Belize: Chan Chich New Year Dec 28, 2013—Jan 03, 2014

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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The quick flight from Belize City to Gallon Jug took us from a small bustling city to a sprawling ranch surrounded by more than 130,000 acres of forest and its associated wildlife. The birding was off to a great start as we spotted our first toucan and Fork-tailed Flycatchers from the airstrip. Driving to Chan Chich that evening, we glimpsed several Great Curassows along the road, as well as a few Collared Peccaries. This lodge is set in the midst of a Mayan settlement that hadn’t seen the bustle of human activity for 1,000 years. This allowed the forest to take over the village and its fields, inviting an amazing diversity of birds and wildlife to return. During its nearly 2,000 year existence as a mid-sized Mayan city, Chan Chich was home to thousands of people including royalty—a royal tomb was excavated in 1996. Archaeological investigations in the mid-1990s found evidence of 253 structures. Most of the remaining visible architecture is from the Late Classic Period dating from 600-850 CE.

Crested Guan

Crested Guan— Photo: Brian Gibbons

On our first morning we watched the amazing diversity of birds right on the lodge grounds. Crested Guans, Ocellated Turkeys, Red-lored Parrots, and the resident pair of Bat Falcons were all spied. A trip to a fruiting gumbo limbo tree added vireos, Masked Tityra, and flycatchers including a Bright-rumped Attila. The clearing and its fruiting trees always attract trogons, and this year was no exception. We saw Black-headed, Gartered, and Slaty-tailed trogons around the lodge, and one morning we added our fourth species, spotted by Abby, a male Collared Trogon on the Medicinal Trail. Out near the open skies of the suspension bridge we had Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts and a single huge White-collared Swift.

The second morning was wet, but as we were driving to Laguna Seca in the bus we were still able to spot some birds. In Gallon Jug there were numerous Brown Jays and Roadside Hawks, and we spotted a distant White-tailed Kite. Amazingly, Bob spotted a White-necked Puffbird in the rain and we were able to scope it up quickly without getting too wet. Once we got to the not-so-dry Laguna Seca, the rain actually stopped for an hour or so and allowed us a nice walk. Along the edge of the lake there were several Northern Jacanas and some distant Mangrove Swallows. The entrance road had some nice flock activity as we walked: Plain Xenops, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Royal Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Olivaceous and Ivory-billed woodcreepers, and a mix of North American warblers and vireos down for the winter.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Slaty-tailed Trogon— Photo: Brian Gibbons

I always look forward to a night drive around Chan Chich; you never know what could pop into view. One night we had great looks at a Mottled Owl on a fence post, a Black-and-white Owl, a Northern Potoo, and a Yucatan Nightjar. All these critters were sighted under a moonless, inky sky that was punctuated by a million stars and a few lightning bugs.

Sylvester Village road took us into a different short forest habitat that is frequented by several Yucatan endemics. We had great looks at the energetic Gray-throated Chat, a very cooperative Rose-throated Tanager, a singing White-bellied Wren, and a very elusive Mangrove Vireo. A pair of Central American Spider Monkeys, with a tiny baby, allowed very good views, as the forest is short along this road. As with every other morning in the forest, we heard the Stub-tailed Spadebill and Northern Schiffornis. We saw Green Shrike-Vireo, both species of ant-tanagers, Long-billed Gnatwren, greenlets, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Tropical Gnatcatchers, and a host of northern birds escaping the winter. Another rewarding sighting was having a Purple-crowned Fairy zip past us on the trail, then proceed to take a splash bath in a small puddle in the road while we all watched. This fantastic day brought 2013 to an end.

The highlight of the first morning of 2014 was hearing a White Hawk screaming and spotting it in a distant tree; we all had decent scope views, but longed for another glimpse. I played a little tape and the bird flew in and looked at us for several minutes until we walked away.

Tody Motmot

Tody Motmot— Photo: Brian Gibbons

The next morning we walked around the lodge grounds and trails among the Mayan ruins. We saw Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Tody Motmot in the scope, and Blue-crowned Motmot was heard. The prize of the morning was the Central American Pygmy-Owl that was way up in the canopy with a troop of little birds fussing at it. We were able to scope this little forest terror for good views. After lunch we took a very refreshing drive in the open truck to Laguna Seca. After days of 100% humidity, it was nice to have the sun on us and the wind in our faces to dry out in 90% humidity! We saw a Laughing Falcon with its favored prey, an unidentified snake. We had our best look at Keel-billed Toucan and several more Roadside Hawks. Olive-throated Parakeets, Brown-hooded Parrots, and a Montezuma Oropendola were fly-bys.

On a trip into a wonderful wilderness there are bound to be highlights. Finally catching sight of the young Ornate Hawk-Eagle after hearing it scream for nearly an hour was surely one, late on our second evening. Another screaming bird, this one with a raspy voice, the White Hawk satisfied all with scope views at Trish’s Hill. White-necked Puffbirds, three in all, are always a good find around Chan Chich. Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaries are great birds with their over-sized bills for plucking fruit. The manakins, tiny frugivores, entertained us from the porch during meals. In the Bajo forest, some of the rarer Yucatan birds were a highlight on the day we headed out the Sylvester Village road. Good looks at owls are always rewarding, and we enjoyed two on our night drive. Rufous-tailed Jacamar afforded good views on a couple of occasions; it reminded us of a giant hummingbird with its shimmering plumage and long bill.

Ending 2013 and ringing in the New Year at Chan Chich made for an excellent birding holiday. I look forward to our next birding adventure.