Asa Wright Nature Centre & Caroni Swamp
A visit to Trinidad with Newton George
We’ll catch the first flight over to Trinidad” Newton commented.
I nearly had a heart attack. The first flight was around half six. Caribbean Airlines has a (ridiculous) 90-minute check-in. That meant being at the airport by 5am, which meant leaving the hotel around 4:30, which meant getting up at…
Now, I have never professed to being a ‘proper’ birdwatcher and equally, I have never professed to being an early morning person. Come on! We’re supposed to be on holiday. I don’t know which would have been the worse – Jill’s reaction when I set the alarm clock for 3:15am or having to get up at that time.
“How about you pick us up at 6:30?” I replied. Polite as every, Newton consented. He probably though me a total wimp. I'm sure he's got his eye stuck to his scope by that time most mornings – and with half a dozen ‘proper’ birders in tow. Well, good luck to them!
Anyway, this wasn’t a serious bird watching tour. It was supposed to be a private day out; just Newton, his charming wife Dianne, Jill and myself. It will surprise regular readers to learn that three members of the party had never visited the Asa Wright Nature Centre or Caroni Lagoon National Park Bird Sanctuary before. Guess which three.
Anyway, two days later Newton and Dianne were patiently waiting for the bleary-eyed duo as we emerged from our room at the Blue Haven Hotel. By 7am we were checked in and enjoying breakfast at the terminal café before an uneventful 25-minute flight over to Trinidad.
You naturally expect the sister islands of Trinidad and Tobago to be similar. In many way they are. In other ways they are worlds apart. You notice the difference the moment you land. Not just because of the different ethnic mix, but more because Trinidad seems to be a bustling metropolis in comparison to Tobago’s sleepy backwater. And long may it remain so!
Anyway, after fighting off the waiting taxi drivers we made our way out to the car park, where Newton’s brother had left a car for our us. Within minutes we were on the highway. A proper highway. Wow, what a difference to Tobago!
Asa Wright Nature Centre
The Asa Wright Nature Centre is located on the Spring Hill Estate, 1200 feet above sea level, in the middle of the Northern Range hills that rise to 3,000 feet and run across the top of Trinidad. The drive from the airport took an hour.
Once we entered the twisty country roads north of Arima and started ascending the Northern Range, the scenery became increasingly beautiful. The road passes a christophene farm - a popular local vegetable known as Chayote squash in some countries. Many acres of land are covered in net, six feet or so above the ground. The crop hangs from the nets, making for easier harvesting. The fact that the farm is surrounded by clusters of Hindu prayer flags makes the place even more intriguing to us visitors from northern climes.
The Spring Hill Estate was originally a cocoa, coffee and citrus plantation. The plantation fell into neglect and shortly after World War II was bought by an Englishman, Newcombe Wright, and his Icelandic wife, Asa. They were keen amateur ornithologists and became close friends of American explorer and naturalist William Beebe, who purchased the adjacent plantation. Beebe named his plantation Simla and established a tropical research station for the New York Zoological Society there. The Wrights played host to the many naturalist and birdwatchers who visited the research station.
Following Newcombe Wright’s death, American wildlife artist, Don Eckelberry, and conservationist, Emma Fisk, led efforts to buy the 200-acre estate and convert it into a community-outreach centre. Asa agreed, on condition that the estate remained a conservation area in perpetuity. A non-profit trust under local and international management was set up in 1967. The Asa Wright Nature Centre was born. The indomitable Asa Wright lived on the estate until her death in 1971.
The aim of the trust is to protect the Arima valley and to create a conservation and study area. A substantial part of the trust's income is set aside for land acquisition. The Centre now owns some 2,000 acres of land in the Arima and adjacent Aripo valleys. The plan is to allow most of this land to be reclaimed by secondary forest.
Over 150 species of bird have been recorded at the Asa Wright. Serious bird watchers will undoubtedly wish to consider a stay at the Centre’s back-to-basics 24-room lodge. Guests staying for three-days or more are granted a visit to the famous oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) colony in nearby Dunston Cave. Normally only found in northern areas of South America, access to these nocturnal birds is strictly controlled and is not available to day visitors.
Activities at the Centre revolve around the wonderful refurbished plantation house, which acts as tour centre, bar and restaurant and houses some of the lodge’s rooms. The amazing gallery of the plantation house provides panoramic views over the Arima valley. More importantly, it is also a fascinating place from which to study the countless birds that constantly visit the regularly-replenished feeders that line the ground below. The experience is not confined to birds; agoutis and a large golden tegu lizard were present during our visit, attracted by the rich pickings left out for them.
Despite the late departure from Tobago, the timing of our arrival at the Centre seemed perfect. No sooner had we finished a refreshing drink at the bar than staff asked guests to assemble for the morning walk. The Centre offers two guided walks per day – one at 10:30am and one at 1:30pm. The cost is included in the entrance fee.
Our guide, Harold, proved both knowledgeable and personable. The tour party consisted of a mixed bunch of around 16-18 tourists. Before setting out, Harold gave an introductory talk and established our levels of expertise and interest. He pitched the walk and talk accordingly and hit a perfect balance. The trails were easy going and you would be have to be very unfit to find the going too harsh - it was a pleasant walk suited to people of all ages and fitness levels. Hiking boots or similar are certainly not a prerequisite and the temperature in the shade of the trees was surprisingly comfortable. The walk lasted around 90 minutes and couldn’t have been more enjoyable.
When it comes to bird watching on Tobago, Newton George may be “the man”, but how does he fare on Trinidad? Well, it was fascinating to see the obvious respect in which Newton is clearly held by the staff at the Centre (we observed the same at the Coroni Swamp). It was equally satisfying to see the respect that Newton reciprocated. Harold was a damn good guide, but maybe didn’t have quite as sharp an eye as Newton, or his obvious experience. With Harold at the front of the party and Newton at the rear, we had a wonderful combination. I have nothing but admiration for the quiet way in which Newton could draw Harold’s attention to things, or provide additional information, without in any way subverting the tour leaders obvious authority or role. Harold clearly appreciated this and would regularly turn to Newton to ask his opinion, or invite him to comment. I always get immense pleasure watching professionals at work – whatever their field of expertise. Every member of the party benefited from the shared skills of Harold and Newton.
This article is not intended as a field guide for birdwatchers. It is simply an overview of a day-trip from Tobago intended to help readers decide whether it is something they might wish to consider. So, I will not attempt to provide a detailed list of the birds we saw during the day (although I must mention the fascinating tree porcupine that Newton spotted, much to everyone’s pleasure).
Although the walk had been gentle enough, it had been an early start and a long morning so we were really looking forward to lunch when we got back to the Plantation House shortly after midday. Newton had promised us a fabulous meal and he was not wrong. The catering at the Asa Wright has an excellent reputation. I was disappointed when we entered the dining room. I am not a fan of buffet catering. I certainly had no justification – it was the best Caribbean food I have tasted since staying at the Cuffie River Nature Retreat, back in Tobago, a few years ago.
Lunch was a leisurely experience. Rather than small individual tables, the restaurant has several large communal tables. Once again my prejudices were shattered. It was a wonderfully social experience with the mixed party of diners sharing experiences. The problem was getting the food down between gaps in the conversation.
After lunch we returned to the main gallery and sat in virtual silence, lost in the peace and tranquillity of the Centre and the continual procession of birds at the feeders below. I could have sat there all day. Sadly, time passed more quickly than I would have liked and it was soon time to bid farewell to this magical place and make our way towards the Caroni Swamp.