Trinidad & Tobago
May 16 - 25, 2007
Bill Murphy (Trinidad & Tobago)
Martyn Kenefick (Trinidad, first day)
Click here to view the species list, here to view it as an MS-Word document, or here to view it as a PDF file.
|May 16 ||Arrival|
|May 17||Southern Tobago |
|May 18||Tobago: Main Ridge, Little Tobago Island |
|May 19||Trinidad: Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC)|
|May 20||Trinidad: Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC)|
|May 21||Trinidad: Blanchisseuse Road|
|May 22||Western Trinidad|
|May 23||Eastern Trinidad|
|May 24||Waller Field|
This wonderful trip resulted mainly from my brother, Jim's, invitation to April and me to visit him and his family in Greeley, Colorado, and his contact with the Fort Collins Audubon Society. While we were visiting him I presented a lecture on Trinidad & Tobago to that organization. From that meeting a tour group materialized, eventually including six people from Fort Collins (Becca Bates, Ray & Joan Glabach, Bob & Ginny Johnson, and Doris Sumrall), two from Ohio (Susan Jones & Clyde Witt), and a long time friend from Virginia (Sara Denby). During our trip we found a grand total of 206 species of birds, a phenomenally high number considering that by late May most Neotropical migrants have departed long ago for their breeding grounds up north.
I would like to thank all of the participants — Becca, Sara, Joan, Ray, Bob, Ginny, Susan, Doris, and Clyde — for helping to make this an exceptionally productive and enjoyable tour.
I also would like to thank those participants who kindly shared their trip photographs with me after my camera's Olympus xD memory card spontaneously reformatted twice, erasing all images both times. Tip for travelers: Don't format your Olympus xD card through your PC! Only known solution: reformat the card on a Fuji digital camera.
Wednesday, May 16
All nine participants and I successfully journeyed from home to Trinidad today. Seven of us were aboard Continental Airlines flight #418 from Houston. The 5-hour flight took us east to Puerto Rico, south to Aruba, then east parallel to South America over Curaçao, Bonaire, and Isla Margarita to Trinidad. We arrived at Piarco International Airport in Trinidad shortly after 7:30 p.m., still well after dark. Joan and Ray Glabach, part of the Fort Collins contingent, arrived a few hours later.
My birding friends Martyn Kenefick and Graham White greeted us at the airport, affording the group a unique opportunity to be welcomed by 38% of the Trinidad & Tobago Rare Birds Committee. Everyone but me was shuttled to nearby Leo's Place B&B in Trincity for the night. Leo's Place was fully booked, so as previously arranged, Martyn and his wife, Petra, graciously put me up at their home in San Juan.
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Thursday, May 17 - Southern Tobago
Martyn and I arose at 4:15 a.m. He fired up some eye-opening coffee and drove me back to Leo's, where I met Ray and Joan, the previous night's late arrivals. Martyn headed back to San Juan, where he was packing for three months of leading birding tours to Kazakhstan and Kenya. After a breakfast of eggs and toast we gathered outside Leo's for a few minutes of dawn birding before riding to the airport for our 8 a.m. flight to Tobago. Among the birds we logged were Grayish Saltator singing from a TV antenna, Blue-gray Tanagers chasing each other through the suburban foliage, and Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees, the most abundant flycatchers on the island, occupying conspicuous perches in the open. As expected in mid-May, the day dawned clear, warm, and humid. Trinidad hadn't seen rain in three months. The vegetation was parched. I figured that Tobago, the drier of the two islands, would look even more desiccated.
Our 20-minute inter-island flight took us over Galleon's Passage to Crown Point International Airport, Tobago. Here we claimed our luggage, loaded it into a waiting pickup truck, and waved goodbye as it headed to our home for the next two days, the Cuffie River Nature Retreat near Runnemede. Bert Isaac, our driver, apologized for the small maxi-taxi he had for us, explaining that his large maxi had been in the shop three times during the month for transaxle problems. After a brief pause to visit the washroom we boarded Bert's maxi and began our birding.
Tobago is a quaint island. Everything seems intimate. Driving from place to place on the south end is a matter of a few minutes at most. Our first stop was about five minutes away, on the airport perimeter road at the west end of the runway. Here, beside the cobalt waters of the Caribbean, we had a very nice find, a flock of 100+ Roseate Terns diving headlong into churning schools of minnows. Accompanying them were Brown Pelicans, Brown Noddies, and Noddy Terns, along with Laughing Gulls trying to steal the catch from the pelicans. Nearby in an almond tree a pair of Brown-crested Flycatchers scolded us for intruding on their turf. Bob and Clyde brought out the photographic big guns for the first time and began snapping away behind their long lenses.
Our next stop was at the Bon Accord sewage lagoons about two miles northeast of the airport. This odor-free enclosure contains four ponds separated by grassy dikes. As expected at the end of the dry season, the grass was dry and crunchy underfoot. The air was hazy with smoke from numerous brush fires and from dust blown over from the Sahara. In the emergent vegetation on the south side of the street we spotted Green Herons, familiar from back home; Southern Lapwings, plump shorebirds with a startlingly gaudy wing pattern in flight; Wattled Jacanas with toes so long the birds can walk on lily pads without sinking; and Cattle Egrets, appropriately fraternizing with cows and picking up insects flushed by their hooves. Short-tailed Swifts swooped very low and close to us, vacuuming up flying insects. Gazing through or over the chain-link fence that surrounded the enclosure, we found Anhingas, also called Snakebirds; and a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks standing on a concrete cross dike.
After examining the ponds we followed a trail along a canal to its mouth at the tranquil Caribbean. I was dismayed to find that several acres of palm trees and scrub had been cleared and that the foundations of a house had been laid since my February visit. We attracted a lively pair of nondescript Scrub Greenlets, a vireo relative, one of our dozen or so "target" species found on Tobago but not on Trinidad. The 30-foot-long aerial roots descending from red mangrove trees along the canal were quite impressive. We had a look at another Brown-crested Flycatcher and viewed countless fiddler crabs and at least one blue crab in the canal. A cool breeze off the Caribbean made the temperature more pleasant.
At midmorning we left Bon Accord and drove to the Pennysaver grocery store on Milford Road. Participants always welcome this stop because Pennysaver maintains an Arctic-like temperature. Here we sampled local beverages and stocked up on snacks. Peanut butter crackers and anything containing chocolate were clear favorites.
We drove east to a hotel/golf course complex called Tobago Plantations. The lake at the entrance to the area hosted diving Least Grebes, fishing Anhingas, and talkative Common Moorhen. Our visit to the usually productive Tobago Plantations sewage lagoons was somewhat abbreviated because of construction at the site. In that area we had our first close encounters with territorial Southern Lapwings. They were vocal and flighty, displaying their striking wing pattern. Our first Black-faced Grassquit, a singing male, was one of those "There it was!" sightings.
At lunchtime we drove north to the Grafton Caledonia Nature Sanctuary, to which I had arranged with Cuffie River to have our boxed lunches delivered. In the tranquil setting of a converted cocoa shed we enjoyed sandwiches of homemade bread with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers; fresh bananas; a current cake, dense with a mild flavor; and boxed fruit drinks and cold water. We were entertained by a family group of arboreal Rufous-vented Chachalacas that included at least six quail-sized babies, already capable of flight, albeit fluttery.
Around 1:30 p.m. we began birding along the eastern trail. Our progress was sedate because we were getting excellent, close views of many wonderful new species. In some places our progress was slowed further by bamboos that had been felled by recent brush fires. It was strange to enjoy such good birding while walking through ashes. Among the best species we found on this trail were Pale-vented Pigeon, Blue-crowned Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-crowned Woodpecker, White-fringed Antwren, and Blue-backed Manakin.
Our original plan was to remain at Grafton for the daily 4 p.m. bird feeding. However, since we'd already seen all of the species that normally show up then, we decided to use our time more effectively by exploring Cuffie River, especially the swimming pool. Bert drove us through some spectacular hilly areas in central Tobago and through the town of Runnemede to Cuffie River. The forests around Cuffie were much greener than the Lowlands had been.
Cuffie River features a 2-mile-long entrance road that provides an amazing sense of privacy, sufficient to warrant leaving the doors to the rooms open at night. The owner/manager, Regina Sanchez, greeted us and assigned us to our rooms. After settling in, Susan, Becca, and Doris made good use of the pool, while Clyde and I sat on the pool apron and birded. My memories of these hours include viewing Blue-crowned Motmots and Gray-rumped Swifts; Orange-winged Parrots screeching and flying from ridge to ridge, becoming more and more vocal as the light faded; a male White-lined Tanager repeatedly singing the same note; watching Clyde photograph a foot-long emerald-hued lizard; a flock of seven Smooth-billed Anis in a tree less than 5 feet from us; and Becca's red shoulder, which her underpowered sunscreen had failed to protect properly.
The Cuffie River complex has three main buildings the inn, the swimming pool, and the annex. Regina had filled all of the rooms in the inn, so I stayed in the annex. My room quite warm because the window and door shared the same wall, which precluded flow-through ventilation. My room had a bathroom with a shower, the same as the rooms in the inn.
Daylight during our trip was basically 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a brief bit of dawn and dusk birding. Thus dinner this evening, as on all evenings, was a nocturnal affair. We sat around a long table in the open-air dining room on the first floor of the inn, while in the valley out back the Cane Toads, Bufo marinus, were really going at it. They sounded like artillery fire. Out front, a White-tailed Nightjar used the mercury vapor lamp as a McDonalds, catching flying insects attracted to the light. Food from the adjacent kitchen emerged through two pass-throughs to women who delivered it to the tables. Dinner this night consisted of onion soup, stewed chicken bursting with BBQ flavor, black-eyed peas, sweet potato casserole layered with evaporated milk and topped with cheddar cheese, rice with bits of vegetables mixed in, and a shredded fresh salad with house dressing. Along with lots of cold water, some of us had beer, while others had wine. For dessert we had ice cream, either "orange pine", which is orange pineapple, or coconut. Most of us had a little of each.
Afterwards we retired to an adjacent sitting room to conduct our first nightly tally rally. We'd gotten off to a good start, having seen 56 species of birds on our first day in Trinidad & Tobago.
Before calling it a day, Clyde, Susan, and I spent a few fruitless minutes scrutinizing the slope behind the inn for White-tailed Nightjar. Regina suggested that I warn everyone about the Rufous-breasted Chachalacas, which blasted out an avian reveille each day at 4:30 a.m.
I slept with every portal to my room wide open, as I suspect the others did, too. A table fan provided welcome air movement, and I ran a citronella oil evaporator just in case there were any mosquitoes (there were none).
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Friday, May 18 Main Ridge and Little Tobago Island
The morning began with a strange situation involving two friendly but unusually inquisitive black pups. That incident is a matter of ongoing communication and is a story of its own.
After a breakfast of pineapple, papaya, granola, toast, coffee, and fresh orange juice, at 6:40 a.m. we boarded Bert's maxi and left Cuffie River. We drove past a 130-foot Kapok or Ceiba, Ceiba pentandra, tree along the road, amazed at the 40-foot circumference of its buttressed roots. Near some cows grazing on the lush roadside grass we found our first Giant Cowbirds and a single Cattle Egret, a species unexpected in the heights. It was obvious that the Main Ridge hadn't suffered nearly so much from the drought as had the Lowlands. In fact I thought that the rainforest looked just as lush as ever.
When we'd reached the highest elevation attainable by road, Bert parked the maxi at the Gilpin Trace trailhead and watched us disappear down the rainforest trail. In deep shade we birded quietly along the trail, stopping frequently to look and listen. Our first treat was finding a tunnel nest of Blue-crowned Motmots dug into the trail side, from which we could hear the loud buzzing of hungry young motmots. Philodendrons of several varieties, including Swiss-cheese philodendron, climbed the towering trees. Tree ferns overhung the trail, and a prehistoric fernlike plant called Spikemoss or Selaginella covered the steep trail sides.
Our target species included the vanishingly rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird, which we quickly nailed as one male after another gave us in-your-face views, perched and in flight. Another target species, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, landed on a nearby tree trunk and proceeded to work its way up, gleaning insects. A cooperative Rufous-breasted Wren foraged only about six feet from us. Male and female Rufous-tailed Jacamars perched quietly close by, allowing us to test our ability to determine their gender (white throat, male; rufous throat, female). Our best attempts to see Blue-backed Manakin resulted in a few quick views, even though I counted at least 25 individuals calling along the trail. We had the same marginal result with Collared Trogons. On the other hand, we had excellent, prolonged views of normally retiring species such as Plain Antvireo and Stripe-breasted Spinetail. We heard a tiny White-throated Spadebill once but never laid eyes on it.
As we birded I pointed out tropical plants and insects along the trail, including members of the berry-producing melastome family, popular with birds, and a Costus species with a thick, reddish, tubular flower stalk, locally called Red-hot Poker. Very conspicuous in the largest numbers I'd ever seen them were black-and-green swallowtail butterflies with long white swallowtails, the White-tailed Patch. Mosquitoes were present in small numbers, tiny but persistent.
The sky was somewhat cloudy and bright with no shadows and just a hint of a breeze. We birded to a background of chirps produced by hundreds of tiny frogs. Bob and Clyde took photos constantly. All in all we had an excellent morning exploring this unique ravine, the only spot on Tobago that was not ravaged by Hurricane Flora in 1963.
We birded along Gilpin Trace until 11:30 a.m. and then returned to the trailhead. From a Tobago woman I purchased some candied coconut and ginger-coconut candy and some banana bread to share with the group during lunch. Bert drove us to a forestry cottage on an overlook that offered a panoramic view of the Caribbean and the Main Ridge. Here we enjoyed our boxed lunches: sandwiches of homemade bread with sausage or baloney and cheese with cucumber; bananas; boxed fruit juice; bottled water; and for dessert, the local goodies I'd purchased at the Gilpin trailhead.
From the forestry cabin we drove to the Blue Waters Inn near Speyside, arriving at 1:30 p.m. We made use of the washroom before walking to the end of the concrete pier and boarding Wordsworth Frank's glass-bottomed boat. With Dion Adams as our boatman we made a fast 2-mile crossing in relatively calm seas. En route we had close views of seabirds that included a group of Brown Noddy terns that Clyde called out first, as well as Red-footed and Brown Boobies. We disembarked onto the concrete pier on the uninhabited nature sanctuary called Little Tobago Island.
The leeward side of Little Tobago Island was very humid, as it always is. Huge Anthurium hookeri plants dwarfed us as we climbed the 140 steps along the trail that led to the former warden's cottage. Along the trail I pointed out Gumbo Limbo or Tourist Tree, Bursera simaruba, whose name comes from its red peeling bark, and Silver Thatch Palm, Cothrinax argentata. Chickens (Red Jungle Fowl), which have lived independently of humans on the island for some 150 years, scratched at the dry, crumbly earth. Lizards of various species scurried away at our approach. We found unoccupied burrows of Audubon's Shearwaters under the anthurium root balls, but nobody was home. Their 2007 breeding season was over.
We stopped at the warden's cottage for a rest. A flock of Blue-gray Tanagers, Tropical Mockingbirds, Brown-crested Flycatchers, and Yellow-bellied Elaenias greeted us, hoping we'd brought fresh water for the feeders, as the island lacks fresh water. For the first time in my experience the rainwater cisterns were bone dry. Overhead flew numbers of Laughing Gulls but not a single Red-billed Tropicbird, one of our target birds for the island. I wondered if all of the tropicbirds had finished nesting and left. I sure hoped not.
From the cottage we walked east to the first overlook on the windward side of the island. Birds nesting on this side of the island have all the food they need right at their doorstep, as several ocean currents meet there, producing an upwelling of nutrients and an endless supply of small fish. I heaved a sigh of relief as the first of about 75 Red-billed Tropicbirds floated into sight, some so close it was impossible to focus a camera on them before they'd passed. We scanned the rocky face of a steep hillside and spotted resting Brown Boobies and at least two dead tropicbirds that had become entangled in the thorny vegetation and died there. Magnificent Frigatebirds circles majestically overhead, occasionally pulling in their wings and diving, falcon like, to intimidate a tropicbird or a booby into disgorging a fish.
While the rest of the group continued birding at the first lookout I clambered down to sea level along a steep trail that on my February trip had held nesting tropicbirds and afforded close views of nesting boobies. There had been a changing of the guard since then, with Laughing Gulls nesting abundantly in the shade of anthuriums, some of them barely off the trail. All of the gulls were screaming at me. Some rose off the ground and hovered over my head. A few of them stood and walked a short distance from their nests, exposing surprisingly large olive eggs with brown speckles, three to a clutch. Mission accomplished, I laboriously climbed to the top of the ridge and told the group that I thought it was worth it for them to climb about halfway down to see the birds. Those participants who made the strenuous climb were rewarded with intimate views of these beautiful gulls. Doris and I stayed behind near the top of the trail and found our own close Laughing Gulls on their nests. We also had close views of several motmots.
It was two days before my leg muscles stopped complaining about that trail.
From the first lookout we walked for about 10 minutes to reach a second, more distant lookout, this one offering a roof and shade. From here we could get even closer views of displaying tropicbirds as well as distant views of several white fluff balls that turned out to be baby Brown Boobies, along with at least one dark-morph Red-footed Booby. I scouted the dry forest near the shelter and found a ready-to-fledge tropicbird that everyone was able to observe and photograph. I flushed a White-tailed Nightjar that had been sleeping on the ground among the dry fallen leaves. I hadn't noticed it until it flew because it so closely resembled the leaves. It flew only a few feet, landing in perfect view of the rest of the group.
I'd asked Dion to have the boat return for us at 3:30 p.m. He'd been waiting for us at the pier while the boat had gone elsewhere during our explorations. After leading the group back to the main trail, I hiked ahead to let Dion know that he should signal the boat to return and tie up to the pier. Soon the boat was ready for us to reboard, but before so doing I showed everyone a huge scarab beetle that I'd found along the trail, explaining that island insects were larger and heavier than their mainland counterparts as a reproductive strategy it's impossible to reproduce if you get blown into the sea, which is what happens to small, light bugs on islands. It was hot! hot! hot! over 90°, according to Clyde's thermometer. The cooler temperature on return crossing was a welcome relief. Dion did us a great favor on the way back first by steering the boat over what may well be the largest brain coral in the world, appropriately named Einstein, and then through a feeding flock of Brown Noddies and Laughing Gulls that contained a few Sooty and Bridled Terns, our closest looks at those species.
We celebrated our successful foray to Little Tobago with ice cold cane-sugar-based Cokes at the Blue Waters Inn. We relaxed there on the seaside for about an hour, adding a lone Spotted Sandpiper to our list and tarrying in the air-conditioned gift shop.
We left Blue Waters around 4:30 p.m. and returned to Cuffie River. As we drove slowly along the entrance road at dusk we saw four White-tailed Nightjars sitting on the dirt road. Everyone had a good look at one or more of them in the fading twilight or in the headlights. As they fluttered up we could easily see the band of white in the wing, just like on nighthawks.
Back at Cuffie River we showered, relaxed, and then gathered for dinner, which tonight consisted of pumpkin soup, thinly sliced lamb, black-eyed peas, mixed vegetables, and grated fresh salad. For dessert we had pineapple ice cream and sliced sapodillas that I had purchased for the group from a roadside vendor.
At our tally rally we came up with a total of 68 species for the day, of which 24 were new, bringing the trip list to 80. Everyone said that they'd had a really good day, having seen and photographed everything they'd wanted to. The baby tropicbird was a real plus. Hiking down the incredibly steep trails and seeing the Laughing Gulls at point-blank range, sitting on eggs, was a plus. Finding the White-tailed Nightjar on Little Tobago was definitely a plus. And now it was time for sleep.
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Saturday, May 19 — Trinidad: Asa Wright Nature Centre
To our consternation the two pups had fun in our rooms last night, a situation again worthy of a separate story.
Breakfast at Cuffie River today consisted of toast, bacon, eggs, granola, and fresh fruit, along with coffee. The first Piratic Flycatcher of the trip was calling behind the inn when Bert picked us up at 7:15 a.m. As before, our luggage was conveyed separately. We made an unscheduled stop at the Tobago Plantations where, near the entrance, I photographed, for the record, the first Neotropic Cormorant for Tobago, a bird I later learned had been present for almost two years. We also stopped at the Bon Accord lagoons again to see if any White-cheeked Pintail were visible (there weren't) and arrived at Crown Point Airport at 8:45 a.m., meeting the required 1-1/2-hour pre-flight arrival for our 10:15 a.m. flight.
Martyn Kenefick and our maxi driver, Eric, met us at the Trinidad airport and whisked us up the Arima Valley to Asa Wright. It was somewhat dry, and the air was still filled with Sahara Desert dust, but it was cooler (mid-80s) and greener at Asa Wright than it had been anywhere in Tobago. A Piratic Flycatcher had been the last bird heard at Cuffie River and was the first bird heard at Asa Wright. The manager, Ann Sealey, welcomed us and assigned us rooms. All of us had rooms slightly downhill from the main house, which meant that we were close to our meals, transportation, and the fabulous bird-rich veranda. After settling in we proceeded directly to lunch. All meals at Asa Wright were buffet style, generally enjoyed at round tables with lazy-susans. For lunch today we had shish kebab, black-eyed peas, and fresh garden salad. For dessert we had a fruit cup containing pineapple, watermelon, and papaya.
At 1:30 p.m. we congregated in the main room. Martyn did an excellent job explaining the Centre's operating procedures, our Trinidad itinerary, and just about everything anyone could have wanted to know about how to get along during our stay. As soon as he was finished we all migrated to the veranda and started ticking off new species. Susan erupted vocally at her first sighting of a Purple Honeycreeper: "OH, WOW!!" We all had a good laugh at her contagious enthusiasm. Hummingbirds got top billing as we studied them at arms length. Ray had had a couple hummingbirds hovering within a foot of his face. A canopy-loving Long-billed Starthroat was the most interesting hummingbird, actually feeding below us in full view as opposed to the treetop silhouette view we normally have. We saw both male and female Tufted Coquette hummingbirds. A pair of Tropical Kingbirds was incubating eggs in their nest in a grapefruit tree just off the veranda. Lots of photograph work was underway. Bob was using his 500mm Canon lens, and everyone was just having a darned good time.
At 3 p.m. we gathered to walk the entrance drive with Martyn, who would be with us this one day only, as he was leaving at the end of the week for three months in the UK, Kazakhstan, and Kenya. Clyde quickly picked out a Lineated Woodpecker and later spotted a Channel-billed Toucan in flight. We also found Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The walk was very productive and added a large number of new species to our trip list. We returned to the veranda in time to enjoy some dangerously strong rum punch before retiring to clean up for dinner.
Dinner tonight consisted of pumpkin and ginger soup, pork chops, spaghetti with marinara sauce, braised carrots and bok choy, and a fresh garden salad. On most evenings our dessert was a rum-soaked flan of some sort, topped with a cherry or a small scoop of watermelon as garnish.
After dinner we conducted the tally rally on the veranda. Our total for the day was 78, with 37 new for the trip, bringing our trip total to 117. I particularly enjoyed Joan keeping me posted on how many more species she was seeing than she had expected to see.
Afterwards most of us took a walk along the entrance drive, led by resident naturalist Barry Ramdass. He gave us a much too close view of a Trinidad Pink-toed Tarantula. Then it was time for bed. We'd had an altogether unforgettable day.
During the Trinidad segment of the trip, sharing a bungalow wall with me was Sara Denby, who'd been on birding tours with me way back in the 1980s when I lived in the Washington, DC, area. Sara still lives there. It was a real pleasure to be birding again with her after all these years. As did all of the participants, Sara contributed greatly each day to the good fellowship and humor we shared.
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Sunday, May 20 — Trinidad: Asa Wright Nature Centre
Clyde and I were on the veranda at first light, enjoying spectacular views of Red-legged Honeycreeper and of all the normally occurring hummingbirds up close. Soon the whole gang was present, ooh'ing and ahh'ing over the birds in the primrose tree and the trema bush. To the right of the veranda was a yellow Poui tree that was in its third bloom since the dry season began in December. Legend has it that after the third bloom, the rains come. Indeed, we did have a few scattered showers last night and again early this morning. The humidity level was high. At sunrise a bit of a breeze kicked up and the temperature became very pleasant. Probably the highlight of our pre-breakfast birding was finding a Channel-billed Toucan perched in the top of a tree down the valley. Almost as good were a circling Swallow-tailed Kite and a distant flock of seven more in the distance, a beautiful sight. Again we had the Long-billed Starthroat very close to us, feeding at one of the hanging platform feeders. Dr. Howard Nelson, CEO of the AWNC, came out onto the veranda and joined us for awhile, as did Barry Ramdass.
At 7:30 a.m. the breakfast gong sounded, activating the salivary glands of every guest at Asa Wright. Breakfast today consisted of cornflakes, granola, or raisin bran with fresh bananas, cut watermelon, sopaipilla-looking pastries, toast, salted smoked herring with onions, and scrambled eggs. Beverages included milk, orange juice, and coffee.
Today we had two outstanding nature walks, the first at 8:30 a.m. led by Barry Ramdass, the second at 2 p.m. led by Harold Diaz. The temperature stayed mild, and a slight drizzle helped keep things looking lush. Barry led us down the Discovery Trail, past the many kinds of flowering ginger, the huge mango tree at the Guacharo Trail head, and as far as the White-bearded Manakin lek. Afterwards we gathered on the veranda for a few hours watching the regulars as well as some extremely distant birds that included at least two Zone-tailed Hawks. I continued teaching the group ways to separate the different species of hummingbirds and was able to point out a Tropical Parula working its way through the treetops. We also found a chickadee-sized Golden-fronted Greenlet. Below the feeders, a shedding Tegu lizard, Tupinambis teguixin, and a Red-rumped Agouti, Dasyprocta agouti, provided us with non-avian entertainment.
For lunch we had fish tea, baked chicken, Spanish rice, mixed "provisions" (root vegetables such as yams), macaroni pie, callaloo (a thick soup made with dasheen, coconut milk, and spices), red beans, fresh garden salad, and fruit salad for dessert. Most of us took a nap after lunch and then met on the veranda to follow Harold over hill and dale to the Oilbird cave. The temperature was perfect in the mid-80s with high cumulus clouds providing occasional shady periods. The amount of dust in the air had decreased noticeably since the previous day as a result of the rain.
Harold did a superb job leading the walk to the Oilbird cave. On the way down we found the disk-like seeds of the thorn-barked Sandbox or Monkey-No-Climb tree, Hura crepitans, which are somewhat thicker on one rim than on the other. If you trim them just right and make a little hole in the right place, they look like a dolphin. We came upon two different army ants swarms, some of the largest I've ever seen. Foraging on the ground in association with the swarms were half a dozen Cocoa Woodcreepers, about 10 Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and a cooperative Black-faced Antthrush. Everyone got to see almost everything, although a few people didn't see the Black-faced Antthrush. The visit to the Oilbird cave was phenomenally successful for a number of reasons, among which was the exemplary behavior of the group. Some people found the Guacharo Trail challenging and rated it five on a scale of five for difficulty. Fortunately, this was our last non-level hike of the trip.
Just after I'd finished photographing the Oilbird cave, my camera decided to reformat my memory card. I lost all the pictures up to that point, including the extreme close-up of the White-tailed Nightjar on Little Tobago Island. Later, Doris reported that her laptop showed that my memory card wasn't even formatted anymore, so I reformatted it in the camera and started over again.
On the way back from the Oilbird cave, Becca and I hung behind for a few minutes to watch one of the army ant swarms. A Plain-brown Woodcreeper clung to a tiny sapling only about 10 feet from us. While we stood there it came to within 4 feet of us and just sat there, upright, on another sapling. It hopped down in a flash, snapped up a white moth about an inch across, flew back to its perch, and ate the insect. Then it repeated this performance a second time. It was as if the woodcreeper didn't know we existed. It was so close to us and paid us so little attention that I felt like we were in one of those David Attenborough nature films. It was truly amazing.
When the group had almost reached the head of the Guacharo Trail, Harold brought us to a halt, pointing to an immense swarm of army ants covering the full expanse of the trail ahead of us. There was no way to proceed in that direction without being covered with biting, stinging army ants. Harold led the way around the swarm, blazing a steep alternative trail that avoided the swarm, which looked like a river flowing down the steps at a rate of about a foot a minute. Once we'd gotten above the swarm we watched it briefly, admiring a pair of Great Antshrikes picking off insects disturbed by the ant swarm.
Upon returning to the main house we hit the veranda, as usual, and enjoyed watching all of the birds at the birdfeeders. For dinner we had lamb, parsley potatoes, lentils, and "assorted spinach", all artfully presented. There were few other guests in the dining room that night, so I conducted the tally rally right there, where the light was good. We came up with a total of 71 species for the day, of which 16 were new, bringing the trip list to 133 species.
Afterwards we accompanied Harold on a night walk along the entrance drive. So much of the Sahara Desert dust had been removed by the early morning showers that the stars were clearly visible. We got to see the Big Dipper and a bit of the Southern Cross. Harold showed us an opilionid or Harvestman, which looked like a spider with a fused cephalothorax instead of separate head and thorax and which lacks venom. He also found a pseudoscorpion and took us for a second visit to the tarantula we'd seen earlier, the one that's spent its nights on the outside wall of the cocoa suite since at least February, when Martyn and I stayed there. Harold found a sleeping Great Kiskadee and pointed it out to the group. I couldn't see if the eyes were open or not, but it had absolutely no reaction to Harold's light shining on it. We found another huge scarab beetle that probably had run into the mercury vapor light along the entrance drive and fallen to the ground. It had landed on its back and was having a difficult time righting itself. A bat with a 12-inch wingspread kept passing through the light, casting weird shadows over us.
The walk went on a little longer than most of us probably would have desired, but we stuck with Harold to the end. None of us had brought flashlights, and we were sure not going to walk back in the inky blackness knowing that a woman had been bitten in late afternoon by a deadly bushmaster along that stretch of the entrance drive a few weeks before. She had survived, but we were all being mighty cautious just the same. By the time the walk ended we were tired, having spent much of the day on our feet, hiking up and down trails. The consensus was that the high point certainly was the ant swarms, although everyone thought the Oilbirds were pretty darn good, too.
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Monday, May 21 — Trinidad: Blanchisseuse Road
After an early breakfast consisting of the usual three kinds of breakfast cereal, scrambled eggs, bacon, pineapple, papaya, and watermelon, at 7 a.m. we boarded the maxi. Our destination was Blanchisseuse Road, at which the entrance drive ended. We headed north to the crest of the Northern Range, the easternmost extension of the Andes Mountains, stopping wherever the birding looked promising. Less than a mile from the Centre we nailed a very good species — Swallow Tanager, both male and female. We observed a toucan in a tree, had a brief view of a male Collared Trogon, and had two close Golden-crowned Warblers hopping around and singing in a tree overhead. We tried really hard to spot other Collared Trogons that we could hear, but we just couldn't connect with any of them. We also had more Golden-fronted Greenlets.
The early morning was excellent for raptors, yielding Common Black Hawk, a brief view of White Hawk, more Plumbeous Kites showing rich chestnut in the wings, and a single Swallow-tailed Kite. A little later we had another Swallow-tailed Kite, as well as a light-morph Short-tailed Hawk (all seen on the trip were light morph), which looked like it was wearing a Peregrine Falcon helmet. Becca quickly earned the nickname "Raptor Girl", quickly spotting hawks, including another Common Black Hawk. Clyde also proved to be excellent at picking out birds, including a Streaked Flycatcher.
Eric drove us to the very top of the entrance road that leads to the Textel microwave station atop Morne Bleu. The view from there is always fabulous. To the west you can see the Gulf of Paria and the Caroni Swamp. To the south you can see the petroleum refineries at Pointe-à-Pierre and beyond, all the way to San Fernando Hill National Monument. To the southeast you can see the Central Range. To the east you can see the long rainforest-covered crest of Morne Bleu stretching into the distance.
We searched for the Trinidad Piping-Guans that had been seen here occasionally during the last year, but we found none. We also dipped on Speckled Tanager. A huge surprise was finding six more Swallow Tanagers, along with a somewhat more expected Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet. We also had good views of Black Vultures and of the venezuelensis race of the Turkey Vulture, which shows a yellowish white band across the nape. We also had our best views yet of Golden-fronted Greenlet. We walked the perimeter of the security fence and got a Grayish Saltator to come out. We looked overhead for swifts but found nothing unusual and walked part way down the entrance road, finding treetop Long-billed Starthroats and more of the same sorts of birds as earlier, including Bay-headed Tanager. As a reminder of our time in Tobago, at this site we had a very high fly-by Magnificent Frigatebird.
From the Textel entrance we continued to Las Lapis Trace, a high elevation dirt track that is essentially level for the first half mile. It was midday, and the birds were getting very quiet. We heard and then briefly saw a Slaty-capped Flycatcher, probably one of the same individuals that were nesting at this site in February. Two Collared Trogons, possibly three, were calling regularly at one spot but just wouldn't come close. While waiting for them we had several decent views of a pair of Long-billed Gnatwrens.
We followed Las Lapis Trace as it made a 90° bend and headed south into the Lopinot Valley. With some difficulty I was able to pinpoint a very distant lek of Golden-headed Manakins. Everyone eventually was able to spot, although not necessarily photograph, at least one of these extraordinarily lively birds, which Martyn describes as "a little black furry gonk with its head dipped in egg yoke." Bob got a terrific photo of a pair of Orange-winged Parrots in flight, with the orange blazing — an absolutely wonderful shot.
By then it was pretty hot even there in the heights, so we took a break for lunch. Eric drove down the north slope of the mountains to the Brasso Seco junction, where we enjoyed our lunch while sitting on a black-and-white striped concrete retaining wall. Lunch consisted of cheese, tomato, and lettuce sandwiches on really great homemade bread, along with watermelon and a garden salad. To drink we had fruit juice and cold water.
From Brasso Seco junction we continued to the tiny hamlet of Morne La Croix. Enjoying cookies and cold beverages in the shade at the local recreation club, we "switched off" for awhile, as Martyn says, letting the hottest hour of the day pass. The owner of the rec club had a male Lesser Seed-Finch in a cage, while down the road we found a male Violaceous Euphonia in another cage. The Lesser Seed-Finch is at the high end of the prestige scale for cage birds, while the Violaceous Euphonia is at the lower end. Caging either species is against the law, but enforcement is lax.
Continuing to the western end of Morne La Croix, we sat on another concrete wall watching for Blue-headed Parrots and other birds to fly over. We enjoyed about two hours at this pleasant spot and saw nary a bluehead, though we did nail Yellow-rumped Cacique, one of our target birds, at a nesting colony down the road. Another Channel-billed Toucan flew by, and two Rufous-browed Peppershrikes worked their way to within 10 feet of us, singing vigorously the entire time. There could never have been a better view than the one we had of that species. It was a terrific sighting. We also had a very distant Common Black Hawk and another Plumbeous Kite. For the most part the hawks were riding updrafts hundreds of feet above us and appeared as specks in an otherwise cloudless azure sky.
On our way home we made another stop at Las Lapis Trace, where the only birds around were Collared Trogons, calling but never showing themselves, and a frenetic pair of Grayish Saltators.
Back at the ranch, as usual we cleaned up and then headed for the veranda. An ecology professor from Arkansas, a fellow of Indian extraction whose name I don't think I ever obtained, got very excited when he spotted a huge swift rocketing down the valley. Clyde and I both got on the bird — it was a White-collared Swift, one of the world's largest swift species, the only one for the trip.
For dinner we had cream of tomato soup, roast beef with gravy, pumpkin, rice, steamed cauliflower, black beans, and fresh garden salad. The ecology professor, whom we nicknamed "Mr. Arkansas," joined us at our table. He was most enthusiastic and entertaining. We were sorry he was leaving for Tobago the next day.
At our tally rally we came up with a total of 85 species for the day, of which 17 were new, bringing the trip list to 150. Then it was early to bed, since tomorrow was to be our longest day. How long, you ask? As an indication, breakfast was scheduled for the ungodly time of 3:45 a.m.
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Tuesday, May 22 — Western Trinidad
We quietly consumed a cold breakfast of cereal, toast, milk, coffee, tea, and juice while the rest of the guests at Asa Wright slumbered. Eric pulled his maxi out of the Asa Wright car park at 4:20 a.m., headed on a 2-hour drive in the dark to southwestern Trinidad. The planet Jupiter was high, with four moons visible. The Milky Way was very clear. We caught glimpses of the Southern Cross, which was far easier to view in the evenings than in the mornings. By 5:30 a.m. it was bright enough to read. The eastern sky was pale blue with sizable cumulus clouds low on the horizon. After several days with brief sprinkles, the eastern sky to me seemed cloudy enough to foretell serious rain later in the day. As it turned out, I was correct.
We reached the city of San Fernando at 5:50 a.m. and our destination, the Sudama Steps, at 6:40 a.m. Eric parked the maxi along a mangrove-lined canal, and we disembarked. A pair of adorable Green-rumped Parrotlets perched obligingly nearby. A derelict washroom provided a forgettable experience for those who partook of it. Cameras were readied, binoculars were strapped on, and with the sun at our back we began our birding trek along this feeder canal, which empties into the South Oropouche River. Along the first stretch of the track it appeared that seismic activity, which is common in southern Trinidad, had caused the dike to drop about a foot for about 50 feet. I hoped that Eric's maxi could get over it later when I radioed him to pick us up.
We walked for about a mile with the canal on our right and a vast expanse of marsh land on to our left, across an irrigation ditch. The temperature rose from the mid-80s to about 95° during our walk. We spotted plenty of Yellow-hooded Blackbirds and a single Red-breasted Blackbird in the nearby marsh, a steady supply of Yellow-chinned Spinetails on either side of us, and in the mangroves one of our target birds, a tiny mite of a bird with a long, flattened bill, the Spotted Tody-Flycatcher. A flock of three Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters that passed by overhead were seen by only a few members of our group, as they were in line with the sun by the time I called out the identification.
The group's favorite bird by far was the jay-sized Black-crested Antshrike, which we attracted several times. They always responded vocally, looking like small versions of Woody Woodpecker, their calls seemingly produced by means of vigorous tail pumping. One of the two Long-winged Harriers we saw, an immature that passed almost overhead, came so close to us that we could see every feather. A more distant Long-winged Harrier was a light-morph adult. Another excellent sighting was of a single distant Cocoi Heron, which looked like a bleached out Great Blue Heron with a black cap. Having seen our target birds, I summoned Eric by means of a set of Talkabouts® I'd brought with me. On our February trip Martyn had used his cell phone to do the same thing; since my cell phone is useless in Trinidad, I figured a set of Talkabouts would serve the same purpose. And so they did.
By 9:30 we were headed back north to Gulf City, just outside San Fernando, where we feasted on a late breakfast of doubles from a dependable roadside vendor. This was a first for most participants. Doubles are flat fried pieces of dough, two pieces overlapped like a fat figure eight, atop which is applied a mango paste, split channa (chickpeas), and hot pepper sauce. I ordered "slight hot" for everyone, which meant very little of the incendiary pepper sauce. Each person also enjoyed a cold beverage carbonated pear, orange, or an old-fashioned Coke. From Gulf City we headed north along the Gulf of Paria on a road that led through every small town and village. This was the industrial part of Trinidad, with refineries, heavy manufacturing, cement plants, chemical plants, and blue-collar towns such as Pointe-à-Pierre and Port Lisas. We headed for the town of Carapachaima, where about two hours later I made lunch reservations for us at Jenny's Kitchen Corner, a local eatery known for its excellent roti. A roti is a staple Trinidadian food prepared by stuffing rolled dough with ground yellow split peas, cumin, garlic, pepper, and beef, pork, chicken, lamb, fish, shrimp, conch, potatoes, or vegetables, then sealing and rolling it to distribute the filling. While we were at Jenny's we procured more ice cold beverages (lemon lime bitters was the hands-down favorite) and used the washroom.
From Jenny's we proceeded due west to the gulf side area known as Brickfield. Here we had the tremendous good fortune of enjoying an outgoing tide, absolutely perfect conditions for viewing myriad shorebirds. The mud flats were teeming with birds as well as with uncountable numbers of fiddler crabs, whose constant claw waving made spotting the birds difficult. Between us and the southern edge of the Caroni swamp mangroves, about half a mile away, rested a flock of at least 800 Black Skimmers, 110 Yellow-billed Terns, 10 Royal Terns, 30 Laughing Gulls, and a second-year Ring-billed Gull. About half a mile south of us was a famous Hindu temple built over the Gulf of Paria at the end of a long pier. Between us and the temple, as well as directly out from the shoreline, stretched mudflats that were alive with birds. I counted/estimated 18 Whimbrel, 4 Collared Plovers, 15 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 6 Spotted Sandpipers, 2 Willets, 100 each of Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron, 30 Little Blue Herons (both adult and molting immatures), 15 Great Egrets, 3 Striated Herons, and 8 retina-singeing Scarlet Ibis. As we absorbed this surfeit of birdlife the tide very slowly retreated, exposing more and more mud. The Black Skimmers were especially wonderful to watch as while flying they dipped their knife-thin lower mandibles into the water, hoping to make contact with small fish.
The only glitch in this otherwise perfect picture was when Doris's camera slipped and struck the concrete pier, smashing the UV/daylight filter. Several of us tried to unscrew it, but it wouldn't budge. Doris discovered that the camera would still focus automatically even through the broken lens, so she continued to use the camera during the rest of the trip.
Around 1 p.m. we tore ourselves away from this fascinating spectacle and returned to Jenny's, where we devoured our savory rotis. I picked up a roti for Eric as well, who used his lunch break to have a new battery installed in his maxi. In the process a wire was probably damaged, but that story is for later. After lunch we walked around the corner to a grocery store for ice cream and then drove to the Caroni National Park visitors' center to begin yet another adventure.
At the visitors' center we disembarked and headed inside. Posters and dioramas explained the ecological significance of this unique and extensive mangrove community. Gathering the group together at the edge of the mangroves, I attempted to get a Clapper Rail to respond. The endemic race of the Clapper Rail in Trinidad looks more like a King Rail than a Clapper Rail, being rich buffy brown with prominent black barring on the flanks. Both the bill and the legs are bright yellowish red. I had little hope of getting one to respond and even less hope of glimpsing one. To my astonishment, two or three rails not only responded, but one actually came out of the mangroves and stood in the open, challenging my MP3 player from inches away. This was another view that simply could never have been better.
We had reservations for 4 p.m. to board a wide, flat bottomed boat to take his deep into the Caroni Swamp, which gave us about half an hour to walk along the canal. We had fleeting glimpses of Bicolored Conebills and attracted yet another pair of Black-crested Antshrikes. The eastern sky appeared to be seriously clouding up and looking suspiciously like rain might be in our forecast.
Until recently my groups had used the services of an excellent boatman named James Madoo for the Caroni Swamp. Sadly, James passed away last year. For our trip Martyn had engaged the services of James Madoo's extremely accomplished 22-year-old naturalist son, Shawn. Before we departed down the canal, Shawn and I reviewed the species I thought the group would most like to see. He was confident that he could help us find most of them. In fact, almost as soon as we were under way Shawn began picking them out one by one. As a result we had a splendid trip, seeing almost every species we wanted to.
First Shawn showed us Red-capped Cardinals — gray, white, and crimson — a group of six of them along the grassy north side of the canal. Then he called out "Greater Ani!" in time for us to see one in a nearby mangrove before it took flight. Shortly thereafter he spotted a sparrow-sized, rufous-fronted Pygmy Kingfisher and backed the boat up so all could see it. He took the boat to shore at one spot so he could point out a Common Potoo perched on the tip of a branch, looking very much like a continuation of the branch itself. He found a small flock of Bicolored Conebills and then asked me if I had a recording of Straight-billed Woodcreeper, a mangrove specialist. I did, and playing it quickly attracted two of the birds to within 20 feet of us. It was one great bird after another. Shawn even found us a Two-toed Sloth or Silky Anteater curled up in a honey-colored ball, sound asleep. We finally reached the Scarlet Ibis roost, an extensive area of open water where hammocks of mangroves provide secure places for ibis, herons, and egrets. We watched flock after flock of these luminescent birds fly in, along with herons and egrets of all kinds. Walt Disney doesn't do it any better than this.
Just about then the heavens opened up.
Our group was sitting in the front of the boat. A large contingent of people from the island of Martinique occupied the back. Shawn produced a very long, wide piece of plastic from the back of the boat. The Martinique group unrolled it and passed it forward over their heads to us in the front until we were all fairly well protected from the rain. So we sat in the rain happily drinking our rum punch, eating our cake, watching Scarlet Ibis flying in to roost, and having a marvelous time witnessing one of the most dramatic birding spectacles on earth.
At dusk Shawn guided the boat back to the docks as the rain continued to fall. Eventually we were all wet but it wasn't an uncomfortable kind of wet, just "wet" wet. Runoff was draining from the sheet, occasionally running down onto us rather than over the gunnels of the boat. One Martinique fellow stuck a finger through a hole in the plastic sheet, looking for all the world like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. About a mile before we reached the dock a particularly thick-bodied 5- or 6-foot-long Spectacled Caiman, Caiman crocodilus, swam sinuously across the width of the channel in front of the boat, providing us with a terrific view of this, the only member of the crocodilian family in Trinidad.
Happy but every bit tired as you might imagine after this long day, we thanked Shawn profusely for one of the best trips ever, reboarded Eric's bus, and rode through rush hour traffic all the way back to Arima. Before dawn that morning Eric had noticed that his headlights were looking dim, so as mentioned above, he had purchased and installed a new battery during lunch. About two miles from the Asa Wright Nature Centre, the lights went out, the engine died, and the maxi stopped cold, blocking both lanes of a narrow mountain road on a blind curve. Using Eric's cell phone, I immediately contacted Security at Asa Wright and explained our plight. They promptly sent one of the very nice staff vans to fetch us. During this 10-minute period we had little to do except watch Eric check the area under the maxi where the battery sat. By the time we left for the Centre, several other vehicles had stopped to help. One woman driving an SUV almost backed her vehicle off the edge of the sheer precipice while trying to aim her headlights where Eric needed them. He told me later that the electrical problem had been caused by an alternator wire that had failed, or "burst," as he said. He replaced the wire and all was well again.
Once back at the Centre everyone quickly changed clothes, showered, and was ready for dinner, which consisted of christophene soup (christophene is a kind of gourd; also called chayote), ginger BBQ lamb leg, provisions, stuffed eggplant, sautéed vegetables, and fresh garden salad. The dessert was crème caramel.
At our tally rally we came up with a total of 77 species for the day, of which a whopping 38 were new, bringing the trip list to 188. Then it was time for bed. It had been a long, delicious day filled with many fine experiences.
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Wednesday, May 23 — Eastern Trinidad
Having breakfast this morning at the civilized time of 6:30 a.m. seemed luxurious to us. Breakfast consisted of the usual three kinds of cereal, eggplant casserole, eggs, fajita-like pastries, a homemade cornbread-like confection, toast, watermelon, pineapple, and fruit juice and coffee. We definitely were not on starvation rations there.
Trinidad had received a fair amount of rain the night before, more than enough for me to feel comfortable announcing that the rainy season had finally arrived. The sky was filled with clouds blowing in on the trade winds from the east, and the light was bright and shadow free. This would be our last full day of birding. As I viewed the early morning skies I suspected that the day might be one of continuous rain. Fortunately I was wrong. As our third driver of the trip, Ivan, motored us along the Asa Wright entrance drive in the maxi, the air was quite humid and just a tad bit warm. I thought to myself that it would have been a perfect day to relax on the veranda drinking cold Stag beer. Instead we were heading down into the lowlands again and then to the east coast.
We left the Centre and stopped briefly at the christophene plantation, where one often can view three species of swifts and see them from above rather than from below. We found no swifts at all. Then we tried for Pale-breasted Spinetail and got no response. We did hear a White-bellied Antbird calling from the ridge above us. We continued down Blanchisseuse Road and turned east onto the Eastern Main Road, where we frequently find a tiny raptor called a Pearl Kite perched on the power lines. No Pearl Kite — three strikes in a row. It had started spitting rain. Not an auspicious start to the day.
Then our luck changed. I spotted an adult Pearl Kite perched on a power line on our side of the road. We were able to get out and get exceptionally good looks of this little falcon, which was a new bird for everyone. We continued a few miles east to the Aripo Livestock Station, which until recently had been off-limits to birders because of concern regarding transmission of animal diseases. The security guard let us enter, driving through a disinfectant bath (can tires get hoof and mouth disease?). At the first stop we found Red-breasted Blackbird and a pair of White-winged Swallows. Moments after arriving we found ourselves in a bit of a deluge, so we reboarded the maxi and for a while limited our birding to lulls between showers.
In a grassy field on the north side of the road we found a scattered flock of about 20 Grassland Yellow-Finches, some of them nicely teed up and in good view. This is the latest species to have colonized the island of Trinidad from South America. We found three spectacular Savanna Hawks, two adults and one juvenile, rusty brown with bold black-and-white tails and extremely long legs, typical of grassland species.
A tiny gray sparrowlike bird with rusty underparts caught my eye as it landed near us in a cow-trodden pasture. "Male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater!" I called excitedly. We sometimes find exactly one lone bird at this site. The group gathered along the roadside, every eye focused on the spot where the bird had been seen last. We waited for movement. Nothing. I asked a passing worker for permission to let us walk into the field, which he granted. We walked slowly, side by side, trying to relocate the bird without flushing it. I have no idea how it vanished like it did, unless it ran away like a mouse, but despite diligent searching we found no sign of it.
We did find Wattled Jacanas, Yellow-chinned Spinetails, and the least common bird of the walk, a tiny Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Another Cocoi Heron was also a real bonus. It flew in and landed in a wet depression not far from the entrance. Everyone could see the black cap and the white head and neck. Around the barns we studied the Buffalypso, a breed of water buffalo whose name was coined from buffalo and calypso, the indigenous music of Trinidad and Tobago. Ivan was very good at following us with the maxi at a reasonable distance. We experienced intermittent short showers with intermittent bright sun. We could see that more rain was falling up in the hills than down in the foothills, where we were.
When the rain had stopped we took advantage of the opportunity to bird our way up the eastern hill, walking a considerable way and seeing more of the usual species. The habitat at the top was very pleasant, a shady 20-foot-high shrub forest with a few larger trees. Here we got very good looks at Piratic Flycatcher and had a scope view of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher that lacked any elongated tail feathers. We proceeded west in the maxi across the heights and came down on the west side, having described a rectangle, returning to our starting point.
From the Aripo Livestock Station Ivan took us east to the town of Valencia for a much needed rest stop at the Ponderosa Restaurant. Everyone had cold drinks, and I picked up some cookies and crackers for the group. The music there was so loud that I could barely make out what the clerk was saying.
I asked Eric to drive back along the Eastern Main Road a short distance so we could visit a fish vendor's roadside stand for a photo opportunity. On display were 2-foot-long sandpaper-skinned baby sharks and fish with names like carite, kingfish, jack, mullet, and cravalle. We then began the long, straight drive to Sangre Grande, passing the seasonally flooded forests of the Aripo Savanna. I pointed out a wheeling flock of more than 40 Plumbeous Kites. Susan called out that she'd spotted a Swallow-tailed Kite, too. Sure enough, the lowest bird of all in the flock was a Swallow-tailed Kite. We bisected the bustling city of Sangre Grande and made an impromptu stop to see a Short-tailed Hawk that was up-and-down and here-and-there. While we were out of the maxi viewing the hawk, Ivan pointed out a sapodilla tree, Manilkara zapota. In Tobago we'd enjoyed sapodilla fruit with one of our meals.
Along a cricket field, a row of trees that traditionally held a nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques was devoid of birds. When we reached the intersection with Plum-Mitan Road, we were ahead of schedule, so I decided to check the area for Bat Falcon and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. I had Ivan proceed about 3 miles west, around the back side of Brigand Hill, the eastern terminus of the Central Range. We didn't find our two target species but did enjoy half an hour of birding on foot along Maridale Road, which I wrote up in the first edition of my book years ago and which now looks as if it's being used as a landfill. We were able to pull in Violaceous and White-tailed Trogons, a Streaked Flycatcher that Clyde picked out, Violaceous Euphonia, Red-eyed Vireo, and other species. It was midday. Bird action had definitely slowed, and lunch was just ahead, a beach siesta in a park at Manzanilla Bay on the Atlantic.
Lunch consisted of mildly spiced rice pilaf with large pieces of bone-in chicken, watermelon, fruit juice, and cold water. The ocean was beautiful, the prettiest I've ever seen it there. The east coast of Trinidad is bathed in the outflow of the Orinoco River, which carries enormous quantities of soil, coloring the sea a coffee-brown color. This time it wasn't muddy at all; it was several different shades of green blending into blue in the depths. We saw no seabirds except for a juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird high overhead. We tossed tidbits of leftovers to the bony, wary Third World dogs, finally giving them all of our leftovers, including at least a pound of the rice pilaf and chicken.
After we'd all finished lunch and Ginny had had a chance to put her watercolors to good use, Ivan continued driving us south, passing an estimated one million coconut palms. Becca was really great — she spotted both a young Savanna Hawk and an adult Common Black Hawk perched on the palm trunks. As we passed the ruins of former beach homes, I lectured about the Trinidad oil boom and bust in the early 1980s and the huge copra industry that the area formerly supported.
We crossed the Nariva River bridge and continued as far as the mouth of the Nariva River. Other than a lone Osprey perched atop a mangrove tree, there were no other birds to be seen. Turning back, we quickly located a perched Plumbeous Kite. We stopped at two tidal creeks, finding only common species. At a place called Bush Bush a pair of Streak-headed Woodcreepers responded vigorously but never emerged from the thick clump of vines in which they were hiding. After they had stopped calling, a lone Long-billed Gnatwren started calling, sounding a lot like a Streak-headed Woodcreeper. I played recordings of the two species so the group could concur that we'd had two different species giving similar monotone trills.
We walked as far west as we could along Bush Bush Creek, pulling out Black-crested Antshrikes and Bicolored Conebills, heard but not seen well. In a distant tree we spotted a young Pearl Kite and were amazed to see an adult Plumbeous Kite make repeated visits to it, apparently providing it with food. A number of times the Plumbeous Kite flew a considerable distance west, appeared to hunt for dragonflies, then flew very purposefully and directly back to the young Pearl Kite, where it appeared to transfer the food to the fledgling, beak to beak, before flying off again. We also had our best view yet of a Yellow-headed Caracara here, along with more Plumbeous Kites.
In late afternoon we headed back north to visit Waller Field, which consists of two long concrete runways and a grid of taxi-ways, part of a World War II U.S. Army base called Fort Reid. Ivan parked in a grove of Moriche palms where I thought we'd have the best chance of seeing another of our target birds, Red-bellied Macaw, and several other species closely allied with moriche palms. When we arrived the area was quiet and quite dark because of the dense cloud cover. Fortunately for us, after about 10 minutes the clouds parted and sunlight streamed in.
I led the group to the south end of the grove where I'd had good luck before. Susan picked out our first Sulphury Flycatcher in a moriche palm. It provided a truly excellent view. We found six of them and were able to observe them for an enjoyably long time. Two Ruby-Topaz Hummingbirds were also working the area, playing tag with each other through the palms. As I was watching them I picked out a pair of distant Red-bellied Macaws flying directly toward us. I pointed them out to the group as they continued flying directly at us. When they were only a hundred yards away, they banked sideways, the golden evening sunlight illuminating every feather. They were gorgeous! To top it off, they landed in the closest palm tree to us, about halfway up. For almost 20 minutes the macaws fed on the golf-ball-sized moriche fruits. Other Red-bellied Macaws joined them, eventually amassing a flock of about 30 macaws. Counting them was challenging because they moved slowly and blended in perfectly with the foliage. We also watched Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts zipping up into hanging dead moriche palm fronds where they were nesting.
We celebrated our great birding success by enjoying rum punch and chocolate cookies. Kenny Calderon, one of the best native bird guides on the island, was there with a birding guest. Kenny called out that he had spotted a Little Cuckoo, so we hurried to where he stood. Sure enough, a ruddy-colored Little Cuckoo perched out in the open for all to see, its yellow beak shining in the golden light. It flew across the road directly in front of us, perched briefly in a low shrub, and then disappeared into the underbrush. Most of us were able to get a good look at the bird.
We stayed a little longer and then returned Asa Wright, where Ivan and I unloaded the van. Our slightly late dinner (7:30 p.m.) consisted of cream of pumpkin soup, meatloaf, vegetables, spaghetti, lentils, and corn fritters.
At our tally rally we came up with a total of 90 species for the day, of which 12 were new, bringing the trip list to 200, which is darned good for this time of year when there are no shorebirds, migrating raptors, or Neotropical migrants of any kind.
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Thursday, May 24 — Waller Field
At 6 a.m. as the light was just coming up I was on the veranda talking with John Kritcher, author of A Neotropical Companion, one of my favorite books about tropical ecology. John was there to teach a class on tropical ecology for the American Birding Association. We talked about our respective experiences writing nature books and how these days any royalties an author might earn basically go to pay for gasoline.
Our group had an early breakfast that consisted of the usual three kinds of cereal; shredded salt fish with onions, peppers, and hot sauce; eggs; puffs of fried bread; bananas; watermelon; and fruit juice and coffee. We drove directly back to Waller Field, where my plan was to check out the brushy margins of the south runway. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. and had to wait a few minutes for the rain to taper off. Each day was bringing more and more rain, which was most welcome after the long dry season. According to Clyde's thermometer the temperature was already about 90°.
In addition to the common species, we saw two tiny doves feeding among the foot-high grass and weeds growing up from cracks in the lichen-covered runway. As we slowly walked toward them, I recounted to the group that at one time these were the longest runways in the Western Hemisphere. It was from Waller Field that all U.S. aircraft departed for Africa during World War II. More than 35,000 troops had been stationed here. As we approached the doves we could make out two-toned bills, and when they flushed the chestnut primaries were conspicuous. That nailed their identification as Common Ground-Doves.
We covered about a quarter mile of brush on our first leg of birding, finding another of our target birds, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and getting some good looks at species we'd already seen. Next we drove to a narrow paved lane where I was able to pull up a White-winged Becard that Martyn had produced on our February trip. We also had a nice view of Violaceous Trogon here.
For a rest stop we proceeded south to the town of Cumuto, where we enjoyed ice cream and cold drinks. I gave the owner, Lenore Noray, several 8"x10" prints of her and her daughter that I had taken in 1985. She was delighted with these glimpses of the past and showed them to everyone who stopped by her store while we were there. Across the street was an active colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques, atop which was a lovely lavender orchid in full bloom.
Our last birding stop of the day was the Arena Forestry Station on Cumuto-San Rafael Road. Here under the eaves of the abandoned forestry station building we found White-lined Sac-winged Bats, Saccopteryx bilineata. A high-flying Zone-tailed Hawk was a nice find, and a Tropical Parula came in close to us, singing regularly. Plumbeous Kites had become almost commonplace during the latter part of the trip, so we hardly commented on the flock of 45 circling overhead. Our final new bird was an adult Gray-headed Kite perched atop a distant tree and readily identifiable through my Questar. It was positioned exactly like the illustration in ffrench's field guide.
Back at Asa Wright we enjoyed our last lunch together. It consisted of savory lamb stew, bodi (a very long green bean related to string beans), "corn rice," hotel pie (spicy eggplant), red beans, and fresh garden salad. Our dessert was a mixed medley of fruit.
Our free time during the afternoon provided ample opportunity for settling our bills at the front desk, packing, writing postcards, swimming in the rainforest pool, and engaging in some last-minute birding. Several of us walked the entrance drive one last time, finding the usual species and reviewing the immense amount of information we'd covered about the ecology of the Arima Valley. A lone Plumbeous Kite was noteworthy because the species is far less common in the heights than in the lowlands. On our return Clyde and I spotted an accipiter-like raptor flap-flap-gliding while being harassed by Tropical Kingbirds. I called out "Double-toothed Kite!" It was the last new bird for the trip. This bird uses an ambush strategy, sitting quietly for prolonged periods and then making short dashes after avian prey. For that reason it is often missed by birding groups. We later learned that the birders on the veranda had studied it at length while it was perched in full view shortly before we'd spotted it flying. It was nice to have confirmation of our identification.
Many of us spent the last few hours of daylight engaged in conversation while birding on the veranda. It was as close to a perfect afternoon as I could imagine. Dinner was at 7 p.m. as usual and consisted of callaloo soup, cornflake fish (fish with cornflake breading), celery potatoes, steamed okra and pumpkin, pigeon peas, and fresh garden salad. Our dessert was rum-soaked banana mousse. This was an evening for final goodbyes to Clyde and Susan, who had decided in advance to spend an extra day at Asa Wright, an excellent decision. As much as they liked the rest of us, they prudently opted out of rising at 2:15 a.m. the next morning to bid us bon voyage.
At our final tally rally we came up with a total of 92 species for the day, of which 6 were new, bringing the final trip list to 206, a very satisfying number indeed, especially as the majority of them had been seen well enough to photograph.
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Friday, May 25 — Homeward Bound
It sure felt like it was the same day when we arose this morning at 2:15 a.m. Jupiter still blazed high overhead. The airlines were still demanding a 3-hour advance arrival at the airport despite the fact that most airline personnel wouldn't arrive for at least an hour after we did. It's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to international flights, so we were packed and en route to the airport by 3:30 a.m. We then bid farewell to Ray and Joan, who were catching an earlier flight than the rest of us.
So there we were, standing in line at the deserted Continental Airlines counter at 4:15 a.m. with nothing to do but wait for the Continental staff to arrive. When they did, we checked our baggage through to our destinations, knowing we'd see it again anyway at our first port of entry into the U.S. By 6:10 a.m. we were sitting at our departure gate watching for birds through the windows. Considering that my life list of species for both Miami and Houston airports is under 10, it was amazing to me how many species we were able to tick off while awaiting our departure — Gray-breasted Martin, White-Winged Swallow, Red-breasted Blackbird, Cattle Egret, Cocoi Heron, Great Egret, Yellow-headed Caracara, Savanna Hawk, Southern Lapwing, Crested Oropendola, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and others. This was airport birding at its best.
Then we were in Houston, where the group dispersed to various gates, leaving Doris and me to proclaim the trip officially over. A week later I'm still having withdrawal symptoms from Becca, Ray, Joan, Bob, Ginny, Doris, Susan, Clyde, and Sara.
The rest of the trip went smoothly for me except that my suitcase took an unscheduled excursion to Atlanta instead of Indianapolis, arriving a day late. Everything was still in it except the battery cover of my travel alarm again! Where's Bob with his duct tape when I need him?!
So as they say in Trinidad & Tobago,
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