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Wildside column: Bird watching in Belize

Bird expert and tour guide Carlos Corrales feeding a Collared aricari at Black Rock Lodge in Cayo District, Belize. Photo by Dan Wilcox

Carol and I are retired now and have looked forward to longer escapes from winter for many years. Tired of the polar vortex conditions this winter, we went to Florida before Christmas. We enjoyed many days fishing out on the water and hiking in the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, exploring the "Nature Coast." The Gulf Coast of Florida in January isn't very warm much of the time. It froze a few nights and the locals were chilling.

It's much warmer in Central America, so after a few weeks back home re-acclimating to winter during another cold spell, we flew south. We have gone to Belize in late winter for 27 years to thaw out along with many other snowbirds. Joe Lewinski of River Falls took us to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport early in the morning Feb. 20 when it was snowy and 15 degrees. In mid-afternoon we got off the plane in Belize City where it was 84 degrees with a northeast trade wind breeze. That was a nearly 100-degree swing for us in one day! I felt the warm moist air seeping into my dry cracked hide.

In addition to fishing and visiting our Cheesehead and Belizean friends there, one of the things we really enjoy about Belize is the phenomenal diversity of life on land, especially the birds. Four years ago, we met my brother-in-law Ken Schreiber and his wife Anita Adams of Osseo, Wis., at Black Rock Lodge, a well-run and comfortable resort in the Cayo District of western Belize. The lodge is located in a spectacular tropical rain forest setting on some rapids of the Macal River across from limestone cliffs several hundred feet high. I was awakened by the croaking call of a Keel-billed Toucan right outside our cabana. With the help tour guide and bird expert Carlos Corrales, we saw 64 species of birds in three mornings.

We hiked up steep hills to scenic overlooks, visited a cave with bats and giant spiders and took a canoe trip down the river. The profusion of life in the rainforest there is phenomenal. There are approximately 4,000 species of flowering plants, 250 species of orchids and approximately 700 species of trees in Belize, most of them occurring in the tropical rain forest in the Cayo District. Many of the trees flower and bear fruit in the dry season to the delight of the parrots. Philodendrons, bromeliads and orchids festoon the trees, reminding me of houseplants gone wild.

Bird expert and tour guide, Isaias, drove us from Black Rock Lodge to Placencia in the Stann Creek District of southern Belize. We travelled down the Hummingbird Highway through a fascinating landscape of steep limestone hills. We stopped for a swim at the Blue Hole, a national park where a big spring fills a cenote and then flows into another cave. There we saw a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, a beautiful hummingbird-like bird with a brilliant emerald green head, white throat and orange belly.

We are staying again at Janice Leslie's Tradewinds Resort in Placencia, Belize, a set of cabanas under coconut palms on the beach at the end of a long peninsula. The village of Placencia strings out along a central sidewalk 4-feet wide and a half-mile long. Bill and Sue Smith and Jeff Cudd of River Falls greeted us. They are tanned brown as coconuts having been there since mid-January.

We enjoy watching squadrons of Brown pelicans patrolling the shallow water, Magnificent frigate birds soaring over the coconut palms, and little Common-ground doves and Sanderlings picking their way along the beach. Bill Smith feeds the big black Boat-tailed grackles on a stump in front of his cabana. They do a variety of dominance displays and make loud screeches from the trees. Pelicans, royal terns and ospreys make spectacular dives for fish in the bay. The terns roost on some old dock pilings in front of the cabanas, always facing upwind. We call them "weather birds."

A vacation in Belize is a great way to relax and shorten a long winter. Travel within the country by road (now that they have paved the main roads) or by small plane is easy. There are many comfortable and affordable places to stay where you can get to know the locals. Just watch out for scorpions in your luggage.