The journey to Lamanai is as interesting as Lamanai itself. Tour operators on Ambergris Caye sell this day trip as an eco-adventure and for the aware "birder" it may be the most productive of rare and unusual sightings Belize has to offer.
The trip leaves the dock in San Pedro for the New River Lagoon at approximately 7:30 a.m. and passes through a number of diverse avian habitats along the way. The boat first crosses through mangrove channels at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye offering opportunities for sighting Belted Kingfishers, Great White Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Black-Necked Stilts, as well as the common occurrence of Brown Pelicans, Frigates, Cormorants, Ospreys, Plovers, Pipers and Terns.
The boat then exits the mangrove on Ambergris' west side and crosses the southern end of the Bahia de Chetumal. Early Spanish frontiersmen accessed Lamanai via the Bay of Chetumal from Corozal traveling up the New River to a large bluff. The bluff is adorned with very impressive Maya temples that date from 1500 B.C. until the arrival of the Franciscan Friars in 1650.
Our crossing to the shortcut takes approximately 45 minutes and ends entering the Belize mainland at the mouth of the Northern River in the Northern River Lagoon. Elbert spotted a Green Heron fishing the shallows of a small island in the lagoon, the only island that was supporting tall coconut trees. The Northern River runs through tropical swamp where the fresh water of the river mixes with tidal salt water, so that salt levels fluctuate. Characteristic in this area are Red Mangroves (Rhizophora harrisoni), with spreading silt roots. The flowering orchids, vermilions and epiphytes they support are the chief source of nectar for the Mangrove Hummingbird. In this swamp, Mangrove Vireos, Mangrove Warblers, Flycatchers and Snail Kites permanently reside, and many water birds rest, forage and nest.
This leg of the trip ends on the firm earth and dark soil at the edge of the swamp in the village of Bomba, where you are transferred from boat to bus for the trip along the Old Northern Highway. During this 50-minute trip to the New River you will pass through savanna. Elbert and I spotted three Jabiru Storks in the marsh grasses along the way as well as a flock of White Ibis and a variety of Hawks, Vultures and Egrets.
We boarded a different boat on the New Northern River near Tower Hill. The New Northern River between Tower Hill and Lamanai runs through Riverine/Gallery Forest and is a habitat for Limpkins, Kites, Bitterns, Rails and a variety of Herons, such as the Tri-colored and the Chestnut-bellied. A common site along the river is the female Northern Jacana trotting along its lily pads foraging for water bugs and small frogs or fish.
The journey ends at the base of the bluff and the edge of the rainforest on the New River Lagoon at Lamanai. Our group was introduced to a very well informed Belizean archeological tour guide who led us through a field museum first and then on a jungle walk - up, down and around several Maya temples set under the rainforest canopy. He identified flora and fauna of the forest along the way, stopping at a tree of Howler Monkeys and pointing out the need to not stand directly under them. He also gave notice to the Wood Creepers, Yellow-headed Parrots, a Groove-billed Ani, a Keel-billed Toucan and a Slaty-tailed Trogon. We had a wonderful lunch on a picnic table under the shade of a giant Bullet tree at the edge of the river before returning.
Yes, definitely, Lamanai is for the birds.