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.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – this was my favorite of the whole day – photo by Cayo Birders Club

Last spring my BFF Kathe and I spent 5 days in Cayo, aka “cottage country” in Western Belize. We stayed in a cute cottage at Windy Hill Resort and took day trips out of there.

One of the things on my bucket list was to hire a private birding guide in Belize so that I could broaden my knowledge of Belize birds. Elmer, the manager of Windy Hill, set us up with David Hernandez… what a great tip that was!

David is a dedicated birder, and has set up an excellent Facebook page called the Cayo Birders Club. He took us to three different locations, all near San Ignacio. We spent about 4 hours with him that morning. Mostly he identified birds by sound. We started out on the grounds of Windy Hill, and then moved on to up behind Cahal Pech ruin, then to the confluence of the Macal and Mopan Rivers, and finished up under the Hawksworth Bridge on the banks of the Belize River.

While behind Cahal Pech he also showed us some unrestored ruins that no one but locals know about. We saw a stelae from 300 BC and pottery sherds all over the place. We also heard howler monkeys in the distance. What a morning! You can contact David directly: hernadav2219@yahoo.com. Here is the list of all of the birds that we saw that day.

Spotted Sandpiper
Linneated Woodpecker
American Redstart
Golden-Fronted Woodpecker
White-Fronted Parrot
Great-Tailed Grackle
Social Flycatcher
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Yello-Tailed Oriole
Clay Colored Thrush
Great Kiskadee
Plain Chachalaca
Green Jay
Magnolia Warbler
Gray Catbird
Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
Yellow-Throated Vireo
Turkey Vulture
Red-Billed Pigeon
Indigo Bunting
Mashed Tityra
Sulphur-Bellied Flycatcher
White Collared Seed Eater
Blue-Gray Tanager
Baltimore Oriole
Rufus Tailed Hummingbird
Keel-Billed Toucan
Female Summer Tanager
Green Kingfisher
Cerulean Warbler
Amazon Kingfisher

frigate birds in belize

I communicate with a few other people who own lodges in Belize, people I don’t really know, but I feel like I know them. One of these people is Rob Hirons, owner of a southern Belize lodge called The Lodge at Big Falls. I have visited his place briefly, it is located right on a river down near Punta Gorda. A fabulous place to spend a week or so.

Rob publishes the Toledo Howler, a newsletter promoting southern Belize which I blog about occasionally. I was extremely pleased to receive an email recently announcing his new Belize birding website! This is a super great site where you can hover over the image of the bird and it is easily identified with the movement of your mouse. The photos on the site are images he took himself near his place in southern Belize. I am impressed with the layout of his new website. It is organized around the variety of habitats in their region, and he says he intends to continue adding images. I sent him several bird images I took myself from our island out at Glover’s Reef.

[image by Kris Baird]

Christmas Bird Counts in Belize: everyone is welcome regardless of experience.

Christmas Bird Count BelizeIf you’re a birder, then you may already know: the objective of the Christmas Bird Count is to count (by sight or sound) as many birds as possible in one calendar day within an area encompassed by a circle 15 miles in diameter. The results of some 2,000 such Christmas Bird Counts are published annually by the National Audubon Society. And Belize has five:

  • Belize City
  • Gallon Jug
  • Belmopan
  • Cockscomb Basin
  • Punta Gorda

To find out details about joining any of them, this map shows every Christmas Bird Count scheduled in North and Central America. Zoom in on Belize and click on the circle of your choice. There’s also this article that gives you the overview and how to connect up. Here are details on Belize’s most popular Christmas Bird Count in Punta Gorda. It’s also the only one with open registration (the others simply require making contact with the coordinator).

Christmas Bird Count ala Punta Gorda

The Punta Gorda Christmas bird count circle includes all of Punta Gorda and extends north to Big Falls,east to the Rio Grande, west to Santa Anna and south to the Moho River.

Each year anywhere from six to ten groups, depending on the turnout, are assigned specific areas to cover within this circle. Every team is led by at least one expert, so this is a great opportunity for those of you who are a little rusty, or perhaps just getting started in the world of birding, to learn from the experts. The group meets every year at 7:00 p.m. the evening before the count at Nature’s Way Guest House to get acquainted, assign teams and figure out the transportation and other logistics.

At the end of the count day around dusk they again congregate at Nature’s Way to tally the results. Spouses, siblings, children and friends are also welcome, as long as they have an interest in birds and don’t mind getting their feet wet. If you have any questions, you can e‐mail questions to bzbirdman@gmail.com.

A visiting purple gallinule hides out in the rafters of our sea kayak palapa while dodging a pesky plague of local grackles. (Click the pic to get a better look)

It was during the last couple of weeks of our season – a busy year (in fact our biggest season in 30 years!)  It was early afternoon and a group of us were hanging out by the sea kayak palapa when we noticed a huge “grackle commotion.”

A grackle on Long Caye

About 15 of the small black birds were gathered nearby and making quite a racket. We’re used to the antics of the grackles. They abound on the islands of Glover’s Reef and are commonly found in large flocks, which numbers they use to their advantage — a habit that has earned them the label of bully with many a bird watcher. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen grackles ganging up on something but this was off the charts. Something unusual was definitely up.

It soon became apparent what all the fuss was about. At the center of the grackle flap was a large purple and green bird, the like of which we never saw on the islands this far off shore. It was a purple gallinule! Right off I told the others what its name was, and that we almost never saw them on Long Caye.

It’s only by chance that I even happened to know what kind of bird this stranger was. Years before I had had the luck to run into one while taking a tour of the Lamanai ruins in the interior jungle of Belize. Because the purple gallinule is a rare sight, even in those parts, the guide made quite a thing of having spotted it and the memory stuck with me. We never see them on the island. Normally they hang out in swamps.

Its extremely long toes help it walk on lily pads without sinking. (Click the pic to get a better look)

We chased off the plague (that’s actually the technical name for a group of grackles – fitting, eh?) and our sheepish gallinule (aka “swamp hen”) headed straight for the rafters of the nearby shade palapa and stayed there until that night. The rest of the afternoon, you could look over at the kayak palapa and someone would be standing there, in the one spot that afforded the best closeup look a the beautiful, colorful bird, which is about the size of a pheasant. The next morning it was gone and we never saw another like it again. If we do, we’ll keep you posted.

Below is a bit we found out about our exotic visitor from searching the web:

The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) is a “swamp hen” in the rail family Rallidae. Also known locally as the Yellow-legged Gallinule.

This is a medium-sized rail, measuring 26–37 cm (10–15 in) in length, spanning 50–61 cm (20–24 in) across the wings and weighing 141–305 g (5.0–10.8 oz).[2][3] Males, averaging 257 g (9.1 oz) in mass, are slightly larger than females, at 215 g (7.6 oz) on average.[4] The adult Purple gallinule has big yellow feet, purple-blue plumage with a green back, and red and yellow bill. It has a pale blue forehead shield and white undertail. Darkness or low light can dim the bright purple-blue plumage of the adult to make them look dusky or brownish, although the forehead shield color differentiates them from similar species such as Common Gallinules.

Juveniles are brown overall with a brownish olive back.[5] These gallinules will fly short distances with dangling legs.
Their breeding habitat is warm swamps and marshes in southeastern states of the United States and the tropical regions of Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America. This species is resident in southern Florida and the tropics, but most American birds are migratory, wintering south to Argentina.
The nest is a floating structure in a marsh. Five to ten eggs are laid. Their coloration is buff with brown spots.
They are omnivorous – their diet being known to include a wide variety of plant and animal matter, including seeds, leaves and fruits of both aquatic and terrestrial plants, as well as insects, frogs, snails, spiders, earthworms and fish. They have also been known to eat the eggs and young of other birds.
This species is a very rare vagrant to western Europe and southwestern Africa. There is a similarly-named species in Europe, Asia and Africa, the Purple Swamphen, Porphyrio porphyrio, but that bird is much larger.

Green heron on Long Caye, Belize
Green heron on Long Caye, Belize

I am just back from 7 weeks in Belize, and most of that time on our island at Glover’s Reef. It was GREAT!

We last published our cumulative bird list from Long Caye at Glover’s Reef on March 29, 2011. We have a few new additions to the list, we are now up to 95 birds seen on our island! I am not a birder but am proud to report that I identified one of the new birds!

The complete list:

American Redstart
Baltimore Oriole
Barn Swallow
Bay Breasted Warbler
Belted Kingfisher
Black And White Warbler
Black Bellied Plover
Blackburnian Warbler
Black Catbird
Black Crowned Night Heron
Black Neck Stilt
Black Throated Green Warbler
Blue Grosbeak
Blue Winged Warbler
Boat Billed Heron
Brown Booby
Brown Pelican
Canada Warbler
Caspian Tern
Cattle Egret
Cedar Waxwing
Chestnut -Sided Warbler
Cliff Swallow
Common Grackle
Common Nighthawk
Common Yellow Throat
Double Crested Cormorant
Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Wood Pewee
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Great Tailed Grackle
Green Breasted Mango
Green Heron
Grey Catbird
Groove Billed Ani
Hooded Warbler
Indigo Bunting
Kentucky Warbler
Least Flycatcher
Lesser Greenlet
Lesser Nighthawk
Little Blue Heron
Magnificent Frigatebird
Magnificent Hummingbird
Magnolia Warbler
Mangrove Swallow
Mangrove Warbler
Northern Perula
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow
Northern Waterthrush
Olivaceous Cormorant
Orchard Oriole
Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Pectoral Sandpiper
Peregrine Falcon
Prairie Warbler
Rothonotary Warbler
Ringed Kingfisher
Rose Breasted Grosbeak
Royal Tern
Ruby Throated Hummingbird
Ruddy Turnstone
Sandwich Tern
Scarlet Tanager
Snowy Egret
Solitary Vireo
Spotted Sandpiper
Summer Tanager
Swainson’s Warbler
Tri-Colored Heron
Tropical Mockingbird
Virginia’s Warbler
White Crowned Pigeon
White Fronted Pidgeon
Wilson’s Warbler
Worm-Eating Warbler
Yellow Bellied Elenia
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
Yellow Billed Cuckoo
Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Yellow Rumped Warbler
Yellow Throated Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yucatan Vireo

Caribbean brown pelican

There are a total of 6 species of Brown Pelican across tropical North and Central and South America. Caribbean Brown Pelicans are daily visitors to our island at Glover’s Reef. The adult Caribbean Brown Pelican is a large grey-brown water bird with white about its head and neck. Immature birds often have darker heads which lighten as they mature.

Full grown adult Caribbean Brown Pelicans, although the smallest of the Pelican family, are still relatively large birds and can reach up to 8 pounds; larger individuals have wing spans of over 7 feet.

Birding in Belize-pelicans

In adult Pelicans plumage plays a significant role in communication. During the breeding season, prior to nesting the back of the neck becomes a brighter brown-red color. The remainder of the year mature Pelicans have mainly white heads and necks. Young birds take approximately 3 years to gain their adult plumage.

Hey breed from March to November. The Caribbean Brown Pelican begins nesting between May and August, with the peak nesting season in September through November. The islands off the coast of Belize provide a perfect protected habitat for nesting Pelicans. Nests are often built in mangrove trees over or near the water. A typical clutch will consist of 3 eggs, the male and female share the brooding of the chalky white chicks.

In the 1960’s and 70’s a dramatic decline in Pelicans throughout the America’s occurred due the extensive use of pesticides and their eventual presence in fish. This caused egg shells to thin and as a result the loss of clutches. Happily restrictions on pesticides put in place in the 70’s and subsequent restrictions have over time decreased the environmental residues and the Pelican population has recovered.

Generally Pelicans are social birds; they often gather on our sand bank or perch on our dock posts in the morning.

Brown pelican in Belize

Brown Pelicans are true marine birds and feed by diving into the water from flight. We often see the Pelicans feeding up close from our beach on Long Caye, they dive from height into the shallows near the beach in our lagoon, taking the fish into their gular pouch and throwing their head back to swallow. At sunset the Pelicans are regularly feeding in the shallow water at the western end of the island. A Pelican feeding in the calm water is a very special and beautiful slight as the sun sets over the horizon with the silhouette of the other islands in the atoll as a backdrop.

Article and photos contributed by Meg Griffiths, our Belize kitesurfing instructor.

Ospreys are found at all times of the year on Long Caye. There is a large population of ospreys in Belize, and they inhabit practically every island found in the country, since the barrier reef and atolls provide a perfect habitat for these fish-eating raptors with the abundance of fish present.

We commonly have two pairs of osprey nesting on Long Caye, and they patrol the island constantly to keep other ospreys out of their territory. They soar on the updrafts caused by the trees of the island, and screech, dive, and fight off other birds that they perceive as a threat. The fishing is easy for these birds, and we see them catching and eating fish at all times of the day.

Ospreys are not afraid of humans, and will nest near inhabited areas with no problem. Our nesting ospreys are easily observed at close quarters, and it is fun to observe their habits without having to use binoculars. They commonly raise a brood of chicks each season. We have built osprey platforms for their nests since first moving to Long Caye in 1992.

(Click on each image to view the full picture.)

Crystal Paradise Belize
My room at Crystal Paradise

Yesterday I flew to Belize for my Belize Tourism Board tour of hotels in Belize. I arrived one day early to visit Crystal Paradise Resort, our new Cayo eco-lodge. We will be staying there for two of our Belize packages next season… our Belize Adventure Week trip and our Mayan Odyssey tour.

Crystal Paradise was built by the Tut family. They own 21 acres outside of a small village called Cristo Rey, which is about 4 miles from San Ignacio, the largest city in western Belize, and the center of inland tourism in Belize. All around the countryside here there are numerous eco-lodges, from a couple of small cabanas in someone’s backyard to very high-end boutique spa resorts, nestled along river banks and beneath the tall jungle canopy.

Belize bird platform
Their bird platform

Jeronie Tut gave Mary Avila and I the ten dollar tour, what a fantastic place! I saw every room, hiked down to the Macal River, climbed their bird platform, ate two fabulous meals there, listened to the birds early this morning, and even got to tour his private home that he built with local woods using the timber frame technique.

San Ignacio hotel
Crystal Paradise cabana porch

I can’t say enough good things about Crystal Paradise. It’s a medium-priced lodge, in a very quiet part of the country, but only 20 minutes from downtown San Ignacio. They offer horseback riding, birding, and caving. Every staff member is part of this large Belizean family. They built the whole thing themselves, using material from the jungle right on their own property. They have the really good kind of thatch (bay leaf palm) instead of the kind our staff knows how to build with that we use on the island (cahune palm). Their place is very nicely done.

Crystal Paradise is going to be the perfect home-base for our Mayan tours in Belize. We prefer a spot that is isolated, quiet, and small so that our guests feel like it really is their home. The rooms are spacious and private, and on good days, he even has internet access! And the location in Belize is close to all of our inland adventures: right on the Macal River where we teach kayaking, near Che Chem Ha Mayan cave which we explore, and near the road to Tikal, which we also visit on one day of this Belize adventure. On the way to the island we run the Caves Branch River, arguably the best one day activity in Belize, an underground river run by kayak or raft.

Now I am sitting in the bar at Ka’ana Boutique Resort outside of San Ignacio, waiting for the rest of the travel agent group to arrive. Tomorrow we tour something like six hotels, visit Cahal Pech ruin, and drive to Mountain Pine Ridge! Oh boy, it’s going to be fun!

Cayo eco resort
Crystal Paradise open air, self service bar