Belize has come up several times when talking with people about birding abroad. I heard it was clean, the locals were friendly, the countryside was pristine and the birds were everywhere. My trip to Belize proved that I could not find one argument to the contrary. It is all of those things and more. The three “Bullseye” birds I had always wanted to see in the wild were the King Vulture, Limpkin, and Golden-hooded Tanager. I recalled The King Vulture from the perspective of a young, impressionable 9 year old zoologist when on a family visit to the San Diego Zoo. Seeing this somewhat ugly yet captivating raptor always intrigued me and I wanted to see it in the wild. The Limpkin intrigued me when I dipped on it in Florida and I started looking into the strange half crane, half rail. The Tanager, well…he was just the cherry on top. Who wouldn’t want to see this beauty up close?
The people of Belize are friendly and have two official languages, English and Creole. I lived in California for years and became somewhat fluent in Spanglish and was fully expecting to use my floundering second language there. When I plied my poor linguistics on a very stout Mayan lady traveling along the road asking where Cockscomb Basin was, she replied in perfect English that “it is just up the way, 4 kilometres or so, on the right.” I was stunned as I had always assumed that Spanish was the language of every country from Mexico south, but there was hardly a soul that spoke that language here. I was welcomed with a smile during my entire trip and felt quite safe almost everywhere I went although some folks said you had to keep an eye in the capital, as you do in many larger cities.
Belize is one of the most pristine, untouched environments I have been in. There are obvious signs of farming and logging, but they are relatively few in relation to the neighbouring countries of Guatemala and Mexico. Belize boasts an environmental marvel named the Central Belize Corridor which extends north/south between Belize City and Belmopan. This corridor was set up in 2010 to allow the bigger terrestrial animals, like the Jaguar, to be able to travel to and from protected areas in the west and east. Like any other conservation strategy, if you protect the top predator’s range, you protect all the animals in that food web. Well done Belize! As I mentioned, the forested areas are abundant ranging from broadleaf forests and pine forests to mangroves. There are also many natural and cultivated grassland areas while the coast has coral reefs and shallow shores that are fantastic for scuba diving and snorkelling.
I can only refer to the places I stayed, but when I was planning my trip I had a massive number of places from which to choose. They ranged from the very posh to the very pastoral. I found several all-inclusive resorts but they were mostly on the beach and I was looking for something a little earthier. There were a vast array of eco-tourism locations, some with all the comforts of home and some with little more than a tent. I chose a little of both for my stays but the common theme was that they were all tucked into the forest so I could be close to the action. I rented a 4x4 from a local business; Buy-Belize in Belize City and I was off to the races.
Named for the country's national flower, I chose this location for several reasons; the first being that having arrived at night, although it was out of Belize City in Burrel Boom, it was close enough to the airport that I didn’t have to find my way in the dark. Secondly, it came with several very good recommendations regarding the rooms and the restaurant. Last but certainly not least was the location and the birds that were listed in the area on eBird. There were several hotspots listed in the area and it looked like there were several roads I could venture out on. That night I was out until dusk and on my return found Common Pauraques on the driveway into the resort. The following morning a walk around the premises and up the road quickly showed me thirty birds for my list including a Limpkin (a Bull’s-eye bird), Mangrove Swallows, a Hooded Warbler and a small flock of Olive-throated Parakeets. Just past the village of Burrel Boom is the Community Baboon (Howler Monkey) Sanctuary; a great place to visit as well and plenty of birding.
On the next leg of the tour I drove to Crystal Paradise Resort in San Ignacio on the western border with Guatemala. The lodge is run by a wonderful family with patriarch Papa Tut at the helm. The grounds are fantastically rustic and the birds are plentiful. In the morning a papaya is set out in halves for the birds to come and devour while you enjoy your morning coffee. The Collared Aracari are certainly the main attraction with several others including the Clay-colored Thrush arriving to get their share. Crystal Paradise is where I decided to hire a guide for a couple of days to take me out and really explore the Cayo District. Eric, one of the Tut brothers, was a fantastic and knowledgeable guide. Among the trips he took me on were Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, El Pillar, Spanish Lookout, and several places in between. The highlights of the trip were, the King Vulture (Bull’s-eye) rising up on the thermals in the morning, the Rufous-tailed Jacamar, the birds feeding in front of the army ant march and the Howler Monkeys on the top of the Mayan pyramid in the early morning. Eric put me in front of no less than 136 species that I could actually identify with at least a couple dozen he had identified by ear that I couldn’t get my binoculars on and didn't make the list. Of those 136 species, 78 were lifers. All in all, a very successful two days! See TheBirdBlogger Review Here
Blue Hole National Park, Mayflower Bocawina National Park and Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve were all parks that I visited when travelling south in Belize.
- The Blue Hole had a great walk to St. Herman's Cave where there was a White-whiskered Puffbird and a Gartered Trogon in the forested areas along the path. There was a small fee and knowledgeable folks helping out at the entrance to the park.
- Mayflower showed me a Crane Hawk and Cinnamon Becard along the roadway into the park. If you spend the night there, you have to experience the fire flies on the lawns. It is truly a spectacular site.
- Cockscomb was probably the most prolific of the three parks with a majority of the birds seen along the dirt road heading into the park. The Cecropia’s were fruiting and almost every type of bird in the area was taking advantage of the long skinny fruit. Among the birds were Passarini’s Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager and Golden-hooded Tanager (my third and most beautiful Bulls-eye). The park was full of birds as well including a Barred Antshrike, a pair of Masked Tityra and Red-throated Ant Tanager. If you see ants, just wait, the birds that use them to hunt will show up.
The Tranquility Lodge
One of my last stops was at the southern end of the country at Tranquility Lodge just outside of Punta Gorda. The grounds were great for birding and are typically used for the local birding tour. The room was clean and comfortable and the price was perfect. Our hosts were transplants from Canada who decided to leave the rat race to make a go of it in Belize. As for the birding, there were several hummingbirds in and around the property including a White-necked Jacobin, a Green-breasted Mango and a Striped-throated Hermit. (Why they don’t call them all Hummingbirds I have yet to figure out!) On a couple of day trips from this base, I headed into Punta Gorda to see what I could find on the coast. It was relatively quiet except for some terns on the shore, but I did get some wonderful shots of a Black vulture and a Spotted sandpiper which both are common State side. The other trip I made was to Blue Creek just north of the lodge. It was a bonanza of birds along the road and into the town. The birds included a Crested Caracara and a White-collared Manakin and my King Vultures riding the thermals.
My trip was a roaring success and I had a smile from ear to ear most of the time. I had seen my three Bulls-eye birds, I met some wonderful people and I toured one of the most pristine countries I had ever seen. My species list looked more like a year list given the number of species I’d seen. I had completed the trip in just 7 days with my final tally hitting 203 species. Thanks to the Tut boys and the folks along the way, I can honestly say, I will be back. I hope you get to see the small eco-friendly country like I did and if you have any doubts, drop me a quick email. I will help to get you on your way to see your own King Vultures.