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24 January to 4 February 2003

by Richard Carlson

We just returned from birding and exploring Belize.  We loved it!  The birding is outstanding, and this is a really easy to visit, friendly and interesting country.   We've birded Costa Rica, Trinidad, Guatemala, Mexico and Ecuador.  Among all these, I'd recommend Belize (plus Tikal) as a first visit to tropical America, particularly if you can't speak Spanish.  Everyone in Belize, even the Mayans, speaks English.  The country is tiny, the roads are good, the jungles are in surprisingly good shape, the food is unexpectedly good, and pretty safe, and the people are amazingly friendly and knowledgeable.  They are really getting into eco-tourism, so birding options are growing.  

This was not a hard core birding trip -- my wife wilts if I try that.  We birded in the morning and usually explored something else, like a ruin or cave, in the afternoon (they just happened to have good birds).  Nevertheless, we saw 183 species, with about 20 lifers for me.


You have to balance between clouds and drizzle early in the year and heat later.  We got the clouds and p.m. drizzle.  You can't wait too late in February or the Crooked Tree channels dry up.  This year they will be dry by mid-February.  Also, the Pygmy Kingfishers and Agami Herons don't show themselves at the lagoons until early February. On the other hand, the Jabiru storks don't show in numbers until later.  We only saw 2.


We used Northwest frequent flyer miles on Continental.  They have by far the best schedule into much of Central America, and were a best buy for our miles.  Central American tickets cost only 35,000 miles for a ticket that would otherwise cost $900.


We are independent travelers, so always rent a car.  We have found that hotel shuttles traps you on $$$ hotel tours, are usually overcrowded, guarantee a migraine for my wife, and they won't stop along the road when something cool flies by.  However, car rental costs in Belize are horrible!  We paid Budget about $130 a day for a Suzuki SUV -- twice what it costs anywhere else we've been.  We split the cost with another couple, thankfully.  The local rental agencies will cost "only" about $100 a day.  The best solution we found was someone who drove an old car down from the states, donated it to a local charity, and used the car whenever they returned to Belize!


We attended a Rotary conference at the Princess Hotel.  BC isn't nearly as bad as we feared, but it's no gem.  Get off your plane; just drive an hour to Crooked Tree and stay at the Bird's Eye View Lodge. If you're forced to stay in Belize City, the Princess is a nice hotel for $85 with marginal food and few birds.  Frigate birds, Tree Swallows, Kiskadees, Royal Terns and Pelicans are the regulars.  We also saw Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers, Social Flycatchers, Cinnamon Hummers, Yellow-Throated Warblers, a few Sandwich Terns, and one lost Brown Booby.  The only good birding in the town is at Bird Island just south of the town.  The island plus the adjacent parks are full of birds.  We saw an Anhinga, a Green Breasted Mango, Vermilion Flycatchers, Hooded Orioles, and Black-Headed Saltator.

From Belize City we took a $100 cab ride to the Belize Zoo.  The zoo is great bird habitat.  We saw Summer Tanager, Red-capped Manakin, Blue-Gray Tanager, Yellow-throated Vireo, and White-eyed Vireo.


We spent two days birding and diving.  By far the best birding was at Caribbean Villas; stay there!  We saw Black Catbirds, Altamira, Orchard and Hooded Orioles, Rufous-tailed hummer on the nest, and a Summer Tanager.  Near the south end of the airport, we had an amazing Black-headed Trogon, Magnolia, Parula, Palm, Worm-eating and Tennessee Warblers and Yucatan and Mangrove Vireos.  We also drove a golf cart north to good birding across the ferry.  We found our only Bananaquit as well as a Black-billed Cuckoo, Indigo Bunting and many Mangrove Warblers.  Cart rentals are $50 for a half-day.  Try to reserve one ahead of time at Carts-r-us for $30.  They're the best buy in the area so are always out.  Diving and snorkeling are wonderful, but for just birding it's worth only a day.


We foolishly got a late flight from San Pedro so wasted another night at the Princess. Car rental hassle delayed us so we didn't get to Guanacaste park until about 10:30 -- This is a gem of a park. Light was poor but the park was still good.  One tree had a White-necked Jacobin along with a Green Kingfisher.  Along the trial was a Long-tailed Hermit.  Another tree was full of orioles -- Orchard, Baltimore, & Hooded -- as well as Blue-Gray and Yellow-winged Tanagers.  

Next we stopped at Blue Hole park
and found a feeding group of Rose-throated Ant Tanagers along with more orioles and tanagers.  We did see one confusing hawk: it looked like a Plumbeous Kite but had a pink rump!  No guidebook mentions this.  At the entrance to St. Herman's Cave was a Sulfur -rumped Flycatcher.  We then foolishly hiked the trail to the Lookout.  It got us into "cockpit" country with incessant ups and downs over slippery rocks.  It was awful. The only redeeming features were a Pale-billed Woodpecker and a pair of Red-legged Honeycreepers.  

If you leave early, both these parks can be visited on the way to San Ignacio.  We didn't get out of  Belize City until 9:30, but still birded both sites and got to Chaa Creek at dusk.  We had a good cheap meal at the last restaurant on the way out of Belmopan -- follow the truckers, works in Belize as well as the U.S.

We woke to find ourselves at Chaa Creek .
This was long on luxury, service, great food and $$$, but a bit short on birds.  At almost $300 per day for the two of us, with meals, taxes and service I had expected better birding.  It clearly is moving from the birder's market to luxury jungle lodge.  Most of the clients are now non-birders and the managers keep it so sterile that we joked that our one bat must be plastic.  The trees and lawn were so closely trimmed and mowed that there were no bugs, no frogs, no snakes, and only a smattering of birds. This is Disney jungle, maybe an ideal spot to bring a non-birding spouse. The morning bird hike just covered the grounds where we saw a White-necked Puffbird, Yellow-tailed Orioles, Band-backed Wrens, Pygmy Owls, Red-throated Ant-tanagers, Blue-Crowned Mot-mot, Aracaris, White-crowned and White-fronted Parrots, and Red-billed Pigeons.  There were no feeders (Best tropical birding we've ever had was at Asa Wright Center's feeders in Trinidad.)  We never saw real jungle birds like an Antbird, Antshrike, or Woodcreeper.
The first guide, Rudy, was excellent, but he just couldn't find that much.

That afternoon we found much better birding at Che Chem Ha cave about 10 miles to the south.  If you're really adventurous, you can stay here for about $40 a night.  There were Aracari's, Woodcreepers, Trogons, Parrots, Black-faced Grosbeaks and Tanagers everywhere in the middle of the day.  It must be incredible in the morning.  On the hike to the cave the guide found a Black & White Owl and a Spadebill. He was an incredible birder, and he didn't even have his binoculars along!  

We found good birding along the road to Chaa Creek.  In the swampy area are Blue-black Grassquits, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Amazon Kingfishers, Gray Martins and Aztec Parakeets.  

The next morning we asked the guide to try a new area for us, since we were the only birders out of 20 or so guests.  We had a Gray-necked Wood-rail walk up to us, but not much else new.

Frustrated, we went to nearby DuPlooys where we found an active feeder and a great canopy walk.  I wished we had stayed here, but my wife preferred Chaa Creek.  The food was about 2/3 the cost of Chaa Creek.  We saw Rose-throated Becards, Tityra, Aracaris, and the usuals in just a few minutes.  The nearby ponds had Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, Blue-winged Teal and Jacana.

We then went to Xunantunich; great ruins, but few birds in mid-day.  From the ferry we saw Ringed and Green Kingfishers.

On the final day we goofed.  We spent most of it driving to the allegedly  "very birdy" Laguna Aguacate.  It was a long drive and there was nothing there.  We picked up Meadowlarks and Red-lored Parrots on the way.  That night we went a night hike, and saw a very close Pauraque -- bring your dive lights or big spotlights.


We had only one day here, it deserves more.  It took us about 2 1/2 hours to drive from Chaa Creek to Crooked Tree.  We stayed at wonderful Bird's Eye View lodge .  For $80, it was the best buy of the trip; comfortable, good food, and birds at your doorstep.  This area is great for both land and water birds.  The habitat ranges from swamp to scrub, to savanna to large tree jungle.  It was surprising to see deep forest birds like Ivory-billed Woodcreepers here. The lodge supplies excellent guides and a superb boat trip.  On the evening boat trip we had excellent looks at Agami Herons, Pygmy Kingfishers, Tiger Herons and Black- Collared Hawks as well as scores of the more common waders, a large crocodile and a Howler monkey.  Snail Kites and Osprey are everywhere.  That night the owner, Verna, led us to an Aracari nest and we spotlighted Pauraques on the lodge lawn. Their cries kept us awake that night. The next morning we had a Bat Falcon, an Olivaceous Woodcreeper, a Barred Antshrike and a Lesser Greenlet near the lodge.  We then drove across the island to find the Jabiru Stork nest as well as such pine-savanna birds as Green and Yucatan Jays.  

Verna can organize trips to Lamanai from here.  She also has sources for car rental.

Richard Carlson
Full-time Birder, Biker and Rotarian
Part-time Economist
Tucson, AZ & Lake Tahoe, CA
rccarl AT

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