Friday, 26 April 2013

Birding on Tobago - Jan 2013. Day 1 and 2

I had read a lot about the bird watching and photographic opportunities of Trinidad and Tobago so in January I dragged my wife off for a week on Tobago.  Visiting both islands would have been nice but with Angie being at best a reluctant birder this was not an option. I also would like to have gone for 10 days but Tobago is not well served with flights and as far as I know only Virgin, BA and Monarch fly there from the UK with each only having one flight a week. Needless to say flying out with one carrier and back with another was prohibitively expensive. 
Tobago is not a large island but getting around it not quick and a car is essential. The south west of the island is the area with the densest population and getting from Crown Point to Scarborough or Plymouth is quite easy (other than in the “rush hour” where every car on the road serves as an unofficial bus and hence cars are constantly stopping to pick up anyone wanting a lift). Try to get further north though and things really slow down as the only 2 roads linking the S to the N twist and turn either along the north or south coast of the island.
Birding wise the main sites in the south that I was aware of were Bon Accord (marsh), Tobago Plantation (golf course and lakes/ponds and just about the only open fresh water on the island), Grafton Caladonian Nature Reserve and the Adventure farm  the latter two being trees/scrub/hilly.
We stayed at the Coco Reef Hotel in the extreme SW of the island. The hotel is superbly convenient for the airport and the rooms, staff, food and bar area were excellent –  important as this was a “family” holiday with birding throw in rather than a birding holiday though it must be said quite a lot of birding was thrown in. The hotel gardens however are small and are not the most bird rich environment you can find;  the hotel does not have a bird feeding station. The hotel beach is small and protected by a manmade breakwater. This ensures it’s calm in the resulting bay with some very good snorkelling but it’s not pretty so we used the Pigeon Point beach on a few occasions.

Coco Reef Hotel.

My general birding (other than specific trips) was confined to going out early morning prior to breakfast (till 9.30-ish).
Areas birded/sites visited:
-          Hotel and local area including Pigeon Point.
-          Grafton Caledonian Bird reserve (near Black Rock and about 15 minutes drive).
-          Bon Accord marsh - about 3 minutes drive away just to the north of the Milford Road though it could be walked easily enough.
-          Tobago Planation (about 10 minutes drive)
-          The Adventure Farm (about 20 minutes drive)
-          Little Tobago – all day trip; it takes 90 minutes to get to Blue Waters Inn from Coco Reef.
-          Rain Forest – all day trip with Peter Cox

As I was keen to get decent photographs of what I saw I often spent quite a long time with a subject rather than trying to rack up as large a tick list as possible (which wouldn’t be possible anyway as I was unfamiliar with the Island, with most of the species on offer, and didn’t know their calls/songs) so compared to several trip reports I have read I rather under-performed however I did manage some pleasing images. Some of the better images can be seen on my Flickr site
 This report will use some of the Flickr images but also some of the less good pictures to help complete the picture of what I saw.
Photography wise Tobago was quite a challenge – most of the birds seemed to spend most of the time in the shade and the shade could be very dark. I expected the rain forest to be very dark but so was even the roadside shade and quite often I had to resort to ISO 1000 just to get shutter speeds of 1/100 to 1/200. The use of a tripod with my non-image stabilised lens was therefore essential.
Hotel and Locale birding:
In the hotel grounds you could not avoid bananquits, palm tanager, blue grey tanager and tropical mockingbird  – put out any type of food on your patio (sugar, bread, fruit) and they will come to it especially the banaquits and mockingbirds though the mockingbirds got very possessive.

Blue grey tanager plus plam tanager in background

Also seen in the hotel grounds were eared and pale vented doves, spectacled thrush, black-faced grassquit, merlin(a chance encounter) and a lone sighting of a female antshrike. The only seabirds seen from the hotel beach were pelicans. All in all the hotel grounds were a disappointment and was only good for the very common species. Once we had hired the car it didn’t matter too much but it did restrict what I saw during the first few days.

Tropical Mockingbirds

The birds mentioned above were seen just about everywhere on the island and won’t be mentioned again.
Day 1. On the first morning pre-breakfast I walked out to Pigeon point. Along the shoreline there were a small flock of sanderling and a number of turnstones and by/on the fishing boats were laughing gulls, royal, Sandwich and Cayenne terns (a yellow billed Sandwich tern that may be split sometime). This was the only place I saw terns during the whole week.  Inland of the beach is mainly down to palm trees  plus  lawns so the area was very quiet bird-wise though that first morning I did find a pair of red crowned woodpeckers and on every  visit there (we used it as an alternative to the hotel beach) tropical kingbirds and spectacled thrushes were seen.

Royal, Sandwich and Cayenne terns plus laughing gull

Pier at Pigeon Point

The rest of day 1 was spent lazing around on the hotel beach.
Day 2 was one of the big birding days – a visit to the rain forest with Peter Cox. I had warned Peter that I wanted to photograph the birds we found and we had a private hire to avoid any problems with customers who wanted to rack up ticks.
Peter plus his driver, Lester, picked us at 6.30 and we drove to Scarborough to pick up Northside Road to Mason Hall from where we drove up the north coast of the island to the rain forest. We stopped at several places along the Northside Road seeing orange winged parrot, yellow bellied elania, green kingfisher, black crowned night heron, green heron,  spotted sandpiper, crested ororpendoloa, giant shiny cowbird,  During the climb up to the rain forest we stopped on numerous occasions to search for birds in the roadside trees in this way Peter found a red legged honey creeper(the only one seen), rufous tailed jacamar, 2 giant black hawks overhead, and we saw a red tailed boa (found by a forest ranger  who held onto it because  he knew we were coming).

Red-legged Honet Creeper

Great Black Hawk

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

In the rain forest itself Peter knew of a  blue-backed manakin lecking site and we spent quite a long time watching them perform their dance. Peter also knew of  a white tailed sabre wing display area where again it was a matter of waiting quietly for them to turn up/return. Also in the rain forest  Angie found our first collared trogon – a female.
Photography in the forest was extremely challenging and the pictures achieved hardly gallery shots but I did manage shots of the main target.

Blue-backed manakin

White-tailed Sabrewing

When we returned to the bus Lester had found a couple of male collared trogon in the roadside trees so the next 30-45 minutes  was spent trying to photograph them.

Collared Trogon

Due to the photography I did missed a few birds that Peter found - northern water thrush along Mason Hall road  (I was trying to get a picture of green kingfisher) and yellow and ochre flycatcher (I was after jacamar pictures). I also failed to get a picture of the   olivaceous tree creeper that appeared 30 feet above our heads as we watched the sabre wings.
 At first Peter would be continuously seeking out new birds but once he saw I really did want to get photographs of the main species he concentrated on finding the best views possible and waited patiently – this was especially true of the trogons where both Peter and Lester were constantly re-finding the birds ( 2 males) after they had moved and scouting out better vantage points.
All in all an excellent day with all the major rain forest birds captured on digit.

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