Sunday, January 3, 2016

Trinidad 2015 - Oilbirds and Downpours (Oct. 20th, 2015)

     Once again, thanks to our House Wren alarm, we were out the door by 6am. Our morning was uneventful, and we took some time to enjoy the morning feeding frenzy from the veranda. After a hearty breakfast it was finally time to take the long-awaited Oilbird tour! The Oilbird is a unique species that is only found in South America. They are nocturnal, navigate using echolocation, eat only fruits, and live in caves where they roost and breed. Everything about these birds is amazingly unique, including the fact that the chicks can get to be 50% heavier than the adults due to their incredible fat storing abilities. In fact, their name comes from the fact that native peoples used to harvest the chicks for their huge fat reserves which they rendered down for oil. Since Oilbirds live in caves in remote forest locations, they are usually very difficult to access. However, the Asa Wright Nature Centre is host to the most easily accessible colony in the world!
     A few decades ago, the Oilbirds had completely disappeared from the cave at Asa Wright due to an excess of human disturbance. However, rules about how many people may visit the cave per week and how they may conduct themselves while at the cave were put in place, and the birds came back. This is why visitors are only allowed to visit the cave as part of an official tour led by an Asa Wright naturalist (complementary with a 3 night min. stay). Currently the population is somewhere around 150 individuals and holding steady. We were lucky to be visiting Asa Wright during their low season, so myself and my two traveling companions were the only people on our tour! The walk to the cave was a  little treacherous in places, and I nearly ended up sitting very suddenly on my camera right after the guide warned us about slippery rocks. Luckily both my bottom and my camera survived the ordeal. Since we had such a small group we were allowed to actually climb down into the cave and experience being in the middle of the colony. There is no flash photography allowed so I did the best I could with just a weak flashlight illuminating a few birds. However, the video I took of the birds flying around the cave and calling probably best depicts the experience.

Oilbird in nest
Entrance to the Oilbird cave
Panorama of the area around the cave entrance.

     After our experience with the Oilbirds we were so in awe that we didn't know what to do with ourselves until lunch. We ended up not being able to agree on a plan, so we split up, agreeing to meet for lunch. During our explorations the sky opened up and we all found ourselves in the middle of a very intense downpour. With only my baseball cap, arm, and body to cover my DSLR, I ended up running from palm patch to palm patch, catching my breath and wiping off any water on the camera with my shirt under the psuedo umbrellas. Somehow both my camera and lens made it through the storm thanks to my cap and nature-provided umbrellas, but we all ended up soaked.

Agnosia Clearwing (Ithomia agnosia) - found along the road to Asa Wright Nature Center

     After lunch the downpours continued, so we elected to stay on the veranda and watch the birds bathe happily in the rain. We all agreed that there is nothing cuter in this world than a hummingbird taking a shower!

White-chested Emerald taking a shower

Young male White-necked Jacobin taking a shower

 White-chested Emerald showering

Young male White-necked Jacobin showering

Young male White-necked Jacobin drying off in the sun after the downpour

Young male White-necked Jacobin sunning to dry off (photobombed by a Copper-rumped Hummingbird)

Yellow Oriole after the downpour

White-chested Emerald preening in the sun after the rain
Land crab prowling around after the rain. 

Bananaquits going bananas after the rain. 

     By the time we had finished dinner, the downpours had ceased, so we decided to join a guided night walk. We hoped that the rains had brought out a few more creatures, and we were correct! During this walk we saw both Chevron and Pink-toed Tarantulas, many crabs and whip scorpions, frogs the size of my fingernail, walking sticks, and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. My favorite quote from the guide during this walk was: ""Land crabs are the true Trinidadians. They come out onto their front porch to get some air before going to bed".

Pink-toed Tarantula

     Before going to bed we went to sit on the veranda to take advantage of the internet access for a bit and ended up having a great conversation with the security guard about many aspects of life. We hit topics such as the taste of Agouti and other wildlife, getting kids outside, Trinidadian customs, and Indian festivals. Finally around 11:30pm we said goodbye to our new friend and went to bed exhausted, but happy and all the more knowledgeable.

Stay tuned for our last morning at Asa Wright and how we checked off quite a few species in the hours before our plane left.

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