If you’ve always wanted to walk through a rainforest but didn’t want to deal with the bugs and humidity, here’s your chance. We’re in a Belize rainforest today.
Surprisingly, over half of Belize is forest. The rainforest in Belize is called the Selva Maya forest and is an ongoing collaboration of organizations dedicated to conserving it.
Let’s go for our walk.
With vines hanging down and roots coming up out of the trail, we have to look down quite a bit, watch your step. It would be nice to stroll through and look around, but it’s best not to do both at the same time.
The ground is alive with insects. All you have to do is accidentally step once into an army of ants, and you don’t forget to look where you’re stepping ever again.
The forest floor is one of the most distinctive features of a rainforest. Fallen bark and limbs, downed trees, leaves and flowers. Combine all the fallen flora with warmth, humidity and rain and this makes for a constantly decaying environment. Many forms of fungus accelerate the decay.
The pungent smell of decay is unmistakable: earthy, moldy and mildewy.
Beneath the forest floor is a vast universe of ants. Ant societies are underground, flourishing in the steady and constant pursuit of expanding their colony. While the queen is producing eggs continuously, worker ants are busy feeding larvae, foraging, and cleaning and defending the nest.
This is a colony of leafcutter ants.
You cannot see the ants because they are carrying bits of leaves far bigger than their bodies. They have cut the leaves from a plant and are delivering them to the nest.
This is a bullet ant, below, named for its extremely painful sting.
Because ants are such a big part of the rainforest, it follows there are many species of birds that eat ants. There are more than 250 species of antbirds in subtropical and tropical South and Central America. They have names like antthrush, antpitta, antshrike and antwren.
Antbirds forage on the ants, so when we come to a mixed flock of antbirds hopping around the ground and tree trunks, it is an indication there is a moving train of ants charging along the forest floor.
Many ant-following birds do not have the word “ant” in their name. This one, below, is a ruddy woodcreeper. Their legs and feet are adapted to gripping vertical stems and tree trunks. They are always creeping up and down the wood of the trunk, thus their name.
Another thing about the rainforest: it is always dark. Thick tree canopies prevent the sun from penetrating through. This adds a challenge to birding and especially photography–a flash extender is a must.
Here is a bird who is nesting on the forest floor. The common pauraque is a nightjar species, and nocturnal.
If you look closely at the photo below you can see there is an extra eye under the parent bird. It is a chick on the nest, protected by the mother.
Moving up off the floor is the forest’s understory where birds, snakes, amphibians, lizards and mammals reside.
We came upon this Baird’s Tapir on a night drive. They are the largest native herbivore in the New World tropics, with adults weighing 330-660 pounds (150-300 kg). Tapirus bairdii is rare and endangered, and the Belize national animal.
One day we came upon this small creek. They were still a few months away from the rainy season, so the water was low; and it was late in the day so it was quiet. But we knew if we waited, something would come along.
And voila–a beauty arrived.
The red-capped manakin. Ceratopipra mentalis. A male with his orange beacon head and yellow pantaloon legs, he will no doubt give a commanding performance of his entertaining courtship dance during mating season. They are usually very difficult to spot because they primarily eat fruit and are hidden in leaves, but that day we were lucky he was thirsty.
This red-legged honeycreeper, below, is a nectar-feeder in the tanager family. Cyanerpes cyaneus is about twice the size of a hummingbird.
One day we were on a different trail, a narrow path close to water when we were surprised to come around the corner and be face-to-face with this unique heron. Cochlearius cochlearius.
Although I love all the lizards of the rainforests–so nimble and prehistoric-looking–my favorite is the basilisk with its curious features and amazing ability to skid across the water’s surface.
This individual was living near our bungalow and often came to greet us after a long day in the field. It lived in the darkness underneath this wood perch.
Sometimes there’s a patch of sun shining through a gap in the canopy and photography is a little better.
Light helps with distinguishing the camouflaged wildlife, too.
It might take your eyes a minute to see that there are two large parrots in the middle of this photo, below. Look closely at the center horizontal branch. Red-lored parrots — Amazona autumnalis.
The Belize national bird, the keel-billed toucan, takes the prize for an unusual bird. Ramphastos sulfuratus. A large bird and much easier to spot than the parrots above, but always so very high up in the canopy.
The bill looks heavy and unwieldy, but when you watch the toucan deftly eating berries in a tree, you see the bill is its best tool. It is very light, made of keratin.
Often when there are monkeys in the canopy, you will know it. They are either vocalizing with loud chatter or howls, or tree limbs are bouncing and leaves are scattering.
Way high up we were alerted to a mother and her infant.
You can see how splayed out the four limbs and tail are on this monkey (above), giving it a spider look and hence its name: spider monkey. This photo demonstrates how the adult is utilizing her prehensile tail. (The tail is the upper far right appendage and is wrapped around the limb.)
It is a marvel to watch them glide effortlessly and acrobatically from one tree to the next.
Also up in the canopies of many rainforests in Belize are the howler monkeys. This big guy watched us quietly and passively, but often their howling can send shivers down your spine on a dark night.
We are lucky to have rainforests on our planet and it has not been without a struggle, despite the benefit they offer to climate change.
Yes, the rainforest is moldy, dark and teeming with biting insects. But it is also filled with toucans, parrots and hundreds of colorful bird species, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. A tropical party that never ends.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.