A Year with KOWA Gear

“Optics” are an integral part of a birder’s life. Binoculars and (for many) spotting scopes are without a doubt the most important pieces of equipment we use … essential for almost every birding excursion or outing we make. And the more birding we do, the more important “quality” equipment becomes. We all want optics that are durable, weather-resistant, comfortable to use and, above all else, provide a bright & sharp image for our enjoyment.

I’ve owned and used several pairs of binoculars during my ~20 years of birding … starting with my father’s old Tasco tanks, which he used mostly for the occasional moose hunting trip. I bought my own first pair in university, when my birding hobby got serious, and moved up to a “mid-range” pair a few years later. I purchased my first scope in 2003 – a quality, second-hand one that had been only used a few times and was going for a “steal”. Those optics saw me through a lot of wonderful experiences – beautiful birds, rare sightings, and travel to some very cool places.

But last winter, I found myself needing to replace both my binoculars and my trusty scope. What better time for an upgrade to top-of-the-line equipment?!?! After a little research (reading reviews, chatting with a lot of birders in my network), it didn’t take long to decide that Kowa was the way to go. Kowa scopes are consistently rated at or near the top of the market for image and performance, and their new high-end line of binoculars were getting great reviews (although they hadn’t become popular in North American markets yet, so I knew very few birders who had them!). After talking with some of the lovely people at their North American offices, Kowa very generously offered to provide me with the gear I needed at a price I could appreciate. As a guide and tour leader, many birders from all over the world would enjoy an opportunity to try out, and likely be impressed by, their equipment every year.

I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the package arrived last March … and first impressions were everything I knew they would be. The sleek shape and elegant casing on both the scope and binoculars were a treat to look at, and the feel when I first picked them up were a real joy. These optics were made for my hands 😉  They had arrived just in the nick of time … I was leaving for a birding trip to Honduras the very next day, and the brand new Genesis 10.5×44 binoculars were going to get their first real test in that tropical paradise (I left the scope home for that adventure, but it has traveled everywhere with me since).

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I was honoured last year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing!

I’ve been using my Kowa gear for well over a year now, so it’s time to tell you what I think. And, overall, I think it’s great! My new scope is a Kowa TSN-883 Prominar … an 88mm spotting scope that is often ranked the best in market by professional reviewers. I opted for the angled version – a switch from my old straight scope I loved so much – mostly because of  the flexibility it offers when birding with groups, as I almost always do. Angled scopes can be set up a lower level and still be accessible to people of most heights, and many birders insist that angled scopes are in general more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using it for long periods of time. It did take me a while to get used to the new perspective, but I have to say it’s been a positive change overall. That being said, the TSN scopes are available in both angled and straight models, and it’s really a matter of preference.

Despite the large objective size (88mm), the scope itself is relatively compact and light – making it easier than my previous model for both carrying and traveling. Without the eyepiece, it measures just 13.5 inches and was even able to fit in my carry-on satchel or camera bag when taking a flight (Note that Kowa also makes Prominar models in 77mm and compact 55mm sizes if travel and transport outweigh your need for a large objective). The TSN-883 has a magnesium alloy casing – making it lighter but reportedly just as strong as other brands in its class. The green finish on the casing is quite nice, although the lack of a rubber coating may leave it a little vulnerable to the elements. For added protection, I opted for a Kowa fitted scope cover which does a nice job of shielding the entire scope without making it impractical to use and has a very useful carrying strap. Of course, the scope itself is nitrogen purged and waterproof – like any optics at this end of the market should be.

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Kowa TSN-883 Prominar proudly at work … helping me score an increasingly rare “Newfoundland lifer”. Even the tiny Eared Grebe couldn’t hide on the open ocean with this beauty at my side 😉

All scopes in the Kowa Prominar line have one important thing in common – the objective lens is made of pure fluorite crystal, the standard in optical quality, and has a blend of Kowa’s special coatings to enhance both image and resilience. The result is a wonderful viewing experience – very bright, sharp and excellent colour resolution. Compared to my old scope, and most others that I’ve tried, the brightness of image really stands out when using my TSN-883 — and that matters! I’ve been able to use this scope at dusk and dawn, when many other scopes would have been all but useless. Brightness is also important when looking out over the dark waters of the ocean or on a grey foggy day (things we do a lot in Newfoundland). Birds and details appear very sharp in the scope, and focusing is fast and easy using the dual focusing wheel. Depth of field has been deep (wide?) enough that honing in on a subject isn’t impossible, but narrow enough that foreground and/or background are not too distracting. That sounds simple enough, but not every piece of optics can claim that “sweet spot” in the field of focusing. Notably, the image stays bright and sharp to the very edges of the image – something that can be annoying with lower quality lenses.

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Like all good birding buddies, my Kowa TSN-883 Prominar has been tagging along on all my adventures. Here it is trained on a Red-billed Tropicbird off the verandah of our hotel on Tobago (Trinidad & Tobago 2017)

I love the flexibility of zoom lenses, so I opted for the Kowa 20-60x eyepiece when choosing my gear. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target when necessary is a very useful thing – especially when you’re like me and spend a lot of time watching seabirds and shorebirds. Like the scope body, Kowa eyepieces are also nitrogen purged and waterproof – an important feature considering it is one part of the system that is always exposed to the weather when in use. The eyepiece connects easily to the body, but has a push-button release mechanism that keeps it safely in place until you actually “want” it to come off. Zooming occurs smoothly with a twist of the eyepiece, meaning its easier to stay on a target (even a moving one) when doing so. The image of course loses a little brightness at high magnifications, but less than I was used to with my old scope and zoom eyepiece … and sharpness remains surprisingly good even at 60x. I haven’t for a moment regretted my choice of eyepiece – but for those interested, there are several other options including a 30x wide angle and 25x long eye-relief models.

* Don’t just take my word for it … Many of my tour guests over the past year have commented on the clear, sharp and bright views they enjoyed while using my scope; including experienced birders who own or have used other top brands. Sometimes, it was as much a conversation piece as it was a piece of equipment 😉

As much as I use and enjoy my scope, it should come as no surprise that I (along with most birders) use my binoculars far more often. Binoculars are the essential, if not diagnostic, trademark of a birder — the one piece of equipment that makes us recognizable in the outdoors world, and allows us to enjoy our sport to its fullest. I “need” a quality pair of binoculars, and my new Kowa Genesis XD 10.5×44 did not disappoint.

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My Kowa Genesis 10.5x44s got their baptism by fire — joining me on a birding trip to Honduras just 24 hrs after they arrived. They performed exceptionally well in the humid climate and often dull understories we explored. And the birds we enjoyed together?? Wow.

The key feature of the Genesis XD binoculars is that they use the same extra low dispersion glass as the Prominar scopes, resulting in a very sharp, bright and colour-correct image. The improved viewing compared to my old binoculars was amazing – and easily compared to my experiences looking through similar high-end binoculars belonging to friends and colleagues (including Swarovski and Zeiss). I chose to go with the 10.5×44 model since I was already using 10x binoculars, and prefer the higher magnification for the amount of seawtaching I tend to do. That being said, many birders prefer 8x models for various reasons (wider field of view, less visible shake, etc.) and the Genesis 8.5×44 are equally well reviewed.

Another notable feature of these binoculars is the 44mm objective lenses (vs 42mm in most similar models). The difference may seem minimal, but is actually quite significant – the additional light produces a brighter image that really adds to the overall viewing experience and makes the binoculars usable in slightly dimmer situations (dawn, dusk and foul weather) than they might otherwise be. Interestingly, the objective lenses are threaded to allow the use of 46mm filters – not something that birders tend to do, but could very useful for those who (also?) use their binoculars for viewing the night sky. Combined with the larger magnification and objective size, I imagine these are ideal binoculars for people who dabble in both birding and stargazing.

The one down-side of the increased magnification and objective lenses is that it results in a somewhat larger, heavier pair of binoculars – in fact, they are notably heavier than most similar models. To be honest, I knew this before choosing them and was expecting it to be an issue (if minor), but have to admit that it has not. Even though I still use a traditional neckstrap, I have not noticed any neck strain from long period of use (note that I use an off-brand, cushioned strap that I have loved for years, and have not actually tried the Kowa strap that came with the binoculars). They do feel a bit heavy after holding them up for long periods, but they are so well shaped and comfortable to hold that the weight becomes an after-thought. All that beings said, the additional weight might be consideration for those who prefer lightweight optics, have strength/endurance issues with their arms, or tend to experience some shaking when using binoculars (I don’t like to say it, but especially “older” birders). Like the Kowa scopes and most high-end brands, the binoculars themselves are nitrogen purged and fully water/fog-proof for use in the real world.

Focusing with these binoculars is impressively smooth and comfortable – the central focusing wheel is large, well textured for gripping your finger, and adjusts both quickly and easily. Fine adjustments are easily made, but at the same time I don’t find it “too” sensitive – which can sometimes lead to frustration as you try to get the focus just right. As a birder with interests in broader aspects of nature, I often use my binoculars to look at wildflowers, butterflies and other things during my explorations — things that are sometimes relatively close. I have been very impressed with the “close focus” of these binoculars – coming in at well under 6ft (5.5ft in the specs) and as good as any binoculars I’ve used. In my opinion, this is a very important (and often under-rated) feature that helps set the best binoculars apart from others. If you’ve never enjoyed a colourful spring warbler at full frame in your binoculars, you’re missing out!

The Genesis binoculars have sturdy twist-up eye cups, which I have found to be very useful and stay in place when I’ve set them (an issue I have had with other pairs, when I would sometimes raise them to my eyes and discover one eye cup in the wrong position – occasionally making me miss a flitting bird!). The diopter (used for individually focusing each eye) also has a locking system that prevent it from changing unexpectedly – an issue I have also had with many other pairs. The reported eye relief on this model is 16mm – just on the verge of what most manufacturers/users would consider to be “long eye relief”. This makes them quite comfortable to use with the eye cups fully extended (which I prefer to block out peripheral light), and should be fine for users wearing eyeglasses (something I’ll learn more about over the next few months as I have just started wearing my first pair).

Kowa has also put a lot of thought and effort into the field of “digiscoping” (i.e. using their high-end scopes in combination with digital cameras and phones for photography and/or video). I hope to experiment with this more in the future!

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My Kowa gear has made a huge difference not only to my birding experience, but especially to that of my many clients throughout the past year. Many dozens of birders and nature-lovers enjoyed seeing some pretty fantastic things through my scope & binoculars — including life birds & spectacular displays of nature! A huge thanks to my friends at Kowa for helping me provide them with a top-notch experience.

Finally, a quick comment on customer service with Kowa – which I’ve had opportunity to experience twice since receiving my new optics. Although they have no Canadian offices (a slight inconvenience for us Canadian customers), folks working at their North American offices in California were quick to answer my questions and help in any way. After realizing a small piece (diopter ring) on my new binoculars arrived broken, they expedited a replacement piece to me that arrived within a few days. I also had a very unfortunate incident with my scope, causing the mount to break (due to a significant impact, and not due to any defect or shortfall in the scope itself). The service department at Kowa took care of it quickly, receiving and returning the perfectly repaired scope in excellent time (considering it had to go all the way to California). They have been wonderful to deal with when I need to (although I always hope I don’t!).

 

 

 

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Trinidad & Tobago 2017: Part 2

This past December, I returned to Trinidad & Tobago to lead my second birding tour there with Eagle-Eye Tours. These two islands, located off the coast of Venezuela, provide a great introduction to the incredibly diverse birds and other wildlife of South America. Given the relative small size of the islands, we are able to stay at just two places for the entire tour and enjoy a relaxed pace – but with no shortage of great birds and other highlights!

Below are yet another sample of photos & highlights from our 2017 adventure. If you haven’t already, be sure to check Part 1 of this blog post here. Details about upcoming trips can be found on the Eagle-Eye Tours website (link above).

As I mentioned in my last post, I remember first learning about Trinidad & Tobago when I discovered some stamps from there in a collection given to me by my grandfather. Here is another one of those beautiful stamps (c. 1969). I never became much of a stamp collector, but also never imagined at the time that I’d find myself wandering exotic places all over the world searching out birds and nature!

For most people, parrots are an iconic image of the tropics … and we encountered several species during the tour. Orange-winged Parrots were both the most common and the most noisy. This was a part of a small group that hung out around Asa Wright Nature Centre, sometimes giving great views off the verandah (This photo, and the video below, was taken using my phone and Kowa scope).

While it wouldn’t be easy to choose the “most” beautiful of all the birds that we enjoyed from the verandah at Asa Wright Nature Centre, no doubt the male Violaceous Euphonia is a top contender. These brilliant birds were a regular, if not constant, visitor at the feeders and fruiting trees that surrounded us there.

And of course, it’s not just the birds but other wildlife that makes a visit to Trinidad & Tobago so much fun. Keen eyes can spot a huge diversity of life, such as this male Ameiva – perhaps the most common lizard on the islands.

A lot of life in the tropics comes out after the sun goes away, so we took several evening strolls to look for a variety of wildlife. This Ratonel (aka Moon Snake; Pseudoboa neuwiedii) was a special treat during one of our night walks along the driveway at Asa Wight Nature Centre. Snakes are not always easy to find, so we were fortunate to spot this one before it disappeared into the underbrush.

One of the scarcer, but spectacular, hummingbirds we encountered during the trip was this Long-billed Starthroat. Even though we only saw one most days, this individual was a reliable visitor to the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre and always a joy to watch.

Despite all the brilliant colours of the tropics, some birds really do rock the black & white palette – and White-headed Marsh Tyrant is a shining example. These beautiful birds were one of many highlights during our excursions to wet, lowland habitats on Trinidad.

Many of the birds in these grassy, marshy habitats tended to be drab – but no less lovely. This Yellow-chinned Spinetail was part of a pair that gave us uncharacteristically great views at one of our stops.

We did find a splash of colour in the same marsh, when several Yellow-hooded Blackbirds emerged from the grass to check us out. How’s that for golden locks?!?!

Coastal birding made for an interesting change after several days in the mountains and rain forest. Here my co-leader Ernesto and some of our guests check out the shorebirds and pelicans at Waterloo, on the Caribbean coast of Trinidad.

With high tide greeting our arrival, hundreds of shorebirds were gathered on a small point of land and allowed us some amazingly close looks. This flock of “peeps” (mostly Western Sandpipers, but also several others) burst into flight when a Peregrine Falcon whipped through in search of lunch.

This lone Wilson’s Plover (right) was a great find – unusual enough that it was a “lifer” for one of our very experienced local guides (Charan). Yet, it was just a stone’s throw from where I saw my own first just two years earlier! (Semipalmated Plover, to the left)

Ever get that feeling you’re being watched?? We spotted several mudskippers in the shallow waters around Waterloo. As amphibious fish, we also saw a number of them “crawling” on the beach at another nearby location – such cool critters!

This very obliging Bicolored Conebill was a nice surprise – coming in very close in a small patch of trees at the water’s edge. This was by far my best ever looks at this often skulky mangrove specialist.

Several immature Scarlet Ibis were feeding on a beach at one of our stops – the closest views we had of this incredible bird. Of course, even these close views had nothing on the spectacle we would enjoy at the end of this day (keep reading below).

This Hanuman Statue and its associated temple was a popular cultural stop during our excursion to the coast. Standing 85ft tall, this is the tallest monument to this Hindu god outside of India and beautiful place to visit. (It didn’t hurt that we saw Fork-tailed Palm Swifts flying around the statue and a Pale-breasted Spinetail around the corner!)

Our last afternoon on Trinidad was spent exploring the famous mangroves of Caroni Swamp – a highlight of each and every trip. The great birding began right in the parking lot and included several mangrove species such as this Masked Cardinal.

We also spotted this Straight-billed Woodcreeper and a Greater Ani from the roadside – although we did see one or two more of each while cruising through the mangroves on the boat.

Caroni Swamp is a huge and internationally important wetland – more than 5600 hectares of mangrove forest, marsh and beautiful estuaries. Cruising through the inner channels, under the canopy of red mangroves, is just the beginning of a surreal experience.

Several species of heron and egrets are encountered in these mangroves – including Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron (pictured), Tricoloured Heron, Night Herons, and even the amazing Boat-billed Heron (which we did find tucked away in a very sheltered spot!).

The absolute, hands-down highlight of the day (and maybe the trip?) was the spectacle of thousands of brilliant Scarlet Ibis (along with several species of herons) coming in to roost. The serenity of relaxing on a boat in the middle of a beautiful estuary with the stunning Northern Range mountains as background to this “National Geographic” moment was just icing on the cake. Guests always count this among the most amazing experiences of their birding lives, and with very good reason!

After a magical end to our time in Trinidad, we took a quick hop over to Tobago for the last three days of our tour. Our first stop at some local lagoons immediately produced several species we hadn’t seen on Trinidad – including this Least Grebe pretending to be an aquatic plant. The lagoons were also home to numerous Common Gallinules and Wattled Jacanas, among others.

Golf clubs can also be excellent places for birds, so we stopped briefly to check out the ponds at one local club. The highlight was definitely a group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, although several Anhinga, Southern Lapwings and a Spectacled Caiman were also fun to watch.

After lunch on a local beach (beaches are a big part of culture and life in Tobago!), we spent the afternoon at Adventure Farms – a private farm and nature preserve known both for its busy feeders and its leisurely birding. The fresh mango smoothies were an added perk! This is the Tobago life.

Dozens of hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders all afternoon. White-necked Jacobins are certainly among my personal favourites, and were a fixture both here and back at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

That being said, the showy (and usually harder-to-see) Ruby Topaz Hummingbird was a crowd pleaser, with several zipping around and showing off those amazing colours. These otherwise understated birds have to be at just the right angle to the sun for their bright iridescence to shine – and when they are, its spectacular. (But it’s also VERY hard to capture with a camera!)

A lot more than just hummingbirds visit the garden at Adventure Farms. With plenty of flowers and fruiting trees, many other birds drop in for a taste. This was the first of several Red-crowned Woodpeckers we encountered – one of several species that occur here but not on Trinidad.

Another such species is White-fringed Antwren. We found a pair of them during a stroll around the Adventure Farms property – the male showed exceptionally well for such a skulky species.

One of our group’s favourite birds to see and watch was the beautiful Rufous-tailed Jacamar – of which we found several. This one was very obliging as a small group of us strolled through the Adventure Farms property, even flying towards us and landing quite close. Relatives of Kingfishers and Bee-eaters, these birds can be a lot of fun to observe.

Our accommodations on Tobago offered very different, yet equally beautiful, views than our mountain perch back on Trinidad. Our rooms and restaurant overlooked this lovely beach, glistening ocean and beautiful islands off the northeast coast – perfect for relaxing, swimming, snorkeling and (of course) birding.

Our hotel grounds also provided some excellent birding … including several unmistakable Rufous-vented Chachalacas. Another species that occurs here but not on Trinidad, we enjoyed their antics and even their raucous calls. Here, you can also see the large & colourful Frangipani Hornworms (caterpillars of the Frangipani Sphinx Moth) that were also fun to find.

Trinidad Motmot, a species endemic to this country, does occur on both islands – but are much less shy and easier to see on Tobago. They were a regular sight around the hotel property, although we could never get bored of them!

Another fun critter to spot around the grounds was Richard’s Anole – a relatively large anole that is endemic to the Caribbean and was introduced to Tobago from the Grenadine Islands.

We found several Black-faced Grassquits during our meanders on Tobago – including this male on the “Starwood Track” above our hotel. From a North American perspective, I’ve always found that these birds give a very “junco” impression.

Our next excursion was to go birding at Gilpin Trace – a popular hiking trail in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Check out that lush rainforest!

The Main Ridge Forest Reseerve was first proclaimed in 1776, making it the oldest protected area in the world! Several hiking trails makes this tract of pristine, native rain forest very accessible.

One of our targets here was the Blue-backed Manakin (absent on Trinidad), like this male that showed surprisingly well in a fruiting fig tree. You can see that it was banded – likely part of ongoing research to help understand, monitor and protect this interesting species.

This vista from the “Starwood Track” (above our beachside hotel) shows the beautiful view over the water and two nearby islands – Goat Island and Little Tobago, the latter of which was our destination later that day.

A visit to Little Tobago island is always a highlight of our trip. We made the short crossing on a glass-bottomed boat, stopping to check one of the coral reefs and its abundant marine life along the way.

Seabirds were the main reason for our trip, and we weren’t disappointed. We saw dozens each of Magnificent Frigatebird (pictured), Brow Pelican, Brown and Red-footed Boobies.

The crown jewel of Little Tobago, however, is a spectacular colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds. From our perch near the top of the island, we overlooked a glistening bay and dozens of these beautiful birds soaring above, below and right in front of us. Both species of booby were also nesting there.

Several Red-billed Tropicbirds could be seen nesting on the ground just metres from our lookout, while another resourceful individual was nesting directly under the wooden platform we were standing on – just inches from our feet and apparently unfazed.

Another, often overlooked, treat on Little Tobago is a chance to spot Ocellated Gecko. These small and very cryptic geckos are considered endemic to this tiny island. We spotted two (both apparent females) on our hike back down to the boat.

And with that, the sun set on yet another amazing tour to Trinidad & Tobago. It was a wonderful adventure, with wonderful birds & wildlife and an even more wonderful group of participants. I can’t wait to return again! Who’s coming with me??

We finished our tour having observed an incredible 216 species of birds, lots of other exciting wildlife and highlights of nature, as well as a ton of fun! I’m already looking forward to our next adventure there! Check out the details on the Eagle-Eye Tours website, and/or let me know if you have any questions.

 

 

 

Trinidad & Tobago 2017: Part 1

I remember the first time I ever heard about Trinidad & Tobago. When I was a young boy, my grandfather gave me a stamp collection that he had started … the pages of those albums contained mementos from countries all over the world, many of which I had never known existed and I could only guess where they were or what they were like. For some reason (fate?), the island nation of Trinidad & Tobago caught my attention in a way most others didn’t. I remember letting the name roll off my tongue, then looking it up in a copy of the 1987 World Almanac that I kept in my room – learning all kinds of interesting facts that formed the first picture of this exotic place in my imagination. Little did I ever think that I might one day travel to these beautiful islands – let alone lead regular birding tours there!!

This is just one of the stamps from Trinidad & Tobago (1969) that caught my attention as young boy (not all of them had birds!). It’s amazing that this birding paradise is now a regular destination for this lucky tour leader!

This past December, I returned to Trinidad & Tobago for my second birding tour with Eagle-Eye Tours. These two islands, located off the coast of Venezuela, provide a great introduction to the incredibly diverse birds and other wildlife of South America. Given the relative small size of the islands, we are able to stay at just two places for the entire tour and enjoy a relaxed pace – but with no shortage of great birds and other highlights! Below are some of the photo highlights from our 2017 adventure – and check out Part 2 of this blog post here.     (You can also check out lots more photos and details from our 2015 tour on an earlier blog post here.)

For the first week of the tour, we stayed at the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre. The view from the verandah, looking down over a mountain valley and the distant town of Arima, becomes the backdrop to so many of our great birding experiences.

The incredible number, diversity and brilliant colours of the birds visiting the gardens and feeders all around the verandah can be overwhelming at first. Purple Honeycreepers are one of the first birds that most guests notice – and for obvious reasons!

Dozens of hummingbirds can be spotted buzzing around the many feeders and flowers – often just inches from the happy faces of birders. Copper-rumped Hummingbirds are the most abundant and while they may seem a little less flamboyant than some of the other species, they sure can look amazing in the right light.

Here, my co-leader Ernesto Carman holds a Copper-rumped Hummingbird that I “rescued” from the verandah. There are lots of fun learning opportunities in the tropics!

Bananaquits are no doubt the most common bird we see in Trinidad & Tobago. Here they are enjoying some fresh fruit provided by the AWNC staff. Many birds come to partake in these sweet offerings.

And it’s not just the birds … butterflies, Red-rumped Agoutis and menacing-looking Golden Tegu Lizards (like this one) can often be found hanging out around the feeders looking for fallen treats.

The abundance of flowering plants around the property also attract many birds – some of which avoid feeders altogether. The tiny (yet showy!) Tufted Coquette is one of the most sought-after hummingbirds in South America, and we encountered several visiting the abundant vervain flowers at Asa Wright – perhaps the best and most reliable place to see them anywhere.

Somewhat less expected, but equally stunning, was this brilliant Ruby Topaz Hummingbird we discovered just outside our cabins. This incredible species is uncommon on Trinidad at this time of year, although we do expect to see it on Tobago. This one is showing off its amazing colours on a very sunny afternoon.

The lodge and property also has great walking trails through the forest. Here you can see our wonderful group taking a  break after some fantastic birding on the Discovery Trail (and yes – we found the Bearded Bellbird!).

Bearded Bellbird is one of the most exciting birds that can be found on the AWNC trails. Considered the loudest bird in the world, their deafening “gong” calls travel for miles and can often be heard echoing up the valley. We had the great fortune of finding this one on a relatively low perch, where we learned just how loud its voice could be!

Check out this short video I took of the Bearded Bellbird giving its loud call:

Another fun bird that can be found on the local trails is Bearded Manakin. Like other manakins, these spunky little birds have very entertaining courtship displays, and we really enjoyed watching several males making their “click” sounds (like fingers snapping) and buzzing around the local lek.

We also found several Golden-headed Manakins nearby, but they stayed in thick cover and were a challenge to photograph. Next time 😉

There are always lots of interesting plants and flowers to see, as well. One of my favourite flowers found along the trails is Psychotria poeppigiana – playfully called “hot lips”. Can you see why?

When birding in the tropics, we are always on the lookout for army ants. The frenzy of other little critters trying to escape an army ant swarm often attracts a variety of birds – so besides the already cool experience of watching these tiny gladiators at work, it can also lead to a great birding experience. I ran into two such swarms this trip – and one of them was being attended by some great birds.

Here’s a short clip of another Army Ant swarm that I found myself nearly stepping in:

One of the many tropical bird species that specialize in following ant swarms is the Great Antshrike. This male was part of a pair hanging out near the main lodge at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Another common hummingbird at the ever-busy verandah was White-chested Emerald. Beauty in simplicity.

This short video gives a glimpse of how busy the hummingbird feeders are — all the time!

Even after dark, the verandah can be a great place to hang out. As the birds disappear, Long-tongued Bats show up to take the night shift at the hummingbird feeders. Check out that tongue!! It’s amazing how adept these bats are getting at the sugar-water.

Exploring after dark in the tropics can be just as exciting as daytime. One great find was this large (probably female) Trinidad Chevron Tarantula – an endemic species to the island.

Among several species of frogs seen at night was this tree frog (species TBD) – a tiny little thing no bigger than 15mm.

Lunchtime! A Harvestman is enjoying a late night snack.

The Trinidad Motmot is an endemic species, and its “whoop” calls are very recognizable when heard. These shy birds can be a challenge to spot on Trinidad itself, but are surprisingly much more cooperative on Tobago (although we encountered them in both places). Check out that tail … and the serrated bill! Motmots can and will eat just about anything from fruit to snakes.

Another common (and noisy!) visitor to the gardens at AWNC is the Crested Oropendola. These raucous birds are named for their hanging “pendulum” nests, which we spotted at several locations during the week.

The varied and bubbly calls of Tropical Mockingbirds were also a common sound during the trip – not just at Asa Wright, but pretty much everywhere.

We found eight different species of tanager throughout the trip – six of which could be spotted right from the AWNC verandah. While White-lined Tanagers were not the most colourful, they were certainly the most common and widespread.

One of the most unique experiences of the tour was our trek to the Dunstan Caves, which are home to a colony of amazing Oilbirds. The hike itself is beautiful, but the surreal birding experience that awaits is unlike any other.

Using a flashlight, we were able to spot several Oilbirds roosting just inside the cave entrance. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. What a surreal experience – and a highlight of any visit to Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Just outside the cave, we spotted numerous Trinidad Stream Frogs. This is an endemic species, and always a treat to find. It was our second sighting of the week!

Trogons are highly prized by birders, and we were fortunate to see all three species that live in Trinidad & Tobago. By far the most photogenic was this male Guianan Trogon which sat out in the open for several minutes, probably just as curious about us as were of it.

Green Honeycreepers might be overlooked amid a flock of more brightly coloured birds, but they certainly hold their own in the “classy” department. These beautiful birds were daily visitors throughout the tour.

A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl could be heard calling around the Asa Wright Nature Centre every night and early morning, but it wasn’t until one of our excursions that we saw our first one. This little owl seemed completely unfazed by the frenzy of smaller birds mobbing it – a flurry of activity that helped us find it hiding in the trees.

We also encountered stately Savannah Hawks during our excursions to lower elevations. As their name suggests, these lovely raptors are denizens of large open areas and grassy fields, often associated with agricultural operations.

Much more difficult to spot was this female Silvered Antbird. This is a very shy bird of the mangroves, and we were very fortunate to have a pair show themselves for us on Trinidad’s eastern coast at Nariva Swamp.

Just across the road, we found this other mangrove specialist – Northern Scrub Flycatcher. This section of mangrove produced a number of other great birds during our visit – Red-rumped Woodpecker, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and Black-crested Antshrike among them!

It was hard to ignore the butterflies, including this Two-banded Satyr that we found on one of our hikes along the Discovery Trail. Life abounds everywhere you look in the tropics.

One of the most spectacular butterflies we found was the large Illioneus Giant Owl – aptly named not only because of the large “false eye” it uses for disguise, but also because it emerges mostly during the dark hours between dusk and dawn.

Check out Part 2 of this blog post for lots more photos and highlights from the rest of our amazing tour!

 

 

 

SEVENTEEN

Whoa … does time ever fly?!?! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of adventures. The year 2017 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 17 photos from 2017; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

I apologize for my lapse in blog posts over the last few months – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

Like every year, 2017 started off with some excellent winter birding right here in eastern Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of sharing great winter birds such as Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and friendly Gray Jays with a number of visiting birders. This photo was taken during the annual WINGS Birding Tour – and you can read more about that in an earlier blog post here.

I also joined Instagram this past winter –  yet another great way to share photos and highlights with people from all over the world. THIS photo of a Dovekie (taken several winters ago) turned out to be my most popular photo of 2017 – not surprising given how much people tend to love these cute little seabirds! Newfoundland is the most reliable place in North America to see Dovekie and a big part of the reason why birders visit here in winter.

I was honoured this year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of this Kowa swag here on the blog very soon.

In March, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras (Read the two-part blog series and see LOTS of photos here!!). What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. Oh … AND we observed more than 250 species of birds along the way! I’m scheming up a Honduras birding tour for the near future – so stay tuned for details!!   (Photo: Spectacled Owl, Rio Santiago Nature Resort, Honduras)

I returned home from Honduras to find Newfoundland in the cold, icy grip of the Arctic. Prolonged northerly winds were pushing Arctic pack ice much further south than usual – encasing the entire northern and eastern coasts, and even wrapping around to fill bays and coves in the southeast. While spring pack ice was a normal part of my childhood growing up on the northeast coast, it rarely reached this far south and some communities were seeing it for the first time in living memory. With the ice came lots of seals (including more northerly Hooded Seals), Polar Bears and even a very wayward Arctic Fox to far-flung places around the island. Birds were impacted too — ducks, loons and other seabirds were corralled into small sections of open water waiting for the ice to move off. The ice lingered so long on parts of the northeast coast that fisheries were delayed or even canceled, adding a very human aspect to this unusual event.

Late winter and early spring can be a challenging time for birding – many of the winter species are beginning to move on, and migration has yet to start. But there are always wonderful things to see, and a mid-March excursion to Cape Race with one group of intrepid clients paid off with this — great looks at one of their “target” birds! This Willow Ptarmigan, sporting transitional plumage, allowed us to get up-close-and-personal right from the car!

Another highlight of early spring was an exceptional few days of gull-watching in St. John’s. Not only did the elusive Yellow-legged Gull (which can be seen here sporadically most winters) become a very regular visitor at Quidi Vidi Lake, but a Slaty-backed Gull was also discovered there. The two images above were captured just minutes (and metres) apart … two very rare gulls entertaining some very happy birders! (March 25, 2017)

The pack ice may have receded as spring wore on, but other visitors from the north took their place. Newfoundland had an excellent iceberg season in 2017 – and one of the early highlights was this mammoth berg that perched itself in Ferryland (an hour south of St. John’s). Photos of this iceberg (including my own) went “viral”, showing up in newsfeeds, newspapers and TV newscasts all over the world. It was just one of many awesome bergs I saw this year … including with many of my clients!

While there was no “huge” influx of European rarities into Newfoundland this spring, there was also no shortage. This European Golden Plover was one of several reported in early May. I was also fortunate to see a Ruff, two Eurasian Whimbrel, and two Common Ringed Plovers this year – AND happy to say that I had clients with me for each and every one! How’s that for good birding?!?!

Perhaps the most exciting bird of the spring (or even year) also came from Europe. This COMMON SWIFT was discovered by Jeannine Winkel and Ian Jones at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s on May 20 – just the second record for Newfoundland and one of only a handful for all of North America. Cool, damp weather worked in our favour throughout the week, with this extremely rare bird sticking around until May 26 and entertaining both local birders and a number of “ABA listers” who flew in from all over North America to see it. Amazing! (Photo: May 23, 2017)

Spring slipped into summer, which of course is the busiest time of year for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was fortunate to host dozens of visiting birders and nature-lovers throughout the summer, sharing the many wonderful sights and spectacles that our province has to offer. This photo of Northern Gannets was taken during the excellent Eagle-Eye Tours “Grand Newfoundland” trip – one of many times I visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve this year. This particular tour is a great way to experience the birding and natural highlights of Newfoundland, from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and many points in between. I look forward to leading it again in 2018! (Read more about this tour in a blog post from 2016.)

Of course, it’s not “always” just about the birds. During every tour or outing, I make time to stop and enjoy the abundance of other gems that nature has in store. I especially like the wild orchids of mid-summer, and this Showy Ladyslipper was one of nine species we encountered during a fantastic Massachusetts Audubon tour. What an awesome time we had!

Of course, summer can’t be ALL work and no play! (Who am I kidding – my work is always fun!) I made sure to steal some time to explore both new places and old favourites with my family – including the rugged coastlines of Notre Dame Bay where I grew up and my passion for nature first took root!

In August, I had the pleasure of once again leading the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan. While there are many wonderful places and birding experiences on this tour, one key highlight is seeing the huge gathering of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the world-famous Bay of Fundy. More than 3/4 of the world’s population stop here during migration, and flocks of tens of thousands can often be found roosting on the narrow beach at high tide or swirling over the water. This was my third time leading this tour, and you can read more about it on an earlier blog post here.

As summer fades to fall in Newfoundland, I often turn my attention to migration and the opportunity to find wayward and locally rare species right here on “the rock”. One of the most interesting birds was this very late empidonax flycatcher that showed up in November — well beyond the expected date of normal migrants and reason enough to scrutinize it. Originally found by crack birder Lancy Cheng, I arrived soon after and spent several hours trying to capture diagnostic photos amid the fleeting glimpses it gave. Based on photos from several birders and Lancy’s very important sound recording, this bird was eventually identified as Newfoundland’s first ever Willow Flycatcher! Chalk one up for the perseverance and cooperation of our local birding community!

Winter also started off with a bang, when veteran birder Chris Brown discovered the province’s first Eared Grebe on December 1. Time for birding can be tough to come by for me at this busy time of year – but I managed to sneak in a “chase” to see this mega-rarity. Read more on my blog post here.

My birding year ended on yet another high note: leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours adventure of the year – this time in Trinidad & Tobago! This was my second time leading this amazing tour, and I admit to being totally enamored with this beautiful place. The lush forests, open grasslands, intriguing coastlines … and, of course, the incredible birds and wildlife! This Guianan Trogon was just one of more than 200 species we encountered during the trip – many of which were equally stunning. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about my most recent trip — but in the meantime you can check out this three-part series from my last adventure in Trinidad & Tobago. And better yet – join me when I return at the end of 2018!

What a fantastic year! Thanks to the many friends and visitors who shared all these special moments (and many more!) with me in 2017. I’m excited for 2018 and can’t imagine what wonderful experiences it might have in store! Why not join me to find out for yourself?!?!

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and fun-filled 2018!!

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 3)

** This is the third (and final) installment about the recent Eagle Eye Tours trip I co-led in Trinidad & Tobago (December 2015). Follow these links to read the first and second posts. **

Following an amazing week in Trinidad (see previous posts), we continued our adventure with a quick flight to the neighbouring island of Tobago. Despite its small size, Tobago offers an awesome array of great birding. And, despite its proximity to Trinidad, Tobago also offers a suite of birds that are either absent from or more difficult to find there. These last three days of our tour were a wonderful mix of ocean, wetland, forest edge and rainforest birding!

An iconic seabird, this Red-billed Tropicbird was one of many that we enjoyed during our visit to Tobago. Seeing hundreds of them was one of the major highlights for our entire group!

An iconic seabird, this Red-billed Tropicbird was one of many that we enjoyed during our visit to Tobago. Seeing hundreds of them was one of the major highlights for our entire group!

One of our first stops on Tobago was at a series of settling ponds at a local golf course, where we enjoyed a variety of waders and waterfowl - including our best looks at several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

One of our first stops on Tobago was at a series of settling ponds at a local golf course, where we enjoyed a variety of waders and waterfowl – including our best looks at several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

A number of Southern Lapwings were also present, taking advantage of the abundant short grass they like so much.

A number of Southern Lapwings were also present, taking advantage of the abundant short grass they like so much.

We also visited a private farm with an beautiful feeder set-up (and the best mango smoothies you can imagine!). Among the many hummingbirds were several classy-looking White-necked Jacobins.

We also visited a private farm with an beautiful feeder set-up (and the best mango smoothies you can imagine!). Among the many hummingbirds were several classy-looking White-necked Jacobins.

However, the clear highlight (and our main target) was the brilliant Ruby Topaz. I found it impossible to get a photo that truly captured the amazing colours of this bird, but this one comes the closest.

However, the clear highlight (and our main target) was the brilliant Ruby Topaz. I found it impossible to get a photo that truly captured the amazing colours of this bird, but this one comes the closest. The throat absolutely glowed when it caught the sunlight!

The feeders and offering of fresh fruit attracted a variety of visitors - including a pair of Barred Antshrikes. Here, the male enjoys some easy-picking banana.

The feeders and offering of fresh fruit attracted a variety of visitors – including a pair of Barred Antshrikes. Here, the male enjoys some easy-picking banana.

Personally, I found the female Barred Antshrikes to be just as (if not more) attractive than the males. This one seemed to be checking me out, although I doubt I came across as quite so interesting!

Personally, I found female Barred Antshrikes to be just as (if not more) attractive than the males. This one seemed to be checking me out, although I doubt I came across as quite so interesting!

Another interesting hummingbird that we had not seen on Trinidad was the Black-throated Mango.

Another interesting hummingbird that we had not seen on Trinidad was the Black-throated Mango.

A Blue-gray Tanager also dropped in for a visit ... always a crowd pleaser.

A Blue-gray Tanager also dropped in for a visit … always a crowd pleaser.

Equally intriguing were several very large caterpillars we encountered on the property. One even made its way on the bus by catching a ride on a participant's shirt! It appears to be a Frangipani Hawk Moth (Pseudosphinx tetrio) Caterpillar.

Equally intriguing were several very large caterpillars we encountered on the property. One even made its way on the bus by catching a ride on a participant’s shirt! It appears to be a
Frangipani Hawk Moth (Pseudosphinx tetrio) Caterpillar.

Our "base of operations" on Tobago was a small beach resort at the island's northeast corner. Here, a child plays on the beach in the nearby village of Speyside.

Our “base of operations” on Tobago was a small beach resort at the island’s northeast corner. Here, a child plays on the beach in the nearby village of Speyside.

Our motel property offered plenty of great birding. This Tropical Mockingbird was sitting across from our room door almost every time I went outside.

Our motel property offered plenty of great birding. This Tropical Mockingbird was sitting across from our room door almost every time I went outside.

Though a tad noisy at times, it was still fun to see Rufous-vented Chachalacas roaming around the area. Plus, it's just plain fun to say "chachalaca"!

Though a tad noisy at times, it was still neat to see Rufous-vented Chachalacas roaming around the area. Plus, it’s just plain fun to say “chachalaca”!

House Wrens were fairly common in both Trinidad & Tobago, but this tropical race often comes across quite different to the North American race that many of us are familiar with.

House Wrens were fairly common in both Trinidad & Tobago, but this tropical race often comes across as quite different from the North American race that many of us are familiar with.

Richard's Anole were easy to spot around the property. Males like this one were fairly large.

Richard’s Anole were easy to spot around the property. Males like this one were fairly large …

... however the slightly smaller females were arguably nicer looking.

… however the slightly smaller females were arguably nicer looking.

We also enjoyed some really great looks at a Brown-crested Flycatcher on the property. An absolutely fun bird to watch!

We also enjoyed some really great looks at a Brown-crested Flycatcher on the property. An absolutely great bird to watch!

Red-crowned Woodpecker is fairly widespread on Tobago, but absent in larger Trinidad. We were fortunate to see several during our visit.

Red-crowned Woodpecker is fairly widespread on Tobago, but absent in larger Trinidad. We were fortunate to see several during our visit.

One of the biggest highlights of the tour was a visit to the island of Little Tobago (seen here from a hilltop at Speyside). Tons of great birding awaited us after a short boat ride and somewhat adventurous landing!

One of the biggest highlights of the tour was a visit to the island of Little Tobago (seen here from a hilltop at Speyside). Tons of great birding awaited us after a short boat ride and somewhat adventurous landing!

Co-leader Jody Allair and one of our participants check out an Audubon's Shearwater, cozy in it burrow. We were very fortunatr since they are just arriving back to their breeding sites at this time of year, and this was the first report of the season!

Co-leader Jody Allair and one of our participants check out an Audubon’s Shearwater, cozy in it burrow. We were very fortunate since they are just arriving back to their breeding sites at this time of year, and this was the first report of the season!

Another great treat was this Trinidad Motomot. This beautiful species is endemic to Trinidad & Tobago, and can be quite secretive as they sit quietly in the shady rainforest.

Another great treat was this Trinidad Motomot. This beautiful species is endemic to Trinidad & Tobago, and can be quite secretive as they sit quietly in the shady rainforest. It was a major target for the tour, and this time everyone got a good look.

Another endemic and very special critter is the Ocellated Gecko. In fact, it is thought that this species occurs ONLY on the tiny of Little Tobago! What a great looking lizard.

Another endemic and very special critter is the Ocellated Gecko. In fact, it is thought that this species occurs ONLY on the tiny island of Little Tobago! What a great looking (though small) lizard.

However, the obvious highlight (and our main reason for visiting Little Tobago) was the incredible seabird colony. While seeing hundreds of Red-billed Tropicbirds like this one was amazing, the colony also included both Red-footed and Brown Boobies.

However, the obvious highlight (and our main reason for visiting Little Tobago) was the incredible seabird colony. While seeing hundreds of Red-billed Tropicbirds like this one was amazing, the colony also included both Red-footed and Brown Boobies.

Nearby islands are also home to large colonies of Magnificent Frigatebird, and they could always be found patrolling around Little Tobago looking for a meal to steal!

Nearby islands are also home to large colonies of Magnificent Frigatebird, and they could always be found patrolling around Little Tobago looking for a meal to steal!

Co-leader Jody Allair looks back at the village of Speyside and our lodgings from an overlook on Little Tobago.

Co-leader Jody Allair looks back at the village of Speyside and our lodgings from an overlook on Little Tobago.

Back at our motel, a short hike up a nearby trail produced lots of great birds. Among the new ones was a pair of Black-faced Grassquits (male pictured here).

Back at our motel, a short hike up a nearby trail produced lots of great birds. Among the new ones was a pair of Black-faced Grassquits (male pictured here).

More secretive, though a little more flashy when seen, were several White-flanked Antwrens that we encountered during our walks. This one was unusually cooperative, though still difficult to see in the open for more than a few seconds.

More secretive, though a little more flashy when seen, were several White-flanked Antwrens that we encountered during our walks. This one was unusually cooperative, though still difficult to see in the open for more than a few seconds.

One of my favourite encounters was with this beautiful Tropical Ratsnake (Spilotes pullatus). It easily measured in at over four feet long (and possibly more) ... a stunning animal.

One of my favourite encounters was with this beautiful Tropical Ratsnake (Spilotes pullatus). It easily measured in at over four feet long (and possibly more) … a stunning animal.

It was awesome to watch this snake actively hunting, expertly maneuvering through the tangled branches with ease and surprising speed. No wonder it can sneak up on prey!

It was awesome to watch this snake actively hunting, expertly maneuvering through the tangled branches with ease and surprising speed. No wonder it can sneak up on prey!

At the other end of the spectrum was this very small Shiny Lizard (Gymnophthalmus underwoodi). It seems this species is rarely spotted on Tobago, which is not surprising considering it how tiny it was ... no more than a few inches long and no bigger than a large earthworm. We were very lucky to see it scamper across the trail and try to hid behind some small rocks. At one point, it even took shelter under my shoe!

At the other end of the spectrum was this very small Shiny Lizard (Gymnophthalmus underwoodi). It seems this species is rarely spotted on Tobago, which is not surprising considering how tiny it was … no more than a few inches long and no bigger than an earthworm. We were very lucky to see it scamper across the trail and try to hide behind some small rocks. At one point, it even took shelter under my shoe!

Yet another species found on Tobago, but not Trinidad, is the rather plain-looking Scrub Greenlet. It is part of the vireo family.

Yet another species found on Tobago, but not Trinidad, is the rather plain-looking Scrub Greenlet. It is part of the vireo family.

One hot afternoon when the birding was slow, Jody and I made the short trek to Speyside. Along the way we saw the remnant of several old mills that spoke to some of the area's economic and cultural past.

One hot afternoon when the birding was slow, Jody and I made the short trek to Speyside. Along the way we saw the remnant of several old mills that spoke to some of the area’s economic and cultural past.

Our last big outing of the tour was to go birding in the lush rainforests of Tobago's main ridge. These high elevation forests represent the world's oldest legally protected forest reserves, established for conservation in 1776! We encountered an incredible variety of birds here (most of which were impossible to photograph in the tall, thick and shady surroundings!).

Our last big outing of the tour was to go birding in the lush rainforests of Tobago’s Main Ridge. These high elevation forests represent the world’s oldest legally protected forest reserves, established for conservation in 1776! We encountered an incredible variety of birds here (most of which were impossible to photograph in the tall, thick and shady surroundings!). Blue-backed Mannikins, Yellow-legged Thrush, White-tailed Sabrewing, and even the very rare (and unexpected) White-throated Spadebill!

This was one amazing tour, shared with an equally amazing group of people. All said, we encountered a tour-record 223 species of birds, an incredible variety of other critters, wonderful people, and tons of stunning scenery. I'm looking forward to an opportunity to go back again soon!

This was one amazing tour, shared with an equally amazing group of people. All said, we encountered a tour-record 223 species of birds, an incredible variety of other critters, wonderful people, and tons of stunning scenery. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to go back again soon!

For your chance to enjoy this (or any other) incredible adventure, check out the Eagle Eye Tours website!

 

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 2)

** This is the second installment about the recent Eagle Eye Tours trip I co-led in Trinidad & Tobago (December 2015). Click HERE to read the first post **

As mentioned in my previous post, much of our time on the island of Trinidad was spent on and around the beautiful (and very birdy!) Asa Wright Nature Centre. We thoroughly enjoyed the large property, incredible veranda, and wonderful trails that were available to us while staying there.

Long-billed Starthroat was one of the more uncommon hummingbirds on the island, although several could be found frequenting the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Long-billed Starthroat was one of the more uncommon hummingbirds on the island, although several could be found frequenting the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Crested Oropendola was one of the most abundant and conspicuous birds around the estate, and their raucous calls and behaviour became the backdrop for lots of amazing birding!

Crested Oropendola was one of the most abundant and conspicuous birds around the estate, and their raucous calls and behaviour became the backdrop for lots of amazing birding!

Despite being abundant throughout the property, and lots of other places we visited, it was impossible to overlook the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. Centre staff said they were in larger than normal numbers this year.

Despite being abundant throughout the property, and lots of other places we visited, it was impossible to overlook the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. Centre staff said they were in larger than normal numbers this year.

Not all the birds we enjoyed were as gaudy, easy to find or possible to photograph. Gray-throated Leaftosser is very dull, skulky and secretive - and not always seen on our tours. Not only were we able to get the entire group on one such bird, but several of us had multiple encounters and Jody & I even found a nest!

Not all the birds we enjoyed were as gaudy, easy to find or possible to photograph. Gray-throated Leaftosser is very dull, skulky and secretive – and not always seen on tours. Not only were we able to get the entire group on one such bird, but several of us had multiple encounters and Jody & I even found a nest!

And neither was the brilliance restricted to the birds. We enjoyed many beautiful butterflies, not the least of which was this amazing Blue Transparent (Ithomeia pellucida).

And neither was the brilliance restricted to the birds. We enjoyed many beautiful butterflies, not the least of which was this amazing Blue Transparent (Ithomeia pellucida).

Less endearing to some, this endemic Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei) was making itself at home in the centre's main house. We saw it every day, although I never quite got used to the idea that it could be anywhere.

Less endearing to some, this endemic Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei) was making itself at home in the centre’s main house. We saw it every day, although I never quite got used to the idea that it could be anywhere.

Another view of the Long-billed Starthroat. The hummingbird feeders and their many patrons never got boring!

Another view of the Long-billed Starthroat. The hummingbird feeders and their many patrons never got boring!

Though less colourful overall, I always enjoyed seeing a Spectacled Thrush and its permanently "surprised" look!

Though less colourful overall, I always enjoyed seeing a Spectacled Thrush and its permanently “surprised” look!

Going out after dark also produced some very interesting creatures, including the Trinidad Mountain Crab (Pseudotelphusa garmani). For a boy that grew up beside the ocean, there was just something strange about seeing crabs away from water and well up in the mountains!

Going out after dark also produced some very interesting creatures, including the Trinidad Mountain Crab (Pseudotelphusa garmani). For a boy that grew up beside the ocean, there was just something strange about seeing crabs away from water and well up in the mountains!

Another nocturnal creature I enjoyed seeing was the Tailless Whip Scorpion. Thee are harmless, of course, and not even a real scorpion - but a tad creepy just the same!

Another nocturnal creature I enjoyed seeing was the Tailless Whip Scorpion. These are harmless, of course, and not even a real scorpion – but a tad creepy just the same!

Asa Wright Nature Centre was also an excellent base from which to do day-trips, taking us to a range of habitats and amazing birding areas throughout northern and central Trinidad. We explored montane rainforests, grasslands, wetlands and even coastal swamps and fishing harbours – finding lots of great birds and other wildlife everywhere! And the scenery.

Birding in the rainforests and higher elevations of the Northern Range was definitely a highlight. We got to see some amazing vistas and lots of great birds along the winding mountain roads.

Birding in the rainforests and higher elevations of the Northern Range was definitely a highlight. We got to see some amazing vistas and lots of great birds along the winding mountain roads.

We regularly saw Common Black Hawks soaring overhead or down in the valley, but seeing them perched gave them an even more majestic look. Surveying his kingdom!

We regularly saw Common Black Hawks soaring overhead or down in the valley, but seeing them perched gave them an even more majestic look. Surveying his kingdom!

An unfortunate case of "Stellar bird, crappy photo"! This male Guianan Trogon obliged us by sitting right out in the open - amazing looks, but hard light for photography. Ah well ...

An unfortunate case of “Stellar bird, crappy photo”! This male Guianan Trogon obliged us by sitting right out in the open – amazing looks, but hard light for photography. Ah well …

Palm Tanagers were abundant and easily overlooked ... but this bright male was quite entertaining after taking a bath.

Palm Tanagers were abundant and easily overlooked … but this bright male was quite entertaining after taking a bath.

The lush rainforests of the Northern Range were full of life, though it was often hard to spot. Birding here was a tangled mess of fun and frustration - but mostly fun. We scored a lot of great birds!

The lush rainforests of the Northern Range were full of life, though it was often hard to spot. Birding here was a tangled mess of fun and frustration – but mostly fun. We scored a lot of great birds!

One of my favourite trees that we encounterd (though luckily never fell against!) is the Sandbox Tree. It is covered in thick, very sharp spikes, contains poisonous sap, and produces a fruit that actually "explodes" when ripe to disperse its seed! Trees can be cool.

One of my favourite trees that we encountered (though luckily never fell against!) is the Sandbox Tree. It is covered in thick, very sharp spikes, contains poisonous sap, and produces a fruit that actually “explodes” when ripe to disperse its seed! Trees can be cool.

We found this well-camouflaged Streaked Flycatcher while birding along the Blanchisseuse road. Amazingly, everyone got great looks!

We found this well-camouflaged Streaked Flycatcher while birding along the Blanchisseuse road. Amazingly, everyone got great looks!

Another striking butterfly, the White Lycid (Arawacus aetolus) has very differeny patterning above (white) and below (beautifully and colourfully striped).

Another striking butterfly, the White Lycid (Arawacus aetolus) has very different patterning above (white) and below (beautifully and colourfully striped).

While all of our excursions were exciting, there is always something special about night birding. We visited an agricultural centre one evening to look for nocturnal species and were not disappointed. The first birds we found were a pair of Tropical Screech Owls - one of which sat obligingly for a few minutes before heading off to hunt. We also spotted a Barn Owl nearby.

While all of our excursions were exciting, there is always something special about night birding. We visited an agricultural centre one evening to look for nocturnal species and were not disappointed. The first birds we found were a pair of Tropical Screech Owls – one of which sat obligingly for a few minutes before heading off to hunt. We also spotted a Barn Owl nearby.

We also found a number of Common Pauraque (above), White-tailed Nightjars and one Common Potoo hunting and sitting on various perches.

We also found a number of Common Pauraque (above), White-tailed Nightjars and one Common Potoo hunting and sitting on various perches.

A daytime visit to the same area produced a good variety of grassland and wetland species, including the very classy-looking Southern Lapwing.

A daytime visit to the same area produced a good variety of grassland and wetland species, including the very classy-looking Southern Lapwing.

We found a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants in the wet, muddy fields of the agricultural centre. The male looked quite dapper, I thought!

We found a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants in the wet, muddy fields of the agricultural centre. The male looked quite dapper, I thought!

Cattle Egrets were abundant in the wet open fields of Nariva Swamp. What do you think that one egret is looking at?

Cattle Egrets were abundant in the wet open fields of Nariva Swamp. What do you think that one egret is looking at?

We also encountered a few Spectacled Caimen, including this fella chilling out near the road in Nariva. The name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which can give a spectacled appearance.

We also encountered a few Spectacled Caiman, including this fella chilling out near the road in Nariva. The name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which can give a spectacled appearance.

While Pinnated Bittern was one of our prime targets in the Nariva Swamp, finding one can be a real challenge. We were fortunate to spy this one sticking its head up out of the tall grass.

While Pinnated Bittern was one of our prime targets in the Nariva Swamp, finding one can be a real challenge. We were fortunate to spy this one sticking its head up out of the tall grass.

Equally exciting, though much less expected, was this Rufous Crab-Hawk sitting in the open. What a beautiful bird, and very uncommon to see!

Equally exciting, though much less expected, was this Rufous Crab-Hawk sitting in the open. What a beautiful bird, and very uncommon to see!

Another beautiful raptor of the lowlands, and much more common, is the Yellow-headed Caracara. We spotted this one having lunch on an ocean breakwater.

Another beautiful raptor of the lowlands, and much more common, is the Yellow-headed Caracara. We spotted this one having lunch on an ocean breakwater.

We were lucky to have great looks at several Great Antshrikes during our time on Trinidad, including a pair that could often be found near the parking area at Asa Wright.

We were lucky to have great looks at several Great Antshrikes during our time on Trinidad, including a pair that could often be found near the parking area at Asa Wright.

Woodpeckers run the gamut from drab & boring to bold & colourful. This Golden-Olive Woodpecker is definitely among the latter - what a looker!

Woodpeckers run the gamut from drab & boring to bold & colourful. This Golden-Olive Woodpecker is definitely among the latter – what a looker!

A visit to the west coast of Trinidad gave us an opportunity not only to find some great birds, but also check out some cultural and scenic sites. The "Temple in the Sea" at Waterloo is a beautiful spot, and a real monument to both human spirit and the country's rich Hindu culture.

A visit to the west coast of Trinidad gave us an opportunity not only to find some great birds, but also check out some cultural and scenic sites. The “Temple in the Sea” at Waterloo is a beautiful spot, and a real monument to both human spirit and the country’s rich Hindu culture.

The coastal scenery was also dotted with birds - many of which we wouldn't see elsewhere. Here, a Brown Pelican sits on a local fishing boat moored in the bay.

The coastal scenery was also dotted with birds – many of which we wouldn’t see elsewhere. Here, a Brown Pelican sits on a local fishing boat moored in the bay.

We also enjoyed watching a flock of Black Skimmers working cooperatively to find and catch food. Notice the outskirts of Port-of-Spain (Trinidad's capital city) in the background.

We also enjoyed watching a flock of Black Skimmers working cooperatively to find and catch food. Notice the outskirts of Port-of-Spain (Trinidad’s capital city) in the background.

We also took time to visit the nearby Dattareya temple, which is home to an 85ft Hanuman murti (statue) - the largest outside of India.

We also took time to visit the nearby Dattareya temple, which is home to this 85ft Hanuman murti (statue) – the largest outside of India.

A late afternoon boat tour into Caroni Swamp proved to be both fun and birdy. Among highlights were our only Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Masked Cardinals. We also spotted this large Tree Boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) taking a nap in the mangroves.

A late afternoon boat tour into Caroni Swamp proved to be both fun and birdy. Among highlights were our only Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Masked Cardinals. We also spotted this large Tree Boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) taking a nap in the mangroves.

The climax of this boat trip, and a major highlight of the entire tour, was seeing hundreds of Scarlet Ibis (and many other herons/egrets) flying into roost on a single island before dusk. What an amazing, colourful spectacle!

The climax of this boat trip, and a major highlight of the entire tour, was seeing hundreds of Scarlet Ibis (and many other herons/egrets) flying into roost on a single island before dusk. What an amazing, colourful spectacle!

 

What a great way to end the Trinidad portion of our tour! Stay tuned for the next installment and our visit to Tobago!

What a great way to end the Trinidad portion of our tour! Stay tuned for the next installment and our visit to Tobago!

 

 Click here to read Part 3 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 1)

A few weeks ago (December 2015), I was honoured to co-lead yet another trip with Eagle Eye Tours … this time, their annual adventure in Trinidad & Tobago! If you’re not familiar with this company, please check them out – they are a great Canadian company that offers amazing trips to many of the world’s best birding locations and I always enjoying working with them. They are also committed to being environmentally responsible and giving back to birds & conservation programs wherever they travel!

Trinidad & Tobago provides a great introduction to the birds of South America … it has a selection of almost every bird family found in mainland countries, but in a smaller and easier to navigate setting. In fact, we birded many habitats across much of the country while staying at just two locations … and we saw a LOT of awesome birds and other wildlife!

This funky-looking Tufted Coquette was just one of many awesome birds that we enjoyed during the 2015 Eagle Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

This funky-looking Tufted Coquette was just one of many awesome birds that we enjoyed during the 2015 Eagle Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

On the larger island of Trinidad, we stayed at the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre, where incredible birding was literally right at our doorstep! This centre and lodge was a pioneer in the world of ecotourism, and remains one of the best places for birding in the tropics. Whether relaxing on the veranda, walking the trails or taking a day-trip to nearby parts of the country, we encountered awesome birds,wildlife and scenery at every turn. Not to mention great people, delicious food and an endless supply of wonderful, locally grown coffee!

The view from the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Centre looks down over a lush valley in Trinidad's Northern Range. Lots of great birds and other wildlife in there!!

The view from the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Centre looks down over a lush valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range. Lots of great birds and other wildlife in there!!

A portion of the proceeds from this tour went to support the great work of both Bird Studies Canada (represented here by my friend & co-leader Jody Allair, centre) and the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Our group REALLY enjoyed their stay!

A portion of the proceeds from this tour went to support the great work of both Bird Studies Canada (represented here by my friend & co-leader Jody Allair, centre) and the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Our group REALLY enjoyed their stay!

Using the Asa Wright Nature Centre as our base, we explored a variety of habitats throughout northern and central Trinidad – mountain rainforests, grasslands, wetlands and even coastal swamps and fishing harbours. And during our “down time” we enjoyed the incredible birding available on the centre’s large estate – much of which remains wild and natural rainforest. The large veranda at the main house is alive with birds – dozens of hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles,  honeycreepers, oropendolas and many more beautiful species taking advantage of a rich offering of food!

Some of our best birding was done right from the veranda! Dozens of humming bird feeders and a buffet of fresh fruit brought an amazing variety of birds right to us.

Some of our best birding was done right from the veranda! Dozens of humming bird feeders and a buffet of fresh fruit brought an amazing variety of birds right to us. Here, some Bananaquits enjoy a juicy chunk of melon.

Plenty of other birds were spotted in the canopy surrounding the nature centre, including this beautiful Channel-billed Toucan.

Plenty of other birds were spotted in the canopy surrounding the nature centre, including this beautiful Channel-billed Toucan.

The estate offers lots of great birding right on site - property around the lodge, amazing trails, and even the road.

The estate offers lots of great birding right on site – property around the lodge, amazing trails, and even the road.

And it's not just birds. Trinidad has an incredible diversity of butterflies, including the large and beautiful Blue Morpho (known locally as the "Emperor").

And it’s not just birds. Trinidad has an incredible diversity of butterflies, including the large and beautiful Blue Morpho (known locally as the “Emperor”).

One of the most awe-inspiring birds found in the Northern Range is the Bearded Bellbird. Even more amazing than its wattled "beard" is its incredible call - something that has to be heard ot be believed. (Apologies for the poor photo - they are well concealed in the forest canopy and we were fortunate to have such great looks at this one!)

One of the most awe-inspiring birds found in the Northern Range is the Bearded Bellbird. Even more amazing than its wattled “beard” is its incredible call – something that has to be heard to be believed. (Apologies for the poor photo – they are well concealed in the forest canopy and we were fortunate to have such great looks at this one!)

Of course, hummingbirds are huge part of any visit to the tropics, and there is no shortage here! White-chested Emeralds were among the most confiding at Asa Wright's very busy feeders.

Of course, hummingbirds are huge part of any visit to the tropics, and there is no shortage here! White-chested Emeralds were among the most confiding at Asa Wright’s very busy feeders.

Less common at feeders but fun to watch were the hermits, like this Green Hermit. Despite being larger than the other hummers, they were often bullied away from the food and fed with interesting strategies.

Less common at feeders but fun to watch were the hermits, like this Green Hermit. Despite being larger than the other hummers, they were often bullied away from the food and fed with interesting strategies.

Many wild mammals in Trinidad are secretive and rarely seen, but the Red-rumped Agouti has adapted well to human settlement and enjoyed the fresh fruit being offered to birds at the nature centre.

Many wild mammals in Trinidad are secretive and rarely seen, but the Red-rumped Agouti has adapted well to human settlement and enjoyed the fresh fruit being offered to birds at the nature centre.

While some birds are well camouflaged for life in the forest, others are brilliant. Violaceous Euphonia is certainly among the most colourful!

While some birds are well camouflaged for life in the forest, others are very colourful. Violaceous Euphonia is certainly among the most brilliant!

Some birds advertise themselves in much more elaborate ways than colour. Male White-bearded Mannikins perform very entertaining courtship dances at leks, and we got to enjoy the show on a couple occasions. This little fella has his beard puffed out (some might joke that I've been known to use a similar strategy!).

Some birds advertise themselves in much more entertaining ways than colour. Male White-bearded Mannikins perform elaborate courtship dances at leks, and we got to enjoy the show on a couple occasions. This little fella has his beard puffed out (some might joke that I’ve been known to use a similar strategy!).

Here, another White-bearded Mannikin poses during part of the performance, showing a little less of the beard.

Here, another White-bearded Mannikin poses during part of the performance, showing a little less of the beard.

Frogs were often heard but rarely seen on our hikes, but we were fortunate to find a chorus of Trinidad Stream (Yellow-throated) Frogs. These tiny but very noisy critters are endemic to Trinidad, making it an extra special treat to see!

Frogs were often heard but rarely seen on our hikes, but we were fortunate to find a chorus of Trinidad Stream (Yellow-throated) Frogs. These tiny but very noisy critters are endemic to Trinidad, making it an extra special treat to see!

Even more fortunate was this sighting of another endemic species - Urich's Litter Frog. These tiny frogs are nocturnal, and we found one sitting on a leaf during a night stroll.

Even more fortunate was this sighting of another endemic species – Urich’s Litter Frog. These tiny frogs are nocturnal, and we found one sitting on a leaf during a night stroll.

Tufted Coquettes are stunning, but somewhat scarce in Trinidad. One or maybe two pairs can be found at Asa Wright, and photographing them was one of my "goals" during our visit. It proved a little tougher than anticipated since they never visit feeders, are extremely fast and active, and can be a bit elusive. It took a few days to figure out the feeding patterns of this male, but it eventually paid off with some decent photo opportunities. I love this bird!

Tufted Coquettes are stunning, but somewhat scarce in Trinidad. One or maybe two pairs can be found at Asa Wright, and photographing them was one of my “goals” during our visit. It proved a little tougher than anticipated since they never visit feeders, are extremely fast and active, and can be a bit elusive. It took a few days to figure out the feeding patterns of this male, but it eventually paid off with some decent photo opportunities. I love this bird!

A friend of mine described the male Tufted Coquette as the "David Bowie of hummingbirds", and here you can see why.

A friend of mine described the male Tufted Coquette as the “David Bowie of hummingbirds”, and here you can see why. Check out that crazy costume!

There are lots of other beautiful creatures to be found, including this Variegated Gecko which occurs only in Trinidad and northern Venezuela.

There are lots of other beautiful creatures to be found, including this Variegated Gecko which occurs only in Trinidad and northern Venezuela.

One of the most special experiences we had was a trek to see the Oilbirds at Asa Wright. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. Visiting the cave is a surreal experience, to say the least!

One of the most special experiences we had was a trek to see the Oilbirds at Asa Wright. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. Visiting the cave is a surreal experience, to say the least! We were also fortunate enough to spot four flying over the the valley in search of food one evening.

Another colourful visitor to the Asa Wright property is the Yellow Oriole ... what a great looking bird.

Another colourful visitor to the Asa Wright property is the Yellow Oriole … what a great looking bird.

Equally colourful, though of a very different hue, is the Blue-gray Tanager. These beautiful birds were regular visitors to the veranda feeders, yet I somehow came away with out a single unobscured photo!

Equally colourful, though of a very different hue, is the Blue-gray Tanager. These beautiful birds were regular visitors to the veranda feeders, yet I somehow came away with out a single unobscured photo (but I do like this one!).

One of the more understated birds that frequent the fruit trays are White-lined Tanagers. They were, nevertheless, very entertaining!

One of the more understated birds that frequent the fruit trays are White-lined Tanagers. They were, nevertheless, very entertaining!

In addition to great bring, we also took opportunities to learn about the local culture and economy. Trinidad is well known for its cocoa, and here our group is learning first-hand how it is traditionally harvested and processed.

In addition to great birding, we also took opportunities to learn about the local culture and economy. Trinidad is well known for its cocoa, and here our group is learning first-hand how it is traditionally harvested and processed.

In addition to cocoa, you can often find coffee growing throughout the landscape. Nothing goes better with a day of birding at Asa Wright than a great cup of coffee that was grown, harvested and roasted right on site!

In addition to cocoa, you can often find coffee growing throughout the landscape. Nothing goes better with a day of birding at Asa Wright than a great cup of coffee that was grown, harvested and roasted right on site!

Among my favourite hummingbirds were the White-necked Jacobins ... very classy!

Among my favourite hummingbirds were the White-necked Jacobins … very classy!

We had no trouble spotting a few Golden Tegu Lizards. At nearly a metre long, the largest of these critters could appear a little menacing and I usually gave one the right-of-way if I met it on a path!

We had no trouble spotting a few Golden Tegu Lizards. At nearly a metre long, the largest of these critters could appear a little menacing and I usually gave one the right-of-way if I met it on a path!

Smaller, but still a little menacing, was the Trinidad Chevron Tarantula. We spotted several of these, including this large female during a night stroll. Another (apparently a male) was making itself at home in the main house of the Asa Wright lodge. I hardly ever sat down without checking for it first!

Smaller, but still a little menacing, was the Trinidad Chevron Tarantula. We spotted several of these, including this large female during a night stroll. Another (apparently a male) was making itself at home in the main house of the Asa Wright lodge. I hardly ever sat down without checking for it first!

As you can tell by now, night time can be just as exciting as daytime when looking for life in the tropics. We saw or heard five species of owl in Trinidad, including this cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

As you can tell by now, night time can be just as exciting as daytime when looking for life in the tropics. We saw or heard five species of owl in Trinidad, including this cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

Stay tuned for more photo highlights in Part 2 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

 Click here to read Part 2 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!