Wild as the wind: the Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust

Picture a lush oasis of lakes surrounded by green forest, where rare ducks swim among waterlilies, cormorants sun themselves on overhanging branches, and the cries of parakeets fill the air — and all this in the middle of an oil refinery complex. Andre Bagoo visits Trinidad’s Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, celebrating five decades of nurturing endangered birds

Ducks at their ease, enjoying the tranquillity of the Pointe-àˆ-Pierre Wildfowl Trust. Photo by Stacey WilliamsThe Trust’s breeding lakes are its most striking features. Photo by David Huggins/DSH JichoOne of the forest trails winding through the Trust’s thirty-six hectares. Photo by David Huggins/DSH JichoLotuses growing in the breeding lake. Photo by David Huggins/DSH JichoA purple gallinule, one of the Wildfowl Trust’s more colourful inhabitants. Photo by David Huggins/DSH JichoA duck spreads its wings at the Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust. Photo by David Huggins/DSH JichoBird watching locations

Nothing here is as it seems. Lotus flowers and water hyacinths sit serenely on the water, but they belie large roots that absorb, entrap, and strangle below. The lake looks perfect for a dip, but large caimans swim in it. Their purpose is to eat the ducks: to teach them the lesson that the world, outside the Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, is a savage place. The very Trust is an aberration: what you see cannot be believed. A thirty-six-hectare oasis of nature sits in the middle of a flaming oil refinery complex at the heart of Trinidad’s industrial belt. How could something so beautiful have sprung up here?

But the Wildfowl Trust did not spring up overnight. Established in 1966, it is the careful and considered result of five decades of tireless work by a non-profit organisation working for the preservation of the natural environment through education and protection of endangered species. About nineteen thousand people visit annually. “The Trust’s objectives are equally relevant today as they were fifty years ago,” says Molly Gaskin, president of the Trust for the last thirty years.

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2016, the Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust is a repository for special flora and fauna. It is involved in the captive breeding of endangered waterfowl and other wetland birds for release into natural wildlife areas. Eighty-six species of bird have been recorded here, many of which breed naturally in its forest and lake areas. Viewed from high above, forty different tree species seem to clump together into a dense canopy of rainforest. Explore beneath the trees, though, and you will discover a carefully planned network of paths (with names like Devil’s Ear Trail, Fairy Woods Trail, and Forest Walk), and several large reservoirs which serve as breeding lakes, with pumps and artificial waterfalls.

Within a few minutes of your arrival, the birds make themselves known: a parade of whistling tree ducks, kiskadees, purple gallinules, scarlet ibises (which begin their lives as black hatchlings), blue and gold macaws, wild muscovy ducks, green herons, yellow-hooded blackbirds, neotropic cormorants, parakeets, pied water tyrants, cardinals, and ringed kingfishers.

If you are lucky you may come across a black skimmer, a grey hawk, or an incredibly creepy snakebird (or anhinga), which swims partially underwater, and is easily mistaken for a water snake. The snakebird feeds on fish, frogs, and baby caimans, and has a habit of flinging its helpless prey around until the meal can be gulped headfirst. After hunting, the bird perches on a branch in the sun to dry off, spreading its black wings, a cocky warrior as slick as an oil spill.

Many of the birds here are endangered. The Trinidad canary (or yellow warbler), prized as a caged bird, is now threatened in the wild. It is saffron-coloured and sings two different songs, each sweet and piercing. The fulvous whistling tree duck has been over-hunted. It nests over water, normally in pairs, though sometimes also in colonies. Pair bonds are strong. When one half of the couple dies, the other remains single for the rest of its life. The Trust has re-introduced hundreds into the wild. Another type of tree duck, the white-faced whistling duck, cannot tolerate disturbance of its breeding grounds. It makes loud calls to its partner, and in the weeks between November and January becomes flightless, literally a sitting duck for predators. This bird was extirpated locally long before Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence, but today flourishes within the protected confines of the Trust, which is a kind of ecological time capsule.

 

Flambouyant trees line the main breeding lake, their brilliant red blossoms reflected in the water’s surface. Nearby, pink pouis scatter flowers like confetti onto the lily-covered water. The crepe myrtle tree, also known as king of flowers, blooms in the wet season and the dry season. Its pink, mauve, and white flowers are soft beauties, but the tree is valued for its hard, durable timber and medicinal uses. Shade trees are planted all over, attracting slender hummingbirds. In the lakes live turtles, freshwater sardines, guabine (wild guppies), pacu — and, yes, hungry-looking caimans.

“We want them here so the ducks will learn who their predators are,” says one Trust tour guide. Meanwhile, a learning centre — for human visitors — houses a museum about Trinidad’s indigenous Amerindians, who settled on this land long before there were oil refineries. It also contains a unique collection of molluscs from around Trinidad and Tobago’s waters. Elsewhere, there are quiet picnic and bird-watching areas. You can explore on your own, or take a guided tour. Both require reservations. In this golden anniversary year, a series of special activities — including exhibitions and competitions for students — is in the works. The anniversary programme kicked off with a visit by Baroness Scotland, newly elected secretary-general of the Commonwealth, last December.

It’s all part of the mission to educate the public about the value of natural landscapes and species diversity. “There has been a tremendous loss of wetland habitats due to inappropriate land-use practices and so-called development,” says Gaskin. “Species have disappeared due to overhunting. Can you imagine that waterfowl are currently legally hunted before the young birds are fully adult?” For her, the Trust — whose motto is “To know is to love, to love is to preserve” — has a key role in raising awareness of environmental issues. Since the 1980s, it has been focusing attention on climate change, a matter which engaged the attention of world leaders at the Paris climate summit last December.

“Given the reality of climate change, global warming, and sea-level rise for our island states in the Caribbean, we play a pivotal role through environmental education and public awareness,” Gaskin says. “This continues to be incredibly valuable. If you can educate people on the value of what is being done, you can encourage change. Everything we do is for the future generations.”

The Trust, said to be the only conservation area of its kind located within an oil refinery, also demonstrates how an industrial economy like T&T’s can preserve spaces for nature. “The uniqueness of the Trust’s location within a major petro-chemical and oil-refining complex is a powerful statement of mutual respect,” Gaskin explains. “It is an example to the rest of the world that industry and business and a bona fide environmental NGO with integrity can, with cooperation, understanding, and awareness of mutual values, work together.”

“On our tours, we pay special attention to the lotus flower, which is a favourite of mine,” Gaskin says. “It has to grow in muddy water. But out of that comes an entirely edible plant, and the flower is beautiful. We always tell people who visit and who may be in difficulties to look at this plant. It is something that rises out of mud. But it does not fall, it survives and thrives.”

 

On the wing

World-famous among serious birdwatchers, Trinidad and Tobago’s strategic location where the Antillean island chain meets South America, and its varied habitats, are responsible for its diverse birdlife. More than 450 bird species have been recorded in the islands. Here are some of the best places to encounter this feathered bounty, in addition to the Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust

 

Asa Wright Nature Centre

At the head of the Arima Valley, this former cocoa estate is now run as a nature reserve and research station. Its 270 acres include the world’s most accessible colony of nocturnal oilbirds, plus leks — mating grounds — of the white-bearded and golden-headed manakins, which engage in an elaborate dance to attract mates. Dozens of species can be seen without even leaving the main house, whose broad verandah attracts countless hummingbirds and honeycreepers.

 

Caroni Bird Sanctuary

On the southern outskirts of Port of Spain, the Caroni Swamp — Trinidad’s second-largest wetland area — is famously home to the scarlet ibis, the national bird, plus more than 180 other species. This expanse of mangrove forest, mudflats, and tidal lagoons is bisected by numerous channels, which allow guided boat tours to take visitors into the heart of nature.

 

Yerette Hummingbird Sanctuary

Trinidad is often called the Land of the Hummingbird — and with seventeen species of the tiny, brilliantly coloured birds, you can understand why. Thirteen of those species have been recorded in the grounds of this small bird sanctuary, run by Gloria and Theo Ferguson in the St Joseph Valley. What was once their private garden, lush with plant species chosen to attract the nectar-loving birds, is now open to visitors, likely to see literally hundreds of them on each tour.

 

Little Tobago

Off Tobago’s north-east coast, this small islet — barely 0.4 square miles — is home to important nesting colonies of red-billed and white-tailed tropicbirds, plus frigatebirds, terns, and boobies, among other seabirds. Visiting requires a short sea trip from Speyside, ideally in a glass-bottomed boat, for a view of the coral reefs under the waves.