A Glimpse of Trinidad

Purple Honeycreeper (male)

One of the many joys of birding in other countries is spending time with local guides. Whether it’s driving through the towns or bumping along on a back road, for a short, sweet time we are receiving the gift of a glimpse into their lives.

 

Trinidad is a small island in the West Indies, located eight miles (12 km) off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. It has rainforests and plantations, cities and towns, fishing, and steel drum music. Their economy is based largely on the export of oil and natural gas products. Wikipedia Trinidad overview

 

It was originally called “Land of the Hummingbird” by the South American Lokono people…and hummingbirds still grace the rainforests. Some of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world live here.

 

And there are a lot of birds on this tropical island, 460 different species.

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male

During our six days in Trinidad, our modest accommodations were located in a mountain rainforest eco-lodge. Asa Wright Nature Centre. For us, every day was about finding the birds.

 

Some days the guide drove a few of us into town, visiting birding spots like sewage ponds, swamps, and an old abandoned army base. I realize that doesn’t sound glorious, but it was.

 

One afternoon we went to the Caroni Swamp, a 12,000-acre mangrove wetland famous for the nightly arrival of huge flocks of scarlet ibis.

 

Caroni Swamp post.

Scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

That was magical. And I also loved cruising the back roads, not only for the panoply of exotic birds, but to see native Trinidadians in their daily routines.

Ranger releasing a caiman spotted and called-in by a local resident. Caroni Swamp

 

After-school scene

 

Watermelon truck and fruit stand

 

Lapwings, creekside

Some of the scraggliest trees were the sites of dozens of colorful birds. We watched a tufted coquette, one of the tiniest and showiest hummingbirds in the world, hassling a much-bigger owl.

Tufted coquette, male

 

There were often tanagers everywhere you looked.

Silver-beaked Tanager

 

In a residential neighborhood on a mountainside we watched yellow-rumped caciques among their needle residences, while squawking macaws flew by.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques at nests

 

We were birding among cacoa trees when a Rastafarian silently walked by extending the two-finger peace symbol.

Rastafarian

Unripe cacao pods

 

This is a construction site near our lodge, we passed it at least twice a day. They have perpetual wash-outs here, during heavy rains.

 

Construction Site

When we weren’t busy trying to spot a bird, one or another of us in the group would ask our guide questions about the country; school system, local or national government, or more personal questions. Some guides like to tell the local folk stories about certain trees or birds.

 

We had different guides every day while in Trinidad, and they all revealed different stories.

 

One guide often pointed out the crops we were looking at, how the product was used, how you ate it and what it tasted like. He liked to cook so he would tell us how to fix it and flavor it.

 

While in a traffic jam, one guide explained they have a lot of traffic in Trinidad because it is so cheap to drive a car, fuel costs almost nothing.

Our guide, Rudall, looking for macaws

On top of being excellent birders, as I often point out, guides are fluent in many languages, knowledgeable about the science of birds, and savvy about the biology and botany of the area.

 

What a gift it is to drive through a foreign country, listening to a person tell about his country and its history, his friends and family, his surroundings. In Trinidad it was always men who were the guides, but I was happy to see a few women naturalist trainees at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

 

Always, no matter what country we are in, it boils down to the same thing for all of us:

 

We strive to establish a comfortable and productive life, connect with loved ones and neighbors, and work through our troubles, our hopes, and our fears.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Posts I’ve written about special birds seen in Trinidad:

Boat Guide (R) and Captain (L) on nearby Little Tobago Island

 

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A New Year of Peace

Ulysses Butterfly, Australia

On this holiday, one that is shared across the globe, here are a few of earth’s wild and worldly inhabitants to remind us how to find peace.

 

Enjoy the gifts of food

Purple Finch, California, USA

and water, and help those who do not have it.

Zebra, Zambia, Africa

 

Take in the glories of nature wherever it appears.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Practice courage and perseverance,

Lioness and African Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

and navigate the dark.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

Paddle through adversity.

Domestic cattle, Belize, Central America

 

Take time to relax.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Find whimsy

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

and be flexible.

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

 

May each day begin with song

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, USA

and dance,

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Isl., South America

with times when you shine

Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Isl., South America

and sparkle.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Take comfort in your community

Parrolets, Mexico

yet reach out beyond it.

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Demonstrate patience and compassion to the young

Thornicroft giraffe mother with baby, Zambia, Africa

and old.

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Isl., South America

 

Embrace these basic elements of life,

and you will have peace and love

every day of the year.

Lambs, California, USA

Thank you, my friends, for another great year of sharing.

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Wishing you…

…the sweet nectar of life

this holiday season and

throughout the new year.

Tufted Coquette, male, Trinidad

One of the world’s tiniest hummingbirds, the tufted coquette is about the size of a credit card. They live in rainforests and gardens, in a few countries in and around South America. Hummingbirds are a symbol of joy.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

The Bearded Bellbird

Bearded Bellbird, calling; Trinidad

Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.

 

Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”

 

The rainforest path we were on, Trinidad

A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.

 

The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening:  a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.

 

Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.

 

Also on the trail: Golden Tegu Lizard

Click here for the sound recording, taken in the same rainforest where I was, at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

 

Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.

 

There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.

 

Agouti, Trinidad, watching us on the trail

Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.

 

For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.

 

He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.

Bearded Bellbird, Trinidad

Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.

 

Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.

 

But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.

 

So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Violacious Euphonia, also on the trail

Procnias averano (Beaded Bellbird) range. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

 

 

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.

 

All photos: 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

 

Giant Otters

Amazon Basin

We were in Peru, deep in the Amazon jungle on the Madre de Dios River, boarding a raft with hopes of finding the Giant Otters.

 

Although they are listed as endangered, there was a chance we might see them on an oxbow lake. The world’s largest freshwater carnivores, Pteronura basiliensis primarily eat fish, especially piranha; they also eat crabs, snakes, and small caiman.

Giant Otter

The raft had been specially constructed for viewing these otters. It was a flat, wooden platform built on top of two canoes. The two canoeists paddled in unison.

 

Although the otters are highly social and vocal mammals, we were asked to be quiet and still, for they are rare, and getting rarer.

We had questions. How giant are they?

 

Males are in the range of five feet long (1.5 m), not including the tail; and females are slightly smaller.

 

How rare are they?

 

Found only in South America, they have already gone extinct in some countries. Sadly, there are  only 1,000-5,000 individuals left on earth (Wikipedia). They are on the International Conservation Red List (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). 

 

Wikipedia giant otter overview.

 

So we sat still and quiet, looking for this special otter.

 

I’ve seen both wild River Otters and Sea Otters. Adorable and quiet, they endearingly flip and spin around. In Monterey Bay, it is common to see the Sea Otters cracking open mussels on their chests, so cute.

 

So I thought I knew what to expect if we did find the Giant Otters…but I was wrong.

Howler Monkeys

There’s a constant feeling of intimidation and mystery on the Amazon. Howler monkeys woke us up that dark morning, making booming, howling sounds. I thought we were in a tornado or something.

 

The guide told us Giant Otters eat piranha. I looked around me. Caiman were gliding past us. We’re on this raft without railings, and there are piranha and caiman swimming around.

White caiman, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

 

Hoatzins

 

And some really big birds the size of pheasants were watching us, croaking and hissing. Hoatzins.

 

Fortunately, we found the Otters. I was initially shocked at their size. The size of a human. Five feet long, plus the tail.

Giant Otter

They were not the least bit concerned with us. We were the intruders. They were in their element, frolicking and boisterous.

Giant Otter

They would disappear under the dark water, come up with a fish and tear at it with great abandon, using their large, webbed forepaws. They were barking and snorting, and gregarious.

 

Giant Otters

Soon we quietly paddled away. I hoped they would always have this beautiful place to hunt and thrive.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Piranha. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, Part 2 of 2

Frigatebird, male display, Galapagos

In 1841, Herman Melville came to the Galapagos Islands aboard the whaling boat Acushnet. He described the islands as having “emphatic uninhabitableness.”

 

I find this uninhabitableness part of the charm of Galapagos.

 

Welcome to Part 2. If you missed Part 1, click here.

 

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos

 

On Santa Cruz Island, we had the thrill of observing Giant Tortoises in the wild. At the Charles Darwin Research Station we visited the breeding station where they raise the young in their first five years. After that, the tortoises are released and monitored.

 

We also hiked up into the highlands, found what looked like large boulders–the tortoises. The largest living tortoise on earth, they can live to be 100 years old.

 

Oh how very slowly they moved. When those old eyes looked out at me, I was immediately struck by the wisdom and reverence of these venerable creatures.

 

Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz Island

 

In addition to the large body, head that retracts into the scraped-up shell, and their freaky slowness…they hiss. They are simply letting air out of their lungs.

 

This video I found is a good representation:  YouTube Video by lauramoon.

 

Previously posted: Giant Tortoises of The Galapagos

 

Not to be outdone by the ancient tortoise, the Land Iguana is another reptilian island wonder.

 

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

Endemic to the Galapagos, this large lizard is 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 meters), inhabits several islands. Their lifespan is 50 years.

 

This is not a flitty gecko in your presence; it is a huge, lumbering, prehistoric-looking behemoth.

 

Herbivorous, we found them eating, always. Due to their large size and short legs, they ate whatever was on the ground. They like prickly-pear cactus for the moisture, and eat low-growing plants and fallen fruits.

 

Land Iguana, South Plaza Isl., Galapagos

Previously posted: Land Iguana. 

 

For a week we lived and slept on a boat, the most common tourist method of accommodation here. Every night we sailed to the next island. Every day we boarded inflatable boats, and ventured onto a new island.

 

Often we saw sea turtles, whales, and other marine life.

 

Sea Turtle, Galapagos

 

Whales, Galapagos

 

When we came to Floreana Island we were treated to a look at flamingoes. With their specialized beak for straining food, they ate shrimp and made circuitous paths in the mud.

 

Flamingo, Galapagos

 

Flamingo feeding, Galapagos

 

Galapagos cormorants are one of the rarest birds we have in the world. Although cormorants live all over the planet, the Galapagos cormorants are especially unique. These birds are flightless.

 

They evolved without wings because there was plenty of food on shorelines, and no ground predators. With stumps for wings, these blue-eyed beauties hopped among the lava rocks.

 

Previously posted: Galapagos Cormorant

 

 

Galapagos Cormorant

 

North Seymour Island. It was very windy on this small and unprotected island in the middle of the Pacific, where sand whipped us and you could not hear the words of the person next to you.

 

We hiked to the frigatebird colony, something I had been dreaming about doing for years.

 

This is a remarkable sea bird that we only see in tropical ocean areas. They soar with their incredible wingspan of 7.5 feet (2.3 m), sometimes for weeks. It was an unusual sight to see frigatebirds up close, perched on branches; for they are usually high above, only recognizable by their expansive silhouette.

 

But the most striking aspect was the complete chaos. Frigatebirds were screeching, whining, rattling, whistling, and drumming.

 

Frigatebirds, Galapagos. Male with chick on left has deflated pouch, male on right has inflated it.

 

 

Male Magnificent Frigatebird displaying

 

With the most dramatic display of all the seabirds, the male frigatebird’s red gular pouch inflates to attract the females, is used as a drum to punctuate the message. He beats his wings against the pouch, creating a deep, low, booming sound. When the dance is done, the throat deflates.

 

Previously posted: Breeding Frigatebirds.

 

Galapagos Sea Lion

 

Herman Melville called it uninhabitable, Charles Darwin changed the world with his findings here.

 

Thanks for visiting this remarkable, other-worldly place with me.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

San Cristobal Island Harbor, where we boarded our boat