For those birders who've never before ventured south of the US border, or for those who prefer their tropical experiences to be short and super sweet, the small Central American country of Belize offers an ideal birding destination. With a diversity of species that includes many in families associated with the New World tropics, a rich assortment of habitats in which to search for them, plus minimal time spent traveling -- four nights at one lodge, three at the other, with a short charter flight between the two -- our revamped Belize tour offers a truly engaging tropical experience.
We'll begin the tour at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, which has a simple, yet elegant, main building and comfortable thatched cabanas perched on the shores of Crab-catcher Lagoon, part of the largest body of freshwater in Belize. In the early morning, troops of chachalacas, toucans, aracaris, and parrots roam through the trees on the grounds, while the roaring calls of Yucatan Howler Monkeys echo from the nearby forest. The lodge sits less than a mile from the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, an extensive, largely unexcavated site that sprawls along the western shore of the lagoon. Trails lead from the lodge into the ruins, where there is a rich assortment of birds typically found in the tropical hardwood forests of western Belize and the Peten region of Guatemala.
The village of Indian Church lies just down the road from the lodge. Here, open milpas (agricultural fields) and second-growth scrub are home to an assortment of birds not found in the forest, including the attractive Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhite. Interspersed among these other habitats are tracts of pine savanna with a different set of interesting birds, including seldom-encountered Yellow-headed Parrots, White-tailed Hawk, Buff-bellied and Azure-crowned hummingbirds, Yucatan Woodpecker, Yucatan Flycatcher, Yucatan Jay, Gray-throated Chat, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Botteri's Sparrow, and the impressive Jabiru. And, of course, the lagoon and its tributaries are home to another suite of birds, including Limpkin, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Sungrebe, and Black Catbird.
Our trip takes on a whole new flavor when we transfer to our next base: Hidden Valley Inn on the Mountain Pine Ridge in south-central Belize. Here, dry Caribbean Pine forest dominates, with more humid, tropical vegetation restricted to river courses and draws. The pine forest is home to a group of birds perhaps unexpected in Belize -- Rusty Sparrow, Grace's Warbler, Plain Wren, and Acorn Woodpecker, to name a few. From viewpoints high above the adjacent countryside (including the overlook for the evocatively named Thousand Foot Falls), we'll scan cliffs for King Vulture and the rare Orange-breasted Falcon. The humid valley forests host a high diversity of species, many already mentioned above, but including tinamous, curassows, forest-falcons, trogons, White-whiskered Puffbird, Tody Motmot, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, many flycatchers, Black-faced (Mayan) Antthrush, Dusky Antbird, Gray-collared Becard, and more.
Hidden Valley Inn is located in a very strategic spot to take advantage of these habitats -- we can see a large number of these species right on the grounds, but we can just as easily take a quick ride to nearby sites that will offer us more chances for great birding! The inn itself is quaint and comfortable, and the grounds always seem to have something to see just outside our rooms. On one of our days here, we'll venture further afield to the Mayan ruins of Caracol, which sit in an extensive belt of good forest right near the Guatemalan border. The site is home to hundreds of species, many of which are also found around Lamanai, but some of which are found only in more intact forests like the one around Caracol.
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