Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2010—Jan 03, 2011

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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It is hard to imagine a more splendid nature holiday getaway than our Chan Chich New Year tour. A short half-hour flight from Belize City, Chan Chich offers the top-notch amenities of one of the premier jungle lodges in the world, combined with superb tropical birding on its vast private land holdings. This year's tour at Chan Chich will be fondly remembered by all.

Our first morning outing on the trails leading from the lodge grounds illustrates the richness of the Chan Chich experience. Fresh-baked muffins and freshly brewed coffee awaited us at the lodge—a proper start-up for a pre-breakfast bird walk. We asked Chan Chich naturalist guide Marvin to accompany us. The expert guides associated with the lodge know just where special birds have been seen in recent days. It was a cool morning for Belize, about 70 F, and conditions were perfect for lots of bird activity. Our first steps took us across the main plaza of the lodge and cabana area, past flocks of wild Ocellated Turkeys that make the Chan Chich grounds their home. Ocellated Turkeys, brilliantly iridescent with bare head and neck colored an unearthly shade of blue, have been extirpated by hunting from much of their original range in Central America. But the turkeys thrive at Chan Chich, where they are closely protected and a familiar sight on the mowed grass near the lodge. Another huge turkey-like bird, the Crested Guan, is also a frequent sight on the grounds.

Bird activity in a small fruiting tree caught our eye. A Bright-rumped Attila, a strange-looking member of the vast flycatcher tribe, hopped from branch to branch, showing off its golden-orange rump. The attila shared the tree with a pair of Masked Tityras, and alongside these tropical residents was a Great Crested Flycatcher, a temperate zone breeder wintering in the Tropics. Other familiar winter visitors—Gray Catbirds and Wood Thrushes—hopped nearby, as confiding here as they are shy and retiring on their northern nesting grounds. Early morning bird activity was brisk. A male Red-capped Manakin showed itself, a stunning contrast of scarlet and jet-black. A Plain Xenops hung upside down like a chickadee as it explored a tangle of vines, while an Olivaceous Woodcreeper worked a palm trunk.

We were just getting started. Along a nearby trail we came upon a Blue-crowned Motmot, perched on a loop of vine as if sitting on a swing. Just a few minutes later, a Tody Motmot, the smallest of all the motmots, perched low over the trail ahead. A Black-throated Shrike-Tanager gave loud whistled calls, fulfilling its sentry duty as the leader of a mixed species flock. Walking back toward the lodge for breakfast, we stopped at a flowering African tulip tree to watch lovely Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers, sparkling Green Honeycreepers, and to put the scope on a perched hummingbird—a stunning Purple-crowned Fairy.

Breakfast was wonderful, as were all the meals at Chan Chich, with plenty to choose from, and always fresh tropical fruit, fresh baked goods, and fresh-squeezed juice. Our table, which we revisited throughout the tour for meals, sat outside on the veranda of the lodge, with a clear view to a water feature not ten feet away. During each meal we watched a steady stream of avian visitors to the shallow pools of water and the fruiting trees that overhung them. Brightly-colored euphonias of three species came to bathe and sip, and a male Red-capped Manakin was a regular in the fruiting trees, as were a Slaty-tailed Trogon, an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Tanagers, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and Black-cowled Orioles. One morning, a troop of Collared Aracaris—toucans richly-hued in yellow and red—stopped by the same trees. Each day, a male White-collared Seedeater sang its sweetly musical song nearby.

After breakfast we continued a remarkable round of birding. Along the Back Plaza Trail, we watched a Mexican Antthrush—a rotund antbird with a short cocked tail—walk across the forest floor. Nearby, the chatter of ant-tanagers and the flutter of wings told us we were closing in on an ant swarm. A mass of army ants was crossing the forest floor and trail, attended closely by birds that specialize in foraging at ant swarms. The birds flew or hopped right among the ants, capturing insects and other small creatures that were flushed out of hiding by the thousands of ants on the move. There were a pair each of Tawny-winged Woodcreepers and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, birds not often seen away from ant swarms. The woodcreepers perched low, a foot or two off the ground, and flew in quickly to snap up insects. Both Red-crowned and Red-throated ant-tanagers were on hand too. I always feel lucky to come upon an ant swarm, and this day we came across two. Another swarm that afternoon had Ruddy Woodcreepers in attendance, as well as Gray-headed Tanagers, a brightly-colored species that is a true ant swarm specialist. With the help of ant swarms we saw all seven woodcreeper species found around Chan Chich, including the largest and rarest of the lot, the Strong-billed Woodcreeper.

Not long after passing the ant swarm we stopped below an immense tree. About halfway up the tree, on a large branch supporting a massive epiphyte, was the nest of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The nest was still under construction, and we hoped the builder might soon pay a visit. Luck was with us, and within a few minutes a huge Ornate Hawk-Eagle landed in an adjacent tree, close enough for magnificent views through binoculars and absolutely incredible views through the spotting scope. We got the back view, then a view with the head feathers held erect in a split crest, and then the front view of the raptor's purplish-brown barred underparts and massive yellow talons. If any bird could cap an already spectacular morning of birding at Chan Chich, this was it, one of the world's most sensational birds of prey. We had unexpectedly good luck with hawk-eagles on the tour. A Black Hawk-Eagle was frequenting a spot along Chan Chich Creek, and a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle pair turned up at another site. In our first two days at Chan Chich we had seen all three of the New World's hawk-eagles.

Our daily activities included a welcome break after lunch, for a siesta or time to sit in the shade of one's private veranda and relax—while watching hummingbirds coming to the cabana's feeder. Several afternoons we strolled under the forest canopy along Chan Chich Creek, to make a vigil at favorite late afternoon bathing spots for birds. We watched a host of warblers come to splash in the shallows—Kentucky Warblers, Hooded Warblers, American Redstarts, and Worm-eating Warblers—as Louisiana and Northern waterthrushes patrolled the creek edge and Green Kingfishers whizzed by. Other bathers included a beautiful male Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, a shy Thrush-like Schiffornis, and a Purple-crowned Fairy.

Among the shyest forest birds around Chan Chich are the tinamous, more often heard than seen. We were fortunate to see Great Tinamous on several occasions, including one that walked down the road in front of us. Among the least shy of creatures around Chan Chich were the monkeys: howler monkeys roared and postured in the trees, while spider monkeys swung from branch to branch. A night drive yielded ten or more Common Potoos, with one of the spectacularly odd-looking birds perched so close it seemed we could reach out and touch it.

Chan Chich offers a wonderful way to ring in the New Year.