Birding Belize: Rainforest, Ruins, and Reefs

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14560A, International

Highlights

  • Enjoy Belize’s tropical birds from mountain forest to island caye
  • Explore Mayan ruins at Lamanai and Caracol
  • Tour the renowned Belize Zoo and a sustainable shrimp farm
  • Snorkel in Belize’s spectacular Mesoamerican Barrier Reef

Includes

  • All lodging, meals, guides, and entrance fees
  • All on-trip transportation, boats, and water taxis
  • All tips to guides and drivers

Details

DatesMar 10–19, 2014
Price$3,325 (10–12)
$3,995 (or fewer)
Deposit$200
Capacity11
StaffPati Rouzer
Photo: Y. Seminario

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Beautiful and varied Belize is truly a birding paradise. The country retains nearly 60% of its original forest cover, with 95 reserves protecting both land and sea ecosystems. Our trip takes us from lowland wetlands to tropical rivers, from mystical Mayan ruins to pristine broadleaf/pine forest, and from a 1,000-foot waterfall to our beachfront lodge on a sparkling Caribbean island. This varied topography will provide us with unique opportunities for premium birding experiences as we search for the country’s 566 reliably seen avian species.

While birds will be our trip focus, we will also enjoy exotic plants, an impressive array of butterflies, perhaps a few scaled critters, and -- with luck -- secretive mammals. We will walk forest paths, explore Mayan ruins, and swim in warm, sparkling Caribbean waters. At the end of each day we will eat and sleep in lodges that have been selected for their rich habitat, delicious local cuisine, and friendly Belizean hospitality.

English is the official language of Belize, formerly British Honduras. The ancient and rich Mayan history permeates the country, while today’s culture is blended with Latin American and Garifuna (descendents of inter-marriages among Carib, Arawak and West Africans people) influences. Belize has developed a strong conservation ethic, working hard to preserve its precious natural resources while promoting economic growth. We will visit several conservation sites to explore and enjoy diverse habitats, including two nearby marine preserves, Hol Chan and Shark Alley.

Professional bird guides will accompany us during the trip and review the day’s sightings for our checklist.

Itinerary

Day 1: You will be picked up at the airport in Belize City (Philip S. Goldson International Airport - BZE) and transported to our lodge near Crooked Tree Sanctuary. We will have our orientation meeting with introductions, a review of the itinerary, and perhaps an opportunity for night birding after dinner.

Day 2: Early this morning we will journey to the ancient Mayan site of Lamanai, the second largest pre-classical Mayan city that dates back to 1500 BC. This majestic site is only 5% excavated, with an estimated 700 structures still to be unearthed. During its peak around 200-900 A.D. a civilization supporting 35,000 people thrived here. Some theorize that Lamanai was the largest Mayan city in the Yucatan. Lush forests surround the ruins. Here we will look for Little Tinamou, Slaty-tailed Motmot, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Brown Jay, Mayan Antthrush, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Grey-headed Tanager, among others. The ruins are a good place to look for mammals like Howler Monkey, and Red Brocket Deer. An Ocelot may even surprise us!

After a box lunch in the field we will search rice fields and local hot spots for farmland birds like White-tailed Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Giant Cowbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, as well as North American waders, including Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover, among others.

Day 3: In the morning we will visit the community of Crooked Tree. Here pine trees, shrubs, and backyard gardens create a unique habitat for a variety of bird species. This is the best place in Belize to see some Yucatan Peninsula specialties: Yellow-headed Amazon, Yucatan Woodpecker or Yucatan Jay. If the level of the lake permits, we will take an afternoon boat ride on the lagoon to search for waterbirds such as Jabiru, Anhinga, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kite, and the local subspecies of Osprey, and even iguanas perched high in the treetops.

Day 4: We will travel to the famous Belize Zoo. Here we will have a few hours to learn about the important conservation work being done at the zoo, and observe some local, but rarely seen in the wild, animals such as tapir, jaguars, and Harpy Eagles. The zoo’s natural landscape makes it an attractive spot for wild birds as well. We will have opportunities for spectacular photos. After lunch we will drive west toward the Maya Mountains with birding stops along the way and opportunities to see Barred Antshrike, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, and Blue Seedeater. 

Day 5: Today’s adventures will be flexible to optimize local reports of best sightings, but we will aim for allowing some time to bird the grounds of our lodge. The lodge grounds offers extensive forested trails and is designated a Private Protected Area with a rich biodiversity and a bird list of over 300 species. Additionally, the lodge site contains Mayan ruins thought to be a residential complex dating back to 830-950 AD. Depending on sightings reported, we may also visit the adjacent Tapir Mountain Preserve, where we may see Tody Motmot, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Nightingale Wren, Green-breasted Mango, woodcreepers, flycatchers and small denizens of the under-forest. Other possibilities include a visit to the Pancho Rojas sinkhole, birding along the Black Rock Road for a chance to see local raptors, like Short-tailed Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, Double-toothed Kite and Orange-breasted Falcon, or exploring the ruins at El Pilar. The habitat here is broad-leaved forested foothills and we will have a full day search for residents and migrants alike: Collared Aracari, Black-headed Trogon, Olive-backed Euphonia and many jeweled hummingbirds.

Day 6: After breakfast we will continue west into the Mountain Pine region -- a unique ecosystem that's home to a host of varied bird species. We will go in search of the region’s specialties, including Violet Sabrewing, Rusty Sparrow, Grace’s Warbler, Black-hooded Siskin, Rufous-capped Warbler, and Green Jay, among others. We will visit some areas of stunning natural beauty such as Butterfly Falls and King Vulture Falls -- one of the best places to see the King Vulture and home to a breeding pair of Orange-breasted Falcons. We will also visit 1000 Foot Falls, the tallest waterfall in Central America and a great place to see White-collared Swift. Weather permitting, we will take a night drive to look for mammals, owls, and nightjars.

Day 7: We will take an early morning drive to Caracol -- the largest Mayan site in Belize, which is located within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. Over 35,000 buildings have been identified on its 30 square miles. The surrounding forest makes for exceptional birding: Mealy Amazon, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Golden-crowned Warbler, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Purple-crowned Fairy, four species of trogon, parrots, the iconic Montezuma Oropendola and the range restricted Keel-billed Motmot are all possible here. We will also visit the Rio Frio Cave to search for specialty raptors such as Bat Falcon, White Hawk and Crane Hawk. We will have a box lunch today to fully enjoy this magnificent site.

Day 8: Early risers may enjoy birding around the lodge grounds, known for abundant flora and fauna. After breakfast and packing up we head back toward the coast. We will visit a sustainable shrimp farm and the surrounding mangrove forest, where we may see close to 50 different bird species. After our tour of the farm, we will take a short boat ride to Caye Caulker, a tiny coral island in the Caribbean Sea. This small, charming island is a wonderful location to see waders and passerines in migration, including Wilson’s Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Yellow Warbler, and Cerulean Warbler, among many other species. If our schedule permits, this may be the time to take a dip in the clear, warm Caribbean water or enjoy a relaxed sunset viewing. 

Day 9: In the morning we will take a walk around Caye Caulker looking for Common Black Hawk,  White-crowned Pigeon, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Bananaquit and Black Catbird -- all possible among the caye’s list of 75 reported species. After breakfast we will take a boat ride to enjoy a day of snorkeling. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world! Barracudas, Nurse Sharks, Southern Stingrays, and colorful coral beds await us beneath the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Snorkeling gear will be provided; however if you prefer, bring your own gear, especially prescription masks.

Day 10: Today is our last chance to take a dip in the ocean or bird around the caye to catch any species we may have missed. After breakfast we take the water taxi back to Belize City and the airport for flights back home.

Photos

Details

Getting There

Your passport should be valid for at least six months from the starting date of this trip. Visas are not required. Most flights from the US arrive in the afternoon. Please arrange your flight to arrive at the Philip S. Goldson International Airport (BZE) by 5:00 p.m. on March 10, 2014. If you are arriving on another day, arrange to be at the airport on March 10th to meet our transportation. At the end of our trip we will arrive at the airport after 1:00 p.m. The international airport lies just outside of busy Belize City.

Accommodations and Food

Our lodging has been selected to be in rich biodiverse habitats and will range from simple cabanas to elegant lodges to a seaside hotel. Rooms are double occupancy and roommates will be assigned for solo travelers. Single rooms, when available, may be requested at additional cost.

On most days we eat breakfast and dinner in our lodge. We will have several boxed lunches in the field to maximize our activity schedule, and other days we will return for lunch at our lodge or eat at small cafes. The regional cuisine is a mix of Caribbean-style rice and beans with chicken and tropical fruits. Vegetarian preferences, as well as most dietary needs, can be accommodated with advanced notice. Purified water will always be available.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is focused on birds, hence we will have early morning departures to maximize birding opportunities and everyone must be committed to being ready on time. You should be reasonably fit and in good health, with the ability to walk up to three miles a day on trails in forest habitat, and to hike up and/or around excavated ruins. You should be able to stand for prolonged periods while observing or looking for birds, maintain ‘birding pace’ for hikes and have enough stamina to be out in the field for long days.  The days will be full but well paced. Most trails will be level, with occasional short but steep inclines. Be prepared for rain with a lightweight jacket even though we will be there in the ‘dry’ season.  We have one full day of snorkeling: no prior experience is needed and gear will be provided.

Equipment and Clothing

You should have a good pair of binoculars, preferably waterproof. The guide will carry a scope, though you may bring one if you plan on carrying it yourself.  Essential clothing includes a ‘broken in’ pair of hiking shoes or boots, amphibious sandals for boating and the lodge, lightweight rain gear, sun hat, lots of sunscreen, lightweight neutral colored clothes for the trail, a headlamp, swimsuit, a small day pack to carry water and snacks, and a Belize bird guide. A comprehensive packing list and more details will be provided later. For photographers, bring twice as much memory or backup storage as you originally planned! We will have many photo opportunities.

References

Jones, Lee H., Birds of Belize (recommended bird guide).
Kritcher, John, A Neotropical Companion.
Twigg, Alan, Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide.
Beletsky, Les, The Ecotraveller’s Wildlife Guide to Belize and Northern Guatemala.
Coe, Michael C., The Maya.
Barcott, Bruce, The Last flight of the Scarlet Macaw.
Demarest, Arthur, Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization.
Forsyth, D., and Miyata K., Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forest of Central and South America.

Conservation

Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources both locally and globally. Volunteers, aided by a salaried staff, accomplish our work. Our outings seek to empower participants toward understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad, and on this trip we focus on conservation efforts and resilient habitats.

Belize is struggling to balance economically sustainable development while protecting its rich biological resources for future generations. Hunting, nest robbing, and poaching of adult birds and chicks for the illegal pet trade are serious concerns for which protections have been put in place. Unfortunately, a lack of adequate personnel for enforcement in remote sites has reduced effectiveness, including protection for its ancient archeological sites. Belize has several governmental agencies and international conservation organizations working to study and protect its remarkable biodiversity, while addressing the needs of an increasing population and growing tourist industry. Climate change and sea level rise pose challenges to Belize’s coastal industries, ports, and barrier reef system.

On our visit to Belize we stay at lodges that support conservation. We will experience successful conservation programs in several diverse habitats, and observe how our visit challenges and supports ecotourism.

Staff

Leader:

Pati Rouzer is an avid birder with a strong interest in conservation. She has a BS in Biological Sciences, currently serves on the board of directors for the Sequoia Audubon Society and the Belize Raptor Research Institute, and previously served on the board of directors for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. She has led trips to Panama, Belize, and locally for Audubon. Her current favorite trip is with her youth birding team, The Fledglings. In her spare time she enjoys bird photography and bird-friendly gardening, and has finally started a life list.

Mentor Leader:

Rochelle Gerratt

Contact the Staff

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