January 22, 2010

Belize is a blessed with millions of birds—of the sea, shore and land—and today we got to experience multitudes of them at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Situated in Northern Belize, about 20 miles inland and an hour north of Belize City, the Sanctuary is reached via a long, narrow causeway that leads to a tiny village at its center. We’d been told it was a very safe place to visit—but one look at the abandoned police station convinced us that crime must be a thing of the past!

Created in 1984, the Sanctuary is home or highway to literally millions of migratory and resident birds: herons, ospreys, kites, hawks, vultures, kingfishers, egrets, swallows, ducks, jacanas, lemkins and a host of other species. It is not uncommon to see over 100 species of birds in a single visit!

After the morning fog burned off, we set out across a broad freshwater lagoon in a small boat piloted by our sharp-eyed guide, Rudy. Looking across the lagoon, we asked him about the thousands of white birds we could see…were those snowy egrets, we asked? With a gentle chuckle, Rudy informed us that the ‘birds’ were water lilies! Arriving there, we were surrounded by a shallow garden of flowering white lilies, the perfect home for sunfish, cichlids, crappies and tilapia. And where there are fish, there are birds that eat them.

Drifting for what seemed like hours, we reflected on how seldom we get to experience such natural beauty without the sound of jets overhead or jet skis charging by. We listened intently to the calls of the great blue herons and the cackles of Northern Jacanas. Two Belizean fishermen paddled silently by in dugout canoes, much like the ones carved by Maya craftsmen two millennia before. We drifted and listened and time seemed to slow to the pace of an earlier era.

Eventually, of course, it caught up with us. We were due back in busy Belize City by mid-afternoon, so after a delightful lunch at the Bird’s Eye Lodge we reluctantly bid good-bye to Crooked Tree Sanctuary. Driving back down the causeway, we espied a lone hitchhiker with a kindly face. Mellow Cat, as it turned out, was a true Belizean character—airport worker by day, DJ by night and fisherman in his free time. As we bounced along the rutted road, he launched into an amazingly rap in a lilting, Caribbean patois, all about Crooked Tree, the birds, and even “Mister Kip and his best friend John.” Can you sing that again? asked Kip, ever vigilant for an interesting subject. Sure, Mon, was Mellow’s reply, and he proceed to repeat his song for the camera (stay tuned for future excerpts).
And that, we decided, is exactly the essence of this place, Belize: peopled by a mélange of humanity, creative, kind and in love with their small but vital country where the Caribbean meets the Americas.
By John Racanelli

Photography by Kip Evans

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