Clellie Lynch: From a bananaquit to a study in scarlet
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> As Danny and I step out of the airport at Port of Spain in Trinidad, we are enveloped in a cloud of steamy air, waving palms and a barrage of taxi drivers. Our driver finds us and soon we are speeding across the lowlands and then northward up a series of serious switchbacks to our first port of call, the Pax Guest House at the Mount St. Benedict Monastery.
The guesthouse, one of the oldest on the island, sits on the mountainside surrounded by the rainforest already alive with mysterious birdcalls, whistles and song. A bananaquit hops from a flowering vine to the porch. An old friend from the tropics, black and yellow, noisy and always there.
From the veranda, we observe four hummingbird feeders busy with iridescent birds zooming in, dipping and sipping, and zooming back into the thick, leafy greenery. A veritable feeding frenzy! A white tail flares as two birds face off. That one there has a very long curved beak! The little impatient one has a rufous back! Look, that one looks just like our hummingbird moth complete with a white band across the rear. Flashes of scarlet, rust, gold, indigo, green, turquoise — battalions of flying, glittering gems.
Slowly, we come to distinguish one species from another. The copper-rumped hummingbird has the white leg warmers. Yes, we are close enough to see the tiny, white feathers surrounding the wee legs! The white-necked jacobin flashes a white fan of a tail before and after feeding. The rufous-breasted hermit has the impressively long, down-curved bill and is a bit larger than the others.
The tufted coquette is easily identified by the band across the rump. This is the female — the male is spectacular we hear. The ruby-topaz hummingbird appears quite dark, almost black, in the shade, but as it zips into the sunlight is the flashiest of them all, like a gaudy carnival costume with its scarlet cap, gold gorget and rusty orange tail.
The next day, we're off to the Caroni Swamp, a bird sanctuary encompassing miles of channels through long-legged mangroves. Back down the mountain we go. The electric wires are dotted with what look like tiny pineapples. Weird! I soon realize these are the same epiphytes that grow on branches and trunks of accepting trees throughout the tropics. But here some have migrated to the wires. None are very big, all look quite healthy and the current remains uninterrupted.
We find the proper dock and then carefully step down into the open boat with 15 other birders. Immediately, the guide points out a spotted sandpiper. An osprey flies over — two old faves. Once we start, though, we are immersed in the exotic: a pied water-tyrant flirts from one root to another as he searches for bugs; a rufous-browed peppershrike calls from the dense foliage but finally hops onto a bare branch; a striated heron makes its way up a root to glare at the boatload staring at him; a small green kingfisher darts back and forth in front of the boat before disappearing into the thicket.
We motor down one channel and back out another. The boa is not frightening at all as it snoozes, curled up in the crook of a branch above our heads. The silky anteater looks like a cuddly, peachy-colored, stuffed animal with its head hanging down, eyes closed and tail anchoring the body to the branch.
The deeper we travel into the swamp the more herons we see. Many little blues and snowys; even more tricoloreds (formerly known as LA herons) both blue-and-white adults and nearly-all-white adolescents. As we move into a wide open area with mud flats, great egrets and great blues high step and hunt and snatch little creatures from the shallow water. Danny and I see a yellow-crowned night heron, the first in many a year.
Finally the show begins. The first flock of 24 scarlet ibises appears heading towards the verdant islet we are facing. Soon there are more and more scarlet streams of birds flying in continually. We are all mesmerized. These birds are absolutely spectacular — very, very red, winging their way from feeding grounds to their colonial roost which now looks like a giant, living, breathing, Christmas display.
These ibises, the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, are so red that they make flamingoes look like they have been left out in the rain and bleached by the sun. The long, down-turned bill is red; the entire body is a riot of red feathers, the long legs are quite red too. Definitely, a study in scarlet. In a half hour of so, more than a thousand of these flame-colored birds are perched, lifting off, moving in small groups from one area to another. Soon I give up counting. Cameras click click click as the light begins to fade. Time to head back.
As dusk falls around us at Pax, the hummingbirds defy last call time and again. Orange-winged parrots shriek to one another while the white-tipped doves coo and kiskadees kiss-ka-deeee! Tomorrow we are off to the world famous Asa Wright Nature Center. Stay tuned!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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