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

 

 

 

Tufted Coquette

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

One of the smallest hummingbirds, when this little orange bullet zooms by, you’re not sure if it’s an insect or a bird.

 

Tufted coquette, male

Tufted coquette, male. See the pollen on the tip of his bill?

Plumes and polka dots, metallic green, a spikey rufous crest, and a red bill–this bird has jazz.

 

Lophornis ornatus–even the Latin name implies decoration. More bird info here.

 

We saw them on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, but they are also seen in the humid rainforests, gardens, and plantations of Venezuela, Guiana, and northern Brazil. Measuring 2.6 inches (6.6 cm) long, the genders of this tiny species do not look alike.

 

Like many hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, this bird trap-lines while feeding; meaning they repeatedly check the same nectar source, like a trapper checking their traps.

 

If it wasn’t for the vervain plant they predictably visit for nectar, they would have been impossible to observe or photograph. The flower has several tiny petal clusters. The coquette probes its bill into one flower cluster, then on to the next and the next; but they do this so fast, it’s usually just a blur.

 

They feed on the nectar so fast that often their rear end is lagging behind the rest of the body.

 

Tufted Coquette, female

Tufted Coquette, female

 

 

Studying the field guide before our Trinidad arrival, we had hoped to see this splashy bird. Once we found them, and the vervain, we parked ourselves in front of the bush–especially Athena; every morning at dawn.

 

A daily routine has never been so delightful.

 

Coquette drawing from Charles Darwin’s book: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

The Purple Honeycreeper

Purple honeycreeper, male; Asa Wright, Trinidad

Purple honeycreeper, male; Asa Wright, Trinidad

Honeycreepers are a bird species found only in the tropical New World, they are small birds in the tanager (Thraupidae) family. Like hummingbirds, their long, curved bills serve to reach inside tubular flowers seeking nectar.

 

They live and forage in the rainforest canopy, and are sexually dimorphic (male and female differ in appearance).

 

The purple honeycreeper, Cyanerpes caeruleus, can be found in various parts of South America and on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad. They feed on nectar, berries, and insects.

 

Having recently returned from Trinidad, I had the joy of seeing many of these purple honeycreepers.

 

Purple honeycreeper males on nectar feeders, Asa Wright, Trinidad

Purple honeycreeper males on nectar feeders, Asa Wright, Trinidad

We stayed at a lodge in the rainforest, Asa Wright, that is dedicated to the natural environment and the wildlife of the Trinidad rainforest.  Here they have a verandah with numerous nectar feeders and feeding stations.

 

The purple honeycreepers visit the feeders all day long. They zip and zoom, just like hummingbirds, and there is a constant territorial battle among the other honeycreepers and hummingbirds that frequent here.

 

Purple honeycreeper, female, Trinidad

Purple honeycreeper, female, Trinidad

There are hundreds of birds coming and going all day long, it is difficult, even for an experienced birder, to be accurate in identifying the many different species; and then within each species, identifying the males, females, and juveniles.

 

Sitting at dinner one night at a long table with other lodgers, we were talking about the birds. I heard someone remark on how they liked the little black toenails on the purple honeycreeper.

 

I had been studying the purple honeycreepers–mesmerized by the male’s rich, cobalt color and contrasting bright yellow legs, the markings of the dark throat and moustachial stripe–but I had not noticed the black toenails.

 

What a pleasure it was then, to return to the verandah to study more of this stunning creature.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross pairs, Espanola Island, Galapagos

Waved Albatross pairs, Espanola Island, Galapagos

There is a gusty island in the Galapagos where seabirds flock–a dry, barren, lava-covered place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

 

Here we had the rare opportunity to witness the courtship dance of the waved albatross.

 

Espanola Island is the southernmost and oldest of the Galapagos isles.  It is the first speck of land the birds come to after traveling 600 miles (1,000 km) from Ecuador and Peru.

 

With long wings that can soar without flapping for hours, the waved albatrosses spend most of their life at sea, foraging on fish, squid and crustaceans. It is only during breeding time, their brief phase on land, that we see them so close.

 

A bird with a critically-endangered conservation status, the waved albatrosses gather here to court and breed–the world’s largest concentration of this species. Named for a wavy feather pattern, they have a wingspan of 7-8 feet (220-250 cm).

 

There were two surreal things going on that day as we stood buffeting the strong winds. There were hundreds of seabirds at our feet, different species, all performing bizarre mating rituals; and we stood unnoticed in the middle of it…could have been rocks for all they cared.

 

And secondly, these were rarely seen birds, yet they were everywhere.

 

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross

The courtship dance of the monogamous albatross is a spectacular event. They clack their long bills together, much like two people fencing. They bow in unison, strut around, and vocalize a squawking serenade.

 

Short You Tube video here.

Wikipedia overview of Phoebastria irrorata here

We were also surrounded by blue-footed boobies, read my previous post about that here.

 

Waved Albatross parent with egg

Waved Albatross parent with egg

The frigid waters of the Humboldt Current are plentiful with sea life for feeding their young. And the island is also predator-free, allowing the birds to nest on the ground without disturbance.

 

Months later, after the chicks are hatched and ready for flight, the albatrosses awkwardly waddle to the cliff edge. Their task has been completed, the cold, nutrient-rich waters will warm soon, and it’s time to return to sea, teach their young.

 

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross

Facing strong tradewinds, the albatrosses step to the precipice, open their massive wings, and gracefully begin their very long flight.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Española Island is located in Galápagos Islands

Galapagos Islands. Tiny Espanola Island is bottom right; courtesy Wikipedia.

Golden Gate GraveyardFor a mystery adventure in San Francisco, my new book is now available in paperback or e-book. Purchase here or via Amazon and other online retailers.

 

 

Chinchero, Peru

Chinchero, Peru

Chinchero, Peru

On our way to Cusco, Peru, we passed through the beautiful town of Chinchero.  It is a small town in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru, about 40 minutes from Cusco.

 

Residents here are indigenous Quechua, members of a South American Indian people. Quechua was the language of the Inca Empire; and is still the major language.

 

Chinchero, Peru

Chinchero, Peru

Farming and textiles are prevalent, another trend that has not changed over the centuries.

 

More Quechua information here.

 

Due to the isolated mountain location, outsider inaccessibility and a history of proven success in sustainability have preserved their way of life.

 

Peru, maize and grains

Peru, maize and grains

Farming is terraced; and crops include potatoes, maize, quinoa and other grains.

 

With the severe sloping pitch of the mountains, terracing makes use of the slope by decreasing erosion and increasing irrigation.

 

Peru, Quechua woman and farm

Peru, Quechua woman and farm

It was common to see Quechua women on the steep hillsides dressed in traditional clothing as they turned hay and tended crops.

 

They wore flared skirts and festively-colored tops, sandals made from recycled tires, sometimes a bowler hat.

 

Andes woman (photo: B. Page)

Andes woman (photo: B. Page)

Weavers (women) were often seated on the ground using a nearby post to weave.  Their skilled hands moved quickly and deftly, while their children cheerfully played.

 

A traditional handicraft, the wool is weaved from llamas and alpacas; and other South American camelids:  guanacos and vicunas.

 

Peru weaver

Peru weaver

Natural dyes and elaborate patterns highlight this craft.

 

The Chinchero town square was a popular gathering place and market; set on a flat, grassy terrace surrounded by the towering mountains, and flanked by an old adobe church built by the Spanish in 1607.

 

Chinchero plaza

Chinchero plaza

In the Andes we walk slowly because the high altitude  (12,343 ft. or 3,762m) makes it difficult to catch your breath. Natives don’t struggle with breathing…visitors do.

 

So we ambled around the plaza, admiring the wares and the mountain setting too.

 

Jet with the woman who crafted her just-purchased alpaca cape

Jet with the woman who crafted her just-purchased alpaca cape

Merchants spoke Quechuan and even our Spanish words were ineffective. But it was easy for them to display and express their weaving skills and earnest kindness.

 

Thanks for sharing this stroll through Chinchero.

 

Weavers in nearby Cusco

Weavers in nearby Cusco

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.