Tobago Bird Watching - Birding with Newton
Newton George was one of Tobago's two official Rain Forest Reserve Rangers until he retired in September 2004 to take up full-time bird watching tours. As a Ranger, his job was to police and protect the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere. With nearly 34 year’s experience, Newton’s credentials are without question. Amongst other claims to fame, he was featured on the BBC's Holiday program and established the Red Billed Tropic Bird viewing site on Little Tobago featured in David Attenborough’s Trials of Life television documentary.
Having identified Newton as Tobago’s premier birding guide, we were keen to put his skills to the test. We had been introduced to him during our stay at the Blue Waters Inn (arguably Tobago's best birding base), so we knew him to be a charming and likeable fellow. But what was he like in the field?
Well, never having been on a formal birding tour, neither Jill nor I were in any position to cast opinion on Newton. Yes, Jill had put considerable effort into her research for the Birds in Paradise article, but both of us were birding virgins. Not so one of our party; my sister’s companion, Chris, was an enthusiastic amateur birder with extensive experience. It was Chris who would be the principle judge on our field trip and who would determine our final evaluation.
Two evenings before the allotted tour, I telephoned Newton to finalise details. Newton was excited. He had identified a bird not previously seen on Tobago and was keen to try and find it again. It would be a wonderful piece for our article.
Sadly, this was not to be. We had just returned, that very day, from a long an exhausting trip up the coast and across the Main Ridge rainforest to Charlotteville. This is a beautiful journey and a 'must' for every visitor. However, it is NOT a journey to be attempted in a Suzuki Carry with six passengers boasting a cumulative age of 380 years. In fact it is not a journey to be attempted in a Suzuki Carry with ANY passengers.
The last thing we wanted was to put a dampener on Newton’s obvious enthusiasm. Nobody knows Tobago’s rain forest better than Newton. The forest is HIS preserve. But, the thought of making that long journey twice in three days was a more than we could contemplate.
Not wanting to make the journey was one factor, but there was also another. We wanted to test Newton by taking him away from his area of primary expertise and see what he could do in territory he was less familiar with. So, his brief was to show us birdlife in the flatter, less interesting and more populated areas of Tobago, within fifteen minutes drive of all major hotels.
Newton was disappointed, but quickly rose to the challenge. Our impression that Newton was simply a rain forest man was quickly disproved. It is obvious that he has intimate knowledge of every corner of Tobago and is just as at home in the flatlands around Crown Point as he is in the northern ranges.
Promptly at 7am, three members of our party jumped into Newton’s car and headed back down the coast towards ‘civilisation’. Now, I do not propose to offer a detailed review of our entire trip. Serious birders would probably consider it an insult and others would simply switch off. I can only say that we experienced a truly wonderful and enjoyable morning.
Newton proved to be a wonderful guide and companion. His commitment to conservation and the preservation of Tobago’s wildlife are patently obvious. As much as I love and admire birds and natural history, I did have some concern that I would find a full morning on the subject a trifle boring. Not a chance! Newton made everything so interesting. It was impossible not to be captivated by his obvious enthusiasm, apart from anything else.
What quickly became apparent, and confirmed my research, is that Newton isn’t simply a paid guide conducting tours for commercial gain; he lives and breathes Tobago’s birdlife and natural history. This was aptly demonstrated in the way he shares his knowledge with anyone he meets along the trails, including other tour guides (unlike some guides that I could name!).
Our first port of call was the Grafton Caledonia Bird Sanctuary. The drive from Arnos Vale would normally take around fifteen minutes. Our journey took three times that long. We must have stopped every half a mile for Newton to point things out. It is fortunate that driving standards in Tobago are, shall we say, 'relaxed'. Newton’s habit of pulling into the side of the road without warning would cause major road rage in Britain. It is fortunate that this is normal on Tobago and that everyone drives accordingly.
I have visited the Grafton Caledonia Bird Sanctuary before and found it a very pleasant diversion, but little more. It is not a place that I would visit on a regular basis. Newton changed all that. We spent around an hour and a half walking around a lovely cool trail, shaded by the thick foliage - a trail that I could have walked in less than fifteen minutes. It was impossible to walk more than ten metres without Newton stopping to show us yet another species of bird. Even more fascinating was Newton’s ability to communicate with the birds. If we didn't see a bird for a few minutes, he would simply call one. I kid you not! It was often difficult to tell whether the calls were from Newton or the bird, but most calls were two-way, so who was fooling whom?
The trip around the Grafton Caledonia clearly demonstrated the benefits of birding with an experienced guide. Based on my previous visits, the sanctuary was not a place I would particularly recommend. Newton totally transformed my opinion and proved that it is not simply a “reasonably interesting place to visit” but a fascinating habitat for a very wide range of birds and wildlife.
From the Grafton Caledonia, Newton took us down to the sewage works of the Hilton Hotel on the Tobago Plantations estate in Lowlands. The artificial lakes and wetlands of this area are rapidly becoming an important and significant habitat and breeding ground for migratory ducks and birds.
Finally, and taking my tour brief to heart, Newton completed the tour by taking us into Bon Accord and proving that a wealth of bird life can be found even in the built-up areas.
Some five hours after collection, we returned to Arnos Vale. It had been a fascinating morning. With a chilled fruit punch in one hand and a pencil in the other, I joined Newton and Chris as they studied the sighting list. I was astonished. In a little under five hours we had identified 53 species of bird –a different species every five or six minutes. This represented nearly 25% of all the species to be found on Tobago and, staggeringly, all within a 15-20 minute drive of every major hotel on Tobago. Newton was obviously delighted by our satisfaction, but being the gentleman he is, he refrained from commenting that we might have had a much higher and more interesting count had we allowed him to take us to his beloved rainforest.
Click here for a list of the species we saw.
Speaking as an experienced amateur birder, our friend Chris could not rate Newton highly enough. Speaking as a non-birder, I can only say that I had a thoroughly enjoyable and informative morning with an obviously knowledgeable and personable companion. I exaggerate not when I say that a tour with Newton George will transform the way you see Tobago for ever. I have absolutely no hesitation in making Newton the myTobago recommended guide for bird-watching and natural history tours on Tobago and I strongly commend every visitor to his services.
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Telephone: (868) 660-5463