Start at Trinidad and Tobago to discover the world of tropical birding

Published 8/31/18

Your Hummingbird Connection, a monthly column in the Red Rock News, Sedona, Arizona  © Dr. H. Ross Hawkins

One of the tiniest hummingbirds in the world, a male Tufted Coquette perches between feedings at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad.
Photo © Beth Kingsley Hawkins. Used with permission.

I will never forget our first morning at the Asa Wright Nature Centre on Trinidad, having hot tea on their famous "veranda" at 5:30 a.m. as we awaited breakfast at 7:00 a.m. We saw seven new species of hummingbirds in that period of ninety minutes (!).

The ancient name for Trinidad was Iere, for "land of the hummingbirds." But it could well be called "The Island of the Jewels" after the flying jewels to be found there: Ruby-Topaz; White-chested Emerald; Blue-chinned Sapphire; and Blue-tailed Emerald—all dazzling hummingbirds!

If you've not yet discovered the world of birds that live outside the U.S., I recommend you start at Trinidad and Tobago (two words, but it's a single country), which lies just off the coast of South America—at its closest point, only seven miles from Venezuela. The closeness of TT to South America is rooted in the fact that both are continental islands, not volcanic islands. Before the last ice age ended, they were connected by a dry land bridge to what we now call South America. This explains the diverse flora and fauna more characteristic of a continent. To illustrate this point: TT has over 350 species of trees, while on the closest volcanic island (Grenada) one can find barely a dozen.

TT has documented 482 species of birds, yet its size is only somewhere between Rhode Island and Delaware. A total of 765 species of butterflies has been documented, though some are quite rare. It is a rich country for Nature-lovers to discover. (It's actually rich in another way, too. It has one of the highest GDP rankings among the Caribbean countries.)

But this article isn't about economics: it's about a place to discover the world of tropical birding. My wife and I made our first visit in 1991. We've been back seven times since then. You can stay at Asa Wright for a week and explore all the possibilities on the grounds. They also facilitate day trips that let you go further. Guides are readily available. In particular, be sure to travel to Caroni Marsh to witness the evening fly-in of hundreds—maybe thousands—of scarlet ibis (the national bird of Trinidad) as they fly in to roost for the night, looking like blazing red ornaments on a background of green trees.

Back to hummingbirds: You can find 17 species on the two islands, about the number you can find in the entire U.S.! [Do I have your attention?]

It was while exploring Tobago that I first saw an endangered hummingbird: the White-tailed Sabrewing. Fortunately, its outlook has improved since then, and it is currently ranked "Near Vulnerable," happily falling outside the rankings that qualify as "threatened with extinction." Incidentally, the White-tailed Sabrewing is found only in the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Notably, when this reserve was created (1776!) it was the world's first legally protected forest reserve with a conservation purpose. This reflects well on the consciousness of Trinidad and Tobago.

If you travel to TT, plan to spend time on both islands, maybe three days on Tobago and five on Trinidad. The islands are different and deserve your separate attention.

The Hummingbird Society may be able to help you if you choose to make a trip to this island paradise. Just give us a call.

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Photo: Wally Nussbaumer

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