While birdwatching might be getting trendy of late, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been in existence since 1901. Which enhances the hipster appeal, or so I’m told. Personally, I’ve been participating in this count for six years – and I’ve been leading my own group for three of those. Our area is the Aripo Livestock Station, which has been for a number of years a hotspot for birdwatching. It’s been an accessible location to get great views of Red-breasted Meadowlarks, Pinnated Bitterns, Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters and Grassland Yellow Finches – especially for folks who are staying at Asa Wright Nature Centre. A couple years ago, this all changed.
Someone, somewhere within the cobwebbed halls of the state-run livestock station decided that birdwatchers are no longer welcome on the property. As such, we were no longer allowed to just show up, and politely request that we drive around and look at things, make no noise and leave just as we arrived. How intrusive of us birders. So for the CBC (since 2016) we were required to submit an extensive list of names as well as vehicle numbers to management, who would then pass it on to sub-management, who would then pass it on to some administrative person who would then use some advanced technology (printer) to grant security personnel access to said information (notice board).
And guess what, for both 2016 and 2017 CBC’s we were told (after getting there for 6am) that security had no knowledge of our arrival, and we would not be allowed on the compound.
In both cases, the information was posted on the notice board and just was not read by whomever was responsible for the onerous task of reading. Makes sense, seeing that these wordy blog posts are my least popular on social media 🙂
Anyway, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth (no hairs or teeth were pulled), we were allowed on the compound. The security guard showed me the paper that was stuck on the notice board that had each of our names, vehicle numbers as well as the date we were visiting the station – however no mention was made of “birdwatching” – and there was the apparent problem. Oh well, we were just happy to get on with the 6 hour morning count – to add to the Orange-winged Parrots, Black Vultures and single Tropical Kingbird we counted whilst waiting at the entrance.
By this time, the sun was just peeking over, and as predicted, Red-breasted Meadowlarks were everywhere.
Hurry to get on with it and head into the forest as early as possible, I tried to not spend time searching for birds in the grassland area – as these would typically be around all day. Cardinal error on my part, but not my eagle-eyed group – although I missed a gorgeous male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater singing away, I managed to see the picture when we convened later.
No Pinnated Bitterns this time – but a significantly smaller movement caught my eye. Yellow legs screamed the name of this bird. Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in the world, and we counted five of these tiny fluffballs on this count.
Further on up into the foothills of the Northern Range, we recorded a couple Savannah Hawks. Normally I’d be onward with the count, but with such a beauty in such a magical setting with that delicate light – I had to stop and stare (and shoot).
Finally we made it to a copse of trees that was known for some good activity over the years. Before I even opened the door of my pickup we were hearing the loud, rattling calls of a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars. Didn’t take too long to find them.
Among all the calls that I had been familiar with, there was one I wasn’t too sure about. Frantically tracking it, I saw a tiny brown bird acrobatically hopping among thin branches in the mid-story. Funny thing about identifying birds is that sometimes the information you have presented in front of you is useless when you’re looking at a field guide. Sure enough, I could look at all brown birds in my field guide – but their habits and actions give much information away. There are a few birds that will hang upside down – woodpeckers (which were far too big), woodcreepers (similar sized, but they typically stick to thicker branches) – which left a single bird – Streaked Xenops.
Close by, within the forest were a few Golden-headed Manakins. They were feeding, and the males weren’t in any sort of lek – so no dancing unfortunately. Even though there were a few females present.
After I emerged back into the clearing, some folks in the group were keen on photographing a pair of Trinidad Euphonias high in a tree. With a somewhat misleading name, these birds are decidedly uncommon in Trinidad, outnumbered greatly by the very similar Violaceous Euphonia. Keen-eyed observers also spotted a dark phase Short-tailed Hawk while I was tracking the Golden-headed Manakins – another interesting observation as Short-tailed Hawks usually come in the pale phase – further north it’s the reverse.
Our species count wasn’t going overboard like it did in 2016, it was much quieter this time around. Making another check within the forest we recorded both Green and Purple Honeycreepers, as well as a couple White-bearded Manakins.
Finally we moved off further into the hills, but by this time the sun was out in all its glory, baking the ground and coating everywhere with a thick layer of hot air. Aside from the obvious discomfort, this brought a much appreciated gift – the gift of thermals.
Hundreds of Black Vultures were circling as well as few Turkey Vultures within the mix. A small group of us took a walk in the blazing sun, recording the occasional Copper-rumped Hummingbird as it buzzed past. Suddenly, a distinctive call echoed through the valley. Rattling my brain to match it with a species – there was only one conclusion – Black Hawk-Eagle! Now to just find it in the endless sky, among endless vultures. Surprisingly, I managed to single it out.
With the heat of the day, it was definitely the hour for the rapture. I mean hour for the raptor. We had fly-overs of two very similar raptors – first a Zone-tailed Hawk – a first class Turkey Vulture mimic.
No more than a few minutes later, a Common Black Hawk screamed at us. Sorry, sir.
We took one last walk in the hot sun, which yielded relatively decent views of White-chested Emerald as well as a group of Green-rumped Parrotlets.
This area was where we spotted our Ruddy-breasted Seedeater the previous year, but no luck this time around. The Parrotlets were nevertheless clamouring for our attention.
The greatest thing about tropical weather is that it can change in a heartbeat. When we were walking in, there was a pair of Savannah Hawks perched on a dead tree. I opted against making any images of them as the sun was so bright and the light was so harsh. 500m into the trail and we all felt a change in the wind. Before long, we were taking long strides out of there protecting ourselves and our gear from rain.
Alas, it was noon, and time for the end of the morning session. Only new bird on the way out was an expected Solitary Sandpiper. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the resident Grassland Yellow Finches this year. Hopefully next year!
It was then time for a quick lunch, pit stop and then the afternoon session in the Caroni Swamp. Luckily for me, I carried zero responsibility for the evening count. No luck searching for Boat-billed Herons, but we did manage to see a Rufous-browed Peppershrike.
Although I was toting my camera, I didn’t want to get in the way of the count itself, so I made extra effort to not try to get the shot. We made multiple passes by more than a few Little Blue Herons feeding, and it was rather enriching to just observe. When we heard some Straight-billed Woodcreepers calling in the distance though, I figured I’d fire a few shots. From a moving boat. Target is a brown bird far off in the mangrove. Dense mangrove. Fun.
For the most part, I just sat back and took it all in while the rest of the group quietly counted. Scarlet Ibis dotted the green mangrove forest with bursts of colour, and sitting at the bow of the boat allowed me to very casually make a few images as we drifted downriver.
We also had a group of five Spotted Sandpipers that seemed to follow us for almost a half hour, only flying off around a bend as we approached – to fly off again and repeat the process. I love them, plump and pumping their tails.
Coasting into a clearing, while almost everyone was looking into the open water, something caught my eye on the opposite side. At first glance, it looked almost like an oversized pigeon. Fortunately, some others also saw it and the boatman made a circle so that we could all get great views of a majestic adult Peregrine Falcon. We left it there just as we found it – and some time later, further on in the swamp it found us – flying directly over our boat.
Eventually we made it to the official viewing section – a patch of mangrove just in front of the roost of choice for literally thousands of Scarlet Ibis, Snowy Egrets and Tricoloured Herons.
Seemingly endless rivers of these birds flowed in from all directions for the rest of the evening, and I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t volunteer to count. I have a special type of memory that allows me to consistently forget where I started counting. I believe the final tally of Scarlet Ibis was 4,682 – most of these were counted from that single spot as we sat there for about an hour.