Crooked Tree and eastern Belize

14 – 19 February 2014

We missed Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary on the drive south through Belize because the road was temporarily part of the wetlands. The village of Crooked Tree and the causeway that connects it to the highway had been extensively flooded since November, following the very late and very wet rainy season. The village was cut off and the only way to access the area was by boat. So we waited until the water receded a bit and visited Crooked Tree after southern Belize. The causeway was still flooded as we drove through but we were able to get by with the truck without a problem. Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is known as the best spot in Belize to see the Jabiru, the largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere. Normally these birds are pretty easy to find, especially given their nearly 5′ stature, however due to the excessive flooding they were pushed out to marshy areas for feeding and we did not see a single one while crossing the causeway. We did however find one Jabiru foraging in the marshy area right in town! Not much can describe this towering bird other than WOW!

Jabiru

Jabiru

While watching the Jabiru forage for the next ½ hour we both thought the Jabiru seemed human-like with its big eyes and eyelids blinking occasionally and a very visible ear. Unfortunately, most of the trails were still flooded, but we had a pleasant walk through town birding the patches of forest after we got our fill of the Jabiru.

As the morning started to heat up the bird activity started to die down so we headed to Birder’s View Lodge to inquire about a boat trip up Spanish Creek to look for the elusive Agami Heron.

Spanish Creek at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

Spanish Creek at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

Luckily a group was already at the dock so we jumped in with them and headed down Spanish Creek. The boat ride was incredible and normally this boat trip is the best placed in Belize to find the Agami Heron but the floods made the usually nearly guaranteed sighting of the Agami Heron essentially impossible. In all, we spent two lovely days relaxing at the Crooked Tree Lodge, a great place to stay with fantastically friendly owners.

Jabiru in flight

Jabiru in flight

Having gotten our long-wanted Jabiru we headed to western Belize and Mountain Pine Ridge with our eyes on the sky. Mountain Pine Ridge is a great place for raptors: Black-and-white Hawk Eagle, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Solitary Eagle, Orange-breasted Falcon, Gray-headed Kite, Hook-billed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, and more. The Belizean Raptor Research Institute is doing great work in the Mountain Pine Ridge area and members of the staff have also documented a Solitary Eagle nesting in Mountain Pine Ridge. Only 4 nests of Solitary Eagle have been documented in the past and we know virtually nothing about this majestic bird. Thankfully the Belizean Raptor Research Institute is conducting monitoring for the Solitary Eagle and other raptors in the area. To learn more visit Belizean Raptor Research Institute. We scanned the skies endlessly while driving and periodically stopping along Cooma Cairn road to watch for activity. Good spots to raptor watch include the old British army tower at Cooma Cairn, a bit further along atop Baldy Beacon, and 1,000 Foot Falls. We spent a full day watching the skies counting a number of Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures, a few Swallow-tailed Kites, and one Red-tailed Hawk (a resident subspecies). We stopped at 1,000 Falls to try our luck finding the rare Orange-breasted Falcon.

1,000 Foot Falls

1,000 Foot Falls

Orange-breasted Falcons, while likely never very common, have suffered huge population declines and currently occupy on 4% of their historic breeding range. The Peregrine Fund suggests that predators, habitat loss, human disturbance, and DDT have negatively impacted Orange-breasted Falcons. The Peregrine Fund is monitoring populations in Belize and Guatemala as well as re-introducing captive bred Falcons at 1,000 Foot Falls and other locations throughout both countries. To learn more about the Orange-breasted Falcon project check out the Peregrine Funds page. Josh made it to the viewing area first while I dallied by the truck filling up water bottles and putting stuff away. As soon as I got down to the viewing area Josh yells there it is! The Orange-breasted Falcon was perfectly teed up on a snag across the valley.

Josh watching the Orange-breasted Falcon at 1,000 Foot Falls Belize

Josh watching the Orange-breasted Falcon at 1,000 Foot Falls Belize

Thankfully we got great looks with our spotting scope, but unfortunately the sun was right behind the falcon, so no worthwhile photos. After staring through the scope getting amazing views, the falcon finally flew around the canyon, rose on some thermals and then was gone, but Josh kept scanning the cliffs and found another Orange-breasted Falcon standing on a cliff (perhaps a nest?). While at 1,000 Foot Falls we also had a quick fly-by of a raptor that was too fast for ID but may have been a Double-toothed Kite or a Cooper’s Hawk… the one that got away.

The next day we woke with the sun to drive to Caracol, a large Mayan ruins located within a few miles of the Guatemalan border. On the road in we spotted a juvenile dark-morph Gray-headed Kite who was perched roadside, not a bad way to start the day. Caracol was a major Mayan center with more than 100,000 people living there during its peak. Only a few structures have been excavated and hundreds more lie in wait under the forest. Caracol is a pretty amazing place and there are few tourists around because of the long rough road that you need to traverse to get there. The largest temple also makes a perfect raptor watching spot.

Caracol; view from temple Caana

Caracol; view from temple Caana

We scanned the skies from atop the temple for a few hours spotting 4 King Vultures, 3 Swallow-tailed Kites, numerous Black and Turkey Vultures, a Short-tailed Hawk, and one distant Black Hawk-Eagle. After lunch we wandered back among the ruins and came across a nice flock that was being watched by a sentinel Black-throated Shrike-Tanager and included Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Blue-winged Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and more (eBird).

Huge Cieba Tree at Caracol

Huge Cieba Tree at Caracol

That night while we were about to enjoy a cocktail to celebrate a day of good birding and a new lifer, two Belizian military approached us and asked for help. They managed to get themselves stuck while trying to pull out some tourists who really got themselves stuck on the way to Rio Frio Caves. Josh left me at camp and went to rescue the military. Within minutes our old climbing rope and our trusty Tacoma pulled the military out with ease. Josh was somewhat of a hero that night as everyone (including the military) marveled at his rope tying skills. Unfortunately, the other group was stuck beyond hope as every pull by the military’s jeep either broke the rope or dug them deeper and deeper into the mud landing them a night at the military barracks.

The next morning we drove out towards Baldy Beacon again to cross paths with Roni Martinez who works with the Belizean Raptor Research Institute and to try to spot more raptors. We had a nice chat with Roni along the road and then headed out to look for raptors. Unfortunately the weather had a different idea as the wind and rain started picking up. We drove out towards Baldy Beacon anyway hoping the weather would clear but the skies continued to darken. Roni told us that there are several Sedge Wrens out near Baldy Beacon, to us a seemingly odd place to find them, but there they were. We saw 1 Sedge Wren and heard 4 others calling in the grassy fields.

If you are headed to Mountain Pine Ridge and Caracol the road is long and bumpy and requires a high clearance vehicle. The road should be passable if it’s dry without four wheel drive but you will need clearance. It is possible to camp at Augustine Douglas de Silva, a forestry camp and military outpost, although there are not any facilities out there. We checked in with the military and the forest guards and asked them were we should camp. They told us we could camp anywhere we liked for free, but the fields were covered in knee-high weeds so we opted to camp along a side road next to a water spout and the bathrooms, which are located in an abandoned building and are not kept up, but are still working and hey, it’s still a bathroom 🙂

While in the San Ignacio area we also stayed at Clarissa Falls, an absolutely lovely and peaceful place with the friendliest owners ever. We ended up spending three nights there. For Overlanders needing a quiet place, this is it (with ample camping space, the best hot shower, good food, and fast WIFI).

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