Toucans, kingfishers offer magic moments

The keel-billed toucan is Belize's national bird.
The keel-billed toucan is Belize's national bird.
Photograph by: Mark Angelo, for Postmedia News

Every birdwatcher has a story or two about a feathered epiphany - what I call magic moments. I had two such moments in my recent trip to Belize.

This small country nestled on the east side of Mexico is a jewel of a place for birders that has retained a large portion of its wildlands. I went there in the last week of February to create contacts for setting up birding excursions and to investigate the state of ecotourism for my wildlife conservation course.

My magic moments occurred near Hopkins, a sleepy little town on the coast just south of Dandriga.

While staying at the comfortable and affordable All-Seasons Guest House, run by Ingrid Stahl and her cook, a Canadian expat, I had foolishly left it too late to book a guided bird-watching excursion. With her usual pleasant smile, Stahl said: "Why don't you take one of the bicycles and ride just down the road a mile or so? You will likely see some parrots and toucans along the river there."

Toucans! I could not grab my binoculars and get on that bike fast enough. I had never seen a keel-billed toucan, which happens to be the favourite bird of my daughter, Erin. She tells me that it has nothing to do with Froot Loops cereal.

About a half-hour later, I was driven out of the woods by voracious mosquitoes. These little monsters were biting right through my safari shirt and were drinking the DEET in my repellent.

Then I spotted a young man hacking vegetation with a machete. I asked him if there was any place nearby to see toucans. He directed me down the road to Toucan City.

Toucan City? Five minutes down the road, I turned into the driveway of Toucan Sittee. The place was named after the Sittee Rive,r upon which it is located. I was there for less than five minutes when I heard a frog-like, scratchy "krrk" from above. There, just above my head, was my very first keel-billed toucan. It was a magnificent bird, resplendent in black, yellow and red with that humongous beak of lime green, red and orange. A magic moment, indeed.

An hour or so later, I had my second one. Toucan Sittee is actually named Sir Thomas' At Toucan Sittee and is owned by a very friendly American woman named Sabryna Popovich. It's a beautiful little bird sanctuary (close to 100 species can be seen in an hour) on the river, complete with cozy jungle bungalows and very tasty, affordable food. I rented a kayak from Popovich and asked for directions. She pointed downriver to Boom Creek: "You will see lots of birds in there." Crocodiles were fairly abundant, too, but the few I saw quickly submerging at my approach were quite small.

With its coffee-coloured water and overarching branches, Boom Creek was amazing! Other than a dog barking in the distance, I could hear only the sweet, serene sounds of nature.

As for bird life, I saw several common and great black hawks sitting on perches right over the creek, but what really blew me away were the kingfishers, my second- favourite group of birds after birds of prey.

I was constantly accompanied by one of three species, often in pairs - the very large ringed kingfisher, the medium-size green kingfisher, and the tiny pygmy kingfisher. When the sun caught the brilliant green and rust plumages of the latter two species, it was like gazing at feathered jewels.

The next time you're thinking about a birding trip to Central America, take a good look at Belize.

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David Bird is a professor of wildlife biology and director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre on the Macdonald campus of McGill University.

Vancouver Sun