Mark Pretti Nature Tours, L.L.C.

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Belize Trip Report - the following is a composite of our fantastic 2001 - 2016 trips.

While most countries in the neotropics have much to offer birdwatchers and general nature enthusiasts, the small Central American country of Belize stands out as one of the finest destinations for nature-based travel.  Belize's unique combination of low population, friendly people, largely intact landscapes, impressive conservation ethic, wonderful tourism infrastructure, and, above all, great biological richness, make for an unforgettable kaleidoscope of colorful birds, mammals, butterflies, plants, and more.

My trips to Belize have been some of the most enjoyable and naturally action-packed adventures I've experienced.  After each year's visit, I'm always left with the same thought - "Belize just keeps getting better."  One of the keys, of course, to seeing, enjoying, and learning about the birds and natural history of any locale is having a comfortable and convenient home base, and Belize offers some excellent accommodations.  Another key is timing.  February is the transition month between Belize's rainy season and the dry season, and temperatures are pleasant, humidity is mild, and wildlife activity is excellent.

Our trip begins at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary where we stay at the perfectly situated Bird's Eye View Lodge.  With sunrises and sunsets to die for, a spectacularly rich freshwater lagoon, easy viewing, and the warm hospitality of our hosts, the Crooked Tree area makes for a perfect beginning to the trip.  The bird life in the area is amazing, and we've sometimes seen over 100 species in a day.  Yucatan and golden-fronted woodpeckers, rufous-breasted spinetail, common tody-flycatcher, greenish and yellow-bellied elaenias, laughing and bat falcons, jabiru, lesser yellow-headed vulture, black-bellied whistling duck, common pauraque, couch's kingbird, blue-gray tanager, gray-necked wood rail, and many other species are found around the lodge itself.  On our boat trip along the pristine lagoon and several of its tributaries, we find several shorebirds, many waders, snail kite, limpkin, black-collared hawk, boat-billed heron, bare-throated tiger-heron, and, with some luck, American pygmy kingfisher and agami heron.   In addition to these tropical specialties are many migrants such as Baltimore and orchard oriole, northern waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, American redstart, least sandpiper, and others.

From Birds Eye, we head to my single favorite location in Belize, Pook's Hill Lodge, a 300-acre property bordering the 6700-acre Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.  On our way to Pook's, we stop at the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and the wonderful Belize Zoo.  "Zoo" is perhaps a misnomer for this living museum and educational center which blends seamlessly with the surrounding forest.  In addition to seeing and learning about Belizean wildlife, the zoo is a good spot for common tody flycatcher, rufous-browed peppershrike, red-capped manakin, blue-gray, yellow-winged, and hepatic tanagers, tropical pewee, Grace's and hooded warblers, plain chachalaca, green-backed sparrow brown basilisk, green iguana, spiny-tailed iguana, and Central American agouti. 

The birding at Pook's Hill is some of the best in the country with astounding numbers and variety.  It is not unusual to find all three of Belize's toucans (keel-billed toucan, collared aracari, and emerald toucanet), 5-6 species of parrots, tody and blue-crowned motmots, crimson-collared and Passerini's tanagers, three species of saltators, white-whiskered puffbird, and both red-capped and white-collared manakins before breakfast.  After breakfast, plenty of birds remain, including white hawk, white-breasted wood-wren, stub-tailed spadebill, royal and ruddy-tailed flycatchers, rufous-tailed jacamar, short-billed pigeon, and four species of trogon.  Occasionally we find some of the less common or generally skulky birds such as rufous mourner, northern schiffornis, dusky antbird, black-faced antthrush, scaly-throated leaftosser, great curassow, and bicolored hawk.  The flowering Erythrina trees are magnets for black-cowled and other orioles, long-billed hermit, and purple-crowned fairy.  A resident pair of spectacled owls is often seen either on their day roost or at night by the lodge.

Pooks is rich in non-avian wildlife as well.  By day we've seen tamanduas, large troops of white-nosed coati, red brocket deer, collared peccary, black howler monkey, and Deppe's and Yucatan squirrels while at night we've found nine-banded armadillo, kinkajou, common opossum, several bats, cane toad, Vaillant's frog, fireflies and interesting arthropods such as tailless whip scorpions and tarantulas.  Tapir and jaguar tracks are not uncommon.  Two of the major highlights at Pook's are the native Hamelia and Calliandra shrubs around the lodge.  The Hamelia's fruit is a magnet for manakins, black-headed saltator, black-faced grosbeak, ochre-bellied flycatcher, and other frugivores, while its flowers are visited by rufous-tailed hummingbird and stripe-throated hermit.  The nectar-rich Calliandra flowers can attract bats by night and red-legged honeycreepers by day.  Ray and Vicki, our hosts, have done a superb job of creating a lodge that blends beautifully with the rich forest, is light on the land, has great food, and is imbued with an inspiring conservation ethic.  

From Pook's Hill, we travel southwest into the Mountain Pine Ridge and the luxurious Hidden Valley Inn.  Along the way, we stop at the  Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, which can be very good for birds, but is, of course, known for the many striking species of butterflies they raise.  They now have very active hummingbird feeders that attract up to seven species, including violet and wedge-tailed sabrewings, long-billed hermit, white-necked jacobin, white-bellied emerald, scaly-breasted hummingbird, and green-breasted mango.  Hidden Valley's combination of lovely grounds and surrounding pine-oak forest makes for excellent birding, and the higher elevations of the mountain pine ridge are home to a suite of species that are uncommon or absent in other parts of the country.  The forests harbor Grace's warbler, red-lored parrot, green jay, laughing falcon, Montezuma oropendula, rufous-capped warbler, rusty sparrow, black-headed siskin, greater pewee and plumbeous vireos.  The lodge grounds are home to yellow-tailed and yellow-backed orioles, yellow-bellied elaenia, hepatic tanager, acorn woodpecker, yellow-faced grassquit, golden-hooded tanager, black-headed saltator, ferruginous pygmy-owl, golden-olive woodpecker, melodious blackbird, plain chachalaca, and azure-crowned hummingbird.  

On our first afternoon at Hidden Valley we make a visit to King Vulture Falls and Thousand Foot Falls.  On the way we always check a nearby spot that has had day-roosting Stygian owls.  Though they've been bit a bit less reliable in recent years, there is still a good chance as the local guides keep close tabs on them.  At King Vulture Falls we've seen up to two dozen of the falls' namesake as they come in to roost for the night.  We almost always see white-collared swifts as they come streaking by in swirling flocks on their way to cliff face roosts for the night.  This is one of the best spots in the Americas for the rare orange-breasted falcon, and we've had excellent luck here, finding the birds on about half the visits.  If not here, we then have a second chance at the dramatic Thousand Foot Falls where we enjoy spectacular views of the Mountain Pine Ridge, the steep drop-off of the escarpment, and plunging canyons of tropical forest below. 

From Hidden Valley we travel to Caracol, a remote area of spectacular Mayan ruins and vast intact rainforest.  The setting at Caracol is impressive, as is the forest, and we often have the area all to ourselves for several hours in the morning.  Being the first vehicle on the road has its advantages, and on multiple occasions, we've found ocellated turkey, crested guan, great curassow, black hawk-eagle, bicolored hawk, and white hawk on the drive.  Crossing the Macal River, we always find a pair of black phoebes, but only on rare occasions do we find sungrebe.  at the ruin site fruiting figs can provide feathered parades with black-faced grosbeak, white-throated robin, toucans, masked tityra, and emerald toucanet.  On a few trips, while enjoying the magnificent 360 degree view from atop Ca'ana, the Sky Palace, we also enjoyed the view in the canopy of an eye-level fruiting fig adjacent to the temple's summit.  I'm often asked if I have a favorite bird, and I usually respond by saying that I have hundreds of them, but there is one that stands out.  In the canopy of the fig, in full sun, and less than 40 feet away was a group of lovely cotingas, including a male who simply glowed from within.  Watching this fruit-eating seed disperser in perfect light atop this amazing ruin in such a spectacular area was an unforgettable and all-time neotropical highlight.  While the cotinga was spectacular, so, too, has been keel-billed motmot, which we've found several times here.   In addition to all the birds, we of course enjoy a guided tour of the ruins with an expert local guide, learning about the highly sophisticated culture of the ancient Maya. 

From Hidden Valley, we head north to the New River Lagoon and Lamanai Outpost Lodge where a daily smorgasbord of toucans, brown jays, tityras, chachalacas, trogons, and other birds are common.  While there, we have a guided tour of the amazing Lamanai ruins and make several boat trips as we explore the lagoon and its tributaries.   Avian highli

Lamanai is also an excellent place for general wildlife.  Black howler monkeys, whose calls are a common dawn and dusk event, are frequently seen, and basilisk lizards, fairly common in the area, are always a treat as they drop from streamside branches and skitter away across the water's surface.  Along the trails, we've seen gray fox, Central American agouti, white-nosed coati, black howler and Central American spider monkeys, and collared peccary as well the strikingly aquamarine speckled racer, the beautifully patterned fer-de-lance, Rio Grande leopard frog, and Gulf Coast and cane toads. 

The night boat trip along the New River Lagoon and its tributaries is magical.  With the jet-black water reflecting the sky's many stars (the milky way, several red giants, gas clusters, and Jupiter and its moons are usually seen), we've enjoyed nocturnal treats such as Morelet's crocodile, Yucatan nightjar, northern potoo, greater fishing bat, long-nosed bat, Mexican porcupine, four-eyed opossum, nocturnally blooming provision tree flowers, and many diurnal birds sleeping in the safety of branches overhanging the water......including agami heron and American pygmy kingfisher !!

A fitting end to our stay in Lamanai and in Belize is a late afternoon boat ride (with an all-you-can-drink bar) on the New River lagoon and its beautifully forested tributaries.  Provision trees, logwood, mimosas, and various vines line the banks and glow gorgeously in the tropical sunset light.  Turtles slip off logs and a variety of birds streak across the open water.  White-necked jacobins and green-breasted mangos hawk small insects over mirror-smooth streams, while nesting jabiru storks exchange places for the evening shifts of incubation and foraging.  Frequently sungrebe and Amazon kingfisher are seen in the quiet backwaters.

As with all of my trips, we include plenty of general natural history as we explore pollination syndromes, seed-dispersal ecology, army and leafcutter ant biology, lizard energetics, cooperative breeding in tropical jays, predation pressure as it relates to nesting strategies, teh evolutionary wonders of  the human botfly, and lots of other fun things.

Belize is hard to beat for its combination of fine accommodations, outstanding food and service, habitat and species diversity, rich history, and easy access.  I've been fortunate to share this magical place and its rich wildlife with many friends and look forward each year to returning.

Aplomado falcon and Purple-crowned fairy by Misty Vaughn
Fer-de lance by Hank Brodkin
Eciton ant by Dwight Long
Orange-breasted falcon by Bob Lewis
Gray-necked wood-rail by Steve Zarate

Last updated: March 29, 2016.