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

 

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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

 

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, Part 1 of 2

Swallow-tailed Gull, Galapagos

An archipelago located 600 miles off South America’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are a cluster of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. Due to their remoteness, the islands have been difficult to access for hundreds of years, rendering the life that does exist to be unique, like nowhere else in the world.

 

Without significant predators present, the wildlife have evolved differently than what we see on mainland continents. It is here where Charles Darwin’s observations in 1835 led to the inception of the theory of evolution.

 

I recently read there are seven wildlife species tourists most want to see on the islands, so I have covered them all in this two-part series (not in this order), plus more: tortoises, sea turtles, marine and land iguanas, penguins, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions. (National Geographic June 2017)

 

Galapagos Island Wikipedia overview

 

Situated in a confluence of ocean currents, and influenced by extreme weather patterns and trade winds, the islands host a variety of habitats.

 

Life here is like being on a different planet.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Marine iguana, a fascinating and prevalent species on the islands. They are the only lizard on earth that hunt under water.

 

We were lucky one day to find two males gnawing at algae on the rocks under water with us, where we were snorkeling. Much of the time, however, you see their colonies lazing upon the lava and boulders, numbering in the hundreds; for they have to soak up the sun to move.

 

They range in color, depending on the island where they reside; and their sizes range too. The ones we saw averaged about 4-5 feet long (1.2-1.5 m) including the tail.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Previously posted: Snorkeling with a Lizard.

 

Though sources vary somewhat, the Galapagos have 18 major islands, 13 smaller islands, and 42 islets.

 

Espanola Island is the southernmost island and often the first stop for arriving birds. Here there is an unusual landscape of breeding birds. Among the craggy rocks, hard lava, and windy flats are the nesting colonies of two seabirds: blue-footed booby and waved albatross.

 

Gifted with the bluest feet you will ever see, the blue-footed boobies populate this island in various stages of breeding and nesting. One half of all breeding pairs in the world nest in the Galapagos.

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Blue-footed Booby.

 

Waved albatross, usually only seen at sea, also nest here. Listed as critically endangered, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be so close to this remarkable bird.

 

Waved Albatross pairs, Espanola Island, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Waved Albatross.

 

Blue-footed Booby mating dance, Galapagos

 

Keep in mind these birds are endlessly mesmerizing to a birder like me. But the harsh sun and sour, fetid smell of hundreds of nests at your ankles can be off-putting to some people.

 

Another day while snorkeling, we came upon Galapagos penguins, also an endangered species. They are the second smallest penguin on earth, and because of their small stature, they are preyed upon by a long list of land and sea animals.

 

Speed is their lifeline. They shot past us in the water like bullets.

 

Galapagos Penguins

 

Wikipedia Galapagos Penguin

 

Sea lions abound on the Galapagos. They frequent the beaches, traverse the lava, and are seen gracing every island. But the most thrilling day was when we tumbled over the side of the inflatable boat and into the deep water.

 

Sea Lions, Galapagos

 

As if we were their favorite playmates, the sea lions came bounding over to us–spinning and circling and ready to frolic. A social and playful mammal, they gave us the warmest welcome these chilly waters could offer.

 

Looking forward to continuing the wildlife adventures in Part 2, next Friday. Stay tuned, fellow earthlings.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

 

Galapagos Islands, center. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Red-billed Tropicbirds at Little Tobago Island

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island

The small and uninhabited island of Little Tobago in the West Indies was our destination for observing rare close-up views of red-billed tropicbirds.

Little Tobago Island jetty

Red-billed tropicbirds nest on this island for 6-8 weeks. After the chicks are born they return to sea. Primarily a white bird with black eye markings, they are about 19 inches (48 cm) long. Their long streamer tail is unmistakable.

View from Little Tobago Observation Deck

There are few chances to ever see a tropicbird. As seabirds, they live and hunt on the ocean. Although they nest on land, if you are in one of the nesting venues, the birds are usually far away on a cliff and about the size of a pinhead.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Little Tobago Island (female)

We took a 20-minute boat ride to the island.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Little Tobago Island has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1926, and is home to numerous nesting seabird colonies. It hosts 50 species of native birds.

 

Nesting Red-billed Tropicbird hiding

Anyone going to Little Tobago Island requires a permit, and there are no facilities (no food, water, or bathrooms).

 

Once we walked through the tropical forest and up the muddy trails, we observed numerous bird species from the observation deck–gulls and noddies, shearwaters, brown boobies, and a peregrine falcon. Plenty of frigatebirds too–another of my favorite seabirds.

 

Our guide, in his jocular Caribbean accent, explained the deck had been built for the making of a David Attenborough film in 1990. Compared to the rest of the island with impenetrable jungle growth and abandoned buildings, the deck was well-maintained, sturdy, and boasted a sweeping, unobstructed view of the ocean.

Frigatebird (left) chasing Red-billed Tropicbird (center)

The film, he told us, was entitled “The Trials of Life,” and David Attenborough had visited here to narrate Episode 3. They had filmed the red-billed tropicbirds and highlighted the birds’s challenge in feeding the chicks.

 

The tropicbird parents gather fish in their mouths to take back to the nest for the chick, but are often attacked by frigatebirds. Sometimes the frigatebird will violently pluck out the tropicbird’s streamer tail, or accost the bird in other ways. They don’t care about the bird, they just want the mouthful of food.

 

Click here for YouTube David Attenborough Episode 3 at Little Tobago Island.  It is a few minutes of footage at the end.

 

I knew about the tropicbirds, the frigatebirds, and their ongoing war. But my interest was suddenly piqued by the other topic.

“So David Attenborough was here?” I asked.

 

The guide nodded.

 

“Right where we’re standing?”

 

He nodded again.

 

I heard him say the tail feathers grow back, but after that I unknowingly tuned out his words. Instead, I looked around at the deck, dazzled by David Attenborough being here.

 

Soon we descended the trail.

 

I muttered, “David Attenborough was on these steps” and “David Attenborough went down this trail.” Between the crashing sea, strong winds, and squawking birds, no one heard me. Well, no one responded. I might’ve been going on a bit too much about it.

 

But magically I had just come one step closer to one of my heroes. This funky little island with its abandoned buildings and seabird spectacles had just become a new heaven.

 

Photo credit Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

David Attenborough (cropped).jpg

Wildscreen’s photograph of David Attenborough at ARKive’s launch in Bristol, England © May 2003

The Trials of Life DVD cover

 

Caroni Swamp

Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Located on 12,000 acres (4,860 ha) in northwestern Trinidad, this swamp is home to 190 species of birds, as well as reptiles, caiman, and many other marine life. The most famous inhabitant, however, is the scarlet ibis.

 

Caiman, Caroni Swamp

An important wetland for its ecological diversity and protection of endangered species, the Caroni Swamp was designated a Ramsar Site in 2005.

 

Red Mangrove Swamp, Caroni Swamp

Like many swamps, the Caroni Swamp has overcome a history of nearly getting filled in; and although the marshland is now protected, there are still problems with poaching, hunting, and pollution.

 

Caiman’s lucky day, returned to the swamp, Caroni

In anticipation of watching the nightly ritual of roosting scarlet ibis, we boarded an outboard motor boat close to dusk. Just before taking off, there was a commotion and our guide insisted we get back out of the boat.

 

We ran over to watch a park ranger releasing a female caiman. A resident had called it in, and the ranger had captured her and was about to release her into the swamp.

 

Roosting island for scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

After that excitement, we climbed back into the boat and cruised through the mangrove channels. Large swamp trees with extensive aerial root systems, mangroves live in salt water in tropical and sub-tropical regions all over the world.

 

As the sun began to set, our boat meandered through the channel, navigating around the roots. We saw tree boas coiled up in the overhead roots and branches, as well as wading birds and raptors.

 

Before our boat was in position, the ibis were already arriving. Overhead and all around us, there was a swirl of bright red ibis. During the day they feed in Venezuela, 11 miles away.

 

2016 Roter Ibis.JPG

Photo: J. Patrick Fischer, courtesy Wikipedia

Photo: Charles J. Sharp, courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Scarlet ibis roosting, Caroni Swamp

Living in large colonies throughout South America and the Caribbean, the Eudocimus ruber is a wader, with a long, curved bill and flaming-red feathers. More info here. They are the national bird of Trinidad.

 

In spite of two other anchored boats filled with people watching the spectacle of the incoming ibis, we were all quiet.

 

There is something so profound, so sacred, about watching hundreds and hundreds of glowing red birds coming in for their evening rest.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

 

Enjoying the Bats

Long-tongued bats emerging, Asa Wright, Trinidad

Long-tongued bats emerging, Asa Wright, Trinidad

As the second largest order of mammals (after rodents) with over 1,200 species, bats represent 20% of all mammals worldwide.

 

They pollinate flowers, disperse fruit seeds, and consume insects–very important workhorses of our planet. More about bats here.

 

Last month, while lodging at Asa Wright Nature Centre in the rainforest of Trinidad, my partner and I had the thrill of watching a bat emergence every night.

 

bats-emerging-2At first glance they looked like brown birds at the nectar feeders. They swooped in and out so quickly, we didn’t know what they were; but soon it became apparent.

 

The next night Athena was photographing with the last light of the day, when she discovered where they were coming from. In a matter of minutes, dozens and dozens of bats were emerging from a narrow basement corridor underneath our lodge.

 

Long-tongued bats at nectar feeder

Long-tongued bats at nectar feeder

She came and got me, and we watched for 20 minutes as they stopped at the feeders, drank, and flew off. We estimated we saw over a hundred bats.

 

The next night we went early, in order to see them before they came out. And then like clockwork they began flying out of the basement corridor–five or six, then five more, ten more. They left the lodge structure, drank at the feeders, then disappeared into the night.

 

Using echolocation, or biological sonar, they emit calls (we humans cannot hear) that produce echoes. The echoes help the bat to locate and identify objects as they navigate.

 

Pallas' long-tongued bat, Trinidad

Pallas’s long-tongued bat, Trinidad

We were standing about 12 inches (30 cm) apart, when one bat zoomed between us. It was so fast that I didn’t see it, but I felt the breeze on my left ear.

 

Athena said, “They didn’t fly like this last night. They went more directly to the feeders.”

 

“Maybe we’re in their way.”

 

So we stepped back two steps, and instantly the bats’s flight patterns changed; they headed more directly to the feeders.

 

Once we all had our proper place in the world, Athena and I watched while the bats continued emerging, quickly and in abundant numbers.

 

This species is the Pallas’s long-tongued bat.  Glossophaga soricina have the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, very similar to a hummingbird. Over 80% of their energy comes directly from the simple sugars of nectar.

 

Pallas's long-tongued bat.jpg

Pallas’s long-tongued bat. Photo: B. Wills. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the long tongue of this bat has a mopping ability powered by blood. Elongated hairs at the tongue-tip trigger blood vessels, immediately increasing the length of the tongue by 50%, thereby expanding the bat’s ability to consume more nectar.

 

How does it feel to have dozens of long-tongued bats zipping around you?

 

It was a little intimidating at first, but after that…it was heavenly.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified