Trinidad and Tobago are situated at the very southern end of the Caribbean chain of islands. The reason they are such a good birding destination is that they are only a short hop from the South American mainland of Venezuala, and so share many of the bird families of that continent. Trinidad is an ideal birding spot for a taste of some of the South American genera, in that a lot are represented on the island, without the confusing amount of individual species that occur further South on the mainland.
Despite being separated by only a narrow channel of water, Trinidad and Tobago have their own mix of bird species and habitats, which is reflected in the totals for each island – Trinidad has a list of over 400 species, while Tobago reaches only around half of that number (although some of the birds on Tobago are either absent or rare on Trinidad). This difference is mainly due to the much greater diversity of habitat on Trinidad, ranging from lowland and upland rainforest, to open savannah, mangrove swamp, coastal marsh, and mudflats. The whole of the island has something to offer from a birding point of view, but the best spots are in the North, and since we only had a week, this is where all of our birding was concentrated.
Pride of place for anyone visiting Trinidad has to be the Asa Wright Nature Centre ( www.asawright.org ). This spot is world famous, and a visit there shows exactly why. It is situated in upland rainforest, and a lot of work has been done to attract a staggering variety of birds to the feeders in front of the viewing terrace. In addition, a small fee buys a guided walk along one of the trails for birds which can’t be seen from the buildings. A stay of 3 nights or more comes with a free visit to the Oilbird caves. These are a little limiting, since the Centre does not allow entry into the caves proper, but they are probably the most easily accessible of the 6 colonies on the island. We took the option of a walk to the Aripo Caves from Aripo Cottage, the main benefit being entry to the cave, and no other birders around. The downside is that it is a very strenuous 2½ hour uphill trek (and the same time back again).
Another famous spot is the Caroni Swamp – famous enough for tours from the regular cruise ships which dock in the Port of Spain harbour. It is particularly well know for its Scarlet Ibis fly-in late afternoon, but is also enjoyable for the experience of travelling in a boat through the channels of the mangrove swamp, and has speciality birds not seen elsewhere (as well as the potential of seeing snakes). When we were there, it didn’t seem necessary to book ahead (not sure if the cruise ships would make a difference), and it is very easy to find the boarding jetties (right next to the highway). Nadan’s is the larger of the operators, but we used James Madoo, who is very knowledgeable about the birds, and offers much smaller groups with more individual attention. Cost is only $TT60 each, and the boats left at around 15:45 when we were there.
The rainforest in the North of the island is bursting with birds, both in number and variety, and they are generally very approachable. The beauty of this area is that accommodation can be had in the midst of the forest itself, which not only means trails and birding days without touching a car, but even leisurely birding from the accommodation itself. The Aripo Cottage (see accommodation below) is located fairly high in the Aripo Heights, and birds can be seen all the way along the drive up to here, as well as in the Cottage area. Half way up (about 4 miles) a right turn is taken over a small bridge. Ignoring this and proceeding along l’Orange Road finds a small mansion with manicured gardens, supposedly good for hummingbirds, and a long walk up a track which covers the lower elevations of the Aripo Heights.
Other sites wihch we visited were:
Trincity Ponds. This is a collection of 4 sewage treatment lagoons, 2 of which are active, the other 2 have open water and marsh, which are situated right next to the Churchill-Roosevelt highway. They are very easily found – a left turn is made from the airport on to the highway, and the dirt track exit is after the first right hand curve in the road (it is the first turn that can be made on the road). There is a gatekeeper, who told us that the gates are open from 7:00-16:00, although he did eventually let us in after 17:00. The site is good for tyrant-flycatchers, jacanas, hirundines, and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds
Arena Forest. This is situated to the East of San Rafael, and the tracks can be fairly poor. It also contains the entrance to the Arena reservoir, although you must strictly have a permit to enter here. The forest itself is fairly dense, and remains quite dark, but there are some good birds in here if the time and effort is applied (we had our only White-tailed Trogon and Cocoa Woodcreeper here, as well as both Manakins).
Wallerfields and the Aripo Savannah. Wallerfields is an old world war II air base, and still has plenty of activity associated – construction traffic is fairly constant through the day, and it is reputed that the landing strips are used at night to ferry in less than reputable goods. This means that, even though that time and place is good for nightjars, it is not terribly safe. The approach tracks to the airfield are quite productive, and the scrub bordering the landing strips is also supposed to be good. The Aripo Savannah is just to the East of Wallerfields, but we were there in the heat of the day, so it was quite hot and quiet.
Aripo Agricultural Station. This spot turned out to be quite a surprise, mainly because Gerard (at Pax) thought that it was closed to birders still following the UK foot and mouth episode, but the people manning the entrance were more than happy to let us in. It is also very easy to find – the turn off is about a mile to the West of the Aripo Heights road, on the Old Eastern highway. We only walked about 400 metres along the track, just beyond some cattle sheds, but it was superb for waders, marsh-tyrants, seedeaters, and blackbirds, as well as hunting Savannah Hawks. This spot shouldn’t be missed – it’s easy and fun birding!
Waterloo. This small town is just to the South-east of Chaguanas, which in turn is a direct ride South on the Uriah-Butler highway from Port of Spain. It’s main attraction is the exposed mud, so timing the tides is important. We landed there shortly after low tide, and the place was a Mecca for waders, pelicans, skimmers, and gulls. There is also a rather curious “Temple by the Sea” here, which was well marked on our map, and is reputedly a target for Hindu worship.
Rice Fields. We called in here at first light, before venturing further to Waterloo. It is easily found – the turnoff to Caroni Swamp from the Uriah Butler highway is well signposted, and the left turn (heading East) is made at this junction (right for the swamp). A short way along here, on a right hand bend, the car can be parked and the raised embankment used as a lookout point. This was excellent for swift flocks, Giants Cowbirds, herons, and Limpkin.
Birds can be seen at any time on the island. However, January to March seems to be the most popular season, since it is relatively dry (emphasis on relatively – it rained to some extent on every day of our visit, usually in short bursts), and a lot of the flowers which attract the birds are in bloom. Chief amongst these is the Immortelle tree, an orange flower clad oasis amongst the greenery of the forests which attracts a multitude of species like a magnet. One thing that does need to be known about February is that the carnival is usually held towards the end of the month. This is significant because flights and cars are booked up well in advance. We had great difficulty obtaining a hire car, even when trying to book at the end of 2003. Direct flights from the UK to Trinidad were also generally fully booked – we ended up booking a flight from Gatwick to Tobago, and then a very cheap (£18 return) flight from Tobago to Trinidad. This was also booked ahead using an e-ticket on the BWIA web site (www.bwee.com), which was a good move judging by the amount of people on standby. Since the rain is fairly constant, and there is a fair amount of off track birding, waterproof hiking boots with a good grip are essential. The 80°+ temperatures mean sunblock is also required, and some form of insect repellent helps keep the few mosquitoes and biting chiggers (a pain in the rainforest) at bay.
The most obvious place to stay when looking at reports is the Asa Wright Centre, due to its fame and doorstep birding. More specific benefits are that access to the centre for non residents is strictly between 9 to 5, and guides to the oilbird caves are provided when staying over three nights. However, the costs are high – approximately £80 full board per night per person – birds are constantly in view from the terrace between visiting hours, and oilbird trips can be seen from both the places that we used, which were:
Trinidad is not a large island, which means that travelling between sites can be done in a short time. From a base in the northern mountains, sites such as Nariva and Waterloo are barely ¾ of an hour in the car. There are two quite well built highways running to the East and South from Port of Spain, and are usually reasonably freely running. Beware rush hour in Port of Spain and some of the larger towns – this can severely disrupt a journey. A lot of the roads are half decent, but the saloon car we had was hopelessly inadequate at some of the sites. A 4x4 would have been much more use at spots such as the Arena Forest, and even on the journey up the Aripo Heights road to the Aripo Cottage. Petrol is very cheap (much like US prices) but a major problem can be getting the stuff – petrol stations are few and far between, and there can be queues when you do find one. Planning ahead here is a good idea, although we found a reliable station near to the airport.
Even though $US are reputed to be accepted around the island, and a lot of prices are quoted in this currency, it is best to use Trindad and Tobago $TT. This is bound to the $US to the tune of approximately $TT6 to $US1, and this conversion does not vary. The pound was very strong against the $US when we visited (about $US1.8 to the £1), so prices on the island seemed very cheap. Travellers cheques can be cashed where banks are found (usually in the larger towns). Both Trinidad and Tobago airports will dispense $TT from the cash machines available.
We had heard of various types of sockets that are used in Trinidad, but all those we found were the standard ones used in the US.
The South American influence of the birds in Trinidad is highlighted by the choice of identification guide used. Any guides to the birds of the West Indies are as good as useless, since the avifauna of both Trinidad and Tobago are almost totally different to the rest of the Caribbean islands. Most useful books to take are:
“The Birds of Venezuala”, Hilty, Princeton Press – the most recent addition is large, and heavy, but probably has the best illustrations and descriptions. Apart from the size, the main downsides are that not all Trinidad species have associated illustrations, although all do have descriptions, and for some strange reason, the swifts page and some of the raptors are in black and white;
“A guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago”, Richard ffrench. Very useful due to the fact that only the birds found in the islands are described. Illustrations are not as useful as those in Hilty;
“A Birder's Guide to Trinidad and Tobago”, William Murphy (1986) – A new edition to this old guide is supposedly planned. Even so, the edition we used is over 2 decades old, and still the best guide to the sites. The direction details are generally still reasonably accurate, and is an absolute essential companion;
Trinidad and Tobago Insight Map – larger scale maps are available, and are likely to be better than the one we used, since some of the roads are not shown (such as some of those through the rice fields). That being said, this map, in addition to Murphy, helped us find places we were aiming for;
the Birds of Trinidad”, compiled by Richard Ffrench, 1996, published by Asa
Wright Nature Centre – not only a useful checklist, but it also gives an
indication as to the likelihood of species being seen.