Winding Rivers And Wildlife: The Calming Nature Of Belize

All River Banks Are Not Created Equal

One of the things I love about living in Belize is how the slow pace and hot weather encourage me to slow down and observe nature (quietly, from the shade!).

One of my favorite observation spots is the Belize River, which winds around the development I live in, Carmelita Gardens, and runs right next to the lot where my husband is building our house.

The Belize River
The Belize River

It’s formed by a junction of the Macal and Mopan Rivers, which join about half a mile upstream from us. The Macal is famous for its clarity and beauty, being naturally clear green, though this has been compromised somewhat by the Chalillo Dam built upstream.

Our first observation spot was a cattle cut located across the street from the house we were renting while waiting (not so patiently!) for our house to be built. What’s a cattle cut? It’s a giant indentation in the river bank at its height, creating a steep downhill grade to the river level that allows cattle to drink and muck around in the water. Since cattle no longer wander freely on Carmelita Gardens, the cattle cut has been adopted by two-legged creatures, some of them arriving on four-leggeds known as horses.

The river bottom at this cattle cut is lined with rocks—not very comfortable and quite slippery, so water shoes are in order. The rocks do have the advantage of preventing us from slipping ankle deep into the mud that lines the river at other sites.

Coming to this quiet, tree-lined spot two and three times a day most days, I got to know the trees and creatures of the spot like old friends. Across the river on the steep opposite bank stood an old, scantily leaved tree, which was a favorite hangout for vultures, especially in the evening. To our sorrow, Hurricane Earl last August put an end to that tree, knocking it over so that it hung sadly upside down and leafless into the river for weeks before finally being washed away.

A cattle egret flock in flight Copyright: Michael Klotz
A cattle egret flock in flight Copyright: Michael Klotz

On our side of the river, some 200 feet upstream, stood the cattle egret condominium. This was one specific tree where masses of cattle egrets took up residence every night. Their white plumage stood out clearly against the dark green foliage. Sometimes we would catch them flying in large groups, low against the water, en route to their nighttime perch. Other times, singles or couples would rush up later to join their compatriots.

We also got to know the flow of the river. In the center, the current was quite strong—too strong to be inviting if you didn’t desire an unplanned trip down to Belize City. At the edges, it was usually calm enough that you could dip and cool off in peace. It wasn’t quite deep enough to stand, but you could recline on the rocks and get your body nice and cool.

Less than half a mile downstream is my next adopted spot. It’s the world’s most jerry-rigged dock. As I use the haphazardly arranged steps of its ladder—with one side a manufactured two-by-four and the other a tree branch, complete with original bark—I reflect that my favorite attraction at Disneyland was Tom Sawyer Island. Now I have my own Tom Sawyer-style dock, and it’s way more authentic.

Our dock extends a bit into the river from the “Queens Land,” that 66-foot strip of common domain that extends from the river up to our property. The Queen’s invited to visit us anytime she likes, and in the meantime, we’ve improved her property by erecting this little dock that allows us to dip in the river without sinking into the mud.

Belize It Or Not…

Hollywood movie star Johnny Depp has recently signed on to play the lead in “King of the Jungle,” a biopic about John McAfee, the notorious software tycoon who made his fortune with an ubiquitous antivirus program that bears his name, later making big waves in Belize, where he lived from 2008 to 2012.

The film focuses on McAfee’s troubles in Belize as seen through the eyes of a reporter for Wired magazine, on tour of the controversial businessman’s compound that was eventually raided by a joint force of Belize’s Gang Suppression Unit and the Anti Drug Unit.

The film will be directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa with a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. A release date for the film has not yet been set.

The character of the river here is quite different. We’re on a bend, meaning the long stretch of river that was visible in both directions from our cattle cut spot isn’t available here. I’m sure there are as many magical sights from this part of the river. I just haven’t spent enough quality time there to be familiar with them all—yet.

The character of the water flow is different, and actually quite wonderful, in my point of view, for our use of the river. Right off our dock, the water forms an eddy. The flow of the water is actually backwards, upstream. I discovered this one time when I was moving upriver to get a closer look at a wading bird perched on a rocky outcropping above the water. I started off floating, then found I could walk, because the river got that shallow.

I wanted to see as many of the bird’s identifying details as I could, so I could find his name in my Belizean bird book. What color were his legs, his beak, the tips of his wings, the underside of his wings? These all differ from bird to bird, as I discovered after looking up many birds and not being able to tell one from the other. It so often happens that I either can’t remember, or couldn’t see in the first place, the details that would allow me to put a name to my fleeting feathered friend. With nearly 600 species of birds known to live or winter in Belize, my work at identifying them all is cut out for me!

It was easy going upstream, I noticed, and the more strenuous trip against the current to go downstream on my return to our dock showed me why. It’s quite a gift, this eddy, because it means the water is basically still enough that we could actually swim halfway across the river—it’s quite wide at this point—without having to fight much of a current at all.

Though I certainly encounter wildlife at this spot as well, it’s not quite the birding hangout that the cattle cut was. I more often than not hear a sudden rustle of brush followed by a plop as an iguana or two rushes from the trees to escape into the water. They’re really quick—it’s rare that I even catch a glimpse of the tail, but I enjoy knowing they’re alive and well out there anyway.

One lunch time as my husband David and I were taking a dip, we spotted a river otter (a “river dog” to Belizeans) about 10 feet away from us. A funny rodent, called “the Queen’s rat” because her Majesty ate some on her trip to Belize, sometimes scurries across our property. It’s about the size of a rabbit, light brown in color, but it walks instead of hopping like a bunny.

On occasion, we see the flocks of cattle egrets swooping down the river as the sun goes down. We know just where they’re going. How fun is that?
Kacie Crisp
Belize Insider