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Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a swampy lowland that is home to more than 260 resident species of birds and serves as a resting spot for scores of migratory species. During a visit here, you are sure to spot any number of water birds, including kites, hawks, ducks, grebes, pelicans, ospreys, egrets, and herons. However, the preserve was established primarily to protect Belize’s main nesting site of the endangered jabiru stork, the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere. The jabirus arrive every November and pass the winter in these warm lowland climes. The jabiru is an impressive bird, standing nearly 1.5m (5 ft.) tall, with a wingspan that can reach up to 3.7m (12 ft.). 

Crooked Tree has also become known as an excellent place to spot other endangered wildlife. Crocodiles, iguanas, coati-mundi, and howler monkeys are all frequently sighted, as well as the endangered Hicatee turtle. There are six major lagoons here connected by a series of creeks, rivers, and wetlands, essentially making the sanctuary an island.

The small Creole village of Crooked Tree is the gateway to this wildlife sanctuary. The village is reputed to be some 300 years old, which makes it one of the oldest ongoing settlements in Belize. If you poke around, in addition to the sanctuary’s visitor center, you’ll find the church, the school, the soccer field, a noticeably British cricket pitch, a few general stores, and a couple of simple guest houses.

The best way to explore the preserve is by dugout canoe, though boardwalk hiking is available, too. Head to the green visitor center at the end of the causeway to pay the BZ$8 admission fee and to hire a guide who will paddle you around in a dugout for a few hours, or rent a canoe on your own. You can also rent a canoe from the Bird's Eye View Lodge for BZ$30 for the day. The going rate for a guide is around BZ$20 to BZ$30, but the price goes up when you add in a canoe or a horseback ride. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary was set up and is still administered by the Belize Audubon Society (tel. 223-5004; www.belizeaudubon.org). The sanctuary accepts visitors all day, but birds are best sought in the early morning, and serious birders should plan to visit during the dry season when birds are grouping around the smaller water sources.