Click here to view the annotated species list
Click here to view Jan Willem's animated Crested Caracara shots
Click here to view Jan Willem's animated Purple Heron in-flight shots
Click here to view some of Jan Willem's trip shots (click on the circled "i" to display captions)
Click here to view Jan Willem's trip shots on flickr®
Gay Burkhart, Zionsville, IN
Tom Krakauer, Bahama, NC
Angelo Lamola, Vallejo, CA
Larry & Karen Lee, Long Beach, CA
Lynn Richardson, Durham, NC
Marion van Sinttruije & Jan Willem Steffelaar, The Netherlands
When this trip was first announced, little did we know that Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano, more than 4,000 miles from Trinidad, would pose a significant challenge to the arrival of two of the participants. Nevertheless, on Thursday, April 22, Marion and Jan Willem managed to catch a flight out of Amsterdam that had been there eight days with its crew, waiting to leave, and then caught the first British Airways flight to Tobago from Gatwick after flights were allowed to resume. They traveled from The Netherlands to Tobago via Barbados and were able to relax for several days at a B&B before the rest of us arrived.
Those of us in the U.S. flew to Trinidad on Sunday, April 25. Chaitram Bhola, owner/manager of Sadila House B&B, met everyone as they arrived at the airport and transported them to his comfortable establishment. Later that evening, he drove everyone to the Bel Air Hotel for dinner and then back to Sadila House for the night. I arrived last of all. Martyn Kenefick and Graham White, good friends and fellow members of the Trinidad & Tobago Rare Bird Committee, met me at the airport. We held an impromptu meeting over burgers, during which Martyn filled me in on rare birds that had shown up during the month since my last visit. Then it was off to Sadila House and a good night's sleep for me.
Monday, April 26 - Southern Tobago
Bright and early, those of us at Sadila House enjoyed breakfast prepared by Chaitram and his charming wife, Savitri. A spacious van arrived, the driver stowed our luggage aboard, we said farewell to the Bholas, and then it was back to Trinidad's Piarco International Airport. We moved quickly through domestic check-in and soon were in the air, en route to Tobago. About 20 minutes later, we touched down at Tobago's Crown Point International Airport. We claimed our luggage in the tiny terminal and remained inside for awhile, taking advantage of the air conditioning while assembling our tripods and retrieving items from our luggage that we would need during the day. Outside we met Marion and Jan Willem. We also met our driver, Roger James, and boarded his beautiful, clean, air-conditioned bus.
Both Trinidad and Tobago were parched, no significant rainfall having fallen since the previous October. These normally emerald-colored islands appeared brown and crisp. The air was hazy, and the temperature was unusually high. Thus our first stop was at Jimmy's Mini Mart, where I picked up ice-cold bottles of water for everyone. From Jimmy's, we headed to our first birding location, the Bon Accord ponds.
One of our target birds for the morning was Purple Heron, a stray from the Old World. One individual of this species had been present at the Bon Accord ponds during the previous month. We stood on the roadside, carefully examining the emergent marsh vegetation and finding Great Egret, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, and then - in excellent light, flying overhead - there was our Purple Heron! This was a life bird for about half of the group. Our trip was off to an auspicious start.
We examined birds perched on nearby telephone lines and fences, finding Tropical and Gray Kingbirds and abundant Eared Doves. We walked slowly around the ponds, finding a variety of species, including Least Grebe, Common Gallinule, American Coot, Wattled Jacana, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Laughing Gull, and Anhinga. Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead. A nest of Southern Lapwings was nearby, as the two adults dove repeatedly at us, encouraging us to move away from their nesting area.
A brief foray into the mangroves at the back of the ponds yielded White-cheeked Pintail, Scrub Greenlet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Carib Grackle, and a Mangrove Cuckoo that vocalized but remained hidden in the foliage. Tom spotted several Common Ameiva lizards as they scurried along the ground. The young were easy to distinguish because of their greenish foreparts.
From the Bon Accord ponds, we drove to Golden Girls Bakery for some currant rolls and more cold beverages. Then it was on to the Tobago Plantations, where the only Neotropic Cormorant on the island awaited us, along with several Least Grebes, Anhingas, another Great Egret, Little Blue and Green Herons, and more Common Gallinules.
We next drove to the back ponds, where we found a dozen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Wattled Jacanas, a raft of Common Gallinule chicks (tiny balls of black fluff), and a brightly-colored Green Iguana on the pond's mud apron.
After checking in with security and making a quick pit stop, we birded the other ponds in the area. A bush along the entrance road held a secretive immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. On the other side of the road, we explored a series of small, nearly dry ponds, enjoying views of a Gray Kingbird. A Red-crowned Woodpecker chattered as it stuck its head out of its nest hole. On the edge of the ponds, we found Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and more Southern Lapwings. The rest of the "peeps" had departed for their breeding grounds up north.
At our last stop of the morning, a very careful search of a lilypad-covered pond turned up two perfectly camouflaged, secretive, and often submerged Masked Ducks.
For lunch we visited Store Bay, where at Miss Tracy's we sampled various local dishes while watching Tobagonians and visitors from around the world. More cold beverages, please! Just offshore, a dozen pleasure crafts rolled lazily in the turquoise Caribbean, while farther out, distant waves broke over Buccoo Reef.
After lunch, we drove up the northwestern side of the island to the town of Plymouth, where we visited Fort Bennett. From our vantage point above the bay, we watched Laughing Gulls trying to steal fish that had been caught by high-diving Brown Pelicans. We saw 16 Roseate Terns and stopped to chat with a group of people visiting from Baltimore, Maryland, my old stomping grounds.
As we left Plymouth, we paid a visit to the Mystery Grave, on which is written, "Beneath these walls are deposited the body of Mrs. Betty Stiven and her child. She was the beloved wife of Alex B Stiven. To the end of his days will deplore her death, which happened upon the 25th November 1783 in the 23rd year of her age. What was remarkable of her, she was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it except by her kind indulgence to him."
From Plymouth, Roger drove us to Adventure Farm, where at the feeders we viewed frenzied clouds of hummingbirds — Black-throated Mango, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Rufous-breasted Hermit, and White-necked Jacobin - along with Shiny Cowbird, Red-crowned Woodpecker, White-lined Tanager, male and female Barred Antshrikes, Trinidad (formerly Blue-crowned) Motmot, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and several dozen Bananaquits that flew in for sugar water at the sound of a bell. Adventure Farm is a must-visit spot for any birder visiting Tobago.
After we had all seen all of the local species over and over again, often within inches of us, we left Adventure Farm and drove to Cuffie River, where we arrived at 4:30 PM. We settled into our rooms, and then most of us took a nap. Afterwards we sat on the back patio, where we introduced ourselves, gave a brief summary of why we were there, described our birding intensity level, and listed any target species we desired.
For dinner we had callaloo soup, lamb, plantains, roasted potatoes, garden coleslaw, and homemade ice cream. All of the food at Cuffie River was excellent, prepared by the two Cuffie River cooks, Carolyn and Yvonne, along with the owner/manager, Regina Dumas.
After dinner we reviewed basic birding etiquette, discussed the next day's activities, and compiled the first of our nightly bird checklists. Our first Common Potoo whistled its melancholy call across the valley. Then it was time for bed in this sanctuary where we could sleep without fear with our room doors wide open to the breeze.
Total number of species seen today: 72
New bird species for the trip: 72
Running total: 72
New birds today: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Masked Duck, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Least Grebe, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Purple Heron, Osprey, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Common Gallinule, American Coot, Southern Lapwing, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Wattled Jacana, Laughing Gull, Roseate Tern, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Rock Pigeon, Pale-vented Pigeon, Eared Dove, White-tipped Dove, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Blue-headed Parrot, Orange-winged Parrot, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Common Potoo, Short-tailed Swift, Rufous-breasted Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Trinidad Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Gray Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed (Chivi) Vireo, Scrub Greenlet, Caribbean Martin, Barn Swallow, Bank Swallow, Tropical Mockingbird, Bananaquit, White-lined Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Crested Oropendola, Shiny Cowbird, Carib Grackle.
Tuesday, April 27 - Grounds of Cuffie River Nature Retreat
No one needed an alarm clock at Cuffie River. Instead, the "alarm clock" bird, the Rufous-vented Chachalaca, served that function. Chachalacas started calling at 5:15 AM and continued through breakfast. The current heat wave had prompted Cuffie River resident naturalist, Desmond Wright, to suggest that we start our morning hike an hour early, so at 8 AM, we headed down the entrance road to explore the area. The morning was cool and breezy, with a high, thin covering of clouds. Cloud cover is desirable in the tropics for two reasons: first, birds seem to be more active on cloudy days, and second, the clouds block the intense sunlight.
One of the most interesting aspects of our stay at Cuffie River began with Tom's telling me that, the night before, he had seen Blue-headed Parrots, a species never before recorded on Tobago. I told him that this was a very good sighting indeed and took it with a tiny grain of salt. This morning, both Tom and Angelo reported seeing more parrots of the genus Pionus, to which the Blue-headed Parrot belongs. Any doubt about their identification vanished when I saw a Pionus fly over during the morning and when Desmond told me that the previous group had reported seeing two Blue-headed Parrots. These sightings constituted the first record of the species for Tobago.
After we had spent some time viewing hummingbirds at the feeders and studying a pair of Yellow-bellied Elaenias nesting just outside the entrance to the lodge, we walked down the entrance road to the Cuffie River. We stood on the bridge viewing a pair of Chivi Vireos (Red-eyed Vireos, subspecies chivi), a screeching flock of 30 Orange-winged Parrots flying overhead, and a distant Osprey that Desmond pointed out. Gray-rumped Swifts zipped along the river and under the bridge below us, feeding and drinking (click here for 65-second audio).
We explored the entrance road for half a mile, and then turned onto a gently rolling trace (former donkey trail), along which we hiked until lunchtime. Along the trace we spotted lots of lizards, butterflies, and birds, among which were Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Trinidad Motmot, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher at the nest, and Fuscous Flycatcher. Large areas of vegetation had been destroyed by brushfires, leaving mostly bamboo.
Farther along the trace we came upon workers stringing cable on a tower leading to a huge new house under construction. Desmond told us that it was 4,000 square feet and cost $1.3 million. The highlight of our walk came shortly after we passed that house, when Desmond showed us a Common Potoo perched in the open on the end of a dead branch. We had excellent views and were able to view it through the scope. Desmond told us that it was incubating a single egg.
Our hike took a circular route. On the return part, Desmond used his machete to clear parts of the trace where bamboo blocked our progress. By now it was early afternoon and quite hot. Larry called this stretch the "Potoo Death March." We were still more than a mile from the lodge, so we called Regina to fetch, by car, those who were worn out. The rest of us took it easy, walking back to the inn in time for lunch, which consisted of chilled star fruit juice, new to all of us, followed by baked lamb, with homemade pineapple ice cream for dessert.
Late in the afternoon, six of us hiked slowly up a trace directly opposite from the lodge entrance. By persistence we eventually managed to view all of our target species — Blue-backed Manakin, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Venezuelan Flycatcher — along with other species. We had a brief view of a White-tailed Nightjar that flushed from its nest on the ground along the trail. This species frequently could be seen at night at the lodge, perched on a wire on the hillside below the rear patio.
After another gourmet dinner, Regina related to us the fascinating story of how the Cuffie River Nature Retreat had come to be and about the influence that her father and husband had had. It was a marvelous story, one that we discussed time after time throughout the rest of the tour.
After dinner we conducted our daily tally, and reviewed the details of the next day's itinerary.
Total number of species seen today: 49
New bird species for the trip: 12
Running total: 83
New birds today: White-tailed Nightjar, Gray-rumped Swift, White-tailed Sabrewing, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-fringed Antwren, Fuscous Flycatcher, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Blue-backed Manakin, (Tropical) House Wren, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grassquit, Giant Cowbird.
Wednesday, April 28 - Tobago Main Ridge Reserve and Little Tobago Island
Today was to be a very full birding day indeed! After breakfast, Roger drove us northeast from the town of Runnemede to the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road, the only road that bisects northern Tobago. Along the way, we stopped at an overlook above Castara Bay for a photo op. Soon after, we were in the highest elevations on Tobago, the protected Main Ridge Reserve. On the roadside we found a pair of Southern Lapwings, unusual at this elevation.
We arrived at Gilpin Trace, a trail that follows a stream through a deep ravine clothed in primeval rainforest. Normally we rent rubber boots at this spot because of the mud, but because Tobago was so dry, the boot renter advised me that we would not need boots and that the mosquitoes were thicker than usual. I appreciated his honesty.
We entered the heavily shaded ravine and proceeded very slowly for about a mile before returning to the trailhead several hours later. Near the entrance, we came upon a pair of Trinidad Motmots being harassed by a much smaller Rufous-breasted Hermit hummingbird. We surmised that the hummingbird had a nest close by and that she was protecting it from the motmots, which are nest predators. Sure enough, within a few feet of where the motmots had been, we found the hummingbird's nest hanging like an old stocking from a tree fern. Two young hummingbirds were crowded in the nest. They were very cute, with their pint-sized beaks pointing upward. Astonishingly, we found a second Rufous-breasted Hermit nest near the end of our walk.
A bit farther on, we came upon an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher bathing in a pool. In the nearby vegetation, we found a pair of Stripe-breasted Spinetails, amazingly cryptic birds that gave us only brief views before dashing back into cover. Throughout our walk, we not only heard but saw more Yellow-legged Thrushes than I'd ever seen before. This black, canopy-loving species usually sings from a perch in the highest rainforest trees. Another highlight was finding an immature Great Black-Hawk perched on a branch over the trail. It seemed somewhat unconcerned about our presence and provided endless opportunities for photographs. A second immature Great Black-Hawk was not visible but could be heard screaming in the nearby canopy.
Gilpin Trace is famous for its colony of the rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbirds. We saw at least four of them during our walk, and we heard several more squeaking in the vicinity. On my November trip, we had watched a White-necked Thrush building a nest in a shallow tree cavity along the trail. The bird was still there on my March trip, and today we were still able to examine the nest. Also along the trail was a confiding pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars sitting side-by-side, which provided an opportunity for us to learn to distinguish the genders, with the male's throat being pure white and the female's being buff-colored.
Throughout the trip, we periodically encountered other naturalists and local guides. Today we met Edith Thomas, a licensed Tobago trail guide who had moved to Tobago from Germany. We exchanged information on interesting bird sightings, as is the custom among birders on Tobago, and promised to continue to stay in touch by email.
Returning to the trailhead, we rejoined the members of the group who had turned back early. They told us that they had observed an adult Great Black-Hawk overhead, no doubt one of the parents of the immature birds along Gilpin Trace. The temperature was very pleasant indeed, nice and cool, so we drove for a few miles and then got off the bus and walked for half an hour, enjoying the breeze. The best find of this stroll was a colony of Crested Oropendolas, complete with numerous pendular nests. We relaxed by the roadside, watching these colorful birds with long yellow tails fly to and from their nests. A few Giant Cowbirds, nest parasites of the oropendolas, were also in the vicinity.
From the Main Ridge Reserve, we descended to the Atlantic side of Tobago and turned northeastward on the Windward Road. Just above the village of Speyside, we pulled into an overlook from which we could see many miles out to sea. The view included not only the village of Speyside but also Goat Island and Little Tobago Island, the latter being our afternoon's destination. Continuing into Speyside, we pulled up to Jemma's Treetop Restaurant, where we enjoyed a sumptuous feast of local dishes, including Creole-style chicken and grilled kingfish taken from the sea just a few yards away. This was our first opportunity to sample a local beverage that most visitors find irresistible - Angostura lemon-lime bitters, or "LLB" for short.
After lunch, from Jemma's we continued a short distance to the Blue Waters Inn. We heard from a visitor that because of the drought, the entire northern end of Tobago had been without fresh water for more than a month. The only fresh water that was available was bottled, so no one could take a shower or flush a toilet. Angelo spotted a few of the seemingly ever-present Ruddy Turnstones on the beach and pointed them out to the group.
At 2 PM, we boarded Wordsworth Frank's glass-bottomed boat. Our experienced boatmen - Shane, Dion, and Roy - motored us out to Goat Island, where through the bottom of our boat we had a clear view of the coral reef called the Japanese Gardens. Dion called out the names of scores of tropical fish, sponges, corals, and other aquatic organisms as they came into view. Continuing around the south end of Goat Island, we had views of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Noddy terns, Sooty Terns, and lots of Laughing Gulls on the wave-washed lava.
Setting foot on the uninhabited Little Tobago Island involved stepping off the boat onto a concrete pier, which everyone did without problem. The defining word for the next two hours was HOT! Slowly and with plenty of rest stops, those of us who chose to do so explored this starfish-shaped island. First we climbed to the middle of it, stopping along the way to view a young Audubon's Shearwater in its nest burrow in the roots of a tree. Silver Thatch Palm and Hooker's Anthuriums were the most prominent plants on the slopes. We walked past the former warden's house until we arrived at the first overlook. Before us was a nearly vertical drop to the sea and, on our left, a steeply sloping, brush and cactus covered ridge on which we could see roosting and nesting Brown and Red-footed Boobies. This was the place where Sir David Attenborough and other BBC cinematographers had filmed Red-billed Tropicbirds for their documentaries.
While Jan Willem and I hiked down a steep trail where on previous trips we had found seabirds nesting, Roy led the rest of the group to a second lookout, one with a more extensive view and with a covered shelter. Jan Willem and I found two Red-billed Tropicbird nests, each containing an immature bird, as well as many Laughing Gull nests, each of which contained a single greenish speckled egg. Not far away on a patch of windswept grass, an adult Brown Booby rubbed beaks with its plump fuzzy white baby. In the shadow of a distant rock, we also saw an adult Audubon's Shearwater.
The rest of the group was just leaving the second lookout when we rejoined them. Jan Willem and I enjoyed the view of the tropicbirds and boobies and were able to locate the sleeping White-tailed Nightjar that the rest of the group had seen on the ground near the lookout.
After walking back down to the pier, we reboarded the boat and started back to the mainland. Shane took the boat close to the rocky Little Tobago shoreline so we could get close views of Brown Noddy terns and mating Sooty Terns. Then he motored back to Tobago and we returned to Cuffie River. There we enjoyed another excellent dinner and updated our bird list while a Common Potoo whistled in the background. We went over the departure protocol for the next day as well as the protocol we would follow while at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
Total number of species seen today: 64
New bird species for the trip: 18
Running total: 101
New birds today: Audubon's Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby, Brown Booby, Great Black-Hawk, Ruddy Turnstone, Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, Collared Trogon, Green Kingfisher, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Stripe-breasted Spinetail, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Rufous-breasted Wren, Yellow-legged Thrush, Spectacled Thrush, White-necked Thrush.
Thursday, April 29 - Grounds of Asa Wright Nature Centre
Before dawn we enjoyed our final breakfast at Cuffie River before Roger drove us to Crown Point Airport. Two more Pionus parrots flew over this morning. Just after we crossed the bridge over the Cuffie River, Jan Willem spotted a Green Kingfisher just outside the bus, perched at eye level in bamboo over the river.
We had a blessedly uneventful, short flight back to the Trinidad airport, where Martyn Kenefick greeted us and signed copies of his field guide. While awaiting our transportation, we experienced the one and only heavy daytime rain shower of our trip.
My good friend Ivan La Rose was our driver in Trinidad. From Piarco Airport, he drove us east on the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway and then north through the city of Arima and into the Northern Range. Although no significant rain had fallen for nearly seven months, the vegetation in the Northern Range was much greener than it had been in Tobago, probably a result of the higher elevation of the Northern Range.
We arrived at AWNC in midmorning. Checkout was not until noon, so most of our rooms were not yet ready for us. We therefore gathered on the veranda and immediately began seeing new birds for the trip, including Turkey and Black Vultures, Band-rumped Swift, Tufted Coquette, White-chested Emerald, Great Antshrike, Forest Elaenia, Great Kiskadee, Cocoa Thrush, Silver-beaked Tanager, and Purple and Green Honeycreepers. All of these were common species that we saw most days in Trinidad but which are absent from nearby Tobago.
At noon we enjoyed a savory lunch buffet, followed by another hour on the veranda, during which time most of us, a few at a time, settled into our nearby rooms. Later during the afternoon, resident naturalist and expert birder Molly Calderon took us on a slow hike on the Discovery Trail, down the hill from the main lodge, to locate and observe the Bearded Bellbird. The call of the male of this fairly large species can be heard for a great distance, but the bird itself is rarely seen because the call is ventriloqual. Along the way, we saw our first Golden-fronted Greenlets, Golden-headed Manakins, White-bearded Manakin males popping about at their lek, and we heard several other species. We were fortunate to locate a Bearded Bellbird very quickly by its incredibly loud BOK! Everyone got superb looks at this unique species, and several of the participants obtained good photos.
Late in the afternoon, several participants left on a foray to view nesting leatherback sea turtles on the east coast. The group left the Centre at 4 PM with local guide and bird expert Mahase Ramlal, taking a picnic dinner and beverages with them. Some of the group stayed behind on the veranda enjoying high tea and viewing lots of colorful birds, while some of us birded slowly along the entrance road. At 6 PM, we gathered on the veranda for our nightly rum punch, and at 7 PM, we gathered in the restaurant for dinner. Peter O'Connor, a resident advisor at the Centre, joined us this evening at dinner. Afterwards we conducted the daily tally and reviewed the plans for the next day.
Just after 9 PM, several of us observed an Oilbird feeding on the palm seeds of a tree just off the veranda, above a building with rooms occupied by Tom, Lynn, and me. No one on any of my tours had ever seen Oilbirds well, except in the cave on the AWNC property in which they nest and roost. Tom emerged from his bungalow, curious to determine what was causing the racket on his metal roof. The source of the noise was an occasional seed dropping from the palm tree after being dislodged by the Oilbirds. All of us who were there obtained excellent spotlight views of this huge nighthawk-like species. Members of other tour groups also saw it, and some of us saw it on the next two nights as well.
The turtle group had a stupendously successful evening, spotting at least six turtles on Matura Beach, along with the first Channel-billed Toucan of the trip and a Plumbeous Kite.
Total number of species seen today: 67
New bird species for the trip: 35
Running total: 136
New birds today: Little Tinamou, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Plumbeous Kite, Common Black-Hawk, Gray-fronted Dove, Lilac-tailed Parrotlet, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Oilbird, Band-rumped Swift, Tufted Coquette, White-chested Emerald, Channel-billed Toucan, Lineated Woodpecker, Great Antshrike, Forest Elaenia, Tropical Pewee, Pied Water-Tyrant, Piratic Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Bearded Bellbird, White-bearded Manakin, Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Gray-breasted Martin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Cocoa Thrush, Silver-beaked Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Purple Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Grayish Saltator, Tropical Parula, Violaceous Euphonia.
Friday, April 30 - Eastern Trinidad
Each morning while we were at AWNC, I arose at 5:15 AM and was on the veranda birding by 6 AM with whoever felt like joining me. Usually my telescope was aimed at a wild nutmeg tree in the near distance, a favorite place for Channel-billed Toucans, or on a branch where a Double-toothed Kite perched regularly. The first hour after dawn was always exceptionally interesting, as birds fed actively and perched on conspicuous dead snags, both near and distant. Some of the birds that were easier to see in the morning than later in the day included Black-tailed Tityra, Piratic Flycatcher, Long-billed Starthroat, and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. Today before breakfast, we added Swallow-tailed Kite to our list, along with another beautiful hummingbird - the Blue-chinned Sapphire.
Several other groups shared the facilities with us while we were at AWNC. A birding group from England had been unable to return home because of the volcanic ash situation and had stayed for 14 extra days. A group from England arrived, and then a group from East Germany arrived, all reptile specialists, while we were there. The latter gave some of us a chance to brush up on our German language skills. On our last day at AWNC, a Bat Conservation International group arrived. Thus we had not only the nine of us with whom to socialize, but a wide range of both local and foreign people as well.
Today's foray took us to eastern Trinidad. Our first destination was the Aripo Livestock Station, which is a good spot to find grassland species difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. First we made a stop south of the livestock station to locate a tiny falconlike bird called a Pearl Kite, which we had found on our March trip. As soon as we exited the bus, we saw a Pearl Kite chasing a Gray Hawk and then returning to perch. Mission accomplished! This was a good raptor site, as we added two Short-tailed Hawks and a Zone-tailed Hawk to our list. We also had exceptionally good views of a very cryptic bird, a Rufous-browed Peppershrike, knee-height in a fence row.
The Aripo Livestock Station yielded lots of new birds, mostly species of moist savanna such as Grassland Yellow-Finch, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Red-breasted Blackbird, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher. A distant Savanna Hawk perched in a roadside tree, and hybrid cattle called Buffalypso grazed in an adjoining field. A pair of Least Sandpipers was late departing on migration. The temperature was moderated by a welcome breeze and high cumulous clouds that provided occasional periods of shade.
Because of the drought and brush fires, birding was fruitless in the upper foothills and meadows, so we left the station early and continued directly to the town of Valencia. At the Ponderosa Bar, we made a pit stop and picked up some cold beverages. We then made the long straight run past the city of Sangre Grande to Manzanilla on the Atlantic coast. During the hour-long drive, we searched the roadside trees for Yellow-rumped Caciques. About three miles from our destination, we finally found a colony of them.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch, a chicken-and-rice pilaf, as we sat around concrete tables at Manzanilla Beach. A single Roseate Tern and two Brown Pelicans flew past offshore just as we arrived, but no other birds flew past during our lunch stop.
From Manzanilla we drove slowly south through miles of coconut palms, looking for raptors perched in the trees. Ivan was uncanny at picking out raptors that were nearly invisible to the rest of us. He located a Yellow-headed Caracara and a Gray Hawk and stopped to point them out to us. We stopped at several bridges, but the clouds had dispersed, the temperature was very high, and the birds had gone into hiding.
At Kernaham, on the southern edge of the great freshwater Nariva Swamp, we found a lone White-tailed Goldenthroat, a hummingbird that prefers flooded savanna to feeders or gardens. In this area we hooked up with resident naturalist David Ramlal and his birding group. Together we located a skulking Pinnated Bittern, a gorgeous male Long-winged Harrier, and a very rare bird, a Crested Caracara, carrying prey. David walked out into a wet field and flushed a second Pinnated Bittern, which in flight was far easier to see than was the first one, which had disappeared into the vegetation before everyone had seen it.
From Kernaham we turned back and headed north. Along the way, Ivan stopped to show us a Plumbeous Kite perched at the top of a roadside tree. An hour later, our caravan of birders ended up at Waller Field, which had served as a huge U.S. Army base during World War II. At the security station, we obtained permission for our two groups to proceed to an area containing a grove of Moriche palms. This tree attracts several species of birds seldom found elsewhere.
At the Moriche site, as light levels fell, we quickly located more than a dozen squeaking Sulphury Flycatchers, a Ruby-topaz Hummingbird (common on Tobago but much less common in Trinidad), and a few Black-throated Mango hummingbirds. A male Black-crested Antshrike was attracted to taped playback. Then a pair of Red-bellied Macaws flew in and landed in a Moriche palm. David located them, and we viewed them at length through the scopes. Just before last light, David found a Moriche Oriole, another very rare species. It turned out that joining forces with David was a very good decision! As darkness fell, we enjoyed rum punch and cake amid the palms.
After returning to AWNC, we had a quick dinner and tally, reviewed the next day's plans, and retired for the night, knowing that we would be leaving very early in the morning.
Total number of species seen today: 108
New bird species for the trip: 34
Running total: 170
New birds today: Pinnated Bittern, Swallow-tailed Kite, Pearl Kite, Long-winged Harrier, Gray Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Least Sandpiper, Red-bellied Macaw, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-tailed Goldenthroat, Long-billed Starthroat, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Black-crested Antshrike, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Streaked Flycatcher, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Sulphury Flycatcher, Black-tailed Tityra, White-winged Swallow, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Grassland Yellow-Finch, Blue-black Grassquit, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Epaulet (Moriche) Oriole, Yellow Oriole, Red-breasted Blackbird, Yellow-hooded Blackbird.
Saturday, May 1 - Southwestern Trinidad and Gulf of Paria
This morning we left AWNC very early indeed. By dawn we were in southwestern Trinidad, having had a very early breakfast at AWNC and a second light breakfast of fresh fruit near San Fernando. We drove to the village of Woodlawn and parked next to the Sudama Steps, a Hindu crematorium on the South Oropuche River. Our morning hike was along a dirt track next to the river. The temperature was very pleasant, with soaring cumulus clouds — mostly over Venezuela to our south — blocking the intense sunlight.
The vast freshwater marsh in this area was recovering from brush fires and offered scant cover for marsh birds, but it yielded numerous raptors. At one time we were viewing five Yellow-headed Caracaras on a single pylon and a Savanna Hawk on an electrical transmission line. A bit later, we saw an Osprey land on the same powerline. Some of the highlights of our walk included seeing Spotted Tody-Flycatchers too close to focus on with binoculars, most of the long-legged waders, excellent views of Yellow-chinned Spinetails, a brief view of a stealthy male Masked Yellowthroat, a Green-throated Mango that fed briefly on the tiny yellow flowers of red mangroves, a male American Pygmy Kingfisher that called as it perched on a stick by the river, and a mixed flock of Turkey and Black Vultures that afforded very close views.
Because the temperature was now uncomfortably high, we asked Ivan to drive down the track to pick us up. What luxury! Then it was on to Barra Plaza in Debe for a brunch of Indian food — doubles, sahina (spinach fritter bhagi), khuchorie, and cold beverages. Mmm, spicy hot! Afterwards, for the next hour we relaxed in air-conditioned comfort as Ivan drove us back north to Freeport, where we placed our lunch order for later and made a pit stop. We also made a brief stop in Carapichaima to visit the 85-foot-tall statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman, the tallest statue of Hanuman outside of India.
Our birding resumed at Carli Bay, where a diligent search turned up three male and one female Saffron Finches. We hit the coastline at the perfect time, when the tide was at its lowest. Extensive mudflats were exposed, on which rested lots of birds. Because of the distance and the shimmer above the mudflats, we could not identify most of them. Among them were Laughing Gulls, Large-billed Terns, and Neotropic Cormorants.
From Carli Bay we proceeded to Orange Valley, where we indulged in birding from the air-conditioned van, viewing the mudflats on both sides through the windows. A huge flock of gulls, terns, and other water birds rested on the mudflats. A pair of incredibly brilliant Scarlet Ibis probed the mud nearby. All of the gulls turned out to be Laughing Gulls, many of them mating. Indeed, throughout the trip we saw mating activity everywhere, as is expected at the beginning of the rainy season. Scattered among the gulls were Large-billed and Yellow-billed Gulls, Black Skimmers, Whimbrel, Willet, and a variety of herons, mostly Little Blues. The only small shorebirds we found were a few Semipalmated Sandpipers and a few Semipalmated Plovers, late for their northward migration.
Our last birding stop before lunch was at Waterloo, near the famous Temple in the Sea, where a Hindu cremation was in progress. Here, as we stood on a narrow point of land surrounded by the houses of squatters, we had views of many species, including Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, loads of Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, and a mating pair of Common Black-Hawks. Then it was back to Freeport for a lunch of yet more Indian food — roti, buss-up-shut ("roti with out the wrapper"), cold beverages, and ice cream for those who wanted it.
Our drive back to AWNC took us through a bustling part of Trinidad, along the East-West Corridor. We passed the Nestlé's factory, the Angostura plant, the University of the West Indies, and many other interesting sites. Back at AWNC, a group of us took a late afternoon walk along the entrance road, reacquainting ourselves with the middle-elevation rainforest species. After dark, on the veranda and over our rum punch, we enjoyed the company of the many visitors to the Centre. The restaurant was almost full. After dinner, because we gotten up so early that morning, we did a quick tally, went over the details of tomorrow's itinerary, and called it a day. And an excellent one it had been!
Total number of species seen today: 107
New bird species for the trip: 18
Running total: 188
New birds today: Striated Heron, Scarlet Ibis, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Black-bellied Plover, Whimbrel, Willet, Yellow-billed Tern, Large-billed Tern, Common Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Striped Cuckoo, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Saffron Finch, Masked Yellowthroat.
Sunday, May 2 - Northern Range
The higher you are in the Northern Range, the cooler you are. The weather this morning was beautiful, but birding from the veranda before breakfast was slow. We did see a distant Channel-billed Toucan and caught glimpses of an elusive Gray-fronted Dove under the feeders. This ground-loving species frequents dense forest and more often than not becomes a "heard only" bird on the checklist.
After breakfast, Ivan drove us to the top of the Textel entrance drive where we walked the perimeter of the fence around this tropospheric scatter station, enjoying a magnificent view almost to the Gulf of Paria to the west and to the Central Range to the south. The breeze was very pleasant. Our best sighting was an adult Gray-headed Kite that flew leisurely above us on the Caribbean side of the ridge. In the bushes and low trees we found our first Tropical Pewee, Bay-headed Tanagers, and a Grayish Saltator. As we began walking down the entrance road, a loud rustling in the roadside vegetation, followed by a glimpse of a large black chicken-like bird and the sound of "clucks" put us onto the only Trinidad Piping-Guan of the trip. In general, birds were hard to come by, certainly as a result of the brush fires and the cloudless sapphire sky.
An hour of strolling in the shade along Blanchisseuse Road produced an exciting find — a Golden-crowned Warbler giving a distraction display, evidence of a nearby nest. When we retreated, two warblers flew to the nest area, which was on the ground in grassy vegetation about 20 feet from the road. Aside from the warblers, the rainforest along Blanchisseuse Road was quiet except for a canopy-high Tropical Parula, a few Red-legged Honeycreepers, and a nonstop Cocoa Woodcreeper.
Trogons of any kind had been hard to come by during our trip, so today we put a lot of effort into finding them. A stroll along Las Lapis Trace produced a male Green-backed (formerly White-tailed) Trogon harvesting small red figs. Farther along the trace we were surprised by a female Swallow Tanager that flew from her nest burrow in the embankment along the trail. We retreated a discrete distance and waited for her, and possibly the male, to return, but they did not do so. As we were returning to the bus, Larry found us the bird of the day — a male Collared Trogon excavating a nest hole in a dead tree not far from, and somewhat below, the trail. During the next 20 minutes, we watched as the male and then the female alternated excavation duties. What a gorgeous species!
From Las Lapis Trace we crested this easternmost spur of the Andes Mountains in the bus and descended several hundred feet in elevation to the hamlet of Morne Le Croix, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch under a roadside shelter. We learned that a few hundred feet in elevation makes a great difference in temperature as we felt the heat of the afternoon. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar called from the roadside, and a flock of Gray-breasted Martins shared the telephone lines with Tropical and Gray Kingbirds, but the birding highlight was a colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques nesting in one of the few conifers in the area.
Upon our return to AWNC, some of us decided to walk back along the entrance road, searching for the only remaining species of trogon we had not yet observed, Violaceous, which usually is the most common of the three species in T&T. We walked slowly, stopping every 50 feet or so, listening and looking. We spotted two high-flying Plumbeous Kites and various other species of interest, but no Violaceous Trogons. When we were almost back at the main house, we decided to try the short Motmot Trail, where Violaceous Trogons sometimes had been seen on past trips. Success! We were able to view not just one but a pair of this beautiful species. In the short distance between there and the main house, we also observed and photographed a female Yellow Oriole weaving her nest at the end of a palm frond.
Again this evening we had a full house for dinner, with lots of happy chatter and laughter. Afterwards we tallied our bird species and reviewed our plans for the next day, which would be our last of the trip.
Total number of species seen today: 84
New bird species for the trip: 11
Running total: 199
New birds today: Trinidad Piping-Guan, Gray-headed Kite, White Hawk, Green-backed Trogon, Violaceous Trogon, Plain Antvireo, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Bay-headed Tanager, Swallow Tanager, Golden-crowned Warbler.
Monday, May 3 - Oilbird Cave and Caroni Swamp
On our last birding day of the trip, observations before breakfast included the usual species along with five distant Double-toothed Kites soaring over the ridge. This species had been strangely absent during our visit. After breakfast, resident naturalist and bird expert Harold Diaz took us on a long leisurely hike to the Oilbird Cave. The temperature was quite pleasant, with partial cloud cover.
Because of the drought, very little water flowed in the Dunstan River, which runs through the cave in which the Oilbirds nest. For the first time in memory, we did not have to wade at all to observe the Oilbirds. There was no noise of rushing water, so we could hear the birds much better than usual. We saw a dozen Oilbirds roosting on ledges or sitting on their nests inside the cave. Outside we observed a currently unused Chestnut-collared Swift nest. We returned to the main house for lunch and a chance to refresh ourselves and perhaps do a little preliminary packing for our flights the next day.
At 1:30 PM, Ivan arrived to drive us on our afternoon foray to the Caroni Swamp. En route to this 30 square mile brackish mangrove swamp, we stopped to investigate the Trincity ponds, which recently had been dredged. Ivan was kind enough to drive us around the perimeter of some of the ponds, saving us from sizzling in the midday sun. We found all of the expected species, such as White-winged Swallow, Purple Gallinule, Striated Heron, Cattle and Snowy Egret, and Pied Water-Tyrant.
From Trincity we continued west through the town of Caroni and across the vast Caroni rice fields. The Peregrine Falcons and Merlins that patrol this area during the boreal winter already had migrated north, so the resident flocks of Rock Pigeons in the fields fed without distraction. We parked at the Caroni Visitors Center for a pit stop and to attempt to attract Clapper Rails, at which we were unsuccessful, the area recently having burned.
My young friend and bird expert Shawn Madoo always can be counted on to provide the best possible boat trip into the Caroni Swamp. Today's sojourn was no different. Even before we left his boat dock, he had pointed out two species of birds new for the trip — a fantastic adult Red-capped Cardinal and the only Greater Ani of the trip.
After we had been underway in the channel for awhile, spotting Four-eyed Fish (Anableps) and other goodies, Shawn pulled the boat up to some mangroves in a shady area, pointed out a perched Green-breasted Mango and a Bicolored Conebill female only a few feet from us, and then presented us with a lecture on the ecology of the Caroni Swamp. Later, as we proceeded along the Blue River, also called Drain #9, we flushed several Little Blue Herons and a few tardy Spotted Sandpipers. During this part of our trip, we found Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Shawn pointed out a very well camouflaged Common Potoo. Also well camouflaged was a small colony of Lesser White-lined Bats clinging to the underside of a tree that overhung our boat.
Any trip into the Caroni Swamp has one major goal — to witness the arrival of Scarlet Ibis at their evening roost sites. To ensure the best photographic opportunity for the group, we decided to cut short our mangrove birding and proceed directly to the one of the Scarlet Ibis roosts. The light was superb as we approached the area, but unfortunately, a single immense slow-moving cloud chose that time to move in, muting the previously gorgeous golden light. We stayed at the site for about 15 minutes, viewing myriad Scarlet Ibis, herons, egrets, and two Neotropic Cormorants flying in and landing in the mangroves. Shawn then took us to a different place where the light was better, though still not great. The biggest surprise here was not the Scarlet Ibis but our final new species for the trip, two Glossy Ibis that flew in to roost in the mangroves. This was the first time I had ever seen this species in T&T. Martyn Kenefick, in his bird book, states that the species has been seen only eight times in the past 10 years. Thus our observation was very exciting.
After the Scarlet Ibis show had wound down and dusk had fallen, Ivan drove us back to AWNC for our final dinner and tally. Most of us used my laptop to confirm our flights for the next morning. We reviewed the departure protocol, and then called it a night because most of us were going to be getting up before 3 AM so as to be at the airport the required three hours before our international departure.
Several of us stayed on the veranda for awhile, chatting with the newly arrived Bat Conservation International group. They had invited us to watch their "show and tell" session, in which they discussed and showed specimens of bats they had captured during the afternoon. Many of them were of the leaf-nosed variety, and a few were species of blood-lapping vampires.
Thus ended our trip, except for our homeward flights. Since returning home, most of the participants have reported seeing more new species than they had anticipated, which is something all leaders like to hear. I am happy to report that we had had no problems with rain, landslides, snakes, or anything else - just a quiet, pleasant, hot excursion into one of the world's most fascinating countries.
Total number of species seen today: 105
New bird species for the trip: 9
Final total: 208
New birds today: Black-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, Double-toothed Kite, Scaled Pigeon, Greater Ani, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, White-bellied Antbird, Bicolored Conebill, Red-capped Cardinal.