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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Tobago, 13th-27th February 2013,
A wonderful encounter with Southern Caribbean birds; being awoken every morning by Red-vented Chachalaca (the national bird of Tobago), Tropical Mockingbird and Bananaquit.
The island of Tobago has a land area of 306 sq.km. and is located 36 km north of Trinidad which itself lies just off the northern coast of Venezuela. The Atlantic Ocean lies to its East, and the southern Caribbean Sea to its West. Most of the tourism is on the South-west of Tobago which is fairly flat. A single mountain range forms the backbone to the island and it rises to 576 metres. Little Tobago, also known as Bird Island, together with the smaller Goat Island are located just off the North-east coast and, as it happened, directly in front of our hotel. Tobago is an English-speaking island.
Anne and I travelled on a package through Monarch airline. The holiday turned out to be from the Cosmos ‘Distant Dreams’ brochure (a partner company). We stayed at the Blue Waters Inn near Speyside on a half-board basis. We upgraded the flight to Premium giving us more room, and the hotel room to Deluxe which incorporated a kitchenette area. The flight was 9 hours and direct from London Gatwick airport in the UK. It was a daytime flight to Tobago but a night-time return journey. Time on Tobago was GMT –4 hours. The local currency is the Trinidad and Tobago dollar (T&T$) but the US dollar is widely accepted. Our currency exchange rates were 9.297 T&T$ to the £ sterling and 1.503 US$ to the £ sterling.
If I could give one piece of advice it is that the pace of life on Tobago is relaxed and slow. Everything gets done but sometimes not immediately. If you accept this and adopt 'Tobago Time' you will have a much better, less stressful holiday experience.
Blue Waters Inn is located at the north-east corner of Tobago on Batteaux Bay near the village of Speyside. It is a small stand-alone complex surrounded by low hills with no houses in sight other than a deserted house on Goat Island, once the home of Ian Fleming of 'James Bond' fame. The bay was always reasonably calm due to the protection afforded by the offshore islands. All beaches on Tobago are 'public' but the hotel access road is private so visitors are strictly controlled, mainly to those using the hotel, adjacent Dive Centre, and the Glass-bottomed boats doing trips to the coral reef and to Little Tobago. The hotel is set in 46 acres. It has a beach frontage and view to Goat Island and Little Tobago. Behind is a small cultivated area surrounded by forest. Blue Waters Inn has recently undergone extensive modernisation which includes room refurbishment and an infinity splash pool and patio area. Chef Jason prepares a wide range of meals and his home-made soups, sauces and ice-creams are delicious. For us, the hotel and its location were perfect with sea, sun, sand and wildlife in abundance. The hotel is currently clearing a couple of trails through their forested grounds which show potential, however from the gate there are two excellent walks, one along the contour boundary above the hotel, and the other through the forest from the old Waterwheel near the hotel access road. The village of Speyside lies a mile or so to the South-west with a number of small shops and eateries.
The weather on Tobago is fairly constant year round. There was a wind throughout our stay but it was a warm and it kept the air fresh and pleasant. Day-time temperatures were in the high 20's, low 30's and overnight in the low 20's. We didn't need a jumper throughout, even for eating at night in the open-fronted restaurant. We did have a few showers but these lasted minutes and immediately they passed the sun was shining again. We did have some cloud, mainly in the afternoons, which kept the temperature pleasant. Dawn was just before 6.00am and dusk about 6.30pm.
For research I used the Helm Field Guide ‘Birds of Trinidad & Tobago, second edition’ by Kenefick, Restall and Hayes, ‘A Birdwatchers Guide to Trinidad & Tobago’ by Murphy, ‘Butterflies and other insects of the Eastern Caribbean’ by Stiling, and Petersons Field Guide to ‘Western Butterflies’ by Opler and Wright. I also used the internet via the hotel guest wifi for some research during our stay, until the system collapsed over the last five days. I am grateful to Manager Jason for pointing me in the right direction for some non-birding identifications and to Peter Dunn for his help and advice before leaving the UK.
We hired a car for three days from Pancho's Rentals. Arrangements were made by the hotel receptionist. We had an automatic Nissan Tiida which was comfortable and efficient. Driving was on the left and because the roads are very twisty we rarely got above 50kph. Fuel was very cheap with petrol 2.70 T&T$ per litre (approx £1.20 a gallon!) Diesel was even cheaper at 1.50T&T$ per litre. The driving can, at times, be a bit erratic by UK standards but when you take into account that no-one hurries and every-one has a relaxed, tolerant attitude, we didn’t encounter any problems.
Blue Waters Inn (BWI)
We saw over 40 species in the immediate vicinity of BWI. Bird sightings around the hotel buildings included Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Tropical Mockingbird, Palm Tanager, Blue-grey Tanager, Pale-vented Pigeon, White-tipped Dove and Spectacled Thrush. Feeders in front of the bedrooms attracted Bananaquit, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango and Rufous-breasted Hermit. A delight was a party of 14 Ruddy Turnstone which had taken up residence around BWI and were so tame they would take food from the hand!
The view across the bay was to Goat Island and then Little Tobago. Using bins we could identify Red-billed Tropicbird, Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird. In the bay we regularly had Brown Pelican and Osprey fishing.
Walking around the edge of the cultivated areas looking at the forest edge regular sightings included Trinidad Motmot, Barred Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Yellow-bellied Eleania, Black-faced Grassquit, Spotted Sandpiper and House Wren. Scanning behind the hotel gave flight views of Peregrine Falcon, Crested Oropendola and Grey-rumped Swift.
A good area for butterflies was the grassy slope behind the tennis court. Sightings included Red Anartia, Caribbean Buckeye, Polydamus Swallowtail, Cassius Blue, Large Orange Sulphur and Little Yellowie. Other sightings included Giant Ameiva lizard, Richard's Anole, Neotropic Red Squirrel, Agouti (believed Red-rumped), Bats (believed Lesser Spearnose), Ghost Crabs and Marine Crabs.
BWI gates to the Waterwheel
The hotel access road from the Waterwheel was very productive with good numbers of butterflies, mainly St. Lucia Mesta, Large Orange Sulphur and Cassius Blue but we did see a superb Zilpa Longtail. Bird sightings included Smooth-billed Ani, White-fringed Antwren and two Yellow-headed Caracaras. Around the waterwheel were lots of Black-faced Grassquit and in the trees we saw Spectacled Thrush and Red-crowned Woodpecker whilst at the stream were Little Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-heron and Caribbean Martin.
From the waterwheel ruins at the main road turn-off to BWI a trail rises through the forest before joining the Starwood trail just above BWI gates. Whilst this is not for the faint-hearted being overgrown in places with fallen tree-trunks to clamber over, the effort is worthwhile. Butterflies were a bonus with sightings including Brown Longtail and a Metalmark, believed Brown’s Metalmark. Bird sightings included male Blue-backed Manakin and more Barred Antshrike and White-fringed Antwren.
Starwood Road is an unmade rough road which leads from the entrance gates to BWI, climbs a little then follows the hillside contour through forest to the next bay. The sea side of the road is the BWI boundary. The road was very productive but sightings were much the same as BWI. I did add Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Scrub Greenlet to our list together with Tropical Chequered Skipper and Marine Blue butterflies, and Tigro (Common Tiger Ratsnake).
From the BWI turn at the Waterwheel the road to Charlotteville follows a stream. About 100 yards from the junction is a small allotment area next to the road and on the roadside cables we saw our only Green-rumped Parrolets of the trip. Also there we saw Smooth-billed Ani, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Shiny Cowbird, Grey Kingbird and Tropical Kingbird with Great Black Hawk, overhead together with Red Anartia butterflies.
Little Tobago is a must for all birders. Two companies run trips from Batteaux Bay with leaflets and details available from BWI hotel reception. Both cost 25US$pp. I went with Franks Glass Bottom Boat tours led by Zolani. We used the boat to travel from the hotel jetty and as we approached the jetty at Little Tobago we saw a Belted Kingfisher. After landing we climbed to the ridge seeing Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart, ‘Chivi’ Red-eyed Vireo (claimed by some as a separate species) and peeping into a burrow saw Audubon's Shearwater.
Over the ridge we came to a lookout and enjoyed fabulous views of Brown Booby, Red-footed Booby, Red-billed Tropicbird both in flight and at nests, Magnificent Frigatebird pirating Tropicbirds and Boobies, and Crested Oropendola. Other sightings included Trinidad Motmot, Peregrine Falcon, Broad-winged Hawk, Shiny Cowbird and Short-tailed Swift. There was also a single Postman butterfly.
Speyside is a small town a short walk (pleasant after the climb to the gates) from BWI. Although nothing new was seen after passing the Waterwheel, we did have more good views of Tropical Mockingbird, Ruddy Ground-dove, Bananaquit, Shiny Cowbird and Caribbean Martin. There are a number of small shops and two convenient places for refreshments; The Birdwatchers Restaurant and Jemma’s Tree-house Restaurant.
Also in the town is The Humming Bird Gallery at the home of tour leader Newton George. We were advised that the best time to visit was late afternoon so whilst we had the hire car we stopped by. The Gallery is at 3, Top Hill Street which, as the address suggests, is in the higher elevations of Speyside. No booking was necessary and a fee of 30T&T$pp is charged as a contribution to the bird feed. Mrs George is in charge of the Gallery which consists of several hummingbird feeders viewable at close quarters from the house deck and around the garden, and a table and leafless bush on which fruit is positioned. At the table we had good views of Trinidad Motmot, Barred Antshrike, Blue-grey Tanager, Palm Tanager and Bananaquit whilst on the feeders we saw Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, White-necked Jacobin and Rufous-breasted Hermit. There had been a White-tailed Sabrewing using the feeders but unfortunately it had not been seen for three days prior to our visit.
Main Ridge Reserve (Rainforest)
The half-day rainforest tour was led by local naturalist Newton George. The trip was organised in advance via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) but I discovered it would have been possible to organise it through BWI reception. The cost was 60US$pp. Departure was from BWI at 6.30am in the first rain of our holiday but it didn't last long and the ground dried quickly. We made a few stops in the forest before walking along the Gilpin Trace trail. Sightings at stops included Orange-winged Parrot, Blackpoll Warbler, White-necked Jacobin, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Giant Cowbird, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Streaked Flycatcher, Venezuelan Flycatcher, White-lined Tanager, White-necked Thrush and Collared Trogon.
The Gilpin Trace trail was a little muddy underfoot but not enough to hire wellingtons at the entrance. Once on the trail we added White-tailed Sabrewing, Yellow-legged Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wren, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Stripe-breasted Spinetail and Violaceous Euphonia. We also heard Olivaceous Woodcreeper.
Enroute the Main Ridge rainforest reserve we stopped at a small area of mangrove swamp at Betsey's Hope. The area was very productive and sightings included Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricoloured Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Southern Lapwing, Moorhen and Whimbrel. We also saw our first White Admiral butterfly.
We visited this bay twice in our hire car and it was one of our favourite places. On the waterway separated from the sea by a sandbar we found Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Least Grebe, Southern Lapwing and American Purple Gallinule. Also we saw Yellow-headed Caracara, Great Ameiva lizard, Rainbow Whiptail lizard and numerous unidentified dragonflies and baby frogs.
On the road from Bloody Bay to Charlotteville we passed an open area in the forest near Hermitage. Here we enjoyed good views of Crested Oropendola and Grey Kingbird. On the small stream we saw Little Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and our only Green Kingfisher of the trip.
Whilst we had the vehicle we decided to make a full day at the south of the island and rather than negotiating the busy Crown Point area we chose Buccoo marsh and Arnos Vale. It turned out to be the wrong choice. We found the entrance to Buccoo Marsh as described in the guide but no cows had been in the cow field for some time and it was very overgrown. Paths into the mangroves were hard to find and the area was very dry and brittle. We didn't see any new birds for the trip but the area was alive with butterflies. There were good numbers of The Postman, Gulf Fritillary, White Peacock, Cassius Blue, Little Yellowie and Ghost Yellow.
As it was past midday when we arrived at this area we decided to call at Arnos Vale Hotel for lunch. We drove past the unoccupied security post, parked the car and walked to the hotel to find the place deserted. We walked around the building calling out, checked the dining area and kitchen but it was like the Marie Celeste. We therefore used the facilities and, before leaving, checked out the birds which included Trinidad Motmot, Blue-gray Tanager, Spectacled Thrush, White-necked Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird and Copper-rumped Hummingbird.
The site guide mentioned the Watermill Restaurant a mile away so we headed there, only to find it derelict.
Great Courland Bay
Turtle Beach Hotel is located on Great Courland Bay. At the south side of the hotel is a picnic area beside a small stream where sightings included Spotted Sandpiper and Little Blue Heron. As we passed the hotel Ruddy Ground-doves and Southern Lapwing were feeding on the grassy verge. On the north side of the hotel, through the car park, access is possible to the beach to view the bay. There we saw good numbers of Laughing Gulls and Cabot’s (Sandwich) Terns with Royal Terns and a single Cayenne (Sandwich – Yellow billed)) Tern.
Our visit to Buccoo and Arnos Vale hadn't been as expected! Other than this failure the rest of Tobago was delightful and this gave us a reason to want to return to BWI and to visit other sites in the south.
For more details the author can be contacted at ‘email@example.com'
The bird list follows the order used in The Birds of Trinidad & Tobago, which follows the American Ornithologists’ Union’s South American Checklist.
HC = High Count. BWI = Blue Waters Inn