How to ‘get’ a double-striped thick-knee in Trinidad

purple honecreeper fluffed-wm

How to see/spot/ get the double-striped thick-knee in Trinidad? (ok, to end the suspense: it is a rare bird in TT, so please continue reading for content, and sorry the photo is down below, thanks much,  kisses…)

Well, of course you don’t go looking for it! That’s rule number one. For every thing. The day you go looking for something Murphy’s law takes over and you are done, it won’t even be in the last place you look for it, because hey, Murphy was an optimist who thought his rules could prepare people like me for life.. That’s working out great, isn’t it? Remember when I went looking for a purpose in life and ended up even more confused but now with an albatross Ph.D.? turns out great, in the end I am told…

So, don’t go looking for it and find yourself the best guide you did not know you could get. In our case it was the dapper Dave. Dave Ramlal, if you are familiar with Trinidad birding at all in the past 30 yrs, you may have heard of him. If you want to be familiar with the above, you should go looking for him!  If you do find him, then maybe you deserved him and its a privilege worth earning.

I have written at length of our previous trip to Trinidad and Tobago, exactly 5 yrs (now 5.5) ago where I met my friends Peggy and Kris for the first time. In Peggy I found the closest I had ever got to a soul-mate, which to me is simply someone who understood me naturally, without knowing me much. It seems now, I give out such strong signals when in Trinidad, that anyone who can pick up the frequency, does so. I must be under serious cover every where else, or simply lucky in Trinidad.

Beginning of 2017 Peggy wanted to go back to Trinidad before the likely changing of her chemo to a more aggressive regime. I was planning to go for a sabbatical after June last year, so we decided that this time, again, we would be in Trini around fourth of July. The six of us, with Kris, Ash, Peg, Lee and us made our own group and Caligo Ventures (having changed hands since the last time, but still providing the only access to Asa Wright Nature Center from the US) set our dates and itinerary. This time we would try to look for the endangered Trinidad Piping Guan (Pawi), for which we would go till Grand Riviere up north, the known range of Pawi.

Peggy, lee and I
Left to right: Peggy, Lee and I

The first night and day after reaching Trinidad we stayed at the Pax guesthouse, run by a Benedictine monastery where we joined Peggy and Lee who had found the place referred to in a travel book to Trinidad. A full description and review of the place may be added to a post I write about where NOT to stay if options are available, beginning with overpriced food and ending with a place needing a serious make-over. I felt bad for the staff who tried to be polite but seemed really at the end of their tether by (likely) being underpaid and having to serve ONE avocado (and look here, they have at least one giant avocado tree and avocadoes are literally dropping off trees in Trinidad, literally used in its correct figurative form here) to FOUR guests and as Peggy later told us Jell-o for dessert after dinner. We did spend a very pleasant day with our first taxi driver: Roberto going to visit  hanuman temple built and visited by people of Indian origin and had Trinidadian dal puri with shrimp, mango and veggies at a place he took us. Roberto introduced me to the two beers of Trinidad: Carib and Stag ( I did not drink beer when I went there the first time) and is definitely a cabby I would recommend, but then, apparently they are all awesome in Trinidad!

Dave came to pick us up on our second morning and I was of course the last one out as everyone appeared to be waiting for me. He said, ‘you must be Ishita.’ And I thought, hmm, where have I seen this guy before while being embarrassed at having kept him waiting. By the time were all in his van I remembered where, some of his photos were on Caligo venture’s facebook page. And I don’t have a photographic memory for nothin’ ! He said we were free to ask him as many questions as we liked and i was sitting in what would be my favorite seat for the next four days: right behind him, I told him very truly, that he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into. He laughed.  I don’t look as imposing as I like to think I guess. Dave is lean, has short cropped hair and usually wears a hip neck piece and long sleeves, his walk as sure footed as it is slick. A small part of my brain hoped I had a walk like that, as the main part of my brain was glad I wasn’t the only one abjectly favored by mosquitoes.

We were greeted by Kris and Ashley in the famous verandah of Asa Wright after checking out our room w/ queen bed (my special request made on behalf of my husband who was falling off the twin bed we had last time). Happily reunited I was of course constantly chirping. I think people, including Kris and Ashley think I am an extrovert. To say that is  far from the truth is an understatement.  Anyway. It is just that in the right company  I just happen to chirp a lot. The center celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and has upgraded in every possible way since I last saw it. The center guides are just a pleasure to talk to, they love their jobs and some of them travel for hours daily to get to their job. The food was fantastic and I must say I really like the new chef, because I do not recall that I liked the food that much 5 yrs ago.

It did rain on any plans on the first day, however, it was the ONLY plan (and not in the formal itinerary I might add) that suffered from the rains. Otherwise, we made good on every trip that had been planned.The rain brought my dancing jacobins out in tens as they drank in the ran and i soaked in their joy. The young, and the males especially take special delight in preening and spreading their wings and tail feathers to get the most of the rain. It is a sight I haven’t forgotten in five years, and now cannot get back to, soon enough. I did notice and later Dave confirmed this, that the number of Jacobins in the feeders was way more in proportion to the copper-rumped who, five years ago, were the feisty little hummers that fought off every other hummer that wanted a little drink. By the time we were leaving, I did see an increased effort by the copper-rumped to make a come-back. I already have way too many photos of those two hummers on this blog, so I will refrain to post more.

golden-olive woodpecker-2-wm
Golden-olive woodpecker

I should mention that a tropical storm Bret had hit Trinidad about two weeks before our planned arrival and while most of the places we visited showed no signs of being hit, there was some damage by trees falling over and mud slides in Blanchiseusse.

Female barred antshrike-wm
Female barred antshrike
female purple honeycreeper good-wm
Female purple honeycreeper

On the discovery trail, the main trail at AWNC to or at which all other trail lead, we started off with seeing the Trinidad mot-mot, two of them but in deep shadow, followed by both male and female great antshrike that D called out. Their call is like a ping pong ball bouncing off after being dropped. Our treat for this hike were two male bearded bellbirds calling at each other and being close enough that we saw them clearly. I think it was a great show that lasted more than 5-6 minutes as one of them actually moved closer still that I got a good video of both of its calls: boink…. boink… boink (guttural), the call comes from deep inside that crow sized bird, and the quicker boinks that seem to indicate that the bird needs to stop to rev up its chords for the next round. These birds don’t call during or close to rain. Their beards look like black worms wiggling from the lower jaw, and should have inspired beards in pirates of the caribbean (but we don’t need another movie for that, no!).

Bearded bell-bird-closer-calling-wm
Bearded bell-bird
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Blue-headed parrots

After we got back it did begin to pour and we felt sorry for the group of school kids who had left to take a walk down the trail right after us! What goes around….

That evening we headed for the area inside Agricultural research center in Arima for some night birding. We or rather D was hoping for some macaws (some green variety) but as usual they didn’t want to be seen by me (or more likely my husband who literally is dying to see some in the wild). The Moriche oriole, a very rare and possibly endangered bird is also seen there and also eluded us that night. We did see the little cuckoo, in the shadows but still clearly. After a great dinner, in light drizzle, I found out how to differentiate nightjars from paraques at night and I can tell you they are much easier to differentiate at night that day, unless they fly around you slowly! No, I am not telling you how here, ask D, it is something to do with their eyes.We saw and heard a southern lapwing as it bothered a common potoo.

However, D had not given up on the Moriche oriole and that is how to get the double-striped thick-knee.

Palm tanager and tobacco fruit-wm
Palm tanager eating wild tobacco

But before that, we spent an entire day at Blanchiseusse, up the mountain. Seeing the grayish saltator, blue headed parrots and the trinidad euphonia. Also, not a big deal but both the morphs of ferruginous pygmy owl (grey and rufus). One of them posed for photos wonderfully and D called him out. They have a pattern on the back of their heads that looks like they have a pair of eyes there! So the birds of the nests these guys attack are never sure where it is looking, because otherwise this little guy looks like a little doll. I also saw a clove tree with fruit for the first time on that day. It was a long and tiring day for most and we headed back ready for dinner and bed.

ferruginous pygmy owl-wm

Next morning, while not as bright or early as some people, I was up looking for the tufted coquette in the vervines by our room and I think it was the day I took a few photos. Although, THAT little guy is far from being tamed and I assure you, I accept that challenge with pleasure. I will have a photo of him I am proud of one day. This was our last day at the center and we had it packed. With the trip to the oil bird cave, one of the more difficult ones led by a center guide. The hike down went pretty smoothly and wrapped in a tent made of a giant leaf, we saw the exceeding cute tent-making bat. It even looked a little greenish itself! The oil birds screamed their eerie call as we saw a couple pretty close to the entrance of their cave here, apparently there are birds there that travel to Venezuela (another known oilbird haunt) and come back here. They are all of course tagged and known. On the way back, the rain gods finally lost patience and we came back dripping wet. Not that I cared.

oil bird-2-wm
Oil bird with regurgitated palm fruit


Lester and Dave
Lester(left) and Dave(right): Our Trinidad guides of Indian origin, carried with pride and Caribbean flair

Last evening was our Caroni Swamp trip, to see Peggy’s favorite, Trinidad’s national bird: the scarlet ibis. And again, might I add, not a single photo I am proud of. We met Lester, who I am sure was our boat guide last time we went too. In the intervening years, his dad: Winston Nannan was awarded the President’s medal for his huge contribution in the conservation of the habitat of the scarlet ibis. The swamp will be named after him, even though we did not have the good fortune of meeting him as he has passed. Nevertheless, guides are awesome like that, and Lester is quite funny too. That day the rain gods (and possibly every other god that I have ever prayed to) was smiling at me and rewarded me with a full length rainbow in all its glory.  There was some friction in the group for silly reasons I am choosing not to get into at this point, including inviting people we had just met at the center to join our group. I know I am mean, but scarlet ibises were practically the reason we were back, and my socializing-to-new-people mode had been turned off since I met D, since I wasn’t expecting to be needing it again in the tour. I rarely, as rare as the bird we saw next, chat for the heck of it. To me the only polite thing to do is NOT pretend that I am interested when I am not.  Anyway, I am weird I know. Another long day came to an end, I thought it had gone great (but it turns out, not everyone did!). But, the rainbow, I am sure had no complaints!

Scarlet ibis-v formation
Scarlet Ibises

Rainbow and binos

Next day was our long ish road trip to Grand Riviere where the pawi awaited our arrival with bated wattles. I was supposed to sit next to D! Well, I had called shotgun for this particular drive, the day we were on Blanchiseusse and Kris hadn’t been there, as she hadn’t been on some of our hikes or trips, and ok, I am such a baby. I had got the front seat for Caroni, even if that had been the trade off for letting the strangers join our group. I clearly had issues with letting some things go….

The whole list of over 120 birds we saw is beyond the scope of this post, we did see the tropical parula and bay-headed tanagers (life birds for me) among many  others..

So, on the way back we stopped at the agricultural center in Arima looking for the oriole. I even saw it fly across at about 6 ft above the ground. No one else did, even if we waited quite some time. I think Ashley had wanted to see it and told D, it hadn’t been me who had requested the stop, but I am so glad we did. Because finally, we got what I had hoped we would make in the Caroni marsh: a truly special sighting we make as a group. On our way out, remember I am sitting right behind D and at this point not in the best of spirits, but still with eyes open, and suddenly while taking the turn towards the exit he stops the van midway. And says in cheerful (ok, he always sounds cheerful, I would say he had a laughing talk: an undercurrent of a good laugh as he talks that seems to be some type of a Caribbean male phenotype, and is expressed beautifully in D) amazement (he was never amazed before): “Is that a double stripe(d) thick-knee?” And I am like ‘what, where, is that a bird?’ Right in front in the little line of wild grass. A large-eyed, long legged, superbly camouflaged bird. Not been reported in Trinidad in 10 years. And before that reported only 5 times. A double striped thick-knee. A rare vagrant. Making us some kind of a big deal.

When I said good bye to Dave at Mt. Plaisir, I hoped it was not forever.

Double-striped thick-knee-wm
Double striped thick-knee: the elusive and gorgeous bird of our trip!

The rest of the trip is kind of a blur, though it shouldn’t be. Our rooms were wonderful, with AC and lovely views. The Pawis were kind and showed up and we went back to their haunt on two days, we also saw some forest birds with Nicholas.  A truly amazing experience of watching a leather-back lay eggs, this time (unlike the last) she laid fully formed, golf-ball sized eggs. That are springy! We saw the vultures lying in wait for the little baby turtles that emerge, yet another predator.

Trinidadian piping guan- close-wm


I am compelled to mention here that we saw the hotel, the supposed eco-lodge: Mt. Plaisir, harboring dogs that dig and eat the eggs. I am sorry, if you are selling yourself as an eco-lodge, where the ‘eco’ part is the eggs being laid on the beach you are situated on: the dogs that are fed by the employees of the lodge need to be secured for three months. It shouldn’t be that hard, these are not natural predators. The hotel employees are lovely people, I know  feeding those almost stray dogs is kindness. But some objectivity and a few ropes or some other means of containment is needed. I saw the dogs eating the eggs and no matter how much Pierro (the owner of Mt. Plaisir) denies it, it happens. The locals of this beautiful town, volunteer their nights to look out for the leatherbacks, tag them and maintain some numbers etc. They love these animals and I envy their involvement in something as beautiful as that. Not that anyone is stopping me. I know. All of us did not get to see the nest building and egg laying of these turtles but we all saw the many babies saved and kept away from the vultures by human intervention by another David. Nicholas sold us some chocolate he makes from local cacao, that was wonderful.

I would be remiss in not mentioning our final driver in TT: Anthony who drove us back from Grand Riviere to the airport. I did sit in the front that day, I suppose no one else had the energy to engage in a conversation. But engage I did and he was wonderful. Talked about Trinidad in real terms, just the way I would want to talk about India to someone I trust will not get the wrong impression just because my country has some issues. It is hard for some people to accept the culture in other places but thankfully I know better. I wish him as a driver to anyone who understands his openness and warmth without judging. He went out of his way to take us on our final TT outing: we ate the local street special : doubles, two puris with chickpeas in a spicy sauce, from his favorite shack (they are all different, we have been told) and he even paid for ours!

Any country that has people like the ones I met there, has been doing things right for a LOONG time. Trust me, I am a philosopher. Trinidad. Who knew that my heart could belong in a place so well off my sphere till the time I was 30. And who knew that at 35 (at the time) I could still fall in love. Until next time…










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