I knew that I wanted to vacation in the Caribbean, but which island? After spending a few weeks reading about the different vacation spots, I figured that I wanted somewhere with forest, not one of the low-lying dry islands. After a few more weeks, I decided on Tobago because of its diving and Trinidad because of its birdwatching opportunities. Lying so close to South America there are over 400 species of birds here, far more than the other islands in the Eastern Caribbean. I read a little about the different places in Trinidad and Tobago where I could see these birds, but I kept myself blissfully ignorant about exactly what I'd be seeing.
I didn't have to wait long for some interesting action. I flew into Trinidad, but I had to wait three hours for the connecting flight to Tobago. Now, let's see, should I wait three hours in a cramped and boring airport terminal that might as well be in Poughkeepsie, or should I take my camera and go for a walk outside?
One of the first birds I saw outside was the Crested Oropendola, but the name didn't fit the bird, since I never saw a crest on any of them. This bird's real claim to fame is its nest. Crested Oropendolas weave a large hanging nest out of grass, attached to the very end of a branch on a tree, and the bigger the tree, the better. They're tricky birds to photograph, but I was lucky enough to see and capture several examples of unusual behavior.
Big attractions of Trinidad to the international birdwatching set are the sanctuaries, which have a worldwide reputation. Perhaps the most popular is the Caroni Swamp, which attracts even non-birders, perhaps because of its proximity to the capital, Port of Spain. What, you might justifiably ask, would drive an ordinary rational person to go for a boat trip in a swamp? The answer is the spectacle of seeing large flocks of the national bird, the scarlet ibis, returning from their feeding grounds in Venezuela. The word "scarlet" is pretty dramatic, but let's find something with even more punch, like "fluorescent vermillion"! These guys are definitely gaudy, and to see flocks of scarlet ibis together is quite a sight!
A bird sanctuary reserved more for the hardcore birdwatcher is the Asa Wright Nature Centre. This is the premiere place to come for closeup encounters with some of the more colourful inhabitants of the forest, attracted by feeding tables laid out with fruit. It's not just birds who come here for a handout. If you stick around you're likely to see butterflies, mammals like squirrels and agoutis, and a family of very large and very yellow Tegu Lizards. On guided walks around the paths, you'll see butterflies like the bright red and black Postman, as well as more exotic varieties like the Blue Transparent, whose wings really are transparent! I have to admit, though, that I was somewhat disappointed by Asa Wright, because only people actually staying at the Center are allowed to walk alone, day visitors have to go with a group. I came twice and hit it lucky - the first day the group was mostly in their fifties and above, and we went on the Discovery Trail, the second time people were much younger and we were able to go on another short, but more difficult, trail. If the second group had been older, then I would have been stuck with the same trail twice. Accomodation at Asa Wright was beyond the budget I allocated, so the guided trips were my only option.
The sanctuary which gave most bang for the buck was the Point a Pierre Wildfowl Trust, located right next to Trinidad's oil refinery. I had terrific trouble contacting the Trust trying to make an appointment, which my guidebook said I needed. The guidebook was dead wrong, because when I arrived without an appointment about 10:30, there weren't even any Trust personnel present, even though the place is supposed to open at 10:00. I spent several hours wandering around the small lake and up into the bush, and only saw one other couple the whole time. The Trust is home to various wild birds, and also keeps rescued birds and other wildlife in cages until they're fit enough to be released. I only visited once, but if I'd known how good it was I probably would have come more often.
The Pax Guesthouse at the Mt St Benedict monastery isn't really a sanctuary at all, although I got that impression from the reading I did. I was soon disabused of that notion, but I was allowed to sit on the verandah and watch the different varieties of hummingbirds as they came to the feeders hung on the roof eaves and tree branches. Perhaps the guy there took pity on me when he saw how serious my birdwatching habit was, because he let me spend time in the private guest area too, allowing me to get lots of closeup photos of the hummingbirds, including his first ever attempt at having the hummingbirds come to a feeder which he was holding in his hand. Was he successful? You'll have to check this page and see!