VACATION GUIDE TO BELIZE BIRDING WITH BIRDWATCHING SITES & HABITATS
A Diversity of Color & Sound ...
Belize’s impressive number of bird species is a result of the diverse habitats that cover its territory. The country has over 70 kinds of forests which cover 70% of the land. Furthermore, 40% of the land and sea are under protected status. As a result, Belize has over 540 species of birds and is also the winter home to many migrants from North American such as baltimore orioles and many species of wood warblers. Unusual birds like the jabiru stork, the largest in the Western Hemisphere with a height of 5 feet, can be found here. Other endangered species include keel-billed toucans (the national bird), blue-crowned motmots and orange-breasted falcons. The harpy eagle, the largest eagle in the world with a wingspan of 7 feet, has also been spotted. Birding throughout the country can be combined with many activities such as canoeing down rivers, horseback riding, visiting Mayan ruins, hiking through the jungle or simply sitting on the deck of your jungle lodge. Birds are the least shy of the wildlife in the jungle, making birding a fun experience for everyone. And for serious birders, over 100 species can be spotted in just a couple of days, including rare ones. So with little more than a Birds of Belize field guide and a pair of binoculars, you are ready to begin your birding experience in Belize.
You will see birds anywhere you travel in the country, but some areas are particularly known for their birdlife. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is comprised of waterways and lagoons where you might spot the yucatan jay, the unique snail kite and elusive species like the sungrebe, agami heron and jabiru stork. A day at the ruins of Lamanai, accessed by boat through the New River, may yield sightings of the northern jacana, pygmy kingfisher, blue-crowned motmot, collared aracari toucan and occasionally a purple gallinule. At another ruin, Caracol, you may spot rare birds such as keel-billed motmots, crested guans, great curassows and hapry eagles. The Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve is covered primarily by pine forests, which makes it a good destination for unique birds such as yellow faced grassquits, golden hooded tanagers, rufous-capped warblers and orange-breasted falcons. The Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve has over 300 bird species including the emerald toucanet, king vulture and keel billed toucan. Out at sea, Half Moon Caye on Lighthouse Reef Atoll harbors about 4,000 red-footed booby birds; such booby colonies are rare in the Caribbean. Man-O-War Caye, off the southern coast, is a small bird sanctuary, home to a significant nesting colony of magnificent frigate birds and brown boobies.
Learning about the behavior and evolution of birds complements the experience of enjoying their colorful plumage and songs. Typical of tropical birds is their brilliant plumage. As opposed to North American birds where males are more colorful than females, in the tropics both sexes are equally colorful. The more colorful birds inhabit the forest canopy and open savannahs. Birds that inhabit the dimly lit undergrowth wear dark colors with striped patterns; for example, the barred antshrike and dotted-wing antwren have contrasting areas of white and black that are normally concealed, but exposed during display. Bird songs are just as intriguing as their coloration. Many of Belize’s birds are fine songsters. Melodious blackbirds, rufous-tailed jacamaras, trogons and the tinamous are known for their elaborate songs. At times, birds are identified only by their songs and calls. Blackbirds are a good example of how learning bird evolution adds to the birding experience. Most birds have strong muscles to close their bills; however blackbirds evolved strong muscles to open their bills allowing them to search for food in soil, roots, wood etc. As a result, they were able to exploit almost every environment in the New World. Seventeen of the 94 blackbird species live in Belize such as orioles, orependolas and grackles.
Where to Go
Literally anywhere you go in Belize you will see a variety of birds. Destinations vary in the particular bird species which you may encounter which include many endangered birds as well as migratory birds during parts of the year. Below is a brief description of the birding in these different destinations that should help you in choosing where to go.
San Ignacio: Mountain Pine Ridge harbor over 300 bird species such as yellow faced grassquits, rufous-capped warblers, golden-hooded tanagers and orange-breasted falcons. The Macal River is home to black phoebes, social flycatchers, kingfishers and gray necked wood rails. Aguacate Lagoon (near the Mennonite community of Spanish Lookout) may yield species such as jacamaras, trogons, great curassows and a variety of hawks and falcons. The Maya ruin of Caracol lays in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve where harpy eagles have been spotted.
Caye Caulker: The northern part of the island (north of the Split) forms the terrestrial part of the Caye Caulker Forest and Marine Reserve. The mangrove forests along with a variety of other trees provide a variety of habitats for birds. Over 150 species or resident and migratory birds have been spotted. Rare birds such as the Caribbean elaenia and the rufous-necked woodrail, as well as unusual nesting birds such as the black catbirds and mangrove warbler can be seen. Hiking through the reserve or kayaking around the island are great for birding.
Orange Walk: There are over 400 species of birds recorded in this area; among the highest diversity in the country, making it a premier destination for birders. Habitats range from vast wetlands to broadleaf forests to pine savannahs which are all easily accessible. Regular sightings include the northern potoo, Yucatan nightjar, common paraque and nighthawk, grey-necked wood rail, sugrebe and agami heron. Night hikes may yield elusive nocturnal birds. Spotting over 200 species in just 3 days is not unusual here.
Punta Gorda: Like Orange Walk, Punta Gorda has a very high diversity of birds with over 400 species, making it a premier destination for birders. This area has taken first place in recent years in the country’s annual bird count. The habitat is mainly broadleaf forests that are quite pristine. Regular sightings include subgrebes, herons, kingfishers, oropendolas, woodpeckers, and orioles. The relative silence of the pre-dawn is broken by the calls of chacalacas, parrots and paraqueets.
Dangriga: The primary birding location in this area is the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve with over 300 species have been recorded such as the keel-billed toucan, emerald toucanet and king vulture. Red Bank is known for harboring scarlet macaws between November and March. Walking along Sittee River Village and the Serpon Sugar Mill will yield a variety of birds. The Mayflower Bocawina National Park has over 200 bird species. Just off the coast is Man-O-War Caye, an important magnificent frigate bird and brown boobie nursery.
Belmopan: Several locations are good for birding in central Belize, with habitats ranging from broadleaf forests to pine savannahs. The Blue Hole National Park has a number of trails where you can spot unusual birds such as the white hawk, spotted-wood quail, crested guans, keel-billed toucans and slaty-tailed trogons. The Five Blues Lake Park is another good birding spot where you can see a variety of waterfowl. Over 100 species have been recorded in the Guanacaste Park such as the blue-crowned motmot, black-faced ant-thrush and squirrel cuckoo.
Atolls: Half Moon Caye, on Lighthouse Reef Atoll, is home to the endangered Red Footed Booby – rare because of its white plumage instead of the normal brown. There are approximately 4,000 boobies on the island. Such booby colonies are rare in the Caribbean. A visit to this island is usually included in dive or snorkeling trips to this atoll. A few other waterfowl and wading birds can be seen in and around the islands of all the atolls.
Placencia: The Placencia Lagoon lays between the peninsula and mainland. It is comprised of mangrove forests and shallow grass beds. A variety of waterfowl and wading birds can be spotted here including the jabiru stork. Laughing Bird Caye was named after the Laughing Gulls that nest on the island; it is usually included in dive or snorkel trips to this marine reserve. For a larger diversity of birds you can head north to the Cockscomb and Mayflower Parks where you may spot emerald toucanets, keel-billed toucans, scarlet macaws among many others.
Belize City: A morning hike through the city will yield several dozen species. There are many locations nearby with excellent birding. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a premier birding location where you may see the sungrebe, agami heron, snail kite and jabiru stork. The Baboon Sanctuary was established to protect the howler monkey, but also harbors some 200 bird species. The Blue Hole National Park has a number of trails where you can spot unusual birds such as the white hawk, spotted-wood quail, crested guans and keel-billed toucans.