Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 2 – Belize City and Crooked Tree

Few could accurately identify Belize on a map and fewer still say much about the country but it’s a hidden gem. With two teenage boys in tow, we were looking forward to a holiday where we were on the move with lots to do.

The flight from Miami flew down the east side of the keys, a huge, long splatter of islands and turquoise sea. After flying right over Key West we skirted the west side of Cuba and hugged the Yucatan coast eventually spotting the enormous barrier reef, a thin white line of breaking waves.

Belize City airport was delightfully old-fashioned with customs officials behind old wooded desks and a bit run down. It still had the air of an old British colony, which Belize was until 1981. Its population, at 300,000, is just a little more than my home town of Brighton and Hove.

Within seconds of leaving the airport we had spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher a bright red and black bird on the airport security fence and at our first stop for lunch were treated to howler monkeys at Bermuda Landings, a river crossing where we also saw a ton of birds. Chris, our guide explained that there were lots of Scots’ names in the area as it had been colonised by Scottish loggers, who were after the wood that provided indigo dye. A troop of howlers had been befriended by a local man and these normally shy primates, who keep very much to the canopy, came down to feed from our hands.

We then headed off for Crooked Tree Lodge, a clapperboard hotel bang in the middle of a huge wildlife reserve. The lake out front was packed with birds, including the famous Jaburu Stork standing at five foot tall. Wood storks, egrets, ibis, herons, cormorants, vultures, sandpipers, ospreys, snail hawks – there were thousands of birds here, especially as this was late in the dry season and the waters had shrunk, concentrating the fish. We went for a long walk in at sunset, along the lake edge and spotted some recent cat tracks in the mud. Belize has Jaguars, Ocelots and other cats in the wild and a couple had clearly come to the water’s edge for a drink. That night we went out for a night watch and spotted Nightjars, hawks, bats, spiders and a porcupine up a tree.

Then a big meal of rice, beans and chicken washed down with the local Belikin Beer and some Cashew Nut wine. But the highlight for me were the humming birds in the garden the next morning, hovering stock still while they drew up their nectar, in iridescent green and red. They have to feed every twenty minutes and have a heartbeat of 1200 per minute. Truly astonishing creatures.

Birds of Belize

One of the great joys of this country is the birdlife. We saw humming birds, parrots, macaws, hawks, vultures, egrets, cormorants, frigate birds and the endangered Jabiru Stork. Everywhere we went we saw new species, helped by our brilliant driver and guide (Sylvino and Chris). It also helped to have two expert birders in the group (Stan and Racine). This lot could spot a sparrow at half a mile.

To give you some idea of their prowess, Sylvino spotted a rare Pootoo while driving, which was almost impossible to spot when you were standing a couple of feet in front of it, as it seems to grow out from the tree with its white bark camouflage. It’s a type of Nightjar, nocturnal, static and sleepy during the day http://videosift.com/video/The-Amazing-Camouflage-of-the-Pootoo-Bird.

Crooked Tree has the largest population of Jabiru storks in the world, and boy are they big. They tower over even the largest of other birds such as Wood Storks. I also liked the Roseate Spoonbills, fashionably pink against all those white and black waders. In the woods we saw the Kiskadees, lots of vultures (still trying to distinguish Turkey Vultures from Yellow Heads and Savannahs). The Snail Hawks are superb with their hooked beaks for prising out snails and there’s Ospreys and Kingfishers galore. On the morning walk we saw a punkish red Northern Cardinal. Grackles are everywhere.

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