FLY LONDON TO MIAMI
Our birdwatching tour to Belize begins with a British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Miami (Florida). Late afternoon transfer to a comfortable Miami airport hotel for dinner and overnight. Night Miami
[Please note: there are no direct flights to Belize from the UK or Europe, so all routes involve a change of planes plus an overnight stay at a hotel somewhere en route, either in Mexico or the USA. Based on current airline schedules, travelling via Miami currently offers the best option and timings.]
FLY MIAMI TO BELIZE CITY, DRIVE WEST TO RIO BRAVO & LA MILPA
After breakfast at our Miami hotel, we take the courtesy bus from our hotel to Miami airport and catch the American Airlines mid-morning flight (2 hours 17 minutes) southwest to Belize City. Thanks to the time difference, we land in Belize at pretty much the same time of morning as we left Miami!
We'll be met on arrival in Belize City by our local guide and set off on an easy, two-hour drive from the capital, heading northwest towards the Rio Bravo and stopping for lunch and our first roadside birds along the way. Our journey will take us through a mix of farmland, savanna and patches of hardwood forest, looking out for elegant Fork-tailed Flycatchers perched on the fencelines, and birds of prey including Roadside, Grey and Short-tailed Hawks, and Aplomado and Laughing Falcons.
Our destination this afternoon is La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Centre, where we stay for three nights. Situated in the northwestern section of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, the lodge is only three miles from La Milpa Archaeological Site, the third largest Maya ruin in Belize. The Rio Bravo reserve is the largest conservation area in Belize, comprising 4% of the country's total land area and is well protected from the logging that threatens so many of the world's tropical forests. Rio Bravo is known especially for its ‘big four' birds: Great Tinamou, Great Curassow, Crested Guan and the gaudy Ocellated Turkey - species that have been wiped out in other parts of Belize and elsewhere in Central and South America.
After settling in at the lodge, there may be time to enjoy a stroll around the grounds, getting to know some of the diverse bird families of the Central American tropics, including motmots, manakins, tanagers, toucans, trogons and woodcreepers. The food at La Milpa is good and, after our evening meal tonight, those with energy to spare may wish to join us for a first 'night walk', with chances of Common Pauraque, American Barn Owl or perhaps a Mottled Owl. The range-restricted Yucatan Poorwill can also be seen here. Night La Milpa Ecolodge
Days 3 & 4
LA MILPA CONSERVATION CENTRE
We have two full days to enjoy the wealth of wildlife at Rio Bravo. Indeed, more than 400 species of birds have already been recorded here and it is quite possible to see up to 100 species in a day. Our mornings will start early as bird activity is usually at its greatest during the first two or three hours of daylight.
Walking about the grounds, we search the heady mix of resident species and Neotropical migrants - many with names as evocative as they look: Crane Hawk, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Red-capped Manakin, Olive-backed Euphonia, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Bright-rumped Attila, Blue Bunting and Black-headed, Gartered and Slaty-tailed Trogons. We should also see Orchard and Black-cowled Orioles, Melodious Blackbird, the eye-catching red-bellied Grey-throated Chat (recently discovered to be closely related to the cardinals), Brown Jay, Vaux’s Swift, Montezuma Oropendola and Grey-headed Tanager. Near the restaurant, we might also encounter noisy Plain Chachalacas along with Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, White-crowned and Brown-hooded Parrots, Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet, Red-billed Pigeon, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Clay-coloured Thrush, Hooded Oriole and Northern Waterthrush.
The lodge's several hummingbird feeders and a fruit table are often very busy - and give super photo opportunities. White-bellied Emerald, Purple-crowned Fairy, White-necked Jacobin, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing visit regularly to drink the sugar water, and we should see Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, Yellow-throated Euphonia and White-collared Seedeater attending the fruit.
We’ll devote plenty of time to exploring the open areas and forest trails at La Milpa, where the trees resound to the sounds of calling birds, insects, amphibians and mammals. Forest mammals are invariably tricky to find but two species we should see here are Central American Spider Monkey and Mexican Black Howler Monkey. The trees along forest edges are a great place to find woodpeckers and these include Black-cheeked and Golden-fronted, Smoky-brown, the red-crested Golden-olive and the huge Lineated and Pale-billed Woodpeckers... but the real star here is the Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker, perhaps the fanciest of all Central American woodpeckers! Also to be found rooting about the trunks and vines are Strong-billed and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers; (oh to call out, “I’ve found an Ivory-billed!”).
As the daytime temperatures begin to rise, we will look to the skies as raptor activity increases. Again the variety of species to be found at La Milpa is excellent, due largely to the fact that prey species are more common because of a lack of hunting. Overhead, we could well pick out a circling King Vulture or a sublime gathering of graceful Swallow-tailed Kites circling above the trees. Smaller White-tailed and Plumbeous Kites also occur, along with a number of ‘hawks’ include White and Short-tailed as well as Great Black Hawk. Less common and infrequently seen are both Black and Ornate Hawk Eagles.
There is so much in the way of birdlife here that it's easy to overlook the abundance of butterflies and insects. The absence of hunting at Rio Bravo also gives us an outside chance of seeing a cat - or more likely finding ‘signs’ of their presence. Though Ocelot and Jaguar occur, unsurprisingly, sightings are rare!
On one afternoon, we'll pay a visit to the nearby archaeological site of ‘La Milpa’ – though if you prefer, you can also take time off to relax about the lodge. Thought to have once been a home to more than 40,000 people, this remarkable ruin is one of the largest Maya sites, yet even today lies mostly undiscovered and unexcavated. By happy coincidence, La Milpa archaeological site is also well known as one of the top locations in Belize for raptors. We have chances of seeing both Black and Ornate Hawk Eagles overhead, while Spider Monkeys play in the lush forest canopy and are a favourite meal for the impressive but more rarely observed Crested Eagle!
Each evening, we'll return to our lodgings for a delicious dinner, after which those that wish can once again walk the grounds at night, enjoying the sounds of the forest, the brilliant night sky and stars overhead - and further opportunities of nocturanl birds such as Mottled Owl or Yucatan Poorwill. Two further nights La Milpa
TO CROOKED TREE VIA BLUE CREEK RICEFIELDS
After enjoying some final early morning birding at La Milpa, we gather our bags and depart for our second venue: the lovely Bird’s Eye View Lodge at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, in the centre of the Belize.
Within 30 minutes however, we stop to explore the Blue Creek rice fields for wetland birds. The beautifully patterned Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Green Kingfisher and migrant waders are likely here as flocks of Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals swirl about the paddies. The open habitat is also attractive to Fork-tailed and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and perhaps we'll spot the smart White-tailed Hawk sat on a post.
After lunch, we complete the 90-minute drive east to reach Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, where our comfortable lodgings for two nights overlook one of the reserve's famous lagoons. Crooked Tree is one of the top birding sites in Belize and its 16,400 acres - including more than 3,000 acres of freshwater lakes and swamps - are home to a wealth of wetland birds, most notably the immense Jabiru Stork, which will be nesting here in March.
Although water levels vary from year to year depending on February rains, wetland birds will be our main target at Crooked Tree. There is a superb pond right behind our lodge, where the likes of Rufous-naped Wood Rail, Limpkin, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Anhinga and Roseate Spoonbill can often be found; Caspian and Gull-billed Terns feed on the plentiful fish and Snail Kites swoop to pluck apple snails from the shallow waters. The curious Boat-billed Heron is one of up to 12 species of heron we could also see at Crooked Tree and kingfishers include the huge and noisy Ringed Kingfisher and the tiny American Pygmy Kingfisher.
Seizing the opportunity to enjoy a pre-breakfast birdwalk about the lodge, we should soon add a good selection of 'landlubbers', too. Bat Falcon, Yellow-headed Amazon (of the local subspecies belizensis), Common Tody-flycatcher and the brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher are all possible, while further exploraton of Crooked Tree's pine savanna habitat is likely to reward us with the energetic Green-breasted Mango, Canivet’s Emerald and Buff-bellied Hummingbird, the sociable Acorn Woodpecker, Yucatan Woodpecker, Yucatan Flycatcher and Yucatan Jay (all regional endemics), wintering Grace’s Warbler and the colourful Red-legged Honeycreeper - plus three endemic subspecies of sparrow: Botteri’s, Chipping and Grasshopper.
During our stay, we'll enjoy an easy boat ride out onto one of the lagoons - a wonderful way to get close to some of the more secretive swamp dwelling species. One of our main targets here is the sleek but furtive Sungrebe, hoping to spot one as it paddles by with its 'dazzle camouflage' feet, picking insects from branches overhanging the water. We'll also be watching keenly for the elusive Agami Heron and maybe a Wood Stork or a shy Boat-billed Heron asleep at its daytime roost. The lagoons can be alive with Purple and Common Gallinules, Snail Kites, Limpkins and lime-winged Northern Jacanas, and we should spot Black-collared Hawk along the way as well as a nice variety of waterfowl and shorebirds.
After dinner, we'll make another exciting night tour in search of Yucatan Poorwill, Northern Potoo and owls. Two nights at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge, Crooked Tree
CROOKED TREE TO MOUNTAIN PINE RIDGE
We'll be out early to check out the abundant birdlife on the Western Lagoon as well as the edge of Crooked Tree village, where we could find more savanna inhabitants such as Black-throated Bobwhite and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, plus flycatchers, warblers and sparrows.
We leave Crooked Tree after breakfast and head south towards our next destination, Mountain Pine Ridge, making a small detour along the way to visit the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch.
Besides the incredible butterflies here, we'll keep watch on the ranch's busy hummingbird feeders, which can attract as many as 12 different species of 'hummer'. Those most likely to be seen include Ruby-throated, Rufous-tailed and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, Long-billed Hermit, Green-breasted Mango, White-necked Jacobin, White-bellied Emerald, Wedge-tailed and Violet Sabrewings and Purple-crowned Fairy. But there is also a chance of seeing Stripe-throated Hermit and the fork-tailed Canivet’s Emerald. This area can also be good for the spectacular Keel-billed Toucan and soaring, 'paddle-winged' Hook-billed and Grey-headed Kites as well as King, Black and Turkey Vultures.
Reluctantly tearing ourselves away, we continue on to our destination, approaching the striking 2,000ft escarpment of the Mountain Pine Ridge - a picturesque highland area of south-central Belize - from the north. Our accommodation for three nights here is the Hidden Valley Inn, a luxury hotel with just 12 cottage style rooms, located on a 7,200-acre private reserve. Offering quality accommodation and fine food, this excellent eco-resort also boasts an extensive trail system amongst the open Caribbean pine habitat with scattered pockets of tropical broadleaf forest - all rich in birds. Night Hidden Valley Inn
MOUNTAIN PINE RIDGE
Mountain Pine Ridge is another superb area for birds. Although the Hidden Valley estate here is perhaps most famous in birding cirlces for its ‘Big Five' - Solitary Eagle, Black-and-White Hawk Eagle, King Vulture, Orange-breasted Falcon and Stygian Owl - any walk through the lodge’s own private reserve will quickly reveal an abundance of birds. Expect anything from Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Masked Tityra, Melodious Blackbird and lively Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles through to Acorn and Golden-olive Woodpeckers picking at the bark of the nearby pines, Neotropical migrants such as Hepatic Tanager and the yellow-throated Grace’s Warbler, and hummingbirds including Azure-crowned and White-necked Jacobin.
We have two full days here, not only to enjoy the home-grown Hidden Valley coffee, but a couple of early morning strolls about the lodge. Raucous Plain Chachalacas will soon let us know daybreak has arrived, and both Brown and Green Jays are often very active in the morning. Feeding stations attract Ruddy Ground Dove, Grey-headed Pigeon and Clay-coloured Thrush.
Following a delicious breakfast at the lodge, we set off to explore some of Hidden Valley’s trails. The open pine and scrub vegetation will be pretty lively first thing as we search for the big Scarlet Macaw and chunky Red-lored Amazon, Laughing Falcon, Lovely Cotinga, Northern Nightingale-wren, Greater Pewee, the wintering Eastern Bluebird, Rusty Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat... and many more!
The hardwood forest below our accommodation is well worth a look and careful checking here should reveal both Collared and Black-headed Trogons, and Pale-vented and Scaled Pigeons, along with Lesser Greenlet, and Tawny-winged and various other woodcreepers. Keeping an eye out overhead as the morning warms up, raptors above the forest are likely to include small groups of Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites.
In the afternoon we head to Rio Frio Cave in search of Lesson’s Motmot, Orange-billed Sparrow and Golden-crowned Warbler.
Nearby, we visit the Thousand-foot Falls - Central America’s highest waterfalls - and the King Vulture Falls. Rusty Sparrow and jinking Black-headed Siskins are regularly found here, and we also have chances of the difficult-to-see Solitary Eagle and Black-and-white Hawk Eagle. From a viewing area we will scan for the even rarer Orange-breasted Falcon, occurring here right at the northernmost limit of its range. The King Vulture Falls is a regular roosting area for... yep, you've guessed it!... King Vulture, an imposing bird in all respects: appearance, wingspan and weight! We will try to get close views as they return from cruising on the thermals high above the escarpment.
After dinner, we will venture outside again in search of the last of the Hidden Valley 'Big Five’ as we listen and look for the mysterious Stygian Owl - one of the rarest of all Central American owls. Two further nights at Hidden Valley Inn
HIDDEN VALLEY INN; DRIVE TO BELIZE CITY
We have one last chance this morning to enjoy a walk about the grounds of Hidden Valley Inn, watching the busy procession of hummingbirds, orioles and tanagers and looking out for any passing migrants heading back north to breed.
After an early lunch, we drop back down to the lowlands and travel east to our final overnight stop, beside the Belize River, just to the west of Belize City. If time allows we may stop en route at the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to check for Blue Seedeater - a bamboo specialist - plus Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Collared Araçari and a nice selection of tanagers. Night at the Black Orchid Resort, Belize City
FLY BELIZE CITY-MIAMI-LONDON
After breakfast this morning we make the 35-minute transfer back to Belize City airport. Our American Airlines flight (approx 2 hrs) departs for Miami late morning on Day 11. On arrival in Miami this afternoon, we transit directly to our onward British Airways flight back to London Heathrow, where we arrive on the morning of Day 12 and our birding tour to Belize concludes.