Crooked Tree Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, Belize

Thirty-two miles up the Northern Hwy from Belize City lies the turnoff to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary (CTWS; admission BZ$8). Quite possibly one of the best birding areas in Belize (perhaps even all of Central America), the sanctuary isn’t merely a park for nature enthusiasts, but a living community of about 900 folks, mostly of Creole descent, who were farming and fishing the area long before the word ‘ecotourism’ was ever coined. It is well worth a visit for anyone who loves nature or fancies experiencing a peaceful rural community with an interesting history and a beautiful setting. It’s best to stay the night so you can be here at dawn, when the birds are most active. The village has several midrange and budget accommodations. Don’t forget your binoculars – though if you do local guides should be able to lend you a pair.

The story goes that Crooked Tree village got its name from early logwood cutters who boated up Belize River and Black Creek to a giant lagoon marked by a tree that seemingly grew in every direction. These ‘crooked trees’ (cashew trees, in fact) still grow in abundance around the lagoon. Founded in the early 18th century, Crooked Tree may be the oldest village in Belize. Until the 3½-mile causeway from the Northern Hwy was built in 1984, the only way to get here was by boat, so it’s no wonder life still maintains the slow rhythm of bygone centuries.

Migrating birds flock to the lagoons, rivers and swamps each year between December and May. The best bird-watching months are usually February to May, when many migrants stop over on their way north, and the low level of the lagoon draws thousands of birds into the open to seek food in the shallows. Bird-watchers are in for hours of ornithological bliss. Boat-billed, chestnut-bellied and bare-throated tiger herons, Muscovy and black-bellied whistling ducks, snail kites, ospreys, black-collared hawks and all of Belize’s five species of kingfisher are among the 286 species recorded here. Jabiru storks, the largest flying bird in the Americas, with wingspans of up to 12ft, congregate here in April and May and a few pairs nest in the sanctuary in the preceding months.

The CTWS visitors center (8am-4:30pm), with good displays and a range of books and information materials for sale, stands at the entrance to the village, just off the causeway. It’s here that you’ll be asked to pay your admission fee. The helpful, knowledgeable staff will give you a village and trail map and answer questions on anything to do with visiting the sanctuary, including information on expert local bird guides. The obvious reference point in the village is the ‘Welcome to Crooked Tree’ sign, at a junction 300yd past the visitors center as you enter the village from the causeway.

A series of reasonably well-signposted walking trails weave along the lakeshores and through and beyond the village. About 3 miles north of the village center are an excellent 700yd boardwalk and an observation tower, allowing access to swampy areas of thick, low vegetation around the lagoon’s edge. From December or January to May you can reach the boardwalk by driving and walking; the rest of the year you’ll need a boat to reach it. If you can afford it, take a boat tour as well as walking. A two- to three-hour boat tour, costing around BZ$150 for up to four people, can be arranged at the main accommodations. A boat trip gets you out onto the lagoon and into the surrounding swamps.

You can also explore Spanish Creek and Black Creek, leading south out of the main lagoon, which, with their thick tree cover, harbor plenty of birds all year. Black Creek is also home to black howler monkeys, Morelet’s crocodiles, coatimundi and several species of turtle and iguana; Spanish Creek gives access to Chau Hix, an ancient Maya site with a pyramid 80ft high.

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