Beautiful and Bird-Filled Belize
A trip to this Central American country reveals otherworldly vistas and even the remote chance of seeing a jaguar. What's guaranteed, however, is spectacular birdlife.
"The only place you can get the jabiru closer than this is in the zoo.”
Guide Leonard Gillett shuts off our boat’s motor and slowly poles us into a stalking, squawking flock of wading birds, where the massive stork, standing nearly five feet high, towers over great egrets and wood storks like a basketball center trying out for the soccer team. We are very close, indeed: I can practically count the wispy white feathers that crown the jabiru’s otherwise naked black head.
Despite this morning’s off-and-on drizzle, the dry season is well under way in Belize, a compact Central American country slightly smaller than New Hampshire. The lagoon at the heart of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary has been steadily shrinking for weeks, concentrating hundreds of waders—egrets, herons, storks, white ibises, roseate spoonbills, and more—into smaller and smaller feeding areas.
“This is when the most birds gather,” sanctuary director Derick Hendy says, scanning the flock from the seat in front of me. “Other times people come here and ask, ‘Where are the birds?’ But when the water is high you won’t see the big congre- gations.” The activity all around us on the lagoon is spectacular, almost dizzying, as I constantly turn to try to take it all in. A roiling flock of neotropic cormorants dive for fish underwa- ter, chasing them into the beaks of waiting waders. Mangrove swallows swarm the sky, limpkins and gray-necked woodrails patrol the shore, and a great black hawk observes the commotion from the tree line.
But it’s the giant jabiru, with a huge bill and a crimson neck ring, that’s provided my morning thrill. On three pre- vious trips to Belize I’d missed it, and as I look around I see at least a dozen fairly near, with many more in the distance. Earlier I watched one swallow an orange-sized apple snail, the same food sought by the snail kites that constantly pass overhead in floppy-winged flight.
Covering more than 32,000 acres, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary lies in a flat pine-savannah landscape less than an hour’s drive north of Belize City’s international airport. It’s the first stop on my tour of the country, and it ought to be on every visiting birder’s itinerary. Dry season (here, approximately January through May) brings flocks of waders and is the most popular time to visit, but the wetter remainder of the year has its own attractions. When the water level is higher, boats can travel farther into adjoining swamps in search of such species as the shy, lacy-plumed agami heron and the endangered Morelet’s crocodile, found only in Mexico and Central America.
Established in 1984, the sanctuary is managed by the Belize Audubon Society, which also works in the adjacent village of Crooked Tree to promote conservation. Such traditional prac- tices as tree cutting and fishing are now restricted in the protected area, which has created ill will among some residents. “That makes it a management challenge,” Hendy says. “Some people are living just for today, and not thinking about tomor- row.” Hendy has organized a local bird club for young people, and holds monthly bird walks as part of his efforts to foster an environmental ethic. “Bit by bit I think people will see the long-term benefits of conservation,” he says.
Several bird-friendly lodges and bed-and-breakfast inns operate in the village of 900 people, founded in the 1700s as a logging camp. To nonbirders, Crooked Tree’s claim to fame is its status as the cashew capital of Belize. Nut trees grow in almost everyone’s yard, and early May brings a popular cashew festival. In honor of the local specialty, I bought a bottle of cashew wine one night and took it back to my lodge for din- ner. Dear Reader, take my advice: If you ever have a chance to sample this drink . . . put down the glass and order a shot of Belizean-made 1 Barrel rum instead. You’ll thank me later.
As she taxis our single-engine plane before takeoff from the Belize City municipal air- port, pilot Alisa Gassner provides a preview of the trip to Chan Chich Lodge, in the northwest part of the country. “The flight is 48 nautical miles, and it’ll take 35 minutes,” she shouts over the engine noise. “We’ll cross the Belize River several times and pass a few small towns. The last 18 nautical miles are over forest.” And that, simply put, is one major reason why for a quarter century Chan Chich Lodge has ranked among the best, and best known, birding destinations in Central America. Eighteen nautical miles (21 statute miles) of forest creates a substantial buffer zone to its east, and when you look in other directions you see that