A different kind of duck hunt 2010.10.30

I have always been partial to marshland. Forests and woodlands, while biologically endowed in their own unique ways, are sometimes a bit too much for me. Unless you are to limit yourself to one specific interest, butterfly photography for instance, too much time is spent hurriedly looking at the ground, up in the tree canopy and at passing shadows while trying to absorb it all. God forbid you miss something interesting.

A marsh, on the other hand, gives an observer the chance to focus. A lone heron fishes patiently from its water-lily platform. A caiman suns itself on an exposed bank. A crake calls, unseen amongst the reeds. I find it rather relaxing. And while herons and crakes are lovely marshland inhabitants, my favourite marsh birds are ducks. A duck is the quintessential marsh bird – perfectly at home in the water. And it was a duck, cutting to the point of my story, which led us to Kernahan on a clear October morning. A White-faced Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna viduata), the rarest of the three whistling ducks, had been seen here several weeks before and we had hoped to catch up with it.

We arrived in Kernahan just after sunrise (and I hope you appreciate how early one has to get up in the morning to be in Nariva at sunrise) and the residents of the area were already hard at work. Kernahan is a small settlement engaged in the cultivation of water-melon, pepper, cucumbers and rice. Additionally the residents depend on the natural resources of the swamp, including the harvesting of Cascadura (Hoplosternum littorale), Black Conch (Pomacea urceus) and crabs. The illegal large-scale cultivation of rice, by non-residents, commenced in the 1980s and led to the destruction of large areas of the swamp. This was protested extensively and the cultivation was eventually halted by the government. In 1993 the swamp was declared a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

Trinidad and Tobago Kernahan Nariva Swamp lagoon

Kernahan, Nariva

It did not take us long to see our first ducks. Small groups of Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) occasionally took to the air and flew over the marshy lagoons. We eventually located a group, 20+ strong, resting in an open lagoon.

Trinidad and Tobago birds Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) in Kernahan

These ducks are visitors, migrating from the United States and Canada during the northern winter. Beginning in September, they arrive in considerable numbers and probably account for the majority of wild ducks taken during the hunting season. At this time the birds are in eclipse (non-breeding) plumage and this accounts for their drab appearance.

In addition to the White faced duck, we were also on the lookout for the Azure Gallinule (Porphyrio flavirostris). The Azure Gallinule has an interesting history in Trinidad. Despite extensive work done in the area by the TVRL in the Nariva area (see post Back to Bush-Bush), the bird was not discovered until 1978. This suggests that either they went unnoticed all that time or that Azure Gallinules are relatively recent colonizers of Trinidad from the South American mainland. Since then, they have been observed twice in the Caroni ricefields but the Nariva Swamp remains the only reliable location to see this species in Trinidad.

Trinidad and Tobago Kernahan Nariva Swamp road

Dirt track in Kernahan

We searched for the bird in the marshes on either side of this dirt track. The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica), its much commoner relative, is found in considerable numbers here as well. Arguably one of the prettiest birds in Trinidad and Tobago, it is often overlooked by naturalists because of its ubiquitous presence in our marshes.

Trinidad and Tobago birds Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica)

It is also widely hunted by locals and is sometimes referred to by its vernacular name of “Waterman”.

Also keeping us company on the track was a small group of Plain-breasted Ground-Doves (Columbina minuta). These doves are smaller than the common Ruddy Ground-Doves and have much paler under-parts. In addition, the males also have a noticeable blue-grey crown.

Trinidad and Tobago birds Plain-breasted Ground-Dove

Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (Columbina minuta)

Eventually we did succeed in finding our Azure Gallinule.

Trinidad and Tobago birds Azure Gallinule

Azure Gallinule (Porphyrio flavirostris).

As you can see it was a rather difficult bird to photograph owing to its habit of hiding in the vegetation. It is also a rather small bird, noticeably smaller than the Purple Gallinule (a better image can be found here).

The Azure Gallinule was exciting enough but moments after, as we proceeded along the track, a large animal appeared ahead of us. It took me a while to realize what it was and by that time it had already slipped back into the water without allowing me a chance to photograph it. It was a Neotropical River Otter (Lontra longicaudis). I would never have guessed that my first encounter with this secretive mammal would have taken place in Nariva and certainly not in the rather inglorious backdrop of a roadside drainage canal – I always imagined them swimming in crystal clear, forest bordered, streams. But I take it to be a good sign that it survives in the area. Indeed, they have been reported from the Ortoire River to the south and the North Oropouche River to the north.

A nearby flooded field was host to several bird species – Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plovers and Black-bellied Plover. There was also a lone Buff-breasted Sandpiper among the group – it is considered a rare visitor to Trinidad. But still no sign of our White Faced Whistling Duck. The common Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) made an appearance however.

Trinidad and Tobago birds Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

These ducks are often active at night and their whistles can be heard as they fly in darkness overhead. Despite pressure from hunting, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are widespread on both our islands.

In the end, we never got a chance to see the White Faced Whistling Duck – there was never any guarantee that it was still in the area to begin with. Nonetheless, it was a very productive day thanks to the Neo-tropical River Otter, Azure Gallinule and Buff breasted Sandpiper sightings – remarkable inhabitants of a remarkable swamp.

Trinidad and Tobago Kernahan Nariva Swamp garden shed


#1 timmaz24s on 11.13.10 at 11:20 am

Good Work keep it up. Every month I look forward for these articles.

#2 sanjiv parasram on 05.02.11 at 8:06 pm

i guess the key is to get there early!!!great pics!

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