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.
Chan Chich sits in the middle of a quarter-million acres of tropical forest. Some of that land is protected by law and some of it is private property, but all of it is home to a range of wildlife from jaguars and monkeys to parrots and toucans to the little brown birds (leaftossers, foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers, and more) whose propensity to skulk in the underbrush makes them both the bane and delight of tropical birding. Chan Chich occupies the site of an ancient Maya settlement, with temples, draped in vegetation, rising beside the lodge and cabins. The ruins had been thoroughly looted before the lodge was developed; the constant presence of staff and guests has helped to protect what’s left from further damage. I’ve been to Chan Chich before, so I’m prepared for the beautiful grounds, the flowers, the buzzing hummingbird feeders, the screeching parrots, and the welcoming committee of ocellated turkeys, so colorful they seem like cartoon creations. I’m not prepared for how much the place has been upgraded, with luxe-grade cabins and a swank swimming pool.
What I love about the lodge is the ubiquity of nature. Walk out of your cabin and you can choose from more than nine miles of trails through lush subtropical broadleaf forest, the soundtrack of your walk a medley of roaring howler monkeys, ratcheting keel-billed toucans, hooting motmots, cooing pigeons, and chittering honeycreepers.
In March, neotropical migrants are passing on their northward spring journey, so amid the kaleidoscopically colorful parrots, euphonias, and ant-tanagers I spot hooded warblers, American redstarts, and orchard orioles, with their yellows, reds, and oranges more than a match for their tropical relatives. I’m intrigued seeing a familiar backyard bird like a white-eyed vireo consorting with an olive-backed euphonia, or a black- and-white warbler alongside a long-billed gnatwren.
This juxtaposition of North and Central American avifauna seems a little odd at first, then delightful, and finally instructive. “Our” birds need habitat year-round, not just when nesting. Belize is in many ways a model of conservation, yet it’s losing about two percent of its forest cover annually to expanding agriculture and the growth of towns and cities. Habitat degradation throughout Central and South America is already having an impact on North American migrants, and the trend is worsening, which makes a sustainable travel industry such an important alternative. Every year roughly a million tourists visit Belize, according to the tourism board, providing significant revenue.
One morning I’m scheduled to visit a nearby wetland called Laguna Seca with guide Luís Romero, a local native with 20 years’ experience at Chan Chich. Early drizzle turns to real rain, so Luís takes us to Trish’s Hill, where a thatched-roof shelter sits on the edge of a bluff overlooking Chan Chich Creek, at eye level with the forest canopy. Disappointment about the canceled trip quickly turns to joy, as a crow-sized, deep-green mealy parrot perches next to a pale-billed woodpecker, mostly black with its entire head bright crimson. Moments later they’re joined in the same tree by a small flock of white-crowned parrots. A double- toothed kite lands nearby for a full-frame scope view, so close we can see its yellowish-amber eyes. Best of all, a troop of Guatemalan black howler monkeys feed on a fruiting tree directly in front of us, their youngster dividing its time between clambering along limbs and riding on its mother’s back.
The morning’s serendipity has just begun, though. After an hour of birding on the bluff the rain stops, and we climb back into Luís’s vehicle for the drive to Laguna Seca. We haven’t traveled 300 yards when we round a curve and there, in the road, stands a female great curassow, a long-tailed, long-legged, chestnut-colored turkey-sized bird with a weirdly elaborate, Marie Antoinette- ish crest. Curassows have been hunted to extirpation over most of their former range, and I’ve never crossed paths with one before. Perhaps I’m a little exuberant, judging from the way Luís flinches. The female curassow wanders into the forest, we round another curve, and there’s the male, glossy black with a big, bright-yellow knob atop its bill. If I was happy before, I’m ecstatic now.
Another charter flight, this one only 20 minutes, takes me southward to a land- scape far different from the Chan Chich forest. The Mountain Pine Ridge area of western Belize might, at first glance, be somewhere in the southeastern United States: rolling hills, open pine forest, palmettos, dirt as red as Georgia clay. That impression ends when red-lored parrots shriek overhead and a laughing falcon eyes me from a roadside tree.
I’m staying at Hidden Valley Inn, a lodge at least equal to Chan Chich in comfort, fine food, and the temptation of its swimming pool. At check-in I’m offered a welcome hand mas- sage; flower petals are artfully scattered across my bed. At an elevation of 2,000 feet, Hidden Valley is noticeably cooler and less humid than the 300-foot-elevation broadleaf forest I just left.
The inn’s lawn is alive with birds both colorful (green jays, yellow-tailed orioles, and acorn woodpeckers) and drab (plain chachalacas and clay-colored thrushes). In nearby scrub, nest- ing rusty sparrows and yellow-faced grassquits feed with blue grosbeaks preparing to depart for North America.