The sun was nowhere near rising when I woke up. The usually-vociferous grackles were still silent, and none of the flocks of small parakeets were belting out their morning anthems yet. But what I was thankful not to hear, though, was the sound of rain.

There was a day of adventure ahead!

I had convinced some other South Africans and their neighbors to join me to hike up a hill and watch some scarlet macaws in the wild. These magnificent birds migrate to a village not too far from where I lived at the time—a mere 14 miles if we could travel in a straight line. But we first had to drive north, to the top of our peninsula, and then head south again along Belize’s Southern Highway. (The term highway is used rather loosely here as it is merely a single-lane road with the occasional speed bump as you pass through villages along the way.)

An hour and barely 32 miles later, we took the exit onto the gravel road to Red Bank, the Mayan village famous for the fact that for about three months every year, scarlet macaws call this village “home.”

From January through March, you can find a flock of between 100 to 200 pairs of scarlet macaws foraging in the jungle outside Red Bank, specifically going for the nutty, sweet, peppery seeds of the achiote trees in the area. (This week, I saw only about a quarter of the number of birds I saw at the same place last year. I can only hope that some were foraging on the other side of the valley.)

Look down—and up!

After slipping and sliding along the final stretch of road (the only reason we had to come in 4WD trucks), we parked at the end of the road and hiked up the hill—easier said than done, considering the amount of mud! It’s dangerous to walk looking high up in the trees when you’re on a muddy path. Good thing that the parrots vocalize before they fly, and often “talk” even while just sitting in the trees.

Drenched from the downpour the night before (Photo credit: Christo Swanepoel)

We were barely 10 minutes into the forest when we started hearing the loud squawks of the red, yellow and blue giants. But the first bird we saw clearly was one sitting quietly on a branch, drenched due to rain the night before. Not much further down the road, I saw what I assumed to be a mother along with a smaller parrot, still sleeping high up in a tree.

At the top of the hill, we made ourselves at home. Drank some coffee we brought up with us. Had some snacks. Took photos. Made jokes. And some of us wandered off to see if we could get a bit closer to where we heard some parrots.

We were on the mountain for almost three hours. It is incredible to see these birds in the wild, socializing, feeding, flying free, always in pairs.

Some insights from the day

  1. It’s worth getting up early for the adventure
  2. They might fly away, but they might not
  3. Sometimes it’s worth moving to where the action is
  4. It’s worth paying a local guide to take you to find the macaws as this supports the community who protects the macaws
  5. Once you’ve seen macaws in the wild, you’ll forever feel sad for the ones having been robbed of their freedom

Watch a video of the adventure here.

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