Trinidad & Tobago

Wild Islands, Bird Lover’s Bonanza

Never heard of Trinidad and Tobago? Neither had I until I started to understand what ecotravel was all about, and that spending time in nature is as relaxing a vacation as sitting on a beach.

Two things drew me here – Asa Wright Nature Center, a birding destination recommended to me by a fellow birder, and Caligo Ventures, a wonderful mom-n-popish travel company that specializes in naturalist birding vacations.

If you are already into birding, this trip is an absolute must. It was extremely budget friendly and it is my largest count on a single trip to date.

If you are looking for a tropical beach vacation, this is not it. Despite its location in the Caribbean, Trinidad’s coastline is rocky and not suited to beach resorts. Trinidad is very close to Venezuela and it is known more for its natural oil reserves than as tourist destination.

Tobago is more tropical, but still better known for its nature reserves than its beaches.

I did not spend any time in the capital city of Port of Spain. It is supposedly a bustling Creole city – if you want to get the history and essence of Trinidad without taking the trip, try reading “The White Woman on the Green Bicycle” featured on my “books” page. A quote from the book captures it well.

“This island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate…Not all welcome smiles…no flat crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself. Take it or leave it.”

Monique Roffey

You will be far removed from turbulent Port of Spain if you are visiting Asa Wright, located in the central hills of the island. You’ll make a day trip to the famed Caroni Swamp and to Yerette Hummingbird Sanctuary, but that is as close to Port of Spain as you will get.

There is evidence of the effect that oil has had on this island – the cars, the traffic. Everyone has cars, even the poor, sometimes multiple. When you own the oil, gas in cheap. Traveling anywhere takes time, expect it.

Caligo Ventures

The following overview is a day-by-day description of the 10-day tour I took with Caligo Ventures. This travel agency specializes in naturalist birding tours but feels very mom-n-pop. I took the itinerary they have for groups, but I crafted it to be more private which was my preference. I can’t recommend them enough and hope to travel with them again in the future. They offer guided birding excursions all over the world. They are very experienced and cater to a middle-aged crowd – I was definitely the youngest at 39. But maybe that is just because the younger crowd is still at Disney and missing out on the good stuff!

Click the logo image below to visit Caligo Venture’s site.

Click to visit Caligo’s website and start planning your trip!

Getting There

Fly into Piarco International Airport on Trinidad. If you are traveling with a tour like Caligo Ventures, your driver will meet you at arrivals.

Grand Riviere Beach, Trinidad
Trinidad Piping Guan, Grand Riviere, Trinidad
Accommodations at Mt. Plaisir directly on Grand Riviere Beach

Day 1-Grand Riviere Beach

Sea Turtle Nesting Site

The drive from the airport took about 3 hours. I loved every minute. I think its the perfect way to start settling in to a new country. My guide was Dave. We slowly moved from crowded Caribbean city to farms to forest and suddenly the Atlantic Ocean popped up in front of me. We turned north and followed the coastline, then turned east again and passed the point where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. We arrived at Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel and I checked into my modest but more than needed accommodations. The hotel is directly on Grand Riviere Beach, which is why I am here 🙂

Took a short drive after freshening up and having a nice lunch – my first Callaloo. Dave hunted up a Trinidad Piping Guan (see picture above). I won’t detail every bird we saw but this one is totally worthy of some celebrity. Known by locals as “pawi”, it looks like a large turkey and sounds like a lawn mower up in a tree. This species is only found in Trinidad and was nearly extinct until the country enacted laws protecting it. Nests in trees (crazy for a bird that big) and is a fruit eater.

Turtle Time!

Grand Riviere Beach is a leatherback turtle nesting site. These creatures are simply huge and it was a miraculous thing to see them coming in at twilight to nest. As a means of comparison, check out my Costa Rica page, scroll to Montezuma and see a release of newborn leatherbacks. Unbelievable. The picture of me taking a photo below was at sunrise the next day.

“The sky was still pale and the surf was tea-green…we contemplated the surf…the swells were hypnotic, bulging…then, near the shore, a dark shape broke the waves. The shape surfaced again, something like a small submarine. And then, in a moment, the animal appeared whole-bodied, is shell sleek, its limbs ancient and elephantine. A head like a boulder, a flash of razor gums. The creature heaved itself from the surf, its fins scraping at the sand, oddly mechanical in its gait. She didn’t notice us…she shambled past us and began digging…her fins tossing up clumps of sand into the air. In minutes the creature had dug a deep well. She manoeuvred herself so that her tail hovered over the pit. The creamy eggs cascaded from her womb. Eyeless, perfect, benign. When she was done, she sealed up the hole. When she disappeared back into the waves she left a distinctive pattern on the sand.”

Monique roffey

Had a lovely meal at the hotel which included locally made cheese and ice cream. Got a great shot of a precious pygmy owl in the parking lot thanks to Dave.

Went to bed grateful for a safe trip, and for the opportunity to see the leatherbacks close up. What a struggle it is for some creatures to survive and procreate. So much working against them, yet thankfully there are those humans who work to protect and help them.

Dining Room at Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel
Pygmy Owl

Day 2 – Arrival At Asa Wright

After another long but pleasant drive, I arrived at Asa Wright and stepped onto the viewing porch for the first time. I think someone handed me a rum punch. It takes a minute to let it sink in…between the birds at the feeders and garden immediately in front of you to the dangling nests of the oropendulas swinging from the tallest trees to the misty mountains in the distance….breathtaking!

Is there anything better than a covered viewing platform that serves rum punch and gives you access to 12 of the 14 hummingbird species in this country without leaving your stool??

My first moment on the viewing porch at Asa Wright

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Asa Wright Nature Centre is situated in the Arima Valley of Trinidad’s Northern Range. It lies at an elevation of approximately 1200 ft. in a habitat type known as Evergreen Seasonal Forest. Formerly the Springhill Estate, the grounds have returned to a wild state from once extensive coffee, cocoa, and citrus plantations. Some coffee, cocoa, and citrus plants are still maintained alongside the second-growth which has taken over and festooned the abandoned plantation vegetation with vines and a host of epiphytes. The whole effect is one of being deep in a tropical rainforest. A walk within the forest is the perfect complement to time spent on the verandah of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Tufted Coquette, Great and Barred Antshrikes, Squirrel Cuckoo, and both Purple and Green Honeycreepers are among the many species that can be easily seen. (excerpt from Caligo Ventures)

The accommodations are very modest. Square concrete blocks make up the private rooms. Single beds, basic bathrooms (but also private and everything spotless). It’s all you need. You’ll be up early, sometimes before daylight, and so exhausted after dinner that you’ll fall straight to sleep. NOTE: I visited in April 2014 and I believe they’ve improved both the road leading to Asa Wright and the accommodations since then, not that it was necessary but a little more creature comforts would be nice.

The food is prepared for everyone at the same time and is essentially a buffet every night of creole cuisine. Lamb with rice and field peas on the first night. I thought everything was delicious and was excited to get the local flavors. The main dining room is inside the plantation house adjacent to the viewing deck and has a large open window so you don’t miss anything while you refuel.

The dining room at Asa Wright Nature Center
Tufted Coquette – photo by eBird
Blue Ground Dove – a surprisingly major sighting

Let the birding begin!

Got up at dawn on a tip from another guest and met him at the lavender bushes under the veranda…and there I got as good of a shot as I could of the tufted coquette – the elusive little hummingbird that doesn’t come to the extensive feeder system. Absolutely one of my all-time favorite birds. I’m inserting a proper photo and giving credits because the little bugger was near impossibly to photograph and I only got his back end.

Dave took me on a walking tour startng at Lopinot Rd. We got the “bird of the trip” on this walk, though you will be surprised at how simple it was.

We were walking along a dirt path in an open area and a small dove was pecking along in front of us. I basically ignored it – its a dove! Seen plenty of those at home. Dave got very quiet, then slowly started putting his gear down, setting up his tripod and getting his camera ready. I stayed quiet assuming he knew something I did not.

Dave stalked that bird for about 20 minutes, taking his time but getting cautiously more and more excited. We got the shot before the bird took off. Dave later confirmed that it was a blue ground dove, a species not seen in Trinidad in years. I’m trusting his assessment because he was a contributor to the book “Birds of Trinidad and Tobago”. My photo is another back-end shot, but proof nonetheless!

Day 3 – Yerette

This is a hummingbird lovers dream excursion. Dave drove me to a private home. Theo, the homeowner, is kind of like James Earl Jones meets hummingbird enthusiast. Oh, and he’s an exceptional photographer. The home is open to tourists and they provided us with a homemade lunch in their own kitchen. Then I had some time to just linger in the backyard, trying to get shots of all the different varieties. They have all 14 varieties on site. Theo also has a short slide show – totally worth it – where you not only learn amazing facts about hummingbirds but also get to see a selection of his amazing photos. Great day!

Click here to visit Yerette’s site
Green Hermit
White Chested Emerald
Copper Rumped
Ruby Topaz
Long Billed Starthroat
Black Throated Mango
Rufous Shafted Woodstar
Rufous Breasted Hermit

Caroni Swamp

This is a highlight of the trip. A boat ride at dusk to see the scarlet ibises. This is the national bird of Trinidad but highly endangered as some locals still prize it for its meat, used in traditional dishes.

The boat tour starts out lazily moving through some mangroves. Got a mediocre shot but a great look at a pygmy kingfisher and a masked cardinal, as well as other more familiar water birds like heron and egret.

I had gotten a tip from another guest who said if he could do it again, he’d hire a private boat. Too many people makes it impossible to get photos – the boat is rocking and turning as people crane to look and you’ll get more photos of heads than birds. So, I hired my own boat. I was surrounded by other boats full of people. But I had a thermos of rum punch and all the space I needed. Some things are worth paying for.

Caroni Swamp
Pygmy Kingfisher
Bearded Bellbird

Day 4 – Free Day!

I spent this entire day hiking the trails around Asa Wright. Around 4pm as the day was winding down, a strange sound emerged. It sounded like someone banging a metal sledgehammer on an anvil. I can’t think how else to describe it. Soon it was defeaning. It was coming from every direction.

Ah! This must be the Bearded Bellbird I’d heard about. Despite it being loud and that there were obviously many birds around me, I had the hardest time seeing one. I had just about given up when I came across a placard about the bell bird. And guess who was sitting right on top!

Asa Wright has one other bragging point to cover. They have an oil bird cave. The oil bird is the only nocturnal fruit eating bird. It has sonar like a bat to help it locate food. Much bigger than a bat. Adults can have a 42″ wingspan. The baby oil bird used to be boiled to produce oil for cooking, thus the name. The cave at Asa has been a nesting ground for oil birds since the 1950s and they have over 100 on the property. Like Mr. Piping Guan, they sound like a lawn mower in the trees…I couldn’t see them in the dark but heard them outside my cabin.

My pictures are blurred – hard to get a good photo inside a cave with a flashlight.

Oil Bird Cave, Asa Wright
Oil Birds

Day 5 – Aripo Savannah, Trinidad & Gilpin Trace, Tobago

Had a nice morning of birding on a farm on the way to the airport before heading to Tobago. Saw a Savannah hawk and a variety of field and marsh species.

Took a short flight to Tobago where Gladwyn became my new guide. Gladwyn showed me some sea birds on our way to Cuffie River, but I pressed him to show me Gilpin Trace so I could take the next 2 days off from guided tours. I was ready to just relax and see what came on its own. Gilpin Trace was nice, relaxing walk. Saw a white tailed sabrewing (in a dark forest – mediocre picture) but the blue backed manakin evaded us.

Playing slapjack and go fish with a local family at Cuffie River

White Tailed Sabrewing, Gilpin Trace
Look closely – swallows using pool as bird bath

Cuffie River-Days 6 & 7

Gladwyn delivered me to Cuffie River, one of my all-time favorite ecolodges. The owner is a lovely lady who lives on site and runs the lodge as a home. Communal dinner (I met a nice British couple the first night and ate with a local family celebrating the couple’s anniversary).

The property is expansive and I just walked around and enjoyed. There was a swimming pool that some white tailed swallows were using as a bird bath making it somewhat hazardous to swim 🙂

Got some unique birds here. The mot mot, one of my favorites. Got the jacamar which looks like a huge hummingbird. Identified a streaky flycatcher, pretty proud of that one.

The property also has some cool night birds. The owners woke me so I could see the common potoo which was worth getting up for.

In the morning you will not awaken to roosters. In Tobago they’re called chachalacas. Comical chicken-like birds that I had come across in Costa Rica. Entertaining to watch them try to navigate small branches and telephone wires like they are sparrows.

Gladwyn picked me up to take me to my next stop. Not to be outdone, we tried Gilpin Trace one more time and voila! Blue Backed Manakin. Check!

Blue Backed Manakin
Streaky Flycatcher
Mot Mots

Days 8 & 9 – Blue Waters Inn, Speyside

For the last two days of this trip, you’ll finally find Caribbean beach. This charming little establishment is on a perfect little crescent of beach. Did a little snorkeling and a lot of napping.

I did venture into the little town but can’t remember it having much to offer. On my last day I took advantage of the property’s boat ride to Little Tobago Island. Went on a very pleasant hike and saw lots of new birds, but the main attraction was the tropicbird. Can’t figure out where those photos went but there were a few and I am pretty sure some brown boobies.

Blue Waters Inn, Speyside

Caligo Ventures crafted a wonderful naturalist vacation for me, one I’ll never forget. I would highly recommend this itinerary to anyone. Never done anything like this? Maybe it’s time to start.

I’ll leave you with a gallery of memories from my time on Trinidad and Tobago.

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