We arrived at the ranger base around midday this past Monday and began getting our gear in order, mainly our food. The lone ranger, Larry, arrived with two guests from Southern Illinois. The plan was to get dropped off down at the Chiquibul Branch when the combined ranger/BDF patrol were getting extracted from a recent patrol. However, as often happens in the Chiquibul, the plan needed to be modified. The patrol was back early and there were an unspecified number of people who had unspecified injuries. So Larry and I went to Las Cuevas to pick up the Land Rover and I assisted with the extraction and put off our own insertion into the jungle for a day. The patrol was greatly relieved to see us. I can understand this part. No one likes waiting in the jungle after hard work.
We got them out and went back to the ranger base where Curt and Cathy were waiting along with Brad. It was Curt’s birthday, thus the trip down to Belize, so he was preparing a large dinner of chicken, salad, mac ‘n cheese, and beans. This was definitely a hit for the recently returning rangers but we all ate with gusto. We relaxed for the evening with rum libations and Curt pulled out his guitar and sang about the rivers around his part of the world…a very cool evening.
We loaded up early on Tuesday morning and were on the road by 6:45am. Arriving at 8:30, we got on the river and began the run down the Chiquibul Branch. It went smoothly…mostly. I got caught up on one rock that tried to flip me. Actually, I was out of the boat but managed to manhandle the kayak so it turned on its side but didn’t quite flip over. After that we continued on past the cave and through Natural Arch. That never gets old.
Lunchtime on the Chiquibul. Typical goofiness...
We were already planning a return trip into the cave; with headlamps this time. Natural Arch is just a wonder. Jungle on the sides and jungle growing thickly on top with vines hanging almost a hundred feet down. Then you enter into the quite of the arch with stalactites scattered across the ceiling and limestone overhangs along the water’s edge. Just amazing…
We paddled down to the nest area…no activity. Then we heard macaws! Two pairs. One pair flew silently to the south and out of sight, gone. The second pair squawked and landed back in the vicinity of the nest, perched and squawked some more. Then they flew to the right on perched again before taking off and heading downstream. Hmmm, maybe they’re using that cavity, but from their behavior they still seemed to be in the nest initiation phase. Time to check the tree with the cavity. I went to grab my machete…it was gone! Oh no. Oh no. That’s the most important tool you can have out there. Must have fallen out when I nearly flipped. Man, that’s the one my dad gave me and we’d had that for years. It was finally getting some serious use. Shoot! Oh well, maybe I’ll get lucky and find it on the way back.
We linked up with tapir trails and took those as far as possible with Brad clearing a little here and there but trying to keep it to a minimum. It was tough to really gauge where we were in the tall thick grass and vine thickets. But we made our way to the tree and shot a line over it. I scaled this one. I scaled the tree rather quickly and checked all of the knobs and holes…nothing. The cavity that the macaws were checking out last time was beginning to open up but still needed more time to rot out. Man! Bummer! So I tried to look around to see if I could spot where that first pair went to. Alas, this location was widely encircled by a wall of thickly vine-covered trees obstructing the view. No machete, no nest. Damn!
Here I am climbing what we thought was a nest tree...no such luck!
Oh well. I went back to the area near the river to review the area and I was beginning to doubt that we were at the correct tree. The angles get so weird. I decided that we’d head downstream for now and reconnoiter the area further the next day on the way back upstream. So we loaded our stuff up and paddled downriver. About 200m downstream we passed a large Ceiba stump on the north side of the river. It appeared to be dead with only to lateral branches hanging on. Going another 100ft or so, something made me hesitate. ‘I’m going back to check out that stump,’ I informed Brad. So we turned around and paddled back up. I noticed something really red up on the stump as I peered through the riparian vegetation. ‘There’s a macaw!,' proclaimed Brad. We watched it for a few minutes while it watched us from its perch; the top of the stump. It then took off away from the river but quickly returned and continued to watch us; a sentry atop its tower. It then disappeared down into the stump. Alright!!! Score!!!
An ACTUAL nest site not 200m downstream of the place we struck out.
I decided that as it was getting late, we’d leave it alone. We might not have time to cut a trail to the nest, scale it and do our work and then have time to find a camp spot before dark. So we moved downstream, passing through the limestone slot canyon to the Resumadero area and turned around to the camp at the water’s edge.
Getting caught up on field notes in the evening (photo by Brad Westrich).
We set up, spread the tarp and got a campfire going. Fajitas…mmmm. That night I didn’t sleep well at all. Woke up completely parched and with a massive headache. I realized that I drank maybe 2 cups of water the previous day. Stupid. I took a couple of Alieve and downed a liter of water and went back to bed. Fitful sleep and was up at dawn. Still had a headache and let’s just say that the water didn’t stay with me either. Barely could eat any breakfast and I really felt like sleeping another hour but there was work to do, so we packed up and headed upstream.
We reached the nest around 9am and easily made our way to the nest via a winding series of tapir trails. Turned out that the Ceiba still had a single live strip of bark on the backside leading up to a small leafed out branch. There was our macaw…staring down. Okay, let’s scare this macaw off the nest and see what’s happening. Brad and then I took turns slapping the tree. And while you could tell it was getting agitated it would not budge. Fifteen minutes and nothing! I guess that means it’s really using this site. I wasn’t about to shoot a line over the tree with the macaw just hanging out up there for fear of injuring it in the process. From previous experience, that stubbornness suggests incubation. So, hopefully when we return next time there will be a couple of recently hatched chicks in the nest.
That was exciting! A confirmed active nest. Morale was up and we moved back over to the first suspected nest area just upstream. We reentered the area and stumbled into a series of clearly well used xatero trails and a small and not recently used lean-to frame. We used the trail system to gain better vantage points from which to scan the trees for other potential trees…nothing. Okay, this area looks pretty dry. There was one forked stump with potential.
Brad standing next to a xatero lean-to.
We left the area and began our exit to Bordel Camp. Passing back through Natural Arch and arriving at the cave it was time to have an hour of fun. We grabbed headlamps, cameras and a couple of candles and climbed up into the cave. We walked around and then headed back to the inner cavern. Using the candles was better than the headlamps; providing light all over and brighter light. Guess my headlamp is less than one candle power! It also lends an ambience to the cave. The formations were small but pretty cool. One nice column and one nearing completion… in a few hundred years. But definitely some active formations. What seemed like the beginning of a potential cavern on the previous visit was really not there. With the lighting we had, it was apparent that the cave did not really progress much farther. So we took a few more photos and headed back to the mouth of the cave.
Beauty of the cave...and some cave dwellers.
From there was stripped to the waist and jump down to the water; Brad doing a crazy back-slapping flip and I cannon-balled it. The water felt great!
Brad doing a flip from the cave.
We scrambled onto the kayaks and headed up. Going through series after series of rapids we finally reached the one I recognized. That’s where I almost flipped over. I slowly walked up the boulders, looking down intensely. A small white splotch caught my attention. It elongated for a moment and then shortened. I reached my hand down and felt in between the cobble. There it was! My machete! Wedged down in the rocks. Man I’m glad I wrapped the handle in white, waterproof medical tape only a few weeks before. Lucky! Things were really going well now.
We progressed past the Smokey Branch confluence when an Ornate Hawk-Eagle flew in and perched above us. That was a first for Brad but it never gets old. Those are magnificent birds with a brown head leading to a black crest. Just beautiful. It flew across the river and perched again, upsetting the brown jays and scaring a pair of mealy parrots.
Ornate Hawk-Eagle above the Smokey Branch confluence.
We camped out at Bordel and I was out early…just exhausted from the day and a lack of sleep on the previous night. Larry and Jaime (FCD rangers) arrived at 8:30am and in a couple of hours we were back at the base. There was still plenty of time in the day so I decided to do a run down the lower Macal for a few kilometers to check out some potential areas. There was activity seen just below the Guacamallo Bridge last year. We put in and kayaked down to the first bend, slowing down and really scanning the quamwoods on the south bank. Nothing going on there but then I heard macaws on the opposing side. There was a pair sitting on a Quamwood tree just preening each other. We spread out to get a better look. After ten minutes of squawking and preening they flew downstream and out of sight.
We continued downstream and ran several nice rapids; one that knocked Brad out of his kayak and pinned him for a few seconds but he righted the boat and made it out. I was stuck on the same rapid on a rock. You can just feel the force of the water. When I unwedged my kayak, the force was frightening; like riding a bull, it lifted my kayak and shot me through the rest of the run. But it was really some exciting stuff. I’ll have to mount my camera on the front of the kayak the next time we go through.
All in all, it was a good trip. Next week, we hit the Macal.