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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Isla Margarita/Tobago, July/Aug 1999,

Charles and Joy Fletcher

Isla Margarita: July 21 - 25 and Aug 1 to Aug 4 (including trip to Canaima National Park, Venezuela Aug 2)

Tobago:July 25 to Aug 1

Introduction:

This was a family holiday and not a birding trip.  The package was an all inclusive deal through First Choice with accommodation at the Isla Bonita Hotel in the north of Margarita, and the Turtle Beach Hotel in Tobago.  The day trip to Canaima National Park was to visit and walk behind the Sapo falls, and to fly over the Angel Falls.  The day provided very little opportunity for birding as we were hurried along mercilessly by our tour guide, but the few species seen certainly whetted our appetite for revisiting the Venezuelan mainland!  To get round the problem of two teenage children who were completely uninterested in birds, most birding took place in the early morning before breakfast, and on days out with plenty of "non-birding" activities for all the family.  

Charles & Joy Fletcher    Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Books taken:

Local knowledge

Margarita:-          

Very little local interest in the sights of the island apart from the boatmen of Restinga (see below).  We were left to explore the island ourselves with no interference.

Tobago:-              

The locals on Tobago seen generally very proud of their beautiful green island but this can lead to a profusion of people offering themselves as guides to some of the best sites.  Some of these guides seem much better than others.  The locals certainly know the common calls, but make up some of the ones they don't know.  Our guide to Little Tobago confidently told us that a Chivi Vireo was a Venezuelan Flycatcher.  The Birds of T&T by ffrench seems to be impossible to buy on the island and our copy was looked at with envy!

On Tobago we were extremely fortunate to meet Roger Neckles who is T&Ts leading wildlife photographer.  The departure lounge at Crown Point airport has an exhibition of his wonderful photographs.  He lives on Trinidad but comes frequently to Tobago.  He was a mine of information and I would have no hesitation in recommending him as a guide.  He advertises his services on http://www.trinidad.net/avifauna/index.html and can be e-mailed on avifauna@trinidad.net.  He will soon be publishing "An Introduction to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago volume 1" with photos of all the species. 

Car Hire

                Margarita: 

This cost us 35 per day (for 3 days) for a lousy Suzuki Jeep which we had to jump start on one occasion when the battery failed.  Driving is rather unpredictable on Margarita.  Drivers use the side of the road with the least potholes which leads to the frequent and alarming spectacle of cars approaching you at speed on the wrong side of the road.  Most roads are fairly quiet, especially on Macanao

                Tobago:

This cost us 25 per day (for 5 days) for a Nissan Sunny which we chose for the leg room in the back for the children, although most people choose Suzuki Jeeps for their 4 wheel drive which is useful on some of the dirt tracks on Tobago.  The standard excess is 7000 T&T dollars (about 800) which we found rather alarming, so we paid a little extra to reduce it to 3000 T&T dollars.  Most cars are automatic and driving is on the left.  The roads are generally fairly good and not too busy. Most people seem to ignore the 50mph speed restriction.  Road maps on both islands need to be interpreted with a sense of humour.

Security

We felt quite safe on both islands though didn't tempt fate by leaving valuables in the car or by walking around on our own at night.  Margarita is still relatively underdeveloped from a tourist point of view.  The locals seemed quite uninterested in eccentric Brits walking around lagoons with binoculars.  Most people just speak Spanish and know very little English.  On Tobago we were hassled much more by people asking for money or wanting to sell us Aloe Vera etc. The only uncomfortable incident was one odd Rasta who approached us when we were having a picnic in the interior.  When he informed us for the third time he was not going to rob us as he was making an honest living, we felt it was time to move on.  Most people seem very friendly and talkative but the usual hidden agenda is to get you to part with your money!

 

Birding Sites on the Isla Margarita

Margarita is really two islands connected by a spit forming the Restinga lagoon.  It is generally very dry, with much thorn scrub and areas of cactus, especially on the westernmost "island" - Macanao.  The hills in the interior of the main island are wooded, rising to the cloud forest of the Cerro Copey National Park.

Isla Bonita                 

 The hotel is a vast but luxurious 5 star eyesore overlooking a beautiful bay in the north of the island near Pedrogonzalez.  It is surrounded by the island's only golf course and is a green oasis in a rather barren island.  It is possible to walk west along the coast to see some quite interesting habitat.  A mangrove fringed pool in the hotel grounds contained Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Great Blue Heron and a roost of Neotropic Cormorants.  Yellow Oriole, Vermilion Cardinal and various Flycatchers are all nearby.  20+ species before breakfast.

Laguna Suarez

This lagoon is 10 minutes by car east of the hotel.  From the main coast road take the road running north to the east of the lagoon leading to the run down holiday complex.  We were never challenged by the guard at the gate.  Park at the very end and walk west and slightly inland.  The saffron finches were in some dead trees near where we parked.  The lagoon is good for herons, skimmers and waders, with some nice scrubland towards the sea.

Laguna de la Restinga 

This is the lagoon forming the isthmus between the two "islands" and the entrance is near Boca del Rio.  Access is by boats and there are various tours, some taking in a stop on the sand bar for some sunbathing and swimming.  We opted for an hour around the lagoon which cost 12 for the four of us .  The boatmen speak little English but understood we wanted to see the birds.  We were taken to a large and impressive roost of Frigatebirds which was worth the entrance money in itself.  We saw lots of Brown-throated Parakeets but missed out on the uncommon Blue-crowned Parakeets.  I expected to see a greater variety of herons than we actually saw. 

Laguna la Acequia              

This is nearby at the edge of Boca del Rio and can be viewed from various places.  The lagoon is used as a large rubbish dump by the locals, but when you manage to work out which objects are plastic bags/bottles and which are birds, the birdlife is quite impressive with large numbers of waders, herons (including Reddish Egret) and a large flock of Skimmers.

Other Lagoons           

I would have liked to have visited some of the other wetlands including Laguna Punta de Piedras and Laguna de las Marites but we never quite had time.  Las Marites looks very impressive when we flew over it though I understand access can be difficult.

Cerro Copey National Park               

We found this quite easily off the La Sierra road from La Asuncion.  Follow signs for the castle.  We had no problem with access, unlike previous visitors.  We paid a small fee at the checkpoint and drove to the top where the view of the island is wonderful but the cloud forest had thinned down to scrub.  We retraced our steps and explored an interesting forest track with Blue-tailed Emerald, Palm Tanager, White-fringed Antwren among others, but the heavens opened and we made a hasty retreat.  I would expect further exploration here to yield a lot more birds.

Macanao                            

The dry, cactus covered, deserted western "island" has a different atmosphere and a different bird population to the rest of the island.  A reasonable road  goes round the perimeter and there are good tracks into the scrub.  We saw a nice flock of Yellow-shouldered Parrots and this was the only place we came across Bare-eyed Pigeon and Eared Dove.  Crested Caracara are common.  Again, more exploration could have been fruitful but the heat was intense.

Birding sites on Tobago

Tobago is quite simply the greenest place I have ever visited.  Tourism has not really taken off yet like it has on other Caribbean Islands.  Even the populated South West is underdeveloped.  The centre of the North East of the island is covered with Rain Forest which has been protected since 1776 making it the oldest protected forest in the western hemisphere.  The birds are said to much more approachable than those of Trinidad, although the number of species is much lower.  210 birds have been recorded and 92 have bred (as opposed to 410 with 247 breeding on Trinidad).  22 of the 210 in Tobago have not been recorded on Trinidad and some of these such as Chachalacas are quite common. 

Turtle Beach                    

We stayed at the Turtle Beach Hotel, beautifully situated on an idyllic beach surrounded by lush vegetation.  The hotel gardens are good for Hummingbirds, Tanagers etc.  The beach has several Herons and a good variety of Terns especially in the afternoon.  The creek and small marsh has Green Kingfishers and the surrounding area has Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Green-rumped Parrotlets and a good variety of Flycatchers.  35 species before breakfast!  Local Naturalist David Rookes gives weekly nature talks at the Hotel  and offers guided tours, and there is a weekly turtle lecture.

Many of the nearby hotels offer a turtle watch and will wake you in the night if a Leatherback Turtle should decide to lay in the sand.  The laying season lasts from Feb to July and we were very lucky to see probably the last female of the year come to lay her eggs directly opposite our room!  Leatherback are quite huge, with front flippers a metre in length and can live 100 years.  Each female lays 80 eggs at one go and will lay several times each season.  The beach had had over 100 nests this year from about 12 females if I remember correctly.  The hotel also say they will call you if the young hatch, but I did not hear of anyone being called, and I suspect they keep it quiet.  Apparently the best way is to watch the local dogs who will get excited when the young start moving.  Other species of turtle nest on some of the other beaches, but the Leatherbacks are the most impressive.

Buccoo Marsh                 

This must be one of the best sites on the island.  Looking through ffrench's book, many new species for Tobago have been found here.  It can be difficult to find and I know some people have had problems, but we had good instructions.  Heading towards the airport from Turtle Beach or Plymouth, go past the golf course but don't turn right to Buccoo.  Instead keep straight on.  After less than half a mile, just past the "no overtaking" sign, there is an obvious gate on the right.  Undo the wire and head straight on.  After 100 yards you will see the main pool on the left.  Prepare to get your feet wet as it is rather boggy everywhere.  Wonderful place.  Jacanas everywhere, Herons++, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Southern Lapwing, waders, Least Grebe, and even Anhingas and Purple Gallinule on the last morning.  Flycatchers everywhere.  Huge Tarpon in the water and  apparently even Caiman.  And less than 10 mins drive from the Hotel!

Grafton Estate                 

Our site report indicated that this was disappointing, but we loved the place.  To find it, head towards Plymouth from Buccoo Marsh, and it is signposted on the right.  This is an overgrown deserted Cocoa Plantation which was badly damaged by Hurricane Flora in 1963.  The owner took to feeding the birds whose habitat had been damaged, and when she died in the 1980s, she left instructions that this should continue.  We were there for the feeding at 4.30 one day, though two days later there was no feeding, so it does not seem to happen every day.  Vast numbers of pigeons come to feed, with plenty of Rufous-vented Chachalacas (the national bird and still officially vermin!) and Motmots to within 6 feet of us.  Buff-throated and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Blue-backed Manakins etc.  We missed the Fuscous Flycatchers. 

Main Ridge/Gilpin Trace   

Head inland from near Roxborough and before the top of the hill you will see several cars parked and people offering guiding through the rain forest.  This is Gilpin Trace which eventually winds its way down to Bloody Bay.  Birding in the rain forest is not easy, and we wished we had some prior knowledge of the calls.  The guides are fairly good and I think compulsory here.  This is the place to see White-tailed Sabrewings.  We seem to have been the only people to miss them!  Our guide heard one which wasn't visible and we marched on as he swore we'd see another.  No Trogons either.  Never mind, the good thing is it gives a good reason to come again.  We're going with Roger Neckles next time.  He told us he knows every perch they use as he spent so long photographing them.  We did see White-necked and Yellow-legged thrushes, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and lots of Manakins, and vegetation is wonderful. 

Little Tobago                   

This of course is where David Attenborough filmed an episode of "The Trials of Life" You will be hassled relentlessly by locals wanting to take you to the island in their fishing boats.  Establish the exact price before you go and whether the guiding around the island is included.  A notice on the island says a guide is compulsory.  We were really here at the wrong time of year for many of the seabirds so missed out on Tropicbirds.  The peak breeding season seems to be Nov to Feb.  Another reason to return.  Still an enjoyable trip and a few species such as Chivi Vireo which we didn't see elsewhere. 

Other sites in the North East               

The North East is the only place we saw several species such as Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Orange-winged Parrot.  The road to Charlotteville was interesting especially the track to Flagstaff Hill.  Bloody Bay and Parlatuvier are a must, even if you don't see any birds!

Arnos Vale Hotel               

Wonderful setting.  Sit on the veranda having afternoon tea watching the birds come to food.  Particularly good for Hummingbirds, tanagers etc.

Other Sites              

We did not get to Hillsborough Dam as descriptions of cars getting stuck in the mud didn't appeal to us and we saw most of the expected birds here at Buccoo Marsh.  We also didn't get to some of the smaller wetlands - Kilgwym swamp, Bon Accord lagoon etc.

Systematic List of Birds seen.

 
SPECIES Location Comments
Least Grebe  Tob:  4 at Buccoo Marsh 29/7 
Brown Pelican Marg:  abundant on coast
"
Tob:  abundant on coast.  20+ on many small fishing boats.
Brown Booby Marg: a few around the coast.  Max. 6 at Manzanillo 23/7
"
Tob: common around coast.
Neotropic Cormorant  Marg:  extremely common around the coast.  30+ roosting in mangroves at the hotel.  Flock of 75 nearby on 25/7  
Anhinga Tob: male and female at Buccoo Marsh on 1/8
Magnificent Frigatebird Marg:  abundant.  Large roost at Laguna de la Restinga containing some males still with red throat pouch.  70 in the air at once over hotel beach.
"
Tob: common around the coast.
Great Blue Heron  Marg: 1 at hotel 3/8
Great Egret Marg: 1 near Laguna de la Restinga 24/7.
Snowy Egret  Marg: flock of 16 over hotel on 22/7.  10 at Laguna la Acequia 24/7.
"
Tob: 1 at Buccoo Marsh
Little Egret Tob:  1 at Buccoo Marsh seen well alongside Snowy Egret on 1/8.
Little Blue Heron  Marg:  2 Laguna Suarez.
"
Tob: singles at Turtle Bay and Buccoo Marsh.
Reddish Egret  Marg: 2 at Laguna la Acequia, feeding with wings in characteristic canopy.
Tricoloured Heron  Tob: 3 at Buccoo Marsh.  1 at Turtle Bay.
Green Heron Marg: 2 at Laguna de la Restinga.
"
Tob: Buccoo Marsh, Turtle Beach creek etc.  Quite common.
Cattle Egret Tob: Common all over island.
Black-crowned Night-Heron Tob  1 adult, 1 immature at Buccoo Marsh
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Marg: 14 at Laguna Suarez (6 juveniles).  1 adult and one juvenile at hotel.
"
Tob: 1 at Turtle Beach 26/7
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Tob:  10 at Buccoo Marsh
White-cheeked Pintail Marg:  4 at Laguna Suarez
"
Tob: 12 at Buccoo Marsh 
Black Vulture Marg:  extremely common all over the island.  Many flocks of 50+.  4 perched on one street light on the outskirts of Juan Griego.
Turkey Vulture Marg: much less common than Black Vulture, but quite common on Macanao.
Broad-winged Hawk Tob:  Little Tobago, Turtle Beach.
Osprey   Marg: seen over Laguna de la Restinga and near hotel.
Crested Caracara Marg: common on Macanao.  Up to 6 seen at once.  Sometimes with vultures.
Rufous-vented Chachalaca Tob: common.  Up to 12 together at Grafton Estate.
Common Gallinule  Tob: common Buccoo Marsh.  2 Turtle Beach creek.
Purple Gallinule  Tob:  1 juvenile at Buccoo Marsh on 1/8
Wattled Jacana Tob: several at Buccoo Marsh with young.
Southern Lapwing Tob:  30 at Buccoo Marsh
Black-bellied Plover Marg: 4 at Laguna la Acequia.
Collared Plover Marg:  2 at Laguna la Acequia.  2+ at Laguna Suarez.
Thick-billed Plover  Marg: 12+ at Laguna Suarez
Solitary Sandpiper  Tob: 1 behind Turtle Beach on 30/7.
Lesser Yellowlegs Marg: 2 at Laguna de la Restinga.  2 at Laguna la Acequia.
"
Tob:  1 at Buccoo Marsh
Greater Yellowlegs Tob:  2 at Buccoo Marsh
Spotted Sandpiper  Marg: common, seen all over the island.  Most still in summer plumage.
"
Tob:  Buccoo Marsh, Turtle Beach etc.
Ruddy Turnstone Marg: 4 at Laguna Suarez
Semipalmated/Western Sandpiper Marg: several birds though the heat haze at Laguna Suarez could have been either!
Least Sandpiper Marg:  4+ at Laguna Suarez.
Whimbrel (hudsonicus)  Marg:  4 at Laguna Suarez.
Common Stilt Marg:  18 at Laguna Suarez.  15 at Laguna la Acequia.
Laughing Gull Marg:  common.
"
Tob: common.
Common Tern  Tob:  singles along Turtle Beach.
Roseate Tern  Marg: seen in hotel bay.
"
Tob: common along Turtle Beach.  30+ on 30/7
Bridled Tern Tob:  Little Tobago area
Least Tern  Marg: Laguna de la Restinga, Laguna la Acequia.  1 or 2.
Royal Tern Marg:  2 Laguna Suarez
"
Tob: frequently seen along Turtle Beach.
Cayenne Tern  Tob:  1-2 daily along Turtle Beach.  6 with Roseates on 30/7
Sandwich Tern  Tob: up to 4 seen on several occasions Turtle Beach.
Brown Noddy Tob:  flocks of 50+ at Buccoo Reef and at Plymouth
Black Skimmer  Marg:   95 at Laguna Suarez 24/7.  165 at Laguna la Acequia 24/7.  One at hotel bay Aug 3.
Bare-eyed Pigeon  Marg:  a few seen on Macanao
Pale-vented Pigeon Tob:  1-2 in several places.
Eared (Zenaida) Dove Marg:  a few seen on Macanao
"
Tob:  common and widespread.
Common Ground-Dove  Marg: small number seen near hotel
Ruddy Ground-Dove Marg: common and widespread.
"
Tob:  common and widespread.
Scaled Dove Marg: seen in several places, esp. Laguna Suarez.
White-tipped Dove Tob:  fairly common.
Brown-throated Parakeet  Marg:  common at Laguna de la Restinga and seen on Macanao.
Green-rumped Parrotlet Tob: common in south and west.  Often in holes in dead coconut palms.
Yellow-shouldered Parrot  Marg:  noisy flock of 8 on Macanao 24/7
Orange-winged Parrot   Tob: north and east of the island.  Max. 70 at Englishman's Bay 30/7.
Smooth-billed Ani Marg:  widespread in small numbers.
"
Tob: common and widespread.
Gray-rumped Swift  Tob:  common in uplands.
Short-tailed Swift  Tob: common in the south west.
Fork-tailed Palm-Swift Can:  several over Canaima.
Rufous-breasted Hermit Tob: Gilpin Trace
White-necked Jacobin Tob: Arnos Vale
Black-throated Mango Tob: hotel grounds, Arnos Vale etc.
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird Marg: Laguna Suarez.
"
Tob: hotel grounds etc.
Blue-tailed Emerald  Marg: one Cerro Copey 23/7
Buffy Hummingbird Marg: the commonest hummingbird.  Widespread.
Copper-rumped Hummingbird Tob: Arnos Vale etc.
Green Kingfisher Tob:  2 Turtle Beach creek, 1 Argyll Falls.
Blue-crowned Motmot Tob:  common.  Seen to within 6 feet at Grafton Estate when coming to food.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar  Tob:  north and east of the island.
Golden-olive Woodpecker Tob:  Gilpin Trace
Red-crowned Woodpecker  Tob: common and widespread.
Plain-brown Woodcreeper Tob:  1 Gilpin Trace.
Olivaceous Woodcreeper  Tob: 2 at Grafton Estate 29/7
Buff-throated Woodcreeper Tob:  Grafton Estate, Buccoo Marsh.
Plain-breasted Spinetail  Marg: one near hotel on 22/7 seen well.
Barred Antshrike  Tob:  widespread in small numbers.
White-fringed Antwren Marg: one Cerro Copey 23/7
"
Tob:  fairly common.
Blue-backed Manakin  Tob: Gilpin Trace, Grafton Estate etc.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher Marg:  seen all over the island in small numbers.
"
Tob:  ditto.
Tropical Kingbird Marg: 2 at Laguna Suarez.
  Tob: common and widespread.
Gray Kingbird Tob: several places, but much less common than Tropical Kingbird.
Brown-crested Flycatcher  Marg:  common, esp. around the hotel.
"
Tob: common.
Yellow-breasted Flycatcher Tob:  Grafton Estate, Buccoo Marsh.  A nest at Grafton (with parents feeding young) suspended from branch over main trail.  A wasps nest on the same branch as described by ffrench.
Yellow-bellied Elaenia  Tob:  common.
White-winged Swallow  Can: large flock over Canaima lagoon.
Gray-breasted Martin  Marg:  common and widespread
Caribbean Martin  Tob: common.
Rufous-breasted Wren Tob: Gilpin Trace, Grafton Estate.
House Wren  Tob: widespread
Tropical Mockingbird Marg: widespread and abundant.
"
Tob: widespread and abundant.
Yellow-legged Thrush  Tob: Gilpin Trace
Glossy-black Thrush  Can: 2 at Canaima
Bare-eyed Thrush  Tob: widespread and common.
White-necked Thrush   Tob: Gilpin Trace
Tropical Gnatcatcher Marg: widespread and common.
Chivi (Red-eyed) Vireo  Tob: Little Tobago.
Scrub Greenlet Tob:  widespread in small numbers. 
Shiny Cowbird  Tob: common.
Crested Oropendola  Tob:  common all over island.  1 tree contained 20+ long pendulous nests.
Carib Grackle  Marg:  widespread and abundant
"
Tob:  widespread and abundant.
Moriche Oriole Can: 2 at Canaima.
Yellow Oriole  Marg:  seen all over the island, particularly around the hotel.
Bananaquit Marg:  seen on Macanao.
"
Tob: widespread and abundant.
Red-legged Honeycreeper Can:  flock of 8 in a tree at Canaima
Blue-gray Tanager  Tob:  widespread.  The commonest tanager.
Glaucous Tanager  Marg:  seen frequently around the hotel.
Palm Tanager Marg: one Cerro Copey 23/7.
"
Tob:  widespread but less common than Blue-gray.
White-winged Tanager  Tob:  widespread.  Female much more reddish-brown than in the books. 1 bird at Buccoo Marsh rufous with some black adult male feathers which ffrench implies is uncommon.
Vermilion Cardinal Marg:  widespread in small numbers.  Spectacular.
Black-faced Grassquit Marg:  common and widespread especially around the hotel.
"
Tob: common.
Yellow-bellied Seedeater  Tob  1 male seen well at Buccoo Marsh on 29/7 about 20m away in good light.  Sharp cut-off between blackish breast and pale belly.  In my attempt to attract the attention of a local bird guide who was present, the bird flew off and was not located again.  This species was formerly present on Tobago but is now meant to be absent  because of trapping for the cage bird trade.  Was this an escaped cage bird or does it exist in the wild??
Blue-black Grassquit Tob: common.
Saffron Finch  Marg:  Laguna Suarez - 1 female and 3 juveniles 23/7, with 1 male and 1 juvenile on 24/7 and 1 male in 25/7.  Seen very closely (down to 10m) in good light.  Bright orange crown patch in male, and characteristic yellow breast band and collar in juveniles.  Not mentioned as present on Margarita in de Schauensee et al, and not mentioned in previous site reports.  No doubt about identification.

Other Wildlife seen:

Tobago:

Leatherback Turtle laying eggs on Turtle Bay beach just outside our room on the evening of 29/7
Red squirrel at Buccoo Marsh
2 snakes on Gilpin Trail
Various unknown bats
Huge 6 inch long snail at Grafton Estate
Huge 6 inch long Sphinx Moth caterpillars on Frangipani tree in hotel grounds

Charles & Joy Fletcher 

 

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