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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Trinidad and Tobago, January 18th to February 1st 2007,
We did not want to bird from morning to night as some of the organised Birding Holidays obviously do, but we needed a bit of relaxation as well. Research via the W.W.W. turned up a company called MotMot Travel, which seemed to tick all the right boxes for the holiday we required. E mails to Vivienne McGrath endorsed our views, as she was able to more than satisfy our requirements, and in fact tailor the holiday to exactly what we wanted.
3 nights staying at Arnos Vale Hotel on the south western coast of Tobago.
5 nights at the renowned ASA Wright Centre on Trinidad.
6 nights at Blue Waters Inn on the north eastern coast of Tobago.
Together with our choice of Accommodation, two Birding outings with Newton George, the renowned birding guide, a trip to Little Tobago, and a further 3 trips organised by the ASA Wright centre. Also included, were the flights from the UK, and the air hops to and from the two islands.
The first thing, which was very apparent, was that so many of the birds we would see were to be new species for us. How the devil could we learn all of these different birds before we arrived in the Caribbean? I decided to do an in depth investigation of some of the more detailed reports from the W.W.W. and the results were a real eye-opener. It transpired that from the 10 reports I analysed, of the 460 species attributed to both islands, just 293 of the species were seen, and since many of the reports were from birding holiday groups; 39 species were only seen on one occasion. So now the task seemed much more manageable, since for us, who were going to have a far less intense birding holiday, the original 460 can be reduced to just 254. The analysis also showed that many of the species were much more easily seen on one island than the other, so rating them on a basis of one to ten, depending on the observations on each of the islands would make the task much easier. We decided to have checklists for each of the islands and base each of the lists on what we expected to see. The species checklist I produced for each island was Tobago 137 Trinidad 260, and from those I set ourselves a target of 97 for Tobago and 138 for Trinidad, and an overall target combining both islands of about 200 species.
We decided that we would do like everyone else seems to do, and purchase Richard ffrench’s A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, and his other publication Birds of Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the reports indicate that, although they are avian bibles for the islands, they do not cover all of the birds, and miss out some quite obvious ones. My previous analysis showed that the literature covers at least 70% of the expected sightings, without taking into account the more obvious ones which we already know, so that seemed good enough for us.
We also used, for learning purposes, the two excellent DVDs from Malcolm Rymer, which showed quite a few of the species not illustrated in the ffrench books.
After a very early morning flight from London Gatwick via Excel Airways, including a stopover at Grenada, we landed at Crown Point Tobago mid afternoon. We were met by the MotMot representative who immediately guided us to our waiting taxi. A short drive up the Caribbean side of the island saw us reach the Arnos Vale hotel at about 4:30 pm, should have been 8:30pm but we had to put out watches back 4 hours.
Tobago is a small island, off the north east coast of Trinidad and is a mere 13 miles from north to south and just 7 miles wide. The hotel, with just 29 rooms available for booking, is set in lush tropical flowering gardens of a former Sugar plantation. The old plantation house, set on a hillside, serves as the main reception, dining room and bar. The rooms are located either on the side of the hillside or at a beachside block on the secluded Arnos Vale bay. The highest of the bungalows, “The Crows Nest” is where Princess Margaret spent her honeymoon and where the Beatles stayed.
After being shown to our accommodation at the beachside block, we were greeted by a nice cool rum punch from the poolside bar. We parked our cases, picked up our binis and decided to have a look around. The surroundings were so picturesque, and we could see birds flitting around, and everywhere was bathed in birdsong. Our first sighting to open our account was a Bare-eyed thrush in a nearby bush. There were a number of different doves, either on the ground or in the trees, but as the “French guide” was still in the case, we had no idea which ones. A Northern water-thrush was found in the fresh water culvert just across the garden, and a pair of Black-faced grassquits was collecting nesting material just outside our room. We could hear the raucous calls of the Rufous-vented chacalacas up by the main house, so decided to go up the steps for a look. It was bird feeding time at 5:00pm, and we were amazed at the number of birds which had already congregated for a feed. We could see at close quarters the Rufous-vented chacalacas, the national bird of Tobago, and many other fairly common species we recognised from the DVDs. Bananaquits by the hundreds, Palm tanagers, Blue-grey tanagers and White-lined tanagers were all there together with a dove which we were told was an Eared Dove. The nectar feeders were also being invaded by Humming birds of all varieties. We immediately recognised the Ruby-Topaz by his shimmering golden throat and tail, the Copper-rumped, Rufous-breasted hermit, White-necked jacobin, the Black-throated mango male and female, and our excitement mounted when a Blue-crowned motmot came to the bird table just a few feet from us. A grey bird with a longish tail, a Tropical mocking-bird was keeping us entertained with his glorious song just a few yards away, and we were confused by a rufous coloured arrival also feeding at the table. This was a wonderful introduction to Caribbean birding, with much of the fun coming from identifying the birds ourselves rather than being told by a guide. After returning to our accommodation, we undid the cases and located the field guide. The doves we were confused by turned out to be – Ruddy ground-dove, White-tipped dove and Pale-vented pigeon and the rufous character was the female White-lined tanager. The doves were identified by the text in the Ffrench guide, not by the pictures, which we found to be not very true to colour. It was quite apparent that within the two islands, some of the birds had completely different coloured partners so a considerable amount of confusion was sure to exist. After a very welcome evening meal we retired to bed quite early having realised in the region of eighteen new species for the holiday.
The following morning we were woken up at 3:30am by a bird singing very loudly just outside our ground floor balcony. At breakfast there were still a profusion of birds around the nectar feeders and tables, and a woodpecker caught our eye; a Red-crowned woodpecker on the bird table. After breakfast we decided to take a walk up to the nearby village for a bottle of water. We soon spotted a new bird in a nearby tree singing his heart out. The bird, similar to the European bee-eater, we recognised as a Rufous-tailed jacamar. At the top of the hill, after observing a plethora of LBJs, little brown jobs, we could see, soaring very high in the sky, a number of Magnificent frigate-birds, and in the nearby bushes tiny black birds jumping up and down. The local name for these birds is “Johnny Jump ups”, but the French guide identifies them as Blue-black grassquits. On the way back, we heard a noise in one of the small trees and saw a flock of Green-rumped parrotlets feeding on the profusion of berries. It is difficult to explain the sheer beauty of the place, with the vivid blossoms of the Immortelle trees lighting up the horizon, and almost everywhere we looked, exotic flowering plants we had never seen before. We had decided that this would be a quiet day, to get over the jetlag experienced from the flight, so we found a spot on the beach and settled down for a bit of relaxation. We soon noticed a Brown pelican flying past and settling on a rock out by the reef, and more Frigatebirds soaring in the sky over the clear blue water. Just behind us we could see a small wader by a pool formed by the rainwater culvert. On inspection it turned out to be a Spotted sandpiper. A short walk in the late afternoon familiarised ourselves with many of the birds we had already seen and gave us even more headaches trying to identify some of the LBJs which seemed to be everywhere. Some of the birds we came across were more identifiable by colour but still gave us enormous problems trying to find them in the book, so no more could be added to the list. We did have identified for us by a guide, Short–tailed swifts soaring in the sky, but our total now stood at just 25. We knew it was going to be difficult, but with the Ffrench’s guide, identification seemed to be almost impossible, many of the birds we were seeing were either not illustrated or did not match the colour, shape or size in the book. After we had completed our evening meal we, along with others, were quite transfixed watching the nectar feeders, which were providing a large party of nectar feeding bats with their evening top up.
Day three dawned, once again hot and sunny, and once again we were awaked early by that same loud song as the previous morning, but still did not know the bird’s identity. Once again we had a relaxing morning, spotting a Green Kingfisher by the pool, and decided to do a bit more exploring after lunch. We followed the sunset trail birding on the way and had a little more success than the previous day. We had a Tropical kingbird on the telegraph wires along the way, and soon came across something rustling the leaves in a nearby thicket. We could not get a good view of it until it flew across the road, but from its shape and flight pattern, it appeared to be of the woodpecker family. Closer examination gave us a Cocoa woodcreeper, quite a bit larger than our own tree creeper species. Further along the track we had a party of Barred antshrikes squabbling close by, unmistakable by their superb black and white plumage colouration. A White-fringed antwren was discovered and identified further along the track, and towards the top we had wonderful views of a pair of Red-crowned woodpeckers, and a new one for us, a Yellow bellied elaenia, all in the same dead tree. With the light fading fast, we started on the way back and found another one of those rufous coloured birds walking about on a piece of open ground. It was definitely different from the female White-lined tanager, had different face markings and was a different shape. Further examination through the literature, showed it to be a female Barred antshrike. Once again, after dinner, the bats were feeding from the nectar feeders, a quite unusual sight since the feeders have such a tiny feeding hole; however by the morning, the feeders were empty. Our total count for Tobago so far was 32 species.
Day four was transfer day, from the Arnos Vale hotel over to the renowned ASA Wright Centre in Trinidad. The Centre, situated at a height of 1200 feet in the mountainous rainforest of the Northern Range, is just 7 miles from the nearest town of Arima. The Centre’s main facilities are located on a former Cocoa-Coffee-Citrus plantation and comprise 200 acres of mainly forested land in the Arima and Aripo valleys. A wide range of birds can be found here, so we were hoping for good weather and a good count.
Once again the organisation was exceptional. We were picked on time at the hotel, and transported by taxi to Crown Point airport. The flight to Trinidad, Piaco airport, was little more than 20 minutes, in a twin prop 48 seater aircraft. On arrival we had no trouble in spotting our taxi driver who was, as expected, wearing his ASA Wright hat. As we drove up to the ASA Wright centre, about an hour and a quarter along very winding roads, the driver seemed quite knowledgeable about the birds we were spotting along the road. At one point he slowed down and stopped for us to see a Turkey Vulture feeding on a four feet long snake in the middle of the road; A Tree Boa, probably dislodged from his hiding place in a roadside tree. We arrived at the Centre just in time for lunch, but not before we had had a quick look from the “famous veranda” at the spectacle of the bird feeders. When we had completed lunch the first item on the agenda was to find out when the “included” birding excursions could be taken. The first one was to be to Caroni Swamp, a vast wetland renowned for the roosting of the Scarlet Ibis as dusk approached, was arranged for the following day, leaving at 1:30pm after lunch. The second, a visit to the Oilbird caves, was arranged for the day after, and finally the trip to Nariva on the following day leaving after breakfast at 8:30am. So now with all the arrangements finalised it was time to bird.
An introductory walk with Molly, one of the ASA Wright guides, along the discovery trail, gave us a chance to familiarise ourselves with some of the Flora at the centre as well as picking up a few new species. You could just not avoid the Bananaquits, Tropical mocking birds, Palm Tanagers, White-lined tanagers, Bare-eyed thrushes, and Hummers, most of which we saw in Tobago. A Golden-headed manakin, sitting on bush along the trail was a welcome addition, as was the beautiful White-bearded Manakins found at their lek, but unfortunately not performing. A “lek” is a place in the forest where male Manakins perform acrobatics to try to attract the attention of a female. No females – no performance. During the walk, Molly indicated some of the trees and foliage where feeding parties of birds are likely to be found, one of them was the “Pomerac” with the pear-like fruit starting to redden, reaching their ripening period. Throughout our walk we could hear the call of a number of Bearded Bellbirds, one of our “must see” birds. Further along the trail our wish was granted when one was pointed out to us, his call, a very loud clanking noise coming from high in a nearby tree. This, and the call of the Crested oropendula, undoubtedly two of the weirdest calls you will ever hear. The bellbirds call sounds just like a blacksmith striking his anvil, hence his local name of the Anvil bird.
Back on the veranda it was time to check on the birds. A number of large pendular-like structures in a large tree some 80 yards away, were the nests of the Crested oropendula a large black bird with a yellow beak and tail. These birds are visible all of the time flying to and from their nests across the valley. We saw five of the six species of humming birds in Tobago, and hoped to add a few more in Trinidad that do not occur in Tobago. It was quite strange, we had expected to find the hummers more prevalent in Trinidad, but in fact they were more difficult to see. We did tick off Ruby Topaz, Copper-rumped, Rufous-breasted hermit, White-necked jacobin, and Black-throated mango to our Trinidad list and were pleased to add three more, the White-chested emerald, Little Hermit and a diminutive Tufted coquette female, one of the smallest hummers in the world, just a mere two and three quarters of an inch long. Whilst on the balcony we were alerted by the raucous calls of a group of Orange-winged parrots flying across the valley in front of the centre. Our first Carib grackle was added to the list as was the beautiful deep red coloured Silver-beaked tanager. Blue-crowned motmots, Ruddy ground-doves and Shiny cowbirds were all very common around the feeding station, but the ones we fell in love with were the Honeycreepers. The Green honeycreeper male, a superb specimen coloured turquoise blue with a black crown nape and cheeks, was very common at ASA Wright as was his vivid grass-green female partner with its yellowish throat. The other Honeycreeper quite common around the feeding station was the Purple or Yellow legged honeycreeper, the male, generally violet blue with black lores, throat, wings and tail and sporting bright yellow legs and a strongly decurved bill. Once again his partner could almost be a different bird, with green upperparts, lores and throat a pale chestnut with a blue moustachial streak and underparts yellowish green streaked with darker green; a really handsome pair. The Cocoa thrush was also present for much of the time as was the Great kiskadee and Great antshrike.
After we had had our tea and cakes at 4:00pm, we decided to take a stroll along the approach road to see if we could find a few more species. At the front of the centre we could hear a bird singing very loudly. We recognised the song as the one that woke us up whilst we were at Arnos Vale. After locating it in a bush at the bottom of the steps, quite a few others birders gathered and it turned out to be a Rufous-breasted wren. Along the approach road we found a track leading off to the right called the Don Ecklebury trail. We could hear the sound of a waterfall, and expected to find the pool suggested as a swimming pool used by the more hardy guests. Three quarters of the way down we came across a Pomerac tree, absolutely teeming with birds. The tree was heavily in leaf making the birds difficult to pick up, but with a little perseverance we identified a group of Violaceous euphonias feeding together with Trinidad euphonias. The Trinidad euphonia was easily separated from its Violaceous cousin by his black bib. Both females were greenish in colour, and were difficult to separate. Also in the same tree we could see one of the Trogans, but at that stage we could not make an identification. With the light fading we made our way back to the centre for our rum punch served every day at sunset (6:00pm). When we reached the car parking area we spotted a beautiful Trogan sitting high in a tree; this was the White-tailed Trogan. We had our welcome rum punch and returned to our bungalow for a wash and brush up before dinner.
After dinner we expected that there would be plenty of time to sit and chat to other birders who were at the ASA Wright centre; however we were more than surprised that by 8:00pm everywhere was deserted. We used the time available to count up the species we had seen in Trinidad so far, which amounted to 31. We decided to retire to bed early as in the tradition of the ASA Wright experience, the veranda at 6:00am was a must.
The next morning of day five, as scheduled we were there at 6:00 o clock with everyone else for our early morning tea and biscuits. The light was quite poor at first, but as the sun came up birds began to congregate waiting for their early morning feed. Surprisingly, the birds were much the same as the previous afternoon, although we did have a distant shot of a couple of Channel-billed toucans. We had Common black-hawk high in the sky over the valley, Grey-breasted martins and other unidentified hirundines. Once again the Oropendulas and Orange-winged parrots added to the crescendo of bird song filling the valley and we spotted a Short-winged hawk soaring on high before breakfast, and in the distance a Squirrel cuckoo. Our first trip away from the Centre had been scheduled for 1:30 pm, a visit to Caroni Swamp to enjoy the spectacle of the Scarlet ibis coming into roost. We enjoyed a guided walk, once again along the discovery trail where we had good views of the White-bearded and Golden-headed manakins but little else of note. The trip to Caroni Swamp had been much anticipated ever since we booked our holiday. It is one of the most amazing spectacles in birding. We set off together with three birders from Canada, Anne, Dick, and their son Chad (more interested in photography than birds). Our driver guide from the Centre was Ramdas, a very experienced birding guide. We stopped off at various stages of the journey as and when Ramdas expected to locate birds. We picked up Golden-crowned warbler, Grey-headed kite and Grey-rumped swift, before we reached our first destination: Tricity sewerage ponds. Why are sewerage ponds so good or birds? It appears that wherever in the world you go, sewerage ponds are a must, but not in England.
Once through the gates we soon started to add more birds to our list. White-winged swallow was the first, soon followed by Great white, Cattle and Snowy egrets, Little blue heron, Striated heron, Spotted sandpiper and Wattled jacana were also added. An Osprey flew past and we soon picked up two black and white birds: Pied water-tyrant and White-headed marsh tyrant. In a nearby tree Ramdas noticed a small bird which he identified as a Yellow warbler on passage. We also had wonderful views of the beautiful Yellow-hooded blackbird and Wattled jacana in the reed fringed edges of the ponds and had our first sighting of a Spectacled Cayman, his head just showing near the water’s edge. We reached the jetty at Caroni and boarded the waiting boat. We expected to see hoards of people here, but we seemed to be the only ones; great. The only other species we saw at this point was a Least grebe
The Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary covers some 12000 acres of mangrove forest, marsh and tidal lagoons, and is the only known roost in Trinidad for their national bird the Scarlet ibis. During the day the Ibis fly across to feed in Venezuela, returning to roost at dusk. The green mangroves turning red against the twilight is undoubtedly one of the most memorable sights in Trinidad.
As we glided gently along through the mangrove fringed banks, we had a number of sightings of now familiar bird species associated with the mangrove swamps. We were fortunate to have pointed out to us, a Black-crowned antshrike, Green kingfisher, Straight-billed woodcreeper Green-throated Mango, another of the Humming birds, an Anhinga, and when the boatman pulled up alongside the edge near the mangroves he amazingly pointed out a roosting Common potoo. These birds are nocturnal, and are a similar species to our own Nightjar, and it is reckoned that once they find a perch, they will use that perch for some time before they move on. As we ventured further into the swamp, our boat alerted a flock of about thirty Blue-winged teal, another nice addition to our list.
We eventually reached the vast lagoon which had a central island, and could see the first of the Ibis and Egrets starting to find their roosting positions in the mangroves. The centre had packed us cakes and rum punch to satisfy our demands while we waited. It was not long before we saw the first wave of Scarlet ibis coming across the lagoon and alighting in the mangroves, Snowy egrets and Tricoloured herons, flying just above the water joining them. As dusk approached, more and more birds joined the throng, until the mangroves turned into a blaze of red and white, an unforgettable site. The cakes and rum punches capped a really unforgettable experience, and as we were taken back to the jetty at a much faster speed than we went out, we wondered how the boatman could find his way in the dark, but he did.
We arrived back at the ASA Wright Centre in time for dinner, and reminisced on a truly wonderful afternoon. After dinner we once again totalled up our Trinidad sightings, which now stood at 71.
Day six - We had decided that, although it seemed traditional at the ASA Wright Centre to make sure you were on the balcony before sunrise, it was not necessary as a vast majority of the birds to be seen at the feeders, were in fact there all day. It was our second day at the centre, and was scheduled to be quite a quiet one, with a visit to the Oilbird caves in the morning and doing our own thing for the rest of the day. The caves, within easy walking distance, are one of the world’s most accessible areas to see the colony of the nocturnal Oilbirds in their natural habitat and surroundings. The Oilbird, Known as “the bird of eternal darkness, is a brown coloured bird about 15 inches in length with a wingspan of one metre. They live deep in the darkness of caves and only venture out at night to feed on various fruit in the nearby forest. They are the only known nocturnal fruit eating birds. Many years ago the local inhabitants of the Caribbean used to collect the large chicks from the nests which they boiled and rendered for their oil, hence the name “Oilbird”. Visitors to the ASA Wright centre are limited to just two visits per week and then only two persons at a time so as not to disturb the nesting birds. We were guided by Molly down a steep track until we reached the caves. To see the birds, probably in access of a hundred, was quite special, Molly using a strong beamed light to highlight the nesting birds, but restrictively so they were not disturbed. On the way back Isabel spotted a beautiful Collared Trogan high in the canopy, a further addition to our list. We used the rest of the day to walk some of the trails around the centre, and of course used the viewing veranda. As well as the Oilbirds and Trogon, we also added Barred antshrike male and female, a Merlin, Red-crowned ant tanager, Violaceous trogan, Double–toothed kite, Giant cowbird, Golden-olive woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker a very similar looking bird to the Flamebacks in India, and a Red-legged honeycreeper and Blue-headed parrot in an orange blossomed Immortelle tree quite close to the veranda. Midway through the afternoon, whilst out on one of the trails we could see the sky darkening so decided to hurry back to the veranda, and no sooner there, the heavens opened, and the rain came down in “stair-rods. Within 10 minutes, the sky cleared and the sun came out. We had to smile at the faces of some of the guests coming back onto the veranda absolutely soaked; cruel isn’t it? By the end of the day we had increased our Trinidad total to 82. We had realised during the day that we had a day to spare at ASA Wright and decided that it would be nice to book another trip for the final full day that we had here. On contacting reception this was duly arranged for the Aripo Savanna.
Day seven dawned, and as in the previous days of our holiday, it was a beautiful day; where was all the rain we were expecting? After breakfast at 8:30am we met outside for a trip to Nariva Swamp wildlife sanctuary. Nariva Swamp, situated on the east coast of Trinidad, is the largest freshwater swamp in the Caribbean. Our driver/guide for the day once again was Ramdas, who we had got to know on our trip to Caroni, and once again we had Anne Dick and Chad with us for the trip... Our first port of call was the Aripo Livestock Research Station, seemingly a strange place to visit for birds. How wrong we were, from the time we entered the area we started to pick up more species. Unbeknown to us we were being followed by another car with two Americans who would also be joining us for the trip. The first sighting was a Savanna hawk, sitting motionless in a large dead tree, and was followed with a rare bird, a Grassland yellow-finch, which Ramdas informed us is now becoming more common. A small wet area gave us Least and Solitary sandpipers, Wattled jacana, a beautiful Red-breasted blackbird and Southern lapwing. Previous to this scheduled stop, along the road we had seen Piratic flycatcher, a soaring Black vulture, and Brown crested flycatcher. We also had stunning close up views of both the Pied water-tyrant and the White-headed marsh tyrant. We carried on through the Research station to a wooded area along the road where we picked up male and female Blue dacnis, Greyish saltador, White-necked thrush, Golden-fronted greenlet, Forked-tailed palm swift and Blue-black grassquit. Once again on the road we headed for the beach at Manzanilla where we had a scheduled stop for lunch, but before we arrived, Ramdas pulled into the side of the road for more birdwatching. High in the foliage of a tree he pointed out a diminutive Pearl kite, only about 8 inches in length, and the smallest of the raptors. Nearby we saw a number of Yellow-rumped cacique a relation of the Crested oropendula, and a party of Green-rumped parrotlets. An Ochre-bellied flycatcher was another addition, as was a Yellow-headed caracara, sitting in a palm tree along the road just before we reached the beach for our lunch.
Lunch was served, and to our surprise it was hot, packed up by the staff of ASA Wright – brilliant. The beach at Manzanilla was magnificent; miles and miles of pristine pure white sand being gently washed by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, with just a few locals enjoying themselves in the water.
We continued our journey, and although we were very close to the palms where we hoped to see the Macaw roost, Ramdas obviously knew where we could see more species for our list. We stopped at a wetland area where Ramdas hoped we could see the Azure Gallinule, and Pinnated bittern. We all searched without luck until at the last moment I spotted something alight in the reeds about twenty metres away. I had seen the Purple gallinule in Goa but was oblivious to what the Azure species looked like. After a few moments the bird came into view and yes it was the Azure gallinule, much smaller and paler that the known purple species. Feeling quite pleased, we boarded the vehicle ready to move on as it was quite apparent the Pinnated bittern was keeping its head down.
Ramdas continued until we reached an area of wetland fields where there were loads of Egrets and Heron feeding in the sludgy mud. The ditch in front of these fields was filled with beautiful pale blue water hyacinths. We noticed a number of birds in a hedgerow a few metres away, one Ramdas identified as the Red-capped cardinal, and in the grass a few feet away were a number of Smooth-billed anis. The Ani is probably the nearest bird to the crow species we are used to. Dusk was starting to approach so we moved on to the area where we would watch for the Red-bellied macaws coming into roost. Once again it was rum punch time; what could be better than to end the birding day with a rum punch in your hand waiting for the Macaw roost. First there were just the odd one or two flying into the palms, but as time went on more and more came until we had counted more than forty birds. We also had a number of Yellow-crowned parrots also using the roost and although they were some way off, views through the scope were excellent. We arrived back at the ASA Wright centre in time for dinner, after which we settled down for a check on what we had seen, and how close we were to the target we set of 138. Stats showed that the total birds for Trinidad now stood at 118, still 20 to go to achieve the target.
The last full day at the Centre dawned bright and sunny. We had been very lucky with the weather, apart from the one 10 minute downpour, it had been sunshine and high clouds all the way. We had our morning sustenance, and met the vehicle for our latest excursion. The driver was a guy called Dave. I indicated to him where we were bound for, showed him our sightings list, and that we would like to see as many new birds as possible. His views were that most of the birds we would expect to see at the Aripo Savanna were already ticked so he suggested we alter the venue to the Blanchisseuse road, high in the hills, where we would have a better chance of seeing more new species.
With just the two of us and Dave we started just after 8:30 am, by visiting an area not that far from the Centre where, in the past the very rare, Trinidad piping guan had been seen, but unfortunately no luck. We returned and proceeded towards Blanchisseuse climbing quite steeply. Chatting as we were going along, it was apparent that Dave was not just an excellent birder, but had a very wide range of knowledge of the fauna, butterflies, and mammals that could be found in Trinidad. These birding guides certainly knew where to stop for birding opportunities. We turned off the road down a small winding track where we parked. As we walked along, the morning air was filled with birdsong, some of the sounds quite close, but with the heavily leafed dense foliage, the birds were extremely difficult to locate. We had a White-bellied antbird calling from just a few yards away, but it failed to show itself. We also had a Grey-throated leaftosser close by but once again, after much searching it failed to show. Dave could hear a Black-faced antthrush calling from the forest floor, another one of those secretive birds. He called us over and pointed out a position within the leaf litter on the forest floor where he expected it to appear, and as suggested, we had quite stunning views of this small rail-like bird. This small dark brown bird with a black face and throat, just eight inches in length, scuttled around in the leaves holding his tail erect. We still could not find those other birds Dave had heard, so disappointingly decided to move on but not before Dave spotted a Chestnut woodpecker alighting on one of the forest trees. For the rest of the morning we appreciated the extreme patience of Dave who excelled himself searching for more species to help us reach the target we had set ourselves. We obviously saw many of the birds we had seen before, and as birders, it does not matter how many times you see the same bird, because each time you can learn more and more about each species. We added quite a few more to our list including, Zone-tailed hawk, Band-rumped swift, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, White-flanked antwren, Tropical peewee, Stripe-breasted Spinetail, Streaked xenops, Speckled tanager, Forest elaenia, Southern beardless tyrannulet, Slaty-capped flycatcher, Red-rumped woodpecker, Plain antvireo, another of the humming birds, the Blue chinned sapphire, and another flycatcher, the Euler’s flycatcher. We stopped for lunch, and once again had a deliciously hot cooked meal with bananas for desert. As we were chatting after lunch, a couple of locals across the road were eating what looked very much like wood. Dave advised us it was raw sugar cane; the opportunity could not be missed so I approached them and sampled a bit. The juice, as expected was very sweet, but the husk left in your mouth was very tough, and had to be discarded. We failed to pick up any more new species on the way back, but enjoyed our conversations with Dave, certainly a very knowledgeable guy. The rest of the day, what was left of it, was spent around the centre trying to get better video footage and camera shots. At the conclusion of the day we counted up our total for Trinidad. We had before we left for our holiday, estimated a total of 138 species and had reached 135, not bad really. Analysing what we had seen, and the ones we had not, it was quite apparent that an extra day at ASA Wright and maybe taking a trip to Waterloo on the coast, and an evening visit to Wallerfield, would have swelled the list quite considerably and probably increased the total by a further 25. We saw very few waders and no shorebirds which are all very easy at Waterloo. Out of interest, the Trinidad checklist which I compiled based on 10 different reports from the Internet proved invaluable. From a species list of 433 it was pared down to 260, and there was only one bird not included in that list, the Piratic flycatcher.
The only disappointment with the ASA Wright Centre was, that when we decided to pay for our extra trip in English pounds, it cost us about £20 more than expected, since the exchange rate they used was just 8 TT$ to the pound, when the bank exchange rate was 11.5 TT$ to the pound. That, we felt, was a bit naughty but at least our experience maybe can helpful others.
Day nine was transfer day back to Tobago. After breakfast the taxi was waiting for us, and with the flight on the hopper scheduled for 11:00 am, we had to be at the airport at 9:30, so after a leisurely transfer we arrived in plenty of time.
On arrival at Crown Point airport in Tobago we were met by out taxi driver holding up a card showing our names, and a message “welcome back to Tobago”. The driver Prince Edwards, yes that was his name, was a lovely guy. He advised us that the journey up to Blue Waters in would be about an hour and a half, at a leisurely pace. Throughout the journey we were serenaded by very relaxing steel band music, which we both fell in love with. I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to incorporate some of that music into my DVD film of our holiday. He promised that, as he would probably be the driver picking us up for our trip back to the airport, he would produce me a copy.
We arrived at the beautiful Blue Waters Inn at Speyside at about 12:30 pm, dumped the luggage in our room, which was right next to the beach, and decided to have a look around. We could see the islands of Little Tobago and Goat Island less that a mile away, but the island of St Giles, which is closer to Tobago, about a half a mile away, was just out of site around the headland. This group of islands were presented to the government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1968 for the establishment of a wildlife sanctuary. Because of the inaccessibility to humans and animals, these islands support one of the most important seabird breeding colonies in the West Indies. It was a truly beautiful setting, with Palms and Sea Grape trees reaching right down to the white sand and the crystal blue water. Blue Waters is renowned for its Ruddy turnstones which are so tame, they actually walk about in the bar area scrounging for scraps of food, quite unperturbed by humans. We decided to spend a couple of hours on the beach relaxing after our transfer. There were plenty of Bananaquits, Tropical mockingbirds, and Rufous-vented chacalacas in the gardens but very few Hummingbirds. We wondered when we would be going on the pre arranged tours with Newton George and how we could contact him. As the afternoon wore on, the numbers of Magnificent frigate birds in the sky over Goat Island increased, probably due to the incoming Red-billed tropicbirds returning from their fishing trips. We sat, entertained by the Turnstones, continually chasing each other for scraps of food they had scrounged from the customers in the bar area, and a White-tipped dove which we eventually found to be resident. We decided to go for a stroll later in the afternoon and noticed Newton George in the bar area. When we met him at the Bird Fare at Rutland Water in the autumn, he told us then he would find us as he lived in Speyside. We re-introduced ourselves to him, and found out that our first trip with him would be to the rain forest the next day, and that he would meet us at 6:00am in the car park. The next trip, an Island tour, he had scheduled for two days time, and would be with two others also travelling with MotMot Travel. Now we had had the trip schedule organised we decided to have a walk into Speyside, about half a mile away. The roadway from Blue Waters Inn up to the security gate was extremely steep, certainly not designed for non walkers, as even we had to make a couple of stops before we reached the top. Now it was down hill into Speyside. At the bottom of the hill were an old waterwheel and a small stream. We noticed, on a small piece of grassland across the road a Green-backed heron was walking about, unfortunately when we approached it scuttled away into some beachside bushes. There were plenty of Cattle egrets about and a small flock of Smooth-billed anis, which gave us ideal additions to our video collection. Dusk was approaching, so we made our way back to the hotel for a wash and brush up before dinner. Unfortunately the hill going back was almost as steep as the one coming up; still, I expect we will get used to it. We had added a few more to our Tobago list which now stood at 35.
We were now up to day 10, and it was early pre-arranged breakfast, before we met Newton George who was waiting for us in the car park. He told us that we would be going to an area of wetland before tackling the main ridge. The area of wetland was in a small village he called “Betsy Hope”. There were quite a few waders and water birds in the area so we would have a good chance to add a few more to our Tobago list. Common moorhen was one of the first we noticed as well as Little blue heron, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Tricoloured heron, and the Great blue Heron, quite a massive bird. Newton also pointed out Semipalmated plover, Solitary sandpiper and a beautiful Yellow-crowned night heron. The light was not brilliant as it was still quite early in the morning, but the views we had were quite acceptable. We proceeded up towards the main ridge where we stopped periodically to bird in the flowering and fruiting trees.
Gilpin Trace is a trail that leads you deep into the forest which is considered to be the oldest rain forest in the western hemisphere. Newton had advised us to wear walking boots, or we could hire some wellies from a guy at the entrance; we chose our own boots. At the summit before entering the trail you can savour superb views through and above the canopy down to the Caribbean Sea. Into the trace, the first bird we encountered was the quite rare White-tailed sabrewing humming bird. When hurricane flora devastated the rain forest areas in 1963, it was thought that the Sabrewing had been wiped out, but luckily some survived and are now thriving. At first the trail was quite dry, but as we got deeper into the forest it became very muddy, and at one point when I slipped, one boot was absolutely covered in thick mud. Newton found American Redstart, a Blue-backed manakin, a superb little bird, all black with a V shaped scarlet patch on its crown and with and a sky blue back, a Fuscous flycatcher, Small-billed elaenia, a Golden-olive woodpecker, a Red-eyed (Chivi) vireo, a quite rare White-throat spadebill, and on our way back we had stunning views of the Collared trogon. There were a number of others that Newton spotted, but they all turned out to be the commonest birds of all - “IT’S JUST GONE”. Up on the ridge we also encountered flocks of noisy Orange-winged parrots, other Blue-backed manakins, a Broad-winged hawk, a Great black hawk, and of course many of the species we had already seen. Newton took us back on a new road that has almost been completed via Charlotteville, a very picturesque village, bordered to the south by steep mountain cliffs, and to the north by the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Here was the first and only view we had of the island of St Giles, an uninhabited seabird colony. The only views of the nesting seabirds on the island can be had from Charlotteville through a scope, or by a boat tour around the island, as nobody is allowed to land here. We found our first Southern lapwing just outside Charlotteville. We were back at the hotel mid afternoon where we rested on the beach before dinner. Today’s excursion had realised another 31 different species and increased our total for Tobago to 66.
Day eleven once again dawned bright and sunny and since we had been up so early the previous morning, we decided to have a lazy day. We did venture back into Speyside before it got too hot, had a look at a few of the trails, which seemed to be quite quiet regarding birds, so it was back to the beach for the rest of the day. The only new species we had that day were an Osprey which flew over the bay and a Snowy egret by the stream in Speyside, gave us a new total of 68 before going on our island tour the next day.
Newton picked us up the following morning together with Margaret and John, two other guests of MotMot Travel. We travelled down the Atlantic coast stopping of on the way for photographic reasons, and pulled into a space by a beautiful beach. The wind had got up quite a bit during the last two days and the sea was quite choppy. Newton said that it was a good place to see Sanderling, but it was high tide and none were about. We had our first sighting of Laughing gulls perched on various boats moored in the bay, together with a number of Brown pelican and our first Royal tern.
Further along the road where there were some large ponds screened by wire fencing, we had our first ducks for Tobago, Blue winged teal, Black-bellied whistling-duck, and White-cheeked pintail. Amongst others we saw were plenty of Cattle egrets, an Anhinga drying his wings, and on the wires our first Grey kingbird. Newton was quite excited when he saw a small group of Caribbean martin fly over, as they had only just returned from migration. Another quite scarce species we picked up here was a couple of Little egrets. We moved from this area to where we ventured into the undergrowth by the side of the track to hopefully locate a Yellow-billed cuckoo which Newton had seen here just a few days before. Unfortunately once again we were out of luck but did have our first sighting of Brown-crested flycatcher. We were alerted when a Merlin flew past overhead then took a short walk along the track where we saw a Belted kingfisher disappearing into the distance, and along the other way we had Whimbrel, Greater yellowlegs, and Willet, quite a scarce bird in Tobago. Newton had decided that we were to sample some typical Tobagan food for lunch, so he phoned the restaurant to ask what was on the menu. The two main dishes were fish and goat. We had never eaten goat so what the heck, why not give it a try. We had one last look for the Cuckoo without luck; however we did have great views of a Wattled jacana with chicks before we carried on to Hilton Ponds. The ponds are set in the grounds of the magnificent and probably very expensive Hilton Hotel, with its own 18 hole golf course. Not just anyone can go into the complex, but everyone knows Newton George, so no problem. We reached the heavily guarded gates and you wouldn’t believe it but it was manned by a new recruit who had never heard of Newton George. Anyway we did get in and drove to the ponds area and parked next to a large lake. Our first sighting was of a Neotropic cormorant, once again a quite uncommon species for Tobago. There were a couple of Anhinga fishing in the lake and a female sitting in a tree on the far side. The Anhinga or Snake bird as it is often called is a strange bird. When fishing and swimming its whole body is immersed under the water with just its long “snake-like” neck protruding above. Newton spotted another belted kingfisher some way away and we had a group a half a dozen Black-bellied whistlers on the same piece of water. As we moved to another of the ponds we added Great white egret to our list. We also added Least grebe and Pied-billed grebe before we left the complex.
We arrived at the restaurant way out in the sticks for our lunch, where it was I have no idea, but it appeared that it is well known for serving good food. As I had said previously, we had never eaten goat before, and when it arrived “curried”, oh dear. I ate most of mine but Isabel wasn’t too keen. We did add House wren to our list whilst we were at the restaurant. Most of the trip back would be for sight seeing up the Caribbean side of the island, but we did call in at Grafton, a well known birding spot. Most of the birds we came across on the trails, we had seen before with the exception of Grey-rumped swift high in the sky, and Scrub greenlet. There were a few birds at the feeding station but as we were not at the right time, the feeders were almost empty. We continued up the coastline and turned off, back up the road to the main ridge. Newton showed us a hummingbird nesting on the telephone wires in an “air plant” which had obviously been deposited on the wires via a seed in some droppings. The noise from the Orange-winged parrots was almost deafening, there seemed to be parrots everywhere. The green parrots amongst the beautiful orange blossoms of the immortelle trees gave us wonderful video footage. We also picked up a Red-legged honeycreeper. On our way back we found ourselves close to Argyle waterfalls where Newton had found a Common Potoo, we had seen one briefly in Trinidad, but the view of this one was superb. We arrived back at the hotel mid afternoon, and Newton asked if we would be interested in going with him and another couple to the top of Flagstaff Hill to look for Owls and Nightjars, of course our answer was in the affirmative. We plonked ourselves on the beach, and checked on our totals. We had seen another 29 species today making our overall total for Tobago 95, just one short of our target. On our trip to Flagstaff hill we encountered at least seven White-tailed Nightjars sitting on the roadway but no Owls.
Day thirteen, our last full day, was once again bright and sunny. The wind of yesterday had dropped so the sea was much calmer for our trip over to the island of Little Tobago. There were only eight of us this morning which was much better that having a boat full. We stopped off over the coral reef just off Goat Island quite close to the only building on the island, the holiday home of Ian Fleming, the James Bond writer. The building, we were told is now up for sale for one and a half million American dollars. The guide on the boat gave us detailed descriptions of the different species coral on view and pointed out some of the brightly coloured fish swimming amongst them. Compared with the glass bottomed boat trip we had been on in Kenya, the spectacle was somewhat disappointing; there were far fewer species of fish and fewer brightly coloured ones. We carried on over to the island and disembarked onto the jetty. Together we climbed a fairly steep but well made up path to the top. There were Red-billed tropicbirds with their beautiful long white tail streamers everywhere you looked and huge Magnificent Frigatebirds with their seven foot wingspan busily looking for scraps from the Tropicbirds fishing trips. The Brown and Red-footed boobies were not so plentiful but were there to add to our list. The Frigatebirds don’t fish for themselves as their feathers are not waterproof, but they are the real pirates of the Caribbean worrying and attacking the Tropicbirds and Boobies until they disgorge their catch. We did not actually see this spectacle happening, but were assured that is how the Frigatebirds feed. Those two different species of Boobies took our Tobago total to 98, one more than our target. We had brilliant chances to use our cameras whilst on the other side of the island where we were shown nesting Tropicbirds and chicks just a few feet away from us. An evening walk down into Speyside did not yield any more birds for our trip but did give us the opportunity to watch a Red-crowned woodpecker excavating a nesting hole in a dead tree by the stream.
Our holiday totals were Tobago 98 species; Trinidad 135 species; combined islands different species 181.
Day fourteen was the departure day, and to our surprise, it was quite dull and cloudy. We sat on the beach for a while and watched as if by magic, the two islands out to sea were gradually disappearing. This could only mean one thing, it was raining. The rain reached us a few minutes later and lasted for just over the hour, not heavy, but the boatload of passengers which had left earlier in the day must have got quite wet - shame. Our taxi arrived on the dot to take us to the airport, and yes it was our friend Prince Edwards. My first comment to him was “Hello it’s the calypso man.” Immediately he realised that he promised to copy me a CD with the steel band music, but he had forgotten. “Never mind” he said “we will be passing by my brother’s house so I’ll pop in and do you a copy” which is what he did. He said that he had compiled the CD himself that’s why the music was in a relaxing style, it was what he preferred. When we arrived at Crown Point airport he suggested that, rather than book in and go straight through to departures right away, it may be sensible to book in our luggage, and go across the road to a small café where we could have some lunch. The booking in area is outside the airport so this did not present a problem. The only thing which we had not realised, although it had been included in the literature from MotMot Travel, was that there is a departure tax of 100 Trinidad and Tobago dollars each, so we had to change some more money. It was our fault as we had not read the paperwork properly.
We said our goodbyes and thanked Prince for his trouble, and as we ate our meal we reminisced on a great holiday in the sun. Thanks are extended to everyone who helped to make this a holiday to remember, Vivienne of MotMot Travel, the guides at ASA Wright, and especially Newton George.
1. MotMot travel’s organisation was absolutely superb, and I would not hesitate to recommend this company to anyone for a holiday to Trinidad & Tobago. (MotMot Travel firstname.lastname@example.org)
Would we have done anything different?
1. Yes. We would have had at least one more day at Arnos Vale, probably an extra day or two at ASA Wright, probably not have gone to Blue Waters, it is too hilly, but maybe to Cuffie River instead.
Would we go again – Definitely “yes” but not right away?
If we could help anyone wishing to do something similar to us, please don’t be afraid to contact me on email@example.com.
Brian & Isabel Eady.