Thursday, January 24, 2019

Belize! Part I: Arriving at Crooked Tree

Belize is in the books and BB&B is back! I was rewarded with a very pleasing number of lifers, a lot of species I've only seen once or twice before (or heard only), and soaked in the much needed return to the Neotropics. Aside from the potholed condition of a number of the roads, getting around Belize, and birding it, was "relaxed and easy", as some of the tour companies like to name certain tours...which makes me wonder if MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS is still going to pursue the "relentless and stressful" or "bossy and tense" branding schemes they were cooking up? Anyways, I was often birding too hard to be relaxed, and the tension of being surrounded by potential lifers was constantly in the air.

If there was anything to bitch about, it was my new camera body having a major malfunction and being reduced to a paperweight for most of the trip (and no, it did not occur to me bring a spare)...but I'll try to keep my whinging on that topic to a minimum...for now anyways, it arrives at the Nikon shop today...and fortunately had no problems with it while in Crooked Tree, which offers photo ops galore.

The first destination, back on January 5, was Crooked Tree Village, where we stayed at Bird's Eye View Lodge (BEV) for three nights. BEV is right on the edge of Crooked Tree Lagoon and runs guided boat tours (geared heavily toward birders) from directly behind the hotel, as well as a number of other birding tours, and is situated with very good birding within walking distance. When the lagoon begins drying out and getting low, it is possible to walk out of your room and see thousands of waterbirds feeding in the lagoon, but we were too early for that spectacle. BEV is very popular with birders; the Crooked Tree Lodge on the other side of the village also gets a lot of visiting nerds. In addition to all the birding ops, BEV offers three meals a day, has a fridge full of beer you can help yourself to (honor system), and can also whip up cocktails if needed. The air conditioning is nice, and considering that many of the good birding lodges in Belize are either not on the cheap side or are the polar opposite of cheap, the price is right!

Crooked Tree Village is comprised of a mosaic of habitats, with a lot of wetlands (obvi), open areas and edge. Vermilion Flycatchers are absurdly abundant and pretty tame around BEV; this male was having a protracted faceoff with another one a few feet away.

Since you can do a lot of birding without a car at Crooked Tree, we actually had someone from BEV pick us up from the airport instead of getting a rental right away...HOW LUXURIOUS. Made me feel all geri! Rudy, our driver, is also a birding guide, and he pulled over for a random Jabiru (!!!) he spotted foraging near the highway, the first lifer of the trip. This was one of my top target birds and I was obviously stoked to finally see this enormous, stunning monument to charismatic avian megafauna. Jabiru is actually pretty difficult to find in early January (Crooked Tree is famously reliable for them later in winter/spring) would have been an incredibly stinging thing to dip on, so seeing one on the drive from the airport was a hell of a way to start the trip.

The next morning at dawn, I followed a strange call north to the Limpkin Trail, which turned out to be another lifer...why hello RUFOUS-BREASTED SPINETAIL it is nice to meet you!!! This ended up being the only one I would see, though their quick and concise three note call is unmistakable (sounds like "i LOVE you" or "i HATE you"...or perhaps "i'll KILL you") and I heard many more during the trip.

Social Flycatcher is, of course, very common in Belize, but were not quite as abundant as I have seen them in parts of Mexico and Costa Rica.

Other lifers I picked up early on were Tropical Pewee (somewhat overdue...or maybe hella overdue?) and Black-collared Hawk, which I found while scoping the opposite shore of the lagoon during a rainy lunch at the lodge. This is a definitely good place to bust out a scope!

Right, I'll have a couple more Crooked Tree posts coming up, so will use this post to throw up some more of the landbirds found while walking around.

How about more flycatchers? Yucatan Flycatcher was on the target list, but I ended up with a resounding dip on that one - Crooked Tree was the only place we visited where they were somewhat expected. We did have lots of Dusky-capped Flycatchers though (which presumably are constantly misidentifed as Yucatan Flycatchers), including this very confiding bird.

Mangrove Swallows were abundant at Crooked Tree and were extremely approachable. Their white rumps are obvious in flight but perched they look very much like Tree Swallows with little white supraloral stripes.

The Tropical Mockingbirds were abundant and approachable too...I'm beginning to sense a pattern here.

Several warbler species that we often strive to see well in the U.S. take on very different personas in Belize...I guess everyone relaxes when they get to Belize. The American Redstarts at BEV were helping to fill the niche typically reserved for House Sparrows, which seem to be absent from most of the country. 

To change things up, Lineated Woodpeckers were neither abundant or extremely confiding, though I fortunately saw them on the reg. Lineated is in the same genus as Pileated, as you could probably guess.

You are probably wondering about the GERI BIRDING...well, the lodge did offer geri birding, but apparently were not yet putting out the fruit feeders they have done in the past (it wasn't high season for birders yet). They did have a cluster of hummingbird feeders which attracted a number of Baltimore and Black-cowled Orioles, the inevitable Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and this Green-breasted Mango. I also saw mangos (mangoes???) on the entrance road.

Ruddy Ground-Doves seem to be one of the commonest and most widespread birds in Belize...I have no problem with that.

Late one afternoon I took a walk on the Woodcreeper Trail, just south of BEV. Not much in the woods besides mosquitoes and a handful of frustrating calls I didn't know, but when I got back to the trailhead I ran into an excellent mixed flock. In the fading light a couple of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes came out for great looks, the only ones I would end up laying eyes on for the trip.

For the Woodcreeper Trail, I should say that it is very intriguing habitat (taller, more intact forest than what is nearby) but I was never able to get in there in the mornings, which is probably a good idea. I felt that Gray-throated Chat could be a possibility on the trail and that patch of forest had a lot of potential. The big trees near the entrance of the trail and in the campground also were pretty birdy and worth looking over. Other nearby walks a birder would be into from BEV include the entrance road and the previously mentioned Limpkin Trail, which will take you all the way back to the lagoon causeway if it isn't flooded. If you want to go for a longer walk, you can go west to the pine savanna for a whole other suite of species, but more on that later.

I'm sure that when the lagoon is lower you can walk the shorelines for quite a ways as well (thus getting to bird the wooded edge as well as the lagoon), though that seems like a chiggery prospect if much grass has grown in.

The cloudwatching on the lagoon was often excellent in the afternoons.

One of the hallmarks of Neotropical birding are the combos. This is the first Solitary Sandpiper-pig combo I have ever experienced.

And I will leave you with this...balls. Straight up pig balls. How does that grab ya?

Much more Belize coverage to come! And no more huge pig balls, I promise.


  1. Would Max Reno agree those are recently marinated pig balls and not an unshaven Ponda Babba?
    For some reason the dove photo is not showing on my reader right now, but this place sounds like a pretty great set up.
    The idea of navigating on foreign rocky roads in a rental to find (perhaps poorly marked) birding areas fills me with dread.

    Bummer about the camera, but very nice crushes.

    1. **nevermind, reloaded and and images were present.

      Rufous-browed Peppershrike??
      I would not have believed that to be a real bird name any more than the Leg-pulling Snatchgrabber.

    2. A lot of Mexico birding consists of navigating poorly marked roads to get to poor roads that are also poorly marked...but the birding is so good it is typically worth it. We actually did get a rental after leaving Crooked Tree and found everything very easy and straightforward driving around Belize, though sometimes it was very slow going (potholes galore). I downloaded an app for navigation I had previously never heard of and it ended up performing admirably - Google Maps can really suck outside mainland U.S. and Hawaii.

      Very pleased you managed to make a pretty obscure Star Wars reference out of the pig balls! It wasn't even a stretch!

  2. Belize! I don't know if I'm more jealous of the birds you left to our imaginations (Jabiru!) or the ones I've never even heard of (Peppershrikes!). So many places to visit, so little time.

    Our go-to lens was acting up in Europe, so I had a small taste of your pain. Hope you're able to get your camera sorted soon

    1. I am grateful it was the camera instead of the lens (camera is cheaper and still under warranty)...but so many missed crushes. Luckily, an abundance of good birding makes the pain much more bearable.

  3. Duuude. Your Belize pain is like my Maine pain times 1000 because Belize. Hope Nikon sends your camera back with a wad of cash for another crush-filled Belize trip. Excited for more posts! Don't wait two years please.

    1. I will endeavor to bust out the trip at a speed closer to what Flycatcher Jen does than Felonious Jive.

  4. Holy pig balls! Ouch on the camera malfunction. I can relate. Had my DSLR zoom lens go out of alignment in Colombia. Fortunately I had my back-up mirrorless camera and lenses. It wasn't nearly the same quality but at least I had some photo record of the birds.

    Looking forward to the rest of the Belize report. I'm curious, are you fluent in Spanish? Thinking my next trip to the spanish-speaking tropics I'm going to forgo the expensive fully guided tour and wing it with a lot of pre-trip planning and research. The primary barrier I see to a mostly self-guided tropical birding trip is my gross lack of functional Spanish.

    1. Jajaja not anywhere close to fluent, but something in the realm of functional. This does result in surprises when ordering food sometimes though.

      If you are concerned about the language barrier, which is valid, Belize's official language is English! But I think generally if you go someplace with a fair amount of tourism, you are much more likely to encounter people who speak English/Spanglish - i.e. chances are you would have an easier time on that front in, say, Costa Rica than Guatemala. Also no matter where you are if you book all your lodging in advance that streamlines things as well.

  5. Love birds and poor piggy! Thank you for sharing those pictures and for me, they are all pets. I tried to have one exotic bird because the exotic animal veterinarian near me encourage me to get one, and I am very happy to all my birds. Thanks again!