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Birding in Belize

July 22, 2012

Our first trip to the tropics (south of Florida) was with 17 of Phil’s high school students and 3 other chaperones in 1997. And what an adventure it was. The trip was sponsored by Save the Rain Forest, a conservation organization based in Arizona, who work with rain forest conservation groups in several other countries in the tropics. The purpose is education – rain forest and coral reef ecology, conservation efforts, and sustainable living by the local, and in many cases indigenous, people.

From my stamp collecting days, I knew that Belize was a small country at the south end of the Yucatan Peninsula, that it had formerly been part of the United Kingdom and had been called British Honduras. I knew they spoke English (and also several native languages), were happy to accept US dollars, the only medical prep we would need was malaria pills, and the country was in no particular political turmoil. I also knew the flight from Miami wouldn’t take long, and that we’d be met by our guides, who would take us by the hand and care for us for 11 days, and show us lots of reef and rain forest creatures. What could be better as an introduction to tropical countries south of the US?

We spent the first 4 days snorkeling on an offshore island near the 2nd largest coral reef in the world – the first being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The island of South Water Caye is located in the western Caribbean, 14 miles east of Dandriga, a city on the mainland of Belize. The island is about 3/4 mile long and about 500 feet wide, we managed to explore most of the nooks and crannies available – both above and below water.

There were many beautiful snorkeling sites close by, and several were accessible simply by wading offshore. We spent most of the time floating on the surface with our masks and snorkels on, just being overwhelmed by the spectacular reef life below us. The colors of the water were very much like the Bahamas – shades of clear blues and greens, the sky cloudless with Magnificent Frigatebirds gliding overhead.

We birded around the tiny island daily and discovered the best spots were a nearby seagrape tree and a non-native almond tree. Also, the palms in bloom and the mangroves along the beach usually had birds, and we saw several species of migrants from North America – orioles and warblers. These birds had been there for the winter months, and would soon be returning to North America for their breeding season. We did manage to ferret out a new bird  on the island –  a Green-breasted Mango – in the hummingbird family.

We usually took our supper plates out to the dock to eat, then explored the water underneath with our flashlights. We watched the comet Hale-Bopp visible high in the sky to the northwest and millions of stars. The moon came up late, so the star visibility was incredible. Sunrise was about 6am, but pre-dawn light was about 5am – and that was when the Great-tailed Grackle alarms went off.

The following 5 days we spent at the edge of a rain forest near the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, several miles inland at the La Milpa Field Station, the site of several early Mayan settlements. The forest, with its thick canopy of 60 to 90-foot tall trees – many such as mahogany, familiar to us in South Florida – held entangling vines such as giant philodendrons, thousands of epiphytes – orchids, airplants and cacti – and a myriad of hidden wildlife from the gorgeous giant bouncy Blue Morpho butterflies to the ubiquitous and vocal Howler Monkeys. On a night drive in the back of a truck, we found Kinkajous (another rain forest mammal) high up in a tree.

Mornings at La Milpa  began at 5:30 AM with the Chachalacas and Brown Jays serving as alarm clocks, and the occasional whooping of the howler monkeys could be heard off in the forest. Whip-poor-wills called at early light also, and in  trees right outside our back door we found a Collared Aracari, and an Emerald Toucanet. Early morning walks down the nearby road, with forest bordering on both sides, gave us a daily opportunity to find new birds, and one morning we were followed by a small group of Coatimundis, a raccoon relative.

For our first time in a tropical rain forest, we found over 50 species of birds, with amazing names such as Montezuma Oropendula, Citreoline Trogon, White-necked Jacobin, Masked Tityra, Collared Aracari, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, Black-headed Saltator, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and the bird we always associate with rain forests in Central and South America – the Keel-billed Toucan. And finally we got a bird on our life list who’s name begins with X! The Plain Xenops, a small bird – plain, but with a very strange bill.

Early one morning, our guides took us up into the forest  to a Mayan ruin. The weather was cool (relatively speaking) and clear – the forest was fresh and fully astir – insects, butterflies, birds, and who- knows-what-all scuffling around in the leaves. Half of the living beings in the jungle are invisible! A short hike up through the jungle brought us to the ruin that had been occupied over 2,000 years ago, and for the most part, had not yet been excavated. It was so intertwined with trees and roots, it seemed almost impossible to examine it carefully,  yet not destroy it. There were a few mostly-standing stones with illegible glyphs on them and several smallish pyramid-shaped constructions.

The students went on a tour of the site with the guide, and Phil and I sat nearby, listening for birds, me writing in my journal – enjoying the quiet in that cathedral-like setting. After a while, he got a glimpse of an Agouti– a rather large reddish-brown rodent in the underbrush, so we got up and wandered down a trail where we had also seen a small group of birds. The trail led to a lower elevation with high jungle all around. It was so beautiful and lone and primitive. It was easy to imagine Maya people and temples, here long ago – and the jungle swallowing it all.

Suddenly, we heard a bird calling – “mot – mot”,  “mot – mot”, “mot – mot”. We wandered slowly and quiety around through the ruins in the middle of this wondrous jungle forest, trees towering over us, still hearing the call – “mot – mot”, “mot – mot”. Finally Phil whispered to me and showed me a bird up in the trees – the body and head of the calling bird. We watched – listening, waiting, and finally the bird turned around and we could see its racket tail – two spectacular long tail feathers – with feathery “rackets” at the end of each. What a great bird. A Blue-crowned Motmot. We would see them again in other jungles, but the sounds and image of that bird in that ethereal place would stay with us forever.

We would return to Belize the following year with more students, then eventually Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador, with future plans for many more adventures in the tropical jungles.


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  1. George Rogers permalink

    Soem folks have all the fun. My idea of a wild tropical bird adventure is Green Cay.

  2. Diane permalink

    What a wonderful picture you paint! Loved reading it.

  3. Jennifer Braye permalink

    Ann, this brings back such fond memories of rainforest explorations with my dad and the tropics. I too searched for (and found) the Mot-mot in Belize, the elusive Quetzal in Costa Rica (finally, after 8 grueling hours with a guide in the pouring rain of Monteverde), and the St. Lucia Amazon Parrot after waiting and watching patiently over at the edge of a cliff after a beautiful mountain hike in St. Lucia. Those are just a few memories of these magical places…but even if you don’t find your birds, when you venture into the tropics, it truly IS the journey, not the destination! Thanks for reminiscing…

    • I never realized that reminiscing could be so much fun – like having the same wonderful dream all over again, isn’t it?
      We’ll ignore the nightmares!

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