|Eleanor Baker, Indianapolis, IN|
|Dan Leach, Bedford, IN|
|Judy Leahy, Newburgh, IN|
|Rebecca Lewis, Cleves, OH|
|Joe and Temple Pearson, West Lafayette, IN|
|Allan and Patricia Roush, Thorntown, IN|
|Rob and Reta Rutledge, Beech Grove, IN|
|Lorraine Shaffer, West Lafayette, IN|
|Ray Shortridge and Brenda Pace, Indianapolis, IN|
|Carol Staggs, New Palestine, IN|
|April Sterling, Fishers, IN|
|October 5 --
Mount St. Benedict
|On Saturday night, having endured a 12-hour journey that started in Indianapolis and saw us visiting Dallas and Miami while enroute, we arrived at Trinidad's Piarco International Airport at about 9 p.m., well after dark. After collecting our baggage and clearing Customs and Immigration, we were whisked to our hillside accommodations at the Pax Guest House. The managers, Gerard and Oda Ramsawak, greeted us at this most welcoming abode with sandwiches, cold drinks, and a brief orientation. It wasn't long before we had all retired to our rooms to spend our first night in the tropics.
On Sunday morning we were awakened at dawn by the pealing bells of the adjacent Mount St. Benedict cathedral. We were up and out the door before breakfast, already at full tilt on our nature tour of this former British Crown Colony. Before first light and until the sun had cleared the hills east of us, the mournful, quavering whistle of a Little Tinamou came drifting down the mountainside. As on all of my previous trips, we'd hear many but see none of this elusive chickenlike terrestrial species, the only tinamou in the country.
Gerard and Oda had added a splendid verandah to the dining room, affording birders a clear view of numerous bird feeders, flower gardens, rainforest, and mountains. My previous experiences staying at Pax had convinced me that the area was 'birdy'. Through Gerard's efforts, the area has substantial good habitat for birds. The focal point for many species of birds was the lovely flower garden that Gerard had planted and which had matured to become an irresistable magnet for hummingbirds.
We quickly became familiar with a fair number of the most common species -- Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Orange-winged Parrot, Short-tailed Swift, White-chested Emerald, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, 'Tropical' House Wren, Bare-eyed Robin, Tropical Mockingbird, Bananaquit, Blue-gray, Palm, and White-lined Tanagers, Shiny Cowbird, Yellow Oriole, and Crested Oropendola.
Dan Leach kicked off the trip in a spectacular manner by finding and identifying a Brown Violet-ear hummingbird in the flowering garden that lay just a few feet outside the ground-floor back door. This large species is rare in Trinidad. I had only seen it one other time, a brief visit by one individual at the verandah at AWNC. Until we arrived, 11 species of hummingbirds had been identified at Pax. Gerard was very excited by Dan's sighting because Dan's bird provided the first record of Brown Violet-ear for Pax. This bird remained in the flower garden throughout our stay, usually allowing a close approach by humans but driving off other hummers. Other species of hummingbirds that we saw every day at Pax included the minute Tufted Coquette, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-chested Emerald, and Copper-rumped Hummingbird.
While some participants concentrated on birding amid the trees, shrubs, flowers, and feeders behind Pax, others scanned the wide expanse of Trinidad visible from the road and parking areas out front. The view stretched from the easternmost peak in the distant Central Range all the way to the Caroni Swamp far to the west. It included miles of sugarcane and rice fields as well as the industrial complexes in the southwest. The area out front was best for scanning the sky for raptors and fly-by birds. Before breakfast most birders had added at least 25 species to their lists.
After the first scrumptious breakfast of bacon, eggs, and fresh fruit such as papaya and pineapple, washed down by locally grown coffee, we embarked on our first scheduled foray. We gathered in front of Pax and began a very slow walk up the hill with our local guide, Kenny Calderon. Because of the increase in crime worldwide, Trinidad not being excluded, Gerard arranged for a security guard to accompany us on our walks on Mount St. Benedict. I'm sure that the security guard added plenty of lifers to his list before we left Pax.
We spent about three hours covering less than a quarter mile of the road past the monastery, not at all what would qualify as aerobic exercise. Almost before we'd moved from our starting spot we were able to view flying pairs of Orange-winged Parrots, furtive Blue-black Grassquits, and a pair of Yellow Orioles building a nest. We heard and then spotted, with difficulty, a fast moving flock of Lilac-tailed Parrotlets. Twice Yellow-headed Caracaras soared over us and out of sight above the monastery before everyone could 'get on' the birds. That was fine because we'd have perfect views of that species on subsequent days. Great birds aside, the view was fabulous.
Continuing up the road past a humble cemetery for clergy and nuns to a wide intersection, we watched the common lowland species of swift, Short-tailed Swift, zipping over the hills below us. Overhead an unexpected flock of six Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts flitted above the monastery belltower. This species is often difficult to find in Trinidad. Our good luck at observing this species foreshadowed amazing good luck that was in store for us throughout our trip. Along the way we added White Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Gray Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Zone-tailed Hawk to our list. We had crippling views of Zone-taileds -- above us, below us, and at eye level. My best estimate would be that we observed 30 Zone-tailed Hawks while at Pax.
We strolled slowly up the road, from switchback to switchback, learning how to identify the trees, plants, and butterflies as well as the birds. Kenny was very efficient at keeping the group together and making sure everyone saw whatever it was we were viewing. The road was so steep that at times we were able to look at eye level into the canopies of trees growing below us. In the canopy of one set of trees were had the good fortune to be able to study males and females of both species of euphonias found in the country - Violaceous Euphonia and Trinidad Euphonia. This was quite a rare opportunity to compare field marks, such as the yellowish underparts of the female Violaceous Euphonia compared to the whitish underparts of the female Trinidad Euphonia. All of the euphonias were feeding on their favorite food, mistletoe berries.
When at last we came to the end of the pavement, we continued onto a rough trail that led first horizontal past a Boy Scout meeting house and then up Mt. Tabor past a fire watchtower. Before the trail turned uphill we stopped just to listen to the birds and take a moment to learn some of their songs. As we stood there silently, an appropriately named Ochre-lored Flatbill hopped leisurely among the branches of the short trees, getting closer and closer to us until it was close enough to see well without binoculars. Until recently this species was called the Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, an equally appropriate name. A pair of abundant but inconspicuous Golden-fronted Greenlets, toast-colored mites related to vireos, made an appearance in the same tree as the flatbill.
Somewhere above us in the Caribbean Pines and scrub Kenny identified the short buzzy song of a Sooty Grassquit, another hard-to-find species. As a group we silently worked our way up the trail toward the sound until we were standing near the spot from which it had originated. Silence. The bird either had flown or had hunkered down in the brush. While we stood there a pair of Long-billed Starthroat hummingbirds buzzed us. One perched on a slender twig for a nanosecond, then was off again, chasing the other one through the trees. We heard White-tailed Trogon, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and Boat-billed Flycatcher but decided not to pursue them, knowing that we'd find them much more easily in other areas that weren't quite so vertical. The temperature rose rapidly. The air became unusually hot. Ruddy Ground-Doves were abundant on both islands, and we saw scores of them during our morning excursion. Several times we encountered the tiny Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, which came close to us, scolding and raising their tiny crests. Barred Antshrikes were a favorite of the group, looking truly tropical, unlike any bird found in North America. Because of the canopy-loving nature of the ubiquitous Ochre-lored Flatbill, we frequently heard them but seldom saw them unless we made a special effort. When we did seek them, we had excellent views.
Southern Rough-winged Swallows were present in small numbers. They were usually visible above the hills below us, their apricot-colored rumps making them easy to distinguish from their North American relatives. In the dense undergrowth we spotted furtive Rufous-breasted Wrens and Long-billed Gnatwrens. Cocoa Thrush and Bare-eyed Robin were present in open areas such as on the trail ahead of us. The Bare-eyed Robin seemed to fill the same niche as the American Robin, hopping across suburban lawns seeking prey. We heard several Chivi Vireos, a brighter green version of its close relative, the Red-eyed Vireo. Other fairly common species we added on this productive hike included Yellow Warbler, a heard-only Tropical Parula, Turquoise, Bay-headed, and Silver-beaked Tanagers, and Purple Honeycreeper.
The trail to the tower was steep. Eventually we reached it and, to cool off up where there was a breeze, we climbed partway up. Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soared so high above Pax that they were almost invisible, just specks against the blue. As the temperature climbed, cicadas and other cricket relatives began emitting their shrill buzzing. They provided the background noise to which we marched back down the mountain, taking a more vertical shortcut to get back to Pax in time for a savory lunch. Afterwards, many of us retired to our rooms to catch up on our journaling and perhaps to catch a nap. The temperature remained unusually hot during our first two days in Trinidad. Cicadas droned in the midday heat while some of us droned in Dreamland.
In late afternoon, around 3 p.m., the temperature began to drop. We gathered again in front of Pax to embark on our second hike. Again we hiked to the upper parking lot, then turned into the woods, striking out along a mountain trail that wound through a mature dry rainforest. Many of the plants were familiar to us. They included Coleus, Impatiens, and Philodendron, all of which we grow indoors in temperate North America. It was difficult to bird by eye in the dense vegetation. Some of us could identify the bird calls, one of which was particularly interesting because it was made by a White-bellied Antbird. This terrestrial species is a challenge to view, as it stays on the ground beneath vegetation. We spent a long time at that spot, while I used a recording of the species to bring a pair of them into view. These elusive birds follow army ant swarms and prey upon insects and other invertebrates flushed by the ants. Either two or three birds eventually made their way to our part of the trail. We saw them both below us, down the hill, and above us on the hillside. It was exciting to see the birds sing, their tails quivering in time with each call note.
Dinner at Pax that night was an enjoyable and memorable feast, a savory offering of native dishes served buffet style by our attractive hostess, Oda. After dinner we retired to the main room to conduct our tally-rally, compiling our day's list of birds. We conducted a tally-rally every night of the trip, either before or after dinner. Tropical birding can be overwhelming. Such a review helps cement in the memory the names and features of the hundreds of species, most of which are new to first-time visitors to the Tropics.
Even after our tally-rally our birding day wasn't done. Earlier in the day I'd talked with Kenny about a location on the ravine side of the monastery where he'd often heard a Tropical Screech-Owl. We decided to try to find it, so through the inky darkness we climbed the steep trail that led diagonally up the face of the hill below the monastery, then crept silently through the monastery grounds until we reached the ravine. I played a recording of the owl's call for a minute, then we waited, listening. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. A distant Spectacled Owl gave its "wup-wup-wup-wup-wup" call, but the screech-owl, if present at all, was silent.
The group's interest in the uncooperative owl became redirected toward a huge Cane Frog, Bufo marinus, that had hopped over April's foot and which now sat on a nearby set of concrete steps. Giving up on the owl, we started walking back to Pax when Dan finally heard the call of a Tropical Screech-Owl. He alerted us to it and herded us back in time not only to hear it but to see it as well. Dan has an amazing ability to find cryptic birds. He spotted this Tropical Screech-Owl high overhead and trained a flashlight on it until everyone had seen it well. After admiring the massively unattractive frog again, we retired happily back to Pax and to our welcoming beds.
Total for the day: 63
New for the trip: 63
Total for the trip: 63
|October 6 --
Point-á-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust /
Caroni rice fields /
|What a luxurious way to begin a day -- being served a savory breakfast while a fine variety of birds parades close by, just beyond the open windows. Just a normal day at the Pax Guest House!
After breakfast we walked a few hundred feet up the road and scanned the area for birds. We saw nearly all of the species we'd seen yesterday and got better views of a few species than we'd had before. The Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts were still present in the sky above the bell tower, and we saw the Gray Hawk again. After only one day in Trinidad, the group was quickly identifying such species as Yellow Oriole, Crested Oropedola, and Copper-rumped Hummingbird with ease - and confidence.
We returned to Pax and boarded the van. Our first destination was the Gulf of Paria at Waterloo, where extensive mudflats are exposed at low tide. As the tide comes in, the foraging shorebirds are forced to concentrate on the higher areas near the shore, which is ideal for birders. The tide was due to reach the high mark in one hour, so we had little time to bird along the way. We headed down the mountain through St. Augustine, followed the Eastern Main Road west to Curepe Junction, then turned south into the Caroni rice fields. It was extremely tempting to have Kenny stop the van for every bird we saw, but the tide was rising and we needed to reach Waterloo. Even though it delayed us, we did stop when we spotted some irresistible birds - Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Long-winged Harrier. The latter species isn't seen on every trip, so seeing two of them at a time certainly merited a brief stop.
Once we'd cleared the rice fields and reached the north-south Uriah Butler highway, we throttled down the fourlane all the way to Freeport, where we saw Carib Grackles and Rock Pigeons (the former Rock Doves) while stopped at a traffic light. Continuing westward toward the Gulf of Paria on a narrow blacktop road, we passed grassy fields that held Southern Lapwings and Smooth-billed Anis.
In short order we arrived at the Waterloo shore, parked near a Hindu temple, and headed on foot to the rock-edged shore. The Gulf of Paria was mirror calm. Through the haze, far to the northeast we could make out the northwestern prong of Trinidad - the Chaguaramas Peninsula - and two or three of the Boca islands, which lie between Trinidad and Venezuela. Although the haze made it impossible to make out the high peaks of mainland Venezuela, we could plainly see the island of Chacachacare about halfway between Trinidad and Venezuela.
Rain clouds were moving in quickly from the east, the usual direction from which Trinidad's weather approaches, so we birded rather rapidly. Flying just offshore were a White-winged Swallow that now and again perched on a boat anchored not far from shore, Brown Pelicans, Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns, and five or six Pectoral Sandpipers. Poking about in the water retained in depressions in the shoreline riprap were a Semipalmated Sandpiper and a Ruddy Turnstone. Laughing Gulls were abundant but distant, most of them wheeling over boats netting fish far out in the Gulf.
A mangrove-covered peninsula was visible a quarter-mile north of us across a shallow lagoon. The landward side of the area between us and the peninsula is commonly referred to in the Trinidad and Tobago Rare Birds Report as 'Brickfield'. Normally we would have visited both Waterloo and Brickfield, but the tide was almost full upon our arrival, so visiting Brickfield would have netted us few birds. We scanned the mangroves that extended almost unbroken from the tip of the peninsula along the shore, right up to the spot on which we stood. Though scopes we were able to pick out at least five Greater Flamingos. A local birder, Graham White, had recently counted 132 individuals in the flock of this rarely seen species.
Scanning the nearby mangroves, we found Black Vultures, adult and immature Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Whimbrel, Anhinga, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, and a solitary Scarlet Ibis perched in the bushes. Almost at our feet, little grayish-brown shorebirds of several kinds probed the mud. We observed a Green Kingfisher resting, Black Skimmer skimming, Short-billed Dowitchers probing, Western Sandpipers running, Ospreys a-fishing, and a very distant but identifiable Black-bellied Plover.
The tide had reached its peak and the shorebirds had withdrawn. After we'd found everything we could find, the sky opened up and let forth with a torrential downpour. The air temperature was so pleasant that none of us felt like returning to the van. Instead we just found shelter under the extended corrugated roof of a nearby shanty or under the broad-leafed trees. When the rain eventually tapered off we returned to the van and enjoyed the fresh fruit juice that Gerard and Oda had sent with us. Through intermittent rain squalls Kenny drove us south for about half an hour past miles of sugarcane fields to our next destination, the Pointe-á-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust.
Still sloshing with fruit juice, we decided to explore the grounds and eat lunch afterwards. We briefly visited the rustic, attractive nature center and used its facilities, then circumnavigated the upper of two impoundments, birding as we explored. During the 1-1/2 hour walk we observed many common birds such as Bananaquit, Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers, Great Kiskadee, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Crested Oropendola, and Bare-eyed Robin. We searched in vain for Saffron Finch, a species partial to southern Trinidad but very difficult to find anywhere north of where we were.
The birds were close and fairly tame, accustomed to the presence of humans. Perched on a tree branch that extended over the pond were Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and a skulking Striated Heron. Floating on the water were scores of pizza-sized coral-colored water lilies. Enormous whitish blossoms of papyrus were prominent as well atop four-foot stems. We found a female Green Kingfisher perched atop a post in one of the enclosures. Common Moorhen and Purple Gallinule were easy to spot as they walked among the reeds and lilypads.
One of our target birds was Red-capped Cardinal, a species unrelated to our Northern Cardinal. This thrush-sized nectar feeder has a plush burgundy head and neck, slate-colored wings, and a white body. It was a treat to observe one at close range in a nearby bush. Pairs of White-lined Tanagers were easy to identify because the male was jet black, the female was rufous, and they almost always flew together. Another nice surprise was seeing a huge female Ringed Kingfisher fly in and begin working the pond. A female Green Kingfisher flew in while we were watching a Black-crowned Night-Heron.
Continuing around the pond, we enjoyed seeing and hearing Ospreys and Smooth-billed Anis. High overhead a Magnificent Frigatebird soared past on long, pointed wings. After completing our explorations we enjoyed our packed lunches of sandwiches and fresh fruit at picnic tables. Some of the participants continued to search for Saffron Finch and although they failed to find a finch, Judy and several others did find a nice bird - a Gray-headed Kite.
We left the Wild Fowl Trust after lunch and headed back north, toward the Caroni area. While driving through the petroleum refinery in which the Wild Fowl Trust is located we came upon a most unusual sight -- a flock of 14 Yellow-headed Caracaras, 12 immatures and 2 adults, foraging for something in the newly mown grass along a small ditch between two immense tanks of crude oil. That was undoubtedly a new record number of Yellow-headed Caracaras seen at one time. At one place we got out to look again for Saffron Finch. We never found any, but we saw two more Magnificent Frigatebirds while searching.
From Pointe-á-Pierre we drove north on the Uriah Butler highway again to the Caroni rice fields. We drove to an area that local birder Martyn Kenefick had described to me, two small ponds amid otherwise dry rice fields. We parked and then walked along a dirt track for about a quarter mile to reach the ponds. During our visit to this site April showed us why it's not a good idea to stop and bird before you look down to see if you're standing on an anthill.
The afternoon was warm and still, the sky a low gray mass of cloud. Along the pond edge we saw Wattled Jacanas and a variety of 'peep' shorebirds. A single-minded Long-winged Harrier quartered low over the fields, ignoring us while displaying all of its field marks and giving us the best possible views. We searched the ponds and the surrounding fields, finding Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Eared Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, male and female White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, and an exceptionally rare species, a Bobolink in basic plumage. That was our second big rarity in two days for our trip.
Driving a mile or so westward, we arrived at the Caroni Swamp boat tour docks at 3:30 p.m. To allow us maximum time on shore in a mangrove habitat, we agreed to meet the boat about a mile west of the docks. We drove west along a new road through the mangroves that lined the channel until we reached a new visitor center, where we made use of the facilities and met our boat. While waiting, three participants were lucky enough to find a Little Cuckoo, rarity number three for the trip. A few of us got a brief view of a perched Greater Ani that took off before everyone could locate it. We also found the first of many American Redstarts a female. Our first Scarlet Ibis flew over us, its coloration breathtakingly intense in the tropical sunlight. We heard and then saw Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, another American Redstart, and a pair of Black-crested Antshrikes. More Scarlet Ibis flew over as we boarded the wide, green, flat-bottomed boat and headed into the heart of the Caroni Swamp.
Other tour boats were using the main channel, which is called Blue River Drain #9, so we chose to bird elsewhere. Our strategy was to investigate each promising side channel, grabbing hold of mangroves roots to still the boat while we looked and listened for birds. Northern Waterthrushes were very common. We found a tiny American Pygmy-Kingfisher while watching mangrove crabs clamor over mangrove roots. After pishing out several more American Redstarts, we were finally successful in getting a family group of a titmouse-sized mangrove specialist, Bicolored Conebill, to respond. We also viewed Eared Dove, many Spotted Sandpipers, Striated Heron, and heard more conebills chipping in the mangroves. Coiled into a compact ball, a Cook's tree boa in the overhead branches looked like a basketball-sized rope knot until we examined it more closely - and then moved the boat away from it. This is one species of boa that is not friendly. We kept hearing lots of bird noises, including the calls of a Cocoa Woodcreeper, from deep within the emerald foliage. Little Blue Herons and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were common along the channel. A few Blue-winged Teal were the only species of duck we found in the swamp.
One of the highlights of the boat trip was getting a pair of Straight-billed Woodcreepers to respond to a recording of their call. We occasionally hear this species on trips to Trinidad but hardly ever see it. The pair we attracted flew back and forth across the channel in front of the boat, giving all of us wonderful views. Rarity number four for the trip!
As the light began to fade, we stopped in the middle of a wide channel to watch scores of incoming Scarlet Ibis flying in to roost. On all previous trips but one, we'd tied up at a lake-sized opening alongside other tour boats to view this spectacle. This time, however, the boatsman told us that the ibis had been so successful in their breeding that they'd spread out and were now roosting throughout the swamp instead of concentrating in a few mangrove islands. Time changes all things.
Along with the glowing ibis we saw flocks of Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and Tricolored Herons. We found Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Short-billed Dowitchers standing on the few mudbars that the rising tide had left exposed. A dozen Lesser Nighthawks made a nice addition to our day's list, as did a flock of nearly invisible Green-rumped Parrotlets. The pair of Straight-billed Woodcreepers continued flying across the channel as if they were as interested in seeing us as we were in seeing them. We glimpsed a Green Kingfisher as it flew past us up the channel just before dark. Still birding all the way back to the boat docks, Al used a strong flashlight to find the reflected eyeshine from three huge Common Potoos along the channels.
After thanking our boatman, we headed back to Pax, where we enjoyed another outstanding dinner. We held our evening tally-rally, reviewed plans for the next day, and all went to bed early because we'd be leaving Pax at 'oh-dark-forty' - around 4 a.m. - to catch the first flight to Tobago.
Total for the day: 109
New for the trip: 74
Total for the trip: 137
|October 7 --
|You've heard of carpe diem, 'seize the day'? On October 7 we not only seized it, we throttled it. We made it to the airport way before first light, saw Gray-breasted Martins at Piarco Airport while we walked to our jet, departed Trinidad at 6 a.m., and landed at Crown Point International Airport, Tobago, at 6:25 a.m., not long after dawn. Our first species was Caribbean Martin, which replaces Gray-breasted Martin in the Lesser Antilles. My friend and birding companion, Newton George, had rented two vehicles in which to transport us during the day. Newton is an expert birder whom I'd met in 2001 while doing a Big Day on Tobago. Our team of five had swept past the previous record of 100, finishing the day with 113 species. For this trip I'd hired him as our point man, responsible for everything from finding the birds to finding lunch. It was great to see him and to meet his driver, Jeb. Besides being an excellent driver, Jeb was entertaining and added a lot to our trip.
Tobago is only about 26 miles long. During the day we covered most of the south and all of the Atlantic side as far north as Roxborough. Because we had limited time in Tobago, with only 12 hours of daylight, we had to opt out of the traditional boat trip to Little Tobago Island to see Red-billed Tropicbird. In retrospect, that was an excellent choice.
Newton and I had plotted our strategy carefully by email long before our arrival in Tobago. We headed north without a stop for about an hour, seeing the common species such as Smooth-billed Ani, Osprey, Cattle Egret, Crested Oropendola, White-lined Tanager, Tropical Mockingbird, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Carib Grackle, and more Caribbean Martins. From the Claude Noel Highway we headed past the island capitol of Scarborough, past the Botanical Gardens, and into the rugged hill country of central Tobago. The road wound around hillsides that plunged nearly vertically to the Atlantic Ocean far below. Up hill and down, now along the beach, now several hundred feet above it, through tiny villages and past colorfully dressed Tobagonians. We came to an abrupt stop next to one beach where I'd caught sight of a lone heron fishing knee deep in the surf. I'd seen both Little Egret and Western Reef-Heron on Tobago, both European vagrants that wade into the ocean to fish. This bird, however, turned out to be a Tricolored Heron enjoying a 'sea bath,' as the locals call it.
Upon reaching Roxborough, knowing we'd be hours from the next pit stop, we made use of the facilities at the fire station. Continuing on, we turned west, onto the Roxborough-Bloody Bay Road, which connects the Atlantic side of Tobago with the Caribbean side, crossing the 1,000-foot-high Main Ridge along the way. Our destination was Gilpin Trace, a trail that leads from the roadside down into a deep, dark ravine, following a rushing stream through the rainforest. We made several stops along the way in this lush rainforest. As we climbed into the mountains, the air grew noticeably cooler, and the vegetation became more and more lush. Orange-winged Parrots kept up a raucous screeching in the trees and high overhead. The saw Short-tailed and Gray-rumped Swifts. Several of us saw a fast moving flock of about five White-collared Swifts, which are more the size of a nighthawk than a swift. Newton was in good form, showing us such eye candy as Collared Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Blue-crowned Motmot, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. There are no vultures of any kind on Tobago, but being a raptor bum I couldn't stop scanning the skies for whatever might fly over. At one stop we spotted a Broad-winged Hawk overhead, then a huge Great Black-Hawk floated out from behind the ridge, giving us convincing views of its black-tipped white tail, which distinguishes it from Common Black-Hawk, which isn't found on Tobago anyway. All around us, Rufous-vented Chachalacas, endlessly belted out 'ko-kree'-ko', from which is derived their common name, Cocrico.
Other species we observed along the Roxborough-Bloody Bay Road included Rufous-breasted Hermit, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Ochre-lored Flatbill, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird and Yellow-legged Thrush.
At the Gilpin Trace trailhead we wisely rented rubber boots from a vendor, grabbed walking sticks provided by the trail guides for our use, and started our descent into the jungle foray. Within moments we were dwarfed by 100-foot-high green bamboo as big around as a steering wheel. In the dim light our laser pointers worked fairly well if trained on a flat surface such as a smooth tree trunk. They didn't work at all when trained on foliage.
One of the first birds we spotted in this dark, humid environment was a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, the nest holes of which lined the mud bank along the trail, along with nest holes of Blue-crowned Motmots. The birds on Tobago are fewer than on Trinidad, but the species we found along Gilpin Trace made up in quality what they may have lacked in quantity. We quickly tallied both male and female Barred Antshrikes, Long-billed Gnatwren, Blue-crowned Motmot, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Rufous-breasted Hermit, and an elusive pair of ground-hugging Stripe-breasted Spinetails. A male of the extremely rare White-tailed Sabrewing buzzed past us and landed in full but distant view ahead of us, its emerald green back and white outer tail feathers clearly visible. We were almost always within hearing range of Blue-backed Manakins calling to each other. Newton pointed out a female Blue-backed Manakin feeding young in a shallow nest hung over the stream, and we saw several pairs of males dancing on their leks. We found a female Collared Trogon and enjoyed leisurely looks at a pair of Plain Antvireos and great looks at a pair of Rufous-breasted Wrens. A small rusty bird flipping up only one wing at a time turned out to be an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, and a repetitive song was finally ascribed to a canopy-loving Chivi Vireo. We tracked a steady hammering to its source, a Golden-olive Woodpecker banging away on a broken-off stump near a foraging American Redstart. An elusive Fuscous Flycatcher finally came out in the open below us on the streamside. Farther down the trail we watched from a vantage point above a White-necked Thrush as it stood on the ground next to the stream tossing leaves repeatedly. A few participants had a brief look at a reclusive Yellow-legged Thrush.
We spent about three hours soaking in the jungle ambience on Gilpin Trace before winding our way back to our vehicles. From the Main Ridge we drove back to the south end of the island, stopping enroute to pick up our boxed lunches. Newton led us to a set of water treatment ponds on the grounds of the Hilton Hotel, where we enjoyed some of the best Tobago food ever. I had fresh carite, a firm-fleshed fish similar to kingfish or swordfish in texture, seasoned with local herbs. It was delicious.
After lunch we cautiously entered the pond area, climbing the dike slowly so as not to flush any of the birds in the area. We added species very quickly once we'd crested the dike -- Least Grebe, Anhinga, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with newborn ducklings, White-cheeked Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Common Moorhen, Southern Lapwing, Semipalmated Plover, Wattled Jacana, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, and Short-billed Dowitcher. In all my birding excursions I'd never seen such a fine assemblage of waders in so many plumages, so close and so amenable to our close approach. It was a dream to be able to compare adult and juvenal plumages of all the peeps but Baird's Sandpiper. We spent considerable time walking very slowly around the first impoundment, admiring and studying the myriad birds. In some of the nearby shrubs and trees we found Gray Kingbirds and Green-rumped Parrotlets and heard but never saw a Scrub Greenlet. Perched atop some nearby short trees and coconut palms were three Yellow-headed Caracaras. We had turned out attention to them when suddenly a dark falcon swept in from behind them and spooked them all into frenzied flight. My first thought was Merlin because it was so dark, but in its pursuit of one of the Caracaras is flared its tail, revealing an very long tail with numerous dark bars against a darker background, a pattern that didn't fit a Merlin at all. Our attention was riveted on the tail-chasing that the raptors were putting on right in front of us. What followed during the next few minutes was certainly the most ornithologically important moment of the trip -- our sighting and identification of the first Aplomado Falcon ever seen on Tobago. Click here to read a transcription of that exciting event.
Only a few minutes later, a southbound adult male Peregrine cruised low over our heads, our first for the trip. The timing couldn't have been better because our mental images of the Aplomado Falcon were still sharp and fresh. We could easily see that the Peregrine's size, shape, and behavior wasn't anything like that of the Aplomado. Lacking any field guides that showed Aplomado Falcon, we weren't entirely sure yet what our falcon was, but we were certain what it wasn't.
We left the Hilton ponds feeling very positive about our experience there. We headed to the Caribbean side of the island to Grafton Estate to hike a trail or two and to be on hand for the 4 p.m. bird feeding. This event had proved so popular on my February trip to Tobago that we'd gone back a second time. While driving along the Caribbean we saw the usual flotilla of Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Laughing Gulls but nothing else close enough to shore to identify.
We arrived at Grafton Estate shortly before 4 p.m. and headed down a path that sloped downward and away from the sea. Rufous-vented Chachalacas were everywhere, clambering about in the trees. During our brief walk we observed House Wren, Ochre-lored Flatbill, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and two Olivaceous Woodcreepers. A third Olivaceous Woodcreeper landed right in front of us and proceeded to take its time exploring a big tree trunk and then out onto one of its major limbs. We found a number of unconcerned White-fringed Antwrens, another Stripe-breasted Spinetail, and heard Blue-backed Manakins in the distance. We came to a large bowl-shaped opening where a fire had reduced the vegetation to only a few feet in height. Below us, zipping over the vegetation, were Short-tailed and Gray-rumped Swifts.
We returned to the feeding station. Some of the participants wandered up the hill. Someone came back hurriedly, urging us to come and see what Newton had found while tracking down a Brown-crested Flycatcher. It was with the greatest difficulty that we finally saw what had been in plain sight all along -- another Common Potoo, looking for all the world like a piece of a dead branch. That discovery was another tribute to Newton's ability as a birder.
We returned to the feeding station, where Newton had the brilliant idea of placing a cell phone call to Martyn Kenefick, the current Chair of the Trinidad & Tobago Rare Bird Committee. Martyn had been seeing an occasional Aplomado Falcon in the Caroni rice fields and thus had recent experience with the species. Newton handed me the phone.
"Martyn, this is Bill Murphy over in Tobago. I'm going to describe a raptor and I'd like to know what you think it is. Size is between Peregrine and Merlin, dark chocolate except for a buffy throat and chest, a wide black band across the underparts, a long tail..."
Martyn interrupted me. "Let me save you some time -- Did you see a white trailing edge to the secondaries?"
I almost burst into tears with excitement as I turned to the group. "He wants to know if we saw a white trailing edge to the secondaries!" Their answer came back, a unanimous "YES!!" -- loud enough that Martyn could hear it all the way to Trinidad.
"Congratulations! You've just seen the first Aplomado Falcon for Tobago!"
After we recovered from that excitement, we watched dozens of Bananaquits, Pale-vented Pigeons, White-tipped Doves, and much smaller Eared Doves feeding on the cracked corn that had been distributed for them. Nearby were motmots, sitting quietly except for their pendulum-like tail movements. A Red-crowned Woodpecker came to a sugar-water feeder. Other interesting species that came very close to us included Barred Antshrike and Blue-gray Tanager.
Shadows were getting long, so once again we boarded our vehicles and headed toward the airport. We made one last stop on this paradise island, at the Bon Accord water treatment ponds. We arrived at 5:10 p.m. with daylight dwindling fast. In this area we had very good birding, observing Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Southern Lapwing, White-cheeked Pintail, Wattled Jacana, a pair of Whimbrel, and resting Black Skimmers. A Black-faced Grassquit was seen but only by a few members of the group.
While examining the birds standing on the short concrete walkway that ran the length of one of the ponds, we noticed that one of the 'Snowy' Egrets had a ski-slope head profile and blue, rather than yellow or pink, facial skin -- a basic-plumaged Little Egret, a Eurasian species accidental anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Another fabulous species for our trip.
Later, while awaiting our jet at the airport, we had ample time to share a beer with Newton and to sample more of the delicious local ice cream. We departed Tobago in the inky darkness at 6:55 p.m. and arrived back in Trinidad at 7:20 p.m., in plenty of time to enjoy another fine dinner at Pax Guest House. We'd been up for 17 hours straight, so after a celebratory tally-rally, bed was our final destination for the day.
Total for the day: 96
New for the trip: 33
Total for the trip: 170
|October 8 -- Trincity ponds / Manzanilla Beach / Nariva Swamp||
After yesterday's strenous schedule, we took it easy this morning with an 8:30 a.m. departure time. After relishing another tasty breakfast and renewing our acquaintance with all the local species at the flowers and feeders, we boarded our vehicles and headed downhill for a day of lowland birding.
We were happy to be with Kenny Calderon again. His cheerful good nature and ready smile were excellent compliments to his exceptional birding skills. We negotiated traffic through St. Augustine, took a shortcut to the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, and headed eastward. It was another beautiful day. Flowers were in bloom everywhere we looked. The great diversity of ethnic groups is always a surprise to first-time visitors to Trinidad. It is truly an amalgamation that seems at ease with itself.
Our first target species for the morning were Savanna Hawk and Pearl Kite. Not long after we started heading east, a Savanna Hawk was seen perched in a tree in a vacant field along the highway. We pulled off the roadway, got out, and set up the scopes. The Savanna Hawk in the tree was an adult, and an immature bird was walking on the ground near the tree. Another adult flew into the tree while we scanned the field. A few hundred yards from us in the field we spotted an American Golden-Plover, its mottled basic plumage almost invisible against the mottled grassy vegetation in the field. During the scanning we found a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a grassland species like the American Golden-Plover but much scarcer. Buff-breasted Sandpiper was a new species for me in Trinidad. Al continued scanning the field and came up with yet another rare species, Upland Sandpiper. I'd seen this species only once before in Trinidad. We continued scoping the field and finally came up with a count of 92 American Golden-Plovers, 2 Buff-breasted Sandpipers, 1 Upland Sandpiper, and 7 Southern Lapwings. This was one of the highlight moments of the trip, not only because of the species we were seeing but because while we were birding we were standing along one of the busiest highways in the country, in an industrial area that I would never have thought held anything but 'trash' birds.
Having found one of our two target birds, once we'd gotten underway again we began scanning the trees for Pearl Kite. Less than a mile later Kenny spotted one ahead of us, sitting on a powerline. While viewing this attractive little raptor, April spotted a second one. Thus we bagged our two first target species for the day before we even got to our birding areas.
The Trincity ponds have been interesting to birders for years. I spent an entire day there in the late 1980s, stalking and photographing a Little Egret for Trinidad's second record. It's a small area, probably less than 2 acres, but the habitat is varied and attracts a wide range of species. Besides the ponds themselves, some of which are nearly covered over with water hyacinth, there are nearby pines, cultivated and fallow fields, marshy areas, and a clear view of a wide expanse of sky.
A crew of workers was excavating one of the ponds by use of heavy equipment on the day we visited the area, so the birding wasn't as productive as it might have been. Even so, we saw some excellent species. As we emerged from our vehicles we saw a row of White-winged Swallows lined up on the powerline. This attractive species is mostly emerald green, with large areas of white in the wings, as the name implies. Barn Swallows skimmed the surface of the ponds, and a lone Bank Swallow, uncommon in Trinidad, made a brief appearance. Like a floating knobby stick, only the eyes of a small alligator called the Spectacled Caiman showed above the water's surface. Perched among the hyacinths were eye-popping Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, male, female, and immature. A small heron-like bird flushed from the edge of a pond and flew weakly for a short distance, legs drooping, before dropping into the hyacinths. Stripe-backed Bittern was considered a possible identification briefly, but when the bird flew again and displayed large beige patches in the secondaries, its identity was confirmed as a Least Bittern. We also observed Green Heron, Striated Heron, Purple Gallinues, Wattled Jacanas, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Yellow Warblers of both the Caribbean and North American races, and a variety of shorebirds in and around the ponds.
From Trincity we drove east through Valencia, south past miles of lowland swamp forest. We glimpsed a Gray-headed Kite perched atop a dead tree as we approached the bustling eastern city of Sangre Grande. We made a stop near the village of Upper Manzanilla, where a nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques (pronounced kaa-seeks') was easy to observe.
Roadside birding was proving to be amazingly productive on our trip. Besides seeing the caciques we had our first scope view of a calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl only a few dozen yards from us, a scope view of a female Violaceous Euphonia, and a too-quick glimpse of a Squirrel Cuckoo, a species that we encountered several more times during the trip but never saw well enough to include on our trip list. An invisible Rufous-browed Peppershrike sang its repetitive short whistled phrases in the same tree as the owl, then flew to a nearby tree and disappeared again. Actually seeing this common species presented us with a real challenge. It was near the end of our trip before everyone had finally seen the species well.
We were heading for our lunch stop at Manzanilla Beach, but first made a detour west on Plum-Mitan Road to see if we could locate a pair of Bat Falcons that had been reported recently by my local birding friend, Graham White. We found a pair only a mile down the road, perched in the open in a large dead tree. We had fine views of both the male and female of these kestrel-sized blue-and-rust falcons, both perched and in flight. We watched the male chase a Tropical Kingbird, then bring a dragonfly back and present it to the female. We had great looks through the scopes at a nearby Lineated Woodpecker. The road was bordered by coffee and cocoa trees as well as by a profusion of wild flowers and shrubs. The taped pygmy-owl call triggered vocal responses from at least three different Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in the area. It also brought in a pair of Blue Dacnis, a White-shouldered Tanager, Chivi Vireo, Blue-chinned Sapphire, and the usual forest-edge species. A colony of Crested Oropendolas were nesting in a towering tree nearby. We saw more of their smaller relative, the Yellow-rumped Cacique, as well as many Orange-winged Parrots, White-chested Emeralds, a Little Hermit, and a pair of Golden-fronted Greenlets. As we left the area we observed a pair of Giant Cowbirds perched on fenceposts near the oropendola colony. Giant Cowbirds are nest parasites of the oropendola, so perhaps these birds were waiting for an opportunity to do just that.
Within a few miles after we emerged from the area of swamp forest, and were greeted with a sweeping panorama of palm trees and sea. The road we were on led almost to the beach before turning sharply to the south, parallel the beach, henceforth being called Mayaro Road. We took our lunch break there, along the beach in the shade of coconut palms, making use of the public facilities. The sea along the east coast of Trinidad is almost always cocoa brown, visible evidence of the proximity of the Orinoco River outflow only a few hundred miles to the south. The sea breeze was invigorating and the surf was quite rough. A few Sanderlings ran like clockwork toys on the sand, while Semipalmated Plovers stood near sedately watching them. An Osprey flew past, Palm Tanagers chattered overhead in the palms, and Gray-breasted Martins frolicked overhead in the breeze.
Several hundred yards offshore was a flock of six small, white terns that we identified as immature Common Terns by their dark carpal bar. Farther out were much larger Royal Terns, which we didn't see well enough to include on our trip list. Almost on the horizon was a cloud of Brown Noddy terns, which were barely identifiable through the scopes. On the landward side, a Common Black-Hawk scanned for prey from a perch, dropping suddenly to seize a bird that we thought might have been a Tropical Mockingbird.
The scenery for the next 10 miles consisted of the Atlantic on our left, seen through an endless grove of coconut palms, while to the right were more coconut palms with an occasional opening, usually covered with low marsh vegetation that was made more attractive by the thousands of bird-of-paradise flowers growing wild. A high wall of trees behind them marked the mangrove-edged Nariva River, which forms the western boundary of the long sandbar we were traversing. No sooner had I told the group how we usually see Common Black-Hawks, Gray Hawks, Savanna Hawks, and Black Vultures perched midway up the sloping trunks of the palms than we saw the first of such sights, a Black Vulture perched on a sloping palm trunk.
On the left side of the road were chest-high fences of interwoven palm fronds, constructed by watermelon farmers to help keep the salt spray off the melons. Farther on we came to a cluster of abandoned concrete huts and a gigantic pile of coconut husks and shells, remnants of a copra factory from a bygone era.
We crossed the Nariva River bridge and stopped to bird along Bush-Bush Creek. My friend David Ramdass, son of expert Trinidad birder Roodal Ramdass of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, had parked near the bridge. We exchanged information on what we'd seen and told them about the Bat Falcons. The tide was high, which meant that most of the terrestrial birds such as Silvered Antbird were elsewhere. We had poor, backlighted views of Turquoise Tanager but little else. As we were leaving, a medium-sized dark falcon flashed past us overhead, continuing beyond the mangroves and out of sight. Its 'jizz' seemed peculiar to me, Merlin-like but not quite right. We didn't see it well enough to put a name on it.
Just ahead was the mouth of the tidal Nariva River, a reliable site for viewing shorebirds, terns, gulls, and sometimes such rarities as storm-petrels. We weren't disappointed with our findings -- Red Knot, Willet, and Sanderling, a sleeping flock of five Black Skimmers, and the only Collared Plover of the trip. This migrant shorebird from South America was another unexpected great species to add to our trip list.
David and the British couple he was guiding caught up with us at that point. David told us that he'd gotten a good look at the mystery falcon at Bush-Bush Creek and had identified it as -- no joke -- another Aplomado Falcon! We asked him if it had been an immature bird, like our Tobago bird, with heavy streaking on the breast. David said that he hadn't seen it clearly enough to discern the chest pattern.
We continued along Mayaro Road toward our destination, Kaltoo Trace, a semi-paved lane that led into an area of Nariva Swamp called the Melon Patch. We spotted more raptors perched in the coconut palms -- Common Black-Hawk, Savanna Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Turning off Mayaro Road onto Kaltoo Trace, we soon broke out of the endless coconut palms into the huge bowl that holds Nariva Swamp. We parked the vehicles and birded on foot for the rest of the afternoon. David had joined us again, so we had two local guides to assist us with the birds.
The wet marshlands stretched all the way to the distant low hills. The main ground cover consisted of wild rice and other tall grass species, here and there replaced by water hyacinth where the water was deeper. One of the abundant species we found was Yellow-chinned Spinetail, a member of the South American ovenbird family, the Furnariidae. Most species in this group build large nests with side entrances; hence the name, a reference to a Dutch oven. We found a female Pied Water-Tyrant working on her nest in the 'front yard' of a tiny wooden house built on stilts. David pointed out a very high, very distant Fork-tailed Flycatcher heading south over the beach. We spotted a second one, then a third, and eventually tallied 32 of them in the single-file flock. Atop distant Royal Palms we could make out Red-bellied Macaws. Flocks of Orange-winged Parrots flew over screeching. A tight flock of nine Blue-winged Teal dropped in. Mistaken at first for a bird, a 5-inch-wide Caligo butterfly held our attention as it flew jerkily past us. A Gray Hawk was spotted far away flying toward us. It eventually flew past close enough for us to see the fine gray barring on its underparts. Shiny Cowbirds foraging around the few primative stilted huts gave us a chance to study this species, which has invaded North America during the last decade. David found a Limpkin perched atop a distant bush. Nearly invisible to the naked eye, it was unmistakable when seen through the scope.
A highlight was a Pinnated Bittern that David and Kenny found amid waist-high wild rice. The bird was well camouflaged, with only its heavily barred neck protruding from the vegetation. Even through the scope it was so well camulflaged that locating it was an effort. At one point it labored heavily into the air and flew a few hundred yards before alighting in the vegetation. A flock of four Red-bellied Macaws in the distance eventually flew directly over us, allowing us to view their red bellies. Close to the road we viewed a mama Wattled Jacana with a covey of babies probably no more than a few hours old and a House Wren with four newly fledged babies. A lone Long-winged Harrier quartered the swamp, periodically coming close to us, and Yellow-headed Caracaras flapped past us a few times.
David had noted a falcon he thought was a Peregrine that had perched in a solitary palm tree in the middle of the marsh. Putting my scope on it, I had to disagree with him because at 65X magnification I was seeing a splendid adult Aplomado Falcon! He was happy to be incorrect because it vindicated his earlier call of Aplomado Falcon. We'd seen two different Aplomado Falcons on two different islands in two days! What a great trip!
A local family out for a ride in their oxcart presented a photo opportunity that couldn't be ignored. Several dozen photographs later, we stopped to examine a dead fer-de-lance, an extremely venomous snake. With a stick I pried the mouth open, revealing a pair of widely spaced, short, but very sharp fangs. Other than the fer-de-lance there are only three other poisonous snakes in Trinidad: the bushmaster and two small coral snakes.
Finishing up the day, at sunset we stood along Mayaro Road just east of the swamp as scores of Red-bellied Macaws flew into the crowns of the Royal Palms to roost. Among them we picked out two Yellow-crowned Parrots, an introduced species that had taken 100 years to expand their range the mere 50 miles from the capitol city of Port-of-Spain to the wild wetlands of eastern Trinidad. As the light faded, a Wilson's Snipe flew over, the last species of the day. And what an unforgettable day it had been.
Total for the day: 118
New for the trip: 28
Total for the trip: 198
|October 9 -- Asa Wright Nature Centre / Oilbird Cave||
On Thursday morning, after another delicious breakfast and another delightful few hours of birding around the Pax Guest House, we bid farewell to Gerard and Oda and Pax. An hour later we were checking in at the Asa Wright Nature Centre which, at 1200 feet above sea level, was much cooler than the plains below. After settling into our bungalows we gathered on the veranda, which is a mecca for birders there. Below us were six birdfeeders laden with fruit while at eye level along the veranda werecolumnar hummingbird feeders. It was hard to know where to look first -- there were Purple Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Grayish Saltator, Yellow Oriole,Chestnut Woodpecker, a blur of hummingbirds, four species of tanagers, Gray-fronted Dove, a female Great Antshrike, a Long-billed Gnatwren, Tufted Coquette, and footlong tegu lizards with tails that varied from mere stubs to full-sized. Bananaquits were everywhere.
Had we ventured no further afield than the veranda we would have had an excellent day of birding. The plan was to explore the Centre on an individual breakfast until after lunch, then regroup in the early afternoon to hike to the Oilbird Cave. During our ramblings and on the trail to the Oilbird Cave we had opportunities to view many colorful and many not-so-colorful species that included Short-tailed Hawk, another Bat Falcon, White-tipped Dove, Lilac-tailed Parrotlets, Short-tailed, Gray-rumped, and Band-rumped Swifts, all three of the hermit hummingbirds (Green, Rufous-breasted, and Little Hermit), Blue-crowned Motmot, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, and Cocoa Thrush. Lots of birds to see.
On our walk to the Oilbird Cave we had the pleasure of being guided by Jason Radix, one of the resident guides at the Centre. I knew Jason's mother, Ann Radix, who had been with the Centre longer than I'd been visiting it. I also knew Jason's brother, Robert, who'd been an expert bird guide for the Centre before moving to Illinois. Jason has eyes and ears on the same level of excellence as those of Kenny and David. On trail he pointed out Turquoise Tanager, Violaceous Euphonia, and the calls of many forest species. The trail wound around hills and up and down valleys, eventually descending steeply to a corrugated-roofed shelter and then to a fantastic ravine, the intersection of two creeks that entered the mouth of a fissure narrow enough to be called a cave.
Here we rested a bit while Jason explained the peculiarities of the unique Oilbird and the importance of this cave, the most accessible know nesting place of the species anywhere. We walked down a set of concrete steps, taking advantage of the hand rail, until we reached the bottom of the gorge. Giant blue morpho butterflies flopped above us in erratic flight, and day-flying bats zipped past us. Other than the din of rushing water, the loudest sounds were made by a tiny brown frog called Calostethus, similar to our Spring Peeper. Thin vines descended into the gorge like string from the crowns of trees hundreds of feet above us. A cluster of chest-high elephant ear plants grew in the shadiest part of the gorge.
Jason and I helped four participants at a time make their way over slippery rocks until they were about 20 feet inside the cave. Ahead and above them, a nesting colony of around 60 Oilbirds were visible in the light of the flashlight Jason held. Wild shreiks, snarls, and growls announced their presence. The scene was one not to be forgotten. As they viewed the birds, each participants added not only a new species to their life lists, they added a new genus and a new family as well.
After everyone had seen the birds to their satisfaction, we began our more relaxed hike back to the Centre. As we rounded a bend in the trail we spotted movement ahead on the trail, on the far side of a switchback. Jason quickly identified them as Gray-throated Leaftossers, nondescript birds of the rainforest floor. This group consisted of four individuals, the largest flock I'd ever seen. They ignored us, tossing leaves and vocalizing, until we moved closer. Nearer to the Centre we came upon a flock of Lilac-tailed Parrotlets walking slowly about the canopy of a hogplum tree and making themselves very hard to spot. We rely on sudden movements to alert us to the presence of birds in trees, so the slow movements of the parrotlets made them difficult to find in the similar hued leaves.
Our afternoon tea and crumpets, or whatever they served us that afternoon, awaited our arrival on the veranda. The daylight faded as we watched the feeders, spellbound at the high level of activity. A great surprise was the appearance on one of the feeders of a Blackpoll Warbler, a species that breeds mainly in Canada and isn't found very often in Trinidad, certainly not at a bird feeder. Another surprise was watching a Red-crowned Ant-Tanager in the open on one of the bird feeders. This species is a deepwoods skulker, far more often heard than seen. And here it was in plain sight, viewable while we drank our afternoon tea. What a treat!
One by one the group drifted off to their rooms to shower and get ready for dinner. I announced that I was going to stay on the veranda until dark, watching for Short-tailed Nightjar and Oilbirds leaving their cave and flying overhead. As if on cue, a batlike Short-tailed Nightjar darted up the valley, just above the treetops, passing directly overhead and out of sight. To see the Oilbirds in flight we walked to the upper parking lot, where we had a more open view of the valley. Luck was with us, as an Oilbird flew like an enormous moth high overhead before it was even full darkness. We were getting used to miracles, and this was certainly in that category.
Our birdlist for the day was considerably shorter than it had been on previous days. That's the small price one pays for birding all day in a single habitat -- tropical rainforest -- and so had missed shorebirds and grassland birds. Our list was sprinkled generously with species new for almost everyone on the trip. Another day in paradise.
Total for the day: 76
New for the trip: 13
Total for the trip: 211
|October 10 -- Agricultural Research Center / Waller Field / Cumuto Village / Arena Forest||
On this, our next-to-last day of birding, we covered the basically flat lowland areas south of the Northern Range. After our usual morning birding from the veranda and on the grounds of the centre, we boarded our vehicles and headed down Blanchisseuse Road toward Arima. The sky was overcast but the rain hadn't yet started. Along the way we saw the huge estate of christophene (chayote) that covers two facing slopes of a ravine, looking for all the world like a huge vertical vineyard. The fruit of the vine resembles warty green pears, the inside of which resembles cucumber - translucent light green. We had eaten christophene in soups, salads, and sauces.
Our first destination was the Agricultural Research Station, sometimes called the Livestock Station. Until a few years ago we had been able to spend a few hours inside this area, driving and walking around the fields, wet meadows, cattle barns, and ponds. The threat of cow diseases brought in by visitors from afar has forced the station to close except to employees. Thus we birded as close to the station as we could, without actually entering the facility.
We passed through the city of Arima and continued to the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway. We passed between the pillars marked 'Fort Reid', the location of the World War II Army Air Corps base called Waller Field. At the east end of Waller Field we turned north and drove as far as the Eastern Main Road. The Agricultural Station was straight ahead, but because of the restrictions on visitors we turned right (east) until we reached a pullout on the same side of the road as the Ag Station. Here we were able to observe species such as Savanna Hawk, White-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, and other grassland species. For as long as I've been visiting Trinidad, a pair of Peregrines has spent the winter months at the station, using a huge solitary tree as their hunting perch. Sure enough, we found an adult Peregrine perched in the tree.
In the wet meadow next to us inside the station's barbed-wire fence were male and female Red-breasted Blackbirds, a Striated Heron, Southern Lapwings, a Pied Water-Tyrant, and nearby was a pair of mating Pearl Kites. Overhead fluttered several anorexic-looking Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts that chittered as they passed. We heard the distinctive wheezy song of a Masked Yellowthroat in the high grass ahead of us on the short bit of dirt road, but it didn't respond to our attempts to attract it into view. Over a hill on the side away from the agricultural station, a Striped Cuckoo monotonously repeated its two-note call.
We resumed our eastward drive on the Eastern Main Road until we reached Heights of Aripo Road. Now we were on the other side of the hill behind which we'd heard the Striped Cuckoo. That bird continued calling for the duration of our stop but never came into view. We did finally have a great scope view of Masked Yellowthroat, Green Parrotlets, and more Pearl Kites. From there we headed back to the abandoned runways at Waller Field. This area is the best place in Trinidad for finding foraging Red-bellied Macaw, Moriche Oriole, Sulfury Flycatcher, and Ruby-Topaz hummingbird. Today it was as birdless as a bowling alley. We found a few common species such as Copper-rumped Hummingbird but little else. We drove through ominous flocks of silent Black Vultures loitering on the runways, seeing another Red-breasted Blackbird, and parked near a rough track that led away from the pavement and toward some brush and trees. At this spot we found another Masked Yellowthroat and a female Red-breasted Blackbird. A Squirrel Cuckoo called and then flew stealthily into a grove of trees but was seen poorly by the group. We decided that Waller Field was not up to par that day and drove to another birding area, a deeply potholed dirt road. The prize species here was Common Pauraque, three of which flushed from ground as our guide walked along the road. We got a good look at a female Black-throated Mango foraging among the branches of a tree over the road and heard another Striped Cuckoo.
From this area we drove to the nearby village of Cumuto, where I greeted my longtime friend Lenore Noray, owner of a small general store and recreation club knowns as LC's. Lenore sold us candy, cold drinks, and postage stamps. While we were there, the rain began coming down in earnest. The mountains to the north were covered in mist, and the sky in general looked like it was going to rain all afternoon. We ate lunch in a roadside building near the entrance to the Arena Forest. At a vacant building on the grounds we found a roost of bats but no birds. Because of the rain we decided to call it a day and return to the centre.
As we drove through Arima we decided to take the opportunity to do some shopping at a local store. We found some wonderful bargains in the spice and coffee aisles and bought exotic treats to sample on the ride home.
Later in the afternoon, after the rain stopped, we decided to hike down the trail from the main house. Several participants finally were able to get good views of a Rufous-browned Peppershrike at the head of the trail. Four male White-bearded Manakins were displaying at their lek. Rather than head back the way we'd come, we took a longer path back, crossing the valley below the main house. The light was difficult, turning most of the birds we saw into black silhouettes. However, this walk was particularly rewarding as we saw many Cocoa Thrushes, two White-necked Thrushes, a perched Gray Hawk, a Channel-billed Toucan flying overhead, a flock of 40 Crested Oropendolas flying over, and some Gray-rumped Swifts. As we walked on the trail just behind the main house, an unwary agouti out of the bushes and into the leg of one of the participants. Imagine being hit by an agouti - how do you file an insurance claim for that?!
Total for the day: 103
New for the trip: 11
Total for the trip: 222
|October 11 -- Blanchisseuse Road||
Our very last day in paradise began with a fine, thin cloud cover that we'd come to welcome because it enabled us to see well yet prevented the temperature from rising too high. Our destination for the day was the upper reaches of Blanchisseuse Road, from the Asa Wright Nature Centre to a region a little way past the village of Morne le Croix. First, though, we took an early walk to the manakin lek. This proved to be a super experience. Near an old mango tree with benches nearby we came upon a mixed species flock that contained some species we hadn't seen well yet. We had long, satisfying views of Golden-headed Manakin males with their porcelain-white eyes, a Golden-crowned Warbler, a Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and a White-tailed Trogon. Back on the verandah we finally got to see a male White-necked Jacobin after seeing only a female until then.
Even something as simple as leaving the Centre grounds was exciting. In this case the excitement was making the 160° turn left from the entrance road onto Blanchisseuse Road. With a van that maneuver required some forward/back finesse, coupled with a keen eye for traffic coming down the steep hill. All went well, and soon we were noticing how much cooler the temperature was as we climbed from 1200 feet to over 2000 feet.
By now we'd seen so many of the 200+ species we'd targeted on our trip that new species were getting tough to find. There were always opportunities to get better views than before of species we'd already encountered, of course. We never moved on when a bird presented itself in excellent view until everyone had satiated his or her appetite for the bird. We made a number of stops along this narrow ribbon of 'pitch' that winds snakelike from the city of Arima all the way to the Caribbean village of Blanchisseuse, some 36 miles away. The day was misty, with periods of intense sun and periods of frank rain.
Birding in a rainforest can be challenging because the trees are so tall that canopy-loving species are several hundred feet away, far above you. One of the greatest advantages of birding along Blanchisseuse Road is that, being carved out of mountainsides for the most part, the canopy of trees downhill from you are at eye-level or nearly so. That positioning allows views that are almost horizontal instead of neckbreaking.
Some of the species we observed during the first part of the morning included Golden-olive Woodpecker, more Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, another Rufous-browed Peppershrike seen by most participants, a Streaked Flycatcher for those who had missed the species until now, a flock of Lilac-tailed Parrotlets, all three species of hermit hummingbirds, a courageous Southern Beardless Tyrannulet standing his ground to we trespassers in his territory, and exquisite views of Bay-headed Tanagers.
One of my favorite spots in Trinidad is the microwave relay tower near the crest of the ridge above the Centre. The van driven by Jogie blew past the turn-off and continued on down the hill. Meanwhile, I was busy in our van exhorting Roodal to turn slightly to the right and drive up the steep but straight access road to the tower, ignoring the "No Trespassing" suggestion on the fence. I told him that I'd tell Jogie that we forced him to make the turn and that the responsibility would be ours. So he turned, and up the hill we went.
One of the target species for the Textel site, as the microwave area is called, is Speckled Tanager. This species seems to prefer higher elevations to lower, and the Textel site is the highest point on the Blanchisseuse Road and the easiest to access. We parked the van at the end of the entrance road and greeted the guards inside the high security fence. They were used to seeing me up there, at least, if not other birding groups. I explained to the group that quite often "No Trespassing" means that you have to go in anyway to ask if you're really not allowed in or if you're supposed to go in and ask permission to enter. The guards up there don't get much company, and birders are no trouble at all to them. We only investigate birds from outside the fence.
Sitting atop the rectangular dish reflector were omnipresent Black Vultures. Gray-breasted Martins perched on the powerlines. The view was spectacular -- the mountain called El Tucuche to the west, the Cerro del Aripo to the east, the entire Aripo Valley stretching away to the Plains of Caroni to the south, and the steepsided mountains dropping to the azure Caribbean to the north. The breeze was invigorating. Its effect on the vegetation along the ridge was similar to that of the sea breeze to seaside vegetation, sculpting it to grow more horizontally than usual. Riding the breeze were distant raptors, mostly vultures but with a few other species mixed in.
Roodal and I took turns giving pygmy-owl imitations. We heard but didn't see a Hepatic Tanager, another species that prefers the higher elevations. Toucans called on the far side of the road, out of sight. A pair of Speckled Tanagers finally appeared near us in a small tree, briefly, but adequately. A Dusky-capped Flycatcher called a few times nearby but failed to materialize. The local birds had all come and gone, so we worked our way along the fence back to the van and began walking down the long, steep drive. The toucans still called from the other side of the road.
We had some excitement when a flycatcher swooped across the road in front of us and landed on a dead stick in plain view. We were so close that scope views only confused our identification. I tried hard to make it into a Euler's Flycatcher -- buffy wingbars or dusky wingbars? - but when it called it gave the call of a Tropical Pewee. Ah, well.
Jogie's van arrived after awhile. He took his group up to the tower while we continued walking down the entrance road. When everyone had seen everything there was to see, we reboarded and continued down Blanchisseuse Road, stopping now and then to bird along the road. Among the birds we found were White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, a genuine Euler's Flycatcher, and a number of Violaceous Trogons. At one stop we worked very hard to find and observe Black-faced Antthrushes - three of them or more - until everyone had seen them well. The quest for that species was a highlight of the trip.
After a lunch stop at the junction of Blanchisseuse Road and Brasso Seco Trace, we continued our descent on the north slope. An Olive-sided Flycatcher sallied out from a powerline for passing insects, returning to the same spot on the wire after each trip. A Crimson-crested Woodpecker was a great find, and with the Red-rumped Woodpecker we saw shortly thereafter, we'd cleaned up on Trinbago woodpeckers.
We had seen two of the three spinetail species and lacked only Pale-breasted Spinetail for a clean sweep, so when we heard one in the distance I played a recording of its song. It responded quickly and made its way wrenlike to within a few dozen feet of us. Like a wren it crept in and out of the christophene foliage in which it was skulking. While stopped at that location we watched a foraging pair of Rufous-breasted Wrens and had a nice view of a Grayish Saltator at eye level.
Restrooms are few and far between north of the Asa Wright Centre, so we take advantage of every one. In the village of Morne le Croix, the Midway Restaurant and Recreation Club provided what we sought, along with shelter from the rain, cold drinks, snacks, and loud music to which some of the group danced. We enjoyed the ginger beer, a lemon-lime-ginsing drink, and watching a local fellow try to dance while trying to keep his pants from falling down. This stop was more for local color than for birding.
Farther on, the rain had brought a vine-festooned tree limb down into the roadway. Reta, Dan, Ray, and Roodal worked hard to clear our path, pulling on parts of the branches and vines and cutting it with a machete. We continued on until we reached a valley that traditionally is good for Blue-headed Parrots, which appeared as if on cue. A boon for the trip was a pair of Black-tailed Tityras foraging in the area.
On our return drive we stopped again at the ridgetop, near the microwave tower. We were enveloped in a fine mist, but the air was warm and pleasant. Lo and behold, not far from us a beautiful pair of Channel-billed Toucans sat completely in the open atop a dead tree. Even without using the scope we had fantastic views of these bizarre, colorful birds.
Back at the Centre we took one last hike to the White-bearded Manakin lek, viewing Yellow Oriole, Turquoise Tanager, Rufous-breasted Peppershrike, Lilac-tailed Parrotlet, and a pugnacious male Great Antshrike along the way.
Our final dinner ended on a sentimental note as the kitchen staff brought out a sheet cake with two candles that read "50" and te with the words "Well done!" written in frosting, recognition that this was my fiftieth trip to Trinidad & Tobago. Our tally-rally brought the total trip list to a record-breaking 233 species seen and heard by the group. I think that all in all it had been the most enjoyable, most ornithologically successful of all my 50 trips.
Total for the day: 94
New for the trip: 11
Total for the trip: 233
|Olivaceous Cormorant||Neotropic Cormorant|
|Chestnut-bellied Heron||Agami Heron|
|Green-backed Heron||Green Heron
|White-necked Heron||Cocoi Heron|
|Black-shouldered Kite||White-tailed Kite|
|Lesser Golden-Plover||American Golden-Plover|
|Common Snipe||Wilson's Snipe|
|Buff-throated Woodcreeper||Cocoa Woodcreeper|
|Yellow-throated Spinetail||Yellow-chinned Spinetail|
|Yellow-breasted Flycatcher||Ochre-lored Flatbill|
|Yellow-olive Flycatcher||Yellow-olive Flatbill|
|Semicollared Nighthawk||Short-tailed Nightjar|
|Scrub Flycatcher||Northern Scrub-Flycatcher|
|Tropical House Wren||House Wren|