Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2011—Jan 03, 2012

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Iceland, Papua New Guinea, the Southwest Pacific, Antarctica,...

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The Chan Chich New Year tour is hard to beat as a holiday nature experience. 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 200,000 acres of private holdings. This year's tour at Chan Chich will be fondly remembered.

On a tour with plenty of highlights, one especially comes vividly to mind. While much of the birding we do at Chan Chich takes place on trails leading from the lodge, on January 1 we drove some miles from the lodge toward a large wetland named Laguna Seca. Just after we had turned onto a narrower, unpaved road that led to Laguna Seca, I saw halfway up a tree the brightest flash of blue I have ever seen in nature. Brighter even than the blue of the huge blue morpho butterflies we had been seeing, it was a brilliant, electrifying blue, almost unearthly. Raul, our driver and a Chan Chich nature guide of long experience, had seen it too. We looked at each other in astonishment. "Lovely Cotinga," he announced. Then he added, "I saw it right here, in this same tree, three years ago!"

We were out of the van in a flash. As I ran to the back of the van for my spotting scope, the excited group came pouring out of the van. I asked Raul to quickly radio the other van, as half the group had gotten a few minutes ahead of us in another vehicle when we stopped to admire a Gray Hawk. Our contingent watched the male Lovely Cotinga for a few minutes, its iridescent shimmer let to best effect in the overcast light. We caught a look at its rich-purple underparts as the bird gradually ascended the tree. Before Brian Gibbons and the other half of the group had raced back to our location, the cotinga had flown deeper into the jungle, out of view. As it turned out, they'd had to sprint away from viewing a Sungrebe at Laguna Seca to hurry back to our spot. We waited and watched, and waited some more, but no cotinga. We made tentative plans to return to the same spot tomorrow, when we would be out on another drive. Who knows, we might get lucky.

The following morning we were out early, birding the semi-open woods of a cocoa plantation on Chan Chich land. Late morning, after nice views of a much anticipated Blue-crowned Motmot, we headed back to the site of yesterday's cotinga tree. Raul was the first out of the van. Within seconds, he had spotted the glistening-blue male Lovely Cotinga. It had returned to the very same fruiting tree. And this time the entire group was on hand, binoculars trained on the cotinga as it revealed each detail of its exquisite plumage. Cameras clicked and people took turns at the scopes. It became clear that this moment was our true New Year's celebration, watching one of the world's most beautiful birds posing serenely as it dazzled all onlookers.

And, as another example of just how compelling the birding is at Chan Chich, we had just left the cotinga and driven literally around the next corner on the forest road when we came upon, perched on a bare branch overhanging the road, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The aptly named bird of prey sat patiently as spotting scopes were aimed and the long lenses of cameras crept forward. The huge raptor essentially ignored us, instead keeping its eyes trained on a trio of Ocellated Turkeys, potential prey, as they sauntered down the road. From lovely to ornate in a matter of minutes. It was a classic Chan Chich experience.

There were highlights to spare on this one-week visit to storied Chan Chich. At a site called the Escarpment, in the morning before the air had warmed enough to lift soaring birds, we admired a perched pair of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles for half an hour. When the pair finally took wing, they soared almost overhead, where they were buzzed by a Bat Falcon that seemed to have staked a prior claim to this airspace. After dinner and after dark one evening, as the group rode out on an exploratory night drive, we came upon a puma that, far from startled, casually ambled down the road ahead of us in the beam of our spotlights. The same night, keen eyes spotted a kinkajou high in a tree, a tropical arboreal mammal active only at night.

As we walked along the entrance road near the lodge on our first day at Chan Chich, we witnessed one of those nature scenes that seem right out of a National Geographic special. A member of the group had spotted a large tarantula, just at the roadside. The tarantula looked to be caught in a standoff with perhaps its worst enemy, an immense wasp called a tarantula hawk. They stood a few inches apart on the leaf-covered earth. Suddenly, the wasp alit near the tarantula's head and endeavored to sting it, while the tarantula's mandibles appeared to bite into the wasp's body. After several minutes of deadly embrace, the wasp staggered away from the tarantula, which by now had gone utterly stiff and still. At first it looked like both foes had been fatally injured but, after a few minutes, the wasp regained its vigor, and soon began trying to drag the huge spider away—to where it would then bury the merely paralyzed tarantula as fodder for the wasp's larvae. I think most of us walked away shaking our heads as if to say, "Did we really just see that?"

Almost daily walks along the Chan Chich trails yielded a great variety of birds, from four species of trogons and six species of woodcreepers to encounters with varied flocks of forest birds led by Black-throated Shrike-Tanagers. Even mealtimes were eventful for birding. As we sat on the restaurant veranda for breakfast or lunch, we were just a few yards from fruiting and flowering shrubs and a burbling water feature. Mid-size hummingbirds like White-bellied Emeralds were such a constant presence among the flowers to the point they drew little attention. But everyone took notice when a hummingbird like the Long-billed Hermit paid a visit, with its enormous decurved bill and tassel-like tail. A male Red-capped Manakin was also a regular, a tiny rotund bird with a bright red head and all black body—except for bold yellow leggings.

The blossoms of an African tulip tree adjacent to the lodge were popular throughout the day, drawing nectar-seekers ranging from gorgeous Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers to hummers like Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. Tiny, colorful Yellow-throated Euphonias swarmed to both the tulip flowers and the clumps of berry-laden mistletoe in trees around the lodge grounds. Ocellated Turkeys strutted around the grounds like they owned the place, stunningly colored in blue and copper. A flock of Keel-billed Toucans—the utmost tropical icons—visited the grounds one afternoon, and parrots were nearly a constant presence, calling from their perches in the tree tops. One day, a young King Vulture took up a perch on the lodge's tall antenna, a perch it held for most of the afternoon. Any walk across the lodge grounds could become a source of wonder.

Take it from me, Chan Chich offers a wonderful way to ring in the New Year.