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The Best Birding of my Life, Hands Down

For any of you who know me personally, if I’m describing something as the best birding of my life, either I mean the exact opposite or it is exactly that. Knowing full well that if it is indeed the latter, and it actually was the absolute best birding of my entire life, I definitely did not have my camera with me. True to form, that is exactly what went on here. The bird images in this post were all made two days prior – which in hindsight should have clued me in, but I paid no heed – probably for good reason too as had I walked with my gear I would’ve missed out on a truly magical experience.

So I’ll rewind a bit to a couple days before this ordeal unfolded. We – myself, my wife and our two clients-turned-friends -  were on a boat captained by our good friend Zolani and his first mate Keldon. More on this exciting boating adventure in a subsequent blog article by the way. We pulled into Englishman’s Bay on Tobago’s picturesque Caribbean side to the tune of roosting Brown Pelicans, Bridled Terns and Laughing Gulls. Closer to the shore, more Laughing Gulls, Roseate Terns and Brown Noddies were hunting schools of baitfish that had congregated in the shallows. Store that in your memory.

brown noddies and laughing gull

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two days later, after much excited birding in the rainforest in the morning, we were all in need of a little chill-session. Enraptured by much more than perfect water at Englishman’s Bay on our first visit, our guests decided that they’d want to revisit the beach, and take a little dip in the warm Caribbean Sea. Also feeling the relax-vibe, I went without my gear.

Well, the birds were still hunting. At the shoreline. They were everywhere.

I was livid. Why on earth did I decide to leave my camera behind? Should I not always be prepared? Turns out I was a worse scout than I expected.

I angrily threw off my t-shirt and stomped down the beach into the water. But it’s hard to be mad at yourself for long when you’re in Tobago. No sooner had I submerged myself in the emerald water I realized the true purpose of me not toting my rig.

Fish surrounded me as I pushed through the water. The terns and noddies soon followed.

Before long, Roseate Terns were fishing no more than ten feet away. These delicate birds, some of which were in gorgeous breeding plumage, would fly like angels over the water’s surface with a sharp eye out for any opportunity. When a chance presented itself, they’d hover for a split second and then plummet into the water – almost always emerging with a fish. The image below shows a juvenile Roseate Tern with one of its parents, calling out to its other parent just out of frame, fresh from the hunt with a meal for the young bird.

roseate terns-2

 

 

 

 

 

Upon surfacing, some of these birds would fly directly to me, only to veer off at the last moment. A few passed so close that I could’ve seen the expression on the face of the hapless fish held firmly between serrated mandibles.

roseate terns

 

 

 

 

 

Then Brown Noddies showed up, their large size leading to a high degree of boldness. Never before had I even dreamed of being close to one of these amazing pelagic terns. I remember seeing them for the first time, thinking that they were all black – then realizing that they were in fact brown. I remember photographing them well for the first time and seeing their greyish-white cap when I zoomed into the image on my computer. But here I was, with Brown Noddies swirling all around me, some so close that I could hear their feathers rub against each other as they flapped their wings!

I laid as low as I possibly could in the water (croc-mode engaged) and enjoyed the hell out of that experience, all whilst the sun was dropping from the sky as it does in the tropics. Soft, golden light was cast upon the pure white terns and chocolate coloured noddies, making them pop against the deep greens of the forested hills and darkening blue ocean. Ever so often, a bird would make a splash just behind me, and I’d spin around to see it emerge with a tiny fish. Sometimes a larger, predatory (and unseen) fish would chase the baitfish into a frenzy, leading to them leaping out of the water suddenly.

My feet rose to the surface as I floated on my back, enjoying the new treasure of a beautiful sunset. My eyes drifted from the ocean to the rocks, up to the trees and finally directly overhead to the fathomless sky, where a seemingly endless stream of Magnificent Frigatebirds were drifting north-east, heading toward their roost at Saint Giles. Some of these birds may have spent the day in Trinidad, and were intent on getting home just as it was getting dark. I use the word “intent” loosely there, as they were basically drifting along, riding the winds as effortlessly as only frigatebirds can do.

I marveled at their size, and thought ‘man, those frigates really look like pterodactlys’

No sooner had I thought that, seven Brown Pelicans hove into view, scraping the top of the trees and gliding over the bay that must’ve looked damn good from their end. The sun had already dipped below the treeline and these massive birds absolutely dwarfed the others I had grown accustomed to. It literally took my breath away.

image1

 

 

 

 

 

The featured image above is courtesy my wife, Jo, who saw the whole thing unfold from the shore. I am one of the dots in the water.

My eyes followed the monstrous pelicans in their “V” formation as they slid across the sky, and it occurred to me that this scene could easily be set millions of years ago. It need not have been 2018. And that in the year 3018, scenes like this should still be playing out just like they did for eons. Do you think that will happen? Sure, modern comforts are luxurious, after all I’m typing this on a computer, this will be posted on a network made possible by this same progress, but must it all come at such a cost? Must we really alter our environment that much? Is it not possible to coexist?

It’s almost nauseating to note that after millennia, the fate of Mother Nature herself is finally, terrifyingly, uncertain.