Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
Tobago & Trinidad
20 February to 1 March 2015
By Stephen Burch
During this trip we were "self propelled", having made all the arrangements ourselves, unlike most other birders we encountered who were either on tours or had had their arrangements taken care of by a travel company (MotMot Travel was a name often mentioned). The ASA Wright Nature Centre on Trinidad was clearly a must and we arranged to spend 3 nights there, preceded by six nights on Tobago. Here we spent the first 3 nights in the south, followed by 3 at the Blue Waters Inn (BWI) in the north. BWI is clearly on the same birding "circuit" as ASA Wright, and the birders we came across there were either destined for ASA Wright or had come from there.
On Tobago we hired a car and travelled independently but on Trinidad we relied fully on the ASA Wright Centre for airport transfers and excursions. With hindsight, it might have been better to spend an extra night on Trinidad as 3 nights seemed a little short for ASA Wright.
Maps and navigation
On Tobago we also made considerable use of a third party map for my Garmin SatNav from GPS Travel Maps. Unlike the UUD Japan Garmin map, this downloaded and installed fine. As in Japan in 2013, in advance of my trip, I had set about using Google Maps to find out the GPS co-ordinates for all the locations I wanted to visit, which I give below. Hopefully others may find this info useful - I certainly did, although navigation on Tobago isn't too challenging - it is a small island with a limited number of roads. The road quality is variable though, with parts of the main north/south road between Scarborough and Speyside is very poor condition in places.
It is also worth noting that they drive on the left and use US style electric plugs (2-pin mainly).
I now describe the main sites and areas we visited, in approximate chronological order. To skip to Trinidad, click here.
Tobago (20 - 26 February)
Le Grand Courlan Hotel and Black Rock Beach
On the beach, which was reached by exiting a gate at the bottom of the hotel grounds and crossing a road, I was delighted to find an obliging Yellow-crowned Night Heron - a bird that had until now eluded me in various visits to the USA. Offshore were fishing Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds overhead. A good start!
It is probably the best birding site in the south of the island, but was somewhat disappointing on our two visits. The setup here is to stop (even if not asked) at the security gate and pay a nominal sum for a birding permit for the grounds. During the week at least, this can then then be presented at the Admin building (at 11.147456,-60.788108) whereupon they should open a rusty gate for you, which allows you access to a further set of weedy pools (sewage ponds) - which can have extra birds. There is also an extensive boardwalk through dense mangroves accessed from 11.147232,-60.783347, which I've not seen mentioned in other trip reports, possibly because it is not exactly obvious! However we saw nothing along this walk although it was an interesting environment, and Newton George (who we met later - see below) recommends it!
Immediately on the right of the approach road, before the security gate, there are views of a large pool with Anhingas, Great Egret and Green Heron etc. Also Spotted Sandpiper. Newton George later mentioned that Belted Kingfisher are here but we had seen no sign of them. There is also a pool to the left, just past the security gate, but that didn't seem to have much else. Southern Lapwings were all over the place!
Turning right at the first roundabout and then right again leads to the Admin building and a more productive quieter area, with a heronry close by on the right - full of Cattle Egrets, some in breeding plumage, and Tri-coloured Herons. We saw our first Eared Doves by the road here. Further on past the Admin building to the right there was another pool that had a few White-winged Swallows over in the late afternoon sun of our first visit, and some squabbling Smooth-billed Anis in the surrounding bushes.
I returned on my own in the early morning of our last day in the south of the island and gained access to the weedy pools accessed through the locked gate - where you can drive around if you ask. This had some nice Least Grebes, Wattled Jacanas, a few waders (Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers) and more herons, including Great Blue and Little Blue (mainly immatures, that can be mistaken on a casual glance for Little Egrets as they are white!). However there was no sign of Masked Ducks or White-cheecked Pintails which I later learned from Newton George can sometimes be found here.
There is sign saying that the birds are fed daily at 10:00 and 16:00, but arriving at around 10 on a Sunday it was clear that there had been no feeding so far that day. There was evidence of some recent feeding - with a little liquid left in one of the feeders which are at the back of the derelict building. There were also several bird species hanging around in clear expectation of food! Most notable was the tame Trinidad Motmots. There were also large numbers of Rufous vented Chachalacas and a few tanagers - Blue-grey and Silver-lined. A family with a noisy toddler didn't exactly help though, but they eventually departed!
We then went for a pleasant walk up the main track through the estate which proved to be quite productive and a good introduction to some of the special forest species to be found on Tobago. The best was a splendid Rufous-tailed Jacamar right on the path, but we also managed to find an impressive Cocoa Woodcreeper, a Barred Antshrike and the perpetual motion White-fringed Antwren (2 pairs) that are not found on Trinidad. We also had a glimpse of something that was almost certainly a Scrub Greenlet and various flycatchers.
After paying a small fee, you are able to view a large number of feeders arranged along one side of the house. There are also two trails, the longer of which goes up a hill and is only open a few days of the week, in the morning. However the other shorter one which goes in a small loop through the grounds below the house is always open.
The feeders was of course where we started, to admire at close quarters the numerous hummingbirds of four different species - White-naped Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Copper-rumped Hummingbird and the startling Ruby Topaz (when it faces you!). Photo opportunities were however only moderate as the perches weren't especially convenient. Other birds included a brief Barred Antshrike, Grey-blue Tanagers, White-lined Tanagers, a Spectacled Thrush and a Red-crowned Woodpecker. It was here I made my first attempts at hummingbird in flight photography which worked out surprisingly well without any flash (but of course with masses of rejects!).
The trail through the garden at Adventure Farm also produced some good birds, most notably Northern Waterthrush and another White-fringed Antwren.
Other sites in southern Tobago
Blue Waters Inn
There were a few hummingbird feeders around but they tended to be in deep shade and didn't seem to be attracting anything very interesting. By now we had seen most of the common Tobago birds so didn't spend any of our limited time exploring the grounds which can be quite productive according to some other trip reports.
Rain forest excursion with Newton George
This trip took place on our first full day at the BWI and involved an 06:00 departure, returning in time for lunch. We were with two other birding couples in a minibus driven by Newton. Our first stop was a small marshy area not far from the BWI which had both Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Black-faced Grassquit, Grey-rumped Swifts over and a small flock of Blue-winged Teal. There were also a couple of rather grotty immature Yellow crowned Night Herons (not a patch on the adult on the Black Rock beach!).
The next stop was by a river which was a site for Common Potoo, roosting high up on a tree. Closer to hand was a Yellow-breasted Flycatcher and another White-fringed Antwren.
After that, we headed up into the mountains along the Roxborough to Bloody Bay Road. The conditions were now good with some sun after overnight and early morning rain and bird activity was high. Several Trinidad Motmots were seen, and a few Rufous-tailed Jacamars. One stop produced Broad-winged Hawk over and Streaked & Ochre-bellied Flycatchers. The next stop was more productive though with one of my top targets - a splendid Collared Trogon (not seen on all of Newton's trips apparently) which showed reasonably well. This was unfortunately the only trogon we saw on this entire trip (we dipped on all 3 on Trinidad). There was also a Plain-Ant Vireo and Grey Kingbird in this area, along with a Golden-olive Woodpecker.
We then drove past the Gilpin Trace entrance to a building with a view and some basic toilet facilities where we had a picnic breakfast provided by BWI. This stop was also notable for good views of another key target - an ace Blue-backed Manakin, briefly out the open (which I unfortunately managed to miss most of, being otherwise engaged) and a distant White-necked Thrush.
The Gilpin Trace footpath was slightly wet & muddy but no problem for my walking boots (certainly no need for wellies!). It went through dense rainforest which was good for a small number of bird species but almost impossible for flash-less photography. Probably the best bird was a White-tailed Sabrewing but it was quite distant and high up in the trees. It was difficult to get too excited about a Yellow Legged Thrush, which looked remarkably like our Blackbird! Persistent play-back and searching by Newton eventually produced Olivaceous Woodcreeper (which I had already seen in Brazil) and Stripe-breasted Spinetail which was a lifer. This was quite a thin total but about 2hrs of birding - Newton spent a lot of time saying that this & that can often be seen right by the path (e.g. Blue-backed Manakin lekking) but not today it seemed!
The return route was similar to the outward leg. Stopping again on the Roxborough to Bloody Bay road produced Venezuelan Flycatcher and we had good views from the coast road of a Green-rumped Parrotlet on roadside wires and a Red-crowned Woodpecker. Best of all, there were two impressive Great-black Hawks soaring over a nearby hill.
Hummingbird Gallery, Speyside
This had several feeders similar to Adventure Farm but the arrangements for photography were considerably better - Newton had even brought a dead tree down from the hills to create suitably photogenic perches! This site has regular White-tailed Sabrewing but in the breeding season they can be elusive - we only had brief visits from one, with views only on the feeders for a few seconds towards dusk. The day before it had apparently been considerably more obliging - but only after the visitors had departed! This happened to us as well - after its initial appearance at about 17:00 we waited until about 18:00, only to be called back by Newton from the bottom of his drive. We missed the Sabrewing briefly perched clear of the feeders and only had the briefest of feeder views.
Other birds here included the four hummers seen at Adventure Farm and various Tanagers, Barred Antshrike etc. I spent some time trying for more hummingbird flight shots and anything else that came in range of my lens!
The viewpoint consists of a panoramic view down to the sea over sloping cliffs. When we arrived all the birds were very distant - Red-billed Tropicbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Red-footed and Brown Boobies. During the next hour and a half, somewhat disappointingly the birds only approached us quite infrequently and there weren't as many tropicbirds as I was expecting to see. Also we were told this wasn't the right time of year for Audobon's Shearwaters in their nesting burrows, but this didn't accord with other trip reports I've seen. It is possible the guide simply couldn't be bothered to show us any, or didn't want to disturb them?
Other birds seen on the island and from the viewpoint were limited to a couple of Broad-winged Hawks over, a few Crested Oropendolas and a few Blue-Grey Tanagers. So a slightly disappointing visit, but I did get the odd photo:
Trinidad (26 February - 1 March)
ASA Wright Nature Centre
Exotic tanagers and honeycreepers were also much in evidence, including Purple and Green Honeycreepers, Turquoise Tanager, Silver-beaked Tanager, White-lined Tanager and Bay-headed Tanager. Other birds on or around the feeders included Cocoa Thrush and the wonderfully named Violaceous Euphonia. Slightly more distant were a colony of nesting Crested Oropendolas, Channel-billed Toucan, Orange Winged Parrots, Yellow Oriole and Bearded Bellbird (which favoured the top of a distant tree, affording reasonable 'scope views - also briefly once closer). When the weather cleared (it did once!) raptors appeared over the valley below - Black Hawk Eagle, Common Black Hawk and White Hawk.
Photography was not quite as productive - the feeders and surrounding bushes were rather too distant and well below. After a while I found that the left end of the veranda was better with a small tree at eye level and nice & close. It sometimes held honeycreepers and tanagers, often sheltering from the torrential rain!
For stays of 3 nights or more at ASA Wright, a free guided tour to Dunstan cave is also included. These take place twice a week and ours was on our last morning in dull, sometimes wet conditions. En-route down to the caves the guide showed us a White-flanked Antwren, but the main interest of course was the Oilbirds in the cave. It was very dark, and quite wet under foot (I think I was in the middle of a small stream!) but the guide's torch provided sufficient illumination for some photos. Fortunately one bird was quite close and in the very limited time available I managed to get a reasonable photo - a tripod was essential for the long exposure needed.
Caroni Swamp Tour
After that we were driven to the edge of the swamp where we looked in vain for Masked Cardinal, but we did pick up a few Saffron Finches. At around 16:00 we boarded a boat that was dedicated to our party only, with a bird expert boat-man as well as the ASA Wright guide. Note that many general tourist boats depart from the same place, at the same time, but almost certainly do not stop for the interesting birds to be seen in the swamp on the way to the Scarlet Ibis roost. We proceeded at a leisurely pace, and almost immediately had a very poor view of a Green-throated Mango, followed by many Little Blue Herons. Others notable birds in the dense mangroves included Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Bicoloured Conebill, Common Potoo and best of all a delightful pair of Tropical Screech Owls. Pygmy Kingfisher was also spotted by all. We also saw some bats, a snake and some crabs.
It wasn't until a little before 18:00 that we arrived at the Scarlet Ibis roost site, and by the then the light, which had been poor all day, was even worse! The boats stay well away from the roosting bushes but a few of the hundreds of Scarlet Ibis coming into roost flew somewhat closer to our boat. They were a magnificent spectacle - made even better by a generous allowance of ASA Wright rum punch!
Nariva Swamp Tour
At the start of this tour we stopped a few times along the Arima Valley which produced some good raptors - Grey-lined Hawk, White Hawk as well as Blue Dacnis. The first main site is the Aripo agricultural research station which had a nesting Pearl Kite near the entrance and Green-rumped Parrotlets as well. The specialities here were both Tyrants again, Grassland Yellow Finch and the impressive Red-breasted Blackbird. Raptors comprised numerous Black Vultures and a Savannah Hawk or two.
Reaching the Nariva Swamp then required a further hour or more of driving, interrupted briefly by a stop for Yellow-rumped Caciques. The swamp area itself was initially somewhat disappointing with only Black-bellied Whistling Duck although a bushy area produced a nice Black-crested Ant Shrike. The next area of swamp was better with crippling views of Pineated Bittern, a brief glimpse of a White-tailed Goldenthroat and a Striped Cuckoo, in considerable heat. At the end of the afternoon we went on a short walk looking for Red-Bellied Macaws which duly appeared although I was too slow to get onto the two that came close enough for photographs. There was also a confiding Solitary Sandpiper on a muddy pool along the path, although I didn't have very long to photograph it. All in all, this was a pleasant spot to end the day and drink another ration of rum punch!
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch