Winged Creatures of Trinidad

 

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Trinidad is not the most popular island in the Caribbean. Many people have never even heard of it. But for those of us who embrace the glory of the natural rainforest and all the creatures who live in it, it is a paradise.

 

Here are some of my favorite winged creatures, found while spending a week on this small island eight miles (12 km) off the Venezuela coast. Trinidad Wikipedia.

 

A visit to the Caroni Swamp yielded many thousands of scarlet ibis. They flock to this protected swamp at night to roost. We sat in a boat and waited for them as the sun set.

Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Red mangroves

Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

 

In the rainforest, nectar-drinking birds like hummingbirds and honeycreepers were plentiful.

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette hummingbird, male, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad

 

We were fortunate to see the rare oilbirds. There are only a few places left in the world where these nocturnal birds can still be found. They use echolocation, or sound reverberation, for navigating — a system that bats use, but not usually birds.

 

We hiked to a specific protected cave, escorted by a guide, and because they are so skittish, we were allowed only a few minutes to peer into the darkness for them.

 

They squeal like pigs and are large, hawk-size birds.

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

 

Bats were also abundant in the Trinidad rainforest. One day in the middle of the day when the sun was brightest, a white bat came fluttering down the trail, pretty close to our heads. Athena and I had gotten lost in the forest, I think we had surprised the bat…as much as a white bat in the daytime surprised us.  It’s whiteness lent the essence of a ghost.

 

But it was every evening when we saw bats in abundance. We stayed at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where wildlife are protected and celebrated. We found a crevice under the lodge where 100+ long-tongued bats came flocking out every night.

Pallas’ long-tongued bat, Trinidad

 

Long-tongued bats, Asa Wright Centre, Trinidad

 

Typical of the tropics, many species of flycatchers, trogons, and tanagers greeted us daily.

Silver-beaked Tanager, Trinidad

 

The bearded bellbird was difficult to spot in the rainforest, despite the loud croaking sound it made all day long.

Bearded Bellbird, singing; Trinidad

 

Numerous species of hawks were present. This white hawk was hunting beside the trail.

White Hawk, Trinidad

 

The jacamar was a thrill to find, a small and colorful bird about the size of a hummingbird.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

 

There are over 400 species of birds on this one little island; and approximately 100 indigenous mammal species, with bats accounting for over half of the mammals.

 

I’m glad you could join me in this glimpse of their tropical world.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Scarlet ibis roosting, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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