Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2013—Jan 03, 2014
Posted by Bob Sundstrom
The Chan Chich New Year tour ranks as a premier holiday nature experience. Just a half-hour flight from Belize City, Chan Chich Lodge offers the top-notch amenities of one of the world’s premier jungle lodges, combined with superb tropical birding amid vast private land holdings. This year’s tour at Chan Chich will be fondly remembered. Our small group met in Belize City, where we hopped a late afternoon charter flight to the pristine jungle of northwest Belize that surrounds Chan Chich Lodge, an expanse of more than 130,000 acres of undisturbed lowland tropical forest.
Our plane set down at Gallon Jug airstrip, in a broad open expanse set amid the jungle. By the time our bags were off the plane, we had already seen a Keel-billed Toucan, the tropical icon with massive multihued bill, and a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, whose nearly foot-long tail feathers quivered as it perched on a low shrub. As we drove through dense jungle along the entrance road toward the lodge, Great Curassows—immense turkey-like birds with curly crests—lurked by the roadside. Reaching the lodge itself and before we dispersed to our personal, comfy cabanas, the staff served us fresh cold limeade—as iridescent Ocellated Turkeys strode the lawn nearby and a pair of Bat Falcons screamed overhead. At times the clamor of Mealy and Red-lored parrots was so loud we had to strain to hear the manager’s orientation. Welcome to Chan Chich!
Our first morning outing on the trails leading from the lodge grounds illustrates the richness of the Chan Chich experience. After an early breakfast buffet set up just for our group, we were joined by Chan Chich guide Marvin for a bird walk along trails adjacent to the lodge. Marvin knew just where to start our birding. Bird activity in a small fruiting tree first 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 fruiting tree with a pair of Masked Tityras, and alongside these tropical residents was a Yellow-throated Vireo, representing temperate zone breeders that winter in the Tropics. Spider Monkeys chattered and swung by their tails in the nearby tree line, as White-breasted Wood-Wrens sang loudly from the undergrowth.
Soon we were walking forest trails, still no more than 100 yards from the lodge. With great good fortune, we soon saw our first Tody Motmot, the smallest and most secretive of this Neotropical group. Not long after, we encountered a group of birds attending an ant swarm. Perching just a foot or two above the ground, the birds flitted quickly to the ground and then back to their perches, capturing insects driven from cover by the ants. We quickly spotted a pair of Tawny-winged Woodcreepers and a Ruddy Woodcreeper, both birds seen almost exclusively at ant swarms. A Blue-crowned Motmot, splendid in iridescent blue crown and long, racquet-tipped tail, appeared on the scene, as did Gray-headed Tanagers. An amazing morning of birding already, and it was only 8:30.
There were many more highlights to come. Our encounters with mixed foraging flocks of birds were among the most intense periods of birding joy, as sometimes 20 or more species foraged in unison in a small area. Understory flocks might include Dot-winged Antwrens clambering among dense vines, with Dusky Antbirds and Spot-breasted Wrens not far behind, as well as tiny Stub-tailed Spadebills and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers. Mixed flocks higher in the canopy invariably featured a pair of Black-throated Shrike-Tanagers, with many other species loosely associated: Rufous Mourner, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Black-faced Grosbeak, assorted flycatchers, a Purple-crowned Fairy visiting a flowering vine—the list goes on.
One morning our goal was an encounter with the local nesting Ornate Hawk-Eagles. The birds had left the nest for the season, but the adults and their one hungry fledgling still reconnoitered nearby a few times per day. An afternoon vigil near the nest site the day before had gone wanting, but the next morning, as we birded quietly along a trail near the nest, we heard the immature bird’s call from a perch unseen within the forest. After a quarter-hour of hopeful anticipation, the calling bird flew in much closer and was soon spotted, a massive white raptor with fine black barring and spike-like crest. Its massive talons grasped a large branch, as we watched the beautiful bird in the spotting scope for minutes—cause for celebration, as we walked back to the lodge for a late breakfast. And during breakfast, the birds just kept coming: gorgeous toucans called Collared Aracaris not 20 feet from our table on the verandah, as well as three enormous Crested Guans standing on a nearby railing; a White-collared Manakin in a nearby shrub; four hummingbirds jockeying for space at hanging nectar feeders—Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, White-bellied Emerald, White-necked Jacobin, and Long-billed Hermit, with scimitar bill and long tufted tail; and a Slaty-tailed Trogon snatching a large katydid just off the verandah (one of four trogon species seen on the trip).
Daytime birding was superb, but we also took a night drive and were well rewarded with a Yucatan Nightjar and Vermiculated Screech-Owl, both regional specialties, as well as bizarre Common Potoos. During the day, mammals competed with birds for our attention: families of roaring Black Howler Monkeys, arboreal relatives of weasels called Kinkajous, dapper Gray Foxes, scampering agoutis, plus the exquisite luck of seeing one of the area’s shyest forest mammals—the Red Brocket Deer, a tiny copper-colored deer with two upright spikes for antlers.
With its bounty of wildlife, lush forest, and superb accommodations and food, as well as its very private setting, it’s fair to say that Chan Chich offers a wonderful way to ring in the New Year.