Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2020 Narrative

Day 1: Arrivals, Ceviche, and Captain Hook 

In between airport runs we spent our time birding, eating fresh shrimp ceviche, and sucking down cool limeade at Captain Hook’s Caribbean Shrimp Farm & Wildlife Sanctuary where a series of ponds offer a diversity of habitats for shorebirds and other wading birds. The surrounding mangrove forest was a bit quiet, given the afternoon hour, but we did have a Black Catbird fly across the trail ahead of us (the locals say, “that’s 7 years of good luck”) and we had a brief encounter with a Yucatan Vireo. On our drive out of the shrimp farm we glimpsed a Mangrove Cuckoo diving into the low mangroves along the roadside but we weren’t able to coerce it out into the Belizean sunshine for better views. The barbed wire fence along the entrance road to the airport was dappled with staging Scissor-tailed Flycatchers preparing for their flight to the Southern Great Plains of the USA, while a couple of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures were busy clearing the sunbaked runway. On our evening drive through Crooked Tree Village, mere minutes from our lodge, we discovered a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in a nesting cavity high on a telephone pole.

Day 2: Earth, Wind, and Fire 

We gathered early to sip coffee while enjoying the sunrise over Crooked Tree Lagoon. Gray-breasted Martins wheeled about overhead as thousands of waders, including 6 Jabirus, fed in the shallow waters just offshore from the lodge. Our first stop of the morning was in a nearby pine/oak woodland to begin our search for a host of Yucatan Peninsula specialties. Yellow-headed Parrots can sometimes be hard to get good views of as they blast overhead at breakneck speeds, so we were delighted to find multiple groups perched for extended, unobscured, views. Yucatan Woodpeckers and Jays proved difficult to see this morning, providing only brief glimpses. What we lacked in jays and woodpeckers we made up for with a male Gray-collared Becard at close range.

After lunch, and a short siesta, we made our way to the western causeway where we encountered a fast-moving wildfire burning its way across a small section of wetlands. A battalion of Great Egrets formed ranks on the front end of the fire hoping to catch prey items fleeing the flames - I’m not sure what’s the better way to go, a fiery inferno or by way of the egret spear. A Roadside Hawk and an Aplomado Falcon sat nearby, mostly concealed by the smoke plume, presumably also waiting for fleeing prey to pass their way. Off in the distance a Pinnated Bittern slowly stalked the aquatic vegetation. This bittern species is a notoriously hard bird to find across a great deal of its Latin American range so we were delighted to have prolonged views. The afternoon was hot, and a bit slow, but the evening hours were blissful. After many hours or scouring the vegetation for Yucatan Jays we were rewarded to no fewer than 25 jays attending an army ant swarm. As the ants moved across the landscape, devouring any living thing in sight, hundreds of would-be prey items were trying to avoid certain demise by making themselves easily visible in their escape efforts, only to be met by the bill of a Yucatan Jay — it was a Belizean smorgasbord. With the jays preoccupied by the easy pickings we were able to approach at close range, enjoying prolonged views of adults, juveniles, and immatures. As the sun began to pass below the horizon a nearby flock of parrots was congregating to roost for the night, amongst the “White-lores” were a few Yellow-lored [Yucatan] Parrots, another regional endemic. Back at the lodge a Yellow-breasted Crake was calling from the nearby aquatic vegetation and Greater Bulldog Bats were fishing in the moonlit waters off the end of the dock. It was a lovely end to an exciting day.

Day 3: Crooked Tree by Boat 

With coffee and snacks in tow we boarded our morning boat trip with high hopes of spotting an Agami Heron tangled away in the shadowy mangroves. The Agami Heron wields an exceptionally long dagger-like bill, and sports an exquisite set of chestnut, teal, and navy-blue body feathers, offset by powder blue head and neck plumes. It is high on everybody’s most wanted list. Unfortunately, it’s often secretive and is therefore one of the more difficult herons to get a look at in the New World tropics, though the quiet waters of Crooked Tree Lagoon is one of the more reliable places to encounter this species. The ride through the open wetland was exciting with point-blank views of Jabiru, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Snail Kite, Least Bittern, and Black-collared Hawk, meanwhile a Striped Cuckoo sunned its plumage along the vegetated shoreline. With water levels quickly dropping, and no rain in the forecast, Spanish Creek (the best area for the Agami) was too low to explore by boat so we made our way up Black Creek instead. A Sungrebe, known locally as “water witch” because of their reclusive ways, was paddling across the creek; a warm welcome to the water way. After many river bends, a Boat-billed Heron (or five), and a few more bends, we were right on top of an adult Agami Heron. We watched-on as it uttered a clatter of low, guttural croaks from the nearby mangroves, unfortunately our recording equipment didn’t pick up the sound over the boat engine. With a bit of top-notch boat maneuvering we were able to get great views for everyone, and even a few half-way decent photographs. Just around the next bend was an American Pygmy Kingfisher to top it all off, and all before breakfast.

Shortly after breakfast we were loaded in the vans and on our way northward through mennonite rice fields, destined for La Milpa Biological Field Station and Archaeological Site. The road to La Milpa was long and relatively uneventful though we had a couple lovely views of Fork-tailed Flycatchers along the way.

We arrived early enough to enjoy some birding around the lodge grounds at La Milpa where we found it hard to pull ourselves away from the fruit feeders and water feature that was attracting dozens of euphonias, tanagers, and wood-warblers. We enjoyed our first views of Yellow-winged Tanager for the trip, another regional specialty. Just before sundown we went to check out the “compost pile” which is nicely outfitted with a photography blind. The rotting fruit pile attracts droves of insects and their feathered predators. Upon arrival at the blind a few lucky folks glimpsed an Ocelot strutting across the road in front of us. It was gone seconds after being found, and despite our attempts to track it through the thick vegetation, we never saw it again. The blind attracted Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Northern Royal Flycatcher, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, a couple of White-breasted Wood-Wrens, and a very obliging Kentucky Warbler.  After a nice dinner and some wine we turned in for the evening.

Day 4: Forests of La Milpa

Ushered out of our rooms by the dawn chorus, it wasn’t long before we had 30 species on the list, and all before we made it down to the coffee station. A pair of Great Curassows were scratching their way along the path, heading for the ripe fruits of a nearby surinam cherry tree. At the coffee station the fruit feeders were teeming with Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, Olive-backed and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Tennessee and Magnolia Warblers, and Yellow-winged Tanagers. Gartered Trogons and Black-cowled Orioles watched on from the sidelines while a Rufous Piha, Keel-billed Toucans, and a group of Singing Quails called from the trees behind the lodge. After breakfast we made our way down the dirt road towards La Milpa Archaeological Site through a very productive secondary forest. Just inside the trees a pair of Crested Guans moved noisily through the canopy. Further down we enjoyed views of Gray-throated Chat, Rose-throated Tanager, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, and White-bellied Wren, though we had to work hard for all of them. The forest around the archaeological site was a bit quiet so we spent much of our time wandering the site imaging the Maya world in its prime. Along the way we found a male Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, and a Collared Trogon, both of which performed nicely for scope views. A bit of loud rustling in the palms overheard alerted us to the presence of a Northern Tamandua, a medium-sized, boldly colored, arboreal anteater, and a highlight of the day for many. We watched on as it clambered about through the palm fronds, using its impressive nails and prehensile tail to maneuver some precarious treetop situations. Meanwhile, a nearby troop of Central American Spider Monkeys had discovered a bit of water hidden away in the cavity of a tree and one individual was busy extracting it one handful at a time, all while hanging upside down by its tail, of course. A brief stop back at the compost pile produced most of the same birds as the evening before but we were awarded for our persistence with an astonishing view of a Northern Royal Flycatcher in full display. One participant even managed to snap a photograph of the 2-second wonder.

The afternoon found us watching Wedge-tailed Sabrewings and White-bellied Emeralds at the hummingbird feeders. A Double-toothed Kite perched for an extended period in the bare branches above one of the casitas allowing for extended scope views of the two tooth-like emarginations along the cutting edge of the maxilla for which the species is named. In the early evening we wandered down the entry road to La Milpa where we spent quality time observing a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet as it gorged itself on tiny arboreal ants in a short tree. This diminutive species spends much of its time in the forest canopy so it was a real treat to see it down low, in the human world. At a nearby jungle pool multiple Red-capped Manakins were leaving the safety of the forest to drink along the shoreline, the low, evening sun ignited their brilliant scarlet caps and set their pale irises aglow. After all was said and done we’d seen over 100 species of birds for the day.

Day 5: Black Rock or Bust 

We spent another great morning around La Milpa, cleaning up on a few birds we’d missed the previous day, before saying our goodbyes to the wonderful staff at La Milpa. Bumpy back roads lead us through western Belize, cutting our way across private ranches, and through some exceptional forest patches. Along the way we counted no fewer than 19 Ocellated Turkeys along the roadside, a few more Great Curassows, and a Great Black Hawk perched low in an open tree. The southern stretches of our drive took us through a section of rice paddies where we were surprised to find a large Peregrine Falcon feasting on a Cattle Egret. Dissatisfied with our approach it lifted off, egret clenched tightly in its talons, and proceeded to carry the heavy prey item for 200 meters or more; a spectacular show of strength. The paddies were teeming with migrant shorebirds, waders and waterfowl. Back in civilization we stopped for some lunch and followed it up with ice cream from Western Dairy, a locally famous ice cream shop owned by the Belizean mennonite community. They claim to have the best ice cream around; in reality the ice cream is just ok, but they’ve got the monopoly on frozen dairy products in the country, so who’s to argue with their claims.

We arrived at Black Rock Lodge in the late afternoon and enjoyed watching birds attending the fruit feeders from the large open deck that overlooks the Macal River. Steep limestone cliffs and thick forested slopes make for a constantly dramatic backdrop. A night drive produced a Northern Potoo hunting from a low fence post, a roadside Common Pauraque, and a very cooperative Middle American Screech Owl.

Day 6 : An Orange-breasted Farewell

A morning bird walk produced spectacular views of a family of Pale-billed Woodpeckers, a Spot-breasted Wren constructing a nest, a Purple-crowned Fairy, and many others. Back at the lodge we watched a Rose-throated Becard defending its nest from a Piratic Flycatcher. The morning was heating up and the raptors were beginning to soar. This site is arguably one of the most reliable areas for finding Hawk-Eagles in Central America and we were not disappointed.  As we watched a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle tending to her nest in a large spreading tree across the river, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle made a low, close pass. Other soaring raptors included White and Short-tailed Hawks, and multiple King Vultures.

Leaving Black Rock we made our way towards the famous Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, stopping along the way to drop our luggage at Mariposa Jungle Lodge and have a little lunch. It was here that we learned of impending airport closures and global travel bans due to the spread of Covid-19, and we made the difficult, though necessary, decision to forego the rest of our adventure and return to our respective homes. Raymond stayed back at the lodge to sort out travel arrangements while Eric and the group went for one last birding excursion into the pine forests of central Belize.

The group returned late in the evening with giant smiles on their faces, having soaked up as much of this wonderful country as was still possible, and adding many new birds to the trip total, including Canivet’s Emerald, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Rufous-capped Warbler, and Rusty Sparrow. The highlight of the evening was watching an Orange-breasted Falcon cutting the skies across the famed thousand foot falls and perching in a tree just above the group. It was apparently so close “you could almost reach out and touch it”. A fine parting gift to the group, and a promise to return to Belize to experience the southern half of the country where tropical broadleaf forest abounds and where the ancient ruins of Caracol hide Scarlet Macaws, Tody Motmots, and other forest treasures.

Though the trip was cut in half we were delighted to have tallied 291 bird species, 13 mammals, dozens of orchids, 12 herps, and a whole bunch of fascinating arthropods. Belize continues to be an exciting, and welcoming, place to visit, and a top-notch country to witness the diversity of neotropical bird life for beginners and experts alike.

                                                                                                                                                                        -Raymond VanBuskirk

Created: 20 May 2020