Beautiful and Bird-Filled Belize

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.

By Mel White
Published: November-December 2013

The sanctuary was designated the world’s first jaguar preserve in 1986, after research by biologist Alan Rabinowitz showed that the area had one of the highest known concentrations of jaguars. Cockscomb is famous for the big cats, even among casual tourists, who arrive midday in their shorts and flip-flops and hop out of their rental cars expecting to spot one in the first 10 minutes. The odds of seeing a jaguar are slim, of course, even at the productive times of dawn and dusk, but they’re better here than they are at any comparably accessible place in Central America. 

“We have 60 to 80 jaguars in the sanctuary,” says director Nicasio Coc as he shows me his new visitor center, a light-filled, pale-yellow building where workers are busy assembling educational displays. “There’s some tension because jaguars sometimes wander onto nearby ranches and kill cattle. We work with seven neigh- boring communities, and we’re hiring a new staff person who will be doing a lot more public education to enhance awareness of the environment.” The goal of Coc, who was born nearby and whose family has been involved with Crooked Tree since its founding, is to reduce the poaching of game birds and mammals in the sanctuary, as well as encroachment by illegal loggers, both of which are major challenges.

With 55 miles of trails and 128,000 acres of forest, Cockscomb is a mecca for nature lovers. Wayne Hall has seen a jaguar here, as well as two other species of cats and the odd, piglike mammal called the Baird’s tapir.

As for the birds, “The diversity is incredible,” he says. “And you can observe them here as easily as you ever can.” The range of habitats around the visitor center—combining grassy open areas, scrub, wetlands, riparian vegetation, and forest—means that birders sometimes set out on a morning hike and discover, two or three hours later, that they’ve traveled no more than a quarter-mile, so birdy has their time been. In the afternoon heat, Cockscomb’s lovely creeks are great for tubing or swimming.

My trip ends much too quickly, but I’m content that on my fourth visit to Belize I’ve finally gotten around to sampling Cockscomb Basin. Next time, I vow, I’m heading straight here from the airport.

On the bumpy ride away from the sanctuary I’m remembering one brief sighting, beside a tiny creek in the deep woods. It began as just a rustling in the leaves, and then turned into a vague dark shape before becoming a uniform crake: a ruddy-brown rail, hardly bigger than a sparrow, that frequents forests rather than marshes. This rare and rarely seen bird was nothing I’d ever anticipated as I’d planned my trip, unlike the jabiru or the orange-breasted falcon. And yet its very unlikeliness symbolizes the appeal of these tropical lands: the seemingly endless possibilities that draw many of us back again and again.

Making the Trip

Getting there: Visitors need a passport valid for at least three months after the arrival date, a return ticket, and sufficient funds to cover their stay. Delta, United, American, and US Airways fly nonstop to Belize City from six U.S. cities. The Belize Tourism Board (800-624-0686) is a helpful source of information. Birders often visit during the dry season, approximately December through April, though it varies.

Getting around: English is the country’s official language. The Belize dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of $1 Belize = 50 U.S. cents. Renting a car is practical for many destinations. Some ecolodges can arrange for quick and relatively inexpensive charter flights. Audubon chose four destinations to represent a variety of habitats, from wetlands to tropical wet forest to the upland Mountain Pine Ridge. A birder on a first-time visit to Belize could spend several days at any of these sites with no danger of boredom.

Crooked Tree: Belize Audubon's efforts here and at Cockscomb Basin are part of a program developed by the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the Multinational Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, to improve community-based bird tourism and conservation in four countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Inns such as Crooked Tree Lodge and Birdseye View Lodge can arrange guided tours.

Chan Chich: This lodge can be reached via a four-hour drive from Belize City or a half-hour charter flight.

Hidden Valley Inn: Accessible by a three-hour drive from Belize City or a half-hour charter flight from Belize City.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary: Cockscomb Basin is about a three-hour drive from Belize City. Accommodations are rustic, and you must bring your own food, though meals are available in nearby Maya Center; a wide variety of lodging is available in the nearby resort towns of Hopkins and Placencia. Cockscomb receives more rain than areas to the north; the dry season is February to May.

This story originally ran in the November-December 2013 issue as "Heaven on Earth."

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Mel White

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

As a biology professor at the

As a biology professor at the University of Arkansas--Fort Smith, I have led yearly natural history expeditions to Belize for my students for the past 5 years. Belize is truly a naturalist's paradise. Nowhere else can you cover birding, Mayan ruins, snorkeling and diving, and a variety of field biology activities in just one week! My students enjoy a free day in the middle of the itinerary to do cave tubing or zip lining. Belize is politically stable, English-speaking, and fairly prosperous, making it one of the safest places to visit. We use the services of the friendly and highly knowledgeable Tut family at the Crystal Paradise Resort near San Ignacio for all local arrangements.

Certainly not fake! Stick

Certainly not fake! Stick your index finger blindfolded on a blank map of Belize and wherever your finger lands I guarantee is great birding. In much maligned Belize City, last Sunday during a Belize Audubon Birding walk in Belize City we listed seventy-seven different species in approximately three hours. And that we did moving slowly along the waterfront. The rural areas mentioned are certainly great birding places but do not miss out on the great urban birding available! Great article!

Certainly not fake! Stick

Certainly not fake! Stick your index finger blindfolded on a blank map of Belize and wherever your finger lands I guarantee is great birding. In much maligned Belize City, last Sunday during a Belize Audubon Birding walk in Belize City we listed seventy-seven different species in approximately three hours. And that we did moving slowly along the waterfront. The rural areas mentioned are certainly great birding places but do not miss out on the great urban birding available! Great article!

Great article! And certainly

Great article! And certainly NOT fake! I met Mel in Cockscomb and it is as he describes here. The low water at Crooked Tree was in March. I was there in mid-March, not the same days as Mel, and it was the lowest water I had ever seen before. The concentration of birds was just as he describes. The water is very high right now (October/November) because it is the rainy season and one of the wettest in a long time. I was also at Chan Chich and La Milpa early in March and Hidden Valley Inn in late March. All are exactly as he describes. We may have even seen the same Orange-Breasted Falcon on the same branch.... Belize is a great destination for birding. I will be visiting Belize again in March, 2014 - for the 23rd time.

This is a very obvious FAKE

This is a very obvious FAKE article. Under normal weather patterns this would be correct but the coast guard is still ferrying residents because the lagoon is so over full this year due to the excessive rains.
The bird life is great but how can you trust a publication that doesn't relay the true current facts?

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