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Getting High

Trinidad is home to the extreme northernmost outcrop of the mighty Andes mountain chain, after the dragon flicks its tail in Colombia and Venezuela, one can see the mountains leave the latter, dip into the ocean and re-emerge as the scattered islands of the Bocas which lead up to the northwest end of the Northern Range – which in turn extends across the island. If you have problems visualizing this, take a boat “down the islands” and see for yourself – it’s guaranteed to amaze and put things into perspective a bit.

From a birding perspective, these hills on Trinidad are a complete treasure trove of various magical lotteries – you never know which one you’re going to play, and you never know what you’re going to get. Sure, one can make attempts to plan, using statistics of previous sightings, plants on their fruiting schedule etc., but when you exceed a certain altitude the rules get a little bent.

The little bit of birding I managed to get done in the recent weeks have all been in some of the highest forests – a place of guaranteed magic in a country seemingly begging for some of that. It was sad that even in this heaven, the fingers of mankind have already begun to make their unsightly mark – I will not discuss that here, but if anyone wishes to help, kindly send me an email.

Bright, clear skies are what everyone hopes for when they’re heading out. If you check the weather forecast and then realize it’s different in the mountains, don’t unnecessarily berate your friendly meteorologist. The highest ridges and peaks have a penchant for making their own weather. Further enhancing the lottery effect. Whether you get golden sunshine or no sunshine at all (yes this is possible) is literally up to how the wind blows.

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So if the weather is clear, visibility is good and the sun is strong, expect to see birds of prey quite easily as they ride currents of heated air effortlessly. Within a few short minutes on one such morning, we saw a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites and a few Plumbeous Kites. Although they are both reasonably large birds, they prey mostly on insects – beetles, cicadas and the like.

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If you look closely, this Plumbeous Kite was dismembering a large grasshopper.

The clouds that can roll in from any direction can give the entire scene an ethereal glow, they choose to hide or reveal what they desire, and no optical aid yet manufactured is powerful enough to part fog. And believe me, it can get thick. I’m familiar with Scaled Pigeons – once they sense the human presence they’re usually gone in a flash. Presumably learned behaviour from hunting pressure. Last Sunday, I got closer than I had ever been before, probably because the bird itself didn’t notice I was there. Do note that this image was made at 7:25am.

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When the mountain decides to reveal her secrets though, you better be prepared to take advantage. Early one morning, a friend of mine caught a glimpse of a large bird flying into a nearby tree. Obscured by thick fog, we scoured the tree as much as we could with cameras, binoculars and our naked eyes (sometimes this actually is more effective) but all came up empty. After about ten minutes, the fog slowly cleared, and what was perched right there all the time – a Trinidad Piping Guan! If you’ve never seen one before, it’s as large as a turkey. Our view lasted all of 5-10 seconds however, another cloud soon embraced the scene.

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It’s all about looking further. Whether the barrier is a cloud or a tree. It’s guaranteed that there will always be something to reward eyes that seek.

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Worry not, birds make themselves visible also. The extravagant looking Collared Trogon hunts the highest forests of both Trinidad and Tobago for moths but will also snack on berries. This male landed above me for a brief moment before it fluttered back into the forest.

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Channel-billed Toucans usually put on a show, especially after the rain. These icons of the neotropics are always high on the list of visiting (and resident) birders. We enjoyed them on each visit, whether it was watching them call into the early morning light, preen after a shower of rain or frantically follow them as they flew from tree to tree, squeezing the trigger like our lives depended on it. Nailing a shot of a toucan in full flight wasn’t on my to-do list that morning, but I’m not complaining.

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Even the ubiquitous Blue-black Grassquit looks regal in the unique conditions two thousand feet above sea level.

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Another interesting aspect of birding here is that all the usual suspects are supplemented by high-elevation specialists. In addition to good ol’ Johnny-jump-up above, Trinidad’s “special” grassquit also plays trapeze with grass stalks as it searches out seeds. I’ve seen Sooty Grassquits only a couple times in almost a decade of birding in T&T, so seeing a small family group was most appreciated.

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On the topic of family groups, Swallow Tanagers migrate here to breed in embankments in high elevation forest. Males are bright blue, females are green. The intermediate individual in this image is likely their offspring, a young male. They all will fly south to mainland South America in a couple weeks.

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A resident tanager that’s confined to the highest slopes of the Northern Range is (in my humble opinion) the most beautiful of all our tanager species ever recorded here. There’s only one more tanager I am yet to see, but that will require a journey even higher. Maybe one day soon. For now, here’s the much sought after Speckled Tanager.

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