Venture to Trinidad and Tobago
November 8-18 2004
Oilbirds, tropicbirds, motmots, trogons, antbirds, bellbirds. The list could go on and on. All can be seen up close and personal when visiting the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. This island nation is just off the northeastern coast of South America.
Carolina Bird Club sponsored a ten-day trip in November 2004 to those magic isles. It was a trip to a birder’s heaven. Simon Thompson, owner of Ventures, Inc., was the nonpareil group leader assisted by locals on the scene. Twelve hardy birders rounded out the contingency.
We assembled at the Miami airport to make the uneventful flight to Port of Spain, Trinidad. We arrived there well after dark to be met by personnel from the Asa Wright Nature Centre. We took the hour’s ride to the Centre at an elevation of 1,200 feet and were welcomed with rum punch - a staple at the Centre - and shown our rooms. The next morning most of us were on the verandah, an open porch overlooking the Arima Valley, well before breakfast to witness the many birds that were already surrounding the feeders. Members of the staff had set up a scope and were pointing out species that were hundreds of yards down the valley. Double-tooth Kite, Ornate Hawk-Eagle and Channel-billed Toucan were three of the birds only seen from a great distance.
But most eyes were on the feeders - the hummingbird feeders that lined the verandah at eye level and the fruit and bread-laden feeders on the ground. The hummers were so close they could easily be touched - if they stayed still long enough. The most common was the Copper-rumped Hummingbird, but others included Rufous-breasted Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, White-chested Emerald, Blue-chinned Sapphire and a female Tufted Coquette who stayed in the bushes away from the feeders. On and around the ground feeders were Purple Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper and tanagers—including White-lined and Silver-beaked. Ruddy Ground-Dove and Bare-eyed Thrush were also feeding on the ground, occasionally making way for a large Tegu Lizard or a sleek-furred Agouti, a small, terrier-sized mammal. And flying over our heads were several Palm Tanagers who had established a nest on the porch. All of this and more before breakfast!
Meals were excellent at Asa Wright. Each meal was different, drawing on locally grown materials when possible. The coffee served was grown on the Centre’s land.
After breakfast we met with Jogie Ramlal, a local, who with his son, Mahase, would be our guides for the remainder of our time on Trinidad. Jogie took us down one of the trails to find the bird making the “Bok” sound that dominated that part of the valley - the Bearded Bellbird. On the way we paused to watch the White-bearded Manakin on his lek, randomly, it seemed, jumping and flying about making a “click” sound. It was a delight! On our way back up the hill we noted the Golden-headed Manakin on his lek: a beautiful bird, but not quite so vigorous in his courtship maneuvers.
That afternoon we had a special treat, a walk down another trail to Dunstan Cave, one of the most accessible sites in the world to see Oilbirds. These large - with a wingspan of over a yard - nocturnal fruit-eaters roost there. This bird leaves the roost at dusk and, navigating by a sort of sonar, finds his food by smell and hovers over the fruit to eat it.
Good looks at both the Violaceous and the White-tailed Trogon were had on this walk as well as nice views of the Boat-billed Flycatcher, giving us a chance to compare it with the very similar but more common Great Kiskadee.
Raucous Crested Oropendola at the feeders, flocks of Lilac-tailed Parrotlet overhead, and occasional raptors including White Hawk and Common Black-Hawk, high flying Gray-rumped Swift and other birds kept us busy until dinner. For many this first day added over 40 birds to their life lists. The next morning began with verandah birding, which included Squirrel Cuckoo and Turquoise Tanager, breakfast, and then a trip down the mountain to the Aripo Livestock Station. This is a working cattle ranch with extensive wet pastures, which have White-winged Swallow, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Wattled Jacana, Striated Heron, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant and Yellow-hooded and Red-breasted Blackbird. Many Southern Lapwing and a couple of Savanna Hawks were noted. A small flock of Grassland Yellow-Finch was successfully sought. This species was unknown on Trinidad until last year.
A Pearl Kite was noted on the wire as we left Aripo Livestock Station to go to the beach. Not much was seen at Manzanilla Beach. We had lunch, watched the Brown Pelicans for a while, and then began walking down the road toward our next destination, Nariva Swamp. We were rewarded with great views of a Yellow-headed Caracara—one juvenile sat for a long time on the parapet of one of the beach houses. Our views of a Limpkin were unfortunately brief. Mahase, our guide, noted some movement in the trees across the swamp and soon had a mother Red Howler Monkey and her baby in the scope.
Down the road a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers worked one of the trees and a bit later we finally were able to call in a Silvered Antbird who reluctantly showed himself near a bridge in a mangrove swamp.
It was late in the afternoon as we drove through Nariva Swamp. Not a great deal was seen and we didn’t tarry. We needed to be elsewhere when dusk came. The spectacle of dozens of Red-bellied Macaw coming into roost in some of the tall palms on the edge of the swamp was a sight not to be missed. They were complemented by a large flock of Yellow-crowned Parrots also roosting in the area.
Next day it was up early. Our day was spent in a more highland habitat as we drove along Blanchisseuse Road. Among the many new species found were Cocoa Woodcreeper, Speckled Tanager, Scaled Pigeon and a White-necked Thrush. After lunch we enjoyed watching a Rufous-tailed Jacamar during intermittent showers.
On returning to Asa Wright we found that a Common Potoo had been discovered on one of the trees on the Bellbird trail. Many of us went to the staked-out tree to see this unusual bird. Many of us went to check out the nesting hole of the Gray-throated Leaftosser. Sure enough, when one of us leaned over to look into the hole, out it popped.
Another early-rising day for the fifth day of our venture. The destination: Waller Field, a World War II airfield, now abandoned but slated for transformation into a technology park. [We discovered after we had left Trinidad that a very large Anaconda had been discovered near where we had birded. It was captured and relocated.] We spend most of the day at Waller Field and added Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Black-crested Antshrike, Barred Antshrike and Masked Yellowthroat to our list. Several people also saw a Bran-colored Flycatcher.
On our way to lunch in Arena Forest—where several people saw a Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant—we made a pit stop in the town of Cumutu where many saw a Piratic Flycatcher.
That evening we returned to Waller Field for picnic supper and some night birding. Pauraque and White-tailed Nightjar were seen in our spotlights as well as several Southern Lapwing. We were unsuccessful in bringing into view a Tropical Screech-Owl. On return to Asa Wright we finally were able to train our spotlight on a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that had serenaded us since our arrival.
That day the author of the definitive guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago, Richard ffrench, arrived at Asa Wright. He was on holiday. He graciously signed books for those in our group who had them.
The next day we birded around Asa Wright and picked up Long-billed Gnatwren, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and White-flanked Antwren. Then into the vans for our next location.
Caroni Swamp is a large mangrove swamp on the west coast of Trinidad. We got into a powerboat to travel the few miles to the roosting site of one of the most spectacular sights of the whole trip. On the boat ride we did some birding, of course. Green-throated Mango, Red-capped Cardinal and Bicolored Conebill were a few of the species seen. And our boat passed under at least one Trinidad Red Tail Boa Constrictor.
Soon we were moored in anticipation. At dusk they begin arriving. First in small numbers, twos and threes. Then the numbers expanded until it seemed the whole sky was full of flapping scarlet. Hundreds, thousands of Scarlet Ibis were coming to an island in a lake in Caroni Swamp. Soon the trees were a quivering jumble of scarlet. The ibis were joined by hundreds of Tricolored Herons that roost on the same island. The sight of these birds flying in is truly awesome. Never to be forgotten.
The next day we bid goodbye to Asa Wright and headed to the airport for the short flight to Tobago. Adolphus James, who along with his son, Gladwyn, will guide us, met us at the Tobago airport.
We were a little bit nervous about coming to Tobago. It was Sunday. We had heard tales from some of the other guests at Asa Wright who had just arrived from Tobago that the storms of the previous Thursday night had been horrid. They had been evacuated by boat from the inn we were headed to. There had been terrible mudslides. A couple of deaths. Wide power outages and bad road conditions. We weren’t sure what we were getting into. But the sun was out and the birds were waiting.
Our first stop was at Bon Accord lagoon where we saw some common water birds: Great Egret, Blue-winged Teal and Common Moorhen. But there were plenty of the less familiar: White-cheeked Pintail, Little Egret, Least Grebe, Eared Dove, Blue-black Grassquit, Pale-vented Pigeon and Red-crowned Woodpecker.
Our next stop was the Grafton Wildlife Sanctuary, the grounds surrounding a former estate. We were greeted by numbers of Rufous-vented Chachalaca. (They are as noisy as the Plain Chachalaca found in the Rio Grande Valley!) But we had some good looks at some of the forest species found there: Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, White-fringed Antwren and Forest Elaenia.
We then continued, with frequent stops because of road repair delays, to the Blue Waters Inn in the northeast section of Tobago. The parking lot there had six to 12 inches of mud on it. Several of the open air stalls had been destroyed and portions of the facility were without power. Telephone service was out. But they were ready for us. Before dinner we had a chance to check out the tiny beach and noted a couple of dozen Ruddy Turnstones. Several had colored tags on their legs. They are undoubtedly part of a tracking program that I believe is being done by the University of Maryland.
The Blue Waters Inn’s mascot, as it were, is the Blue-Crowned Motmot. It is used in their advertising and is pictured on their signage. The motmots returns the favor by roosting on the lights found on the balconies of many of the rooms. For at least two nights they roosted on our room’s porch light.
The next morning we were scheduled to take a boat out to Little Tobago, an island a couple of miles off shore from Speyside, the town we were staying in. The trip was to include some reef watching, but the water was so turbid that we could see little. We missed seeing what is purported to be the world’s largest brain coral. As we approached Little Tobago we were greeted by the first of many sightings of Brown Booby and Red-billed Tropicbird. Both nest on the island.
When we landed we were greeted by a small flock of “chickens.” They are remnants of a group released over 50 years ago. We determined that these birds were in fact wild and self-sustaining—so they were countable. Red Junglefowl was added to our list. An arduous trek to the top of the mountain yielded few birds. We were more concerned with watching our feet. The mudslides had been here too and some of the trail was blocked, necessitating tricky climbs over downed trees. But at the top we were able to see many more tropicbirds and look down on a Red-footed Booby that was probably nesting. Simon trained his scope on St. Giles Island—several miles away—and noted nesting Masked Booby.
The Main Ridge Forest Preserve and the Gilpin Trace were next. The rain forest there lived up it its name and fortunately we were able to rent some “Wellies” before descending down the trail at Gilpin Trace. There we saw Blue-backed Manakin (a species not found on Trinidad), White-tailed Sabrewing, Fuscous Flycatcher and Collared Trogon.
The next day, which was to be our last full day of birding, we chose to take an informal tour of the island. High on the road to Charlotteville we stopped to add White-winged Becard and Yellow-bellied Elaenia to our lists. Later at an outlook near Speyside we had good looks at a pair of Red-crowned Woodpecker and a quick view of a Great Black-Hawk disappearing around a distant peninsula.
That night as we tallied up the trip totals we came up with 198 species. Two more were added the next morning at a brief stop on the way to the airport: Ring-necked Duck and Green Heron. Grand total: 200! A great trip.
By Bill Sugg