February - March 1997
by Scott Finet
We arrived late on the AA turboprop from San Juan. After an overnight and breakfast (where BANANAQUITS (coereba flaveola) joined us (residents call these small birds "Sugar Eaters", a name that is well-given after watching dip their tiny tongues into the sugar bowl), CARIB GRACKLES (quiscalus lugubris) and TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRDS (mimus gilvus) helped themselves to leftover omelets at the Crown Point Beach Hotel), we picked up our rental jeep at Auto Rentals and ventured on to Speyside. Most of the sites that we birded were in and around the northeast or Atlantic side of the island. At Crown Point, the hotel, rental car agency and airport are within easy walking distance. An excellent map of the island is available at the tourist office across from the terminal. Fill up with gas before heading to the Speyside area, there is gas in Charlotteville, but the hours may not be convenient for birders who wish to be in the field early and late.
We were fortunate to make some of our arrangements with the assistance of Charles Carvalho, of TRINIDAD & TOBAGO SIGHTSEEING TOURS, firstname.lastname@example.org 1-809-628-1051 (voice 24hrs) 1-809-622-9205 (Fax) http://www.wp.com/trinbago. He was very responsive and extremely helpful. He helped us solve a problem that developed as a result of the threatened AA pilot's strike.
We also had an wonderful experience at the Speyside Inn. Built by a retired sea captain, this small inn felt almost like being at sea. The sound of the waves in Tyrrel's Bay were constant and relaxing. After a week of this, I found it difficult to sleep without the sound of the waves at night. The food was delicious, the best we had on Tobago. In contrast, the worse and most expensive meal we had was at a place that is often recommended as a good place to stay for birders. The food was served cafeteria style in a stifling hot, humid, crowded, noisy room.
Little Tobago Island
With some other birders we met at the Speyside Inn, we hired a boat at the beach in Speyside. Its best to arrange to have the boat drop you off and return to the island at a specified time, rather than wait for you or have a guided tour of the island. (It's about the size of Gilligan's island so you would have to try very hard to get lost, and, by all means, avoid the boat with the fat, jovial captain and the skinny, inept first mate. You could end up in middle of the ocean on an uncharted island with a swarm of sitcom producers circling like sharks.) We spent most of the day on the island, exploring at our leisure. We encountered several groups who had guides, their visits were considerably shorter. Pay for the trip after you return.
Murphy's "A Birder's Guide to Trinidad and Tobago" provides an excellent overview and details on what you will need to make your visit to Little Tobago enjoyable. (Murphy has a T&T WWW site at: http://members.aol.com/murph3000/index.html). We saw our first of many BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT (momotus momota) on the island. We saw several, they were conspicuous and allowed close approach. RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD (phaethon aethereus) is another notable bird on LTI. We also saw on LTI, CARIBBEAN MARTIN (progne dominicensis), COPPER-RUMPED HUMMINGBIRD (amazilia tobaci), VENEZUELAN FLYCATCHER (myiarchus venezuelensis), BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER (myiarchus tyrannulus), BARE-EYED THRUSH (turdus nudigenis), SHINY COWBIRD (molothrus bonariensis) and BLUE-GRAY TANAGER (thraupis episcopus) (dozens drinking from the rain barrels at the warden's house), among others. We had about 15-20 species while lounging on the porch at the worden's house. On the return trip we saw RED-FOOTED BOOBIES (sula sula) dive-bombing in the channel.
Forest from Roxborough - Bloody Bay Road
I birded three areas accessible from the Roxborough - Bloody Bay Road, the Gilpin Trace near the summit of the Tobago Forest Preserve, the Branch 2 Trace and the Roxborough Valley Trace, the last two several times. I tried the Gilpin Trace first, I was the only person on the trail early in the morning, but was soon joined by first a few, then a large group of individuals. I was seeing quite a few birds, including a RUFOUS-BREASTED WREN (thryothorus rutilus), until the group arrived, lead by a gentleman with a loud, resonant voice. Needless to say, the birds didn't stick around for this spectacle. Later I learned that I had encountered a group from a cruise ship being entertained by a local naturalist.
On the other hand, I rarely encountered anyone on the lower trails, where the birds were profuse. The most memorable bird of the Roxborough Valley Trace was the WHITE-TAILED SABREWING (campylopterus ensipennis). I found the Sabrewing about 3/4 mile along the trail, just past a small waterfall.
Later, another birding couple told me that they had seen a Sabrewing on the same trail, closer to the trailhead. ffrench indicates that the bird is rare since Hurricane Flora in 1963 but that there was some indication of re-establishing population. Just as ffrench states, the Sabrewing is fearless and approaches close enough for good looks without bins.
Some other notable birds encountered on the Roxborough Valley Trace included the first of many RUFOUS-TAILED JACAMAR (galbula ruficauda), BUFF-THROATED WOODCREEPER (xiphorhynchus guttatus), RED-CROWNED WOODPECKER (melanerpes rubricapillus), GOLDEN-OLIVE WOODPECKER (piculus rubiginosus), BARRED ANTSHRIKE (thamnophilus doliatus), and WHITE-LINED TANAGER (tachyphonus rufus) RUFOUS-VENTED CHACHALACA (ortalis ruficauda) and ORANGE-WINGED PARROT (amazona amazonica) compete at dawn and at dusk to see who can be the most raucous.
The Branch 2 Trace is just below Roxborough Valley Trace and on the opposite side of the main road. On this trace we saw BLACK-THROATED MANGO (anthracothorax nigricollis), PALM TANAGER (thraupis palmarum), CRESTED OROPENDOLA (psarocolius decumanus) and BROAD-WINGED HAWK (buteo platypterus). One day on the Branch 2 Trace I encountered a fellow who had several bird cages mounted on sticks, approximately 5-6 feet high, along the trail's edge. In each cage was a VIOLACEOUS EUPHONIA (euphonia violacea).
(According to Murphy its legal to keep this species as a cage bird). I struck up a conversation and discovered that he was using the small, colorful bird as bait to catch larger birds in order to sell them into the pet trade. He warned me that tourists and birdwatchers had been robbed on the trail, but I suspected that he was only saying this to scare me away from his trapping enterprise. By all accounts, Tobago is safe for tourists.
(For example, many people carry machetes in Tobago, probably because its a useful, completely non-threatening, agricultural tool, in contrast to most places in the U.S. where someone carrying a large, unsheathed, sharp metal weapon is someone to be avoided at all costs.)
There are a number of other productive areas in the eastern sector of Tobago. Good birding can be found along the unpaved road to the right at the crest of the hill before descending into Speyside (when travelling from Roxborough), on the unpaved road to the right at the crest of the hill before descending into Charlotteville (when travelling from Speyside), along the Charlotteville-L'Anse Fourmi road (unpaved and very rough in places) and around Bloody Bay.
At the end of our stay on Tobago we birded some of the spots on the western and southern parts of the island including Buccoo Marsh (Wattled Jacana (jacana jacana) and Southern Lapwing (vanellus chilensis) along with a number of waders, shorebirds and waterfowl often found in North America), and Arnos Vale. Arnos Vale is a great place to experience the birds at close range. The birds are fed daily at five, along with tea and biscuits for the hotel guests. This provides an opportunity to get close enough to touch and hand feed the birds.
Without exception, our trip to Tobago was delightful. Everyone was friendly and pleasant. You can't get the numbers of species that can be found in Trindad or South or Central America, but it is a low-key, relaxing, slow-paced birding experience, with some alternative activities, like snorkeling and great beaches, for those days when you want to do something different or just relax and soak up the warm sun and gentle breeze.
This summary report just scratches the surface of our Tobago experience and offers highlights of the birding. If I can provide any additional information, please contact me at email@example.com.