4-7 Feb 2014
Sarteneja and the Shipstern Nature Reserve lie on the edge of a huge estuary system in northern Belize. The flora and fauna are very similar to the Vigia Chico Road area of the Yucatan, though the forest is a bit taller and a touch less scrubby in parts. Getting to Sarteneja is pretty straightforward though it involves about 2-3 hours of very slow (but passable in any car) dirt roads. Not all the turns are labeled but there aren’t very many roads in Belize period and anyone can point you in the right direction. After passing through a lot of agriculture and some Mennonite country, you drive through miles of intact scrub forest, pass through the edge of Shipstern Nature Reserve and eventually arrive in Sarteneja.
In Sarteneja there is a very limited selection of groceries so be sure to stock, especially anything fresh, in Corozal or Orange Walk before you head out. There are a couple of guesthouses in town as well as a nice backpackers/camping spot (Backpacker’s Paradise) that isn’t too expensive and has a kitchen and a screened in communal room that is a nice respite from the mosquitos. They also have small cabins if you are not camping. It’s overall a very relaxing and beautiful place that happens to have some great birding as well! Not much happens in Sarteneja, but that’s what makes the place so wonderful… no tourist crap, just peaceful. We biked around town, swam in the green seas, and enjoyed our first Belizean beer at a local cool spot (aka bar). While at Backpacker’s Paradise we also met up with a couple of fellow overlanders and shared stories from the road.
There is not a lot of wetland in the immediate area surrounding Sarteneja, surprisingly, as the forest approaches the estuary quite close and transitions to mangroves directly. We birded casually a couple of mornings along various tracks, and went out once at night. Among others, we found Rose-throated Becard, White-necked Puffbird, Scrub Euphonia, Thicket Tinamou, Yucatan Jay, Yucatan (Yellow-lored) Parrot, Yucatan Woodpecker, Black Catbird, Black-headed Trogon, Gartered Trogon, Mangrove Vireo, Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, Black-cowled, Hooded and Altamira Orioles, Northern Potoo and Yucatan Nightjar. We didn’t try for other owls or the Yucatan Poorwill but I imagine you should be able to find Mottled Owl, Vermiculated Screech-Owl and Yucatan Poorwill there as well. The Potoos are common in the cleared areas with standing snags, and the Nightjars are found in the forest and at edges. We were surprised at how common Black Catbird, Yucatan Jay and Yucatan Parrot were, we saw far more of the Jays and Parrots than we did in Mexico and as many Black Catbirds as we did on Cozumel. By range, Yucatan Flycatcher, Rose-throated Tanager, Gray-throated Chat and Ocellated Turkey should occur here as well and the habitat is correct for all of them. Looking for the Ocellated Turkey outside of large protected areas, however, is unlikely to result in much success, whereas it is basically guaranteed at Calakmul or Tikal where most birders will go before a place as out of the way (though completely enjoyable) as Sarteneja.