A Birder's Guide to Belize

Shipyard Road

[February 4]  Although I’ve been to Lamanai nine times, travel has always been by boat.  I’m curious about the two-hour bad road to the Maya site and that’s what we drive today.  A few days of dry weather has improved its condition and it is easily passable with high-clearance vehicles.  We pass through disturbed forest and wetlands.  At one stop we hear Black-throated Bobwhite calling from deep in the forest and find a Central American Coral Snake crossing the road.


The habitat changes to open savanna and I comment to my riders that we should see more hawks and, particularly, an Aplomado Falcon.  Seconds later, Leonard reports seeing a falcon and training our binoculars on the bird we see it is an Aplomado.  Two minutes later I see a hawk soaring over the field and get excited when I see the white tail and rufous shoulders of a White-tailed Hawk.


In the past half hour we have seen a constant procession of horse-drawn Mennonite buggies, each carrying a family dressed in their Sunday best clothes, now returning from morning services.  Men nod a friendly greeting as they pass, but women avoid looking in our direction.  Curious children stare, yet remain quiet.  One man stops to ask me what we are doing and I tell him about the birds and our Lamanai destination.  He tells me that the other road, the one through San Felipe, is in better condition. 


Eventually we reach Lamanai and at the ruins I meet Amir with a group from Ambergris Caye who this morning traveled by boat from island to shore, then bus to the New River, then boat again to Lamanai.  Amir tells me the archeologist that uncovered the famous Maya mask temple in 1979 is here working on the old Spanish church ruins.

Ecoregion and habitats: Appendix A, Ecoregion 4, New River riparian watershed. Habitats include: wetlands (BFL2), remnant forest patches (BFL3), extensive agriculture (AG3), grasslands, farm settlements (PC).

Description: Off the beaten path, this birding route is for those who have visited all the typical sites and are looking for a new adventure.  The road is a principal land route to Lamanai Maya site.  Along the way, the birding is good near Guinea Grass and interesting throughout the Mennonite farms of Shipyard.  The road is also an alternate route to Hill Bank beyond Lamanai.  The scattered communities vary greatly in their acceptance of modern conveniences, ranging from horse and buggy era to powerful tractor mechanization.

Birding strategy: This route is good for birding in its own right, but if your goal is to reach Lamanai while the birding is optimal, get an early start and close your eyes to the good birds en route.  Otherwise you will reach the Maya ruins by late morning or noon and be birding during off-peak hours.

From the T-intersection with Northern Highway head south toward Guinea Grass.  At 1.2 miles, the wetlands can be a worthwhile stop for Ruddy Crake, parrots, Ringed Kingfisher, and Green-backed Sparrow.  Also check the woods just beyond the wetlands and edge habitat for Black-throated Bobwhite.  Check out the pond at 3.1.  Pavement through Guinea Grass extends from 4.8 to 6.6, followed by cane fields and grasslands around 7.5.  Male Blue-black Grassquits perform from fenceposts, jumping from the tops and calling in flight.  Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, Groove-billed Anis and Vermilion and Fork-tailed Flycatchers prefer this habitat, too.  Listen for Laughing Falcon.

Only discovered recently (27 March 2011), a Botteri’s Sparrow was on the road and flew to the brushy hedge along the agricultural land.  Although this was not known to be an established site, the sparrow has such a limited range in Belize that it would be worthwhile to search here for it.

The Mennonite community spreads over several miles at 8.6 and the west end of Shipyard at 10.4, but farmlands continue beyond.  Turn left (south) at the T-intersection at 12.8 (N 17 55.58' W 88 40.59').  From here to 20 the pasturelands and occasional farm ponds attract Roseate Spoonbill, Jabiru, Wood Stork, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite (in migration), White-tailed Kite, Black-necked Stilt, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Eastern Meadowlark.  Continue straight at the T-intersection at 22.5 (N 17 47.24' W 88 41.44') and curve sharply left at another T-intersection a half-mile farther.

This last intersection warrants additional comment.  The alternative of continuing straight ahead—actually slightly left—leads to Hill Bank in 19 miles.  The first nine miles of dirt road runs along farmlands through a series of alternate right and left turns (five of each), and then meets up with the San Felipe route described in the section on Hill Bank, intersecting that route at its mile 13.1.  From there you can follow the San Felipe route another ten miles to Hill Bank.  This alternate route may be less muddy.  Check locally on conditions.  If this sounds confusing, it’s probably because it is a confusing, unsigned route, and as stated at the beginning of this section, it is best left to the adventurous types.

Assuming you are turning left at 23, you will welcome the sign "To Lamanai 2 mls" appearing a bit over a mile farther.  Another sign at 26 marks Indian Church Artisan Center and immediately thereafter a road to the right leads to Indian Church community.  It is probably this road that leads to the little known ruins at Cacabish, currently under excavation and an area covered with tall trees and good for birding.  If you are really out to explore, you might try finding the place.  However, continuing straight 0.3 mile will bring you to the T-intersection that leads to Lamanai on the left.

From this T-intersection you can also reach Lamanai Outpost Lodge a quarter mile to the right.  This direction also heads to Xochil-Ku Butterfly Education Centre and Maya Cultural Museum.  Lamanai Outpost Lodge, N 17 44.98' W 88 39.17', is a popular place for birders, and it is attractively positioned on the shore of the New River and within walking range of excellent birding.  The close proximity to the river and Lamanai also makes it a great place for nocturnal birding and mammal watching.  For the Lamanai Maya ruins, turn left and enter a heavily wooded area which is good birding.  At 27 you will have reached the Lamanai parking lot (N 17 45.69' W 88 39.23').

After birding Lamanai, you can return the way you came.  Alternatively, you can return to Orange Walk Town via San Felipe and the Gallon Jug Road, using the following route.  From the Lamanai parking lot, backtrack to the T-intersection at 22.5 (see above).  Your odometer should now read approximately 31.  This is the place where you decide which return route you will follow.  Continuing straight takes you back the way you came.  For variety, turn left (northwest) toward San Felipe.  At 38 (N 17 51.838’ W 88 45.97') continue straight; the farm road to the left is another route to Hill Bank.  At 39 turn right and enter San Felipe and just a bit farther pass the Roman Catholic school on your left.  From here you can follow the Gallon Jug Road log (in reverse), passing through August Pine Ridge at 47 miles and reaching the Orange Walk fire station at 63 miles  The round trip distance from/to the New River intersection with Northern Highway is 68 miles.

Concerns: Better check with the locals before you drive this road, as it can be formidable after heavy rains!  Get fuel in Orange Walk before you leave.  As noted above, this route is poorly signed, includes many turns and alternative routes, and can be confusing; hence the liberal use of GPS coordinates to keep you oriented.

Location: From Northern Highway, the dirt road starts a half mile north of the New River crossing at Tower Hill Bridge, just south of Orange Walk Town. A sign near this intersection marks “Guinea Grass 6 mi. / Shipyard 9 mi.” On the Northern Highway log, exit at 41.7 if heading south or 41.4 if heading north. The GPS coordinates at the intersection are N 18 1.96' W 88 33.68'.

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  Website created by Bert Frenz.  Last updated January 18, 2012.