Hi Again. Stuff starts gettin' good.


Monday, April 17, 2000. Trinidad Day 1 of 8. Trip Day 11 of 38. MIAMI TO TRINIDAD. WE ARRIVE AT THE GATES, AND GET OUR FIRST PEEK.

The alarm is off at 5:00 am. We have packed most stuff last night, and finish up the last few items. We have one large and one medium suitcase which we check. We have three medium-small suitcases which are carry-ons. I have two, which weigh about 40 pounds each, and Sharon has one which weighs about 15 pounds.

We move our luggage downstairs, check out, and catch the hotel's 6:00 am, ten-minute trip to the airport. I inadvertently left my wheeled, fold-up luggage carrier in the rental RV storage compartment yesterday, but I think it might be for the best. I don't have to carry it around any more, on the plane. It was getting rusty.

I rent a rolling carrier for $2.00 and we find the end of the line for American Airlines International flights. There are directors and guides all over making sure we are in the right line, to make things go smoothly. If you get there way before your flight, like us (2 1/4 hours early), they put you in the "there's-no-rush" line. If you are a crash project, they put you in the "whisk-'em-right-through" line. There are one or two other intermediate priority liines. Sort of like life. Some people are prepared and enjoy a well-ordered life at a leisurely pace. Others zip through life like a tornado. I bounce back and forth. Sharon is a be-prepared person.

It's fun to watch the people arriving in ones and twos, who are clearly going to Trinidad. A married couple with two kids (and their Pokemon balls), she with a flattop haircut. A couple of guys, one with great dreadlocks. An old, old lady who arrived in a wheel chair, but is walking around -- she can't find the woman she left her bag with (she finds her). Obvious vacationers and more. We figure we're the only birders on the flight.

American Flight 1889, a Boeing 757 with six seats per row, one aisle, and two extra inches of leg room compared to last year, takes off a few minutes late, and everybody gets free headsets for the movie. Tim Allen's Galaxy Quest. We have both seen it, but enjoy it again, although we each sleep through part of it.

We have left Miami a little after 8:30 am, and arrive in the Piarco Airport in north-central Trinidad at about 12:20 pm, just a few minutes late. The airport is about 45 minutes east of the main city of the island, Port of Spain, but that's not our destination. Trinidad time matches Eastern Daylight Time at this time of year, because they never go onto DST. They don't have to. The sun always rises and sets about 6, every day of always here

In spite of what we were lead to believe, we breeze through Immigration, pick up our luggage, breeze through Customs, and are "offered" a fellow with a wagon to take our luggage wherever we want to walk in the airport, for $2.00 TT per bag. It would be easy to assume that this service is free, but I saw a little sign tacked up on the wall, so I expected it, and even looked for it. So that's $10 TT for all five. We accept, because that's only about $1.50 US. We ask him to walk us over to Thrifty Car Rental.

The Thrifty guy is friendly, and begins on the paperwork, asking for our passport, credit card for imprinting, and where we will be staying. The accents are difficult for us to pick up, but I keep "pardoning" myself as I ask him to please repeat that. He says his name is "Darrow," which becomes Darryl after I ask him to please spell it.

I have been worried because our great travel agent and birder we met in Alaska, Janet Huber (avianaoo@aol.com -- the last two characters before the '@' are 'ohs' and not 'zeroes'), of Avian Travel in Pennsylvania has information that says Thrifty only has manual transmission, in their 4WD cars. With my foot problems, I'm a lot leery of this, but I have decided that the 4WD is important (turns out not to be), based on some birding locations on the island that I have read about.

By one of those wonderful strokes of luck, somebody smiling down on you, or whatever you like to call it, Darryl has erroneously rented us a nearly new 4-door 2WD Nissan sedan, with A/C and automatic transmission. First, I say no, no, we need 4WD. But the more I think about it, the more I decide this is the right thing. The automatic transmission instantly becomes the best decision of the week. My feet do a hand-stand and applaud.

I change 300 $US for $TT at about 6.2 $TT per $US, so I've got about $1800-and-change $TT. We load our luggage and get in the car, with both of us chanting, "Drive on the left. Keep to the left." I verify that the lever to the left of the right-side-driver steering wheel is the windshield wiper -- you know, the one I'll try to use for the turn signal about a hundred times before I finally GET IT. I check all the buttons, mirrors, locks, A/C, radio, seat position, etc. before taking off.

Everything is in order. Breathe deeply, now GO.

We have great directions to the Asa Wright Nature Center, north of the airport and up in the cool mountain forest, and I pull out (Keep to the Left), turning on the wipers to signal, as I do. That's ONE.

We negotiate all the turns correctly after initially starting out the wrong direction, then correcting. The East-West Churchill Roosevelt Highway speeds us along, alternating between four-lane divided highway, and two-lane undivided. I am relaxed after negotiating the 1 7/8ths-car -width town streets, out to the highway.

After about twenty kilometers (12 miles), we find our turnoff and I wipe the windshield again to indicate a left turn. That's TWO, and I'm now gonna stop telling you any more.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, I am beginning to get nervous because the winding road up the mountain is getting narrower and narrower, and it's the main road over the mountain in this area of Trinidad. We can't imagine what will happen when we meet another vehicle. But we are about to find out.

You position your car exactly halfway between 1) driving off the cliff on the left, and 2) scraping the oncoming car. Simple. Sharon is riding next to that cliff-side, and you can believe me when I tell you that she reminds me every time I get too close to the edge. In reality, cars can see each other coming, and whoever has a little wider bit of off-road-patch first pulls over a little, to let the other by. And the down-mountain side of the road is not cliff all the time -- maybe only 10% of the time. But the road is REAAA-LLLY narrow.

We begin to see forest birds, and roll down our windows. The whistles and calls are incredible. How can I describe to you how it feels to have been planning this in some fashion or other for about two years, and now realize that we are actually here. We see a small turnout area, and pull over. I have seen a deep violet color on the back of a bird, reflecting the sun, during the last hairpin, rising curve.

We get VIOLACEOUS TROGON* and a pair of beautiful soft blue-and-white birds doing a roller coaster flight as they drop down in elevation and out of sight. They turn out to be BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS*. Sharon spots another bird which I don't get -- black with white wing linings (under-wings). There are about a half-dozen different bird sounds, each sharp and musical, some whistles, some clicks, but all distinctively different.

Several vehicles pass us, and most wave, confirming the friendliness we have been told to expect here. We re-enter the car, belt up, and head up again. After a bit more (perhaps 50 minutes total, from the airport, not counting our stop), we come to the Asa Wright Nature Center, turnoff to the left. And left we turn, into our rainforest adventure.

Upon arrival, we are greeted by a burly, friendly, elegantly-polite Trinidad fellow who introduces himself as George. He is wearing a uniform, with a beret and looks very official and somewhat military. He's one of the combination do-everything helper, but mostly security guard. There is always someone on duty just at the last entry point to the Center. He shows us where to temporarily park, and directs us to check-in. He points out an insulated water pitcher, and says to use this water to drink, not tap water. We had been wondering about that. But the pitcher water is cold and great. We trade smiles and "hi's" the rest of our stay. We are met by two friendly clerks down at the front desk -- Alicia and Joanne, both Trinidadian (I'm guessing at the form of the word for people-from-). They give us the key to our room, No. 14, which together with side-by-side No. 13, make up one cottage, higher up the slope.

We drive further up, and park in the tiny parking lot for us (called the "car park"), right near our building. George brings all our luggage in, shows us around a bit and takes off. The room is small, with two twin beds. Each has a nightstand and a lamp. There is a room fan on a pedestal that feels good, because it's a bit humid and warm. It's a step up to the bathroom, with a big storage closet at one end, a shower and toilet at the other end, and a sink in the middle. One solid wall is shared with our #13 neighbors, but the other has a window looking out to the grounds and birds, with curtains.

We have to wait to unpack, because that's what you do when you're a birder. We later learn that hardly anyone rents a car to come up here; rather, they have the Nature Center pick them up and bring them up from the airport, for $40 US or so.

For us, it's a tradeoff -- whether to rent a car or not. The traditional thing to do is not to rent a car, to bird the Nature Center trails most of the time, but sign up for birding trips away from Asa Wright. These trips are what we want to do ourselves. We are independent sorts of birders.

On an organized trip, an intelligent, experienced guide, good at hearing and imitating bird calls (and usually with a tape to play of the more-difficult songs) is also the van driver. He takes six lodgers off the premises to other great locations to get birds not on the Center property. Like higher into the rainforest and then on to the north beach, or to the eastern beach and swamp, to see the Scarlet Ibises return to their roosts at sundown, etc. With my William Murphy "A Birder's Guide to Trinidad and Tobago," I think we can do this entirely on our own, the way we like to.

With a guide, he locates a new bird, and announces something like "White-bellied Antshrike," and points out the location, for everyone to see, until everyone from the van gets the bird. We like to spot a new bird (usually Sharon does this), locate it, then try to identify it (I usually do this first, but Sharon has to agree, and often challenges my ID), until we're sure of the bird.

So at the end of the day, we got all of our birds ourselves.

The other problem with a van full of birders is that you have to pile into and out of the van at every spot, and you are at the general mercy of the driver, regarding stops for bathroom, snacks, taking a nap, tacking-on instantly-thought-up side trips, etc.

But the other side of the coin is that we find we get about 2/3rds of the number of life birds the van-birders get. And if you are a maximize-the-number-of-new-life-birds sort of birder, you want to hire a guide.

We get our normal birding gear on, except for the scope, and head out of our room. Both Room 13 and 14 open to an outer screened porch, so bugs have a double barrier to get into our room. And to tell you the truth, there aren't be many bugs here. Way more in Missouri. Way.

Just out of the porch, we get the bird which first got me thinking about Trinidad. It was a head-on photograph in "Wild Bird" magazine, of the bird we're looking at right now, a SILVER-BEAKED TANAGER*. This one is a female, but we don't realize it yet -- I'm a little disappointed that her beak is not more silvery, like the photo. We also get the first of an abundant supply of the relatively plain-looking PALM TANAGERS*, and a trio of the same Blue-Gray Tanagers we got on the trip up the mountain.

Asa Wright was the wife of a famous man who did something-or-other I never paid attention to (Sharon would know. She enthusiastically reads everything), but this nature center is all her doing. Her husband was killed in a car accident at age 55, and she lived another 40 years or so. We find out how to pronounce her first name. She was Norwegian, and her name was pronounced oh-OO-zuh, but that would only be by people from Oslo and thereabouts. Everybody here calls her A'-zuh, where the 'A' rhymes with "day."

The entire center is built high on the side of a mountain rainforest valley, with a main house and several smaller cottages and buildings similar to ours. They are all over a small portion of the mountainside, with sidewalks running between each. There is vegetation, greenery and flowers in abundance, and wonderful smells everywhere, in addition to the bird calls and songs.

Upstairs in the downhill-side of the main house is a veranda, which looks straight out over the valley below, at the end of which you can see a tiny piece of the town of Arima, which we have driven just around to get here. But the best thing you can see is the tops of the forest trees, where a number of birds spend a lot of their time.

What a vista.

We walk around the house, below the veranda first, and pick up a spectacular bluish-green GREEN HONEYCREEPER* at the first feeder (refilled daily at 6 am and several more times during the day), with its black mask and yellow down-curving beak. The most numerous bird is the little black, yellow, and white BANANAQUIT*, with the Palm Tanager a distant second. We spot a male Silver-beaked Tanager, and this IS the bird I saw in the magazine. In the right sunlight angle, his feathers look like a deep, dark, rich velvety red, and his beak is silver except for the sides, which are pure WHITE, accenting the silver. A PURPLE HONEYCREEPER* feeds also, with its bright purple color, and sharply contrasting yellow legs. What a splash of colors. There are two hummingbirds we spot right away, one is a WHITE-CHESTED EMERALD* which we at first misidentify, but later correct. The other we get right away. It is the most abundant hummer here, and is the WHITE-NECKED JACOBIN*. Splashes of dark purple and of black, with brilliant white contrasting on the front, back of the neck, and outer tail feathers. This is a truly beautiful hummingbird.

I see a Yellow Oriole, but Sharon doesn't because he flies away too fast, so we'll have to get him later. A chocolaty-brown COCOA THRUSH* bounces around on the ground. We finally ID a little fuzzy fellow as an immature Bananaquit. We then go up onto the veranda lookout, where perhaps ten birders are birding the feeders in comfort.

We see the bird Sharon saw at our stop, coming up the mountain, and it is a seemingly all-black bird, but when it flies or displays a little, you can see white under the wings. It is a WHITE-LINED TANAGER*. One of the junior bird guides, a Trini (the popular way to describe somebody from Trinidad, we learn) named Marvin, helps us with this ID. We next get a bird we first saw in Texas, and it gets its name from its call -- a GREAT KISKADEE. He yells, "Great. Great." No, of course he doesn't, he yells "kiss-kuh-DEEEEE." There are two, and one is feeding the other. Next we get a female White-lined Tanager, who is a golden brown copy of her male counterpart, otherwise.

We see a bird which we finally nail as a GOLDEN-OLIVE WOODPECKER*, and then see our first CRESTED OROPENDOLA* (or-oh-PEN-duh-luh). The "oro" comes from the Spanish for "gold," and the "pendola" comes because when the male displays to its mate, it swings from a branch perfectly upside down like a pendulum. And it makes the most unbelievable songs and squeaks and whistles. It is a bit larger than a crow, but seems even larger. It is rusty brown, with bright yellow tail feathers and long beak, and a brilliant blue eye. Unbelievable.

We grab a couple of tidbits of the afternoon tea, and Sharon also fixes herself a cup. Then back to birding. A striking black and white bird, with a bright red-orange eye and black and white horizontal-striped tail is a GREAT ANTSHRIKE*. It feeds on the ground.

We meet another one of the center's bird guides, whose job is to answer visitor's questions, and to take them on guided introductory walks. Denise is young and friendly, has worked here five years. We ask her what the little rodent is that looks like a cross between a rat and a pig. It's actually pretty cute, and it's an Agouti (uh-GOO-tee). There are several, including one which is mostly white. When two of them challenge each other, the hair going from their middle to their little tail stands straight back, like a cat's fur when upset, only uni-directional backwards. The Trinis call this little rodent a "shagbutt."

Denise points out a GRAY-FRONTED DOVE* to us, feeding on the ground. At 4:42 pm, Sharon picks out a new hummingbird from the lineup. She thinks it's a COPPER-RUMPED HUMMINGBIRD*. She mentioned it earlier, and one of the other visiting birders didn't see it, but still poo-pooed Sharon's ID. Denise confirms it. Me too. Next, we hear a beautiful, sharp little song of a bird coming closer and closer. Sharon sees it and IDs it as a Rufous-breasted Wren, but I never see it, so we can't count it. Others thought it was a local House Wren, but they obviously didn't see it well enough.

Sharon finally spots a bird I saw earlier and it is a light-brown BARE-EYED THRUSH* -- a Robin-like bird in behavior. It looks sort of like it's surprised, all the time, because it has bare skin right around each eye, and its eyes appear to bulge out. I begin looking at huge trees farther away from the veranda, and spot a bird I recall. I get Sharon on it, and it's a brilliant green finch-size bird with greenish-yellow wing feathers, with a red head -- a BAY-HEADED TANAGER*.

Far to the left, I spot a dark blue or black bird with a yellow head -- a tiny little bird. I immediately remember its name from my studies of these birds. Sharon gets it too, and it's a tiny GOLDEN-HEADED MANAKIN* and these little birds don't come around very often. At 5:20 pm, it feels like about 7:30 pm San Jose time, based on the darkness. Sharon spots us another hummer, and identifies it as a BLACK-THROATED MANGO*, to which I agree. Others thought it was something else, and this boosts my confidense in our ability to ID birds. Denise later confirms.

A dark bird keeps flying through the (totally open) viewing windows of the veranda with nest material, and flies high up into the decorative rafters. It is a pair of Palm Warblers building a nest, right in the building.

We get our first view of another spectacular bird. It has two long feathered shafts for a tail, suddenly becoming just the center part of the quills near the end, and then blue, flat pompoms tacked on to the very end. It is blue on its head and black around its red eyes. It's a BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT*, and you would not believe that a bird like this exists. Sharon has recognized another new hummingbird, a BLUE-CHINNED SAPPHIRE*, a sparkling little bird.

We decide to go back to the room, unpack, and put away our stuff. Sharon also mixes up some sugar water, puts it in the little hummingbird feeder she has brought, and hangs it outside our screened window. Come and get it. It will turn out that the liquid doesn't drop even a tiny bit during our whole stay. One reason may be that Sharon packed along your standard white refined sugar in a baggie, but the only sugar used in feeders up here is the brown.

We tally up the day's birds, and find that we have seen 23 life birds (more in half-a-day than in all of Florida, not to our surprise), plus others that only one of us got. We will get them together, later.

We go back to the veranda for more watching, and wait for the 7 o'clock dinner bell. Just like Pavlov's dog, when it goes off, we're ready. We meet other birders around our table, and at another table is Richard ffrench, the author of our "A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago" ID book. His last name starts with two lower case 'fs.' Something about being Dutch maybe. He comes here a lot, from his home in England.

After dinner, we watch a nature video by an Englishman named Bill Oddie, and it's about Trinidad and Tobago birds, and is about thirty minutes long. I keep trying to doze off, so I know I'm going to sleep well tonight.

Back up to our room, and into bed. As the overprinting said on the "Ice Cream" sign of a vendor's tricycle/cooler we saw peddling down the road, "Life Is Good".

Lifers Today: Ruddy Ground-Dove, Violaceous Trogon, Blue-Gray Tanager, Silver-beaked Tanager, Palm Tanager, Bananaquit, Green Honeycreeper, White-chested Emerald (Hummingbird), Purple Honeycreeper, White-Necked Jacobin (Hummingbird), Cocoa Thrush, White-Lined Tanager, Golden Olive Woodpecker, Crested Oropendula, Great Antshrike, Gray-fronted Dove, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Bare-eyed Thrush, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-headed Manakin, Black-throated Mango (Hummingbnird), Blue-crowned Motmot, Blue-chinned Sapphire (Hummingbird)

Handsomest Birds: 1. Silver-beaked Tanager (dark red velvet which becomes beautiful deep red in the sunlight, with a silver beak, white on each "cheek" portion of the beak), 2. Purple Honeycreeper (with bright yellow legs), 3. White-necked Jacobin (hummer), 4. Blue-crowned Motmot, 5. Blue-chinned Sapphire (hummer)

Most Remarkable Birds: 1. Blue-crowned Motmot (large bird, generally dark greenish on the back, long blue tail whose feathers end at the bottom, with two center quills extending a little further down to two blue pompoms. Dark blue crown, light blue face, with a black mask and bill, and red eyes). 2. Crested Oropendola (A large lumbering-looking dark brown bird with brilliant yellow outer tail feathers and beak. Long legs, feathers from the knee up and bare below. Builds a hanging nest reminiscent of the oriole, only much higher in huge trees and much longer, swinging in the breeze. Beautiful blue eyes).

Rarest Bird: Golden-headed Manakin (not seen every day around the veranda).

Lifer Totals: Today 23, Trinidad 23, Trip 19+23 = 42


This was by far our largest number-of-new-birds day of the trip (at Belize, we may top it), and I believe it is the biggest of our birding career -- even bigger than at the beginning, when we were toddlers. "Happy New-Birds-Day to You, Happy New-Birds-Day..."

Keep your lenses clean,
Sharon and Bob

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