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3 - 13 March 2006

by Dan Leach

In November, 2005, myself and two friends, seasoned traveling companions Doug Allen and Steve Dunbar, committed to a long-awaited eleven-day birding trip to Belize. Steve and I had already made a couple of short trips to Yucatan, but Doug was our resident veteran; he’s made several visits to Mexico, the Yucatan and Belize, and it was at his urging that we added a couple of days to the itinerary, in order to visit fabled Tikal, in northeastern Guatemala’s Peten rainforest. In spite of a brief but severe illness during our stay, the three of us enjoyed a fantastic introduction to the creatures, environments, and people of this diverse area, as this trip report hopes to adequately describe.

Day One, March 3rd, 2006:

I met Doug and Steve at Steve’s home in northern Monroe County, Indiana very early, and from there we were driven to the Indianapolis airport by one of Steve’s friends. The day’s air travel proceeded very smoothly, and by 3:00 p.m. CST we had landed at Philip S. W. Goldson Airport in Ladyville, Belize. We collected our luggage and the rental car, and set out northwards along the Northern Highway; the plan was to completely bypass Belize City by way of Burrell Boom and Hattieville, and make way for our first night’s stay in the country at the Banana Bank Lodge, near Belmopan.

Once we got over the arrival jitters, we started to look for a place to pull over and do a little late afternoon birding. By our previous standards (the wintry Midwestern U.S.), the birding was great the minute we stepped out of the car. In about forty minutes of birding in scrubby pasture habitat, we tallied Roadside Hawk and Laughing Falcon, Pale-vented Pigeon, White-tipped Dove, Mealy Parrot, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Masked Tityra, Mangrove Vireo, Brown Jay, Mangrove Swallow, Tropical Mockingbird, White-collared Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, and Hooded Oriole. Common as these Central American species are, they were a very welcome sight to our eyes, and our travel-weariness was immediately replaced with great enthusiasm. More familiar species such as Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat and Gray Catbird were also present.

We were averse to driving at night on unfamiliar roads, so we put down our binoculars with some difficulty, and made our way westwards. We found the exit for the Lodge just past mile marker 46 on the Western Highway, and arrived at the river crossing shortly afterwards. Accessing the Banana Bank is slightly out of the ordinary; the parking area is on the south bank of the Belize River, and there’s a big rusty, dish-shaped piece of scrap iron hanging on chains next to the parking area. You pull a big rusty pin out of the dish and attack the rusty dish with it, and this summons the boatman to come fetch your person and luggage.

In the twilight, as the boatman was hauling us along the tow rope to the opposite bank, downstream we could see a large tree hard by the riverbank that was completely festooned with fluffy white objects that took us a minute to recognize as hundreds of small herons. Even though we couldn’t identify the birds in the dimness, it made quite for quite a sight in the riparian gloom. A Montezuma Oropendola was vocalizing as we walked up the hill to the dining hall and checked in.

Day Two, March 4th, 2006:

On our first full day of birding out of the country, I established my reputation as the trip’s slave driver by rousing everyone well before sunrise in order to listen for the dawn songsters. Frankly, it was still pretty dark when we began stumbling around on the grounds, but before breakfast Doug and I managed a glimpse of a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl and, surprisingly to me, a Band-backed Wren in one of the ornamental trees. I’d expected to see the Band-backed in the upper story of the forest, not out in the open, but it was unmistakable; big and boldly-patterned, and a life-bird for all of us. Two or three Common Pauraques were vocalizing back and forth: p-weeer! Breakfast was scrambled eggs and salsa, sliced watermelon, fry jacks (a very common Belizean food, sort of like a fried biscuit), and, praises be, lots of strong, fresh coffee! Anyone who has traveled Yucatan knows that good, brewed coffee is a scarce commodity, and as it turned out, I was delighted with the ready availability of my morning caffeine fix, everywhere in Belize.

After breakfast, we discovered that the roost of herons we’d seen the night before was a huge host of Cattle Egrets, and we saw large groups of them flying off the roost and heading upstream all morning; Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, a Green Heron and a few adult Little Blue Herons were also seen along the river. In addition to the Lodge operation, the Banana Bank is a sizeable horse farm; hence these hordes of Cattle Egrets. Doug and I debated whether the cormorants seen flying along the river were Double-cresteds or Neotropics, a recurrent topic throughout the trip; it’s a tougher call than I’d thought. I live in the Midwest, so I continually favored Double-crested; Doug resides in Colorado, so thought them to be Neotropics.

Our time at the Banana Bank was short; we were to depart for Guatemala shortly after lunch, but we did enjoy exploring some of the pastures behind the stables. This area was very weedy and dotted with dense thickets, and it was particularly notable for all of the Rufous-breasted Spinetails that could be heard singing from these thickets; Steve’s patient inspection produced views of one of these infamous skulkers building a large nest in the recesses of one copse; the only one we saw out of several heard. Immature and adult Northern Jacanas were seen foraging in a marshy area nearby, keeping company with some Solitary Sandpipers. For the first time we heard the unmistakable song of the Short-billed Pigeon (it-feels-so-good!), learned the barking squawk of the Mealy Parrot (GOT-cha! Or, CUT-cha!), and the kleek-kleek! of the Red-lored Parrot. Other species of interest included Squirrel Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani, Long-billed Hermit, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Black-headed Trogon, Collared Aracari, Golden-fronted and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Vermilion Flycatcher, a Bright-rumped Attila,

Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flycatchers, Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens, Blue-gray and Yellow-winged Tanagers, Grayish Saltator, Black-cowled Oriole, and the bizarre Montezuma Oropendola; if I were forced to name my favorite Central American species, this one would have to get the nod. Its exotic appearance, unearthly gurgling vocalizations, tipsy displays, and colonies of long, sock-like nests swaying from the tree limbs, are emblematic of the uniqueness and diversity of the region. 

Day Three, March 5th, 2006:

The previous day’s exertions did little to dissuade me from my drill sergeant proclivities; not only had we birded a half-day at the Banana Bank, drove the rest of the way west through Belize, successfully negotiated the Guatemalan border crossing, and bumped over forty miles of some pretty rocky road to check in at our base at El Remate, at the east end of Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala, I still felt that we had to beat out the tour buses and colectivos in order to be the first car at the gate to Tikal at 6:00 a.m. this day. While we waited for the ticket kiosk to open, we walked around in the pre-dawn gloom and could hear the double-hoots of a couple of Blue-crowned Mot-mots greeting a fresh batch of gringos.

Tikal is nothing short of a marvel, whether you are a devotee of the birds or of the Mayan culture. This sprawling, seemingly remote archaeological site is set high in the forested hills, almost an hour north of El Remate, but the presence of a visitor’s center, three inns, three comedores (restaurants), the coming and going of fleets of rumbling buses, creaking colectivos and rattling rental cars all disgorging their multitudes of international travelers, does surprisingly little to inhibit the local fauna. Doug Allen couldn’t contain his delight with the flock of Ocellated Turkeys that greeted us at the parking lot, and all three of us were astonished to see them joined by four or five Gray-necked Wood Rails; after visiting Yucatan, we’d come to consider these rails as very reclusive, but at Tikal, they were extreme extroverts, running around and squabbling amidst the Ocellated Turkeys like barnyard chickens! This was a good indicator that there seems to be very little to no hunting pressure on the reserve’s fauna.

It’s a good twenty-minute walk back to the most popular feature at the site, the Grand Plaza, but it took us all morning to get that far. There were Gray-breasted Martins over the parking lot; in the aguadas behind the visitor’s center, some Purple Gallinules kept the Northern Jacanas and Morelet’s Crocodiles company. Very notable along the trail was the sighting of a Crested Guan in the treetops, and Doug Allen’s life Great Curassow; White-fronted Parrots were noted for the first time, and though we heard them creaking and croaking many times, Keel-billed Toucans weren’t actually seen until later.

Other trip-firsts were Lineated Woodpecker, Tawny-winged, Olivaceous and Strong-billed (heard) Woodcreepers, and a number of flycatchers: I was particularly pleased with sighting a couple of Yellow-bellied Tyrannulets fairly close to the ground, while they were engaging in some type of begging display. We heard and then briefly saw a Northern Bentbill, several Eye-ringed Flatbills, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, and heard several Stub-tailed Spadebills uttering their abrupt, nervous giggle, but never sighted one because of their smallness and the dense undergrowth. Steve identified a Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, another good find, and a vocalizing Gray--headed Tanager appeared briefly. We finally decided that a few of the drab Empidonax flycatchers we were seeing were Yellow-bellieds, a common winter resident in the area. It was enjoyable to hear the ascending whreeep! of the Great Crested Flycatcher, a familiar and equally common winter resident. Tawny-crowned Greenlet was new for all of us; Lesser Greenlets were seen several times, as were Red-throated Ant-tanagers.

Steve’s patience came into play again when we were attempting to identify the numerous Rough-winged Swallows flying around and into the ruins adjacent to the Grand Plaza; we couldn’t discern the small white spots at the base of the bill that would indicate Ridgeway’s, so Steve simply walked into one of the ruins where the birds were likely prospecting for nest sites, and sat down to await them. Sure enough, he was rewarded with a couple of birds that flitted in to roost, and yelled out to us that he could plainly see the white spots; we hastily imitated his tactic, and the birds obliged for Doug and I after a short wait. We had good but brief looks at another frustrating skulker, the tiny Long-billed Gnatwren; they are fairly common but keep to the interior of the thickets and tangles, much like the Rufous-breasted Spinetail.

A large Coatimundi crossed our path near the Grand Plaza, unconcernedly nosing along while we snapped away with our cameras. There was an active nesting colony of Montezuma Oropendolas in a tree located in the middle of the Grand Plaza; the birds in the binoculars were supreme. The field guides don’t do justice to the head structure and delicate color of the bill; indescribable. Their displays at the nest look as though they’ve suddenly ingested a massive dose of rat poison; they gurgle hollowly and hoot, tipping forward precipitously on their perches, hanging nearly upside down and flapping their wings languidly. Then they gracefully right themselves and allow the others to repeat the histrionics.

At lunchtime, we introduced ourselves to another group of birders and were delighted to make the acquaintance of Bill Thompson and Julie Zickefoose. Bill is the editor of the popular periodical, Birdwatcher’s Digest, and Julie is a renowned wildlife artist. We admired Julie’s sketchbook greatly; her studies of the trogons were particularly dramatic. Bill and Julie were enjoying a tour of Guatemala in the company of Marcos Centenos and Hector Castaneda, two of Guatemala’s foremost birding guides and naturalists, and we were flattered to be asked to join them for birding in the afternoon. We spent some time vainly searching for a Pheasant Cuckoo reputed to be in the area of the old airstrip, but had to console ourselves with the fine Plumbeous Kite they pointed out to us. In spite of the fact that Bill and Julie and their guides had to make connections in the mid-afternoon, they insisted on marching us all the way back to the Grand Plaza and showing us one of the best birds of the trip, a fine Orange-breasted Falcon that was perched in a tree behind Temple Two, one of a pair that had established a nest in the area.

We were grateful for their willingness to share their discoveries, and regretted parting company so soon.

Day Four, March 6th, 2006:

Once more, we arrived brutally early at the gate at Tikal and were again derided by the Blue-crowned Mot-mots; we stopped at one of the comedoras for a quick breakfast, a choice we were to regret not long afterwards. Many of the birds seen over the course of the morning were the same as the previous day’s, but early on we enjoyed much better looks at a Crested Guan calmly foraging on the trail just ahead of us. We felt that we’d heard the song of the Rufous Mourner the day before, and were very pleased to luck across an individual that was part of a small foraging flock, just a few feet over our heads; its proximity allowed us to eliminate the look-alike Rufous Piha and Speckled Mourner.

Other new birds for the trip were a flock of Olive-throated Parakeets feeding in a fruiting tree by the parking lot, White-bellied Emerald, Violaceous Trogon, Red-throated Ant-tanager, and marvelous, up-close views of both male and female Rufous-tailed Jacamars. A pair of Roadside Hawks maintained a raucous presence near the Grand Plaza. More familiar North American nesting species included Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Ovenbird (fairly common), Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler (also fairly common), Magnolia Warbler (very common), Yellow Warbler, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, House Wren (very common), Yellow-throated Vireo, and White-eyed Vireo (everywhere).

We were forced to cut our last day at Tikal short due to illness (see the section on Hazards and Discomforts, below); our disappointment was almost as severe as our discomfort as we slumped into our beds in the late afternoon. Normally we stampeded off to our meals and ate like horses, but we didn’t even bother to ask each other about dinner that miserable evening.

Day Five, March 7th, 2006:

After a long night of battling fever, shivering and other nasty symptoms, we arose comparatively late, and shakily began preparing for our return to Belize. We felt sufficiently restored after breakfast to visit El Cerro Cahui, a sizeable forest reserve just a mile or so east from El Remate, on the north shore of Lake Peten. The lateness of the hour and our slow pace didn’t afford us a great variety of birds, but along the lake we saw Pied-billed Grebe and Great Egret, and observed at close range a pair of Mangrove Swallows and their nest, situated under the dock. The waters of Lake Peten are very clear and inviting, and Steve and I took a few minutes to soak our abused feet. The best bird in the forest reserve was a Smoky-brown Woodpecker, in addition to many species already tallied at Tikal, and the only Least Flycatcher of the trip that we felt confident enough to identify.

The return trip along the rough road to the border crossing wasn’t quite as intimidating as before, but we were a little fuzzy during our departure formalities at the border, and it seemed like we were mired in molasses for a while. Once underway in Belize, we negotiated the route to our destination in Mountain Pine Ridge well enough, stopping twice on the Cristo Rey Road to assist a stranded motorist, and to prospect a promising patch of broadleaf jungle. We dipped completely and disgracefully on a flock of yellow and black finch-like birds that flushed from the roadside at the passing of our vehicle; we guessed them to be Black-headed Siskins. Steve sighted a beautiful Rufous-capped Warbler by way of a consolation prize, but Doug, still struggling with a painful headache, sat the stop out. The Rufous-capped was foraging low to the ground in roadside weeds, much like a Common Yellowthroat, and we got good looks at a Long-billed Hermit and a Long-billed Gnatwren, too.

About the time we were wondering where the pine trees were, we entered signature Pine Ridge habitat, and stopped again to admire a drop-dead magnificent Swallow-tailed Kite in flight, and a perched Laughing Falcon. Just a short while afterwards, we were at the drive of the Pine Ridge Lodge; I was a little taken aback at first, because from the road, there was little to distinguish the Lodge from the local farmsteads we saw on the way, but we discovered that it was a little like Through the Looking Glass, becoming more and more interesting as we began to explore.

To our great good fortune, our visit to the Pine Ridge Lodge was just what we needed after our travail in Guatemala; owner-manager Vicki Seewald scooped us up and fussed over us like a mother hen, and we loved every minute of it. There are no noisy generators to provide electricity at the Pine Ridge Lodge; the cozy palapas are lit by numerous kerosene lanterns, and, characteristic of Vicki’s charming and well-practiced welcoming spiel, is the hands-on instruction for lighting and operating them: this might seem silly and trivial, but the simple life ain’t so simple, as the lyric goes. We also enjoyed our first really hot showers since the beginning of the trip, too, after another short lesson on point-of-use water heaters. There is a short birding trail across the road from the entrance to the lodge, and we enjoyed great views of Acorn Woodpeckers during our pre-dinner walk, and saw Hepatic Tanagers at the bird feeding area in front of the dining hall.

Dinner was very tasty and filling, pork loin with mashed potatoes and a savory-sweet vegetable reduction. The nights can get very cool in Mountain Pine Ridge, and we went off to our palapa that evening with an armload of blankets anticipating a low around 52 degrees, and marveling at the brightness of the stars in the night sky.

Day Six, March 8th, 2006:

Surprisingly, we awoke early the next morning, and spent some time exploring the handsome gardens on the property prior to breakfast; the soils in Mountain Pine Ridge are very poor, and many of the many wonderful plants decorating the grounds of the Pine Ridge Lodge flourish in soil that was laboriously trucked in by hand. We enjoyed watching improbably colorful Green Jays coming in to the feeding area, and several Gray Catbirds were always in the vicinity. We were fortunate to see some striking Yellow-backed Orioles and an Azure-crowned Hummingbird, the only life birds for us in the area; the only Chipping Sparrows seen on the trip were tallied here as well.

We were still washed out from our illness; Doug Allen had declined dinner the night before, going to bed on just a cup of soup, but had improved greatly by morning and gamely met the day in spite of a severe and persistent headache. We found out there was a waterfall on the property, so as the day warmed, we made our way down the trail with our swim trunks, enjoying a marvelous view of the forested horizon as we hiked along. Our visit to Santos Falls was another indicator that the trip was looking up; the shockingly cold water pouring down on our heads and backs was exhilarating, and did wonders to help clear our heads and appreciate the beautiful vistas and isolation of the region.

We remained at the Pine Ridge Lodge for lunch, and were back on the road again by the early afternoon. We made one more stop at the place where we’d seen the Rufous-capped Warbler the day before, but bird activity was absent except for a Greenish Elaenia, and the song of a bird that was later determined to be a Thrushlike Schiffornis.

We drove out of the Mountain Pine Ridge area by way of the Chiquibul Road and regained the Western Highway at Georgeville; we drove as far east as Belmopan and then enjoyed the famous scenery of the Hummingbird Highway as we made our way southwards for the Placencia Peninsula. Hour after hour, the steep-sided, razor-ridged, jungle-shrouded mountains rose up dramatically on both sides of the highway; in the relatively level valleys, it was harvest-time for the citrus orchards, and there were people bagging grapefruit among the trees and trucks full of fruit and laborers plying the road. We made good time until reaching the unpaved road for Placencia; from there, it was very slow-going through well over twenty miles of dust and pot-holes. By late afternoon we finally arrived at Placencia Village and checked in at the Sea Spray Hotel for the night.

Day Seven, March 9th, 2006:

This was our scheduled rest day, an opportunity for us to dig our toes into the sand and recharge. Placencia Village is possessed of some of the best beaches to be found along the entire Belizean coast; consequently, it is undergoing aggressive development and has probably lost the backwater charm it once enjoyed. Still, the waters are warm and clear, and the breezes off the ocean are very pleasant. The beach sand is surprisingly coarse, almost like fine gravel, and there are sandflies to contend with occasionally; the coastal cousins of the accursed Mountain Pine Ridge bot‘las.

During our stay on the peninsula, we enjoyed viewing Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds, Great Blue, Little Blue, Green and Tricolored Herons, several Ospreys, the first Spotted Sandpipers of the trip, many Lauging Gulls, great views of loafing Royal and Sandwich Terns, some Common Ground-doves near the hotel, the only Cinnamon Hummingbird for the trip, Yellow-winged Tanager, Black-cowled Oriole, and a small group of House Sparrows residing under the canopy of the Shell gas station at the south end of the village. Double-crested Cormorants were conclusively identified through the spotting scope, right down to the double crest plumes. Yellow-throated and Wilson’s Warblers, and American Redstarts frequented the trees and bushes around the hotel.

Day Eight, March 10th, 2006:

We left Placencia Village at sunrise with Doug behind the wheel, taking about forty-five minutes to negotiate the twenty miles of rough road back to the Southern Highway, arriving at Maya Center shortly afterwards. Maya Center is the gateway to the Cockscomb Basin, a large forest reserve in the Maya Mountains; while waiting for the gift shop/ticket sales desk to open, we wandered across the street to the “Tropical Butterfly Farm”. The man that was watering the garden began casually pointing out to us, sans binoculars, some really stunning birds that were coming in to the crown of a flowering tree, like Green Honeycreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Crimson-collared Tanager. This sharp-eyed, bird-savvy individual was William Sho, and when we asked him how he knew the birds so well, he simply replied, “It’s what I do; I’m a guide.”

We knew we were still a little off our pace, and recognized a great opportunity in William; we hired him on the spot and off we went into the jungle. It’s six miles from Maya Center to the ranger station on an increasingly narrow, winding and rough road, but it was well worth the hard ride; while afoot we accumulated a long and respectable list of species that included Plumbeous Kite, Plain Chachalaca, Blue Ground-dove, Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermits, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Black-headed and Violaceous Trogons, Blue-crowned Mot-mot, Pale-billed and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, the trip’s only Barred Antshrikes (male and female), the engaging Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Tropical Pewee, Rufous Mourner, Piratic Flycatcher, Thrushlike Schiffornis, the spectacular Golden-Hooded and Passerini’s Tanagers, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Blue-black Grassquit, Thick-billed Seedfinch, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Buff-throated and Black-headed Saltators, Black-faced Grosbeak and Montezuma Oropendola.

At one point on our hike in the jungle, William halted abruptly and with urgent gestures, he directed our attention to a Great Tinamou nervously stepping through the trailside undergrowth; our pleasure over the find defied description. We were amazed by the White-collared Manakin’s loud wing-snapping display; it sounds like big, fat high-voltage electrical arc! These birds are fairly common and gratifyingly easy to hear, but are diminutive and inconspicuous at rest. I likened the hoarse whistle of the Yellow-bellied Elaenia to a hokey B-movie shriek, only shorter and not as loud.

Our time at Cockscomb Basin was the most productive since our visit to Tikal, largely due to the expertise of our practiced guide. Before leaving, we returned to William’s Tropical Butterfly Farm, to look at his Owl Butterflies and Blue Morpho chrysalises. If your time is short and you want to make the most of the birds at Cockscomb, give William Sho a call on his cellphone, 501-608-0995, ask for him at the Maya Center gift shop, or just walk across the street and see if he’s in the garden.

We left Cockscomb Basin in mid-afternoon for our lodgings in Sittee River Village; the southern leg of the Sittee River Village-Hopkins loop is well-paved, and we loitered along as we drove westwards, keeping an eye to a vast savanna-like pasture on the north side of the road. Aloft, a large white stork-like bird in the distance caught our eyes, and at first we took it to be a Wood Stork, but upon closer inspection it proved to be a Jabiru; there was no black in the wings at all, and when the light was right, the red throat patch was visible. We lost the bird as it dropped into a distant paddock, but began inspecting the area with renewed interest, and a pair of American Kestrels were discerned.

We arrived at Toucan Sittee in the late afternoon, a very pleasant lodge located on the banks of the Sittee River. Next to the great cooking and warm hospitality, one of the greatest features of the property are the two water gardens near the owners’ residence. Each of these gardens are richly adorned with aquatic plants and a fountain, and we were astounded at the quantity of birds we saw coming in to drink and bathe; we’d already seen most of the same species during the course of the day at Cockscomb, but it was great fun to simply sit in the shade, bug repellant in hand, and allow the parade of tanagers, warblers, orioles and vireos come to us, instead of us chasing them. Across the river, a bird kept repeating a loud “Ow! Oww!”, and we finally got brave enough to call it a Collared Forest-falcon; we never did see it, but heard it much better the next morning. The only Black-crowned Tityra for the trip flew in near sunset and perched high in the trees over the fountains, and just before retiring we heard a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks piping as they rushed downriver.

It had been a great day!

Day Nine, March 11th, 2006:

After breakfast in the riverside palapa, we lingered awhile on the grounds at Toucan Sittee before driving north for Mayflower-Bocawina National Park. An American Pygmy Kingfisher showed itself briefly along the river, the Collared Forest-falcon called repeatedly, out of sight on the opposite bank, and a small flock of Collared Aracaris perched in the trees over the fountains.

We bid our hosts farewell and headed back to the Southern Highway, stopping once more to scan the vast savanna, and were rewarded with the sight of a White-tailed Hawk perched in the distance, and occasionally taking wing; we saw our first Fork-tailed Flycatchers in this area, another species that exemplifies the tropically exotic: long tail plumes describing elegant curlicues in the air as they sally forth from the bare limbs of the tallest trees. The appearance of a White-tailed Kite added greatly to our pleasure.

The jungle habitat in Mayflower-Bocawina National Park is very similar to Cockscomb Basin, though it doesn’t seem as well-attended; the ranger at the forest station said that a busy day saw six or seven visitors, and we met no other tourists there during our visit. We hiked about a mile and a half to beautiful Bocawina Falls, and enjoyed a revivifying swim; the return hike was made much more pleasant as a result. We saw a huge damselfly while at the pool; it seemed as big as a child’s toy, almost unreal. One of the three best birds of the morning hike was a Cinnamon Becard we saw near Mama Noot’s Resort, and shortly after that we found an Orange-billed Sparrow in the dim recesses of a trailside thicket; we ferreted out a Blue-black Grosbeak on the return leg. We also discovered another Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, more Piratic Flycatchers, zapping White-collared Manakins, and polychromatic Golden-hooded Tanagers; to cap off the morning, a long-awaited Slaty-tailed Trogon turned up over the picnic tables near the ranger station, just as we were preparing to leave.

In the afternoon, we set off for Crooked Tree Village by way of the Coastal (or Manatee) Highway, and sighted a couple of Aplomado Falcons just north of Gales’ Point. We arrived early enough that evening at Crooked Tree to spend some time birding around the Bird’s Eye View Resort, and get a good look at their resident avian celebrity, a Southern Lapwing that has been a constant feature for the last two years in the marshy area just behind the hotel. Southern Lapwings are usually at their northernmost limit in Costa Rica, and we were delighted with our good luck in being afforded many great views of this magnificent vagrant, even though our sleep was broken more than once by its tendency to call raucously in the wee hours, right outside our open window.

Day Ten, March 12th, 2006:

Crooked Tree’s main attraction is the large freshwater Southern Lagoon, a dry-season lodestone for great numbers of herons, shorebirds and raptors. In the extreme dry season of 2005, the lagoons virtually disappeared; it was said that a car could be driven from the Bird’s Eye View all the way across to the eastern shore, a phenomenon not seen since the mid-1970’s; in marked contrast, the tail end of the fall 2005 hurricane season and unusually heavy rains in mid-January, 2006 had filled the lagoons to near-record levels, and we were told that the water was three feet above what was considered normal for the month of March. A constant strong wind had been blowing out of the east for days, also considered unusual by the locals.

Though we missed out on the anticipated heron bonanza, our visit to Crooked Tree was still satisfying and productive; we took the boat tour led by our practiced and genial guide Felipe, and were fortunate to view several Boat-billed Herons and a handsome Black-collared Hawk. We were told that Agami and Bare-throated Tiger Herons had just started to show up in the area, but we’ll have to visit again in order to tally these eagerly sought-after species. A Bright-rumped Atila was singing from a large tree by the Bird’s Eye View as we boated along the western shore, and a Mangrove Vireo was heard shortly afterwards.

The first Neotropic Cormorants of the trip were examined at length; Common Moorhens, American Coots and Limpkins foraged in the drowned vegetation; Anhingas were seen frequently in flight over the area, and Pied-billed Grebes, Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons were common; immature Yellow-crowned Night-herons had been seen and heard in the early evening of the day before. Ringed, Belted and Green Kingfishers were tallied; several Ospreys, a couple of Common Black-hawks and a Short-tailed Hawk rounded out the raptor offering. The only Red-winged Blackbird seen on the entire trip, a female, was seen perched atop a clump of marsh vegetation.

After the four-hour boat tour, we began our exploration of Crooked Tree Village; Crooked Tree Village and Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary are one and the same; most of the “trails” are also the village’s roads and lanes, though the Limpkin Trail traverses some nice shoreline habitat between the Sanctuary visitor’s center and the Bird’s Eye View to the south. The Crooked Tree Sanctuary visitor’s center is the first building on the right upon entering the village; the daily $5.00 US entrance fee is collected here, and maps and information are readily available.

The shoreline section of the Limpkin Trail offered warblers such as Tennessee, Magnolia, many Yellow-rumpeds, Black-and-white, Worm-eating, Hooded, Wilson’s, Northern Waterthrush and American Redstart; also a Lesser Greenlet and a few Summer Tanagers. White and Glossy Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills and Blue-winged Teal gathered in the marsh behind the Bird’s Eye View for convenient observation, and shorebirds like Killdeer, Northern Jacana, and Spotted and Least Sandpipers patrolled the mucky margins. Gray-breasted Martins and Mangrove Swallows swooped over the resort and perched on the rooftop aerials. Vermilion Flycatchers are very common throughout the village, nearly abundant; the males were constantly catching our eyes as they perched on the roadside fences. Groove-billed Anis were also plentiful, allowing close approach as they foraged in the ditches and yards.

We ended the day with a night-hike led by Felipe, and added a trilling Vermiculated Screech-owl to our life lists; Common Pauraques called, and we enjoyed the loud chorusing of tropical amphibians ringing forth from a pond in a horse paddock.

Day Eleven, March 13th, 2006:

Our final day in Belize; our plane didn’t depart until mid-afternoon, allowing us to explore the village some more. We were given a reliable location for Yucatan Jays in the north end of the village, and found them flying about in a residential yard; in addition, some Plain Chachalacas, Ruddy Ground-doves, and a Gray-necked Wood-rail were sighted. We enjoyed viewing a good-sized flock of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks in a large marsh, and took the time to admire the blooming cashews, the “crooked tree” from which the village takes its name; the scent of the blossoms was everywhere.

We paid a final visit to the Sanctuary visitor’s center and took seats on the wide veranda overlooking the lagoon; it was very pleasant to sit and enjoy the breeze and watch Fork-tailed Flycatchers flying from one perch to the next in the tops of the submerged shoreline bushes. A Snail Kite appeared from the north, affording us lengthy views as it made several passes over the opposite shore, and we studied the Gull-billed and Caspian Terns as they swept by. During our short time afoot , we also found a Gray-headed Tanager, a Yellow-throated Euphonia, a Grayish Saltator, and added Northern Parula to the list of warblers seen along the Limpkin Trail, and while checking out of the Bird’s Eye View, I had a good look at Yellow-throated Warbler of the subspecies dominica, as it worked the treetops next to the second floor patio; the yellow lores were very apparent, and the bird’s bill was noticeably long and heavy. Pheasant Cuckoo might be a possibility in the area; Felipe called Steve’s attention to the calls of a bird that he attributed to this species, though Steve was a little skeptical.

The day-and-a-half spent in Crooked Tree was a superb way to end the trip, and as pleased as we were with our visit there, we can only wonder how it would have been, had the water levels been lower and more favorable for concentrating the waders, and if there had been milder winds. It’s our hope to find out, on the next trip!


Airlines and Airfares:

Steve Dunbar did the shopping for the airfares, and found a roundtrip ticket offered by Delta for $543.39 through At the end of the trip we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the price of the fare included the much-maligned $37.50 (US) Belizean departure tax. We flew out of Indianapolis and changed planes at Atlanta-Hartsfield. On our way to Belize, we had a three-hour layover at Atlanta, which was very luxurious in retrospect; on our return trip, Delta gave us an hour-and-a-half to go through Security and Customs, baggage re-check and transit to the departure gate, all in the midst of an unusually heavy crush of Monday evening travellers. We hustled through re-entry, only to find that the departure gate had been changed and was at the other end of the concourse. Fortunately for us, the flight back to Indiana had been delayed due to bad weather, and we even had time to grab a sandwich before the plane departed. I was very relieved that the Agriculture Department didn’t pull any of us out of the line in order to perform a comprehensive search.

Car Rental and Driving Conditions:

We reserved a 2000 Chevy Tracker online from Crystal Auto Rentals  several weeks in advance, in order to lock in the rental rate and ensure that a vehicle would be available. The car rental agencies are conveniently located right across from the main entrance to Phillip S.W. Goldson Airport. Lucio Landero was our contact person, and he did a great job of answering all of our e-mails and making the arrangements. We did NOT buy the collision insurance that they offered, because we felt comfortable enough with Steve’s credit card car rental insurance policy coverage, but be advised that all such policies are not the same; I couldn’t use my credit card because the car rental insurance policy was only good when the vehicle was to be driven over a “bound surface”, like concrete or asphalt; heavy trucks hauling logs or citrus over notoriously “unbound” surfaces like the Coastal (or Manatee) Highway can fire a rock off a windshield like a rifle round, one of many possible unpleasant circumstances that the rental agents are quick to point out. When in doubt, buy their collision insurance. If you are anything less than a skillful and alert driver, buy their collision insurance.

Steve showed great presence of mind at the rental car pick-up and walk-through; he took digital pictures of the worst of the existing dings and damage on the vehicle, as evidence against any claim upon return; a wise precaution.

Crystal is the only agency in Belize that will allow their rental vehicles across the Guatemalan border, and only as far west as Flores/Santa Elena. Crystal’s collision insurance lapses once the car crosses over into Guatemala, and there isn’t any insurance available at the border crossing; once again, if you are anything less than a skillful and alert driver, you might want to consider other available transportation to Tikal, such as the public buses, or a guided tour.

There was some desultory roadwork underway at one point along the route in Guatemala from the border crossing at Melchor de Mencos to Puente Ixlu (“El Cruce”), but by and large the road is forty miles of washboard and potholes; we dropped into one particularly impressive crater that practically had me counting “One thousand one, one thousand two…” before we rebounded off the bottom and slammed against the opposite wall, generating a loud chorus of coarse expletives and many anxious glances at the dashboard gauges. Fortunately, this route is wide, relatively level and straight, as is the route from the Southern Highway down to Placencia Village.

The Cristo Rey and Chiquibul Roads in Mountain Pine Ridge are hilly, narrow, winding and also very rough; ditto for the access roads into the Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve and the Mayflower-Bocawina National Park. The Coastal (or Manatee) Highway was open when we traversed it, but I will echo the sentiments of the seasoned travelers that pass through the area: the Hummingbird Highway is longer, but probably takes the same amount of time as the Coastal Highway because of the reduced speed due to the rough conditions. The Coastal Highway is still very scenic, and less traveled than the Hummingbird; it passes through some of the same steep, jungle-encrusted mountain range, and there are some nice areas of pine savanna closer to Gales Point; we saw a couple of Aplomado Falcons from the car in this area.

The south leg of the Hopkins-Sittee River Village loop and the “Burrell Boom Bypass” (that section of road east of the Northern Highway to Burrell Boom, then south down to Hattieville on the Western Highway that allows a very convenient detour around Belize City) were the only paved side roads we encountered during the entire trip; also, the roads are generally paved for a short distance wherever they pass through a village or a small town. The infamous “sleeping policemen”, the topes, also known as vibradores, tumulos, or simply BUMP, are common to every village on every route in Belize and Guatemala. Unlike Yucatan, they are generally prominently signed, but it’s always prudent to assume you’ll encounter them on the approach to any village or hamlet, and slow down to a comfortable speed for negotiating them.

Free-ranging livestock are another possible hazard; nearly everywhere we traveled in Belize and Guatemala, we were seldom out of sight of the horses tethered out to graze along the shoulder of the way, and in Crooked Tree Village, the horses pretty much go wherever they wish. A couple of pigs contested the right-of-way one afternoon on our way back to El Remate from Tikal. Surprisingly, hostile dogs were completely absent on this trip.

Unless you are absolutely sure that most, if not all, of your rental car travels in Belize will be along paved routes like the four major highways (the Northern, Western, Southern and Hummingbird), don’t rent anything less than a four-wheel-drive high-clearance vehicle; you’ll be glad you did. The unpaved routes also take more travel time, sometimes as much as twice what the same distance would take here in the U.S., at least until you become accustomed to the conditions. On the gravel roads, give way to the heavy trucks, even to the point of pulling over to let them pass by; it could save a cracked windshield.

There’s a particular way to execute a left turn off of any of Belize’s paved highways; if there is traffic coming up behind you, they ask that you signal your left turn like usual, but pull off on the right shoulder of the highway,. Once the traffic has passed and the road behind and in front of you is clear, then execute your turn from the shoulder. It feels a little odd at first, but it’s a small inconvenience, considering how little traffic there is in Belize.

Gasoline was US $4.65 per gallon at the time of our visit.

During our stay at the Pine Ridge Lodge, we met a charming young couple from Boston, Alan and Alyssa; they were birding and photographing birds and regaled us with their hilarious description of a pothole that ate their car while enroute to Caracol; the road simply dropped out from under them, and landfall was so violent that it launched the petite Alyssa completely out of her seat, the ceiling of the car cramming her head down between her shoulders while camera lenses and water bottles flew through the air, sort of like zero-gee astronaut practice in the hold of a plummeting cargo plane. No harm done to the girl or the car, and a good road story to relate as a result.

Hazards and Discomforts:

The open road is likely the biggest hazard in Belize; the number one cause of death in the country are vehicle accidents. See previous paragraph.

Neither Steve nor Doug saw the first mosquito during our visit; I noticed only three or four. We did encounter some chiggers, so be careful to treat your legs and feet with repellant before walking through roadside weeds, or weedy, brushy pastures. There’s one particularly nasty pest that most of the Belize Websites studiously neglect to mention, for the very good reason that they’ll scare off the customers: in Mountain Pine Ridge, they are the bot’las (“bottle-ass”), or along the coast, the sandfly. Very like the black fly (or “punk” or “no-see-um”) of the North Woods, these legions of barely visible biting flies fasten upon untreated skin and each of them leave an angry red, swollen and persistent welt that itches like a Biblical torment. Garden-variety insect repellant of at least 25% DEET works just fine, but coverage needs to be very thorough, because the little bastards will find the one square inch of skin you neglect; both of my elbows were lumpy, irritated masses of irksome bites. Wear a hat, because they will burrow down through your hair to get at the scalp. Fortunately, they are most active only in the early morning and at sundown, preferring to retire during the heat of the day, and at night. I don’t know if they are more prevalent during the rainy season or not; I hope not.

It was the dry season; partly to mostly sunny everywhere we visited, with daily high temperatures in the mid-eighties Fahrenheit. The month of March in Belize receives the least amount of rainfall of any month of the year, but it can still rain; it rained a few times during our visit to Tikal, but nothing more than passing showers of fifteen minutes’ duration or less. The mid-day sun can be brutal; fair-skinned types beware, and pack your favorite sunscreen. A hat, sunglasses and a kerchief are very useful. It was pleasant in the shade during the heat of the day, especially when there was a breeze; the humidity was quite tolerable. It dropped down into the mid-fifties Fahrenheit during our single night’s stay in Mountain Pine Ridge; don’t forget a jacket if you are lodging in this area. Pine Ridge Lodge will force huge piles of blankets off on you, and you will rest very cozily by lamplight. We hiked many miles almost daily, in our search for the birds; Doug and I both raised some blisters on our feet, and I forsook my hiking boots for sandals by the third day.

All three of us became very ill during the second full day of our stay in Guatemala; we all felt fine upon arising early Monday morning, March 6th, but by the late morning, Steve Dunbar began to feel bad enough that he quit birding and retired to the shade to rest; by the mid-afternoon, I definitely began to feel rough, and called for the end of the day’s activities, and by the evening Doug Allen was stricken. The severity of the symptoms varied for each individual, but all three of us were very tired, sore in the muscles or joints, queasy, afflicted with stomach cramps and loose bowels, and suffering from bad headaches; it took Doug a miserable thirty hours before his head ceased pounding, and his eyes were sensitive to bright sunlight for a while afterwards. Our sleep that night was broken by frequent bouts of high fever, chills and fits of shivering.

We had all traveled to Mexico before, and all of us agreed that this was not your average case of Montezuma’s revenge; we worked backwards and decided that our malaise had originated with a fruit platter that all three of us consumed for breakfast that morning; even though they were peeled and sliced, they were apparently tainted with some variety of food poisoning from unclean hands or kitchen surfaces. Twelve to fourteen hours of sleep restored us to a somewhat upright stance, but we were still very weak for several days afterwards.

Doug and Steve handled their ailment like real troopers; I never heard them gripe once, though there were a few instances when they expressed some awe and wonderment at how unexpectedly and thoroughly lousy they felt. By the final three days of our trip, we’d begun to feel much better, nearly normal, after some regular sleep and good Belizean food. In Belize, the food is very wholesome, and the water can be drunk directly from the tap; if you stay where the tap water isn’t perfectly potable, the Belizeans will tell you so. All of the rules change when you cross the Guatemalan border; be particularly vigilant of everything you consume. Partake of well-cooked foods, drink only bottled beverages and water, and use only bottled water for brushing your teeth. And stay away from the plato de frutas.


I made advance reservations for our stay at every one of the hotels and lodges on our itinerary, for three very good reasons: March is considered the busiest month of the high season, and even though some rooms might still be available on short notice, such second-pick rooms might not be as comfortable or desirable; also, none of the three of us really wanted to sleep two-to-a-bed, so the three-bed requirement needed some research and reservations, because triple-occupancy rooms aren‘t nearly as readily available as double-occupancy quarters.

Finally, the last thing I wanted to do was pull into an unfamiliar town and start canvassing for a place to stay after a long day afoot in the bush. Most places we stayed had double-occupancy vacancies, but we did notice that any kind of walk-up lodging was hard to come by in the popular beach village of Placencia. At least one inn on the Placencia Peninsula is loath to let a room for just one or two nights’ duration; they preferred to book a minimum of a week’s stay. In idyllic Placencia Village, most lodgings seem to be tailored for the “romantic getaway”, and it was difficult to find anything except double-occupancies. I had to put one of our group in a room to himself, and the other two of us in another; even so, the price for two days’ stay was still reasonable.

The lodgings we enjoyed most in Belize, in no particular order, were the Mountain Pine Ridge Lodge, Toucan Sittee, Bird’s Eye View Resort, and the Banana Bank Lodge; Toucan Sittee and the Bird’s Eye View were particularly good values for the money. All of these fine properties offered comfortable and attractive quarters, excellent meals, friendly service, beautifully planted grounds and, most importantly, had great birding habitat near at hand. Our first-choice lodgings in El Remate, Guatemala was La Casa de Don David, but this fine facility was booked up at the time that I was placing our reservations, another good argument for placing reservations well in advance of arrival. We stayed at Las Gardenias, a somewhat spare but clean and comfortable hotel right in the center of El Remate; Juan at the desk speaks excellent English, and was very helpful. We took our meals down the street at La Casa de Don David’s restaurant.

Exchange Rates:

The Belizean dollar is still pegged to the U.S. dollar, two-to-one, and in Belize, the U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere. At the border crossing in Guatemala, the moneychangers were giving 7.3 quetzals for the U.S. dollar, and I think that the hotels in El Remate were giving a little less, maybe Q7.2 to $1. Guatemalans prefer payment in quetzales; for instance, the gate fee at Tikal is payable only in quetzales, so it’s a good idea to go ahead and buy up enough from the moneychangers at the border crossing to at least pay for the border crossing fees. The hotels in El Remate and Flores/Santa Elena will gladly exchange currency, too. Keep in mind that when you return to Belize from Guatemala, the moneychangers will convert your quetzales back to Belize dollars, not U.S. greenbacks.

Crossing into Guatemala:

Belize levies an $18.75 US departure tax upon any tourist exiting their country at the border crossing at Melchor de Mencos. >From there, things can get a little confusing; once the passports have been examined and the departure fees collected, the luggage has to be removed from the car and walked through the customs and inspection station, while the car is driven through the gate by the designated driver. Then the Guatemalan entry process begins, and it’s a little daunting because none of the border officials deign to speak English; Doug Allen wisely pointed out to me that it’s a good idea to keep one’s temper and desist from muttering curses or imprecations under your breath in front of the officials, because they could very suddenly and inopportunely understand English very well.

We lucked out and enjoyed the assistance of one of the moneychangers; once we got over our apprehensions about getting our pockets picked, the young man steered us to the right officials for getting our passports stamped and the rental vehicle approved for entry, and all three of us made sure he received ample gratuities. There’s a noticeable shifting of cultural gears upon leaving Belize; the standard of living drops markedly, and the border guards display their firearms prominently. The key is to stay relaxed, patient, and polite, and soon enough you’ll be through; I think that we entered Guatemala after about forty minutes of processing, and it took about an hour to leave Guatemala and re-enter Belize.

Surprisingly Useful Stuff:

At Wal-mart, there are these handy little packets of Magnivision pre-moistened lens cleaning tissues, twenty-five for ninety-seven cents. I took a packet along with me on this trip, and I was amazed at how well they clean up fouled lenses: sticky sunscreen, bug repellant, copious fat-birder sweat, it cuts all the usual crud and oily residues, with the exception of maybe axle grease or used chewing gum. Remember, remove the omnipresent road dust before you begin grinding away at the optical coatings; I employed the classic cookie-crumb decontamination trick, and simply licked the dust off the oculars. It will definitely earn an odd look if practiced in public; perhaps it’s how I contracted the case of foul-bowel, but that still fails to address cross-contamination. I would never have consented to allow Steve or Doug to lick my binoculars, nor would I admit to licking theirs.

What We’d Have Done Differently:

Just like many other first-time visitors to Belize, we tried to cover too much ground, and for good reason; there are so many sights to see, and little time to see them. Our trip served well as an introduction to several different areas, but on the next trip to Belize, we’ll probably choose just two, maybe three places to lodge, and explore the surrounding areas more thoroughly and leisurely.

Placencia Village is a great place to visit, but in retrospect, we all agreed that we if we’d remained in the Mountain Pine Ridge area for another two full days, we could have explored sites such as Caracol or Hidden Valley Falls, and seen a much greater variety of birds.


Belize is broadband from one end to the other, and there is reasonably priced Internet access everywhere; it was the same in El Remate, Guatemala.

Travelers to Belize and Guatemala might find it easier to communicate through an e-mail account with Yahoo!, MSN, AOL or a similar provider, instead of their local ISP.

Total Trip Costs:

In the early stages of planning the trip, I threw out a rough estimate of a total cost of $1600 per person for the visit, and that estimate held up amazingly well by the time we’d returned home. We shared the costs for lodgings and some meals, and the auto rental and fuel; thorough research, planning and advance reservations made for a reasonably economical and comfortable journey, even in the high season, and we experienced no unanticipated expenditures such as a car repair or double-bookings.

Recommended Reading

Field Guides and Checklists:

The field guide of choice for birding in Belize is H. Lee Jones’ Birds of Belize; this was the first book we consulted in the field. Peterson and Chalif’s Mexican Birds was also used, and Howell and Webb’s classic doorstop volume, The Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, was hauled out in the evening to provide more details. None of us were brave enough to mutilate our field guides (especially Howell & Webb), and cut the weighty text away from the color plates, but it’s a good way to reduce the load when afield. Though we didn’t bring a copy along, the casual birder in Belize might find E. P. Edwards’ field guide a good choice; it’s inexpensive and considerably more portable than Jones or Howell. All titles are easily available over the Internet from ABA Sales, Buteo Books, and the like, or from the bookstore chains like Borders or Barnes & Noble.

Steve Dunbar compiled a great ten-day checklist spreadsheet that we used for our daily tallies; other field-worthy checklists are listed below.

The Birds of Belize, by H. Lee Jones; illustrated by Dana Gardner. University of Texas Press 2003, 317 pp.

A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, by Steve N. G. Howell and Sophie Webb. The Oxford University Press, 1995; 851 pp.

A Field Guide to Mexican Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson and Edward L. Chalif. The Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973; 298 pp.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas: Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, by Ernest Preston Edwards; principal illustrator Edward Murrell Butler. The University of Texas Press, 1998; 209 pp.

A Checklist of the Birds of Mexico and Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, by Bill Principe. Bird Processing Electronic Publishers, 1999; 32 pp., ten columns.

Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Belize, H. Lee Jones and A.C. Vallely. Lynx Edicions, 2001; 71 pp., eight columns. Available at some of the sanctuary and forest reserve visitors’ centers, and in the duty-free shops at Phillip S.W. Goldson Airport.

Checklist of the Birds of Belize, by D. Scott Wood, Robert C. Leberman and Dora Weyer.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Special Publication No. 12, 1986; 22 pp., three columns.

Checklist of the Birds of Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula, plus Tikal and Palenque, by Ernest Preston Edwards and Ramiel Papish; 2004.


Bird Sounds and Songs: More than once, we found ourselves wishing we’d begun study of Belizean bird vocalizations as soon as we’d decided to take the trip; buy at least one of these recordings and start listening the minute you know you’re going! We never did see a Thrushlike Schiffornis, but we knew it from its distinctive song.

A Birdwalk at Chan Chich, by John V. Moore; cassette tape, Astral Sounds Recording, 2000. Our favorite recording.

Bird Songs of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, by Dale Delaney; cassette tape, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 1992. Also very good; useful for many species outside Belize and the vicinity of Tikal, Guatemala.

Bird Songs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Southwestern Texas, by Geoffrey A. Keller; compact disc, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2000. Different takes on the more common species.

Bird Songs of Southeastern Arizona and Southern Texas, by Geoffrey A. Keller; cassette tape, Sora Recording Company, 1988

Travel Handbooks, Maps, General References:

Travel handbooks are revised regularly, sometimes annually, so hold out for the most recently published copy you can find. Still, businesses change management or go bust; prices, fees, policies and regulations can change, and so on. Augment the travel handbook information with online resources to keep as current as possible.

The Rough Guide to Belize, Peter Eltringham; 3rd edition, 2004. Very detailed, accurate, and readable.

Lonely Planet Belize, by Carolyn Miller Carlstroem and Debra Miller; 1st edition, May 2002.

Moon Handbooks Belize, by Chicki Mallan and Patti Lange; 5th edition, 2001.

Insight Guide Belize, 2nd edition, 2000; 341 pp. Richly illustrated, full of historical and local detail.

Insight Map Belize, 1:560,000. Durable laminated flexi-map; includes eastern Guatemala, handy for the Tikal side trip.

ITMB Belize, International Travel Maps; 1:250,000. A paper map, so keep it away from the coffee; better detail at this scale.

Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotraveller’s Wildlife Guide, by Les Beletsky. Academic Press-Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999; 487 pp. A combined, abbreviated field guide to the more common plants, amphibians & reptiles, birds, mammals and coral reef fishes of the area; also includes descriptions and photographs of habitats. Very handy.

Web-based Resources:

There seems to be no end to the amount of online information available on nearly aspect of Belize; I’ve listed what I consider to be the best.

Birding the Americas Trip Report Repository

The Belize Tourism Board 

Toucan Trail 

The Belize Forums 

The Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC) 

Banana Bank Lodge 

Mountain Pine Ridge Lodge 

Toucan Sittee 

Bird’s Eye View Resort 


Thanks to my wife for tolerating my long research sessions in front of the computer all winter long, and for holding down the fort during my absence; I’m also grateful that my two children didn’t drive my wife off into the deep end while I was gone. Many thanks to Steve Dunbar’s friends Chris and Bob; Chris for arising brutally early to ship us out, and Bob for staying up late to come and fetch us. Steve Dunbar did most of the shopping for the airfares, and very graciously charged the plane tickets and the rental car to his credit card on our behalf. Doug Allen is a fount of knowledge on matters Mexican and Central American, and Steve and I relied on his experience and command of Spanish frequently; he is also very well-read, an engaging conversationalist, and enlivened many an after-dinner chat with his anecdotes; during the entire trip we continually and thoroughly sullied the reputation of venerable founding father Alexander Hamilton after Doug related some of the more salacious excerpts from an audio book he’d listened to recently. Like on past trips, you’d have had to have been there.

TRIP LIST -- The Birds of Belize and Tikal

March 3rd - 13th, 2006

Great Tinamou Tinamus major

Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps

Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus

Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus

Anhinga Anhinga anhinga

Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

Great Egret Ardea alba

Snowy Egret Egretta thula

Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea

Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor

Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis

Green Heron Butorides virescens

Yellow-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax

Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius

White Ibis Eudocimus albus

Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus

Roseate Spoonbill Ajaia ajaja

Jabiru Jabiru mycteria

Wood Stork Mycteria americana

Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

Black-bellied Whistling Duck Dendrocygnus autumnalis

Blue-winged Teal Anas discors

Osprey Pandion haliaetus

Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus

White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus

Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis

Plumbeous Kite Ictinia plumbea

Black-collared Hawk Busarellus nigricollis

Common Black-hawk Buteogallus anthracinus

Roadside Hawk Buteo magnirostris

Short-tailed Hawk Buteo brachyurus

White-tailed Hawk Buteo albicaudatus

Collared Forest-falcon (heard) Micrastur semitorquatus

Laughing Falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans

American Kestrel Falco sparverius

Aplomado Falcon Falco femoralis

Orange-breasted Falcon Falco deiroleucus

Plain Chachalaca Ortalis vetula

Crested Guan Penelope purpurascens

Great Curassow Crax rubra

Ocellated Turkey Meleagris ocellata

Gray-necked Wood-rail Aramides axillaris

Purple Gallinule Porphyrula martinica

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus

American Coot Fulica americana

Limpkin Aramus guarauna

Southern Lapwing Vanellus chilensis

Killdeer Charadrius vociferus

Northern Jacana Jacana spinosa

Solitary Sandpiper Tringa solitaria

Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia

Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla

Laughing Gull Larus atricilla

Gull-billed Tern Sterna nilotica

Caspian Tern Sterna caspia

Royal Tern Sterna maxima

Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis

Rock Pigeon Columba livia

Pale-vented Pigeon Columba cayennensis

Short-billed Pigeon Columba nigrirostris

Common Ground-dove Columbina passerina

Ruddy Ground-Dove Columbina talpacoti

Blue Ground-Dove (heard) Claravis pretiosa

White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi

Olive-throated Parakeet Aratinga nana

White-fronted Parrot Amazona aurifrons

Red-lored Parrot Amazona autumnalis

Mealy Parrot Amazona farinosa

Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana

Groove-billed Ani Crotophaga sulcirostris

Vermiculated Screech-Owl (heard) Otus guatemalae

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium brasilianum

Common Pauraque Nyctidromus albicollis

Stripe-throated Hermit Phaethornis striigularis

Long-billed Hermit Phaethornis longirostris

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird Phaeocroa cuvieri

White-bellied Emerald Amazilia candida

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Amazilia tzacatl

Cinnamon Hummingbird Amaziliz rutila

Black-headed Trogon Trogon melanocephalus

Violaceous Trogon Trogon violaceus

Slaty-tailed Trogon Trogon massena

Blue-crowned Mot-mot Momotus momota

Ringed Kingfisher Ceryle torquata

Belted Kingfisher Ceryle alcyon

Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana

American Pygmy Kingfisher Choroceryle aenea

Rufous-tailed Jacamar Galbula ruficauda

Collared Aracari Pteroglossus torquatus

Keel-billed Toucan Ramphastos sulfuratus

Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus

Golden-fronted Woodpecker Melanerpes aurifrons

Smoky-brown Woodpecker Veniliornis fumigatus

Golden-olive Woodpecker Piculus rubiginosus

Lineated Woodpecker Dryocopus lineatus

Pale-billed Woodpecker Campephilus guatemalensis

Rufous-breasted Spinetail Synallaxix erythrothorax

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner Automolus ochrolaemus

Tawny-winged Woodcreeper Dendrocincla anabatina

Olivaceous Woodcreeper Sittasomus griseicapillus

Strong-billed Wood-creeper (heard) Xiphocolaptes promeropirhynchus

Barred Antshrike Thamnophilus doliatus

Dot-winged Antwren Microrhopias quixensis

Dusky Antbird Cercomacra tyrannina

Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet Ornithion semiflavum

Greenish Elaenia Myiopagis virdidcata

Yellow-bellied Elaenia Elaenia flavogaster

Northern Bentbill Oncostoma cinereigulare

Eye-ringed Flatbill Rhynchocyclus brevirostris

Yellow-Olive Flycatcher Tolmomyias sulphurescens

Stub-tailed Spadebill Platyrinchus cancrominus

Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher Myiobius sulphureipygius

Tropical Pewee Contopus cinereus

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher Empidonax flaviventris

Least Flycatcher Empidonax minimus

Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus

Bright-rumped Attila Attila spadiceus

Rufous Mourner Rhytipterna holerythra

Dusky-capped Flycatcher Myiarchus tuberculifer

Great-crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus

Great Kiskadee Pitangus sulphuratus

Boat-billed Flycatcher Megarynchus pitangua

Social Flycatcher Myiozetetes similis

Piratic Flycatcher Legatus leucocephalus

Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus

Couch’s Kingbird Tyrannus couchii

Fork-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus savanna

Thrushlike Schiffornis (heard) Schiffornis turdinus

Cinnamon Becard Pachyrhamphus cinnamomeus

Masked Tityra Tityra semifasciata

Black-crowned Tityra Tityra inquisitor

White-collared Manakin Manacus candei

White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus

Mangrove Vireo Vireo pallens

Yellow-throated Vireo Vireo flavifrons

Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus

Tawny-crowned Greenlet Hylophilus ochraceiceps

Lesser Greenlet Hylophilus decurtatus

Green Jay Cyancorax yncas

Brown Jay Cyanocorax morio

Yucatan Jay Cyanocorax yucatanicus

Purple Martin Progne subis

Gray-breasted Martin Progne chalybea

Mangrove Swallow Tachycineta albilinea

Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx ridgwayi

Band-backed Wren Campylorhyncus zonatus

Spot-breasted Wren Thryothorus maculipectus

Plain Wren Thryothorus modestus

House Wren Troglodytes aedon

White-bellied Wren Uropsila leucogastra

Long-billed Gnatwren Rhamphocaenus melanurus

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerula

Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina

Clay-colored Robin Turdus grayi

Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis

Tropical Mockingbird Mimus gilvus

Golden-winged Warbler Vermivora chrysoptera

Blue-winged Warbler Vermivora pinus

Tennessee Warbler Vermivora peregrina

Northern Parula Parula Americana

Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia

Chestnut-sided Warbler Dendroica pensylvanica

Magnolia Warbler Dendroica magnolia

Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata

Black-throated Green Warbler Dendroica virens

Yellow-throated Warbler Dendroica dominica

Black-and-White Warbler Dendroica varia

American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla

Worm-eating Warbler Helmitheros vermivorus

Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapillus

Northern Waterthrush Seiurus novaboracensis

Louisiana Waterthrush Seiurus motacilla

Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas

Hooded Warbler Wilsonia citrina

Wilson’s Warbler Wilsonia pusilla

Rufous-capped Warbler Basileuterus rufifrons

Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens

Gray-headed Tanager Eucometis penicillata

Red-crowned Ant-tanager Habia rubica

Red-throated Ant-tanager Habia fuscicauda

Hepatic Tanager Piranga flava

Summer Tanager Piranga rubra

Golden-hooded Tanager Tangara larvata

Crimson-collared Tanager Ramphocelus sanguinolentus

Passerini’s Tanager Ramphocelus passerinii

Blue-gray Tanager Thraupis episcopus

Yellow-winged Tanager Thraupis abbas

Yellow-throated Euphonia Euphonia hirundinacea

Green Honeycreeper Chlorophanes spiza

Red-legged Honeycreeper Cyanerpes cyaneus

Blue-black Grassquit Volatinia jacarina

White-collared Seedeater Sporophila torqueola

Thick-billed Seedfinch Oryzoborus funereus

Yellow-faced Grassquit Tiaris olivacea

Orange-billed Sparrow Arremon aurantiirostris

Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina

Grayish Saltator Saltator coerulescens

Buff-throated Saltator Saltator maximus

Black-headed Saltator Saltator atriceps

Black-faced Grosbeak Caryothraustes poliogaster

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

Blue-black Grosbeak Cyancompsa cyanoides

Blue Grosbeak Guiraca caerulea

Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea

Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus

Melodious Blackbird Dives dives

Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus

Black-cowled Oriole Icterus prosthemelas

Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius

Hooded Oriole Icterus cucullatus

Yellow-backed Oriole Icterus chrysater

Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula

Montezuma Oropendola Psarocolius montezuma

House Sparrow Passer domesticus

Two hundred eighteen (218) species.

Dan Leach
Bedford, IN
dleach AT

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