Expect the unexpected – Cat’s Hill 2010.04.11

While writing my last post (Run to the hills 20100316) I had assumed that the severe fires currently experienced throughout south Trinidad would negatively affect the outcome of a trip in these parts. I was not entirely correct in that assumption. My father got it right when he suggested that extreme events like bush fires, while disruptive to the lives of wildlife, might result in surprise encounters as animals, typical of another environment, are forced to relocate.

The Cat’s Hill area is dominated by two radically different forest types . One portion is covered by extensive teak fields; actively harvested by loggers, heavily eroded and ritually burned. The other section is covered by lowland forest, part of a massive expanse that reaches all the way to the Trinity Hills. I was interested in seeing the damage done by the fires in the Cat’s Hill teak fields, so on April 11th my dad and myself visited the area.

The fire damage to the teak field was severe as expected.

Trinidad and Tobago Cat's Hill Teak plantation

Teak (Tectonis grandis) produces a considerable volume of leaf litter which, in the dry season, is easily ignited. The fires not only clear the leaf litter, but will also burn off the undergrowth. The result is the complete removal of ground cover and the now exposed earth is susceptible to erosion (and the eventual loss of soil nutrients). You might think this would be disastrous to the teak fields but teak is in fact quite fire resistant thanks to the high levels of silica in its wood. Foresters use this to their advantage and deliberately set fires to the fields; the clear ground making it easier for them to operate. Additionally, by reducing the number of other plant species present, competition by the trees for light and scarce soil nutrients is reduced. Not surprisingly, the only other common plant in these areas is the spiny Lata Palm (Bactris Major) which can tolerate the frequent burning.

White Hawk Leucopternis albicollis

White Hawk (Leucopternis albicollis)

What I did not expect was that there was life here. A White Hawk (Leucopternis albicollis) perched on a blackened tree stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Eventually, unnerved by our presence, it flew deeper into the field (Don’t be fooled by the greenery in the background; it was one of the few green trees to be seen).  While it might be easier now for these raptors to see their prey (those lizards and rodents that managed to escape the fires) on the forest floor, I wonder if there is much prey to be had at all in the ash.

Trinidad and Tobago Tropical Pewee Contopus cinereus

Tropical Pewee (Contopus cinereus)

Other regular inhabitants, like this Tropical Pewee (Contopus cinereus) and Striped Cuckoo (Tapera naevia), seemed to be equally at home in the altered landscape.

 
 
 
 
 

 

Trinidad and Tobago birds Striped Cuckoo Tapera naevia

Striped Cuckoo (Tapera naevia)

It is likely that these insect eaters would have to rely on the remaining patches of vegetation to supply them with food. At one point we even encountered a Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana), a bird typically found high up in the middle and upper storey of large trees, feeding a few feet off the ground in a small clump of roadside shrubs. This sort of adaptability is no doubt vital to life in such a harsh environment.

Perhaps even stranger was the unmistakable sound of Bearded Bellbirds (Procnias averano). Given their impressive vocal range it is hard to say whether they were actually positioned in the teak fields or in the forest beyond (the now leafless teak trees providing little resistance to the transmission of sound). Save for one fleeting view of a green bird that could possibly have been a female I have never actually seen a Bearded Bellbird here (or anywhere else for that matter). Either way, their calls made an interesting addition to the Cat’s Hill soundscape.

Leaving the teak fields we found the lowland forests in surprisingly good condition. The forest was dry and by midday the heat was unbearable but there was little evidence of fire. In the shade of the forest floor we chanced upon an ant swarm followed by a multitude of attending birds. Many bird species have learnt to follow these marauding swarms, picking off the insects that try to escape the ants. A total of seven species including Rufous breasted Wren (Thryothorus rutilus), Red-crowned Ant-Tanager (Habia rubica), White-lined tanager (Tachyphonus rufus), Plain-brown and Cocoa Woodcreepers (Dendrocincla fuliginosa/Xiphorhynchus susurrans), White-bellied Antbird (Myrmeciza longipes) and a Plain Antvireo (Dysithamnus mentalis) were seen that morning, however the gloom of the undergrowth prevented me from taking any decent photographs.

By 9:30 am we were nearing the Rio-Claro/Guayaguayare road when my dad pointed out a hawk in a tree up ahead. It was a large bird with a curious looking feather sticking up on its head and looking through the hazy windscreen it took me a couple of seconds to realize what we were looking at

Trinidad and Tobago birds Ornate Hawk-Eagle Spizaetus ornatus

Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus)

Incredibly, we had in front of us an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus). I am not sure when one of these beautiful birds, normally associated with the mountain forests of the Northern  Range, was last documented in southern Trinidad but it was probably some time ago. Perhaps it was a resident of the Trinity Hills that was driven out by forest fires, or maybe a stray from as far a field as Venezuela or perhaps again a bird belonging to the Northern Range undergoing seasonal migration to the Venezuelan mainland. It is difficult to say for sure but it is fantastic to see one down here.

Ornate Hawk-Eagles and Bellbirds are not the only strangers in Cat’s Hill these days.

The state oil company, Petrotrin, has several production (oil)wells located throughout the area and they have recently leased them to private contractors for refurbishment and restarting/continuing extraction operations. It was surprising to see areas that I have driven by several times, suddenly clear of vegetation and with a pumping jack actively extracting that valuable commodity.Trinidad and Tobago Cat's Hill environment

But before anyone reading this starts getting worked up about it, honestly I expect the damage to the environment to be minimal and, save for a well blowout or oil leak, the forests should be safe. Oil companies have been opereating in Cat’s Hill since the 1950’s and the “new” well sites we saw are in fact previously operating wells that, for one reason or another, were capped and abandoned, the forest slowly reclaiming the exposed land (note the green heliconia shoots already springing up in the foreground of the photo above). Indeed, it is because of the oil companies that we have tracts of forested land in Cat’s Hill, Guayaguayare, Point Fortin and elsewhere that might otherwise have been felled for housing or agriculture. And given the damage that fire can do to an oil producing facility I would hope that extra attention will now be given to the prevention of forest fires. This is not to say that the biodiversity of these areas has not been negatively affected for indeed they have, but given that industrialization must inevitably occur at some level, the current situation represents an acceptable compromise.

Trinidad and Tobago Cat's Hill environment

Finally, I was rather concerned to see two birds that were host to rather obvious white ticks on their faces (a bit disappointed too as my heart skipped a few beats both times thinking I was looking at a strange new bird). One a White-bearded Manakin and the other a Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, I have no particularly intelligent explanation for this observation and I find it strange that in both cases the birds have been unable to remove the bloodsuckers (both lodged on their cheek within range of their feet). I can only assume that the dry season had these birds stressed and therefore susceptible to such parasites but certainly this matter will require some further research. And given our experiences that day I think I’ve learnt my lesson about making assumptions.

4 comments ↓

#1 timmaz24s on 05.04.10 at 4:02 pm

wow a bellbird & a ornate hawk-eagle in the south land. i’ve been saying this for the last few years to people that we don’t do extensive birding down south because north people say its to far to go south. hey man good work. i appreciate what you do & look forward for your trip reports. i support you 100%.

#2 imran khan on 04.12.11 at 11:19 pm

Yep, i spent about 4 weeks near/ just east of the northern part of the trinity hills wildlife sanctuary and on most days you could hear the bellbirds. This was in Feb/March, 2011. Did not sound as plentiful as they do up north, and no one was able to see them through the towering canopy. Also, ever heard of a Motmot as far south as on the Trail to Caniri Bay? That was also a wonderful find for us, especially so as the land was generally flat, as opposed to the hilly areas that i know em from in TT.

#3 Administrator on 04.14.11 at 7:33 am

I have never seen or heard a Motmot in Cat’s Hill or Edward’s Trace and I always wondered if there were any around so it’s good to hear that they are present in the area. Last year I saw one along the Southern Main Road just before Los Blanquizales so they are present in the Cedros/Chatam Forest Reserve as well.

#4 timmaz24s on 08.13.11 at 10:13 am

Once again as always say we don’t do extensive birding in south Trinidad. Thanks to Kris that is now different. Look for instance there is rumour from people who I converse with that in Los Blanquizales there is some resident birds & animals you dnt see elsewhere in Trinidad or Tobago. Like the Red & Green Macaw, Scarlet Macaw, Orinoco Croc, Capybara etc. Anyways sometimes I say these animals better stay in secret before there are wipe out.

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