May 23, 2017
Birding in Belize & Guatemala
By Dr. Matt Perry
When I signed on for the trip to Belize as a Small Ship Adventure with Blount, I was not thinking of birding. After all, the trip’s focus was on the exciting coastal cays (pronounced keys), with snorkeling and swimming as the primary objectives. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when the birding turned out to be so outstanding and the marine biologist/snorkeling guide was an excellent birding guide also.
Our first experience with birds was from the ship, Grande Mariner, at the pier in Belize City prior to departure, where we saw great-tailed grackles on the pier, black-necked stilts on the shoreline, and numerous coastal bird species in the air. While in port, we met our guide, Luz Hunter, and were pleased to learn of her broad background in natural history, which included bird life, marine life, and botany. We walked along the Belize River with her and were lucky to spot several new bird species, including a black-headed trogon and a yellow-throated euphonia silently perched in the dense foliage, and an ivory-billed woodcreeper searching for insects in the bark of trees. In addition to birds, we saw leaf-cutting ants on the march and the tracks of a jaguar. Pretty exciting trip so far and we haven’t left port!!
Once we reached our first cay, Southwater, the wildlife got better, with plenty of magnificent frigate birds and brown pelicans to entertain us with their aerial acrobats and their different behaviors to obtain food. The frigate birds, with huge wings, are considered “kleptoparasitic” as they make aerial attacks on birds like gulls and make them dislodge their food. The pelicans in spite of their disproportionately large bills are good at plunge diving and then draining the gallons of water from their huge bill, while retaining any fish unlucky to be caught. Both the pelican and the frigate birds have a gular throat pouch, showing similar evolutionary ancestry, but for different purposes. The throat pouch in the pelican is for feeding, whereas in the frigate bird it is a bright red display patch for courtship.
After snorkeling around Southwater Cay I scouted the island to see if I could find some interesting birds. I was rewarded by seeing white ibis in the shade of mangrove and a little blue heron prancing in shallow water trying to capture small fish. Along the shoreline were ruddy turnstones in their winter plumage searching for invertebrates among the many stones. Southwater Cay was just one of several cays we visited and each one had its own uniqueness with different birds and other adventures.
We made a unique bow landing at the village of Placencia, which offered shopping opportunities and kayaking for some. I accompanied Luz and several other birders along the coast where we spotted laughing gulls, royal terns, and several sandpiper species. We then spotted great bird activity in a well vegetated residential area, accented by beautiful blooming bougainvillea. The trees were alive with many bird species including great kiskadees, cinnamon hummingbirds, a social flycatcher, a yellow-bellied elaenia, and two tanager species (blue-gray and yellow-winged). While watching the smaller birds we were surprised and pleased when a roadside hawk flew in and landed above us in a large tropical almond tree, with the trunk of the tree densely covered with blooming bromeliads.
I was interested in the trip up the Rio Dulce River between Belize and Guatemala as I knew there should be some birds to see on that part of the trip. It was a beautiful day when we crossed the shallow bar at the entrance of the river and maneuvered up river between steep cliffs on both sides. We spotted cormorants nesting in the trees, but also many great egrets roosting in thetall trees that lined the banks. Egrets typically feed by stealthily moving through shallow waters searching for prey,but also are considered “sit and wait” predators prepared for the fish coming to them and then rapidly striking with their long bill. On the Rio Dulce, however, I saw a totally different behavior. The white egrets were waiting in the trees for prey and when they saw a fish near the water surface, they swooped down like ospreys or eagles and snatched the fish from the water while they were in flight. It seemed like a good strategy in an area with little shallow-water shoreline, but many fish in the river. The boat trip along the Rio Dulce also gave us a brief glance at the secretive keel-billed toucan, the national bird of Belize, as it crossed the river from one part of the forest to another.
From a birding perspective, however, the highlight of the trip for me was seeing aturquoise-browed motmot, while on an optional excursion to see the Quirigua Mayan Ruins. While walking along the trailto the ruins we spotted one silently watching the surroundings for an unwary flying insect. Then in a flash of brilliant color it swooped from the perch, grabbed the prey and returned to its perch. Several of us watched this beautiful bird, with its “tennis racket” like tail, for a half hour, which required a shorter tour of the ruins to stay on schedule.
On our return to Belize City we found time to visit the Belize Zoo. I don’t particularly like the caged aspect of zoos, but the Belize Zoo is more of a conservation center working to protect native species like the king vulture, jabiru (a stork), and the rare scarlet macaw. All three species of birds are difficult to see in the wild and the Belize Zoo has become famous for their work in restoring populations. Several of our fellow travelers were reading the book “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” during the trip, so it was a pleasant surprise when we met Sharon Matola, featured in the book as the species savior, while she was feeding an ocelot.
The flexibility of the Blount cruise schedule and the staff is commendable,resulting in a great 12-day experience, including ample snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and the unexpected birding. This was an excellent trip and I feel I could easily repeat it and find more adventure.
About the Author
Dr. Matt Perry retired after 45 years with the Federal government, but as an emeritus scientist continues to publish research articles and maintains a research project in Argentina dealing with satellite telemetry of ducks. He organizers ecotourism trips for friends and colleagues, which have included Bolivia, Costa Rica, Peru, Puerto Rico, Iceland, South Africa, Cuba, and two trips each to the Galapagos Islands, Tobago and Churchill, Manitoba.