Going to the Birds

Nature lovers will be at home with Trinidad’s native inhabitants

By: Janice Mucalov

In the Caroni Swamp, flocks of brilliantly colored scarlet ibis roost quietly in the mangroves, where they have returned at dusk after feeding all day. When it’s not nesting season between November and March so many ibises swarm to the trees as the sun sets that they paint the sky a flaming red.

Over in the rainforest at Asa Wright Nature Centre, two white-bearded male manakins dangle on a small twig pole in a “lek” (courtship display ground). They wait for a female bird to signal she’s ready for their attentions, then slide down the twig, like firemen, to greet her.

Trinidad harbors many wonderful sights for birdwatchers. The country boasts over 430 species of birds; the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago rank among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of the number of species per square mile. Clients can see toucans, trogons, hummingbirds, motmots, honeycreepers, woodpeckers and oilbirds. Trinidad is a mecca for birders and nature lovers, who can view all these bird species and more in their natural habitat.

Caroni Swamp Bird Sanctuary

Perhaps the most popular bird sanctuary is the Caroni Swamp, which attracts many non-birders too.

Tours depart from the swamp late in the afternoon. In a flat open boat with bench seats for 20, we head out with Nanan’s Bird Sanctuary Tours, the oldest company in the business. The mangrove swamp is vast covering 40 square miles and as we motor quietly along green canals, we pass by football-size termites’ nests, a boa constrictor curled up in the roots of one mangrove tree and colonies of white egrets flying from tree to tree.

After 20 minutes, our boat guide ties up to a clump of mangroves beside other boats at the edge of an open lake area, and we wait for the long-necked and long-beaked scarlet ibis to come. Some 18,000 to 20,000 ibises inhabit the swamp; about 3,000 to 4,000 from one colony alone live on the small island in the swamp lake that we visit.

As we wait, our guide explained why the scarlet ibis is red.

“They eat small red crabs and shrimps. Eating the carotene turns them red. When they’re born, they’re black, and it takes two to three years to get their red color.

“They also need their freedom to keep their deep scarlet color,” he added. “If kept in captivity, they turn pink.”

Soon, as twilight approaches, we see the magnificently colored birds as they fly in and settle down in the trees in the island beyond us. Because we’re visiting during nesting season, many are nesting in other parts of the swamp, so the scene isn’t the awesome spectacle it is during the winter months.

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Nestled in the rainforest, 1,200 feet up in the mountains, a 1906 estate house has been converted into the Asa Wright Nature Centre for the more than 80,000 nature lovers and birdwatchers who visit here each year. There’s even a lodge with a restaurant and 24 simple, pleasant rooms for serious birders who want to stay overnight. But clients will have to book early for high season, from mid-December to mid-May reservations are being made three to four years in advance.

The conservation area covers 1,500 acres of dense foliage and is criss-crossed with dirt trails. We stroll the “adventure trail” with our Asa Wright guide Mukesh on a short morning tour. He stops us every few feet to point out plants and creatures of interest. Under a bench seat beside a red-and-gold “lobster claw” flower, he shows us a tarantula spider. He also points out a six-inch-wide trail made by leaf-cutting ants.

“It looks like a mini-highway plugged with traffic like little trucks with windsurfers on them.”

But the best part of our tour is back at the centre, perched on stools on the deck overlooking the balcony railings where bird feeders hang from above and watch the hummingbirds buzz in and peck on the feeders.

The most prized is the tufted coquette hummingbird, “which in bright sunlight looks like a flying jewel,” said Mukesh. “People come from all over the world to see it.”

The Details

Pax Guest House
Near top birding spots, including the Caroni Swamp, Pax Guest House is a good accommodation choice for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Built in 1916, it offers quaint colonial-style rooms with antique furniture, some with air conditioning and private washrooms.

Clients can also visit just for afternoon tea. For $4 per person, Pax serves afternoon tea with cakes and sandwiches in their dining room or in the garden. The delicious guava jelly is made by the manager’s uncle, a monk at the adjacent Mt. St. Benedict Monastery.

Room rates start at $105 per night and include taxes, breakfast and candlelight buffet dinner.

Commission: 10 percent



Asa Wright Nature Centre

Nanan’s Bird Sanctuary Tours