Trinidad & Tobago
February 2-11, 2011
Joe & Leanna Roberts, Noblesville, IN
Dorothy Scott, Indianapolis, IN
Marion van Sinttruije & Jan Willem Steffelaar, The Netherlands
David Sterling, Fishers, IN
Jim & Lynn Vogel, Phoenix, AZ
This trip was very different from most of the birding trips I’ve led to Trinidad & Tobago. Last year’s drought-induced fires had drastically reduced the numbers of many species, so birding was far more challenging than normal. Moreover, the interests of the group varied widely, so we spent time at several very enjoyable places that hardcore birding rarely permits.
Murphy's Law kicked in at the beginning of this trip as a ferocious winter storm headed toward the American Midwest. We five from Indiana rescheduled our departure twice to increasingly earlier days. Two days before Day One of the trip, we boarded a jet for Houston and then disembarked two hours later, having moved only a few hundred feet from the gate. The flight had been cancelled because of freezing rain. We spent the night in Indy flew the next morning to the George H. Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. We enjoyed lunch at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and then continued on to Trinidad's Piarco International Airport.
Chaitram Bhola, owner/manager of Sadila House B&B in Arouca, Trinidad, and Martyn Kenefick, author of The Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, met us at the airport. Chaitram transported us first to his comfortable establishment and then to the Trincity Mall, where we had dinner at Subway before returning to Sadila House for the night.
Wednesday, February 2
Chaitram and his charming wife, Savitri, fixed us tasty omelets, toast, and fresh orange juice for breakfast. With an unscheduled day ahead of us I suggested that we visit Port-of-Spain, since 1757 the island's capital. Chaitram secured two vehicles and drivers for us. During the next three hours we enjoyed an intimate look at the city, including a panoramic view from a popular overlook along the Lady Young Road. We circled the Queen's Park Savanna, the largest municipal park in the world, and saw the Magnificent Seven, turn-of-the-century Victorian homes; the government's Red House; Holy Trinity Cathedral; the Royal Botanic Gardens; the Emperor Valley Zoo; the President's house; the Prime Minister's house; and the architecturally progressive Queen's Hall, the new performing arts site. We parked near Woodford Square, walked along Frederick Street, and did some shopping near Independence Square.
After a midday break in an air-conditioned plaza, we left Port-of-Spain and drove east to Tunapuna, visiting the tranquil grounds of the Mount St. Benedict monastery, the second oldest monastery in the Western Hemisphere. We drove all the way to the top of the complex, from which we could view the entire width of the island. Afterwards we spent several pleasurable hours on the Pax Guest House veranda as guests of the managers, Gerard and Oda, enjoying tea and cake and watching hummingbirds and other bird species frequenting the feeders.
After returning to Sadila House B&B and relaxing for a bit, we walked as a group to a nearby Chinese restaurant for dinner, a pleasant ending to a pleasant day.
Bright and early, those of us at Sadila House enjoyed another omelet, toast, and juice breakfast. A spacious van arrived. The driver stowed our luggage, we bade farewell to the Bholas, and then it was back to Piarco Airport. Martyn Kenefick again met us there and accompanied us to Tobago for a morning of birding. We passed quickly through domestic check-in and soon were airborne, en route to Tobago. About 20 minutes later we touched down at Tobago's Crown Point International Airport. We retrieved 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 from The Netherlands. They had been on my April 2010 tour and were eager to continue learning about T&T. We also met our driver, Roger James, and boarded his beautiful, clean, air-conditioned bus.
Both Trinidad and Tobago were verdant and green, in sharp contrast to its appearance during my visit in November. On that trip, these normally emerald-colored islands had been brown and crisp, the air hazy, and the temperature unusually high. This time, however, rain fell nearly daily, and the temperature was very pleasantly below average.
Our first stop was at Jimmy's Mini Mart to obtain ice-cold bottles of water for everyone. From there we headed to our first birding site, the Bon Accord ponds. We first stood on the roadside, carefully examining the emergent marsh vegetation and finding Anhinga, Great and Cattle Egrets, and Green and Tricolored Herons. We examined birds perched on nearby telephone lines and fences, finding Tropical and Gray Kingbirds and abundant Eared Doves. A cooperative male Black-faced Grassquit sang his sizzling trill from the nearby chain link fence.
Throughout the trip we encountered other naturalists and local guides. Indeed, by the end of the trip we had met nearly all the "big names" in T&T birding. At Bon Accord we met Peter Cox, one of Tobago's foremost naturalists.
After satisfying ourselves that we had found all of the visible birds, we headed into the pond area through a gap in the fence, but not before I had scooped up and shown the group some gelatinous eggs of the huge rams horn snails that inhabited the roadside drain. We birded slowly around the six rectangular ponds, finding a variety of species, including Least Grebe, Common Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, Spotted Sandpiper, and more Anhinga, with Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead.
A brief foray into the mangroves at the northwest corner of the ponds yielded Scrub Greenlet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Carib Grackle, and at least one Mangrove Cuckoo that vocalized but remained hidden in the foliage. Several Ameiva lizards scurried along the ground, the young easy to distinguish because of their greenish foreparts. A scurrying flock of Southern Lapwings was our last sighting before we dashed back to Roger's maxitaxi before a passing shower arrived.
From Bon Accord we passed through quiet neighborhoods bordered in some places by water-filled ditches. A Whimbrel feeding next to one of the ditches was a very good find. Then it was on to the Tobago Plantations in southeastern Tobago, where from the maxi during a brief shower we observed more Anhinga, several Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and, in one field of view, a Spectacled Caiman (a crocodilian), a Tricolored Heron, and a Southern Lapwing on the edge of the pond. While at Tobago Plantations we also found several Least Grebes with black-and-white-striped chicks, another Great Egret, Little Blue and Green Herons, and Common Gallinules. We had close views of Red-crowned Woodpecker, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow Warbler, and Scrub Greenlet.
We drove to the "far" ponds, checking a roadside bush for a Green Iguana that I often find sunning itself there. Sure enough, there it was. We checked in with Security and made a welcome pit stop before birding the perimeter of the three rectangular ponds. We glimpsed a male Masked Duck with its sky-blue bill that submerged almost immediately and was never seen again. Sharing the pond with the duck were Wattled Jacanas and Common Gallinules with chicks, tiny balls of black fluff. The sandpipers ("peeps") that had been present in November apparently had continued south.
At our last stop of the morning, a very careful search of a lily pad covered pond turned up a much more cooperative male Masked Duck standing next to a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. The perfectly camouflaged, secretive, and often submerged Masked Duck is very difficult to find anywhere in Trinidad & Tobago.
For lunch we visited Store Bay, where at Miss Jean's Local Foods kiosk we sampled various local dishes while watching Tobagonians and visitors from around the world. Offshore, a dozen pleasure craft rolled lazily in the turquoise Caribbean, while distant waves broke over Buccoo Reef.
After lunch, we dropped Martyn off at the airport to return to Trinidad and then continued up the northwestern side of the island to Adventure Farm. At the nine feeders we viewed frenzied clouds of hummingbirds — Black-throated Mango, Copper-rumped and Ruby-topaz Hummingbirds, Rufous-breasted Hermit, and White-necked Jacobin — along with Shiny Cowbird, Red-crowned Woodpecker, White-lined Tanager, male and female Barred Antshrike, adult and immature Trinidad Motmot, four species of doves, 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 repeatedly observed most of the local species, often within inches of us, we left Adventure Farm and continued to Cuffie River Nature Retreat. Regina Dumas, the owner/manager, greeted us and directed us to our spacious rooms. We settled in and later gathered around the dinner table, where we introduced ourselves and got to know each other. Each night, a White-tailed Nightjar or two flew around the mercury vapor light outside, giving its high-pitched two-part whistle while capturing insects attracted to the light.
For dinner tonight we had cream of callaloo soup, baked lamb, fried plantains, roasted potatoes, and stir fried vegetables, with coconut ice cream for dessert. All of the food at Cuffie River was excellent, prepared by the two Cuffie River cooks, Carolyn and Yvonne, with expert assistance from Regina.
After dinner we finished our introductions, reviewed basic birding etiquette, discussed the next day's activities, and compiled the first of our daily bird checklists. Our first Common Potoo whistled its melancholy call across the valley. David spotted a Common Potoo perched on electrical wire over the ravine behind the lodge, swiveling its head like an owl and calling. Then it was time for bed in this lovely sanctuary where some of us slept with our room doors wide open to the breeze.
Total number of species seen today: 59
New bird species for the trip: 59
Running total: 59
New birds today: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck , Masked Duck, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Least Grebe, Brown Pelican, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Osprey, Merlin, Common Gallinule, Purple Gallinule, Southern Lapwing, Whimbrel, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Wattled Jacana, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Pale-vented Pigeon, Eared Dove, White-tipped Dove, Green-rumped Parrotlet (heard), Orange-winged Parrot, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, White-tailed Nightjar (heard), Rufous-breasted Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Trinidad (Blue-crowned) Motmot, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Tropical Kingbird, Gray Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet, (Tropical) House Wren, Spectacled Thrush, Tropical Mockingbird, Bananaquit, White-lined Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Black-faced Grassquit, Yellow Warbler, Crested Oropendola, Shiny Cowbird, Carib Grackle
No need for an alarm clock at Cuffie River; the "alarm clock" Rufous-vented Chachalaca serves that function. Chachalacas started sounding off at 4:30 a.m. and continued through breakfast, with a group on one ridge tapering off just as another group on another ridge pitched in.
One of the attractions of Cuffie River Nature Retreat is the hummingbird feeders outside the entrance. The White-tailed Sabrewing, the rarest hummingbird in T&T, often can be found there. During our visit, two males sporadically visited the feeders, vying with White-necked Jacobins and Copper-rumped Hummingbirds for dominance. Another species that was unusually abundant during this trip was Red-legged Honeycreeper, which frequented the orange blossoms of the Mountain Immortelle trees, many of which were in bloom.
Breakfast consisted of granola, freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh fruit, scrambled and sunnyside-up eggs, bacon, and toast with butter and homemade marmalade. David left early to spend the day scuba-diving off northeastern Tobago, returning late in the afternoon with lots of funny stories about his "only in the tropics" experience.
Cuffie River resident naturalist Desmond Wright arrived at 9 a.m. to lead our morning hike. We headed down the entrance road to explore the Cuffie River area. The morning was cool, breezy, and misty with very light showers. Cloud cover is desirable in the tropics for two reasons: first, the birds seem to be more active on cloudy days, and second, the clouds block the intense sunlight.
We explored the entrance road for half a mile and then climbed to a gently rolling trace (a former donkey trail), along which we hiked. Along the trace we spotted lizards, butterflies, and birds, including Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Trinidad Motmot, and a variety of flycatchers. The hike was moderately strenuous, and several participants and I turned back about midway along the trail and returned to the lodge. The rest completed the loop trail, passing a newly constructed 4,000 square foot house that cost $1.3 million to build. Desmond used his machete to clear parts of the trace where bamboo blocked progress. The highlight of the hike came shortly after passing the house, when Desmond pointed out a Common Potoo perched on the end of a dead branch. This member of the goatsucker group is perfectly camouflaged to appear as a dead branch.
Our 1:30 p.m. lunch was wonderful, as was all of the food at Cuffie River. It consisted of spicy carrot soup, garden salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, and star fruit garnished with sliced hard-boiled eggs), and smoked turkey wontons, with guava-pineapple ice cream for dessert. Most of us napped after lunch as hard rain showers passed through.
Late in the afternoon, Jan Willem and I hiked slowly up a trace opposite the lodge entrance. As on last year's trip, Jan Willem continually captured mouth-watering photographs of nearly every bird we found. On this hike he snagged images of manakins, woodcreepers, and honeycreepers.
For dinner we enjoyed cream of lentil soup, steamed kingfish, pumpkin fritters, black-eyed peas and rice, cristophene au gratin, and tossed salad, with cherry-coconut ice cream for dessert. After dinner we conducted our daily tally and reviewed the details of the next day's itinerary.
Total number of species seen today: 41
New bird species for the trip: 11
Running total: 70
New birds today: Broad-winged Hawk, Common Potoo, Gray-rumped Swift, Short-tailed Swift, White-tailed Sabrewing, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Blue-backed Manakin, Rufous-breasted Wren, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue-black Grassquit
Today was a very full day indeed! After another wonderful breakfast of granola, fresh-squeezed orange juice, fresh fruit, scrambled and sunnyside-up eggs, bacon-sausage-tomato-pepper-ham mélange, and toast with butter and homemade marmalade, we reluctantly said goodbye to Regina and her staff and departed Cuffie River. Roger drove us northeast from the town of Runnemede, literally "over hill and dale," along the Caribbean to the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road, the only road that bisects northern Tobago.
Along the way we stopped at overlooks to photograph Castara Bay and the hamlet of Parlatuvier. Junior Thomas, a local fellow who rents rubber boots ("wellies" in T&T), jumped in his car as we passed his house and followed us to the summit. Soon we were in the highest elevations on Tobago, the protected Main Ridge Reserve. This area covers two-thirds of the island. It was established in 1765 "for the protection of the rains," making it the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the Western Hemisphere. We passed a pair of Cattle Egrets foraging with cows on the roadside, unusual at this high elevation, and had excellent views from the maxi of two Giant Cowbirds, nest parasites of Crested Oropendolas that were nesting colonially in the vicinity.
We arrived at Gilpin Trace, a former donkey trail that follows a small stream through a deep ravine clothed in primeval rainforest. We rented "wellies" from Junior Thomas so we could walk with impunity through the deep mud on Gilpin Trace.
We entered the heavily shaded ravine and proceeded very slowly for about a mile before returning to the trailhead several hours later. Within a stone's throw of the trailhead, a visitor is surrounded by lush tropical splendor – tree ferns, philodendron, palms of several varieties, and the sound of exotic birds and insects. We immediately began hearing and seeing Yellow-legged Thrushes, a black, canopy-loving species that usually sings from an invisible perch in the highest trees.
A bit farther on, a small landslide had taken out part of the trail, but cautious placement of our feet got us across safely. Birdlife was strangely hidden today, with several new species making their presence known only by sound: Red-rumped Woodpecker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Venezuelan Flycatcher, and Red-eyed (Chivi) Vireo. In the vegetation along the stream we found a pair of Stripe-breasted Spinetails, amazingly cryptic birds, one of which gave us a brief view while perched on an open twig before dashing back into thick cover.
Gilpin Trace is famous for its remnant population of the rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird. We saw several of them zip past during our walk and heard several more squeaking, but our best sightings of this species had been at the Cuffie River hummingbird feeders. In November 2009 we had watched a White-necked Thrush building a nest in a shallow tree cavity along this trail. The bird was still there in March 2010, while in November 2010 we had examined the abandoned nest. Today the nest had deteriorated completely, but an adult kept us company as we walked along the trail. Also seen were Rufous-tailed Jacamars, which provided opportunities for us to learn to distinguish the genders, with the male's throat being pure white and the female's being buff-colored.
During our walk we met Edith ("Eedit" in T&T) 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. We also met Newton George, another skilled naturalist, leading a small group of birders.
We birded Gilpin Trace to the Silver-and-Gold Waterfall and then returned to the trailhead. Roger drove us several miles east, and then we got off the bus again for a short walk along the road. Onboard again, a distant Great Black Hawk and a nesting colony of Crested Oropendolas were two of the highlights of this stretch of road.
We descended to the Atlantic side of Tobago and turned northeast on the Windward Road. High above the village of Speyside we pulled into an overlook from which we could see many miles out to sea. Our view included the village of Speyside, Goat Island, and Little Tobago Island, the latter being our afternoon's destination. The next landfall east of this point is Senegal, in Africa.
Dropping down into Speyside, we parked at Frank's Bird Watcher's Restaurant. Wordsworth Frank runs one of the glass-bottomed boat concessions in Speyside as well as the restaurant. Here 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 we rode a short distance to the Blue Waters Inn, where I introduced the group to the manager, Jason Radix, formerly of the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad. A flock of Ruddy Turnstones foraged among sunbathers on the beach as well as in and on the bar. This shorebird is normally very wary, but for years this group has been spending the winter at the Blue Waters and has grown almost tame. From the bands on the legs of some of the birds it has been determined that this group passes through Delaware Bay on their migration.
At 2 p.m. we boarded Wordsworth Frank's glass-bottomed boat. Our experienced boatmen — Zelanie (Z), Zud, Shane, and Dion in his huge, colorful Rastafarian hat — motored us out to Goat Island, where through the glass bottom of our boat we could examine the coral reef. Dion called out the names of scores of tropical fish, sponges, corals, and other aquatic organisms as they came into view. Continuing around the north end of Goat Island, we had our first views of Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies.
Setting foot on uninhabited Little Tobago Island involved stepping off the boat onto a concrete pier, which everyone did without problem. Slowly and with plenty of rest stops, those of us who chose to do so explored this starfish-shaped island. Dion provided us with an excellent running commentary on the island's history and wildlife, especially the introduction of the Greater Bird-of-Paradise. Silver Thatch Palm and Hooker's Anthuriums were the most prominent plants growing on the steep trail sides.
We stopped to rest at the newly rebuilt warden's house and then continued to the first overlook. Before us was a nearly vertical drop to the sea. On our left was 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 his BBC cinematographers filmed courting Red-billed Tropicbird for their documentaries.
The hardier participants hiked down a steep trail where nesting seabirds are often found while I led the rest of the group to the second lookout, one with a more expansive view and a covered shelter. Dancing in the wind before us were more Red-billed Tropicbirds that I had seen from this site on any previous visit. I estimated that 1200 of them were in the air at any moment. A few feet in front of the shelter, on the ground under a patch of windswept scrub, was a white baby tropicbird calling endlessly for food (click here for audio).
We relaxed and enjoyed the scene of frigatebirds diving down to plunder tropicbirds. Like a ghost, an adult tropicbird appeared behind us on the trail, heaving itself along on its chest, its tiny legs placed so far back on the body as to be useless for walking. When it reached a wide, clear spot on the trail, it gave a huge heave, flapped its wings, took off, and flew at eye level right through the shelter and out to sea, passing between and within a few feet of those of us sitting in the shelter. It was a magical moment we will never forget.
The rest of the group eventually rejoined us with stories of their own to tell. They were all soaked in perspiration from their efforts. David described the adventure as being among the 10 greatest accomplishments of his life. Jan Willem was all smiles, and his photographs of the nesting seabirds were sensational, as usual.
After hiking back to the pier, we reboarded the boat and started back to the mainland. Shane positioned the boat above a huge brain coral named Einstein and then over two magnificent coral reefs, calling out the names of organisms visible through the glass bottom.
Back on Tobago, we relaxed over cold beverages at the Blue Waters Inn and then reboarded the maxitaxi for our ride to the airport. We checked our baggage to Trinidad and obtained our tickets early enough to enjoy a delicious but rather rushed dinner at the nearby Vie de France restaurant. A particularly helpful ticket agent actually accompanied us partway to the restaurant to make sure that we knew where it was and then appeared again at the restaurant later to tell us that our flight was boarding. Excellent customer service!
In due time we landed in Trinidad and then met our driver for the Trinidad segment of the trip, my dear friend Ivan La Rose. Ivan packed our luggage onto the maxi, and we boarded for the ride to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, our home for the next six nights. Ivan drove us east on the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway and then north through the city of Arima and up into the Northern Range. He dropped us off at the Asa Wright Nature Center, where we were greeted warmly by the staff and directed to our rooms. Although we had already had dinner, I am sure that I was not the only one to enjoy a late-night snack of sandwiches that had been placed for us in our rooms.
Total number of species seen today: 52
New bird species for the trip: 15
Running total: 85
New birds today: Red-billed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby, Brown Booby, Great Black-Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-rumped Woodpecker (heard), Stripe-breasted Spinetail, Olivaceous Woodcreeper (heard), Plain Antvireo, Venezuelan Flycatcher (heard), Red-eyed (Chivi) Vireo, Yellow-legged Thrush, White-necked Thrush, Giant Cowbird
Most mornings while we were at Asa Wright I arose at 5:15 a.m. and was on the veranda birding by 6 a.m. 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. Asa Wright resident guides, including Elsa, Caleb, and Molly, spent time on the veranda from first light helping visitors locate interesting species. Some of the birds that were easier to see in the morning than later in the day included Long-billed Starthroat, Forest Elaenia, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, and Gray-fronted Dove. Several other birding groups shared the facilities with us while we were at AWNC.
Besides birds, the fruit and bread that spilled from the platform feeders attracted rabbit-sized animals called agoutis and Golden Tegu lizards, which can grow three feet long. We saw these creatures every day we were at Asa Wright.
Breakfast at Asa Wright, when enjoyed at the normal time and not in hushed tones during pre-dawn darkness, included three kinds of cereal, chilled whole milk, fresh fruit juice, breads, butter, jam, marmalade, fresh fruit, and made-to-order omelets at the popular Egg Station. Today's breakfast also included large Vienna-type sausages and pancakes with syrup. All meals were buffet style, all you cared to eat.
After breakfast we retired to a sitting room to review details of our stay, including Asa Wright protocol, suggested attire for each day, use a sunscreen and insect repellent, meal times, restroom facilities, and planned destinations. We then took a leisurely birding stroll along the entrance drive, where among other new species we saw our first Black and Turkey Vultures overhead; Tobago lacks vultures of any species.
At noon we returned to the main house to enjoy a lunch of fish broth, cheese biscuits, macaroni and cheese pie, saffron rice, mixed "ground provisions" (cassava, yam, dasheen, and taro root), callaloo, stewed pigeon peas, crisp fried salmon, barbecued chicken, fresh garden salad, with cake for dessert. Afterward we lingered on the veranda or continued to settle into our rooms.
Later that afternoon, resident naturalist and expert birder Molly Calderon took us on a slow hike on the Discovery Trail, down the hill from the main house, to locate and observe the Bearded Bellbird. The "BOK!" of the male of this fairly large species can be heard for a great distance, but the bird itself is rarely seen because its call is ventriloqual. Along the way, we saw our first Golden-fronted Greenlets, at least 15 Golden-headed Manakins displaying at their lek, an equal number of White-bearded Manakin males popping about their lek, and a Short-tailed Hawk overhead. Farther along the trail we succeeded in locating a vocalizing Bearded Bellbird by its incredibly loud call. Everyone got good looks at one or two males of this unique species, and several participants obtained photos.
At 4 p.m. we gathered, as on each day we were at the Centre, for high tea and biscuits, which included different foods each day as the biscuits. Today’s offerings were coconut drops and cheese vol-au-vents.
At 6 p.m. we again gathered on the veranda for our nightly rum punch and at 7 p.m. gathered in the restaurant for dinner. Peter O'Connor, the Centre's resident advisor, joined us this evening at dinner, which consisted of soup, corn and celery rice, stewed black-eyed peas, lamb stew, and fresh garden salad with homemade salad dressing, with chocolate mousse for dessert. As on most days, after dinner we conducted the daily tally of species observed and reviewed the plans for the next day.
Total number of species seen today: 55
New bird species for the trip: 36
Running total: 121
New birds today: Little Tinamou (heard), Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, White Hawk, Gray Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray-fronted Dove, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (heard), Oilbird, Little Hermit, Tufted Coquette, White-chested Emerald, Green-backed (White-tailed) Trogon, Golden-olive Woodpecker (heard), Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Forest Elaenia, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Fuscous Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Tropical Pewee, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher (heard), Bearded Bellbird, White-bearded Manakin, Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Long-billed Gnatwren
Torrential rain fell during the night, loud enough to awaken most of us. We were grateful for clearing skies at dawn. Breakfast included all of the usual delights along with thick Canadian bacon.
Today's foray took us to eastern Trinidad. Our first destination was the Aripo Livestock Station, a good spot to find grassland species difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The station yielded lots of new birds, mostly species of moist savanna such as Grassland Yellow-Finch, Red-breasted Blackbird, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, and Yellow-chinned Spinetail. A distant Savanna Hawk perched in a roadside tree, and hybrid cattle called Buffalypso grazed in an adjoining field. A pair of Least Sandpipers feasted on tiny midges in a roadside ditch. The temperature was pleasant, and a bank of low clouds provided nearly continuous shade and occasional showers.
After birding the level section of the station, we headed into the foothills and spent some time at a rustic streamside park. Here we managed to attract our first Violaceous Trogon, newly renamed "Guianan Trogon," and a Rufous-browed Peppershrike.
We completed our circumnavigation of the station and continued 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. We stopped in Sangre Grande so I could purchase some local fruits – balata (a small relative of the sapodilla) and some sugar bananas. During the hour-long drive we searched the roadside trees unsuccessfully for Yellow-rumped Caciques.
At Manzanilla Beach we sat around concrete tables enjoying our picnic lunch, which consisted of shepherd's pie, fresh salad with homemade salad dressing, bananas, and cold fruit juice. From there we drove slowly south through miles of coconut palms, looking for raptors in the trees. Ivan was uncanny at picking out raptors that were nearly invisible to the rest of us. He located several Yellow-headed Caracaras and stopped to point them out to us.
At Kernaham, on the southern edge of the great freshwater Nariva Swamp, in the wild rice we found a distant, skulking Pinnated Bittern and lots of Pied Water-Tyrants and White-headed Marsh-Tyrants. The human population in this enormous freshwater marsh is skyrocketing, with the birdlife diminishing at a fast rate.
From Kernaham we returned to the beachside road to watch for parrots flying in to roost. None arrived, but as darkness fell we enjoyed rum punch and cake before returning to Asa Wright. For dinner we enjoyed split-pea soup, baked pork chops, stewed lentils, polenta (a corn confection also called cornmeal coocoo), homemade rolls, fresh garden salad, and Papaya Bavarian for dessert. We conducted our tally, reviewed the next day's plans, and retired for the night.
Total number of species seen today: 81
New bird species for the trip: 25
Running total: 146
New birds today: Pinnated Bittern, Striated Heron, Gray-headed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Savanna Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Solitary Sandpiper, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Rock Pigeon, Striped Cuckoo, Guianan (Violaceous) Trogon, Lineated Woodpecker, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Black-crested Antshrike, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Bright-rumped Attila (heard), White-winged Swallow, Gray-breasted Martin, Grassland Yellow-Finch, Yellow Oriole, Red-breasted Blackbird
Today we decided to forgo a foray to southwestern Trinidad that would have required a middle-of-the-night departure from Asa Wright, choosing instead an impromptu itinerary to at least one destination I had never visited. Our breakfast included all the usual treats along with tomato choka and sada roti (see http://www.simplytrinicooking.com/2008/03/tomato-choka.html).
Our first destination today was the home of Theo Ferguson, a versatile entrepreneur and lecturer who has created a paradise for hummingbirds in his backyard in the hills east of Port-of-Spain. I had never taken a group there or visited the place myself, so this was an adventure for us all. From Asa Wright, Ivan drove us down the Arima Valley, headed west toward Port-of-Spain, and then drove north through the city of St. Joseph, Trinidad's first capital. At Theo's house we enjoyed viewing several hundred hummingbirds of about a dozen species, often at arm's length, as they whizzed around us, taking sugar water from feeders, or perched quietly nearby. It was a spectacle well worth the visit.
After an hour we moved inside to watch a video presentation accompanied by narration by Theo himself. His photographic images, projected on a widescreen TV, were breathtaking and sharp down to the smallest feather barbules. While at Theo's house we enjoyed coffee, fruit juice, fresh fruit, and pastries.
Late in the morning, after bidding Theo and his wife adieu, we headed south on the Uriah Butler Highway and then the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway all the way to the huge petrochemical complex at Pointe-à-Pierre. Our destination was the remarkable Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust, a unique preserve nestled deep in the heart of the Petrotrin petroleum-refining complex. Here in 1966 Molly Gaskin established a nature center to which almost every schoolchild in Trinidad pays an annual visit, learning about conservation and the environment and, hopefully, passing the conservation ethic to the elders.
Several attractive young naturalists led our group around one of the lotus-festooned ponds, explaining the educational focus of the center and pointing out some of the many species of birds that regard it as their home, although they are in no way captive. Several species, including Blue-and-yellow Macaw, are reared there for release into the wild at places like Nariva Swamp. Lynn was thrilled to spot one of her target species, Red-capped Cardinal, at close range.
After enjoying a picnic lunch on the grounds, we returned north to Waterloo at low tide to view shorebirds and mud skippers (four-eyed fish, Anableps). We also stopped in Carapichaima to visit the 85-foot-tall statue (murti) of the Hindu deity Hanuman, the tallest statue of Hanuman outside of India, before heading back to Asa Wright.
Our drive back took us through a bustling part of Trinidad, the East-West Corridor. Here live more than half of the people in T&T. We passed the Nestlé's factory, the Angostura plant, the University of the West Indies, the University of Trinidad & Tobago, and many other interesting sites.
Tea today included brownies and potato (aloo) pies, and for dinner we enjoyed pumpkin soup, homemade rolls, fresh garden salad, macaroni pie, stewed black-eyed peas, steamed mixed vegetables, and grilled chicken breast, with Papaya Bavarian for dessert.
Total number of species seen today: 91
New bird species for the trip: 26
Running total: 172
New birds today: Neotropic Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Black-bellied Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Saffron Finch, Red-capped Cardinal, Yellow-hooded Blackbird
The higher you are in the Northern Range, the cooler you are. The weather this morning was very nice, although birding from the veranda before breakfast was strangely slow. We caught several glimpses of an elusive Gray-fronted Dove under the feeders before it walked out into the open for lengthy views. This ground-dwelling species frequents dense forest and more often than not is a "heard only" bird on the checklist.
After a breakfast that included corned beef hash and French toast with syrup, Ivan drove us to the top of the ridge and then up the very steep Textel entrance drive. We walked the perimeter of the security fence around this tropospheric scatter station, enjoying a hazy view almost to the Gulf of Paria to the west and to the Central Range to the south. The temperature was pleasant, but periodic misty rain and gusty breezes kept the birds down.
We started our exploration by examining the hand-sized harlequin beetles and hawk moths that had been attracted during the night to the site's bright lights, the only ones for miles. Passing raptors included several Short-tailed Hawks, a Common Black-Hawk, and a Swallow-tailed Kite. In the bushes and low trees we found Tropical Pewee, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Bay-headed Tanagers, and had a very brief view of a flyby Hepatic Tanager. We completed our loop around the site and walked for half an hour down the entrance road.
As happened last April, we heard a loud, distinctive rustling of feather quills in the roadside trees, a sound made only by the Trinidad Piping-Guan. Repeated efforts to attract the bird or birds to playback yielded only another bout of quill clatter, this time from farther away. It was still thrilling to have been so close to one of Trinidad's rarest species. We also viewed a Channel-billed Toucan as it called from the top of a tree and had an all-too-brief look at a pair of Speckled Tanagers.
From the bottom of the Textel road we strolled for an hour along Blanchisseuse Road, where the rainforest was quiet except for common species such as Tropical Parula, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Cocoa Thrush. From there we rode to Las Lapis Trace, a dirt track that leads from the top of the Arima Valley down into the neighboring Lopinot Valley. Almost as soon as we had gotten out of the van we were into raptors, with a Black Hawk-Eagle being the best sighting. Throughout the day we also viewed Common Black-Hawks, including several that were engaging in either hunting or courtship, diving down with talons extended.
A stroll along Las Lapis Trace produced a calling Green-backed Trogon. We met Roger Neckles, one of Trinidad's foremost photographers. He waved to us from ahead on the trail, signaling that he was onto something good. And was he ever! He had stumbled onto a group of at least four Collared Trogons, which we eventually observed. This species is the most colorful of T&T's three trogon species, sporting bright crimson underparts and bright green upperparts.
From Las Lapis Trace we descended several hundred feet in elevation to Paria Junction. Here we enjoyed our lunch of bone-in chicken chunks in rice pilaf with watermelon slices. We served the food in a bus shelter and enjoyed it while sitting on a stone guardrail. While at this spot we watched a Green Hermit hummingbird harass two Blue Morpho butterflies, strange behavior for a vegetarian species of bird. A male White-shouldered Tanager flew past us, only the second one I have seen in my 71 visits to T&T.
Continuing to the hamlet of Morne Le Croix, we continued birding from a site where for several years, including last November, we had enjoyed the presence of a roadside thatched-roof-covered shelter. This time we found no trace of the shelter, only a stone wall on which we sat while awaiting the arrival of a flock of Blue-headed Parrots. As at the Nariva Swamp, the parrots never materialized, but several score Orange-winged Parrots did arrive. They landed in nearby treetops and provided us with ear-splitting screeches for some time before they quieted down.
A Rufous-tailed Jacamar, much scarcer in Trinidad than in Tobago, called from the roadside and made a brief appearance, gliding across the road and down a ravine. A flock of Gray-breasted Martins shared the telephone wire 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. I was glad to see that this colony, which has declined in recent years, seems to be making a comeback.
Back at Asa Wright, as luck would have it some of the other birders had fixed their telescope on a Blue-headed Parrot, so we got to see that species after all.
Tea today included beef pies and brownies, and for dinner we enjoyed homemade bread, pumpkin soup, macaroni pie, and papaya mousse for dessert. 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: 76
New bird species for the trip: 12
Running total: 184
New birds today: Trinidad Piping-Guan (heard), Swallow-tailed Kite, Long-winged Harrier, Black Hawk-Eagle, Scaled Pigeon (heard), Blue-headed Parrot, Green Hermit, Blue-chinned Sapphire, Long-billed Starthroat, Collared Trogon, Channel-billed Toucan, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Great Antshrike, White-flanked Antwren, Black-faced Antthrush (heard), Streaked Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, White-shouldered Tanager, Speckled Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Hepatic Tanager, Tropical Parula, Northern Waterthrush (heard), Yellow-rumped Cacique, Trinidad Euphonia (heard)
On our last birding day of the trip, observations before breakfast included the 20 or so usual species. After our breakfast of pancakes, sausages with creole sauce, omelets, pancakes, and all the other daily treats, resident naturalist and expert birder Mukesh Ramdal led us on a long, leisurely hike to the Oilbird Cave. The temperature was quite pleasant, as it had been every day of our visit, with partial cloud cover.
During the hike to the cave, Mukesh and I heard a loud call with which we were both unfamiliar, a most unusual occurrence. I was finally able to pick out the singer and identify it as a male Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, the only species of tanager in T&T that prefers to be in the dark interior of the rainforests. We also heard the distinctive call of Euler's Flycatcher, but the bird stayed on the far side of the ravine from us. Just before we reached the cave, Mukesh showed us a White-lined Sac-winged Bat sleeping under a broad leaf along the trail.
The Dunstan River, which runs through the crevice in which the Oilbirds nest, had regained its usual flow since last year's drought. We saw a dozen Oilbirds perched on ledges or sitting on their nests inside the cave. Outside the cave we observed a currently unused Chestnut-collared Swift nest constructed under an overhang on a cliff face.
We returned to the main house for lunch and a chance to refresh ourselves and do some preliminary packing for our flights the next day. For lunch we had "ground provisions" (cassava, sweet potato, and taro), callaloo (made from the leaf of the taro with okra, pumpkin, and coconut milk), coocoo (couscous, made from corn flour, okra, carrots, and coconut milk), christophene (chayote), bodi (very long green beans), stewed pork, and garden salad, with sponge cake for dessert. Listen here as Wendy describes the menu.
At 1:30 p.m. Ivan arrived to drive us on our afternoon foray to the Caroni Swamp. Rain was falling hard at times as we drove west through the town of Caroni and across the vast Caroni rice fields. We parked at the Caroni Visitors Center for a pit stop and in a vain attempt to attract Clapper Rails from the mangroves. As light rain fell, some of us strolled slowly back along the entrance road, looking and listening for birds in the mangroves.
My friend and bird expert Shawn Madoo always can be counted on to provide the best possible boat trips into the Caroni Swamp. Today's sojourn was excellent, as usual, except that for the third time in my 71 visits, it was raining. As they say, "into each life a little rain must fall." Shawn did the best he could to produce sighting after sighting for us, despite the challenging rain.
Soon after we were underway, Shawn began pointing out interesting fauna, including Four-eyed Fish (Anableps) and several herons. Turned the boat up a side channel, he showed us a nesting pair of Yellow-chinned Spinetails and a Green-breasted Mango hummingbird. Later he called in Bicolored Conebills, pointed out three species of kingfishers, pointed out a calling but unseen Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, and found us a sleeping Cook's Tree Boa and a sleeping Common Potoo. He then tied the boat to a mangrove and presented us with a lecture on the history and ecology of the Caroni Swamp .
As we proceeded along the Blue River, also called Drain #9, we flushed several Little Blue Herons, a few tardy Spotted Sandpipers, and had excellent views of Straight-billed Woodcreeper. The boat ride into the Caroni Swamp always reminds me of scenes from the movie "The African Queen."
Any trip into the Caroni Swamp has one major goal — to witness the arrival of Scarlet Ibis returning to their evening roost sites. Although by late afternoon the rainclouds foretold scant chance for photography, we allowed plenty of time at the roost site in case the sun broke through. Sadly, the light remained dim and the rain was steady for most of our stay. We still saw plenty of Scarlet Ibis, herons, egrets, and Neotropic Cormorants flying in and landing in the mangroves.
As darkness fell we returned to the boat launch site, thanked Shawn for his expert guiding, and reboarded Ivan's maxi. Back at Asa Wright we enjoyed our final dinner, which included white rice, curried dhal (made from split peas), buss-up-shut roti (potato, chickpeas, bodi, and curried chicken), and pineapple mousse for dessert. Because we had returned late and were anticipating an early departure the next morning, we skipped our tally and packed instead.
I am happy to report that everyone arrived home safely with none of the problems we encountered on our outbound flights. I hope that everyone remembers the lovely birds (almost 200 species), plants, and animals we observed, as well as the interesting local fruits and vegetables we enjoyed – balata, bodi, breadfruit, cashew, christophene (chayote), citrus of all kinds, dasheen, guava, mango, papaya, passion fruit, pigeon pea, pineapple, Portugals (patigals), roti, sorrel, star fruit (five fingers), sugar cane, taro, tipi tambo, watermelon, and yams.
Total number of species seen today: 101
New bird species for the trip: 12
Final total: 196
New birds today: Blue-winged Teal, Scarlet Ibis, Clapper Rail (heard), Green-throated Mango, Ringed Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher (heard), Euler's Flycatcher (heard), Bicolored Conebill, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager