Trinidad and Tobago, 2004

Published by Christopher Hall (newhorizons6266 AT


by Christopher Hall

As dawn approaches, the stridulating orchestra of nocturnal insects gives way to a chorus of exotic bird songs and whistles, including the musical Cocoa Thrush and Rufous-breasted Wren.

By 6am there is a frenzy of activity outside the verandah of the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre. Sipping early morning tea or coffee, a tantalising spectrum of exciting new birds jostles for our attention, making it hard to know what to look at first. Chirpy little Bananaquits are everywhere, White-necked Jacobin and White-chested Emerald Hummingbirds buzz around the sugar feeders right before our eyes, while under our noses on the terrace below, the melee includes Great Kiskadee, Tropical Mockingbird and House Wren, Greyish Saltator, Bare-eyed Thrush, Ruddy Ground and Grey-fronted Doves, Shiny Cowbird, Violaceous Euphonia, squeaky Palm, Blue-grey, White-lined and Silver-beaked Tanagers and stunning Green, Purple and Red-legged Honeycreepers. Strange rodents called Agoutis forage quietly for scraps alongside three foot Tiger Lizards as a jerky Chestnut Woodpecker pops up and a Blue-crowned Motmot silently drops in. A gaze across the forest clad slopes of the Arima valley, dotted with trees blossoming bright yellow, reveals Olive-sided Flycatcher, the fabulous Channel-billed Toucan and the trapeze display of Crested Oropendolas, as a White Hawk soars by. That's almost 30 species before breakfast!

With a morning stroll along the driveway which winds from the centre, the list grows as we add more fantastic birds including Violaceous Trogon, Swallow Tanager, Lilac-tailed Parrotlet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Great Antshrike with bright red eyes, the unfairly named richly rufous Plain-brown Woodcreeper, a dazzlingly bright Yellow Oriole and Piratic, Streaked and Boat-billed Flycatchers. By now it's lunchtime and life at the centre seems to focus on meals as well as birds, a real birdwatcher's paradise.

Walking the trails with one of the excellent resident guides, we cash in on local knowledge with a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the scope, peeping from its tree hole home, followed by a Double-toothed Kite sitting quietly on its nest and an even quieter uncommonly seen Common Potoo, sleeping like a log as it clings to the end of a broken branch like an oversize Nightjar. Remarkable. With Tropical Parula, Black-throated Mango, Euler's Flycatcher and a posing Collared Trogon along the way, the trail leads to the site of a lek of White-bearded Manakins. Here these comical little birds seem to spend all day frantically jumping between favoured low twigs, and even sliding head first down them, while producing various trilling calls with puffed out throats, reinforced by strange cracking sounds from their wings. As we watch this bizarre show just a few feet from the trail, the unmistakable hammering call of the Bearded Bellbird rings out through the dense tropical forest. Like the manakins, the male bellbirds spend most of their time displaying. Further on we home in on one of these incredible males, so called because of many long black wattles, which hang from the bare throat. We watch and listen in disbelief as he sits some 35 feet above us, broadcasting an explosive bock call every few seconds, from a wide open chasm of a throat, interspersed with another deafening call resembling a Blacksmith's hammer repeatedly hitting an anvil. Vera counts 53 'blows' in one continuous sequence! What a fantastic first day's birding in Trinidad.

Each day brings something new at the verandah. Today's appetisers are Black-tailed Tityra, White-shouldered Tanager and a tail bobbing Northern Waterthrush. Driving across the thickly forested Northern Range with Jogie Ramlal, one of the region's most knowledgeable bird guides, we tune into his quietly spoken Trinidadian accent as he announces delights such as Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Trogon, Tropical Pewee and Kingbird, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Bay-headed Tanager and the impressive Lineated Woodpecker. Thanks to Jogie's local knowledge and skills with bird calls, we find superb Golden-headed Manakins lekking high in the canopy, and even a White-bellied Antbird skulking in the leaf litter. Arriving at Blanchisseuse on the Caribbean shore, we meet our first Carib Grackles and marvel at the flight formations of passing Brown Pelicans. After a very pleasant seashore picnic, the return route adds more colour to our list with Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Turquoise Tanager and Orange-winged Parrot, plus the peculiar Smooth-billed Ani.

With an early departure to the lowlands, we forego the pre-breakfast verandah watch, but the differing habitat of savanna and scrub produces a wonderful variety of new species including Sulphury Flycatcher, Golden-throated Greenlet, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, stately Savanna Hawk, glossy Greater Ani and Blue-black Grassquit plus Southern Rough-winged Swallow, which gets its name from the way the serrated primary feathers form a pattern like tiles on a roof. A male Ruby-topaz Hummingbird perches to show off a crest and a dazzling display of red and gold, like flashing neon lights as the sun catches the iridescent plumage, while a pair of excitable Black-crested Antshrikes perform a duet with steeply cocked crests. Returning to the centre we beat the heat with a refreshing dip in the waterfall fed pool, a great place to relax after a hard morning's birding.

As the afternoon cools we return to the lowlands for a 'night drive', arriving in good time for Moriche Oriole, Yellow-headed Caracara and excellent scope views of a pair of lovely little Green-rumped Parrotlets cosying up together for the night. After a picnic dinner washed down with rum punch we are seeing stars in the scope, along with Venus, looking like a small half moon, and Jupiter with horizontal bands and several moons in perfect alignment. After dark the real business begins as we go 'lamping' for night birds. Soon we have White-tailed Nightjar and Common Pauraque flitting in and out of Jogie's powerful beam, followed by a puffed up Tropical Screech-Owl and even a Common Potoo, which perches on the end of a stick, transfixed in the scope for all to see its bulbous glowing orange eyes. Absolutely amazing.

The verandah continues to bring new treats like Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and handsome Tufted Coquette, an unfeasibly small hummer which resembles a large bumblebee as it perpetually hovers around the flowering shrubs. With a full day in the lowlands, we begin with a second visit to the savanna habitat at Aripo, where Jogie shows us Grassland Yellow Finch, a recent addition to the Trinidad list. Other additions to our trip list here include Grey-headed Kite, Grey-breasted Martin, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift and bright Red-breasted Blackbirds, while the wetter areas produce Wattled Jacana, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pied Water-Tyrant, a single Solitary Sandpiper and dozens of Black Vultures, just hanging out waiting for something to happen. As the heat intensifies we reach the east coast for a welcome splash in the very warm Atlantic surf.

After lunch at the beach, we search the Nariva swamp. First find is an Anhinga, also known as Snake Bird, thanks to its long thin curving neck, followed by a pair of Pearl Kites, tiny raptors at just 9 inches long and then Common Back-Hawk tucking into a crab dinner. Other good ticks in the swamp include American Purple Gallinule, Masked Yellowthroat, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Grey Kingbird, Blue-and-White Swallow and Yellow-hooded Blackbird, though the star of this particular show must be (Lesley's) Pinnated Bittern, pointing a long dagger-like beak vertically upward, while staring straight at us with both eyes. Clearly we were not the only ones with binocular vision here! As dusk approaches, we set ourselves up with a rum punch amid the beach-side palm trees and wait for the evening show of Red-bellied Macaws and Yellow-crowned Parrots coming in to roost. This is birding in style.

Today's addition to the verandah list is a brilliantly green Blue-chinned Sapphire, otherwise it's business as usual. Meanwhile, the trail down to Dunstan Cave produces White-flanked Antwren and Buff-throated or Cocoa Woodcreeper. As we approach the deep shady recess, strange screams and snarls emanate from the darkness within. Standing at the opening, our torchlight reveals the makers of all the fuss. They are of course Oilbirds, the only nocturnal frugivorous bird in the world. They stare at us warily, captured by the torchlight with bright cherry red eyes. As they huddle on cramped ledges, a dislodged bird flaps back and forth along the chasm, displaying an awesome three and a half foot wingspan. Whatever next?

A late afternoon drive to Matura Beach, a nesting site for rare Leatherback Turtles, protected by wardens. As darkness falls, we wait on the beach while our warden sets off on patrol. It is not long before three quick flashes from a torch along the beach signal the arrival of a turtle, so we hurry to meet it. By the time we arrive she has already laid her clutch of about 80 soft round eggs and is now carefully filling the nest pit with soft sand using her two remarkably dexterous hind flippers, one after the other in a stereotyped sequence. Her long front flippers now spring into action, thrashing alternately across the sand, shifting her bulk slightly as she does so to disguise the exact location of the nest. Everyone watches dumbstruck as the huge reptile, measuring five feet along the length of the smooth black carapace, drags herself back down the beach to disappear into the surf. There can be few more momentous natural experiences.

Our last day on Trinidad. First stop Waterloo, an extensive shallow muddy bay bursting with shorebirds of every sort. The waders include Least, Western and Spotted Sandpipers, Southern Lapwing, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Whimbrel, Knot coming into blushing breeding plumage and Willet, like a cross between Redshank and a godwit. The herons are represented by Striated, Little Blue and Tricoloured, alongside Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and both Great and Snowy Egrets. There are also scores of noisy Laughing Gulls plus Royal, Yellow-billed and imposing Large-billed Terns as well as Black Skimmers, gliding gracefully across the water surface, which they cut like a knife using their unusual longer lower mandibles. Miscellaneous ticks here include Osprey and Neotropic Cormorant.

Onward to the Caroni swamp, where we soon spot mangrove specialists like the smart Red-capped Cardinal, smoky blue Bicoloured Conebill and Green-throated Mango (yet another hummingbird). As our boat glides down the narrow channels, Cook's Tree Boas sit coiled on thin branches as mudskipping fish, Fiddler Crabs, Short-billed Dowitchers and even a sizeable Spectacled Caiman are all spotted along the mud banks. With the sun sinking fast, flocks of startlingly bright Scarlet Ibis splash across the deep blue sky, right on cue. As each wave of birds settles to roost, they spangle the trees creating the effect of a giant Christmas decoration.

With an early morning departure for Tobago, we quickly settle in to the idyllic beachside location of The Blue Waters Inn. There are Bananaquits at the breakfast table after fruit and milk and even behind the Shipwreck Bar, where they enjoy various tipples. Even more odd is the sight of over a dozen Turnstones casually wandering into the bar, just a few steps from the beach! In the grounds we cannot fail to miss the raucous Rufous-vented Chachalacas, a sort of tree-dwelling pheasant-type thing. Strolling locally we pick up White-tipped Dove, Pale-vented Pigeon, Great Black Hawk, Short-tailed Swift, Caribbean Martin, Fuscous Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet and Black-faced Grassquit, with White-fringed Antwrens and Barred Antshrikes showing very nicely. Between outings, snorkeling off the beach proves very rewarding with a Hawksbill Turtle grazing the sea grass literally 25 yards from the shore. We watch it closely for over an hour, making eye contact each time it comes up for air just a few feet in front of us. This is a dwarf compared to the giant Leatherback.

Within sight of Blue Waters is the island of Little Tobago, a designated bird sanctuary. We make the short crossing in a glass bottom boat and marvel at the colourful variety of tropical fish such as the rainbow patterned Stoplight Parrotfish. There is also an assortment of corals including what is reputed to be the world's largest Brain Coral. Once on Little Tobago, our guide Frank, shows us Audubon's Shearwater, sitting in a shallow nest hole in a bank at eye level, followed by Chivi Vireo, and Brown-crested Flycatcher along the trail, leading to a great vantage point for Brown and Red-footed Boobies, while wonderful Red-billed Tropicbirds show off their long flowing white tails as they sail by at close range.

Today we meet Gladwin James, our guide for a visit to the rainforest interior of Tobago, protected since 1765! No wonder there is so much to see here. A roadside stop produces Red-crowned Woodpecker and an inflated Giant Cowbird displaying to its partner. Following a trail into the dense jungle, with large orange crabs snapping on the forest floor over one thousand feet above sea level, we quickly find the scarce White-tailed Sabrewing, which was rediscovered on Tobago in 1974 after apparently being wiped out by the 1963 hurricane. Deeper into the forest there are White-necked and Yellow-legged Thrushes, Venezualan Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, the stupendously iridescent Rufous-tailed Jacamar, which glistens like a gem in the forest filtered sunlight and Rufous-breasted Hermit, the tenth species of hummer from this trip. We watch a Stripe-breasted Spinetail building its nest, and then Gladwin points out a domed nest hanging from a vine cord, next to the trail, which is visited by an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, that feeds a gaping mouth inside. Gladwin calls in an Olivaceous Woodcreeper with a spooky whistle, and we are treated to an extravagant display by two acrobatic male Blue-backed Manakins, alternately jumping over each other on the same perch, while making weird mechanical buzzing sounds. After the performance the scope reveals the fine detail of these beautiful birds with their scarlet ‘hats' and sky blue mantles, a grand finale to another super day.

The possibility of a boat trip around St. Giles Island is too good to ignore so we charter a boat with Frank. The crossing is choppy but worthwhile, with Masked Boobies and thousands of suitably named Magnificent Frigatebirds, all over the trees as well as filling the sky with that distinctive sleek outline of long forked tail, slim powerfully hooked beak and slender wings spanning 7 feet across!

No birding trip is complete without a visit to the local sewage plant, where we find Moorhen, Little Egret and Barn Swallows, although much rustier below than back home. Less familiar birds here include Least Grebe, White-cheeked Pintail, Semipalmated Sandpiper and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs which make a testing comparison. We should now be checking in for the return flight, but our plane has been delayed until tomorrow, so the extra time is spent relaxing by the beach with Royal, Sandwich and Cayenne Terns, while the Gulls are still Laughing.

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