December 27, 2012 - January 5, 2013
Leader: Bill Murphy
Click here to view Cat's photos
rom start to finish, I think we'd all agree that this was an exceptionally complicated tour that turned out amazingly well. Despite hellacious snowstorms and closed airports throughout half of the U.S.A., all participants eventually got to experience the uniqueness of both Trinidad and Tobago. We split into subgroups several times, with special birds being seen by all. Nighttime showers proved to be a blessing, bringing cool temperatures and pleasant cloud cover in what is often a hot time of year. Doug proved to have the sharp eyes of a 10-year-old and produced some good birds out of nowhere. We probably ate too much, especially on Tobago. As an added treat, we met nearly all of the top birders on both islands as well as world-class tour guides Megan Crewe Edwards (Field Guides) and Alvaro Jaramillo (Alvaro's Adventures).
Our total of 214 species, including eight heard-only, was right on target. The hardcore listers nailed the two endemic species found only in T&T: Trinidad Motmot and Trinidad Piping-Guan. Among the highlights of our tour were crippling views of the normally elusive Masked Duck on Tobago and Pinnated Bittern at the livestock farm, dining at Cuffie River while two species of goatsuckers watched us, and enjoying a sunset in the Caroni Swamp as luminescent Scarlet Ibis winged in to roost.
This trip's nativity was a phone call to me from Doug, asking if I had any trips planned during his semester break. I didn't, but I planned one just for him. He called Bill and then called Bob and Carli, whom he'd met while birding in Bulgaria. Bob and Carli in turn called Steve and Karen, whom they'd met while birding in Costa Rica. Ironically, Steve/Karen and I live four miles apart and know each other, but they didn't know that I led birding trips to Trinidad.
Thursday, December 27: Arrival
What a crazy schedule of arrivals! Most of us arrived at staggered intervals today, whereas Doe and Lew had arrived a full week in advance, and although, because of snowfall and flight cancellations in the U.S.A., we wouldn't be seeing Steve and Karen until Monday morning. Thus 10 of us spent the first night, or in some cases only the wee hours of Friday morning, near the airport, at Sadila House or Leo's Place.
Friday, December 28: Southern Tobago
Today dawned clear and cool, a welcome change from the rather high temperatures during my October visit. I'd like to begin with the phrase "in the pre-dawn stillness," but somebody forgot to notify the Great Kiskadees and Tropical Mockingbirds. We enjoyed an early breakfast at either Sadila House or Leo's Place, assembled at Sadila House, and reached Trinidad's Piarco International Airport at 6:45 a.m. for our 7:40 a.m. flight to Trinidad's sister island, Tobago. Our 20-minute flight was comfortable and afforded excellent views of Trinidad through scattered cumulus clouds. Once we had arrived at Tobago's Arthur N.R. Robinson International Airport, we gathered up our luggage, used the restrooms, and met Bert Isaac, our driver for the Tobago segment of the tour. Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead, looking like huge Barn Swallows. We boarded Bert's maxitaxi, stopped briefly for bottles of drinking water at Jimmy's Holiday Resort, and headed for the Mt. Pleasant Credit Union, where I paid our entrance fee and obtained the key to the padlocked gate at the Bon Accord ponds.
Tobago is a stunningly beautiful island, and we were eager to start exploring it. A pair of tiny Black-faced Grassquits allowed close inspection as they perched on the chain link fence around the ponds. This species is found on Tobago but not on Trinidad. Tropical and Gray Kingbirds perched on phone lines. Eared Doves, a lowland species with a penchant for mangroves, were common throughout the area. Three wintering Broad-winged Hawks circled overhead. We expected the Short-tailed Swifts and Barn Swallows that were scavenging aerial insects but not the two Bank Swallows, possibly two of the four birds we had seen here during our October tour. A fly-over, wintering Belted Kingfisher was also unexpected.
The road edge and the grassy perimeter of the ponds had been trimmed nicely, but the ponds themselves were blanketed by water hyacinth and water lettuce. Lacking open water, most of our target water-loving species were missing. I later learned from the property owners that water hyacinth and water lettuce are considered to be a tertiary stage in sewage purification. If the ponds remain blanketed with aquatic vegetation, without periodic harvesting, these ponds will become useless for both birds and birders.
A brief push into the red mangroves and a stroll around the western perimeter of the ponds produced many new species: Bananaquits, which we would see every single day of the trip; Barred Antshrike, with local names "chuckle-in-the-garden" and "jailbird"; Blue-gray Tanager; Brown-crested Flycatcher; Carib Grackle; Cattle Egret; Green Heron; a wintering Northern Waterthrush; Osprey; Palm and White-lined Tanagers; Ruddy Ground-Dove; Smooth-billed Ani; Snowy Egret; a fly-over Tricolored Heron; Tropical Mockingbird; a Wilson's Snipe that cooperated nicely by flying low and close past the group after I'd flushed it from a flooded patch of grass; a steadily chipping but unseen Yellow Warbler; and Yellow-breasted Flycatcher. We also heard a number of other species that we would see later on the trip.
We left the ponds and walked to end of Mount Pleasant Boulevard, finding more Green Herons; a few Spotted Sandpipers; more Barred Antshrikes; a white (immature) Little Blue Heron; another Northern Waterthrush; drab Scrub Greenlets, found on Tobago but not on Trinidad; and a pair of White-fringed Antwrens. We examined a small flock of Southern Lapwings along the roadside from the comfort of the maxitaxi, noting the spurs at the bend of the wing and which we would also see in Wattled Jacanas. From the distance we also heard the unmistakable, hoarse scream of a Yellow-headed Caracara.
From Bon Accord we headed east to the Tobago Plantations, newly renamed the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort. While scoping the entrance lake we found about a dozen Anhinga, a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck perched in a tree, possibly the same Belted Kingfisher as before, Common and Purple Gallinules, Least Grebes, and a lone Pied-billed Grebe. We also spotted three Neotropic Cormorants, a relatively new species for Tobago. This was the highest count I had ever had for the species on Tobago. The first White-tipped Doves of the trip pecked at the closely cropped grass. We found our first Spectacled Caiman, a fish-eating freshwater alligator that sometimes attains a length of six feet. Here and everywhere we birded today, a refreshing breeze helped make our day very pleasant.
After a restroom stop, we walked the perimeter of the Magdalena ponds, accompanied by Gladwyn James, a native Tobagonian, and a group of British birders that he was guiding. Gladwyn's father, Adolphus James, for years was Tobago's top bird guide. Adolphus taught me much of what I know about the birds of Tobago. When Adolphus retired, Gladwyn took over the family business. Gladwyn and I exchanged information about recent Tobago bird sightings while we searched for birds among the water lilies and bulrushes ("threesquare"). An adult Least Grebe with a chick and a pair of Masked Ducks with young were very special finds indeed. The intense baby-blue bill of the male Masked Duck in alternate plumage was breathtaking. We saw at least three Soras as they slinked through the emergent aquatic vegetation, along with both species of gallinules and our first Wattled Jacanas. Green-rumped Parrotlets chattered in nearby trees, invisible in the leaves until they flew. We found the other grassquit species on Tobago, the Blue-black Grassquit, as well as our first Red-crowned Woodpecker.
Tobago hosts few species of raptors, so during the morning we were glad to find an adult Peregrine Falcon, a Merlin, and half a dozen Osprey. The farthest ponds held more jacanas, a stately Great Egret, a wintering flock of Blue-winged Teal, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and several more Green Herons. The hoped-for White-cheeked Pintails and a recently reported Green-winged Teal must have been feeding elsewhere this morning.
Our next stop -- the Grafton-Caledonia Wildlife Sanctuary, where in a converted cocoa-drying shed we enjoyed a packed lunch delivered to us by Cuffie River Nature Retreat's resident naturalist, Desmond Wright. From a rafter above us, several Richards's Anoles (Anolis richardii) watched the proceedings. Foraging among the flowering plants near the cocoa shed were Black-throated Mango, Copper-rumped, and Rufous-breasted Hermit hummingbirds. Background screeching were supplied by Orange-winged Parrots. Uttering curiously faint peeps, several of the braver turkeylike Rufous-vented Chachalacas stepped out of the forest to pick up our picnic scraps.
Lunch completed, we hiked uphill along the main trail and then meandered along a well-groomed side trail, discovering scintillating Rufous-tailed Jacamars, White-fringed Antwrens, and vociferous but hard-to-see Yellow-breasted Flycatchers. Bob found the first Trinidad Motmot of the trip and pointed it out to us. We heard but did not see a Yellow-bellied Elaenia, but we would encounter plenty of them later on. Other good finds along this former donkey trail included Blue-backed Manakin, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Fuscous Flycatcher (the "Prozac Flycatcher" that often droops its head and looks depressed), House Wren, Pale-vented Pigeons sounding like Barred Owls ("who-cooks-for-you"), Rufous-breasted Wren, and Spectacled Thrush.
From Grafton we drove north along the Caribbean, spotting fly-over Giant Cowbirds, Brown Pelicans resting on the prows of fishing boats, and more Magnificent Frigatebirds. At Plymouth we turned inland and drove through a string of ridge-straddling hamlets -- Les Coteaux, Golden Lane , and Moriah -- finally arriving in Runnemede at the Cuffie River Nature Retreat, where we would spend the next three nights. Cuffie River's lovely and gracious owner/manager, Regina Dumas, and her husband, Earl, greeted us and showed us to our rooms. (Poor Regina had fallen and broken her elbow a few weeks prior to our visit and was wearing a cast on her arm. She later showed me the before and after x-rays. I was amazed at the prefect job the surgeon had done in realigning, pinning, and stapling the parts back together.)
After settling in, we started birding around the lodge. We found the hummingbird feeders abuzz with White-necked Jacobins, gorgeous Ruby-Topaz Hummingbirds, and several White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbirds. Cuffie River is one of the few places anywhere that offers a reasonably good chance to see this extremely rare species. Our sighting of the sabrewings completed our single-day sweep of all normally occurring hummingbirds on Tobago. We also had late-afternoon views of Red-legged Honeycreeper (a species often missed on Tobago) and Blue-black Grassquits foraging near the lodge.
After dark, we gathered in the communal area to enjoy a pre-dinner go-round and orientation. Each member of the group listed their target bird or birds and told a little something about themselves. We were a highly diverse group with a wide range of birding experience and with a 30-year span between youngest and eldest. Most participants commented on Cuffie River's ambience -- so airy, open, and welcoming.
During dinner, a White-tailed Nightjar landed on a bamboo stick directly across the driveway from our dinner table. Nightjars hunted all night long for insects attracted to a mercury-vapor light near the entrance. Except when it was raining, they repeated this performance each night we were at Cuffie River.
None of us lasted long after dinner, especially those of us who had enjoyed wine or a local Carib or Stag ("A man's beer!") with their dinner. By 9:30 all was dark and silent, except for the kitchen staff cleaning the dinner dishes and setting the table for breakfast. Speaking of the kitchen staff, hats off to Regina, Earl, Caroline, and Yvonne - as always, you made our stay at Cuffie wonderful! Regina , especially, worked extra hard, considering that she only had one good arm during our visit. And thanks again for the ice cream!
Total number of species seen today: 72 + 3 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 75
Running total: 75
New for the trip: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Masked Duck, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Green Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Osprey, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara (heard), Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Sora, Common Gallinule, Purple Gallinule, Southern Lapwing, Wilson's Snipe, Spotted Sandpiper, Wattled Jacana, Ruddy Ground-Dove, 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, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Trinidad Motmot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow-bellied Elaenia (heard), Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Fuscous Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Gray Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Blue-backed Manakin, Scrub Greenlet, Barn Swallow, Bank Swallow, House Wren, Rufous-breasted Wren, Spectacled Thrush, Tropical Mockingbird, Bananaquit, White-lined Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue-black Grassquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Yellow Warbler (heard), Northern Waterthrush, Giant Cowbird, Carib Grackle
Saturday, December 29: Tobago Main Ridge Reserve and Little Tobago Island
We had at least a bit of cooling rain nearly every day during our tour, but most of it fell politely after dark. This morning, for example, heavy rain just before dawn washed the air clean and guaranteed that my friend Junior Thomas, who rents boots ("wellies") for Main Ridge hikes, would make some money today. Chachalacas and parrots were our alarm clocks this morning. The chachalacas started shouting from ridge to ridge at 4:30 a.m. and then went back to sleep until dawn, leaving us wide awake. Early-rising birders saw plenty of Crested Oropendolas, Gray-rumped Swifts, and Orange-winged Parrots flying about as the sky brightened, along with a variety of birds both in front and in back of the lodge. Regina and her team were up early, too, preparing an early breakfast to start us properly on our way.
Bert drove us north along the leeward (northwest) side of Tobago, stopping for a view of a mammoth kapok (silk cotton) tree and for a photo opportunity at an overlook above the beachside hamlet of Castara. Junior Thomas had e-mailed me the night before that he had been having car problems, so rather than meeting him at a trailhead, we stopped at his house to pick up our boots. We also stopped at the splendid new forestry building to use the restrooms. The view from this high elevation site is quite spectacular, probably encompassing a fifth of Tobago and 50 miles of lovely Caribbean Sea. At night, lights on the island of Grenada are visible far to the north. A pair of Great Black-Hawks provided a raptor fix for some of us in the group.
Aware that another birding group was heading for our usual destination, Gilpin Trace, we began birding instead along Niplig Trace (Gilpin spelled backwards). Later in the morning we returned to explore Gilpin Trace and later the Spring Trail. We encountered Blue-backed Manakins, Collared Trogons (heard), Golden-olive Woodpeckers (heard), a cooperative Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Streaked Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Spinetails (heard), and Rufous-breasted Wrens. Birds were vocal but remarkably difficult to spot, although some species, such as Collared Trogon, Plain Antvireo, and White-necked Thrush, tantalized us by singing almost continuously throughout our hikes. Doug spotted and pointed out our first pair of Plain Antvireos in the twilight of one of the deep ravines.
We took a well-deserved break for lunch in Speyside at the Bird Watchers Restaurant, owned by Wordsworth Frank, in whose glass-bottomed boat we would be taken to Little Tobago Island. With our lunch, many participants enjoyed their first Angostura lemon-lime bitters (LLBs) of the trip. This beverage always becomes a favorite with my groups; the Angostura family could make a fortune if they would market it in North America. Ruddy Turnstones and a Sanderling foraged on the beach, while Bananaquits and Carib Grackles perched nearby, seeking our leftovers.
After lunch we drove to the nearby Blue Waters Inn, where we boarded the glass-bottomed boat from the dock. Our boatmen were Dion, Shane, and Zelonie ("Zee"), all very experienced and dependable seamen. They motored us across two miles of rather choppy seas and deposited us safely on Little Tobago Island's concrete dock. Zee lectured us on the history and birdlife of the area and then led us on a slow hike up the leeward face of the island to a sheltered overlook on the windward face. After two days of very pleasant weather, it was a bit of a shock to encounter 150% humidity on the hike up to the top of the island. Along the way, Zee pointed out an active Audubon's Shearwater nest under the roots of a huge Anthurium.
In the virgin littoral forest, we saw numerous landbirds such as Trinidad Motmot, Tropical Mockingbird, Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Pale-vented Pigeon, and the ubiquitous Bananaquits. Strutting around with regal pride were feral chickens, released on Little Tobago Island about 100 years ago and left alone ever since. Zee pointed out our first (and last) Red-eyed Vireo of the trip, flitting about in the semi-deciduous trees.
From our breezy overlook, we watched about 100 Red-billed Tropicbirds in elegant flight, their elongated tail feathers streaming behind them. Often they came almost within arms reach, riding updrafts from the cliff before us. A lone White-tailed Tropicbird, the national bird of Bermuda but rare in the southern Caribbean, also was reported. We enjoyed watching Brown Boobies and both light-and dark-morph Red-footed Boobies, southern cousins of our familiar Northern Gannet.
During our return boat ride, Zee and his crew took us over several coral reefs, pointing out tropical fish, coral, gorgonians, sponges, and myriad other forms of marine life.
While we enjoyed our final dinner at Cuffie River, a Common Potoo and a White-tailed Nightjar perched just across the driveway, hawking insects. Cuffie River is the only place I've ever visited where birders can view two species of goatsuckers simultaneously from less than 30 feet. Doe did a little dance to celebrate, at which point I gave her a trip nickname, Dosey Doe.
Total number of species seen today: 57 + 7 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 17
Running total: 92
New for the trip: Red-billed Tropicbird, White-tailed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby, Brown Booby, Great Black-Hawk, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Common Potoo, Gray-rumped Swift, Collared Trogon (heard), Golden-olive Woodpecker (heard), Stripe-breasted Spinetail (heard), Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Plain Antvireo, Streaked Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Crested Oropendola
Sunday, December 30: Environs of Cuffie River Nature Retreat
As usual at Cuffie River, the morning chorus of birds included vociferous Rufous-vented Chachalacas, Tropical Mockingbirds, House Wrens (do they ever sleep?!), and Common Potoo. Most of us arose at dawn on this relaxed-birding day. The weather continued cool and utterly perfect. The sabrewings and a flurry of Rufous-breasted Hermits and White-necked Jacobins enlivened the feeders. Armed with fresh-brewed coffee, some of us birded from the back balcony, watching Tropical Mockingbirds, male and female Barred Antshrikes, and Tropical Kingbirds on the powerlines below. Overhead flew scores of screeching Orange-winged Parrots, almost all of them in pairs.
From the front of the lodge, we could see large numbers of chachalacas and parrots moving about in the hillside trees. Yellow-bellied Elaenias foraged for insects atop a distant tree, and Red-legged Honeycreepers fed on nectar while perched on the orange-red flowers of Mountain Immortelle trees.
After breakfast, we joined local bird expert Desmond Wright as he led us on an exploration of the Cuffie River area. We learned to filter out the sight and sounds of the ubiquitous Bananaquits, Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, and Rufous-vented Chachalacas while searching for other species. We spotted a Green Kingfisher along the river, and Jack found us our first Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. We walked along the entrance road as far as an old donkey trail, which we followed for about a mile. Along the donkey trail we had many looks at, or at least glimpses of, many species we had seen previously, along with three new species: Shiny Cowbird, Venezuelan Flycatcher, and an eye-popping male Violaceous Euphonia decked out in sunflower yellow and regal purple. The latter bird was the first of its kind that I had seen on Tobago in my 80+ visits. Interestingly, on my October visit we had encountered a man and woman in the same spot, carrying two cages, each of which contained a male Violaceous Euphonia that they had been using to attract and hopefully trap others of the same species by means of bird lime spread on perch sticks.
We birded our way slowly in a broad loop, covering perhaps 2-1/2 miles before arriving back at Cuffie River, where we enjoyed another great meal. During the early afternoon, most of us treated ourselves to a luxurious siesta. In late afternoon, several participants joined me on a slow hike up the steep track across from the lodge. Along the way we found plenty of motmots and jacamars and had brief encounters with a few other species. Mostly, though, it was just good to be outside, enjoying a tropical evening. In the falling light, scores of Orange-winged Parrots flew low over us and landed screeching in nearby trees. It had been a very enjoyable hike, a fine way to spend an afternoon.
As on the preceding night, the potoo and nightjar returned to their respective perches across from the dining room.
Throughout our stay, Regina and her staff had outdone themselves, as always, by providing us with outstanding comfort and tasty food during our all-too-short stay. Every group agrees that the food at Cuffie River can't be beat!
Total number of species seen today: 51 + 2 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 5
Running total: 97
New for the trip: Green Kingfisher, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Shiny Cowbird, Violaceous Euphonia
Monday, December 31: Asa Wright Nature Centre
This morning we reluctantly bade farewell to Cuffie River and the staff of which we'd grown so fond. We left before dawn, passed near the Tobago capital of Scarborough, and reached the airport in plenty of time for our flight. Arriving at the Trinidad airport, we claimed our luggage and met both Martin Kenefick, my business partner and author of the field guide we use in T&T, and Ivan LaRose, our delightful driver on Trinidad. Equally important, we were able to greet Steve and Karen, who had finally arrived from the U.S.A. We could finally sing, "Hail, hail, the gang's all here!"
We began adding new species immediately, including Gray-breasted Martin and White-winged Swallow at the airport. Black and Turkey Vultures circled in huge flocks high overhead. A lovely Savanna Hawk stood on the ground not far from the airport. We found Rock Pigeons in the suburbs, Southern Rough-winged and White-winged Swallows at a busy intersection, and a White-headed Marsh-Tyrant perched up in some roadside reeds.
A need for lactase tablets prompted a visit to a pharmacy in the city of Arima , home to most of the surviving Amerindians in Trinidad. The pharmacy sold the lactase by the tablet, not by the bottle. What an amazing marketing concept! Before we left Arima, Ivan, who has some Amerindian blood, pointed out a statue of Hyarima, the last great leader (cacique) of the Caribs on the island of Cairi (which the Spanish renamed Trinidad). Hyarima is considered the first national hero of T&T.
About an hour later we reached the incredible Asa Wright Nature Center, where June De Gale , Pamela Allemany, and Doolarie Ramlal greeted us, assigned us our rooms, and passed out rum punches that clobbered the daylights out of at least one of us. Note to self -- drinking rum is ill advised when you've had no food for six hours, it's a hot day, and you're standing in full sun unloading a maxitaxi!
After settling into our rooms, the next order of business, for those who could still walk straight, was lunch, followed by several hours of fast-paced birding from the veranda. We quickly added many new species to our list, including five species of hummingbirds (Blue-chinned Sapphire, Green and Little Hermits, Tufted Coquette, and White-chested Emerald, Bearded Bellbird (heard), Blue Dacnis, a pair of Channel-billed Toucans, Cocoa Thrush, Forest Elaenia, Golden-headed and White-bearded Manakins, Gray-fronted Dove, Great Antshrike, Great Kiskadee, Lineated Woodpecker, Purple Honeycreeper, Silver-beaked Tanager, and Zone-tailed Hawk. It was a gonzo fiesta of birding! Martyn joined us for an hour, pointing out birds and inscribing copies of his field guide. As the hours rolled past, our veranda group shrank little by little as members drifted off to unpack, settle in, and take an afternoon siesta.
At 3:30 p.m. I led our first bird walk in Trinidad. I'd planned to walk to the Bellbird lek, but because a group of visitors was already there, I was asked to take my group along the entrance drive instead. This dead-level, sinuous stretch of asphalt always produces interesting birds, and today was typical. We found fast-moving, mixed-species flocks in the canopy and pairs of tanagers, wrens, antshrikes, and others lower down, feeding and resting in the understory. Among our new species were Common Black-Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Golden-crowned Warbler, with Black-faced Antthrush, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Little Tinamou, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Tropical Parula, and Yellow-olive Flycatcher being heard but not seen -- yet. The weather continued to be perfect.
After the scheduled walk, we made an impromptu dash down the Discovery Trail to see if we could pick up a Bearded Bellbird. By the time we'd reached the halfway point to the bellbird lek, the bellbirds had stopped calling for the day. There's virtually no way to spot a silent bellbird except by sheer luck, so we stopped at the White-bearded Manakin lek, where we had a long, leisurely view of a White-necked Thrush and heard a distant White-bellied Antbird. Then we called it a day and returned to the veranda.
During our evening tally on the veranda, I had the delightful good fortune to glance out the window just as an Oilbird flew over the gardens down the valley from the Main House, silhouetted against the evening sky. A second one appeared moments later, and several of the participants were able to see it. After dinner, most people hit the hay. It had been a long day, and we would have a very early start tomorrow. Those of us who stayed up were treated to a lively New Year's Eve party in the dining room , complete with a band performing parang (Christmas) songs.
Total number of species seen today: 62 + 10 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 40
Running total: 137
New for the trip: Little Tinamou (heard), Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Common Black-Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Rock Pigeon, Gray-fronted Dove, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (heard), Oilbird, Little Hermit, Green Hermit, Tufted Coquette, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-chested Emerald, Channel-billed Toucan, Lineated Woodpecker, Great Antshrike, White-bellied Antbird (heard), Black-faced Antthrush (heard), Forest Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flycatcher (heard), White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Great Kiskadee, Bearded Bellbird (heard), White-bearded Manakin, Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-browed Peppershrike (heard), White-winged Swallow, Gray-breasted Martin, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Cocoa Thrush, White-necked Thrush, Silver-beaked Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Purple Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Tropical Parula (heard), Golden-crowned Warbler
Tuesday, January 1: Southwestern Trinidad and the Gulf of Paria
Happy New Year!
On this, our earliest morning departure of the trip, we ate a cold breakfast, left the Centre with Ivan, and were on our way south well before sunrise. Ivan drove us to southwestern Trinidad, to the South Oropuche River basin, an area visited by few nonresident birders. Proceeding to Sudama Steps, a Hindu crematorium, we found a Masked Cardinal and a Green-throated Mango hummingbird. Along Ramahut Trace and a smaller side track, which run through an extensive wild rice marsh, we were treated to views of Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Wattled Jacana, both species of gallinules, several introduced Common Waxbills, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, tiny Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts, a pair of Grayish Saltators, a Greater Ani that vanished from sight almost as soon as it was noticed, a Limpkin in flight, several rather distant Long-winged Harriers, a calling yet furtive Pale-breasted Spinetail, Striated Herons, Yellow Orioles, chattering Yellow-chinned Spinetails, and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds. Completely unexpected was a confiding Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, the first of its species I'd ever seen away from mangroves. We coaxed this fierce looking mite of a bird to within a few feet of us.
Several members of the Trinidad & Tobago Field Naturalists Club, the oldest natural history organization in the Western Hemisphere, also were birding along Ramahut Trace this morning. Noted photographer Faraaz Abdool showed the group some of his fine images of birds and other wildlife. Another noted photographer, Fayard Mohammed, told me about a family group of Scaled Doves at Pitch Lake. That wasn't on our itinerary, but as we'd already found our primary target bird in this area, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, I decided to visit Pitch Lake. As we drove out of Ramahut Trace, a few of us had a quick view of a flooded savanna specialist, the White-tailed Goldenthroat hummingbird.
Although we struck out on the Scaled Doves at Pitch Lake, we found an astonishing congregation of at least 40 Osprey sitting on this rain-puddle-dotted stretch of naturally oozing tar and had lingering views of a male Trinidad Euphonia. We also had an opportunity to sample pomerac, the tart, red-skinned, white-fleshed fruit of the Malay Apple tree. While driving out of the area, we spent time watching members of a Yellow-rumped Cacique colony flying back and forth across the road.
From Pitch Lake we proceeded north, past the city of San Fernando ("Sando"), to several sites along the Gulf of Paria. At Carli Bay we found our target species, Saffron Finch, along with Black Skimmer, Large-billed Tern, and Laughing Gull, but we dipped on the pair of Tropical Screech-Owls that had been there in October. While searching for the Saffron Finch, we glimpsed Trinidad's most recently recorded new species, Great-tailed Grackle. An individual had arrived in July, undoubtedly by ship, attired in juvenal plumage. It wasn't until autumn, after it had molted into adult plumage, that we could determine that it was a female. (Ship-assisted arrivals aren't "countable" on our list.)
While at Carli Bay, Ivan and I unloaded the packed lunch from Asa Wright and served the group. Unfortunately, one participant, while feeding chicken scraps to feral beach dogs, was nipped on the hand, and there was a bit of blood showing. Cat provided an international health card to use for medical advice. Since there was no urgency about getting treatment, we decided to head for a hospital after stopping at one more coastal birding spot.
At Orange Valley, the tide was perfect -- about halfway up the mudflats. If more shorebirds had been present to make use of the exposed mudflats, that would have been great! Here we found a number of species new for our list: a lone Great Blue Heron, some Scarlet Ibis blazing against the dark green mangroves, a lone Semipalmated Plover, and some distant Whimbrels and Willets. Brown Pelicans lounged on fishing boats, and herons and egrets populated the flats north and south of us. Of particular interest were the hundreds of foot-long four-eyed fish (Anableps) foraging in the shallow water at the edge of the mud.
Next stop, Mount Hope Hospital. Long story short -- no rabies vaccine was available because rabies is unknown in Trinidad, but yes to tetanus and antibiotics injections. We picked up more antibiotics at a nearby Super-Pharm store. Total cost for everything, start to finish: US$8. You've gotta love socialized medicine!
During our drive back to Asa Wright, we found the reliable Ringed Kingfisher perched on the wire above a stream, and sharp-eyed Doug spotted a Pearl Kite atop a tower. Back at the Centre, from the veranda we added Band-rumped Swifts, which were flying low in the valley, against the dark foliage, allowing us to note the adhesive-tape-like band of white across the rump. The berry-covered Trema tree next to the veranda yielded about 20 species during the afternoon, including our first Bay-headed and Turquoise Tanagers.
Total number of species seen today: 93 + 3 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 33
Running total: 170
New for the trip: Striated Heron, Great Blue Heron, Scarlet Ibis, Pearl Kite, Long-winged Harrier, Limpkin, Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel, Willet, Laughing Gull, Large-billed Tern, Black Skimmer, Greater Ani, Band-rumped Swift, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, White-tailed Goldenthroat, Green-throated Mango, Ringed Kingfisher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Pied Water-Tyrant, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Turquoise Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Saffron Finch, Masked Cardinal, Grayish Saltator, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Yellow Oriole, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Trinidad Euphonia, Common Waxbill
Wednesday, January 2: Northern Range
More than half of the group left the Centre at 3:30 a.m. for an optional, Asa Wright-sponsored foray to northeastern Trinidad to try for the endemic Trinidad Piping-Guan. The remaining three (Bill, Karen, and Steve) joined me in exploring the higher elevations of the Northern Range. Before leaving with Ivan, we listened to a Bright-rumped Attila flycatcher from the veranda. This species often is heard at Asa Wright, but I know few people, even local guides, who have seen it there.
The early morning sky was filled with dark clouds that produced showers from time to time during the morning but not long enough at any one time to seriously interfere with our birding. During the morning we visited Las Lapas Trace, a "famous" Trema tree known to attract a variety of rare species of birds, and the Morne Bleu tropospheric scatter station, situated at the highest elevation (2,000 ft.) at which we would be birding during our trip. Some of the new species seen in the heights included American Redstart, Chestnut Woodpecker, Dusky-capped Flycatcher (heard), Golden-fronted Greenlet, Gray Hawk, Long-billed Gnatwren (heard), Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Southern Beardless Tyrannulet (heard). The Trema tree came through beautifully, providing us with both of our target species (Olive-striped Flycatcher and Speckled Tanager) along with frustratingly active and eye-catching Ochre-bellied Flycatchers. A few showers kept us under cover along the roadside long enough for the only Blue-headed Parrot of the day put in a cameo appearance, perched nearly motionless atop a tree.
Meanwhile, the intrepid guan-chasers also had a good morning, finding not only the endemic Trinidad Piping-Guan but also Boat-billed Flycatcher, Gray-headed Kite, Green-backed and Guianan Trogons, Long-billed Starthroat, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager.
Back at Asa Wright, our reunited group continued birding from the veranda and along the trail to the Bellbird lek, adding Squirrel Cuckoo and White-flanked Antwren to our growing list.
Yesterday's medical emergency had drained all of the prepaid minutes from my cell phone, which I would be needing tomorrow to hail Ivan and his maxi from time to time, so I hired a driver to take me to the airport, an hour away, where I knew of a late-closing telephone store. While at the airport, I was able to confirm Steve and Karen's post-tour roundtrip flights to Tobago.
Because of my soiré, I missed an evening at Asa Wright, but the group told me the next day that Bill had done a fine job of keeping everyone in line while conducting the tally this evening. Thank you, Bill!
Total number of species seen today: 91 + 9 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 22
Running total: 192
New for the trip: Trinidad Piping-Guan, Gray-headed Kite, Gray Hawk, Blue-headed Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Long-billed Starthroat, Green-backed Trogon, Guianan Trogon, Chestnut Woodpecker, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, White-flanked Antwren, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet (heard), Olive-striped Flycatcher, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher (heard), Bright-rumped Attila (heard), Golden-fronted Greenlet, Long-billed Gnatwren (heard), Speckled Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, American Redstart
Thursday, January 3: Eastern Trinidad
As usual, many of us were on the veranda before dawn today, enjoying the never-ending stream of birds coming to the feeders. One really has to see that spectacle to believe it -- dazzling greens and purples, frenzied hummingbird duels, and agoutis and golden tegu lizards foraging for scraps below the platform feeders.
From the Centre, Ivan drove us south and then east to the Aripo Livestock Station. En route we found a White Hawk and a cooperative immature Double-toothed Kite, the Trinidad equivalent of our bird-eating Sharp-shinned Hawk, perched on a roadside power line.
We couldn't have asked for a more pleasant day, with lots of puffy clouds and a slight breeze. Right off, we were into good birds. While I filled out some administrative paperwork in the station's office, the rest of the group got onto a group of Brown-throated Parakeets, the first ever seen on a Murphy tour. The photos that Cat took clinched the identification. Well done, Cat!
During the past year I'd seen the number of Grassland Yellow-Finches in the station drop steadily. On this trip we found... none. Nor did any of the other birding groups in Trinidad at the time, indication that this species, which had colonized Trinidad for about a decade, seems to have disappeared from the island.
As we walked the level road, we spotted many open-area species we'd already seen, along with bovines Brahma cattle and "Buffalypso," a hybrid that thrives in the tropics. A highlight was finding a cryptically patterned Pinnated Bittern in short grass less than 50 yards from us, in the open. Another favorite bird was a fence-perching Red-breasted Blackbird. This species is very similar to our Red-winged Blackbird but sports entirely reddish-orange underparts, like a flying stoplight. In a few muddy patches we found three kinds of sandpipers -- Least, Semipalmated, and Solitary. A very nice surprise was locating three male Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, a tiny species that has suffered greatly from the cagebird trade.
After a brief respite at the Ponderosa Bar in Valencia, we proceeded south, past the city of Sangre Grande, to the Atlantic coast at Manzanilla. At a pleasant government-run park on the beach we enjoyed a picnic lunch before continuing south along the coast. (No one fed the dogs.) Then it was Ivan vs. the rest of us in a contest of raptor spotting. Ivan won the contest by a respectable margin, finding about 15 raptors, including Savanna Hawk, Gray Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara and one of the very few Crested Caracaras on the island. A stop at the mouth of the Nariva River produced a flock of about 20 Sanderling along with the only Black-bellied Plover of the trip. When the flock took to the air, the plover's black "wingpits" really stood out.
Nariva Swamp proper was utterly dead, except for a few common species such as Pied Water-Tyrant, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Great Kiskadee, and Tropical Kingbird. We covered a significant percentage of the roads in the area, getting stupendous views of the entire basin from one overlook, but the birds just weren't cooperating today, so we headed back north to our final birding spot of the day.
At Waller Field, a former World War II U.S. Army Air Corps base, we parked in a grove of Moriche palms that attract some rare species. Here we found about a dozen Sulphury Flycatchers and a flock of Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts. A Moriche (Epaulet) Oriole flew into the crown of a nearby tree after the light had faded, making it a challenge to spot the bird in the foliage. As we enjoyed our rum punch and the confections sent from Asa Wright, the nightbird chorus began, with Common Pauraque and Rufous Nightjar vocalizing. In the beams of Ivan's headlights, we were able to spot one or two of the pauraques as we left the area and headed back to Asa Wright.
After dinner I presented Doug with a special award for his generosity during the trip in spotting and pointing out good birds -- a lime-colored T-shirt from the Ponderosa Bar in Valencia.
Total number of species seen today: 91 + 9 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 15
Running total: 207
New for the trip: Pinnated Bittern, Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Crested Caracara, Black-bellied Plover, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Brown-throated Parakeet, Common Pauraque (heard), Rufous Nightjar (heard), Sulphury Flycatcher, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Moriche (Epaulet) Oriole, Red-breasted Blackbird
Friday, January 4: Oilbird Cave and the Caroni Swamp
This was another day when most of the group showed up on the veranda before hearing the gong that announced meals. Shortly after breakfast, head AWNC naturalist Mukesh Ramdass led us down the Discovery Trail to search for several species we still needed to see. En route we found Chestnut Woodpecker along with many hummingbirds, thrushes, euphonias, and other edge-loving species. We also found both species of manakins that inhabit Trinidad: Golden-headed and White-bearded. Bellbirds were calling around us, but it took us a long time and much effort indeed to find one that was visible. Mission accomplished!
Mukesh then led everyone over hill and dale to the Oilbird Cave. Along the way, he and I worked hard to find Euler's Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, and White-flanked Antwren, all of which we found. Our attempts to locate a ground-foraging, woodcreeperlike bird called a Gray-throated Leaftosser also were successful. We spent about five minutes within 20 feet of a foraging bird that was exactly the same color as the leaves through which it was searching for food. At the Oilbird Cave, everyone had excellent views of this weird nocturnal fruit-eating bird. Outside the cave, through binoculars we examined the rather bulky, moss-covered, abandoned nest of Chestnut-collared Swifts and located a few of the endemic Trinidad yellow-throated frogs.
Immediately after lunch, all of us except for Jack and Lyn left on our last birding foray of the trip, which took us to Trinidad's huge Caroni Swamp, just south of the capital city of Port of Spain . Jack and Lyn hired a local bird guide, Roodal Ramlal, to drive them to the higher elevations above Asa Wright on Blanchisseuse Road .
En route to the Caroni Swamp we found Ringed Kingfishers perched in their usual stretch along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway near Trincity. A stop overlooking the Caroni rice fields yielded lots of species we already had seen, along with an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron and a flock of waterfowl composed of Blue-winged Teal and a single Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. The flock entertained us for some time, rising from the shallow water when a Long-winged Harrier flew over and continuing to wheel around for the better part of two minutes, affording an excellent look.
Our superb Trini swamp expert, Shawn Madoo, awaited us at Caroni Visitor's Centre with his spacious flat-bottomed boat. Martyn Kenefick and Graham White joined us, the three of us making up a quorum of the T&T Rare Birds Committee. Trini bird guides Dave and Mahase Ramlal also joined us. It that point, Shawn probably hosted the largest number of professional T&T bird guides ever assembled in one of his boats.
We made use of the very clean restrooms at the Centre, boarded Shawn's boat, and were soon motoring out of the Visitors Centre lagoon and up the Blue River. Shawn pointed out some of the special birds of the mangroves, along with more four-eyed fish, before pulling up next to the bank and presenting a lecture on the natural history of the Caroni Swamp.
Back in the main channel, we rode in comfort through miles of red mangroves, looking for birds. Shawn pulled into a side channel, where I played the sounds of two hard-to-find species, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher and Straight-billed Woodcreeper. Both of them responded by landing in the mangroves above us. A pair of Black-crested Antshrikes also made an appearance. Proceeding along the channel, at other points Shawn spotted two other target species: Bicolored Conebill and Greater Ani.
Besides birds, we were treated to views of Cook's tree boa, silky (two-toed) anteater, a sleeping Common Potoo, mangrove crabs, and mangrove oysters.
We finally tied up along a mangrove island deep in the swamp in an open lagoon. Already we could see herons and egrets flying in from all directions and landing on or in a mangrove island. Top billing went to the hundreds of luminescent Scarlet Ibises flapping and gliding their way into their dark-green mangrove roost trees. Below them, just above the waterline, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and Great and Snowy Egrets piled in as well. Cookies, strong rum punch, Scarlet Ibis, and a cloudless sky #150; a dramatic ending to a very nice trip.
Meanwhile, on their own side trip, Jack and Lyn had amassed a nice list of birds in the highlands, with excellent looks at a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl being mobbed by about two dozen birds, including a Rufous-breasted Hermit. They also saw Black-faced Antthrush (flew across the road to a low bare branch), Golden-crowned Warbler, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Speckled Tanager, Tropical Pewee, and White-bellied Antbird. (This wasn't part of the group tour, so I didn't include these sightings in the tour bird list.)
Tonight after dinner we said goodbye to Cat, Lyn, and Jack, who were leaving for the airport for their 1:15 a.m. flight to the U.S.A.
Total number of species seen today: 111 + 7 heard-only
New bird species for the trip: 8
Final total: 215 (including 8 heard-only)
New for the trip: Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Black-crested Antshrike, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Euler's Flycatcher, Bicolored Conebill
Saturday, January 5: Departure
The majority of those still at Asa Wright departed for the airport with Ivan at 4:30 a.m., leaving Doe and Lew, who would be staying an extra day at Asa Wright, and Steve and Karen, who would be leaving for Tobago later in the day.
Thanks to all of you for helping make this a very successful tour. It's not often that a birding group gets to find such a fantastic array of species while engaging in multi-day discussions covering esoteric topics including conodonts, personality disorders, and prostate cancer!