Belize, March 1997

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by Steve Mlodinow


One day back from Belize, and it already seems a world away. My wife and I birded in Belize from 3/15/97 to 3/24/97. Our trip total was 291species, of which 155 do not occur regularly in the US. We arrived on the 15th at the Belize airport, rented a Suzuki Samurai from Avis, and then headed out for Chan Chich. The airport seemed safe and easy to get around. It is also outside of town just off the Northern Highway. Thus, you get your car and zip away.

We arrived at Chan Chich about 5pm on 3/15 and stayed there until 3/21. We arrived in the late afternoon of 3/21 at Crooked Tree and birded there on 3/22 and the morning of 3/23. The morning of 3/24 was spent at Monkey Bay. We left on the morning of 3/25.

Chan Chich

Chan Chich is a spectacular birding experience. You stay in comfortable cabanas in the midst of an Ancient Maya plaza, which is itself in the middle of tens of thousands of acres of older secondary growth rain forest. If you got there, you'll be whisked away to a magical land of palms, lianas, and orchids, a place of jaguars and toucans. It is a world virtually bereft of human produced noise. You'll wonder if your still on earth in the 20th century.

The cost, including meals (but not beer) is about 100$ per day per person (double occupancy). It is cheaper during the rainy season. The drive to Chan Chich would take about 3 to 3.5 hours were you to drive straight through. We birded our way there, so it took about 5.5 hours. The roads were not worse than many gravel roads in Arizona, and I felt more comfortable on these roads than the ones to Rustler Park or Sycamore Canyon - so don't be scared off by the personnel at Chan Chich when they tell you about the miserable roads to their place. They definitely have a vested interest in you not driving, as you will then have to take their led tours (at significant cost) to nearby areas. Indeed, we certainly didn't need 4-wheel drive to get to Chan Chich during the time of our visit. Good tires, however, are very important. We fortunately had them and thus did not have a flat.

The drive allows you to see some interesting country side and netted us some birds (our only Northern Bentbill and Common Bush-Tanager were on our way in, plus great views of a pair of Great Currasows on the way out). On the way in, you should fill up at Blue Creek/ Linda Vista at the Linda Vista Credit Union. From there, it's about 50 miles to Chan Chich. A few gallons of gas are usually also available at Gallon Jug, only 8 miles from Chan Chich - if you need it, enquire at the desk at Chan Chich (which I will call CC from now on).

There are a number of places to bird at CC. First of all, there are 9 plus miles of trails accessible easily by foot from the lodge (aka cabanas). These are all in nice rain forest. We found the Logger's and Back Plaza trails to be especially good morning walks. These seem to have the most mature forest. The Bajo Trail, is more like the lushest areas in south Texas (ie, more scrubby than the other trails) and have a different set of birds such as Green Jay, Olive-backed Sparrow, Gray-throated Chat. Another good spot is the suspension bridge which spans Chan Chich Creek along the road to Gallon Jug. This serene area is but .75 miles from the lodge. Here we saw our only White Hawk and Lovely Cotinga. There is also an Ornate Hawk-Eagle nest nearby! From the bridge, you can walk along the river by following the Sac Be Trail to the north or the Logger's Trail to the south. About 1/4 to 1/2 mile down either of these, the trail leaves the river. At both of these locations, there are shallow areas where birds bathe in the pm. We were able to watch such tasty bits as Gray-headed Tanager, Red-capped Manakin, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and others at our leisure at these spots.

Now, for car use. There are two water areas within a 20-30 minute (10-15 mile) drive: Laguna Seca and Laguna Verde. Laguna Seca is the more interesting and definitely worth a couple trips. On your way to either of these, you pass through Gallon Jug with its farms and orchards. Gallon Jug is decent for raptors, great for swallows and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, and a great spot for Giant Cowbird. This is not a bad place to go in early pm to look for hawks at a time when the forest is quiet. Finally, the road from Gallon Jug, past Laguna Seca, and towards Blue Creek is amazingly birdy between 3:30 and 6 pm. Indeed, it was probably the best pm birding we had. Barred Antshrikes are easily found here (easily heard but not seen elsewhere), flocks of pigeons (Scaled, Red-billed, and others) and parrots are flying about, and so forth. This stretch was really quite spectacular the two evenings we did it (a flock of 30+ Keel-billed Toucans plus a few aracaris among the grander sights).

6 am to 9:30 am and 3:30-6 pm are the best birding times. Our typical routine was to bird from 6 to Noon or so, then eat lunch, then nap for an hour or so (believe it or not!), then bird to 6pm.
Guides at CC are fair to very good. We found Gilberto to have excellent knowledge. We birded for several days on our own, then hired guides for portions of our last couple mornings. This allowed us to focus them on the few birds we had missed that we really wanted. Otherwise, you'll find your guides spending efforts on showing you the common Red-throated Ant-Tanager and not locating your Tody Motmot. Also, a modest tip after a journey really provoked an amazing amount of gratitude and special efforts during future walks. (Note: generally tips are given in a lump some at end of stay.) Also, guides are useful for "night walks" to look for mammals and birds. We had relatively little success, due to brilliant moonlight, but others have fared better. One thing I wish we had done, was night drives with our vehicle. This could have really increased our chances at seeing a Big Cat (someone or other saw a Jaguar almost every day we were there. Margays and Ocelots were also seen).

On the way to CC, you pass the Rio Bravo Research Station. This place has very similar habitat to CC, but no good nearbly fields or lagoons. It is cheaper to stay at, but not dramatically. The facilities are definitely inferior, but not too bad. In a longer trip, it might be well worth a day or two so that you could bird some different trails.

Other tips about CC: safety excellent. You don't have to worry about locking stuff up here. Plenty of cold drinking water is available in each cabana. The tap water is not for drinking, tooth brushing, etc. You don't need cash at CC (except for tips to your guides). All purchases, drinks, etc will be put on your visa to settle up at the end. Mosquitos ranged from almost non-existent to moderately annoying. Trails were very dry (it was the end of the dry season), but could easily be quite muddy. Rooms are clean, comfortable, and non-buggy.

Crooked Tree

The Crooked Tree sanctuary is actually a long established town. Besides the presence of a local Belizean Audubon Society ranger and an entrance fee, I am not sure what makes it a sanctuary. The "trails" are actually gravel and dirt roads in the main part of town. Lots of run down shacks and dogs. Nonetheless, if you drive down some of the roads in back of the town, you do get into some nice cashew orchards and pine savannah. Here we saw our only Yucatan Jays, Yucatan Parrot, Caniveti's (Fork-tailed) Emerald, Yellow-headed Parrots. The Crooked Tree lagoon is spectacular for waterbirds. There were 40+ Jabirus, 100's of Wood Storks, thousands of herons and cormorants, dozens of Snail Kites. Cruising the lagoon edge were our only Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.

The Bird's Eye View is probably the nicest accomodation in town. The Crooked Tree Resort is an ok place to stay (decent beds, good food, breakfast when you want), but the owner has the jizz of a used car salesman. I trust him not to steal from your room, but he would gladly rook you into tours with inexpert guides to make a quick buck. Fortunately, we avoided such things. Also, his plumbing was suspect (+/- hot water, leaking toilet). Drinking water is easily available though. This "resort" is also near a "night club" and nocturnal thumping music was audible, though admittedly a bit distant. The owner has a pleasant dog which he uses to keep horses and cattle off the property. Another place is the Paradise Inn. The accomodations seem a bit shabbier than even the Crooked Tree Resort, but the folks seemed more genuine, the location is birdier and more remote.

Our recommendation regarding this area is to spend one pm doing water birds by boat and one am doing land birds. This will give you a good shot at most of what's there. Glenn Crawford is a guide in town who works for the Paradise Inn. He's quite knowledgeable and very personable birder who was born locally but has visited the U.S. He rates a definite "A" as a guide and can get you out by boat. The water birding seems best Feb to Mar. In Apr/ May, the lake can virtually dry up (good for shorebirds, but not other stuff). In the rainy season, birds are more dispersed.

The town seems relatively safe. Nonetheless, usual precautions such as keeping valuable out of sight and such is warranted. We did stop at the Baboon Sanctuary. It was much like Crooked Tree without the spectacular water birds. The "trails" were once again roads in town.

Monkey Bay

The Monkey Bay reserve was more what we thought Crooked Tree and the Baboon Sanctuary would be like. Except for the main buildings, the ~1000 acres were not inhabited. Habitats range from pine savannah to scrub to riverine forest bottom. We spent a morning there and it was absolutely wonderful. We got a number of species only here including many Rufous-breasted Spinetails that afforded fantastic views. There are no hours. The place is owned by an interesting, somewhat ex-hippy, couple that bought and preserved the place. They are knowledgeable about birds, particularly the husband, and are very friendly. If you arrive early, don't bother checking in. Drive down the road, hike the trails, and stop by on your way out.

We stayed at the Biltmore Plaza, a Best Western Hotel about three miles outside of Belize City on the Northern Highway. (The Biltmore grounds gave us our only Cinnamon Hummingbird). From here, it takes about an hour to reach Monkey Bay. Head into town, bear right at the first traffic circle. Then, go over a bridge and continue on until you reach a smaller traffic circle with a Texaco and Shell. Go right. Now you're on the Western Highway. Monkey Bay is about 30 or so miles down the road. Start looking on your left a couple miles after you pass the Belize Zoo, which is on your right. There are a couple of restaurants near Monkey Bay. We didn't visit the zoo, but would like to on our next visit.

Where else might we have gone? The Mountain Pine Ridge area off of the Western Highway would be interesting. It's supposed to be a good area for pygmy-owls, Rusty Sparrows, and a couple other species of interest. Also, the cays, Ambergris Caye in particular, would be nice to visit. Ambergris should be a good spot for Yucatan Vireo, Caribbean Elaenia, Black Catbird, and Caribbean Dove, all of which we missed.

Our only immunizations were Hepatitis A and Typhoid. Hepatitis A now comes in vaccine instead of the old immunoglobulin. Thus, instead of a painful shot in the ass, you get a barely noticeable one in your shoulder. You need to get it 4 weeks prior to leaving. The immunization lasts 1 year. If you get a booster 6 to 12 months after the initial shot, your immunized for life. The immunoglobulin was always a temporary measure. If you are in the habit of visiting third world countries (or would like to be), the immunization is worthwhile. The typhoid vaccine is now oral. It needs to be taken over an eight day period ending at least 2 weeks prior to the trip. It is more effective and a lot less likely to cause side effects when compared with the old injection typhoid vaccination. You can not be on antibiotics while taking oral typhoid. Our only other precaution was to take one floxin (300mg) per day as diarrhea prohyllaxis. Floxin is an antibiotic. If you get diarrhea anyway, the dose is usually increased to twice per day. Note that floxin, like all antibiotics, can cause diarrhea and yeast infections. Also, occasional individuals will become sun-sensitized while on the floxin and get easily sunburned or will develop a rash in sun exposed areas.

Belizean delicacies: The food was good - a lot of rice, beans, chicken with a mixture of Caribbean and Mexican influences. Generally, we found it very flavorful without being particularly hot. If you like extra zip in your food, virtually all places had Marie Sharp's hot sauce available. It is lovely, so try it. The only widely sold beer is Belikin. Regular and premium Belikin is much like Bud and Miller - short on flavor, but refreshing on a hot day. The Belikin Stout is much better. Belize also has several of its own rums. The coconut rum is fantastic. In Belize, most drink it mixed with pineapple juice, but it really is quite good straight or on the rocks and is not too sweet. Last in the libation front is cashew wine. The Cashew nut actually hangs below a sizeable fruit which is turned into a wine. The wine is like a sweet sherry and is really pretty tasty.

The Belizean dollar is set at fifty US cents. US cash is accepted as readily as Belizean cash seemingly everywhere. Thus, you don't have to worry about changing money at airport (which of course is done at a charge). Smaller denominations (5$ in US or less) are best.

Well, that's about it for the birding dialogue. The list and some addresses and phone numbers follow as do recommendations on books. We found the birding to be quite good, the food definitely good, the people fairly friendly, and the country reasonably safe. We did, however, stay out of Belize City. Nonetheless, when a store being held up at gunpoint makes the evening news (with no one shot), how bad can it be? In Seattle, it wouldn't make the paper. Usual big city precautions should be sufficient in most places. It was a great trip.

Recommended References and Guides

Checklist of the Birds of Belize by D.S. Wood, R.C. Leberman, and D. Weyer. 1986. Available from ABA. 3 columns. Status by habitat. Accuracy seems +/-. Does not include splits such as Couch's Kingbird and YG Vireo. Also, some birds listed by Howell and Webb (see below) are not in this checklist or are considered accidental (eg Fulvous W-D and Yucatan Nightjar).

Neotropical Rainforest Mammals by L.H. Emmons. 1990- University of Chicago Press. Great guide to most of the hairy-type "birds" in Belize and elsewhere in neotropics.

Adventuring in Belize by Eric Hoffman. 1994- Sierra Club Books. Got mine from Buteo Books. Has some useful info, though remarks about Crooked Tree lodging inaccurate and confused (phones, owners, and lodging do not properly match). Still worthwhile.

A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America by Steve Howell and Sophie Webb. 1995 by Oxford Press. Available in ABA catalogue. Great book but heavy. Text superb. Plates have birds that do not appear nearly as life-like as Peterson's, but are nonetheless, more accurately depicted. Some ID's depending on having this book available as reference. Kept it in car or cabana as final reference but too heavy to carry in field. Carried Peterson Mexico guide in pocket for on-the-trail referrals.

A Field Guide to Mexican Birds
by Peterson and Chalif. 1973- Houghton Mifflin. Useful but not as accurate as above. See comments above.

A Bird Walk at Chan Chich by J.V. Moore. Tape including 150 species in form ofbird walk rather than taxonomical order. Good for learning some basic vocalizations. Great for whetting appetite or reminiscing. Available through ABA.

A Neotropical Companion by J.C. Kricher. 1989 by Princeton Univ Press. Fine book for learning some Neotropical ecology in essay format. Highlyrecommended.

Belize- an international travel map. Very useful map for getting around countryside but not cities. Available from International Travel Maps/ 345 West Broadway/ Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada/ V5Y 1P8

Addresses and the like

Belize international code = 011-501 omit "0" of local no. when calling from US

Guide extraordinaire: Glenn Crawford. Address: Crooked Tree Village, Belize, Central America. Phone= 02-12084 (Belize). In USA, can be reached via Adventure Camera, Inc @ 610-363-3033.

Chan Chich Lodge: 800-343-8009 or 02-75634

Rio Bravo Research Station/ Programme for Belize: 02-75616.

Bird's Eye View Lodge at Crooked Tree. 718-845-0749 in US or 02-32040 in Belize.

Belize Biltmore Plaza - a Best Western hotel near Belize City. 800-327-3573 or 02-32303.

For birds, mammals and reptiles list click here