Entries Tagged 'Trip Reports' ↓

One year in, one year to go

While I have been experimenting with camera traps in south Trinidad for several years now, my methods were relatively haphazard – the strategy was more or less just to drive about and pick some patch of forest that looked interesting.

The positive results of 2012’s trap sessions in the Victoria Mayaro Reserve encouraged me to pursue a more rigorous ‘survey’ and so, in the closed season of 2013, my dad and I attempted a structured camera trapping session in Cat’s Hill with one objective in mind – to get a feel for the status of the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) in the area.

Survey area in Cat's Hill.

Survey area in Cat’s Hill.

The lappe (Cuniculus paca)

The lappe (Cuniculus paca)

However, after the 2013 sessions were completed, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources suddenly announced the imposition of a two year moratorium on hunting beginning with the 2013/14 season.

As galling as this was to the hunting fraternity, this provided a unique opportunity as we could look at the camera captures both before and during the moratorium and possibly be able to see if there was any change in wildlife numbers – not just of ocelot, but of all animals.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)

So it was back to Cat’s Hill in 2014 and, after several months, this session is now complete. In brief, for both 2013 and 2014, cameras were placed at set intervals along the road, approximately 50 feet into the forest. The cameras were then left for a three week period. A total of six sites were surveyed in this manner and the results have been remarkable.

Site #2 in 2013. Detection rate=14%

Site #2 in 2013. Agouti detection rate = 14%

Site #2 in 2014. Agouti detection rate=43%

Site#2 in 2014. Agouti detection rate = 43%

As a way of comparing the two years I looked at the percentage of days that animals were recorded, so that if an animal turned up on 7 of the 21 days it would have a 33% detection rate. Between 2013 and 2014 the detection rates for agouti certainly increased. In site #2, for example, the detection rate for agouti increased from 14% in 2013 to 43% in 2014 (I called it “Agouti per day” in the slides but “detection rate” is a more appropriate term).

And yes, ocelots were found. It is encouraging to see them not only here but in the trail camera surveys conducted by others around the country.

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) in 2013.

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) in 2013.

Another ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) from 2013.

Another ocelot from 2013.

An ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) in 2014.

An ocelot in 2014.

These observations, and observations by other camera trappers, support the general consensus that ocelots are primarily nocturnal animals, only occasionally becoming active during the day. The timing of the photos, by extension, support another view – that is because agouti are diurnal and ocelot are mainly nocturnal, the ocelot cannot be a major predator of agouti. Given the numerous black-eared opossum photographs that the camera recorded at night, I suspect that manicou are a major prey item for these cats (it seems that manicou spend a lot of time on the forest floor foraging).

The manicou (Didelphis marsupialis)

The manicou (Didelphis marsupialis).

The red-rumped agouti (Dasyprocta leporina) is the most widely hunted game mammal in T&T.

The red-rumped agouti (Dasyprocta leporina) is the most widely hunted game mammal in T&T.

The other key observations are not unexpected. The agouti is the most widely hunted game species in Trinidad and Tobago so it only makes sense that, once the season was closed, the population would rebound (remember that agouti are likely to have multiple litters per year). In a 21 day period, the number of days in which agouti were recorded increased at all survey sites.

It is also notable that, for the first time in Cat’s Hill, I saw a pair of agouti feeding comfortably out in the open this year. This behavior is seen in other areas of the country areas where agouti are not persecuted, so the observed behavior might be a response to the lack of hunting during the last 12 months. It would be interesting to hear what the hunters in the area make of the agouti population when the season reopens.

One of two agouti foraging in the open along a roadway.

One of two agouti foraging in the open along a roadway.

New in 2014 for me was the crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus) which I had been hoping to see for quite some time.

The crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus)

The crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus).

So the fact that wildlife has responded positively to the moratorium is not what needs to be questioned (nor should it be a surprise). Rather, we need to know what is the carrying capacity of our forests and what the sustainable rate of extraction is. How much can we hunt and still maintain a viable population?

With these questions in mind, I was somewhat pleased to find out that the long awaited wildlife survey has started. I say ‘somewhat’ because the methodology has not yet been disclosed to the public, so that I am not certain what is being proposed.

Notice for the EMA's national wildlife survey.

Notice for the EMA’s national wildlife survey.

The surveys are being conducted by the EMA in conjunction with the Forestry Division and the appropriate hunting associations for the area. This first survey will run from 28th July to 26th September.

The authorities might be waiting for the completion of the survey to issue a full report but this will rule out any chance of comment by stakeholders. The present survey (to be conducted every year for the next three years) seems to be based on straight line transects during the day which means it is limited to certain species – i.e. this survey would be largely limited to agouti (which I suppose is a good first step as this is the most popular game species).

Nonetheless, I sincerely hope the scope of the survey is expanded soon. While I don’t believe there is a threat to common species like the agouti, I do have concerns about the populations of quenk/wild hog (Tayassu tajacu) as in the three years of trapping in Cat’s Hill, I have failed to photograph a single one.

In addition to the wildlife survey, the government has also drafted the Forestry, Protected Areas and Wildlife Conservation Bill with a view to replacing the ancient Conservation of Wildlife Act (and other Acts) with more appropriate legislation. The draft policy was made available for public comment and is now in the process of being finalized.

In line with these developments, there are some serious questions to be answered. Given that hunting has taken place for many years and we still have our wild game animals it would seem that the rate of extraction was not excessive 20 year ago. But does the same still apply today? What has been the impact of the wild meat fetes at Carnival and Christmas? Can our forest meet this supply? How much of the meat at these events originate from Trinidad and how much comes from other countries? Or has hunting pressure actually fallen? Is hunting as popular as it used to be? The government is heading in the direction of wildlife farming but can we be sure that the system will be sufficiently supervised so that wild caught meat is not ‘laundered’ in the wildlife farming system?

Unfortunately I have no answers for these questions. Perhaps by the time the surveys are concluded and the new forest policy is implemented the situation will be clearer. Perhaps.

More pictures from the 2013 and 2014 surveys can be found in my Image Gallery
Videos from the survey can be found here.

The Moth Trap

Unfortunately I have not been able to spend as much time on this website as I would have liked. Looking back I am amazed that there was a time that I updated it every month! But being busy doesn’t mean that you stop being a naturalist. It just means that you have to find creative ways to fit it into your schedule. And if the available free time during the day is taken up by birds and butterflies, then how about the night? And so, I find myself pursuing moths these days.

Not that I took an interest in moths because I had no other option. Rather it was the logical thing to do. Indeed, if you have an interest in butterflies then it is only natural you should also possess an interest in moths. They are essentially the same after all.

The Lepidoptera. The red circle contains the butterflies. The rest are moths. (Diagram -  University of Minnesota)

The Lepidoptera. The red circle contains the butterflies. The rest are moths. (Diagram – University of Minnesota)

Butterflies and moths all belong to the family Lepidoptera. Many sources will list what are supposed to be key differences between moths and butterflies but they are not meant to be hard and fast rules as it is not really that clear cut.

For one, moths are not limited to the night while butterflies are limited to the day. There are several butterflies which are only active at dusk and there are even more moths species which are active during the day. Perhaps the most commonly seen diurnal moth is Urania leilus which is commonly mistaken for a butterfly due to its size, bright colours and shape.

Urania leilus is often mistaken for a butterfly.

Urania leilus is often mistaken for a butterfly.

Another supposed guide is that butterflies rest with wings closed while moths rest with wings open and again, there are several examples which illustrate this to be flawed. One guide that is useful, however, is the presence of a clubbed tip on the antennae. Butterflies tend to have clubbed antennae while moths do not. But otherwise, the distinction between a moth and a butterfly is really just for convenience.

Although moths have the same basic body layout (head, thorax, abdomen etc), they can be quite radical in their appearance.

They range from the beautiful…

A striking member of the Sematura family of moths

Sematura sp.

To the bizarre…

Perola subpunctata

Perola subpunctata

And some a combination of both…

Tolype primitiva

Tolype primitiva

But what really amazes me is the variety within a family – one basic body design customized with different paint jobs, some subtle and others not so subtle. Take my favourite family – the delicate Pyralidae.

A few members of the Pyralidae family found in Trinidad

A few members of the Pyralidae family found in Trinidad

The exact number of moth species in Trinidad & Tobago is not known. According to On the Number of Moths (Lepidoptera) that Occur in Trinidad and Tobago by Dr. Matthew Cock, there may be as many as 3,500 different species of moths in Trinidad. For comparison, there are 474 birds and 765 butterflies. One could probably spend a lifetime trying to work out a full list of species for the island. As for myself, I’m still very much lost in this field, totally dependent on others to identify what I photograph.

I started as anybody who is interested should – at home. If home happens to be in or near to a forest then you will find more than a few being attracted to the lights in your house. If you live in the city, it may be difficult to find moths but that all depends on how much vegetation is nearby. Several years ago I visited the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port-of-Spain to see some performance or the other. However the real show was taking place outside, as dozens of large sphinx moths of various types were littered about the ground. These moths, powerful flyers that had probably originated from the trees around the Queen’s Park Savannah or the Botanic Gardens, had been drawn in by the academy’s powerful external lighting.

Unsatisfied by the rate at which I was finding new moths that were attracted to the house lights, I eventually started operating a light trap near some trees behind my house earlier this year. Results were immediate and I can still count on a couple of new moths every week.

And it is that which really excites me about moths. If I could record about 200 species of moths just from the pathetic clump of trees in the middle of a field of grass behind my house, imagine what would be possible in the heart of a real forest!

The diversity of moths in a given area is directly related to the diversity of vegetation. The caterpillars of different species of moth feed (sometimes exclusively) on different plant species, so that a diverse range of plants mean a diverse range of caterpillars and, in time, a diverse range of adult moths.

As such, the range of moths at my home is not that fantastic.

Light trap at home.

Well, it’s a start. Makeshift light trap at home.

Not exactly the full tropical rainforest experience, like in this internet photo taken in Borneo…

Moth trapping in Borneo. (Photo - Natural History Museum)

Heaven? Moth trapping in Borneo. (Photo – Natural History Museum)

So now my focus is shifting away from home and more to the real forests. The fence line at the Morne Bleu Tracking Station is a good place for moths once I can get there early enough in the morning (i.e. before the birds devour them). Other than that, I really have to overnight somewhere to get a chance with the light trap. Thanks to the Trinidad & Tobago Field Naturalist Club I have been able to do light trapping in some interesting areas in recent times, such as the Bocas Islands and Grande Riviere.

Now that's much better. My light trap in Grande Riviere.

Now that’s much better. Light trap in Grande Riviere.

And of course, moths are not the only things drawn to the light trap at night. Beetles, mantises and wasps all put in an appearance. At home, I even have a friendly treefrog which sits politely at the top of my trap and awaits a free meal.

A beautiful antlion

A beautiful antlion

Photo-bombing wasps are always a challenge

Photo-bombing wasps are always a challenge

Besides the fact that they have been relatively understudied (for example, as compared to birds), the real thrill for me is that you never know what will be drawn to the light trap. Perhaps it will be one of my favourite species. Perhaps there will be a new one for my photo collection. Perhaps there will be nothing. You never know.

Still, when I find myself willingly awake at a light trap at 2:30am in the morning I do wonder if I am the one trapping the moths or if it’s the other way around.

Grande Riviere sheet Trinidad moths ttnaturelink

Asa Wright’s Legacy

One of my fond memories as a child was reading an article written by Williams Davis Jr. which appeared in an issue of the Trinidad Naturalist magazine. The article resonated with me for whatever reason and I would treat myself to reading it on a rainy day, imagining that I was there. It spoke of things that seemed far removed from me. It spoke of lush rainforests, mist cloaked valleys, toucans sunning themselves after the mountain rains and the calls of distant bellbirds. It spoke of a unique old house. It spoke of the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Looking out from the Asa Wright Nature Centre

The Asa Wright Nature Centre is perhaps Trinidad and Tobago’s most famous natural history attraction and is world renowned as a neotropical bird-watching hotspot. The quaint wooden verandah is sometimes billed as the world’s most famous and is usually always occupied by several birdwatchers, photographers and casual visitors alike (accompanied by the sound of rapid fire camera shutters and punctuated by the occasional exclamations of excitement).

The verandah

The AWNC’s verandah

But the centre is much more than a mere attraction for camera toting tourists. The history of the great house begins around 1906 when it was the focal point of the Springhill Estate’s cocoa and coffee plantation. It changed hands a couple of times until it came into the possession of an Icelandic couple in 1946 – Henry Newcombe and Asa Wright. Interest in the Arima Valley grew in the following years thanks to the work of the eminent naturalist Dr. William Beebe at the nearby Simla Estate. As a result demand for accommodation in the valley grew and eventually Asa Wright opened up the great house for guests. One of those guests, noted artist Don Eckelberry, would eventually see to the creation of the Nature Centre as a means of ensure Springhill Estate was preserved.

Without a doubt, the AWNC’s first claim to fame is its value as a bird watching destination. The birds are everywhere. Sitting in the verandah you are faced with several birding “zones” to scrutinize. Immediately in front of the verandah are the bird feeders. Stocked with fruit and other food items, the feeding trays attract a steady stream of neotropical species like Purple Honeycreepers (Cyanerpes caeruleus), Silver-beaked Tanagers (Ramphocelus carbo) and Crested Oropendolas (Psarocolius decumanus). The dense vegetation behind the feeders provides refuge for more secretive species like the Great Antshrike (Taraba major) and Cocoa Thrush (Turdus fumigatus).

A variety of birds feeding

A variety of birds regularly visit the feeding tables

Purple Honeycreepers and Bananaquits compete for space to feed

Purple Honeycreepers and Bananaquits compete for space to feed

Bananaquits galore

Bananaquits galore!

Occasionally the Trinidad Motmot (Momotus bahamensis) will make an appearance here. This motmot was previously regarded as just another subspecies of the Blue-crowned Motmot (M. momota), which is found through much of South America. However in 2010 it was reclassified as a unique species found only in Trinidad and Tobago, thus becoming the country’s second endemic species after the Trinidad Piping-Guan (Pipile pipile).

Trinidad Motmot (Momotus bahamensis)

Trinidad Motmot (Momotus bahamensis)

Arguably, the humming bird feeders are a bigger attraction. Here you can easily find gems like the White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora), Blue-chinned Sapphire (Chlorestes notatus) and Long-billed Starthroat (Heliomaster longirostris). All three species of hermit hummingbird skulk in the thick vegetation planted around the feeders and the gorgeous Tufted Coquette (Lophornis ornatus) frequents the vervain planted along the walkway.

White-chested Emerald (Amazilia brevirostris)

White-chested Emerald (Amazilia brevirostris)

Green Hermit (Phaethornis guy)

Green Hermit (Phaethornis guy)

Tufted Coquette (Lophornis ornatus)

Tufted Coquette (Lophornis ornatus)

At the time of writing, the Centre’s feeders are also attracting another very special hummingbird. The Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) has historically been a rarely seen bird in Trinidad and Tobago due to its preferred habitat in the canopy of highland forest trees. In recent months, however, at least one bird has frequented the feeders here. Larger and more robust looking than the other hummer species, it sports a gaudy patch of violet feathers on its ear coverts and an iridescent green throat patch. Hopefully this species will become a regular visitor to the feeders in time.

Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae)

Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae)

To the left of the porch is a very important tree for birders. Here a large Trema tree grows and this tree is absolutely wonderful for seeing a range of forest species at close range. Ochre-bellied Flycatcher (Mionectes oleagineus), Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola), Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana), Blue Dacnis (Dacnis cayana) … the list goes on.

Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana)

Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana)

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher (Mionectes oleagineus)

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher (Mionectes oleagineus)

Golden-headed Manakin (Pipra erythrocephala)

Golden-headed Manakin (Pipra erythrocephala)

Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola)

Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola)

Violaceous Euphonia (Euphonia violacea)

Violaceous Euphonia (Euphonia violacea)

Beyond the feeders, looking down the valley through the verandah’s spotting scope you can sometimes pick out Channel-billed Toucan, Black-tailed Tityra and Double-toothed Kite perched on exposed branches. Keep an eye out on the skies overhead as well – White Hawk, Ornate Hawk Eagle and Black Hawk Eagle are regularly seen.

Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)

Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus) – Photo courtesy Fayard Mohammed

Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus)

Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus)

When you have finally had enough of the porch it’s time to hit the trails. The Asa Wright Nature Centre has miles of trails snaking through its property. One of the main trails is the Discovery Trail and I was surprised to learn from the Centre guides that this trail follows the original foot path which would have been by used by Amerindians (and then plantation owners/workers) for accessing the Blanchisseuse area many years ago. Nowadays, the AWNC is fortunate to have lekking grounds of three different bird species located along this trail, hosting the leks of Golden-headed Manakin (Pipra erythrocephala), White-bearded Manakin (Manacus manacus) and Bearded Bellbird (Procnias averano) – all of which are a delight to watch and are almost guaranteed to put on a show at these locations.

The Bearded Bellbird lek

The Bearded Bellbird lek

Bearded Bellbird (Procnias averano)

Bearded Bellbird (Procnias averano)

There is another bird attraction which makes the AWNC unique. The Centre is home to what is perhaps the most accessible colony of Oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis) in the world. Oilbirds are strictly nocturnal and seek refuge in dark mountain caves, emerging only at night when they fly great distances in search of oily palms and nutritious forest fruit. Birds, presumably from the caves scattered throughout the northern range, have been found as far as Chaguanas to the south and Hillsborough Dam in Tobago to the east. They are unique in that they are the only echo-locating bird species in the entire world and their clicks and calls fill the air as you view the Centre’s colony at the Dunstan Cave. The birds are so named because fledgling birds contain so much body fat from their diet that native Amerindians and early settlers would collect the baby birds and render them for oil for use in cooking and lighting. The Spanish name for the bird is “guacharo”. Their demonic wails and nocturnal habits give them their other name of “diablotin” or devil bird.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis)

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis)

Oilbirds are not the only interesting creatures of the night at the centre. One of my first stops whenever I happen to visit the Centre is to search the insect screens in the reception hall for moths and other insects that were attracted to the lights at night. With some luck you can find quite a range of interesting species.

Automeris zurobara zurobara

Automeris zurobara zurobara (ID pers.comm.M.Cock, 2013)

Epimecis matronaria

Epimecis matronaria (ID pers.comm.M.Cock, 2013)

Arsenura beebei

Arsenura beebei

Also in flight at night are various bat species. If the hummingbird feeders are left outside too late you can sometimes catch a glimpse of bats coming in to feed on the nectar. According to Geoffrey Gomes of Trinibats, two bat species are likely visitors to the AWNC feeders – Geoffroy’s Hairy-legged Bats (Anoura geoffroyi) and Common Long-tongued Bats (Glossophaga soricina). The latter is pictured below.

Common Long-tongued Bats (Glossophaga soricina) - (ID pers.comm.Gomes.Trinibats, 2013)

Common Long-tongued Bats (Glossophaga soricina) (ID pers.comm.Gomes.Trinibats, 2013) – Photo courtesy Fayard Mohammed

But the tropical nights belong to the invertebrates and various species of stick insects, scorpions, spiders, moths and ants are everywhere. Manicou Crabs (Eudaniela garmani) can also be seen when these land crabs leave their burrows in the forest floor in the cool of the night to feed on plant and animal matter.

Manicou Crabs (Eudaniela garmani)

Manicou Crabs (Eudaniela garmani)

Unidentified bush cricket

Unidentified bush cricket

Unidentified whip scorpion

Unidentified whip scorpion

Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei)

Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei)

The amphibians and reptiles become more active after dark as well and at night you are surrounded by the sound of various frogs calling from some unseen location. Occasionally, the reflective eyeshine of a snake might turn up in the beam of a torch.

Ruschenberger's tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii)

Ruschenberger’s tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii)

Hypsiboas boans

Hypsiboas boans

Of course you can see several reptile and amphibian species during the daytime as well. While walking along the less used forest trails you would be well advised to keep an eye out for the cryptically camouflaged Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper) – one of Trinidad’s four highly venomous snake species. While the venom of this pit viper contains a dangerous mix of compounds, death from snakebite remains relatively rare in Trinidad & Tobago. Less intimidating than pit vipers are the diminutive Trinidad Stream Frogs (Mannophryne trinitatis) that can always be found near stream sites – a familiar sound to anyone who frequents the Northern range and Central Ranges. Under the birdfeeders you will regularly see the large Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin) searching for scraps that have fallen from the feeders.

Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper)

Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper) – Photo courtesy Anushka Seemungal

Trinidad Stream Frog (Mannophryne trinitatis)

Trinidad Stream Frog (Mannophryne trinitatis) – Male

Trinidad Stream Frog (Mannophryne trinitatis) - Female

Trinidad Stream Frog (Mannophryne trinitatis) – Female

Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin)

Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin)

Also searching for birdfeeder scraps are often large rabbit sized rodents known as Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina). These mammals are widely hunted throughout Trinidad and Tobago, but at the Centre they find a safe refuge and as a result they show little fear of human presence.

Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina)

Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina)

In fact a wide range of mammals inhabit the forests of the Centre. To get a better idea of what was out there I placed a camera along the Adventure Trail for about three weeks. A couple of weeks earlier my good friend Clint Quintal had placed a camera here for a few days and reported promising results with a nice Nine-banded Armadillo showing up on the first night. I was anxious to see what a longer session would bring. At the end of it, however, the only thing of note was a Lappe (Agouti paca).

Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)

Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)

Lappe (Cuniculus paca)

Lappe (Cuniculus paca)

Nonetheless, Centre staff and guests occasionally report encounters with other mammals including Red Brocket Deer and Ocelot so these animals are present. More clues as to what resides on the property can also be obtained at the Centre’s small but very interesting museum.

The Centre's museum

The Centre’s museum

The higher density of game species here is possibly a reflection of the fact that they are not disturbed by hunters, loggers, quarries etc. In fact conservation is one of the Centre’s main objectives and this is achieved by the acquisition of land within the valley. To date, the Centre has 1335 acres of forest under its protection. The possession of protected land also allows the Centre to facilitate the scientific study of tropical ecosystems and its myriad components. Research is conducted primarily at the Tropical Research Station located at the Simla Estate. The facility, which occupies 211 acres lower down the Arima Valley, was formerly owned by Dr. William Beebe. At least 400 scientific papers have resulted from work at Simla to date. Sadly, despite its international importance, the research station has been negatively affected by the activity of the quarries which surround it, affecting the station’s water supply and disturbing wildlife. AWNC itself also has to contend with similar issues as disturbed land at the Scott’s Quarry lower down the valley is now just about visible from the verandah (With quarrying providing less than 5% of Gross Domestic Product, one wonders if it would not be more advantageous for the country to simply import aggregate from the mainland rather than exploit our own meager deposits).

Despite these issues, the Asa Wright Nature Centre is, and will long continue to be, a key feature in the story of our country’s natural environment. I look with interest to see how the Centre develops in the years to come and hopefully reaches its full potential as a place for conservation, for research, for teaching, for meditation and for enjoyment by all.

Asa Wright Nature Centre porch trinidad wildlife birds flora fauna

A Tale of Two Forests.

Forest environments vary widely in their capacity to attract and sustain wildlife. From the dry scrub forests of the north-west to the moist lowland forests in the south-east, Trinidad can boast of a wide range of these forest communities and, by extension, an impressive menagerie of wildlife.  Cat’s Hill offers two very distinct forest types. On one hand there exists a sizeable expanse of seasonal forest, an extension of the Victoria Mayaro Reserve. In comparison, a large teak plantation has been carved out of the forest which is maintained and logged for timber. So how do wildlife communities differ between the forest types?

Teak vs. Seasonal forest environments in Cat’s Hill

The Cat’s Hill teak plantations were established under the Taungya system in the 1970’s and 1980’s which effected the gradual conversion of native forest into teak. Once established, the teak plantations were probably managed under a modified version of the Periodic Block System (PBS). The PBS involves the felling of trees within demarcated blocks after which the block is closed and left to regenerate before cutting can resume. According to Sustainable forestry in Trinidad (Fairhead and Leach 2001) “In the early 1970s, the PBS was further adapted to incorporate ‘silvicultural marking’. In this, in theory ‘stems are selected for sale by a team of highly skilled markers who go through the block systematically and physically mark trees that should be removed. In principle, the trees that are marked are those which in the next 30 years would not do as well as others that they are shading, or competing with. They may either be mature, or faulty or likely to become so. The trees in one block are sold to woodworkers over a 2 year period, after which the block is closed from sales and allowed to regenerate for the cutting cycle of 30 years’ (Clubbe and Jhilmit 1992:5)”. As a result, the entire plantation consists of different coupes of varying ages.

A key feature of a teak plantation is its understorey. Teak trees shed their leaves during the dry season, allowing light to penetrate. Even with their leaves, teak trees tend to be spaced far enough that sufficient sunlight is able to reach the forest floor year round. As a result, plant growth is rapid and the understory can become very dense if left unchecked. Various plants quickly become established but in many areas of Cats Hill the dominant feature in many coupes is the introduced Kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata).

Kudzu vine tangle (Pueraria lobata)

These dense growths and vines, as well as the copious volume of leaves shed by the trees, can seriously encumber woodcutters. As a result, actively managed teak plantations are usually cleared by a controlled burn on a yearly basis. The accumulated vegetation ensures that the fires are well fuelled, resulting in a clean burn (and also deals with any critters the woodcutters rather not encounter). Teak trees themselves are fire resistant thanks to the high silica content of their trunks. They are not, however, fire-proof. As noted in Sustainable forestry in Trinidad “Teak has proved perpetually vulnerable to fire; plantations are routinely devastated by burning, especially in those years of unusually serious fire which occur unpredictably yet frequently in Trinidad’s climate. Such is the frequency with which teak plantations burn that a public perception has arisen that teak actually needs fire for successful growth, and that these fires are set by foresters as part of plantation management strategy (Trinidad and Tobago Forester, 196x)”.  The only other plant that routinely survives the burn is the ubiquitous Gru-Gru Palm (Bactris major). This fire control allows some teak coupes to be quite clean, as compared to the leafy tangle of fire free areas.

Gru-Gru Palm (Bactris major)

Teak plantations, like many monocultures, typically do not support a diverse range of plant and animal species. The extensive teak fields of Quinam, for instance, can be quite uninteresting for a naturalist. The frequent fires strip the plantations of competing plant species and other terrestrial wildlife. Turning once again to Sustainable forestry in Trinidad, it is noted that “monoculture plantations are strongly critiqued by other interest groups within Trinidad who give priority to biodiversity and wildlife conservation. In the south-east they have, for example, been strongly criticised by the South-East Hunters’ Association, as ‘creating animal deserts in the interests of commercialisation’ (Interview, Mohan Bholasingh, 30 June 1999). Indeed the Association was started in 1994 in response to the sense that forestry in Trinidad was too geared towards commercial production, not wildlife, and to lobby government and educate the public on the problems of monoculture plantations”.

Thankfully, the Cat’s Hill teak plantation is a bit different. Firstly, the teak fields are surrounded by dense natural forests and in many areas the teak fields are actually quite narrow so that natural forest is never that far away. Secondly, the Cat’s Hill teak field is not a pure teak stand. Several native tree species have managed to grow within the teak fields and include useful fruiting trees such as Hogplum (Spondias mombin) and Juniper (Genipa americanna), providing refuge and food for wildlife. The proximity of natural forests also acts as a “seed bank”, allowing fire cleared coupes to be quickly re-vegetated soon after the passage of a fire. So what type of wildlife survives in this environment?

Demarcation between Teak and Seasonal forests in Cat’s Hill, Trinidad

In terms of the area’s fauna, birds are perhaps the most obvious and the variety of birds inhabiting the forest is quite surprising. The forest edge is home to large numbers of seed eating Sooty and Blue-backed Grassquits which feed on the grassy verge maintained by the energy companies operating in the area. Also common are the insect eaters like the gorgeous Rufous-tailed Jacamars, Tropical Peewee and several other flycatchers which hunt for their prey from low branches.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar (Galbula ruficauda)

Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus)

Tropical Parula (Parula pitiayumi)

I have often heard the calls of Little Tinamou from within the teak. Even Gray-necked Wood Rails are present near several decent sized streams that drain the field, providing the wetter environments that these birds favour.

Surprisingly, many fruit eating birds can be found in the teak coupes. Purple and Red-legged Honey Creepers, Green-backed Trogons and White-bearded Manakins can be seen. The teak trees themselves produce no fruit and these birds probably feed on the fruits produced by the parasitic bird vine (Phthirusa sp.) which grows on the branches of the teak trees.  Additionally, the fruit eaters probably take advantage of the occasional native fruit trees mentioned earlier.

Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus)

Teak itself produces large seeds. However, the only birds capable of eating these seeds are probably the parrots and the common Orange winged Parrots are a regular sight. I have never seen Blue-headed Parrots in the area but I have seen their smaller relatives, the Lilac-tailed Parrotlet. The smaller Parrotlets feed on the fruit sources already mentioned.

Orange-winged Parrot (Amazona amazonica)

Lilac-tailed Parrotlet (Touit batavicus)

The teak fields are also very good for finding raptors. The bare ground, which exists in many of the coupes, offers clear hunting ground for ambush predators like Gray Hawks, White Hawks and Grey-headed Kites. The openness of the teak upper-story must also make maneuvering easier for these broad winged raptors.

White Hawk (Leucopternis albicollis)

Grey-headed Kite (Leptodon cayanensis)

Rarer raptors are also encountered here including Hook-billed Kites (Chondrohierax uncinatus). Hook-billed Kites are awkward looking birds when perched. Their short legs seem to be positioned unusually far back along their bodies. They feed largely on land snails for which they possess a specialized, curved bill which facilitates the extraction of the snail from its shell. Another rare raptor which can be seen here is the magnificent Black-Hawk Eagle.

Hook-billed Kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus)

Hook-billed Kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus)

The commonest raptor here is the Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea). Some of these insect eating birds are resident year round in Trinidad, but the local population is augmented by migrants from South America  between the months of March and October. During this time, these kites are everywhere in south Trinidad and the Cat’s Hill teak plantation gets more than its fair share.  Always perched on exposed branches (look out for wing tips that project beyond the tail for quick identification), they are the easiest raptor to see here.

But what about other animals that aren’t as easy to see as birds? There are mammals that live in the teak. The Red-tailed Squirrel (Sciurus granatensis) is relatively common (a food source for the hawks!). A few bat species also live here. One interesting species is this CommonTent Bat (Uroderma bilobatum), at home under its “tent”. Amazingly, these bats will chew the mid rib of certain broad leaves in order to make the ends droop, thereby creating a tent shelter where they are protected from the elements and those hungry hawks.

Shelter made by Common Tent Bat (Uroderma bilobatum)

Common Tent Bat (Uroderma bilobatum)

To get an idea of the other mammal species in the area I set up the trail camera on the bank of one of the streams mentioned earlier. The spot was adequately baited with a range of food items and the camera was left for 15 days.

Trail camera site in Cat’s Hill (Teak plantation)

I fully expect small populations of Agouti to live in the teak fields. I assume they will feed on teak seeds when available but there should be enough alternative food sources. The Kudzu vines that grow here might be a food item. The vines are an excellent fodder – according to the research, the crude protein content of kudzu can be as high as 18.45% in leaves (falling to 7.42% in stem sections). The seeds are not edible. In addition to the Kudzu, the ubiquitous Gru Gru Palms produce large seeds that would be acceptable food for an Agouti. Other than Agouti, small mammals such as the Robinson’s Opossum and small rodents probably eke out a living.

The trail camera, however, seems intent to prove me wrong.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail (Aramides cajanea)

Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin)

Quite disappointing. We moved the camera to another position deeper in the teak field (but still close to a waterway) and baited it with hogplums.

Black-eared Opossum or Manicou (Didelphis marsupialis insularis)

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

It would seem that the terrestrial fauna of the teak plantation is poorer than I thought. We even checked the soft mud at the water’s edge at several crossing points for animal tracks and still could not find evidence of mammals. While I can accede to the absence of larger animals, such as Agouti, I find it hard to believe there are no small rodents. Are the harsh conditions too much for even a forest rat? Perhaps later visits will prove otherwise.

With the frequent fires, the terrestrial reptile and amphibian life is probably very poor as well but I have seen a few dead snakes on the road (victims of the oilfield workers whom, for some reason, traverse these bumpy, potholed roads at breakneck speeds, unconcerned about the damage to their company vehicles). Most have been carcasses of the common Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira annulata ashmeadi). Other than that, I was surprised to encounter this curious beast one morning in 2009.

White Worm Lizard (Amphisbaena alba)

White Worm Lizard (Amphisbaena alba)

Often mistaken for a snake, the so called “two-headed snake” is actually a legless lizard. The White Worm Lizard, (Amphisbaena alba) is said to be widely distributed in Trinidad and Tobago. While harmless, they do have quite a temper and will lash out if harassed. They are sometimes found in the subterranean nests of leaf-cutter ants (aka Bachac) and this probably saves them from the ravages of the fires.

I expect the insect diversity to be affected as well. While I can’t comment on any other insect families, the teak field is relatively poor when it comes to butterflies. This is directly related to the poor variety of plant species – a limited variety of plant species means a limited range of potential foot plants for caterpillars to feed upon. That said, several species, including Tithorea harmonia, Ithomia agnosia pellucida, as well as various Satyridae and Hesperiidae, can be found in the better vegetated coupes.

There are several interesting epiphytes which grow on the teak trees. Several orchid species can be found including Campylocentrum pachyrrhizum, Ornithocephalus gladiatus and Maxillaria camaridii. Bromeliads are present as well including the interesting Werauhia gigantea (formerly Vriesea amazonica).

Monk’s Head (Catasetum macrocarpum) – Female

Epiphytes growing on a branch

Werauhia gigantea

Beyond the teak lies the “real” forests of the Cat’s Hill Reserve – a mixture of flat and hilly land. Along the road the forest has been disturbed by the actions of oil extraction companies. The presence of oil in these forests is probably the only reason squatting settlements and small scale “slash and burn” agricultural plots have not become established in Cat’s Hill. The oil extraction activity is not without its negative side effects – small oil spills do occur and clearings have to be made to facilitate oil wells and related equipment. However, the more serious effect has to be the creation of access roads through the reserve. The roads themselves are quite useful for oilfield works and naturalists alike, however, they open up Cat’s Hill to that other forest activity – hunting.

Several hunting camps have carved out small clearings along the road in the forest. Because Cat’s Hill is a state forest reserve, hunting is permissible during the open season. A few hunting camps have also been constructed in the teak fields (where hunters would be in a more hospitable environment and yet reasonably close to the forests). The camps in Cat’s Hill are much simpler than some of the advanced structures that can be found in Edward’s Trace, but I wonder if it is allowed to continue whether the same would occur here as well.

A hunter’s campsite

It begs the question of what the effect of hunting in Cat’s Hill has been. Extensive wildlife studies appear to be lacking in Trinidad and Tobago and these are sorely needed if the government is to properly reformulate our existing conservation laws. I have noted the apparent scarcity of Agouti in Cat’s Hill, a species which is also the main target of the hunters that frequent the area. Surely this is not a coincidence.

Besides wild game animals, Cat’s Hill is full of other interesting wildlife. Birds are plentiful but they are harder to see here in the dense foliage than out in the bare teak fields.

Purple Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes caeruleus)

Little Cuckoo (Coccycua minuta)

American Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea)

Double-toothed Kite (Harpagus bidentatus)

Earlier in August, I was quite surprised to hear a Black-faced Ant-thrush (Formicarius analis) calling from the forest along the road. This, like the Gray-throated Leaftosser I mentioned in May’s report, is a species usually associated with the higher altitude forests. Is it possible that other “north only” species such as Scaled Antpitta also reside in south Trinidad?

A wide variety of butterflies and moths can be found in the Reserve but they tend to be widely distributed. The roadside growths of Railway Daisy (Bidens pilosa) are always worth checking along with the occasional clumps of Black Sage (Cordia curassivica). In the dry season, puddles of water on the roadway also attract several mineral seeking species.

Statira Sulphur (Aphrissa statira)

Bitias Hairstreak (Panthiades bitias)

Ruby-spotted Swallowtail (Heraclides anchisiades idaeus)

Caterpillar (Megalopygidae sp.)

Other than birds and butterflies, more insidious animals fly through these forests. The blood stains on the neck of this cow, which we once found grazing at the forest edge, indicate that vampire bats inhabit the area. Vampire bats were identified as the culprit behind the 1925 outbreak of rabies in Trinidad, spreading the virus via their saliva. I have been assured that rabies no longer poses a threat to human life in Trinidad.

Blood stains on a cow resulting from several bites by vampire bats

As for reptiles, I know that Fer-de-Lance are present from the occasional dead specimen killed on the roadway. Once I came across this Dos Cocorite (Pseustes poecilonotus polylepis) sunning itself on a leaf along the road. The Spiny Tree Lizard (Plica plica) and Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin) are also common.

Dos Cocorite (Pseustes poecilonotus polylepis)

Earlier this month, my father and I were driving along Cat’s Hill when we noticed a large flock of Orange-winged Parrots feeding in a large fruiting forest tree. As we were looking for a site to place the field camera we decide to investigate as fallen fruit is likely to attract a lot of wildlife (coincidentally, this was also roughly the same spot that I had previously heard a Grey-throated Leaftosser). Apparently there were a good number of both Orange-winged and Blue-headed Parrots feeding in the tree that morning – as we approached, the combined racket they made was fantastic. The birds had led us to a really nice spot where the ground was covered with fallen half chewed Pois Doux beanpods (wiser folk later narrowed down the identification for me to a probable Inga laurina). So we set up the camera and left.

Trail camera site in Cat’s Hill (Seasonal forest)

Twelve days later we retrieved the camera. In my experience, the average haul for such a period is about 30 images in a decent location. Of this, half are likely to be blanks. But this was evidently quite a busy spot – the camera had recorded 161 images. We were too excited to wait until we got home to review the images so we plugged the memory card into a camera.

Black-eared Opossum or Manicou (Didelphis marsupialis insularis)

Black-eared Opossum or Manicou (Didelphis marsupialis insularis)

Black-eared Opossum or Manicou (Didelphis marsupialis insularis)

My Dad began to get concerned that this Manicou might have accounted for all the photographs. I was beginning to think he was right. But then this came up.

Lappe (Agouti paca)

Lappe (Agouti paca)

My jaw dropped. Here was an animal I have always hoped to find. The Lappe (Agouti paca) is a large rodent and close relative of the familiar Agouti. We were surprised as we always associated Lappe with waterways. Perhaps there was a stream nearby? The animal is a good swimmer and is reputed to always dig a secondary escape tunnel in its underground den that exits underwater. More surprising images were to come.

Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina)

Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina)

At last, here was an Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina) in Cat’s Hill (and I suspect I know now why the cameras have rarely recorded them in the past). These rodents have been identified as important distributers of seeds in the forest, sometimes taking seeds and burying them far away from the parent tree. Forgotten seeds then germinate. More recent studies suggest that sometimes, after one agouti has buried a seed somewhere near the edge of its territory, a rival Agouti will then steal and re-burry it even further away from the parent tree.

Unidentified rodent

Rats! These small forest rodents are probably not identifiable from these pictures. I suppose they fulfill the same function that other rodents do – feeding on the small bits and pieces of whatever edible items they find and aiding in seed dispersal. They in turn are no doubt food for owls, ocelots and snakes alike.

Gray-fronted Dove (Leptotila rufaxilla)

The Gray-fronted Dove (Leptotila rufaxilla) was a very frequent visitor to this spot. Evidently the Pois Doux seeds are quite attractive to them as a food source. Differentiated from the White-tipped Dove by the bare red skin around its eye, I did not realize just how common they were in forests, evidently outnumbering the number of White-tipped Doves that are present. Photographs of Grey-fronted Doves represented the majority of images captured by the camera during this period.

From the most common we go to the scarcest. More surprising than the Lappe, it is fitting that the most impressive recording of the set be left for last.

Red Brocket Deer (Mazama americana)

This Red Brocket Deer (Mazama americana) appeared in two consecutive images during the final days that the camera was in place. The only time I have seen Red-brocket Deer in the wild was when one sprinted across the road in Cat’s Hill (with the sound of hunting dogs somewhere close behind).

A lot of useful information can be determined from these images. By noting the times, you can get a pretty good idea of when these animals are active.

(Click here to view a slideshow of the image set or see more images in the Image Gallery)

Lappes are clearly nocturnal, appearing between the hours of 7:00 pm and 1:00 am. There were actually two Lappes involved. The coat spotting differs between the two animals. These were apparently a male and female pair as you can just make out male genitalia on one animal and what would appear to be mammary glands on the other. Interestingly they always appeared at the far end if the image and never seemed to stop to fed. I suspect this pair may have a den in a nearby hollow and happened to frequent the area as a path to somewhere else.

Possible male (lower) and female (upper) Lappe

Agoutis were strictly diurnal. No surprise there. It is hard to tell the individuals apart but size differences suggest that at least two individuals were involved.

Not much can be determined from the sole Red Brocket Deer. It appeared at dawn but from what I have read they are nocturnal. Numerous welts can be seen on its body. This is likely to be a mite, similar to or perhaps the same as the obnoxious bête rouge.

What is interesting is the absence of Robinson’s Mouse Opossum (Marmosa robinsoni). This is a very common animal in densely vegetated areas and frequently turns up in other locations. I suspect the relative openness of the forest floor deters this small opossum – it is probably hesitant to cross large open spaces, preferring to stick to vine tangles and low bushes.

It also has me wondering how important parrots and other messy eaters, such as monkeys, are in the forest food cycle. They must drop and dislodge significantly more fruit than would have fallen naturally to the forest floor, which in turns feeds the ground dwelling fauna.

Outside of the trail camera recordings, I have seen Red Howler Monkeys, Ocelot and Tyra in Cat’s Hill. Additionally, we occasionally detect the smell of Porcupine. Neotropical River Otters probably live here also given the proximity to Inniss Field (see Known Unknowns). I have never seen any sign of Quenk (Tayassu tajacu).

So what does this all mean? The site of the second trail camera was probably no more than 50 feet from the roadway (close enough to hear passing cars). Hunters are active here as evidenced by a rusty shotgun shell near the camera from some hunting season past. I would have expected that hunting pressure would have restricted such rarely seen animals to the deeper parts of the forest. Yet there they are. Could it be that the effect of hunting has not been that severe? Or is it just a really lucky series never to be repeated again? In terms of the teak plantations I am curious about what other animals live in the fields. But for now it’s time to hold back a bit on further investigations. Hunting season is upon us and it is not wise to leave the trail camera out there or wander about in forests. Hopefully we shall continue the story of Cat’s Hill next year.

Known Unknowns

“We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know”- Donald Rumsfeld

There are a lot of natural and modified environments in Trinidad and Tobago and observing wildlife in these areas can be very difficult as anyone who spends time in our forests, savannahs and swamps will know. It stands to reason, therefore, that there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the flora and fauna that reside in these areas.

Consider this hypothetical example of a butterfly in the forest canopy. Butterflies can be tough enough to observe at ground level so new or rare species turn up only every now and then. But imagine a species which is restricted entirely to a life in the high forest canopy. It is unlikely that a casual collector would chance upon that species. To further complicate the matter, what if it only resides in the canopy of forests in a difficult area such as the highest peaks of the Trinity Hills, and then too is only active at dusk? We may never know about the existence of this butterfly, much less learn about its life history.

But even in reasonable conditions there are interesting things that escape our attention. Take the Victoria-Mayaro Reserve for example. Vast forests carpet the region and while some of this is disrupted by oil extraction, the area still contains an abundance of plant and animal life. I visit as often as I can and unexpected things do turn up from time to time.

The Victoria-Mayaro Forest Reserve

Sometimes finding things just requires a healthy dose of luck. What do I mean by luck? Imagine parking your vehicle along the forest road, stepping out the door and having this fly past you and land on a nearby shrub.

Just a big moth?

It may not look significant but it is. This is Synpalmides phalaris. It’s a member of the Castniidae family, part of the Lepidoptera – the same group to which butterflies and moths belong. Of the twelve Castniidae species known in Trinidad, only one is common and a quick check with the relevant experts revealed that this particular species has only been documented twice before in Trinidad. Who knows how many people have encountered S. phalaris without realizing what it was.

You also have to depend on all your senses – especially your hearing. Of course Lepidoptera don’t vocalize but birds do. Recently while driving through these forests I heard the unmistakable sound of a Gray-throated Leaftosser (Sclerurus albigularis) calling from the undergrowth.

Recording of Gray-throated Leaftosser (Cat’s Hill 16 March 2012)

I say ‘unmistakable’ but I should qualify this by saying that it is unmistakable once you get familiar with the call. I myself only recently cemented it into memory which is probably why I never noticed it in Cat’s Hill before. Leaftossers are usually regarded as residents of the higher elevation forests and yet here it was among the oil derricks characteristic of the deep South. Is it resident here? Or is there something else going on? Is there some local dispersal from the higher elevations of the Trinity Hills to the surrounding lowlands during the dry season (consider the Ornate Hawk Eagle of April 2010)?

Another surprise for me was finding a Great Antshrike in the forest understory. I never saw this species anywhere in South Trinidad although I half expected that it should be here (indeed, at least one fellow birdwatcher has reported it from the South-West). Similarly, I have never seen a Trinidad Motmot in the Victoria-Mayaro area but others have. It just goes to show just how much observation time is needed for anyone to really understand the biodiversity of an area.

But it’s not only the unusual birds that are likely to go unnoticed in these forests. Sometimes ordinary birds are just as hard to find.  Throughout most of Trinidad’s forests lives a small terrestrial bird called the Little Tinamou (Crypturellus soui). I have had the good fortune to see several rare bird species in Trinidad but I have never yet seen this secretive yet relatively common species myself. Thankfully, for the last six weeks I had another pair of eyes in the forest.

For three weeks the trail camera had been patiently monitoring a Leafcutter Ant trail in the Inniss Field as I was curious whether or not forest mammals would use the paths created by the ants (Incidentally it appears they do not). During this time it twice detected Little Tinamou.

Little Tinamou (Crypturellus soui)

Better known to country folk as “Caille”, the Tinamou was believed to utter its haunting melancholy call every fifteen minutes (which isn’t true). It is hunted but I suspect such a small game animal is not usually worth the effort. Most encounters probably occur when the bird is accidentally flushed from the forest floor and it flies off a short distance. Interestingly they do not possess a functional rear toe which renders them unable to perch and restricts them to life on the ground.

In addition to the three weeks of ‘Bachac’ trail duty, the camera was also setup on the banks of a decent sized stream in the Inniss Field for one week.

The site was promising and I would have loved to leave it for longer but the threat of rising water levels from the unexpected rainfall in April and concerns over its exposed position, which increased the chances of theft, led me to move it prematurely. For the time that it was there it did manage to detect this rarely seen animal.

Neotropical River Otter (Lontra longicaudis)

Neotropical River Otters (Lontra longicaudis) are known to inhabit the larger southern drainages in Trinidad but I was surprised to have one so far inland. They are said to be diurnal and the timestamp on the photographs confirmed this. A quick search in the watercourse turned up a few Brown Coscarob and Bronze Corydoras catfish on which the Otter might feed but it probably has to patrol a large stretch of watercourse in order to get enough food. I have read that they also consume a lot of insects. The presence of the otter here might indicate they also inhabit the Inniss-Trinity Reservoir.

Also of interest, as my father pointed out, was what the camera did not detect. Together with my previous camera, I estimate the cameras have logged a total of 57 days (1,368 hours!) in Cat’s Hill and Inniss Field. In all that time they have never photographed a single Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina). I’m sure they are present but when I consider how relatively easily the cameras detected Agouti in other forests (such as in Quinam) I can’t help but wonder if it might indicate that hunting pressure on Agouti is heavy in the area. While I also cannot rule out the possibility that it might be the result of inappropriate camera placement, this speculation of overhunting jibes with the conclusions of at least one wildlife survey (Nelson 1996) which suggests that Agouti populations in the nearby Trinity Hills Wildlife Sanctuary are significantly lower than that of other benchmark areas.

This brings us to another mammal species that is present in the Moruga area. Specifically, I refer to the two footed kind. It should surprise no one that poachers and marijuana farmers are active here. Perhaps indicative of this human activity was this dog that crossed the camera’s path back at the ant trail.

It doesn’t look like a hunting beagle so I can only guess who this belongs to. Farmer? Trap gun poacher? Subsistence hunter?

I wonder if the southern lowland forests can support these activities? Unfortunately, the lack of data complicates the issue of wildlife conservation in Trinidad and Tobago.  The South-Eastern Hunters Association has put forward an alternative position on wildlife populations which supports their view that legitimate hunting is sustainable. Their position (as briefly outlined in Science, policy and national parks in Trinidad and Tobago (Leach & Fairhead 2001) is/was based on the assumption that “The diameter of the circle in which an animal runs when chased by hunting dogs can be used as a gauge of its territory and hence population levels; a smaller circle suggesting smaller territory and higher population. The correlation between running area and population varies not only by species but also by terrain and other factors”. A very interesting theory and one which draws attention, as Leach and Fairchild pointed out, to variations in the capacity of the immediate area to support wildlife. But is it based on an accurate assumption? In any event, while I am in support of many of the efforts of the SEHA, it might be impractical to implement such a resource intensive survey method on national scale.

All of this should serve to highlight that we are not exactly sure of what is happening in South Trinidad and elsewhere. What exactly is the status of our wildlife? With respect to our birdlife I would not be too surprised if one day Stripe-breasted Spinetail and Collared Trogon are found in the Victoria-Mayaro lowlands. But I imagine the real revelations are to be made on the heights of the Trinity Hills. Possibly the last refuge for whatever remains of the southern population of Trinidad Piping Guans, perhaps the more inaccessible slopes might also be home to Black-faced Antthrush, Scaled Antpitta and transitory Swallow-Tanagers. Who knows what else is up there?

Treasures in the bush

For the last few weeks I have been spending most of my free time in Rousillac. To be more specific, I have been exploring a stretch of “bush” bordering the Rousillac Swamp – a mixture of secondary forest, swamp edge, and semi-abandoned agricultural plots. It may not be a virgin tropical forest or some other untouched natural environment but here I have the advantage of time and safety and I can freely explore to my heart’s content. It is also surprisingly rich in wildlife.

Secondary forest edge near the Rousillac Swamp

My initial intention, I must admit, was to start exploring the mangrove swamp located here. However it is still a bit too waterlogged and so poking around in there will have to wait for a few more weeks. Specifically, I have been itching to start using a new trail camera (see here for more information on trail cameras) with the hope of photographing a Crab-eating Raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus). According to “The Mammals of Trinidad” by M.E.Alkins, they can also be found in forested areas near water so I figured the surrounding “bush” would suffice.

Now you would expect that with a name like “Crab-eating Raccoon” I should use crabs for bait. I opted not to do this because the movement of a living, struggling crab would probably trigger the camera and after a few days I would end up with dead batteries and perhaps 500 pictures of an agitated crab. So I decided to use fish (which also forms part of the raccoon’s diet) with some fruit or chicken eggs thrown in for variety.

 

Trail Camera (with home-made rain shield and stand)

Week 1

Trail camera plans aside, my first weekend visit made me realize that there was a lot of butterfly activity in the area. Many butterflies inhabit forest edge and soon I was finding all sorts of interesting species. Indeed this quickly became the main motivation for spending time out there – the camera could be setup in a matter of minutes but searching for butterflies could easily become an all day affair. The heat, mosquitoes and thorns seem trivial when you can find hidden treasures like these:

Large Slate Hairstreak (Brangas caranus)

Red Cracker (Hamadryas amphinome)

Naxia Sister (Adelpha naxia)

Malachite (Siproeta stelenes)

I had decided that I would setup the camera in different spots close to the water’s edge in order to capture a range of habitats. The first site was certainly close to the water however in hindsight it was perhaps not a good choice – it was essentially in the middle of a large patch of Gru-Gru palm (Bactris major). For those of you who don’t know what this palm looks like, it is pretty much just a mass of long, needle like thorns. I didn’t notice it at the time because of my boots but the ground was littered with these thorns as well. Would anything actually live in here? It was too late to move the camera and bait so I had no choice but to leave it and hope for the best.

Week 2

It rained for much of the week and over the next weekend I returned to retrieve the camera and move it to a new site. The images it had captured over the week surprised me.

Black-eared Opossum or Manicou (Didelphis marsupialis insularis)

Robinson’s mouse opossum (Marmosa robinsonii)

So it seems that wildlife could in fact live in the thorny palm patch. The small mouse opossum was surprising as it is mostly aboreal and would have to spend much of its time off the ground and actually climbing in those thorny palms.

The new site for the camera was a 15 minute walk further into the “bush”. Once again, I was able to find several interesting butterflies.

Variegated Hairstreak (Michaelus jebus)

Emerald-patched Cattleheart (Parides sesostris)

Gray Ministreak (Ministrymon azia)

The new camera location was a promising site near the water’s edge which was shaded by tall trees and close to a thick tangle of vegetation with even a few crab burrows here and there. Fingers crossed, I setup and left for the week.

Week 3

The variety of birdlife seen here has not been particularly impressive thus far. But I’m sure something really interesting will eventually turn up some day. In any case it forced me to pay attention to some of our commoner birds.

Orange-winged Parrot (Amazona amazonica)

Numerous Orange-winged Parrots (Amazona amazonica) feed in the periphery of the swamp and screeching pairs frequently flew overhead before almost stealthily disappearing into the tree canopy. At one point I spent several minutes underneath a tall mango tree being bombarded from above by half chewed green mangoes – I knew there were parrots up there somewhere but they possess a remarkable ability to just vanish among the leaves when they want to. Eventually an explosion of screeches and flapping wings proved that there was a small flock in there after all.

On another occasion a piercing “crack” alerted me to the presence of a Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana) on a nearby tree. They are well named on account of their similarity to a squirrel as they gracefully race about the tree branches. It was hidden behind some leaves at the top of a tree however these cuckoos follow a predictable pattern. Starting near the middle of a tree, they will ascend, leaping from branch to branch, until they reach the top. They then glide to a nearby tree, usually near the center, and then begin the process again. The pattern held true and sure enough the bird glided overhead to a nearby tree.

Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana)

Also overhead, a pair of Gray-headed Kites (Leptodon cayanensis) uttered their mewing, cat-like calls. These large, lovely birds have a characteristic aerial display, referred to as a butterfly display, which involves the birds intermittently performing a series of quick, shallow wing-beats. From a distance the bird appears to be trembling in flight.

Gray-headed Kite (Leptodon cayanensis)

Butterflies once again piqued my interest and the “bush” continued to provide new species for my photographic collection.

Theope terambus

Eryphanis polyxena

As I approached the trail camera site to retrieve it I noticed that the ground was disturbed. Evidently something large had been there during the week and was very active.

Another Robinson’s mouse opossum (Marmosa robinsonii)

Gray-necked Wood-Rail (Aramides cajanea)

Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina)

Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus)

Ah. There’s the culprit. While common in Trinidad, the mongoose was unexpected in such a densely vegetated area as I have always associated them with more open areas or scrub land. Evidently the mongoose had been digging while searching for scraps. I had an even better location in mind for the next site. This site was again close to water but the flat ground, clear of leaf litter, indicated that it was also flood prone. The undergrowth was sparse but the overhead tree cover was thick. This time I buried some of the bait to keep anything that came to feed on it in the area for a longer time. It was then that I made another mistake. Because of the clear undergrowth, I was concerned that some passing woodsman might notice the camera’s white rain shield. To prevent this, I covered the shield with a large leaf. After I returned home it occurred to me that as the leaf dried it would shift slightly, perhaps enough to obscure the view from the camera lens. I would have to wait and see next weekend.

Week 4

The week was mercifully rain free and the long Carnival weekend meant that I could afford to really spend some time exploring. You might think that after all the time I have spent here that I would have explored it all. But there is actually a significant section that I haven’t yet managed to get around to. I blame the butterflies for that. Butterflies are curiously time sensitive. The same patch of flowering shrubs might have different species depending on the time of day and this means that by the time I have walked a certain distance inside the bush it becomes necessary to walk back to the beginning and start over again (needless to say butterfly-watching is time consuming).

Not that I mind. The results are very encouraging.

Neophilus or Spear winged Cattleheart (Parides neophilus)

Berecynthia Giant Owl (Catoblepia berecynthia)

Cassia’s Owl-Butterfly (Opsiphanes cassiae)

Meton Hairstreak (Rekoa meton)

An abnormally patterned Ricini Longwing (Heliconius ricini)

The camera was still firmly in place when I retrieved it. However my fears were confirmed and the camera lens was indeed partially blocked by the leaf. On the bright side something had definitely been digging for the bait. Another mongoose perhaps? Thankfully, the camera had taken numerous images before the leaf got in the way.

Unidentified Bat

Yet another Robinson’s mouse opossum (Marmosa robinsonii)

Forest Rat

Another Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus)

But it wasn’t the mongoose that was digging for the bait.

Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)

I didn’t expect to see a Caiman but I suppose it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given the proximity of the swamp. There was one final image that I am unable to figure out. Just before the leaf blocked the lens entirely the camera recorded this image.

?

It looks like a pale gray leg but I can’t be sure. It seems that Crab-eating Raccoon will have to wait until I reach the mangrove swamps to have its picture taken.

There is something nice about being out there by myself in the heat of the day. Perhaps it is because I work all week in an office that these weekends in the “bush” become necessary. Or maybe it is that being alone in the “bush” for several hours just enables me to clear my mind and focus on my surroundings. Whatever the reason, evidently there are treasures that you can find in the “bush” other than birds, crab-eating raccoons and butterflies. Treasures like solitude and peace.

The 2011 Christmas Bird Count

The annual Christmas Bird Count was held in Trinidad and Tobago on 2 January 2012. The count has traditionally been held at four locations in Trinidad – Asa Wright, Caroni Swamp, El Tucuche and Morne Bleu – and, as last year, I decided to join the Morne Bleu group.

The day got off to a good early start with this large Barn Owl (Tyto alba) at about 4:00am in Barrackpore.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Barn Owls have a universal distribution and more than 20 different subspecies are known to exist throughout the world. The sub-species found in Trinidad & Tobago, Tyto alba hellmayri, is also found over much of northern South America. This owl can be found relatively easily at night in open country where exposed perches are available. (such as a signboard in this instance). Good locations for this species include playing fields and along the roadside in sugar-cane fields, rice fields and marshland (for example, the Trantrail Road in Valsayn and the S.S. Erin Road near Debe).

Two hours later and the entrance to Morne Bleu’s Radio Tropospheric Scatter Station finally appeared after a final sharp bend in the road. At the top of the hill a small group had already assembled. Unfortunately, much of the view that is usually enjoyed at the overlook was blocked by overgrown vegetation. Great Antshrikes, Golden-crowned Warblers and several Collared Trogons were observed and this lone Hepatic Tanager (Piranga rubra), a Morne Bleu “specialty” was seen feeding on moths.

Hepatic Tanager (Piranga flava)

This highland Tanager is distinguished from other red tanagers by its overall brick red plumage, dark bill and legs (Note: The Hepatic Tanager has now been reclassified as a member of the Cardinal & Grosbeak family). It is only likely to be confused with resident species like the Silver-beaked Tanager or Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and migrant species like the Summer Tanager or Scarlet Tanager (both of which are rather rare visitors)

Hepatic Tanager (Piranga flava)

Other bird species present included Bay-headed Tanagers, Palm Tanagers, a Scaled Pigeon and a Gray-headed Kite but not much else of note was seen. There seemed to be an absence that morning of the many moths that are usually encountered at Morne Bleu and which many bird species have learned to exploit as a food source. This absence might account for the relatively low diversity of bird species there that morning.

We proceeded to Las Lapas, stopping along the way to conduct point counts. This added forest species such as Purple Honeycreeper, Golden-olive Woodpecker and Green Hermit to the growing list. At Las Lapas a female America Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) was found feeding along the roadside.

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

This migrant Warbler is a common visitor to the mangroves and woodlands of Trinidad and Tobago during the northern winter.

High overhead a pair of Bat Falcons (Falco rufigularis) called to each other as they rode the strong winds in search of prey, occasionally returning to a dead tree to rest.

Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis)

This small attractive falcon gets its name from its principal diet of bats which are caught in flight. They will often eat the bats while still flying but may also return to a convenient perch to consume their catch. Besides bats, they will also feed on insects and small birds that they catch.

Heading down the Las Lapas trail we caught glimpses of Gray-throated Leaftossers as they left their nest burrows in the trail’s embankment. Euler’s Flycatcher, White-flanked Antwren and White-necked Thrushes were also seen along the way.

In case anyone grew tired of counting birds they could count butterflies – literally.

89 (Diaethria clymena)

Known locally as the “89” butterfly for the remarkable numerical pattern on the underside of its wings, Diaethria clymena is widely distributed in Trinidad and is commonly seen in proximity to Trema  micrantha trees on which their caterpillars feed.

Not commonly seen however, is this gorgeous male Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra).

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)

Related to the aforementioned Hepatic Tanager, the male Summer Tanager has brilliant red plumage and a yellow bill. It is a migrant from North America on passage further south to the South American mainland (Note: The Summer Tanager has now been reclassified as a member of the Cardinal & Grosbeak family).

As the time wore on we decided to call it a day. Back at the head of the trail, as we rested under the shade of an avocado tree, two Yellow-tufted Prepona (Prepona laertes) (referred to by Barcant as the Purple King Shoemaker) were observed feeding on the sap exuded from a cut in the tree’s bark. Also attempting to join the feast was a Red Cracker (Hamadryas amphinome) (referred to by Barcant as the King Cracker), another “sap sucking” species.

 

Yellow-tufted Prepona/Purple King Shoemaker (Prepona laertes)

Red Cracker (Hamadryas amphinome)

The presence of these insects may have caught the eye of this gorgeous male Collared Trogon (Trogon collaris) which perched briefly in the tree before flying up to pluck some unseen food morsel from the branches and then flying off.

Collared Trogon (Trogon collaris)

It was also time for us to leave as we ended a productive and enjoyable morning. Hopefully the new year will bring many more rewarding experiences for all of us as we continue to explore the natural environment of Trinidad & Tobago.

Unfamiliar faces 2011.08.31

It took me just about 15 minutes to drive to the South Oropouche Lagoon (SOL) on Independence Day. Birdwatchers and other naturalists occasionally visit from north Trinidad and even further afield from North America and Europe. For human beings such a journey might seem trivial, but for many non-human inhabitants the journeys which led them to this swamp are much more interesting. Through human influence or under their own power, the swamp is now home to several foreign plant and animal species.

Driving through the drier agricultural areas of the SOL it is possible to find the Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild). The waxbill is native to the African continent but it is a popular cage-bird in the pet trade.

Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild)

This popularity eventually led to birds either escaping or being deliberately set free and feral populations are now established in Europe, Hawaii, Bermuda and Brazil. The bird was first detected in the Orange Grove area of Trinidad in 1990 (Hayes and White 2000) and has slowly made its way south. By 2008 it was detected in the SOL.

Also in these agricultural areas of the SOL it is possible to find the Tri-coloured Munia (Lonchura malacca). With their large ivory bills, these large attractive finches bear a superficial resemblance to the familiar ‘bullfinch’ or Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch.

Tri-coloured Munia (Lonchura malacca).

The munias are native to Sri Lanka and India but it is popular as a cage-bird and feral populations of escaped/released birds have become established in Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. They were found to be living in the SOL in 2008. Given their similarity to the ‘bullfinch’, my own suspicion is that munias were smuggled across from Venezuela with the expectation that they shared the latter’s ability to sing. The Tri-coloured Munia is however a dreadful songster and was probably liberated soon after this realization.

My intention that morning was to try to photograph a Gray-breasted Crake and for this I chose a dry grass-field that had been cleared by fire in the recent past. Crakes usually respond well to audio playback of their calls and after a few minutes a crake briefly popped its head out of the grass before disappearing again. I thought that it would reappear for sure and soon there came a rustling from the bushes nearby. It wasn’t a crake that emerged but yet another foreigner – the Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus).

Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus)

As most readers would probably know, the Indian Mongoose was brought across to the Caribbean from South Asia in an attempt to control the snakes and rats that inhabited the cane-fields. It would hard to say what effect they had on their intended prey but the mongoose did not limit themselves to cane-field pests. They ate small birds, eggs, nestlings, small mammals, small reptiles and amphibians alike. No doubt it was attracted to the sound of the crake and had intended to make a meal of it.

I figured that with a mongoose in the area I should try my luck elsewhere. As I approached another dry field I inadvertently flushed this Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) from the short grasses (unlike many sandpipers, the Upland Sandpiper favors dry ground).

Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda)

No escapee from a cage this time, the Upland Sandpiper is a long-distance migrant flying all the way from as far north as Alaska and migrating every year to South America, venturing as far south as Argentina. Besides the Upland Sandpiper, there are approximately 40 other migrant bird species that visit the SOL yearly.

And while a routine migration over such a distance is amazing, the SOL was also the destination of at least one even more amazing albeit accidental journey. As reported in a previous post, a Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) had been found feeding here in July 2008. The bird had a band on its leg that was eventually traced back to Donana National Park in Spain, nearly 6,000 km away. Such a journey is facilitated by the prevailing NE trade winds which can drive a bird straight to the Caribbean. It is of course a one way trip for these birds with no way of flying against the trade winds to get back home.

Returning home might be a tactic employed by another feathered traveler. That morning I came across this large flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) in the swamp consisting of at least 40 individuals.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

The population of these ducks has benefited from the breeding programme at the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust.  It has been said that these ducks return ‘home’ to the Trust to raise their young. It had even been suggested that the birds did this to avoid hunters during the open season. It would be hard to say whether this is true. However these ducks had to have come from somewhere as they were not in the area a few months ago. Alternatively, they might have been breeding deep within the Godineau Swamp or even the nearby Rousillac Swamp. Another possibility is that the local population is supplemented by birds dispersing from the Venezuelan mainland.

If the latter is true then the ducks might recognize a fellow Venezuelan marsh dweller amongst the vegetation.

Scarthyla vigilans

The small frog Scarthyla vigilans was recorded in Trinidad only in July 2010 (Murphy 2011:pers. comm). This frog was first thought to be endemic to the Maracaibo Lake basin in Venezuela (Rojas-Runjaic et al 2008). Apparent range expansions resulted in several other populations being established in northern South America. It is however not likely to be a recent arrival in Trinidad but was probably overlooked previously or misidentified as another frog. I only recently learnt of its presence but its characteristic day-time vocalizations make it easy to identify. It seems to be established in suitable habitat over much of south Trinidad.

Other foreigners lurk in these waterways. The Three-spot Gourami (Trichogaster trichopterus) was discovered in the SOL in 2009 (Mohammed et al 2010).

Three-spot Gourami (Trichogaster trichopterus) - Photo - Mohammed R.S. et al 2011

The dead individual pictured above was removed from the stomach of a Guabine (Hoplias malbaricus) by researchers studying the Gourami population. It is native to the Mekong Basin in South East Asia but is very common in the international pet trade and is a popular aquarium fish in Trinidad & Tobago. Needless to say, some individuals either escaped or were released into the SOL or one of its tributaries.

Another aquatic invader is the Malaysian Prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) which was documented in the SOL in 2005 (Rostant 2005; Mohammed et al 2011).

Last but not least, there is even a foreign plant species that has escaped into the SOL. Limnocharis flava is a freshwater plant native to Asia.

Limnocharis flava

This plant has also spread to parts of the United States and South America. It is edible and was possibly introduced to Trinidad as a food plant or as an ornamental for artificial ponds. Alternatively, seeds might have also been accidental transported in imported rice seeds or agricultural equipment.

In preparing this article I was myself surprised by the number of non-resident species present in the South Oropouche Lagoon. For better or worse many of these species will eventually be regarded as part of our flora and fauna. Despite their diverse origins I suppose our national anthem says it all – “Here every creed and race find an equal place”. It would seem that this applies to the wildlife as well.

 

References

Hayes, F.E. and White, G. 2000. First report of the Trinidad and Tobago Rare Bird Committee. Living World, Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club, 1999-2000: 39-45

Mohammed, R. S., Ramjohn, C., Lucas, F. and Rostant, W. G. 2010. Additional Observations on the Distribution of Some Freshwater Fish of Trinidad and the Record of an Exotic. Living World, Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club, 2010: 43-53

Mohammed, R. S., Ramjohn, C. and Bhukal, R. 2011. Malaysian Prawns, Macrobrachium rosenbergii, Trinidad’s Invasive Alien; Biological Indicator or Aquaculture Species? Living World, Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club, 2011: 66-69

Rostant, W.G. 2005. Freshwater Decapod Communities of Trinidad and Tobago. M. Phil Thesis. Department of Life Sciences, The University of the West Indies. 180 p.

Rojas-Runjaic, F.J.M., Barrio-Amorós, C.L., Molina, C., Señaris, J.C. and Fedón, I.C. 2008. Amphibia, Anura, Hylidae, Scarthyla vigilans: Range extensions and new state records from Delta Amacuro and Miranda states, Venezuela. URL <www.checklist.org.br/getpdf?NGD109-08>

We find the dam road 2011.06.30

The Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir has always been a point of interest for me. Nestled in the Victoria Mayaro Reserve, the forest fringed reservoir lies to the north of Edward Trace, about 4.5 miles from Moruga. We have tried in the past to locate the dam via Edward Trace but never managed to find it on account of poor road conditions and safety concerns. It was only recently that we realized it was also accessible via Cat’s Hill – an area that we frequently visit. We had in fact been driving past the unmarked road without knowing it.

The Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir

Unfortunately I cannot seem to find much literature about the Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir. It is maintained by WASA, supposedly as a source of potable water but the agency’s website does not make mention of it.  The surrounding Inniss oilfield was identified as a valuable butterfly collecting area by Malcom Barcant, author of “The Butterflies of Trinidad and Tobago”. He made particular reference to the presence of Papillo torquatus in the area (a butterfly he feared no longer existed on the island) stating “In May 1960 suspicions of its occurrence in the Cat’s Hill Reserve came to light and in June 1961 a secluded area within the forest at Inniss Field, Cat’s Hill (north of the dam) was found to be very productive”. But all other references that I found were in reference to its value as an oil producing region. It seemed likely that the area would have a lot of value for birdwatching as well and I often imagined (dreamed?) that one day maybe a Sungrebe or Rufescent Tiger-Heron or some other rare bird might be found skulking about the forest edged reservoir.

Our first attempt to explore the newly ‘discovered’ road was hampered by heavy rains and while we were able to catch a glimpse of the reservoir, the rains made the muddy track that led to the water’s edge impassable.

Still, the visit showed us the great potential of the area for birdwatching. The road is bordered by dense forest interrupted by the occasional oilwell. During the brief breaks in the rainstorm several pairs of Channel-billed Toucans (Ramphastos vitellinus) were seen on exposed branches trying to dry their soaked feathers in the damp morning air.

Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)

The forest canopy is not particularly high and the occasional patches of Bactris palms inside the forest might indicate that the area was once logged for timber. However I could not detect any recent signs of logging activity in the area.

Also seen trying to dry itself in the trees bordering an oilwell clearing was this large raptor, believed to be a Great Black-Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga).

Possibly a Great Black-Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga). Photograph © Dave Smith

This hawk can be distinguished from the very similar Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) by the size of its beak, long legs, overall body size and by the extent of white on its tail. Later that day we were fortunate to find a Common Black Hawk in a similar soggy predicament, trying to dry itself in a pose that allowed for a comparison.

Great Black Hawk (LHS) and Common Black Hawk (RHS). Photographs © Dave Smith

Both of these birds of prey feed on small birds, reptiles and mammals that they encounter in the forest. Additionally, Common Black Hawks are fond of crabs and can also be seen along forest streams, mangrove swamps and along the coast.

Birds of prey are not the only dangers for small animals in this area. We came across two Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox) mere meters apart from each other. Both snakes had been killed only hours before by oilfield workers as they crossed the road.

Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox)

The Fer-de-Lance is one of four venomous snakes found in Trinidad. Its venom contains a potent hemotoxin which destroys red blood cells and causes general tissue damage. Death is quite possible unless the appropriate antivenin is administered.

Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox)

The four venomous snakes of Trinidad are not protected by law if they are found on private land because of the potential threat they pose to human life. Venomous snakes are protected if they are found on state lands but it is unlikely any game warden or police officer would enforce this law given the aforementioned danger. Indeed, both snakes were killed a stone’s throw from a makeshift office used by oilfield workers.

Our second visit to the Inniss-Trinity Field, two weeks later, was even better. We wanted to head out to Cat’s Hill early that morning and managed to arrive at 5:00 am that morning. Our intention was to find the Mottled Owl (Ciccaba virgata) that had been previously seen in the area (see Noteworthy bird sightings: May 2011). Along the way several nightjars, most likely Paraques (Nyctidromus albicollis), were flushed along the road. Many nightjars have the habit of ‘sitting’ along the quieter country roads at night to hunt for flying insects. Unfortunately nightjars are often killed by vehicles because of this (See Road Mortality gallery).

We succeeded in attracting the Mottled Owl by using an audio recording of its call and by using a torch we were able to get a few decent views of it. Caution must always be taken when using audio playback to attract birds as excessive usage can become very stressful for them. For this reason we did not make any serious attempt at photography and left soon after (The picture below was taken when the bird was first seen in May).

Mottled Owl (Ciccaba virgata)

As dawn broke we ventured deeper into the Inniss-Trinity Field. From the depths of the forest, hopelessly out of our view, a Bearded Bellbird (Procnias averano) was heard calling. Better known as a forest bird of the mountainous Northern Range, bellbirds are resident in the Southern Range although they are hard to observe given the flatter terrain (Do they live in the Central Range as well?). Another forest resident which was up and about that morning was the attractive Black-tailed Tityra (Tityra cayana) which was feeding in a tree along the road. This offered me the best views that I have ever had of this handsome species. Unfortunately, in my excitement it did not occur to me to take a photograph. I didn’t make the same mistake when we came upon this Scaled Pigeon (Patagioenas speciosa) later that morning.

Scaled Pigeon (Patagioenas speciosa)

In my experience this fruit eating forest pigeon is always quite skittish and usually doesn’t hang around for photographs. When it flew off a few minutes later it might have been because it saw this bird approaching.

Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)

The magnificent Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) is a regular visitor to forests in Trinidad but its regularity in no way detracts from its graceful beauty. The bird flew low overhead before plunging into the canopy of a nearby tree to snatch something. It must have missed as the kite emerged clutching only a few leaves.

Another photogenic raptor was the ubiquitous Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea).

Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea)

They are considered breeding visitors to the island but a few individuals stay year round and can be found in considerable numbers in the forests of South Trinidad. Large numbers of both kite species will occasionally flock together and ride the forest thermals in a swirling mass referred to as a ‘kettle’. Unlike Swallow-tailed Kites, the Plumbeous Kites are almost entirely insect eaters.

Eventually we arrived at the Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir and proceeded on foot down the muddy track to the causeway that crosses the south-western end of the reservoir. Here, on the wet earth, various butterflies gathered to take in dissolved salts including a Many-banded Daggerwing (Marpesia chiron marius) and an unidentified hesperid (The Daggerwing is referred to by Barcant as the “Road Page”).

Many-banded Daggerwing (Marpesia chiron marius)

 

Unidentified Hesperid butterfly

At the waters edge we searched for birds out on the open water and on nearby trees. Disappointingly, only a few Wattled Jacanas and a Limpkin were seen – so much for skulking Sungrebes and Tiger-Herons.

The Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir

 

As I mentioned before, I am not sure of the history of the Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir but I assume it is man made. Several partially submerged tree trunks may also indicate that the water level has risen in recent times (unless the tree trunks have somehow remained intact since the dam was first formed)

Submerged tree in the Inniss Reservoir

The reservoir must have originally been used as a water source to facilitate oil extracting operations in the area. Currently, oil production in the area has been contracted out to Norway based FRAM Explorations. According to the company’s website “Fram plans to commence an aggressive development drilling program starting Fourth Quarter 2011. The wells are expected to produce 80-100 bopd from previously overlooked and/or under-evaluated horizons”. I only hope that aggressive exploration does not translate into extensive environmental damage in the area (more on FRAM Explorations here)

FRAM Exploration

We decided to call it a day at this point and headed back out. Along the way we heard and then saw this very co-operative Bright-rumped Attila (Attila spadiceus)

Bright-rumped Attila (Attila spadiceus)

This drab forest bird is more often heard than seen, but is easily recognized by its melodious vocalizations. Fortunately this one remained on an exposed branch for several minutes.

Quite contrary to the drab Attila was this flamboyant but rather unmusical Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucos). The Crimson-crested Woodpecker can be distinguished from the similar Lineated Woodpecker by several facial features but the white ‘spot’ under the eye of this bird was a definite indicator of a male Crimson-crested.

Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucos)

In the end it was a very rewarding trip with lovely views of some lovely birds. We still need to explore the other approaches to the Inniss-Trinity Dam and given that the area is such a great place to look for birds we will definitely be back. We just have to remember to look for those Fer-de-Lance too!

 

The road to Inniss-Trinity Field Reservoir

Carnival takes flight 2010.03.30

Colour! Energy! Movement! Excitement! These are all words that describe the yearly Carnival festival for which Trinidad and Tobago is well known. But they can also describe another well known feature of our country – our hummingbirds. So I suppose I was celebrating a different kind of Carnival when I took advantage of the day off from work on Carnival Monday to visit a very interesting hummingbird project right here in Trinidad. It was named after the Amerindian word for the hummingbird – Yerettê.

Nestled in the Maracas Valley, Yerettê is the brainchild of one of Trinidad and Tobago’s well known bird photographers, Dr. Theodore Ferguson. What began as an experiment with one feeder has now become an attraction for birdwatchers and the Ferguson’s unassuming patio is now lined with hummingbird feeders. With the help of his wife Gloria, it has quickly become one of the best sites in the country to observe our hummingbirds. Indeed, twelve of Trinidad and Tobago’s seventeen species of hummingbirds have so far been recorded at Yerettê. Just as remarkable is the sheer number of birds that regularly flood the area and they can easily number in their hundreds. So, with such good odds in my favor, I arrived at Yerettê that morning hoping to see all twelve of them.

Black-throated Mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis) - Male

The Black-throated Mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis) was one of the more noticeable hummingbird species at the feeders that day. This hummingbird is common in a wide range of habitats at all levels. Larger than most of Trinidad and Tobago’s hummingbirds, Black-throated Mangos are sexually dimorphic – which means that the sexes are visibly different. Males have a black throat that is bordered by iridescent blue when seen in proper lighting.

Black-throated Mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis) - Female

Female birds are very easy to identify, thanks to their bold chest markings of black and white.

But that flash of white may also have been a White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora).

White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) - Female

Unlike the previous species, this hummingbird shows a clear preference for forests and is often seen feeding at flowers in the canopy of forest trees on both islands. The male Jacobin has a dark blue head and a white belly. They have white tail feathers and several were seen that morning, spreading their tails in flight when displaying to other Jacobins.

White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) - Immature

Immature males, like the one shown here, have a noticeable brown patch on their faces while females have a very scaly appearance and lack the male’s stunning blue head.

Another forest dwelling hummingbird there that morning was the magnificently iridescent Blue-chinned Sapphire (Chlorestes notata).

Blue-chinned Saphire (Chlorestes notata) - Male

Its metallic green plumage shone brightly when in the proper lighting. So too does its blue chin from which the bird’s name is derived. While it is common in Trinidad it has not been recorded in Tobago for decades.

The Long-billed Starthroat (Heliomaster longirostris) is a widespread inhabitant of forested areas in Trinidad. It is not present in Tobago.

Long-billed Starthroat (Heliomaster longirostris) - Male

True to its name, its bill is quite long relative to our other local hummingbird species. The above photograph, unfortunately, does not capture the gorgeous blue cap and ruby throat of the male.

Don’t let this photograph fool you either.

Tufted Coquette (Lophornis ornatus) - Immature

This remarkably tame immature male Tufted Coquette (Lophornis ornatus) does little to reflect the fantastic plumage of adult males which is not unlike the ornate Carnival costumes that crossed the stage of Dimanche Gras the night before (Click here to see an adult male in plumage). This is Trinidad’s smallest hummingbird and, at 2.3 grams, it is the second smallest hummingbird in the entire world. It is not found in Tobago.

One of the more common species at Yerettê that morning was the Copper-rumped Hummingbird (Amazilia tobaci).

Copper-rumped Hummingbird (Amazilia tobaci)

Indeed, this hummingbird is a familiar sight throughout Trinidad and Tobago. They are identified by their bronze-coloured lower back and steel blue tail feathers. Like many hummingbirds, it quickly becomes accustomed to human activity and will often allow a very close approach.

Another very common hummingbird at the feeders was the White-chested Emerald (Amazilia brevirostris).

White-chested Emerald (Amazilia brevirostris)

It is rather sedately plumaged compared to its relatives – males and females are similar in appearance, having predominantly emerald green upperparts with a white chest and belly. It is found in much the same range of habitats as the Copper-rumped Hummingbird, but is not found in Tobago.

If looking at a Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus) in bad light, you would be excused for thinking that the bird was a rather dull brown.

Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus) - Male

However, if seen in the right light, the glowing topaz throat and ruby red crown are at once apparent. The Ruby-Topaz is equally at home at higher elevations as it is at sea level and it inhabits a wide range of environments from gardens to dry scrub to forest to swamp.

Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus) - Female

Also seen that day were all three members of the Hermit family – represented on our islands by the Rufous-breasted, Green and Little Hermits. These hummingbirds are more at home in the forest undergrowth and seem to shun the open sunlit areas of the Ferguson’s garden, preferring to feed at the shaded feeders instead (as a result I was unable to get any good photographs).

The only one of Yerettê’s species that I did not see that morning was, unsurprisingly, the rarest. The Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) is a rarely seen resident of Trinidad and Tobago’s forests. Usually only a few sightings of this bird are reported in the country each year and Yerette has been fortunate to have had them make an appearance at the feeders occasionally.

Nevertheless, it was a remarkable way to spend a Carnival Monday morning, watching these jeweled revelers of the sky. And there are other hummingbird species that the Fergusons still hope to one day see in their garden. The Blue-tailed Emerald and the rare Rufous-shafted Woodstar are both possible candidates. They should not be too surprised if they see me in their garden again as well.

Yerettê: Home of the Hummingbird