Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in the March/April 2009 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Punta Gorda, Belize. After cutting across the steep slope in the feverish humidity, my bird-watching guide paused and pointed at the base of a tree. In heaving exhaustion, I steadied myself against the tree and trained my binoculars on a Northern Barred-Woodcreeper—my first life bird!
I checked out its barred, tawny plumage and its stiff, rufous tail while my guide, George Alfred, whistled softly to bring it closer. The woodcreeper didn’t budge. Instead, I felt a strange purr of vibrations pulse in my chest. I lowered my binoculars and saw a small hummingbird buzz away.
What was a hummingbird doing near this dark forest floor when all the flowering heliconia and bougainvilleas were way up on the hill?
George whispered “Stripe-throated hermit,” which explained why. The Stripe-throated Hermit, formerly known as Little Hermit, is a woodland species that tends to forage at fairly low elevations of the rainforest.
George made a high-pitched squeaking sound to call in the bird and to my amazement, it responded. When the hummingbird squeaked back at him and flew back right back at us, George reached out his hand, as if offering it a place to land. The hummer stopped only a few feet away from George and examined him, but in a mad dash it retreated behind a nearby tree.
George continued to squeak and the hummer came back for a second look. This time, for a brief but powerful moment the bird hovered near George’s index finger, just inches from my sternum! I saw the hummer’s tiny, dark eyes set squarely on George. It tilted its head down to examine his finger, as if contemplating a perch. I resisted the urge to lift my hand and touch it, and completely marveled at its small, green body.
The bird finally retreated after determining we were dreary subjects and flew back uphill where, presumably, it would enjoy the radiant and lush gardens around the eco-lodge. Having witnessed this brief but fascinating dialogue between a wild hummingbird and my guide, I walked away, wide-eyed and speechless.
This all-too brief encounter was just the beginning of my enchantment with the birds of Belize, and just one example of George’s ability to whisper birds out of the forest. And here I was, on my first-ever birding trip to the tropics, ready for my life to change. Knowing there were more than 550 bird species waiting to be seen in this splendid country, I didn’t waste a minute.
Belize Is For Birders
Nestled between Mexico and Guatemala at the base of the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize is an ideal destination for first-time birders in the tropics, particularly those nervous about international travel. The subtropical climate is idyllic and the biodiversity is fantastic. Fortunately, internal travel is straightforward because the government is stable, the official language is English (Belize is a former colony of Great Britain), the tap water is potable, and the exchange rate is fixed at a simple 2:1 ratio of Belize-to-U.S. dollars.
Although it ranks behind Panama and Costa Rica in total number of species and endemics, Belize packs a lot of biodiversity into its borders. Over two-thirds of Belize is covered by a subtropical rainforest and nearly half of its land area has been placed under protection as designated natural areas. The number of diverse and protected habitats – which include tropical rainforests, pine woodlands, coastal lagoons, and mangrove swamps—ensure that birding will be both productive and exciting.
I was surprised to learn that beyond Belize’s eastern border in the Caribbean lies the second largest barrier reef system in the world (just behind the Great Barrier Reef of Australia). When I climbed off the plane in Belize City I noticed dozens of sunshiny tourists with colorful dresses, cargo shorts, and flip flops headed to Ambergris Caye, most likely for transfer to elegant resorts with world-class scuba diving, while a number of grittier folk with sneakers and khaki vests shuffled to points south like Dangriga and Punta Gorda for fishing other pursuits. I queued up with the latter crowd and made my way to the Toledo district.
From Campo De La Pesca To Bird Watcher’s Heaven
I was a guest at Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge (now known as Belcampo Lodge Belize), which is just minutes from the coastal town of Punta Gorda. The lodge was originally established as a modest base camp for fishermen who traveled here for world-class fly-fishing. After a eco-chic revival, the lodge now caters to a broader clientele of bird watchers and other eco-travelers.
By gazing at Machaca Hill/Belcampo from a distance, it was hard to tell that a busy lodge with twelve private cabanas are nestled on the plateau. The lodge dissolves into its green, leafy surroundings.
The shuttle van chugged up the hill and stopped in front of the two-story lodge. Here I was treated to a panoramic view of the 11,000-acre Laughing Falcon Reserve. Immediately, I was treated to my first Keel-billed Toucans, Red-lored Parrots, Montezuma Oropendolas, and Violaceous Trogon! More than 200 bird species have been spotted within two miles of the lodge, so I didn’t have to travel far to see great birds, nor wildlife! To my wild excitement, I saw a family of howler monkeys traversing the canopy, two agoutis, a tarantula, the tracks of a Baird’s tapir, and scratch marks of a resident jaguar.
Because this was my first tropical birding safari, I soon learned to not even think about setting down my binoculars or camera, even when politeness called for it, because something new passed by every moment.
Nearly every time I sat down for a meal, I picked up a new species from the restaurant balcony. From here I caught great looks of Blue-gray Tanagers, White-bellied Emeralds, Social Flycatchers, Great Kiskadees, and familiar friends such as the American Redstart and Magnolia Warbler. One morning, I had good, long looks of a Yellow-winged Tanager as it attacked the side mirror of a truck. This was early February in Belize, so spring had mightily sprung!
Sunset boat tours are offered to those who take the jungle tram (incline) downhill to the Rio Grande River. Knowing I was a bird watcher, the guide pointed out a grey heron standing in the reeds. Somewhat weary from travel, I slowly lifted my binoculars but when they focused, my eyes popped and I blurted out “Tiger-heron!” The striped plumage of the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron is surprisingly sharp and vibrant, much more so than in the field guides! Minutes later, a brilliant blaze of rufous darted across the river and steered back into the bush—this was my first Rufous-tailed Jacamar.
Next morning, I picked up 30 species in a 2.5-hour walk through a small corner of the lodge property. I thought my head might explode from the excitement. Every tree, every tangle held yet another brilliant and colorful life bird. I caught excellent looks of a Slaty-tailed Trogon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Pale-billed Woodpecker, and many others. My favorite that morning was the Passerini’s Tanager. Its coal-black body, vivid scarlet rump, and silvery white bill made me thank my lucky stars to be alive.
On a tour of the nearby Blue Creek cave, visitors are encouraged to swim upstream into the dark, chilly channel to explore the cave. Content to stay warm and dry, I stayed back and was treated to a Green Kingfisher, which landed on a fallen log near the caves’s gaping mouth. Just yards away, several Mayan women washed their laundry in the stream and dark-haired little girls with delicious brown eyes sold hand-crafted jewelry made from stones, leather, and beads. “Want to buy?” they asked.
I took an afternoon tour of the Mayan ruins of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit to gain a glimpse into this ancient and mythical culture. While tracing the contours of carved rock, a treetop silhouette caught the corner of my eye. It was a Bat Falcon perched in the canopy of a lonely ceiba tree, high above a slumping ruin of stones. Taking some downtime at the ruins, I began to study the subtle differences between three look-alike species: Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and Boat-billed Flycatcher—all birds with brown backs, yellow breasts, and black-and-white patterned heads. Normally, these species are best told apart by their vocalizations, but a few subtle field marks and behaviors may help distinguish them by eye. (It is worth studying these clues before you make your first trip to Central America, because it is easy to misidentify them until you’ve seen several in the field.)
On Saturday, my guide drove us through Punta Gorda to the southern coast of the Port of Honduras. Punta Gorda is a modest coastal town that was teeming with villagers going to market. My guide said a personal hello to nearly everyone we passed in the crowded streets, so our travel was slow-going. But I wasn’t in a hurry. This people-watching allowed me a small taste of the many cultures that melt together in Belize, include the Mayan, Mestizo, Creole, East Indian, Garifuna, British, Chinese, and even Mennonite. And, of course, a slow drive through this coastal town helped me add Black-crowned Night Heron, Brown Pelican, and feral Pigeon to my trip list.
Each day I returned to the lodge and looked forward to the broad smile and excited questions that Ducky, the lounge bartender, would ask: “How many new birds did you see today, Miss Laura?” he’d ask, while polishing a glass. I was positively brimming with stories of the day, so I like how he was entertained by of my “little problem with birds.”
Next: My Dream Encounter with Red-capped Manakins
My Dream Encounter with Red-Capped Manakins
I was already in love with Red-capped Manakins before I came to Belize. The male is a stocky, jet-black bird with a blazing red head, a bold, white eye, and ridiculous yellow thighs – what’s not to love? Like most manikins, the Red-capped males live in a lek and when breeding time arrives, the males perform an outlandish courtship ritual to attract females.
I had seen this display on a TV documentary – I believe it was with Sir David Attenborough himself (and if not it may as well have been). That scene was so captivating, so intimate, so bizarre that I never imagined I’d ever have the opportunity to see it. In my mind, seeing manakin courtship dance while crouched on the rainforest floor was as unlikely as seeing a grizzly bear snatch a salmon from an Alaskan river, or a polar bear seize a baby seal from a hole in the ice. These wildlife encounters seem reserved for the lucky few. I was lucky, but not THAT lucky.
After spotting a White-collared Manakin on the lodge property I asked my guide, quite timidly, about the probabilities of seeing a Red-capped Manakin. Clearly, I hadn’t done my research. Not only could my guide lead me to a manakin lek near his home in Punta Gorda, but they were currently in full courtship mode on breeding territory. And did I want to go first thing in the morning – very, very early?
With that news, a wild exhilaration churned inside of me. I could hardly figure out what to do with myself. I kept breathing deeply until it finally soaked in that it was entirely plausible that I (yes, moi) could see the courtship display of the Red-capped Manakin with my very own eyes.
Finally, I blurted out, “Okay, I have to see this. I’ll do anything to see this bird. I’ll get up at any hour, travel anywhere, pay anything, I need to see this bird!”
So began my quest to not only see Red-capped Manakins but to bring a bit of it home with me by capturing their display on video. Yes, it’s true that Red-capped Manakins are fairly common and widespread in Central America, but this didn’t diminish one bit the exhilaration I felt. Birding is much more exciting when you don’t take anything for granted.
That evening I climbed into George’s battered Isuzu Rodeo and we navigated potholes all the way to Old Joe Taylor Creek. On the way, we passed fields brimming with grassland birds such as Variable Seedeater, White-collared Seedeater, Black-headed Saltator, and Blue-black Grassquit.
We parked the car, gathered our scope and bins and headed into the forest where the birds sang in quiet, hushed tones as is typical before sunset. George pointed out the eerie whistle of a Thrush-like Shiffornis and expertly mimicked its song… his gentle whistle was spot on; the bird followed his voice as we hiked deeper into the woods. The tremulous, descending dot doe doe doe doe doe of a dipper-like ground bird called the Black-faced Ant Thrush echoed from the brush.
In the middle of our trail- a well-worn and muddy cattle path–George stopped. “You hear ‘dat?” he whispered in accented English, scanning the tangle.
“There it is!” he pointed. I slid next to George and followed his gaze. Not twenty feet away was a Red-capped Manakin flitting about in the tangle! Its brilliant red head and white eye contrasted with its velvety black body. Its ridiculous yellow thighs shone like the sun.
While the bird bounced from branch to branch, another manakin called from deeper in the woods–a series of five quick notes followed by a clear, arcing whistle, ending on a down-note. This whistle was followed by a sharp, gritty SNAP!—a sound made by by clapping its wings together over its back or on the sides of its body. I snapped dozens of pictures.
Suddenly, the bird in front of us disappeared deep into the brush. Come back! I begged. For the next ninety minutes, I stood there, slapping mosquitoes and craning my neck to hear the calls and sharp wing-snaps of at least three individual males and hoping one, just one, would return to show us his full ritual.
But none did. Reluctantly, we called it a night and made plans to meet in the morning.
By 6 am the next morning we were back on the cattle path. The rising energy of morning birdsong filled my ears, but I was frustrated to be unable to identify the overlapping songs. As we rounded a bend, however, we heard a single wail of a Little Tinamou hiding in the brush. What an excellent, secretive bird!
After a long wait on the trail, we finally heard the first-morning whistle of a Red-capped Manakin. We set up the scope and readied our cameras. Because individuals tend to use one or more preferred branches during their mating dance, I focused my lens on a branch we’d identified the night before.
It took a while, but finally, a male manakin appeared. It darted through the brush at midlevel and landed on a nearby branch. Snap!–went its wings against its sides! Snap!–went my camera shutter.
I heard the whistle of a few other manakins deeper in the woods, but none came forward to perform just yet. I snapped my camera like mad while they darted in and out of the tangle.
Waiting for the birds to go into full display mode was agonizing, but by now the quest had become a shared adventure. George had the tripod, I had the 12x zoom camera with video, so we blended our equipment to capture the birds on video.
After 2 hours of waiting in a pile of mud in this tick-infested woodland, we were rewarded with a male manakin returning to its perch. And this time, he brought a lady friend.
Finally, the party began!
The male manakin repeatedly hopped in an arc from one branch to another. As he hopped to and fro, the female moved closer to watch. When he was confident she was watching, he landed beside her and shimmied towards her up the branch, moonwalk style, until he was right next to her. Now that he had her full attention, he bent over and presented his rump to her face, as if to say Check out the goods, baby!
The male repeated this shimmying motion along the branch and ended each tour with a rump presentation. The female casually watched his dance and checked out his cloaca before averting her gaze, acting most unimpressed. Then suddenly, she was gone.
I turned off my camera and grinned, more wide-eyed and speechless than before. Watch video here.
If I was already in love with Red-capped Manakins, I was now completely over the moon for them.
The bird gifted me twofold: not only with a fabulous glimpse of its outlandish courtship display, but with the realization that I belonged to that “lucky few’ as much as anybody else, and I better get started chasing more dreams.
My 4-day trip list was 110 species, which included 83 life birds.
Note: I brought home as many tick bites as I did life birds. Ticks are fond of cattle and mud. Go figure! And go prepared. The tick bites were innocuous, as I did not get sick from them.