Monthly Archives: December 2015

Adventure in Trinidad

If you don’t know the name of a bird you’re looking at, and don’t care, but just write “bird” in your notebook, you’re not birding.  On the other hand, if you see only a Yellow-rumped Warbler, say, or a Goldfinch, without seeing something far more general and mysterious binding you to the bird and all birds to each other, you’re also not birding.   Jonathan Rosen
The Life of the Skies
  Rocky, the magnificent Rye Beach, NH Snowy Owl,  has returned to the beach.  This is the third year in a row.  And there’s little doubt it’s the same owl.  Its behavior is the same as it has been for the past two years. It spends a lot of time on the beach on the rocks as the waves splash behind it.
Snowy Owl Rocky, Rye Beach, NH.  Photos by John Harrison
  When the water gets too close, it flies either to the piece of driftwood on the other side of the beach or onto the shack roof or a lightpole or onto the roof of a nearby house.  The same exact MO it has displayed each year. How magical that this owl is able to find its way from Canada or the Arctic to this little beach in Rye, NH year after year.  We don’t understand that mystery and, as author Gary Goshgarian recently quoted to me from Mark Twain when I expressed this thought to him, “When scientists explained the rainbow, we lost more than we gained.”  Perhaps there are things we are better off never knowing.   We’ll have more to say about this amazing owl during the next couple of months.  But for now we’re going to go someplace warm with regular contributor and co-editor of the new book Dead in Good Company, Kim Nagy.  She recently spent a week in Trinidad photographing birds.  That small island is a bird paradise and Kim is going to tell us about that trip and show us some of the exotic birds and mammals she encountered. If we can’t go to an island right now, at least we can visit vicariously through Kim.  All of the photographs below were taken by Kim Nagy in Trinidad. 

  Trinidad is a small country located seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, with approximately 435 different species of birds. It is a beautiful country to visit, especially this time of  year.
The premier attraction is the Asa Wright Nature Center, located in the lush Arima Valley rainforest, 1200 feet above sea level. The Lodge is a hundred-year-old former plantation home, and over 170 of Trinidad’s bird population can be found on the property, which encompasses 200 acres of conservation land.
  Some travel memories cling to the edges of thoughts long after trips end, whereas other impressions and recollections can be recalled in an instant, prompted by a whiff of scent that still clings to your belongings, however faint.
  I don’t need to smell my backpack with its still-slightly musty odor to recall that first day at Asa Wright. All I have to do is close my eyes and return to that morning in the sunroom in the still-dark. That was before I discovered we shared our room with geckos.
  I sat quietly while primal jungle rainforest sounds filled the room, like Boston’s old Morning Pro Musica classical station, but without the music. This avian orchestra consisted of loud Crested Ororpendolas as the dominant section, layered with the voices of many others; a chorus of Kiskadees, Bananaquits, Yellow Orioles and Tropical Mockingbirds joined in as the birds started their day.
  Feeding began at six o`clock, and by the time I arrived at the veranda about twenty minutes later, it was wild. Several species of Hummingbirds with their wings beating 60 times a second, along with Purple Honeycreepers, Flycatchers and more zoomed by, racing to get the best position for their sugar water breakfast.
  The veranda was set up for long term occupation, with several comfortable chairs, couches, and stools positioned just a couple of feet from the many feeders. Books were spread on the table, and the human conversation was lively and nearly all about the birds. Maybe the birds’ conversation was all about us, who knows?
asa wright hummingbird approaching feeder
Asa Wright Hummingbird.
honey creeper facing front
golden olive woodpecker
Golden Olive Woodpecker.
green honeycreeper eating banana-2
Green Honeycreeper eating banana.
white bearded manakin with worm
White-bearded Manakin.  
  An orientation walk around the property took us on a path down to the forest, where we learned about the different birds and the environments they preferred. We also learned of the several species of deadly poisonous snakes, and this piece of information was the deciding factor to never go exploring on my own, as I did comfortably when I traveled alone to Panama’s Canopy Tower last year.
  The next day, we took the Oilbird tour to Dunston Cave. This cave is one of the most accessible sites in the world to see an active Oilbird colony, but it was treacherous to reach. The monsoon-like rain soaked the already wet ground, and the handrails on part of the trail were unstable at best, and non-existent in other critical sections. When we reached the swollen stream at the bottom, we saw the entrance to the cave. Finally.
  Flash was not allowed to photograph the birds, but our guide briefly shone a light on them for illumination, which did not disturb them; they were calm and didn’t move. There were several Oilbirds visible, once you knew what to look for; some singles and several pairs. Asa Wright only allows two tours a week, so as not to stress them. There is a healthy colony of about 130 birds.
Oilbirds are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. They are a protected species found in northern South America. Years ago the local Chaime Indians and Capuchin Monks used to cut off the heads of the Oilbird chicks and they used their fat bodies to light torches for up to five hours. They were hunted to near-extinction.
  Because Oilbirds live on low-nutrient fruit, pericarp, it takes up to 120 days for the chicks to fledge; they grow fat, and are up to 50% heavier than their parents, but they lose weight as their feathers develop.
pair of oilbirds
Oilbird pair.
single oilbird facing right
  The Scarlet Ibis is the national bird of Trinidad. Sunset at Caroni Swamp where hundreds of Ibis, Egrets and Herons roost for the evening is the number one tourist attraction in Trinidad, and for good reason. Asa Wright took us to the swamp the next day.
Caroni swamp. 
caiman close up
four eyed fish
Four-eyed fish.
  You pile into a large wooden boat, and motor slowly on the water, nearly silent, like the creatures that inhabit the swamp. The guide points out boa constrictors coiled tightly in the mangrove branches; you never would have noticed them without his announcement. You wouldn’t live long as a bird if you were as oblivious, either!   A young Caiman quietly left the water as we approached. Little Blue Herons foraged along the banks, and strange four-eyed fish followed the boat for a short time; then propelled themselves out of the water, skimming the surface like an odd aquatic projectile.
The big attraction, of course, were the birds coming home to roost before sunset. The operator tied the boat a good distance from the birds so as not to threaten them, and we settled down to watch flocks ranging from a pair to 50 and more fly in from all directions. The sun was behind us, and the red landing birds on the lush green trees lent a festive Christmas feel to the experience, despite the heat and humidity.
ibis  and egrets in trees
Ibis and Egrets in trees.  
ibis and egrets landing
Ibis in flight.
  There are some moments, even entire days, that stand out in sharp relief and striking clarity in your mind, accompanied by a steady pulse of happiness with recollection. Most people have several of these experiences locked in their memory bank. The day at Yerette in the lush Maracas Valley was one of them. We traveled with Trinidad’s premier nature photographer, Roger Neckles, to visit the gardens of Dr. Theo Ferguson and his lovely wife Gloria, who were kind enough to allow us to photograph the Hummingbirds. We saw four rainbows before we even got there.
  With over 50 feeders and innumerable flower bushes, hundreds of these magical creatures propelled themselves around the property, so generously opened to the public by the Fergusons. That day we saw the Copper-rumped, Long billed Starthroat, White-chested Emerald, Blue-chinned Sapphire, Black Mango, White-necked Jakobin, Tufted Coquette, Rufous-breasted Hermit, and the Little Hermit.
  It’s hard to describe the moment when your top-goal bird actually appears. Mine was the Tufted Coquette Hummingbird. Words often don’t describe emotions adequately; it is even harder to describe the feeling when conditions conspire to give you a perfect shot. You might have flown thousands of miles, knowing that it was unwise to set up unrealistic expectations – anything could happen – but you did it nevertheless. And when the bird really does finally appear and you are thrilled with both the encounter and the photo, it’s hard not to collapse in gratitude, both to the bird and whoever made that bejeweled creature. Spending half a day in their world left us weak, humbled, and over-stimulated from all the beauty. We were in awe of their aerial mastery.
male coquette wings down on twig
Tufted Coquette.
male coquette leaving flower
Tufted Coquette.  
long billed starthroat
Long-billed Starthroat.  
copper rumped wings folded
Copper-rumped Hummingbird.  
  We moved on to the Hilton in Port of Spain, where we stayed for several nights. There were great birds even there! Orange-winged parrots roosted in the trees nearby; I once counted a flock of 42 birds, chattering away as they flew to their favorite tree. There were Copper-rumped hummingbirds, Spectacled Thrush, Yellow Orioles, Yellow Warblers, Streaked Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Tropical Mockingbirds, Kiskadees and Bananaquits, just around the pool! On some local tours we saw Southern Lapwings, Whimbrels, Dunlins, Yellowlegs and many other shorebirds.
oriole in tree
copper rumped in pink flower (1)
spectacled thrush-2
Spectacled Thrush.  
streaked flycatcher-2
Streaked Flycatcher.
southern lapwing trio
Southern Lapwings.  
tropical kingbird
Tropical Kingbirds. 
 Back in Boston at night in dreams, birds and words formed strange combinations as images of rainbow spectrums and ribbons of light in the prism of the Hummingbirds’ tails swirled in my mind, and I looked forward to another adventure in a new jungle, experiencing the smorgasbord of birds as art in yet another South American country.   KIM NAGY
male coquette santa final