REPORT NO. 13 OF THE LUTMAN'S TROPICS 2000 TRIP
We have been trying to connect with a birder guide named Mr. Rensen Jack for two days, and there are a number of troubling problems. 1) he doesn't have a telephone, only an answering machine, 2) he doesn't answer questions I put to him on the messages I leave, 3) another professional guide sort of slowly shook his head when I asked him if our guide was any good, then he said "he knows plants pretty well," 4) he hasn't quoted us a price yet, and 5) in answer to my most recent multiple question message, he responded, "I will have someone pick you up at 9 am tomorrow," meaning Thursday -- today.
So how did we hook up with the man whose last name is a first name? When we first arrived, I called David Rooks, recommended by our Trinidad guide David. Rooks said he only did groups of six or more, and when I asked him for a reference who might take two people, he referred me to Rensen Jack. This turned out to be a great disservice done us by Rooks. He gave me Rensen Jack's phone number, and said that he only had an answering machine, so I'd have to wait to hear back from him.
Smelled something funny here, but I didn't know quite what to do yet. Our Trini guide David had recommended Rooks, and Rooks had recommended Jack, so how bad could he be?
We have been noticing some small buildings (houses, I presume) being built with a commonly-seen type of hollow red brick here, and the construction techniques on every one are terrible -- shoddy alignment, shoddy cementing, broken tiles left in place, etc. We are met at 8:55 am by a Mr. Andrew Melville, who says he is Rensen Jack's nephew and he will take us to Rensen Jack's home. I have to have him spell his name before I can get it.
I am irked because everybody who is a birder knows that you need to start birding around 6 or 7, and to do that you need a pickup at 5 or 6. So for us to get picked up at 9 am -- well, makes no sense. Sharon calls him Herman (Melville, get it?) accidentally, and he says, "No, that's my other uncle."
So now we're riding in a 1978 Datsun, by my estimate, and it has had the crap beat out of it over the years. Our Asa Wright friends had their birder guides pull up in new or semi-new black or white sedans, and I am feeling worse by the minute. But Mom's voice keeps creeping into my head, "Now Bob, he seems nice, and he needs to make a living too," and I keep going along with the strange plot, wondering if it'll turn out spectacularly -- where we find the five-star birder guide on the island, or something else.
During the course of the ride, our driver Andrew reveals that he's an out-of-work red brick construction laborer. Also that this is not HIS car, it's his second uncle's, whatever that means. HIS is home in the garage. We can guess why it's home in the garage. In Andrew's off time, he transports people around, like us, for Rensen and others.
So it's from Andrew that we find out the day's plan. He'll take us to his (Andrew's) place, and we will be met there by Jack. Sharon and I will switch to Jack's jeep, and he'll first take us birding up at his house first!? Then he'll take us into the rain forest.
We meet him, and he's an elegant-looking typical black Tobagonian(?) with cool curly white hair, and with a smooth, don't-worry-about-a-thing attitude, and I relax. Each concern I raise, he laughs, and says, "Just relax. It'll be OK." And we both do. We learn that he's 53 years old, so there's some bonding there.
We get in his 1976 jeep, and go banging up the rutty track, finally arriving at his house, with no outside electricity, at 10:00 am. I figure the birds are taking a nap by now. He has done fantastic things here, and it's clear that he's a die-hard conservationist. He's got solar power going, and other similar things. He introduces us to his wife and little girl, and starts telling us about the plants on his property. Yes, yes, but we paid for birds.
We start walking up a trail, above his house, and he starts talking of his plans to turn this into another Asa Wright. Sharon stops occasionally to check out a bird, and Mr. Jack walks on a few steps ahead of us, stops, and patiently waits. No help, assistance or interest whatsoever. We get a Streaked Flycatcher.
As we get more and more into it, it becomes clear that Mr. Rensen Jack is a sleight-of-hand man, but it's not clear whether he's tricking himself or the us. I decide it's us. At any rate, he didn't seem to recognize the song of the simplest birds. Oh, well, he did claim several times to hear the Great Black Hawk (over the mountain and out of sight). And I found out down at his house, when I asked when we would go to the Gilpin Trace (the ONLY place we wanted to go), he said, "That is overused, we're going to the blah-blah-blah," some place that I had never heard of and didn't want to go to.
Earlier, down where Andrew had let us off, and when I brought up the subject of price, he suggested $40 US each plus $20 for the driver, his nephew. I had earlier talked with my new friend Bob the Brit, and he had hired an expert birder guide for about $60, and nothing extra for any intermediary driver. I suggested $60 total, and Mr. Jack countered with $60 total but $20 for the driver. I said OK, because we were in the middle of nowhere with no way to get out except by them driving us.
But back to birding, such as it was.
Rensen Jack now is changing his tune to tell us what great birds he had seen yesterday and last week, and he just can't understand, but some days, it is like this, for no apparent reason -- just almost no birds.
I have had enough.
With Rensen Jack in the lead and Sharon in front of me, I tap Sharon's arm and mouth "I want to go home," and she nods and mouths, "Me too," and turns back around. I tap her again, she turns around, and I mouth, "I mean it," and she nods again. I tap her one last time, and mouth, "OK?" and she nods.
Now I have a problem. Fake being sick or just come out with it. I decide I wanted to let him know we aren't happy with things, but in a way Mom would have approved.
"Rensen, this isn't working. You talked earlier about having a feeling about things in the forest. I have a bad feeling about this forest, today. I want to stop birding, and for you to take us back down, and for your nephew to drive us back home, so we can at least salvage the afternoon. We don't have that much time left, and we're not getting anywhere here. There aren't any birds at all here. Maybe there were much earlier. I'll pay you whatever you think is fair, but I want to stop and go back down now."
He says something like he can't understand why there are no birds (and how great they were last week), and he is really disappointed, but he agrees. We go back down to his house, and he drives us down to his nephew's, who, luckily for us, is still there
I say, "We were going to bird about 6 hours for $600 TT, and we birded about an hour [I left out "and didn't see crap"], so one-sixth of the day would be $100. How about $200 TT?" He says, "Whatever you think, but you will still take care of my nephew." "Yes, of course," I say.
And we part company. I would say he is OK except for these minor points:
1. He wasn't going to take us where we told him we wanted to go (Gilpin Trace).
2. He didn't answer my questions I left on his message machine until we were at his nephew's.
3. He had us brought to his nephew's before he ever discussed price
4. His price was higher than anybody else's I heard
5. He had his nephew pick us up and charged extra for that, unlike all the other birder guides.
6. He didn't know as much about his birds as we did, in my humble opinion
7. He took us to bird his home, as half of the day's birding. His home?
I'd say I gave him every possible break, Mom, and I think you'd laugh and agree now.
When Mr. Melville drops us back at the Blue Waters Inn, we meet our birder friend Bob, plus our other birder friends Stuart and Yvonne.
I go to the Little Tobago Island trip signup booth, and request a special boat to take us over at noon, and pick us up at 4:00 tomorrow for $300 TT ($100 US). Then I come back and talk some more with Bob.
Bob's birder guide, a Mr. Newton George, had given Bob a business card to give to us, because he figured we might want to hire him. Finally, a break. Bob says that Newton was great, enthusiastic, took you exactly where you wanted to go, put everything into you getting your birds, and he (Bob) got 14 more lifers on the Gilpin Trace. We should call him tonight if we're interested.
While we are talking, Sharon sets up our scope, points it toward Little Tobago Island, and son of a gun, we get our RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD*. Because we are getting short on time (thanks to the shenanigans of Mr. J.A.C.K.), I have Sharon cancel our trip to Little Tobago Island tomorrow, because birders who have made the trip said that about the only thing you see are the Tropicbirds (in their nests, really well though), plus perhaps Brown Boobies and Sooty Terns. Not worth a half-day to us, now that we got long scoped views of the Tropicbirds.
We decide to try a marsh Stuart and Yvonne referred us to, and while we don't get any marsh birds there, we do pick up CARIBBEAN MARTIN*.
We further decide to drive on to Scarsborough, then over the hill to Turtle Beach and check for Black-headed Gull, but find none. Do see more Roseate Terns though. I ask where the fresh water reservoir is, but I'm told we would have to get a permit from WASA (Water and Sewage Authority, I think) in Scarsborough. Back over the island we go to Scarsborough, finally locate the office, go in, but they have closed the "issuing permit" function at 3:00 pm, and they can't help us. We talk with them some more, and they point us to a water treatment plant back across the island, so we decide to try that. I am looking for some South American fresh water terns that are supposed to be at some reservoir. On the way out, we get K-Mart's first Lesser Antilles store.
Back over the island again. We finally locate the turnoff to the water treatment plant, but on the way to it, we begin to see seedeaters and grassquits, and I get really excited. Maybe this is so out-of-the-way, that some of the rare seedeaters are still here. We nose around, and finally verify that they're all Black-faced Grassquits, and there is nothing new. But in the process, we come across a dove. There are two doves that are very similar except for the skin color just around the eyes. The one we already have (Gray-fronted, as I recall) has red around its eye, but the one we need has blue. I look carefully in the scope, then excitedly pass it over to Sharon. "Blue!" she shouts, and we add WHITE-TAILED DOVE* to our life list. We also see half-a-dozen sun-lit Greenrumped Parrotlets in the grass and trees around.
We finish up and head back to try the marsh at Betsy's Hope again, but still don't get any new herons.
We make it back home and call Newton George. "How much do you charge for a day of birding on Gilpin Trace when you come and pick them up?" I ask. "$40 US each," he says. "And what if they drive their own car?" I ask, as we will do. "$30 US each." Perfect. He is really sympathetic about our encounter with R.J., and promises some good stuff tomorrow. He'll pick us up at 7:00 am. Ah, an early start.
We have cheeseburgers and fries at the bar for dinner. The burger tastes like meat loaf and the cheese is provolone, but the fries and the drinks are great. And the breeze is that wonderful island-cool.
Back to the room to shower and get ready for tomorrow and for what we tried to get today.
Lifers Today: Red-billed Tropicbird, Caribbean Martin, White-tailed Dove
Handsomest Bird: Red-billed Tropicbird (generally white bird, with two long white tail streamers, red bill, black on wings and some striping on the back. Appears white from a long distance)
Rarest Bird: Red-billed Tropicbird
Most Remarkable Bird: Red-billed Tropicbird (extremely elegant and graceful in the air)
Totals: Today 3, Tobago 8+3= 11, Trinidad & Tobago 121+3= 124, Trip 140+3, = 143
7:00 am, and Newton George picks up his four passengers in his car, and we follow in ours. The other passengers are Stuart and Yvonne, and another couple we know, but whose names I can't quite recall right now (Sharon says Martin and Lorna).
On the way to Gilpin Trace, Newton pulls over in an orchard of some kind, and gets out, as do his riders. "I don't tell anyone where it is, but see if you can find the Common Potoo." I spot it immediately, and begin setting up our scope, while most of the others continue searching. Newton sees that I have it, and tells Sharon, "Your husband has spotted it" "Got it," I say, and tune the scope right in. Fantastic, much better than the one in the Caroni Swamp. I get great video too. Can't wait for you to see it.
8:00 am, and we are heading into Gilpin Trace. I have my Neos on (waterproof overshoes), and I'm more than ready for this, after yesterday's episode.
We get a Barred Antshrike in a Palm Tree, then a couple of Rufous-tailed Jacamars. Then, only nine minutes into our walk, we get one of the big targets of this island -- a couple of WHITE-TAILED SABREWING* hummingbirds. Another ten minutes and we get a visual upgrade to the previously heard-only status of the Stripe-breasted Spinetail. This feels like a new bird [Sharon adds: and we get great looks as this little bird works his way up a river bank, at times under the leaves! Newton has eyes like an eagle and spots birds after he hears them that we would never see].
A female, then gorgeous male YELLOW-LEGGED THRUSH* are pointed out by Newton, using his umbrella as a pointer. Very effective.
I figure Newton already knows about what he shows us next, a hummingbird nest so tiny that it's somehow "plastered" to the top of a broad leaf of a plant. It's a Ruby-topaz Hummingbird nest, and there are two white eggs in it, each a little smaller than a pea, I'd say. Those of us who are video birders do our thing, and we move on.
Then we come upon a nice bird -- the Blue-crowned Motmot. Very common on Tobago, and it reminds me of the Motmots at the Asa Wright feeders..
A little later, Newton spots us a female Blue-backed Manakin building a nest, but I don't see her. Zoom! go a pair of RUFOUS-BREASTED HERMIT* hummingbirds that we tried and failed to get on Trinidad. Then Newton's face lights up as he says with his eyebrows high, "I hear a Spadebill," and describes the sound. We think we can hear it, but not for long, and we're not sure. We move on.
A little later still, and Newton gets us a far-off view of a lek of BLUE-BACKED MANAKINS*, the males performing their ritual dance for us to watch. No wing-snapping that we can hear, but lots of jumping, like at a cock-fight, but no fighting at all. Just displays. In the sunlight, we can see their little red caps bouncing as they joust.
We get a better view of Rufous-breasted Hermit, then stop at a bridge over a waterfalls to take a breather. After a bit we take off again, and Newton shows us some sawgrass. He says its nickname is "Wait-a-while," because when it sticks to you, you must wait a while for it to come off.
At 11:54 am, we get another bird we missed in Trinidad, a great PLAIN ANTVIREO*, not plain at all. All gray with a few black and white accent stripes, very subtle colors. On the way back out, Newton does the impossible, and gets us about a twenty-second view of the tiny WHITE-THROATED SPADEBILL*. This bird has almost no tail, and just can't seem to stop moving.
After we come out, we follow Newton and company in his car up to a lookout, hoping for Great Blackhawk, but no success there.
However, he hears and calls in a Collared Trogan, which perches about fifteen feet from him. He gets my attention, and I go down and get one or two stills, then some perfect video of him calling. You can see his chest squeeze as he calls out his notes. Unbelievably cool! Newton and the others take off while we stay behind for a few minutes, hoping for the Great Blackhawk, still with no success.
As we're about to leave, we hear parrots somewhere, and walk around the little hilltop building to find a guy with a cardboard box with three baby parrots in it. "Where did you get these?" Sharon asks. "I climbed a tree to the nest," he says. "You can buy one and put it in your pants and take it back home with you," he says. They look like plucked chickens, with respect to their feathers. Mostly just little stubbles, but they are getting color in some areas. They CAN squawk though, and I'm guessing that they're saying they want Mom and Dad.
We head out to the car, and I am not so lucky, but Sharon sees a male Blue-backed Manakin about ten feet away, sitting right in the sun for ten seconds or more. Dangit. I mean, way to go Sharon!
And that's our Tobago tour of the Gilpin Trace in a nutshell. By 1:00 pm, we are back in our bungalow, where Sharon takes a nap and I update the new birds we just got.
Later, Sharon takes a swim from our beach, all the way to the dock, swimming parallel with the beach about 200 yards to the left, I'd estimate (I just couldn't go back from the Caribbean and say I never got in the water--Sharon). I shoot some photos, then she jumps back in for the return swim, while I go back to the room and get the video camera to record her coming back. So you see, we each got our particular kind of exercise.
Lifers Today: White-tailed Sabrewing (hummer), Yellow-legged Thrush, Rufous-breasted Hermit (hummer), Blue-backed Manakin, Plain Antvireo, White-throated Spadebill
Handsomest Birds: Blue-backed Manakin (tiny black bird with blue back and a red crest and yellow legs)
Rarest Bird: White-throated Spadebill (moves around so fast, that it is seldom seen, but we got good looks for about ten seconds).
Most Remarkable Bird: Blue-backed Manakin (like the manakins of Trinidad, these little fellows compete at leks for females. We saw them dancing from a distance)
Totals: Today 6, Tobago 11+6= 17, Trinidad & Tobago 124+6= 130, Trip 143+6, = 149
We feel so great about rescuing the last half of yesterday, and then connecting with Mr. Newton George, guide extraordinaire. He's great, and I recommend him without hesitation. He kept saying, "Wow, Wow," when he'd see something cool, and you could tell that he really meant it.
Wow, 149 Lifers on this trip, hoping for 200. I don't expect that many more on St. Lucia (maybe 10 or 20), but we may get another 100 in Belize! So we have a shot at 275 or so for the trip, and a WILD shot at 300. Holy Cow(bird)!
We'll find out,
Sharon and Bob
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