Trinidad & Tobago - Birding in Paradise - January 2017

Published by Regina McNulty (regina_mcnulty AT

Participants: Regina McNulty. John Sprovieri


Trinidad & Tobago are one country but two islands. Trinidad is the larger of the 2 with approximately 1800 square miles. We booked our trip through Caligo Birding Tours. We don’t usually go through an agency but Caligo is the American agent for Asa Wright and it worked out very well. We were able to pick and choose what day trips we wanted to go on, Caligo arranged all the lodging, guides and transfers. We would recommend them.

We flew Spirit from Chicago to Fort Myers Florida where we spent two nights with relatives. I would not fly Spirit again. They nickel and dimed you and charged us a fortune for one checked bag each. Then we drove (2 hours) over to Miami for our flight with Caribbean Airlines. Caribbean was excellent and I would fly them again. Similarly we flew Jet Blue on the way home and they were also good.

January 22

We arrived in Port of Spain from Miami around 8 PM. A quick trip through customs and immigration and then we were in the arrivals area waiting for the driver from Asa Wright. It was very warm and steamy. Our driver, Charron, appeared and we began our journey up into the Arima Valley and into the hills where Asa Wright is located. They drive on the left in Trinidad & Tobago, a remnant from their British colonial past. We wound our way up narrow streets passing homes and shops until we started up the mountain in earnest where there were only a few homes with light visible. The road was narrow and winding and it wasn’t until two days later that we realized how high up we were. The Lodge is at 1300 feet on the slopes of the Northern Range. We arrived at a locked gate and were buzzed in. Further winding around a very dark drive before we pulled up at the main house. Reception was closed but we were offered dinner which we declined. Our bags were taken up to our little cabin. This consisted of a double bed, dresser, small desk and nightstands. A bathroom with nice shower (which we found only gave lukewarm water but who needs hot water in the tropics?). A ceiling fan whirred overhead. We headed back down to the main lodge and ordered some Carib beers to celebrate our arrival. We sat on the famous verandah watching the bats coming to the hummingbird feeders and enjoying not being cold.

Some history on the estate: it started life as a cacao and coffee estate called Spring Hill. Its last owners were Newcome and Asa Wright who often hosted visiting scientists in the 1950s and 1960s who came to study the varied bird life and most especially the accessible oilbird cave, Dunston Cave. After Newcome died in 1967 the estate was acquired by a nonprofit trust. Asa continued to live at the estate until her death in 1974.

January 23

Our first morning and we were up before dawn, anxious to get to the verandah and the wealth of birds awaiting us. It was just starting to get light when we arrived and helped ourselves to coffee and tea. We could hear raucous calls which were orange-winged parrots and crested oropendolas. As the sky brightened more birds became visible and we added new birds quickly. Green and purple honeycreepers, silver beaked, bay-headed, white-lined, palm and blue gray tanagers. Agouti, a capybara like animal, foraged at the base of the feeders for dropped fruit.

Hummingbirds started swooping into the feeders and just as quickly swooped away. It was hard to even get them in focus they moved so quickly. A great cry went us as the first male tufted coquette of the day was sighted and we rushed to see him. Wow what a spectacular little bird!

All too soon the bell rang for breakfast and we reluctantly turned away from the activity. We met some nice people at breakfast from Germany and England. There was a buffet of which I had a roti thing and some sausages and more tea. Some odd items like eggplant puree and some sort of fish. After breakfast we met up with one of the guides, Caleb, who took us on an introductory tour of the main trail, the Discovery Trail. This went down behind the lodge and deeper into the jungle. We added more birds as rain fell intermittently. We were very sweaty when we got back to the verandah and spent some time cooling off and enjoying the birds still flocking to the feeders. At one point they were joined by a very large lizard called the golden tegu lizard who helped himself to dropped fruit. After lunch we made a few abortive attempts to go for a walk but the rain poured down and we retreated to the verandah again.

At 4 PM afternoon tea and pastries was served and then rum punch at 6 before dinner. After dinner we went on a night walk down the driveway with several other guests. We saw scorpions, crabs, a sleeping northern water thrush, the spectacular night sky and a huge tarantula on the side of a shed on the way down to a waterfall.

January 24

We got up a little later this morning as we knew we were going to have a very full day. The sun was shining and it was hot and steamy.

After breakfast we headed with our guide Barry and several others to Dunston Cave to see the oilbirds. The trail went down and down with few undulations. We spotted an American Pygmy Kingfisher along the way. As we got closer we could hear the rushing water that runs alongside the cave. As we rounded the last bend we heard the weird strangled cries of the birds and saw one enormous specimen wing his way further back into the cave. Barry had said the call was like someone vomiting and being strangled at the same time. He was right. It was also very eerie. We approached the cave in groups of four and stood on a board over the stream and peered into the cave as their weird cries echoed off the walls. The guide twice shone his flashlight so we could see the birds high up on the cave walls on their nests. Their eyes glowed red in the flashlight beam.

After we huffed and puffed and sweated our way back to the verandah we got ready to go out with Dave for the day. Our first stop was the Trin City Sewage Ponds. These were some of the nicest sewage ponds we had ever seen! We picked up three lifers here and then pushed on to Yerette to spend the afternoon admiring many species of hummingbird.

Dr Theodore Ferguson has several dozen feeders set up in his small suburban back yard at the top of a hill in a posh part of the Maracas Valley in the town of St. Joseph.

While we enjoyed our packed box lunches from Asa Wright, we watched the constant parade of hummingbirds whizzing by. We saw two new species the Brown Violetear and the Little Hermit. It was very hot and we were glad to retreat into the cool of the house for a presentation on the Hummingbirds of Yerette with spectacular photography by the doctor himself.

Next we headed to Caroni Swamp for our long-awaited visit to see the scarlet ibis coming in to roost for the evening. Before boarding our boat we added green throated mango to our life list. The Asa Wright group had a private boat so there were about 20 of us setting off through the mangroves with little blue herons visible perching on branches. Suddenly a call went up that a masked cardinal had been heard. This was a lifer for many of us and our boat driver did a great job maneuvering the boat to where everyone got a good look at not one but two of these charismatic birds. A little further along we were “treated” to the sight of several Cooks Tree Boas asleep in the branches overhead. A tropical screech owl was also spotted resting among the branches.

A short time later we popped out into a large lake with beautiful views of the Northern Range. Many snowy egrets could already be seen perched among the dark green foliage along the shoreline and then we saw our first scarlet ibis. He was electric red! Our boat was backed into position along with quite a few others along the far shore and the rum punch was poured and passed around along with some chocolate cake. People in other boats looked over enviously at us. Birders know how to have fun!

As the light began to fade the scarlet ibis began to appear in small flocks and then much larger flocks, skimming along the water and landing on the far shore where they jockeyed for position with the snowy egrets, little blue herons and tricolored herons. Shutters clicked furiously. It was an amazing show and the birds kept coming. There must have been several thousand ibis by the time the boat pulled away in the dusk. It had been well worth the trip!

January 25

We had a bit of a later start this morning. Still plenty of action on the verandah. After breakfast we took the scope and set off down the Discovery Trail to try and find the bellbirds. We had been hearing them all morning but when we got to the sign area it was totally quiet. We hung around a bit but nothing. Disappointed, we started back up the trail. Afar 5 minutes the birds started calling again. Back we went and good thing we did. We got excellent views and pictures of two birds. Neat!

After a brief rest on the veranda we headed out along the driveway until we reached the end. Not much bird activity but it was a pleasant walk and a beautiful sunny day. We headed back for lunch and afterwards set out for the waterfall. This had been advertised as a pool you could swim in but it was barely 2 inches deep. We got our gear ready and set off with our guide and a few others on our night birding expedition. We made a few stops along the way and got Savannah Hawks near the Aripo Livestock Station. We then headed into the old US Air Force Base, Waller Field, which had been used during WW II. This had been deserted for a long time and had at one time been a hot spot of drug dealers bringing in exotic extracts from South America but it had been cleaned up and guards posted. It was supposed to eventually be a new university campus but there is a long way to go on that project!

We drove along the old runways until we came to an area of moriche palms. Here we got out and waited a short time until loud squawking heralded the arrival of large numbers of Red-Bellied Macaws. As the sun began to go don we were also treated to the very rare Epaulet or Moriche Oriole. While we had been watching the birds Dave had set up portable benches and got out the dinners and the rum punch. An armed guard had joined us to be on the safe side although we never felt unsafe. I guess in case any drug runners decided to drop in unexpectedly or someone tried to steal our run punch which seemed more likely…

By the time dinner was done it was quite dark so we set out with flashlights and walked up the road. Almost immediately we had common pauraque and then a tropical screech owl. We loaded back up and set off down the runways with Dave hanging out the window with spotlight. After a short while he picked up eye shine and it was the nightjars which we got fantastic looks at. We drove around a bit longer looking but that was it so we headed back to Asa Wright with Dave hanging out the window the whole drive up the scary mountain road with the spotlight. He did manage to pick out a black headed possum up a tree!

January 26

We had a full day’s adventure planned today. After breakfast we were off to the famous Blanchissause Road for an all-day birding expedition. Mukesh was to be our guide and he turned out to be great. He’s been with Asa Wright for 28 years and had been the chief guide but was now more involved in the landscaping. We also had another birder from Massachusetts along. Our first stop was long the driveway where we were treated to excellent views of the Trinidad Motmot and Collared Trogon, both lifers! It was a beautiful day with electric blue sky and warm tropical breezes. We worked our way along the road stopping along the way to pick up new birds. We stopped at a spot overlooking the Caribbean at about 2,500 feet above sea level which was just gorgeous. Made our way to the village of Brasso Seco where we had lunch at a covered picnic table, it was hot so the shade was very welcome. We even had a table cloth from Asa Wright! Took a walk along a side track and found the Yellow Rumped Caciques. They are very noisy and similar to the oropendolas.

We then made our way to the village of Blanchissause where we waited for the Blue Headed Parrots to fly in. While we waited we had a group of smooth billed anis. The parrots flew in but were hard to see until we scoped one individual up in a tree where we were able to get very good looks when the wind blew the leaves in the right direction! Tired but happy we made our way back to the lodge with a day list of 56 species quite a few of which were lifers.

We retired to the verandah for the rest of the evening intending to work on the bird list but we ended up chatting with a very interesting couple from the UK all night. Off to Tobago in the morning!

January 27

Another hot and sunny day. After breakfast we took a quick walk down to the second waterfall we had heard about. This one we really could have splashed about in as the pool was much deeper. Too bad we had no time! The flight to Tobago was not even 15 minutes. The runway as we came in was along the ocean. The way they brought the baggage in was absolutely chaotic. The conveyor belt did not go around in a circle it ended in a very short ramp so all the baggage fell off and landed in a heap which people then climbed over trying to get their bags. It also took forever considering the plane was about 6 feet from where the terminal was. Anyway we were eventually reunited with our bags and escaped the area mostly unscathed. Our driver was awaiting us.

Tobago seemed a bit more prosperous than Trinidad at least the parts we had seen. It was also more laid back and free of poisonous snakes! The road wound along the coast with lovely views and through villages filled with candy colored houses and shops. Our hotel for the next 3 night is the Blue Waters Inn and is on the opposite side of the island from the airport. About a 90 minute drive but it flew by. We learned about crab and goat racing at Easter, what a “rumbo” is (a person who is a drunk, too much rum), that the way to tell the difference between Caribbean sheep and goats is if the tail hangs down it is a sheep and if it sticks up it is a goat. They only use the sheep for milk and meat as the heat would have them keeling over if they were the traditional woolly variety.

On arrival we were given the key to Room 12 which was absolutely beautiful. The view… We could have jumped off our balcony into the bay it was so close. Boats rocked at anchor right off the beach including a few dive boats, a glass bottomed boat and some sail boats. We headed for a walk around the grounds/beach. There were turtles visible from the dock! Ran into several Asa Wright people we knew. Sat down on the deck to enjoy a complimentary rum punch and admire the view. Pelicans, frigate birds. We could see Little Tobago off in the distance and tried to see a tropic bird but too far away. Hopefully tomorrow! Dinner at the restaurant was very good.

January 28

We slept in a bit which was lovely. We stopped at the office and found out that our trip to Little Tobago would be at 2. So we had the whole morning to ourselves. After breakfast we decided to start with kayaking. We went up to the dive shop for a paddle and some life jackets. The kayak was considerably heavier than anticipated! We chose a two person model and set off to launch ourselves into the sea. Which was easier said than done. Managed to get on and away from the beach without too much trouble and paddled around the bay a few times. We did quite well although we knew getting out of the kayak and back onto the beach would probably not go nearly as well. And we were correct. We decided to drive the kayak up onto the beach and then hop out. The driving onto the beach went well but before we could hop out the kayak got hit by a wave and flipped over dumping us out into the sand. The kayak then went out of its way to try and hit us in the head. We managed to get disentangled and on our feet and hoped too many people had not seen our graceless arrival on the beach!

Next up was snorkeling off the beach. We had our masks and snorkels but no flippers so we borrowed some from the dive shop and set out by the dock. The one side of the dock had very little. A guy in a dingy advised us to go to the other side and head for the rocky area which we did. The first thing we saw was swarms of jellyfish which thankfully did not seem to sting although John said he felt little zings from them but I did not. We immediately starting seeing a variety of fish, brain coral, and some waving branch like coral.

There were 8 of us plus the guide and boat driver headed to Little Tobago. There was a glass bottom area in the middle of the boat but the water was too churned up due to heavy rain in Venezuela recently for us to see anything. The water was quite rough when we got out of the bay but it was only about 20 minutes to get over to Little Tobago. Once on the concrete dock we made our way to a locked building where we gathered for some information before we set off. Turns out the tropic birds are all on the other side of the island so we were in for a hike up and over the island. I had forgotten to bring water and it was hot! Luckily Z went slowly and we stopped frequently to look at various things.
• An Audubon Shearwater’s next minus the shearwater
• A trap door spider’s burrow
• Chickens
• A motmot
• Yellow-Bellied Elaneia
When we finally sweated our way up to the top we were greeted by several hundred red-billed tropic birds swirling in the air some being pursued by predatory Magnificent Frigate birds. What a sight! Z got out the scope and we were able to also see Red-Footed and Brown Boobies, two more lifers. This was the spot where David Attenborough had filmed his tropicbird versus frigate bird sequence!

Going down was much easier and we were soon zipping across the water back to Blue Waters. We sat on an outdoor couch catching up on our eBird lists while sipping cocktails before dinner.

January 29

Up very early for our 6 am pickup by Newton George for our half day birding adventure around the island. Two other couples were also along both Brits. Newton was another excellent guide. He told me that Tobago has changed hands 32 times!

Our first stop was to see a Common Pootoo. Then we moved on to stops to see Rufus Breasted Wren, Stripe-Breasted Spine tail, White-Tailed Saberwing, more motmots and jacamars. We tried a few spots for the Blue-Backed Manikin but no luck so we headed to a visitor center in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve for breakfast with a lovely view. Here we got our best view of a male Red-Legged Honeycreeper. The Main Ridge Reserve is on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is the oldest forest reserve for conservation in the western hemisphere dating back to 1776.

After breakfast we headed for a hike on the Gilpin Trace. This was an undulating trail in the cool of the rainforest. Our goal here was the blue-backed manikin but several other birds claimed our attention while we looked for the star attraction. We saw Yellow-Legged and Spectacled Thrushes, Olivaceous and Cocoa Woodcreeper and Collared Trogons before the male manikin was spotted. We ended up getting wonderful views as he hopped from tree to tree. What a corker as my British friends would say!

We ended the morning with 34 species, 8 of which were lifers!

January 30

We ended up with 72 new birds and a trip list of 130!

Species Lists

Rufous-vented Chachalaca
Red-billed Tropicbird
Magnificent Frigatebird
Brown Booby
Red-footed Booby
Brown Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
Scarlet Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Pearl Kite
Gray-headed Kite
Common Black Hawk
Savanna Hawk
White Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Purple Gallinule
Common Gallinule
Southern Lapwing
Wattled Jacana
Ruddy Turnstone
Spotted Sandpiper
Pale-vented Pigeon
Plain-breasted Ground-Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Greater Ani
Smooth-billed Ani
Tropical Screech-Owl
Common Pauraque
White-tailed Nightjar
Common Potoo
Short-tailed Swift
Gray-rumped Swift
Fork-tailed Palm-Swift
White-necked Jacobin
Rufous-breasted Hermit
Green Hermit
Little Hermit
Brown Violetear
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird
Green-throated Mango
Black-throated Mango
Tufted Coquette
Long-billed Starthroat
Blue-chinned Sapphire
White-tailed Sabrewing
White-chested Emerald
Copper-rumped Hummingbird
Guianan Trogon
Collared Trogon
Trinidad Motmot
Belted Kingfisher
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Red-rumped Woodpecker
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Yellow-headed Caracara
Blue-headed Parrot
Orange-winged Parrot
Green-rumped Parrotlet
Red-bellied Macaw
Black-crested Antshrike
Barred Antshrike
White-flanked Antwren
Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Pale-breasted Spinetail
Stripe-breasted Spinetail
Forest Elaenia
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Euler's Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Tropical Pewee
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Sulphury Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Gray Kingbird
Bearded Bellbird
Blue-backed Manakin
White-bearded Manakin
Golden-headed Manakin
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Golden-fronted Greenlet
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Gray-breasted Martin
White-winged Swallow
House Wren
Rufous-breasted Wren
Yellow-legged Thrush
Cocoa Thrush
Spectacled Thrush
White-necked Thrush
Tropical Mockingbird
Northern Waterthrush
American Redstart
Masked Cardinal
White-shouldered Tanager
White-lined Tanager
Silver-beaked Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Turquoise Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Purple Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Green Honeycreeper
Blue-black Grassquit
Yellow-hooded Blackbird
Giant Cowbird
Epaulet Oriole
Yellow Oriole
Yellow-rumped Cacique
Crested Oropendola
Trinidad Euphonia
Violaceous Euphonia