Trinidad and Tobago: The opening act

Arrival at Piarco International Airport, Trinidad!

We took this trip to Trinidad and Tobago a few years ago and I’m just now writing about it. (Sometimes it just has to marinate in my brain before I’m ready to put it out there into the world.) I recently learned that Asa Wright Nature Centre has permanently closing its doors to the public as a result of the pandemic. The not-for-profit Trust remains in existence and it will continue managing its protected areas as a wildlife sanctuary.

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A uniformed officer walks onto the road in front of our car with his arm outstretched. He motions us to stop. Our driver, Jerry, obeys and rolls down his window. Steve is in the front passenger seat and I’m in the back and I squint into the beam of the officer’s flashlight and give him a smile thinking maybe that’s helpful? I don’t know.

“Asa Wright. Travelers from the US.” Jerry says to the man with the flashlight. The officer nods his head and waves his arm, motioning for Jerry to proceed.

“Easter week. They stop everyone,” Jerry explains with an assuring smile. He puts the car into first gear and we make our way to Asa Wright Nature Centre. Good, I think. Easter week is not a problem.

After the unexpected stop, I relax the best I can into the back seat of the compact car. The day before our trip I injured my back somehow (I blame a gym workout) and the pain has followed me all along our two-airport journey. Jerry stops at a red light and then futzes with the car’s touchscreen panel. It’s not Jerry’s car, but one he uses for transporting visitors, yet it’s all in Japanese and he can’t figure out how to switch it to English. None of us know Japanese. “I feel like I’m in a foreign country!” Jerry says. I feel both a sense of camaraderie and concern at that thought.

The light turns green and Jerry gives up. All he wanted to do was find us a nice radio station for our listening pleasure. He is a thin Trinidadian man and navigates the twists and turns up the mountain toward Asa Wright. He is not a young man, but someone with gray curly hair cut close to his head. He has grandchildren, he tells us, and he knows he should be retired but works as a driver for Asa Wright to help his family. He will end up being our driver for the next five days while we’re in Trinidad.

The sun is beginning to disappear as we drive up the mountain. I try to see what I can before it gets too dark. There are tall palm trees with skinny trunks, trees with white flowers on top and some with big wide leaves that look like oversized paddles. The higher we go, the narrower the road becomes. The side of the mountain and the trees in this dense evergreen seasonal forest block out the light. We are heading into the Arima Valley of Trinidad’s Northern Range and will only be going to approximately 1200 feet in elevation. I smell flowers, reminding me of the plumeria of Hawaii. I see the shapes of bamboo and ferns and coffee trees. Roots and vines hang down like you would expect in a jungle in Trinidad.

It is dark when we arrive at Asa Write and we check in, sign some papers and the woman at the desk hands us our key and instructs us that breakfast is at seven. “But everyone else will probably already be birding from the deck,” she adds. Jerry leads us along in the dark on a meandering path, past other cabins, holding a suitcase in each hand. I take up the rear, walking slow and with a shorter stride to not aggravate my back. Once we get to our cabin Steve reaches for his wallet to pull out some money for a tip and Jerry shakes his head, and says “no.” Jerry leaves and Steve flops on his back on one of the twin beds and I slowly lie down flat on the other bed. We are exhausted from the long day of travel and the mental unraveling one does visiting a new country: New smells, cars driving on the opposite side of the road, and different currency which always requires doing math in my head, reminding me I’m terrible at math. The puzzling car instrumentation and audio panel in Japanese is a bonus international experience for us today. I take a muscle relaxer and I’m already asleep before Steve begins snoring.

We wake up to a new dawn chorus. The tropical chirps and whistles alert us that there is a lot of activity already happening outside. I recognize the Crested Oropendola and it’s gulping call that reminds me of a dripping faucet in an echo-y room. Steve is moving faster than me. He has showered and is already dressed. My back feels a little better, but I’m in the post-muscle-relaxer fog. “Go ahead,” I tell Steve. “I’ll find you. I’m just a little slow this morning.”

Steve leaves for the main lodge and takes the camera and tripod with him so I don’t have to carry them. I shower and throw on long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, grab my binoculars and head over to the main building. Last night’s walk in the monochromatic dark was different than this morning’s technicolor walk. Wild colorful, tropical flowers align the pathway and everything has turned to color like in the movie, Wizard of Oz. I see a Spectacled Thrush on the way.

I arrive at the main lodge and everyone is already there and coffee permeates the air. I look for a good vantage point from the deck and it already feels like I’m a little late.

Crested Oropendola
I actually don’t know the name of this flower.
Nor am I confident about this flower, though it looks like a Hibiscus.
And I wish I knew the name of this lovely yellow flower. (If you know any of these flowers, let me know and I’ll update these captions.)
Spectacled Thrush
The best vantage point at Asa Wright Nature Center

There are no introductions. No one’s particularly interested in each others’ name right now or where you’re from. We’re all there for the birds and we get right down to business. On the ground below and in front of the deck are feeding platforms made of thick pipe and chicken wire as the platform. Watermelon slices lie on top of the chicken wire, attracting colorful songbirds. First the Green Honeycreeper, which always seems more turquoise than green, and it’s such a stunner. There’s a Bananaquit, the gorgeous Purple Honeycreeper, and a Silver-beaked Tanager. All these beautiful, colorful birds parading before us is a little bit like eating dessert first. How can it get more exciting than this? I think. And then realize it always gets more exciting. This is just the opening act.

Green Honeycreeper
Purple Honeycreeper
Silver-beaked Tanager

Hummingbird feeders hang in several locations from the beams of the deck holding the roof and I am looking for my target bird, the Tufted Coquette. A tiny hummingbird with an orange crest that looks like a punk-rock hairdo. I search the orange milkweed and pigeon-pea flowers around the feeders, but don’t find it. The White-necked Jacobin is at the hummingbird feeder and I know this hummingbird from Panama and Costa Rica. Then a Black-throated Mango and a pair of Blue-chinned Sapphires arrive. But no Tufted Coquette.

“It was here earlier,” one of the other birders tells me.

That is never helpful information, I think.

White-necked Jacobin
Black-throated Mango
Blue-chinned Sapphire (male)
Blue-chinned Sapphire (female)

I ask one of the staff members how much nectar they go through in a day.

“We have twelve feeders,” she tells me. “We have to fill them two to three times a day.” And then she points to the chain holding the pendant light in the sitting room, which is open to the deck. “See?” she asks proudly. “Green Hermit. She has come here to nest every year for the past three years.”

Green Hermit (a hummingbird species) nesting on chain.
Long view of the Green Hermit nest on the chain.

We are called to breakfast and sit at a large round table with six others, finally making our introductions. Two of the women are here on their own, but the others I learn are with our group and the usual questions help us all gauge our different levels, which always gets my attention. “Where are you from?” “Have you gone on other birds trips?” “Oh, where? How did you like it?” We meet John and Fabiola, a couple from Southern California. They are new to birding and I feel a kinship with these fellow novices.

I often feel alone as an inexperienced and often slow birder, but this trip is harder for me with this new back problem. I never have back problems and having to deal with this after months of preparing for our trip feels like such a blow. After breakfast we meet as a group in the same room, under the pendant light holding the Green Hermit’s nest on its chain. A staff member teaches us about the Oilbird, an elusive nocturnal bird that lives in a cave on the Asa Wright property. It’s a protected bird and so they only allow people to visit the cave once a week, so the instructions are important. The guide has us stuff our pants into our socks and outside we dab sulfur powder around the ankle area to ward off chiggers. I have my walking sticks and we head down the path. I’m moving slower than usual and I move aside for others in the group to pass me. It’s not just my back that’s bothering me, but now my quads have tightened and my muscles feel frozen. I feel like I’m walking in cement.

“I’m going back,” I tell Steve.

“But we’ve just started. Don’t you want to see the Oilbird?”

“I do, but I am super slow today. It’s not going to work.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said, and I walk back to the room, take another muscle relaxer to sleep off both the pain and disappointment.

After a couple hours, Steve returns to our cabin. “You feeling okay?” he asks. “They are going to be loading the bus in 15 minutes. Are you okay enough to go along?”

“Yes,” I assured him. “Did you see the Oilbird?”

“Oh yes!”

I secretly hope that I’ll get another opportunity to see the Oilbirds, but I know that isn’t really a possibility since they only take groups there once a week. I missed my chance and decide I must be okay with that.

Oilbird (Photo credit: John Schrader)

I’m not sure how any of this is going to go. It’s one thing to just be the slow person in the group in any normal situation, but now I am the slow injured person. I don’t want to spend our entire trip drugged up in the cabin, sleeping all the time. I know this can’t last forever, so I take some anti-inflammatory capsules and we head to the lodge to meet our group.

Just as we begin to board the bus, the leader and host of our tour group tells me that Jerry will be taking us in his car. Earlier when I had to turn back from the hike to see the Oilbird she took notice and made arrangements for Steve and me to ride along with Jerry. It was out of generosity and concern, but also the fact that they didn’t have enough seats on the small bus for our group. I am a little disappointed that we won’t be in the bus with the bird guide who will likely explain a lot about the area and the birds. But I am grateful for the air conditioning and the more comfortable ride. And certainly grateful for Jerry.

It is last-call for bathroom break before we head out. I go back to the deck to see if I can find the Tufted Coquette and there he is, flitting around, feeding on the flowers.

Tufted Coquette