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Peregrine Bird Tours

Trinidad and Tobago Tour Report 6 - 22 March 2010



It was an El Nino year in Trinidad and Tobago and even though we had deliberately timed the tour to coincide with the middle of the dry season, we had not expected to arrive in the middle of one of the most prolonged droughts on record. The islands had gone a whole 5 months without any substantial rain falling. This made it very pleasant for us underfoot, with no muddy trails to walk, as the drought continued during our 2 weeks on the islands. This also had the added bonus of no birding time lost to prolonged rainy periods. Our tour was a great success; we amassed a more than respectable total of 217 species of birds seen on the tour. One of the great things about Trinidad and Tobago is that it is an excellent introduction to the birds of South America, as we observed representatives of almost all the Neotropical bird families. Specific highlights of the tour included superb views of the endemic and critically endangered Trinidad Piping-Guan, the awe-inspiring spectacle of hundreds of breeding seabirds around Little Tobago Island, spectacular views of hundreds of gorgeous Scarlet Ibis coming into roost for the night, an amazing 18 different species of raptors, observed the spectacular display flight of the endangered Ornate Hawk-Eagle, an unforgettable encounter with a breeding colony of prehistoric looking Oilbirds, a staggering 12 species of brightly coloured hummingbirds, with most of them observed from just a few metres away and the deafening sounds of calling Bearded Bellbirds, which must surely be one of the most spectacular birds in the world. Sightings of vagrant birds always adds spice to any tour and we saw a staggering number of 9 vagrants on this tour; Purple Heron, Ring-necked Duck, Ring-billed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Black-whiskered Vireo and Magnolia, Blackpoll and Black-and-white Warblers. The following long list of birds seen on the tour would not have been possible without the exceptional talent and skill of our local guide Martyn Kenefick and Peregrine Bird Tours policy, of using local birding guides, wherever possible.

We began the tour in Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad; from here we drove to the world famous Asa Wright Nature Centre in the Arima Valley. Birds along the roadside during the drive included small flocks of Cattle Egrets, hundreds of circling Black Vultures, a fine looking Savanna Hawk, flocks of Feral Pigeons, plenty of Ruddy Ground-Doves, one or two flocks of Smooth-billed Anis, several Great Kiskadees perched on roadside wires, along with lots of Tropical Kingbirds, a few Shiny Cowbirds and Carib Grackles where literally everywhere.

On our arrival at the Asa Wright Nature Centre we positioned ourselves on its world famous veranda, where we enjoyed a veritable smorgasbord of neotropical species in an idyllic setting looking out over a delightful forested valley. There was so much bird activity at the feeders that we spent many hours on the veranda over the course of the next five days and it proved to be extremely rewarding. There was always a feeding frenzy right before our eyes, with a bewildering array of birds on view at any one time. The feeders attracted literally hundreds of Bananaquits, so much so that they would frequently obliterate the feeder that they were on. Next in abundance were the ubiquitous Palm Tanagers followed by lots of Blue-grey, Silver-beaked and White-lined Tanagers. However, in terms of colour none of these could compare to the stunning Green Honeycreepers and Purple Honeycreepers which were constantly in view. A few Grey-fronted Doves, normally shy forest dwellers, could always be seen at the feeders along with spectacular Trinidad Motmots. There was always dozens of brightly coloured Crested Oropendolas with lots of noisy squabbles breaking out among them. Bare-eyed and Cocoa Thrushes fed on the ground under the feeders, competing for fallen scraps with several family parties of Red-rumped Agoutis, an animal which is quite scarce elsewhere in Trinidad, as it is the favourite food of local hunters. On a couple of mornings a very large species of rodent was also observed feeding on scraps underneath the feeders, this was a Climbing Rat. Perhaps the most surprising visitors to the feeders where the beautifully plumaged Great and Barred Antshrikes, which fed on the ground under the feeders. Dozens of hummingbirds buzzed actively around the sugar feeders, often coming to within inches of our faces. The most numerous among them were Blue-chinned Sapphires, White-chested Emeralds and Copper-rumped Hummingbirds but the most pugnacious were the beautiful White-necked Jacobins which tried to keep all the other hummingbirds at bay. Occasionally, Green and Rufous-breasted Hermits showed up at the feeders, but the Black-throated Mangos and a tiny female Tufted Coquette preferred the flowers which were growing in profusion directly in front of the veranda. Looking out from the veranda we enjoyed fabulous views of lots of other species which included Turkey Vulture, a splendid circling White Hawk, a stunning Common Black Hawk, large flocks of Blue-headed and Orange-winged Parrots, Channel-billed Toucans were not uncommon and we enjoyed both male and female Lineated Woodpeckers. A couple of Tremor trees adjacent to the veranda often hosted Forest Elaenia, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Black-tailed Tityra, Southern Roughwing, Tropical Mockingbird, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Grayish Saltator and lots of Violaceous Euphonias.
Reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the feeders, we walked one of the many forest trails in search of the beautiful, but very scarce Bearded Bellbird. The birds were easy to hear, but seeing them was a different matter! Eventually, we enjoyed great scope views of a nearby calling male, it is a very bizarre and spectacularly plumaged bird. Little wonder, it was voted bird of the tour, by tour participants. Other birds observed while walking to and from the Bellbird site, included Fork-tailed Palm Swift, a stunning male White-tailed Trogon, an acrobatic Streaked Xenops, a pair of delightful White-flanked Antwrens, superbly plumaged White-bearded Manakins, Golden-fronted Greenlet, White-necked Thrush and splendid Turquoise Tanagers. However, pride of place must go to a Common Potoo, which sat at its daytime roost affording us great scope views of it. There was also a rather surprise find of a Black-whiskered Vireo, which is a very scarce winter visitor to Trinidad.

A pre breakfast birding session from the verandah at Asa Wright produced perched Scaled Pigeons, which we were able to enjoy in the scope, as well as a splendid Squirrel Cuckoo. A spot of birding around the carpark, before boarded our bus, produced two splendid additions to our ever growing bird list; a pair of beautiful Red-legged Honeycreepers and a superb Yellow Oriole. We then drove to the Aripo Agricultural Research Station an extensive area of lowland savanna and a tiny amount of wetlands. Here we found our only Cocoi Heron of the tour, a beautiful Peregrine Falcon, several Southern Lapwings, a single Lesser Yellowlegs, several Solitary Sandpipers and a single Least Sandpiper. There were good numbers of Wattled Jacanas, a delightful flock of Green-rumped Parrotlets, several Yellow-chinned Spinetails, together with very attractive Pied Water-Tyrants and equally attractive White-headed Marsh-Tyrants. We also enjoyed watching a few very beautiful White-winged Swallows, Gray-breasted Martins, a small flock of Blue-black Grassquits and several splendid Red-breasted Blackbirds. At a forested area close to the research centre, new birds included the diminutive Little Hermit, the splendid Black-crested Antshrike, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, good looks at the uncommon Piratic Flycatcher, good looks at the very attractive Rufous-breasted Wren and Yellow Warbler.
Continuing our drive we birded along the Manzanilla Beach Road and its purported one million coconut trees. Along the coast we found large flocks of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds cruised overhead. Scanning the many coconut trees produced Plumbeous Kite, Yellow-headed Caracara, a stunning Crimson-crested Woodpecker and a Brown-crested Flycatcher. In a large area of mangroves along the Nariva River we found Striated Heron and enjoyed good looks at a solitary Red-rumped Woodpecker. Pressing on we reached the Nariva Swamp, which unfortunately was almost bone dry, due to the prolonged drought. Even so, we managed to find a few very striking Yellow-hooded Blackbirds and a single Giant Cowbird.
The following day was spent birding along the Blanchisseuse Road, in the heavily forested uplands of the Northern Range. Frequent birding stops produced both Band-rumped and Gray-rumped Swifts, Violaceous and Collared Trogons showed superbly well, as did Golden-olive Woodpecker, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, the very uncommon Euler's Flycatcher, (Sheila's nemesis), Tropical Pewee and a Golden-headed Manakin lek held our attention for a while. Dennis and Sue glimpsed a Stripe-breasted Spinetail and we all saw Southern House Wren, brilliantly plumaged Speckled Tanagers, American Redstart and several confiding Golden-crowned Warblers. An unexpected find this morning was a magnificent male Black-and-white Warbler, in full breeding plumage, which is a rare winter visitor to Trinidad. We also observed our first sighting of Trinidad's only species of Squirrel, the Red-tailed Squirrel. Trinidad's only daytime flying bat, the Greater White-lined Bat, was also seen well this morning. We enjoyed our warm packed lunch in a wonderful bus shelter! However, the bus shelter was slightly overshadowed by a splendid Ornate Hawk-Eagle soaring above the forest, right above the bus shelter; this is a rare species anywhere in the Americas. What a stakeout, you've go to hand it to Martyn, he really knows where to pick his lunch sites! We drove to a lower altitude, to observe a Yellow-rumped Cacique nesting colony, which we all enjoyed and while here we also added our first Rufous-tailed Jacamar.
We spent the following morning birding in the South Oropuche Swamp, which produced a host of new birds for us. Here we saw Blue-winged Teal, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egret, Osprey, the uncommon Long-winged Harrier, enjoyed scope views of a perched Gray Hawk, lots of Common Moorhens, a few Purple Gallinules, Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, an unusually obliging Little Cuckoo, Ruby Topaz Hummingbird, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, the illusive Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, flocks of Barn Swallows, the secretive Bicolored Conebill, the stunning Red-capped Cardinal and the furtive Masked Yellowthroat. The introduced Small Indian Mongoose also ran across the track in front of us during our morning walk.
In the afternoon, a couple of birding stops along the Gulf of Paria, netted Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Scarlet Ibis, Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel, Willet, Yellow-billed, Large-billed and Royal Terns and good numbers of stunning Black Skimmers. Whilst scanning a high tide roost of hundreds of Laughing Gulls we picked out two Ring-billed Gulls and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, both rare winter visitors to Trinidad. On our return to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a little birding in front of the verandah produced a stunning Gray-headed Kite circling above the valley and great looks at the uncommon Boat-billed Flycatcher.

The following morning we made the obligatory pilgrimage down to Dunstan Cave which harbours a large and relatively accessible Oilbird colony. We all enjoyed watching some very close, but rather prehistoric looking birds and listening to their strange rasping calls in the gloom at the entrance of the cave. This was without doubt one of the great highlights of the tour and a new family for all tour participants. While walking to and from Dunstan Cave, new birds included Streaked Flycatcher, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and the surprise find of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, a very uncommon winter visitor to Trinidad.

In the afternoon we headed to the famous Caroni Swamp Bid Sanctuary, now a designated Ramsar Site, of international importance. We boarded our boat which took us through extensive mangroves to a large Scarlet Ibis roost. Seeing hundreds of these bright red birds coming in and contrasting with the dark green mangroves as we sipped rum punch was a truly thrilling experience. However, Scarlet Ibis were not the only birds in the mangroves, new birds here included a soaring Short-tailed Hawk, fly-by Eared Doves, Greater Ani, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher and best of all, a perched male Green-throated Mango, which is mainly confined to Northeastern Brazil. Great spotting by our boat driver produced two sleeping Silky Anteaters, which looked like round balls of fur. As we drove back to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a Barn Owl flew across the road, in front of the bus.

Sadly, it was time to leave the Asa Wright Nature Centre, we had very much enjoyed our five days here, but it was now time to search for Trinidad and Tobago's only endemic bird, the Trinidad Piping-Guan. We broke the long drive to Grand Riviere, with a birding stop on the coast at Galera Point. Close to this area we observed two new species of raptors flying along the roadside, these were the very beautiful Swallow-tailed Kite and the Broad-winged Hawk. Following lunch at Grand Riviere we decided to walk up the hill, where we would look for the Trinidad Piping Guan, the following morning. We did not expect to find a lot of birds in the heat of the afternoon, however, the birding was better than we expected and we added three new species to our list. We observed the Plain-brown Woodcreeper very well, taped in a superb Silvered Antbird and saw a beautiful Tropical Parula.

We were up bright and early the following morning and off in search off Trinidad's only endemic bird, the very rare Trinidad Piping-Guan. As the sun slowly began to rise we were in position at one of their favourite feeding sites and waited for them to put in an appearance. Unfortunately, they were a no-show! Fortunately, we still had the following morning up our sleeve, so we headed back for a late breakfast, followed by a mid-day siesta. In the late afternoon some of us did some birding back up the hill and were rewarded with superb looks at a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk, we were extremely fortunate to find a very close and unusually co-operative White-bellied Antbird and we also had a responsive Pale-breasted Spinetail and good looks at a pair of Trinidad Euphonias.

Not taking any chances on the second morning, we were in position at their favourite feeding site, a little before dawn, as we eagerly awaited their appearance. In the darkness, we could hear them calling in nearby trees and we prayed that they would stay long enough for us to see them well. As the light slowly improved we enjoyed the spectacle of no less than 7 feeding birds, at very close quarters and we were even able to enjoy tremendous scope views of this marvelous bird in full view, feeding in the tops of the nearby trees. It was a great relief to see them so well and well worth the early morning start. On our way back down the hill we were able to enjoy close looks at a cooperative tiny Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet.

It was now time to take the short flight across to Tobago which, rather curiously, is home to a number of South American species not found in Trinidad despite the fact that the latter lies much closer to mainland Venezuela. Following our arrival at the airport, we drove to Speyside, at the northern end of the island. While driving along Dennis looked up a small stream that we where crossing and he noticed a Black-necked Stilt, which we had not seen previously on the tour. On our arrival at the hotel, all we had time for was a little birding in the grounds of our hotel. Here we enjoyed good looks at Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Pale-vented Pigeon and unusually tame White-tipped Doves. That evening, as we gathered in the bar to do the birdlist, we were rather surprised to find a small number of Ruddy Turnstones walking on top of the dining tables looking for scraps of food! None of us had ever seen Ruddy Turnstones behaving in this manner and it came as a great surprise to us, albeit, a very pleasant one. While having dinner, a large species of bat was observed flying around the dining room and just outside the dining room there were a couple of hummingbird feeders and large numbers of bats were observed feeding from them after dinner. These bats were Greater Spear-nosed Bats and we enjoyed watching them flying around.

The following day was spent walking the Glipin Trace, in the rainforest along Tobago's high central ridge. Our main objective here was to find the rare and localised White-tailed Sabrewing, which only occurs on the top of this mountain range and two other small mountains on the Paria Peninsula, in Venezuela. We were very fortunate to locate a superb male perched low in a tree, which enabled us to enjoy prolonged views of this rare species. We also saw the Olivaceus Woodcreeper very well and both male and female Plain Antvireos foraging in the canopy. A pair of White-fringed Antwrens was also enjoyed by all and we also saw two rather plain, but range-restricted species of flycatchers very well; the Fuscous and the Venezuelan. Dennis then pointed out a small species of warbler and Martyn became very excited, as it proved to be a beautiful male Magnolia Warbler, in full breeding plumage, which is an extremely rare vagrant to Trinidad and Tobago. Well done Dennis! The other main target bird today was the very beautiful Blue-backed Manakin; we were not to be disappointed, as we enjoyed super looks at this very attractive species, at fairly close quarters. Shortly after having enjoyed our picnic lunch, at a picnic area along the main road through the rainforest, we were treated to the spectacle of a Great Black Hawk circling above the rainforest. This is a very uncommon species anywhere in South America and we were very fortunate to see it so well.

The following morning we went for a walk in some rather scrubby woodland above the hotel where we were staying. This area yielded three new species for us, Red-eyed Vireo, Scrub Greenlet and best of all, super close looks at beautifully plumaged Caribbean Martins, who put on a spectacular ariel display for us, as a flock was flying along using the updraft from the cliffs below, to fly around in a large loop and they came very close to us at the top of the loop. In the afternoon we enjoyed a very smooth crossing to Little Tobago where we enjoyed watching large numbers of breeding Red-billed Tropicbirds and Red-footed and Brown Boobies, as they cruised around the steep cliffs of the island. We also enjoyed good looks at a male Black-faced Grassquit and we were shown a young Audubon's Shearwater in a nesting burrow, underneath the roots of a tree.

The following morning we took another walk in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, enjoying good looks at several species of birds, but failed to add to our list. While enjoying a very pleasant lunch at a much lower altitude on the ridge, we managed to observe a Yellow-legged Thrush of the all dark endemic Tobago race, which showed fairly well. The rest of the day was spent driving to the southern end of the island, where we checked into our very pleasant hotel, in the very touristy part of Tobago.

Next, we spent a very productive morning at the Bon Accord Sewage Farm, where we found many new species for the tour. In and around the open ponds we found a small flock of beautiful White-cheeked Pintails, several Least Grebes and good numbers of Green Herons. There was a large number of Barn Swallows swooping down and skimming the surface of the ponds. Martyn managed to pick out a Cliff Swallow amongst them, which is once again, a rare visitor to Trinidad and Tobago and we enjoyed prolonged looks at this visitor from North America. At the back of the sewage ponds there was an area of mangroves and a walk along the edge of the mangroves produced some very fine Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, superb looks at the very uncommon Mangrove Cuckoo and then we picked out a male Blackpoll Warbler, in full breeding plumage, which once again, is a very scarce visitor to Trinidad and Tobago. We then did some birding at a couple of lakes on the Lowlands Golf Course. New birds here included a single Great Blue Heron, a sizable flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and several very uncommon Masked Ducks, which included a superb male, all seen at very close quarters. We then found an adult female Ring-necked Duck, which once again is a rare visitor to Trinidad and Tobago. In the afternoon we visited the Grafton Estate at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, in order to coincide with the time when they put out food for the local birds. In no time at all we were surrounded by dozens of Rufous-vented Chachalacas, Pale-vented Pigeons and Eared Doves all competing madly for food, just a few metres away from us. We managed to find a new bird coming into the feeders, a very nice female Red-crowned Woodpecker.

On our last morning of the tour, we decided to pay a second visit to the Bon Accord Sewage Farm and were rewarded with fine scope views of an immature Purple Heron, which was only the second record for South America. What a way to finish off the tour!

Due to the prolonged drought, we did miss a couple of wetland species, because the swamps were almost bone dry, however, we more than made up for these, by the 9 species of vagrants that we found during the tour, which made this a very successful, enjoyable and exciting tour. We saw almost all the target species extremely well and Trinidad and Tobago lived up to its reputation as a marvelous introduction to neotropical birding

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