The rainforests of Trinidad and Tobago are an ornithologists dream. Take a trip deep into the jungle to catch a glimpse of the bird of eternal darkness.
By Julie Conway
Darlington Chance saunters towards us just before 7am. We are caught without time for breakfast as we hoped he would follow Tobagonian custom by arriving at least half an hour late. Darlington is Tobago’s only Rastafarian guide. Wearing shorts, battered, unfastened walking boots, but no socks, he is ready for our trek. Despite the rising temperature, he is carrying no water. He chuckles at our attire: long trousers tucked into heavy socks that suffocate our sweating, trussed up feet; shirts covering us from our necks to our wrists; and enough insect repellent to warn birds within ten kilometres that something with a strange tang of citronella is entering their territory.
Darlington grew up in Bloody Bay, a village nestled between the edge of the rainforest and a beautiful, unspoilt beach. Its gory name recalls a fierce battle in 1771 between English soldiers and African slaves, which reportedly turned the sea crimson with blood. Now it could not seem more peaceful.
As we head toward the rainforest Darlington’s steps lighten visibly. He has known this forest all of his life. Somehow a small army of microscopic bugs called chiggers has smuggled its way under my socks and is feasting on my ankles and feet. It has taken just five minutes for me to become a part of the food chain.
Darlington has no binoculars, he uses his X-ray vision. On a branch he spots the blue-crowned motmot. “Ahhh, the king of the bank,” he says in mock reverence. The bird’s striking black and turquoise crown and his reddish breast seem at odds with his tail which resembles a shabby shuttlecock.
Further into the forest every surface drips with life. Mosses and ferns cover the rocks, and the ground is full of scuttling ants carrying leaves at least three times their body size. Although the air is moist and hot, you can feel with each breath the life and energy of the surrounding forest. As we stumble, squelching and splattering, down a muddy path, Darlington spies the huge form of a broad-winged hawk taking a drink beside a golden waterfall. The clay behind the water is a rich orange colour, giving the cascading falls its warm glow. The hypnotising sound of the water and the frog calls, combined with the effects of exhaustion, could keep me sitting on that slippery bridge for hours. But the light is fading.
We sleep at the Speyside Inn in an octagonal, turret-like room. The roof overhangs the walls, rather than being attached, and amplifies the sound of the crashing waves, giving the impression we are sleeping under the sea.
The next morning Darlington arrives on time once again to take us to Little Tobago, or Bird of Paradise Island. One of Darlington’s friends, a fisherman, is waiting for us on the beach in his blue wooden boat. The journey takes ten minutes, and on arrival we scramble ashore.
After stomping up the narrow dirt path we reach a clearing at the top of a hill. Overlooking the sea, high above the craggy cliffs are what look like thousands of luminous angels swooping and circling with streamers trailing behind them. They are the beautiful red-billed tropicbirds. These striking snow-white birds with their coral-red bills and long, white tail feathers wheel gracefully around the skies screaming their call. As we walk through the jungle Darlington spots the bright yellow tail feathers of the crested orpendola, or weaver bird. A group of males are whooping and gurgling, spinning and twirling to their appreciative partners. The females weave elaborate nests at least a metre long that hang down from branches like teardrops. When the birds are finished with the nests, the locals dry them and paint them bright colours to use as hats for carnival costumes.
I could stay on Bird of Paradise Island forever. But we have to get back to the mainland to catch a flight to Trinidad. We have decided to stay in the hills of Mount St Benedict, a few kilometres from the capital, Port of Spain. Climbing up the narrow streets we leave the bustle of the city for the refuge of the rainforest once again.
Nestled by a monastery, and inheriting its calm, is the Pax Guesthouse. It has become so popular with naturalists that there is a laboratory downstairs where they can keep their creepy-crawly specimens. Gerard and his wife Ode are gentle hosts and wildlife experts. On Gerard’s advice I cover the chiggers on my legs with nail polish, and they soon drop off and die.
The next day we witness one of Trinidad’s most amazing spectacles – scarlet ibis coming in to roost at dusk. We take a wooden boat with a spluttering engine through the Caroni swamp’s eerie mangrove marshes. The long roots of the trees dangle from outstretched branches into the water like gnarled fingers balancing tenuously on their tips. Others seem to grow upwards like stalacmites.
Curled up on the branches of a tree a boa constrictor rests, unperturbed by our noisy boat, while tree-climbing crabs scuttle busily along the roots of the mangrove trees.
As the light fades we pull up in a lagoon about 400 metres from the trees where the ibis will gather. As if to signal the start of the performance, a large fish jumps from the water, and then a slash of vibrant scarlet tears across the darkening sky. Then another. Suddenly a billowing red sheet unfolds over the lagoon. The fantastical ibis settle on a few trees, lighting them up like flaming beacons.
Our boatman explains that the birds are so sociable that whenever they see a scarlet blob they will head for it to roost nearby. Until the 1960s they were hunted voraciously for their bright plumes and meat, which is still regarded as a delicacy. Hunters would attract the birds by draping a tree with lengths of scarlet cloth, and then shoot them as they came down. Poaching, pollution and loss of habitat has caused their numbers to decline dramatically. Hunting has now been banned, and the boatmen believe the scarlet ibis are starting to breed in the swamps for the first time in 30 years.
It is dark and the boatman insists that we return immediately. I presume he wants to get home, but there is actually a more sinister reason. At night the maze of water corridors provides the perfect cover for smugglers’ boats carrying drugs and guns from Venezuela, 11 kilometres across the sea, into Trinidad.
The following day we take a twisting road up into misty rainforest to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a forest reserve, lodge and research facility. Once a cocoa, coffee and citrus plantation, it was bought after World War II by the Englishman Newcombe Wright and his Icelandic wife, Asa. Both were keen amateur ornithologists, and when Dr William Beebe, an explorer and naturalist, established a research centre close to the property, they subsequently played host to numerous visiting naturalists and birdwatchers. After Wright’s death, his wife sold the land on the condition that it remained a conservation area. A trust was set up in 1967 which has preserved it for birdwatchers and scientific research.
Passing portraits of the British royal family and other distinguished former guests, I come to the veranda overlooking the spectacular Arima Valley. Dazzling, iridescent hummingbirds beat their wings fervently, swapping between the sugar feeders and the red and yellow heliconia flowers. The tufted coquette, a tiny hummingbird that looks like a miniature forest fairy, spots a female. The feathers on his crest flare up with excitement as he flies about, displaying perfect figure of eight loops in front of her.
But we have come to visit the elusive oilbird, the bird of eternal darkness. One of the world’s most accessible colonies lives in caves a short hike from the centre. After scrambling down steep paths we reach a river, where we take our boots off and wade in knee deep. A wailing shriek, like a small child being tortured, greets us from a pitch black cave. Entering the darkness, our guide shines a torch up in the direction of the noise and a dozen red eyes, framed by long lashes, glare back at us.
An adult oilbird is about 35 centimetres long, and its wingspan can reach a metre. The world’s only nocturnal fruit-eating bird, it ventures from the deep recesses of its cave only after darkness has fallen, and travels up to 120 kilometres in search of food. After a while, my ears are ringing from the diabolical shrieks reverberating off the cave walls. We leave the birds of darkness and clamber up the waterfall, sludge oozing between our toes, to take a short cut to the centre.
Back on the veranda, we survey the Arima Valley, which is home to a rich community of bird life. From here it becomes clear that of all the species we have seen in this tropical paradise, it is us – the birdwatchers – who are the strangest of all.
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO DIRECTORY
•Darlington Chance is one of the best birdwatching guides on Tobago. You can contact him via the Speyside Inn, Main Road, Speyside, Tobago; Tel (001) 868 660 4852. But most people know Darlington and he can be found at the start of the Gilpin Trace trail leading into the rainforest.
•Courtenay Rooks, another good birding guide, Tel (001) 868 622 8826, firstname.lastname@example.org. His father David also takes bird-watching treks in Trinidad
•The Pax Guest House is a great place to stay in Trinidad if you’re a wildlife lover. It had played host to a number of famous naturalists, including Sir David Attenborough. Contact Gerard and Ode Ramsawak at Tunapuna, Trinidad; Tel: (001) 868 662 4084; email: email@example.com
•The Asa Wright Nature Centre offers accommodation in the estate’s house. You can also go for the day. Contact PO Box 4710, Arima, Trinidad; Tel: (001) 868 667 4655
•Nanan, Tel: (001) 868 645 1305, and James, Tel: (001) 868 662 7325, both operate boat tours of Caroni Swamp; Nanan’s service is generally less crowded