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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Trinidad and Tobago

with Trinidad Piping Guan

2019 Narrative

This year’s tour to Trinidad and Tobago was wonderful, with a week of superb birding, excellent food and accommodations, and fine companionship making for a truly enjoyable time.  On Trinidad, with our wonderful local guide Roodal Ramlal, we took leisurely day-trips from our base at the world-class lodge at Asa Wright Nature Center.  We spent an evening night-birding at Aripo Savannah, took a boat ride through the mangroves at Caroni Swamp, explored the east coast around Nariva Swamp, and ventured into the highlands just up the road from the lodge.  Staying at Asa means that even “downtime” offers the possibility of thrilling birding, either around the grounds, or simply from the veranda of the main house, where the bird feeders are a constant hotspot of fervent activity.  After five nights at Asa Wright, we took the short plane ride over to Tobago to stay at Cuffie River Nature Retreat, a beautiful, open-air lodge with exceptional meals, and excellent birding on the grounds.  From Cuffie we took excursions to Gilpin Trace, the world’s oldest rainforest preserve, and to Little Tobago Island.  From the bustling and jungle-like atmosphere of much of Trinidad, Tobago offers a contrast, with a more laid-back, Caribbean air. 

Asa Wright quickly felt like home to us, and we spent much of our first full day there just observing the birdlife in the immediate area.  Awaking to the gong of the Bearded Bellbird, we looked out from the veranda and tallied an impressive list, including half a dozen species of tanagers and as many species of hummingbirds, Squirrel Cuckoo, and swarms of honeycreepers and Euphonias crowding the feeders.  After breakfast we took a walk down a trail leading into the rich forest.  Once away from the frenzy of the veranda birds, other species soon became evident, including both Golden-headed and White-bearded Mannakins feeding on a fruiting fig tree, noisy Boat-billed Flycatchers, and lots more.  Black Hawk-Eagles cried over the forest canopy.  As we approached one bellbird territory, the sound became deafening, and by remaining silent we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the odd bird giving his tremendous song, like a blacksmith on an anvil.  After a tasty lunch we had time for some more birding on the grounds, sorting out four species of swifts over the lodge, and watching a White Hawk pursued by a little Bat Falcon.  A parade of ants on the driveway produced excellent looks at woodcreepers and White-bellied Antbirds, among others.  In the late afternoon we took an excursion to nearby Aripo Savannah with Roodal.  Arriving with the last rays of sun, we quickly spotted Sulphury Flycatchers and Moriche Oriole, both Moriche palm specialists, and enjoyed a field dinner while listening to the plaintive song of the Little Tinamou.  As the night fell the nightbirds chimed in, including Common Pauraque in the forested areas, and White-tailed Nighjars in the grasslands.  Patrolling the roads with a spotlight produced incredible views of a Common Potoo on his perch.   

The next day after breakfast and a look out off the veranda, where several Channel-billed Toucans made appearances, we geared up for an excursion to the higher elevations on the Blanchisseuse Road.  All morning sifting through flurries of birds in the lively forest, we found such gems as Speckled Tanager, Olive-striped Flycatcher, two species of trogon, and Gray-headed Kite.  In a little village on the other side of the mountain we found a colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques, a flock of Blue-headed Parrots, and a spectacular Crimson-crested Woodpecker.  After a full day exploring the beautiful range, with views of the sea below to our north, we returned to Asa in time for some casual birding on the grounds.  Here we found Lineated Woodpecker, and the evening-feeding Long-billed Starthroat. 

Our third full day we devoted to exploring the east coast of Trinidad, with Nariva Swamp as our destination.  Setting out after breakfast (and, of course, already with some great birding had on the veranda), our first stop was the Aripo Livestock Research Station.  This area of open pasture and cattle attracts great numbers of vultures as well as raptors, including many Savanna Hawks.  A new spinetail was here, the Pale-breasted Spinetail.  Little ponds and wet areas produced both Pied Water-Tyrants and White-headed Marsh Tyrants, as well as Wattled Jacanas.  Continuing on, we reached the eastern shore at Manzanilla Beach, where we took lunch.  Not much over the waves here save a few pelicans and frigatebirds, though Yellow Orioles sang sweetly in the palms.  Driving south we encountered a number of Yellow-headed Caracaras as we neared the great swamp, stopping also for watermelons at a roadside stand.  Soon the road was flanked by mangroves on both sides, and here we found several new birds, including Silvered Antwren, Black-crested Antshrike, and Bicolored Conebill.  We ventured on to the Kernaham Road, where locals live in close intimacy with the wetlands.  Lots of wading birds here, and another new spinetail, the yellow-chin.  Other marsh birds included Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, several shorebirds, lots of Smooth-billed Anis, and a new hummingbird not found in the highlands, the White-tailed Goldenthroat.  Loafing among the palms at one homestead was a real rarity, a smart young Snail Kite.  Nearby we caught up with a majestic flock of Blue-and-Yellow Macaws, in many respects among the most spectacular of avian creations.  After lingering and taking in the sites and sounds of the swamp through the cool of the afternoon, we returned to our mountain lodge in time for a hearty dinner.

A leisurely morning of breakfast and birding was on the docket for the following day, followed by a hike on the grounds with one of the Center’s fine naturalists, to the famous cave of the Oilbirds!  We took our time on the trail, which is in excellent condition, enjoying the deep forest, finally arriving at a spot where a stream enters a great rock cleft.  We entered two or three at a time, briefly illuminating the walls with a torch, and revealing the strange creatures therein.  Oilbirds.  So-called because of their unfortunate ability to burn and stay lit for many hours.  After lunch at the lodge, we set out for our other big swamp adventure, this time to the famous Caroni Swamp on the island’s west coast.  First a stop in Trincity, where Pearl Kites were looking gorgeous in fresh new plumage.  Once at Caroni, we had time before our scheduled boat ride to look for Masked Cardinals near the boat launch, with great success.  Here we boarded a sleek and spacious wooden boat and entered the magnificent mangrove forests with our amazing guide, Lester, a man whose love for the Caroni has the deepest roots.  Gliding through the narrow lanes, we spotted several non-avian wonders, including a Boa Constrictor, and a sleeping Silky Anteater!  Birds included a new woodcreeper, a new hummingbird (Green-throated Mango), and Striped Cuckoos. Entering a big open lake, where a great flock of American Flamingos already was blushing in the late-day light, we dropped anchor, poured the punch, and watched as the evening set in over the mangroves, and with it the return of countless wading birds to their island roost.  At its peak, a nearly unabated procession of egrets, Little-blue Herons, and, oh yes, Scarlet Ibis.  Seemingly more than the little island could hold.  Upon entering the roost, the white egrets find their perches out of view, inside the trees, while the ibis stand as sentinels on the outer parts, so that the effect is as of a berry-laden holly tree.  Truly an iconic image of birding on Trinidad.

After a final morning taking in the birds of Asa, including good looks at the marvelous little Tufted Coquette hummingbird, and still finding new species like the Gray-throated Leaftosser, we had to move on, boarding a short plane hop to Tobago in the early afternoon.  Once on the beautiful, clean, ocean-breeze island, we were met by our simply great local guide, Jason Radix, and dove right into birding.  At the Bon Accord ponds we were pleased to find a Little Egret, a Whimbrel, and the first of several species not present on Trinidad, including the spectacular Scrub Greenlet.  Maybe the most beautiful hummingbird, the Ruby Topaz, is quite common here as well.  After a truly pleasant afternoon of birding, we arrived at our home base while on Tobago, the Cuffie River Nature Retreat.  Here, the Trinidad Motmot, which had all but eluded us on the island of its namesake, proved quite numerous and showy, perhaps warranting a name change.  A new hummingbird was here as well, the White-tailed Sabrewing.  Cuffie, with its brilliant setting, its wonderful meals, swimming pool, and airy spacious rooms, made for a fine place to relax indeed.  At night the White-tailed Nightjars put on a show right around the building. 

Our first full day on the island was full of adventure.  Birds at the lodge in the morning included Great Black Hawk, lots of swifts, more motmots, and many others.  Jason fetched us at Cuffie after a superb breakfast and took us to Gilpin Trace, a forest preserve since 1776 (!).  Here we found Yellow-legged Thrush, lots of Rufous-tailed Jacamars, Fuscous Flycatcher, the striking Plain Antvireo, and much more.  We had lunch in beautiful Speyside, right by the beach, and then continued on to Blue Waters Inn, where we boarded a boat to Little Tobago Island, just off the coast, led by the intrepid Zolani.  A tiny island rich in history, Little Tobago’s main attraction nowadays is its colony of seabirds.  Cresting the top of the island and looking out to the east, a great show of Red-billed Tropicbirds and two kinds of boobies can be had.  Zolani told us all about the strange history of the Birds of Paradise on the island, and showed us the occupied burrows of Audubon’s Shearwaters on the forest floor.  As we pulled away from the island we were fortunate to spot a few Scaly-naped Pigeons, a recent arrival here.  Having seen a good slice of Tobago, we headed back to Cuffie for a proper dinner.

On our final day of birding, we took a leisurely time in the morning steeped in the birdlife around Cuffie River, and were met by the excellent local guide Desmond, a wonderful, lively child of nature who hops about and whistles a bit like a manakin, and whose skills in interpreting the world around him are rivaled only by his skill with the machete.  And indeed he showed us the gorgeous Blue-backed Manakin, not found on Trinidad, as well as a sleeping potoo, and a host of other birds.  We all greatly enjoyed our morning ramble, and after lunch at the lodge decided to take the afternoon off to fully process our experiences, and to take advantage of our home.  Next day it was off to the airport and away.

Trinidad and Tobago is full of wonderful birds, wonderful food and people, and has a very special atmosphere all its own.  I love this tour!  Thanks to all for making it so enjoyable.      

Updated: November 2023