Click here to view Eva Armi’s images.
Click here to view Blair Francis’ images.
Click here to view Sue Smith‘s images.
Day 1, Monday 16th January
Arrival at Piarco International Airport, Trinidad, was a staggered affair. Eva and Blair came in late Sunday night; six more of the group flew in from Miami during the afternoon, and the remainder arrived mid-evening from Houston. Those who saw "Trini daylight" introduced themselves to such common suburban birds as Cattle Egret, Black and Turkey Vultures, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Bananaquit, Palm Tanager, Tropical Mockingbird, Grayish Saltator, Yellow Oriole, and Carib Grackle, whilst some saw a pair of Ringed Kingfishers perched on utility wires over a stream at Trincity. Others watched a circling Common Black-Hawk replete with lizard in its talons and a Merlin at dusk, hunting bats.
The first night was spent at a couple of guest houses a short drive from the airport – the real tour was to get going in the morning.
Day 2, Tuesday 17th January
The day started with breakfast at 5:30 a.m. if you were staying at Sadila House or, unfortunately, a fair bit earlier if you were staying at Leo's Place, where our host somehow convinced himself that he had to wake us up shortly after 4:00 a.m. The first task of the day was to make the internal flight transfer to the sister island of Tobago. Formalities were straightforward, if a little cumbersome. Our 20-minute flight in a Dash 8 turboprop was smooth and uneventful. Our bags came through promptly at Arthur N. R. Robinson airport. Bert Isaac, our driver, was there to meet us. And most important of all, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
After a quick stop to pick up a supply of bottled drinking water, we made the short transfer to Bon Accord sewage lagoons. This site, whilst still harboring exciting birds every year, is in need of serious management. The actual water is completely covered with grasses and weeds, so there are no waterbirds on view, but nevertheless it was a good introduction to Tobago open country birds. We quickly learned to separate Gray from Tropical Kingbirds and Black-faced from Blue-black Grassquits, and we saw our first Magnificent Frigatebirds, Green and Little Blue Herons, Eared Doves, and Smooth-billed Anis.
Walking to the Nylon Pool shoreline, we added our first Green-rumped Parrotlets atop a dead palm, Red-crowned Woodpeckers nesting in the same palm, a pair of Brown-crested Flycatchers flitting along a hedgerow, and several rather skittish Scrub Greenlets hiding behind the foliage, whilst Short-tailed Swifts soared over and wintering Barn Swallows rested on utility wires. Back on the road, several Yellow-headed Caracaras drifted into view, our first Southern Lapwings rested in a cleared field, a Belted Kingfisher “belted” down the drainage channel, a Whimbrel trotted ahead of us along the road, and several Spotted Sandpipers bobbed up and down as only “Spotty's” do. But the clear winner of "best bird of the morning so far" was a Mangrove Cuckoo that flew across the road and briefly perched out in the open.
By now, the clouds had rolled in and it was starting to rain – a good time to move on to the Lowlands complex, an area of golf course, freshwater lakes, and sewage ponds. This is a restricted access site but one where we had permission to enter. This is also the only confirmed breeding site of our other main target species in southwest Tobago, but more of that later.
Once through the security barriers, we found that the first lake held a winter-plumaged Pied-billed Grebe, in itself a scarce visitor to Tobago, plus two individuals of a species far rarer here - Neotropic Cormorant. The latter bird is a common resident in Trinidad, but, having been first found in Tobago as recently as 2005, only one bird had been seen since – and now there are two! Also on view were numbers of roosting Anhingas and our first Tricolored Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron of the tour.
As we entered the sewage ponds, we quickly found an adult Least Grebe sitting on a nest, with its partner coaxing a very vocal hatchling to swim out into the centre of the pond. Both Common Gallinules (now split from Common Moorhen and a separate species in its own right) and Purple Gallinules flapped over the short reeds and sedges, and a few of us briefly saw a Common Waxbill perched atop a dry stem. This species was introduced to Trinidad at least 25 years ago and is widespread on that island throughout the central and southwest wetlands. However, it is extremely local in Tobago, with just two birds being occasionally seen over the years, and only ever at this site. Whether these birds flew naturally from Trinidad or escaped from a cage locally is open to conjecture.
Whilst we were watching the Waxbill, Sue and Betty had briefly seen a female or immature Masked Duck hiding amongst the lily pads. This was the other southwest Tobago target bird mentioned earlier. After avidly scouring the whole pond for a few minutes, Frank nonchalantly mentioned that he was watching not one but four immature or female Masked Ducks in a narrow open stretch of water much closer to us. It is more than likely that these were last years’ young, and we have hopes that even though we did not find a breeding-plumaged male, they may nest in the area once more in 2012. A flock of 12 Blue-winged Teal flew over, and then the rain came down with a vengeance – a fitting time to return to the bus and find lunch.
One of the most popular eating areas in Tobago is Store Bay, with its collection of local booths preparing traditional Tobagonian food. With a sense of adventure, many of the group opted for "blue crab and dumpling" – I think it is fair to say that the choice received a mixed reception, but the homemade mango ice cream from another nearby store was truly excellent.
Early afternoon saw us walking a trail in the dry deciduous forest of Grafton-Caledonia Sanctuary with its Rufous-vented Chachalacas acting on sentry duty at the entrance. Despite the sun being pretty hot once more, the area was very birdy. I guess pride of place went to several photogenic Rufous-tailed Jacamars, but the supporting cast of Broad-winged Hawks, Yellow-breasted and Fuscous Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenias, and Pale-vented Pigeons were equally well received. Our final destination on this itinerary was the Adventure Farm, close to Arnos Vale. Here we sat in comfy chairs, sipping homemade mango punch whilst watching hummingbirds coming in to the sugar water feeders. Almost continually on view were five of the six species found in Tobago: Rufous-breasted Hermit, Black-throated Mango, White-necked Jacobin, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, and the dazzling Ruby-topaz Hummingbird. In addition to sugar water, the Farm puts out cut fruit and grain. This attracted new species for us, ranging from Trinidad Motmot and Barred Antshrike to Shiny Cowbird and White-lined Tanager. All too soon, it was time to leave and make the final 30-minute journey to Cuffie River Nature Retreat, our base for the next three nights.
Our intention was just to unpack, unwind, and enjoy an excellent dinner – and we did all three, the latter being homemade corn soup, roast lamb with pigeon peas, roast potatoes, and salad with a refreshing coconut-and-pumpkin ice cream for dessert. But birding never sleeps – as we were returning to our rooms, first a Common Potoo perched upon a security light just in front of the balcony, and then a White-tailed Nightjar appeared on the other side of the building, sallying out to catch flying insects before returning to its preferred bare branch. Our first day in Tobago had come to an end with a very respectable 70 species, including several which we did not see again on the tour.
Day 3, Wednesday 18th January
Dawn broke to a cacophony of sound from both Rufous-vented Chachalacas and Orange-winged Parrots – indeed, many of them started well before dawn. And as for that House Wren – did it ever go to sleep? As the sun came up, the hummingbird feeders were alive with White-necked Jacobins and Copper-rumped Hummingbirds. A Rufous-breasted Hermit was in regular attendance, but the undoubted star was a superb male White-tailed Sabrewing – one of the rarest hummingbirds in the world, found only on the Paria peninsula of Venezuela and the Main Ridge forest of Tobago. Indeed, Cuffie River Nature Resort is, without doubt, the only place in the world where you can sit and watch this bird whilst drinking coffee from the comfort of your own balcony! The flowering shrubs and trees held many of those species that were new for us yesterday, but they allowed us a much more patient and relaxed study, whilst both Northern Waterthrush and a fine male White-fringed Antwren were new for the tour.
Immediately after a breakfast of cereal, bacon, and eggs, we set out for "a morning with Desmond." Desmond Wright is the local nature guide employed by the Retreat, and he has an intimate knowledge of the valley. We slowly walked about a kilometer along the entrance road before turning off onto a benching trail through the forest. It would be fair to say that from a birding perspective it was quality at the expense of quantity. We saw several birds that are by no means straightforward to find in Tobago and heard several more that remained out of sight. Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable session. We were able to entice in an Olivaceous Woodcreeper, a species renowned for moving quickly from trunk to trunk, and had excellent views of a gliding adult Great Black-Hawk showing significantly more white in the base of the tail than its "Common cousin" in Trinidad, together with a longer tail and more stretched neck profile. A Fuscous Flycatcher gave us all the run-around, showing well to a few and not showing at all to many. Similarly, an adult male Blue-backed Manakin played hide and seek with us. They may be the noisiest of the manakins in T&T, but they are also the most shy. Most saw the bird; indeed, some saw it well, but it is fair to say that everybody looked forward a second chance.
As for the remainder of birds seen, three Broad-winged Hawks soared over, several parties of swifts contained both Short-tailed and Gray-rumped Swifts, a female Violaceous Euphonia was seen by just Sue and myself, whilst Trinidad Motmots and Rufous-tailed Jacamars were posing for the photographers at almost every bend in the road.
A quick word on Trinidad Motmots for a moment. The former species, Blue-crowned Motmot, has been split into five species by the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), the basis of separation being underparts coloration, biometrics, and vocalization. Our birds have the deepest and brightest rufous-brown underparts and are the largest. I have to say that I cannot detect any difference in vocalization among others seen elsewhere. Our bird is endemic to Trinidad and Tobago, but it is a source of sadness that a species far more widespread and easier to see in Tobago than in Trinidad has been renamed "Trinidad Motmot."
We reached back to the resort by midday. There were now at least two different sabrewings coming into the feeders, and the sunlight on the "important body parts" of the Ruby-topaz Hummingbirds had to be seen to be believed. Lunch was a traditional affair, with leek and chive soup followed by pastelles (cornmeal packages filled with spicy ground chicken and wrapped in a banana leaf), coleslaw, and homemade lemonade.
Around 3:30 p.m., a select group joined me on a hike up one of the forested ridges overlooking the riverbed. The trail had been described as "one of the birdiest in Tobago," but I think the following phrases best describe our journey: "every cloud has a silver lining" and "patience and perseverance pays dividend." We toiled up quite a slippery slope for about an hour, with only Bananaquits for company, and then turned, hoping for better fare on the way back down. Almost immediately, a Blue-backed Manakin called quite close by, and it was easy to lure him in; we then enjoyed prolonged views at eye level. Shortly thereafter, a few of us got onto a couple of Palm Tanagers flitting around Heliconia leaves, when "eagle-eyed Sue" spotted a Red-eye Vireo foraging in the background. We carried on down past the lodge and finished our walk on the bridge over the Cuffie River. The water was full of water boatmen and water skaters, and a fine Yellow-breasted Flycatcher sallied around the bamboo.
Tonight our resident Common Potoo and White-tailed Nightjars performed before dinner and were extremely tolerant of the photographers in the group. All that remained, therefore, was the serious business of enjoying callaloo soup followed by red snapper with pumpkin fritters, rice, and salad.
Day 4, Thursday 19th January
Another daybreak with clear blue skies as we assembled for an early breakfast. Faces were a little strained this morning – it wasn’t the Chachalacas that had interrupted sleep! The House Wren never got a chance, but those hunting dogs ...!
Today was one of total contrasts. We began with a drive up the leeward coast, through the villages of Castara and Englishman's Bay, seeing our first Giant Cowbirds en route. We then climbed up and into the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. This is the oldest forest reserve in the Caribbean, indeed in the entire Western Hemisphere, protected since 1765. We were to spend most of the morning slowing walking Gilpin Trace. To my mind, this is the most scenic and atmospheric forest trail in T&T, winding as it does slowly down the valley beside a running stream. The trail was muddy in places, but we were prepared, having donned rented rubber boots acquired from the trunk of Junior Thomas’ car.
Birds are never abundant along Gilpin, but there are key species available. Whilst under the canopy, rainforest birding can be extremely frustrating, yet most of the group saw most of the species found. Particularly pleasing was the fact that it was a real team effort. Birding a single-file trail is fraught with difficulties, yet species were being picked out by many in the group, and communication was excellent. Yellow-legged Thrushes were particularly conspicuous. We saw perhaps five different males and several females. Blue-backed Manakins called continuously, and a couple of males really showed off their colors. Whilst the group could not possibly have gotten better views of White-tailed Sabrewings than those already obtained back at Cuffie River, it was nice to see three birds, including one female sitting on a nest, in their true primary rainforest habitat and away from plastic feeders.
This species has a fragile history. Back in 1962, Hurricane Flora wiped out 75% of the trees on the island, and no sabrewings were found for the next 11 years. Now there is a healthy population. These three species (Blue-backed Manakin, White-tailed Sabrewing, and Yellow-legged Thrush) are the traditional target birds of the Tobago rainforest, but a plethora of "supporting cast" species were equally well received, none more so that a most obliging White-throated Spadebill, which sat out in the open, totally oblivious to our presence. Normally a shy and retiring bird, this is only the fourth time I have seen this species here. In similar vein, almost everyone saw male Collared Trogon, Rufous-breasted Wren, Stripe-breasted Spinetail, and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher well. Sadly, Gary was the only one to see Venezuelan Flycatcher. Betty alone saw a Golden-olive Woodpecker, whilst Sue and I glimpsed both Plain Ant-Vireo and American Redstart.
We returned to the trailhead just in time to board Bert's bus before the rain came down. It was approaching lunchtime, and we had an appointment with Jemma’s Treehouse Restaurant, set on the beach at Speyside village – and truly magnificent it turned out to be.
By total contrast, we were to spend the afternoon on Little Tobago Island, just a mile or so offshore. We joined up with Zee and Shayne and their glass-bottomed boat and made the 20-minute crossing with only a slight sea-swell to contend with. Disembarking took a while, with the guys acting both professionally and expertly, ensuring that everyone transferred from a "bobbing boat" to a rigid concrete island jetty without mishap. The trail up to the two seabird lookout points is steep but well maintained. Being under the canopy, the walk is also very humid – but it can be completed in 15 minutes.
We paused at the first lookout, with Red-billed Tropicbirds screaming overhead, more to enjoy the cool breeze than anything else; the real birding spectacle was just a little higher up the hill. The vista looking across the narrow bay to the forested slopes to the northwest is always mind blowing. During January, there are probably 350 tropicbirds in the air, many soaring in really close, including several pairs engaging in their ballet-flight bonding. On the rocks sat Brown Boobies, many on the nest ledges. In the trees to the east, Red-footed Boobies of three different appearances (white light morph, brown dark morph, and white juvenal fluff) sat on nests in stunted trees. All the while, Magnificent Frigatebirds soared effortlessly overhead, ever vigilant for a cheap meal.
Close to the watch point, Zee pointed out a nesting tropicbird that looked upon its appreciative audience with total disdain, and a roosting male White-tailed Nightjar which was convinced that its cryptic plumage pattern rendered it invisible, even though we were only 10 feet away!
By 4:15 p.m., it was time to return to the boat, with a brief pause in the proceedings to watch a Scaly-naped Pigeon perched in a distant tree. This species is common throughout the Lesser Antilles and, in the last few years, a small population appears to have become resident on the island. Elsewhere in Tobago it is rare; it has not been seen to date in Trinidad. After a closely managed re-boarding of our boat, we turned our attention to below the surface. We firstly studied one of the largest grooved brain corals in the world. It is said to be 2000 years old, still alive and growing at a rate of about an inch per year. Then it was off to view the undersea world that is Japanese Garden and Angel Reef. Here we watched several species of Parrot Fish and Angel Fish, together with a whole host of smaller fry, including Creole Wrasse, Blue Tang, Black Durgon, and Sergeant Major gliding effortlessly over Potato and Black Corals, clams, sponges, and“Dead Man' s Fingers.”
There then followed the long and winding journey by bus back down the windward coast, before crossing the island once more through the settlements of Hope, Manor Hall, Moriah, and Runnemede, arriving back at Cuffie River just in time for a quick shower before our final dinner. The rain fell almost continuously during the night, but by dawn the skies were clear.
During our time in Tobago we had found a most respectable 103 species.
A personal comment just for a moment – a real sadness for me is that it has taken 12 years living in T&T to find Cuffie River. Without doubt, I will return very soon.
Day 5, Friday 20th January
The main focus of today was the inter-island transfer back to Trinidad. Everything worked like clockwork. Following a final breakfast at Cuffie River, we bade farewell to Regina and her staff, who had looked after us so well. We were even able to say goodbye to our Common Potoo, which was still scanning around on his bamboo perch for any last-minute flying insects before it retired to roost. Our journey down to the airport with Bert went smoothly. The check-in and security procedures at the airport were perfectly straightforward. Our flight left on time, the crossing was effortless, our baggage all came through, and Ivan and his bus were there to meet us for the transfer to Asa Wright Nature Centre, our base for the remainder of the tour. And the sun was hot.
Just one look from the Asa Wright veranda reinforced the fact that we were on a different island, with so many species on view that do not occur on Tobago. Perhaps the most plentiful were both Purple and Green Honeycreepers, but during the remainder of the morning we were able to add Green Hermit, Blue-chinned Sapphire, and White-chested Emerald, all coming into the sugar water feeders, together with a much scarcer female Long-billed Starthroat. Both male and female Tufted Coquettes fed on a nearby Vervain bush. Cocoa Thrushes of all ages fed on the scraps that fell from the bench feeders, competing at times for morsels with the ever-present Red-rumped Agoutis and Golden Tegu Lizards. One tree that is particularly popular with birds is the Trema (Tremamicrantha),and several are planted close to the balcony. These attracted both Bay-headed and Turquoise Tanagers, together with a couple of Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, a male American Redstart, and an equally exquisite male Golden-headed Manakin.
Shortly after lunch, several of us walked down the main Discovery trail. Our quest was to find Bearded Bellbirds. Indeed at least four birds were calling, one of them at times right over our heads. Despite spending well over an hour diligently scanning every accessible area of sub canopy, we just could not get an angle to see one – ah, the joys of tropical forest birding! All was not lost, however, as our walk enabled some or all of us to see a pair of Green-backed (formerly White-tailed) Trogons, a pair of White-flanked Antwrens, a soaring adult Double-toothed Kite, and an adult male Great Antshrike. Back on the veranda, the late afternoon session produced excellent views of Channel-billed Toucan for all, together with Long-billed Gnatwren and Gray-fronted Dove for a few. Even as dusk drew in, we were able to add just one more species to our lists when a Short-tailed Nighthawk made a couple of speedy fly-bys. All that remained was to sip our complimentary rum punches and enjoy a hearty buffet dinner of fish broth followed by pork chops and a wide selection of vegetables and salad.
Day 6, Saturday 21st January
Had this been a cricket match, the caption would have read "Rain stopped play." Today we really battled against both rain and low cloud. Thanks to the perseverance of the group, we managed to find a number of species new for the tour, but the conditions could hardly have been called enjoyable. The heavy overnight rain subsided at daybreak, leaving the lower valley quite clear; however, low cloud was already forming higher up in the forest – and that was the direction in which we were headed immediately after breakfast.
Our first stop was at the highest point that a vehicle can travel in Trinidad, at the Tropospheric Scatter Station on Morne Bleu. It was overcast but dry. We managed to find a two superb male Collared Trogons, and Gary called out our only Hepatic Tanager of the tour. Male Hepatics in Trinidad do not have conspicuous gray ear coverts, nor do they have all dark bills – indeed, some renowned birders believe there to be two definite species: Lowland Hepatic Tanager in SW USA and Central America, and Highland Hepatic Tanager for birds of the Coastal Cordilleras in Venezuela and the Northern Range of Trinidad.
Very quickly, the cloud cover came down, making birding nigh on impossible, and so we descended some 400 feet and walked the upper flat section of the Blanchisseuse Road, sadly seeing very little. Then the rain came down with gusto. It immediately became apparent that the whole of the upper levels of forest were going to be subject to continual inclement weather and that the only alternative was to drive north, descending all the time, trying to find dry and brighter conditions. We made numerous stops between Las Lapas and Brasso Seco village, building up a reasonable list of species new for the tour. One particular Trema tree close to Paria Junction came in for scrutiny, as amongst the feeding Bay-headed Tanagers was at least one Olive-striped Flycatcher, a species never before seen on a Bill Murphy tour.
At one point, when it seemed as if the day was going to brighten up, we found single Gray-headed Kite and a light-morph Short-tailed Hawk lazily soaring over, whilst a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk was seen perched in an Immortelle (Erythrina) tree. Another stop produced Andy's 1000th species in the form of a pair of Blue-headed Parrots. Patrolling the roadside verge flowers were both Little and Green Hermits, the latter being seen by only a few. Several Band-rumped Swifts swirled low over the road. We picked out our first Forest Elaenia and several Tropical Pewees, whilst in one particularly "busy" Immortelle a couple of male Blue Dacnis fed with Bay-headed Tanagers and the only Tropical Parula of our tour.
Lunch was taken at the Brasso Seco Community Centre. As always, the villagers were kind and generous, taking pity on a group of birders trying to find somewhere to eat in the pouring rain, whilst Asa Wright had provided an excellent hot chicken pilaf – a risotto with brown rice, peas, and carrots – together with a green salad. Both Yellow-rumped Cacique and Lineated Woodpecker were added to our tour list from the dining table.
We attempted an early afternoon walk along an agricultural track winding its way north out of the village, but really we were getting wet to no avail. At this point, there was no alternative but to retrace our steps, hoping for brighter conditions on the way back – there weren’t any! However, we did stop to admire/pity a soaking wet male Guianan Trogon (formerly Violaceous Trogon) sitting on roadside utility wires. By 2:00 p.m., the consensus vote was to return to the Nature Centre, and it rained all the way.
Some of us spent the remainder of the afternoon birding from the veranda, finding a Squirrel Cuckoo perched out in the Cyp tree, enjoying the male Tufted Coquette at the Vervain bush, and spotting a selection of birds, including a female Blue Dacnis, in the close Trema.
Dinner tonight was grilled chicken with cassava, beans, and salad, and the conversation was all about hope for better conditions tomorrow.
Day 7, Sunday 22nd January
I feared the worst when a particularly heavy rain shower woke me up at 3:00 a.m. Today was to be spent mainly in freshwater marsh – and we really needed dry conditions. Perhaps innocent optimism ruled as we departed the Centre at 5:00 a.m., taking the two-hour drive southwest to South Oropouche. We arrived to find a dry but a little overcast sky. We parked up at Sudama Steps and were immediately surrounded by Yellow-hooded Blackbirds. Our plan was to walk west along a raised embankment, with a line of mangrove to our north and water meadows to our south. We quickly found our prime target bird – Spotted Tody-Flycatcher. Indeed, over the course of the next few hours we were to find perhaps 10 in all. This tiny denizen of mangrove is widespread in suitable habitat in southwest Trinidad but occurs no further north than San Fernando. Yellow Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes, common winter visitors from September through to the end of April, were "chipping" from the mangrove on our right, whilst on our left we soon found typical marshland birds such as Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pied Water-Tyrant, and Red-breasted Blackbird. A pair of incredibly curious and approachable Black-crested Antshrikes posed for the cameras, a trio of juvenile Scarlet Ibis (without a single red feather among them) fed in the muddy margins of the river, and most of us had a fly-past view of an adult but tail-less Masked Yellowthroat.
After a kilometer or so, we arrived at an abandoned picnic site, which allowed a raised viewpoint overlooking the western marsh. The sun shone through, and the temperature quickly soared. In the scrubby grass we found our only Pale-breasted Spinetails of the tour. Maureen pointed out a female White-headed Marsh-Tyrant that quickly met up with her mate, and a Striped Cuckoo posed right out in the open. We spent some time scouring the far marshy fields before Sue finally picked out another of our targets – a distant light-morph Long-winged Harrier. A second dark-morph harrier quartered the fields considerably closer to us, whilst Andy found a second Masked Yellowthroat.
Despite the heat from the sun, dark clouds had been building up for some while. In fairness, the worst of the rain passed to the north of us, but it seemed to be a fitting moment to return to the road with most of our target species "in the bag." As it happened, we added a bonus bird on the way back – a Pinnated Bittern motionless in the reeds. From Sudama we drove initially north and then east along Rahamut Trace, finding several adult Fork-tailed Flycatchers of the white-collared race "monachus," replete with full tail streamers. And then it was time for breakfast.
The nearby town of Debe is one of the traditional homes for "Indo-Trini" street food. Here we enjoyed a selection of Doubles (a sandwich made from fried flour seasoned with turmeric), Sahiena (a sandwich of fried dasheen leaves), and Aloo Pie (seasoned potato pies rolled into a tube), all filled with curried channa (chickpea), mango, and tamarind sauce, with varying sprinkling of hot pepper sauce to taste, all of which were a great success.
It was then time to retrace our steps north, initially in pouring rain, to Central Trinidad before branching west once more to check over the coastal trees and scrub at Carli Bay. Being lunchtime, the birding was rather quiet, but we were able initially to find five immature Saffron Finches and, a short while later, two stunning adult males. Our last birding stop was a few miles to the north, watching out onto the tidal mudflats from the fishermen’s jetty at Orange Valley. The high-tide roost comprised about 150 Laughing Gulls with an adult graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull and around 20 Black Skimmers. An extremely flighty, swirling flock of Calidris waders never landed for more than a few seconds. All those that were identified were Western Sandpipers, but undoubtedly there were Semipalmateds admixed; both winter in large numbers on the West Coast mudflats. Several Greater Yellowlegs and Willets scuttled around, but the persistent rain really dampened any thoughts of prolonged, diligent scanning of the mangroves.
To end the day’s tour, we briefly visited a magnificent Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, close to the town of Freeport. All that was left was the 90-minute drive back to the Centre, enlivened by three Ringed Kingfishers perched over tiny rivers at Trincity and an adult Common Black-Hawk perched on the lower Blanchisseuse Road.
Whilst all this was going on, Cheryl and Toni had stayed behind at the Centre. They both saw Bearded Bellbird and had a perched Great Black-Hawk pointed out by the guides on duty – this is an extremely uncommon raptor in Trinidad and certainly made me rather envious.
Despite weather that could best be described as changeable, this had been a most successful day, with almost every one of our target species seen and seen well.
Day 8, Monday 23rd January
Whilst we had to dodge the showers quite frequently today, when the sun came out it was really warm, and we managed a full day' s birding. There was just a limited time on the veranda this morning, but time enough to enjoy the male Tufted Coquette feeding on the Vervain. Our first stop was at the Aripo Agriculture Research Station, an area of open wet meadows and cattle pasture. The main activity here is the breeding of buffalypso, a hybrid Water Buffalo x Brahma cow which produces both low cholesterol dairy produce and lean meat. Here we had a second chance to appreciate some of the birds found yesterday, including large numbers of Red-breasted Blackbirds, Pied Water-Tyrants, and White-headed Marsh-Tyrants. New for the tour, and specialities of the area, were both Grassland Yellow-Finch and Savannah Hawk. The former, a known nomadic wanderer from the South American mainland, is a recent colonist. Also new, but more familiar, were Solitary and Least Sandpipers, together with a pair of Peregrine Falcons. This pairing combined perhaps the largest female and smallest male Peregrines I have ever seen.
The northern sector of the station holds a small copse of fruiting trees and open scrubland. Here we found a male Crimson-crested Woodpecker and an obliging Squirrel Cuckoo. Some saw a male Trinidad Euphonia, and we all had good views of an adult Gray-headed Kite perched atop a Cecropia tree.
We then journeyed further east, to Valencia, ostensibly for an air-conditioned comfort break in the Ponderosa Bar. However, Maureen could not restrain herself from dancing to the reggae music of Maxi Priest blaring out, much to the appreciation of the regular patrons. Continuing east, we reached Manzanilla on the Atlantic coast, having spent a short while enjoying a nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques en route. Here we had a lunch of baked chicken, creamed potatoes, and salad whilst watching out over quite a stormy sea. Despite it being extremely early in the season, there was just a chance of a Leach's Storm-Petrel flapping about in the Bay – but sadly not this lunchtime.
The drive south along the Cocal through perhaps as many as a million coconut palms often produces perched birds of prey seeking shelter from the midday sun. Today it was more a question of their seeking shelter from the wind and drizzle. Nevertheless, we slowly amassed a reasonable tally of both Savannah Hawks and Yellow-headed Caracaras. Of greater interest was our first Gray Hawk, and the star of the show was an adult Crested Caracara. As recently as five years ago, this species was a rare and infrequent visitor to Trinidad. Now it has established a small population in both east and southwest Trinidad. Another raptor, briefly seen by Sue and Andy, could possibly have been the light-morph White-tailed Hawk that had been reported from Nariva Swamp a week or so previously.
South of the Nariva River mouth is a small patch of roadside mangrove. Here we managed to entice a male American Pygmy-Kingfisher to make a couple of fly-pasts before we eventually turned west into the swamp proper, at the settlement of Kernaham. Time was not on our side here, so we restricted our activity to slowly driving the eastern perimeter bund roads, finding another two adult Crested Caracaras, one of which insisted on chasing mercilessly anything that came into its path, including a Turkey Vulture! The other sat atop the Forestry Commission watchtower. We also found our first Zone-tailed Hawk, another remarkable product of nature. The dihedral-held wings and underwing coloration of a Zone-tailed so resembles a Turkey Vulture that potential prey feel safe, often to their peril.
The middle of the afternoon was spent retracing our steps westwards before entering a small portion of the Aripo Savannah at Waller Field, a private site where access had been arranged. The only area now open to birders is a small line of Moriche palms. Here we managed to enjoy rum punch and coconut cake whilst watching least five Sulphury Flycatchers before the rain set in, once more leaving us the hour’s drive back to the Centre and time for a quick shower before my favourite "Asa Wright dinner" – curried beef with rice, dhal, buss-up-shut, channa, and potato.
Day 9, Tuesday 24th January
Our last full day in Trinidad and time for some serious “species catch-up.” Again the dark overhead clouds threatened all sorts of inclement weather, but against the odds we saw some excellent birds. Before breakfast, a male Black-tailed Tityra perched out in the open, and a male Golden-olive Woodpecker clambered around a small tree very close to the feeders. Just before we embarked on our Oilbird quest, Toni spotted a white blob atop a distant tree. Through my telescope most of the group managed to see a fine adult Bearded Bellbird before it was chased off of its perch by a Crested Oropendola.
We then set off down the Guacharo (Oilbird) Trail. Whilst the trail is steep in places and was certainly more slippery than usual, by taking our time it was an easy hike. En route, an inquisitive Gray-throated Leaftosser flew in to check us out. The Oilbirds behaved as they always do – occasionally hissing at our presence but in the main treating us with complete disdain. The viewing area is quite narrow at the entrance to the cave, so we entered in groups of two. The nearest birds were no more than 15 metres away, perched on their ledges, and everyone saw them well.
Once we had retraced our steps back onto the Discovery Trail, the group separated, with some of the ladies thinking about shopping and the remainder of us intent on getting a better, and more importantly, much closer look at bellbirds. This species is the emblem of the Centre, and we felt it essential that we were completely familiar with it before we left. Upon our arriving at a known territory, it took a while for a male to fly in, but before too long he was "clanging away" about five metres up in a tree quite close to the trail, where he remained in view for about five minutes.
We were well aware that the Centre was going to be extremely busy today with groups from a cruise ship, so we decided to stay right out of the way by walking the little-used Bellbird Trail. A Bright-rumped Attila was calling quite close but sadly not close enough, and it remained hidden from view in the canopy. Other than a couple of White-bearded Manakins, White-flanked Antwrens, and White-necked Thrushes, the trail was devoid of birds, but nevertheless it is an atmospheric and scenically beautiful trail.
After lunch, we set off for our final excursion, south and then west to Caroni Swamp, en route having both Gray Hawk and light-morph Short-tailed Hawk drift over the bus and a regularly positioned Ringed Kingfisher seen from the highway. At the Caroni Visitor Centre, we managed to see about 90% of a day-roosting Tropical Screech-Owl, our first Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and a female American Redstart.
Four o’clock saw us aboard Shawn Madoo's boat for a tour into the mangrove. The swamp comprises 40 square miles of mangrove accessed by the Blue River or, as it is more commonly known in Trinidad, "No. 9 drain." Almost all the trees are mangrove, principally Red Mangrove, especially where the water content is more salty. However, in the brackish upper reaches, both White and Black Mangrove predominate.
After a brief shower, the skies cleared, the sun shone briefly, and the late afternoon light was superb, with the trees reflecting off of the still waters. We managed to add several new mangrove speciality species for the tour. A couple of adult male Green-throated Mangos perched up, a Straight-billed Woodcreeper climbed a nearby tree, a male Bicolored Conebill flitted in the canopy, and a Cocoi Heron flew over. More familiar now were a perched adult Common Black-Hawk and scampering, noisy Black-crested Antshrikes.
Away from the birds for a moment, an olive-brown tangle positioned on an overhanging branch was actually a female Cook's Tree Boa being "attended to" by certainly two and possibly three males. This is perhaps the only time I have been able to use the phrase "ménage à trois" in a tour report without being considered inappropriate! These nocturnal snakes prey on small birds and their eggs and can grow to perhaps two metres in length. Much more colorful were a pair of Red Mangrove Crabs sitting side by side. And then it was the spectacle of the ibis roosting island.
We moored up at the side of a lagoon, poured the rum punch, and watched perhaps over 1000 Scarlet Ibis coming in to roost in a small island. Equally numerous were Snowy Egrets, whilst the supporting cast of several hundred Little Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons were much appreciated. Each species has its own place in the sleeping order, with the Snowy's and Little Blues retreating into the interior of the hammock whilst the ibis and some of the Tricoloreds roost on the outside. At least two, possibly three, Merlins haphazardly dive-bombed the roost, but by this time the heronry numbers were such that it exuded safety in numbers.
Sadly, we had to leave the ever-growing roost to disembark before emerging mosquitoes in the fading light became an issue. All that was left was a final drive back up to Asa Wright Nature Centre for a final dinner before an early start for Piarco Airport and the long flight home.