Letter from Belize no. 89
20th August 2020
Whew! We seem to have come to the end of our birds’ breeding season and I can tell you, I don’t know about them but I am exhausted. I can’t express enough what a pleasure and a privilege it is to live as we do in a 2 storey house with wrap around veranda and be at eye level with so many nesting birds. It seems that each year they come closer to the house as they learn to trust that we are not going to harm them.
We have witnessed some remarkable events – both sad and joyful – but here is something I have learned. The birds do not judge success or failure, joy or tragedy, good luck or disaster. They just do what they must do appropriate to the time of year and this time of year is when they are hell bent on reproducing their own species. Apparently in the tropics there are more species than in temperate climes but fewer representatives of each species. Possibly for this reason the tropical birds breed more frequently and may raise three broods in a single season. Only about 1/3 of chicks hatched will make it to reach a productive age.
This year has given us a real “bird’s eye view” of the challenges that this brings. Between April and August I have taken over 1500 photos and the majority of them are of birds. I guess that is what has been my focus during shutdown. I am going to try and give you a glimpse into this busy, busy time.
Some birds build their nests quietly and have come and gone before you really take it in.
Early in April the Rose-throated Becard, who has nested here for the last 5 or 6 years, built a nest which I spotted on the ground after a couple of weeks. It replaced it with this one and how successful it was I don’t know as I did not see any young.
Much the same with the Altamira Oriole who comes back each year to the same site in the same tree. It beavers away at the nest for a couple of weeks but again I did not see if any chicks emerged.
The Bob tree just beyond the Om garden in front of the house has always been a great favorite for nesting and even this year, although the tree is slowly dying, there was plenty of activity. A bit of house swapping and quite a lot of recycling went on too.
That’s the Kiskadee at the bottom centre and the Social flycatcher above and to the right of it.
The Social flycatcher abandoned the nest and built one in a palm tree in front of the house and had 2 or 3 chicks. The abandoned nest remained in the tree unused until in July a pair of Kingbirds spotted it and thought, Aha, there is a good deal, a house half built. They completed the nest, raised a pair of chicks and all four of them stayed around for a while after that.
Here the adult sits on the nest shortly before the babes’ maiden flight. And above this chick flew to one of the palms in front of the house where is stayed for a few hours preening and flapping its wings to strengthen them until it felt ready to take off again.
You can always tell when the babies are ready to leave the nest. The parents, who have been feeding them very regularly for a couple of weeks, really pick up the pace and feed and feed relentlessly to build up their strength, most often with both parents involved. The chicks during this time get bolder and bolder and sit up on the edge of the nest until eventually they have the strength and courage to take off. They then land somewhere in a near-by tree or in the same tree, sometimes on the ground, and they may stay there several hours getting acclimatized and building up more strength. The parents hover near by to protect them from predators and will often keep on feeding them.
Not far from that nest the Kiskadees (those who had been snatching building materials) built their nest, a large scruffy affair.
This was at the end of May. I am not sure if the chicks had hatched by the time I took this photo or if the adult was still working on the inside lining of the nest but you can see its tail sticking up out of the entrance to the nest.
But a wild storm in early June brought the nest down and the 3 still naked little chicks didn’t make it.
Disaster or just life?
All season we have been entertained by these fellows. The first year they came I heard them constantly but they were so shy and so good at hiding it took me ages to get a clear enough view of them to be able to identify them. They are the Greyish Saltators. They are the ones who call incessantly, “Give me a bre-ak, Give me a bre-ak” and now they are so bold they spend all day in full view.
They nested in one of the palms close to the house but the nest was hidden and although we could see them going in and out we didn’t ever actually see either the nest or the chicks. It did seem though that they had 3 broods.
Oh my goodness, then there were the Blue-grey tanagers who I gave an exclusive to in Newsletter no 88. Well it didn’t end there. A couple of weeks after their baby left the nest they were back and I watched one of them for a long time back in the nest turning around and around in it. Is she laying an egg I wondered but then realized she was renovating the nest, bringing new pieces of grass, pushing them into the centre of the nest and then using her body to flatten it and press it in.
… until disaster fell. The branch that the nest was on collapsed and the babies fell out and died almost immediately. For a few hours the parents kept coming back with food in their mouths but I didn’t ever see them inspecting the little dead bodies down on the ground. Rather they seemed to look for the nest in the branches above. A week or so later it looked like they were building a new nest in the mango tree beyond this palm but I have not seen any further activity there.
This is the Clay-coloured Thrush, one of my favourite residents at the Retreat. Out of the breeding season they come up on to the veranda looking for food and they have a couple of distinctive calls. Once the breeding season begins they break into the most glorious song and can be heard before sun up and well into the evening. They made no fuss at all about their nesting but were very discreet and shy and I found it hard to ever get a photo of the adult feeding the chicks. But feed them she did because they grew and grew until one day they had simply taken off.
One story remains an unsolved mystery. The Black-cowled Orioles refurbished a nest on the front veranda right above where we sit for tea. It had last been used by some Hooded Orioles 3 or 4 years ago. In spite of us being there every afternoon I was not aware they were even using the nest until there were chicks in it.
I could see 3 little heads. They were doing well, growing, getting feathers and then one day before they looked big enough to leave the nest they were simply not there. The parents moved off as silently as they had come.
One family we became very emotionally involved with were these Yellow-green vireos. Many pairs nest here every year and I am always astonished when the leaves fall of the trees in January and February at how many nests of theirs are revealed. This nest was very close to the south side of the house.
As you can see the nest was well shaded and secluded but somehow a branch must have broken because one day there she was in relentlessly hot sun trying to protect her young. 2 had hatched and 2 eggs remained unhatched.
We decided to intervene and Henry and Charlie managed to bring over another branch to provide some shade.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The nest was only attached on one side and after a storm it became dislodged and was veering over to one side more and more. A baby fell out and we tried propping the branch up but we got too close this time and the parents rejected the remaining baby. For a while she sat on the remaining eggs but at some point gave up and left.
By contrast on the north side of the house the same species had a very happy outcome.
I watched these 2 chicks for a couple of hours after they had left the nest and were building up some strength to plunge into the next phase of their lives.
Then I noticed one parent going back to the nest and realized she was feeding a third baby.
Finally the first 2 took off but by dark the 3rd had come out of the nest and was perched high up in the tree. Next day I searched for it and thought for sure it would have fallen prey to some predator in the night but no… there it was, clinging to the branch for dear life. The parents had stuck by it and they finally persuaded it out of the tree.
You certainly know these vireos are around during the breeding season as they flit through the trees uttering a continuous chweep, chwepp, chweep. They are difficult to spot as they stay well hidden in the foliage. Strange then that they nest so close to the house.
Henry has a theory that in terms of ‘only the fittest survive’ that if those birds who build insubstantial or weakly attached nests and therefore do not have a successful brood, then the poor nest building gene in them will die away and only the good nest builders will have their genes perpetuated.
Well the team that gave us the most entertainment were these Hooded Orioles who nested right in front of the house in the same palm as the Blue-grey Tanagers.
The female (on the left) does all the nest building and most of the feeding but the male is very present protecting them and helping out with the feeding.
As you can see here there are 3 chicks and just at the point that I noticed that one was smaller than the other 2 and that those 2 were looking suspiciously black feathered, the very next day there were only the bigger 2 remaining and I could confirm that they were Cowbirds not Orioles at all.
The Cowbird is like the cuckoo, it parasitizes the nests of other birds and the young often throw out the chicks of the surrogate parents. These 2 grew fast, one left the nest leaving one alone. The female fed it tirelessly and I saw an extraordinary thing. She eventually gave it a gentle shove and it plopped out but not far. It hung on to the branch below the nest, managed to struggle its way up to the nest again and climbed back in!
If you look carefully at this picture you can see its little foot clutching on to the branch below the nest
Whew, back to safety where it spent another night. The next day the mum was not having any shenanigans. She fed it up, nudged it out again and it landed on the ground. It managed to shuffle into some undergrowth and finally took off.
That was on the 2nd July. 3 weeks later I heard a kafuffle on the veranda and looked out to see a now very large Cowbird baby chasing after the Hooded Oriole demanding food. These were the best shots I could get after they had moved into a nearby tree.
You can see the female Oriole to the top left and the young Cowbird towards the bottom right. In the 2nd pic the Oriole is actually feeding the Cowbird.
So how extraordinary is that. Really, I look at all those photos again and I am in awe: in awe of the dedication and determination of these birds, the co-operation between the parents, the fierce protectiveness they have for their young and most of all the way they pick up and carry on when things have not gone according to plan. Animals don’t have ego like we do and so don’t have attachments and expectations followed by disappointments. A humbling lesson.
My love to you all. Covid19 numbers in Belize are on the rise alarmingly and so we have put ourselves into shutdown again. I go to the shops and bank once a week and satsang takes place on Whatsapp.
Our love to you all.