Best of Belize: Crooked Tree & Chan Chich Lodge Mar 08—15, 2017

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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The first day of our Best of Belize tour began shortly after dawn in the tiny village of Crooked Tree. Our scheduled 6:15 AM breakfast was being seriously delayed by birds right around the lodge. White-fronted Parrots sailed into a large tree over the driveway. Brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers hawked insects from the fence line. Mangrove Swallows perched on an antenna over the lodge, while a Northern Jacana strolled by on the lawn. A Rufous-tailed Hummingbird visited the feeders and was followed quickly by two fluorescent Baltimore Orioles. A pair of Red-lored Parrots posed in the scope, as a Yellow-throated Warbler hopped by on the sidewalk.

Fifteen minutes into our boat ride, we came across our first Jabiru of the trip. We would go on to see an incredible 27 on this day!

Jabiru— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

Too many birds; we had to get to breakfast. Why? This was the morning of our boat trip into Crooked Tree Lagoon and Spanish Creek. Water conditions were perfect—very low and quickly receding, but not so low that we couldn’t get the boat out. We broke away from the birds, gobbled down our breakfast, and quickly boarded the boat. Anticipation was high. We were barely a hundred yards into our journey when a spectacular Russet-naped Wood-Rail sauntered out onto an exposed mudflat. After lengthy, close views, we drifted along, only to be stopped by a male Snail Kite perched on a snag right next to our boat. A Neotropical Otter surfaced right next to us, as a Great Black-Hawk soared overhead. A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture cruised by, and a Limpkin sat up on a perch noisily greeting the morning.

Up ahead, we could see a massive group of birds gathering in the shallows. One bird stood out as a giant among the others—Jabiru! We made a beeline for the flock (mostly White Ibis, Great and Snowy egrets, and Neotropic Cormorants) and were able to approach to within 40 yards of the incredible Jabiru. Further ahead, we could see another flock, and this one had at least three Jabirus, as well as some Roseate Spoonbills. Smiling faces all around, as camera shutters clicked with amazing rapidity. Onward we pressed, as there were more birds to see and much ground to cover. Our local guide spotted an American Pygmy Kingfisher in the brush overhanging the lagoon. We floated up to within fifteen feet of this tiny gem. For comparison, a gigantic Ringed Kingfisher sat up nearby, and then a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron appeared on an island to our left. The activity was dizzying. At one point we had nine more Jabirus in view at one spot!

Even more amazing was our total of eight magnificent Agami Herons in one morning!

Agami Heron— Photo: Buffie Eicher

 

Finally, the lagoon narrowed to the point where we entered Spanish Creek. Almost immediately, we drifted up to a small colony of Boat-billed Herons that were squawking and clambering about like so many monkeys. While enjoying superb views of the Boat-billed Herons, the low growl of the biggest prize of all was heard to our left—Agami Heron! Some quick maneuvering of our boat allowed us to drift in under the overhanging trees. There, about fifteen feet off the ground, was an Agami preening. It was partly obscured by branches in the foreground, but looks were still good. Our luck was almost too good to believe. Moving back into the main channel, we almost immediately spotted a Black-collared Hawk perched up in the open. As we watched this handsome raptor, another Agami flushed from the opposite bank, and this one landed in the open! With its unbelievably long bill, soft powder blue plumes along its neck, and deep chestnut body plumage, it was truly a sight to behold. More highlights ensued with the likes of a very uncommon Crane Hawk, a stunning Prothonotary Warbler, and multiple Green Kingfishers among others. Most amazing of all was that we kept seeing Agami Herons—about one every ten minutes or so in one stretch of the creek. For the morning, we would tally an astounding eight Agamis, with multiple superb views! Paired with our 27 Jabirus and all of the other wonderful birds that we saw, it made for one of the best boat trips of my life! All of this in the first five hours of the first day of our Best of Belize tour!

Our trip was filled with many more highlights. Land birding around Crooked Tree yielded such prizes as Yellow-lored Parrot, Yucatan Woodpecker and Yucatan Jay—all regional endemics, in addition to a flock of 45 Swallow-tailed Kites, Bat Falcon, Laughing Falcon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow-headed Parrot,  Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, and more. Back in Belize City, we tallied Cinnamon Hummingbird at our hotel and a flashy male “Mangrove” Warbler near the airport.

A truly stunning Crimson-collared Tanager, a tour first, had been hanging out in this area for a few months.

Crimson-collared Tanager— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

Then it was time for our charter flight to Gallon Jug and on to famed Chan Chich Lodge. We had barely stepped out of the plane and onto the runway when we spotted our first of many Ocellated Turkeys. With four full days of birding in this paradise, the highlights were far too numerous to mention all. A sprinkling of the most memorable includes six Great Curassows, more than a dozen Crested Guans, epic studies of a Sungrebe, a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles circling overhead, a male Ruddy Quail-Dove sitting on the open trail, three species of trogons, two species of puffbirds, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Lesson’s and Tody motmots, a very uncommon pair of Emerald Toucanets, the regionally endemic Gray-throated Chat and Rose-throated Tanager, and a tour first Crimson-collared Tanager! But wait, I forgot to mention the incredible splashes of tropical color provided by the likes of Keel-billed Toucans, eight species of parrots, Red-legged and Green honeycreepers, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, and the wonderful experiences with howler monkeys and spider monkeys right over our heads. And what about the night drive where we added a close, perched Vermiculated Screech-Owl, four Northern Potoos, and a Yucatan Nightjar?

By any measure, this trip to Belize was a huge success and arguably one of the greatest we have ever had. In all, we tallied over 260 species of birds, some awesome mammals, reptiles, and butterflies, and enjoyed generally excellent weather. I can’t wait to get back!