Belize: Relaxed and Easy Mar 21—28, 2010

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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A new tour this year, our first Belize: Relaxed & Easy tour was not only relaxed and easy, but it was also really birdy! We were based in two lodges: Bird's Eye View in Crooked Tree, and Lamanai Outpost Lodge near the famous Lamanai ruins. Each had its own special charm and creature comforts, and each its own set of birds. Before heading to either of these lodges, we detoured to check out the impressive Mayan ruins of Altun Ha. Being our first birding stop, we were dazzled by many new birds there, and at nearby Mayan Wells. One African tulip tree, in particular, captured our attention for a long time as it was visited by a host of birds, from the resident Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Red-legged Honeycreeper to several migrant species. It was a real pleasure on this tour seeing not only a wide array of resident Belizean birds, but also excellent numbers of North American migrants as they gathered on the Yucatan Peninsula in preparation to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Our warbler list of 22 species, including such beauties as Golden-winged, Magnolia, Prothonotary, and Hooded, rivaled that of a trip focused on that group alone!

On the afternoon of our first day, we arrived at Crooked Tree and were greeted by jaw-dropping numbers of birds in the lagoon. I had heard that water levels were low, which can be good for a buildup of wading birds, but I had no idea just how many birds we would see—more than I have seen in a decade of visits to this site. We spent our first afternoon at Bird's Eye View Lodge on the deck, sipping cocktails and sorting through literally thousands of birds in Crooked Tree Lagoon before us. The 45 or so Jabirus and many Limpkins, Roseate Spoonbills, Snail Kites, and Northern Jacanas were highlights, but equally impressive were some 5,000 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, 3,000 Blue-winged Teal, 3,000 Great Egrets, and 2,000 Wood Storks. It's hard to imagine such concentrations! Our boat trip the next day brought us even closer to these birds, and also to such special birds as Great Black-Hawk, Green and American Pygmy kingfishers, and a nice selection of shorebirds, many of which are seldom seen there.

But there was more to Crooked Tree than just the lagoon. Exploring the cashew orchards, pine savannah, and logwood groves, we found Yellow-headed Parrot, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Barred Antshrike, Yucatan Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, and Gray-throated Chat. Watching a group of Acorn Woodpeckers, it was interesting to see them stashing acorns in a fence post or dead tree, so that they could have a meal on another day. It was also fun to watch a group of Black Vultures "circling" around a dog—on foot!—to try and snatch its meal. The dog won. And to watch a brood of Northern Jacanas dash out of sight when a Merlin zoomed by. Right by the lodge, among our many "yard birds" we particularly enjoyed the beautiful Vermilion Flycatchers, as well as the Yellow-throated Warbler that joined us for cocktails on the porch. And right outside the lodge one evening, we enjoyed beautiful views of a Common Pauraque feeding under a streetlight.

The second phase of our trip began with a boat ride down the New River, heading toward Lamanai. A little rainsquall didn't dampen our spirits at all, especially when we stopped to see Boat-billed Herons and Black-collared Hawks! Lamanai was just wonderful, with its beautiful forest, lush gardens, interesting ruins, and extremely friendly staff. Our local guide, Ruben, took us on a fascinating tour of the ruins and museum, and on several great walks and boat trips. Forest birding can always be a challenge, but is rewarding whenever a flock is encountered. We had marvelous encounters with such birds as Black-headed, Violaceous, and Slaty-tailed trogons; Smoky-brown Woodpecker; Plain Xenops; Ivory-billed Woodcreeper; Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet; and Royal Flycatcher, to name a few. The gardens and forest edge surrounding the lodge consistently provided some of the most pleasant birding, with sightings of Long-billed Hermit, Blue-crowned Motmot, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan, White-collared Manakin, Spot-breasted Wren, Blue and Painted buntings, Black-cowled and Yellow-tailed orioles, and Yellow-throated Euphonia. Also, the local howler monkeys frequently entertained us (and occasionally woke us up at night!) right by the cabanas.

We took a lovely trip one morning across the lagoon to a quiet creek and an undisturbed area of pine savannah where we found some really special birds including Black-throated Bobwhite, Agami Heron, Aplomado Falcon, Yellow-lored Parrot, Yucatan Jay, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Botteri's Sparrow. A real highlight was our evening spotlight safari, a boat cruise after dinner where we had amazing spotlight views of Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Sungrebe, Yucatan Nightjar, and Northern Potoo, along with a bizarre variety of other roosting birds like Least Bittern, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Mangrove Vireo, Hooded Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat. We also saw other critters like Morelete's crocodile and fishing bat.

To cap things off, on our last evening we took a delightful cocktail cruise around a glassy calm New River Lagoon, complete with local rum and coke! We were accompanied by some feisty Mangrove Swallows who claimed their stake on the pontoon boat (they were nesting underneath!). Sipping our cocktails as we watched the sun set over High Temple couldn't have been a more fitting end to this tour.