REPORT NO. 6 OF THE LUTMAN'S TROPICS 2000 TRIP
Can you say BLANCH-uh-swuzz, where the 'a' in "blanch" is like the one in "ah," as in "ah, another new bird." The 'u' in the swuzz is hardly sounded at all.
It's 6:05 am, and we're driving the winding, narrow, quarter-mile road out of the Nature Center onto Blanchisseuse Road. We have two hamburgers, a jug of water, a jug of juice, and four bananas (two for breakfast). The cooks fixed them for us, and they are a one-for-one tradeoff on our bill, because we're not going to eat the regular breakfast or lunch at the center.
Not five minutes up the road, we come upon a car whose left rear wheel is over the edge of the cliff. It's about ten feet down to the thick forest greenery, but that greenery slopes steeply further on down. If his car DID fall off, the thick stuff would keep it from going too far.
We pull alongside a Trinidad fellow about 65, with some great-looking white in his black hair, standing beside the old Chevy sedan. Sharon asks "Can we help. Are you in trouble?" He shakes his head and says with that great accent, "Plenty trouble." But he and I both figure we're not the ones to help him. We don't know how to contact anyone, and he needs a truck to come along with some men in it. So we say good luck, and resume our drive up the mountain.
We arrive at the entrance to the Microwave Scatter Station (don't know what that means), with its big tower, and pull off the road, onto a wide patch of grass. We pick up a little black bird called a grassquit, because it makes its home in grassy areas. I get a video of him standing on a fence, and popping up into the air about 8 inches, to then land where he jumped from. Like a little acrobat. This is a BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT*, but we misidentify it as a Sooty Grassquit (dull gray-black) at the time, till we describe the jumping to one of the guides later. We couldn't see that it was very shiny, so assumed it was a Sooty. It turns out that the Blue-Black is the only one of the two that does the popping-up-and-down display (for the female, don't you know), and the Sooties are getting more and more rare. We may not get one of those.
We see parrots flying over -- first a pair, and later a solitary bird. This single one is green, has a whitish face patch and a long, long tail. It had to be a RED-BELLIED MACAW*. We drive on and come to Las Lapis Trace, a trace being a trail that was once a main thoroughfare before there were roads. In birder parlance, it allows you to strike out deep into the forest where you can see across a wide path, up above. In pure forest, you would be covered with the canopy and very close-together trees, so you couldn't see any birds unless they were sitting on your binoculars.
It so happens that the Las Lapis takes off from a wonderful vista also. We stop and see a friendly but cautious dog next to its owner's ramshackle house, then pick up a Toucan flying over from right to left. Then another three in a tall, tall tree.
We pick up our first female Black-throated Mango, with a white throat and belly, and a black streak down the middle. An exception to the normal drab females. We head into the trace, having had our breakfast banana and shared a juice. We get a flyover of a pair of ORANGE-WINGED PARROTS*, the most common type in Trinidad. They squawk noisily as they fly, and we find that they almost always appear in pairs.
At 8:00 am, Sharon spots a pair of birds that we identify as SWALLOW-TANAGERS*. I try to get the beautiful male on video. He is a wonderful blue color, with a black mask, black tail and a white belly. There are horizontal black streaks across his flanks.
We can hear a BLACK-FACED ANTTHRUSH*, but can't see it yet. I can tell by the distinctive call, which I remember when I was marking each bird's tape position on my "Trinidad Bird Songs" tape. It is a chromatic downscaling, usually three notes -- 1,2,3, with a pause between 1 and 2. But sometimes notes 2 and 3 are a twitter, with two more notes tacked on. We just have to SEE this bird.
We pass a Trini selling dry yams all over. We get what we at the time believe to be our first Blue-black Grassquits -- a pair, chasing each other around. The female is drab and the male shiny blue-black. But as you read above, we our Sooty-at-the-time was actually a Blue-black.
We get a much better view of a pair of Orange-winged Parrots flying over, and fair video of another Violaceous Trogon. We get SOUTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW* down in the beginning of the town of Blanchisseuse, to match our Northern one from San Jose. There are numerous Tropical Kingbirds, which we got in Texas a couple of years ago. And we get a TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD*, with no white wing patches, as the North American ones have. Both of these birds are pretty common here.
Next we take some time eliminating possibilities, but come up with another fairly common bird here, a BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER*. Driving on through town, we see a guy with a set of great dreadlock, then pick up still another common bird, a CARIB GRACKLE*.
I stop in a little store, and get two Pepsis, two peppermint balls on sticks, a pack of two cupcakes. The guy opened the Pepsis, since they are bottles with non-twistoff caps. We have to hold them, so they don't tip over, while we drive through town to a small bridge over the Marianne River at the far end. We'll eat lunch there.
There is a different kind of swift here. These are a light-color all the way from just behind the wing to the tail, sort of cream colored, and are SHORT-TAILED SWIFTS.* We look for kingfishers on the bridge, but no luck there. Sharon and I then both spot one of the many raptors flying high, high overhead much of the time, but this one is different from the common Turkey and Black Vultures. We can see strong white underparts, with the wing edged in black. It's a highly desired WHITE HAWK*, and is incredibly elegant.
We have our lunch, and go over the bridge, and onto a trail to the right, beside the little smooth-flowing river. Our shiny car looks very comforting across the bridge. There are lots of birds high up in a bamboo clump, and we get another very nice bird -- a YELLOW-RUMPED CACIQUE* (oriole type bird). I don't know how to say "cacique," I have chosen ka-SEEK, where the "ka" rhymes with "baa" a sheep does.
Sharon calls my attention to a bird across the water, on the bank, and I pick up a Spotted Sandpiper, which walks along bobbing its tail all the time. I say "Look at him pop that tail," and Sharon says, "Yes, pretty cool." I say "Spotted Sandpiper, right?" and Sharon says no way. We figure out we're on different birds, each popping its tail. I switch over to her bird, and get a great little SILVERED ANTBIRD*, just before he pops into the brush.
There is an entire family of antbirds in Trinidad, and contrary to what I always thought, it's not the ants that they eat. Rather, the insects the ants scare up. Like the birds standing around a farmer's field by the cows, waiting for them to take a step and scare up a goody. Not to say that they DON'T eat ants, just that ants aren't their main diet.
We are getting many Magnificent Frigatebirds off and on, high overhead, today. We stop at the private beach, where we pay $10 TT to get in, about $1.50 US. A pair of Palm Tanagers in a palm tree. We take some photos to make it seem like we are relaxing on the beach, then take off again.
Now we've made our way back up onto Blanchisseuse Road, and we get a couple of spectacular birds, a pair of RUFOUS-TAILED JACAMARS*, which look sort of like kingfishers, but then again, not at all. I get some great video of them.
I figure that the name of this road, "Washerwoman" in English, comes because of the corrugated scrubbing boards they used to use to get the clothes clean. Only the corrugations of the road aren't the up-and-down variety, but the switchback-upon-switchback characteristics. As usual, I don't ask, but just make up something that sounds good. Then when I hear the truth later, I am in great awe.
Sharon has taken to asking me, after I give her a story is to say, "Did you read that or make it up?" Since I can't ever think of a good cover story, "I tell her I made it up, but doesn't it sound good?" Or "Could happen!" as comedian Judy Tenuda used to say.
We stop at an overlook facing west, and get a bird we tried for in Texas, a COMMON BLACKHAWK*. It is all black, with a white band on the tail, and soars gracefully over the valley.
We continue our way back towards Asa Wright, looking for something called the El Brasso Trace. We thought we found it on the way over, but it seemed to stop at a house, so we bypassed it. This time, we see a boy playing at the house. He notices us also, and comes over. "Goin' right t'ere," he says, pointing to a trail taking a sharp bend around a dirt bank not visible from the road. "We're looking at birds," Sharon says to him. He says something quickly, and runs up to his house. We wait to see what he has to show or tell us.
He comes back with a home-made wooden cage, with a little Violaceous Euphonia in it. Sharon asks if he caught it as an adult, or if he took it out of a nest or something. "Catch," he says, and demonstrates two compartments built into the top edges of the cage. They are homemade traps, which close the top when a bird comes in to eat the fruit that was put there, and trips a little lever. Then he can open the trap bottom, and the bird drops right into the main cage.
"We call this a Violaceous Euphonia," I say to him. "What do you call it?" I ask. "Semp," he says. We don't know if he means Semp, like Tweety. Or Semp, like the local Trini word for this bird. I know that almost every bird with an English name in Trinidad also has a separate local name -- often several. For example, the White-bearded Manakin is called "Stickman," I guess because he likes to purchase on the tiny plant stalks just growing up from the ground, adjacent to his little display spot, and jump from them when he makes his "snap."
I tell Sharon this story (and that I READ it), and later we get back to the car, and I look up the bird in ffrench's book. We find that the locals' name for the Violaceous Euphonia is "Semp." Pretty cool.
The Trinis love the songs these birds sing, and they have decimated the little seedeaters, grassquits and finches with the best songs, in traps like the boy's above. But the Blue-Black and Sooty are not such good singers, so they are left alone. In fact there is a hunting season (the opposite of which is called the Closed hunting season), but it doesn't mean shooting birds, like in the US. It means trapping birds. Signs warn you not to trap birds in the closed hunting season.
We hear a sharp song, and finally get the RUFOUS-BREASTED WREN*, which Sharon had seen, but not I. We also get an Elaenia type bird (flycatcher), with his crest propped up and even forward a little. We later find that this was probably a Tropical Pewee, a bird we got earlier.
At 4:10 pm, we have pulled over by an abandoned building on a ridge, with a great view. Sharon gets us onto a beautiful pair of TURQUOISE TANAGERS*, the male being painted from turquoise, black, blue and yellow. We continue on towards home and see a great Swallow-tailed Kite overhead. About a half-hour later, we get a fantastic male RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER*. These birds are dark blue and black, with red legs. When they fly, you see the yellow wing-linings. And his crown is turqouise.
I've finally begun to accept the wild splash of colors and patterns on these birds of the tropics, so I will stop tacking on words like "fantastic" or "spectacular."
We stop at the overlook place again, from which Las Lapis Trace takes off, and someone in the house is playing great macarena music. The Trinis just love music and dancing.
5:14 pm and we can hear a FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL* responding to our tape of him back at the Scatter Station.
After another West Indies dinner, we go on an evening guided walk with Jason, one of the guides. We learn that there are 47 species of snake as well as the same number of bats on the island. He shines his torch (English for flashlight) on a sleeping Great Antshrike, up in a tree with lots of thorns, which prevents predators from climbing up to him.
A little break in the clouds reveals the Southern Cross. You can see both that and the Big Dipper from here on a clear night.
I get some tarantula video and some other insects and we turn in. We were hoping to SEE the local Pygmy-Owl, but no luck on that one.
Lifers Today: Red-bellied Macaw, Orange-winged Parrot, Swallow-Tanager, Black-faced Antthrush (heard), Yellow Oriole, Blue-black Grassquit, Roufous-tailed Jacamar, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Carib Grackle, Short-tailed Swift, White Hawk, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Silvered Antbird, Common Blackhawk, Rufous-breasted Wren, Turquoise Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Ferruginous Pygmy-owl (heard).
Most Remarkable Bird: Black-faced Antthrush (we would learn soon that it looks and walks around the forest floor like a tiny 3-inch, rusty-red chicken, with black trim -- and responds to my whistled call with his).
Handsomest Birds: 1. White Hawk (very large, mostly white, with black upper wings, white lower wings edged in black, and having a wide black band on the white tail. Surely one of the most beautiful hawks in the world); 2. Turquoise Tanager (incredible shades of black, sky blue and deep blue, on white); 3. Swallow-Tanager (beautiful blue with black face and tail, white belly, black horizontal stripes on flanks); 4. Red-legged Honeycreeper (intense violet bird, with sky blue crown, red legs, and yellow wing-linings, the yellow being visible only in flight -- an outrageously beautiful bird).
Rarest Birds: 1. Yellow-rumped Cacique (oriole), 2. Red-legged Honeycreeper.
Lifer Totals: Today 19, Trinidad 41+19=60, Trip 60+19=79
We are learning that people going on all the offered field trips, with bird guide, are getting about 3 new birds to our 2. We are thinking about hiring a private guide for one or two days to try and see more species, but don't know if we would like to or not yet.
"Don't forget to watch the new bird, after you identify it," Sharon and Bob
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