Friday, April 21, 2000. Trinidad Day 5 of 8. Trip Day 15 of 38. THE SCARLET IBISES FLY IN TO CARONI SWAMP AT SUNDOWN

It's 8:15 am, and we're on the Discovery Trail at Asa Wright -- the first trail descending from the main house, and Sharon has picked out a new bird not like any we've seen before. The bird is in an enormous tree, halfway up, has a bug or insect, and is whapping it around to kill and knock the wings off. The top is olive, under the existing light, the eye appears red and there is a dark cap on top. It's a RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE*, and is fairly common around, but it's our first. Way to go Sharon.

Further down the trail, we pick up our first look (we've heard the bird many times) at a BUFF-BREASTED WOODCREEPER, which seemed to respond to our Ferruginous Pygmy-owl tape.

Still further down now, I spot a woodpecker -- a female GOLDEN OLIVE WOODPECKER*, perched near the top of a dead trunk about three inches in diameter. It's a female because there is red on top of the head, but no red male mustache. She twitters and the male flies in and lands about 20 yards away. She resumes her activity of digging out their nest hole, which I get on video.

Now we're nearing the White-bearded Manakin lek, and it's their normal time off, but we hear one fellow hopping and popping. There are many bellbirds sounding off too. We take the Bellbird Trail to the right and I get video of a little green snake zipping across the path.

Along the Bellbird Trail now, we get our first good look at the Leafcutter Ants in action. There is a 3-inch highway actually smoothed out through the forest and crossing the trail, made by the ants somehow. There is a line of ants as far as you can make out in both directions from where we stand. The ones marching to the right each is carrying a leaf cutting, held off the ground mostly. Maybe this is how they clear their path. The ones marching against this traffic are leafless.

This is a great story, if you are interested. The ants cut the pieces out of the forest leaves which have a particular material in them. They take them down into their homes, and a group of ants chews them up and mixes them with their dung to produce a mixture that a fungus lives on. The fungus is able to digest the cellulose, something the ants can't do and then the ants feed on the fungus. Mushroom pizza, ant style.

Don't confuse these ants for the army ants who scare up insects which are eaten by at least two large families of birds -- the flycatchers and the antbirds.

I alternate playing the owl tape with whistling the Black-faced Antthrush call. We are hearing this call a lot, and I keep getting a return. It sounds fake to me, and I believe it's another birder, but Sharon says it sounds real to her. After a bit, I have to admit that it's getting closer. Suddenly Sharon spots a small dark bird on the ground, walking slowly but steadily and very confidently through the undergrowth, with the gait of a 3-inch barnyard hen. It is brown with a stubby little dark tail stuck up in the air, and ever so often it stops, sticks its head into the air, and we can see it move its beak while we hear the call. A wonderful visual upgrade to the audio we claimed earlier.

We are signed up for the afternoon trip to the Caroni Swamp to see the famous Scarlet Ibis fly-in, and two vans and a car leave Asa Wright with three guides and fifteen birders or so. On the way, a kilometer or two out of Asa Wright, a very famous guide named Jogi Ramlal identifies a Common Blackhawk, perched in the forest.

We stop at a water treatment facility called Trincity Ponds, and Jogi gets us a YELLOW-CHINNED SPINETAIL* [the 100th life bird of our trip], working on a nest in a barrel on one of the ponds. We also see a few Jacanas, Snowy Egrets, many Cattle Egrets, Common Moorhens, a few Purple Gallinules, and a Gray-breasted Martin, but this bird flies before Sharon and I can get on it. A couple of Black-necked Stilts and a family of six LEAST GREBES* round out the birds here. We tried to get the Least Grebes in Florida, but had to abandon our search to catch the boat to see the Whooping Cranes.

It is with Jogi we learn that our "Sooty" Grassquit at Textel Microwave Scatter Station was actually a Blue-black, because the Blue-black Grassquit is the only one that does the hopping up and down from its perch.

Re-entering Jogi's van and continuing toward Caroni Swamp, Sharon spots, names and asks Jogi to confirm a Yellow-headed Caracara, over a row of trees next to a grassy field. Jogi confirms. Sharonski. Sharanooni. Sho-sharon. The Sharonator. SHARON.

We next come upon a row of cars, parked on both sides of the road. It looks like church. As we get closer, we can see that most of the dressed-up people are East Indian, by origin. A bit further, we hear Jogi tell the birder in the front seat that it's a cremation. Then a little further on, we can see a funeral bier (rectangular structure) totally on fire. A little weird, but that must be the way it's done here.

Jogi stops at a meadow with a dirty canal running through, and gets us a bush full of EARED DOVES*, down the canal on the right side. I asked how he knows, because it is so far away. He says the Gray-fronted is in the forest, not out here, and whereas you do get White-tipped Doves, they are larger than this.

Sharon is scanning the fields, and I am looking at the muddy water, when I see something in the water that triggers my memory. I see a fish or tadpole like critter. But it has four eyes, and that's without any glasses. The upper set is above the water line and the lower set is below. The famous four-eyed fish. I ask Jogi what it is, and yes, that's what it is.

Later, at 3:55 pm, we are in the 12-passenger, open seating, motorboat engine-driven boat, on the way to the Scarlet Ibis fly-in site, and Dr. ffrench (author and authority of Trinidad and Tobago's birds) is also in the boat. Suddenly somebody spots a GREEN KINGFISHER*, perched about ten feet over the water, but I hear ten feet out and just over the water. Sharon and I are the last ones on the boat to get him, with his rusty chest band, indicating a male. We tried unsuccessfully to get this bird in Texas a few years ago.

The driver turns down a side-branch of the swamp, and backs up to a Boa, asleep in the mangroves, with his tail wrapped around a branch very tightly, so he won't fall off. James returns to the main branch, but again pulls off to another side branch. And there, sitting on the end of a broken-off, 3-inch diameter, upwards-tilting tree branch sits a COMMON POTOO* (po-TOO), a nightjar, like the Whip-poor-wills or Chuck's-will-widows of the midwestern US. It's not a very clear shot because of all the greenery, but I shoot some video anyway.

Continuing on, Boat Driver James, standing up in the back of the boat, tells us that there are about 10,000 ibis in the swamp. I told Sharon I read that they spend the day in Venezuela, only about 7 miles away, then return here in the evening. James poo-poos this and says they feed in the swamp, and that the swamp is a "big place."

As we near the viewing area, we begin to see SCARLET IBIS* fly over in ones and twos and threes at first. Then as we get closer, we can begin to see groups of five or more, but still many trios, pairs, and singles.

We "park" in the middle of an open area by tying up to a stick stuck in the mud under the shallow water, to watch the show. And what a show it is. The best view is about 15 birds flying in, dipping lower than the skyline, against the green vegetation background on what looks to be an island. There is a nice, quiet sunset and we turn around and head back.

By 7:23 pm, we are back home, and eating dinner.

Lifers Today: Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Least Grebe, Eared Dove, Green Kingfisher, Common Potoo, Scarlet Ibis.

Most Remarkable Bird: Common Potoo (sits on a tree trunk, stretches its neck out, closes its eyes, matches the bark on the tree perfectly, looks exactly like a broken-off tree snag)

Handsomest Bird: Scarlet Ibis (Scarlet red, lit by late afternoon light, with green forest background).

Bird Worked Hardest For: All birds were easy today.

Totals: Today 7, Trinidad 79+7= 86, Trip 98+7= 105

We're slowly becoming Trinidized,
Sharon & Bob

Oh, I forgot to mention. The newspaper mentioned a neighbor finding a man sitting at his table, face down in his bowl of Cheerios, drowned. They suspect a cereal killer.

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