Almost 600 bird species have been identified in Belize, 20% of them winter migrants from North America. Even if you are not a ‘bird nerd, ’ you’ll be amazed by the unusual and colorful species that guides will show you on any nature trip.
You’re likely to see interesting birds almost anywhere at any time, although February to May are particularly good months in many places. Wetlands, lagoons, forested riverbanks and forest areas with clearings (the setting of many jungle lodges and Maya ruins) are propitious for observing a variety of birds. Some lodges proudly announce how many hundreds of species have been spotted in their areas: these are likely to be places with a focus on birding, providing reference materials and good guides.
Magnificent frigate birds are constantly soaring over the coastline on pointed, prehistoric-looking wings with a span of up to 6ft. They have difficulty taking off from the ground, so their method of hunting is to plummet down and catch fish as they jump from the sea. They often hang out around fisherfolk and other birds so that they can swoop in on discarded or dropped catches. Males have red throats that are displayed during courtship.
Sharing a habitat with the frigate birds is a colony of red-footed boobies living out at Half Moon Caye. They dive from great heights deep into the sea to catch fish. The frigate birds often try to snatch their catch away as they resurface.
Raptors usually hunt rodents and small birds. The most common species in Belize include the osprey (look for their huge nests atop houses and telephone posts), peregrine falcon, roadside hawk and American kestrel. Most of these birds of prey are territorial and solitary. The majestic harpy eagle is rarely seen in the wild, but is a resident at the Belize Zoo, as is the ornate hawk eagle, a beautiful large raptor with a black crest, striped tail and mottled breast.
Inland along the sides of the road and flying overhead you’ll see large turkey, black and king vultures. Their job is to feast on dead animals. The turkey vulture has a red head, the king has a black-and-white color scheme with a red beak, and the black vulture appears in black and shades of gray.
The beautiful scarlet macaw, a member of the parrot family, is highly endangered. Belize’s small population – possibly under 200 – lives most of the year in remote jungles near the Guatemalan border, but from January to March scarlet macaws can be seen at the southern village of Red Bank, where they come to eat fruit.
The jabiru stork is the largest flying bird in the Americas, standing up to 5ft tall and with wingspans of up to 12ft. Many of the 100 or so remaining Belizean jabirus gather in Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in April and May. They feed by wading in shallows, enjoying fish, frogs, snails and the occasional snake.
Belize’s national bird, the keel-billed toucan, is black with a yellow face and neck and is widely distributed around the country. Its huge multicolored bill is very light and almost hollow, enabling it to fly with surprising agility and to reach berries at the end of branches. Toucans like to stay at treetop level and nest in holes in trees.
You’ll also have the chance to see (among others) many colorful hummingbirds, kingfishers, motmots, parrots, woodpeckers, tinamous, tanagers and trogons.