Trinidad - Strictly for the Birds

Published: March 15th 2015
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The Republic of Trinidad & Tobago

Episode 1

Trinidad - 27th January 2015

'Strictly for the Birds'

It was -8C a day-or-two before we left our home in the east of England. Snowdrops poked their heads above frosty ground like sparkling snow and our garden birds sat huddled together amongst the branches, sheltering from a bitterly cold wind.

But a nine-hour flight aboard a half-full A330 Monarch Airbus took us to another world. Crossing the tarmac at Tobago’s Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson Airport, we were engulfed in a blast of hot air as though hit by a barrage of hairdryers. I had never dreamt I would soon be complaining of being too hot. An hour or so later we were transported on the short flight to Port of Spain, Trinidad, for the first week of our visit.

This tiny island, just 50 miles by 37 and a mere 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is where we’ll be seeking out the delights of Trinidad; in the company of 52,000 goats, numerous boa constrictors, howler monkeys, long-snouted spectacled caiman, huge leatherback turtles, 617 different butterflies, the island’s quintessential steel drums, an irresistible excess of iced rum-punch… … and 474 recorded species of birds, including seventeen different humming birds. This must be heaven! In particular there are a few rather special feathery things we’re here to see - and hopefully we won’t be disappointed. There are surprisingly few larger mammals in Trinidad. Perhaps that might explain the two-year hunting ban recently imposed, except it appears for that most gregarious of birds, the seriously noisy Chachalaca; probably not too far removed from our own tasty pheasant, reared for the pot, though by no means as handsome.

It’s hot and we’re sweating already. Temperatures here are at the top end of the 20C’s at this time of year and 85% humidity is the norm.

The Asa Wright Nature Centre has been on our bucket-list for a number of years. Set high in the forested hills of the Arima Valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range, this rather laid-back lodge at the end of a long and steep, narrow, winding road, is stuck firmly in the 1960’s, awaiting the coming of the greens of conservation, wildlife-lovers from across the globe, and the very serious, and the
Asa WrightAsa WrightAsa Wright

View from the verandah
not-so-serious birder like us, looking for new thrills to dazzle the eye and flirt with the heart. You’ll be out of place in polished shoes at Asa Wright should you dare to come. The order of the day is to dress down, as far down as humanly possible and beyond, to blend into the landscape, unseen by all others and invisible to the birds. The waxed jacket and peaked cap can be left at home too; it’s far too warm here for that.

Khaki-clad visions stalk the verandah from dawn till dusk at Asa Wright, expensive binoculars and ridiculously huge-lensed cameras in hand, telescopes at the ready, woken by an ear-piercing chorus of Orange-winged Parrots before the first chink of light at 6 am, until lulled into the land of dreams by the silent fluttering of long-tongued-bats at the hummingbird feeders as the sun sinks below the forest walls.

There are those who would ask for little more. For here on the verandah one can hear the eerie chime of Bearded Bell-birds high in the tree tops, the warbling echo of the Crested Oropendola dashing to-and-fro their suspended nests, spot the Channel-billed Toucan proudly perched on
The secretive OilbirdThe secretive OilbirdThe secretive Oilbird

At nest in Dunston Cave at Asa Wright
the tallest tree far away in the distance, the many stunning iridescent hummingbirds darting from perch to feeder in a flash of light and a Tegu Lizard as it strolls nonchalantly by, gorging on the left-overs from the morning bird- feed below the balcony.

And then there are those with an apetite for adventure. There are many delightful designated walks through this vast estate, and guided tours to exotic destinations across the island for nature-lover and cultural buff to share. A rare treat awaits those who take the short walk down into the steep-sided valley, for there in the darkness of the Dunston Cave, the secretive night-flying Oilbird roosts by day. This fascinating cave offers the chance to observe their nesting colony, tucked up on tiny ledges in the darkness, their huge eyes glowing red in the light from our torches. Their young are 110 days in the nest, growing outrageously fat on a rich diet and lack of exercise – let that be a lesson to you.

Trinidad hosts yet another spectacle high on the list of the world’s greatest natural sights - the Scarlet Ibis roost at Caroni Swamp, an hour’s drive
Caroni Swamp Caroni Swamp Caroni Swamp

Gently cruising the dark waters of the mangrove swamp.
from Asa Wright. A quick click on the internet forecast heavy rain for our first rather special encounter with this magnificent bird; long gone are the days when weather could offer up its surprises unannounced. This encounter with the Scarlet Ibis could rate along with the magnificent migration of Sandhill Cranes at [url=Motorhome News from North America 5Pixley, California, for us, the Scarlet Macaw salt-lick at the Tambopata National reserve in [url=News from South America 1 - Peru 1Peru, and ballet-dancing clouds of Knot on the Wash at Snettisham in Norfolk, back home in the UK - but not in the rain.

And rain it did, by the bucket-load. Who invented Murphy’s Law?

The Caroni Swamp Bird Sanctuary is a few miles south of Port of Spain and the roosting lagoon is reached only by guided, flat-bottomed boat. The shallow light of a January evening shone bright between the trees on jet-black water, watched over by the witchlike claws of the mangrove swamp engulfing us. Within minutes of leaving dock, a stiff wind rose across the water blowing angry ripples before us, and dark clouds gathered overhead as our skipper skillfully manoeuvered the small boat along the narrow canal to the rhythmic chug-chug-chug of the outboard motor. And
Scarlet IbisScarlet IbisScarlet Ibis

Coming in to roost.
as predicted, great sheets of tropical rain swept over the marshes with frightening speed, the water around us erupted in anger and within seconds we were all soaked.

Janice, well prepared as ever, shared our umbrellas with the other passengers whilst we sheltered from the lashing downpour under our flimsy cagoules - and water in the boat steadily rose inch by inch over our feet, into our rucksacks and down our backs.

This is the dry season. With less than an hour to sunset, things were not looking good.

But the rain finally abated and all thoughts of damp underwear and soggy socks were put aside as the sky cleared and our tiny group heard the first calls across the broad expense of water now before us. Great skeins of Scarlet Ibis circled all around us, bright red formations set against a backdrop of a pale evening sky awaiting dusk. We sat in awe of this breathtaking sight, wide eyed, mouths agape, silent but for the gentle lap, lap, lapping of rippling water, the click, click, click of camera lenses. Imagine - thousands of bright red birds streaming into the trees to roost across the shimmering black waters of the lagoon. This is raw nature at its best.

Carnival time approaches as January departs on Trinidad and Tobago. We were a week or so early for the big event but every day is carnival here in Port of Spain. The steel band competition was well under way on the Savannah as we arrived. Unashamedly noisy, locals adorned in colourful outfits and girls in skimpy shorts, all preparing to party the weekend away. It’s tradition it seems, living life to the full, partying, dancing, singing, liming (hanging out) and eating – eating and more eating. Fast food is everywhere on T & T and outsize rear-ends are certainly much in evidence as a result; attached to the rear-end like a camel’s hump, along with the jaunty waddling gait of a jolly sailor.

Our abode for three nights in Port of Spain was rather special. We chose L’Orchidee, a boutique hotel across the Savannah. It’s rare to find such gracious service as experienced here from our delightful Indian hosts. A morning drive from PoS took us to Pitch Lake, the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world; some 95 acres of
Pitch LakePitch LakePitch Lake

Tread carefully!
dark sticky pitch, bubbling and steaming like boiling liquorice. They could do with some of that to fill in the ubiquitous holes in the roads hereabouts, but choose to export this valuable crop. Our friend Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have used it to repair the odd leak in his boats. They drive on the left here, but progress on the roads can be desperately slow, forever braking and weaving to avoid those nasty pot-holes. According to our driver, Trinidadians are happy to laugh at themselves. They would describe their roads and dangling cables along the roadside like Auntie Gertrude’s knitting as ‘work in progress’. I think we might describe it all as somewhat rustic but clean.

This southwest corner of Trinidad is keeping the islands afloat these days with oil and natural gas production along the western shores and vast Methanol plants on this industrial stretch. These have brought considerable wealth to the islands, making T & T the third wealthiest country in the Americas after Canada and the USA. Super unleaded for your car will set you back a mere TT$2.70 litre (27p), and diesel around half of that, TT$1.50 litre (15p). That might
Trinidad IndustryTrinidad IndustryTrinidad Industry

Oil, Natural Gas and Methanol production, keeping these islands afloat.
help to explain the huge number of vehicles on Trinidad’s roads; most of them standing motionless on the highways at peak times - and those totally stationery, abandoned on the verges in twisted rusting heaps. Everyone here wants a car, bikes are few and far between, but those without transport hang around waiting for busses pointing with their fingers as we pass, up for a long distance lift, or down for a short ride.

There is no ‘real’ poverty here our driver enlightened us. Wealth, or lack of it, is often expressed in the homes of the people who grace the land. Everywhere there are exotically colourful houses; outrageously orange, garish green, citrus yellow villas, salmon pink, dazzling white and flamboyantly Colonial for the richer, delightful small villages of handsome cottages, and a mish-mash of shabby shacks for the poorer. But the true wealth of this Republic appears in different ways; education and healthcare are free for all and there is happiness somewhere in the eyes on every face.

Hints of Trinidad’s history appear across the island; Spanish, French, British, and forts of the British Empire of its day; from the days African slavery to the indentured Indians that followed. Today, more than 40% of Trinidad’s population is of Indian origin with whole towns draped in delightful Indian attire of temples, prayer-flags and homes more at home in Delhi or Mumbai.

Cricket is more in evidence than football here but both parry for the T&T’s love of sport. This was Brian Lara’s home; one of the greatest cricketers of all time some will recall. Known here as ‘The Prince of Port of Spain’ the Brian Lara Cricket Stadium in Port of Spain ensures his memory and legacy live on across these islands. There were several matches going on across the Savannah on Sunday, each and every player smartly attired in whites as once was the tradition before the Aussies painted the game all colours of the rainbow.

Not to be outdone there’s another stadium with a football connection on Tobago, named after another famous Trinbagonian; the great Dwight Yorke, of Man U, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham, Sydney and Sunderland fame. We chanced to meet a tall lanky man with a beaming ebony face and an Arsenal badge on his bright red tee-shirt. I gave him a high-five,
M & S M & S M & S

And a touch of England in a far-off land!
accompanied by ‘Come on Chelsea!’ - and in return, received a big bunch of sparkling white teeth. He's probably never heard of my team, Norwich City, better known as the 'Canaries'.

Scroll down for more birdie pictures.

We’ll be in Tobago next week. A blog to follow; work in progress, as they say in T & T!

David and Janice

The Grey Haired Nomads

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Colourful housesColourful houses
Colourful houses

outrageously orange
Scarlet Ibis roost at Caroni SwampScarlet Ibis roost at Caroni Swamp
Scarlet Ibis roost at Caroni Swamp

One of the World's greatest wildlife wonders. Awesome! Breathtakingly awesome!

17th March 2015

As free as a bird
Beautifully written blog of a paradise of birds. Felt I was there...sweating, straining, craning and trying to catch a hummingbird in my lens. No mean feat. Great bird pics. Well done
26th March 2015

Strictly for the Birds,
We get a few of our kicks from our feathered friends as our focus for travel, though we get so much more as a gift in the process. Travel gets us away from our nightmare hobby of golf and my lifelong passion for gardening and DIY, and embalms us in the many other pastimes we both share; photography, writing, art and culture. Long may it continue! Best wishes and enjoying your jaunts in the USA, one of our most fondly remembered journeys - 17 months in a motorhome circumnavigating the 40,000 miles of North America's coastline in 2006/7. Very envious. Lots of it, David and Janice memories
21st March 2015

Always love to bird photography and appreciate your passion for the fine feathered friends. We've been to several Caribbean Islands but have not made it to these yet. Soon we hope.
26th March 2015

Strictly for the Birds
Hi Dave and Merry-Jo, T&T is no longer in the dark ages of history, but it remains friendly and has a fascination for its tolerance, love of fun and pace of life, we, in this sad commercial world, would do well to embrace. Thanks for listening! David

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