Belize: Birding with a Camera (BwC)

Belize is a tiny country that punches well above its weight in terms of birding; in spite of being comparable in size to the small US state of Massachusetts, it can boast nearly 600 species of birds, 80% (more than 450 species) of which are tropical residents. These are bolstered in this season by wintering or migrant orioles, warblers, vireos and thrushes that breed in North America. Classic tropical groups are well presented and expected, like toucans, trogons, motmots, puffbirds, jacamars, antbirds and woodcreepers. In addition to these, multiple species of hummingbirds, parrots and tanagers can be anticipated too. We will also be on the lookout for regional specialties like the outstanding Ocellated Turkey, Yucatan Jay, Yucatan Woodpecker, Yellow-headed Parrot, Tody Motmot, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Yucatan Flycatcher, Gray-throated Chat, Black Catbird, Green-backed Sparrow, and Yellow-winged and Rose-throated Tanagers. Being just two hours flight from Houston, it is also incredibly convenient for those looking to make their first forays into tropical birding outside of North America. It does not involve a long flight, has plentiful birding, comfortable lodging to be based for it, all of which is readily accessible without any very long drives in a small country that does not have the daunting, extreme totals of species of tropical destinations further south. This makes it one of the natural choices for first tropical trips. Being so small, Belize can be covered comprehensively in a short tour like this, which only requires 5 days of vacation time.

There is no catch, it really is this good!


Note: The itinerary is sometimes run in a different order based on lodge availability.

Day 1: Arrival in Belize City. After arrival in the capital, you will be transferred to a modern business style hotel, where the tour will start with a welcome dinner on this day, before departing for birding on the next morning. Night Belize City.

Ocellated Turkey are tame and photogenic at La Milpa
Ocellated Turkey are tame and photogenic at La Milpa (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 2: Belize City to La Milpa. On this short tour, we do not hang around, and within just a few hour’s drive northwards of the capital we will arrive at La Milpa, near the uppermost border with Guatemala, and one of the country’s premier birding and tropical research sites. This will give us almost a full day on site on this day and another the next, which will be required due to the long, long list of stunning birds featuring there. Fortunately, one of the main target birds for the site, the stunning Ocellated Turkey, is also one of the easiest to both see and photograph, and we can feel confident we will get this one before the day is out. At lunchtime, we can open our own “hummingbird appreciation society”, as it were, as we dine while enjoying and photographing hummingbirds zipping in and out of the feeders right beside our table! The usual attendees include widespread species like Green-breasted Mango, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and the striking White-necked Jacobin, as well as Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, and White-bellied Emerald. Another gorgeous hummingbird usually found on the property is Purple-crowned Fairy but it only very rarely visits the feeder. The birding at this site will be a combination of easy trail walking, and road birding, searching forest edge, inside the forest and right around the lodge for birds, and other animals like Yucatan Black Howler monkey, and Black-handed Spider-Monkey. Two nights will be spent in a comfortable lodge in La Milpa, with birding starting right on the doorstep.

Black-handed Spider-Monkeys are found in La Milpa
Black-handed Spider-Monkeys are found in La Milpa (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 3: La Milpa. A full day will be spent exploring a variety of trails at La Milpa. While the photography is harder inside the darker forest than at the edge around the lodge itself, which is more open, as is the nearby road birding. The major specialty for inside the forest is the inconspicuous Tody Motmot, which we will spend some time looking for, and the enigmatic Royal Flycatcher too. The latter is often found conveniently close to the lodge. Another trickier interior forest species is the Stub-tailed Spadebill, which requires some effort to see. Red-capped Manakin and Great Tinamous also roam the forest here. Other specialties that we will seek at La Milpa include, Gray-throated Chat, Green-backed Sparrow, and Rose-throated and Yellow-winged Tanagers. There is an extremely extensive list of classic tropical birds found at this site to have any new tropical birder salivating at the prospect, from toucans to trogons to manakins to motmots, all the key groups are covered.

A tropical classic: Keel-billed Toucan
A tropical classic: Keel-billed Toucan (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Some of the huge list of possibilities here include: Slaty-tailed and Black-headed Trogons, Lesson’s Motmot, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan, Squirrel Cuckoo, Brown-hooded and Red-lored Parrots, Olive-throated Parakeet, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Barred Antshrike, Northern Bentbill (an odd flycatcher), Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens, Blue Bunting, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Black-headed Saltator, and Yellow-throated Euphonia. While in the more open areas along the road and around the lodge, we will keep a look out for raptors, like Roadside and White Hawks and the magnificent King Vulture. Migrant birds from North America that may be present during our visit include Hooded and Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstart, and Ovenbird.

At night Mottled Owl is often found close to the lodge, and the odd, bark-like Northern Potoo is also possible too.

Barred Antshrikes are readily found in forest and forest edge
Barred Antshrikes are readily found in forest and forest edge (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: La Milpa to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. On this day we will drive south to another elite Belize birding site, Crooked Tree, which as well as forest to bird in, has lagoons and wetland birds too to add to the enjoyment and diversity of our bird list. We will spend two nights at the excellent Bird’s Eye View Lodge, directly overlooking the impressive Crooked Tree Lagoon. In the afternoon, we will begin our exploration of the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, an area of lagoons, mangroves, secondary forest, pine forest, and scrub that offers up plentiful new birds for our tour. We will have a full afternoon to do this, and another full day beyond that too, to bird on foot from the lodge, along roads nearby, and by boat. The open country style of birding in some local areas, and the selection of waterbirds will enhance our bird photography opportunities at this particular site. At dusk we can listen out for the Common Pauraque, a vocal and conspicuous nightjar.

Scrubby habitats on the edge of Crooked Tree Lagoon are home to Rufous-breasted Spinetail
Scrubby habitats on the edge of Crooked Tree Lagoon are home to Rufous-breasted Spinetail (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 5: Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. We will take a boat trip on the huge lagoon for several hours to search for birds among the mangroves, like Northern Jacana, Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Snail Kite, Great Black Hawk, American Pygmy-, Green and Ringed Kingfishers, Mangrove Vireo, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler, and Mangrove Swallow. While of interest there are many widespread tropical species wherever we look here, we will also be on the hunt for regional specialties like large conspicuous flocks of black-and-blue Yucatan Jays and Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrots in the secondary forest, and Black Catbird and Rufous-breasted Spinetail in more open, scrubby areas.

Northern Jacanas are conspicuous on Crooked Tree Lagoon
Northern Jacanas are conspicuous on Crooked Tree Lagoon (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Other birds we might find within the fascinating variety of habitats available to us near the lodge include Jabiru, Wood Stork, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Plain Chachalaca, Lineated, Golden-fronted and Yucatan Woodpeckers, Black-collared Hawk, Laughing and Bat Falcons, Caspian Tern, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Yellow-headed and White-fronted Parrots, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Fork-tailed and Common Tody and Vermilion Flycatchers, Great Kiskadee, Rose-throated Becard, Brown Jay, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Grace’s Warbler (in the pines), and White-collared Seedeater. A second night will be spent at our beautifully located lodge, right on the edge of the Crooked Tree Lagoon.

Yucatan Jay, a regular tour favorite
Yucatan Jay, a regular tour favorite (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 6: Crooked Tree to San Antonio. After a final morning birding some of the many spots around Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, we will depart for San Antonio, after lunch for the longest transfer of the tour (4hrs), as we head south into the low mountains and pine forests of the San Ignacio region. Two nights will be spent at Mariposa Jungle Lodge, a series of luxurious cabins closer to the western border with Guatemala. After dinner, we can look for nightbirds, for those who wish to do so, as Northern Potoo, Yucatan Poorwill (scarce), and Common Pauraque all occur in the nearby area.

Open country at Crooked Tree is home to the spectacular Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Open country at Crooked Tree is home to the spectacular Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 7: Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. We’ll have a full day to explore the cooler pine-dominated forests of this reserve, a short drive from our lodge. These forests are markedly different in climate and appearance to the lowland forests experienced around La Milpa. It is famed for its diversity of raptors, with roadside birding on the ridge top itself being the best place to search for King Vulture, Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites, and Gray, Short-tailed and White Hawks. Rare raptor species there include Orange-breasted Falcon, Black-and-white and Black Hawk-Eagles. Raptors will not be the only things on the menu though, as other species we will be seeking include Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Golden-olive and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Rufous-capped Warbler, Green and Brown Jays, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cabanis’s Wren, Masked Tityra, Rusty and Olive Sparrows, Golden-hooded and Hepatic Tanagers, Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and Black-headed Siskin. Wintering boreal migrants could include Plumbeous Vireo, Yellow-throated, Grace’s and Magnolia Warblers. A second night will be spent within the comfortable surrounds of Mariposa Jungle Lodge.

Northern Emerald Toucanets are found at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
Northern Emerald Toucanets are found at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 8: San Antonio to Belize City. During the morning we will likely return to Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve for a short time, before setting off for the journey east to Belize City. Time permitting, on the way, we may make a stop off at Blue Hole National Park, where we could find other forest birds like Gartered Trogon, Lesson’s Motmot, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Dot-winged Antwren, Bright-rumped Attila, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Schiffornis, Rose-throated Becard, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-green Vireo, White-breasted Wood- and Spot-breasted Wrens, Crimson-collared Tanager, Blue-black Grosbeak, and Olive-backed Euphonia.

Pines are scattered through some areas, and are home to Grace's Warblers
Pines are scattered through some areas, and are home to Grace's Warblers (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

We will reach Belize City in the late afternoon, to take a farewell dinner, and reflect on what will have been an amazing week-long birding experience within a destination that is firmly ON the beaten track for good reason; by this time, you will all understand why, after observing and photographing an abundance of tropical species in this small and peaceful Central American nation.

We'll search by night, and DAY for the nocturnal Northern Potoo
We'll search by night, and DAY for the nocturnal Northern Potoo (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 9: Departure from Belize City. An airport shuttle will be provided to transfer you out at whatever time you need to connect with your international flights out.

PLEASE NOTE: While there is no official extension, a day can be added to this tour to take a day tour from Mariposa Jungle Lodge to Tikal in Guatemala. Please contact the office if you wish for us to arrange this on day 9, when the rest of the group departs.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed. This tour is designed to be an introduction to Neotropical birds, and is run at a fairly relaxed pace; the guide will attempt to show you representatives of all the major neotropical families, even if they are common birds.

Generally speaking, the places in Belize do not start serving breakfast before 06:00-06:30am, and so the usual plan for the days will be some optional pre-breakfast birding for an hour or two before breakfast, then return to the lodges for breakfast. Therefore, all the breakfasts will be taken at the places that we stay at. Lunches on five out of the seven birding days will be taken at our lodging, on one of the days a lunch will be taken at a roadside restaurant, and on one day only we will need to take a field lunch for the full day at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, where there are no significant eateries on site. All dinners will be taken at our accommodations.

As the middle of the day in La Milpa and Crooked Tree is very hot and humid, there will be breaks taken in the middle of the day to relax at the accommodations (or optionally bird the grounds on your own). The only day this will not be possible will be for day 7 for the full day of birding at Mountain Pine Ridge, when will not return to the lodge for lunch but have a field lunch.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. The birding on this tour is a mix of birding along roads and forest trails, and by boat for several hours on one day too at the Crooked Tree Lagoon. While there are trails in the forest at La Milpa, these are considered easy with most of them being flat, or with only short inclines. There are also level trails we may take at Crooked Tree, but these involve easy walking in an open area, where the heat is more of an issue than the walking in terms of difficulty!

The tour covers high elevations on just two days of the tour at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, where the highest point of the road reaches around 1000m/3280ft, although for the most part, even at this site, we will be birding at around 700m/2300ft or lower. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that altitude should be an issue for anyone on this tour, as these problems usually occur at significantly higher altitudes than this. The other five days of birding on the tour are in the hot tropical lowlands.

CLIMATE: This is timed for the least hot and, more significantly, the driest season in Belize, which has two seasons only dry and wet (June-Nov), with March being in the heart of the dry season. In this very dry part of the year, we may experience no rain at all, but the occasional shower may still occur, and so light rain gear should be carried just in case. The temperatures actually change little though year round. The average temperatures in the lowlands at this time (e.g. Belize City, La Mila, and Crooked Tree), are likely to be between 22-30C/72-86F, while in the mountains at Mountain Pine Ridge it will be cooler, but not cold, with temperatures a few degrees lower. The climate is quite similar to Central and Southern Florida.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and electricity. Electricity is 24-hours everywhere, although at La Milpa, which is solar powered, there may be periods of the night when it is not available. Wi-fi is also available in all lodges, though often it only works in the public areas and not the rooms.

EXPECTATIONS: This is a Birding with a Camera tour, which means that we will see a decent number of species, and spend time photographing them when possible. Bird photography is especially good at the hummingbird feeders at La Milpa and also during our stay at Crooked Tree.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential. A 300 mm camera lens with teleconverter or a 100-400 mm zoom work well in most areas. Longer lenses such as 500-600 are fine if you have them, but they can be tiring to carry on some of the walks. Both digital SLRs and the new lighter, faster, mirrorless, micro 4/3 cameras could both be suitable.

WHEN TO GO: There are just two seasons in Belize, the dry season and the green or wet season. The wet season runs from June to November, and while birding can be good, it is preferable to go in the dry season unless you can’t visit any other time. Peak time to go is from the months of December to March, as this is when the tropical residents are also boosted by North American migrants, like warblers, vireos, orioles and thrushes.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for a minimum of six months past your intended stay. Visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all Western European countries. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 9 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water whenever needed; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 8; airport transfers as part of a scheduled airport shuttle service attached to our Belize City hotel. Ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 8 (for smaller groups the guide will drive and, for larger groups there will be a driver); entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the TROPICAL BIRDING tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; international flights; airport departure tax (there is a departure tax payable only in US Dollars of $56 currently, although most US airlines now include this within your ticket price, but not all airlines worldwide do so, therefore PLEASE CHECK THIS WITH YOUR AIRLINE WHEN YOU BOOK THE TICKET) ; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.