Birding and Duding in the Belize and the Yucatan, July 26th - August 31st 2003

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


By Tim Allwood and Claire Stephenson.

36 Ellis Gardens, Keswick Hall, Norwich, Norfolk NR4 6RX (current) or 3 the Spinney, Belper, Derbys, DE56 1EQ (permanent contact). Feel free to contact me about birding in this region.

There's no feeling like that of the roar and pull of the engines of a jet as you travel down the runway, and this year our destination was the endemism hotspot of the Yucutan peninsula in Mexico, and Belize. After last year's epic expedition into darkest Peru we fancied a slightly more sedate trip with the chance to relax, swim, meet a few people and generally doss about with a beer or two. Plus Claire wanted to get in a week of diving so we spent the last week on Cozumel Island. This area has many endemic species and subspecies (a fair few probable splits in the pipeline) along with many more species endemic to the wider area of Central America. As usual, did hardly any night birding, preferring to watch the local football or to explore the places we stayed at and have a nice meal and a drink.

Being currently employed as teachers means we get a long summer break (about the only perk of the job!) that enables us to take a lengthy holiday. This means you can relax, explore and really get to know the birds you're after. We spent several days at most sites and managed to see nearly all the endemics, often repeatedly and eventually with excellent views. I don't really care for long reports (and you don't really care what I had for lunch or where exactly I saw the first Yucutan Woodpecker etc.) so I'll keep it brief.


Food was good and cheap. Tacos, fajitas and quesadillas etc. are everywhere. Spicy and filling. Ceviches are good but not as amazing as elsewhere in South America. Beer is excellent and cheap - take back empties for a refund on the bottle. Sol, Superior and Corona were all excellent. Buses run on nearly all the roads, several times a day, so you can get around easily. Belizean food and drink not great but cheap and tasty enough. Hotels were all fine, some very good value - check other reports for recommendations. We just polled up at the first likely looking place and weren't disappointed. Drank tap water after we'd iodined it and had no problems. Mosquitos and sand flies were not much of a problem either.

Used Steve Howell and Sophie Webb's 1996 field guide - excellent as expected. National Geographic North American guide also useful, and much lighter than Sibley. Didn't take a scope again and didn't really need it as it's mostly forest birding. No tapes were used during the trip although a few birds were whistled out. All birds founds and identified by myself and Claire. Propelling pencil and notebook essential.

Watch out for:

Claire was lucky enough to get a Bot Fly (see Howell's birdfinding guide 1999 p.16) but I think we got it at an early stage. It hasn't surfaced yet but I'm writing this only three days after we treated it. Dogs were a pain in the backside, often quite agressive. If you show no fear and chuck a brick or two they generally slink away but one or two might need more persuasion and a couple around the Hotel Presidente grid on Cozumel were particlarly good for testing your nerve.....! Fer-de-Lances are present in Cockscomb so be careful if you go off trail. Belize City at night was 'interesting'. Watch how you go here after dark.

Sites visited in Mexico (all Mexican sites are well covered by Howell 1999):

Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden (nr Puerto Morelos)

Doesn't open till 9.00 a.m. Good place to get started and get used to the heat. Lots of Mozzies. 70 pesos to get in. The marshes between Puerto Morelos and the main road are good birding. I also explored the tracks opposite and the rubbish dump - both good. Puerto Morelos was a very nice place to stay. Right on the waterfront, lots of terns, gulls and frigatebirds etc and you can snorkel or dive here cheaply too.

Coba. (CO)

Ruins site. Opens early so you can get in and bird there. Good forest. Lake has Ruddy Crake. Had to stay in expensive hotel as only other was full. Very nice though with a good pool. Some good trails lead off well into the forest.

Chichen Itza. (CH)

Ruins site. Opens at 8.00 a.m. Gets well crowded. Not bad forest. The large pyramid structure is good for views of swallows early on. Possible to get away from the crowds and quite birdy too. Stayed in Piste about 1km away. Lots of good cheap restaurants and hotels.

Rio Lagartos. (RL)

Perhaps our favourite place. Site of the asteroid impact that did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago - not many people know that! - Hotel right on waterfront, terns, gulls, ibis, egrets all fly by constantly. After a hurricane two years ago it's now very wet all round town. Fantastic birding around and south of town. Boat-billed Herons can be seen behind the bus station!, and the fields were full of waders. Also, there are a couple of really nice birders who run birding trips up the river. They're called Ismael and Diego and are very keen and knowledgeable. Find them at Restaurant Isla Contoy in town. Ismael took us up river to see the flamingos and we had a great day, lots of wonderful birds, swimming in a saline lagoon, getting a mud bath etc. The flamingo area around Las Coloradas is also very good for American waders and you can obtain excellent close views from the boat. He also just did some casual birding with us and was good company. They both care about the place and are involved in lots of good greening schemes etc. Give them your business.

Felipe Carillo Puerto. (FCP)

Excellent forest site. You can walk from town. The first 2-3 kms are enough (I had a toucan right outside town!) The traditional birders place Faisan y Venado was great value with fridge, A.C. and cable tv for US$20.

Cozumel. (CI)

Popular with American tourists (but nice nonetheless!) Four endemics and several more on the way probably. Very easy birding - got the emerald within touching distance from our Hotel Window on several occassions. Claire did a lot of diving with Deep Blue Divers and they were very good. Saw a couple of massive Green Turtles haul out and egg lay here courtesy of the boss, who took us out one evening to a turtle beach. It was mind-blowing, one of the best things I've seen. Do it if you get a chance. Bello Caribe and Presidente grid both good and most birds found readily. A good trail runs from Bello Caribe area along beach past a marshy pool and along mangroves - loaded with Golden Warblers. Oh yeah, world class diving too.

Sites visited in Belize:

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. (CT)

Good for the savanna stuff. Not a great deal of waterbirds but they're all at Rio Lagartos anyway. Very relaxed place with great locals. Wildlife centre run by Steve Tillet is good for info. Stayed with Owen and Maggie Raeburn - the local pastor and his wife. Cheap and with a hammock on the balcony which you can bird from. Got a few good birds lying in there! Just wander around the village and its environs, the birds will find you.

Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve. (CJP)

Excellent rain forest and trails like motorways. Take your own food and cook in the kitchens. Cheap dorms. Easy neotropical birding. Very quiet and peaceful. There are two beautiful swimming pools/waterfalls which are great after a morning's birding. The longer trails into primary forest were better but all were good. You can hire an inner tube and float down the river when you've had enough birding. Time it right (8 a.m.) and you should get Toucans and Aracaris from the start point.

Caye Caulker. (CC)

Nice tropical island. Mostly duding but got some good stuff there. Good value and the food is excellent, especially if you're into lobster. It's tiny so just wander around.

Notes on a few birds:

If you've done a fair bit of rain forest birding you'll find most sites and birds here fairly straight forward. However, I found orioles to be incredibly difficult as they were hard to view and immature males often show 'orangey' backs making identification very tricky and females were just a nightmare unless seen exceptionally well. I only saw Orange Oriole for certain at Chichen Itza and the Botanical Gardens despite being in habitat for a few weeks - I wonder if these get strung a lot? It'd be very easy to do.

Yucutan Flycatcher is easy when you've seen one! Very distinctive compared to other Myiarchus. I only saw three though.....

Tinamous will eventually appear to you if you put the time in. If you only have a few days you'd better cross your fingers! Cockscomb excellent for seeing 'Greats'

Toucans can be found at Cockscomb across from the River Lookout early a.m. in Cecropias.

Yucutan Parrots were scarce too with birds definitely seen only at Coba.

Only real dip was Yucutan Wren. The areas mentioned in Howell are now pretty useless due to the flooding from the recent hurricane as this killed a lot of the cactii. Ismael will give you a site though. I was having such a good time watching the waterbirds though that I couldn't be bothered to spend an afternoon getting very hot looking for one bird.

Otherwise, if you want good views it's mostly a matter of time and effort in the right place. Good Luck.

Systematic List. Please contact me if you'd like one.