Although birding was not the primary purpose of our trip to Belize, it would be difficult to spend any amount of time there and not notice interesting avian species not found in Massachusetts. In addition to the species I found walking along the beach, I had the chance to observe species on the trip to Lamanai, at the bird sanctuary, and during a birding expedition on Ambergris Caye, and I added many birds to my “life list”. A life list is a term birders use for the list(s) they keep of all the bird species they have observed worldwide, usually accompanied by the date and location of the sighting.
Two of the species I saw were named for the tree that comprises one of Belize’s most threatened habitats: the mangrove. On the way to Lamanai, we had the opportunity to take several boat trips through the mangroves, and spotted many Mangrove Swallows (Tachycineta albilinea) flying over the river. According to one ornithological source, they are fairly tolerant to human disturbance. (http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/conservation?p_p_spp=523436). This species is similar to the Tree Swallow (common in Massachusetts) in appearance, but with the addition of a white rump patch, making the two easily distinguishable. Swallows are a type of aerial insectivore, and their long, pointed wings make them very graceful in flight. I spotted another species named after a littoral tree on our last full day on Ambergris Caye—the Mangrove Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Mangrove Warblers are currently considered conspecific with the widely distributed Yellow Warbler, but this was still a very exciting find for me!
There are actually several species of mangrove tree that grow in the country, and they support an incredible variety of wildlife, as well as being essential for the maintenance of healthy corals reefs. As other fellows have mentioned in their blog posts, the mangroves are threatened by development on the cayes; this was easily observable on Ambergris Caye, where several land reclamation projects are currently underway. This process can be complex and costly to reverse, although in some places trees are being planted. (http://www.sanpedrosun.com/community-and-society/2014/06/03/placencia-mangrove-
planting-project-honors-adrian-vernon/) While San Pedro is a tourist destination mainly for the stunning barrier reef, the mangroves support the beautiful fish and birds that make the island so special. While preparing for a presentation in the Coral Reef Ecology class I took in preparation for the trip, I came across an article published in 2008 stating that “Scientists estimate we’ve already lost 30 to 60 percent of the world’s mangroves.” (http://www.whoi.edu/cms/files/Oceanus_JP_McMahon_46507.pdf) The article also mentioned that many people fail to see the value in these forests, but encouragingly I found all of our guides in Belize seemed knowledgeable about the benefits of these trees.
One of my favorite birding moments of the Belize trip was a sighting of a bird I had already seen many times in Massachusetts—an adult Green Heron (Butorides virescens) feeding his/her two chicks in the nest over the river. In Belize, these birds are known as Green-backed Herons, a name I find slightly more descriptive than Green Heron. The nest consisted of a small and surprisingly haphazard-looking pile of twigs sitting in the branches of a tree overhanging the river and the chicks were as odd and fluffy as one might expect heron chicks to be. A picture of the nest and young can be seen in Alyssa’s post entitled: In Touch with Belize: Lamanai. Another of my favorite birding moments also occurred on the trip along the river: my first sighting of a Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa)! These strange birds have large feet adapted for walking on the top of aquatic vegetation. Unlike some of the song birds that can be a struggle to identify, this species is unmistakable. To quote my field guide: “highly distinctive” which I consider just another reason to like them.
All images of birds taken from http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu
I recommend this site for information concerning neotropical bird species!