Oilbirds in Trinidad

Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad, The Veranda

We were going to the Dunston Cave on the grounds of Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad, a tropical island in the southern Caribbean.

Our guide, a young man from Trinidad, warned us it would be a tricky hike–people always fell–because of the descent on a slippery slope into the cave. Hang onto the railings, he said.

We were embarking on a two-hour hike to see the rare and protected oilbirds. Due to the birds’ aversions to disturbance, no one is allowed into the cave without an escort guide from the Nature Centre.

He said when we got close we would hear the birds; they sounded like “someone getting strangled while vomiting.”

We spotted wildlife as we went.

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Agouti, Trinidad

Tufted Coquette (hummingbird), male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

There were steep hills and narrow trails, thick growth and fragrant whiffs of a thriving, tropical environment. Several times we passed camera traps that record sightings of armadillo, raccoon, and an occasional ocelot.

He pointed out a hairy tarantula hidden inside the hand railing, and a white hawk posed for us.

White Hawk, Trinidad

Oilbirds live in just a few places in South America. This site is said to be the most accessible for viewing the oilbirds, hosts a stable breeding colony.  Wikipedia overview. 

Steatornis caripensis are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. They forage at night, and augment their vision using echolocation,  a technique usually associated only with bats.

Vines outside of Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Their diet is palm and laurel fruit, and this bird is big. The size of a hawk. They measure 16-19 inches long (40-49 cm), and have a wingspan of 37 inches (95 cm).

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

The common name “oilbird” comes from days gone by when the chicks were captured and boiled down to make oil. Indigenous people and early settlers used the oil for cooking and lamp-lighting fuel.  Fortunately, those days are over.

For the final descent we were surrounded by high rock walls with dense foliage, streaming vines, ferns, and palms. In spite of the slickness, it was enchanting…until we heard them.

Dunston Cave, black crevasse in center. Green railings guided us.

Sounded like wild grunting pigs. In front of us were towering canyon walls with a very narrow, dark crevasse; this was the cave. A shallow stream flowed into it.

The birds were screeching, loudly, but we saw no birds. It was completely dark in there. During the day they roost on ledges inside the cave. Though our group was about a dozen, we could only go in three people at a time; no flash photography permitted. They’re very skittish to any disturbance.

Friends in our group navigating their footing, the guide (in green) at Dunston Cave

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Oilbirds on ledge inside Dunston Cave, Trinidad

There is a whole crew of naturalists who tend to and protect the oilbirds, climbing a precarious ladder, recording nests and nesting activity, and submitting scientific information. Annual oilbird counts have been conducted here since 1969. To date there is a population of 183 birds.

We weren’t there long, so as not to disturb them, and soon we turned around and climbed back up. It was hot and the climb was steep, a man in our group fainted, but he was okay.

As we emerged from below, I thought about this remarkable bird that survived a history of persecution, perched on the ledge and screeching inside that cave, now healthy and reproducing.

But just then the Bearded Bellbird called. We stole off to find yet another avian oddity and delight.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Sending our warmest thoughts to the folks of the Caribbean during this furious hurricane season.

Map of Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, bottom right. Courtesy scuba-diving-smiles.com

87 thoughts on “Oilbirds in Trinidad

    • It was hard to see them but everything about them was beautiful, I’m very glad you enjoyed the oilbirds, Teagan. Always a treat to have you buzz by on the wing, my hugs swing back to you, my friend–

    • The tufted coquette is one of the most beautiful hummingbirds I’ve ever seen, a true favorite, I’m glad you liked it Amy. They are so fast they are almost imperceptible. Athena must’ve taken a hundred shots. My best to you–

  1. You have the most amazing life. But I’m sure my silly little comment isn’t telling you anything new there. That honey creeper … wowza!! And I never knew such about Oilbirds. Viewing them was probably well worth the risk of slipping and falling on your bum. ‘Great wildlife captures’ goes without saying.

    My best friend lived in Tobago for many years (missed being best man at our wedding because of it) and has been pushing us to go birding / butterfly-ing there ever since. We also frequent a Trinidad-Indian restaurant; the owners BEG us to go for the nature experience rather than the food (which they also say is amazing). If there is a foreign place we will go first as a family, Trini/Tobago will most definitely be it! Costa Rica is a close and Canada are close seconds.

    • Glad you enjoyed the visit to Trinidad, Shannon. You would love it there. But for taking the family birding, I would suggest CR first, it’s bigger and easy to get around and more kid-friendly. Asa Wright is an amazing place, but more adult-oriented, a good place for you and your husband to enjoy an anniversary or something. If you do decide to go to any of these places, email me (via Contact tab), I have recommendations. Always a delight to “see” you, thanks for stopping by, and happy fall birding! I hope the hurricane recovery is going well.

  2. This sounds and looks like an amazing adventure, Jet. We sincerely hope the wildlife will cope with the hurricane season. It’s very alarming what we see and read securely tucked away on the other side of the pond.

    • It was an amazing adventure, and my thanks to the Fab Four for visiting. We have been to many lovely places in the vicinity of the Caribbean, stunning wildlife and delightful people. They are living through a terrifying time. Thanks for your acknowledgement, I know we all hope it ends soon.

    • Hi SWI, you have a good question. The oilbirds were once more established and free-flying, but their oil properties were seized on by humans, and the birds were persecuted to the point of near-extinction. This led the species to evolve to find the most safe and inaccessible-to-human places possible, like remote and hidden caves, where they could perpetuate the species. There aren’t many left on earth anymore, but this colony has expanded and continues to be protected. Great to “see” you, my friend–

      • Jets, for replying to my inquiry; a fascinating history to their self survival skills. I certainly hope it will cause their population to increase. I can’t imagine their lives will increase rapidly since it appears they spend a large amount of time underground

  3. Honestly Jet, I am flabbergasted! I flicked through the photos first and when I got to the shots of the oilbirds in the cave my mouth literally dropped open. But then I started reading and the things just seemed to get crazier and crazier, what with the description of their call and the treacherous (by the sound of it) access to the cave. When you said about the chicks being boiled for oil, I couldn’t believe it, even if it was in the past. Thank goodness that is no longer done and the birds are protected. Yet another great post 🙂

    • Always wonderful to hear from you, Alastair. It is a great honor for this author to hear your process of reading the article, taking it in, absorbing it, and enjoying it. Thanks for joining me on the oilbird adventure. The sounds they make would be a joy for you to record. Always a pleasure, my friend, and now I’m off to see what you’ve been up to in your beautiful Wales.

    • So right, Craig, it is difficult to imagine the act of boiling a bird for its oil. There is so much of life that I, too, think, “If I wrote that in my fiction, no one would believe it.” I like hearing your experience of it too. Many thanks–

  4. How interesting Jet and must admit, I let out a more then an audible gasp followed quickly by profanity when I read how the Oilbird received his name. My gosh. Oh, and that Tufted Coquette, how absolutely beautiful. What an incredible hike you all experienced!

    • We often read about wildlife being persecuted these days, and they are, but sometimes we find a species who has gained respect and protection, like the curious oilbirds at Dunston Cave. I’m happy to share the story with you, Joanne, and appreciate your kind words. Glad you liked the tufted coquette, they are so psychedelic and pure bliss to watch. Hope your weekend is a delight….

  5. What an adventure! And what an array of remarkable creatures encountered on the way to seeing/hearing another astonishing bird. Your words and Athena’s photography created a vivid and compelling piece here.
    Yes, let’s hope hurricane season will calm down, and hard hit places can recover.
    It’s always a delight to read your travel exploits – thanks, Jet!

    • Thanks for joining us on the oilbird adventure, pc, it was really fun trodding off to a secret cave to see a bird that we would never see anywhere else in the world. Thank you for taking the time to read and enjoy this, and for your kind words, always appreciated. Have fun on your hiking adventure with your new boots this weekend. 🙂

  6. We had arranged a week of birdwatching last year in Ecuador and one day our guide took us to a distant place just to see oilbirds. What are oilbirds, we asked?! We’d never heard of them. He told us the story, as you have. We were pretty impressed. When we arrived, we hiked back to a very narrow break in the rocks, cave-like, and inaccessible. We climbed over the rocks and there they were – sitting up high on ledges. Definitely, the oilbird and hoatzin (you last posted about) are two of the most unusual birds we’ve ever seen.

  7. The Purple Honeycreeper is fabulous, and the humming bird you shot. So glad the Oilbirds survived man!
    Wonderful post! 😀 (I went to Amazon to see why my/your book isn’t here, yet. There was an apology message, and what I could do about it. This happened once last year with a book, so I’ve decided to wait longer) 😀

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Resa, the honeycreeper and coquette are truly spectacular birds, aren’t they? And yes, so wonderful that the oilbirds survived man, and were revived by man. Re the book, Amazon will send it, but it is not at the top of their priority list. Sometimes I wish I was Stephen King. lol. An option is to cancel your Amazon order and order direct from the publisher, but since you’ve waited already, you might just wait some more. As an independent author, I have chosen this route over having a business license and dealing with the enormously thick red tape of that, otherwise I would send you a copy. Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for making the purchase. When it arrives, you’ll enjoy the read. Here’s the publisher link if you want: https://store.bookbaby.com/book/Golden-Gate-Graveyard

    • Before we left on the hike, the trail seemed daunting, and I knew I could not afford to fall, was torn about going. But oilbirds only happen once in a lifetime, so I took the chance, and was very glad of it. Therefore I wrote the narrative as the unfolding story that it was, am very glad you enjoyed it Val. Glad you liked Athena’s photos too. It was fun to bring the oilbirds to you today, thanks for dropping by, as always.

  8. I love this, Jet. The oilbirds are fascinating, and a part of their appeal for me is the wonderful (unusual) environment in which they live and have survived, despite the years of persecution. Thank you for this post, and kudos to Athena for her super photographs. Those other three avian species make me dream of visiting the islands (wishing them better days in this stressful time).

    • Hi Walt, I’m happy you enjoyed the oilbirds, the visit to the Dunston Cave, and the photos and birds of Trinidad. We had a wonderful time birding there, went to some spectacular sites around the island. when we were on nearby Tobago Island we talked to a fisherman who regularly went out on fishing charters. He owns a restaurant in Fla. and every year goes to Tobago Island to go fishing. So once those hurricane are done wreaking havoc, it would be a great place to check out some day. Many thanks for your kind words.

  9. Oooh, that Purple Honeycreeper and (especially) the Tufted Coquette are some really gorgeous birds. Not so sure about your oilbirds. It doesn’t seem like I’d want them for neighbors. The monotonous cooing of some mourning doves back at the old place got to be a bit annoying. Hard to imagine something that sounded like wild grunting pigs. Have to admit that your guides description of their noises sounded even less appealing. You DO manage to find some of the most interesting adventures!

    • You have a good eye for the beautiful birds, Gunta. And fortunately you’ll never have to worry about having the oilbirds for neighbors, so you’re in fine shape, Gunta. That was a great adventure, I’m glad you got to come along today, my friend, and I hope your new wildlife neighbors are a joy. Thanks so much for stopping by, pleasure to see you.

    • It did feel like a privilege, and I’m glad I could introduce you to this marvelous species, Eliza. And great fun to share the splashy tropical birds with you, too. Thanks for coming to the rainforest of Trinidad.

    • You and I usually know most of the birds on this planet, HJ, even if tangentially. But I, too, had not heard of them until we prepared for this trip. Happy to share this new species with you, HJ. Thanks very much, my friend.

    • Oh good, I found someone who’s been to Asa Wright, thanks so much for stopping by, WadeandRock. I am glad to know you’ve been to this special rainforest in the world, enjoyed the oilbirds and the wildlife of that island. Many thanks and happy travels.

  10. thank you for bringing me to that beautiful place
    to see such rare and precious creatures, Jet!
    with your guidance i didn’t feel afraid
    entering the cave to see & hear the oilbird 🙂

  11. In addition to always learning about a new bird or place, I so enjoy when I read about your adventures at how casually you mention ocelots roaming in the area, a tarantula hanging nearby and a difficult hike to see a bird that sounds like “someone getting strangled while vomiting.” Your writing really brings to life a part of nature I have never experienced. I loved the photos of the white hawk, hummingbird and purple honeycreeper and the story and photos about the oilbirds was fascinating. I do wish they would give them a new name, but the story of their survival in that environment and the fact that you were able to see and photograph them was amazing.

    • What a pleasure it is for me to have you absorb the oilbird story so thoroughly, ACI. On the trail, the camera traps were not even mentioned until I spotted them, asked the guide, and oh how delighted I was to know armadillos and ocelots walked the same trail as us. The tarantula was really cool tucked inside the railing, the very railing that we were hanging onto. I very much appreciate your observations and articulation, ACI, and look forward to having you read my next novel, you are an observant and appreciative reader and that means a lot to a writer. I’ll have to work really hard to keep you from discovering the murderers. I like that you wished the oilbirds would have a different name, and you’ll be happy to know there are other names. Often they are called “guacharo.” I just did some digging and found that the word is onomatopoeic originating from an old Castilian word meaning “one who shrieks or cries.” And in Trinidad they sometimes call them “diablotin,” French for “little devil” also in reference to the shrieking cries. (Have fun with football today. We don’t get the Bengal/Packers game, but are looking forward to seeing the Raiders/Redskins, with the wonderful Chris, Al, and Michelle team.)

      • I’m looking forward to your next novel and I know I will be surprised again, but I will be guessing through every chapter and hoping for a few extra clues from the author.🙂 I envy the talent and craft that you writers possess and love losing myself in the words and worlds you create. I like the name “guacharo” for the oilbirds and after following your blog, I knew you thought the close proximity to a tarantula and ocelots was cool. I cannot believe the way the Lions lost and I’ll be watching the Packers and Raiders game (glad to hear you are a fan of the best football broadcasting team).🙂

      • Loved your comment, ACI, and appreciate your kind words and encouragement. As for FB, I did see the last few minutes of the Patriots game…oh that TB is somethin’ else.

  12. Jet reading the title my first thought was if the hurricanes. I’m hoping this might be from a trip in the past?
    The hike sounds quite arduous and the one out with the man fainting sounds severe. So glad he was all right.
    What a special thing to see these rare birds, especially for you and Athena who are such avid bird watchers. Wonderful that thebirds are being protected.

    • We did this trip in Jan. 2017, pre-hurricane season. Yes, we enjoyed it so very much, and I’m happy to bring you the oilbirds. Wishing you and Dave a grand visit to Ireland, Sue. Thank you so much for your visit and comment, always a pleasure.

  13. Once again your blog is so informative and fascinating. I have never heard of the Oilbird and reading about why they are named that is indeed harrowing. Thank goodness they are safe today. What an incredible expedition into the cave to see them…this was truly a once in a lifetime happening. As you say the Caribbean has suffered a vicious hurricane season, and so let’s hope that wildlife and people alike survive. It would seem that the Oilbird is in possibly one of the most protected spots. When I lived in the States, my husband and I spent Januarys in Puerto Rico…and to see the devastation there…it really is quite something. Onwards….janet 🙂

  14. You never cease to amaze me with the places you go and the things you see. Fascinating information on the oilbird, glad they are protected. Nature does provide such a wide variety of wild life in general, but birds specifically and each species with it’s own spot in the eco system. Love the pictures as always…awesome job to Athena…..loved the humming bird one!! Another great post Jet!!

    • Those oilbirds are an unusual species, aren’t they Kirt? I’m happy you enjoyed (I’m smiling) the oilbird adventure, and thank you for your kind visit and comment. It is great fun to report on all the beauty and diversity on this planet.

  15. I think being told before the hike started that it would be a “tricky” one would have increased my anxiety! But I’m so glad you went and showed these wonderful oilbirds to us, Jet. My, you do have some awesome adventures 🙂

  16. Fascinating story about the oilbirds, Jet. Happy to hear about their recovery as a species. Two thumbs up for Athena to capture pictures of them in the dark environment. Oh and grunting pigs sounds much better than vomiting strangled person. One might have to have had witnessed such unfortunate person to know what he sounds like. 😨

  17. WOW!! Amazing what you went through to witness this unique bird! The photos are glorious, as always, and I loved the beautiful map. I listed to its calls on the xeno-canto website. WOWOWOWOWOW!!!!! It did, indeed, sound like a grunting pig…being strangled while vomiting – and really angry about it.

    • Oh how I love that you went to xeno-canto, Nan, to listen to this scary-sounding bird. I know it would’ve been more alarming to us, hearing the blood-curdling squeals emanate from the dark cave, if the guide hadn’t warned us. I was glad he did. Am also glad to share them with you, thanks for your visit, as always.

    • Those folks at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and other environmentalists in the area work really hard to keep the oilbirds proliferating. This is a wonderful thing. I’m happy to have introduced you to them, thanks for your visit and lovely comment.

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