Trinidad and Tobago!

Ten years ago, Jeannette and I traveled to Trinidad   and Tobago, our first international trip together.  In fact, it was our honeymoon!

We first went to T&T because it offers a wealth of birding opportunities.  English-speaking, with a good infrastructure, reasonable costs, and with a couple of places that really cater to birders, T&T is a rather easy tropical birding destination.  Geologically part of South America, its avifauna is more closely related to “The Bird Continent” than the rest of the West Indies.  While it has representatives of many South American bird families, it has fewer representatives of each, making it a great introduction to the avifauna of the Neotropics.

With so many places to visit on this planet, it’s hard for us to go back to somewhere for the second time, but we had some “unfinished birding business” in T&T. For one, we were on a tight budget, so could not spend enough time at the famous Asa Wright Nature Center on Trinidad.  And, while we were there, we were limited in how many field trips we could take; there were a lot more places and birds for us to see on the island.  On Tobago, we just rented a beachside cottage, which was great, but we went a day without food when we found everything in the village closed for the day and had limited time for birding.

On one of the field trips that we did take while staying at Asa Wright was the legendary trip to CaroniSwamp to see the evening flight of Scarlet Ibis.  Unfortunately, we ended up on the boat with some wahoos were more interested in being obnoxious drunks than enjoying a natural spectacle – definitely needed to do that one again!  And finally, we wanted to see the endemic Trinidad Piping-guan, a bird that takes a very early start and a lot of driving to see (we decided it was too costly too take the trip the last time for one target bird).

Therefore, some years ago, it was decided that we would celebrate our Tenth Anniversary with a return trip.  I have no plans of leading a tour here, so this was pure vacation.  I didn’t even take that many notes.  Even with a relaxed pace – including Tobago afternoons spent on the beach – we tallied 182 species, including 20 lifers for each of us (surpassing our expectations).  And we did take plenty of photos (neither of us owned a good camera ten years ago, so photos – especially of birds – were more than a little lacking, another reason to return).

Instead of my usual detailed trip reporting, I’ll keep up the relaxed nature of our journey by simply sharing a little bit about each day, especially the highlights, and a “Photo of the Day” award.

Day 1, 1/11.
After landing at 5:30am, we made our way through customs and immigration, and after a little stressful waiting, retrieved our bags.  We were whisked off to Asa Wright and arrived just in time for breakfast.  After a hearty meal and a short guided orientation walk, we finally took a seat at the veranda, overlooking the lush valley and surrounded bay swarms of hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and tanagers at the Centre’s world famous feeding station.

It was hard to not call a return (after 10 years) to the veranda the highlight of the day, but we’ll give them first award to the great show of Red-bellied Macaws at the Waller airfield – our first lifer of the trip, and only our first stop on the “Night Tour” that culminated with Common Paraques, White-tailed Nightjars, Barn Owls, and a Common Potoo.

Day 2, 1/12:
Getting back late the first night only to have to have a 3:30 am departure the next morning was not our choice, but thanks to Stupid United’s itinerary change, our first couple of days was condensed into one sleep-deprived blur.  When that alarm went off at 3, this did not seem like a good idea, but a few hours later we were rewarded with our #1 target species of the trip.  12 of them, in fact.

On the Birdlife International Critically Endangered list, with a population estimated at only — individuals, the Trinidad Piping-Guan has become much rarer over the last ten years, primarily due to hunting.  It was no guarantee; even with this long, dedicated trip too look for them, so the pre-sunrise silhouette of one bird was actually satisfactory.  Then, the sun came out, at the guans decided to do some tree-top sun bathing.  And here, where they are apparently protected by the locals, they were not as shy and were quite active in trees around us.  Yeah, this was definitely worth the trip.

Day 3, 1/13:
The day began with a trip to the famous Oilbird cave on the property.  “The Devil Birds” were unusually active today, with lots of calling and flying around. The world’s only nocturnal frugivorous bird, this awesome and unique creature is about as easy to see here at Asa Wright as anywhere else, and seeing them is a highlight of any trip to Trinidad.  However, Jeannette left her short lens in the room, and my point-and-shoot performed terribly, so we don’t have a great photo to share.

And speaking of highlights of any visit to Trinidad, our tour today was the evening boat trip into Caroni Swamp for the roosting Scarlet Ibis.  Each night, over 3,000 brilliant Scarlet Ibis, many hundreds of Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons, and plenty of Little Blue Herons, Neotropic Cormorants, and Great Egrets come into roost, and boats take tourists of all sorts out to see them.

On our last trip, our Caroni Swamp experience was less than stellar.  We were put on a boat with general tourists from another hotel, who were most definitely not birders.  Two were loud, obnoxious drunks.  The boat operator did not point out other birds, and as truly amazing as the Scarlet Ibis flight was, our experience was a little disappointing.  This time, we were with our two new friends John and Gill from England whom we have been touring with these past two days, and an outstanding, exceptionally bird-knowledgeable boatsman.

The ibis arrive as dusk approaches, and with cloudy skies (somehow, despite all of the rain of the day, we only had to deal with a couple of brief showers while on the boat trip), lighting conditions were a little tough for Jeannette to score top-notch shots of the ibis.  Therefore, today’s Photo of the Day will capture the essences of the Asa Wright birding experience.  Great birds…and rum punch at 6:00pm, no matter where you are!  Also, Jeannette’s smile suggests that we were having a much more enjoyable experience this time.
J-Mo in Caroni

Day 4, 1/14:
Our full-day tour to the Nariva Swamp area produced quite a few new birds for the trip, and even a half-dozen lifers.  An Aplomado Falcon was a treat, as was a really good show of Savannah Hawks.  Roti for lunch, and a night walk including Chevron Tarantulas and land crabs were other highlights of the day.

However, today’s Photo of the Day credit will go my White-necked Jacobin photos on the veranda of Asa Wright.  Jeannette’s excellent Savannah Hawks and a Striped Cuckoo were contenders, but this photo represents the trip a little better.  Taken with my phone and nothing more, it’s hard to beat the proximity of the activity at the veranda.

Day 5, 1/15:
There’s no question as to today’s selection.  Ten years ago, Tufted Coquette was our most-wanted bird, so getting a photo was of high priority for Jeannette on this trip.  After a couple of days of chasing the stunning and gaudy male around, Jeannette scored this busy male feeding on their favored verbena flowers.

Day 6, 1/16:
We arrived on Tobago yesterday evening, and this morning we took the boat trip over to Little Tobago Island to view breeding seabirds.  Not unlike our visit to Caroni Swamp ten years ago, this tour was not as memorable for the right reasons as it should have been, so we most definitely wanted to do it again.  This time, a better guide and a very small group produced a much better experience.  One-half of the pair of White-tailed Tropicbirds that nest here made an appearance, as did a Scaly-naped Pigeon – a species that may have only colonized here after Hurricane Ivan smacked Grenada in 2005.

While “the” Red-billed Tropicbird on Seal Island in Maine is simply astounding, so is the view of dozens upon dozens wheeling around the sky, avoiding marauding Magnificent Frigatebirds as they head to and from the island.  Jeannette and I agreed that we tied for Photo of the Day honors today. First is her photo of a Red-billed Tropicbird chick, and second is my iPhone photo of an adult on the nest – far too close for Jeannette’s telephoto.


Day 7, 1/17:
Today was our primary birding day on Tobago, but let’s just say we did not choose our plan well.  We did make it up into the rainforest, and saw some good birds on the Gilpin Trail, including White-tailed Sabrewings and our lifer Yellow-legged Thrushes.  Jeannette also picked up Purple Honeycreeper, but only heard two other targets: Venezuelan Flycatcher and Olivaceous Woodcreeper.  We spent less time in the forest and saw fewer birds that we wanted – and spent more money than we expected doing so – but hey, this was our only “mistake day” of the trip, and so we couldn’t complain too much.

And besides, while having lunch (the local restaurants were a third the price and 10x better than the Inn, as is often the case) in Speyside, a Great Black-Hawk (one of our dips in our forest visit) came diving down from high elevation to take a run at a teed-up White-tipped Dove.  It was then joined by a second bird as they rapidly rose in altitude back up into the hills.

The dark forest precluded much photography, and our walk down the roadside edge was shorter than we expected, so we’ll head back to the grounds of the Blue Waters for the photo of the day: This Trinidad Motmot that was regularly stationed at the start of the short trail on the property.

Day 8, 1/18:
Preparing to depart back to Trinidad in the afternoon, we stayed close to the Inn, including a photo session with the locals that we have been thoroughly enjoying over the past few days here.  Hand-feeding Ruddy Turnstones was only topped by this photo session with Rufous-vented Chacalacas.

Day 9, 1/19:
Arriving after dark last night to our hotel near the airport, we took their shuttle to the mall for dinner (it was either that or take-out from the likes of KFC and Pizza Slut), which was actually rather interesting.  The “largest mall in the English-speaking Caribbean” provided two food courts of eating options…of course, no matter where in the world you are, mall food is pretty much mall food.  However, while waiting for the shuttle to pick us up, we did have a Barn Owl flying around the lights of the parking lot.

We departed for the airport before sunrise, but had a chance to walk outside for a handful of minutes at the airport:  Palm Tanager, Great Kiskadee, Carib Grackle, Tropical Mockingbird, Gray-breasted Martin, and Cattle Egret (and Great Egret from the runway) were our last birds for the trip.  Interestingly, if you include this morning there were only three species that we saw every day of this trip (9 if you exclude this morning): Palm Tanager, the mockingbird, and the grackle.

As anyone who has visited the Caribbean region, Bananaquits are one of the constant features of birding.  On islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, they are everywhere, in every habitat and at every elevation, and at least here, it is considered the most abundant bird on the island.  They are vocal, inquisitive, and full of character.  I absolutely love Richard ffrench’s (the author of the Trinidad   and Tobago field guide) evocative description: “the energetic busy-body.”  While we didn’t have one at the airport in our short walk, we did see it on the other 8 days of the trip, and this bird that sang just off of our porch at the Blue Waters Inn seemed like a fitting final “Photo of the Day.”

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