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Belize - part I
February 2024

    Itinerary:
   
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
    San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
    Hidden Valley Environmental Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge
    Cockscomb Basin Reserve
    Tropical Education Center and Belize Zoo Lodge


Synopsis

By comparison to previous trips, our plans and reservations for Belize were made only a couple of months in advance (compared to our usual 6 months or more when planning international travel). Our itinerary, with the help from friends' advice, came together and we were able to piece together a plan that would touch on places in the northern half of the small country. We picked Belize because of the direct flight that recently became available, because it is an English speaking country (easier to get around), and because of the variety of environments and experiences (cultural, wildlife opportunities, and birding) it offers. We also needed some warmth and sunshine to get us through the darkest days in the PNW winter. Belize is also a nice place to do some "relaxing" birding. With fewer species in each genus, it's not as intimidating or challenging to distinguish woodcreepers and tanagers. Belize offers the lite version of tropical in Central and South America. It's also a place where I don't feel the need to wrack up as many species as possible. Instead, I can slow down to enjoy the birds.

Aside from trying not to think about the recent incident of a hole blowing open in the side of an airplane, the flight was comfortable and fast. Compared to flying over the Pacific Ocean, flying south for 5 hours non-stop was easy. It was so easy that we arrived at the airport ahead of our driver. But our driver, Leonard, did arrive and he was very friendly and courteous. He was also a Creole local guide, who pointed out the birds just along the airport fence line as we were leaving. Without leaving the airport grounds, we saw Wire-tailed, Vermillion, and Social Flycatchers. Cattle and Great Egrets hunted in the tall marshy grass. Leonard also gave us a brief history and introduction to Belize, something I read ahead of time, but was nice to hear from a local point of view. Leonard drove us northward along the 2-lane road over the "sleeping policemen," aka speed bumps that generally marked entering small towns, through agricultural lands and small patches of palms and broadleaf forest. We crossed the newly-paved causeway to Crooked Tree as the sunset glowed pink over the lagoon waters. As the evening settled in, we arrived at our first destination: Birds Eye Lodge.

Crooked Tree and Birds Eye Lodge

For the next 2 days and 3 nights, Birds Eye Lodge was our home base. Our first floor room of the lodge smelled strongly of mothballs and bleach. It wasn't the most pleasant smell, but the bleach was probably necessary to deal with the frequent flooding. The bed stand, floors, and the bottom half of the walls were completely tiled - making cleaning up easier when the lagoon rises and floods the first floor of the lodge, which apparently happens every rainy season. The mothball or pesticide smell seemed to be applied frequently to keep the rooms sterile for the guest. Personally, I'd prefer live bugs and brain cells over the dead bugs on the bed and the damage done to my nervous system. Aside from the smell of the rooms, the lodge was a great place to be in Crooked Tree. The lodge offered bird, wildlife, and cultural tours of the lagoon and surrounding areas daily. The lodge also had a decent dining hall that served buffet style meals. The menu varied daily and was satisfying and delicious Belizean fare of beans and rice with chicken, fish, or pork. Fry jack, fruit, and bacon were offered for breakfast. The outdoor seating area was appropriately named the "Yellow-throated Warbler Lounge" for the warbler that boldly frequented the area during the day.

One morning, we took the birding boat tour with several other tourists. Our guide took us along the lagoon while pointing out all the common residents: Ringed Kingfishers, Green Herons, Snail Kites, Neotropical Cormorants, and Northern Jacanas. A Black-collared Hawk sunned itself in the rising sun. Up a smaller creek, we traveled weed-choked waters where a Boat-billed Heron colony roosted in the mangroves lining the canal. A pair of White-necked Puffbirds perched upright on the treetop and a Crane Hawk eyed us warily. A pair of Amazon Kingfishers rattled their call before diving into the mangroves. Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-herons flew across the creek as the roar of the boat's engine flushed them from stalking their prey. A Morelet's crocodile and its young bathed in the morning sun's rays.

We also visited the lagoon by boat in the dark on a night safari. Leonard was our guide for the evening as we traveled across the lagoon watching his spotlight sweep across the water. Upon catching the glint of eyeshine, we'd motor closer to the crocodiles. The crocodiles would usually duck under the water when the boat got too near, but on a couple of occasions, we got fairly close to the reptiles. We also traveled up Black Creek - a creek that changes directions depending on the water level of the lagoon. However, the "cold snap" that they were experiencing (which was just barely 70F) cooled down the water enough that the crocodiles remained in the lagoon and not in Black Creek where they are typically more abundant. In the lagoon, Leonard also found a dwarf porcupine in the treetops and a Northern Potoo staring out from its perch. The large eyeshine was indicative of the potoo despite it being a great distance away from the river. On the water, we also saw the impressively large bulldog (fish) bats, small fruit bats, and even smaller insect-eating bats. We watched as they flew through the beam of the spotlight to hawk the insects.

In the afternoon, we walked through town up to the Audubon office where two short trails started. Unfortunately, they were flooded at the time, so we could only go a short distance. The water level during this time of year is typically lower, but a very late and intense rainy season meant the water was still high. The walk through town produced many birds, including Common Tody-Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Wood Stork, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. The campground adjacent to the lodge was also productive for birding. In the mornings, Olive-throated Parakeets called from the tops of flowering trees. Mangrove Vireo, American Redstart, Black-and-White and Magnolia Warblers searched the foliage for insects. Black-cowled and Orchard Orioles and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds feed in the planted hibiscus hedges. A small troupe of Black Howler Monkeys browsed on freshly sprouted leaves in an open tree.

While at Crooked Tree, we spent one day on a tour of the nearby Mayan ruins at Lamanai. A driver took us to the Orange Walk boat launch where we met the tour guide, Becky, a local who grew up in Lamanai, and a small group of tourists. As we started down the river, rain drops began to splatter down, soon it turned to a downpour. I was grateful to have brought my rain jacket, but my seat quickly soaked up the collecting water. The rain shower didn't stop our guide from pointing out the leaf-nosed bats roosting on a tree trunk or a crocodile resting on a log. Thankfully the shower didn't last too long and the clouds lightened up. We passed a Mennonite community that was actively building two barges. Their craftsmanship was quite impressive. The river opened up to a large lagoon, and we could see one excavated temple towering above the jungle. After docking, we followed our guide through the dense jungle to the various temples, including the Jaguar, High, and Mask temples. A newly excavated unnamed temple was not nearly as formidable as the others. It lacked the decorations and height. We learned about how the temples were changed over time by the different rulers and how they made attempts to save them from the natural forces of the jungle, which eroded and ate away at the structures. All the tour groups at Lamanai were beautifully orchestrated so we were the only small group of 8 tourists at a temple. We also managed to leave right as a large group from one of the cruise ships came pouring down the path. On the return trip up the river, Becky pointed out a Jabiru sitting in a distant tree above the lagoon. She also pointed out a pair of Great Curassows, a roosting Lesser Nighthawk, and another basking crocodile. The tour was a great introduction to the area and it would have been interesting to stay at one of the nearby lodges to explore the area more.

continue onto part II or skip to part III

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