Last year at this time, I spent two months in Belize helping to count raptors at the Cattle Landing Hawk Watch site in Punta Gorda, Belize, for Belize Raptor Research Institute. This hawk watch site has seen incredible numbers of Hook-billed Kites, and is the only place in the world where you can see such numbers migrating south. The fall 2014 season brought over 5000 individual Hook-billed Kites, crushing the 2013 total of just over 744. The 2015 fall season has seen just over 2000 Hook-billed Kites to date, with numbers in all years likely related to food availability for offspring, which is most likely directly related to rainfall amounts. If you haven’t visited this site in the fall, you must add it to your bucket list; other highlights include daily King Vultures, Double-toothed Kites, Gray Hawks, Zone-tailed Hawks, Short-tailed Hawks, and my favorite, Bat Falcon. You can contact Belize Raptor Research Institute to inquire about visiting the site, touring Belize, and also volunteering to help spot and identify raptors.
But, this post is not about Hook-billed Kites. Over the next few weeks, I have given myself time to finally edit the thousands of photos I took in Belize. I will be highlighting raptors of Belize with posts dedicated to each species that I encountered; these posts can serve as a reference point for anyone wishing to travel to Belize to see raptors, either at the hawk watch in Punta Gorda or elsewhere in Belize. While I spent most of my time at the hawk watch, I did make time to venture around Belize, which gave me a chance to see some of the non-migratory raptors that I didn’t catch at the hawk watch. One of these is the Black-collared Hawk, by far one of my top five favorite raptors of Belize.
Black-collared Hawks are unmistakable in the field. You will first notice a buffy/pale head, leading into a bright rufous body with mostly black flight feathers and short black tail. After closer inspection, you can note a distinct black collar, which to me appears as a bow-tie, giving it a rather formal look. Sexes are similar in adult plumage, and juveniles appear darker and more brown. These birds are not generally seen soaring, but are instead seen perched or cruising from perch to perch low over the water in search of prey. I am not sure if it is always the case, but a few of the individuals we observed were quite vocal.
Black-collared Hawks can be found from Mexico to Argentina, with population cores in Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, in addition to surrounding countries. While the species has a large range (covering most of Central and South America), its distribution is very patchy.
The preferred habitat of Black-collared Hawks includes wet areas of tropical and subtropical forests, including swamps, rivers, and lagoons, where it dines mainly on fish, in addition to insects and reptiles, and occasionally on small mammals. These raptors are perch hunters, sitting on branches low over the water, waiting for fish to swim by. They share many traits with the Osprey, having a hooked bill for tearing fish, and spicules on the bottom on their feet for grasping fish in flight.
In Belize, the range of the Black-collared Hawk is mainly centered in the northern half of the country, around Crooked Tree Swamp, from Belize City to Orange Walk, including Lamanai and the New River. There is also a smaller population near Chan Chich and Gallon Jug in the west. In general, this raptor is not very widely distributed or common, but can be expected in the correct habitat (mainly expansive open swamps/lagoons with many perches). This is a species you would not expect to see at the Cattle Landing Hawk Watch site, but it is an easy side trip to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary from Belize City and the airport. Crooked Tree is about half way between Orange Walk and Belize City.
If you are lucky, you may be able to see a Black-collared Hawk from the causeway leading into Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary over the North Lagoon; they hunt both north and south of this road. The best way to bird Crooked Tree Swamp, however, is by boat. My friends and I stayed at Bird’s Eye View Lodge, a company providing both affordable lodging and boat tours. Most of my photos of Black-Collared Hawks were taken during this boat tour. So, if you want an up-close look, find a boat! (and don’t forget to pay your two dollar admission fee upon entering the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary).
Crooked Tree is also a great place for viewing other bird species that rely on swamps and lagoons. At Crooked Tree, you are sure to see Bare-throated Tiger Herons and Northern Jacanas, among Neotropic Cormorants and Ringed Kingfishers, to name just a very few. Black-collared Hawks also share this wildlife sanctuary with Snail Kites, which are even more common (Snail Kites will be featured in the next Belize Raptor Spotlight post). On our boat tour alone, we tallied 77 species in just over 3 hours (See our complete ebird checklist here). Crooked Tree is a must see on any trip to Belize, so don’t forget to add it on your route! This is by far the most easily accessible area to observe and photograph Black-collared Hawks in Belize.