The bird dares to break the shell, then the shell breaks open and the bird can fly openly. This is the simplest principle of success. You dream, you dare and you fly. Israelmore Ayivor
Last time, Kim Nagy, wildlife photographer and co-editor of Dead In Good Company, related her adventure birding on Block Island. Upon reflection, she decided that Block Island just wasn’t far enough away. So she planned a trip to Belize, more than 700 miles off of the Florida coast. Here is her story of an exciting week at the Chan Chich Lodge in the jungles of Belize. (All photographs taken by Kim Nagy).
A two-seater Cessna and a 22 minute flight from Belize City separated us from the Chan Chich Lodge on the Gallon Jug Estate in northwestern Belize.
I thought: if I want to see the cats, I have to get on that plane.
The pilot had delayed the flight for nearly two hours because of two weather fronts, so we waited in Belize City’s small airport. Clumped-up cumulous clouds were turning everything white, and clouds usually meant turbulence, but luckily the flight was smooth.
Belize is the least-populated country in Central America. We flew over pristine rainforest for those 22 minutes; I counted. Chan Chich Lodge is located in a remote area of pure jungle, surrounded by a 3000 year old, unexcavated Mayan plaza. Chan Chich is the name of a creek next to the property; it means “little bird” in Mayan. The grounds are home to many species of flora and fauna.
Purple-crowned Fairy (Hummingbird)
Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly
The first tour we took was a night safari. We left at dark and drove by moonlight. The oxygen-rich air smelled intoxicating as we drove down the crushed limestone road (the same limestone the Maya used to build their cities). Luis, our guide, shone a high-beam flashlight over the surrounding trees and on the road. Occasionally we stopped, and Luis pointed out Common Pauraques lying quietly in the small depressions. This nocturnal bird lies in wait for insects; they weren’t bothered by the truck or the light, and they were reluctant to fly away.
We saw boat-billed Flycatchers roosting, as well as Yucatan Nightjars, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, and numerous deer sleeping together in the meadows. It was interesting to see their eyes so close to the ground. They seemed so vulnerable, sleeping with no protection, yet all that open space allowed for plenty of warning from predators.
Although we didn’t see the coveted jaguar, ocelot, or margay, driving through the jungle under a full moon was an unforgettable experience.
The shy Spider monkeys gathered around the grounds each afternoon to feed in the area trees. Many females had young with them, so that was a real treat. The loud Howler monkeys were deeper in the jungle.
Baby Spider Monkey
Baby Spider Monkey
Mother and baby
Even though I was thrilled with all the amazing photography, I was really hoping to see my favorite animal, the jaguar.
Morning safaris left around 5:40 AM, when it was still dark. We would be out for over three hours, so maybe we would see a cat.
We drove over the same terrain, now bathed in pale morning. A cool and fragrant mist covered the meadows and open spaces; golden light filtered through the trees as the birds awoke and began singing.
We saw many different habitats and lots of deer. The symbiotic relationship between the cattle and Cattle Egrets was nice to see. Chan Chich is almost self-sustaining, and farm-to-table with grass-fed beef, crops, and Belize’s only coffee plantation (shade-grown organic). We drove by Laguna Verde, a natural lake, and managed to see several raptors: a Roadside Hawk, a Bat Falcon, a White-tailed Kite, American Kestrals, and a Gray Hawk. We saw the national bird of Belize; the Keel-billed Toucan, and many others: Mealy parrots, Eastern Meadowlarks, Red-lored Parrots, Forked-tailed Flycatchers, and so much more!
Groove-billed Ani group
Cattle with Egrets
Chan Chich also offered tours to well-known Maya sites, and we visited Lamani, (“submerged crocodile”), which had been occupied by the Maya for 3000 years. We drove a few hours to the New River, and then took a 26 mile boat ride to the ruins.
On the river, we saw the endangered Snail Kite (They are doing fairly well in Belize, because there are few people and less pollution). When our guide stopped the boat to pull closer to shore, we saw a colony of long-nosed bats, small crocodiles, and the Northern Jacana, or the “Jesus Christ Bird” that appears to walk on water (It’s so light it can stand on lily pads.).
Lamani was beautiful and we saw several forest-dwelling birds, as well as Howler monkeys! It was too dark to get good shots of the beautiful and large Pale-billed Woodpecker or the Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, but it was nice to see them. Trogons are quiet birds that stay very still, so the low-light wasn’t a problem. A jaguar had been seen a few nights prior!
Long Nosed Bats
Temple of the Jaguar
Time was running out and I really wanted to see a jaguar. It wasn’t a completely realistic goal, as even the guides said they saw jaguars only a couple of times a year, and they were out every day.
However, pumas had been sighted, and those sightings were posted on the Wildlife Board at the main lodge. There was a pair of juvenile males that had even been seen on the Chan Chich property one night!
The next day, I took an afternoon tour with another guide, and we walked about a half mile to the suspension bridge. There is only one road going in and out of Chan Chich, and it’s only used a couple of times a day. It was very hot and very humid and the bugs were out in droves, so we didn’t stay in the forest for long periods of time. To distract myself from the insects, I though about what a privilege it was to walk the same paths the Maya walked, 1100 years before.
We returned to the road, were we could peer into the dense forest. A Collared Forest Falcon flew in. The real prize was the Red-capped Manakin, and that just made my day.
Collared Forest Falcon
Other days were spent exploring the Mayan ruins on the site; each year an archeology team comes and works for about four months. The large pyramid in the back of the property had been looted over 100 years ago, but there were other ruins on well-marked paths that led in large circles through the jungle.
The next day I walked alone to the suspension bridge. It was late afternoon and extremely hot with even higher humidity. Maybe the Manakin would be out again.
I’ve learned at this point in life that everything happens for a reason; one thing leads to the next thing; and people who look for signs usually find them.
I was really hot with my two shirts (didn’t help against the bugs) and gloves (the bugs bit my knuckles where the fabric stopped), and as I trudged down the road, I was thinking how a puma might want to have a nice refreshing drink of water in the late afternoon, right about now. I wanted to see a puma so badly I thought my head would explode. When I neared the suspension bridge and saw a puma drinking water, for a moment it seemed like a mirage; I had wanted it so badly, and then wondered if it was real.
The powerful animal must have sensed me a moment before I sensed him, because he shifted left. I focused the camera to where I knew he’d come out on the other side under the bridge, but it was late and the light was low, and I sure wasn’t prepared to capture a running puma. Still, it was exciting! Such power in those muscular hindquarters, and such speed! When I got back to the lodge I wrote “1 puma” on the Wildlife Board.
The next morning I went out alone at 6 AM. Could it happen again? I adjusted the camera settings and practiced on leaves – got it! In focus! The sunlight streamed through the trees and my pace quickened – what if it happened again?
Long before I arrived at the suspension bridge, I stopped. The young resident crocodile was on the banks of the rain-swollen river. I looked left into the darkness, at a path we had not taken. A truly amazing thing happened. Two young pumas burst through the forest opening together. They were playing and one crashed into the other. They were like giant kittens. They didn’t notice me – yet – then I started shooting, and through the lens I captured acknowledgement from one cat. The other cat ran back into the darkness. The puma stopped and stared at me, opening and closing his bottom jaw. After several bursts of 10-frames-per-second, I put the camera down and we stared at each other. I wondered: should I be afraid? I raised the camera and resumed shooting; the cat turned – calmly – and walked away but never took his eyes off of me. Then he picked up a trot, went a little faster, and joined his brother in the jungle.
Puma up close and personal
The entire encounter only took a minute and eleven seconds, but time froze. My heart was beating so fast that I sat down in the middle of the road, wondering if it had even happened. The camera proved it did. Now I could add “2 pumas” to the wildlife board!
Want to visit Chan Chich and try for a jaguar? Visit their website: chanchich.com
To see more of Kim’s work, please visit
Merry Christmas & Feliz Navidad!