Not very long ago, if you told me I’d become an avid birdwatcher, I would have laughed out loud. Yeah, sure… bird watching… sort of like watching paint dry, but with feathers, I would have said.
And then I discovered birding in Belize.
Granted, Belize is unlike anywhere else when it comes to natural beauty and breathtaking flora and fauna, and I defy anyone to not take at least a passing interest in the amazing, colourful birdlife of that little Caribbean paradise, but still, my sudden love affair with our fine feathered friends came as a complete and now very welcome surprise. Even my best mates shook their heads in wonder.
“Thought you did your bird watching in pubs,” was a common response.
Mind you, I’m still far from the really keen, almost professional types I’ve met, the members of groups and societies who refer to their pastime as birding.
No, my equipment consists of my ever faithful sturdy Converse sneakers and a small rucksack containing a pair of binocs, the Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, a camera, pad and pen, insect repellent, water bottle and a sandwich or snacks. That’s it. I have seen small groups kitted out with high tech cameras with bazooka lenses, elaborate tripods, recording devices with shotgun mics and enough gear to supply the security agency of a small country, but I challenge anyone to say they get more enjoyment from spying on our feathery amigos than I do.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than ambling through the forest, eyes and ears alert while just checking out the birds. It’s an amazingly satisfying combination of adventure and serenity, of activity and contemplation, of being aware while very much in the moment. For me, it has all the advantages of hunting without the bloodshed.
How did this unlikely love affair begin?
I’m lucky enough to spend some of my time in Belize, and when I’m in Belize, I split my time between the cayes and Chaa Creek. Chaa Creek provides the perfect atmosphere for getting things done on my laptop while balancing healthy activity with hammock-based relaxation. An early morning nature walk or swim, some work, a pre-lunch walk or swim, the reliably delicious lunch, some hammock time, maybe a canoe trip along the Macal river, swim, work, a bit of socialising in the Jungle lounge, an excellent dinner, maybe another swim, and a good night drink in the lounge, which has firmly established itself as one of my top ten bars in the world.
It was at said bar that one night I wound up siting at a table with a small group of gregarious Americans enjoying the sort of evening you have in an exotic location when the weather’s perfect after a satisfying day. When it came around to, “what brings you to Belize?” I was surprised to find that this young, hip, very effervescent group was there for the birding. That’s right, these twenty and thirty-somethings had built their holiday in Belize around bird watching.
“I have a big picture on my wall back home of a pair of Mot Mots with the temple of Xunantunich in the background I took. Every time I look at it I remember to add to my weekly Belize savings account for this year. This is my third trip down here and it just keeps getting better,” Alison said.
Anyway, before the night was out I had taken up an invitation to meet just before dawn to check out the birds of Belize.
You know how when you buy, say, a Volkswagen, you suddenly notice how many Volkswagens are on the road, along with the assortment of colours and styles? After that day, birds in Belize moved from a pleasant part of the background to the foreground of my perception. Even shopping in nearby San Ignacio Town I began noticing the amazing, wonderful, colourful variety of avian life on the telephone wires. By the time Alison and her group left, I was keeping my own bird journal. As an example, in one day of walking around Chaa Creek I recorded:
Yellow head parrots (two big flocks of them), a collared aracari, swallow tailed kites, cattle egrets, Amazon kingfishers, turkey vultures, a crane hawk, mourning doves, collared trogon, lineated woodpecker, tanagers and many, many others I couldn’t find the names for.
I began learning the names of the ubiquitous hummingbirds of Chaa Creek. Apparently Belize has some 26 varieties of these amazing little beauties, and after day one I could tell the Brown Violet-ear from the Green breasted mango and Canivet’s Emerald from the Violet crowned Woodnymph.
Later on I was able to record:
Keel billed Toucans (one look at this magnificent creature in the wild and you understand why it’s the national bird of Belize) Jabirus, the hard-to-spot Potoo with its uncanny camouflage, more types of kingfishers, a Great Curassow, Emerald Toucanet, Manakins, numerous flycatchers, Frigatebirds, more parrots, falcons, hawks and eagles, and Alison’s Blue-crowned mot mots, striking, elegantly groomed birds that would indeed improve any wall.
Belize has over 500 species of local and migratory birds, and Chaa Creek has recorded some 308 of them within its pristine 365 acre private nature reserve. This makes birding at Chaa Creek extremely rewarding, as you’re sure to see something amazing on any given day, and their licensed naturalist guides can very quickly get you up to speed on where to go, what to look for, and how to look.
And that’s another advantage to birding in Belize at Chaa Creek – you can bird watch while doing all of the other things the beautiful eco-resort offers, and alone or with family and friends. Horseback or mountain bike riding though the miles of jungle trails, hiking, swimming, visiting the many Maya temples and archaeological sites – everything somehow involves birds in Belize. I saw my first big toucan and learned to recognise its distinct call while blissfully paddling down to San Ignacio town. I also appreciated how the kingfisher got its name on the same trip.
It’s also great knowing that with the Chaa Creek Cares initiatives , birds and all wildlife are protected and even nurtured by Chaa Creek’s operations. It becomes very apparent from the way the guides and indeed all staff act and speak that Chaa Creek is Green through and through and emphasises responsible tourism without hitting you over the head with it. I still use my Chaa Creek water bottle back home and was impressed that, although they once made money selling bottled water, they chose to instead spend money on state-of-the-art water purification systems and give guests nice aluminium bottles to be topped up at refilling stations around the resort.
It’s the little things like that, and the birds, that keep me going back year after year.
So if you think bird watching in Belize is for naturalists or nerds, give it a go, Indiana Jones style at Chaa Creek, and be prepared to be surprised. Who knows, you may discover a whole new passion in life.
And oh yes. I’m going back down for a Christmas vacation in Belize this year, and this time with Alison…