Clellie Lynch: Jacanas, jacamars, and a potoo, too

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> After a quick 20-minute flight from Trinidad, Danny and I arrive in Tobago and are immediately whisked away to the Cuffie River Nature Retreat, the third stop on our independent birding trip. This eco-lodge is nestled at the edge of the Tobago Forest Reserve, a 14,000-acre conservation area created in 1776. Such foresight when, in this country, we were hewing trees to make fortifications against the British!

We settle in and bird from the balcony searching in vain for the, unique to Tobago, white-tailed sabrewing among the hungry hummers zipping in and sipping from the hanging feeders. Early the next day, we watch a yellow-headed caracara glide over the verdant hillside dotted with those towering, orange-blossomed immortelle trees. An osprey soars high overhead.

We explore the nearby hills along a grassy, donkey cart trail that wends its way along, over and around the Cuffie River. How difficult it must have been to plant and harvest crops of indigo and cotton, fruit and sugar cane from these very steep slopes.

Flycatchers abound: the tropical kingbird looks a lot like our western kingbird; the grey kingbird, a washed out version. Since flycatchers return again and again to the same perch, we identify the yellow-bellied elaenia, the ochre-bellied, the streaked, the fuscous and the yellow-breasted flycatchers. More than once, we observe the brown-crested flycatcher, but not the rarer yet extremely similar, Venezuelan. This species would, like our epidomaxes, need to call for us to verify the identification. Well, for a guide to verify for us.

Learning calls and songs in a new country is not easy, though as the days pass, we recognize more and more: the whoop, whoop of the blue-crowned motmot, the kiaw, kiaw, kiaw of the barred antshrike, the shriek of the orange-winged parrot. Soon we are able to differentiate between the deep oooo of the eared dove and the similar ooo-wooo of the white-tipped dove.

The rufous-vented chachalaca, a fair-sized, turkey-like bird, is quite common in wooded areas, so common that cocricos, as they are known locally, are designated the national bird of Tobago. They greet the dawn, herald the lunch hour and decry dusk. They flock and squawk crying out ka-ka-ra-ka over and over. This call sounds more like, "boca-raton, boca-raton" to me. What a cacophony when chachalacas compete with parrots!

Claims that the birds of Tobago are less shy than those in Trinidad appear to be true. The blue-black manakin, a small, shiny black bird with a sky blue mantle and a scarlet crown, hops into view after secretly whee-whewing behind dappled leaves. The blue-crowned motmot, a flashy green-backed, orange-breasted creature with a spectacular blue crown and tail with two long tail feathers with racquet-shaped tips, perches not six feet away. The jaunty jacamars too are quite tame; these long-beaked, iridescent green birds with rusty-colored breasts look like gigantic hummingbirds and act like flycatchers.

On one of the walks, our guide, Desmond, points at a huge, flaring stand of bamboo, with some stalks green and leafy and others, brown, beige and snapped off. "A common potoo!" I scan back and forth, up and down until the mottled, brown bird, so very well camouflaged, comes into focus. This night-flying bird, more than a foot tall thrusts his head up and sits perfectly still pretending to be a stump.

On the way to our next stop, the Blue Waters Inn, Jason Radix, our guide, slows down as we round a hairpin turn where two southern lapwings peck and hunt in the grass, so close we can see their wing spurs. On the Gilpin Trail, a narrow track in the Forest Reserve, Jason points out the sabrewing on its droopy nest hanging over the stream. A secretive, stripe-breasted spinetail finally comes into view after leading us hither and thither with its mee-too, mee-too song.

The Inn on the Atlantic or windward side of the island, is more of a resort than an ecolodge though they do provide birding trips and guides. Finally we're at the sparkling, turquoise sea. Who knew that magnificent frigatebirds flocked? Dozens of these large, dark birds swirl and glide over the water tracking other birds in hopes of stealing a meal. A spotted sandpiper dashes up and down the beach. Eight ruddy turnstones dog our footsteps and try to follow us into our room. First beggar shorebirds I've ever seen!

After spending time birding the rainforests and the shore, we head to the lowlands on the western end of Tobago again with Jason as a guide. At the old tobacco plantation, now a golf course with villas scattered about, we bird the ponds finding a neotropic cormorant, anhingas, purple gallinules, moorhens and seven species of herons and egrets. We ignore the caiman, the caiman ignores us.

At a smaller pond, Jason scans and says excitedly, "The western-reef heron is still here!" This is only the second sighting ever on the island though it has been hanging around for a while. In the mangrove swamp, the red-crowned woodpecker, sounding like our red-bellied, calls and conveniently lands on a tree nearby. The cocoa woodcreeper, not like any of our species, jerks its way up a mangrove trunk. At the sewage ponds, a wattled jacana highsteps over the water hyacinths keeping its eye on two gawky young.

The swooping, white-winged swallows are joined by a solitary barn swallow maybe winging its way back to the Berkshires as we have done. Every day is an adventure; every day brings more and different species. By the end of the trip, we check off 161 species and add 111 birds to the life list!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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