belize, bird, toucan

I had never visited a real jungle before. Sure, I had seen countless television program, sat glued to Planet Earth, and read accounts of research ecologists and explorers, but had yet to see the wonders of a hot and wet climate. Belize gave me my first opportunity to see the jungle for myself, as well as its avian treasures!

Because I had never birded in a truly tropical climate, our first morning in the Belize rainforest my husband and I went out with a guide at the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge: Abel Garcia (you can find him at Upside Down Tours, or at Located at the edge of the Sibun National Forest Reserve, the grounds of the lodge were planted with citrus and hundreds of flowers, while the dirt road provided blank air space abutting the canopy.

belize, birding

Red-lored Parrot

Abel met us promptly at 6 a.m., and we meandered slowly down the road with a scope and binoculars trained on the trees around us. It was a brilliant birding approach: from below birds are very difficult to spot through the layers and layers of leaves, but from our vantage point looking across the canopy we could see so, so much more.

I had one goal for our birding morning: to spot a Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize. With their ridiculously large bills and comical air, they are another bird species that seems thought up by Disney himself.

Though the toucan was my goal, I was soon awash in brilliantly colored life birds. Bright blue Red-legged Honeycreepers perched at the tops of citrus trees, red and black Passerini’s Tanagers alighted on a dead snag near the river before flying off, as did a pair of Red-lored Parrots. One of my favorites of the trip, the Yellow-winged Tanager, landed merely feet away.

birding, belize

Yellow-winged Tanager

Abel was amazing. The forest was alive with bird calls and songs, so many that it was difficult for me to distinguish where one call ended and another began. Abel has been birding here for over a decade, and what for me was impossible was for him as natural as breathing. He would cock his head, pick out an interesting song and species, then immediately set up the scope so that I could see the Masked Tityra or Boat-billed Flycatcher exposed on an open tree limb. I felt so grateful to be birding with him; without Abel’s help we wouldn’t have seen half the species we spotted that morning.

The highlight was actually not the Keel-billed Toucan, or its relative, the Collared Aracari. Instead, as we made our way back to the lodge we were in for the best surprise of the trip.

belize, scarlet macaw

Scarlet Macaws in flight

In Belize, Scarlet Macaws are becoming more and more rare. The subject of a book, “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw,” the population in Belize is dwindling due to both habitat loss and the theft of their chicks for the pet trade. There were only a few hundred at most left in Belize, and they are almost never spotted near Sleeping Giant.

Almost never. As we made a final scan of the mountain rising next to the lodge, Abel spotted two distinctive silhouettes flying towards us: a pair of Scarlet Macaws. The moment I had them focused in my binoculars I literally felt goosebumps rise on my arms and legs; my mouth hung open. They are beautiful birds, obviously red even from a distance. They circled the mountains a few times, offering us better looks, and then they disappeared down the valley.

My first taste of the jungle and tropical birding left me awed, and yearning for more. Where should I head for my next rainforest adventure?

Written by Erika Zambello
Erika Zambello is a National Geographic Young Explorer who grew up in Maine, inspiring a deep interest in nature at an early age. She fell in love with birding after receiving a Sibley field guide for Christmas during her senior year in college, and has birded across the eastern seaboard and internationally ever since. To inspire others to protect birds and the environment, she has blogged for the Conservation Fund, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Triangle Land Conservancy, and Duke University, and is writing a birding guide to Northern New England for Wilderness Adventures Press. She has founded, and is currently living along the Emerald Coast in Florida's Panhandle. You can check out her exploration site or follow her on Instragram.