A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

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Robert Mendyk
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A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Robert Mendyk » July 31st, 2010, 9:28 pm

Greetings folks,

Here is a sampling of some of the photos I took during a month of backpacking solo through Belize (30 June- 27 July 2010). Half of my time was spent camping out in wildlife sanctuaries, where I did most of my herping, and the other half was spent traveling between cities, towns, and villages and staying in hostels, where I met many incredible and fascinating people from all over the world (but mostly Europe).

I arrived by plane in Belize City (actually just outside the city up the Western Highway). I took a taxi into Belize City to the bus terminal to catch a bus up to Orange Walk Town, Orange Walk District.

**My advice to travelers seeking to visit Belize- avoid Belize City. There is not much to see there, other than dilapidated structures and garbage strewn about everywhere. Belize City has major issues with crime, particularly gun violence, with murders seemingly occurring daily (there was one the day I arrived, and one a block away from the hostel i was staying in one of the nights I was in San Ignacio).

I stayed in Orange Walk Town for the night, then caught an early bus up to Sarteneja, located right on Corozal Bay up in the extreme northeast of the country, in Corozal District. The bus ride was long (ca. 2 hrs) and bumpy (the entire road is unpaved), but I got an interesting introduction into the agriculture of Belize in this region (mostly sugarcane produced by Mennonites), as well as the natural habitat.

I camped out at a small backpacker's hostel called "Backpacker's Paradise", which is run by a Swiss couple. Nathalie, one of the two, actually did her master's research at neighboring Shipstern Nature Reserve, surveying the herpetofauna of the reserve. She apparently loved the place so much, that she decided to stay and open up the hostel. Needless to say, we had several interesting conversations, and she brought me up to speed on what to expect herping-wise in Belize, and gave me a few pointers and tips as I went about my travels.

The day after arriving in Sarteneja, which is a lovely and incredibly quiet fishing community, I walked the 5 or 6 km from town to Shipstern Nature Reserve (which was a mistake in the heat- should have hitched a ride). There were several trails that snaked throughout the reserve, including a long one stretching all the way to the coastal lagoons where American crocodiles are purportedly common. Unfortunately, the bugs were so bad here, and combined with an approaching storm, I could not stay very long, and did not get to see much other than a few brown basilisks and some anoles.

On the way out I saw a large male black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis), who quickly retreated to his burrow upon my approach.

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Rather than walk, I was wise and hitched a ride back into town this time... Back at the hostel, which was a sprawling property of large, mature mango trees bordered by scrub/secondary forest, I observed my first snake of the trip- a brown vine snake (Oxybelis aeneus).

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Later that night, as well as the two additional nights I stayed there, I went out road cruising, walking several km along the long, desolate road the hostel is located on each night. Northern Belize is much drier than in the south, and a lack of rain the previous several days let to few frogs out on the road. The only amphibians I encountered at night were cane toads (Rhinella marina) and Gulf Coast toads (Bufo valiceps).

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The first snake I came across on the road was a DOR Mexican parrot snake (Leptophis mexicanus), which was difficult to ID at first because of the ants which were feeding on it.

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Sleeping brown basilisks (Basiliscus vittatus) were common on vegetation bordering the roads, and turned out to be the most common lizard encountered throughout all of Belize. Females of this species were often found gravid during the first two weeks of my trip.

After staying in Sarteneja a few days, I headed back to Orange Walk Town, and linked up with a tour operator to visit the Mayan site of Lamanai. Going with a tour was actually the cheaper route, as the buses there are very infrequent, and lodging around the site is very expensive. The tour traveled to Lamanai via an hour-long boatride on the New River. I saw many green iguanas (Iguana iguana) in trees overhanging the river, and many birds; unfortunately, I did not see any crocodiles or turtles.

The site of Lamanai is very impressive, with several large structures excavated, and many more which await funding for excavation. Around the grounds I saw many Sceloperus (variabilis?), anoles, and basilisks.

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Following Lamanai and another night's stay in Orange Walk Town, I headed down with a Dutch backpacker I met, to the Placencia peninsula for a couple of nights. To get there, we ended up taking the bus down to Independence, then taking the "Hokey Pokey" water taxi over to the peninsula, since this was easier than waiting for the infrequent bus which travels directly to Placencia. Here, I relaxed for a couple of days, and didn't do much herping, though I did see brown anoles (Norops sagrei) and what I could have sworn were male crested anoles (Anolis cristatelus- though they are not known to this area), Ctenosaura, Iguana, basilisks, and heard several frog species calling from isolated areas of retained water in some people's yards. Regrettably, I didn't get any photos of the local herps, particularly the questionable A. cristatelus.

After a few days in Placencia, I headed to Dangringa for a night, with plans to head to Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary in the morning. At the hostel I stayed at that night, I met a couple from Cleveland who were also planning on heading to Cockscomb in the morning, so we decided to leave together. We took the bus in the morning to Maya Center, located right on the Southern Highway. Here, you have to pay the entrance fee to the sanctuary.

From here, the sanctuary is about 10 km up into the hills/mountains from the main highway. Although there are taxis in Maya Center offering to take you up to the sanctuary, they charge astronomical rates for the 10 km drive. So, we decided to hike up the access road to the sanctuary. I suppose it normally wouldn't be that bad of a hike, but the thunderstorm and torrential downpour that hit us once we were about a km or two in, really made the hike uncomfortable. After about two hours, we arrived at the visitor center, and we went our separate ways- I went off to camp, they chose to stay in the "rustic cabin" near the visitor center, which I'm guessing was not that bugless than outdoors...

Conveniently, there were thatch-roofed camping sites available, which I was able to string my Hennessy Hammock up to without the rain fly (which usually traps heat inside the hammock, making sleeping uncomfortable), cold-water showers, and there was a kitchen back near the visitor center with a gas stove. I lucked out, as there was not a single person camping out there besides me, which I'm sure contributed to my seeing a tapir foraging next to my hammock one evening, a family of collared peccaries, and a small-ish type of deer (not white-tailed deer).

Every day I'd go out hiking the several trails running throughout the preserve, visiting some spectacular waterfalls, bluffs, and lookouts along the way. During the day I saw a number of herps, including a Drymobius margaritiferus (too fast for my camera), some Oxybelis aeneus, an unidentified snake species (didn't get a good look at it), several Anolis/Norops species (can somebody please help with identifying these species?)

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gravid female Basiliscus vittatus

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lots of Middle American ameiva (Ameiva festiva)

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Ground skink (Sphenomorphus cherriei)

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Schwartze's skink (Eumeces schwartzei)

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Gulf Coast toads (Bufo valiceps)

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This small Boa constrictor was found inside one of the bunkhouses which was being rented by some training group, which I released after taking some photos. I was surprised at how colorful this specimen was- I was expecting Belizean boas to be rather drab and dark like other Central American locales. The red tail markings extended surprisingly far up on the back. It was also very mild mannered, never attempting to bite while being handled.

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At night, I would usually go out walking about 5 km down the access road and back, looking for whatever might be crossing the road or hanging out in the adjacent vegetation. The only snakes I encountered road cruising at night at Cockscomb was a redback coffee snake (Ninia sebae), which I also saw several individuals of in the the vegetation lining the grassy lawn area around the visitor center,

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and a half-dead (run-over) black lined snake (Coniophanes imperialis).

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I saw several frog species out on the road, as there were usually multiple rain storms during the day where roadside ditches filled with water, as well as several permanent ponds adjacent to the access road.

Mexican treefrog (Smilisca baudinii)

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White-lipped frog (Leptodactylus labialis)

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One night, the rains were especially hard, and the wind was blowing very strong, where I had to hang up my hammock's rainfly vertically to prevent horizontal rain from soaking me in my hammock underneath the thatched roof. This storm seemingly also pissed off several of my neighbors who were living in the outside of the thatched roof, as they all moved inside to escape the rain. Scorpions popped up everywhere, and this monster was perched just a foot or two from my hammock.

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Some type of katydid/locust also sought refuge under the roof, and was calling all-night long. Its call was deafening, being only two or three meters away from where I was trying to sleep. Despite climbing out of my hammock several times that night to search for it and shoo it away, I never did find it, and had to habituate to its deafening buzzing noise...

After about a week at Cockscomb, I ran out of rice and beans (not to mention grew weary of them), and sought (real) food back in Dangringa, where I stayed one night before moving on to Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. I had read in my Roughguide to Belize (2000) that CBJL had camp sites available, so I decided to head there for a couple of nights. Much to my dismay, they had apparently done away with camping at the lodge, and have become a rather luxurious lodge/resort since my book was apparently published. Luckily though, they offered beds in their bunkhouse for $15/night (only one night was available), so I took that.

I felt guilty staying here for $15/night, as the grounds around the lodge was beautiful (though they own 58,000 acres of land)- blooming orchids, brilliant landscaping, well-manicured paths, a beautiful swimming pool, exquisite meals, treehouse cabanas overlooking the Caves Branch river, and much much more. I'm also sure that they weren't too happy with cheapo me, since I did not sign up for any of their adventure excursions, which most of their guests end up booking (and spending big money on). So basically, I got to enjoy all their ammenities- pool, hot showers, flush toilets, etc. for basically nothing.

Just outside the bunkhouse was a pathway which led to a permanent pond which several frog species were calling from. Amplectant Agalychnis callidryas:

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Hourglass treefrog (Hyla ebraccata)

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After staying at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge for a night, I headed west to San Ignacio, where I stayed at a cheap hostel right in the heart of town. I wanted to head out to Barton Creek Outpost, which is nothing more than a house where an expat American family lives and cooks for visitors, offering free camping on the property. Located right on the crystal clear waters of limestone cliff-lined Barton Creek, it is not a convenient place to get to, especially during the slow tourist season. I tried asking several taxi drivers and tour operators in San Ignacio if they could take me there, but most taxis won't drive out there because the roads are too bad for their cars, and few tour groups travel out towards Barton Creek each week during this season. Finally, I found an adventurous taxi driver who was up for the challenge. I first thought the agreed upon fare was a bit steep, but after seeing the distance (ca. 16 km), condition of the roads, and steepness of some of the hills, I ended up tipping the driver extra!

Each night I would cruise a 1 km stretch of dirt road running past the outpost, and walk around the outpost's property. This area ended up being rather productive. I came across several frogs- Rio Grande leopard frogs (Rana berlandieri), Mexican treefrogs (S. baudinii), Gulf Coast toads (B. valliceps),

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cane toads (R. marina)

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and sheep frogs (Hypopachus variolosus). This one had a tumor on/in its eye

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I also saw several snakes. The first night, I came across three neonatal boas which must have just been born recently, as they were all found within a 20 sq. m area along the road; the next night I found another individual 40 m further down the road (all with very similar tail markings).

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I also briefly saw possible courtship between a (sexual ?) pair of redback coffee snakes (N. sebae) alongside the road, where one individual kept following/pursuing the other until they both disappeared beneath some leaf litter.

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As with just about everywhere I herped at night in Belize, there was no shortage of sleeping lizards out on the outermost extremities of roadside vegetation, which I'm assuming were trying to hide from nocturnal lizard-eating snakes like Imantodes (which I regrettably did not see on this trip).

Unidentified juvenile anole

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juvenile brown basilisk

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Upon leaving Barton Creek, since there were no taxis or shuttles out that far, I attempted walking all the way back to the main highway, since I had no other options. About four kilometers into my hike up and over various hills through agricultural and forested areas, two young Mennonites in a horse-pulled wagon passing by offered to give me a lift, which gave me a much-needed rest for several kilometers. Hitchhiking in a horse-drawn wagon with Mennonites in Belize in the year 2010 is something I would have never imagined I'd do. Talk about a lifer...

My final days were spent at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located just a few kilometers west of the Belize Zoo, just off the highway. The habitat immediately surrounding the sanctuary headquarters is savannah, and there are several temporary and one permanent pond nearby which are home to several species of frogs. The sanctuary serves as an education center for teaching students and visiting groups about watershed ecology and various other related topics, an also serves as a field/research station. The research station has a pretty impressive natural history library, with some pickled snake specimens (the only Bothrops I'd see on my trip!) and lots of obscure books and references. I spent a good amount of time in here rummaging through their collection.

One of the mornings I was there, I heard several women screaming from the kitchen area. All of the commotion turned out to be what I suspected- a snake- a beautiful terrestrial snail sucker (Sibon sartorii) which had taken up residence beneath a refrigerator.

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Later that night, just outside of my bunkhouse, I came across this beautiful cat eyed snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis)

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Around some of the nearby ponds, I came across cane toads, Gulf Coast toads, stauffers tree frogs (Scinax staufferi), and Rio Grande leopard frogs (R. berlandieri)

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From the sanctuary headquarters, there is a 4 km road which heads straight back towards the Sibun River and Monkey River National Park. Along this road, the habitat changes drastically from savannah to scrub/thorn forest, to eventually dense forest. Road cruising along this road at night was very productive, especially for frogs.

Red-eyes (A. callidryas), White-lipped frogs (L. labialis)

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Gulf Coast toads (B. valiceps), Stauffer's treefrog (S. staufferi),

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Yellow treefrog (Hyla microcephala)

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More sleeping lizards. Anolis/Norops sp.?

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basilisk being feasted on by mosquitoes

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Also along this road I came across a large Boa constrictor just as it was about to venture out onto the road

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and several black lined snakes (C. imperialis), including a pair seen copulating on the side of the road

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On my way back towards the headquarters, I came across this adult Yucatan banded gecko (Coleonyx elegans) in some leaf litter on the side of the road

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... and then perhaps the highlight of the herpetological component of my trip, found just 5 meters past the adult C. elegans, was this juvenile banded gecko- one of the most beautiful geckos I've ever seen.

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Overall, I think I did rather well on this trip considering I only had my own two eyes out there looking for herps. I was impressed with the frog diversity I came across (especially the small hylids), but was a bit frustrated with the lack of snake diversity. I would have gladly traded some of the boas or Ninia or Coniophanes individuals I saw for a few additional species, but what can you do... This was my third time to Central America, and my third strike when it came to finding a Fer de Lance... I would have also liked to find some Yucatecan casque-headed treefrogs while up in the north, but the lack of rain made that difficult/impossible.

I do wish I had more time to explore Belize; I did not get to the Mountain Pine Ridge as I had hoped, or down to Toledo District in the south, which has the densest of forests and probably the greatest herpetological diversity in the country. If I had more time I would have also liked to venture into Guatemala to do some camping/herping there, and to see Tikal.

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jonathan
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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by jonathan » July 31st, 2010, 10:04 pm

My goodness....if you saw my recent Belizean post and the weather/herp issues I had, you know why I'm insanely jealous of your trip.

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Notread » July 31st, 2010, 11:21 pm

Great post! Belize is a place I have been considering for a long time. I really appreciate the narrative. I absolutely love that snail sucker!

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Hans Breuer (twoton) » August 1st, 2010, 3:07 am

EXCELLENT!!! Great pix, great read!

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by crocdoc » August 1st, 2010, 4:59 am

Nice post, Bob! Looks like you had an incredible trip!

Robert Mendyk
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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Robert Mendyk » August 1st, 2010, 9:23 am

Here's a sampling of some of the bugs of Belize

Bizarre caterpillars

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Vinegaroon

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This was by far the most fascinating insect I came across down in Belize. The degree of its camouflage was absolutely incredible. Some kind of leaf-mimicking katydid.

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Here's a tarantula (Avicularia sp.?) that I uncovered beneath some leaf litter while rooting around with my snakehook at Lamanai. A tour guide from another group thanked me, then picked it up to show his group.

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Large cricket

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Pseudoscorpions were cute, entertaining, and EVERYWHERE!

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This guy surprised the hell out of me when it unexpectedly dropped onto my head while attempting to photograph a Mexican treefrog in some vegetation alongside the road. Although it was probably right there in front of my eyes, I would have never seen it if it didn't fall onto me. Large phasmid:

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Lastly, though certainly not uncommon, this cockroach (or his brother or sister) deserves special recognition. The night I stayed in the bunkhouse at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, I ate a granola bar after getting back from herping, then fell asleep without brushing my teeth. Well, in the middle of the night, I was awoken by a large cockroach which attempted to crawl into my mouth- my guess, to feed on bits of granola stuck in my teeth. Cockroaches were abundant in the cabin, and I felt several scurrying over me as I laid there trying to fall asleep.
-Another "lifer" for me...

Though I have no qualms with cockroaches, having raised them as food for my varanids for years, I do like it when they stay out of your mouth... However, I'd take cockroaches crawling on me over rats any day, as Switak experienced in New Guinea/recalls in his "Adventures in Green Python Territory" book...

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Robert Mendyk » August 1st, 2010, 9:48 am

Jonathan- yes, I certainly lucked out when it came to the weather, especially after reading about your hectic experience- though what an experience that was! The bridge along the Southern Highway that got washed away while you were there is still gone; a temporary bridge was erected a hundred or so meters downriver instead.

Although it rained virtually every day I was there - sometimes a dozen times a day (except while up north in Sarteneja), I was lucky not to have had any major storm systems pass through. Since I was camping out there alone, I made sure to check ahead of time if there were any tropical storms/hurricanes approaching or predicted to hit the area, since the hurricane season was in full swing while I was there...

Surprisingly, with the exception of Shipstern Nature Reserve, the mosquitoes weren't that bad elsewhere in the country, despite the abundance of rain. It was the biting flies, beetles, and true bugs which were more of a nuisance.

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by jonathan » August 1st, 2010, 10:56 am

Robert Mendyk wrote:Jonathan- yes, I certainly lucked out when it came to the weather, especially after reading about your hectic experience- though what an experience that was! The bridge along the Southern Highway that got washed away while you were there is still gone; a temporary bridge was erected a hundred or so meters downriver instead.

Although it rained virtually every day I was there - sometimes a dozen times a day (except while up north in Sarteneja), I was lucky not to have had any major storm systems pass through. Since I was camping out there alone, I made sure to check ahead of time if there were any tropical storms/hurricanes approaching or predicted to hit the area, since the hurricane season was in full swing while I was there...

Surprisingly, with the exception of Shipstern Nature Reserve, the mosquitoes weren't that bad elsewhere in the country, despite the abundance of rain. It was the biting flies, beetles, and true bugs which were more of a nuisance.

Just to be clear, it's not just the weather that I was jealous of. I'm sure there's no way I would have seen nearly as many cool things as you even if I had managed the same weather in the same places. You did awesome there.

Speaking of biting things, I was bit by something on the back of my shoulder in the middle of the night in Cockscomb. The bite caused a sharp pain, and when I swatted it I felt decent mass and a hard exoskeleton. It was maybe 2 cm long or so. Any clue what it was? I never got any swelling or anything after the fact.

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Robert Mendyk » August 3rd, 2010, 1:31 pm

Hmm, I'm not sure what it could have been. I did see quite a few true bugs which were of decent size and looked like they could deliver a bite.

While down there, I was bitten and stung by at least 4 orders of insects. The worst of them all was probably the biting flies (several different types), as they were the most annoying (constant buzzing around your head/face) and left the most painful/noticeable marks (sometimes apparently flying off with a piece of my skin!). For several bites, I could not identify what caused them, including a trail of bite marks up my side into in my armpit which I only noticed a day or two after I returned home.

Strange that you felt a painful sensation yet there was no mark left behind. I'm at a loss on what the culprit could be.

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Carl Koch » August 3rd, 2010, 1:59 pm

Fantastic! A fascinating read and great pictures...I particularly like the pair of red-eyes and the calling hourglass, as well as the inverts. Those psuedoscorpions are INCREDIBLY tiny! And that last gecko -- STUNNING!

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by chrish » August 3rd, 2010, 2:31 pm

Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

That first DOR Coniophanes imperialis is interesting. I didn't know they came that red? Are you sure that's Coniophanes?

Your small deer was probably a Red Brocket Deer (Mazama americana). They are skulking little rainforest deer.

Here's a photo of one from the Merida Zoo -
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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by jonathan » August 3rd, 2010, 2:47 pm

Robert Mendyk wrote:Hmm, I'm not sure what it could have been. I did see quite a few true bugs which were of decent size and looked like they could deliver a bite.

While down there, I was bitten and stung by at least 4 orders of insects. The worst of them all was probably the biting flies (several different types), as they were the most annoying (constant buzzing around your head/face) and left the most painful/noticeable marks (sometimes apparently flying off with a piece of my skin!). For several bites, I could not identify what caused them, including a trail of bite marks up my side into in my armpit which I only noticed a day or two after I returned home.

Strange that you felt a painful sensation yet there was no mark left behind. I'm at a loss on what the culprit could be.
There was a small mark/wound there, just no swelling.

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by TravisK » August 3rd, 2010, 3:36 pm

tailless whip scorpion (amblypigid of some kind) not vinegaroon

and

the Tarantula looks Brachypelma but better pics needed. It is most certainly not Avicularia.


Nice pics, I am truly jealous :cry:

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Cole Grover » August 4th, 2010, 9:54 am

Fantastic post!

Your scorpion is a Centruroides gracilis. I second Travis on the"vinegaroon" being an Amblypygid and the tarantula being a Brachypelma. Maybe B. sabulosum?

-Cole

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by Robert Mendyk » August 4th, 2010, 10:47 am

Thanks for the species ID's and corrections Cole and Travis- I admittedly know very little about inverts at the moment and appreciate the education!

Chris, that's the deer I saw, thank you for identifying it for me. As for the DOR Coniophanes, I could very well be wrong, though using Lee (2000), that's the only snake which it resembled. Coniophanes imperialis, along with B. constrictor and Ninia sebae, ended up being one of the most common snakes seen on my trip, probably around 6 or 7 individuals, which also made me lean towards C. imperialis for that DOR specimen.

Is there any other species it could be? I wanted to get a hold of Stafford's (1999) book which deals solely with Belizean herps, but couldn't sequester a copy before my trip.

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by moloch » August 4th, 2010, 11:47 am

Great report, Robert. You found lots of interesting animals.
C. elegans, was this juvenile banded gecko- one of the most beautiful geckos I've ever seen.
What a beauty! It really is a beautifully marked gecko.

I would have been concerned about the identity of that Sibon sartorii. The headshape in the second photo looked much like that of a Coral to me.


Regards,
David

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by TravisK » August 4th, 2010, 12:08 pm

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Cupiennius salei - 'wandering spider'

Not to be confused with the very deadly Phoneutria nigriventer - 'Brazilian Wandering Spider'. The two look fairly similar. The Venom of P. nigriventer can leave a guy dead with a full on 'Salute'.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoneutria_nigriventer

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Re: A month in Belize (long narrative, lots of photos...)

Post by chrish » August 5th, 2010, 11:27 am

As for the DOR Coniophanes, I could very well be wrong, though using Lee (2000), that's the only snake which it resembled. Coniophanes imperialis, along with B. constrictor and Ninia sebae, ended up being one of the most common snakes seen on my trip, probably around 6 or 7 individuals, which also made me lean towards C. imperialis for that DOR specimen.

Is there any other species it could be?
I could be wrong. I wish I could see the head end better. I just haven't ever seen an imperialis with that much red dorsally.

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When I look at that pattern on the posterior, I think possibly Stenorrhina (which can be striped).

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