Birding in Belize

A Most Luxuriant Forest

For anyone who has traveled in the Caribbean, the Belizean landscape is delightfully familiar, a tropical mix of palm trees, frangipani, bougainvillaea and that incredible blue water (below which lies the second largest barrier reef in the world). Yet a short drive inland is enough to make it clear that the mysterious vastness of South America is just around the corner. The forests are lusher than those of Belize's island neighbors, the trees taller than the eye can fully comprehend. In the countryside, rural houses are often built on stilts, a reminder that in rain forests, the accent is on rain; though gray and weathered, many are built of mahogany and other jungle hardwoods. The humidity, averaging 85 percent, makes packing anything more than T-shirts, shorts, and a raincoat superfluous. And everywhere, there are the birds, as jewel-bright as any school of tropical fish.

Bordered by Mexico and Guatemala, Belize lies at the base of the Yucatan Peninsula, where the continent narrows and acts as a kind of funnel for migrants: By one recent count, Belize supports 543 species of birds, 20 percent of which are visitors. The country is largely undeveloped, and more than 30 percent is protected. Toucans, parrots, macaws, motmots, and the jabiru stork—the largest flying bird in the Americas—are just a few of the species that make Belize as enticing as the better-known Costa Rica or the jungles of the Amazon.

Bypassing the lure of both sea and culture, I get down to business—though when your business involves hiking along pristine jungle trails, canoeing quiet lakes and rivers where kingfishers shimmer and iguanas drop from the trees, or fending off the rays of a too-hot sun while friends and family shiver in northern snows, it doesn't feel much like work.

Belize's Best Birding Spots

Chan Chich The ocellated turkey may be endangered, but it's one of the species you are absolutely guaranteed to see at Chan Chich, when the resident colony swoops down from their jungle perches every morning. A tall ceiba tree on the grounds is home to a significant colony of the enchantingly named Montezuma orapendula, which weaves large hanging nests; the raucous birds swing upside down on its branches during mating displays. Other notable birds include the impressive slaty-tailed trogon, with its vivid red breast, flocks of red-lored parrots, and the purple-crowned fairy, a pretty little hummingbird—at times, the 60-foot African tulip tree seems to vibrate with dozens of these tiny birds.

Chaa Creek Chaa Creek is a good place to find red-capped manikins, wood rails, red-throated ant-tanagers, and even blue-crowned motmots and keel-billed toucans. The common pauraque is often seen on night walks—convinced of their own invisibility, they remain motionless when approached. Flocks of olive-throated parakeets or yellow-lored parrots are common overhead. Collared aracaris come to feast on the fruit of the dwarf palms—these toucans are quite fearless, so it's sometimes possible to get within a few feet—while at the bar's veranda one can rest and watch rufous-tailed hummingbirds and little hermits, feasting at the lush heliconias.

Crooked Tree In this swampy region dead logwood trees festooned with orchids rise from calm waters, and endangered manatees occasionally churn the surface with their great tails. It's a great place to see various species of kingfisher, heron, and egrets, as well as the occasional roseate spoonbill and white ibis. Northern jacanas are frequently seen racing along lily pads, while snail kites—which feed exclusively on snails—are common overhead. It's also one of the few places where the odds are reasonable of seeing a rare jabiru stork; nearly five feet tall, with an eight-foot wingspan, it's the New World's largest stork. Mangrove swallow, social flycatcher, and the stunning vermilion flycatcher are also found here.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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