes, and sailboards and has been an avid fly fisherman since the age of seven. Her apartment is filled with enough outdoor-related stuff to open an R.E.I. outlet, and by design she spends every non-working minute out on the water, wetting a line or catching air on her board.
At least, this is what she used to do with her spare time. I have a sneaking suspicion that a big chunk of her avocation time has just become indentured to a new hobby.
We met on the flight out of Miami. By the time we reached Philip Goldson International Airport, we felt like old friends. Shannon and Linda hit it off like college roommates who discover they have identical clothing sizes and tastes.
The flight to Punta Gorda is about an hour out of Belize City - and in this regard, the new property has an advantage over Chan Chich and Crooked Tree, those signature birding outposts of Belize. Punta Gorda, Belize's southernmost town, enjoys daily air service. There is no need to charter a flight.
Located a 10-minute drive from fine reef fishing and snorkeling, the lodge mantles a 500-foot hill. All the cabanas open onto the forest of the private 11,000-acre Laughing Falcon Reserve. You can sit on your porch, sip a drink, work on your list, and watch the Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Collared Aracaris, Red-capped Manakins, and Golden-hooded Tanagers that pretty nearly infest the place.
Or, if you are feeling aquatically ambitious, you can walk (or take the tram) down to the river and bird by boat - canoe or kayak, take your pick - enjoying great looks at birds like Scaled Pigeon, Crested Guan, and American Pygmy Kingfisher.
Or you can bird the miles of trails that thread a circumspect path around and through the preserve.
On our first evening, over dinner, we discussed options with George, our guide. A native Belizean and one-time park service employee, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late reggae singer Bob Marley. George is, and proved himself to be, an affable, capable, self-taught naturalist. "What birds do you most want to see?" he asked in the low, sonorous Creole-tainted dialect of the region.
"Laughing Falcon," Shannon said, quickly. George smiled.
"Anything's fine with us," I said.
"Well, isn't there something you haven't seen yet?" Shannon asked.
"Harpy Eagle," I said. George stopped smiling.
"Is that possible?" she said, turning her hard-to-say-no-to eyes on George. And before he could recover, she added, "OK, I want to see a Harpy Eagle, too."
This was my first inkling that Shannon was destined to be a birder.
The deck off the dining room looks over the canopy of the preserve, offering a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a wink of the river below. We were into birds at first light - Red-legged Honeycreepers, Yellow-throated and Olive-backed Euphonias, Crimson-collared Tanager.
Shannon's ability to locate birds was truly impressive. "Are you sure you've never done this before?" I chided more than asked.
"It's like reading the water," she explained, taking a moment from her frantic list keeping. "Like seeing the swirl of a feeding fish or a fish pushing water. What was the name, again, of that little bird you said breeds in New Jersey?"
"Chestnut-sided Warbler," I said.
"Like that one. Where the leaves are bouncing. It's moving left. Move your binoculars ahead, like casting ahead of the fish. There, you got it!"
Not only was Shannon good, she was lucky. After breakfast, when we got down to the bottom of the hill and started down the trail, wouldn't you know? We hit an ant swarm and its entourage of feeding birds - multiple woodcreepers, ant-tanagers, even a Gray-necked Wood-Rail that wandered around in plain view.
"This is the birding equivalent of getting into a (insect) hatch," I explained. "It's what tropical birders dream of."
"It's way better than a hatch," she observed knowingly. "With a hatch, there's usually only one species of fish rising. Here, there are so many... Oh, wow! What's that one?"
"Royal Flycatcher. If we're lucky, we'll get to see it raise its hood."
By lunch, her life list had already topped 50 species. The next morning, at Agua Caliente Wildlife Sanctuary (about a half-hour drive from the lodge), we got into more open habitat and standing water, and her list began to soar - like the Wood Storks, Common Black-Hawks, and Plumbeous Kites that were vying for airspace above.
A Swallow-tailed Kite gliding directly over her head became her new favorite bird. And it stayed on the top of the list for a full 10 minutes, right up until the moment she caught a glimpse of her Laughing Falcon.
...wow!" she said again, as her appreciation of the stocky forest falcon was rekindled by the magic that a spotting scope confers upon its subject. "This is so cool!"
"OK," she said, turning her eyes and her attention on George, who had joined me in working on that ground-dove challenge mentioned earlier, "so when do we see the Harpy Eagle?"
That is when I was absolutely certain that Shannon, the quintessential all-American outdoor girl and spitting image of Picabo Street, was destined to be a birder. In fact, she'd already crossed the line. Linda and I were slated to fly out the next day, but Shannon was going to stay one more day in order to get on the river, to wet a line.
But she was bringing binoculars, too, and my guess is, she did more scanning than casting. As good as she is, and as lucky as she is, I wouldn't want to bet against her finding that Harpy Eagle.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009); Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006); Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.|
Read more by Pete Dunne.