|February 11||Our Audubon Naturalist Society group arrived at Piarco International Airport, Trinidad, just after sunset on Friday, February 11. A warm, humid breeze greeted us as we deplaned, and a crowd of Trinidadians warmed the night further with the hearty din they created while straining to glimpse loved ones arriving on our flight. Rollin Adams, the driver from the Mount St. Benedict (PAX) Guest House, met us, helped load our bags, and we were soon enroute to our accommodations. (All, that is, except me -- I stayed at the airport in a futile effort to find my missing suitcase.)|
Rollin pointed out the sugarcane growing in extensive plantings along the roadside and gave us our first taste of driving on the left. In Tunapuna we turned onto St. John Road and ascended the Mount. Perched in the Northern Range 800 feet above the Plains of Caroni, the Mount St. Benedict complex consists of a monastery, a seminary, a convent, a drug rehabilitation center, a trade school, and the PAX Guest House. After negotiating a dozen hairpin turns, we arrived at PAX, where the manager, Victoria Soo Poy, welcomed us with icy rum punches and a savory West Indian dinner.
|February 12||Saturday, our first day in Trinidad, began with the calls of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Tropical Screech-Owl, and the tremulous whistle of a Little Tinamou. During our meals we often watched birds through the dining room windows. The trees outside included mango, papaya, coconut and several other species of palm, mahogany, Caribbean and Australian pines, Mountain Immortelle, Samaan, and bamboo. The most common shrubs and flowers were croton, impatiens, Lantana, and Coleus. Black and Turkey Vultures were always visible overhead. Other common species included Bananaquit, Tropical Mockingbird, Yellow Oriole, Great Kiskadee, Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, hummingbirds such as the Blue-chinned and Copper-rumped and the larger Black-throated Mango, Tropical House and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Bare-eyed Thrush, and Smooth-billed Ani. Once we watched a Long-billed Gnatwren in the grapefruit tree outside the window, and a perched White Hawk was observed during breakfast one morning. We often saw flocks of crow-sized Crested Oropendolas flying in perfectly level flight across the forested valley behind the guest house as they commuted to and from their six-foot pendular colonial nests.|
After breakfast on Saturday, we explored the Mount St. Benedict area, walking slowly uphill past the monastery and into the rainforest. Along the way we paused frequently to examine the geography of Trinidad, one-sixth of which was visible below us. From the Mount we could see from the Gulf of Paria and the Caroni mangrove swamps in the west to the eastern tip of the Central Range at the Atlantic Ocean in the east. Below us flew Short-tailed Swifts, close counterparts of our Chimney Swifts. Our first Short-tailed Hawk was initially misidentified as a White Hawk, until we saw the telltale black helmet on its white face. Moments later a genuine White Hawk appeared, then another, and then a fast-moving Double-toothed Kite. Orange-winged Parrots flew by, screeching so loud that we could hear them long after they had passed from sight. In two hours we had been so engrossed that we had walked less than half a mile.
The sun was hot and we were grateful for the shade offered by the rainforest. During the dry season (January-May), some rainforest trees lose their leaves. Nevertheless, the temperature dropped quickly in the shade of the tall cecropia and kapok trees. Rainforests are among the most difficult of all habitats in which to bird, with a million visual distractions -- fluttering and falling leaves, butterflies and other large insects, and day-flying bats. Most birds perch in the canopy, hundreds of feet up. At midday the heat added to our lassitude, so between birds we concentrated on leaf-cutting ants, webspinners, and bird calls. One highlight was spotting a male Lineated Woodpecker, a close counterpart to our Pileated. The call of the Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, which we would see or hear almost every day, became another background noise. We returned to PAX for lunch, then spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing or enjoying independent sojourns on the Mount between intermittent showers. The television at PAX was always tuned to CNN as Trinidad and the rest of the galaxy followed Operation Desert Shield.
|February 13||Sunday was typically bright and sunny with puffy cumulus clouds. Our destination was the Arima Valley, home to the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre. We parked there under a cannonball tree, walked down weatherworn slate steps past blue vervain and flowering poinsettias, to the restored colonial mansion. From the veranda we enjoyed arms-length views of gaudy Purple Honeycreepers, iridescent hummingbirds, and five species of tanagers, including the plush Silver-beaked Tanager. Green Honeycreepers competed with Little Hermit hummingbirds at the lowest feeders, while Purple Honeycreepers competed with White-chested Emerald hummingbirds at the higher feeders. In the nearby matchwood tree, a noisy flock of Turquoise Tanagers foraged on ripe figs, while a Golden-olive Woodpecker gleaned insects from the bark. Within minutes we had observed thirty species of birds, some of which are difficult to spot anywhere else in the rainforest.|
Prying ourselves from the veranda, we began a slow descent through cocoa, coffee, and citrus trees to the Guacharo Trail, at the end of which lies Dunstan Cave and its world-famous colony of Oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis). This bird, known only from caves in South America, is the sole species in the genus Steatornis, the sole genus in the family Steatornithidae. Oilbirds are distantly related to, and may represent a link between, the owls and the nightjars. The colony in Dunstan Cave is the most accessible known. Enroute we found a pair of White-shouldered Tanagers, a Boat-billed Flycatcher, and the first of many common but easily overlooked Golden-fronted Greenlets. Among the 350 or more species of trees new to us here were mora and nutmeg. Stream sides were verdant with Heliconia flowers, including lobster-claw and other relatives of the banana. Anthuriums were also common in the understory. As in temperate eastern North America, the background noises were largely produced by orthopterans such as tree crickets, katydids, and cicadas.
Far below the last stretch of trail runs the petit Guacharo River. Over the ravine undulated giant Morpho butterflies, which "shoot out lasers of scintillating blue light." The background noise there was generated by rushing water and tiny black cricket frogs. The Guacharo Valley also harbors a primitive creature known as Peripatus, which forms a link between annelid worms and arthropods.
The entrance to Dunstan Cave is totally primeval. Lianas hang from tree branches hundreds of feet above, six-foot-tall elephant-ear leaves dwarf humans, and the sheer cliff face bristles with bromeliads. We carefully stepped from rock to rock to avoid wading and were soon able to observe about thirty Oilbirds on their nest ledges within the fissure.
After a picnic lunch under a thatched roof at the Nature Centre, we tarried a little longer, picking up Violaceous Trogon and Barred Antshrike before continuing our drive, birding our way to the 2,800-foot summit, where we found Speckled Tanagers and a Zone-tailed Hawk. Bamboo flourishes in the wet, high elevations. The clanking, creaking bamboo harbored several species new to us, including Slaty-capped Flycatcher. One of the best finds there was a tiny Streaked Xenops, which hung upside down, chickadee-like, as it searched for insects along tiny branches. The background sounds there included the vireo-like, repetitious song of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes and the distant "pyork" of Channel-billed Toucans. Sporadic showers convinced us to skip the planned trek to the Caribbean and instead to enjoy a leisurely afternoon exploring the misty roadside. After dark, back at PAX, we used the Questar telescope to observe Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and the Great Nebula in Orion. Many of the group had never seen the Southern Cross, which we located low in the southeast. We were also able to see the orange glow of burning natural gas on oil rigs 40 to 60 miles off the eastern coast.
|February 14||Monday found us on an eastbound trek. Our first stop was at the Agricultural Research Center, in the foothills of the Northern Range. We made a brief detour just off the highway to scan a small wastewater treatment plant. It was a productive stop, as we picked up Yellow-billed Tern (a South American species similar to our Least Tern), a flock of more than 30 Least Grebes and a floating grebe nest, Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, White-winged Swallows, and loads of egrets. White-headed Marsh-Tyrants and Pied Water-Tyrants zipped after small insects, and a Masked Yellowthroat skulked in the wet vegetation nearby. In the young sugarcane adjacent to the ponds, male Blue-black Grassquits performed their courtship dance, jumping up a foot above a weed stem while buzzing, "Zzzhhheeee!". The prize bird was an adult Little Egret in breeding plumage, complete with two long head plumes. A pair of Yellow-headed Caracaras labored past pursued by a Merlin. A crab-eating raptor, the Common Black-Hawk, soared overhead. As for reptiles, at least two Speckled Caimans lurked on the mud banks.|
The Agricultural Research Station is a great birding spot. We were fortunate enough to encounter an Illinois Audubon Society birding group there, led by a former Marylander, Vern Kleen. With so many eyes helping, we found some real rarities, such as a displaying pair of Pinnated Bitterns and a beautiful White-necked Heron. Unusual in a mountainous setting were Magnificent Frigatebirds. The "trash" birds on the telephone wires and fences were Tropical Kingbirds, Shiny Cowbirds, Carib Grackles, and Great Kiskadees, while common on the ground were Southern Lapwings, Wattled Jacanas, Solitary, Spotted, and Western Sandpipers, and Ruddy Ground-Doves. We found Common Ground-Doves singly or in pairs near cattle sheds. In an isolated tree perched adult male and female Peregrine Falcons. Red-breasted and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds sat in full view atop weed stems. We watched a pair of obliging Green-rumped Parrotlets as they examined the end of a hollow pipe. We spotted at least four rufous-colored Savanna Hawks during the morning, some perched with their long legs revealed and some in flight, showing bright orange wings and white tails with black tips. Southern Rough-winged Swallows and Barn Swallows foraged low over the fields. Several species of herps were in evidence, including tegu and Ameiva lizards as well as geckos.
Continuing on to the town of Valencia, we paused to sample native drinks such as sorrel (a sweet anise-flavored drink), mauby (like bitter root beer), and local beers such as Carib and Stag while enjoying our picnic lunches. A sign outside said, "Licensed to sell spirituous liquors. Open any day, any time. Pay-first system."
After lunch we drove south on the Eastern Main Road through Sangre Grande, the largest city in eastern Trinidad, to the base of Brigand Hill, the easternmost peak in the Central Range. With terrific effort our van climbed almost to the top of the extremely steep, Heliconia-bordered road to the summit. We got out and let the van make the rest of the climb unencumbered. From the lighthouse at the summit our view swept from the Northern Range and the radio-telescope in the northeastern town of Toco all the way past Point Radix to the Mayaro region far to the southeast. Below us spread Nariva Swamp, a universe of sawgrass and palm islands, while along the Atlantic beach waved a cool million coconut palms. Black Vultures flashed by very close to us, allowing perfect views of their remarkably unattractive features. We dallied awhile on Brigand Hill, enjoying the view and the breeze, before continuing on to Nariva.
C. B. Worth put Nariva Swamp on the map through his work on viruses, which led him to mist-net birds high in the canopy of the Bush-Bush area of the swamp. We followed the coast road south, driving along a thin sliver of sand bordered by the turbulent Atlantic on the left and an unbroken stand of white mangroves on the left, growing along the Nariva River. The common roadside flower was a small relative of the Bird-of-Paradise. Its bright orange color resembled that of a daylily. We stopped along the way at Bush-Bush Creek, where we had a rare opportunity to view Bicolored Conebills, a mangrove specialist, as well as an elusive American Pygmy Kingfisher.
At length we left the beach behind and entered the vast open basin of Nariva Swamp, where we spotted a cooperative hawk perched like a lollipop on the remains of a palm trunk. Identifying it required us to consult our field guides, but we finally were convinced that it was a juvenile Gray Hawk.
Here again at Nariva we were accompanied by the Illinois Audubon Society as we identified Wattled Jacanas in the hyacinths and tens of thousands of noisy but inconspicuous Dickcissels in the head-high stands of wild rice. Egrets and herons were abundant. As the day drew to a close, pairs of Orange-winged Parrots were seen as they flew to their roosts. We worked our way back to the coast to a stand of Royal Palms to await the spectacle of the evening, the communal roosting of Scarlet-bellied Macaws. On my September trip we had seen only one macaw, but this time we were rewarded by seeing at least 50 individuals, some observed through the Questar. The macaws land sideways on the single spire atop a palm tree, then slide down into the feathery leaves, where they utterly disappear. As darkness fell and tiny insectivorous bats appeared in erratic flight, we reboarded the van and returned to PAX.
|February 15||Tuesday was a free day on which most participants explored the capital city of Port-of-Spain (later referred to humorously as "Sport-of-Pain"), where they visited the Queen's Park Savanna, the Emperor Valley Zoo, and the Botanical Gardens with its dependable Bat Falcon perched atop a Norfolk Island pine. The city was preparing for its annual blow-out celebration, Carnival, and signs of last summer's attempted coup were hardly visible.|
|February 16||Wednesday was Central Lowland day. We began in Waller Field, an abandoned U.S. airbase. One of our first birds was a Striped Cuckoo, a nest parasite of birds called spinetails. It was perched obligingly low in a bush and was viewed through the Questar. Imitations of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls produced Barred Antshrike and several kinds of tyrant flycatchers, including Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and Tropical Pewee. Several pairs of highly territorial Ruby-Topaz Hummingbirds buzzed us as we passed their domain, while two fly-by Anhingas and a Gray-headed Kite were great surprises.|
We enjoyed our picnic lunches at LC's Store in Cumuto village, across the street from a Casurina tree loaded with pendulous nests of Yellow-rumped Caciques, which look like colorful grackles. Scanning the azure skies above the Aripo Savanna, we found several extremely delicate Fork-tailed Palm Swifts. Farther on, we parked on a roadside deep in the lowland Arena Forest and walked silently on soft humus, dwarfed by the mighty trunks of immortelle, figs, kapok, and other species of trees. Vines hung everywhere, the light was dim, and birds were scarce. We found them all together in a giant multi-species flock, feeding in the canopy in a fruiting fig tree. Tanagers and Bananaquits comprised the bulk of the flock, while somewhere in the dense mass of leaves a pair of Black-tailed Tityras called. "Warbler-neck" soon took its toll, and we were very grateful when a Buff-throated Woodcreeper landed comfortably close to us, allowing a horizontal view. A pair of duetting Rufous-breasted Wrens sounded off nearby. As we left the hot lowlands for the cooler Heights of Aripo in the Northern Range, a Green Kingfisher was seen scanning the Caroni River from a bamboo twig.
We climbed the Aripo Valley by van, walking frequently and observing such species as White-bearded and Golden-headed Manakins, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The call of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl brought in an agitated Northern Waterthrush as well as a lovely pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, which sat side-by-side on a tree branch long enough to be viewed by everyone through the Questar. Flocks of Turquoise Tanagers dashed through treetops aflame with orange flowers, while across the valley a flock of Scaled Pigeons assembled in a bare treetop. We continued birding almost to the end of the road before the group called it a day. Actually, I think fear dictated our return -- the participants couldn't imagine Rollin negotiating those hairpin turns after dark.
|February 17||Thursday morning we had another chance to relax and explore Mount St. Benedict before a hearty lunch, after which we drove to the very productive but stinky Port-of-Spain wastewater lagoons. There we met our Caroni guide, Winston Nanan, who accompanied us to the one-square-mile set of four settling ponds. On the banks of the "feeder creek" along the road we saw several kinds of sandpipers, Willet, Whimbrel, Northern Waterthrush, and Yellow-throated Spinetails, titmice-sized wetland specialists whose rattling call sounds like a Belted Kingfisher. All expected species of herons and egrets were seen, including Tricolored, and overhead circled a roiling flock of about 5,000 Black Vultures, a few hundred Turkey Vultures, and an Osprey. We heard the clattering call of the brightly colored endemic Trinidad race of the Clapper Rail. In the distance, Brown Pelicans circled lazily over the main shipping area of Port-of-Spain.|
Hundreds of birds awaited us at the ponds, including herons, egrets, shorebirds (including equal numbers of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs), a lone Black-necked Stilt, Wattled Jacanas and Common Moorhens by the hundreds, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, and a total of eleven Sora Rails. A careful scrutiny of the non-Cattle-type egrets yielded another Little Egret, this one in basic plumage but with the telltale dark bluish-green lores and long, drooping bill. The day was beautiful and the temperature perfect, birds were plentiful, and even the aroma was tolerable as we circumnavigated one of the largest ponds on foot. When we had seen all there was to see, we left for a quick beverage and bathroom stop before boarding Winston's flat-bottomed boat for an evening trip into the Caroni Swamp.
Winston propelled the boat a few hundred yards down the entrance canal, then let it drift while lecturing on the ecology of the tidal mangrove swamp. He explained that the vegetation of the swamp was composed primarily of just three species -- red, black, and white mangrove. Schools of Anableps, the "four-eyed fish", ogled us as we listened, and Eared Doves bulleted across the channel. From miles around, loose flocks of Cattle Egrets began flying on a beeline deep into the swamp. In a riverside Red Mangrove, a Black-crested Antshrike methodically searched the leaves for insects, while Bicolored Conebills twittered high in the foliage on the opposite shore. When we again began to motor along the channel, Little Blue Herons were the most conspicuous birds to be seen as they flushed ahead of the boat. Winston drove the boat ashore at one point to let us get out and scan a tidal mudflat, where we excitedly picked out our first Scarlet Ibis, almost fluorescent against the dark green mangroves. Further on, we stopped to "pish" and picked up some Northern Waterthrushes. As the sun dropped quickly, the light took on a warm yellow hue. Winston took advantage of a falling tide to push the boat into areas dominated by exposed mudflats, where we found several new species of birds including Black-bellied Plover, Great Blue Heron, Blue-winged Teal, and Short-billed Dowitcher. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons initially were difficult to spot against the mud, but once we had spotted a few, we realized that perhaps twenty or more were in sight.
The boat finally anchored in a large, shallow bay dotted with mangrove islands. An Olivaceous Cormorant flew over silently, then another. We unpacked our snacks, our rum punch, and our beer and relaxed to await the spectacle of the Scarlet Ibis. That was a spectacular sight, with the greenish-black mangrove islands set against the steel-blue water, upon which was reflected the billowing, orange-tinted cumulus clouds and the rugged blue peaks of the Northern Range. It was easy to imagine that we were the only people on earth. Then a line of brilliant Scarlet Ibis flew into sight over the nearby mangroves. They were followed by flock after flock, until the mangrove islands in front of us looked like Christmas trees, with Scarlet Ibis on the top tier and Cattle, Great, and Snowy Egrets and white Little Blue Herons on the lower tiers. Winston estimated that 15,000 Scarlet Ibis flew in to roost as we watched. A lone Glossy Ibis winged past, a species very rare in Trinidad, but with the excitement generated by its scarlet relatives, hardly a birder gave it a glance.
As darkness fell we sorted out night-herons flying out to feed, mostly Yellow-crowned but with a few Black-crowned mixed in. One Boat-billed Heron flew over, a silhouette against the night sky, then the last of the light was gone. As we slowly motored our circuitous way out of the swamp, we used powerful lights to search for the orange eyeshine of perched Common Potoos, huge nocturnal relatives of the nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, and other goatsuckers. We found several Potoos and were able to hold the lights on the birds while the group enjoyed close views through their binoculars. Our visit to the Caroni Swamp was a dramatic way to end our stay in Trinidad.
|February 18||Friday morning, after another delicious breakfast and round of group photographs, we regretfully bid farewell to Victoria Soo Poy and her staff at PAX, drove to the airport, and twenty minutes later were deplaning in Tobago.|
Martins are airport birds throughout the Neotropics. Appropriately, our last birds in Trinidad were Gray-breasted Martins and our first in Tobago were Caribbean Martins. Having arrived hours before check-in time at the Kariwak Village, we were delighted to find that the Buccoo Reef glass-bottomed boat tour was about to begin and that space was available for our group. We walked to the launch site on Store Bay, across a dry field inhabited by tethered goats and cattle. Gray Kingbirds sounded off on the telephone lines, Black-faced Grassquits chittered in the weeds, and White-tipped Doves hooted from the acacia trees. Through the glass bottom of the boat we viewed corals, sponges, and a myriad of brightly colored reef fish. At Buccoo Reef, almost everyone donned plastic slippers and snorkel masks and enjoyed an invigorating "sea bath" while calypso music blasted from the boat's speakers. Magnificent Frigatebirds and Royal Terns kept us company during our offshore party. We made a second stop for bathing at the sand-bottomed Nylon Pool before returning to Store Bay and walking back to the Kariwak.
After a most savory lunch, our Tobago guide, Adolphus James, arrived to drive us in his maxitaxi up the west coast to one of Tobago's very few swamps. On my last trip, Bon Accord Swamp had yielded yet another Little Egret and Tobago's first Wilson's Phalarope. This time our visit produced no rarities, but everyone enjoyed the cute family groups of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and White-cheeked Pintails that cavorted among the hyacinths and mangrove roots. Birding in an area covered mainly with mangroves, coconut palms, and guava trees, and sharing the area with skittish, untethered cattle, was a real novelty.
Proceeding from there north along the coast, we soon arrived at the deeply rutted, dirt lane leading into Grafton Estate, where a feeding station provides great photographic opportunities. Two immense Mountain Immortelles provide a canopy for much of the estate house. Their spreading branches are completely covered with tentacles of Night-blooming Cereus. Several Blue-crowned Motmots were waiting when we arrived. Turkey-sized Rufous-vented Chachalacas stole through the vegetation and hopped through the tree limbs. Bananaquits and Copper-rumped Hummingbirds were everywhere, especially around the sugar-water feeders. White-fringed Antwrens were particularly confiding. We walked uphill along an old carriageway, past an abandoned copra shed where we viewed fruit bats hanging in clusters and making brief, silent forays before landing once more. All around us were cocoa, coffee, and rubber trees gone wild. We heard another Tobago specialty, the Olivaceous Woodcreeper, and spotted a Pale-vented Pigeon in one of the Immortelles. By twilight we probably had seen fifty Blue-crowned Motmots.
That night we again met the group from the Illinois Audubon Society, who were sharing the Kariwak with us, and reviewed our respective sightings and "best birds". Long after dark, drinks, and after a gourmet dinner, some of us strolled across the field to Store Bay and had another refreshing sea bath in the Caribbean as Mars reached its zenith and Venus set in the west.
|February 19||Our goal for Saturday was Gilpin Trace, a trail high in Tobago's Main Ridge. Here in a deep montane valley stand most of the large trees left on the island. The depth of the valley prevented Hurricane Flora from toppling all of the trees therein, as it did everywhere else on the island in September 1963. The wildlife along Gilpin Trace is thus unique in Tobago.|
Our first stop was for culture at Fort King George in the capital city of Scarborough, from which commanding location we gazed far across the Atlantic at the blue, hazy mountains of Trinidad some 26 miles south. Short-tailed Swifts chittered along the slopes below us, allowing great views of their ashy rumps. Tropical House Wrens and Tropical Mockingbirds provided interesting background music while we enjoyed the view, the stiff sea breeze, and the modest museum. Fort King George had an active history, changed hands thirty-six times.
Continuing up the highway that sea turtle expert Archie Carr called "The Windward Road", we passed the beach where Walt Disney filmed "The Swiss Family Robinson", noting how each beach was composed of sand of a different color, ranging from pure white coral sand to black volcanic sand. Most beaches looked slightly greenish. After a brief stop at the Richmond Great House for beverages, we continued on to Roxborough, turned inland, and began our climb to the summit. Our first stop in these very rugged mountains produced a fine variety of raptors: a pair of Great Black-Hawks, several Broad-winged Hawks, and a Merlin harassing the other raptors. Copper-rumped Hummingbirds zipped by squeaking, Orange-winged Parrots sailed squawking over the peaks, and Magnificent Frigatebirds took the place of Black and Turkey Vultures, neither of which is found on Tobago. The roadside was lush with many kinds of melastomes, seed-bearing plants that pioneer disturbed areas and forest edges and which provide food for songbirds.
Our primary goal was to view Rufous-tailed Jacamars, and this we accomplished almost immediately. As with many species seen on the trip, the Questar was focused on the jacamar, and each participant was able to have a spectacular look at this bird, which is the size of a Blue Jay, iridescent emerald green, with a three-inch, hummingbird-like beak. We watched while it made sorties from its perch to catch flying insects. No illustration could possibly capture the metallic gleam that radiates from a jacamar.
As we neared the summit, the temperature dropped and a steady breeze kicked in. Trees gave way to low ferns and brush, which was wind-sculpted like seaside vegetation. At the Gilpin Trace trail head, a small "grove" of walking sticks were stuck in the mud, a thoughtful provision for visitors. Within minutes we were deep in the most jungley habitat on the trip, with a solid wall of vegetation on every side. From the black canopy a hundred feet above us dripped the faint but fantastic song of the Yellow-legged Thrush, believed by some to rival the song of the Nightingale. Rufous-breasted Wrens added their sweet sounds, and a Venezuelan Flycatcher made a guest appearance, looking for all the world like a pastel version of our Great Crested Flycatcher. We spotted a smallish, drab flycatcher that held its head slightly drooped to one side, giving the impression that it was sooooo tired, the typical pose of the Fuscous Flycatcher. We walked until we came to a huge clump of bamboo that reached all the way to the canopy. Here, in 1988, Benton Basham and I found the first nest in Tobago since 1963 of the White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird. The pair had moved farther down the trail since then, but the day was moving along and we decided to head back rather than push on in an attempt to locate that species.
Our reward for making this sacrifice was immediate. From ahead of us on the trail came the display call of a Blue-backed Manakin. I called back to the bird and shortly had three or four males and one female in view directly ahead of us, over the trail. This was the largest number of Blue-backed Manakins I had ever seen in my twenty-one visits to Tobago. We watched them until they moved off into the rainforest.
We enjoyed a picnic lunch at a Forestry Division rest house near the summit. The view was awesome. Miles below were the tiny hamlets of Anse Formi and Parlatuvier, with aqua-hued Bloody Bay nestled between. Far offshore were The Sisters, a set of tiny islands inhabited only by seabirds. Nearer to us, Black-faced Grassquits fed on the lawn and Blue-gray Tanagers chattered in the trees. After lunch we enjoyed a long, slow return trip to the Kariwak via the leeward road, in effect circumnavigating Tobago in one day.
|February 20||Our last day, Sunday, was the day of our offshore excursion to a wildlife refuge called Little Tobago Island. Little Tobago lies off the northeastern end of Tobago. Our first stop was in a cocoa grove, where we heard Scrub Greenlets and spotted the endemic Red-crowned Woodpecker as we studied a "confusing fall warbler" working its way along the lower branches of a tree on the forest edge. It stayed around long enough for us to positively identify it as a Blackpoll Warbler, a first for our local guide and a first for me on Tobago. We enjoyed a hearty lunch in Speyside at an elevated open-air parlor called "Jemma's". "Seaside dining" was an understatement; the dining room, had it not been elevated about ten feet in the air, would have been awash in the waves. We dined royally on fresh kingfish steaks and finished off with a wonderful "black-and-white pudding", made of caramel gelatine overlaid with coconut milk and gelatin.
Continuing on to our launch site, the Blue Waters Inn, we passed an immense, rusty undershot waterwheel, a remnant of a sugar mill from the days when an obscenely rich Englishman would have been described as, "Rich as a Tobago planter." When our glass-bottomed boat arrived, everyone removed shoes, rolled up slacks, and made a successful wet boarding. Brain coral and dead man's fingers predominated on the sandy bottom as we made our 2-mile crossing. Once ashore, with rinsed feet and shoes on again, we began our hike, which took us up a trail of switchbacks. Bananaquits and Blue-gray Tanagers were the most common species of birds, but the real attraction was the vegetation. Little Tobago boasts a virgin dry forest that looks exactly the same today as it did 10,000 years ago. The trees are not gigantic; in fact, they are rather small as is appropriate on a dry island. Underbrush is almost nonexistent, composed mainly of an immense herbaceous plant called Anthurium hookeri and several species of bamboo.
As we climbed we noted the nest holes of Audubon's Shearwaters and stopped to watch a Brown-crested Flycatcher perched in a tree with reddish peeling bark -- the "tourist tree", as the locals humorously call it, referring to the same condition that befalls visitors unaccustomed to the tropical sun. On the ground and in low bushes we came for the last time upon our old friend the Northern Waterthrush, chupping alarm notes.
The eastern side of Little Tobago is rimmed with sea cliffs. From a thatched shelter there we gazed down upon some 200 Red-billed Tropicbirds flying with incredible grace over the crashing waves far below and Brown Boobies resting on cactus-covered rocks. From another promontory we could see the triple peaks of St. Giles Island, nesting site of the Magnificent Frigatebird and Red-footed Booby. But literally at our feet sat Mama Red-billed Tropicbird incubating her egg, and just down the trail, in the shade of an anthurium, sat another adult with a nestling. Seeing these birds of legend, for us species #180, and being able to study them on land and not from a pitching boat, was a fantastic ending to a very successful trip.