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. Today you arrive in the lovely tropical island of Trinidad. A driver will meet you at the airport and take you to Piarco Village Suites, a short 5 minutes away. If you arrive during daylight, we’ll have an opportunity to start adding new birds to your list immediately (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. The eastern Gulf of Paria is a magnet for rarities, having produced American Flamingo, Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Kelp Gull, Pomarine Jaeger, Rufous Crab-Hawk, and Trinidad’s only Maguari Stork to date. 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. 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 make camp when one’s next morning involves Trinidad’s most sought-after bird: 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 Center (AWNC). After settling in, we’ll explore the AWNC grounds and take a hike 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 watch 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, those who are so inclined may participate in a night foray 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. On this day we’ll begin with the Arena Forest Reserve, with White-bellied Antbird, Forest Elaenia, and Guianan Trogon among possible birds we’ll see. Soon 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, all 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, or choose to join an optional night trip to see nocturnal 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 our first leisurely one at the lodge, and we’ll take the time to 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 rare bird is the only nocturnal, fruit-eating species known to navigate by echolocation. The afternoon and evening will be yours to continue exploring, enjoy tea and rum punch, catch up on tasks, or take a dip in the freshwater pool on site.

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 join an experienced guide in one of his very stable flat-bottomed boat for our exploration of this area. Target species 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’ll also seek 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 the world’s most dramatic natural moments.

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 all the 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. We hope you will, too!

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. Everyone enjoys a free day on Tobago, so today you can relax, continue birding, or engage in optional snorkeling or sightseeing trips. Those who choose to stay at Cuffie River are invited to embark on a morning hike along the Cuffie River Trail, where the target birds include Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Blue-backed Manakin, and other Tobago specialties including Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Collared Trogon, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and White-fringed Antwren. 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 your veranda. The hummingbird feeders in front of the lodge often host the rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird! In the evening, we’ll have dinner near the airport and return via a 20-minute flight to Trinidad and to the Piarco Village Suites hotel once more.

Day 11: Departure. Your fabulous journey to the tropics concludes today as you board your homeward flight at Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport.