Asa Wright Trip - Trinidad: June 2-13, 2018
Asa Wright Trip: June 2-13, 2018I visited Trinidad & Tobago for the first time in 1997. I wasn't a birder or photographer at the time. It seemed like an offbeat and quirky country to visit andI spent most of my time wandering along secluded beaches and doing some white-knuckle driving around the countryside in a rental car. On my lastafternoon in Trinidad, a cab driver insisted that Caroni Swamp was something I shouldn't miss. I suspected he may have been a tout for the tour company,but I agreed to let him take me and he was right. The boat ride through the mangrove swamp and the massive flocks of Scarlet Ibis flying into the lake atsunset was an unforgettable highlight of my trip and a pivotal moment in my traveling experience, although I may not have known it at the time.When I got hooked on nature photography 20 years later, I decided that Trinidad should be my first tropical photography trip. Discovering a new place isexciting, but there is a unique kind of excitement in rediscovering an old familiar place years later with a different passion and focus. Would it still have thesame charm?When I stepped out of Piarco into the hot, humid afternoon and saw the cloud-covered mountains, I was hit with a strong feeling of déjà vu. Trinidad stilllooked and felt familiar. The birding began immediately as my shuttle driver Roodal pointed out some Southern Lapwings in the airport parking lot and aYellow-headed Caracara fly-by. We headed up the steep, twisting roads of Arima and then the final climb into the densely rainforested northern range.Roodal pointed out various birds along the way. When we turned into the Asa Wright driveway, Roodal stopped and pointed out a Trinidad Motmotperched in a shady ravine. The birding was getting exciting even before officially arriving.Arima roads:steep and twisty“Antshrike Alley”my home for 10 daysGolden-olive Woodpecker:first shot out of the gateThe veranda view never gets old:Trinidad’s lush green seasonRoodal showed me to my room and when I walked outside to take in the view, I saw a beautiful Golden-olive Woodpecker perched in the wild tobacco tree(Acnistus arborescens) by my porch: my first photo and one of my favorites of the trip. I walked over to the veranda for the afternoon rum punch. Sunsetarrives quickly in the equatorial tropics and I had time to see a few lingering hummingbirds and enjoy the spectacular view before dusk.In the summer (green) season, Asa Wright is bustling with day visitors and tour groups, but the number of overnight guests can be very few. If you likethings quiet and low-key, this is the time to go. At dinner, I met the only other guest at the time, a very interesting tree researcher from upstate New Yorkwho was studying rare tree species of South America. A family of 4 from San Francisco arrived later in the week. The quirky and interesting guests are abig part of the vibe here. I also met an Asa Wright summer intern named Nick. Nick had a passion for entomology and we spent many nights hunting fornocturnal crawly things with our headlamps: Whip Scorpions, Velvet Worms, Tarantulas and countless other fascinating creatures. I'm also an avid macrophotographer and our night hikes along the driveway were very memorable and so much fun.After dinner I set up my tripod and took some shots of Pallas's Long-tongued Bats drinking nectar from the hummingbird feeders, then off to bed inanticipation of my first full day.Bats rule the hummingbirdfeeders at nightThe famous Asa Wright drivewayNocturnal action along the driveway:endemic Urich’s Litter FrogThe chorus of birdsong at first light is unforgettable. The first calls heard are Spectacled, Coco and White-necked Thrush followed by Great and BarredAntshrikes. I nicknamed my apartment "Antshrike Alley" because every morning they would emerge loudly from the forest and head past my room to thetobacco trees by the veranda. Asa Wright has spent decades cultivating fruiting trees and flowering plants that attract birds. The grounds are a rainforestparadise at any time of year, but particularly in the green season when everything is at peak bloom. This also means that birds will find more food in theforest during the green season and hang around the fruit feeders a bit less, but rest assured you will still see a lot of action on the grounds.
On the veranda with a cup of black coffee, a hard rainstorm hit for about an hour, providing lots of preening hummingbird photos (they love the rain).Rainstorms came mostly overnight and in the early mornings. Afternoons were always sunny with occasional brief showers. On my 10-day trip, there werethree consecutive days of intense sun, minimal clouds and no rain. Mountain temperatures are comfortable and surprisingly cool at night, but it is excessively humid and mid-day can get quite steamy, a perfect opportunity for a quick nap. Temperatures are noticeably hotter at sea level.The bird list on the veranda is long and even after 10 days, I still saw new lifers (an unexpected Swallow Tanager on my final afternoon). Photo opportunities in lush tropical habitat are abundant and stunning. You will never run out of subjects to shoot at any time. Non-avian residents include ever-presentAgouti, Golden Tegu (so fun to see them skulking around the grounds like dragons) and other smaller species like tree lizards, Common Ameiva andanoles. Butterflies including Blue Morphos are abundant.Happy Hummingbirds.and lots of themThe shy and skulking, butexceptionally vocal Great AntshrikeTrinidad Motmotwith cicadaSwallow TanagerAggressive White-necked Jacobin and Copper-rumped hummingbirds dominate the veranda feeders, but you will see other species including White-chested Emerald, Tufted Coquette, Black-throated Mango, Green and Little Hermits and Ruby Topaz in the flowering vervain. Take a walk around the cabins onthe hill, which are landscaped with vervain. Shy species like Long-billed Starthroat would often come to the feeders in the evening when the Jacobins haveleft for the day. Hummingbirds could be seen almost everywhere.Some highlights:Discovery TrailA short walk from the veranda, this trail takes you through the Golden-headed and White-bearded Manakin and Bearded Bellbird leks. It's amazing thatyou can see three active leks in such a short walk. In addition, you can spot almost anything else at any given time. A group of school kids got close viewsof a perched Ornate Hawk Eagle (while I was unfortunately on the veranda). Anything can happen at any time here. I walked this trail every afternoonbecause the Manakins were always busy lekking even during mid-day when everything else was taking a siesta. They were so much fun to observe andphotograph with their odd dances and wing snaps.Bird BlindAnother guest told me about this blind on a hill between the driveway and Blanchisseuse Road. Spend some time here and you can see species likeAntwrens and Gnatwrens that you may not spot from the veranda and maybe a Tinamou if you're lucky (I only heard them). It's a very shady and leafy trailwith the potential for snakes, so be careful. I saw a nice sized Machete Savane on this trail. Not venomous, but they can deliver a painful bite. Ask a guidewhere to locate the trail. It's an uphill hike through some dense forest with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and you will probably have the placeto yourself.Golden-headed Manakins:lekking, more lekking. and then some moreThe bird blind: a quiet and lesstraveled spot at Asa WrightSpectacled Thrush:beautiful birds in beautiful habitatAsa Wright DrivewayThe famous Asa Wright driveway is about a half mile long and an easy walk through dense rainforest, bamboo groves, shady rain-fed streams and chayoteslopes. The thick bamboo groves were the hotspot for Trinidad Motmots, which often carried large insects in their mouth. Thick secondary brush hidesAntshrikes, Rufous-breasted Wrens, White-flanked Antwren and other skulkers. A multitude of confusing forest flycatchers like Elenia, Slaty-capped,Ochre-bellied, Euler's and Streaked can be seen here along with the ubiquitous Tanagers and Euphonias. Look for raptors like Black Hawks at the
switchback overlooks. Great Antshrikes were more often heard than seen, but the driveway was a reliable place to see them darting out of the brush tospear leafcutter ants off the pavement. At night, the dirt banks are a treasure trove of insects, crawly things and even birds that roost in ground holes. Thecreek contains Trinidad Stream Frogs, Rubyspot and Argia damselflies, Pondhawk and Skimmer dragonflies and if you're lucky: large Helicopter Damsels.Dunston Oilbird CaveThe first bit of excitement on the hike to Dunston was a large, partially hidden Fer-de-lance on the trail. It was hidden so well under leaves that our guidewalked past and a guest happened to look down and spot it: a lucky reminder that you really need to watch where you're stepping and exercise situationalawareness at all times. Unfortunately the Oilbirds weren't in a cooperative mood that day. We only spotted two that were far back in the rear of the caveand hard to see and photograph. It was disappointing after seeing beautiful photographs taken near the cave entrance, but that's nature. They were stillfascinating (particularly their creepy horror movie screams) and this is the only place in the world where you can see them.Aripo SavannahAripo Savannah was my first offsite guided trip with Roodal. The staff placed me with the family from San Francisco, thus avoiding a single travelersurcharge. As a standard precaution, two of Asa Wright's security guards accompanied us to Aripo in a second truck. They were friendly guys and joinedus in the birding adventures. Our trip was a half day and we got started early in the morning. Fortunately I timed my offsite tours during the 3-day dryperiod and had perfect weather. Aripo is a flat agricultural area east of Arima and a true savannah where tree growth is limited by a thick layer of clay inthe soil. Our first stop was the Arima River at the base of the mountains where we saw Southern Rough-winged and White-winged swallows and variousGreenlets. Next we searched a suburban area for Masked Yellowthroat Warblers (scoped from a distance). Stopping along various farm roads, we sawRufous-tailed Jacamar, Plain Antvireo, Green-rumped Parrolets, Palm Swifts, Zone-tailed, Grey-lined and Savannah Hawks, Yellow-headed Caracara,Grassquits, Ani and many other species. Our final stop as the mid-day temperature began to heat up, was a watercress farm where we spotted StriatedHeron, Pied Water Tyrant, White-headed Marsh Tyrants and even more new flycatcher species like Bran-colored. A great morning with a long list of lifers.Aripo Savannah: Trinidad’s heartlandWinding down on the verandaSO many flycatchers. an Ochre-belliedBlanchisseuse RoadOnce again, I did this tour with Roodal and the San Francisco family. This all-day trip takes you up Blanchisseuse Road, over the mountain pass (thehighest elevation possible in Trinidad in a vehicle) and down the Caribbean slope to the small mountain town of Brasso Seco Village where we had a picniclunch. We stopped often to listen and call things in. On this tour, many different higher elevation species can be seen. Overall, birds on this trip took a bitmore calling and effort to see, but we did well. All three Trogon species presented well (and some nice females). Also Mankins outside their leks includingpretty green females, many flycatchers, woodpeckers, woodcreepers, tanagers (including Bay-headed) and a few hawk species. At the summit we walked adirt road where we saw Tropical Peewee, Streaked Xenops, Lineated and Red-rumped Woodpeckers. On the return trip, we stopped at the small mountainvillage of Morne le Croix to see Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Blue-headed Parrots and boisterous Yellow-rumped Caciques. Roodal seemed to know everyoneand he often chatted with locals and waved when they drove past. It was very relaxing and fun and I got many photos of rural village life and mountainvistas as well as birds. No Piping Guan or Speckled Tanager (still on my life list) but the mountain scenery was stunning and it was a beautiful andmemorable trip on a perfect sunny day.Caroni SwampCaroni was the highlight of my 1997 trip, so I was extremely excited to visit it again. The feeding habits of the Scarlet Ibis have changed in the last 20years. They now stay in Caroni instead of commuting daily to Venezuela to forage, but otherwise Caroni is delightfully the same. Even Nanan's tour boatsare still painted the same green.Blanchisseuse summit vistaFemale Collared Trogon alongBlanchisseuse RoadBrasso Seco Village:as sleepy as it gets
Winston Nanan’s boats.still going strongFlamingos!The famous Scarlet IbisMasked CardinalRoodal's son Dave was my shuttle driver. The weather was clear, sunny and perfect. On the way, we stopped at a riverside to see some Southern Lapwings,assorted shorebirds and Snowy Egrets (a familiar face from the US). He also stopped to get me a shot of a Red-breasted Meadowlark. At the swampentrance, Dave got me beautiful shots of Masked Cardinal, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Black-crested Antshrike and Straight-billed Woodcreeper, all lowlandswamp species not found in the mountains. We saw a sleeping Silky Anteater curled in a tight, fuzzy ball with no head or face visible.Dave arranged a seat for me next to the driver, which got me the best vantage point in the boat for photography. On the way through the narrow mangrovechannel, we spotted Boat-billed Heron, Little Blue Heron and a beautiful Cook's Tree Boa. Flamingos were also present in the open lake, the first time I'veseen them in the wild. I got many photos of Ibis and Flamingos and soaked up the gorgeous scenery. Caroni is still one of my favorite places in the worldand so wonderful to visit. It was a great honor to have one of my Caroni photos from that day published in a Caligo Ve