Asa Wright Nature Centre & Caroni Swamp

A visit to Trinidad with Newton George

Caroni Lagoon National Park

The mangrove swamp

The 20 square mile Caroni Swamp is the largest mangrove wetland in Trinidad. It lies just south of capital Port of Spain, on the island’s western shore, where the Coroni River joins the Gulf of Paria.

The swamp is home to some 200 avian species. The most famous inhabitants are the Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber), Trinidad’s national bird. During the day they feed in Venezuela, 11 miles away, returning to Trinidad at dusk – a spectacle that has become a “must” on tourist itineraries.

The Coroni Swamp is around an hour’s drive from the Asa Wright Centre. The swamp boats depart around 5pm, so we had to cross the Port-of-Spain area rush hour. What a difference from Tobago, where a traffic jam seldom involves more than a dozen vehicles. Fortunately Newton’s knowledge is not confined to birds; he simply took to the back streets and avoided the worst of the traffic, allowing us to also see a side of Trinidad we would otherwise have missed.

Another swamp boat full of touristsThere are a couple of boat operators offering tours into the Coroni Swamp. Needless to say, Newton knows the best. Most tourists fall prey to the more aggressive marketing techniques of the largest operator (and no doubt their taxi driver receives a healthy commission). However, using the smaller operator that Newton prefers meant a less packed boat. That alone was enough to convince us.

The swamp is a maze of channels – some natural and some dredged. Its not surprising that you can’t just hire a boat and go out there yourself – you could so easily get lost. However, the boat captains do these tour every day and know the waterways intimately.

Although Scarlet Ibis might be the focus of the trip, there is a vast amount of wildlife in the mangroves and once again, the combined eyes of our guide and Newton were of benefit to everyone. No sooner had we stepped on board than a party of serious birders recognised Newton and sought his comment and advice. A tree boaSo, even though we were supposed to be on a private day out, it ended up with Newton working as hard as ever. Mind you, he would argue that it wasn’t work. He is so passionate about the subject that even on his days off you will probably find him out in the rainforest with his scope.

Within minutes of leaving the jetty we saw our first wildlife – a five or six foot tree boa, sleeping in the branches of an overhanging mangrove, immediately above the boat. I would like to say that the screams of the ladies scared away all wildlife within many hundred metres. I can’t – it was the screams of the men. I’m only joking; the party were surprisingly self-contained. I think the boa’s total impassivity convinced everyone it couldn’t care less about our presence.

The beauty of the Northern Range and Arima Valley are hard acts to follow, but the Caroni Swamp has a beauty of its own. I just wish that electric boats could be used. The rattle of an outboard motor simply doesn’t do it justice – not to mention the ecological aspects of the smoky exhausts.

A solitary Scarlet IbisAfter a leisurely 30-minute cruise through the waterways, with Newton and our captain/guide pointing out a wide collection of bird species, we eventually arrived at a large area of open water. Surrounded by mangroves on all sides and featuring several islands and mud flats, this ‘lake’ was clearly somewhere special. Making our way across the water, we moored beside four other tour boats, facing a mangrove-covered island backed by the hills of Trinidad’s Northern Range. Once the engines were switched off, it became a spot of wonderful peace and solitude.

Six o’ clock was rapidly approaching and the light was starting to fade. Fortunately, one group of birders on our boat had come well prepared. No, I’m not talking about telescopes and long lens, I’m talking about a cool box and liberal supply of rum punch. What generous people!

No sooner was it down the hatch than excited calls from one of the boats announced the arrival of the first flock of Scarlet Ibis. There may have only been half a dozen, but it was still a magical sight. Rather than settling down to roost in the mangroves, the Ibis landed on one of the sandbanks near the central island, where a dozen or so egrets were already feeding.

Flocks of Scarlet IbisWithin a few minutes another flock arrived. Slowly, the pace picked up. So did the flock size. Within ten to fifteen minutes it was a continuous procession of birds, with flock sizes of fifty to a hundred birds. What was so special about that central island? Virtually all of the birds landed there, turning the green of the mangroves scarlet red.

Juvenile Scarlet Ibis are black in colour. The scarlet colouring, which comes from the diet of crabs and other crustaceans, only comes when the birds have matured at two years of age. The colouring gets darker as the bird gets older. All the early arrivals were mature adult males. As the procession progressed, a few juveniles could be seen amongst the adults. By the end, juveniles represented the majority; clearly not strong enough to keep up with the adults.

As suddenly as it had started, the spectacle came to an end. Light was fading fast and the tour boats started up, cast off and headed back into the narrow channels of the mangroves. A journey that had taken a 30-40 minutes outbound became just 10 minutes or so on the return, showing how one has no sense of direction or perspective in the waterways.

Scarlet IbisOne thing that particularly surprised me about the tour was the fact that we weren’t the least troubled by mosquitoes. I had imagined that they would be a real problem in the swamp and so we had come well prepared. However, I didn’t notice other people constantly swatting or complaining, so even those who had not sprayed their arms and legs with a good deterrent seemed unaffected by the blighters. Hopefully our experience was typical, but I feel it wise to say that visitors should go prepared.

By the time we got back to the vehicle and hit the road, night had fallen. It had been a long day and I was frankly glad that it was only a short 20-minute journey back to Piarco airport. The only disappointment of the day was that having checked in, with a hour or so to wait for our flight, we had hoped to use the time to get something to eat. Sadly, the only choice in the terminal building seemed to be unappetising plastic chicken fast food.

Shortly after 9pm we arrived back at the Blue Haven Hotel. Although tiring, it was a truly wonderful day and would not hesitate to do it again. We can strongly recommend this tour. Trinidad is not a place for the “do it yourself” tourist and therefore I can only recommend trips to Trinidad when accompanied by an experienced guide. Although local guides were provided at both the Asa Wright Centre and the Caroni Lagoon National Park, having Newton with us considerably enhanced the day and removed all the hassle. It was literally a matter of sitting back and enjoying it.

Arriving flocks   Scarlet Ibis roost for the night

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