Renowned field guide author and illustrator David Allen Sibley spent time with Caligo Ventures’ groups at the Asa Wright Nature Centre to celebrate the Centre’s 50th Anniversary.
A special thanks to Carol Comeau, who hosted the two groups and Steve Wolfe who photographed the birds and the good times throughout the week. Thank you to Carol and Steve who worked together to write this guest blog. And finally, thank you to David Allen Sibley for joining us at the Centre.
Celebrating 50 Years
Caligo Ventures has been the sole North American booking agent for the famed Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) on Trinidad for the past 35 years. To celebrate the Centre’s 50th Anniversary, top celebrities from the birding and birding-art world were invited to visit and provide workshops at AWNC. Caligo Ventures was honored to have David Allen Sibley, ornithologist and renowned author/ illustrator of the Sibley field guides, cap off the celebrity series. From October 26 – November 2, 2017, David Sibley and his wife, Joan Walsh, were at the Centre, overlapping with two of Caligo Ventures’ Guided Group Tours, Independent Birding Venture guests, and lodge stay guests.
On Sunday, October 29, the public was invited to attend two special presentations given by David. An art demonstration, “Why Birds Look the Way They Do,” was held in the morning. The event was attended by AWNC guests, representatives from the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists Club, and AWNC board members Graham White and Martyn Kenefick. During the presentation, attendees enjoyed learning about bird anatomy and feather structure while sketching along with David. After lunch, guests attended David’s PowerPoint presentation, “The Psychology of Bird Identification,” which was inspired by his research into why birds are often misidentified in the field. The big take away was that understanding differences in brain perception is key to understanding why identification errors occur.
Morning coffee and afternoon tea were favorite times to look down on the feeders to witness the endless parade of honeycreepers, bananaquits, tanagers, hummingbirds, agoutis, and tegu lizards.
David and Joan joined guests daily on the AWNC’s famed verandah. Morning coffee and afternoon tea were favorite times to look down on the feeders to witness the endless parade of honeycreepers, bananaquits, tanagers, hummingbirds, agoutis, and tegu lizards. From the top of the forest canopy, Bearded Bellbirds, Channel-billed Toucans, Crested Oropendolas, and Orange-winged Parrots made their presence known through their raucous vocalizations. During quiet moments, David spent time sketching on the verandah.
With Caligo Ventures’ Group 1
The Sibleys joined Tour Group 1, guided by father/son team Dave and Roodal Ramlal, on the Caroni Swamp adventure to watch the spectacle of thousands of Scarlet Ibis flying to their evening roost. Trinidad has experienced record rainfall this year, and we hit heavy rain as we traveled towards the lowlands. Luckily, by the time we reached the Nanan’s Tour Boat, the rain had let up. Our tour boat guide was Lester Nanan. Both his father and grandfather were instrumental in the creation of the Caroni Swamp Bird Sanctuary and the protection of the Scarlet Ibis, Trinidad’s national bird. We started our tour by motoring down a narrow mangrove lined channel.
There are over 100 bird species in the swamp, of which 20 are endangered. To spot birds you need good eyes and a good guide. Our guides, Team Ramlal and Lester Nanan, did not disappoint. They were able to find an American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Tropical Screech Owl, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, several species of herons, and a Cook’s Tree Boa hiding in the mangroves. Since it was high tide, Scarlet Ibis could be seen in the mangroves feeding on crabs. As we neared the roosting island, the channel opened up and the skies cleared, providing great sunlit views of the Ibis flying in for the night. Scarlet Ibis fly to the Venezuelan mainland, 11 miles away, every morning and return to the swamp in the evening. It’s quite a sight to see them in evening light, their scarlet color set against the blue sky. After enjoying the Ibis show, it was rum punch and snack time. That, along with another great outing, contributed to many smiles.
With Caligo Ventures’ Group 2
The Sibleys joined Tour Group 2 and guide Mahase Ramlal for a day exploring Trinidad’s Northern Range along Blanchisseuse Road. Another morning of rain did not dampen our spirits. Undaunted, we enjoyed birding Trinidad style — under umbrellas! By noon the rain had cleared just in time for our special lunch. We stopped at the visitor center in the charming mountain village of Brasso Seco to enjoy a local meal of smoked chicken, rice, beans, taro root, corn pie, and cacao ice cream — a veritable feast!
Smoked meats are a specialty at Brasso Seco. Guests viewed the cooking facility where the legendary buccaneer (smoked) meats are made. Meats are carefully cut and seasoned, placed on a wooden “branca” about three feet above a fire, and covered with banana leaves so the water can slowly cook out of the meat as it absorbs all the smoke flavor. As we feasted, we enjoyed listening to local musicians.
After lunch, we learned about processing both coffee and cacao. We sampled a variety of delicious chocolate and cacao products, including cacao bits, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. Our gastronomically satisfied group was then ready for the afternoon round of birding. We didn’t travel very far up the road before we saw a Rufous-tailed Jacamar on a wire. Other highlights seen in the afternoon included a Black Hawk, Squirrel Cuckoo, and Blue-headed Parrots. The culmination of our outing was seeing a group of Swallow Tanagers. What made this sighting special was that it was a life bird for every person in the group, including the Sibleys!
AWNC’s Own Oilbird Cave
One of the best adventures was saved for last — a visit to AWNC’s own Dunston Cave to see the famed Oilbirds. Soon after leaving the verandah, a cry went out, “There’s an Ornate Hawk-eagle!” There had been recent distant sightings of an immature Ornate Hawk-eagle in the area. The group was quite pleased when the youngster decided to give them a close up view. Landing in a nearby tree, the bird provided excellent looks and photographic opportunities for all.
The group eventually made their way down to the beautiful riparian grotto that houses a colony of about 170 birds. Dunston Cave is one of the most accessible Oilbird caves in the world, and access is strictly controlled to protect this rare species. Oilbirds are the only nocturnal, fruit-eating birds in the world, feeding on the fruit of palms, laurels, and incenses. One of the unique features of the Oilbird is their call. Standing at the mouth of the cave, it becomes quickly apparent why the Oilbird with its unearthly screeches and screams, has earned the names “guacharo” (the one who wails and mourns) and “diablotin” (devil bird).
Doubles: A Real Treat!
And finally, no trip to Trinidad would be complete without sampling one of the country’s iconic snacks — doubles. Trini doubles are essentially chickpea sandwiches; a spiced chickpea filling called channa is nestled between fried pieces of bread called bara. This versatile street snack can be eaten any time of day. One of the tour groups enjoyed stopping at a doubles vendor on their trip to the Nariva Swamp. Doubles can also be purchased at the airport as early as 5:00 AM in the local food court!
Congratulations to AWNC for reaching its monumental 50-year milestone! It was an honor for us to join David Allen Sibley, Centre guests, and staff for the final celebrity event. For travelers seeking a stunning location, amazing wildlife, top-notch guides, and authentic hospitality, AWNC is hard to beat. Much has been achieved over the last 50 years, and we look forward to the Centre’s continued success as a world-class eco-lodge and center for tropical biology, conservation, and education.