|April 9||Our group (minus Joan & Paul, who would meet us in T & T) met in Miami International Airport to fly via BWIA to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Gray-breasted Martins flew overhead as we stepped off the plane and headed for customs. We had arrived, or had we? Where was Nancy? And where was Ann's luggage? A bit of detective work (not to mention a search of the restrooms and plane) found Nancy smiling and waving from the other side of the customs area, just a little more anxious than the rest of us to begin our 10-day adventure. (Ann's lost luggage would turn up the next morning.)
We met our guides, Roodal and Jogie Ramlal, and were whisked away to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, our home for the next week. At the Centre we were greeted by Richard Quamina, the manager, and treated to icy glasses of rum punch as the staff showed us to our rooms. After a few minutes to settle in, we regrouped at the dining room, where we met Joan and Paul and enjoyed the first of many delicious meals. A quick introduction to the Centre completed a long day, and then we retired for the night, falling asleep to the exotic sounds of the tropical night.
|April 10||Many of us were up before dawn to enjoy what must be one of the most enchanting places anywhere, the AWNC veranda. Aided by Jason, Kenny, and Sheldon, we began to sort the overwhelming variety of birds into species. By breakfast, names like Bananaquit, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Crested Oropendola, Great Kiskadee, Green and Purple Honeycreeper, and many other new names were becoming part of our vocabulary.
After breakfast we took our first walk with Roodal, to explore the Centre's grounds and visit the Oilbird cave. Along the trail Roodal introduced us to many tropical plants, including Wild Tobacco, with berries that attract tanagers and Bare-eyed Thrushes; Heliconia, with its lobster-claw-shaped red flowers; Deermeat, whose tubular red flowers were clearly designed for hummingbirds; and the Sandbox Tree, with its heavily thorned trunk.
New birds included Turquoise Tanager, Great Antshrike, Violaceous Euphonia, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and of course the strange, cave-dwelling Oilbird. From the cave entrance we could see several Oilbirds in their nests, one of which contained two young. Roodal explained that in times past the nestlings, fattened on an oil-rich diet of palm fruits, were collected by the native inhabitants and rendered into oil, giving rise to the species' name. We also found trails of leafcutter ants (Atta) and tiny cricket frogs (Calistethis) calling along the Guacharo River, the stream that runs through the cave. Some of us who lingered behind on the return trip were treated to the first trogon of the trip when Roodal spotted a White-tailed Trogon perched quietly along the trail.
After lunch we enjoyed some free time to explore on our own. I walked with Joe and Nancy along the entrance road, where we discovered a White-winged Becard, Rufous-breasted Wren, Tropical Kingbird, and several Orange-winged Parrots perched in a tree across the valley.
At 3:30 p.m., Jason led us on a walk along some of the other trails at the Centre. Here we got a look at the secretive and rarely seen Little Tinamou and great views of a Bearded Bellbird as he called from a perch in the forest canopy. As we returned to the Centre for our first 6 o'clock rum punch, Jason pointed out a Rainbow Boa snake that was curled around a branch overhanging the stairs. After dinner we tallied up the day's birds: 61 species without having left the Centre grounds. It had been quite a day.
|April 11||Awakening to a chorus of Cocoa Thrushes, Crested Oropendolas, and other exotic bird songs, we met at the veranda for a pre-breakfast walk along the entrance road. Blue-crowned Motmots, Boat-billed Flycatchers, hummers, and other birds flew among the giant bamboo, Heliconia, and bromeliad-covered trees that line the road.
After breakfast we met Roodal and Jogie for our first field trip. We would travel the winding Blanchisseuse Road across the Northern Range to the village of Blanchisseuse on the Caribbean Sea. At each stop along the way, Roodal and Jogie lived up to their reputations of being the best bird guides on the island, showing us Streaked Flycatcher, Channel-billed Toucan, White-bellied Antbird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Speckled Tanager, and many others.
Sightings that stand out in my mind are the Swallow-Tanager (a first for any Peregrine group, of which there have been 30 to date); the Rufous-breasted Hermit nests hanging under the fern fronds along the road; the Ornate Hawk-Eagle soaring overhead; and the Piratic Flycatchers dive-bombing a Yellow Oriole at its nest (these flycatchers don't build their own nests but rather steal the nests of other species by harassing them until they vacate the area).
We stopped for lunch at the rustic boatbuilder's shed overlooking the blue surf of the Caribbean. (I never did figure out what kind of sandwiches those were -- but they were delicious.) Brown Pelicans dove for fish and Magnificent Frigatebirds flew overhead as we walked on the coconut-lined beach (only Sue and Marshall braved the surf for a swim). We made a quick stop for a soda at the local store and discovered a Cashew tree growing behind the store.
Before heading back over the mountains we made a stop at a grassy field planted with Papaya trees and made our "best" discovery of the trip -- a small blue bird that neither of our guides had ever seen before. Joe was quick to identify it as an Indigo Bunting -- only the second record ever for Trinidad and a life bird for both of our guides ... incredible!
As we headed back to the Centre, we made several stops to look for trogons. And did we ever see trogons -- a grand slam of all three species (White-tailed, Collared, and Violaceous) ending with at least five individuals of two species flying back and forth across the road, offering excellent views. Unbelievable.
All this and still we were back in time for rum punch on the veranda. After dinner Steve and Paul shared their videos of the day's events with the group. Our tally revealed that we had found 35 new bird species for the day, bringing our total to 96.
|April 12||Ahh, another beautiful morning in paradise! Our morning on the veranda yielded a male Tufted Coquette making his second morning appearance to feed on the Vervain, a White Hawk that perched in a tree in the valley, and an exceptionally close view of a Great Antshrike at the feeders. Those who took an early walk reported good views of Blue-crowned Motmots along the entrance road.
Our field trip this morning took us up a fairly rough road onto Lalaja Mountain. Overhead, Plumbeous and American Swallow-tailed Kites put on an exceptional show. In the low shrubs and trees we found Violaceous Euphonias, Tropical Parula Warblers, a Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, and several bright blue Propona butterflies. As the morning began to warm up, we moved into the forest to find White-bearded and Golden-headed Manakins, Long-billed Gnatwrens, and a Bay-breasted Warbler, a species seen only a few times before in Trinidad.
After lunch at the Centre we were off again, this time headed for our boat trip in the Caroni Swamp. Along the way we stopped by the Trincity Ponds just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon buzzing Least Grebes and Wattled Jacanas. White-winged Swallows, Striated Heron, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pied Water-Tyrant, and several 3- to 6-foot-long Speckled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) were among the new species we found in and around these ponds.
Our good luck held at the Caroni Swamp. Even before we had boarded the boat, we saw one of the rarer species of this mangrove habitat. A Red-capped Cardinal landed in good view across the canal from us. Then, as we pulled away from the dock, it flew across the channel and landed on the benches next to the boat ramp.
Once underway our guide, James, showed us two secretive creatures of the swamp, a Silky (two-toed) Anteater curled into a tight ball on a branch about 10 feet above the water, and the strange, nocturnal bird called the Common Potoo doing an excellent impression of a dead branch stub. Other wildlife included Four-eyed Fish (Anableps), tree-climbing crabs, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Whimbrel, Little Blue Heron, and Great and Snowy Egret. As the sun began to set, we sipped rum punch, nibbled on pastries, and watched the spectacular Scarlet Ibis arriving at their roost. Are we having fun yet?
|April 13||This morning we started even earlier than usual, with breakfast at 6 a.m. Roodal and Jogie picked us up at 6:30 a.m. for our trip to the Aripo Savanna and the Arena Forest. At Waller Field, an abandoned U.S. airbase, our group was fortunate to see Sulphury Flycatcher; this rare species had been seen on only one previous Peregrine tour. Other species included Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Short-tailed Swift, Red-breasted Blackbird, and Red-bellied Macaw (which Jogie worked very hard to show to us). At one stop, Sue spotted a female Ruddy-breasted Seedeater among a group of Blue-black Grassquits.
At the same spot we had the opportunity to taste tamarind fruit; the pulp surrounding the large seeds has a deliciously tart flavor used to flavor foods and to make drinks and candy. Some of the group also tasted cashew fruit that Roodal cut up, being careful not to slice into the husk of the nut itself, which contains an irritant similar to the oil in Poison Ivy. I must say I much preferred the tamarind to the cashew fruit.
We spent some time in the village of Cumuto at LC's store, where we cooled off with sodas and tasted peppery-hot tamarind ball candy and coconut-drop pastries. Across from the store, in front of the police station, was a colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques with their oriole-like nests.
Lunch was a delicious fish-and-noodle casserole served at a small shelter in the Arena Forest. A small colony of leaf-nosed fruit bats were roosting in the shelter and eventually accepted a handout of bananas, fluttering up and taking small pieces on the wing. After lunch we walked to an abandoned house down the road, where with several hard thumps Roodal scared out a Barn-Owl. Here, too, we tasted a cashew fruit that was a little riper than the one earlier in the day; it had a unique, pleasant flavor.
As we headed down the road, Roodal heard the call of a Striped Cuckoo. We stopped the van and imitated its high-pitched two-note call for nearly 10 minutes. The cuckoo answered but refused to show himself. It was time for action, and Paul came to the rescue. Despite a rather large bull that blocked his path, Paul, without a moment's hesitation (well, maybe just a moment's) entered the woods to locate the bird for us. Almost immediately the bird flew up several feet into view, where he perched for several minutes while we watched him through the scope. Way to go, Paul!
We joined back up with Jogie, Sue, Marshall, and Joe (who missed Paul's heroics), and Jogie whistled up a very cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that everyone got to see through the scope.
Back at the Centre, Denise and I took a walk up the entrance road to the spring-fed pool to check it out for a swim later on, and what did we find? A Fer-de-Lance snake lying stretched out on the dam, drying off from his swim in the pool. The discovery caused quite a flurry of activity. Eventually the snake was caught by "snakeman" (that seemed to be what everyone really called him, but his real name is Alan Rodriguiz) and put on display for a day before being removed to a safer part of the forest. With all this excitement, a train of army ants crossing the trail leading to the pool went almost unnoticed.
After dinner, Sheldon lead a few brave souls on a night excursion. Everyone should take one night walk in a rainforest! We first heard and then spotted a Spectacled Owl in a tree just outside the Centre's front door (another first for a Peregrine tour group). The leafcutter ant trail we had found the other morning was now covered with hundreds of thousands of ants carrying neatly cut pieces of leaves down a tree and back to their nest. (The ants chew the leaves into a pulp, which they use as a medium on which to grow a fungus that they eat.) Sheldon showed us several Tarantulas that live in the handrails on the Oilbird Cave trail as well as dozens of night-active insects and several frogs. As we returned to the Centre, two Tropical Screech-Owls were calling from the bamboo stand.
|April 14||We had a guest, Suzy Sprunt, with our group for the day. Suzy was visiting Asa Wright with her father, Dr. Alexander "Sandy" Sprunt IV, who is affiliated with the Tropical Audubon Society. Sandy is a member of the AWNC board of directors, which was having its annual board meeting at the AWNC.
On today's field trip we traveled to the east coast of Trinidad. We stopped at the Agricultural Research Station, where cattle and water buffalo are being crossbred to produce a drought-hardy breed of milking cattle. Here we got great views of Green-rumped Parrotlets perched on the fence posts. Pied Water-Tyrants and White-headed Marsh-Tyrants fed along the small stream and wet areas, surrounded by Wattled Jacanas and Southern Lapwings. Savanna Hawks circled and perched for good views through the scope. Red-breasted Blackbirds, Tropical Kingbirds, and Cattle Egrets were present in good numbers. A small, marshy area produced a Pinnated Bittern that attempted to hide in typical bittern fashion by pointing its bill skyward and pretending to be a blade of grass.
We made a rest stop in the village of Sangre Grande, where I purchased some rotis for the group to sample at lunch (a roti consists of curried meat -- we had chicken -- wrapped in a flavored flat bread similar to a tortilla). Most who tasted it enjoyed it. We also had the opportunity to chat with some of the local folks, and Sue and Marshall purchased T-shirts.
We ate lunch at beautiful Manzanilla Beach, which is lined with coconut palms. We stayed there for a while to escape the heat of the afternoon and enjoyed the chance to walk or swim in the surf or to just sit in the shade and watch the locals swim and play cricket.
Back on the road, we made a quick stop to watch a pair of Pearl Kites sitting on a telephone wire eating lizards. A bit further along, Jogie stopped at Bush-Bush Creek to call in the very shy Silvered Antbird. We all got excellent looks through the scope at a Pygmy Kingfisher perched among the mangrove roots. A Yellow-headed Caracara made a brief appearance overhead, showing its white wing patches.
We ended our day in real style. As sun set through the palms and a cool sea breeze blew in off the ocean, we sipped rum punch, ate fresh coconut (opened by Jogie), and watched as dozens of Red-bellied Macaws flew in to roost. Does it get any better than this?
|April 15||Today was our free day. Nancy L., Denise, and I spent the morning with Roodal, doing a little more birding at the top of Blanchisseuse Road. Sue, Marshall, and Joe, along with Suzy Sprunt, went with Jogie for a morning at the Botanical Gardens in Port-of-Spain and then to another birding spot or two.
Most of the group chose to enjoy the day exploring the beautiful grounds of the Centre. On their morning walk with Jason, they were rewarded by incredible views of the Bearded Bellbird, as evidenced by the amazing video footage that both Steve and Paul shared with us that evening after our tally. Nancy N., Paul, and Joan also took this opportunity to enjoyed a dip in the pool (I'm sure the thought of a second Fer-de-Lance never crossed their minds).
After dinner, at the tally we shared the day's events and added several new birds to our list, including the flock of Lilac-tailed Parrotlets many of us had seen before breakfast in the Pink Poui tree just outside the front door of the Centre.
|April 16||Today we bid farewell to the Asa Wright Nature Centre and took the early flight to Tobago. The last birds we saw in Trinidad were Gray-breasted Martins, and the first we saw in Tobago were Caribbean Martins, emphasizing the difference in bird species that results from the islands being separated by 26 miles of ocean.
At the Tobago airport we were met by Adolphus James, who would be our guide on Tobago. Due to the extreme dryness of the season, we skipped our planned morning birding around the airport. Instead we took the opportunity to settle in at the Kariwak, take a dip in the pool, and visit the Caribbean beach, not a bad choice of alternatives, I'd say.
Adolphus picked up the group at 2:00 p.m. to visit Grafton Estate and Buccoo Marsh. At Grafton Estate we walked through a much drier forest than we had experienced in Trinidad. Here we saw Blue-crowned Motmots, Ann's first (not to mention her second, third, forth and fifth -- motmots on Tobago are a different subspecies than those on Trinidad and are much less secretive). We also saw a pair of White-fringed Antwrens, nesting Red-crowned Woodpeckers, and had a quick view of the Blue-backed Manakin, none of which species are found in Trinidad. That swept the manakins for the trip -- three species of three different genera!
Buccoo Marsh offered excellent looks at marsh birds, including several uncommon species like the Little Egret (a European-African species found in very small numbers in the Western Hemisphere), White-necked (Cocoi) Heron (a first record for Tobago), and White-cheeked Pintails. Other wetland species present included Cattle, Great, and Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Whimbrel, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and both species of Yellowlegs.
A buffet-style dinner back at the Kariwak gave us the chance to sample the cuisine for which the Kariwak is famous. Our tally included 10 new species of birds, bringing our trip total to 194 species.
|April 17||I was awakened this morning by the sound of roosters and the grating calls of nearby Rufous-vented Chachalacas, a bird that we had yet to see on this trip. Alas, the chachalacas were gone by the time I got outside, but a walk up the driveway of the Kariwak offered great views of Bare-eyed Thrush, Blue-black Grassquit, Eared Dove, and another new species, the Black-faced Grassquit.
Today's field trip took us to the north end of the island, where we traveled by glass-bottomed boat to the offshore wildlife sanctuary, Little Tobago Island. The boat trip was quite an adventure. While crossing the coral reef, our excellent guide, Wordsworth Frank, pointed out beautiful displays of corals (actually living colonies of animals). Smooth and rough brain corals, fan corals, tube corals, and giant clam corals provided habitat for a variety of gaudily-colored tropical fish.
As we left the reef, the deeper water produced an intense blue glow through the boat's glass bottom that was nearly as spellbinding as the fish we had just seen. We were all looking up again soon enough, however, as the waves grew to six-foot swells that seemed to swallow the horizon as we sank between them. Frank's experience and abilities as a boatman were obvious as he skillfully guided our boat through the waves to the landing at Little Tobago Island. One surprise was a close sighting, far out from land, of a hummingbird that momentarily dropped down to touch the water and then zipped off back toward the mainland. Exiting the boat in the 3-foot surf was quite a trick in itself, but we all made it high and dry (for the most part).
The island was beautiful. Frank gave an excellent tour, discussing the names and uses of many of the plants as well as the history of the island. The highlight of the walk was the view from the high cliffs on the far (Atlantic/windward) side of the island. Here we looked down on Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies as they soared over the ocean and roosted at their nesting sites. Walking a few steps down from the overlook shelter, we were literally nose-to-beak with tropicbirds sitting in their nests with young -- quite a photo opportunity.
Back on the mainland at the Blue Waters Inn, we were entertained by a steel band. (Steel drums were invented in Trinidad. The music, called "pan", along with calypso, another T & T original music style, are national treasures and a focus of the famous "Carnival" celebrations held in February.) Later we stopped at a roadside park along the ocean to eat lunch. Here we sampled several varieties of mangoes and fresh coconut from a local vendor. We arrived back at the Kariwak in time to take a dip in the pool and relax awhile before dinner.
|April 18||This morning's warm, sunny weather in the lowlands belied the rain that awaited us in the highlands of Tobago's Main Ridge. 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?|
We did manage to take a few walks between showers and, at the urging of Joan, Nancy N., and Adolphus, to venture down Gilpin Trace. There we found and got excellent views of the rare (perhaps 30 survive anywhere) White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird and heard the Yellow-legged Thrush. This was a most impressive area of rainforest, with a dense canopy, many epiphytes, and more palms than other areas we had visited. I wish we could have explored further, but a torrential downpour transformed the trail into a flowing stream and forced us to retreat to the bus.
While waiting in the shelter at Gilpin Trace, we saw several beautiful green butterflies with long white tails flying about in the rain and feeding on palm flowers. Denise and I still haven't been able to find them in any reference book [White-tailed Patch, a day-flying moth]. Lunch, in a different shelter, yielded a pair of Red-legged Honeycreepers and our first views of Rufous-vented Chachalacas.
We returned to the Kariwak with enough time to take a last dip in the pool, shower, relax, and even do a little shopping at the local market (they have great candy bars).
This was our last night together. After dinner we all discussed our favorite parts of the trip and made our final tally. Our trip total was a fantastic 206.
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. I've never enjoyed a trip nor the company of a group more.
So as they say in Trinidad & Tobago -- Until, mon!!