Living in the Belize Cayes we often like to take trips to the mainland and visit the jungle. A change, as they say, is as good as a break, and being pampered in a calm and relaxing natural haven is certainly a change from the touristy bustle of Ambergris Caye.
On one of those trips, we decided to tour the north of Belize and we knew that if luck was on our side, there was a chance to see jaguars in the wild. Since my first encounter with lions in Kenya many years ago, I had been fascinated by big cats and seeing a jaguar was high on my bucket list. Although the best time for sightings was at dawn, something I don’t see often, the prize would be well worth the loss of a little sleep.
So in our rental car we traveled to the Rio Bravo area and the La Milpa field station. Located about two and a half hours from Belize City, La Milpa is one of two field stations located in the largest private reserve and the second largest protected area in the country: the Río Bravo Conservation and Management Area ( RBCMA). In addition to being a center for research and education, they offer accommodation to travelers.
Our cabin was not luxurious, but it was spacious and clean, with a private bathroom and a nice terrace with a couple of hammocks for an afternoon siesta. Its electricity is solar, water is from a well and conservation is highly recommended. All meals are served buffet style in the main dining room and there was certainly no shortage of excellent food. I guess since most of the people who stayed there were research students who had been trekking through the jungle for several hours before each meal, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
We often saw wild peccaries and swinging turkeys outside our cabin in the mornings; Howler monkeys could be heard in the nearby trees; and on an overnight trip, a Kinkajou wandered through the trees for a photo op. The area around the field station is full of nature trails, and with my new “jungle shoes” I was able to easily tack on a couple of the easier ones. The field guide, Freddie, was happy to join us and point out the various trees and plants and was incredibly knowledgeable about how they were used by the ancient Mayans for everyday use and medicinal remedies.
However, every morning our cat hunt took the form of driving along the roads around La Milpa just before dawn. Freddie had told us that several had been seen that way in recent weeks, or in the area around the Mayan ruins (did I forget to mention that La Milpa is also home to the third largest Mayan site in Belize which is currently being excavated by University Boston), so we were full of optimism. After a couple of mornings with no sightings, we drove close to the ruins area and started on foot, but there were still no jaguars. As we headed back to the truck something flew across the clearing that caught our eye, and as we searched further into the trees we saw the most amazing bright blue bird. I’m not really a “seizure” but this little guy was beautiful and we spent several minutes looking at him before heading back to the field station for breakfast.
As we ate scrambled eggs, sausage, and fried jacks, Freddie asked if we’d been lucky to see jaguars that morning. We said unfortunately no, but we had seen a really beautiful blue bird. Silence fell around the room.
One of the researchers grabbed the book “Birds of Belize” and asked us to see if the bird we had seen was there. We scan through the colored plates and point to our “little fellow”. Questions now quickly arose as people grabbed boots, cameras, binoculars and more. “Where exactly was I?” “Could we find it again?” “How long has he been?” and “don’t just sit there eating, GO!”.
We all got into trucks, vans, jeeps and with us leading the way we drove the convoy back to where we had previously parked our truck. We looked up to the tall canopy and… there it was, right where we had left it. Photographs were taken (we did not have the same sophisticated cameras as the researchers, but we were able to get a close-up by holding our camera lens up against a telescope) and details recorded. So what was so special? The bird we had seen was the Lovely Cotinga, one, or possibly THE, rare bird in Belize. As Freddie told us later, in over two years of living in La Milpa he had seen hundreds of jaguars, but never a Lovely Cotinga before that morning!
It was certainly a beautiful bird and the highlight of our trip, but we will return to the Rio Bravo area because I still want to see a jaguar.