Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Trinidad: What We Did Part I - the Grounds at Asa Wright

 [Golden-headed Manakins at a lek at Asa Wright, Trinidad. Click to enlarge all photos. A note about the photography from T&T: a lot of it is in the shade of the rainforest, and I made the decision not to do much with a flash, because flashes can frighten birds - I spooked a bellbird with one, for example - and I often don't get the natural look I strive for with photos when the flash is on the camera. The consequence of shooting sans flash, however, is shooting at a high ISO - a lot of these shots were at ISO 3200 or even 6400, which adds grain. You'll want a camera that can handle dark conditions here.]

When you go to Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad by yourself, you have only one option to work with. Luckily, it's a good one: Caligo Ventures, which has sole rights to booking there. I worked with Mark Hedden of Caligo, and between Mark and advice from our dear friend Megan Crewe (who does the Trinidad and Tobago trip with Field Guides), I was able to work out an independent birding venture that covered most of what we wanted to see and do in Trinidad and Tobago. I couldn't recommend a better way to see T&T than with Megan and Field Guides, but this is also a trip that is easy to do independently (you'll probably see fewer birds than you would with Meegs, though).

Birding highlight number one is the veranda at Asa Wright (see posts below for more about that), but you should also build in time for some exploring of the center grounds, either with a guide (like on their Orientation Walk or special trip to the Oilbird cave). The grounds are quite birdy, and you can expect things like Bearded Bellbirds bonging in the jungle, leks of manakins, Orange-winged Amazon parrots flying overhed constantly, and good looks at Channel-billed Toucans and Squirrel Cuckoos, with a little luck.

By the way, you have the option of setting up your field trips at Asa Wright either in advance, or you can add some by speaking to the staff at the center when you get there. We added a night birding option this way. Another by-the-way is that Caligo will set up your transport to and from the airport, and this for the most part went very smoothly for us. Like I said, this is a trip you can do on your own if you are a comfortable traveler.

In the blogs that follow, I'll detail some of the field trip options we chose while in T&T, in case you're thinking about a trip there. And you should be. It is often said that a trip to T&T is the ideal introduction to tropical birding, and I would agree. Many bird families are represented, but the species numbers are not overwhelming and the viewing is often pretty easy. This is the sort of trip that reminds you how to bird, using your knowledge of your native avifauna to recognize when you are looking at a thrush or flycatcher, and using your previously developed birding skills to collect field marks like size, shape and behavior as well as colors when you encounter something from a bird family that might be unfamiliar.

One tip I'll offer whenever you travel to a new foreign country is to set up your field guide with tabs marking the places of different bird families, to make it easy to page through the guide to the right page when you need to. Often I'll carry a pad and pen and make notes on birds as I see them, and then look them up, but Trinidad was vacation so I was lazy and just used my memory to keep the field marks and carried the book to look birds up as I encountered them.

Right then, here's a sampling of the treasures from the Asa Wright Nature Center grounds. You might see these from the veranda, but they aren't frequenting the feeders much if at all.

 [Boat-billed Flycatcher, not far from the center at Asa Wright. Like a Kiskadee with an oversized bill, and eyelines that don't connect behind the head.]

 [The much sought after Oilbird, a nocturnal fruit eater whose habit of eating, and feeding its chicks, the fruits of palms make it a very fat bird - the chicks can be more than half fat, which is why the natives were able to render oil and use it for torches from these cave-nesting birds. To see the oilbirds at Asa Wright, you are required to stay in the lodging there. They are very careful to avoid overly disturbing the birds, and no flash photography is allowed - this was handheld in the light of a flashlight with 640mm equivalent of lens at 1/25 - and a lot of luck to get an image with only a little motion blur.]

[Tiger lizard on the grounds.] 

 [White-tailed Trogon.]

[Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. Here was a case where knowing your "home" birds made an i.d. easier. From the wingbars, posture, bill shape, and behavior I knew it was a flycatcher, kind of Empid-like, but the color was new to me - but easy to find in the field guide under the flycatchers!]

The next three species are ubiquitous around Asa Wright, so learn these before you get there to save yourself time.

 [Bananaquit. They may be common, but I never did get one to pose showing its bright yellow belly.]

 [Male White-lined Tanager.]

[Palm Tanager. These things are everywhere on T&T.]


  1. Congrats again to you and Beth- and WOW! That looks like fun! :)

    1. Yeah, it was awesome amigo! Mark did us right. Great to see you at the wedding, many times again to come I hope, and soon!