We spent 12 days in Belize, focusing on forest birding based at Black Rock Lodge near San Ignacio in Cayo District followed by a shorter stay at Jaguar Reef resort near Hopkins in Stan Creek District for visiting the Barrier Reef but also for some coastal birding. Having birded Yucatan and Palenque in nearby Mexico previously, I was keen to see what Belize had to offer and to fill some gaps in my bird-list - I was not disappointed. Our budget did not stretch to stays at the top-end eco-lodges such as Chan Chich but we found Black Rock Lodge to be an excellent alternative base with knowledgeable and helpful guides (especially Elvis and Giovanni for birds) and an extensive system of trails through varied habitat. We mostly birded independently but took a day-trip to Carocal via the Mountain Pine Ridge, which took in some different habitats plus went on a guided canoe trip down the Macal River (excellent for riverine species) and a guided night drive.
We saw a total of 259 species, including 51 personal lifers, plus a further 30 species during a brief stop-over in Houston, Texas. Key species seen included Sungrebe, Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Black Hawk-eagle, Orange-breasted Falcon, Collared Forest-falcon, Tody Motmot, Keel-billed Motmot, Plain Wren, Greater Peewee, Rose-throated Tanager, Black-throated Shrike-tanager, Green Shrike-vireo, Rusty Sparrow and Orange-billed Sparrow plus bonus presumed Yucatan Nightjar and Solitary Eagle. Apparently out of range birds included 2 Altamira Orioles at Jaguar Reef, 20+ White-winged Doves at Sittee River, Western Tanager at Black Rock Lodge, Pinnated Bittern at Hopkins and American Bitterns at both San Ignacio and Hopkins. The weather was mostly unseasonally wet and cool (La Nina?), including two full days and nights of heavy rain when we arrived but improved somewhat on the coast. Tinamous and other ground-dwelling forest birds were hard to locate as the forest floor was mostly damp (and many were not calling) - these are apparently much easier to see here during prolonged dry spells when the rustling leaf-litter gives them away.
We flew with Continental Airways from London, which stops off in Houston Texas for a night before heading down to Belize the following day. We arranged airport pick-ups and drop-offs through Black Rock Lodge, which all worked like clockwork, whilst the package at Jaguar Reef included return internal flights between Belize City and Dangriga plus vehicle transport to/from the hotel.
11 Feb: arrival at Houston airport and transfer to Doubletrees Hotel for late afternoon birding (good just around the hotel). Those with more time should take a taxi to the nearby Jesse H. Jones Park, which boasts breeding Swainson’s Warbler in summer amongst a wide range of commoner species
12 Feb: dawn transfer to Houston airport for flight to Belize City. Transfer to Black Rock Lodge via a lunch-stop in pine savannah habitat near Belize zoo
13 Feb: rained all day, focussed on feeders and immediate surrounds of Black Rock Lodge
14 Feb: birded the summit and vista loop trails at Black Rock
15 Feb: early morning birding at Back Rock, afternoon guided canoe trip down the Macal River to Chah Creek, evening guided night-drive towards San Ignacio from Black Rock
16 Feb: all day trip to the Mayan ruins at Caracol via stops in the Mountain Pine Ridge reserve
17 Feb: birded the bike trail and the Vacca Falls trail at Black Rock
18 Feb: birded the access track to Black Rock and the flower camp cave trail
19 Feb: early morning birding along un-named trail behind the orchard at Black Rock, transfer to Belize Airport via Belize zoo, internal flight to Dangriga and transfer to Jaguar Reef near Hopkins
20 Feb: early morning birding around Jaguar Reef, then lazy day on the beach
21 Feb: boat trip to South Water Key marine reserve for snorkelling on the Barrier Reef, late pm birding around Jaguar Reef
22 Feb: cycled to Sittee River from Jaguar Reef, birding the wet savannahs citrus groves and secondary forest
23 Feb: early morning bike-birding inland from Jaguar Reef, transfer to Dangriga for flight to Belize City and then back to London via short stop-over in Houston
The main sites we birded are listed below.
1) Black Rock Lodge area:
a) Immediate hotel grounds and feeding stations. The cabins of the lodge are set in tall forest overlooking a dramatic limestone-cliffed gorge, with well maintained paths past busy feeding stations. The main verandha is as good a place as any to sit and watch birds coming and going on the feeders and for scanning for overhead raptors and parrots. Regular birds at the feeders included Yellow-throated and Olive-backed Euphonias, Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, Black-cheeked and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Clay-coloured and Wood Thrushes, Blue-grey, Yellow-winged, Summer and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Grey Catbird, Black-cowled and Baltimore Orioles, Olive-backed Sparrow and occasional raids by noisy groups of Brown Jays. Collared Aracaris were regular early in the morning whilst the hummingbird feeders were dominated by territorial Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, although Purple-crowned Fairies and Long-billed Hermits were also present. A lone regular White-throated Thrush at the feeders was the only one of the trip, whilst Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts were nesting in the roof of the main verandah. The bare ground around the cabins was frequented by Ovenbirds, Hooded and Kentucky Warblers, with Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart and Black and white Warblers common in the trees plus less regular Chestnut-sided Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler. Both Red-capped and White-collared Manakins were present around the cabins, although males of both species were heavily outnumbered by females/immatures. The tall trees around the cabins also hosted Pale-billed and Lineated Woodpeckers, Violaceous and Black-headed Trogons, Squirrel Cuckoo, Masked Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, Rose-throated Becard and noisy visiting groups of Black-faced Grosbeaks. Woodcreepers around the Lodge included Olivaceous, Wedge-billed, Ivory-billed and Streak-headed Woodcreeper, whilst a small ant-swarm near the entrance road produced Northern Barred and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers as well as a bonus Black-throated Shrike-tanager. Flycatchers at the forest edge included Least, Yellow-olive and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers plus a regular pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds.
Late morning watches from the verandah produced regular King Vultures, Hook-billed Kites and a White Hawk, amongst the more numerous Black and Turkey Vultures, whilst at least one Orange-breasted Falcon frequented the tallest trees and limestone cliffs across the river. Parrots here were mostly noisy White-fronted Parrots, although quieter White-crowned Parrots were also regular together with Olive-throated Parakeets. Clouds of Vaux’s Swifts appeared on overcast days, whilst Keel-billed Toucans were sometimes seen here, albeit rather distantly.
The small orchard at the car park was always alive with birds and was the best place to see Emerald Toucanet, White-necked Jacobin, Green-breasted Mango (high in the trees), Common Tody-flycatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Grey Hawk and White-eyed Vireo and was the only place I saw Swainson’s Thrush.
b) Trails: there are wide selection of trails available (more than are present on the Lodge trail guide) and as ever they should all be checked out as they all produced different birds. Birds we didn’t see but which can be found here by the determined / lucky observer include Spotted Wood-quail and Pheasant Cuckoo.
River trails - The open trails that run south along the river were productive throughout the day for a wide range of forest-edge birds that included highlights such as Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Cinnamon Becard and Slaty-tailed Trogon as well as a ridiculously confiding Roadside Hawk. Large mixed flocks of buntings and seed-eaters frequented the horse-paddocks and vegetable plots including Blue Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Blue-back Grassquit and the localised Yellow-faced Grassquit in amongst hundreds of Indigo Buntings, whilst forest-edge hummingbirds included Scaly-breasted and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, White-bellied Emerald and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. A pool behind the vegetable plots held Grey-necked Wood-rail as well as a small Morelet’s Crocodile! An open hut containing discarded oranges close to the horse stables was a magnet for birds, involving dozens of Grey Catbirds, Yellow-breasted Chat, assorted warblers, thrushes, tanagers, including our only Grey-headed and WesternTanagers of the trip and somewhat incongruously several Spotted Sandpipers. Further south, the river trails enter some productive patches of taller forest where there were large mixed feeding flocks of orioles plus another Black-throated Shrike-tanager and just across the river a Collared Forest-falcon was regularly heard and seen well on one occasion. The River trails ends at Vaca Falls, but paths head uphill west from here into a patch of Pine forest with a dense understory, which held both Plain Wren and Orange-billed Sparrow – the latter responding well to a rather poor imitation of their calls.
Summit, Vista loop and Bike trails (plus un-named trail behind the orchard) – these trails run mostly through continuous forest including dense patches of palms and were most productive early in the morning. Regular parties of Red-crowned Ant-tanagers would start churring on approach, whilst flycatchers of the forest interior here included Northern Bentbill, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Slate-headed Tody-flycatcher and Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher. White-tipped Dove was regular on the paths, but I also managed to track down two Ruddy Quail-doves in dense palmed gullies. Small bird parties included regular Tropical Gnatcatcher, Long-billed Gnat-wren, Spot-breasted Wren, White-breasted Wood-wren, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Golden-crowned Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and occasional Plain Xenops, Dusky Antbird and Plain Antvireo together with commoner wintering warblers. Fruiting trees provided great views of Collared Aracaris and Keel-billed Toucans plus Black-headed Saltators, Yellow-billed Caciques and ubiquitous catbirds. We were surprised to find a Rose-throated Tanager in a bird party near the top of the summit trail as this seems well south of its normal range, although this species is apparently regularly seen at Black Rock. Best bird was Tody Motmot of which I flushed 1-2 different birds along the southern end of the bike trail - both flew with a rush of wings from a low perch close to the path only to land a short distance further on giving fantastic prolonged views. Skulkers were hard to come by, we saw no Tinamous or cracids and although we heard several Great Ant-shrikes we found these much harder to observe than for example in Trinidad. Churring and rustling of leaf-litter lead us to several Deppe’s Squirrels, whilst we also bumped into a Collared Anteater and two Jaguarundis.
Flower camp cave and Tipu trails – several trails head up into the forest away from the river from a short distance back along the entrance track. One leads to the unexcavated Mayan ruins of Tipu and a left fork from this takes you to Flower camp cave –a truly impressive limestone cave in the middle of the forest. The trails pass through mostly continuous forest, although there are also some more open areas. Additional birds seen here included Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Passerini’s Tanager and Grey-collared Becard with Speckled Pigeon calling in the first section of good forest, plus White-bellied Wren, Barred Ant-shrike, Blue-black Grosbeak and regular Red-throated Ant-tanagers in the denser secondary patches.
c) Macal River – this fast-running rocky river can be viewed in places from Black Rock for species such as Black Phoebe, Green and Amazon Kingfishers, both Northern and LouisianaWaterthrushes, White-necked Jacobin, Mangrove Swallow and Northern Roughwing. We had prolonged views of a Bare-throated Tiger-bittern just down from the Lodge, which flew across the river and perched in the open for some time before finally disappearing. However a canoe trip is thoroughly recommended with Elvis as he knows exactly where to look for species such as Boat-billed Heron and Sungrebe, plus regular raptors such as Great Black Hawk and Osprey. A surprising mix of forest birds can also be seen at close quarters as you cruise silently along. We saw large numbers of Montezuma Oropendolas and Keel-billed Toucans plus Yellow-tailed Orioles, as well as a wide range of herons/egrets including Yellow-crowned Night-heron plus Grey-necked Wood-rail and large numbers of Iguanas.
d) Entrance track – the track to Black Rock Lodge heads south off from the Western highway just southwest of San Ignacio and passes through a mix of habitats including open ranch-land, orange groves and patches of secondary forest before entering continuous taller forest along the Macal River closer to the Lodge. An obvious marshy pool on the right side of the track shortly after leaving the main highway was always worth checking and held 2 American Bitterns as well as Pied-billed Grebes, Red-winged Blackbird and a range of commoner egrets/herons, whilst a more formal lake before this held Northern Jacana. The ranchlands had a good range of common open-country species including White-tailed Kite, Groove-billed Ani and Giant Cowbird plus Grey-necked Wood-rail and Wood Stork in the wet patches, whilst the orange groves were good for Red-lored Parrot and Plain Chacalaca. A rather secondary-looking forest patch provided a real highlight in the form of a stonking Green Shrike-vireo in a bird party! This is also the area we visited on the night-drive – Northern Pottoo and Common Pauraque were easily seen, whilst owls include both Mottled and Spectacled Owl. Also present were 3 smaller nightjars which plumage-wise best-fitted Yucatan Nightjar, plus animals such as Striped Hog-nosed Skunk and Common Opossum.
2) Carocal and Mountain Pine Ridge:
Carocal is the largest Mayan ruin in Belize and is worthy of a visit in its own right. It is also surrounded by the extensive and bird-rich Chiquibul forest. To reach the site from Black Rock requires a three-hour drive back through San Ignacio, through Mennonite farming country and then up through the Mountain Pine Ridge reserve on some pretty rough tracks. Owing to previous cross-border banditry, day-trippers visiting this region must congregate at Douglas da Silva in Mountain Pine Ridge and then head south in a convoy under armed escort. Things have been quiet for while however, so after registering at Douglas da Silva we were able to drive through without an escort and to stop for birds at will.
a) Mountain Pine Ridge. We found the open pine forests of this area to be relatively birdless, even quite early in the morning. We stopped for obvious larger birds seen such as Acorn Woodpecker and Laughing Falcon and then birded the surrounding habitat and eventually picked up smaller species such as Rusty Sparrow and Plain Wren. Raptors here included singles of both Double-toothed and Swallow-tailed Kites, as well as the usual Grey and Roadside Hawks, smaller vultures and King Vulture. Douglas da Silva itself produced Black-headed Siskin in a lone large pine tree plus Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, whilst we picked up a single Greater Peewee in a dead tree south of the settlement. There is an obvious change in forest-type when you cross the Guacamallo Bridge. This was formerly a site for Scarlet Macaw, but these have apparently gone now and we saw only Black Phoebe and a Grey Fox here.
b) Carocal. The very extensive forest surrounding this site looks superb, but the nature of the visiting arrangements, means you arrive quite late (10 am) and of course you are normally shown around the ruins by an enthusiastic tour guide, which means birding opportunities are quite limited. The lack of hunting in the area means it is good for larger game birds and Ocellated Turkey at least is easily seen. Other new birds seen here included Band-backed Wren, White-vented Euphonia, Violet Sabrewing, Chestnut-headed Oropendola and a very obliging Thrush-like Schiffornis. The top of the highest temple is well worth climbing for the view although sadly the denuded hill-sides of neighbouring Guatemala are spreading inexorably across the border. We had eyeball level views of two competing troops of Black Howler monkeys here, whilst our late morning visit was perfect for soaring raptors, which amidst the vultures included a highly vocal Black Hawk-eagle, an obliging Bat Falcon, Double-toothed Kite and an enormous Solitary Eagle. Harpy Eagle remains a possibility here. Back at the car-park rest area we were surprised to see two Tayra wandering calmly through the trees, whilst a calling Keel-billed Motmot was tracked down to a tall tree near the museum.
3) Belize zoo and pine savannahs
We stopped at Los Amigos restaurant for lunch on the journey up to Black Rock and opted to visit Belize zoo on the way back through to Belize City. The habitats here are rather open pine woods with extensive savannahs, revealing some different birds to those seen at Black Rock. Common birds included Bronzed Cowbird, Tropical Mockingbird and Couch’s Kingbird, whilst open areas held Vermillion Flycatcher, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Plain-breasted Ground-dove and Killdeer. Belize Zoo provided close-up views of a confiding range of species including Hepatic Tanager, Plain Chacalaca, Grey-necked Wood-rail and Stripe-throated (Little) Hermit. Grace’s Warbler must occur here in the pines but I failed to connect. Roadside parrots here included both Brown-hoodedParrot and the endangered Yellow-headed Parrot, whilst a marshy pool near the airport held good numbers of Limpkin and Northern Jacana.
4) Jaguar Reef area, Hopkins
Our shorter stay at Jaguar Reef resort was mostly about chilling on the beach and snorkelling on the Barrier Reef. However, the area also provided some good morning birding and bumped up the trip list nicely. Visits to both Cockscomb Basin and Red Bank (for Scarlet Macaws) are also possible from here.
a) Jaguar Reef environs. The gardens of Jaguar Reef produced several Cinnamon Hummingbirds, Yellow-throated Warbler and more unexpectedly 2 Altamira Orioles in a mixed oriole flock. The coastal road south headed through patches of secondary forest with gardens and some more extensive mangroves. New common birds here included Pale-vented Pigeon and Yellowthroat plus lots of parrots include 2 Mealy Parrots as well as many Plain Chacalacas, Common Black-hawk in the mangroves, Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Tody-flycatcher and Northern Beardless Tyrranulet. The coast itself held the expected Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern and Neotropic Cormorant plus a lone Eastern Willet and several Collared Swifts on the first cloudy morning. A track heading inland to Sittee River passed through an extensive area of flooded savannah with clear roadside ditches, which produced Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Sedge Wren, American Pygmy, Ringed and Belted Kingfishers, Ruddy Crake and Tricoloured Heron plus both Pinnated and American Bitterns and yet another Morelet’s crocodile. A forested creek held Sungrebe, whilst the mixed forest and citrus groves near Sittee River held 20+ White-winged Doves, Bat Falcon, Golden-hooded Tanager, Yucatan Vireo, Greyish, Buff-throated and Black-headed Saltators plus good numbers of Keel-billed Toucans and a confiding Green-breasted Mango, amongst a host of species already seen elsewhere on the trip.
b) Boat-trip to South Water Key. A trip out to the barrier islands at south Water Key produced a few Sandwich (Cabot’s) Terns in amongst the Royal Terns, Double-crested Cormorant, Northern Parula, Green-breasted Mango and Osprey.
c) Dangriga airport. We had a Plumbeous Kite over the open pine savannahs and a Brown-hooded Parrot between Hopkins and Dangriga, whilst an open pool next to the runway, but visible only on take-off, produced our only Anhinga and Blue-winged Teal of the trip!