Trinidad and Tobago: Asa Wright, Scarlet Ibis and Oilbirds

Trinidad and Tobago are lush, stunningly beautiful islands located off the north coast of South America. Blessed with a perfect climate and a unique blend of Amazonian and West Indian fauna and flora, this verdant two-island republic is universally acclaimed as the best place in the New World to first experience the splendor of tropical birds. Even persons with broad experience with Neotropical birds return to T&T because of the ease with which birds and other kinds of wildlife can be studied. Birds and butterflies resplendent in gaudy hues probe at arm’s length at nectar and fruit feeders. A profusion of brightly colored flowers adds intense color to the tropical vistas. The accommodations are excellent and birder-friendly. The food is sensational. Enjoying freshly picked fruit and locally grown coffee for breakfast is a luxurious experience. Regarding birds, a high percentage of the South American families are represented in T&T. Among the Neotropical groups we will look for are tinamous, jacanas, parrots and macaws, potoos, oilbirds, hummingbirds, trogons, motmots, jacamars, toucans, ovenbirds and woodcreepers, antbirds, antthrushes, cotingas, and manakins.


Day 1: Arrival in Trinidad. Upon arrival in Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport, you will be transferred to a hotel for the night. If you arrive early enough, you’ll have the opportunity to bird on your own near the hotel (a good bet is your first bird will be a Carib Grackle).

Day 2: West Coast. This will be a day of contrasts as we examine many coastal habitats. Today’s journey will begin with the Gulf of Paria, which comprises Trinidad’s western boundary. Trinidad’s West Coast contains the most productive mudflats on either island. Target species include Neotropic Cormorant, Yellow-headed Caracara, Pearl Kite, Long-winged Harrier, nine species of herons and egrets, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, migrant shorebirds, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Green Kingfisher, Masked Cardinal, Black-crested Antshrike, Bicolored Conebill, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, and Greater Ani. The eastern Gulf of Paria is a magnet for rarities, and something unusual may turn up as well. In the afternoon, we’ll cross over the island to the eastern coast and follow it up into the northeastern tip of Trinidad, passing through Toco and ending in Grand Riviere at the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel. This picturesque beachfront property is home to nesting loggerhead turtles in the spring and summer months, and year-round is the best place to overnight when one’s next morning involves one of Trinidad’s most sought-after birds, the Trinidad Piping-Guan.

Purple Honeycreeper
Purple Honeycreeper (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: Piping-Guan & Asa Wright Nature Centre. At dawn we’ll drive a short distance to a fabulous treetop overlook where, with some luck, we’ll encounter several Trinidad Piping-Guans foraging in the canopy of the trees just off the balcony. Hopefully after some success, we’ll return to Mt. Plaisir for a relaxing gourmet breakfast by the ocean. Once finished, we’ll head to the world famous Asa Wright Nature Centre, where we will be our base for the next four nights. After settling in, we’ll explore the Asa Wright grounds and take a walk through the spectacular rainforest that covers much of this rich and diverse wildlife sanctuary. We’ll search for the highly ventriloqual Bearded Bellbird and attempt to see White-bearded and Golden-headed Manakins on their leks. Late afternoons at the lodge involve a couple of tasty traditions- tea time and pre-dinner rum punch hour. Later, after dinner, there may be some optional night birding along the entrance drive.

Tufted Coquettes feed on flowers around the cabins at Asa Wright
Tufted Coquettes feed on flowers around the cabins at Asa Wright (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Eastern Trinidad. After breakfast, we’ll drive to the Arena Forest Reserve, with White-bellied Antbird, Forest Elaenia, and Guianan Trogon among possible birds. Then, we will work our way towards Trinidad’s east coast and the Nariva Swamp, the largest freshwater herbaceous swamp in Trinidad. Along its edges are found palm ‘islands’, where the tall Moriche palm is common. Here, too, we’ll see a unique mangrove community composed primarily of stilt-rooted Rhizophora mangroves, which often reach heights of 80 feet. But first we’ll visit the Aripo Livestock Station, where target species will include Savanna Hawk, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. Arriving at the Atlantic coastal plain, we’ll have an opportunity to view Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans while you enjoy lunch on the beach. Beyond this point, Pinnated Bittern, Wattled Jacana, herons, and egrets populate the shallow marshes, with Limpkin seen from time to time. In the Nariva Swamp proper, we’ll explore the tall wild rice, rushes, hyacinth, and other aquatic vegetation for a variety of species. Nariva is a particularly productive spot for raptors. In late afternoon we’ll head back north to Waller Field, a former U.S. airbase, to observe Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Sulphury Flycatcher, and Moriche Oriole in a stand of Moriche palms. If we are very fortunate, we might see Red-bellied Macaw here, and as darkness fall, we might hear or see Common Pauraque.

Speckled Tanager
Speckled Tanager (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Northern Range. Today sees us on an excursion across the Northern Range as far as the hamlet of Morne La Croix, where en route we’ll explore the upper Arima Valley and Morne Bleu. In the heights we’ll look for Speckled Tanager, Common Black Hawk, White Hawk, three species of trogons, and Blue-headed Parrot, along with species missed on previous days. We’ll be alert for foraging groups that usually include Golden-headed Manakin, Blue Dacnis, Yellow-breasted and Slaty-capped Flycatchers, Tropical Parula, and Long-billed Gnatwren, and for fruiting fig trees that attract thrushes and other fruit-eating species. In late afternoon we’ll head back to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where we can relax on the very birdy veranda, soak in the ambiance of this wonderful locale. Depending on weather, there may be an optional nightbirding trip to look for species such as Tropical Screech-Owl and White-tailed Nightjar.

A White-necked Jacobin takes a bath during a sudden rain shower
A White-necked Jacobin takes a bath during a sudden rain shower (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Oilbirds and last day at Asa Wright. This morning will be more relaxed, and we’ll enjoy awakening to the clattering courtship ritual of the Crested Oropendola and a host of other exotic sounds. Before the sky begins to brighten, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls will be chanting, hopefully right outside your window. Soon we’ll be greeted by the raucous calls of Great Kiskadee and a host of other exotic sounds. You never know what life birds you might pick up on the short walk from your bungalow to the Main House for breakfast. The Asa Wright Nature Centre is renowned for the ease with which birds can be observed. You could easily see 20 or more life birds from the veranda, including Channel-billed Toucan, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Purple and Green Honeycreepers, and four kinds of tanagers, including the plush Silver-beaked Tanager. As we explore the sinuous entrance drive after breakfast, we’ll seek out new species, examine the fascinating world of leaf-cutter and army ants, and photograph orchids and other tropical flora. After lunch we’ll walk about a half a mile through a beautiful montane rainforest on a quest for a single species of bird. In the beautiful riparian Guacharo Gorge, we’ll stand beside a shallow stream to observe the world’s most accessible colony of Oilbirds, which nest deep in the cave. This very localized bird is the only nocturnal, fruit-eating species known to navigate by echolocation. We’ll have some free time this afternoon, where you can continue exploring, enjoy tea and rum punch on the verandah, take a dip in a natural freshwater pool, or just kick back and relax.

We'll visit a small Oilbird cave at Asa Wright
We'll visit a small Oilbird cave at Asa Wright (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 7: Orange Grove and Caroni Swamp. We’ll try to clean up on whatever we still need in terms of grassland/wetland/open country species at Orange Grove and the nearby lowlands this morning. After lunch we’ll head to Caroni National Park. The Caroni Basin is a very specialized habitat that hosts three species of mangroves, which show classic examples of plant adaptations in this unique brackish community. We’ll use a stable, flat-bottomed boat for our exploration of this area. Possiblities include all regularly occurring herons and egrets, Scarlet Ibis, Limpkin, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, a wide variety of raptors and shorebirds, Mangrove and Little Cuckoos, Common Potoo, Green Kingfisher, Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Black-crested Antshrike, Masked Cardinal, and Bicolored Conebill. We may also find Spectacled Caiman, Green Iguana, and Silky Anteater. In the channels we’ll look for the curious Four-eyed Fish (Anableps). The highlight of the day, if not the trip, will be the spectacular evening flight of Scarlet Ibis returning to their roosts in the mangroves. This is truly one of Trinidad’s most famous natural moments. We’ll spend the night at a hotel near the airport.

Watching flocks of Scarlet Ibis flying to their roosting trees is truly awesome!
Watching flocks of Scarlet Ibis flying to their roosting trees is truly awesome! (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Southern Tobago. Early this morning, we’ll catch a 20-minute flight to Tobago’s tiny Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson International Airport. We’ll spend the morning birding southern Tobago, the only flat part of the island, visiting several hotspots. Target species include Least Grebe, White-cheeked Pintail, Anhinga, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Mangrove Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Tropical and Gray Kingbirds, White-fringed Antwren, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Caribbean Martin, Spectacled Thrush, and Black-faced Grassquit. After enjoying lunch at the Grafton-Caledonia Bird Sanctuary, we’ll explore the grounds, looking especially for species found on Tobago but not on Trinidad — Rufous-vented Chachalaca, White-fringed Antwren, Blue-backed Manakin, and Scrub Greenlet. As evening approaches, we’ll head north to the secluded Cuffie River Nature Retreat, our home for the next two nights. Many people who have stayed at Cuffie River rate it as their all-time favorite lodge.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Rufous-tailed Jacamar (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: Tobago, Main Ridge Reserve and Little Tobago Island. Today’s birding begins with a drive to at an elevation of almost 2,000 feet to explore one of the world’s most beautiful rainforests. The Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve is the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the Western Hemisphere. We’ll stop at promising locations in the cool mountain heights while scanning the area for target birds including Great Black Hawk, Orange-winged Parrot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Collared Trogon, Stripe-breasted Spinetail, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Yellow-legged Thrush, Blue-backed Manakin, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Rufous-breasted Hermit hummingbird. We’ll explore primeval Gilpin Trace, which rambles through a deep, narrow, pristine ravine. Gilpin Trace is home to the endangered White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird. After enjoying a packed lunch in the heights, we’ll drop to sea level and catch a glass-bottomed boat in Speyside. We’ll travel two miles across Batteaux Bay, observing along the way a magnificent coral reef that hosts the world’s largest brain coral, locally called “Einstein.” Passing cactus-festooned islets, we’ll arrive at uninhabited, starfish-shaped Little Tobago Island. Also called Bird-of-Paradise or Ingram’s Island, Little Tobago is a protected nature reserve. Because of the lack of fresh water, no permanent settlements have ever been established here. The climax semi-deciduous dry forest that we’ll explore appears the same now as it did to the first human visitors millennia ago. Our visit to Little Tobago Island is certain to be a highlight of the trip. Here we’ll seek endemic Tobago races of Blue-gray Tanager and Bananaquit, larger and brighter than those found in Trinidad, and the recently colonized Scaly-naped Pigeon. We’ll peer into tunnels under Anthurium root masses looking for nesting Audubon’s Shearwaters and view Red-billed Tropicbird and Brown and Red-footed Boobies before returning to Cuffie River.

Day 10: Cuffie River Nature Retreat. Our last full day will be a relaxing one. Of course there will be birding, but some people may choose to do some optional snorkeling or sightseeing trips. The Cuffie River Trail has birds like Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Blue-backed Manakin, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Collared Trogon, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and White-fringed Antwren, and the hummingbird feeders in front of the lodge often host the rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird. After enjoying lunch at Cuffie River, we’ll have the afternoon free for more birding, splashing in the magnificent elevated swimming pool, hiking the trails, or relaxing on the veranda. In the evening, we’ll have dinner near the airport and return via a 20-minute flight to Trinidad, where we spend another night in a hotel near the airport.

Day 11: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport. There is no birding planned for today.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate; some days are quite relaxed. This is fairly laid back trip and makes an excellent introduction to Neotropical birding. 6:00-6:30am starts are typical, and on some days there will be some early morning birding (6:30-7:30am) followed by breakfast. On a few days there will be some downtime after lunch to relax. On days with nightbirding, you may get back to the hotel rather late, but most of these outings are optional.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding is from roads and easy trails. A few trails have some steeper sections, such as the trail to the Oilbirds at Asa Wright; this trail is fairly short and is taken at a slow pace – a walking stick can help. Most days on average with involve between 1 to 3 miles (1.6-4.8 km) of walking.

CLIMATE: Warm to hot. A bit of rain can be expected, but it usually comes in short downpours that don’t interfere too much with the birding.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent; all have private bathrooms, hot water, and 24h electricity. Wi-fi is usually available in all the hotels, though it may only be available in public areas, and is sometimes very slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a Birding Tour, and seeing the birds will take priority over getting photos. We do encourage photography on our tours, but the tour leader will not allow photographers to move in front of the group for a photo, or use flash, until everyone has had a good look at the bird. All of our guides are also amateur photographers, so they are happy to help you out within these limitations. This is a good trip for bird photography, especially at Asa Wright which has great feeders and birdy grounds. Coastal and wetland areas like Caroni Swamp are great for photographing waterbirds.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS:A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, EU, South Africa, among many others. Visitors from Australia and New Zealand must pay for a visa waiver on arrival, which currently costs about US$60, subject to change. Visas are required for citizens of most countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 10; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive at a late hour) to breakfast on day 11 (if you have an early flight, you may have to leave the hotel before breakfast service begins); safe drinking water; reoundtrip flight between the island of Trinidad and the island of Tobago; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 10; airport transfers on days 1, 8, 10, and 11 (depending on the hotel, these transfers may be via a hotel shuttle); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 10; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; international flights; passport/visa/visa waver fees; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.