Wood Storks, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize
Wood Storks, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

For fantastic birding and a trip back in time to a simpler era, plan a trip to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and Crooked Tree Village.

Located on a large fresh-water lagoon, the village is surrounded by the wildlife sanctuary. There are four lodges and a few restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. Crooked Tree occupies a huge, natural area and has a population of only 1000 people,. This is arguably the best place for birders in the country, and more than 300 species have been recorded here. Because of the lagoon environment, many of the birds are shore or wading birds.

I have been birding at Crooked Tree twice. Once for a very short “fam” tour, and a second time when I spent 2 nights there and was a full-paying guest. Once it was during peak dry season and much of the lagoon was dry, and we still saw 30 different species on an abbreviated tour; the second time on the all-morning tour we saw almost 50 species. In both cases our Bird’s Eye View Lodge birding guide was fantastic. Since I am a snorkeling guide out at Glover’s Reef, I could tell when we were really seeing something rare by the change in our guide’s demeanor. You could hear the excitement in his voice when he spotted the rare Agami Heron. We watched this magnificent bird stalking fish along the shoreline for at least 10 minutes. In addition to this sighting, some of the other birds I have seen at Crooked Tree are: Great Blue Heron, Neo-Tropic Cormorant, Ring Kingfisher, Grey-Necked Wood Rail, Boat-Billed Heron, Wood Stork, Limpkin, Prothonotary Warbler, Osprey, Black Vulture, Juvenile Black-Collared Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, Snail Kite, Little Blue Heron, Black-Crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Green Heron, Tropical Kingbird, Orchid Oriole, Black-Cowled Oriole, Tri-Color Heron, Blue-Wing Teal, American White Pelican, Jacana, White Egret, Snowy Egret, and the enormous Jabiru Stork (wingspan: 10-12 feet). We also saw two Bare-Throated Tiger Herons in the middle of a territorial dispute. One of our guides also reported recent sightings of the Pinnated Bitter, a rare Northern Lapwing from South America blown off-course, Glassy Ibis, White Ibis, Rosette Spoonbill, White-Crowned Parrot, and the American Coot.

Bird's Eye View Lodge, Belize
Bird’s Eye View Lodge, Belize

Of the four lodges at Crooked Tree, I recommend Birds Eye View Lodge. Situated right on the shore of the lagoon, it is simple, clean, and comfortable. If you can remember all the way back to the 60s, it just might remind you of lodges you visited with your parents when you were a kid. Their excellent kitchen staff serves buffet-style meals with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. Be sure to ask for the rooms on the second floor/balcony level. This huge elevated patio is the perfect place for happy hour (visible in above photo). We added about six species to our bird list right from this porch.

They have a small bar for their guests and an in-house tour company. Rates are from $100 a night for a double, depending on room and on season, and meals are just as affordable. Breakfast and lunch are each $15, while dinner is $19 and they accommodate vegetarians. The birding tour for 1-3 persons is $125, each additional person is $35. Birding tours last about 3 hours, starting at 6 a.m. Before your tour they serve you a small breakfast with coffee, then when you get back about 9 or 10 they serve you a full breakfast. Contact Kira Jiminez directly: 011-501-203-2040, birdseye@btl.net, or visit their website: www.birdseyeviewbelize.com.

Crooked Tree is only 45 minutes from the Belize International Airport; a perfect choice if you are flying in a day early for one of our Adventure Island packages. They will pick you up at the airport for $75 US (one way) for 1-3 persons; each additional person is $20. You can stay the night, take an early morning birding tour, relax the rest of the day or tour the village, and have them drop you off at the Biltmore in time for our meeting on Day 1 of your tour with us. You can also travel here on your own just for the day in a Belize car rental, but we recommend booking a birding tour in advance, don’t just drop in expecting an instant tour.

If you are thinking of traveling to Crooked Tree, don’t expect a 5-star hotel, great shopping, or nightlife. Accommodations are clean and simple, the village is quiet. What you can expect is to meet some wonderful Belizean people and to see some of the most exotic birds in the world.

belize bans plastic
Trash washed up on Long Caye in 2013

We just received the word that Belize will be phasing out single use plastic bags, styrofoam food containers, and plastic food utensils by April of 2019!

This is fantastic news for us. When you have an island, you get to see first-hand the result of an over-abundance of plastic, specifically plastic from the Belize City dump, which is a mountain of stuff that blows out into the sea and eventually might wash up on our shore. Half of the island is ours, and half is abandoned. We clean both halves, but cannot keep the other end as clean as we wish it was. Even though it’s a tiny island (13 acres), that’s pretty big when you are trying to pick up everything that washes ashore.

Have you ever tried to pick up styrofoam that has been in the sea and the sun for months? You pick a piece up, it breaks in half. You pick one of those up, it breaks in half…. repeating this process endlessly. You can never get it all picked up, it just gets smaller and smaller. And then a bird or tropical fish swallows it.

This new Belize law was recently announced. A committee has already been formed to deal with the implementation of the ban and an education awareness campaign has also been put into motion for the public. Some businesses have already started phasing out the use of these materials, in anticipation of the ban.

Belize attributes this decision to their continued growth in tourism. Over the past 3 years Belize has seen double-digit increases in tourist arrivals, although much of that growth is due to the cruise ship industry. Belize is now up to 1,000,000 cruise ship visitors per year. Belize has advanced to the top-performing destination in the Caribbean region.

We are so psyched! Belizeans love their take-out food, many Belize citizens eat nothing but take-out, since the restaurants are all so good. They ALL use styrofoam. But not any more!!!!

Our island, Long Caye at Glover’s Reef, is 35 miles off the coast of Belize. Several years ago we had our first Sargassum seaweed invasion. Although we have been located at Glover’s Reef since 1991, we didn’t even know about Sargassum until just a few years ago. This season I guess the invasion is so pronounced that it is now in the news, and prospective tourists are avoiding parts of the Caribbean that report bad instances of the weed piling up.

beaches without seaweed
Long Caye at Glover’s Reef in early September, 2018. Windward side on left, leeward side on right. No seaweed!

So just what is Sargassum anyway? It’s another name for brown algae. It has berries within the mass of foliage, and these are filled with gas, and they keep the seaweed afloat. It travels in huge masses, like islands floating at sea, some as large as several acres! Experts believe the Caribbean Sargassum originates off the coast of South America. It is named after the Sargasso Sea, a region in the Atlantic that is almost as large as Australia where the weed collects. The Sargasso Sea is located just north of the Bahamas and covers about 2 million square miles of ocean. It’s the only sea without fixed land boundaries, its limits are formed by bounding ocean currents. Sargassum is not only found in the Atlantic however, it thrives worldwide.

There are many reasons to hate the stuff, it wrecks the visual appearance of the otherwise pristine white coral sand beaches. It’s yucky to walk through, whether on land or in the water. And when it starts to decay, it smells like a dead animal.

There are some good things about it too, although none of them are good enough for us to keep it around when it arrives. They are home to, and a source of food for a huge variety of sea life. It is edible for humans too, and utilized as a treatment for many ailments in Chinese medicine.

We are lucky in so many ways, and one of them is the Sargassum situation. For one thing, the wind blows mostly from the east (known as the trade winds). Our main beach faces southwest, which is the leeward side of the island, so the seaweed blows right by us for the most part. On the windward side of the island where our cabanas face, we have breaking waves as well as wind on that shore, so nothing sticks there either.

If it’s stormy and the wind switches it blows from the north or northwest, and then we do get a massive pile of Sargassum right on our beach. We have to wait until the wind switches back to deal with it, because otherwise as soon as we got rid of it, it would be right back. But once the wind switches (usually a day or two after it starts) we then clean it right up. Again, we are lucky. We have a system using our motor boat engines to create a swift current along with people in the water with rakes to rake it all away so that it flows away with the east wind. Last spring we experienced the worst batch of Sargassum we had ever seen. It was piled about 40 feet deep out into our lagoon! (That’s double the amount in the photo below.) Three of us got rid of it in about 3 hours of good, hard labor. Our group paddled through it leaving the island on the way to Middle Caye at about 9 am, and by the time they got back for lunch it was all gone. They couldn’t believe it. I was one of the three who magically cleaned it up, and it was actually fun, and we were so proud of ourselves. It’s so great having an island, you can just deal with stuff completely because it’s such a finite area.

sargassum seaweed
Seaweed invasion in December of 2014, the first time we experienced it on our island
Neri’s specialty… photo by Allen Gurney

Our guests on every trip on the island are fascinated by the amazing numbers of coconuts produced by our palm tree forest, many of which we simply throw away. However, we use coconut in many of our recipes, and we open coconuts for our guests to eat and drink every day. Since we have so much interest in the coconuts, we also give a talk about the many aspects of the nuts and how they are opened and processed in various ways for consumption. Our guides demonstrate the techniques employed (by machete) and explain how the different ripeness of the meat is used for different recipes, how to know which nut is good or bad for a particular use, etc. This talk has turned into one of the favorite activities for our guests!

Coconutology class is in session! … photo by Cully Erdman

 

Our guide Luis was beyond reproach. Such a pro and really took each guest’s experience seriously. Never missed a step when it came to planning and leading activities. Also, he gave a talk on coconuts that I thought would be kind of a joke, but turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Rob Orman, Bend OR, Adventure Island at Glover’s Reef, December 2017

 

Preparing for Coconutology… photo by Carol Sternkopf

 

Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to successfully raise coral and then “release” it into the wild? We just found out about a project that seeks to protect coral reefs by doing just that. Recently a good friend of ours, Jenette Settle, sent us a link to her friend Joanie Kleypas’ web page Raising Coral. In Jenette’s words:

protect coral reefs

“Joanie has been funding her own coral research for a long time. She won the Heinz award and with that money she started a full-on coral regeneration program. She has been regenerating coral for two years now in Costa Rica and making progress — her coral is growing!”

She works with a small team of scientists; their goal is to eventually scale their program up to speed up reef recovery. Their short term goal is to spend one more year on experimental research before they jump in with both feet, and for this they are seeking more funding.

We find this project inspiring and exciting, and hope you will join us in contributing to this worthy project. There is a link on their site to donate.

touring belize on your own
Burrell Boom, Belize

Many of our guests arrive a day or two early for one of our week-long adventure packages. We often get questions about touring Belize on your own. I have a favorite one-day loop trip that takes in the Baboon Sanctuary, the Belize Zoo, and my favorite restaurant for lunch: Cheers. Because it’s a loop, you can start anywhere on the loop and circle around and end up back in the same place. I’ll describe it here as if you are arriving in the country and continuing from there to stay at Black Orchid Resort or the Howler Monkey Resort, with the plan to do the driving tour the next day. However, the itinerary can be modified as you see fit to go in a different direction, or to stay in a different location.

So, landing at BZE, you will first rent a car. Renting a car can be expensive in Belize (about $100/day), so this is most affordable for a group or family of four or more. If you compare the car rental to a guided tour, the car rental compares favorably when you consider four people x about $75/day per person for the tour.

All of the Belize car rental places are in the parking lot at the airport, so that part is easy. You don’t have to make arrangements in advance unless you are traveling at peak times like Christmas or Spring Break. Once you have your car, drive out of the airport and turn left on the Northern Highway, going north. You will go about 5 miles to the turnoff for the town of Burrell Boom. Turn left there and continue on to Black Orchid Resort or the Howler Monkey Resort, where you have already made reservations for the night. Most flights do land later in the day, so you would not have time for this tour without having the full day ahead of you, and you will need a place to stay. Black Orchid is about 25 minutes from the International airport, and the Howler Monkey Resort is about 45 minutes away, located in the village of Bermudian Landing.

After breakfast at the restaurant at Black Orchid the next morning, you will have to decide whether you are taking all of your luggage with you, or coming back to pick it up. That will depend on what you plan to do next. It will likely be easiest to take it with you, unless you plan to spend several days at Black Orchid.

The Community Baboon Sanctuary does a great job with stewardship of the monkeys.
Crocodile skull – Community Baboon Sanctuary Museum

Continuing west, drive on into Burrell Boom Village and beyond due west to the village of Bermudian Landing. This is where the visitor center for the Community Baboon Sanctuary is located. It’s a small, semi-funky, but charming museum. Well worth the minuscule entrance fee.

There will hopefully be a guide there offering to take you to the baboons (actually they are Howler Monkeys, but the locals call them “Baboons”.) By all means hire them! The fee will also be surprisingly affordable. A young woman walked us about a block back into the trees and there were the monkeys!

When you have had your fill of the Baboon Sanctuary, get back in your car and go back to Burrell Boom and turn south (right). You’ll be heading toward Hattieville. When you are almost to Hattieville you will pass the prison! You can see the prisoners right there inside the fence, it’s quite strange, but interesting. It’s a view of the country most people do not get.

touring belize on your own
Tapir at the Belize Zoo

At Hattieville you turn right and head west toward the Belize Zoo and Cheers Restaurant. Don’t miss Cheers. If you are hungry, go there first, it’s a little bit past the zoo. Then double back to the internationally famous Belize Zoo. You’ll want to spend several hours there. They quit letting people in at 4 pm, and close at either 4:30 or 5:00. Allow at least 2 hours for the zoo, but really you need 3 or 4.

After you have finished your tour, you don’t have to go back the same way. Continue on the Western Highway back almost to Belize City, then take the brand new cut off back over to the Northern Highway so that you miss downtown Belize City. You will come right out by Brodie’s Supermarket and the Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel. Continue to the International Airport to return your vehicle (which is why you might be glad you don’t have to double back to get your luggage at Black Orchid.)

black howler monkey
We didn’t feed them, I promise! We handed them fruit from the tree they were in that was lying on the ground

If you are meeting us for the first night of your adventure tour, take a cab from the airport back to the Biltmore to start your tour with us! Here’s the route.

belize one day tour map

[photos by Lucy Wallingford and Kathe O’Donnelly]

I have written before about the trash that washes up on our beaches continuously out at Glover’s Reef. It’s endless. There are times of year when it’s worse, but not only does it wash up daily, but the overall volume has definitely increased as the years have progressed. We have been based out of Glover’s Reef since 1991 (!)

We pay people to pick it up, we con our guests (particularly when there’s a trip with lots of kids) to help pick it up by staging big competitions (with fabulous prizes, of course). After the award ceremony, I always give a little speech about the health of the oceans, and suggest everyone might choose to not buy bottled water, or get food in plastic take out containers.

One thing I never think to mention is the single use grocery bag. They are particularly harmful to sea creatures, and get tangled up in the coral, harming them also. I just came across this article that has made my day. Three months ago California banned the use of these bags! Statewide!!! California is the first state in the U.S. to ban single-use plastic shopping bags.

What great news! It’s a tiny part of the world, and won’t likely affect our island way down in Belize…. but it’s a start. Here’s a fervent hope that other states and also other nations follow.

Long Caye at low tide
That’s me walking out to see what I can see

[Sharon Columbus and her husband have joined us every single year since 2012. They are already scheduled for 2017. All photos are by Neil Columbus.]

One activity on Slickrock’s Belize island that you should not to miss is the Low Tide Walk. Now this activity isn’t like the adrenaline-pumping kayaking surfing offered on the island (especially if the wind is just right). Nor will you experience that heart-stopping feeling you get when you realize you just went zipping past the dive shop on your windsurf board and you have no idea how to tack back upwind to where you started, but it has its own excitement, albeit a bit more dignified.

Low tide at Glover's Reef
Low tide on Long Caye

It is easy to think of the coral shelf on the windward side as lifeless. There are no spectacular colors or coral heads with a plethora of fish around them, but it is indeed teeming with some rather interesting critters; all it takes to find them is to look and, at the same time, to believe that you will find something. You might see scorpion fish hunkering under the rocks, watch your step! They can inflict a nasty sting.

A Banded Spiny Sea Urchin

Some of the other things you could find include spiny urchins, sea centipedes, or a tiny decorator crab.

Decorator Crab

And if you are real lucky a “slow” octopus,

Caribbean Reef Octopus

Here is a guy with a different slant on “low tide walk”.

Little Green Heron

Most of these creatures found on the low tide walk are small, they aren’t going to stand out like an eagle ray or a barracuda so you must look carefully. Fortunately, Slickrock has, of course, thought of everything and have made some wonderful “glass” bottomed buckets that you can use to help see into the water when you turn over a rock. You have to be fast, but you will catch on. It is best to go out at least once with a guide. They know so much about the tidal pools and the denizens found there but you can take these buckets out any time when the tide is out (a tide chart can be found in the dining hall by the library) and you just want to putz about. Walk slow, (aren’t you glad you brought those booties Lucy suggested?) look down, enjoy and appreciate all that you see.

Group low tide walk

Belize lionfish invasion

The Belize Lionfish invasion actually encompasses the entire Caribbean and Atlantic marine ecosystems. This crisis has been in the news for several years now, and we write about the Belize Lionfish epidemic frequently. These invasive fish, which have no natural enemies, have disrupted coral reef ecosystems and are threatening to wipe out many indigenous species.

We recently found a new article that introduces a Lionfish robot that will kill the fish at depth, without a person needing to be present. This might solve one of the bigger problems with Lionfish control, the fact that they often hang out much deeper than people can go to spearfish them. And that is the only way to kill Lionfish, one individual at a time.

Lionfish are voracious predators of juvenile fish, which is one of the reasons they cause such havoc in other fish populations. Many ideas have been brought forth on how to control the exploding populations of Lionfish, but none has been very successful, and the fish continue to increase in numbers. But new ideas continue to be implemented, and this is one of the wilder proposals we have seen presented. Who knows if it would work, but it is nonetheless encouraging that so many people are taking up the issue of how to control these fish!

[photo by Rick Pratt]

I have posted often about hunting lionfish and the Belize lionfish invasion. Lionfish were first spotted at Glover’s Reef in the winter of 2009. We heard about them in an article online, and notified our island staff. Within days, they spotted the first lionfish; it was uncanny. Since that time, we have actively pursued them with spearguns while snorkeling to keep their numbers down as much as we can. We actually have very good success near our island. Many times we go snorkeling to one of the reefs we frequent with eager first-time spearfishermen and we come home empty-handed.

Lionfish hunting in Belize
Our guide Magdeleno Yacab spearing a lionfish. Video by Rick Pratt.

Lionfish were first introduced into the Atlantic Basin (they are a Pacific fish) in the 1980s through the US aquarium fish trade. It is suspected that lionfish were released into the ocean by aquarium owners looking to get rid of their fish because of a move or other reason. Since that time they have invaded from North Carolina to South America, including the whole of the Gulf of Mexico. When they finally reached the Caribbean, they reached all corners of this suboceanic basin in less than five years.

There are several reasons that lionfish are such a problem. First, they have no predators. Their would-be natural predators don’t recognize them as food; they look like no fish native to the Atlantic. This is why one of the recommended deterrents is to spearfish them and then feed the freshly injured fish to eels, shark, groupers, etc. Most of the lionfish we see are only about 8-10″ long, but they can grow to a size of 19-20″. Second, they reproduce exponentially. They have a wide range of temperatures and depths that they thrive in, and they become sexually mature in less than one year, and they can live to be 20 years old or more. A single laying lionfish can spawn over 2 million eggs/year!!!! The larval duration, eggs to fish, is only 25 days.

Finally, they are voracious eaters. A few lionfish can decimate the fish population at a given patch reef. They can reach densities of over 200 adults per acre. When caught and gutted, up to ten fish or more are usually found within their digestive tract.

All of this adds up to the fact that if you spear one lionfish, you save as many as 50,000 fish per year.

Not only are the fish a disaster for the reef fish populations, but it has even affected our life on the island. We do not feed fish like they do at other resorts. If you go to Shark Ray Alley off Ambergris Caye for example, the shark and rays come up to you. This is obviously not their natural behavior, they would normally avoid people. But they want to get the easy food, often they are fed Wonder Bread! So the snorkelers and divers at Ambergris don’t get to see fish acting naturally. Instead the fish follow them around, begging.

I have seen so many amazing things while snorkeling: like Horse Conch sex (!), Horse Conch laying egg sacs, and lobster swimming in mid water like a bullet trying to evade detection. Once I almost swam into the mouth of a giant eel, his head was bigger than mine! I have surprised an octopus seemingly sunning himself on the coral reef before darting away into a hole when he finally spotted me. None of these wonders could have been witnessed if we fed the fish. This is one of the truly fantastic things about Glover’s Reef, the fish populations are un-altered by human intervention. You could never observe natural behavior at Ambergris Caye because of the proliferation of feeding.

But now, we are instructed to feed the fish with the speared lionfish to teach the predators to eat them. So suddenly, the fish are following us around. This actually hasn’t happened yet snorkeling, but I hear it does happen diving. This is extremely disconcerting. The lionfish are actually affecting our ability to observe the behavior of the big creatures while diving at Glover’s Reef, and someday this will likely extend to snorkeling.

So when you go to the Caribbean, anywhere in the Caribbean, if you see lionfish on the menu, order it!

For more in-depth information about lionfish, visit Lionfish University, an excellent site promoting education and culling of lionfish throughout the Atlantic.