Grand Belize Part I: Crooked Tree and Hidden Valley Mar 01—05, 2012

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Our first morning at Hidden Valley Lodge in the Pine Ridge region of Belize was certainly a memorable one. We began by gathering at the feeders, coffee in hand, just outside the restaurant. A frenzy of bird activity greeted us almost immediately. A striking pair of Yellow-backed Orioles came in first, and they were followed quickly by a noisy troop of Brown Jays. Comical Acorn Woodpeckers grabbed some fruit, as did several Melodious Blackbirds and a Hepatic Tanager. Four Green Jays, of the distinctive maya subspecies with the yellow eyes and bright yellow belly, were next in line, and were joined by brilliant Yellow-tailed Orioles. A Gray Catbird snuck in for a bite, but was quickly chased by a raucous Great Kiskadee. Hummingbird feeders were abuzz with Azure-crowned Hummingbirds chasing each other about. Trees surrounding the rooms played host to several species not visiting the feeders. Plain Chachalacas broke into a noisy chorus, a pair of Social Flycatchers soaked up the morning sun, and Red-lored Parrots sailed overhead. Tearing ourselves away from the feeders, we took a quick stroll around the lodge grounds before breakfast, adding the hulking Rusty Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and Yellow-faced Grassquit among others.

After breakfast we headed out to nearby King Vulture Falls in pursuit of one of our main targets of the day, the rarely seen Orange-breasted Falcon. A pair of these magnificent raptors nests in the steep canyon walls here. Living up to its name, several stunning King Vultures sailed about the deep gorge as we arrived. One came by at eye level right in front of us. A few Plumbeous Kites were lifting up at the same time, as was a Swallow-tailed Kite. Suddenly the male Orange-breasted Falcon came flying in from behind us and perched on a bare snag on the edge of the canyon. We enjoyed prolonged scope views before he headed off to the other side of the gorge. We decided to head out toward Secret Falls in hopes of locating the other big target, the Stygian Owl. En route we were sidetracked by several roadside birds. A singing Gray-crowned Yellowthroat caught our attention first, and was followed by an amazing Laughing Falcon. Another stop yielded Grace's Warbler, a male Golden-olive Woodpecker from about 20 feet, and several brilliant Black-headed Siskins. We finally arrived at Secret Falls and found one of the Stygian Owls roosting in the area where our local guide had been seeing them. This was a species that we had missed the previous year, and like the falcon is a bird rarely seen anywhere despite its large range. It was perched in a relatively open pine and we had leisurely scope studies from almost right under the tree! We had just enough time before lunch to visit Thousand Foot Falls a couple of miles away, where we had superb views of a pair of White Hawks right overhead and enjoyed the spectacular scenery.

In addition to Hidden Valley, this tour also visited the Crooked Tree region to the north of Belize City. Pine-oak savanna and thorn scrub adjacent to the lagoon produced Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Yellow-headed Parrot, Yucatan Woodpecker, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Grayish Saltator, and Yellow-throated Euphonia among others. Vermilion Flycatchers were everywhere. A boat trip on the lagoon one morning produced the highly sought Agami Heron in full breeding plumage, as well as Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (on a nest), comical Boat-billed Herons, Jabiru, Roseate Spoonbill, numerous Snail Kites, stunning Black-collared Hawks, the elusive Sungrebe, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures. Around Belize City we added the Yucatan Jay which had eluded us at Crooked Tree, as well as an unexpected White-necked Puffbird, a close Cinnamon Hummingbird, and a gorgeous pair of "Mangrove" Warblers.

Finally, en route to Hidden Valley, we stopped at an abandoned fish farm, where we had another Jabiru (this one on the ground and close), hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a pair of Fork-tailed Flycatchers, and lots of shorebirds including 6—very rare for Belize—American Avocets.

In combination with Grand Belize Part II, we tallied nearly 300 species of birds for the trip, including an amazing array of rarely seen and highly sought specialty birds.