Talk to any bird-watcher and they will have a story or two about a feathered epiphany (AKA manifestation). I call them magic moments. I had two such moments in my recent trip to Belize. Photo Above: Olive Backed Euphonia Image Credit Christian Bech.
While most folks think of Costa Rica or Panama for a place to go birding, I think of Belize for birding. This small country bordering the southern part of Mexico and nestled on the east side of Central Mexico is a jewel of a place for birders. Not only has it retained a large portion of its wildlands, Belize is a relatively safe country and best of all, everyone there speaks English! I went there to create contacts for setting up future birding excursions and to investigate the state of ecotourism for my wildlife conservation course held on McGill University’s Macdonald campus. Photo: Keel billed Toucan Ramphastos Sulfuratos national bird of Belize.
My magic moments occurred near Hopkins, a sleepy little town on the water just south of Dangriga. While staying at the comfortable and affordable All-Seasons Guest House run by Ingrid Stahl and her cook and Canadian ex-pat, Brian, I had foolishly left it too late to book a guided bird-watching excursion. With her usual pleasant smile, Ingrid said to me, “Why don’t you take one of the bicycles and ride just down the road a mile or so? You will likely see some parrots and toucans along the river there.”
Toucans!! I could not grab my birding binoculars and get on that bike fast enough. I had never seen a keel-billed toucan before and it is also the favourite bird of my daughter, Erin. Neither of us have any idea why this is so and she tells me that it has nothing to do with the Froot Loops cereal. About a half hour later, I am driven out of the woods by very voracious mosquitoes. These little monsters were biting right through my safari shirt and were practically drinking the DEET in my repellent like tree sap!
I was bicycling on the road when I spotted a young man hacking vegetation with a machete. I ask him if there is any place nearby to see toucans. He replied that if I go about five minutes down the road, there is Toucan City on the left and I might see some there. I thought to myself…..Toucan City?! You mean, like the Vatican City? Anyway, visions of caged toucans and parrots filled my head, but I headed off anyway.
Sure enough, five minutes down the road, I turned into the driveway of Toucan Sittee (not Toucan City). The place was named after the Sittee River upon which it is located. I was only there for less than five minutes when I heard a frog-like, scratchy krrk from above and perceived a large, dark shape approaching the trees above me.
When it landed, I could not believe my eyes! There just above my head was my very first keel- billed toucan. It was a magnificent bird, resplendent in black, yellow and red with that humongous beak of lime green, red and orange. It perched there just long enough for me to drink it in and enjoy the moment. It was like God had ordained it. A magic moment indeed! An hour or so later, I had my second one.
Toucan Sittee in Belize is actually named Sir Thomas’ At Toucan Sittee and is owned by a very friendly American woman named Sabryna Popovich. It’s a beautiful little bird sanctuary (around 100 species can be seen in an hour!) on the river complete with cozy jungle bungalows and very tasty, affordable food.
I rented a kayak from Sabryna and asked her which direction I should head. She pointed downriver and said, “Go about a mile and then look for the entrance into Boom Creek on your left…you will see lots of birds in there.”
Crocodiles were fairly abundant too, but I’d be a liar if I told you that they were dangerous. The few that I saw submerging quickly under the surface at my approach were quite small. Boom Creek with its coffee-coloured water and overarching branches was amazing! Other than a dog barking in the distance, I could only hear the sweet, serene sounds of nature. I felt like an explorer of long ago, paddling down strange, exotic waters with jungle tangle all around me. And best of all, no insects to speak of!
As for bird life, I saw several common and great black hawks sitting on perches right over the creek, but what really blew me away though were the kingfishers, my second favorite group of birds after the birds of prey. I was constantly accompanied by one of three species, often in pairs – the very large ringed kingfisher, the medium-sized green kingfisher, and the tiny pygmy kingfisher. When the sun caught the brilliant green and rust plumages of the latter two species, it was like gazing at feathered jewels.
When I returned to Toucan Sittee, I suggested to Sabryna that they rename Boom Creek, at least in their marketing advertisements, as “Kingfisher Alley”. So the next time you’re thinking about a birding trip to Central America, take a long hard look at Belize. What I saw was just the tip of the iceberg!
Contributed by David M. Bird, Ph.D. Avian Science and Conservation Center McGill University.