Trinidad is Definitely for the Birds
by Mira Nencheva
“Land of the Hummingbird” was the Amerindian name for the island of Trinidad. We’ve been told that its first inhabitants, the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks, believed that hummingbirds were the souls of their ancestors and if they ate them a black lake made of tar created by the gods as punishment would swallow the entire tribe.
My husband, daughter and I arrived in Trinidad aboard our Leopard 38 cat, Fata Morgana, after about 20 hours of sailing on a beam reach from Secret Harbor Grenada and dropped the hook in the busy commercial port of Chaguaramas. After checking in, we moved to the other side of the hills to the smaller anchorage in front of the Trinidad & Tobago Sailing Association (TTSA). It’s one of the dirtiest anchorages we have ever been to — yet we loved it! The bay is calm, surrounded by tall cliffs covered in wild vegetation and we soon became overwhelmed by the sounds of birds. Pairs of parrots fly overhead screaming, drowsy pelicans rest on the sides of the anchored boats, herons like statues wait near the shores, and flocks of black vultures like dark kites patrol the high skies.
Each morning here was spectacular, with the anchored boats still on the surface of the vast liquid mirror facing the rising sun. We enjoyed every minute of our stay in Trinidad, an island with so many unique natural destinations.
Even though language and culture link the twin-island nation of Trinidad & Tobago to the West Indies and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean nations, Trinidad & Tobago is part of the continental shelf of South America, and is geologically a part of South America. This proximity to the continent has resulted in a spectacular species biodiversity, unmatched in any other Caribbean island, with 97 native mammals, 400 birds, 55 reptiles, 25 amphibians and 617 butterflies, as well as over 2,200 species of flowering plants.
The island of Trinidad, 90 nautical miles south of Grenada and just a few miles off the coast of Venezuela, is 50 miles long and 37 miles wide, dominated by the Northern Range, rising to about 3,000 feet, and covered by tropical rainforest. Here, in this lush part of the island, after a long drive from the anchorage in Chaguaramas through narrow mountain roads, some damaged by landslides, we found a spectacular nature reserve.
The Asa Wright Nature Centre & Lodge is a nature resort and scientific research station comprising 1,500 acres of forested land in the Arima and Aripo areas. The Centre is one of the top birdwatching spots in the Caribbean, with over 150 species of birds.
Once a cocoa-coffee-citrus plantation known as Spring Hill Estate, the area is today reclaimed by secondary forest and surrounded by rainforest with an impressive canopy 100 to 150 feet high.
In 1936 the place was purchased by an American couple who renovated the plantation house and lived there for a decade before returning to the United States. For some time the plantation was abandoned and neglected, but then Newcombe and Asa Wright from Iceland bought it and slowly transformed it into a lodge accommodating visiting scientists and naturalists arriving in the area from around the world to study the local wildlife and tropical nature, thus transforming the place into one of the first and most successful ecotourism destinations in the world.
When Newcombe died, Asa Wright, left with few financial resources, struggled to maintain the plantation. A small group formed around her to help. In 1967, Don Eckelberry, a renowned wildlife artist; Erma Fisk, a prominent ornithologist and conservationist; and Russell Mason of Florida Audubon Society raised money to buy Spring Hill, establishing the Asa Wright Nature Centre as a “not-for-profit” trust. Its purpose was to provide a center for recreation and the study of tropical wildlife open to the public, as well as to preserve the wildlife and rainforest of the Arima Valley — one of the first nature centers established in the Caribbean.
Today, the entire area, a flowering Garden of Eden, is home to squirrel cuckoos, toucans and parrots, tufted coquettes and half a dozen other species of hummingbirds, as well as a variety of butterflies and lizards. We spent a few unforgettable hours amidst yellowtails, manikins and tiny hummingbirds of all colors coming to feed on fresh fruits and sugar water, just inches away from our smiling faces. We also spotted a few tiger lizards and a couple of agoutis, who had come to steal the bits of pineapples and papayas fallen under the birdfeeders.
After lunch on the terrace of the lodge, we joined a guided tour in the surrounding forest where we spotted a few more species of rare birds and observed some impressively large ant colonies.
It was all very fascinating and we agreed that the Asa Wright Nature Centre & Lodge is a place we would stay for a few more days if we could, enjoying the serene magical atmosphere. To rent a room here with three buffet meals per day is about US$120, not a high price to pay for staying in paradise. But it was time to go if we wanted to make it in time for another fascinating tour: this one in the Caroni Swamp.
The Caroni Swamp is a large mangrove wetland located on the west coast of Trinidad, where the Caroni River, Trinidad’s biggest river, meets the Gulf of Paria, providing a variety of habitats for plants and animals, and supporting a rich biodiversity. It is an estuarine system covering 5,611 hectares of mangrove forest and marshes, with numerous channels and brackish lagoons. Its most famous inhabitant, attracting tourists from around the world, is the scarlet ibis, the national bird of Trinidad.
The scarlet ibis resembles in size and shape most of the other species of ibis and is very closely related to the American white ibis, but its remarkably brilliant scarlet coloration makes it unmistakable. It is the only shorebird in the world with red coloration. This medium-sized wader has protected status everywhere on the planet
The juvenile scarlet ibis is a mix of grey, brown, and white. The color change to red begins around the time it begins to fly. Their distinctive long, thin bills are used to probe for food in soft mud; they feed on shrimp, small crabs, mollusks and other red crustaceans, which produce their scarlet coloration.
The birds live in large families of 39 or more in wetlands and marshy habitats found throughout vast areas of South America and the Caribbean islands. They move in flocks in a classic V-formation. Flocks often congregate in large colonies of several thousand individuals, like the colony we observed in Caroni Swamp. Members stay close, and mating pairs arrange their nests in close proximity to other pairs in the same tree.
We got to the Caroni Swamp park’s entrance just in time for an afternoon guided tour, jumped on one of the large wooden boats with a few other visitors and started through the swamp among thick mangrove vegetation. As we moved slowly across the winding channels, we saw the eyes of a small crocodile floating in the murky waters, staring at us. A boa was sleeping curled up in the branches of a tree above our heads. The tangled roots of the mangroves were populated by small crabs.
After about half an hour we reached an open area where the river widened considerably and our guide parked the boat near the shore facing a small green island across the lagoon. As the sun prepared to dive in the sea beyond the mangrove swamp behind us, we prepared to witness the most glorious spectacle Nature has ever offered us.
The sky, the golden clouds burning in the afternoon light, and the heavy dark hills in the distance became the backdrop for the most magnificent daily ritual: the scarlet ibis returning home to their nests for the night. Flocks of ten to 30 birds in perfect V-formations started to arrive from the west and gradually the small green island in front of us bloomed like a rose bush covered with hundreds of red blossoms. A miracle.
As the birds, unaware of the profound effect their red plumage had on us, found their homes and prepared to go to sleep, tired from a day of wading through the swamp, we found our way back to the park’s entrance and then back to the boat, tired after a day of birdwatching, and completely awe-inspired, happy and grateful for having the opportunity to share these few rare moment with some of Nature’s most magnificent feathered creations.
Depending on your budget, you can rent a car very cheaply for a day and visit the Asa Wright Nature Centre and/or the Caroni Swamp, where you pay admission and arrange for guided tours.
Or, if you prefer to share the experience with other cruisers, you can call Jesse James on VHF radio channel 68 from the anchorage in Chaguaramas or TTSA and, for a reasonable fee, reserve your place for a group tour with organized transportation from the anchorage, admission fees, guided tours, as well as lunch included.
Mira Nencheva, her husband, Ivo, and their 11-year-old daughter Maya have been sailing around the world and living full-time aboard their 38-foot Leopard catamaran, Fata Morgana, since July 2013. Follow their journey at www.thelifenomadik.com, and at Facebook/TheLifeNomadik.
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