Photos by Basilio Mes

If you dream of seeing Scarlett Macaws, plan to visit the Mayan village of Red Bank during mid-December through mid-March, when they flock there in large numbers to feed.

By Lisa Freeman

Want to see toucans, trogons and tinamous all in one day? Then pack your bags and binoculars and head to Belize. This central American country, formerly known as British Honduras, is a bird lover’s paradise. Belize is home to more than 600 species of birds, including permanent and migrant birds, as well as rare or accidental birds, according to a March 2015 report from Bird Checklists of the World.[1] From Scarlet Macaws to Harpy Eagles to Jabiru Storks, the variety of birds is astonishing thanks to an array of habitats that include tropical rainforests, savannahs, wetlands, coastal plains and island cays.

Two additional characteristics that make Belize an even more exceptional spot for birders are its conservation efforts, and its size. Belize and its citizens are incredibly dedicated to conservation: Nearly half of the nation’s land and adjacent waters are protected under forest reserves, marine reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and other protected-area designations. And since the entire country is only about the size of Massachusetts (8,867 sq. miles), the chance of seeing hundreds of different species in a short amount of time is extremely high.

On a recent visit to Belize, I had a chance to spend time birding with guide Basilio Mes at Mystic River Resort overlooking the Macal River near San Ignacio, Belize. After asking us to provide a list of the birds we most wanted to see, Mes then set up a walking tour around the lush rainforest grounds of this exotic ecolodge. Within four hours we recorded nearly 50 species of birds. Afterwards, I sat down to talk with Mes about birding, and his top places to see birds in Belize.

Getting into Birding

Mes did his first stint in the Belize tourism industry in the 1990’s, leading tours to see indigenous animals, such as tapirs and jaguars. He was excited to see how many tourists were into wildlife, but the rewards of actually spotting these elusive creatures were few and far between. “It’s a lot easier to spot birds and share a great birding experience with visitors than to be able to show them the nocturnal animals of Belize,” said Mes.

He began birding in early 2002 for fun, learning bird calls and the English names of birds, studying their behavior and reading bird books. With birding tours in growing demand, Mes eventually began getting calls from resorts to lead tours. In 2003, he became a member of the much-lauded Belize Audubon Society, and later received advanced field training through a scholarship with Belize Audubon and a local development bank. Through the years, he has continued advancing his field bird-guide training, studying bird biology, behaviors, identification, and migration routes.

Top Five Birding Sites

Today, Mes leads dozens of tours a year, specializing in small, intimate groups, no larger than five people, typically in the regions of southern Belize. He knows the trails and habitat where specific birds can be found. And he is prolific at finding them. Here are his top five favorite birding sites.

#1 Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Mes has a special place in his heart for the Cockscomb Basin area of southern Belize, near where he grew up. In one full day around the Cockscomb Basin, a 100,000-acre forest and wildlife preserve, he typically spots an average of 95 species a day, beginning around 6 a.m. and ending around 3 or 4 p.m. On a three-day birding trip, visitors can see as many as 250 different species of birds including toucans, flycatchers, trogons and motmots. “There is a wide range of habitat with many open trails,” says Mes. “Not far from the forest are beaches and marsh, so you can see shore birds and waterfowl. Birders can see a lot of variety here.” And while they’re at it, they can keep an eye out for jaguar tracks. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is recognized internationally as the world’s first jaguar preserve and offers sanctuary for these rare, nocturnal creatures and other indigenous animals of the area. To the delight of visitors, there are occasional sightings.

#2 Red Bank

Mes grew up in the small Mayan village of Red Bank, which is famous for the Scarlet Macaws that flock there during seasonal migrations. These big, rowdy birds, which were once close to extinction, nest in Belize’s largest national park, the Chicquibul National Park, near the Guatemalan border. They migrate to Red Bank between mid-December to Mid-March to feed on the fruits of the annatto and pole wood trees. They love the tiny seeds in the berry, Mes says. Red Bank also offers sightings of Blue-winged Teals, ospreys and other water birds along the river. But the people come mostly for the Scarlet Macaws.

#3 Maya Mountain Area

Mes says that most tourists come to Belize to see rare or exotic birds such as Keel-billed Motmots, Keel-billed Toucans, and trogons, and there’s no better place to see them than the Maya Mountain region, with its forests and plentiful supply of fresh water. Mes became captivated by the area when his quest to find a special bird came true here. “I had been searching for 15 years to find the Tody Motmot,” says Mes. “I used to spend days in the jungle looking for this bird. Years later, when I came to the Mystic River Resort as a bird guide, on the first day I arrived, I stepped out of the car and I heard his call. I was ecstatic!” These days, the persistent birder loves to show off the local Tody Motmot of Mystic River with visiting birders, giving them the experience of seeing a truly elusive bird.

Birders on a quest for toucans can fulfill their dreams in the Maya region also. The fanciful Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize, can be found here. Easily recognizable in flight, thanks to its bright greenish-yellow, banana-looking beak, it’s an astonishing sight to see. Perhaps a less known, but equally magical toucan, the Collared Aracari can be seen putting on an early morning show at the fruit feeders at Mystic River Resort. During several morning breakfasts at the open dining room patio, visitors were delighted by these noisy and magical toucans. Distinguished by their black heads and brownish-yellow, saw-tooth patterned mandibles, these birds feed and even roost together. At Mystic River, as many as six Collared Aracari have been seen entering the same hole in a burrowed-out tree to roost there together.

#4 Hopkins

If you are into sandpipers, storks, kingfishers and other water birds, the town of Hopkins may be a good place to spend a few days. This small Garifuna fishing village is surrounded on one side by wetlands and on the other side by the Caribbean Sea. Spend a morning on the beach and you’ll likely see an osprey dive into the sea and fly off carrying breakfast between its talons, or sandpipers skirting the fringes of the waves, and pelicans skimming the water in perfect formation. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a Magnificent Frigate bird riding the wind. You’ll recognize these almost-prehistoric looking birds by their forked tails, wide wing span and slightly v-shaped wings. Wander the marshes near sunset and enjoy Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, and Pygmy Kingfishers. If you’re lucky you might see the Northern Jacana, otherwise known as the “Jesus Bird” for its habit of tiptoeing across the water on the leaves of lily pads.

#5 Stann Creek District Shrimp Farms

Shrimp aquaculture has become a huge part of the Belize economy, with the country producing millions of pounds of shrimp for export. Villages such as Independence and Placencia play host to shrimping enterprises that occupy hundreds of acres of land cleared and reconstructed as production farms. Shore birds, such as teals, ducks, egrets and other waders, as well as various migratory birds, cluster here by the thousands to feed off the shrimp residual.

To go birding in Belize is to guarantee that you’ll see some of the world’s most spectacular birds. Whether you visit one or all of these sites, or go north to Crooked Tree Sanctuary, near Belize City, for Jabiru Storks and Peregrine Falcons, Belize will more than fulfil your quest to find the rare, the exotic and the beautiful.

Lisa Freeman is public relations professional, avid birder, and consummate adventure seeker. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisafreemanPR , or on Facebook.

Belize bird guide Basilio Mes can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

These are original photos by Basilio Mes.

4Keel billed toucan 3 crop

The Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize, is a magical site to see, and is easily recognizable in flight, thanks to its long, banana-shaped mandible and its bright and colorful plumage.

The Rufous-tailed Jacamar breeds in the tropical regions of southern Mexico, Central America and South America, as far south as southern Brazil and Ecuador.

1Blue gray Tanager crop

The beautiful Blue-gray Tanager, one of 200 species of tanagers in the world, can be seen in villages or around forest edges in Belize.