Going for the Birds

Naturalist Roger Neckles describes his experience birdwatching in Trinidad and Tobago

Cattle egrets roost and nest in mangrove, and large groups can often be seen flying home at dusk. They feed on the grasshoppers and other insects disturbed by grazing cattle or tractors.Common in both islands, the rufous-tailed jacamar looks like a giant hummingbird, but is not in fact related. It lives near rivers and streams, and feeds on insects and nests in holes on the banks.The brown bobby can be found on the island of Little Tobago, where many a seabird sequence has been filmed for natural history documentaries, notably those of David AttenboroughThe ferruginous pygmy-owl is the smallest of Trinidad and Tobago’s owls, often only four and a half inches tall. In local folklore this is the “jumbie bird” whose hoot can signify a death. Photograph by Roger NecklesThe red-billed tropicbird breeds on some small islands off Tobago, especially Little Tobago. At certain times of the year, resting birds will allow respectful intruders to come within a few feet.The strange- looking bearded bellbird, one of the cotinga family, utters a bell-like hong sound that can be heard for miles around the valleys. It seems to be a bit of a ventriloquist too, which can make it hard to locate. The “beard” consists of stringy wattles hanging from the neckThe violaceous trogon- this one is a male- likes to nest in termite or ants nests; it scoops ants into its feathers, the ants spray formic acid on the bird and thus kill any mites which could threaten the trogon’s nest.

Until last December there were 431 recorded species of birds in Trinidad and Tobago, an extraordinary range for such small islands. Then, by an amazing stroke of good luck, I recorded and photographed tow new species, the Canada warbler and the brown-throated parakeet, neither of which had ever before been seen in the islands. Which just shows what riches there are to be found.

Trinidad, lying just seven miles off the Venezuela coast at the nearest point, is 55 miles by 40; Tobago, lying 26 miles north-east of its larger sister, is 26 miles by seven and a half. In both islands there is a wide diversity of terrain, from rich virgin rain forest to mangroves, swamps, savannah and coastline. We are well within the top 10 countries in the world in terms of the number of species per square mile.

We are also very fortunate in that 43% of the total land area is state land. In addition to 433 recorded bird species, there are 180 different mammals, 55 different reptiles, 617 butterflies and 25 amphibians, not to mention countless species of fish, plant life and insects. In this sup-tropical climate, the dry season runs from January to May, and the wetter months are interrupted by a dry spell called petit carême in September or October.

The peak birding season runs from November to May, though birding is productive year-round.

For decades, these islands have been renowned among ornithologists, because of the diversity and accessibility of their bird species. Sir David Attenborough has filmed many of his bird sequences here notably for the acclaimed documentary series The Trials of Life. So accessible is the birding that you can have a rewarding time without moving far from your car. You can stay on the road, armed with binoculars, telescope and camera, and easily record 60 species on a single outing.

There aren’t many places in Trinidad and Tobago where birding is unrewarding (landfills, for example). One of my favourite places is the Hollis Dam in the hills of north Trinidad. One day not long ago I was there relaxing with a group of friends (we saw a mere 38 species without looking for any), and I watched a group of swallow-tailed kites drinking and wetting their breast feathers.

I’ve observed this ritual breast-wetting on subsequent trips, and wondered why they do it: is it a way of cooling down, or an aborted attempt to drink? The birds don’t just fly down and hover or land at the water’s edge to drink; they spiral down from hundreds of feet and drink on the last spiral turn, then spiral back into the air for 20 or 50 feet, and repeat this complex manoeuvre several times before catching a thermal which shoots them back hundreds of feet into the air.

On that lazy day at Hollis Dam I also watched several other favourite species – a golden-headed manakin and a bay-headed tanager, its green feathers tinged with yellow on the wings, its head and thighs bay-coloured. It can often be found feeding on fruit such as berries at eye-level and above, in family groups of two to two dozen and more.

Another outstanding bird that day was a blue-headed parrot. Unlike the yellow-headed parrot and the blue and yellow macaw which is now extinct in the wild in Trinidad, the blue-headed parrot prefers the remote parts of the rain forest and is still at large, not molested or trapped. Its dark blue head stands out clearly from a green body, with red under tail coverts. I once saw a flock of about 20 birds, adults and juveniles, the adults’ heads a striking dark blue and the juveniles’ bright pink.

And I’d gone to the dam to relax, not to look for birds at all.

The Blanchisseuse Road, which winds over Trinidad’s northern range from Arima to the north coast, is also very rewarding area. Its steep precipices and valleys lead through dense high forest; the air is clean and cool, especially in the early morning , and the valleys are dotted with yellow cassia trees from October and red mountain immortelles from November (immortelles were introduced as shade trees for the cocoa crop). The yellow poui can also start blooming from November, and the hillsides are full of exotic plants – heliconias, ginger lilies, lantana and vervine.

Here you might see a channel-billed toucan displaying and preening in the tops of the trees This is probably the most exotic bird in the islands, with its unmistakably long thick blue-black bill, blue face, white, yellow and red breast and bright red upper and lower tail coverts. It’s a favourite sight and a “must see” for visiting birders.

Have you ever played peek-a-boo with a wild toucan? Once I heard a toucan calling in the distance and soon caught sight of him. He flew right towards me, landing in a tree about 75 feet away, 30 feet up. I crept up to a wide tree trunk which hid me from view, or so I thought, and peed out to my left, only to find the toucan’s neck similarly stretched out to get a look at me. I ducked back behind my tree and waited a while, and when I peeked out again he was still there, neck extended as far as possible, looking straight at me. He knew I was trying to fool him, and seemed to be waiting to see what I would do next. As soon as I took out my binoculars to get an even closer view of him, he took off.

The trogons are another “class act”. We have three species in our islands, white-tailed, violaceous and collared, the last being my favourite. The male is about 10 inches long, a dark glossy green above, with a scarlet red breast and a white band dividing it from a blackish face and throat. It has a yellow serrated bill, a red eye ring, black and white markings on the wing, and black horizontal bands across a white graduated tail.

They are fairly common, but at times pose a challenge to see. I can identify the different species by their calls and can imitate them, thus luring them closer for a better view.

While calling out to the trogons, tanagers and honeycreepers (the purple honeycreeper is a spectacular purple bird about 4.5 inches long, with a black mask, black throat and wings, tail and bill, and very bright yellow legs), you may find yourself ducking, intimidated by invisible buzzing noises. Fear not: you’re merely being buzzed by one of our 17 species of hummingbirds. Despite their small size they are quite aggressive and will try and intimidate anything that wanders into their territory.

At the Asa Wright Nature Centre about 7.5 miles up the Blanchisseuse Road from Arima, you can easily find one of these mysterious buzzers a few inches from your face. So sure is he of his lightning agility and split-second reflexes that he has no fear of human contact. His wings beat 80 times a second, his tongue flicks 60 times a second, and his rapid flight movements – forward, backward, up, down – are dizzying to follow: who would dare to catch a hummingbird?

Well, only another hummingbird. You would be appalled to see the way these delicate birds sometimes smack straight into each other during territorial disputes. At Asa Wright they spend a lot of time chasing off intruders, even hawks!

Along the Centre’s well-trodden trails, with their varying degrees of difficulty, the bearded bellbirds can be a challenge. I remember once guiding a group of about 15 birders down the Bellbird Trail. We stood under a tall tree where a male was displaying loudly, and not of us could spot him. The bellbird is mainly white with black wings, bill and feet, and a brown head; you see the difficulty. We did glimpse another later on (which saved the day – as the bellbird is the Centre’s logo, it’s embarrassing to be unable to point on out).

But don’t think that lots of exertion is necessary. Any morning you can sit on the verandah at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and see 30 species before lunch without even going outside.

Another favourite place is the Caroni Swamp on Trinidad’s west coast, 30 minutes from Port of Spain. Every evening from about four o’clock visitors embark along the narrow river to see the roosting of the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird. Winding through the twisted mangrove you may be lucky enough to see the common potoo, perfectly disguised as a dead branch, or swamp birds like the little blue herons, ospreys, green or pygmy kingfishers. But the highlight is the flock of scarlet isbis flying home to roost as the sun goes down, flashes of red against the darkening blue sky.

The heights of Aripo are another rewarding area in Trinidad, three or four valleys east of the Blanchisseuse Road, leading to the highest point on the island, the Cerrodel Aripo, just over three thousand feet. Some of my biggest counts have been made here, including such quality species as the much sought-after blue-headed parrot, the grey-headed kite and the squirrel cuckoo. Here I have seen rare visiting warblers like the bay-breasted warbler, the black-throated blue warbler and the blackpoll warbler, together with many less rare warblers migrating through the Caribbean from North to South America.

In Tobago, make sure to visit Gilpin Trace, where you can often see the handsome blue-crowned motmot, a medium-sized bird or about 18 inches, predominantly dark green with an orange-brown breast, black bill, black mask and cap, blue crown, red eyes and greenish-blue tail with two central tail feathers shaped at the ends like badminton racquets. This species is quite common and fairly tame in Tobago, where as Trinidad motmots are very timid.

Another fine and fairly common Tobago bird is the rufous-tailed jacamar, which looks like a giant hummingbird though it is not related in fact – it’s the new world version of the bee-eaters, feeding on insects and nesting in banks of forest edges and roadsides. The jacamar is about 10.5 inches long, iridescent green, with copper and gold above and similar band across the breast. The males have white throats, while the females are rufous, with short black legs and a long black sharply pointed bill. The birds respond well to anyone mimicking their call.

On little Tobago Island off the north-east coast of Tobago you can see the red-billed tropicbird nesting. Little Tobago is a ten-minute boat ride from the mainland: a guide will show you around. There is particular scene in The Trials of Life, filmed here, where magnificent frigatebirds harass and grab hold of the tropicbirds’ tails in mid air, forcing them to regurgitate their cache of fish, then letting go and swooping to catch the falling fish before it hits the water. The firgatebirds can perfectly well catch their own food, but enjoy this form of piracy. Pelicans are also favourite targets of theirs.

In Tobago, if you are not rudely awoken up by the pneumatic hammering of the red-crowned woodpeckers banging on galvanised roofs, you will certainly be jolted from sleep by the ‘cocorico’, the rufous vented chachalaca, which is Tobago’s national bird. It is considered a pest by farmers because it is a prolific breeder, and is accused of destroying crops; it is a large brown bird, about 22 inches long, with a bare red throat and is impressively agile in trees.

These are blessed islands, especially for the birder or for anyone who can enjoy the beauty and diversity of nature in the sight and sound of birds. There are many good reasons for a visit to Trinidad and Tobago; but none better than this.

And don’t forget Tobago

If any Caribbean island is a natural for the spread of eco-tourism, Tobago is it.

Within compact boundaries (116sq.miles), Tobago encompasses rugged mountains and limestone lowlands, white-sand beaches and rocky bays. Hundred of species of birds, butterflies and plants enrich its cloud-capped rain forests; extravagant coral reefs teem with fish of every imaginable size, shape and hue. Within the comparatively small area of Tobago’s Main Ridge Forest Reserve (the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, established as early as 1764) you can observe species that would be far less accessible on the vast South American mainland.

One example is the exquisite, and exceedingly rare, white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird, a species whose exclusive range is Tobago and north-east Venezuela. Recognising its ephemeral value, the local government has launched an island wide awareness campaign aimed at sensitizing villagers to this lovely creature, and to dedicate ecological balance which sustains it.

Tours of the rain forest abound, offering the chance to swing on a liana or to catch a glimpse of the blue-backed manakin – another species not seen in Trinidad. The energetic visitor can hike up a river bed or clamber up the rock face of a waterfall; the quixotic can seek the no-longer extant Bird of Paradise on Little Tobago Island, and will find himself happy to make do instead with the snow-white tropicbird (also unknown in Trinidad) gliding on wind-currents over the cliff.

Coral reefs flourish off virtually every inch of Tobago’s coastline. What words can convey the sensation of finding oneself face-to face with an immense manta ray – the gentle giant of the deep – as it wings its way past, forty feet below the surface? None. You’ve just got to experience it for yourself.

  • Jason

    wow. I had no idea that T&T had such accessible birdwatching!
    I was born in Trinidad and left in my teens. However, I didn’t get into birdwatching until very recently and now I can’t wait for my next trip back.