October 1-10, 2011
Leader: Bill Murphy
Click here to view Chuck Leavell's photos.
This wonderful adventure began with an e-mail from Chuck Leavell, who convinced me to resuscitate a tour I had decided not to run in October. His persistence paid off, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable, although initially wet, tour of the emerald islands of Trinidad & Tobago. We racked up a very respectable 214 species of birds as well as an unusually long list of other flora and fauna.
Jeanne arrived a day before the rest of us. Rumor has it that she enjoyed a very serene day relaxing on her balcony at Sadila House B&B, reading and spotting birds in the wooded lot across the street. The rest of the participants arrived the following afternoon and were escorted to a nearby Chinese restaurant by Chaitram Bhola, manager of Sadila House.
Sunday, October 2 - Tobago: Bon Accord & Hilton Ponds, Adventure Farm
Well before dawn we were up, dressed, packed, and enjoying a breakfast prepared by Chaitram and his wife, Sivitri. Chaitram's driver took us to the airport in his spacious maxi taxi. Rain the previous day had been very hard. This morning it fell in short bursts interspersed with intense sunshine. We passed through Caribbean Airlines check-in quickly and had time to spare, so we explored some of the shops in the airport terminal before passing through security and into the waiting area. Our flight left considerably ahead of schedule and arrived in Tobago 20 minutes early. We met one of our two Tobago drivers, Roger James, loaded our luggage and ourselves onto his maxi, and begin birding.
Judy served as copilot for the trip, keeping the drivers alert and enjoying a front-row view, sometimes hair raising, during our excursions. Our first stop was at Jimmy's Mini Mart to stock up on bottled water for the day. From there we drove to the Bon Accord ponds, where we had interesting bouts of birding between downpours. Despite the rain we found plenty of birds, including the most widespread species such as Cattle Egret, Magnificent Frigatebird, Eared Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Pale-vented Pigeon, Carib Grackle, and Blue-black Grassquit, along with Lesser Yellowlegs, a pair of Pectoral Sandpipers, and a group of four Semipalmated and one Least Sandpiper playing in rain puddles in the rutted road. During one shower, a group of swallows perched conveniently close on power lines. The group included White-winged Swallow, a species unknown from Tobago 10 years ago; migrant Barn Swallows, all of which sported white underparts (juvenile North American? adult Eurasian?); and two Cliff Swallows. The latter species is so rare in T&T that every sighting requires written or photographic documentation.
The front gate was locked and a gap in the fence had been repaired, so we made our observations from the fence perimeter. We observed a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with a Short-billed Dowitcher among them, a few White-cheeked Pintail, a single Blue-winged Teal, and many Anhingas, Common Gallinules, and Green Herons. The most common heron was Little Blue Heron, most of them adults, along with a single blue-and-white mottled juvenile. Caribbean Martins were especially abundant. We spotted a fly-over Black-bellied Plover and were surprised by a Belted Kingfisher that flew over the ponds giving its dry rattle and perching on a telephone line in clear but distant view. This was only my second sighting of Belted Kingfisher in 71 visits to T&T.
During one torrential downpour we reboarded the maxi, drove to the end of the airport runway, and scanned the Caribbean for birds. Here we added Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, and Brown Pelican to our list.
Returning to the Bon Accord ponds, we walked along the western perimeter, finding Smooth-billed Ani, a copulating pair of Black-faced Grassquits, and the first of many Tropical Mockingbirds, an everyday species during the trip. We penetrated a few yards into a red mangrove swamp, where I used recordings to lure in cooperative pairs of Black-crested and Barred Antshrikes. We had our first glimpses of a nondescript vireo relative, the Scrub Greenlet, found on Tobago but not on Trinidad. The most spectacular find was a male Prothonotary Warbler, luminescent gold against the dark green foliage. As with the Belted Kingfisher, this was only my second sighting of Prothonotary Warbler in 71 visits to T&T. Yellow Warblers made their first of many appearances during the trip. We did not find Mangrove Cuckoo, one of the target birds for this area.
From Bon Accord, we drove to the Tobago Plantations. Around the perimeter of the entrance lake we spotted about 20 Anhingas, including two partially fledged downy white young in their arboreal nest near the road. Their head and necks were light brown, which made them resemble Squacco Herons, a Eurasian species. We also had a reasonably good but distant view of a tiny Least Grebe.
We proceeded through the security checkpoint to the maintenance building, stopping on the far side of a canal to observe an adult and two juvenile Tricolored Herons atop a bush that traditionally hosts a heron or egret of some kind. The Tricolored Herons were less than 50 feet away and afforded excellent photographic opportunities. At the maintenance building we made use of the restrooms and then examined the perimeter of a lake, finding abundant Common Gallinules but little else.
We spent the remainder of the morning birding our way to the south end of a series of settling ponds. All except the first of them were covered with thick vegetation that had been absent during my February visit. We searched very diligently in the scant area of open water for Masked Duck but found none. We did find Common and Purple Gallinules and Wattled Jacana. Other birds in the area included Southern Lapwing and our first Red-crowned Woodpecker, hammering on a metal light post and searching the light fixture for insects. This species was one of our targets for the day, being found in Tobago but not in Trinidad. Green-rumped Parrotlets were abundant, constantly chittering in the trees around us and flying to and fro. This species is exactly the color of the leaves in which it typically spends its time. It took much effort to find one perched.
At the far end of the area, I used playback to attract Barred Antshrikes, more Scrub Greenlets, and our first Gray Kingbird. The best bird of the morning was a Blackpoll Warbler in winter (basic) plumage. This was a great surprise because Blackpoll Warblers prefer conifers or dense forests. We had an excellent view of this rare migrant as it foraged below eye level in low vegetation in one of the ponds. We noted all of the identifying characters – two wingbars, fine dark striping on the upper back, pale legs, fine streaking on the sides of the breast, black bill – which eliminated the only possible contender, Bay-breasted Warbler. Also found in this area were Purple Gallinules and another Lesser Yellowlegs.
On our way out of the Tobago Plantations, we skulked along a pond where Masked Duck is sometimes found. We surprised a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron roosting in the woods near the pond and plenty of Common Gallinules, Purple Gallinules, and Wattled Jacana walking on lilypads, but we again dipped on Masked Duck.
For lunch, we drove to Store Bay, where at Miss Esme's we enjoyed typical Tobagonian fare including goat roti (like an Indian burrito) and macaroni pie. Next, we visited Adventure Farm, where wa swarming cloud of hummingbirds greeted us. Most of them were Copper-rumped Hummingbirds, with decent numbers of White-necked Jacobins and a few skittish Rufous-breasted Hermits. We had excellent views of male and female Barred Antshrike along with Spectacled Thrush, our first Trinidad Motmots, lots of Eared and White-tipped Doves and Pale-vented Pigeons, a few Shiny Cowbirds, male and female White-lined Tanagers, and close views of the intensely colored Tobago race of the Blue-gray Tanager. We saw the only Black-throated Mango hummingbirds of the trip, all females. As expected, the Ruby-topaz Hummingbirds had left for the winter.
Late in the afternoon, we drove north on the Caribbean side of Tobago, passed through the village of Runnymede, and, at the end of a two-mile entrance road, found ourselves in paradise at the Cuffie River Nature Retreat. Owner/manager Regina Dumas welcomed us and helped us settle in for an evening of relaxation after a fine first day. At least three White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbirds frequented the feeders. This species, found in Tobago but not Trinidad, was almost extirpated in 1963 by Hurricane Flora but has recovered nicely. Even after dark, we continued to add new species to our list as a White-tailed Nightjar hover-gleaned insects from around the mercury-vapor lamp outside the dining room.
On most nights during the trip, we spent time before or after dinner tallying species encountered during the day. At tonight's tally-rally we came up with 74 bird species for the day, a very good showing. Just as we drained the last of our beer or wine, dinner was announced. The cuisine at Cuffie River is always extraordinary -- fresh, delicate, locally grown, and memorable. Dinner tonight consisted of callaloo soup, oven-baked chicken, stewed black-eyed peas, baked potatoes, and fresh garden salad with homemade dressing, with homemade coconut ice cream for dessert (Regina knows about the relationship I have with ice cream).
Total number of species seen today: 74
New bird species for the trip: 74
Running total: 74
New birds today: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Blue-winged Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Least Grebe, Brown Pelican, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Common Gallinule, Purple Gallinule, Southern Lapwing, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Whimbrel, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Wattled Jacana, Laughing Gull, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Rock Pigeon, Pale-vented Pigeon, Eared Dove, White-tipped Dove, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Orange-winged Parrot, Smooth-billed Ani, White-tailed Nightjar, Short-tailed Swift, Rufous-breasted Hermit, White-tailed Sabrewing, White-necked Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Trinidad Motmot, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Gray Kingbird, Scrub Greenlet, White-winged Swallow, Caribbean Martin, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, House Wren, Spectacled Thrush, Tropical Mockingbird, Bananaquit, White-lined Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Blue-black Grassquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Shiny Cowbird, Carib Grackle
Monday, October 3 - Tobago: Cuffie River grounds
Rufous-vented Chachalacas, Orange-winged Parrots, and House Wrens served as our alarm clocks this morning, awakening us at the uncivilized hour of 4:30 a.m. We had slept, as is the custom at Cuffie River, with our doors wide open, which allowed the bird song, as well as the birds themselves, particularly hummingbirds, to fly through our rooms. Most of us continued to snooze until sunrise. Before breakfast, we were already birding, with participants strolling down to the bridge over Cuffie River and elsewhere on the grounds. Pre-breakfast finds included our first Streaked Flycatcher and Crested Oropendola. A delightful morning breeze and high cumulous clouds helped create a magnificent ambience. The previous day's rain had washed everything fresh and clean.
The two Cuffie River cooks - Carolyn Sylvester and Yvonne Cunningham - prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs, granola, eggs both sunnyside-up and scrambled, fresh slices of pineapple and watermelon, and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Yum!
At midmorning, local wildlife expert Desmond Wright led us on a three-mile walk along the entrance road and then along a former donkey track through the verdant bamboo-clothed hills. From the moment we crossed the Cuffie River bridge, we were into birds, with a pair of Venezuelan Flycatchers, never easy to find, putting on a show for us. An out-of-place Black-crowned Night-Heron spent the day concealed in the trees over the river. Rufous-tailed Jacamars-- "King Hummingbirds," as they are known locally -- enthralled us with their spectacular iridescence, and Trinidad Motmots were so common that we soon ceased to point them out.
The rain this morning was torrential at times, so we birded between showers. During the hike we observed species such as Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, White-fringed Antwren (found on Tobago but not on Trinidad), and Rufous-breasted Wren. We watched an aggressive Cocoa Woodcreeper pursue first a competing Plain-brown Woodcreeper and then a Red-crowned Woodpecker. We enjoyed views of both Tropical and Gray Kingbirds. At one point, we enjoyed sniffing chips of a cedar tree that recently had been felled with a chain saw. We heard many Blue-backed Manakins (found on Tobago but not on Trinidad) and finally saw a female and a young male; he was the same greenish color as the female but sported a scarlet cap.
Upon our lunchtime return to Cuffie River, we enjoyed onion soup and vegetarian lasagna, with cherry-coconut ice cream for dessert. The afternoon was free for independent exploration. Most of us updated our trip notes, read, walked the grounds, and took naps during the rain showers.
We gathered after dark for our evening tally, discussing the high points of the day and going over the schedule for the next day. For dinner we were served spicy pumpkin soup, vegetable stir fry, corn fritters, pigeon peas with rice, and steamed red snapper, with pumpkin ice cream for dessert. After dinner, Jeanne and Karen impaled pieces of bananas on a piece of bamboo across the road from the lodge to attract bats. Among the fruits of their labors were photographs of a White-tailed Nightjar and a Common Potoo.
Total number of species seen today: 50
New bird species for the trip: 16
Running total: 90
New birds today: Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Common Potoo, Gray-rumped Swift, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Fuscous Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Blue-backed Manakin, Rufous-breasted Wren, Crested Oropendola
Tuesday, October 4 - Tobago: Main Ridge Reserve (Gilpin Trace), Little Tobago Island
Another day in paradise! There's nothing like the Cuffie River Nature Retreat for total tranquility. We continued birding before breakfast, getting better views of species we had already observed and perfecting our jungle birding techniques.
For breakfast, we had cheese omelettes, bacon/sausage melange, granola, fresh slices of pineapple and watermelon, and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.
Today we circumnavigated northern Tobago. Our driver, Bert Isaac, drove us north along the Caribbean side of Tobago until we reached the only road that bisects northern Tobago – the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road. In the cool mountain heights, we prepared for three hours on a jungle trail, renting rubber boots for $5 from a local entrepreneur, Junior Thomas. Junior has been so reliable in renting boots to my groups over the years that this morning I presented him with his own Trinidad Birding name tag.
This morning it rained off and on, sometimes torrentially, which made birding quite challenging. The trail was unusually quiet, with most bird song emanating from a distance. No leader enjoys a checklist consisting of a lot of "heard-onlys," so I was pleased when we were able to observe Blue-backed Manakins and Rufous-breasted Wrens at close range. As we squished through the mud, we agreed that we were certainly getting our money's worth from the rented rubber boots. Some members of our group hiked all the way to the Silver-and-Gold Waterfall (about a mile) before heading back to the trailhead.
Leaving the heights and the rain behind, we descended aboard Bert's maxi to Roxborough, on the Atlantic side of Tobago, and then drove north to Speyside. At Jemma's Treehouse Restaurant, we enjoyed a lunch of grilled or stewed kingfish or chicken with side dishes of local foods such as breadfruit and pigeon peas, washed down with copious amounts of fresh fruit juice and Angostura lemon-lime bitters (LLBs). Because of the morning's rain, we had missed seeing a Tobago specialty, Great Black-Hawk, so it was a bonus when we spotted one from our lunch table as it soared into view over the Main Ridge.
After lunch. we drove a short distance to the Speyside dock and boarded one of Wordsworth Frank's glass-bottomed boats. Our guides today were my old friends Roy and Zelonie ("Z" for short), both lifelong sailors. Long rollers during our two-mile transit to Little Tobago Island made it feel like a real ocean cruise. Rain spattered just a bit upon our departure but ceased once we were at sea – in fact, the rain did not return until we had returned to Cuffie River. A single late-season Brown Noddy that crossed our path low over the waves was the short-but-sweet highlight of the transit to Little Tobago Island.
The commentary that Z provides as we explore Little Tobago Island is always fine, but today he was marvelous. He pointed out lots of trees – Silver Thatch Palm, Tourist Tree, male and female Avocado, and Seaside Almond. He related the story of how Sir William Ingram had introduced Greater Bird-of-Paradise to the island in 1909 and told us about the seabirds that nest on the island. While he talked, a large blackish dove flew over us – a Scaly-naped Pigeon, an individual apparently blown to Little Tobago Island a few years ago from one of the islands to the north. This bird had been reported periodically during the last several years, but this was my first view of it. Then Z led us through climax littoral forest to a lookout, where we had views of about 100 gorgeous Red-billed Tropicbirds, along with Brown and Red-footed Boobies. Magnificent Frigatebirds kept things stirred up by chasing any bird with a full crop, seeking to make that bird disgorge fish.
We hiked back to the boat dock. Along the way I spotted a snake, which Karen the Fearless grabbed for identification. It turned out to be a Machete Couesse, Mastigodryas boddaerti dunni (Stuart), a subspecies found only on Tobago and Little Tobago Island.
On our return cruise, Z motored slowly over a huge brain coral called Einstein and over a coral reef called Japanese Garden, where we observed scores of fish species, including Creole Wrasse, Black Durgin, Blue Tang, Sergeant Major, French Angelfish, and Stoplight Parrotfish.
Our return trip in the maxi was via the Windward Road, south almost to the capitol city of Scarborough and then inland. By the time we reached Cuffie River, we had almost circumnavigated the island.
During our visit to Tobago, we had found 100 species of birds, about 80% of the species expected annually in Tobago if one includes seasonal migrants. For dinner, we enjoyed lentil soup, baked lamb, eggplant casserole, sweet potato casserole, and tossed green salad, with homemade pineapple ice cream for dessert. After dinner, we purchased Cuffie River T-shirts, settled our bills, and packed for our flight to Trinidad in the morning.
Total number of species seen today: 55
New bird species for the trip: 10
Running total: 100
New birds today: Red-billed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby, Brown Booby, Great Black-Hawk, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Stripe-breasted Spinetail, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Plain Antvireo, White-necked Thrush
Wednesday, October 5 - Trinidad: Asa Wright Nature Centre
Today we enjoyed an early breakfast of cheese omelettes, bacon/sausage melange, granola, fresh slices of pineapple and watermelon, and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. We left Cuffie River in Bert's maxi and headed back to Tobago's Crown Point Airport. As on our flight from Trinidad, our return flight left well ahead of our scheduled flight time and thus arrived in Trinidad earlier than scheduled. Our Trinidad driver, Ivan LaRose, drove us from the airport through the city of Arima and then 12 miles north on Blanchisseuse Road, up into the Northern Range to the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC). Stopping along the AWNC entrance drive, we had a long, leisurely look at a perched adult Common Black-Hawk. Hostess June DeGale greeted us with a brief orientation as a low-flying Zone-tailed Hawk cruised by overhead. The rain returned as we settled into our cabins.
Our first order of business was lunch, a mixture of stewed okra, tomatoes, and onions in a peppery sauce; black-eyed peas; macaroni pie; barbecued kingfish; and tossed green salad with homemade dressing, with cake with rum custard sauce for dessert.
Birding from the world-famous veranda at Asa Wright was the order of the day. New birds came fast and furiously – both Turkey and Black Vultures; all three species of hermit hummingbirds as well as Tufted Coquette, Blue-chinned Sapphire, and White-chested Emerald; and myriad tanagers and honeycreepers. Chuck, Ray, and I spent the afternoon walking very slowly along the entrance drive. We found plenty of interesting birds, including two uncommon species – Yellow-olive Flycatcher and a female Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. The rain had almost stopped, and the forecast was for mostly dry days during the remainder of our trip.
On the veranda, the other participants enjoyed visiting with a British birding group while continuing to add new species. We enjoyed our first high tea and "biscuits" (cookies and quiche) at 4 p.m. and rum punch at 6 p.m. Some of us were delighted to be able to examine the color plates from the upcoming third edition of the late Richard ffrench's field guide to the birds of Trinidad & Tobago.
After dinner, resident naturalist Mukesh Ramdass led a night walk along the entrance road. Those participants who joined him saw two species of tarantula, wind scorpions, and a sleeping Northern Waterthrush.
Total number of species seen today: 73
New bird species for the trip: 37
Running total: 137
New birds today: Little Tinamou, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Common Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray-fronted Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Little Hermit, Green Hermit, Tufted Coquette, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-chested Emerald, Channel-billed Toucan, Lineated Woodpecker, Great Antshrike, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Tropical Pewee, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Bearded Bellbird, White-bearded Manakin, Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Gray-breasted Martin, Cocoa Thrush, Silver-beaked Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Purple Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, American Redstart, Trinidad Euphonia, Violaceous Euphonia
Thursday, October 6 - Trinidad: Aripo Livestock Station, Nariva Swamp, Waller Field
Many of us were birding at first light today, especially from the veranda. A hoarse scream announced the presence of a Gray-headed Kite, and for about one second we watched the bird fly across a clearing. After breakfast, we boarded Ivan's maxi and headed down Blanchisseuse Road to explore Eastern Trinidad. Along the way, we gained experience separating birds from bromeliads on the power lines.
Our first stop was across the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway from the Aripo Livestock Station. Here we had an amazingly close and lengthy view of a Striped Cuckoo, usually a difficult species to see, although hearing them often is not a problem. An adult Gray Hawk flew over, followed by a Yellow-headed Caracara. A brief shower drove us back to the maxi.
Across the highway, in the livestock station, we spent time observing Gray-breasted Martin, White-winged Swallow, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Red-breasted Blackbird, and other interesting species. A single distant Savanna Hawk on the ground provided our only observation of this South American grassland species. Here, as well as for the rest of the day, we mingled off and on with the birding group from the UK. A point-blank view of a Wilson's Snipe was exciting, as was finding our first Fork-tailed Flycatcher and watching a Pinnated Bittern fly across the road. Having so many eyes seeking birds proved useful.
In late morning, having finished birding the station and starting back out the entrance road, we were shocked to see a huge kingfisher flying past. After searching a bit, we located it perched over a stream. This was our first Ringed Kingfisher; amazingly, we would see at least three more of this scarce species during the trip.
From the livestock station, we continued east to the town of Valencia, where we made a brief stop during a torrential shower to use the restrooms and grab beverages. Continuing south, we diverted around the outskirts of Sangre Grande, the largest city in Eastern Trinidad. A stop along the road several miles farther south provided a view of a colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques in a mango tree.
At Manzanilla Beach Park on the Atlantic Ocean, we enjoyed a picnic lunch of shepherd,s pie and tossed green salad and homemade dressing, with slices of watermelon for dessert, along with fresh fruit juice and ice water. It always strikes participants as humorous that the park charges TT$1 (about US 16¢) to use the restroom at this park.
A few of us strolled across the road while the others finished their lunch. Through the scope we studied an adult Gray-headed Kite, the same species we had seen oh so briefly from the veranda this morning. Sadly, it flew before the rest of the group reached the scope.
Leaving the park, we drove slowly past thousands of coconut palms along the Atlantic until we reached the mouth of the Nariva River. On the sandy spit we found a flock of Least Terns and a lone Collared Plover, a South American species. Continuing south and then east into Nariva Swamp proper, we searched for a few hours, mainly from the comfort of the air-conditioned maxi, through hundreds of acres of wild rice for interesting birds. Some of the best sightings during the afternoon included a close dark-morph Long-winged Harrier coursing only a few yards above the vegetation while searching for prey, and later, among the coconut palms near the beach, a group of Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras, with adults and immatures of both species. Crested Caracaras are so rare as to require documentation. This was the first immatures I had ever seen in T&T, incontrovertible evidence of breeding.
In late afternoon, we headed north to Waller Field, a former U.S. Army Air Corps base. In a grove of Moriche palms, we located our four target species: Red-bellied Macaw, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Sulphury Flycatcher, and the rarest of all, Moriche Oriole. Thus what had started as a rainy day ended on a very high note indeed.
Total number of species seen today: 90
New bird species for the trip: 30
Running total: 167
New birds today: Pinnated Bittern, Striated Heron, Gray-headed Kite, Long-winged Harrier, Gray Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Crested Caracara, Yellow-headed Caracara, Collared Plover, Wilson's Snipe, Royal Tern, Common Tern, Least Tern, Scaled Pigeon, Red-bellied Macaw, Striped Cuckoo, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Ringed Kingfisher, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Black-crested Antshrike, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Sulphury Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Moriche Oriole, Red-breasted Blackbird
Friday, October 7 - Trinidad: Sudama Steps, Orange Valley
Of our group of seven, only three - Chuck, Ce, and Ray - could tear themselves away this morning from the wonders of Asa Wright for a journey to the deep south. We four enjoyed a cold breakfast of cereal and milk and bananas ("figs") before heading south in Ivan's maxi. For 90 minutes we relaxed and watched the countryside as Ivan drove west almost to the capital city of Port-of-Spain and then south past the city of San Fernando to the hamlet of Woodland.
We spent the morning birding the South Oropuche River basin, one of the few extensive marshes in South Trinidad. We birded along Ramahut Trace, finding lots of marsh species such as gallinules, jacanas, herons, egrets, and Yellow-chinned Spinetail. We spotted our first Osprey of the trip, carrying a fish. While searching for seedeaters on a side road, we found several Common Waxbills, an exotic cagebird from Africa that became established in Trinidad around 1990. This was a life bird for me – that sure doesn't happen often anymore! In this area we also found a male Masked Yellowthroat that allowed scope views, a Limpkin or two in flight, and a mongoose.
The wind had picked up, and the remaining morning hours proved challenging for birding, although the breezed kept us comfortable. We hiked along a flat dirt track with red mangroves bordering the Oropuche River on one side of us and an extensive marsh on the other. Here we observed lots of herons and egrets, Large-billed Terns, Yellow-chinned Spinetails, Caribbean Martins, and Barn and Southern Rough-winged Swallows. We worked very hard to find and observe our target birds – Red-capped Cardinal, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, and Bicolored Conebill, all of which are mangrove specialists and all of which we found. Numbers of Yellow Warblers responded to my pishing, but the wind kept species such as Northern Waterthrush and Black-crested Antshrike hidden in the foliage.
When we returned to Ivan's maxi, a South Trini birder named Dr. Sanjiv Parasram met us. He volunteered to rendezvous with us later at Carli Bay to help look for a reported Rufous Crab-Hawk. Lunchtime was approaching, so we headed into the town of Debe for spinach, potato, and eggplant pies and fried balls of dough called pholourie before driving to Carli Bay. No Crab-Hawk, but we found White-rumped, Least, and Semipalmated Sandpipers along the road. We helped Sanjiv identify his first Blackpoll Warblers and Northern Scrub-Flycatcher in exchange for his help in nailing down the Saffron Finches we sought. During our time at Carli Bay, we also had excellent views of Bicolored Conebills.
Our final stop of the day was at a long concrete pier called Orange Valley. Ivan drove the maxi onto the pier until he had cleared most of the nearby mangroves, so we had a clear view of the mudflats. Here we found hundreds of shorebirds, gulls, terns, skimmers, pelicans, and other kinds of waterbirds, along with more Ospreys. A Clapper Rail "clacked" from the mangroves. What indulgent birding it is to casually watch birds while aboard an air-conditioned maxi!
From Orange Valley we returned to Asa Wright. Jeanne, Judy, Karen, and Kathy had enjoyed a fascinating day full of flora and fauna, including a new species for the trip a White Hawk that had circled overhead.
Total number of species seen today: 104
New bird species for the trip: 22
Running total: 189
New birds today: Osprey, White Hawk, Limpkin, Clapper Rail, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Stilt Sandpiper, Large-billed Tern, Black Skimmer, Short-tailed Nighthawk, Green Kingfisher, Black-faced Antthrush, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Bicolored Conebill, Saffron Finch, Red-capped Cardinal, Grayish Saltator, Masked Yellowthroat, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Common Waxbill
Saturday, October 8 - Trinidad: Northern Range
Everyone loves a day in the cool heights of the Northern Range. After an early breakfast, from Asa Wright Ivan took us about three miles north up Blanchisseuse Road and then up the very steep entrance to the Morne Bleu Tropospheric Scatter Station. We had some exciting birding as we carefully made our way along the perimeter of the security fence. But first we examined some of the extraordinarily large insects that had been attracted by the powerful lights during the night. These included a huge locust and a huge scarab beetle.
Our first eye-popping species was a male Collared Trogon perched below eye level on the fence. This was followed by views of Olive-sided Flycatcher, White-shouldered Tanager, White-bellied Antbird (Kathy only), Band-rumped Swift, and other species, including a Tropical Parula that almost landed on Chuck. The magnificent view from this station included the Caroni swamp to the west, Piarco Airport and the Plains of Caroni to the south, and the Caribbean to the north.
We strolled about halfway down the entranceway, hoping for, but not finding, Trinidad Piping-Guan and Speckled Tanager. Instead we found the area to be full of tropical butterflies including the Postman, Sweet Oil, Doris, Flambeau, Cattleheart, Giant Sulfur, and "our" Monarch.
We spent the remainder of the morning strolling along Blanchisseuse Road, looking for anything that moved. Although the rain of the previous days had stopped completely, the jungle was unusually quiet. Where we found birds, we stopped to identify them, identifying Forest Elaenia and Euler's and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers. Without a doubt, the greatest excitement was generated by a pair of circling Ornate Hawk-Eagles. The bright sunlight brought out the rufous hue of the heads, nailing down our identification.
Our last stop of the morning was at Las Lapas Trace, which connects the Arima Valley with the Lopinot Valley to the west. Here we heard our only Dusky-capped Flycatcher of the trip and had repeated close views of iridescent blue Emperor Morpho butterflies. Our target species was Golden-headed Manakin, which we found. In fact, we watched several males performing at their arboreal lek.
For our packed lunch, we had rice pilaf with roast chicken and garden salad with homemade dressing, with watermelon slices for dessert. We enjoyed this at Paria Junction, where Blanchisseuse Road heads northwest and the Paria-Brasso Seco Road heads northeast.
Our final birding area of the day was the hamlet of Morne La Croix, where our target bird was Blue-headed Parrot. After a brief restroom and beverage stop at the only shop for many miles, we parked at the traditional parrot site. Loads of Orange-winged Parrots flew overhead, screeching. Playback brought a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl to within 10 feet of us. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar shot past, and a Southern Rough-winged Swallow posed at length on a power line for a perfect telescope view. Sadly, no Blue-headed Parrots could be found, so we boarded Ivan's maxi and started back to the Centre.
We had barely begun our drive when a flock of at least 20 Blue-headed Parrots crossed the road ahead of the maxi, headed toward the spot we had just left. Ivan turned the maxi around and drove us back. We got out and scanned the trees, finding just two Blue-headed Parrots teed up in the distance. Unfortunately, they both flew away almost immediately. Again we waited as flocks of Orange-winged Parrots landed screeching in the trees around us. Several parrots left the main group and landed in tops of trees very close to us. With no Blue-headed Parrots in sight, I idly raised my binoculars and studied the closest birds. Much to my surprise, they turned out to be Blue-headed Parrots! We studied them as they preened only 50 feet from us. Hearty congratulations were exchanged, and then a flock of at least 30 more Blue-headeds flew in, squealing, and landed on the nearby power line. This was unprecedented in my experience and was an amazingly upbeat ending to our quest.
Back at Asa Wright we enjoyed afternoon tea and pastries and rum punch followed by another sumptuous dinner.
Total number of species seen today: 76
New bird species for the trip: 13
Running total: 202
New birds today: Short-tailed Hawk, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Blue-headed Parrot, Band-rumped Swift, Long-billed Starthroat, Collared Trogon, White-bellied Antbird, Forest Elaenia, Euler's Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-shouldered Tanager, Tropical Parula
Sunday, October 9 - Trinidad: Oilbird Cave, Caroni Swamp
All good things must come to an end. This was our last day in Trinidad, and it was to be a superb one. We would visit the dramatic Oilbird Cave in the morning and watch the unforgettable flight of Scarlet Ibis in the Caroni Swamp in the evening.
After breakfast, my good friend and expert naturalist Barry Ramdass led us on a morning walk, first along the Discovery Trail to display leks of White-bearded and Golden-headed Manakins and then to the Oilbird Cave. He pointed out a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, a close Common Potoo sleeping atop a broken bamboo stalk, a female Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and, with major effort and great difficulty, both Collared and Guianan Trogons. Although we repeatedly heard Green-backed Trogons, we never saw that species during our trip.
Once we had finished chasing trogons, we began our half-mile trek to the cave. Barry provided a comprehensive discourse on the biology of our target species. He also pointed out a pair of Yellow-olive Flycatchers – which until then only Chuck, Ray, and I had seen during the trip – and a pair of White-flanked Antwrens. He also pointed out a variety of trees, flowers, and butterflies during our walk.
When we reached the bottom of the gorge, Barry took three people into the cave at a time to view the Oilbirds by the light of his flashlight. The rest of us stayed outside, viewing Yellow-throated Frogs, Emperor Morpho butterflies, and an unruffled Chestnut-colored Swift incubating on her moss-covered cliffside nest.
After we had returned to the lodge and freshened up, at lunch it was my pleasure to host Martyn Kenefick, author of our field guide, and his wife, Petra Bridgemohan. Most participants secured Martyn's inscription in their field guides.
At 1:30 p.m., we left the center with Ivan. We headed south to Arima and then west, toward the Caroni Swamp, also known as Caroni National Park. We stopped briefly at the Trincity ponds, where we birded from the comfort of Ivan's air-conditioned maxi. Here we found an assortment of species, including Barn and White-winged Swallows, Striated Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, several species of egrets, Pied Water-Tyrant and White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, and our one and only Peregrine Falcon of the trip. As luck would have it, we found two more Ringed Kingfishers as we left the Trincity area.
At the Caroni rice fields, we took a few minutes to scan the fields where the vegetation was low enough for us to see birds. New for the trip were several Pied-billed Grebes. A gentleman fishing in a drainage ditch offered us rum from an astonishingly wide selection he had set out on the concrete railing.
We drove to the Caroni Visitor's Center, where we made use of the last restrooms we would see for several hours. Our boatman for the evening excursion, an excellent young naturalist named Shawn Madoo, prepared his flat-bottomed boat while we birded in the adjacent mangroves. Playback produced any number of Yellow Warblers and a few Northern Waterthrushes but not our target bird, the colorful race of the Clapper Rail endemic to Trinidad. With only a few minutes remaining before our departure in the boat, we tried another bit of mangrove forest and were rewarded almost immediately with a very loud and very close response. Amazingly, I spotted a Clapper Rail sitting on a nest only about 30 feet from where we were standing. I had never seen, let alone found, a rail nest of any kind, so this was a spectacular event. The rail was dark brown overall, and the only way we could spot the bird was to search for its orange lower mandible against the brown mud and brown mangrove roots.
Once we were all aboard Shawn's boat, he steered it into the channel and headed west, toward the Gulf of Paria. His eyesight and ability to pick out critters from among the tangled mangrove branches and roots was incredible. He provided us with close views of an immature Rufous-necked Wood-Rail running along the dike, an American Pygmy Kingfisher calling from a nearby branch, several Straight-billed Woodcreepers and at least one Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and a sleeping Common Potoo. Moreover, he found us a sleeping Two-toed Anteater curled up in a ball and a Cook's Tree Boa curled up on a branch.
The highlight of every trip – and this afternoon's was no exception – is the evening flight of Scarlet Ibis returning to their roosts from their feeding grounds. As we left the narrow mangrove-lined channel and entered a very broad lake-like lagoon, we were treated to the sight of hundreds if not thousands of herons, egrets, and luminescent Scarlet Ibis flapping and gliding toward an isolated mangrove island. This "hummock" already was covered with scarlet, white, gray, and blue herons, egrets, and ibis. Interestingly, none of the birds vocalized enough to break the stillness of the moment.
Unfortunately for the birds but most opportune for the photographers in our group and in the adjacent boats, a thoughtless person motored his speedboat much too close to the roosting birds, causing an explosion of color as all of the birds leapt into the air in confusion. I had never seen such an intense display of color except at dawn, when the ibis leave their roost simultaneously. As the birds settled back down, we, too, settled down to some serious rum punch drinking and chocolate cake eating.
As twilight fell, Shawn motored us back to the dock. We bid him farewell, reboarded the maxi, and an hour later were back at Asa Wright enjoying our final dinner.
Total number of species seen today: 99
New bird species for the trip: 12
Final trip total: 214
New birds today: Pied-billed Grebe, Scarlet Ibis, Peregrine Falcon, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Oilbird, Chestnut-collared Swift, Green-backed Trogon, Guianan Trogon, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, White-flanked Antwren, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Thus ended our very successful birding and natural history tour of Trinidad & Tobago. We had explored both islands thoroughly, had seen/heard 214 species of birds along with a variety of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fish, and insects, and we had enjoyed some of the best food in the Caribbean.