Bird Watching: Birds In Paradise
A basic guide to the birds of Trinidad & Tobago - by Jill Wooler
Trinidad and Tobago offer some of the best bird-watching in the Caribbean, boasting over 430 recorded species of bird (250 of which actually breed on the islands). Although Trinidad is renowned as a birdwatchers paradise, Tobago is home to around 220 species of bird, including some not regularly seen in Trinidad, such as the Red-Crowned Woodpecker, the White-tailed Sabrewing, the Red-billed Tropic Bird and the turkey-like Chachalaca, which is commonly known as the Cocrico and is also the national bird of Tobago. Keen birders will be interested to learn that there are also a number of sub-species of bird in Tobago that do not occur elsewhere, including the Tobago variants of the Red-legged Honeycreeper and Blue-grey Tanager.
Trinidad and Tobago were originally part of the South American continent. At its closest point, Trinidad is only seven miles from the Venezuelan coast. Consequently, the geology, habitat and bird life of the islands bear greater resemblance to South America than to other Caribbean islands.
The proximity of Trinidad and Tobago to the South American continent make these islands ideal wintering grounds for the many species of birds that migrate north from Argentina and other countries. Similarly, they provide an ideal environment for a variety of northern migratory birds that stay or pass through on their way to wintering grounds in the south. Birdwatchers therefore have the opportunity to see Caribbean and South American birds and, at the right time of year, migrants from North America.
The South American migrant species are most common between May and September, while birds from North America visit between October and March. The dry months, from January to March or April, seem to be the most popular time for bird-watchers to visit. However, during the wet season, birds are often seen snatching at food between the showers, so there is always plenty of action. In common with other tropical regions, the best time for bird-watching is in the early morning, just after sunrise until about 9am; and during the evening in the hour or so before sunset.
Although Tobago is a small island, it offers a great variety of natural habitat for birds including tropical rain forest, mangrove swamp, marshland, open country and scrubland, gardens, parks and coast. Good bird-watching areas include the Tobago Main Ridge Forest, the Hillsborough Dam district, Grafton Estate at Stonehaven Bay, the Roxborough-Bloody Bay road and Charlotteville village.
Many species of smaller bird, such as the yellow and black bananaquit or sugarbird, can be seen at close quarters around the hotels. Attracted by sugar-water feeders, they fly in and cheekily snatch titbits from the tables. Amongst the smaller birds there are six different species of beautiful hummingbirds with colourful iridescent plumage. The most common is the Copper-rumped Hummingbird – iridescent green above and below with coppery bronze on back and white tufts on the thighs. Mot-mots, with their striking plumage of green upperparts, black crowns ringed with bright blue, russet under-parts and blue racquet-tipped tails, usually inhabit the forest undergrowth but some are tame enough to fly in for scraps of food. Blue-grey tanagers, with brilliant violet-blue patches on each of their wings, can also be seen flying around in noisy, restless groups.
In the rainforest it is possible to see many species of local birds such as the Rufous-breasted Hermit, one of the larger varieties of hummingbird. Mainly brown in colour, it can be distinguished by its long, curved bill and the prominent white tips on its tail-feathers. The Pale-vented Pigeon is commonly seen over the Main Ridge forests and the turkey-like Cocrico frequents forest and cultivated land. The distinctive, harsh raucous call of the Cocrico is often to be heard at dawn and dusk throughout Tobago.
One of the most interesting forest birds is the White-bearded Manakin. The male is black on the crown, the upper back, the wings and the tail. He has a grey lower back and is otherwise white. The female is olive-green all over and inconspicuous. Both male and female have orange legs. Some male birds, such as the Manakins, frequently congregate to display themselves to each other and to the females by jumping rapidly from perch to perch beside a prepared ‘lek’ – a patch of forest cleared of all vegetation – which he defends.
Around the coasts of Tobago it is possible to see the Magnificent Frigate birds gliding high above the sea searching for fish. With their distinctive long tails occasionally divided into a deep fork, they will often attack and bully the smaller seabirds, snatching the fish from their beaks. Brown pelicans, usually in flocks of about a dozen, dive from great heights into the sea, folding their wings just before they hit the water, and scooping up fish in their enormous pouched bills. Booby birds, further out to sea than the gulls, terns and pelicans, glide low over the water with their long, pointed wings.
Tobago possesses some extremely interesting bird sanctuaries. The Arnos Vale Hotel was once the place to visit if you wanted to see hummingbirds, in particular. However, with the virtual demise of the hotels, the experience is a sad shadow of what it once was. Fortunately, the birds have simply moved half a mile down the road to the Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve who are passionate about the subject and who have taken exceptional measures to attract and keep the birds. Over 50 species of bird are known to be resident on the 12-acre organic fruit estate. It has now become a 'must' for all birders and, in fact, most of the professional birdwatching guides regularly end their tours with a visit to the farm.
The Grafton Caledonia Bird Sanctuary is also a popular and accessible haven. The sanctuary was founded by the late owner of the surrounding estate, Eleanor Alefounder, who began feeding hungry local birds after Hurricane Flora ravaged Tobago in 1963. Since then, 4pm has become the regular feeding time for the flocks of Cocrico, Mot-mot, Bananaquit and other species, many of which will take food right out of your hand.
The uninhabited island of Little Tobago (about 5 kilometres out to sea) is a seabird sanctuary off Speyside - the most easterly tip of Tobago, on the rugged, windward, Atlantic coast. David Attenborough filmed parts of his celebrated 'Trials of Life' documentary series here. This two-square kilometre outcrop has been known as 'Bird of Paradise Island' since the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was bought by the ornithologist Sir William Ingram. In 1909 he transported 24 Greater Birds of Paradise from Aru Island in New Guinea. Over the years, however, these beautiful birds were destroyed by hurricanes.
When Sir William died in 1924, Little Tobago was returned to the government on condition that it would receive protected status. Now one of the largest seabird colonies in the Caribbean, the island is home to impressive flocks of Frigate birds, Red-Footed Boobies and Brown Boobies, Terns and the spectacular Red-billed Tropicbird, the latter especially prevalent between October and June. Seabirds may also be found close to shore at Store Bay, Buccoo, Mount Irvine and Plymouth (leeward Caribbean coast) and at Scarborough and Smith’s Island (windward, Atlantic coast).
There is limited swamp and marshland in Tobago, but many species of bird can be found amongst the mangrove swamps of locations like the Bon Accord Lagoon and the Friendship Estate. The Buccoo marshes and Hilton Hotel sewer areas are particularly good areas and species to be seen include the Least Grebe, Southern Lapwing, Green Heron, Common Moorhen, Wattle Jacana, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, White-cheeked Pintail, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Anhinga, Blue-wing Teal, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and visiting migrant waders in the months of August to October.