Thursday, April 20, 2000. Trinidad Day 4 of 8. Trip Day 14 of 38. THE OILBIRDS, plus THE AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH STATION GRASSLANDS

8:52 am and we're taking off on a group guided by Nature Center specialist Jason, a young, tall, dark and lean, good-looking Trini. He's a naturalist, and is taking our group of 17 down to the cave on the Asa Wright property. Because these birds all left, disappearing in 1981 for four years, they take groups down only twice a week now. The birds returned to the cave, as mysteriously as they left, in 1985.

Jason points out naturalist types of things to us, on the way. Here's what I remember: "Blah blah blah tarantula. Blah blah blah cocoa and two types of tobacco, grown on the property. Blah blah blah.

"Blah blah blah tent-making bat possible. Everybody wait here, and I'll creep down and see if it's still under the big leaf. Wait. I smell a snake. Do you smell that strong musky odor (we don't at first). It smells like a big one (Now we smell it, a little like a skunk). A fer-de-lance, one of the four types of poisonous snake on the island, was sighted hear here two weeks ago. Be alert and watch where you're stepping."

Now we're at the cave, which isn't exactly a cave, in that a cave is an entrance hole, then a deep dark pathway into the earth. This is sort of like a short, two-entrance hole, where you can almost see all the way through it, but not quite. It is very tall, though, and the light inside is poor unless the sun emerges from the overcast. Then it shines through a hole in the top and lights up one of the areas where several of the 120 resident birds roost.

Jason takes in only four people at a time, and when those four are in, only one at a time can stand on the special rock (all these rocks are islands in a narrow stream hustling through the cave). Jason shines his flashlight on a couple of birds not twelve feet above us and to the left when you're up to bat.

When it's my turn, the sun happens to be out, so I get video of the sunlit group of OILBIRDS*, and the flashlight-spotted birds above. The birds have recently hatched young, and the population has gone from about 100 to about 120. We can see the little ones too.

Sometimes the birds seem to get upset (though I'm told they do it at random times) and fly around the small space of the cave during the daytime, when they normaly sleep. I can even see one from outside, then a few minutes later, Sharon and I both see three doing the hovering/flying activity, us standing in a place I've found that is outside the cave. This while we're waiting our group-of-four's turn to go in.

They are a pretty large bird, maybe crow-size. They are brown mottled color, like a whip-poor-will, and have a face that looks sort of like an owl. They have a terrifying cry that would definitely set your hair on end if you were in the forest here at night with your flashlight, you didn't know there was such a bird, and you heard their cries.

Jason has to pick up another group back at the main house, so he excuses himself, and leaves us all to find our way back on the well-marked path. Well-marked in this case, in case you have any errant thoughts that we may get lost, means that there are two types of areas in the nature center: 1) a six-foot wide path that has been totally cleared with machetes, and is kept open by continual upkeep, and 2) thick plants. So it's not hard to tell the difference. There are a half-dozen paths or so, and all intersections are marked with "street" signs. So with our free trail map, we know right where we are all the time.

The Oilbirds get their name from the fact that the babies are fed a carbohydrate diet by the parents constantly for four weeks or so, such that the babies get to be larger than the parents. The local monks long ago used to capture these young ones, render them down to get their fat, and use that to burn their oil.

The trail to walk the last leg to the cave is called the Guacharo trail, which means something like "he who moans and wails," referring to their cry.

While in the area, we hear BUFF-THROATED WOODCREEPER*, but it never comes close enough for anybody to see it. It makes a series of descending whistle notes, easy to recognize. This bird's name used to be Buff-throated Woodcreeper, and is still listed as such in the field guide, but Jason has told us that scientists have determined that it is a different bird from the Venezuela one, so they gave it species status, and a new name.

We walk back up, taking several breaks to look unsuccessfully for the Little Hermit (hummer) and the Rufous-breasted Hermit. But while we are looking for these, Sharon sees a non-descript dark bird through the undergrowth, making a kind of rustling noise. She gets a good position, then spots it. "I've got him. He's sticking his beak under leaves and then tossing them away."

"There's a bird called a leaftosser!" I yell, and begin looking it up. "Is the throat any special color, maybe gray?" I ask. "Yes, I think I see gray." I put down my book and get a good look at our GRAY-THROATED LEAFTOSSER*. We think it very appropriate when the normal activity of the bird exactly matches its name. How perfect. It's a chocolate brown bird, maybe rusty brown, with a dark tail and lighter throat.

A little later, it's 12:04 noon, and we're taking off, having requested a picnic lunch from the center. We're headed for the Agricultural Research Station. We stop on the way at a stand with an advertisement poster for cokes in plastic bottles, with twist off caps. "No, we don't have any of those," the friendly saleslady says. She takes one out of the cooler, and shows me a glass bottle with a metal non-twistoff cap, just like the last time we did this.

"I have to get a bottle opener. Where can I buy one, in town?" I ask. "Any store atall," she says, "only not the ones that say 'closed' on the outside," and she beams me a big smile after I chuckle at that.

Further on down the road, we enter, then exit the Roosevelt Churchill Highway, and as we turn left off the road, there is a white pickup parked right in our lane, headed in the same direction we are. It's full of white plastic bags of something, and I can see the man's elbow sticking out the window, as he rests his arm there. I pass him on the right, and Sharon turns her head and says to me, "He's sleeping." Wonderful.

We hit the Agricultural Research Station, a kind of grassy farmland with some water on it, and a little forest too. We stop just after the entrance and enjoy our lunch, first picking up a WATTLED JACANA* near a little wet area adjacent to a pond. A little bird pops up and onto the wire fence, and it's a female WHITE-HEADED MARSH TYRANT*, the male of which is a striking bird that's all black except for a white head. We get him about five minutes later. It's really a type of flycatcher.

Sharon then spots an immature SAVANNAH HAWK*, with its too-long-seeming legs. At 2:06 pm, we get our first SOUTHERN LAPWING*. They are around the gravel roads and grassy fields like the Killdeer are in the farms around my hometown of Versailles, Missouri. And when they try to guide you away from what is probably their nest, they drop one wing, and we figure that's how they got their name.

We hear some buzzing noises from a tall grass field, and Sharon studies it a while, then picks up an up-and-down-quickly black bird with red on its front. I watch a while, but she spots another one first, up on a stick in the field, but a long way off. I get out the scope, and we confirm our RED-BREASTED BLACKBIRD*. The red is beautiful in the sun, but if he's sideways or with his back to you, he looks just like yer average black bird.

We move on to a little pond, and see some swallows. Some have a white rump patch, and they match the WHITE-WINGED SWALLOWS* of our guide book. But there is another flycatcher with a normal-length tail, a black and white bird. He acts like a flycatcher over the pond, like the swallows, and we can't quite figure him out.

We are seeing a mixture of Black and Turkey Vultures circling far overhead, and we scare up an AMERICAN BITTERN from a tree beside a water hole. We also get a Tropical Pewee, with his crest up, then several SHINY COWBIRDS*.

"Did you lock the gate?" Sharon asks me. We had to open a gate to drive the car through, and our guide book reminds us to always leave gates the way you find them. "Uh-oh, I'm sure I left it open. We have to go back now," and I turn around. On the drive back, I say to Sharon, "You know, it seems like every time something like this happens, we get a new bird." Not three seconds after that, I see another one of our black and white flycatchers, but with a long streamer off one of the sides of his tail, and I suddenly know what our early black-and-white flycatcher was. "It's a Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, with even longer tail than the Scissor-tailed," I tell Sharon. "So that's the reason we came back, to nail this bird down. All of these black and white flycatchers are Fork-tails. They have just worn off their long tail streamers, except that this bird has one still not worn off.

We continue the drive around the fields, and we get a pair of wonderful grayish birds called GRAY SALTATORS*. Almost immediately, we pick up a YELLOW-HOODED BLACKBIRD* flying over. Sharon picks up a female BARRED ANTSHRIKE* on her radar, and I get it too. We wait just a little, and up pops the male, an all black and white bird, with his entire body black with white bars. But like a zebra, is it black on white, or white on black?

Now we are at the milking barn (where they milk water buffalo), and we see a large bird fly away from the far end of the lot. It is light chocolate brown with brownish white and white wing patches or windows. After we got home, we ID'd this bird as a YELLOW-HEADED CARACARA*. Then while we're trying to figure out the bird, we get another black-and-white bird, a wonderful PIED WATER-TYRANT*. And still another as we cruise on -- STRIPED CUCKOO*. We might have paid a little more attention to this bird's call at the time.

We come around a corner, and there are water buffalo standing the only road going between the fields on either side. One looks particularly protective, and moves out to challenge us. I'm a-scared. As we are waiting to see what he'll do, I pick up a white bird out to our right, near some water. It's a Cocoi Heron, known nowadays as a WHITE-NECKED HERON*, and is a little like a Great Blue Heron.

We finish up and head back out, but we have one more bird to nail down. We drive up and down the entry road, and finally get a couple of GREEN-RUMPED PARROTLETS*. Very cute and always together. When they fly, we can see the blue wing coverts (underneath) of the male.

Lifers Today: Buff-throated Treecreeper, Oilbird, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Wattled Jacana, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Savannah Hawk, Southern Lapwing, Red-breasted Blackbird, White-winged Swallow, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Grayish Saltator, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Shiny Cowbird, Barred Antshrike, Yellow-headed Caracara, Pied Water-Tyrant, Striped Cuckoo, Cocoi Heron, Green-rumped Parrotlet.

Handsomest Birds: 1. White-headed Marsh-Tyrant (totally black bird, turned upside down, and his head dipped in vanilla ice cream), 2.Yellow-hooded Blackbird, built exactly like his name, 3. Red-breasted Blackbird, an all-black bird except for a very bright red front.

Rarest Bird: Cocoi Heron (also called White-necked Heron, similar to Great Blue)

Most Remarkable Bird: Gray-throated Leaftosser (demo-ing his skill).

Lifer Totals: Today 19, Trinidad 60+19=79, Trip 79+19=98

Our trip list is approaching 100. I am hoping for us to break 200 for the entire trip.

Hope things are going well at your place,
Sharon and Bob.

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