Wings of Fire: Birdwatching in Trinidad
by Evelyn Kanter
Like thousands of iridescent red tracer bullets, they streak in from the horizon, roosting overnight on the same two adjacent trees in the middle of the mangrove swamp. Once settled, the scarlet ibis--creatures with brilliant red feathers, long, curved beaks and spindly, crimson legs--make the dark green mangrove trees look as though they've been decorated for the holidays.
Welcome to sunset in Trinidad, a bird-watcher's heaven.
An Offshore Oasis
Located off the coast of Venezuela at the extreme northern end of the Amazon basin, the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago are better known as a palmy escape for beach-goers rather than a haven for exotic birds. Broad, white sand beaches, potent rum punch drinks and the toe-tapping calypso sounds of steel bands and Carnival (Trinidad's fest is the largest in the Caribbean) enhance the holiday appeal.
Only serious bird-watchers know that, for their size, this dual-island nation has one of the world's largest varieties of birds--more than 400 species, including over one dozen types of hummingbirds. Only the eco-adventurous recognize that Trinidad has a similar profusion of other animals and plants.
South America's Noah's Ark
While tiny Tobago has miles of pristine beach and offshore coral walls that make it popular with leisure lovers and divers, larger Trinidad thrives with the ecology of a South American rainforest. Mountains and rainforests provide a stunning backdrop for more than 600 varieties of butterflies and 100-plus species of mammals, including the red howler monkey (which really does shriek like a toddler having a temper tantrum).
Trinis, as the locals call themselves, have long been aware of the incredible richness of their homeland, and are just discovering the island's marketability as an eco-tourism and soft adventure destination. Although Trinidad is a mecca for a relatively small pool of serious, international bird-watchers, few tourists venture here to hike through the thick underbrush of rainforest trails, or kayak through still-water swamps dotted with water lilies big and profuse enough to impress Claude Monet himself.
In Search of the Ibis
In sunlight, the feathers of the red ibis sparkle iridescently. But not today. Although it is late fall and well beyond summer's rainy and hurricane seasons, it has been showering periodically all afternoon. The boatmen at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary don't think we want to take the chance of getting soaked en route to the sighting area. Wrong. With rain slickers and baseball caps to protect our bodies and plastic bags to protect our cameras, we are determined to track down the ibis and experience this rare sight.
The clouds cleared just as the boatman cut the motor several hundred yards before the roost, and we drifted gently closer. An occasional flash of white-- herons slightly larger than the chicken-sized ibis--punctuated the endless stream of red polka-dots. The onslaught of red bullets continued, as thousands of scarlet ibis flew in.
The day before there was a similar cloudburst--an intense five-minute downpour--during a visit to the Asa Wright Nature Preserve, a 200-acre mountaintop conservation area. Formerly a sugar, cocoa and coffee plantation that went bankrupt in the 1920s, the preserve was deeded to a private trust by Wright's widow under the provision that it remain forever wild and undeveloped. While I sat dry and comfortable in an old-fashioned, wide-armed wooden rocking chair on the expansive veranda of the old manor house, hummingbirds, brown and yellow corn birds and butterflies fluttered by.
Though I much prefer the activity of hiking and kayaking to sedentary bird-watching, the bird population at Asa Wright is diverse and numerous enough to entertain even a stationary amateur. In fact, more than 170 varieties of birds have been sighted here.
A Barrage of Birds
As the rain roared beyond the veranda, I appreciated the beauty of a deep turquoise honey creeper hummingbird no larger than my thumb, and bright yellow bananaquits so close I barely needed the binoculars provided by the preserve. Neither did the sharp-eyed teku, a lizard native to Trinidad, who shared my fascination with the hummingbirds, and whose ability to sit motionless far exceeded mine.
The preserve also has miles of hiking trails, so I later got my activity fix walking among orchids, ginger, hibiscus and fuchsia in a riot of tropical colors. Indeed, the beauty of Trinidad's wildflower popula-tion is unparalleled. On the way back down the switchback mountain roads to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad's capital city, I spotted a wiry, bearded man emerging from the underbrush. He carried a three-foot long machete in his right hand, and his left arm steadied a metal pail on his shoulder. The pail overflowed with hundreds of pink-red anthuriums, which grow wild in the rainforest and cost a king's ransom by the time they get to my neighborhood florist.
Kayaks also provided an ideal vantage point from which to view Trinidad's exotic birds, flora and fauna. The aforementioned water lilies lay thick in a huge wetland area on the eastern, Atlantic side of the island called the Nariva Swamp. Beautiful and serene, the swamp is easy even for first-timers to negotiate in wide-bottom sea kayaks that are simple to maneuver and difficult to capsize.
En route to the lilies, we paddled through the tangled, sapling-thick vines that charac-terize the mangrove swamp. Ahead, the swamp opened up into a field of tall sea grass and fragrant lemongrass that danced like a graceful corps de ballet in the morning breeze.
Every few yards, I paddled past an opening choked with huge white water lilies, their flat green leaves the size of dinner plates. Stopping once to take a picture, my kayak drifted into the sea grass and the air around me suddenly filled with a cloud of tiny insects. Although nothing bit me, I made sure not to do that again.
Lilies aren't the only attraction of Nariva Swamp, which is also home to a profusion of howler monkeys. Our guide, Wendy Yawching, an owner of Wildways Caribbean Adventure Travel, warned us to walk or kayak without talking, so we wouldn't scare off the skittish monkeys. We paddled silently toward an island in the middle of the swamp where the howlers live, and it was no more than 15 minutes before we heard them. It took just another few minutes on foot to find them.
A bronze face with saucer-like black eyes peeked down at me through leaves 20 feet above the ground. In another tree, either an arm or leg appeared through one branch, wrapped itself around a neighboring branch, and disappeared again, without revealing the rest of its body.
Suddenly, an entire monkey showed itself. In a flash, it leaped from one tree to another, and was gone. Were the three sightings the same monkey becoming increasingly bold or a trio monkeying around?
On the walk back to the kayaks, no longer focused on seeing howlers or remaining quiet, I had time to notice and ask about the rainforest. We walked past ferns and pink-orange heliconia taller than me, something called an umbrella plant (with leaves the size of umbrellas that can be used as cover against raindrops), wild cocoa pods, and tiny wild orchids and marigolds. Multi-colored birds and butterflies flitted along our path.
In the past, Trinidad's natural resources--first, cocoa, sugar, coffee and, more recently, vast reserves of oil and natural gas--produced a stable, educated, English-speaking industrialized economy that didn't depend on tourism. But that changed a decade ago, when oil prices plummeted. Today, tourism is the lifeblood of the island. And as sure as the ibis is red and the howler monkey is mischievous, there will be bird-watchers and naturalists ready to enjoy the splendor of wild and wonderful Trinidad.
For further information, contact:
Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Association: Phone: 888-595-4TNT; Website: www.tidco.co.tt
Wildways Caribbean Adventure Travel, 10 Idlewild Road, Knightsbridge, Cascade, Port of Spain, Trinidad, W. I. Phone/fax: (809) 623-7332; E-mail: email@example.com. The company offers adventure and eco-tourism tours, plus custom packages.
Caligo Ventures, 150 Bedford Road, Armonk, NY 10504. Phone: 800-426-7781. The U.S. representative for Asa Wright Nature Centre & Lodge, they specialize in birding tours in Trinidad and Tobago.
Field Guides International: Phone: 800-728-4953; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. They offer everything from a long weekend birding tour to a month-long safari.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under Trinidad & Tobago.