FLY LONDON TO PORT OF SPAIN
Our birdwatching tour to Trinidad and Tobago begins with a British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Port of Spain (Trinidad). We'll be met on arrival and transfer directly to the Asa Wright Nature Centre (about an hour), which will be our base for the first seven nights of the tour - and where we will be welcomed by the first of our daily complimentary rum punches! Night Asa Wright
THE ISLAND OF TRINIDAD
Using the bird-rich Asa Wright centre as our base we have many wonderful sites to visit during our week's stay here:
ASA WRIGHT CENTRE & TRAILS
As day breaks over Trinidad's Northern Range, we will awake to the resonant calls of Bearded Bellbirds deep in the forest - and get our first taste of the island’s colourful birdlife right outside the bedrooms. Lemon-chested Great Kiskadees shout out their name as we gather to enjoy one of the prime birding sites of the area - the veranda!...
Tea and coffee will be waiting for us here at 6.00am and we’ll soon be enjoying our first close-ups of Caribbean birds at the fruit-laden feeders. Birds that are as pleasing to the eye as their names are to the ear: White-necked Jacobin, Blue-chinned Sapphire, Tufted Coquette, Golden-olive Woodpecker and the endemic Trinidad Motmot are but a few of the animated delights that await! The feeders can also be a good spot to see the smart White-lined Tanager, and Great and Barred Antshrikes, whilst brazen Trinidad Squirrels, peculiar Red-rumped Agoutis and impressive Golden Tegu lizards snuffle around beneath, picking up scraps.
After enjoying our own delicious buffet breakfast at Asa Wright, we will begin by exploring the network of trails that criss-cross this wonderfully diverse estate. The gorgeous Guianan Trogon, spectacular Channel-billed Toucan, furtive Grey-throated Leaftosser and lovely Bay-headed and Blue-grey Tanagers are among a host of treats in store, along with more species of antbird, tanager and honeycreeper to be found amidst the lush vegetation.
With luck, we may witness the explosive ‘wing-snaps’ and whirring flash of a tiny male White-bearded Manakin, instantly transposed from one perch to another during its strange courtship dance on the forest floor. And just watch what happens if a female should appear at the lek!
We’ll also make a special effort to find a male Bearded Bellbird, a canopy-dwelling speciality whose loud, anvil-like calls echo through the forest and are one of the characteristic sounds of Trinidad. Entering a calling territory, we’ll hope to get close enough for a good look at the strange, string-like wattles that dangle from the bird’s throat and are used in display.
A visit to Dunstan Cave is another highlight of the trip, for this beautiful riparian grotto is home to one of the world’s few accessible colonies of Oilbird. This extraordinary, nightjar-like bird lives in caves by day and emerges at night to pluck fruit from trees as it flies - locating the fruit by smell and finding its way around the caves by echo-location! We’ll make the eerie descent to the cave (by day, with flashlights), venturing in far enough to see several Oilbirds sitting on their nest mounds. We should hear others further back in the cave, uttering the peculiar clucks and screams that enable them to navigate within the pitch darkness.*1
We’ll return to the Centre in time for afternoon tea, over which such brilliant jewels as Purple and Green Honeycreepers, Blue Dacnis and Silver-beaked Tanager will entertain us - all at remarkably close range!
*1 To minimise disturbance, please note that visits to the Oilbird cave are restricted to one per week.
THE NORTHERN RANGE
On one day we'll drive up the ridge of Trinidad's Northern Range. Cutting through the forest here, the Blanchisseuse Road offers excellent forest birding and yet more lovely scenery. We’ll pause frequently to listen out for the approach of mixed-species feeding flocks that are so much a part of rainforest birding, eagerly anticipating the appearance of our first Green-backed Trogon and Speckled and Turquoise Tanagers, not to mention Golden-fronted Greenlet, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Cocoa Woodcreeper and the restless Tropical Parula. But there are dozens more species to watch for... from Short-tailed Hawk, Lilac-tailed Parrotlet, Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Golden-olive and Red-rumped Woodpeckers to Stripe-breasted Spinetail and a plethora of flycatchers including Dusky-capped, Slaty-capped, Streaked and Euler's.
In the tropics, fruiting trees can be the centre of almost ceaseless activity for days on end. On Trinidad, they’re a great place to find flocks of raucous Orange-winged Amazons and Blue-headed Parrots along with the handsome Chestnut Woodpecker, Yellow Oriole and Golden-headed Manakin.
There will doubtless be many others to enjoy: Little, Green and Rufous-breasted Hermits buzzing in the dark forest understorey, shy and elusive Black-faced Antthrushes that haunt the tangled woodland floor, and a host of birds of prey including American Black and Turkey Vultures, Double-toothed Kite, Common Black Hawk and the striking White Hawk circling above. We will explore one or more of the roads over the mountains and enjoy a picnic lunch here before returning Asa Wright.
MANZANILLA & NARIVA SWAMP
Offering a change of habitats, we make a day trip to Nariva Swamp and Manzanilla, on Trinidad’s east coast. En route, we take a side road to look for the smart Red-breasted Blackbird before arriving at a good mix of open and wooded habitat. Mixed bird flocks may hold Streak-headed Woodcreeper and the engaging Streaked Xenops, whilst the palm-fringed coast at Manzanilla is well worth checking for loafing Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds riding on the east trade winds.
Nariva is the largest freshwater swamp in Trinidad, and also has some excellent mangroves. Although difficult of access and under increasing pressure from reclamation, the marshes and farmland around the edge of the wetland can nonetheless be productive for birds with the scarce Pinnated Bittern and aptly named American Pygmy Kingfisher to look for, along with Wattled Jacana, Azure Gallinule, Silvered Antbird, Pied Water Tyrant, Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Carib Grackle.
ARIPO SAVANNA & WALLER FIELD
One morning, we'll set off to explore the more open areas of Trinidad’s central lowlands. Aripo is the island's only surviving savanna habitat, its fields and scrub supporting a variety of birds that will mostly be new to us today. Savanna Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Southern Lapwing, Striped Cuckoo, Bran-coloured Flycatcher, Grey Kingbird, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and the comical Green-rumped Parrotlet are likely to be seen here, along with grassland finches such as the handsome Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, brightly coloured Grassland Yellow-finch and the tiny Blue-black Grassquit.
Having enjoyed another of Asa Wright's delicious packed lunches, we head to nearby Waller Field to look for Red-bellied Macaw - either to find them hiding beneath the fronds of their favoured Moriche Palms or coming in to roost. The yellow-hooded Moriche Oriole (regarded by some as a subspecies of Epaulet Oriole) is another speciality at Waller Field, while Black-crested Antshrikes and diminutive Ochre-lored Flatbills cavort in the scrub. We return to our lodge for dinner this evening and afterwards may take a short stroll (optional) along the driveway to look for night creatures.
WATERLOO & CARONI BOAT TRIP
We start the day by commuting to Waterloo! This is an area of mudflats on the island’s west coast, with a great range of waders, terns and other shorebirds to enjoy. We should find plenty of Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls, along with Large-billed and Royal Terns and waders such as Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers, Western Sandpiper, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Greater Yellowlegs and Willet. We might also see Four-eyed Fish here today.
In the afternoon we continue down to Caroni Swamp, with its wide diversity of mangroves. In addition to seeking a number of species that are restricted primarily to mangrove forest, a boat trip through the swamp is a highlight of any visit to Trinidad and makes for a fitting finale to our stay on Trinidad.
Moving slowly along the maze of channels, we’ll watch for resident birds such as Anhinga, Boat-billed Heron, Striated and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Osprey, the 'ragbag' Greater Ani, Yellow-throated Spinetail, Bicoloured Conebill and Masked Cardinal. The tiny Silky Anteater also inhabits the fringing woodland, passing the daylight hours curled up in a ball among the branches.
As the day draws to a close we'll arrive at the fabled evening roost of Scarlet Ibis, marvelling as they drift in to perch like bright Christmas ornaments against a backdrop of lush green mangroves and the hazy blue mountains of the distant Northern Range. Neotropic Cormorants, Tricoloured Herons and Snowy Egrets are also plentiful and Green-breasted Mango is regularly seen. As evening settles over the swamp, the weird whistling of Common Potoos pierce the still night air. The boat will return us to the jetty at dusk, so we will be back for a later dinner this evening. Six further nights Asa Wright
ASA WRIGHT AND TRANSFER TO PORT OF SPAIN, FLY TOBAGO
We enjoy some final birdwatching at Asa Wright this morning. After a buffet lunch at the lodge, we transfer directly to Port of Spain airport and make the short hop over to Tobago, Trinidad’s sister island. The flight there doesn't take long - barely twenty minutes, in fact!
The compact Caribbean island of Tobago forms the final link in a chain of mountain ranges that extends from the Venezuelan Coastal Range, on the very edge of the South American continental shelf. The distance between here and Trinidad is only 25 miles, resulting in considerable species overlap - but there are also a number of birds that either occur only on Tobago or which are far easier to see here than on Trinidad, plus some wonderful seabird colonies, too!
We'll be met on arrival on Tobago and transfer (about one hour) to our beachside hotel in Speyside, at the northeast corner of the island, where we spend the final four nights of our holiday. Night Blue Waters Inn
TOBAGO'S MOUNTAIN RAINFORESTS, 'ROUND ISLAND TOUR' & BOAT TRIP TO LITTLE TOBAGO ISLAND
The raucous calls of Rufous-vented Chachalacas - Tobago’s national bird - provide an early morning wake-up call at Blue Waters. The guest rooms are situated on the edge of the hotel’s private beach, with fine views across the bay.
It won't take us long to discover that the hotel's extensive grounds also happen to be a great place for birds! Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Broad-winged Hawk, Pale-vented Pigeon, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, White-fringed Antwren, Barred Antshrike, Chivi (Red-eyed) Vireo and Scrub Greenlet are among many to be found, while the endemic Trinidad Motmot and more widespread Rufous-tailed Jacamar are often much easier to see here than on Trinidad.
If conditions are suitable, we will take the first opportunity to enjoy a boat trip out to Little Tobago Island. This is the place where the memorable film of spectacular Red-billed Tropicbirds and Magnificent Frigatebirds was made for David Attenborough’s classic series Life on Earth.
Once ashore on Little Tobago, we will climb slowly (up many concrete steps) to the lookout, to view the island's nesting seabirds. The steep windward slopes provide ideal breeding habitat for Brown Boobies, but Red-footed Boobies (predominantly dark phase birds here) can also be found. With luck, we might spot an elegant White-tailed Tropicbird, a species that has only recently started to nest on Little Tobago.
On our way back to Tobago, our glass-bottomed boat will travel slowly over Angel Reef and the 'Japanese Garden', revealing the splendours of the spectacular coral reef - and we can either look down on Angelfish or perhaps a Hawksbill Turtle swimming lazily by, or gaze up at the seabirds gliding overhead.
Making an early start one day, we travel up into the scenic mountains to explore Tobago's best rainforests. We will visit the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, which has been a protected rainforest since 1765. The flame-coloured Immortelle trees attract numerous nectar feeders - among them, the stunning Red-legged Honeycreeper - as well as raucous flocks of Orange-winged Parrots, which periodically explode from the treetops in typical parrot fashion.
The Gilpin Trace is a secluded mountain trail where we have an opportunity to see the rare White-tailed Sabrewing, a large and brilliant green hummingbird that was all but lost to Tobago following the destructive passage of hurricane Flora in 1963.
Rising to more than 700m (2300ft) above sea level, these forested uplands also harbour Plain Antvireo and the very handsome Blue-backed Manakin. As we work our way back downhill towards our hotel, other stars to watch out for include Collared Trogon, Rufous-breasted Hermit, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Fuscous and Venezuelan Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenia and the shy Yellow-legged Thrush. Looking up, we will keep our eyes peeled for the scarce Great Black Hawk soaring overhead.
Our third full day on Tobago allows for a ‘round island tour'. Heading southwest, the pools at Tobago Plantation hold wetland species such as Anhinga, Western Osprey, Tricoloured and Green Herons, Black-crowned Night Heron and Belted Kingfisher, while chunky Caribbean Martins chase insects above the water. Purple and Common Gallinules nest here too, while a quick stroll around the sewage lagoon – no good bird tour should be without one! – might unearth the likes of Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet or Northern White-fringed Antwren. Foraging quietly in the mangroves, the secretive Mangrove Cuckoo is another localised specialitity to watch for here.
Bon Accord lies at the southwestern tip of Tobago and here we take in another 'water treatment' works. Wader possibilities include Solitary Sandpiper and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs - and we might be lucky to find a Sora picking over the mud. Tiny, monochrome Least Grebes bob about on the lagoon as aptly named Short-tailed Swifts zip overhead, looking just like flying wings.
Swinging back along the island's north coast, 'Hudsonian' Whimbrels may join with terns along the shore. Closer inspection could reveal Cabot's Tern (here showing characters of the yellow-billed form known as ‘Cayenne Tern’) amongst the larger Royal Terns. Nearing Charlotteville, we will watch for Giant Cowbird - hoping to see a strutting male, all puffed up and looking resplendent in his finery in an attempt to impress the seemingly indifferent females. Three further nights Blue Waters Inn
STARWOOD TRACE / BLUE WATERS INN, FLY TOBAGO-LONDON
For those that wish, there's an opportunity to enjoy some leisurely final birding this morning with a walk up to the old cannon and along Starwood Trace - a trail cut into the hillside above the hotel that affords superb views across the bay to Little Tobago. The path winds its way through secondary growth forest, where we can take a last look for the likes of Great Black Hawk, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Fuscous and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers, White-fringed Antwren and Scrub Greenlet.
After enjoying a farewell lunch at the hotel today, we then travel back across the island to Tobago airport. Our British Airways flight departs for London from Tobago this evening, without the faff of having to return first to Trinidad before flying on from there. All flights touch down in the West Indies (currently St Lucia) en route back to London.
ARRIVAL IN LONDON
Morning arrival at London Gatwick, where our birdwatching tour to Trinidad & Tobago concludes.