Big Day (Bird Race)
07 September 2000
by Floyd Hayes
Big Day Statistics:
Having lived in Trinidad for seven years, an attempt at breaking the 25 May 1977 Big Day record of 156 species (by J. L. Funk et al.) was long overdue. I knew a superior route than that of our predecessors and I was intimately familiar with the island's birds. Furthermore, I figured that the peak shorebird migration in September, coinciding with the arrival of a few Nearctic landbird migrants, might produce the highest count, though the resident landbirds would be less vocal than in May. Our Big Day began at 0400, when British expatriate Martyn Kenefick picked up Guyanese student Bryan Sanasie and American expatriate your's truly at my home. We tried unsuccessfully to hear owls calling in Maracas Valley, where I lived, and then sped to Arima Valley where we had better luck, hearing Spectacled Owls at two sites before sunrise.
At Morne Bleu, a Short-tailed Nighthawk and Hepatic Tanager greeted us at dawn and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl joined the usual dawn chorus. On our way to Brasso Seco Junction we repeatedly heard an unfamiliar call on a precipitous slope above the road, undoubtedly belonging to the Scaled Antpitta that had been heard irregularly along the same stretch of Blanchisseuse Road (vocalizations later confirmed by tape of Asa Wright Nature Centre guides). Luckily I had seen it previously, but not my companions. Throughout the morning we gradually picked up most of the expected forest species in Arima Valley, including a few difficult species such as Ruddy Quail-Dove and Gray-throated Leaftosser (both heard only), but intermittent rainfall (heavy at times) slowed our progress and kept the raptors out of the skies. A half-hour detour up to Simla failed to produce any new species. By the time we left the valley at noon we had tallied only 79 species, but the skies were clearing.
Because of new rules restricting the entry of birders, we worried that the guards of the Aripo Livestock Station would turn us away, thus jeopardizing our assault on the previous Big Day record, but fortunately they allowed us to enter. We quickly picked up open country species, plus some unexpected birds including a Long-winged Harrier, Little Cuckoo and Long-billed Starthroat. When we left at 1300 our list had climbed to 105.
On our way toward the west coast we were dismayed to find the Trincity Sewage Ponds either low or choked with weeds. Disappointingly no Least Grebes were present (an unimaginable miss), but we did pick up a Little Egret (rarely seen there), an early Yellow Warbler and two Common Waxbills (an exotic species well established for at least 10 years). The Caroni Rice Fields, our next stop, produced the expected myriad of resident and migrant waders, ducks and shorebirds. An immature Snail Kite--presumably the same bird seen a few months earlier--was an unexpected surprise. Luckily we didn't need to search for Long-winged Harrier or Little Egret (seen four days earlier), which we had already seen elsewhere. We left the rice fields at 1445 with 138 species, and cruised southward toward the west coast.
At Waterloo, our next step, we scanned the coastal mudflats and rapidly picked up many waterbirds and seabirds. Surprisingly we failed to find any of the four summering Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but managed to find one of the Wilson's Plovers seen a four days earlier plus an early Marbled Godwit. We left Waterloo at 1555, with 154 species. Running low on time, we reluctantly skipped Cacandee, a prime mangrove and marsh locality too far out of the way, and sped northward to the boat docks on the eastern edge of Caroni Swamp, where we picked up only a few new birds among the mangroves before leaving. We left the coast at 1645 with 157 species and a new Big Day record for Trinidad. But we were disappointed to have missed Tricolored Heron and Bicolored Conebill.
Speeding eastward we soon arrived at the Aripo Savannas, where we spent our last hour of daylight and picked up nine new species. A few Red-bellied Macaws flew overhead, as expected. A Bat Falcon perched cooperatively, but Sulphury Flycatchers eluded us until just before sunset, when our hopes of seeing White Hawk, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Tropical Parula--all easy birds--sank with the sun. And somehow Bryan and I had missed White-bearded Manakin, one of the most common species of forest birds, of which only a female was seen by Martyn.
After dark we spent about 20 minutes night-birding in Wallerfield, where we flushed several White-tailed Nightjars, but failed to turn up a Barn Owl, Common Pauraque or Nacunda Nighthawk. Given Wallerfield's notorious reputation, the headlights of a few cars spooked us into leaving early. We easily could have gotten Barn Owl in the Caroni Rice Fields, but Martyn and I had our wives waiting for us so we chose to save the Barn Owl for a later Big Day. Back home at 1930 we paused to listen for Tropical Screech-Owl, but none called. So we called it a big day, satisfied with a record-shattering 167 species including two established exotics: Rock Dove and Common Waxbill. With better time management and fair weather, we think 180 is possible.