Beautiful and Bird-Filled Belize
A trip to this Central American country reveals otherworldly vistas and even the remote chance of seeing a jaguar. What's guaranteed, however, is spectacular birdlife.
But there’s one species that’s made Hidden Valley a magnet for birders. The property’s nearly 7,200 acres encompass steep escarpments at the edge of the Maya Mountains, limestone cliffs hundreds of feet high that are home to one of Belize’s rarest birds: the orange-breasted falcon. Fewer than 30 pairs nest in Central America, according to The Peregrine Fund, which has been keeping tabs on the falcons for some 20 years; the species also breeds in South America, where its status is poorly known.
Arriving at midday, I meet guide Fredy Pineda, a jocular fellow from the nearby village of Ontario whose intimate knowledge of the local birds comes from 14 years of experience at the lodge. We agree to reconvene right after lunch for falcon hunting.
We drive first to King Vulture Falls, a 900-foot-high waterfall crashing down a wooded slope across a deep canyon from our lookout post. The eponymous king vultures are here, eight altogether—their white-and-black plumage equally striking whether they’re perched on rocks at the top of the waterfall or soaring over the chasm, seeming as big as sailplanes.
Then it’s on to Thousand-Foot Falls, whose name understates its actual height by 600 feet. Orange-breasted falcons have attempted to breed on the cliffs here for years, largely to no avail. Peregrine Fund experts say there may be multiple forces at work, among them harmful parasites, the nests’ proximity to the waterfall, and the bird trade market. This year proves to be the excep- tion, and two female fledglings have managed to survive. Still, the population remains in steep decline, and a captive-breeding program is under way. We hear a falcon giving its rapid, repeated scream from somewhere far below but don’t see it, and we return to the inn as the afternoon light fades.
My guide the next day is Walter Galicia, Fredy’s young cousin. Despite his self-professed status as a trainee, he already shares much of his relative’s expertise. I suggest that Walter drop me off at Thousand-Foot Falls, where I’m prepared to sit all day if necessary. I have water and snacks, and a fair amount of patience. That’s fine, he says. But why don’t we at least stop at King Vulture Falls for a quick look-see on the way?
We drive down the hill from the inn and across Tiger Creek and up a hill and down to the overlook, and then park. While I’m still fooling around with my backpack and binoculars, Walter is al- ready out of the truck. He casually says, “You are lucky. He is right here.”
I think, This is no time for joking, Walter.
I walk to the cliff edge and look down. Less than 100 yards away, the falcon perches on a palmetto, a splash of orange and gray against the distant green slope.
I’m not going to say that the next half-hour comprises my biggest thrill in four decades of birding in nearly 40 countries. Once, at Chan Chich back in 1994, an ornate hawk-eagle landed near me at eye level in perfect dawn light and preened for a good five minutes; it’s hard to imagine anything topping that. All I can say is that seeing this orange-breast- ed falcon so near, in this setting, ranks in my top few birding experiences.
When people ask me, ‘I’m coming to Belize, where should I go?’ my recommendation is Cockscomb. If you can’t go anywhere else, go to Cockscomb. You have a better chance here to see the wildlife that people ex- pect to see in Belize than anywhere else.”
The buzzing of cicadas nearly overwhelms Wayne Hall’s voice as we enjoy a post-dinner drink in the campground of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a 128,000-acre forest reserve in the lowlands of east-central Belize. The New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society was instrumental in the initial protection of this important preserve, now co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society and the Belize government. Hall and I met on the trail earlier and shared information: He showed me my first rufous-breasted spinetail (a brownish, wren-sized bird that’s noisy but hard to spot in the underbrush), and I’d told him about a lek of white-collared manakins, where males and females of this tiny species gather to “dance” (actually, flit crazily from tree to tree) and choose partners.
An Alaska resident, avid naturalist, and videographer as well as a still photog- rapher, Hall is on his 22nd visit to Belize (believe it or not). Cockscomb Basin is the only place he’s returned to on every trip. It’s my first time exploring the sanctuary, but I already understand his enthusiasm. A day and a half of walking its trails has brought sightings of crested guans (related to the curassows I saw at Chan Chich); trogons and motmots in shades of green, red, yellow, and blue; a small colony of boat-billed herons; and the often-elusive yellow-billed cacique.
In addition, I’ve spotted several neotropical forest skulkers whose odd names are more intriguing than their drab appearance: the stub-tailed spadebill, northern bentbill, buff-throated foliage-gleaner, scaly-throated leaftosser, plain xenops, and thrush-like schiffornis. These guys may not be gorgeous, but they bring their own kind of reward. Toucans just sit there and invite you to admire them; you have to work to see a schiffornis as it hides in the often-inaccessible underbrush.
Accommodations at Cockscomb are basic—camping, or cabins with cold showers and a shared kitchen—yet the surroundings more than make up for a bit of roughing it.