by Brie Cokos
Edited by the Team at Naturalight
I've never thought of "bird watching" as an adventurous activity that a "cool cat" like myself would contemplate doing. Exotic excursions windsurfing, sailing, diving or kayaking through Belize's colorful, refreshing seas and rivers appealed more to my sense of exploration and curiosity. Searching out birds? Isn't that much like looking for a mouse in a barn?
Still, having been in Belize for some time, I know that one cannot help but encounter an eye-catching bird species just going about one's daily routine. Just as its coral reefs harbor tremendous biodiversity, Belize is a mecca for birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The diverse, largely undeveloped habitats within Belize cater to remarkable bird representation. In all of North America, ornithologists have documented just over 800 species of birds; Belize, a country approximately the size of Massachusetts, is home to over 570 of them. Northern jacanas walking on lily pads along the New River in Orange Walk or ocellated turkeys in the Rio Bravo Management Area make no effort to conceal themselves. Coastal birds like the brown-footed booby and its bully, the frigate bird, are as common on the cayes as the pigeon in town. The savannahs in the Belize District are home to the vermilion and scissor-tailed flycatchers and the nearby Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary caters to flocks of wood storks. At Laguna Aguacate in Cayo, sightings of night herons and jacamars and blue-crowned mot mots nesting in limestone walls are not uncommon. In most tropical forests of southern Belize, the Montezuma oropendola's hypnotic warble is a notice to look upwards in search of its spectacular group nesting. With eighty percent of Belize's bird population residing year-round within its borders, any time of the year is birding season.
Our group was convinced that the hotspots for world-class birding are Belize's many parks and reserves and Lennie, our guide, had promised an exciting day. In an effort at being open-minded I awoke Sunday morning before the turkeys and even the sun - probably just about the time the nocturnal jaguar was getting ready for bed. Lennie had told us that most birds are active during the cooler periods of the day - in early morning hours or at happy hour. Although I knew I would be up for happy hour, I figured I could kill two birds with one stone (not literally) by using the spotting scope from the verandah.
The plan was to take a leisurely boat ride through the meandering Spanish Creek of the Belize District. Interspersed with flat savannah plains and scrubland, Spanish Creek winds through dense lowland broadleaf forest. In July 2002, 5,985 acres of the surrounding jungle was declared a national reserve, dubbed the Spanish Creek Wildlife Sanctuary (SCWS). Maintaining the continuity of the northern biological corridor and giving animals a home without borders, SCWS links to the massive Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.
Up until this trip, my mental catalog of birds was limited to those I had observed around my home. Birds like the melodious black bird whose morning whistles serve as my alarm clock; the great-tailed grackle, whose noisy roost active from three in the morning thwarts my sleeping efforts; the terns that nest on the remains of the old pier; colorful hummingbirds that flit between the hibiscus and an aplomado falcon perched on a tree stump in its apparent capacity as a security guard for the empty lot next door. When I think of birds, these city dwellers come to mind. I had never really looked for them, they're always there and seem oblivious to human presence in the area.
My only other encounters with exotic birds have been the back side of the Belizean one hundred dollar bill which hosts a king vulture, magnificent frigate bird, brown pelican, yellow headed parrot, brown booby, great jabiru stork and Belize's national bird, the keel-billed toucan OR one other time, within the confines of a zoo. The Belize Zoo is home to an impressive collection, including the brilliant, though now endangered, scarlet macaw; the velvety black male great currasow; the proud crested guan. I had not given much thought to spending time looking for birds in the wild.
This morning, my goal was to spot as many birds as I could. I had developed an affinity for the giant jabiru stork and had decided that a sighting of one of these would make my day. Another member of our group was hoping to add the rarely-sighted chestnut-bellied (agami) heron to his "life" list. As a newly protected zone, little documentation exists about the SCWS's biodiversity, so we essentially followed the path of the river as we polled through the olive waters. With binoculars hanging from my neck, field guide in hand, sunscreen and bug repellant smeared across my skin, and hat fastened to my head, I felt as if I were a renegade explorer in the Amazon reporting for National Geographic Magazine.
My first impression of birdwatching was colored with overtones of panic. One could spot the birds flying over the trees, after all the background was solid blue. But from ground to treetop seemed a solid mass of green leaves. There were occasional chirps and tweets but the source was a mystery. After taking a few deep breaths, I realized that the green wasn't really solid. There were varying concentrations of leaves with gaps and windows allowing one to see through the layers of vegetation and glimpse flashes of color, swift movement or the avian outline of a quiet sentinel. And, if I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sounds¯.rustling branches¯.soft whistling¯.running water, I could actually pinpoint a location and zoom in on it. For now I would rely on Lennie to identify which bird was making that song even if I didn't always see the actual source.
Undocumented as it may be, Spanish Creek harbors extraordinary bird diversity. After only three hours of observation, we recorded over fifteen species of bird. I was captivated by the sinewy grace of the bare throated tiger heron, the brilliance of a yellowtail oriole and the deep-throated clucks of the boat-billed heron. A black-collared hawk s soared overhead. As we slowly meandered upstream through what seemed like kingfisher bend. Within the space of about half an hour, a pygmy kingfisher and a pair of green kingfishers darted from branch to branch just inches above the water's surface while a belted kingfisher watched from a branch and a ringed kingfisher nervously took flight upon our approach. Ten minutes later, the fuchsia legs of the gray-neck wood-rail stood out in stark contrast to the dull brown twigs and leaves on the banks. A snail kite swooped down searching for its gastropod dietary namesake while a flock of olivaceous (neotropic) cormorants pretended not to be following our boat. A limpkin with its curious gait paraded unconcerned through the saturated riverbanks in search of breakfast. The list seemed never-ending.
Suddenly there was a sharp intake of breath from Gayle, who was sitting on the bow of the boat and could see what we could not. No one spoke as our eyes followed the direction of her gaze. There was a soft rustle in the bushes. The boat captain poled closer. The rustling stopped. We paused. The movement started again. Breathless and focused on the movement, each of us was mentally wooing the concealed bird into sight. Finally, inching through the shallow riverbanks, a body covered in navy feathers and silver-blue plumage emerged. The elegant agami heron extended its neck as if conscious of our approach. Cameras were forgotten.
In the end my jabiru proved elusive but I saw his gigantic nest and was content knowing this would not be my last birding expedition. I had started my own "life list" and already had more than fifteen additions. The time had peacefully flown on Spanish Creek. I had been surprised at the mounting excitement within me as we scanned the vegetation before us. Birds with their polished agility and glamorous outerwear were amazing (even if the male of the species was the more colorful). Of course, I was positive that the brilliant ones I had seen could turn anyone into a birder. Even a cool cat like myself.
Special Thanks to:
Paradise Expeditions Birding
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography