Birdwatching In Tobago: A Visitor's Guide
A visitor's guide, by David Tomlinson
HUMMINGBIRDS on the feeders, motmots in the bushes, frigate birds over the beach: Tobago provides an exciting introduction to the pleasures of birdwatching in the American tropics. Much of the enjoyment comes from the fact that the birds are both colourful and tame, and so easily observed. Even without binoculars it’s easy to get fantastic views, or with a simple digital camera to take great photographs.
From an ornithological perspective Tobago isn’t part of the West Indies, for its avifauna is very much Venezuelan. This means that the variety of birds to be found on the island is considerably greater than any of the Caribbean islands of comparable size. Only Cuba, which is 350 times bigger, can boast more birds. However, Tobago’s big brother, Trinidad, has a far greater diversity of species than Tobago, and rather more than Cuba.
To put this in perspective, a fortnight’s reasonably intensive birding on Tobago won’t produce much more than 100 species, but if you spend four days on Tobago and 10 on Trinidad you can expect to record around 200. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded on Trinidad, of which around 250 breed, but Tobago’s list is closer to 200, of which fewer than 90 breed regularly. Don’t forget that these figures include a number of vagrant species that have only been recorded a few times.
Thus descriptions of Tobago as a birdwatcher’s paradise are a little over the top. Serious birdwatchers relish the challenge of finding new birds and identifying difficult species:birdwatching on Tobago doesn’t offer that sort of challenge. With a little help from an experienced local guide it’s not difficult to see virtually all the potential birds that Tobago holds during just a few days.
However, if you’ve never been to the Neotropics before Tobago does offer a wonderful introduction to many South American bird families without the risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer variety of species. Six species of hummingbirds, for example, breed on the island, and it’s not difficult to see them all. In contrast, Venezuela has nearly 100, including all six that are found on Tobago. Intriguingly, Tobago’s rarest hummer, the white-tailed sabrewing, doesn’t occur at all on Trinidad and isn’t easy to find in Venezuela.
There are a number of other species in addition to the sabrewing that occur on Tobago but not Trinidad. They are the red-billed tropicbird, rufous-vented chachalaca, striped owl, red-crowned woodpecker, olivaceous woodcreeper, white-fringed antwren, blue-backed manakin, Venezuelan flycatcher, Caribbean martin, scrub greenlet, black-faced grassquit and variable seedeater. You might struggle to find the striped owl, but all the others are relatively easy to locate.
One of Tobago’s advantages over Trinidad is the fact that a number of the most attractive species, such as rufous-tailed jacamar and blue-crowned motmot, are much easier to see here. A visit to Little Tobago is also a must for birdwatchers, as there’s nothing like it on Trinidad. Here, from December to July, you can enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of red-billed tropicbirds soaring over their breeding grounds, and you can even see these delightful birds at the nest. There’s no more elegant creature than a tropicbird, nor more effortless flier, so to visit Little Tobago is a treat for anyone interested in enjoying spectacles of nature. Incidentally, white-tailed tropicbirds have also been recorded regularly in recent years, though finding one among all the red-bills is a challenge.
Little Tobago also offers the opportunity to see a number of other seabirds, including three species of booby. Though you have to be lucky so see the blue-faced or masked, you should see both brown and red-footed without any trouble.
For many years Little Tobago was famous for its colony of greater bird-of-paradise, a native of New Guinea. Sir William Ingram introduced some 48 birds here in 1909. Though a nest was never found, the birds evidently bred successfully as the colony survived for many years. By 1979 just a pair remained, and extinction must have followed soon after.
The secret of seeing the maximum number of birds on Tobago is to visit as wide a variety of habitats as possible. Unlike Trinidad, Tobago has no extensive marshes or lakes, no swamp forest and no mountain forest over 2,000ft, but there are small pockets of special habitats that are always rewarding. For waterbirds a visit to the sewage ponds near Pigeon Point is a must. Here you should see a small variety of ducks, including white-cheeked pintails, red-billed (or black-bellied) whistling ducks and blue-winged teal, though there is always a chance of finding an unexpected species. In December 2003 I saw three northern pintails here, the first record for the island.
During the northern winter you can expect to see a variety of North American waders, including lesser and greater yellowlegs, willet and whimbrel, as well as the resident southern lapwing. It’s a great place for herons, and eight species on a single visit is not unusual. Look carefully to see both little and the closely related snowy egrets. The former, a recent arrival on the island, is best identified by less yellow on the legs than the snowy, as well as black rather than yellow lores (the bare skin around the beak and eyes).
The mangroves between the pools and the sea are a productive area to look for wintering North American warblers, and with luck you might find prothonotary and yellow warblers here, along with a variety of flycatchers. Look out, too, for mangrove cuckoos. This is also a reliable site for the curious smooth-billed ani.
Hilton Pools, close to the Hilton Hotel, are the largest freshwater lakes on the island. Ask permission before entering, then look for more wildfowl and waders. You should see least grebes and anhingas (the so-called snake bird or water turkey), neotropical cormorants and moorhens (the same as we have in Europe). This is a good site for yellow-headed caracara, a new addition to Tobago’s list of breeding birds and now increasing.
Grafton Bird Sanctuary has long been famous as one of Tobago’s premier birdwatching sites, and it remains so today. Crowds of birds are attracted to the feeders, and it’s a great place for getting good views of chacalacas, a variety of doves and tanagers, and motmots coming to the feeders. Red-rumped woodpeckers – the hardest to find of the three species found on Tobago – can also be seen here. Walk the trails and you should be rewarded with good views of white-fringed antwrens, scrub greenlets and orange-winged parrots, with soaring broad-winged hawks overhead.
It’s always worth checking out any promising habitat for birds. Not far from Grafton, at Turtle Beach, you will find a small freshwater lagoon behind the southern end of the beach. Here, if you’re lucky you might find spotted and solitary sandpipers, possibly both belted and green kingfishers, as well as green herons.
Many of the hotels hang out sugared water to attract hummingbirds, and there’s nowhere better on the island to see hummingbirds than the feeders at Arnos Vale. You don’t have to stay at the hotel to enjoy the birds, as visitors are welcome to have afternoon tea on the terrace and enjoy the spectacle. Five species of hummer can be seen here, Copper-rumped is the most common, but look out for the ruby-topaz, as spectacular as it names suggests, and the beautiful white-necked Jacobin.
The gardens at Arnos Vale are also rich in birds (but you can find a similar selection elsewhere – it’s just an easy place to look for them). Watch out for barred antshrikes, cocoa woodcreepers and bare-eyed thrushes, along with blue-grey, palm and white-lined tanagers. During the northern winter northern waterthrushes are easy to find along the streams. The name is misleading, for these attractive birds are really North American warblers, not thrushes.
Sitting on the beach watching the sea for birds is a pleasant way to spend the hottest part of the day. Magnificent frigatebirds are numerous and impossible to miss, along with brown pelicans and laughing gulls, but you should also see both royal and Sandwich terns. Ospreys breed on Tobago; numbers increase in the winter when the residents are joined by migrants from the north, so they are quite common. You can watch them fishing anywhere around the coast. Look out, too, for yellow-crowned night herons. As their name suggests, they are most active at dusk and on into the night, but they can often be seen during the day. If you’re lucky you might see flights of Audubon’s shearwaters skimming the waves, but brown boobies are much easier to spot.
Certain birds are common almost anywhere on the island. Yellow and black bannaquits are always tame and approachable, while there are four species of doves that are commonly encountered: pale-vented pigeon (the biggest species), ruddy ground dove, white-tipped dove and the diminutive eared dove. Tropical mockingbirds are bold, confident birds that also sing well, while look out too for both tropical and grey kingbirds and house wrens. There aren’t any crows or starlings, but Carib grackles are rather starling like, and giant cowbirds do look like small crows. Overhead, watch for short-tailed swifts and Caribbean martins.
A must on any birdwatcher’s itinerary is the Main Ridge, a luxuriant, evergreen rainforest. This is the coolest part of the island, so you might need a sweater or, equally likely, a raincoat, for your visit. A walk along the trail here will give the opportunity to see a number of species that can’t be found anywhere else on the island. Some, like the white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird, are relatively easy to see, but others are more difficult. It takes time to spot your first collared trogon, as these beautiful birds tend to sit quietly and not draw attention to themselves. Look out, too, for yellow-legged thrushes that look remarkably like European blackbirds, along with olive-green woodpeckers and blue-backed manakins, the latter an absolute stunner.
Without a guide you might well struggle to find, let along identify, some of the less obvious species such as streaked and fuscous flycatchers, but there’s no mistaking the handsome red-legged honeycreeper or the exquisitely named violaceous euphonia. One of the hardest birds to find is the tiny white-throated spadebill, an inconspicuous and solitary flycatcher.
One of the great advantages of venturing into the forest with an experienced local bird guide is that he (I’m unaware of any female guides) should know all the calls and songs, which makes finding birds so much easier. He will also know from experience what birds should be where, and will almost certainly know of a fruiting tree that’s currently attracting birds. If you’ve got plenty of time and patience, and are a practised birder, then you will probably be able to find your own birds, but if time is limited, book a guide. A good guide may also produce an unexpected bonus: on my last trip my guide, Newton George, showed me a roosting common potoo that I would never have found otherwise.
The best plan is arguably to take a guide for your first visit to Main Ridge, but then go back again and explore by yourself. Birding from the road is often productive, stopping regularly wherever there is a good view or if you see an interesting bird. The drive up to Main Ridge from the east coast is particularly productive. From the top of the ridge watch for soaring raptors: you should see the impressive great black hawk, which is in fact more numerous than the very similar common black hawk. If you see a small, buzzard-like raptor then it’s most likely a broad-winged hawk; this species is resident on Tobago. Look out for merlins. Though the same species as the birds that breed on our moors, it’s not unusual to see them on Tobago hunting in clearings in the rain forest. They are fairly common winter visitors from North America.
Frustratingly, Tobago doesn’t have an up-too-date bird book that’s easy to use. Most birdwatchers buy (and struggle with) A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, by Richard ffrench. Sadly, the illustrations are poor and not a great help to identification, while most migrant North American birds are simply not illustrated. It was a reasonable guide when it was first published, but that was over 30 years ago. A useful compromise is to carry Helm Identification Guides: Birds of the West Indies by Herbert Raffaele, despite the fact that it doesn’t cover all the birds you might find on Tobago. Couple it with the Birds of Venezuela by Steven Hilty and you should be able to identify everything you encounter.
Equipment? Binoculars are essential, while a telescope is extremely useful, preferably with a wide-angle lens rather than a zoom. I find a 20x eyepiece ideal in the rain forest, as it provides a wide field of view and lets in lots of light. Many birds are tame so relatively easy to photograph. If you are a skilled digiscoper (taking photographs through your telescope) then you are sure to have lots of fun on Tobago. Though you can hire Wellington boots to walk in the rain forest, the mud is seldom deep, and in my experience you can easily gat away with decent walking boots. Insects are unlikely to be a major problem, while I can’t recall encountering any leeches.
Be warned that the top bird guides, such as Newton George, do get booked up well in advance, so it pays to arrange your guide well before you arrive in Tobago. Though the best guides on Tobago aren’t cheap to hire, especially compared with other tropical destinations, they will enhance your birding experience by telling you so much more about the natural history of the island apart from just finding you the birds you want to see. Do get alternative quotes for your boat trip to Little Tobago, and make sure that your boatman gives you sufficient time to really enjoy your visit. Anything less than three hours is unlikely to be enough.
If you are serious about your birds, then arranging a two- or three-night visit to Trinidad, staying at Asa Wright, is an attractive option that isn’t expensive. It will give you the chance to see a good number of species that don’t occur on Tobago, such as the spectacularly noisy bearded bellbird and the channel-billed toucan. Be sure to include a tour of Caroni Swamp: the spectacle of hundreds of scarlet ibises coming in to roost is not to be missed.
David Tomlinson is a professional writer on birds who organises and leads overseas birdwatching holidays for his company, Gourmet Birds (www.gourmetbirds.co.uk). He first visited Tobago in 1981, while his most recent visit was in 2007.