10 Amazing & Rare Birds to Scout in Western Belize

Table of Contents

  1. Birding the Cayo District
  2. Stygian Owl
  3. Violet Sabrewing
  4. Black-and-white Hawk-eagle
  5. Orange-breasted Falcon
  6. Keel-billed Motmot
  7. Solitary Eagle
  8. Scarlet Macaws
  9. Red Crossbill
  10. Slate-colored Solitaire
  11. White-winged Tanager
  12. How To Get Birdy in Belize...
  13. ...And Where To Retire To After Birding

Being just 180 miles from north to south and no more than 70 miles from east to west, Belize really is a bite-sized beauty. After all, nowhere in the country is more than a five hour drive from the international airport in Belize City. Add in an incredibly diverse heritage with overwhelming biodiversity – think stunning birds, beautiful flora and fauna, and Belizeans have a lot to be proud of—and a lot to protect.

xunantunich el castillo aerial photo

Belize is home to six internationally-recognized Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and over 100 protected areas, remaining as critical habitats for incredible flora and fauna.

And then there’s the birding. Belize is often hailed as the perfect country for an introduction to neo-tropical birdlife—and the world has noticed. With 85 major ecosystems and some 600 Belize bird species confirmed within its 9,000 square miles Mother Nature’s best kept secret—a mere whisper before—is now a resounding echo by naturalists and birders alike.

belize birding scope mountain pine ridge

We may not have as many species as our Central American neighbors like Panama and Honduras, but our birding scene has got the heart to make up for it. That’s not to deny the natural beauty and diversity of Belize’s landscapes either; from pine savanna to lowland rainforest to ecologically-rich island cayes and atolls.

Birding the Cayo District

Meet the innermost district of the west, Cayo, which boasts the largest national park of Belize within. The Chiquibul Forest blankets over 424,000 acres of tropical forest—that’s about four times the size of Barbados. Lying directly adjacent to the Belize-Guatemala border, its sheer mass of greenery is mesmerizing, hiding treasures like the largest cave system in Central America and incredible karst formation, known as The Natural Arch.

natural arch Puente natural in the Belize Chiquibul reserve

Travelers are ready to dust off their passports to take on a post-pandemic world, and Belize is eager to share why it’s the ultimate destination to test the waters of the birding world—then diving head first. As Belizeans rediscover their country too, there’s been plenty of new, rare sightings out in the wild recorded on the ever popular citizen-science platform, eBird.

But there’s no time for awe-inspiring scenery: you’ve got a date with ten of the most sought after birds of the Cayo District.

Stygian Owl

Stygian Owl in Belize Cayo District
Stygian Owl Photo by David Southall

Where to see them: Mountain Pine Ridge

Occasionally heard and rarely seen, the Stygian Owl is a master of stealth. Piercing golden eyes, streaky-white underparts, and a distinct white forehead stroke runs vertical down its forehead, contrasting against its large, dark brown body. After all, ‘stygian’ means gloomy and dark; its silhouette alone is unforgettable: ear tufts stand straight up, especially when startled. This legendary owl hunts for prey by listening to their heartbeats, enabling it to locate food.

Its deep hoot is singular inside the pine forest of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and it’s an incredible reward to spot when roosting.

Violet Sabrewing

Violet Sabrewing hummingbird birds of belize Cayo district
Violet Sabrewing shot by Peter Tamas

Where to see them: Mountain Pine Ridge

Feeding on tropically bright heliconias and sticky banana flowers, the Violet Sabrewing is a stand-alone phenomenon. As one of the largest hummingbirds in the world, it’s deep plum plumage gleams outrageously once it catches the light, instantly morphing into a brilliantly royal magenta. Each vibrating wing flutter flashes white from its corner feathers—like a tapestry against each tiny, iridescent, purpled feather.

Black-and-white Hawk-eagle

Black-and-white Hawk-eagle birds of belize Cayo district
Black-and-white Hawk-eagle shot by Ralph Garcia

Where to see them:  Mountain Pine Ridge

Despite its extensive range, the Black-and-white Hawk-eagle is considered to be quite rare; little is even known about its biology. For one, it’s hardly ever perched, and almost never in the same place for too long. As you can guess, it’s mainly black and white, but its elegance goes far past just its tuxedo of colors. Its white feathers are pure—almost snow white—while a pitch black mask around its eyes make for a piercing gaze against bright yellow eyes.

Orange-breasted Falcon

Orange-breasted Falcon birds of belize Cayo district
Orange-breasted Falcon photo by David Lewin

Where to see them:  Mountain Pine Ridge

According to the Peregrine Fund, the Orange-breasted Falcon is always rare and widespread because of its specialized habitat requirements. Even more so, the elusive raptor now occupies only four percent of its historical range in Central America, limited to the Maya Mountains of Belize and along the Mirador Cordillera in Guatemala.

mountain pine ridge view vast rainforest

Being one of their last strongholds for survival, trek into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in pursuit of a legend; its towering cliffs in rugged and remote mountain habitats could even reward you with a nesting Orange-breasted Falcon.

Keel-billed Motmot

Keel-billed Motmot birds of belize Cayo district
Keel-billed Motmot photo by Corey Hayes

Where to see them: Chiquibul National Park and Caracol Natural Monument Reservation

If you’re not paying attention, you might miss these forest-dwellers. The Keel-billed Motmot’s cerulean eyebrow, flushes of ochre on the back and belly against a dull green, and an azure tail with an especially long featherless shaft is a photo-op waiting to happen. They’re never common, and almost always inconspicuous.

Belize is becoming one of the main places to search for this bird, who prefers undisturbed forest. And we have a lot of that forest!

Solitary Eagle

Solitary Eagle taking flight in belize Cayo district
Solitary Eagle photo by Yeray Seminario shot in Belize

Where to see them: Mountain Pine Ridge

Don’t let its appearance fool you: this unassuming character coming to play is considered a ‘mega’ bird in Belize, or ultra rare. The Solitary Eagle soars mainly in late morning and is very rarely seen perched. Its slate-y gray body has dark plumage and a singular white tail band.

Solitary Eagle in mid flight birds of belize Cayo district
Photo of Solitary Eagle mid-flight by Yeray Seminario in Belize

The large, thick legs are its most powerful weapon when hunting for large snakes and even Armadillo!    

Scarlet Macaws

Belize of Belize - The Scarlet Macaw
Birds of Belize – The Scarlet Macaw

Where to see them:  Chiquibul National Park 

Like a kaleidoscope of colors, the unmistakable raaaahkkkk of the spectacular Scarlet Macaw can be found within its prime breeding grounds of the Chiquibul Forest. These beauties are distinguishable with electric crimson plumage and contrasting  yellow and blue patches on the wings. The long tail-feathers often give a serpentine look to these birds when in flight. Macaws are often found in pairs or large groups in open areas, and frequently near rivers, where they search for nesting cavities in large Quamwood trees.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill birds of belize Cayo district
Red Crossbill photo by Jason Crotty

Where to see them:  Mountain Pine Ridge

This stocky, large-headed finch has a peculiar crossed bill— a unique tool it uses to pry seeds out of pine cones, an advantage only this species capitalizes on. The males tend to be a burnt red color, while females (like almost all birds that differ visually by sex, or sexually dimorphic) are a mustard like olive-yellow.

Belize has a unique subspecies, quite different from North America. This race is only found within the highlands of Central America.

Slate-colored Solitaire

Slate-colored Solitaire birds of belize Cayo district
Slate-Colored Solitaire photo by Bradley Hacker

Where to see them:  Chiquibul National Park

Don’t let the plain color fool you, what this bird does not have in color, it has in song. The ethereal, flute-like song of the Slate-colored Solitaire is synonymous with high elevation forests. This songbird is gray overall, with a broken white eyering—its characteristic field mark. Besides the reward of a totally Instagrammable video clip (sound on Gif included!) half the beauty is in the journey to the Chiquibul’s Natural Arch, a remote but rewarding adventure!

White-winged Tanager

White-winged Tanager birds of belize Cayo district
Male White-Winged Tanager photo by dr Kurt Buzard

Where to see them: Mountain Pine Ridge

Tanagers… perhaps for a birder, nothing evokes tropical quite like a Tanager. And this Tanager, with its brilliant red coat, black mask, perfectly outlined black wings, and neat white wing bars… is one of the most sought after in Belize. This whistling songbird echoes from the forest canopy in Mountain Pine Ridge and other highlands, where it usually looks for ripe berries and insects.

How To Get Birdy in Belize…

Picture it: you’re in the Mountain Pine Ridge. At daybreak, avian voices filter up through the leafy layers and your bird calls out names quietly, like a teacher taking a register.

You hurriedly raise your binoculars and let out a totally involuntary exclamation of hushed joy. Almost laughing under your breath as you lock eyes on this most desired of birds: a Solitary Eagle; a bird that not many people have seen, and about which so little is known.

Belize naturalist guide birdwatching at Chaa Creek Resort

After, you spend the rest of the day feeling like you’re floating; any tension you may have felt in the pursuit of Cayo’s many rarities seems to have lifted and your feet feel lighter beneath you, in spite of 5 am wake up calls, snatched field lunches of stewed-chicken and beans cradled by fresh flour tortillas, and stretches of humid hikes.

The often-overlooked hobby has seen an explosion of interest, especially amongst millennials with the reckoning of digital field guides and ever-cool apps, like Merlin and eBird.

phone mockup of ebird birding app platform

Until you’ve tried birding, there’s few experiences that bring the same joy and excitement as hearing (and knowing) the bird call pouring out of the undergrowth. And that’s when you realize it: you’ve found the Belize bird you’ve been searching for.

…And Where To Retire To After Birding

tripadvisor travellers choice top 21 small hotels central america 2021 chaa creek resort aerial

Not to mention, it’s easy to “go birdy” when choosing where to stay in Belize. From the glistening Caribbean coast to the lush interiors of Cayo, you’ll find a crop of Eco-lodges and jungle resorts perfectly suited for a total immersion into nature.

Take the Lodge at Chaa Creek for example, a pioneer in Eco Tourism in Belize within 400 acres of private reserve with over 350 bird species recorded onsite, which blends seamlessly into wild surroundings with desirable luxury comforts. Add in experiences that are at once immersive, educational and thrilling, and it’s a no-brainer. The Lodge also offers its own Belize birding vacation packages.

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