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Bioblitz 2015: Charlotteville

The most recent installment of the frantic recording of species took place in idyllic Tobago, specifically on the north-eastern end, in the picturesque village of Charlotteville. Which is now being ruined by the construction of a mall, but that’s a whole other story. I didn’t think that I would be able to anticipate a Bioblitz more than the Nariva Swamp edition the previous year, but Tobago? Hell yeah, we all know how much I love Tobago. I didn’t care if I saw nothing at all.

I flew in to Tobago on the Friday evening, and after a fortuitous meeting with an old friend, I headed off to spend the night in the hills before the following day’s journey to the edge of paradise. Naturally, I couldn’t help myself when a lovely longhorn beetle flew into my room. I carried it outside, ensured it was comfortable on a branch, and fired off some shots. I love the compound eyes of insects!

longhorn-beetle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of eyes, no matter the age of the ubiquitous Cane Toad (or Crapaud), their eyes captivate me every time. Due to their tameness (or boldness, you decide), I was able to set up some creative lighting to cast further character on this often maligned creature. Look closely past its warty exterior and enjoy that beautiful copper in those big eyes :)

cane-toad

 

 

 

 

 

The following day, I somehow ended up missing the 11am meeting, as well as the 12 noon commencement of the bioblitz itself. My apologies go out to the folks who were waiting on me! Eventually I got there, and we assembled a small group and immediately started the count. Tobago specialties were on the cards, flocks of noisy Rufous-vented Chachalacas (Cocrico) were most present. Streaked Flycatchers and Spectacled and Cocoa Thrushes were observed around a small pool of water. Perhaps the most interesting observation of the day was a Scaly-naped Pigeon perched high in the canopy. These Caribbean endemics recently colonized Little Tobago as well as a few other offshore islands, and were being observed on mainland Tobago for the first time.

Night came swiftly, and after a “hole-in-the-soul” potato rot, we decided to take a drive to the top of Flagstaff hill, and look for nightjars. And we were not disappointed. Almost around every corner we saw the shining eyes and white flashes of adult White-tailed Nightjars. Nightjars have a distinctive flight that you really have to see in person to understand properly. I’ve tried describing it in words and each time scrapped the idea. There was one bird in particular that nearly drove us crazy. It was smaller than the others, and had no white at all on it. Moreover, when it flew, its flight was direct and purposeful, quite unlike the loopy flight we were accustomed to. Up and down Flagstaff we pursued this bird, and then eventually realized that we weren’t the only ones chasing it.

While seated on the roadway observing this bird, another nightjar flew in. Bit by bit, it hopped closer to the smaller nightjar. Anticipating a dramatic standoff, we all got into position. Unfortunately, headlights in the distance materialized into an oncoming vehicle, and both birds bolted, never to be seen again. But not before I got this shot of the small, brown nightjar (turned out this was likely just a juvenile White-tailed Nightjar) seemingly under the demonic gaze of the adult male White-tailed Nightjar.

white-tailed-nightjar-2

 

 

 

 

 

The previous Bioblitz, I had spent the night comfortably asleep in my jeep. So I figured that it’d be easy going to take some shuteye in my rented Nissan Tiida. But this car didn’t have the bucket seats of my jeep, that cradled me throughout the night. I turned and contorted, trying in vain to drift off into any sort of sleep. Consequently, long before first light, I was wide awake. Knowing that the night before I had informed the coordinator of the bird group that I’ll be at the top of Flagstaff hill at dawn, I decided to head directly to the top. On the way, I saw more White-tailed Nightjars on the road, getting their last meals before the sun popped into the clear Caribbean sky.

Well, the sun never came. As it got marginally brighter, I realized that it was long past the scheduled time for sunrise. And no-one else was there. The combination of these two facts made me wonder if I was still asleep. And then something happened that convinced me that I probably was still asleep, and whittling away somewhere in dreamland.

I was observing Bananaquits flit about in a tree. Wasn’t taking many pictures, as, well, it was firstly still dark; secondly they were all Bananaquits. Bananaquits are one of the species I call “birds of false hope”, because that’s what they give me 90% of the time. This time was different. I noticed a similarly sized bird moving about, but it was doing so more rapidly than all the other Bananaquits. It also was differently coloured. Upon closer inspection, I realized that this bird actually had shades of blue on it. Holy #^*%!

I tried desperately to get a good view, let alone a good photograph. Before long, it was gone. Never saw it again. I reviewed my photos, I studied my field guide. Its movements were warbler-esque, but its plumage didn’t match anything in the field guide I had on me at the time. But there were two candidates for blue plumaged warblers: Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Cerulean Warbler. Either would be a new bird for me. I mentioned to the coordinator that I probably saw a Cerulean Warbler at the top of Mount Flagstaff and he clutched his chest.

The first thing I did when I got home was dive into the process of identifying this bird. Confirmed. It was an immature male Cerulean Warbler. This species has only been found on Trinidad a couple of times, and this was the first record for Tobago. Populations of Cerulean Warblers are decreasing drastically due to habitat fragmentation on its breeding and wintering grounds. As a result, this species is listed as Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List. It’s likely that this species will not be with us by 2050. It is with this information I present this image to you, shot in the darkness at 1/20th of a second - A fleeting glimpse of a disappearing species: 

cerulean-warbler-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a good thing that I had managed to secure those images, as I was birding solo at the time, who would’ve believed me if I just said hey guys, I recorded a bird that has never been seen here before, and nope, you can’t go look for it now because it’s gone.

I was scheduled for a seabird survey that morning, but the weather was ominous. From our high vantage point, we could see incoming swells rolling in the distance. No way we were going out in that.

goat-island

 

 

 

 

 

 

By mid-morning, we were off to picturesque Pirate’s Bay to see what presented itself. On the trail, we saw numerous Black-faced Grassquits as well as this Copper-rumped Hummingbird.

copper-rumped-hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

On the beach itself, a lone Osprey looked out, a migratory Northern Waterthrush crept along branches at the edge of the beach. On the beach itself was another migrant, a Spotted Sandpiper.

spotted-sandpiper

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually I gave in to the inevitable bath in the ocean, though. Revitalized, we headed back out. Nothing new, until we got back out to Charlotteville beach, where I noticed another shorebird. A juvenile White-Rumped Sandpiper, a complete rarity for Tobago! But it was just past the 12 noon deadline for species, so guess what, it didn’t count. Hahaha.

white-rumped-sandpiper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at basecamp, we submitted our tally. I poked around, and eventually was asked to release this Charlotteville Robber Frog. This endemic amphibian was the perfect end to another fun filled bioblitz.

charlotteville-frog

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, the Charlotteville Bioblitz of 2015 had the largest species count, a whopping 1044 species! See more about this here.