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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

February 2007

11 February - Dreadlock Holiday

This exquisite beast visited us every night in Trinidad

It’s been along time since I updated the diary, partly because of the house move and decorating which I used as an excuse last time but mainly because I was away for three weeks over Christmas and New Year, first in England and then in Trinidad & Tobago for two weeks, my first trip to that part of the world. Last January’s trip to Kenya convinced me of the benefits of a midwinter trip, it seems to cut the Icelandic winter in half. This time we were looking for somewhere warm and relatively hassle free as my wife is pregnant (nowhere requiring jabs or malaria pills) and Trinidad & Tobago seemed like a good choice (beaches for her, almost every bird new to me). In fact for someone like me who had never got near an antshrike of any description and whose only prior experience of hummingbirds had been a fleeting glimpse of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in New York it proved to be the perfect introduction to the Neotropics. Arriving in Tobago in the dark meant that the first morning’s birding was thrilling, the sense of anticipation as I got up in the semi-dark almost overwhelming as all kinds of outlandish noises squeezed under the door. My first new bird came about three seconds after opening the front door, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, followed by the incredibly common Bananaquit, then Short-tailed Swift, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Eared Dove, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager and Bare-eyed Thrush. And that was just the first 30 seconds. The first few days were just spent wandering on foot through the area around Arnos Vale, learning the local birds, never failing to be enchanted by the numerous, yet bewitching, Barred Antshrikes, pishing out Northern White-fringed Antwrens, becoming blasé at amazing birds such as Blue-crowned Motmot (everywhere!) and Rufous-tailed Jacamar and thoroughly enjoying rum punches while sitting by hummingbird feeders which were attracting lots of Copper-rumped Hummingbirds, Ruby-throated Topazes, Black-throated Mangos, White-necked Jacobins and Rufous-breasted Hermits. After leaving the Fawlty Towers-esque Arnos Vale it was off to the famed Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad for three days, seeing my first lifer from the plane as we came into land, Black Vulture (I did say it was my first time to this area!). The Asa Wright driver was thrilled to hear that we were from Iceland as we could finally settle the age old dispute at the centre: how do you pronounce Asa Wright (she was an Icelander you see). Was it Asa to rhyme with “racer” or Asa to rhyme with “Lhasa”? They were a bit stumped when we said it was neither, the first letter rhymes with “cow”, “ow-sa” but as far as we could tell this pronunciation failed to catch on. I’m told that Asa Wright is looked down upon by a certain type of serious birder. Presumably this is because you can see such desirable birds as Oilbird, two species of lekking manakin and Bearded Bellbirds without risking malaria, kidnap or jaguar attack, i.e. useless if you want to brag to your mates back home. For the rest of us Asa Wright is a great place to stay, if overpriced, and an early morning on the verandas watching magnificent Green Honeycreepers, Purple Honeycreepers, Silver-beaked Tanagers, Great Antshrikes on the feeders, Channel-billed Toucans down the valley and superb hummingbirds like Long-billed Starthroat and Tufted Coquette (the smallest bird I’ve ever seen) visiting the flowers stays long in the memory, even though it does feel a bit like cheating as it’s the easiest kind of birding imaginable. But the real excitement for me was out in the forest. Bearded Bellbirds clanging madly just above your head, displaying Golden-headed Manakins at eye-level left me gaping with their backward slide along the branch and the stupendous whipcrack, static electricity display of bouncing White-bearded Manakins was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The spectacular and enigmatic Oilbird and the critically endangered Trinidad Piping-Guan also stand out but perversely they were all topped by a skulking, fairly dull-coloured bird of the forest floor, Black-faced Antthrush, which was my most wanted bird of the trip before I came and was the only bird song I had learnt back in Iceland. While the field guide says that Black-faced Antthrushes respond well to imitations even though shy I didn’t believe for a second it would work when I did it. But one morning out on the trails on my own I began imitating this bird after hearing it call in the distance and incredibly (to me) it replied. A tense 15 minutes ensued in which the bird got tantalisingly closer, and then it was there, walking across the path like a tiny rail just feet away, a real personal triumph for a complete Neotropical novice like me.

Red-billed Tropicbird on Little Tobago in torrential rain!
Back in Tobago, we stayed at the very pleasant Adventure Farm in Plymouth, and we also drove up to the very beautiful and uncommercialised northern end of the island, visiting a Red-billed Tropicbird colony and later the rainforest with local birder Newton George, who found my target birds: White-tailed Sabrewing, Blue-backed Manakin and Plain Antvireo despite the torrential rain. All in all a very pleasant holiday in an interesting country, friendly people and beautiful landscapes. It certainly whet my appetite for future visits to South America, although as we’re having twins this summer I don’t expect to find myself looking at Magellanic Plover in Patagonia any time soon. In fact I think my next bird trip will be my Black Grasswren pilgrimage to Western Australia in August, August 2025 that is.

February - to be continued

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