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.
"The only place you can get the jabiru closer than this is in the zoo.”
Guide Leonard Gillett shuts off our boat’s motor and slowly poles us into a stalking, squawking flock of wading birds, where the massive stork, standing nearly five feet high, towers over great egrets and wood storks like a basketball center trying out for the soccer team. We are very close, indeed: I can practically count the wispy white feathers that crown the jabiru’s otherwise naked black head.
Despite this morning’s off-and-on drizzle, the dry season is well under way in Belize, a compact Central American country slightly smaller than New Hampshire. The lagoon at the heart of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary has been steadily shrinking for weeks, concentrating hundreds of waders—egrets, herons, storks, white ibises, roseate spoonbills, and more—into smaller and smaller feeding areas.
“This is when the most birds gather,” sanctuary director Derick Hendy says, scanning the flock from the seat in front of me. “Other times people come here and ask, ‘Where are the birds?’ But when the water is high you won’t see the big congre- gations.” The activity all around us on the lagoon is spectacular, almost dizzying, as I constantly turn to try to take it all in. A roiling flock of neotropic cormorants dive for fish underwa- ter, chasing them into the beaks of waiting waders. Mangrove swallows swarm the sky, limpkins and gray-necked woodrails patrol the shore, and a great black hawk observes the commotion from the tree line.
But it’s the giant jabiru, with a huge bill and a crimson neck ring, that’s provided my morning thrill. On three pre- vious trips to Belize I’d missed it, and as I look around I see at least a dozen fairly near, with many more in the distance. Earlier I watched one swallow an orange-sized apple snail, the same food sought by the snail kites that constantly pass overhead in floppy-winged flight.
Covering more than 32,000 acres, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary lies in a flat pine-savannah landscape less than an hour’s drive north of Belize City’s international airport. It’s the first stop on my tour of the country, and it ought to be on every visiting birder’s itinerary. Dry season (here, approximately January through May) brings flocks of waders and is the most popular time to visit, but the wetter remainder of the year has its own attractions. When the water level is higher, boats can travel farther into adjoining swamps in search of such species as the shy, lacy-plumed agami heron and the endangered Morelet’s crocodile, found only in Mexico and Central America.
Established in 1984, the sanctuary is managed by the Belize Audubon Society, which also works in the adjacent village of Crooked Tree to promote conservation. Such traditional prac- tices as tree cutting and fishing are now restricted in the protected area, which has created ill will among some residents. “That makes it a management challenge,” Hendy says. “Some people are living just for today, and not thinking about tomor- row.” Hendy has organized a local bird club for young people, and holds monthly bird walks as part of his efforts to foster an environmental ethic. “Bit by bit I think people will see the long-term benefits of conservation,” he says.
Several bird-friendly lodges and bed-and-breakfast inns operate in the village of 900 people, founded in the 1700s as a logging camp. To nonbirders, Crooked Tree’s claim to fame is its status as the cashew capital of Belize. Nut trees grow in almost everyone’s yard, and early May brings a popular cashew festival. In honor of the local specialty, I bought a bottle of cashew wine one night and took it back to my lodge for din- ner. Dear Reader, take my advice: If you ever have a chance to sample this drink . . . put down the glass and order a shot of Belizean-made 1 Barrel rum instead. You’ll thank me later.
As she taxis our single-engine plane before takeoff from the Belize City municipal air- port, pilot Alisa Gassner provides a preview of the trip to Chan Chich Lodge, in the northwest part of the country. “The flight is 48 nautical miles, and it’ll take 35 minutes,” she shouts over the engine noise. “We’ll cross the Belize River several times and pass a few small towns. The last 18 nautical miles are over forest.” And that, simply put, is one major reason why for a quarter century Chan Chich Lodge has ranked among the best, and best known, birding destinations in Central America. Eighteen nautical miles (21 statute miles) of forest creates a substantial buffer zone to its east, and when you look in other directions you see that
Chan Chich sits in the middle of a quarter-million acres of tropical forest. Some of that land is protected by law and some of it is private property, but all of it is home to a range of wildlife from jaguars and monkeys to parrots and toucans to the little brown birds (leaftossers, foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers, and more) whose propensity to skulk in the underbrush makes them both the bane and delight of tropical birding. Chan Chich occupies the site of an ancient Maya settlement, with temples, draped in vegetation, rising beside the lodge and cabins. The ruins had been thoroughly looted before the lodge was developed; the constant presence of staff and guests has helped to protect what’s left from further damage. I’ve been to Chan Chich before, so I’m prepared for the beautiful grounds, the flowers, the buzzing hummingbird feeders, the screeching parrots, and the welcoming committee of ocellated turkeys, so colorful they seem like cartoon creations. I’m not prepared for how much the place has been upgraded, with luxe-grade cabins and a swank swimming pool.
What I love about the lodge is the ubiquity of nature. Walk out of your cabin and you can choose from more than nine miles of trails through lush subtropical broadleaf forest, the soundtrack of your walk a medley of roaring howler monkeys, ratcheting keel-billed toucans, hooting motmots, cooing pigeons, and chittering honeycreepers.
In March, neotropical migrants are passing on their northward spring journey, so amid the kaleidoscopically colorful parrots, euphonias, and ant-tanagers I spot hooded warblers, American redstarts, and orchard orioles, with their yellows, reds, and oranges more than a match for their tropical relatives. I’m intrigued seeing a familiar backyard bird like a white-eyed vireo consorting with an olive-backed euphonia, or a black- and-white warbler alongside a long-billed gnatwren.
This juxtaposition of North and Central American avifauna seems a little odd at first, then delightful, and finally instructive. “Our” birds need habitat year-round, not just when nesting. Belize is in many ways a model of conservation, yet it’s losing about two percent of its forest cover annually to expanding agriculture and the growth of towns and cities. Habitat degradation throughout Central and South America is already having an impact on North American migrants, and the trend is worsening, which makes a sustainable travel industry such an important alternative. Every year roughly a million tourists visit Belize, according to the tourism board, providing significant revenue.
One morning I’m scheduled to visit a nearby wetland called Laguna Seca with guide Luís Romero, a local native with 20 years’ experience at Chan Chich. Early drizzle turns to real rain, so Luís takes us to Trish’s Hill, where a thatched-roof shelter sits on the edge of a bluff overlooking Chan Chich Creek, at eye level with the forest canopy. Disappointment about the canceled trip quickly turns to joy, as a crow-sized, deep-green mealy parrot perches next to a pale-billed woodpecker, mostly black with its entire head bright crimson. Moments later they’re joined in the same tree by a small flock of white-crowned parrots. A double- toothed kite lands nearby for a full-frame scope view, so close we can see its yellowish-amber eyes. Best of all, a troop of Guatemalan black howler monkeys feed on a fruiting tree directly in front of us, their youngster dividing its time between clambering along limbs and riding on its mother’s back.
The morning’s serendipity has just begun, though. After an hour of birding on the bluff the rain stops, and we climb back into Luís’s vehicle for the drive to Laguna Seca. We haven’t traveled 300 yards when we round a curve and there, in the road, stands a female great curassow, a long-tailed, long-legged, chestnut-colored turkey-sized bird with a weirdly elaborate, Marie Antoinette- ish crest. Curassows have been hunted to extirpation over most of their former range, and I’ve never crossed paths with one before. Perhaps I’m a little exuberant, judging from the way Luís flinches. The female curassow wanders into the forest, we round another curve, and there’s the male, glossy black with a big, bright-yellow knob atop its bill. If I was happy before, I’m ecstatic now.
Another charter flight, this one only 20 minutes, takes me southward to a land- scape far different from the Chan Chich forest. The Mountain Pine Ridge area of western Belize might, at first glance, be somewhere in the southeastern United States: rolling hills, open pine forest, palmettos, dirt as red as Georgia clay. That impression ends when red-lored parrots shriek overhead and a laughing falcon eyes me from a roadside tree.
I’m staying at Hidden Valley Inn, a lodge at least equal to Chan Chich in comfort, fine food, and the temptation of its swimming pool. At check-in I’m offered a welcome hand mas- sage; flower petals are artfully scattered across my bed. At an elevation of 2,000 feet, Hidden Valley is noticeably cooler and less humid than the 300-foot-elevation broadleaf forest I just left.
The inn’s lawn is alive with birds both colorful (green jays, yellow-tailed orioles, and acorn woodpeckers) and drab (plain chachalacas and clay-colored thrushes). In nearby scrub, nest- ing rusty sparrows and yellow-faced grassquits feed with blue grosbeaks preparing to depart for North America.
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.
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."