In Search of the Tufted Coquette in Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago's Asa Wright Nature Centre is one of the Caribbean's Prime sites for naturalists, expecially birders

Agouti. Photograph by Roger NecklesMatte LizardScarlet Ibis: ” oh my, oh my, cried the birders” Photograph Roger NecklesThe Common Potoo: “by day it perches upright on a post or tree-stump, perfectly camouflaged” Photograph by Roger NecklesThe male Purple (or Yellow-legged) Honeycreeper – actually violet blue streaked with blackThe small yellow Bananaquit may well come foraging for fruit on your hotel balcony. Photograph by Roger NecklesThe Tufted Coquette hummingbird: “like a large bumble-bee buzzing lazily around the hibiscus” Photograph by Roger NecklesThe White- bearded Manakin: courting males “hop zanily from side to side emitting loud clicks” Photograph by Roger NecklesYellow orioles. Photograph by Roger Neckles

More than 430 bird species have been recorded in Trinidad and Tobago, over 170 in the Arima Valley alone, site of the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre in the hills of northern Trinidad. Sue Limb expores.

So there I was in a tiny propeller plane droning through the blue skies between Tobago and Trinidad. It was more than usually appropriate to be flying, since we were heading for an orgy of bird-watching at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Now, I’ve not always been a bird lover. But in 1991 I went to live with Steve, an organic farmer, on a remote farm in south-west England, and since then I’ve been a sucker for anything in feathers. Buzzards wheel over our valley; herons haunt the lake, swallows buccaneer about the farmyard, where our traditional dunghills ensure plentiful flies.

But English birds are so subtle in their colours, I often have trouble in spotting them. Steve can see a pair of nut-hatches at three miles in a fog — though strangely he can never find a pair of clean socks in a drawer in broad daylight.

In search of brighter birds, we were travelling to Trinidad. Clouds floated past below the plane like serene poached eggs. The dark mass of the island appeared below: I got out my binoculars. Binoculars also assist in our other Caribbean passion: cricket. With the aid of my binoculars at St John’s Cricket Ground in Antigua in 1994, I could clearly see that the Guyanese-born England all-rounder Chris Lewis wasn’t wearing any . . . but that’s another story.

We were met at Piarco airport by an Indian gentleman of exquisite manners driving an eccentric taxi held together with sticky tape. He drove up into the forest of the Arima Valley, higher and higher, up zigzag roads and past steep-sided fields planted with christophene vines, looking rather like avocados. Eventually, at about 1,200 feet, we turned off the road and down a mysterious and alluring track.

The Main House at the Asa Wright Nature Centre is a large old estate house, built around 1907, with polished wood floors, huge high ceilings, and fans revolving — though the altitude means it never gets too hot. The fine furniture and colonial grandeur recall a vanished era.

Even without the birds, it would be marvellous: a broad verandah, running the whole width of the house, a wide panorama of wooded mountains and foothills tumbling down to the distant plain. Walk out onto the verandah, however, and you’re likely to be distracted by much nearer beauties. For the whole place is alive with birds.

Bird feeders, mostly large saucers full of syrup, hang like lampshades under the lee of the verandah, and birds of all kinds are constantly hovering and darting in and out: turquoise, bright yellow, iridescent purple . . . I was stunned to see hummingbirds feeding a mere 18 inches away.

A few feet below the verandah, at ground level, is a quiet terrace where bird tables scattered with fruit and seeds attract the larger and shyer residents of the surrounding forest. And not only birds: we saw a strange animal which looked like a lovable and rather fat rat, which the locals called The White Pig, and a lizard as long as my arm, who became known as Elizabeth … I must try not to nickname God’s creatures.

Although why not? All Caribbean birds already have at least two names: the official Latin classification, and the local name. Sometimes, several local names. The small yellow Bananaquit, for instance, is a bird you are very likely to see in the West Indies. It will visit your hotel balcony hoping for a morsel of fruit. Its official name is Coereba flaveola, but local names include Yellow Breast, Paw Paw Bird, Marley Quit, Sugar Bird, Bessie Coban, Yellow Seesee, Siguita, Reinita, Gusanero and Sucrier. Personally I go for Bessie Coban — she sounds like a distinguished jazz singer.

“My favourite is the Tufted Coquette,” observed a middle-aged American lady leaning on the verandah next to us. I looked where she pointed, and saw what appeared to be a large bumble-bee buzzing lazily around the hibiscus flowers. “Is that a bird?” I gasped. She proved it by showing me the appropriate page of A Guide to The Birds of Trinidad and Tobago by Richard ffrench, illustrated by John P. O’Neill and Don R. Eckelberry, who helped set up the Asa Wright Centre in 1967.

The American lady, who was called Barbara, was the wife of a Historian of Ideas from Cape Cod. Unfortunately her husband wasn’t well enough to travel with her, but that didn’t stop Barbara who was planning, after a few days at Asa Wright, to go up the Demerara River in Guyana looking for even more unusual birds.

Because Trinidad and Tobago used to be part of South America, its wild life has more in common with that of the mainland than the Caribbean. Ah! The wondrous variety of living things. For bird-watchers are different, too, from other species of home sapiens.

Birders are the most delightful of Americans: the quiet freckly sort who wear drab green seersucker and say “Oh, my!” whenever they see anything wonderful, which at Asa Wright is about every five seconds. British bird-watchers are more purposeful and eccentric: “There’s an oriole, Harold.” “Yup, yup. Goddit. A female, I think.”

There was a large group of British birders staying at the Asa Wright Lodge, all frighteningly fanatical. Our binoculars, in relation to their binoculars, were as a child’s peashooter compared to the rockets on the May Day parades they used to have in the old Stalinist days.

I began to feel that something of the Stalinist tradition lingered on amongst the desperately serious British bird-watchers. They held meetings every evening to tick off an enormous list of all the birds they had spotted that day. Occasionally, on our rambles around the huge estate, we would encounter a couple of them, no doubt disturbing some rare bird. “There’s an immature Hawk Eagle, Harold! Oh dash it – it’s gorn.”

The commonest of the common birds around Asa Wright were quite rare enough for me. Exquisite as jewels, they hovered about the verandah’s feeders all day. Sitting in an easy chair with a cup of tea in my hand turned out to be the most gratifying bird watching of all.

My favourite hummingbird was the White-breasted Emerald. I like this bird because it stays up late, drinks a lot and fights in the evenings. It is the lager lout of the hummingbird world. But I’d never dare to confide such a thought to serious British bird-watchers. I’ve got a feeling I’d be sent off to the salt mines.

Now and then even I felt the need for exercise. At Asa Wright there are several different forest trails. Our favourite led to the display grounds or leks where the male White-bearded Manakins try and impress the females (this extraordinary sight was captured by David Attenborough for his Trials of Life TV series). The tiny black and white males show off, on the arrival of a female, by hopping zanily from side to side and emitting loud clicks. I later tried it out myself, in the privacy of our room, but unfortunately hit the side of my head on the wall.

If the Manakins’ behaviour is extraordinary, the Crested Oropendolas’ call is outlandish. They hang from the branches of trees looking like threadbare tennis balls in string bags. When the Crested Oropendola arrives home it goes CreeeeeEEEEEEEEaaak clip-clop CUCKOO, sounding rather like an old-fashioned BBC sound effects record (“Creaky door opening — Horses’ hooves – Cuckoo).

Some birds at Asa Wright were even more mysterious, however. The Bellbird hides deep in the forest, and has a beard, which of course I longed to see. But the Bellbird is shy. It lurked in bushes and went CRONK in a rather tantalising way as if, though it remained unseen, it did not wish to be entirely forgotten.

But the most mysterious rare bird at Asa Wright had to be the Oilbird, the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. At night, these birds fly off to feed in the forest: by day they roost in damp caves. The young get enormously fat before they learn to fly, and the islanders used to catch them and boil them down for their oil. At Asa Wright a guide takes resident guests tip-toeing down to their caves, but only in small numbers to minimise disturbance.

We came to a dark hidden stream, overhung by huge stones leaning together. Tucked away on ledges high under these stones were the oilbirds. Our guide Kenny flashed his torch up at them. They looked rather like huge cuckoos, and glared at us with red hung-over eyes. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

“W ell,” said Steve, on our last evening, “there’s cricket tomorrow at Guaracara Park, or we could go down to the Caroni Swamp to watch the Scarlet Ibis coming in to roost.” I didn’t hesitate for a moment. To hell with cricket — something I have never felt before or since. In the Caroni, in large flat-bottomed boats, we awaited the appearance of the megastars of the Trinidadian bird world. At last, in the hectic light of the sinking sun, the Scarlet Ibis flew in, wave upon wave of them, like clouds of blood, and settled in the trees.

“Oh my! Oh my! Oh my! cried the delightful American birders. Tior Tipr Tior, replied the Ibises. The theme-tune, one might say, of eco-tourism.     Elsewhere in the swamp, among the mangroves, we saw one of the most extraordinary birds of all: the Potoo. By night it catches flying insects: by day it perches upright on a post or tree stump, perfectly camouflaged. It seems a funny way of carrying on. I think I’d rather be a tree stump pretending to be a bird than a bird aspiring to be a tree stump.

But it confirms what I have always thought: that God must be an exquisite artist with a sense of humour.

The most wonderful thing we saw at Asa Wright, however, didn’t have feathers at all, though it was fluttering through the sunbeams in the forest. A huge butterfly: the Blue Morpho, the size of a gentleman’s pocket-handkerchief. Its wings flashed and glittered as if they were a little piece broken off the Caribbean Sea or sky, or the robe of God Himself.

Whatever your feelings about God and Creation, at Asa Wright you can spend a few days in Paradise without the inconvenience of having to die first. And they sell postcards and serve tea: something, I believe, which is not yet available beyond the Pearly Gates – although one can always live, and die, in hope.