Monday, July 5, 2010

This week: Ambergris Caye, Belize

They were everywhere. You couldn’t always see them, but their sounds filled the air and their movements shook the trees. They were elusive, but their calls woke us up in the morning and while we tried to find them, they were already looking at us. No need to fear, it was just the birds of Ambergris Caye, Belize.

When it came to bird watching on Ambergris Caye, the de facto authority was Elbert Greer, Tennessee expat and 20-plus-year Ambergris resident. He came by this title not because of education or degree, but because he spent his free time looking and listening. He became so good at bird watching, he wrote a “Bird of the Week” column for the San Pedro Sun from 1991-2003. However, Greer didn’t become this noted bird authority by himself. He had the help of his faithful black Labrador, Bubba. In 2001, he and Bubba put these columns together into a book called, Birdwatching with Bubba (Xlibris) with Bubba taking most of the credit. Greer recently updated the book, now called Birdwatching with Bubba, 2.5, complete with color photos and note pages in the back to keep track of your own bird finds.

When Greer moved to Ambergris Caye back in 1986, he planned to live the good life in the tropics, far away from civilization. He cleared his own land, built his own house and business, and became a master SCUBA instructor. In those early years, Greer did without electricity, phones, and cable TV. For entertainment, he and Bubba simply sat outside, but he noticed they had company, lots of company. Greer saw Spotted Sandpipers on the beach that Bubba liked to chase, the nocturnal Nightjars that ate mosquitoes making life on the island more pleasant and the yellow-breasted Kiskadees that adeptly pilfered Bubba’s kibbles right from his bowl.

Greer could be found at the Journey’s End Resort where he had his dive shop, White Sands, about four miles north of the island’s only town, San Pedro. He recently moved the shop from another location, which made work even more hectic. Although diving was his passion, work was still work after all, which led to his other pursuits. Why bird watching?

“I didn’t have to get wet to do it and all my idle time was spent in the bar,” Greer said chuckling.

During that former “idle time,” Greer and Bubba would head into town to play a game of “Barstool Birdwatching” with the local bartenders. On more than one occasion, as he bragged in his book, Bubba came out ahead. Acknowledging his finds with a simple “woof,” Bubba spotted osprey, seagulls, and the island’s own Cinnamon Hummingbirds.

Although Greer gave up this game, he welcomed teaching us as we sat at the Smiling Toucan Bar and Grill at Journey’s End Resort. The rules were simple: First, find an outdoor bar in the Caribbean, next make friends with the bartender and imbibe with a local cocktail, then watch carefully. Each species of bird counts as one sighting and keep a tally. Whoever has the most sightings at the end of the afternoon wins. What? Don’t have time to find a bar in the Caribbean? No problem. Just substitute your own backyard patio, front steps or the neighborhood park. Substitute some friends for the bartender and the cocktails are optional. You will be a barstool birder in no time.

When Bubba was a pup, Greer told him he was a bird dog, but Bubba completely misunderstood and began a life-long mission to study birds. Through this study, he developed a style of bird watching he called “Bubba Style,” which Greer explained in his book. It’s a relaxed, live-in-the-moment type of bird watching rather than the find-the-bird-now-cross-it-off-the-list-move-on-to-the-next that most bird watchers use. Bubba wrote you should take time and be patient with the surroundings hoping for a “Wow, did you see that?” moment.

Bubba, the original, passed away in 1998 after a deadly encounter with a Tommygoff, a poisonous Belizean snake. Although he lived on in Greer’s book, there have been three Bubbas since, all of them black labs. Bubba #4 was tall and lean with a friendly disposition. With a shout of “Run like the wind,” Greer let Bubba loose and he ran through the shallow waters of Ambergris Caye. Slowly he trotted back, original Bubba Style.

After spending the afternoon with Greer and Bubba, we applied these newly learned bird watching techniques on our walk back to town. We saw hummingbirds feasting from a feeder on the deck of a private home. We had a three-for-one spotting of a Brown Pelican, a Laughing Gull, and a Great Blue Heron all resting of the posts of an abandoned dock. Then right before reaching our resort we spied a Great American Egret walking slowly in the water. That was quite a list for one afternoon. Bubba Style certainly worked.

To learn more about Belizean birds, Greer offers two birding tours. “The Early Morning Bird Tour” is to Cayo Pajaros and Cayo Rosario. It starts at 5:30 a.m., hence the name, and offers a three-hour trip complete with coffee and rolls in the boat. Cost is $60 US per person with a four person minimum. He also offers a mainland tour called “Lamanai for the Birds” which leaves San Pedro at 7:30 a.m. and is a full-day trip including lunch and a walking tour of Mayan ruins. Cost is $125 US per person. These tours can be arranged by contacting Elbert Greer by email at or by phone 501-226-2405. You can find out more about Birdwatching with Bubba 2.5 at or White Sands Dive Shop.