EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> As soon as Danny and I stash our bags in our room at the Asa Wright Nature Center high up in the Arima Valley on a slope of the Northern Range in Trinidad, we grab the binoculars and step into the old plantation house. The chatter on the fabled veranda draws us to the viewing area just as the hummingbirds are drawn to their feeders.
Birders of all ages are clad in a variety of birding garb, from gaudy t-shirts and sturdy sandals to those long-sleeved, beige, tropical-weight shirts with pants carefully tucked into socks within hiking boots. The hummingbirds, though, are dressed to kill and we are all knocked sideways by their iridescent magnificence.
Our introduction to hummers at The Pax Guest House pays off. We immediately identify the copper-rumped, the black-throated mango, the white-tailed jacobin and the three hermits. One doesn't really need binoculars the birds are so close, some only 12 inches away.
Dapper and dazzling
The brilliant, green hummingbird moth doppelgänger, the female tufted coquette is nectaring on tiny purple vervain flowers in the garden. Soon an "aa-aah" arises from the crowd. The decidedly dapper and dazzling male tufted has shown up, a real show-stopper with his flared, red crest rising from a circle of black surrounding his beak. The chin streamers are red with black dots. The coquettes are less than three inches from stem to stern. Exquisite little flying toys.
"Look," I say to Danny, "at those bench feeders laden with fruit rinds. They're covered with birds too." We watch for a while, then check the field guide and identify the purple honeycreeper with its long curved beak, the green honeycreeper which is really emerald, black, turquoise and blue, and the violaceous euphonia, which is to the eye as beautiful as its name is to the ear.
Our scarlet tanager is no slouch when it comes to costume, but his southern cousins are runway ready except, perhaps, for the ubiquitous palm tanager with its dull greenish plumage and muted black wings. The blue-grey tanager is lovely from its head of powder blue darkening to an almost royal blue toward the tail. The turquoise tanager is the color of the Caribbean Sea; the blue dacnis is turquoise and black, the bluest thing he had ever seen, Danny said; the silver-beaked has a silver beak and is quite crimson; the bay-headed has an emerald body with a chestnut head.
The introductory walk takes us and a few fellow birders along a path into the forest. Our guide, Mukush, points out the six-inch wide trails created not by wandering mammals but by toiling leaf-cutter ants plodding to and from various entrances of the enormous underground colony.
A bearded bellbird calls (harsh bonging) from deep within the forest. Mukush tracks it down and, adroitly using a laser pointer so as not to annoy the bird, he makes sure we all get a good look at this odd, black-and-white bird with its brown head and dark brown stringy wattles like dreadlocks around the throat.
The white-bearded manakins are in the lek ready to entice the females. They click and tweet and slide down tiny saplings as if they were pole dancers. No females show up. The golden-headed manakins are absent from their lek. Maybe they are dallying with the white-bearded females. All this on our first day!
The next day six of us (four other independent birders from New York City who, it turns out, know various people we know — about three degrees of separation, Kevin Bacon not included) pile into a van for a trip over hill and mount to Brasso Seco.
At the first stop at the beginning of the long driveway to Asa Wright, we de-van and our knowledgeable guide Charon points out a rufous-breasted wren just as I say, "That sorta' sounds like a wren!" The raucous orange-winged parrots may be everywhere, but, on this trip, we find the blue-headed. A flock of smooth-billed anis cavorts with a giant cowbird. Carib grackles are easy to identify when they turn their tails sideways just as our grackles do.
The three species of trogon — green-backed, violaceous and collared — are cooperative and appear on cue! Boat-billed kiskadees are easy to tell from the great. The yellow oriole is quite similar to ours, larger though. Even larger are their black and yellow cousins, the crested oropendola and yellow-rumped caciques that are constantly flying into their long pendulous nests.
The tropical parula is a great addition to our wood warblers. The white hawk is easy to identify as it soars overhead. We cross a river and hope it's not named the Lethe. How awful it would be to forget all the new sightings!
The next day, with Barry (Charon's son) as our guide, we meander down a different trail to the oilbird grotto. Oilbirds are unto themselves, the only species in their designated family. These nocturnal fructivores rest and nest on ledges in caves and grottos and are found only in Trinidad and four other South American countries. The young are fed on regurgitated fruit, especially fat-saturated palm nuts and take an impressive 110 days to fledge. Years ago, when they were quite fat and flightless, the young were collected to make torches!
The skies are forever blue, the rainforests, shiny green with towering immortelle trees dotting the hillsides with bright orange flowers. Everyday is an adventure filled with brilliant birds, colorful butterflies with vernacular names such as the red postman, the whirlabout, the cattle heart and the grape shoemaker, a mammal or three and many fellow naturalists. Onward to Tobago!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.