For me, the Chiquibul forest is always best before dawn.
I awake to the chirps of the crickets, whine of katydids and desperate croak of a frog that has yet to find a mate; the chorus of birdsong begins with a single instrument - the mournful notes of the tinamou - but soon swells to the level of an orchestra with warblers, wrens, woodpeckers and parakeets joining in. The roar of howler monkeys plays to the nearby rush of rapids at the concrete Quacamayo Bridge over the Macal River. As I heat the water for my morning coffee by headlamp and set up my tripod and wide-angle lens, I watch for the sun to burn through the fog covering the hills, and bask in the natural music of the jungle waking up.
The Macal River forms a unique barrier between ecosystems. On the northern side of the river lies the Pine Ridge, a habitat characterized by highly leached, poorly drained soils, and dominated by a single species: the Carribbean Pine. Yet, just across the river to the south flourishes the most diverse land habitat in the country, the Chiquibul Forests of Western Belize.
Many endangered animals call the Chiquibul home. These include the largest wildcat in Central America, the jaguar; the largest land mammal in Central America, the tapir; and the acrobatic and shy spider monkey.
But the loudest, flashiest, and rarest of the Chiquibul’s endangered creatures is the brilliant scarlet macaw, whose contribution to the delicate symphony of morning birdsong is a raucous - almost bombastic - squawk far in the distance. One of the largest remaining populations of these riotously large parrots are found in the deciduous trees along the major rivers of the Chiquibul - including the Macal - often in prodigious and noisy groups. They make their nests high off the ground in tall trees - living or dead - to protect from roving predators.
The worst of these predators is human. Capture by Guatemalan poachers is the major threat to the survival of scarlet macaws in Belize, and is a substantial cause of nest failure in the Chiquibul Forest. Fortunately, since 2010, Belizean NGOs have been protecting the nests, and hand raising recovered poached birds for release in the wild.
Due to these conservation efforts, the population of macaws in Belize has stabilized enough that the birds are now venturing out of the Chiquibul, populating other habitats and regions of Belize.
As I sip my steaming coffee beside the river, a white orb breaks through the mist and seconds later highlights a quartet of red, blue and yellow feathers barnstorming across the valley. These birds in the photo are flying north, from the rich tropical forests of the Chiquibul, over the Macal River and into the Pine Ridge perhaps seeking new feeding or breeding grounds.
These macaws provide witness to the Chiquibul as the great provider of life, a breeding ground and fountain of biological wealth that is shared with the rest of Belize. That such a marvelous and mysterious habitat still exists and its tenants still thrive is, for the moment at least, a reason for all Belizeans to rejoice and be proud.