|November 26||Our close-knit group of 12 West Virginians (including me) met at Columbus International Airport to fly via American Airlines to Raleigh/Durham and thence on to Miami International. The intrepid members of our group were Craig and Susan Aufdenkampe, Dick and Jeanette Esker, Glenn Haynes, Rexine and Dale Johnson, Sally Maxwell, Carl and Shirley Radcliffe, and Mary Shepherd. In Miami, Floridian Nicky Reeder, Craig's great-aunt, joined us. From Miami we continued on American Airlines to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Our four-hour nonstop flight took us down the Bahama chain, over Puerto Rico, and just west of the Leeward Islands. Our final approach was over the Boca Islands, drowned mountains that lie between Trinidad and Venezuela, and then over the Gulf of Paria just south of Port-of-Spain. The lights of the capitol city gleamed in stark contrast to the inky blackness of the Northern Range that lay beyond.|
The queues at Trinidad & Tobago Immigration moved slowly until some members of our group took the initiative of switching from the Visitors lane to the Residents lane. After the pleasant confusion of claiming luggage (none missing), we passed speedily through Customs and out into the starry, balmy tropical night. We found out that it had been raining nonstop for the previous four days and that many of the thoroughfares were flooded. Our arrival couldn't have been better timed; we brought the sun with us.
Once outside we met our guides and new friends Roodal and Jogie Ramlal. These Indian fellows whisked us up and away to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, which would be our home for the next week. En route we passed through the city of Arima, home of the Matouk® brand of calypso sauces, pepper sauces, and various other kinds of condiments that can be purchased in the U.S. Arima rocked to the beat of steed drum music and parang (a traditionial form of Afro-Venezuelan music). The beat helped set the atmosphere for that first night.
At the Centre we were greeted by manager Richard Quamina. We unloaded the luggage and the staff showed us to our rooms or cabins. After taking a few minutes to settle in, we regrouped in the dining room to enjoy the first of many delicious meals to come, many of which included sandwiches made with savory homemade bread. Then we retired for the night, falling asleep to the exotic sounds of the night, including our first Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.
|November 27||As on most days that followed, many of us were up before dawn to savor one of the most enchanting places anywhere, the AWNC veranda. Aided by AWNC staff naturalists Sheldon Driggs and later by Kenny Calderon, we began sorting through the almost overwhelming variety of birds. By the time the breakfast gong, names like Bananaquit, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Crested Oropendola, Great Kiskadee, Green and Purple Honeycreeper, and many others had become part of our vocabulary. A splendid male Tufted Coquette, looking just like the photo on the cover of my book, probed the blue Vervain below the feeders while constantly pumping its tail. After breakfast we took a leisurely walk with Jogie to explore the grounds of the Centre. Just above the car park grew a sizeable Calabash (Crescentia cujete)tree festooned with its large gourdlike fruits. The natives hollow out the dried fruits and use them to hold water. Along the trail we were introduced to many tropical plants, including Mountain Immortelle (Erythrina poeppigiana), with fiery blossoms that attract tanagers and Bare-eyed Thrushes; Balisier or Lobster Claw (Heliconia wagneriana); Deer Meat (Centropogon cornutus), whose tubular red flowers were clearly designed for hummingbirds; Hot Lips (Cephaelis tomentosa), whose name aptly describes the appearance of the blossom; and the national flower, Chaconia or Wild Poinsettia (Warszewiczia coccinea). At the Centre, as well as throughout Trinidad, the bright yellow Cassia or Golden Shower Tree was in bloom. We identified Breadfruit (Artocarpus incisus) trees and learned to distinguish them from the closely related Breadnut tree. We also learned to identify Coffee (Coffea arabica), Cocoa (Theobroma cacao), Banana (Musa sp.), and a variety of citrus trees. Mangoes (Mangifera indica) were conspicuous everywhere, and Papaya (locally called Pawpaw) (Carica papaya) and Cecropia trees were invaders, found wherever slashing and burning had left clearings.|
An anomaly in a rainforest, a Magnificent Frigatebird passed overhead, along with zillions of Black and Turkey Vultures and a wide variety of raptors including Merlin, Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Zone-tailed Hawk. A cacophonous flock of about 50 Violet-tailed Parrotlets moved from tree to tree, instantly disappearing as they landed and nestled among the identically colored leaves. Parrotlets usually are hard to find, but on our trip they were an everyday occurrence. When I exclaimed, "You wouldn't believe how seldom we see this species!" I had no idea of how many more times during the trip I'd utter that phrase.
Unusual new birds included Green Hermit, Brown Violet-ear (only my second ever), Blue-crowned Motmot, Crested Oropendola, and Chestnut Woodpecker at the feeders; a reliable pair of Channel-billed Toucans in a nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) tree down the valley; a Buff-throated Woodcreeper hitching itself up the mango tree to the left of the veranda; and later a stray Blackpoll Warbler on the grounds. Appearing to the naked eye as a spot of white against the otherwise dark green foliage down the valley, a male Bearded Bellbird sat atop a Matchwood tree emitting its powerful KONK call. We became acquainted with many kinds of Wild Ginger (Alpinia sp.) and Ginger Lilies, watching these favorite nectar sources of the hermit hummingbirds carefully in hopes of spotting one of these somber-hued, supersonic, low-flying species.
After a welcome midday siesta, we met Sheldon for a late afternoon hike to the world's most accessible Oilbird cave. For the first time, we were in a deep, primeval rainforest, with trees towering hundreds of feet overhead, with vines and lianas dangling to the ground. Along the trail we observed any number of Tarantulas in the open ends of metal handrails. We were fascinated by trees such as Mountain Mahogany and Mountain Immortelle, with their immense buttressed root systems, and Sandbox Tree, with its protruding thorns along the trunk. A pair of cooperative Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers were a surprising find, since they usually flee at the sound of walkers in the woods. We also found trails of leafcutter ants (Atta), along which the workers toiled with their parasols of green leaves.
The grotto at the entrance to Guacharo Cave is almost indescribable. Giant blue Morpho butterflies undulate in the restless air currents. Day-flying insectivorous bats flit for insects in the perpetual twilight of the gorge. Child-sized elephant-ear plants blanket the banks of the Guacharo River. The roar of the water is magnified many times over by the rock walls of the gorge, producing a sound more consistent with a much larger flow. Over the roar we could hear the chirps of tiny cricket frogs (Calistethis) calling along the river's edge.
The true troglodytes among us removed their shoes and waded through the cool waters of the Guacharo River, stepping over the slippery rocks to enter the cave. Once inside we found lots of the nocturnal, cave-dwelling Oilbird. Those of the group who ventured into the cave had excellent views of roosting birds and their young in the nests as well as a single sleepy Chestnut-collared Swift. Even from the cave entrance, we stay-behinds also picked out several Oilbirds in the light of Sheldon's flashlight, and we could hear their roaring. Sheldon explained that in times past the nestlings, fattened on an oil-rich diet of regurgitated palm fruits, were collected by the native inhabitants and rendered into oil, giving rise to the species' name.
Those of us who Sheldon persuaded to linger in the gorge until after dark were treated to the sight of Oilbirds departing on their nocturnal forays. As if testing the level of light outside, one bird at a time ventured forth, only to return to the cave, clicking to find their way. By the time the main flight began the daylight had disappeared totally. The ensuing pitch darkness made the hike back from the cave something not soon to be forgotten.
After dinner ("Watch out for that yellow stuff -- it's hot pepper sauce, and you could use it to start a fire!") we tallied up the day's birds: 76 species (all new for the trip, of course) without having left the Centre grounds. It had been quite a first day.
|November 28||Awakening to a chorus of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Cocoa Thrushes, Great Kiskadees, and other exotic bird songs, some of the group gathered on the veranda in the predawn darkness for some early birding. The smell of the freshly brewed coffee awaiting them there may also have hastened their departure from their beds. Blue-crowned Motmots, Boat-billed Flycatchers, about ten species of hummers, and scattered individuals of about 20 species of birds fed within sight among the bamboo, Heliconia bihai, and bromeliad-covered trees visible down valley.|
After breakfast we met Roodal and Jogie for our first trip afield. During the next eight hours we would traverse the winding (an understatement!) Blanchisseuse Road across the Northern Range to the fishing hamlet of Blanchisseuse on the Caribbean. Prominent in their understated functionlessness were a parade of guardrails fashioned from 1"-thick bamboo poles. They almost shouted "Don't count on us!"
At each stop along the way Roodal and Jogie lived up to their reputations as the best bird guides on the island. They spotted and showed us great birds such as exotic Speckled Tanagers, strikingly beautiful Scaled Pigeons, Violaceous Trogons, a pair of Green Kingfishers (the male of which we viewed through the Questar telescope), Rufous-tailed Jacamars, Lineated Woodpeckers, the first of many Tropical Kingbirds, yet another (!) Blackpoll Warbler, Golden-crowned Warblers, Blue Dacnis, Yellow-rumped Caciques, and many others. Particularly memorable was a pair of tiny Bat Falcons relentlessly driving off a bulky Broad-winged Hawk.
Lunch provided an interesting clash of cultures for us. We ate along Blanchisseuse Road, sitting atop a black-and-white painted concrete abutment along a hairpin curve. After enjoying a wonderful rice pilaf, we began tossing spoonfuls to a proud roadside rooster that had cautiously approached us from a small hut perched on the side of the hill above us. It was pleasant to watch the rooster benefit from our passage, but it made us uneasy seeing the lady of the house watching her fowl eat what may have been a tastier dish than she had. Before long, though, she was the happy recipient of all of our surplus pilaf, and we were back on the road.
Once at the Caribbean, we stopped in the village of Blanchisseuse for a beach walk. Brown Pelicans patrolled offshore and Magnificent Frigatebirds patrolled silently overhead as we drank in the ambience of the secluded coconut-lined beach. After the coolness of the mountain heights, Blanchisseuse seemed hot, so we paid a visit to the local store for cold drinks and a chance to meet some of the more colorful residents of the town. One of my favorite memories is of Jeanette holding her binocular strap like a leash while a perfectly intoxicated fellow peered through her optics.
We stopped several times on our return trip to the Centre. As in Blanchisseuse, some of us may remember the stops at the more open areas as quick walks from one spot of shade to another. One of the most spectacular montane vistas was that above the hamlet of Morne Le Croix, where we counted at least five Channel-billed Toucans in one tree. Flying somewhat below us, flocks of Blue-headed and Orange-winged Parrots were perfectly illuminated by the golden hues of the late afternoon sunlight -- another lifetime view, especially of the lovely cobalt blue heads of the former and the pumpkin-orange wing patches of the latter. Also strikingly beautiful when seen bathed in that special light were Yellow-rumped Caciques. A bit farther on we passed one of the largest Silk Cotton or Kapok (Ceiba pentrandra) trees in Trinidad growing alongside the diminutive Marianne River. A real surprise was a Spectacled Owl, spotted by Roodal from the moving van, which was expertly concealed in a dense stand of bamboo. Even when standing beside the bamboo we found the owl exceedingly difficult to pick out. How Roodal recognized it as an owl and not a fallen leaf was a mystery, but regardless, it was a superb find.
All this fun and still we were back at the Centre in time to enjoy crumpets, coffee, tea, and the traditional wild rum punch on the veranda. The rum punch was savory with Angostura Bitters, one of the few Trinidadian exports with which Americans seem to bee familiar. Our tally for our first day away from the Asa Wright Nature Centre revealed that we had identified 89 species of birds on our Blanchisseuse Road foray, of which 24 were new for the trip, bringing our total to a the century mark, an even 100.
Rather than retiring to our rooms immediately after the tally, on several nights we took advantage of the Centre's VCR and video tape collection. We learned a lot from videos such as Iere - Land of the Hummingbird; Nariva - Can We Save It?, about the government's backing of rice production and its detrimental impact of the freshwater Nariva Swamp; Folklore and Myths of Trinidad (never forget Papa Bois is watching!); and a PBS special on the world of hummingbirds -- their special adaptations to a life requiring them to feed constantly.
|November 29||Despite the fact that November lies within the rainy season, we actually encountered very little meaningful precipitation during our birding hours. But the rain at night was sensational at times, torrential downpours that enveloped us in deafening white noise and made sleeping ever so much more enjoyable.
Some of the regular early risers were treated this morning to a brief but convincing view a rare, black-and-white Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift circling high above the Centre. This species generally found only over the highest areas, such as the 3,000-foot peaks of El Tucuche and Cerro del Aripo.|
At breakfast, Craig and Susan shared with us their romantic activities of the first night at Asa Wright, when they shoved their single beds together. The next morning the maid had moved them back. This game of bed ping pong was to continue for several more days, until Craig and Susan found out that Glenn had a double bed. At that point they traded their room with the beautiful view and the nice cross-breeze with for Glenn's room with the double bed. Ah, youth!
Our van foray this morning took us a few miles down Blanchisseuse Road toward Arima, past an almost vertical plantation of a gourdlike vegetable called christophene. Along the way we birded an abandoned trail, where we found a brilliant Summer Tanager in a woodlot draped with hundreds of vanilla orchid vines.
Soon our own orientation became nearly vertical as we motored most of the way up a delightfully degenerated and exhilaratingly rough road onto Lalaja Mountain. Bromeliads of all kinds grew on tree branches and on telephone wires, where they repeatedly were misidentified as birds, sometimes even to species! As the road climbed we could see the city of Arima at the foot of the valley and in the distance could make out the Plains of Caroni and the Arena Forest and Central Range. When it became clear that the vans couldn't climb any higher, we got out and birded on foot. We viewed a fairly cooperative Pale-breasted Spinetail, a member of the tropical family called Ovenbirds, which aren't related to our warbler of the same name.
The hardier members of the group ranged ahead with Roodal and Jogie through groves of cocoa, their best bird being a Collared Trogon. The other participants played hide-and-seek with a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that was being besieged by a nervous flock of tanagers, greenlets, dacnis, honeycreepers, and the usual haranguers.
Other good birds seen during the morning included Gray Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk with a facial helmet like that of a Peregrine, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Plain Antvireo, Euler's Flycatcher (the only Empidonax flycatcher in Trinidad, thank goodness), and Black-tailed Tityra. Although not very beautiful, the bird of the day was a lone Sooty Grassquit singing, feeding, and apparently collecting nesting material along a roadcut. Shirley spotted this one. This was the first sighting of this species on any of the 31 Peregrine Enterprises trips. I'd seen the species only once before, in more appropriate habitat -- a dry weedy field in arid western Trinidad. Finding this one in a rainforest was baffling.
After another sumptuous lunch at the Centre we had a free afternoon. A few members of the group remained at the Centre, where they spent the afternoon birding from the veranda or hiking along the trails. The armed guards at the entrance were a bit unsettling, but, like the Boy Scouts, their motto is "Be Prepared". The rest ventured into the city of Arima seeking adventure and gifts. Conspicuous in town because of their pale skin, these folks were labeled as the Pink People, and the freckled ones as the Pink People with Spots, names by which we referred to ourselves for the remainder of the trip (and perhaps forever). Even in the bustle of Arima some of the participants still birded, adding Cattle Egret and Carib Grackle to the lists.
Our day's birding had been restricted to the montane rainforest, a habitat we'd explored for two days previously. Nonetheless, our after-dinner tally showed that we had found 81 species, adding another 15 new species, bringing our trip total to 115.
|November 30||What day is today? Tuesday? Wednesday? Who cares... This morning we started earlier than usual, with breakfast at 7 a.m. Roan Ramlal ("Mrs. Jogie") had lost her sister the night before, and the Ramlals needed to be back early. Our early start gave us more time in the field, during the best part of the day.|
Down out of the mountains we rolled, stopping in the foothills to explore a region of fields and farmland. At the government's Agricultural Research Station, where cattle and water buffalo are being crossbred to produce a drought-hardy breed of milking cattle, new birds came thick and fast. Pied Water-Tyrants and White-headed Marsh-Tyrants fed along wet areas above Solitary and Least Sandpipers surrounded by Wattled Jacanas and Southern Lapwings. Huge long-legged, reddish Savanna Hawks circled and perched in great places for good views through the scopes. Red-breasted and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, Tropical Kingbirds, and Cattle Egrets were present in good numbers. An adult Peregrine provided excitement for birds and birders alike as first it perched in a solitary tree, then dashed off and mounted high in the sky overhead. The number of Black Vultures in sight at any one time was incredible.
A drive up into the hills produced a Yellow-headed Caracara, which was new for the trip (actually we'd gotten a glimpse of the species at Blanchisseuse beach but conservatively held off counting it until we'd had a better view). Four bluebird-sized Common Ground-Doves waddled along the lumpy roadway; as with most birds with the word "Common" in their names, this species is uncommon. A Striped Cuckoo or "wife-sick" whistled its mournful two-note call as it perched atop a low bush. This species is a nest parasite of the three species of spinetails found in Trinidad. The common lowland swift, the Short-tailed Swift, buzzed around looking for all the world like our Chimney Swift. Giant Cowbirds, nest parasites of Crested Oropendolas, Yellow-rumped Caciques, and Yellow Orioles, reminded us of Common Grackles as they flew with a flat flight style.
Our rest stop at a pub (locally called a parlour) in Valencia was sorely needed. The sign overhead proclaimed that the place was Open Any Day, At Any Time and was Licensed to Sell Spirituous Liquor. We partook. Several members of the group found a boutique across the street and were able to purchase local handicrafts while the rest of us downed chilled drinks and studied the pithy sayings and artistic calendars that adorned the walls. While so enjoying myself I was spotted by my longtime Trinidadian friends Lenore and Lester as they drove past. We Pink People sure stand out in a crowd. Amazingly enough, we'd meet them twice more during the trip, once at Manzanilla Beach and again in the village of Cumuto. This goes to prove my theory that there are only about 8,000 people on Earth, or else how could we keep running into the same ones so often? The background music, I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, seemed out of place in the 100o heat.
Our thirst quenched, our guides drove us along the Eastern Main Road past miles of second-growth swamp forest that's still recovering from the extensive fires of the dry mid-1980s. Along the roadside grew thousands of orange Canal Lilies (Heliconia psittacorum), close relatives of the Bird-of-Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) flower and reliable indicators of standing water. Our drive through Sangre Grande, the largest city in eastern Trinidad, provided us with a look at another bustling city. Sangre Grande, Spanish for much blood, was the site of a major Spanish massacre of Trinidad's native population, the peaceful, agrarian Arawak Indians, of whom none at all survive. Along the streets of Sangre Grande limed groups of school children in their colorful school-specific uniforms. We Pink People received lots of attention from them, being, almost certainly, the only Caucasians in eastern Trinidad.
We ate lunch in a cool concrete shelter along beautiful Manzanilla Beach, a 10-mile stretch of the Atlantic lined with coconut palms. Dotted throughout this stretch of former weekend resorts were clumps of colorful Hindu prayer flags, each color dedicated to one of the many reincarnations of God. The seawater was brown because of the rainy season runoff from the Orinoco River a few hundred miles away. The volume of the Orinoco is second in South America only to the Amazon, and it carries with it silt from much of northern South America. We lingered at Manzanilla Beach for a while so as not to arrive at Nariva Swamp during the heat of the afternoon. Trinidadians, because of their British history, say that only mad dogs and Englishmen are out and about during the heat of the day. Some of us braved it, though, relishing a chance to walk back along the road we had traveled. After traversing a zillion-degree stretch of blacktop, Richard the Indomitable and I were rewarded with some enjoyable avian activity along a shaded creek. Back at the vans, there again were Lenore and Lester, down to the beach for a bit of the old relaxation!
Southbound again on our narrow blacktopped road, we drove slowly through an estimated one million Coconut Palms (Cocos nucifera) that make up the largest copra (dried coconut meat) plantation in Trinidad. Although any kind of life is sparse in monocultures like this, we spotted a Common Black-Hawk and an immature Gray Hawk perched among the coconut fronds. Squadrons of White-winged Swallows perched on the solitary electrical line. Below them petite Blue-black Grassquits performed their Johnny-Jump-Up routines, popping straight up for about a foot while producing a sizzling "zzzzzzzzt" sound, then diving head-first to end up back on the same perch. The majority of songbirds in the plantation were Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers and Bananaquits. We passed a water buffalo ranch, the copra-processing factory, and another half million coconut palms before reaching the mangrove-lined Nariva River. Although it hadn't been apparent while we were on the road up till now, the previous hour's drive had been entirely on a barrier island separated from the mainland only by the width of the Nariva River. Were the barrier island to erode away, the Nariva Swamp would become a brackish tidal swamp like the Caroni. The vegetation would change completely.
There was standing water everywhere, a reminder of last week's nonstop rain. Half a mile past the Nariva River bridge, we parked along the road to bird the Bush-Bush Creek area. Here a huge surprise awaited us. Feeding and moving slowly through the nearby trees was a troupe of about seven Red Howler Monkeys, complete with young. This was another first for our tours. We watched them for quite a while, until they drifted back into the bush.
Back to birding, in the streamside vegetation we found Northern Waterthrush, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and a very friendly pair of Black-crested Antshrikes. Traffic on the road made birding a challenge, especially for those who rely on hearing for locating birds. A few miles farther, the sandy spit at the mouth of the Nariva River held no resting terns or shorebirds as it sometimes does, so we continued on to the southern edge of Nariva Swamp, to the "Pumpkin Patch". Water levels there were the highest I'd ever seen; grassy pastures had become lakes, several of which yielded flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. We turned west off the main road and entered a stretch of pitch-paved road upon which the locals were threshing rice, using the tires of passing vehicles to assist them.
We emerged from the coconut palms into the swamp (or more correctly marsh), we birded on foot along the pitch road. (How do you tell a swamp from a marsh? Just remember: "A swamp has trees and water to your knees; a marsh has grass and water to your knees as well.")
Set back from the roadside and accessible over rustic wooden footbridges were primitive stilt huts that lacked running water and electricity. Amid the reeds, rushes, and rice we found Yellow-chinned Spinetails, Purple Gallinule, a very cryptic duo of Pinnated Bitterns, and at least six individuals of the green-billed South American Azure Gallinule, a new species for me. After three years I was able to verify Jogie's claim that Azure Gallinules occur in Trinidad. A few Striated Herons, looking very much like our northern Green-backed Heron, "quonked" and flew briefly upon our approach.
As the afternoon waned we began to notice Snowy, Great, and Little Blue Herons and Cattle Egrets spilling into the swamp to roost. Over the western horizon of the swamp flew dozens of pairs of Orange-winged Parrots heading north, with a few Red-bellied Macaws flying south, toward us. We reboarded the vehicles and drove out to the main road, passing the locals who by this time had threshed a dozen sacks of rice.
We ended our day in real style. As the sun set through the palms and a cool sea breeze blew in off the ocean, we sipped rum punch, ate sweet cakes, and watched as about 200 Red-bellied Macaws flew noisily in to roost. As Richard says, this was an Old Milwaukee day -- it doesn't get any better than this.
Our day's birding yielded 90 species, including 30 species new for the trip, bringing our trip total to 145. Not bad for four days!
|December 1||A reptilian highlight of the pre-breakfast was finding a gigantic emerald-green iguana sunning itself on a tree branch over a ravine along the entrance road. But the morning's warm, sunny weather belied the rain that awaited us in the highlands. An all-day rain is uncommon here, even in the rainy season, but this weather front evidently didn't get the message. Looking on the bright side, everyone should experience rain in the rainforest, right? After another fine breakfast in paradise we boarded the vans to explore the Heights of Aripo, two valleys east of our own Arima Valley. We birded our way north on the ever-narrowing Heights of Aripo Road, stopping at every likely pull-off and viewing mostly species we'd seen before. Still, at each stop we usually saw at least one species better or closer than we'd seen it before; bagging new birds isn't everything. There was one new bird, though. Among the flocks of tanagers and their allies foraged a cryptically colored Streaked Xenops clinging upside down to a twig like a chickadee.|
As we followed the serpentine road upwards, the clouds thickened until the midday sun seemed more like twilight. I'm sure we'll all remember the "Crossing of the Rotten Wooden Bridge" by Jogie the Fearless, while Roodal the Prudent declined to emulate him at that point. We lunched on huge, multi-layered sandwiches of some spicy spread and thinly sliced cucumbers while sitting at a tiny bridge at the head of the Aripo valley surrounded by Anthuriums, Crotons, and other ornamental and colorful plants. In a bygone era this area had been the Rapsey Estate, famous for its scores of hummingbird feeders and rare avian visitors, including the Brown Violet-ear and Rufous-shafted Woodstar hummingbirds. Two of the monster sandwiches found their way to a couple of passing local boys.
After lunch we followed the road upwards past Aripo Village, where the main industry is guiding tourists to a large Oilbird cave accessible after a five-mile hike through the jungle. We came upon such unlikely birds as an Osprey and a Greater Yellowlegs probing happily in a cultivated watercress paddy. More expected but still respectable sightings on the return trip, back in the lowlands, were of Gray-headed Kite, Squirrel Cuckoo, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, and Gray Kingbird. We called it a day in midafternoon as previously agreed and headed back to the Centre. Rum punch, anyone? How about another?? Do I know you?
Despite the rain in the heights, our day's birding yielded 89 species and added 7 new species to the trip list, bringing our total to 152. In regard to montane rainforest birding, the law of diminishing returns was becoming operative as fewer and fewer species were new to us.
|December 2||After another scrumptious breakfast that, as always, included fresh papaya with a lemon slice and locally grown, STRONG coffee, we were off again to the lowlands, this time to visit Waller Field, the Aripo Savanna, and the Arena Forest. Along the way we stopped briefly along Blanchisseuse Road, where we spotted a Savanna Flower (Mandevilla hirsuta), a bit lost up here in the mountains. Almost as soon as we left Arima behind us and entered the savanna by way of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, we found a real gem -- a Pearl Kite on a telephone wire. This species is found in very low numbers in Trinidad, mainly in the southwest. Just ahead we found another difficult-to-observe species, a Masked Yellowthroat -- a singing male to boot! This member of a usually furtive species sat in full view on a fence wire for as long as anyone could have wished. This was only the second time on a Peregrine tour that we've recorded this species.|
At Waller Field, an abandoned U.S. airbase formerly known as Fort Reid, we drove down algae-encrusted runways and stopped in a grove of Moriche Palms (Mauritia setigera). Here we enjoyed touching the low-growing Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica) and watching the leaf stalks suddenly close and droop. Our group was fortunate to get several brief views of the rare Sulphury Flycatcher; this rare species had been seen on only two previous Peregrine tours. Other species of note included Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Short-tailed Swift, Red-breasted Blackbird, and Red-bellied Macaws, the latter normally feeding on the fruits of the Moriche Palms. Apparently the migratory Ruby-topaz Hummingbirds had not yet returned for the season, and our search for them was futile.
Back on Cumuto Road, we crossed the Caroni River bridge and pulled over to check out a young Gray-headed Kite. While there we scanned the river for kingfishers but instead found a pair of Southern Rough-winged Swallows and a pair of White-winged Swallows. Jogie picked out an extremely distant raptor perched at the tiptop of a dead tree. We drove as close to it as we could, stopped eventually by an entrance gate at a sand and gravel yard. The Questar allowed us to identify the raptor as a Merlin.
Arriving in the crossroads village of Cumuto, we relaxed for at time at LC's store, owned by Lenore and Lester (we'd met them before, at Valencia and later at Manzanilla Beach). We cooled off with sodas and experimented with flavors such as choco-peanut. The peppery-hot tamarind ball candy and coconut-drop pastries were quite delectable, too. Across from LC's, in a Caribbean pine growing in front of the Cumuto police station, was a colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques with their pendent, oriole-like nests.
Lunch was another delicious casserole (or was it enormous sandwiches?) served at a Forestry Division shelter adjacent to the Arena Forest. A small colony of Leaf-nosed Fruit Bats were roosting in the shelter; I learned later from my friend Rob that on his trip in April the group got the bats to accept handouts of bananas; they fed on the wing.
After lunch we walked to an abandoned house, behind which we found a Common Barn-Owl perched at eye-level in a tree. We struggled to get onto some elusive Green-rumped Parrotlets that were hiding in what should have been plain sight in a nearby treetop. When perched, they're essentially invisible. Eventually almost everyone got to see one or more of the parrotlets when they flew. Other highlights of the afternoon were excellent views of a Little Cuckoo, a Gray-throated Leaftosser, and a Piratic Flycatcher, which looked like a miniature version of the Streaked Flycatcher that hung around the Centre's veranda.
The uncontested high point of the afternoon was when Roodal and Jogie called into clear view not one but a pair of White-bellied Antbirds for an really long period of time. This species is another of those "Give it up, not a chance," sometimes heard but never seen species. Our views of these two birds were sensational. We could actually see their tails quiver as they sang. A royal treat indeed!
Back at the ranch, a.k.a. the Centre, those members of the group who hadn't seen the distant Bearded Bellbird from the veranda on our first morning trekked down the trail Bellbird Trail in search of a good view of the bird. Along the way we stopped to watch the male White-bearded Manakins performing on their lek. Once down in Bellbird territory, we stalked at least one male of this elusive species until, fortunately for us, Sheldon the Expert arrived. He knew the specific branch on which to look for the bird, and with his expert assistance we soon were able to clap the Questar on it. What incredible views we had of this totally ventriloquil bird! We could even see its wattles wattle. Meanwhile, back on the veranda, a male Black-throated Mango perched intermittently in the Powderpuff tree (Calliandra inaequilatera) just below the veranda.
Our day ended with the usual routine -- a tally rally on the veranda, sipping rum punch, playing the card game Oh Hell. Our day of lowland birding had yielded 96 species and had handed us 9 new species, bringing our total to 161 species of birds.
|December 3||On this, our last morning at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, after a leisurely breakfast we bid a fond farewell to Sheldon, Kenny, Doolarie, Anne Radix, and the rest of the staff. We had time for one last look at some of the birds, animals, and reptiles with which we'd developed practically a first-name relationship: Copper-rumped Hummingbird, White-chested Emerald, Blue-chinned Sapphire, Tufted Coquette, White-necked Jacobin, Little Hermit, Purple and Green Honeycreepers, Barred and Great Antshrikes, Grayish Saltator, Yellow Oriole, Smooth-billed Ani, Cocoa and Bare-eyed Thrushes, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, the many species of tanagers -- Bay-headed, Silver-beaked, White-lined, and Blue-gray -- and the sundry skinks, lizards, geckos, agoutis, and squirrels. We then boarded the vans for our transfer to PAX Guest House, Mount Saint Benedict.|
Along the way we stopped at the Trincity Water Treatment Ponds, where in the space of perhaps ten minutes we had good views of Least Grebe, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, a Pied Water-Tyrant at its nest in a Caribbean pine, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, Wattled Jacana, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Gray-breasted Martin, and several 3- to 6-foot-long Speckled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus).
Traveling along the Port-of-Spain/Arima corridor, the main population center of Trinidad, we found ourselves in a swarming, urban environment. Saturday is market day, and the throngs of happy Hindus at the Eastern Main Road market in Tunapuna was quite a sight. Music resounded from every storefront along the Eastern Main Road. After passing through the towns of D'Abadie, San Jos,, Arouca, El Dorado, Tacarigua, Curepe, and St. Augustine, we wound our way up sinuous St. John Road to the Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. PAX would be our home for the next three days. We were warmly greeted by our most gracious host and hostess, Gerard and Oda Ramsawak, and met some of the other guests from all over the Caribbean. While waiting for our rooms to be assigned and readied, we relaxed in the common room, sipping iced drinks. The view of the lowlands, including rice fields and the Caroni Swamp, was beautiful.
We had arrived early enough in the day to be able to spend time taking a long, slow walk up the road, past the monastery, to the trail that runs through the semideciduous rainforest that cloaks the slopes of Mount Tabor. Along the way, again dashing from shade to shade, we saw an abundance of raptors -- Short-tailed Hawk, White Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, and another zillion Black and Turkey Vultures. By now we'd seen almost every bird species to be expected in this habitat at this season, so the sudden appearance of a Blue-tailed Emerald feeding on Lantana blossoms took us by surprise. Our group shrank steadily as the heat and steepness increased, with members dropping off along the way. At the top only a few hardy souls were left. The sunlight was so intense that we joked about seeing how many of us could stand single-file in the shade cast by a telephone pole -- because that's what we were doing. The forest at the top was quiet in the midday heat, with an occasional White-bearded or Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, or Bananaquit calling. Off in the distance, a Little Tinamou gave its melancholy whistle. We heard this extremely secretive terrestrial species every day but never saw it.
After a fine buffet lunch, the renowned "Mr. Caroni Swamp" himself, Winston Nanan, arrived with -- oh, wonder of wonders -- a beautiful, new, spacious, air-conditioned van. We boarded this elegant vehicle and headed out for an afternoon to be remembered. Along the way Winston got to know the group and pointed out some of the attractions of western Trinidad, such as the famous St. Joseph mosque, temples, the University of the West Indies, Mount Hope Medical Center, and the Uriah Butler Highway, named after a famous Trinidadian labor leader.
Instead of heading directly for our main destination, the Caroni Swamp, Winston took us to the Caroni rice fields, which cover vast areas formerly flooded annually by the Caroni River. In this perfectly flat stretch of vegetation we found the only Limpkins of the trip, as well as hundreds of Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons. A few immature Barn Swallows flew over, another first for the trip. As a Peregrine soared high overhead on one side of us, a slender bird with a bold black-and-white wing pattern sailed past us -- a Large-billed Tern.
The water was too high in the rice fields for shorebirds, so we tarried in an area whose main attraction was a huge swarm of herons and egrets. Among them was a single blue-lored Little Egret, a European-African species newly arrived in the New World and found in very small numbers in the Western Hemisphere. This species is one that North American bird listers are intensely interested in seeing. As luck would have it, only a handful of people were able to view it through the Questar before the flock took flight.
Winston was doing a great job of finding wildlife and explaining everything. Our good luck held at the Caroni Swamp, where at the docks we boarded the flat-bottomed boat and began our own miniature westward-ho voyage into the swamp. The channel down which we were cruising was Blue River Drain Number Nine, trenched in the late 1970s as a planned route for huge LP barges. The petroleum concerns eventually lost the battle for the Caroni Swamp to public outcry over potential oil spills and explosions.
In the Red, Black, and White Mangroves that lined the Drain flew Carib Grackles, Smooth-billed Anis, and a few Green-rumped Parrotlets. We tied up where the Beetham sluice joined the canal. Here some members of the group "deboated" for a walk along the dike while the rest of us remained in the boat enjoying point-blank views of Anableps, the Four-eyed Fish. An Osprey flew overhead. Then a Little Blue Heron. A Spotted Sandpiper arced low to the water. The sun was hot, the water flat, bugs nonexistent. Are there really only 21 shopping days left till Christmas?
Underway again, we flushed the odd adult or immature Little Blue Heron or Striated Heron from the mangroves. A single Scarlet Ibis burned a hole in the sky above us, prompting shouts and exclamations of disbelief from the group at its vivid coloration. Winston squeaked in a Black-crested Antshrike, then steered the boat into a mangrove-studded cul-de-sac for a real coup -- a family of Greater Anis! These exceedingly shy birds are restricted in Trinidad to the Caroni and a few other west-coast swamps.
We found a few species of shorebirds perched on tree roots, the only places available for them while the mud was submerged. Among them were Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, and Least, Solitary, and about a score of Spotted Sandpipers. Spotted Sandpipers may sound mundane, but when was the last time you saw 18 of them perched together on a fallen tree!?
Who among us will forget the Cook's Tree Boa (Boa dontouchme?) curled into a tight ball on a mangrove branch about six feet above the water, and about three feet above the heads of the people in the front of the boat? Who would have thought people our age could move so fast!? Especially when the boa began to extend to its full length, showing us that it could hold more than a third of its body off the branch without apparent effort. My, didn't it have a massive head! If tree boas were a little less inclined to bite ferociously when handled, we might have taken it aboard.
When a few minutes later Winston came up empty handed on a Common Potoo he'd staked out, Shirley Radcliffe amazed us by conjuring it up, a little lower, closer, and to the right, if you please. Even Winston was dumbfounded by Shirley's apparent feat of magic. How hard is it to spot a Potoo? This hard -- even though the bird was at most 30 feet from us, it was a full minute before everyone had located it. A Potoo looks more like a dead snag on a tree than most dead snags do. Way to go, Shirley! Rendered rather insignificant by the Potoo sighting, at that stop we also saw tree-climbing crabs and tiny oysters attached to the mangrove roots.
A few hundred yards farther, Winston spished in a flock of "must-see" Bicolored Conebills. We'd missed them at Bush-Bush Creek in Eastern Trinidad, the only other site in Trinidad where we could have found them, so we had to get them in the Caroni. Winston also nailed a another tough-to-get species, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, just before we reached our destination in the middle of an extensive pool.
Now came the zenith of the day, if not of the trip. We tied up to a stick stuck deep in the mud and watched as thousands upon thousands of Scarlet Ibises descended into a mangrove hummocks. From behind other mangrove hummocks flew a few Great Egrets with hundreds of Snowy and Cattle Egrets and Little Blue Herons. A tight flock of Blue-winged Teal zoomed past. We spotted a few Great Blue Herons as well, and as dusk fell in earnest, Tricolored Herons. All of the long-legged waders roosted together, turning the hummock into a Christmas tree of color. As the sun set, we sipped beer and Coke that we "confiscated" from a neighboring boat, and watched the spectacular Scarlet Ibis arriving at their roost. Are we having fun yet?
The excitement continued even after the evening's roosting was finished. As the last glimmer of twilight held, Winston parked the boat where we could view a dead snag against the fading western sky. He expertly mimicked the mournful descending whistle of the Common Potoo, and lo and behold here was a Potoo flying over us and landing on the tip of the snag like some prehistoric owl. For us to have seen both the Oilbird and the Potoo perched and in flight on the same trip was unprecedented (here we go again).
At our first tally at PAX, we totaled a whopping 99 species for the day, adding 20 new species and bringing our total to 181.
|December 4||It's Sunday, December 4, 1994. Bill Murphy attempts something he's never done before -- take a group of birders to Tobago for a single day, with no advance planning except to secure airline tickets and ground transportation on both islands. You guys asked for it. I tried to persuade you it was all but impossible, but you proved me wrong. Playing everything by ear, we made it work and had an incredibly wonderful day. We ended up seeing just about the whole the island and finding all the birds we sought, even the "no hope at all" kind.|
We took a fairly early flight to Tobago, carrying only what we needed for the day (binoculars, sunscreen, scopes, and a little cash). I'd predicted that the last birds we'd see in Trinidad (at the airport) would be Gray-breasted Martins and that the first we'd see in Tobago (at the airport) would be Caribbean Martins, a bird of the Leeward Islands. The latter species, being partially migratory, hadn't yet returned from wherever they'd gone. Instead we viewed a sky dominated by Magnificent Frigatebirds.
Upon clearing the diminutive Tobago airport, we were met by our driver, Peter Moore. I'd never met Peter before; he turned out to be absolutely perfect in every way for our needs (so what's new -- the entire day was like that). Our first stop was at the nearby Fort Granby, where we watched Royal Terns and Brown Boobies sail over the azure Caribbean. In the short grass of the park hopped Black-faced Grassquits, while Eared Doves sat in the trees. A quick trip to the beach at the end of the runway produced some Brown Pelicans, more Royal Terns, and a distant view of Trinidad's Northern Range some 26 miles across the strait known as Galleon's Passage, as all the Spanish ships laden with gold from Central America had to ply those waters.
Farther north on the leeward (Caribbean) side of the island, we carefully tread the uneven turf of a cattle ranch to reach tiny Buccoo Marsh. Enroute we found Barred Antshrike and Brown-crested Flycatcher in the thorny guava scrub. The water in the lagoon was higher than I'd ever seen it, but still it offered excellent looks at marsh birds that included several uncommon species like White-cheeked Pintail and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, which were unknown from Tobago even five years ago. Other wetland species present included Common Moorhen, Wattled Jacana, two immature Little Blue Herons, a Whimbrel, both species of Yellowlegs, and an Anhinga soaring like a raptor. A lone Merlin blazed past. A medium-sized, mostly dark duck swam into view -- a female Lesser Scaup, another first for any Peregrine tour. Here we saw a few more of the rare Least Grebes.
Something seemed to be missing -- the vultures! After seeing hundreds or thousands of vultures every day in Trinidad, we saw not a single vulture in Tobago. But then that's not surprising, considering that none occur there... And no Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, either, so forget "hoo-hoo-hooing" to attract songbirds in Tobago.
As we continued over roads that were nearly perfect, in contrast to the potholed highways of Trinidad, we spotted a number of good "wire birds": Pale-vented Pigeon, White-tipped Dove, and Gray Kingbird. Birds of any kind were much less common in Tobago than in Trinidad, but those that we found were larger and brighter than their Trinidadian counterparts. We kept our eyes on the trees, looking for the endemic race of the Red-crowned Woodpecker. The roadsides were much, much drier than in Trinidad, and there were more grasslands and fewer trees at the southern end of the island (The Lowlands) than to the north. Around almost every house sported brilliant flowers such as Croton, Rose-of-Sharon, and Bougainvillea of every hue. All in all, Tobago presented a much more attractive image than did Trinidad.
One lesson we shared was on domesticated animals -- how to distinguish Caribbean goats from Caribbean sheep. Because neither animal has a thick coat in Tobago, the best ways to distinguish them turned out to be whether the tail was held aloft (=goat) or down (=sheep) of if the animal climbed at all to reach forage (=goat). We took a few brief walks on the Caribbean side of the island, viewing common species such as Blue-black and Black-faced Grassquits, Broad-winged Hawk, more "frigates".
Near one house, a perfectly adorable little Tobagonian tot came toward me as if she were being propelled. Having embraced my left leg lovingly, she hustled back to her family. I swear I never saw her mother before! And she didn't resemble me at all!! Anyway...
On a one-day visit to Tobago, time is of the essence. Peter's knowledge of Tobago's back roads got us the seven miles across the island to Scarborough in no time at all. We detoured into the capital city of Scarborough for provisions (cheese, crackers, cookies, chips, more cookies, etc.), then wound our way back to the Windward Road. On the windward (Atlantic) side, we proceeded north to the Roxborough-Bloody Bay Road, which provides easy access to mature virgin rainforest. Along this most luxurious drive we spotted turkey-sized Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Blue-crowned Motmot, Rufous-breasted Wren, White-necked Thrush, Scrub Greenlet, and a few of the nonspecialist nest parasites, the Shiny Cowbird. At one stop we had a breathtaking view of an adult Great Black-Hawk soaring in the high winds over the peaks, its wide, black-tipped white tail clearly visible.
Cresting the Main Ridge, we were in a windswept zone dominated by Selaginella, an ancient plant from which much of our deposits of coal were formed. Our target was Gilpin Trace, a rugged, muddy trail along the side of a deep, steep-sided ravine. Gilpin Trace is home to some of Tobago's most secretive and rare species of birds. We rented calf-high rubber boots from a local entrepreneur at the trailhead and within minutes were totally surrounded by true jungle vegetation.
It's always twilight along Gilpin Trace. Bamboos of huge circumference towered hundreds of feet above us. Spiny palms such as the "gru-gru" and bromeliad-covered cycads or tree ferns formed the middle story, while an even greater profusion of bromeliads adorned the tree branches of the canopy high overhead. To me this was the most impressive area of rainforest that we visited, with a dense canopy, many epiphytes, and more palms than any other areas we'd visited. And how often do we get to squish around in nice oozy mud in boots we know we won't have to clean?
Almost immediately we heard the short, squeaky "song" of the incredibly rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird, but try as we might, we could not spot it from our angle. Moving forward, I gave the whistled call of the Blue-backed Manakin, another Tobago specialty, until one of the members of the group spotted a gorgeous male in full view. We got great looks at it's velvety black body, powder blue back, and crimson crown. That swept the manakins for the trip -- all three species of three different genera. Suddenly Jeanette spotted the Sabrewing right next to us along the trailside. For just a little while we had him, a fine green male, spreading and flashing his white tail and giving us a wonderful show. A little later we found a White-fringed Antwren, then watched from above as a pair of Stripe-breasted Spinetails gleaned insects from the forest floor. A wary Red-rumped Woodpecker stayed just far enough around the far side of a tree trunk to give us rather paltry views.
As we reached the point on the trail at which we'd turn back, Craig spotted another "give up any hope of seeing this one" species -- a Yellow-legged Thrush. Honestly, if it hadn't blinked occasionally we would've sworn it was stuffed. Here's a species that's "always" found in the blackest shade of a tree branch 100 feet above the ground, giving no opportunity for any kind of view. And where was this one? On the ground, below us, next to the stream.
When we'd returned to the trailhead we were stunned at the amount of time that had elapsed while we explored Gilpin Trace. It was mealtime -- which meal it was, we didn't know, lunch or something -- it was
midafternoon -- so we relinquished our boots and boarded the van. Most of us, that is. I understand that when Nicky and Sally returned their boots, Mr. Boot Man asked Nicky if she "wanted to go home with a black man", that he had plenty of room, and that Sally quickly distanced herself from the conversation and left Nicky to fend for herself.
Peter delivered us to the Gilpin Trace Rest House, a new structure with a view worth traveling to Tobago to see. On a clear day they say you can see the island of Grenada 70 miles to the northeast. On this day we couldn't see Grenada but we could see the distant rocky islands called the Sisters, about 1000 feet below us and quite a distance offshore. Through the Questar we could make out flying birds, white, pigeonlike, with long streamer tails: Red-billed Tropicbirds. How many identifications can be made from five miles!?
During lunch some members of the group purchased cake (banana bread?) from two native women who were competing almost elbow to elbow, but apparently amicably. We shared some of our food with another cute little girl, who, though aloof at first, was eventually won over by our attentions.
We stopped one more time to bird on the way back to the airport, at a tiny marsh that hosted a couple of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Our day-long quest for the usually conspicuous Red-crowned Woodpecker was left unfulfilled.
How does a leader close out a day like that? On Tobago, there's only one way to salute the setting sun, and that's from atop Fort King George in Scarborough. From that magnificent viewpoint we gazed east, out over the swells of the Atlantic, where the next landfall east was Senegal, and south, where we could see cumulus clouds building over Venezuela and Guyana. Around us, almost at ground level, flew Short-tailed Swifts, which were soon joined by dashing, tiny insectivorous bats. We had our group photo taken by a pleasant local fellow, and I got to play around with a few more native girls. Oh, come on now, they couldn't have been more than eight years old!
The vehicular part of our Tobago jaunt was over. We'd parked the van along a goat pasture behind a row of food vendors at Store Bay Beach. It was so dark we could have been anywhere at all. The night is infinitely black, black as Trinidad pitch. Our flight doesn't leave for another three hours, and we're getting sort of hungry. So now what? Back to the beach near the airport, where Miss Jenny and the other local cooks compete for our trade with such savory offerings as chicken or goat roti, dumplings, cos-cos, fresh fish curry, and lots of beer. "Sorry, we're out of conch roti." The atmosphere is intimate and the natives are friendly, if abrupt (Miss Jenny -- "Come on, man, make yo min' up! Wha' yo wan eat? Quick quick!").
We then enjoyed a quiet walk through the utterly black, warm night, past the Crown Point Hotel, where Queen Elizabeth and the Beatles stayed, to the Kariwak Inn. To the recorded sounds of a steel drum band, those of us who hadn't headed straight for the airport after dinner enjoyed Kariwak Coolers, delicious fruit drinks, the specialty of the house. We were warmly greeted by Alan and Cynthia Clovis, the owners. Alan and Cynthia met in Canada. Alan was director of education in the Canadian Northwest Territories and Cynthia was a schoolteacher on Baffin Island. They married, moved south, and hope never to see temperatures below 70 again.
Our return flight on Air Caribbean was quick and uneventful. Soon we were again looking down at the lights of Port-of-Spain and the urban strip stretching out past Tunapuna toward Arima. Only this time it wasn't a foreign land, but a country we knew from one side to the other. Later, after another exquisite buffet dinner, we had our tally. Our day's birding in Tobago had yielded 91 species. Of them, 19 were new. Our total was an astonishing 200.
|December 5||Today was the last day of our trip. We took a few walks around the Mount, watched the soaring raptors and flocks of Orange-winged Parrots, listened to the Great Kiskadees, and tried to absorb all we could of paradise. Then we held our collective breath and plunged into Port-of-Spain, the New York City of the Republic of "Trinbago". Here, around the Queen's Park Savanna, were the Magnificent Seven, huge Victorian-style homes built in the late 1800s. Here were the twin towers of commerce that grace the reverse side of the TT$1 bill. It was a day of telling our driver, "Meet us on this corner in two hours" (yeah, right!), shopping in bookstores and knickknack shops, visiting banks, and chowing down on TT$12.50 Big Macs and TT$6 french fries at Trinidad's first McDonald's.|
We visited the Red House (the equivalent of our Capitol Building), purchased maps at a government agency, and picked up postage stamps at the post office. Between rain showers we drove past the new Sports Complex, past the Shiite Muslim compound where the rebel Ibu Bakr fomented the 1989 coup, and through parts of town such as St. James, St. Ann's, St. Clair, Belmont, East Dry River, and Cascade, past the port area, and along many thoroughfares through this sprawling city.
After the rains had passed we walked through the Botanical Gardens ("Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts! Here!? Oh, yeah, there are some Moriche Palms!"). We found such tropical trees as Baobab, Strangler Fig, and Napoleon's Hat. On the way back to Tunapuna, we just about emptied all the Hong Wing coffee from the shelves of a HiLo grocery store. And so it came to pass, a successful visit to Port-of-Spain, another idea I thought was destined for certain disaster. And once again you showed me that, yes, it can be done! Bravo, group!
This was our last night together. After a special roti-buffet dinner we discussed our favorite parts of the trip and conducted our final tally. Even on this non-birding day we'd tallied 31 species. Thus our trip total reached at an incredible 200 species. The birding was over, but there was still one more thrilling adventure ahead -- the hair-raising drive to the airport the following morning, when our ingenious driver used the open-air market as our private cut- through!
I'm going to miss the sights and smells of these tropical islands and the smiling faces and accents of the local people. I feel like I made some new friends among you, too, and hope to enjoy many years of birding with the Mountwood Bird Club. Rarely have I enjoyed a trip or the company of a group more than I did this time.