A few days ago our boss took us for a ride through the local and unofficial dump site just north of the towns of Cattle Landing and Hopeville (just north of Punta Gorda). This road ends near the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Today however I was on a bike. The satellite image below is from 2007 and shows absolutely no garbage at the dump and along the entrance road. Just seven years later, the road is now lined with garbage and the large open field is full. I can’t even imagine what it will look like in seven more years. Apparently local garbage pickup is not consistent and frequent enough, so people get rid of the trash themselves. There is also only one proper recycling center in Belize near San Ignacio. So the easiest answer for everyone is to throw their garbage wherever they can. Most of the garbage consists of plastic bottles and styrofoam containers (enough to make you never want to use either again), and random odds and ends of unwanted items. The road is made up of dirt and old black garbage bags that vultures have ripped apart. As the crow flies, the dump site is only about 1.5 miles from our count site (run by Belize Raptor Research Institute), and it is where many of the local vultures and raptors lift off from in the morning. A “no dumping” sign is posted, so this is clearly an illegal dump site that is out of control.
As horrible as this dump is in the middle of the forest, it is a birding hotspot. Groove-billed Ani’s and Olive-throated Parakeets were foraging on the road edge near a small garbage fire but not directly in the garbage. About 35 Black Vultures were roosting in the snags around the main dump, and a few were already in the road for breakfast. Snowy Egrets and Green Herons were perched in the sloppier wet areas, along with a Spotted Sandpiper.
Black Vultures spend the morning at the dump and usually use thermals by 9:00 to get some lift.
The dump is very attractive to flycatchers, including Great Kiskadees, Social Flycatchers, and Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds, due to the abundance of insects. The garbage creates an unfortunate backdrop for photos.
The dump is also irresistible to raptors, who dine on rats, birds, and insects attracted by all the waste. This Roadside Hawk was perched over the road, and a dark morph Short-tailed Hawk and Common Black Hawk were also perched nearby.
Warblers are also attracted to the dump. While we are snowed in up north, at least a handful of our migrant warblers are vacationing at dumps in Central and South American. Northern Waterthrush are very abundant here, and I also added Wilson’s Warbler to my Belize list. Hooded Warblers foraged nearby but didn’t go directly into the garbage.
At the main entrance to the dump, among the flurry of bird activity, I heard the “boop” call of the Blue Ground Dove…this is what I had been waiting for! Although I really hadn’t imagined I’d get my first one at a dump. As I was willing it with my mind to fly towards me, I noticed a softball sized blue bird out of the corner of my eye; it flew towards the dump entrance and I got a great look at it! No picture of it, but a little further down the road, I got a great look at a male White-collared Manakin, another lifer. These birds are actually very common but this was the first close and countable look I got at one. This is lifer 699, although again I hate that I got it near the dump.
While the dump is a birding hotspot, I wish that it wasn’t. Waste disposal in Belize and many other Central American countries needs a major overhaul, but the missing piece here is money. No one wants to pay anyone to clean it up, and it just ends in a huge mess. The economy of Belize clearly benefits from eco-tourism, but if the Belizean government cannot find a way to solve the problem of waste disposal, tourism could potentially be negatively affected. The coastline and cayes are often littered with garbage after a storm due to the abundance of trash floating offshore, in addition to people on land just throwing garbage wherever they can. In addition, this dump is not far from the mouth of the Rio Grande River, and I am sure that if this dump site is not managed properly now, it will soon reach the river, feeding more pollutants and garbage into the ecosystem. Belize is a beautiful country and I hope that the Belizean government realizes the close connection between their economy and the environment that so many people travel here to see.