Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Blogging Belizean Birds

Natalia and I defended our dissertations last month (!); I'm sure you can guess what we did to celebrate.

We set this trip in motion last fall, whimsically looking around for the cheapest flights to promising birding destinations. The clear winner was Belize City;  $350 r/t from Durham was just too good to pass up.

As it turns out Belize is no slouch for birding--even for the relatively seasoned neotropical birder. We hadn't birded all that much in Central America, so the eBird targets function gave us each a nice hit list of 80+.

We focused our birding effort in the northwest corner of the country in the Orange Walk District.

From the airport we went straight to the community of Crooked Tree, which hosts a mixture of dry forest habitats including some pine savanna.  Most birders opt for the lagoon boat tour which offers great opportunities to photograph aquatic birds. A year or two ago the prospect of Agami Herons, Jabirus and Whistling-Ducks would have been irresistible for this wetland scientist, but since all our targets were land birds, skipping the boat to prowl the pine savannas for Yucatan endemics was our choice.

Yucatan Woodpecker - Crooked Tree, Belize
We found that the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker were pleasantly plentiful and easy to see along the roadside of the Trogon Trail (a road).

Yucatan Woodpecker - Crooked Tree, Belize

Confusingly there are also the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, which are in the same genus and are completely lacking any golden color.  The Yucatan Woodpeckers DO have gold around the bill.  This was so counter-intuitive that I at first assumed these similar birds were mis-labeled in the plates of Birds of Belize.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker, identified by the lack of any golden coloration - Crooked Tree, Belize

The Yucatan isn't a huge region for endemics by South American or Greater Antilles standards, with a dozen or so specialties, depending upon how generous one is with defining the region.  Several of these don't even make it into Belize and a couple more are nocturnal caprimuligids, too difficult even for the American Birding Association's Birders Guide to Belize to devote serious attention.

After knocking out the woodpecker, we lucked into the forgettable Yucatan Flycatcher, one of those myiarchus flycatcher dopplegangers.

The boring Yucatan Flycatcher - Crooked Tree, Belize

But the biggest prize at Crooked Tree was the charming Yucatan Jay, which was near the top of my target list for this trip.

Yucatan Jay (adult) - Crooked Tree, Belize
This jay is one of those rare birds where the immatures are better-looking than the adults.

Yucatan Jay (immature) - Crooked Tree, Belize

In the large flock we passed we even got to see a couple adolescents caught in that awkward transitional phase between immature and adult plumage.

Yucatan Jays ('tweeners) - Crooked Tree, Belize
It turns out Belize is also a gold mine for neotropical migrants, which in mid-March are in a pre-migration hyperphagic mania.

Orchard Oriole (adult male) - Crooked Tree, Belize

We ended up logging 22 warblers during the trip; spring migration (which for birders in eastern North America might as well be Christmas) came early for us this year.

Hooded Warbler - Crooked Tree, Belize

If you're interested in birding Crooked Tree, I'd highly recommend the Crooked Tree Lodge. It's reasonably-priced, family-owned and the food is excellent.  If you go, bring bug repellent and watch out for chiggers.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Crooked Tree
Plain Chachalacas - Crooked Tree

Rose-throated Becard at power pole nest hole - Crooked Tree


After a night at Crooked Tree we continued north along the Philip Goldson Highway to Orange Walk Town where we ate lunch before veering west.

We stopped off at some extensive rice fields.  I was hoping for a Bronzed Cowbird.

Jabirus made for a nice consolation.

Jabiru - Gallon Jug Road rice fields

Our ultimate destination was the pristine forest of the Rio Bravo Conservation Area in the extreme northwest of Belize, crammed into an armpit between Mexico and Guatemala, but we had planned to spend a night at a B&B in the Mennonite community along the highway.

It's a bit disorienting to be traveling through a country of English-speaking Mayans and Afro-Belizeans and then stumble upon a Kansas-like landscape of white Dutch-speakers with overalls and cowboy hats. We ended up missing out on getting an inside scoop on the local history because the B&B owners were out of the country.  Luckily we were able to get ourselves beds in the vacant researcher dorm at La Milpa Lodge where we were going to be staying the following two nights anyway. The dorm was nearly as nice as the cabana we moved into and, after some aggressive haggling, ended up costing half as much.

La Milpa was packed with a large group of birders from Massachusetts Audubon, so we had a chance to swap stories over meals.  The day before we arrived they had lucked out with a Crested Eagle, but without even hiring a local guide, Natalia and I were able to pick up a lot of the birds they had missed.

One example is this curious Crested Guan that lumbered around in a tree at close range.

Crested Guan - La Milpa

We saw quite a few birds at La Milpa, but other than the compost dump, which acts almost like a permanent ant swarm, the birding was a bit slow. 

There were a few odd things about staying at La Milpa as a birder: 1) They make you have breakfast at 7:30, which eats up the best possible hour for birding; 2) the local guides charge by the 'segment,' with a segment being either pre-breakfast, 10-noon (lunch), or 3:30-6 (dinner). After talking with the guides we weren't blown away with what they had to say and so were not tempted to break the bank with a full day's worth of guiding fees.

We hired Francisco for an afternoon, partly out of sympathy (we do like to support the local guides) and partly because he alluded to a Central American Pygmy-Owl stake out. We birded the Mayan ruins with him, which was nice because he also was knowledgeable about the ongoing archeological research. He was also familiar with most of the local bird vocalizations which helped us tick off some target species.  Unfortunately the pygmy-owl was a bust.

Collared Trogon - La Milpa

We woke up pre-dawn our second morning at La Milpa to drive down for a day at the swanky Chan Chich Lodge, built atop the grand plaza of an un-excavated ancient Mayan city. I don't know what it is about Chan Chich--perhaps it was because we happened to be there on Natalia's birthday--but whatever the reason, the birding there was far superior to La Milpa.

With little effort wandering around the lodge grounds before breakfast (which we were glad to find could be served any time during a 2 hour window) we spotted a few of our most-desired targets, including gems such as: Black-throated Shrike-Tanager and Black-faced Grosbeak.

Black-throated Shrike-Tanager - Chan Chich

Red-capped Manakin (of Michael Jackson youtube video fame) were plentiful in the fruiting bushes of Chan Chich

Other eye candy came in the form of this Golden-hooded Tanager - Chan Chich

We were then faced with a bit of conundrum.  We came across a good-sized army ant swarm (which is a birder's gold mine), just 20 minutes before the last call for breakfast. Stay and skip breakfast, or not? We ending up opting for breakfast, but at the last minute and not before enjoying some great views of attendant ant-tanagers, woodcreepers and my first ever sighting of a Bright-rumped Attila, a bird whose loud song had so often taunted me from the deep woods of Ecuador and Colombia.

Bright-rumped Attila, a common bird that's uncommonly seen - Chan Chich

After breakfast we prowled the bottomlands and eventually came across Natalia's birthday present along the Bajo trail, a Gray-throated Chat!

Gray-throated Chat - Chan Chich

This small-ranged bird is one less she has to find on her quest to see the all the world's pink(ish) birds. Finding it came with some personal vindication, as the La Milpa guides said it couldn't be found in the area; they recommended some other lodge that was not on our itinerary.

One of the birds I most wanted to see on this trip, the near-threatened, gaudy and yucatan endemic, Ocellated Turkey turned out to be a trash bird at Chan Chich.  We had been thrilled to spot one lurking at the forest edge of the La Milpa Mayan site, but at Chan Chich, grandiose males prowled the grassy lawns, defiant to approach and menacing with their spurs and testosterone.

Ocellated Turkey, near-threatened Yucatan Endemic and local yard bird at Chan Chich

How does it see with all those warts covering the eye?

We even got caught in a standoff with one territorial male on the drive down.  After some fancy maneuvering I was able to coax our rented Equinox past him. At this point a dinosaur-SUV chase ensued reminiscent of the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park.

Angry Ocellated Turkey; note deadly-looking spurs - road to Chan Chich
During the afternoon doldrums we drove our way back toward La Milpa with a few stops here and there in futile hopes of scoring a glimpse of the highly desired and extremely improbable Lovely Cotinga. Instead we were rewarded for our patient ears with the long-winded and lonely checkpoint guard by one final lifer for Natalia's birthday: a Black-cowled Oriole.

Much shyer than the turkeys were the Great Curassows, but we did see a few along the road between La Milpa and Chan Chich, including this male

We found just a handful of new trip birds on our final morning at La Milpa. Since it seemed as if we were hitting diminishing returns we weren't too sad to leave, especially since our next destination was Ambergris Caye for some diving!

We spent most of our final Belize days underwater looking for sharks, rays and sea turtles, but we rented a golf cart one afternoon to explore and bird the mangrove habitats north of San Pedro.  We were rewarded with three more Yucatan endemics: the Yucatan Vireo, Orange Oriole and Black Catbird.

Black Catbird - Ambergris Caye

As a bonus I finally spotted a Bronzed Cowbird.

It was a fun and birdy trip! We logged 225 species in about 4 days of birding and each picked up 40+ lifers. Unfortunately Natalia left Belize 4 life birds short of 2000; poor thing will now have to cope with having her 2000th be some bland Eurasian species.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Linda! Goes to show how much digital cameras have improved. I don't consider myself much of a photographer. These were all taken with a point-and-shoot.