"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, July 14, 2012


This photo was shot at the market in San Ignacio, surrounded by booths overflowing with colorful fruits, vegetables and locals. The only toucan photograph I came home with. 

The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize. I spent the months before our trip in delicious anticipation of seeing many toucans. I expected there would be such an abundance I would get my fill of observing and photographing and sitting in awe of the weird wonder of their beaks and plumage.

There were no toucans at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary where we spent our first three days. Toucans prefer treetops and lots of fruit, neither of which were available in the flatlands of Northern Belize. I tucked my expectations away, and focused instead on the northern jacanas and limpkins and whistling ducks and snail kites and mangrove swallows and vermillion flycatchers the lagoon offered.

Our next stop, inland, westward, at the border with Guatemala, provided the jungle canopy and fruit toucans love. Both toucans and aracaris, their close cousins, were seen regularly there. I had six days in which to spot, and satiate my longing to observe, these birds.

Julie, who often served our meals at Table Rock where we stayed, was also a bird expert. She taught me to identify the loud froggy croak of a toucan. In the mornings she would stand with me on the deck of the dining palapa, listening and searching the jungle canopy. We often heard the toucan close-by, but he proved to be amazingly elusive.

While we searched, Julie also pointed out the incredible blue-crowned motmot whose soft hoot-hoot calls woke us up every morning along with the haunting cries of howler monkeys from across the river. She showed me flocks of green parrots squawking across the sky, and rufous-tailed hummingbirds dining on the bright blossoms that surrounded us.

We saw everything but toucans.

Our second morning at Table Rock another guest came running up the trail from the river, thrilled that she had just caught a photo of the toucan, while we stood in ignorance within shouting distance.

Another morning, I thought I saw a small flock take off from a nearby tree, but was informed they were the smaller and less vivid aracaris.

We returned from our excursion another day to stories of two toucans who had been sitting right off the deck of the dining palapa clacking bills at one another.

The day we went zip-lining, I heard one in the trees. When I mentioned it to our guides, they said that toucan had been sitting in full sight on the edge of the road not long before.

Toward the end of our stay at Table Rock, Jose, who had seen to our every need while we were there, told me a toucan had spent the afternoon hanging around outside the office. An afternoon Walt and I were hanging around the hammock palapa, and so were only yards (and lifetimes) away. However impossible as it seems, Jose had not picked up on my desire, and so did not come find us.

I didn't get completely skunked, however.

About halfway through our time in Western Belize, Walt and I were lounging in the hammock palapa, enjoying fresh lime juice and sharing stories with fellow adventurers in the pink light of late afternoon. I heard the tell-tale croak, and looked up to see Julie heading from the kitchen where she'd been working up the trail toward the office. I followed.

We tracked the toucan to a tree in the middle of the compound, between two cabanas. The croaking was directly over our heads, and Julie led me through plantings and rocks in an attempt to get a clear view. Just as we spotted him, he took off and flew beyond our sight into the jungle. I was so excited at even that quick glimpse I clapped and bounced and sang, "I saw a toucan. I saw a toucan." Julie beamed at me as I thanked her for giving me my first sighting.

It wasn't enough of course. There was no picture. And I hadn't had a chance to study his colors and his magnificent beak.

We got one more glimpse at Table Rock. Our next to last morning, on the deck of the dining palapa before breakfast, Walt spotted one flying directly over our heads. I saw his shape, the wing-beats, a hint of color against the bright morning sky. And then he was gone.

So were we - gone - the next day, driving the Hummingbird Highway to Hopkins on the coast where I knew I would have no chance in our last week in Belize to find a toucan in the palms of the Caribbean coast.

 I let go of the disappointment fairly quickly. The lovely surprise of magnificent frigate birds (magnificent both an apt description and part of their name) floating overhead every day was more than a second best offering. Brown pelicans, laughing gulls, bare-throated tiger herons, oropendolas, social flycatchers, tropical kingbirds all filling my need for winged magic, and almost filling the gap left by not-quite-enough toucan.

On our next-to-last day in Belize, we decided to drive south, to the Deep South of the country, to explore some Maya villages and to experience one more Maya ruin. It was new territory, and as I had the whole trip, I leaned forward in anticipation of whatever new sights this outing would provide. And there, on a random stretch of the Southern Highway, out of nowhere, a toucan flew across the road and my line of sight, from right to left, in what seemed like slow motion. I saw the colorful bill that is a third of his size. I saw the yellow on his head. I saw his dark body. I saw the short wings and awkward flight pattern. Even though we were traveling at highway speed, I followed the full arc of his journey until he disappeared into the jungle on the other side.

"I just saw a toucan."

 My voice was quiet, but overflowing with awareness of the gift I'd just been given. Walt, concentrating on his driving, had seen nothing, and seemed to not understand how significant that moment was to me. I didn't try to explain, finally grasping that no photograph or witness or sharing of experience could make the moment more vivid or enduring or more of a miracle. I couldn't share it, not really. Any more than I could truly share Actun Tunichil Muknal or the market in San Ignacio or looking a sea turtle right in the eye. I can only hold the vision and the feelings of all of it. And as time passes there is some small sense of an alchemical change in my cells where the flight of a toucan has become a part of me.

Magnificent Frigate Bird


DJan said...

I was there with you, Deb, as you told this story. Your writing just brought the entire experience into me. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with me; I feel incredibly blessed by the toucan's flight as well...

Wanda said...

I never did see a toucan. But I saw lots of frigates and a boobie hatch...blue-footed.

Wanda said...

I never did see a toucan. But I saw lots of frigates and a boobie hatch...blue-footed.

Wanda said...

I never did see a toucan. But I saw lots of frigates and a boobie hatch...blue-footed.

yaya said...

There are many things in life that we can't catch in video or still photos, but they are etched permanently in our brains. So many times I would love to write about a moment in time in such a way that others can feel what I went through. I don't succeed there but thankfully you did! I feel like I was with you and I'm so glad you did get a final glimpse of your elusive toucan!

writing and living by Richard P Hughes said...

An adventure of a lifetime. I'm glad you're sharing it.

Sandi said...

What Yaya said was so true. So many times we have no tangible proof, no photo or video, yet that doesn't diminish the experience. I was right there with you all along, hoping you would see your toucan before leaving Belize . . . and you did!

Amazingly and beautifully told story about this never-to-be-experienced quite the same way again, adventure! You'll treasure this personally significant sighting in your heart the rest of your life. Well worth it!

Stacy said...

I am so glad you got your miracle moment, that is sacred to you. You got one wish you really hoped for.

It seems sometimes things are out of reach, or just missed, then when we least expect it it presents itself.

Amazing memory for you.

Linda Myers said...

You are such a fine writer.

And you saw a toucan!

JenniferL said...

It's definitely time for you to watch "The Big Year"!

Barb said...

I think sometimes (maybe most times) we find when we don't actively seek. And, these special moments of discovery are embedded in mind and heart forever. I loved reading about your longing, Deb, and about the gift of "seeing."

Midlife Roadtripper said...

You need to find a fine travel venue for these essays, Catbird. Truly fine work.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, I breathed a deep sigh of contentment when I finished reading your posting. I wonder about the elusive toucan in your psyche and the one and only sighting when you were the lone observer. There's mystery here. Peace.

Survival Food said...

Due to overly human intervention, quite many birds and animals are facing extinction. Hopefully the beautiful toucans don't meed the same fate.