Now, we are beginning a week on Sanibel Island, one of the barrier islands off the southwestern edge of the Florida peninsula. Our Sanibel week is to be followed by a week on Trinidad and a few days on Tobago. We are hoping for lots of birds, of course, and a chance to use the spotting scope that was Lee's big birthday present.
We were up and off very early this morning to drive from Princeton to Newark Airport. On the Turnpike, we had the full moon still in the sky shining opposite a glowing red sunrise. Laden as we were with luggage and optics, we were cheered to see that the airport monorail had, as promised, finally been put back into service last evening.
On the flight to Miami, I read Richard Fortey's Trilobite!: Eyewitness to Evolution (I'd greatly enjoyed his Life a year or so ago). Fortey describes his first encounter with a trilobite as a young fossil hunter:
At last, I found a trilobite. The rock simply parted around the animal, like some sort of revelation. I was left holding two pieces of rock--surely what I held was the textbook come alive. The long thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me and I returned the gaze. More compelling than any pair of blue eyes, there was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years.He rhapsodizes a bit about the dazzling recent discoveries of the HOX (and similar) genes that control the sequence of development of the various organs as animals--all animals--grow from embryo to adult:
It is rather wonderful to imagine this distant manifesto at work on the growing trilobite, directing the brain to be enclosed within the head--and, of course, issuing instructions for the growth and development of eyes.The trip went smoothly; we were in Miami (and a rental car) by noon, making our way through depressing streets. We escaped from those in time and were soon passing through the Everglades, the famous "river of grass". I'd never been there before and was enchanted by the waving grasses extending clear to the horizon with birds everywhere, flying over the grasses and crowded into the few straggly trees growing from hummocks. Egrets, herons, cormorants, and anhingas were all about; we were soon counting the Belted Kingfishers perched on the wires along the roadway. There were many raptors, mostly Black Vultures. Trees were full of White Ibises, with bright red bills, faces, and legs. When we stopped at a rest area to look out into the glades, a Tri-colored Heron was perched nearby; we were soon surrounded by Boat-tailed Grackles looking for a handout.
For eyes are part of this ancient list of instructions. It seems that the making of an eye is the same impulse in fish or fly or man. As the cells develop in the embryo there is a point at which eyes begin to differentiate. They start as a bundle of cells, which divide, and divide again. The end product may be very different--after all, insects have compound eyes and vertebrates sophisticated, lensar eyes--but the impulse, the instruction "make eyes!," may be common to all animals. The deep language of the genes is an Esperanto of biological design which can be understood by a Babel of organisms. The deep-seated genes represent an organizing principle that predates the extraordinary proliferation of life that made the living world as rich as it is today; to understand this deep structure we have to strip away differences to the commonality of ancestry. The eyes have it.
Maybe this democracy of eyes stretches as far back as the flatworm, a little, wedge-headed organism that still abounds in moist places in soils and under stones. Many readers will know the flatworm only as a clever cipher in one of M.C. Escher's ever-retreating symmetrical designs. In his drawing, flatworm interlocks with flatworm into an infinite regress that flaunts geometrical meshing finer and finer until it reaches a kind of reductio ad absurdum. It is a favorite subjects for posters on the walls of advanced biology classes. The flatworm has a kind of surprised look--expressed with its eyes--as well it might, being the victim of such an exercise in facile geometry. Many biologists place the flatworm (or, to be accurate, several different flatworms) close to the common ancestor of most higher animals. Hence, the ancestor of both trilobite and train driver may be a tiny, flattened invertebrate with minute eye spots. And the instruction that bids the eye grow in a flatworm may be the same instruction that instructs it to form in ourselves.
When we got beyond the Everglades, we stopped for a very late lunch at a Taco Bell (a treat for us). As we continued to drive west, the land appeared to be very dry; ponds were obviously way down from their normal level.
As we neared Sanibel, I kept my eyes on the drainage ditches along the road. There were Great and Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons frequently. I caught a glimpse of a large white bird with a wrinkled black face and neck and a long down-curved black bill. My mind at first shrugged it off as the White Ibis we know so well from Australia; we'd zipped past before I got far enough through the logic tree to remember that the White Ibises here have red faces and bills. It had to have been a Wood Stork right there by the road!
Sanibel Island is connected to the mainland by a 3-mile causeway, with bridge sections between sections of road built on small islands that are now little more than a strip of roadway with sandy beaches on both sides. The beaches were full of picnickers and terns. We ducked to avoid a Brown Pelican floating low above the roadway (taking advantage of the updraft from one of the bridge sections).
The island is low and flat and sandy and is so tropical that Spanish moss hangs from the power lines. Bougainvillea is in bloom everywhere. MapQuest had generated a rather bizarre route for us, but we soon found the place to sign in to our rented condo and then the condo itself. We have a spacious second-story apartment right on the Gulf beach. It is comfortably furnished all in pastels (though the seashell motif may be a bit overdone, and I have yet to come to terms with the huge stuffed fish hung above the sofa).
Lee gallantly went grocery shopping while I napped. We had a light dinner together and then sat on the screened veranda looking down at the gulls and the sandpipers and the sunset across the Gulf.
We were lucky to arrive when the tide was low and the birds were concentrated in bays near the 5-mile-long Wildlife Drive. At our first stop (while Lee was still struggling to get the optics out of the car), I had a really memorable view of a Reddish Egret dancing in the shallows. Sibley says, "This relatively large and slender species is usually found singly in expanses of shallow salt water, where it is very active, chasing fish on foot, running, jumping, and spinning." That was exactly what I saw. It was a dark morph bird in full breeding plumage, slate gray legs and body and a rusty red head and neck with shaggy plumes. The long bill was pink at the base and black at the end. The eyes were bright blue. It cavorted very close to shore until just before Lee joined me, when it flew much further out in the shallow water.
From that same spot, we watched Pied-billed Grebes and White Ibises, with Roseate Spoonbills in the distance. An Osprey waded in the water near a small sandbar. We watched a Tri-colored Heron fishing from a bridge abutment a few feet below us. It was unperturbed when a Brown Pelican swam under the bridge and paused nearby. The cormorant who was there dove under though, and the pelican made a snatch at it as it passed beneath him.
We stopped further on to look at a sandbar heaped with White Pelicans looking like so many feather pillows. They were far larger than the Great and Snowy Egrets and Double-crested Cormorants sharing the sandbar. A raft of Red-breasted Mergansers floated just beyond the sandbar.
In the water on the other side of the road, we counted 21 Little Blue Herons, graceful slate blue birds with greenish legs. (The books say that they usually hunt alone, except when the food source is very rich.) As we watched, the herons and the nearby ibises all suddenly took flight. A tour-bus driver pointed out the Bald Eagle that had just flown low over them, a beautiful mature bird with a gleaming white head. It circled around giving us a wonderful show. After things calmed down again, I spotted a female Belted Kingfisher hovering above the water before diving in to catch a fish.
Driving further, we stopped to go along a mangrove boardwalk. There weren't many birds but we got good looks at tree-climbing crabs in the mangrove trees.
We stopped again when we spotted a group of birders and their optics by the side of the road. An Osprey nest built on a tall roadside platform held an adult (calling to its mate) and two fluffy young.
We stopped at a wildlife viewing tower and had just climbed to the top when a flock of about 50 Roseate Spoonbills flew low over us. How does one describe their pink and rose against the blue sky? Just lovely!
Looking down into a shaded cove, we saw dozens of Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons and White Ibises. Great Egrets walked along the edge of the mangroves in their stately way and were reflected perfectly in the dark water. The picture reached perfection when they were joined by a Roseate Spoonbill.
We continued driving slowly through the refuge, seeing dozens more egrets and herons and ibises. Lee spotted another Bald Eagle (or the same one again).
Near the end of the drive, we stopped to walk along the Shell Mound Trail, a boardwalk through mangrove swamp. We were barely onto the boardwalk and were discussing the introduced plants running rampant along one side when we spooked a good-sized hawk that we hadn't noticed perched on a low branch right over the boardwalk. Fortunately, it was accustomed enough to people that it flew only a few yards away before perching grumpily with its back turned toward us. We had a really good view--our first Red-shouldered Hawk. It finally turned around and gave us a good front view, too, and even posed for a while to be pointed out to others passing along the trail. The Florida Red-shouldered are paler than elsewhere; this one had pale orange bars across its white chest very like the Sharpie that frequents our little back yard at home.
We found the hawk again further along the trail, but there weren't many other birds, probably because there was no water at all in the swamp.
Getting toward the end of the boardwalk loop, we heard a raptor calling above us. Looking up, we could see a big nest of sticks high in a tree right over the boardwalk. In it was the mate of our first Red-shouldered, who was returning the calls. We had a really good view. We heard no young, so their eggs probably haven't hatched yet.
After completing the circuit, we stopped back at the Visitors' Center to buy a few books and a shirt for me with an embroidery of a Roseate Spoonbill. In the observation area, we saw a pink spoonbill feather on display. What a color! From a window, we could see another nest platform built for Ospreys but without a nest yet. Two Ospreys were standing atop the bare chicken wire looking as though they were trying to decide whether it was exactly the right spot for their nest.
Talking with a volunteer at the information desk, we learned that there are four pairs of Bald Eagles nesting on the island and 85 pairs of Ospreys.
Indeed the area was so dry that we saw very few birds for the first mile or so, other than the Great-crested Flycatcher we found right at the start of the trail. There were some flowers, however, including Blue-flag Iris, which I thought must be introduced but which are actually native. Pickerelweed and Water Dropwort were blooming as well. There were a good many strangler figs, too (Pileated Woodpeckers love the fruit, so they must spread the seeds), but in this climate they don't engulf their host trees as they do in more tropical areas.
Finally, in a little side trail, we heard a bird in a tree and after much looking discovered a Tufted Titmouse, just like the ones at our feeders at home. Things did get livelier when Lee found a beautiful male Northern Parula (and was pleased with himself for catching the definitive broken white eye-ring). (This is a warbler neither of us had seen before, blue and olive on top, yellow and rufous and black below. Very pretty.) Nearby was a Red-bellied Woodpecker.
Checking through the guide book, I said, "We should be seeing Swallow-tailed Kites". I looked up and, sure enough, there were three glorious Swallow-tailed Kites circling low above us, our first ever. (This is a stunning bird, especially against a bright blue sky. On top it is all black except for the white head. From below, it is bright white trimmed in black. The black-tipped white wings are long and straight. The graceful swallowtail is black. The birds fly so effortlessly that they often pluck prey from treetops without pausing and then consume their food on the fly.) One of them was carrying nesting material in its beak. We watched for ten minutes.
A bit further on, we watched a Brown Anole lizard shed its skin, pulling its front legs out of the old skin as if it had been a sweater. As we watched the anole eat its shed skin, I was pleased that we would have something satisfyingly gross to tell the children about.
We saw few more birds for another mile but then finally got to a pond where things got really good. (The beautifully-situated Marsh Overlook had had nothing but a tree full of Black Vultures.)
Two Purple Gallinules (our first) glowed in the bright sunlight, with their bright red and yellow bills, turquoise head shields, and blue-purple-green bodies. An Eastern Phoebe alighted nearby. Three big Florida Redbelly Turtles basked, not seeming to mind the large alligators swimming close by. There is an alligator hiding under the water fern here.
A juvenile Green Heron (our first) stalked through the water fern looking for fish. Then another more mature Green Heron stood on a log and gave us a great view.
While Lee walked a bit further to photograph a particularly large alligator, I continued to watch and got the chance to work out that the lovely small white heron that flew in must be a juvenile Little Blue. Then it turned its back and showed me its first two blue feathers just coming in.
A volunteer ranger was on the trail nearby. He told us that no Wood Storks are nesting here this year, though we might with luck see a few individual birds. A little further on, we had two more Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a White-eyed Vireo.
The next pond was even more amazing. An Anhinga perched on a log with its wings hung out to dry. A snowy white Great Egret stood very still nearby hunting. A Great Blue Heron stalked through the water fern and water lettuce.
We watched a fully mature Green Heron crouched hunting near the Anhinga. (This is another really beautiful bird, a small stocky heron with dark green cap, maroon neck, and shimmering blue-green back.)
Lee pulled out his camera when the Great Egret caught a large fish. As we watched, it managed to kill the fish and was in the process of positioning it properly to be swallowed when a Red-shouldered Hawk appeared out of nowhere and tried to snatch the fish from the egret's bill. It failed, leaving both birds very angry. Words were exchanged. The hawk retreated to a tree and glared down into the pond full of birds that remained frozen in place until it finally left.
I got a very nice look at the hawk before we walked back along the boardwalk to try to get into a position to photograph it. From that angle, we were able to see a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron also frozen in place near the Green Heron.
Continuing on our way, we came upon a ranger who had set up a scope for viewing a roosting adult Black-crowned Night-Heron (as you might guess from the name, these birds roost during the day and hunt at night). Though the bird was very close to the trail, we'd walked right by him.
We continued back to the headquarters and were delighted to see one of their feeders covered with Goldfinches. The males were all mottled, halfway through molting into their bright yellow breeding plumage.
We had a quick late lunch in the little cafe. We were disappointed not to have found a Limpkin, but hadn't really expected to do so. We had a slow drive back to Sanibel between the endless water-guzzling golf courses. We spotted a Belted Kingfisher two blocks away from home, hunting in a pond by the nearest golf course.
We then drove slowly around to the Shell Mound Trail and went in to photograph the hawk nest. This was our first attempt to attach the camera to the new spotting scope. It seemed to work well, but Lee had to kneel on the boardwalk to see through the eyepiece. We need to find some sort of portable stool for him (which will, of course, make carrying all the photographic gear even more of a chore).
We spent a lovely quiet hour there photographing the Red-shouldered Hawk on her nest and pointing her out to the few other people who passed by on the boardwalk. The eggs seem still not to have hatched. The female stayed on the nest all the while, standing up on the edge of the nest now and then to call to her mate, who answered, sometimes from nearby and other times from afar. We never saw the male, but it was clear that the bird on the nest could see him from her eyrie and that she was expecting him to bring her some food.
We asked one of the volunteers at the Visitors' Center whether he'd seen any Limpkins recently. He said it had been many years since he'd seen a Limpkin on Sanibel. (For those of you who don't know, a Limpkin is a wading bird more-or-less related to the cranes. It lives in swamps and feeds on shellfish; in North America, one finds them only in Florida (if at all).)
Driving back across the island, we kept an eye out for Gopher Tortoises. There are tortoise crossing signs here and there, but we saw none crossing. A local guidebook says:
Sanibel's gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) live in colonies in sandy woodlands and on dunes, where they munch on grass and other vegetation. Tortoises take refuge in their burrows, but they often venture out during the hottest part of the day. Seaside gophers are sometimes mistaken for sea turtles and placed in the surf by well-meaning but badly mistaken tourists.
If you compare the Sanibel of today with the Sanibel of 20 years ago, it's been destroyed. If you compare Sanibel to the rest of Florida, it's a paradise.Leaving the island, we saw one last Osprey sitting atop a pole at the end of the causeway. The trip back to Miami was easy but not very birdy. (I found myself regretting that we hadn't time to stop at Corkscrew again.) We spotted one kingfisher on a wire, and there were many Great Egrets as we passed through the Everglades. And, we did get a close look at Boat-tailed Grackles while stopped in traffic near the airport.
The whole process of returning our rental car, checking our left luggage, checking in for the flight, etc., went so smoothly that we had time for a pleasant pasta lunch at the restaurant atop the airport hotel with complimentary shamrock cookies on our way out.
We stopped to look at a shop window where we saw a toy we need to get for Purmudgeon and Lightning on our way home. After making one last phone call to my parents to be sure my mother had received the instructions on how to reach us in an emergency, we headed to the departure gate. Before the plane took off, I overheard the Trinidadian businessman across the aisle from me say into his cellphone, "Yes, mon". It began to feel that we were really going to the Caribbean. (Neither of us has been before.)
I buried myself in Life on the Mississippi and got finally to the part describing Twain's return to the river after many years away:
I had myself called with the four o'clock watch, mornings, for one cannot see too many summer sunrises on the Mississippi. They are enchanting. First, there is the eloquence of silence; for a deep hush broods everywhere. Next, there is the haunting sense of loneliness, isolation, remoteness from the worry and bustle of the world. The dawn creeps in stealthily; the solid walls of black forest soften to gray, and vast stretches of the river open up and reveal themselves; the water is glass-smooth, gives off spectral little wreaths of white mist, there is not the faintest breath of wind, nor stir of leaf; the tranquility is profound and infinitely satisfying. Then a bird pipes up, another follows, and soon the pipings develop into a jubilant riot of music. You see none of the birds; you simply move through an atmosphere of song which seems to sing itself.The trip from Miami to Port of Spain, Trinidad, is about 1600 miles, nearly all the way to South America. (Trinidad and Tobago, which lie about 10 degrees north of the Equator, are not actually part of the Caribbean island chain, but rather pieces of South America that have become detached. Trinidad is only about six miles off the coast of Venezuela, and Tobago is about 20 miles northeast of Trinidad.)
During the flight, a kind-looking man from two rows in front of us came back and introduced himself as Howard, having guessed that we were headed to Asa Wright along with him, his wife Janet, and the man sitting in front of me, who is named Ron. (Maybe it was all the optics that gave us away.)
We flew over island after island. As the sun set, the sky shaded from red to blue-black all around the horizon, and we began to see the lights of the islands below us.
By the time we'd landed in Port of Spain and had gone through the entry formalities and gathered up our luggage, it was obvious that there were seven birders among the passengers on our flight. (The fieldmarks are conspicuous.)
The seven of us were soon greeted by a smiling, white-haired man wearing a green Asa Wright Centre hat, who introduced himself as Jogie (this is pronounced like "Yogi" in Yogi Berra, except that the first letter is more of a "d-j-y" sound). This was good news. A Birder's Guide to Trinidad and Tobago says:
Jogie Ramlal (Fig. 3) is considered by many experts to be the best landbirding guide in Trinidad. Having lived for many years in the Arima Valley and having led field trips numbering in the thousands to all parts of Trinidad, his knowledge of the songs, habits, and haunts of Trinidad's birds is unparalleled. His peaceful, friendly demeanor, remarkable serenity, and fine sense of humor make him a wonderful companion in the field. Equally important, Jogie quickly admits any uncertainty in his identifications, a trait that allows visiting birders to share in discoveries of unusual species (and a trait which all too many birding guides lack).Jogie's son, Mahase, loaded our luggage into a car and Jogie loaded all of us into his van and off we drove, north toward Trinidad's Northern Range. Trinidad is roughly rectangular, 50 by 35 miles. It has highly varied habitats, from elfin forest atop the northern mountains to lowland savannahs to mangrove swamps. This Northern Range is an extension of the Andes, as are the islands dotting the channel between here and Venezuela.
The road up the mountain was very narrow and winding. The trip took about an hour and a half, and we all agreed that we'd not like to do the drive ourselves, but Jogie (who'd already made the same trip twice earlier in the day) pointed out that it is safer at night, because the oncoming headlights warn of cars coming around the hairpin curves.
During the drive, we chatted and introduced ourselves. In addition to Lee and me, the group includes:
Once we were in the mountains, most of the area we drove through was abandoned coffee-cocoa-citrus plantations now returned to rather lush second-growth forest. (Trinidad and Tobago, which are normally outside the hurricane zone, were devastated by Hurricane Flora in 1963. As the economy was based almost entirely on agriculture and the agriculture was based almost entirely on trees (coffee, cacoa, citrus, palms) and a great many of the trees were destroyed, economic recovery was slow and many of the plantations were abandoned, especially as other, less grueling jobs opened up. "Nobody wants to work in the fields anymore.")
When we got out of the van at the Centre, we were greeted by smiling people who handed us glasses of cold juice. I took a big gulp before discovering that the drink was actually rum punch. We both set our drinks aside politely and headed to our very pleasant room. We found a tray there with tea and sandwiches, but we were too tired to eat.
There are some accommodations in the main house, but most of the rooms are spread about in small bungalows around the grounds. Ours is one of two rooms in a bungalow quite near the main house (which is almost hidden from us by the dense plantings). We have a large, high-ceilinged room with a screened veranda looking down across the Arima Valley. (The elevation here is about 1200 feet.)
Our first sight this morning was the beautiful tropical wood panelling on the underside of our bungalow's tin roof. The first thing we heard was the raucous calls of the Crested Oropendulas, big brassy icterids very similar to the Montezuma Oropendulas we got to know well in Belize a few years ago.
Not even the lure of Asa Wright's fabled veranda ("See 20-30 life birds before breakfast") could get us out of bed immediately, but we soon took a peek out of our own veranda and confirmed that all those bizarre noises were coming from oropendulas. We then threw on some clothes and made our way to the veranda of the main house.
It is everything it is said to be! From the veranda, one looks down into an area containing a large number of hummingbird feeders. Our first sight (one that makes people gasp) was of honeycreepers glowing on the hummingbird feeders, male Green Honeycreepers and male and female Purple Honeycreepers (which soon became my favorites).
There are also half a dozen feeder tables covered with fruit and bread. These tables attract many kinds of birds and animals. This one was being used by Palm Tanagers and a male and female White-lined Tanager.
The feeders were very active. Our complete before-breakfast list was Ruddy Ground-doves, Gray-fronted Doves, White-necked Jacobins (splendid little hummingbirds), Blue-crowned Motmots (one of my candidates for "World's Most Beautiful Bird"), Chestnut Woodpeckers (male and female), Great Kiskadees, Cocoa Thrushes, Bare-eyed Thrushes, Tropical Mockingbirds, Bananaquits, Green Honeycreepers (male and female), Purple Honeycreepers (male and female), Blue-gray Tanagers, Palm Tanagers, Silver-beaked Tanagers (male and female), White-lined Tanagers (male and female), and Crested Oropendulas.
That's "only" seventeen and not all of them were lifers, but it was still thrilling. There were also some agoutis (an interesting forest rodent that looks more like a small primitive horse than anything else), tiny squirrels, and several large lizards called mattes.
The breakfast gong rang at seven, so we adjourned to the diningroom where an attractive breakfast buffet was laid out. We were shepherded to the "Caligo table" (Caligo is the company that arranged our trip), where we met the four members of our group who arrived on an earlier flight yesterday:
After breakfast, the eleven of us joined Jogie on the veranda for a short orientation. He then took us walking along the Centre's long driveway. The walk began with two spectacular birds, a Yellow Oriole and a Violaceous Trogon. Although this trogon is closely related to the Elegant Trogons we've seen in Arizona and Belize and to the Blue-crowned Trogon I saw in Peru, it is much smaller, so much smaller that with its back turned to me I thought at first it couldn't be a trogon. The other trogons we've seen all had red breasts and shimmering green backs; the golden yellow of this one's breast was matched by its bright eye-ring and set off beautifully by its deep purple back and head.
A bit further on, we stopped to find the bird that was calling inside a roadside bush. We could hear it clearly only inches away from us, but we couldn't see it, and Jogie warned us that that might continue to be true throughout our stay in Trinidad. He identified the bird as a Rufous-browed Peppershrike. We had all memorized its call before we gave up on seeing this particular bird.
There were Crested Oropendulas everywhere (though it doesn't take many to give that impression). We can't figure out why these oropendulas are named Crested, since we can see no sign of a crest even when they are displaying. At any rate, it's clear that they intend to play the role of "trash bird" to the hilt. None of the rest of the group has had experience with oropendulas (Lee and I lived for a week next to a tree containing an oropendula nesting colony, so we know them well), so as we walked along they kept getting faked out by yet another new oropendula call. (These oropendulas manage even to have an excitingly noisy wingbeat that makes one think some huge bird is flying low overhead.)
The walk with Jogie yielded more very good birds: White Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Black-throated Mango, White-chested Emerald, Turquoise Tanager, and Bay-headed Tanager.
Gardenias, hibiscus, heliconias, and a variety of gingers were blooming along the road, and Jogie pointed out cacoa, coffee, and nutmeg trees among the re-grown native forest. A nutmeg fruit fell to the ground almost hitting Lee. Jogie broke it open to show us the red mace coating the nutmeg proper and passed the fruit around for us all to smell both spices.
At the end of the walk, Jogie gave us advice on which of the Centre's trails to take to see which birds and then left us to explore on our own for the rest of the day.
Back on the veranda, we got an even better look at a Yellow Oriole that was visiting one of the feeder tables. And then we added Smooth-billed Ani to our list for the day.
The tasty lunch included cooked plaintains, which I love, and taro, which was totally blah until one of our table-mates discovered the little dish of hot sauce that was enough to make anything taste interesting.
At lunch, Janet mentioned that she and Howard were on Sanibel last year, too, and had of course visited Corkscrew. They didn't find a Limpkin either but they had a male Painted Bunting on the feeders as soon as they entered the sanctuary. Envy!
After lunch, we returned to our room and sat on our veranda watching the birds in the nearby trees. A small flock of Turquoise Tanagers landed quite nearby and gave us a wonderful look. In the morning, we'd seen them from below--just another yellow-breasted bird--but now we could appreciate the "turquoise" in their name, as the upper parts are dark blue dappled with turquoise.
We napped during the hottest part of the afternoon and then took a trail Jogie had recommended down to the White-bearded Manakin lek. (A "lek" is a communal display area where male birds display to females who visit the lek to choose a mate.) The lek is fenced off to avoid disturbing the birds, but we could stand at the fence and look out into a forest full of tiny black-and-white puffball birds. Each had his own roughly circular display area which he had cleared down to the soil, and he now sat perched above his display area looking for a female to come to see him strut his stuff. No females came while we were there, but even so the males flitted frenetically from perch to perch making a popcorn-like snapping sound with their wings as they practiced their moves. Jogie says they do this year-round except when they are in molt.
This is the description of "The Dancing [White-bearded] Manakins" from A Neotropical Companion (John Kricher):
Manakins carry the evolutionarily inspired art of courtship dancing to extremes....(See more.)
Up to thirty or more males may occupy a single lek. Each male makes his "court" by clearing an oval-shaped area of forest floor about a meter across. Each court must contain two or more thin vertical saplings, as these are crucial in the manakin's courtship dance. The male begins courtship by jumping back and forth between the two saplings, making a loud "snap" with each jump. The snap comes from modified wing feathers snapped together when the wings are raised. When a female visits the lek, the snapping of many males is audible for quite a distance. In addition to the snap, the male's short wing feathers make a buzzing, insectlike sound when it flies, and thus active manakin leks can become a cacophony of buzzing, snapping birds. The intensity of the male's jumping between saplings increases until he suddenly jumps from sapling to ground, appearing to ricochet back to another sapling, from which he slides vertically downward like a firefighter on a pole. David Snow's file footage of the slide revealed that successful males slide down right to the female perched at the base of the sapling pole. Copulation is so quick that Snow only discovered the presence of the female in the film. He never saw her while he was witnessing the event!
As we walked further along the trail through lovely woods, we found a Great Antshrike, a handsome black-and-white bird with red eyes. Near him, with some difficulty, we identified a Plain-brown Woodcreeper. This bird is so devoid of fieldmarks that even though it has a patch of bare skin on its face, that patch is exactly the same color as all its feathers, plain brown. We were proud of both birds, but especially of the Antshrike, because we have failed so often on other Neotropical birding trips to see Ant-thises and Ant-thats.
We were back on the veranda at 4 in time for tea (and cookies). I stayed for a while and helped a pleasant lady who was there for just a few hours identify the birds at the feeders below. We were delighted to spot a male Trinidad Euphonia, a bright yellow and purple bird (that is distinguished from the very similar Violaceous Euphonia by having a triangle of black at its throat).
(Back in our room, while taking a shower, it struck me that I'd not shown her a Motmot, the most striking of all the birds that come to the feeders, so I was very pleased when she came up to me after dinner to tell me that she'd seen a Motmot after I left the veranda.)
At dinner, our group compared the birds we'd found on our afternoon walks. Ron astounded us all by having found what he believed to be an immature Rufescent Tiger-Heron along the stream that goes through the grounds. From the Trinidad & Tobago field guide, Ron couldn't be certain that the bird he saw wasn't a Pinnated Bittern instead, but after one of the group produced a Venezuela field guide that showed both birds, he felt certain that he'd seen the Tiger-Heron. He carefully described the bird and its location, so we can all try for it.
There was also some discussion of whether the Striated Heron we hope to see here is really the same as the Green Heron we saw at Corkscrew last week.
Following dinner, the Asa Wright folks showed us a good video about the Centre and the birds we can expect to see here. Then we were off to bed.
There was fresh papaya for breakfast. Yum!
Back in our room briefly after breakfast, we noticed a bird singing loudly right outside our veranda, a small wren. Talking through the wall with Howard, who has the other half of our bungalow, we worked out that it was a Tropical House Wren (which, word has it, is really the same as our House Wren, though its coloring is much paler).
The program for today was to bird the road going north to Blanchisseuse. This narrow winding road (more than 300 hairpin curves) goes over the Northern Range and then down to the Caribbean shore. We were soon loaded into vans driven by Jogie and his son and on our way.
The road passes through lovely rainforest (though much of it is second growth forest). There were many blooming plants and only a few scattered settlements.
Our first stop was close by, still on the Centre's property, at a lek of Golden-headed Manakins. These manakins lek in a tall tree rather than on the ground. Fortunately, a few of them were visible from the ground and stayed in place long enough for us to get a good view through the scope.
On the road nearby was a very small snake with the markings of a coral snake. The consensus was that this was a case of mimicry, but we left it alone, as we were intended to do.
Further on, we stopped in a shady grove of big old rainforest trees because Jogie had spotted a rare Streaked Xenops. "Come get this bird--this is a good bird!" We all got good looks, fortunately, and then Mahase pointed out two Bay-headed Tanagers in the same tree, a much better view than we had yesterday. (I'd say that their heads are actually the color of paprika.)
While everybody was getting the tanagers, Lee spotted a Channel-billed Toucan in the distance (he has an incredible eye). With some difficulty, Lee and Mahase got the two scopes focused on the toucan, an extraordinary bird. We all got a great look. Just glorious!
Walking along the road, Jogie spotted a pair of Slaty-capped Flycatchers around the bend bringing food to the nestlings in their nest burrow dug into the road cut. We watched until everybody had a good view.
Walking back to the van, we stopped on a small stone bridge to look out across the valley. Jim drew our attention to the forest at the base of the bridge; it had been used as a dump for household debris--decaying mattresses and such there in the lovely rainforest. Jogie told us sadly that he used to come to this spot to trim away some of the vegetation to improve the view but, "Now, look at what people have done!"
Further along the road, we stopped because of another toucan, but it soon flew off. Then Jogie heard a Collared Trogon calling (this is a big trogon with a red breast, very similar to our Elegant Trogon). He had soon found it and pointed it out to everybody. The same stop yielded a Tropical Pewee, a Piratic Flycatcher (which I missed but Lee saw), a low, close fly-by of a Common Black-Hawk, a great scope view of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a good look at a Golden-olive Woodpecker.
At a fork in the road we saw a sign urging people to protect the Pawi. According to some authorities, this is a subspecies of the Common Piping-Guan; according to others, it is a separate species endemic to Trinidad, the Trinidad Piping-Guan. Whichever it is, it is endangered on Trinidad.
(Unlike most large islands, Trinidad and Tobago, because they are so close to the mainland, have few endemic species. For the same reason, they have an incredible diversity, 425 species of birds. Indeed, Trinidad claims to have more bird species per square mile than any other place on earth. Still, despite its large variety of habitats, Trinidad supports far fewer species than neighboring Venezuela. For example, Trinidad has one toucan, while Venezuela has six toucans, six toucanets, and five aracaris. While Trinidad and Tobago between them have three manakins, Venezuela has two dozen. This is why people worry about our reducing our wildlife preserves to "virtual islands".)
The road continued to wind and climb. We had to teach ourselves not to notice that the "guardrails" were often bamboo poles held together with tape and that some of the bridges had been vandalized down to the bare minimum, their wooden railings and flooring taken to be used as firewood.
Our next stop was just over the ridge of the Northern Range. We could look down and see the Caribbean in the distance. Jogie heard a Barred Antshrike calling and wanted to find it for us. (This is the "coverbird" on A Neotropical Companion and is a bird that Lee and I have repeatedly failed to see elsewhere.) We did see it this time, if one wants to count a blur flying by very quickly. Jogie called and called and the bird replied over and over, but it could not be persuaded to show itself again.
While we were looking for the antshrike, Ron spotted a Red-legged Honeycreeper (which I missed) and Lee got a female Violaceous Euphonia (which I also missed--there seems to be a pattern here). We did all get a good look at some Speckled Tanagers before we gave up on the antshrike and drove on down to the small town of Blanchisseuse on the Caribbean coast.
Jogie turned into a road leading to a private beach with tall thin palm trees swaying. We got out and unpacked the lunch the Centre had packed for us (shepherd's pie, salad, and watermelon) and ate it looking out on the bright shore. We tarried for a while after lunch so that some of the folks could swim, but the only birds there were Carib Grackles. There were no shorebirds at all.
By the time we started back up the road, the nearby grade school was letting out for the day and well-scrubbed children in neat school uniforms were spilling out.
The trip back went over the same road but we stopped at different places. Jogie stopped abruptly in one well-forested stretch because he had spotted a gorgeous Rufous-tailed Jacamar right by the road. Lee and I both had great views of it, only a few feet away. When it flew, we all got out of the vans to look for it. Lee and others soon found a White-tailed Trogon (a gold and purple trogon larger than the Violaceous) in a big clump of very tall bamboo, but I missed it altogether. A Rufous-browed Peppershrike was calling loudly in a tree right by the road. We spent 15 minutes trying to lure it out into the open, with no better luck than we had with the other one yesterday morning. From down the road, we could hear a Great Kiskadee calling "Kis-Ka-Dee" over and over.
We continued slowly along the road, pausing repeatedly for jacamars perched close to the road. We usually found both the male and the female, which differ only in the color of their throats.
At our last stop, there was a tree with five Blue-headed Parrots and Lee's new scope once more got good use. While we were standing there, several Orange-winged Parrots flew over, and a Tropical Mockingbird sat on a wire overhead.
Lee then spotted a jacamar that was hunting from a favorite perch on a tree by the road. As it kept returning to that same perch, he was able to get the scope on it, which gave everybody a good look.
In the meantime, Jogie and Mahase began serving the "tea" that the Centre had packed for us, juice and cookies.
Driving back to the Centre, we spotted a domestic water buffalo near a house.
After we got back to the Centre and Lee and I were walking from the van to our room, Ron came rushing up the sidewalk following an unknown hummingbird he'd spotted on his way to his room. We all lost the hummingbird but found a male Barred Antshrike (the bird we called for so long this morning) perched right above our heads in the bushes outside the door to our room. This is a small crested bird with fine black-and-white stripes all over. Its eye is white, which makes it look slightly mad. (I remember reading a comment by Jane Goodall that the rare chimps who have white "whites of the eye" look fierce, but in my experience birds who do look crazy.) The bird allowed us a very good look, finally, after all these years.
The hot shower felt so nice!
We joined the others on the veranda and then for a pleasant dinner and to watch a video about birding on Trinidad. To Ron's surprise, the star of the video was one of his colleagues at the University of Alberta.
Just after we'd turned our lights out to go to sleep, we heard Ron calling to Jim and Betsy that he'd spotted a 6-foot fer de lance on their mutual sidewalk and that they should be careful, adding that it was the biggest one he'd ever seen. (This is a really deadly snake.) We heard them come out and look at it, with Betsy cautioning Jim against getting so close.
We fell asleep with a small owl hooting loudly very nearby.
Standing on our veranda still in our nightclothes, we watched a Great Kiskadee in a nearby tree. He'd just flown in from one of the feeder tables at the main house and had a piece of bread in his mouth that was clearly too big to swallow. After trying and trying, he finally got it down.
On the veranda before breakfast, I had a chance to savor the stunning male White-necked Jacobin hummingbirds, who were defending the hummingbird feeders against all comers.
I also helped Janet identify the beautiful male Silver-beaked Tanager. (She'd been thinking that the male White-lined Tanager, which has a very silvery beak, was the Silver-beaked. The lower beak of the Silver-beaked is bright white and very striking against his velvety red plumage; the name is a misnomer.)
At breakfast, we all asked Ron and Jim and Betsy about the fer de lance. It turned out that Ron had been in his room and had heard the exchange and was the only one of us who hadn't thought the man voicing the warning was Ron. He said he has never seen a fer de lance and was tempted to go take a look, too, but decided that that might be unwise, given that he didn't have a flashlight.
Howard asked me whether we'd heard the owl during the night. He believes that it must be a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, a bird we've all been hoping to see.
As soon as breakfast was over, Jogie and Mahase loaded us into their vans to head south to the lowlands. The program for the day was to bird the Agricultural Station near the middle of the island, then to turn east to Manzanilla beach (on the Atlantic coast) and the fresh-water Nariva Swamp.
Jogie was very dubious yesterday morning when Ron told him about the Tiger-Heron, but we learned when we returned yesterday that two of the Centre's guides had seen the bird during the day, sitting on a low branch of a cecropia tree next to the stream. That made Jogie even more dubious, though the others pointed out that Night-Herons perch in trees all the time. He is enough intrigued, however, that he stopped to let us get out to look along the stream that the bird, whatever it is, frequents.
When we got down out of the mountains, the land was much drier. Much of it was being used as grazing land and it became clear that every cow (and goat and horse and water buffalo) is entitled to its own Cattle Egret.
The houses in the lowlands have a filigreed look. Many are on stilts to keep them cooler and almost all of them include openwork concrete blocks in their walls to provide a permanent air flow. A good many of them appear to be being built while they are being lived in. Outside many of the houses are bamboo poles sporting triangular pennants in varying colors, Hindu "prayer flags". (Forty-two percent of Trinidad's population is of East Indian origin.)
Maddening little epiphytes grow upright on the power lines, looking for all the world like perched birds until one raises one's binoculars to check them out.
The guards at the Agricultural Station were clearly used to vans full of birders and waved us through. As soon as we'd gotten out of the vans, we had the male and female White-headed Marsh-Tyrant.
There weren't many trees, but the big tree right behind us soon revealed a wonderful little (6") bird, the Ferruginous Pgymy-Owl Howard was hoping for. It was perched for the day in a spot that allowed us all to see it well. A beautiful, beautiful little bird!
We walked a bit further and found another one, deep in a tree, trying to sleep but being harassed by a Rufous-breasted Wren. I could see the wren only as a silhouette flying at the poor little owl and berating it. (Lee got a much better look.)
We walked on along a road through the fields. White-winged Swallows and a Tropical Kingbird perched on the wires above us. Red-breasted Blackbirds hunted in the fields too far away to see well. On the bank of a drying pond quite near the road, a cayman and its two young basked in the sun. Water buffalo grazed nearby.
As we walked along, I told Jogie that it was my birthday and that I'd really like to see a kingfisher on my birthday. He said he'd see what he could do about that.
A large puddle near a barn revealed a Solitary Sandpiper and two Least Sandpipers. We spotted male and female Pied Water-Tyrants on a fence beside the barn. Lee had just got his scope focused on them so the others could see them well when a pickup truck pulled up and parked right in front of them.
Continuing around the bend, we spotted a pond with a couple of water buffalo wallowing in it, which didn't seem to bother a Great Egret who was hunting nearby. We struggled to see the Wattled Jacanas by the pond until Jogie promised us a better view later.
We got back into the vans to drive further and had just gotten over the next rise when we spotted a wonderful pair of Savannah Hawks. We tumbled out and got the scopes set up and got great looks at these gorgeous birds--honey-colored with black edges and rufous under the wing.
We drove on slowly through the fields. (Since Jim is a Texan and is therefore used to it, he volunteered to jump out and open and close all the cattle gates.) We got a good long look at three Southern Lapwings. They were surprisingly well hidden in the recently burned grass. Just a bit further, Jogie spotted a Blue-black Grassquit for us.
Leaving the Agricultural Station, Jogie and Mahase turned onto a major road that took us east through the lively (if somewhat ramshackle) town of Sangre Grande. As we crested the last hill, we looked out onto the ocean and miles of tall slender palm trees. A very handsome beach facility there sported the nifty Trinidad & Tobago tourism logo. When we stopped for lunch, however, we found that the facility is rather badly maintained and seems to have suffered from vandalism.
The Centre had packed lots of food for our lunch, rice and beans and salad. When we had eaten as much as we could, Jogie took large helpings to the security guards at the beach entrance and to a homeless man who was sheltering in one of the buildings. The half-dozen scrawny homeless dogs looked at us with hopeful eyes but got none of the food.
Lee and Ron and the Howard's went off to look for birds and most of the others went swimming, but I sat and talked with Jogie.
I asked him first about some of the rarer birds. (He has seen all of the species that are listed for Tobago.) He has seen the White Bellbird and the Scaled Antpitta, but not often. He hasn't seen the Piping-Guan for several years, although he believes some still exist. He told me sadly of seeing one once when he was with a group of a dozen men; he'd been unable to persuade the others not to shoot it.
We talked about the early days of the Centre. He knew Mrs. Wright and later Erma ("Jonnie") Fisk, who was instrumental in getting the Centre established (and in getting the T&T field guide published). Jogie's first experience with birding was assisting one of the researchers with collecting birds in mistnets to band them. He gradually became an expert on the birds of Trinidad and has since trained both his son and his brother to be bird guides as well.
He asked which species of kingfisher I most wanted to see. I said I'd be happy with any of them, but my first choice would be the American Pygmy Kingfisher, which would be a new bird for me.
After the others returned, Howard and I scanned the beach but found only a single Brown Pelican. Howard has been birding only three years but is very serious about it. He did a lot of homework before this trip and hopes that he will get enough lifers here to bring his lifelist up to 500. The paucity of shorebirds we're experiencing doesn't bode well for his hopes, however.
We got back into the vans and headed south along a beautiful road that parallels the shore about 200 yards inland. It is lined on both sides with groves of tall graceful palms. The lines of palms extend for miles along the shore. Just inland from the palm avenues is the Nariva Swamp, which is unusually dry just now. Among the palms, we kept seeing abandoned houses in what seemed incredibly choice locations. When we asked why the houses were abandoned, the answer was that probably they had been vandalized and the owners had been unable to afford to repair them.
We stopped for a wonderful view of a Yellow-headed Caracara perched in the palm groves. A little further on, we had another beautiful Savannah Hawk.
We then turned into the swamp proper, taking a road built on fill right through the mangroves. We stopped and walked along the side of the road to view the nest of a tiny (9") Pearl Kite atop a roadside tree. We got great views through the scopes of an adult with two fluffy young.
Jogie called for us to come over to the edge of the mangroves just behind us to see an American Redstart, but I lingered at the scope to watch the kites some more. After a few minutes, Jane and Carol called me to come quickly. When I got there, they pointed out the gorgeous female American Pygmy Kingfisher sitting on a mangrove root just a few feet away from us. We watched her for several minutes before she flew away. Jogie had a big grin on his face and I gave him a big kiss on his cheek. Then the others sang "Happy Birthday" to me right there in the swamp. (Janet explained that they hadn't wanted to sing to me until I got my present.)
A little further on, we stopped for a lovely Plumbeous Kite (gray with red eyes) perched on a roadside tree. We'd all gotten good scope views of the kite before Jogie heard a Little Cuckoo calling in the mangroves nearby. We traipsed down into some more or less solid ground under a big tent-like tree and looked up and up and up and finally saw the cuckoo but not awfully well. The area inside the tree was full of pale yellow moths flying all around, which made spotting a bird quite difficult. Finally, the cuckoo flew out into the sunlight and let us see the sun shining through his bright rufous tail before he perched in the open.
We turned into an area of the swamp that has been cleared and drained. It is cultivated by squatters, who grow rice in the wet season and watermelons in the dry (now). The road was lined with drying drainage ditches. We've been told that a recent amnesty will give the squatters their land after five years, but it must be a dreadfully unhealthful place to live. The houses clearly have no plumbing nor a safe water supply. Some have electricity and those that do all have icicle Christmas lights hanging from their eaves.
We drove slowly along the road between the drainage ditches and stopped when Howard spotted an Azure Gallinule. This is a bird that was unknown on Trinidad until 1978, when Jogie found the first one. The one Howard spotted disappeared before anyone else saw it, but there were lots of other birds in the area. In some bushes on the other side of the road, we had Yellow-throated Spinetails. A handsome Yellow-headed Caracara circled low above us. While we watched it, a Tropical Mockingbird rose up from the ground and attacked the much-larger falcon, finally chasing it away. Jogie said that that was the highest he had ever seen a mockingbird fly. We didn't get a photo of that bird, but here's one that Lee took of a mocker on a feeder at the Centre.
You will see that it is very like our Northern Mockingbird, but it is more tan than gray.
Mahase spotted a Gray Kingbird perched across a nearby field and got the scope on it so that we all got a good look.
We drove on slowly and stopped again to see several Wattled Jacanas in the ditch. They are really quite handsome. The facial wattle is the color of raspberry yogurt. When they fly, one sees that the underside of their wings is pale yellow.
We passed a Yellow Oriole flying across the next field and came to a ditch with more Jacanas, including young. From that spot, we had our first really good look at a Red-breasted blackbird. Its song was very like that of our Red-winged Blackbird.
A distant cecropia tree was full of Giant Cowbirds, and we got good scope views.
As we turned back along the road, happy looking children arriving home from school waved to us.
When we got back to the spot where the Azure Gallinule had been, the vans slowed to a stop. The Gallinule was in a bush just above the ditch, much too close for us to dare getting out, but we all got a good look. It is much smaller and much more subdued in coloration than the Purple Gallinule, but a pretty bird.
The sun was getting lower, so we headed back toward the avenues of palms along the ocean and got out to wait for sunset. An Orange-Winged Parrot sat atop a dead palm, allowing us a good scope view. Jogie and Mahase served us rum punch (or juice) and pound cake as we watched for the Red-bellied Macaws to arrive to roost in the palms. Mahase and Lee got their scopes on two Gray Hawks in some distant trees, and then the macaws started flying in, in pairs, calling loudly. The Red-bellied are "small macaws", i.e., 20 inches long as compared to the 33 inches of the Blue-and-Yellow Macaw (which was formerly found in the Nariva Swamp, but is now probably extinct here, though there are some efforts to reintroduce them). The Red-bellied Macaws are mostly green except for the red belly and touches of blue here and there; the bare skin of their faces is pale yellow.
After we'd all seen the macaws, we started on the long drive home in the dark. The road was really treacherous. As there are no shoulders and no sidewalks, cars (and people) simply stand in the traffic lanes. And almost everybody seems to use only the high beams of their headlights. We were all glad we weren't doing the driving.
When we pulled up to the door at Asa Wright, the pygmy-owl was calling. We hurried out and one of the night watchmen shined a flashlight on the tiny owl perched on a low branch right over the driveway so we could see it for a moment.
The Centre had waited dinner for us and we sat all at one table to talk about the triumphs of the day. After I'd drunk three glasses of water and eaten a bit of food, I quietly excused myself and headed to our room for a shower, but Lee came running after me and told me I had to come back. The group had arranged a beautiful big chocolate peppermint birthday cake for me. (We really like these people!) They sang again and I cut the cake. It was so huge that I was able to go to the other tables and offer pieces to everyone.
Brit 1: When I grow up, I want to be a Crested Oropendula. You get to make all these funny noises and annoy people.
Brit 2: And how would that be different for you?
Brit 1: I'd be able to fly.
This is listed in our itinerary as a "free day", but we had arranged with Jogie to go with the Howard's, Janet, and Ron on an extra trip to try to find some of the forest birds we've missed so far. After breakfast, we got into the van to go further up the mountain on a fairly primitive road, stopping at a couple of side trails along the way. It was a very productive (but rather tiring) morning. We got lots of birds; the new ones were Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Band-rumped Swift, Blue-chinned Sapphire, Forest Elaenia, Streaked Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chivi Vireo (which may or may not be the same as our Red-eyed Vireo), Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Violaceous Euphonia.
At one point, looking straight overhead, high up into the canopy, I had in my binoculars all at the same time a Bananaquit, a Violaceous Euphonia, and a Red-legged Honeycreeper. I could see the birds very clearly but it was definitely unsatisfying to see only their bottom halves, particularly the honeycreeper. There was no question what he was, with his blue-purple breast, bright red legs, and honeycreeper bill, but I didn't see the top half at all.
The Streaked Flycatcher was a handsome, big (for a flycatcher) bird who posed for us as though he wished to be photographed--a tremendous view--too bad none of us had brought a camera.
The gnatwren flitted from spot to spot faster than any other bird I have ever watched (which is saying a lot). I finally gave up trying to get him with my binoculars and simply enjoyed what I could see with my bare eyes.
I had the pleasure of showing Howard a lifer, "I have a Plain-brown Woodcreeper here if anyone needs it." "Where? Where?" I was able to direct him to it in time for him to get a good look. (It's so unusual for me to be the first to spot a bird that it's a memorable experience for me. Sigh.)
As we returned, we noticed that much of the vegetation had been cleared along the streambed in the area preferred by the mystery bird. The theory is apparently that this will make him easier to see. I suspect that the effect will be to cause him to move elsewhere.
Before Jogie left us for the day, he asked us about where we want to eat dinner tomorrow evening. There are two choices. In one place, there are tables and chairs but there are no good birds to watch. In the other place, we would have to eat our dinner standing up but we might get a Moriche Oriole. Our response was that we would be willing to go without dinner altogether for a chance at a Moriche Oriole.
We were back in time for lunch. I was tired enough that I probably should have taken the morning off, so I took a good nap after lunch. Then Lee and I went for a walk along the driveway to try to find the Tiger-Heron. We saw no sign of it, but we did get good looks at some birds on our own, a Gray-fronted Dove (eye to eye), a Chestnut Woodpecker, and a Violaceous Trogon. We went down a side trail to the pretty waterfall and pool where some of our companions have been swimming.
When we got back to the veranda, I heard that a birder who'd arrived earlier in the day from Quebec had seen the Tiger-Heron. I asked him about it and he told me that it had been further upstream than any of us have been looking. I'll have to admit that I'm beginning to hope that the bird is really a Pinnated Bittern. I've never seen one of those either, but I would find missing it to be slightly less painful than missing the Tiger-Heron, which I've done before.
The younger Howard showed me a Ruddy Quail-Dove eating bread on the ground under a feeder table. I'd heard about this bird but hadn't seen it. They are usually shy forest birds, but this one is rather badly crippled and is lucky to have found a place to get food easily.
Earlier, I had told this Howard that I didn't believe the hummingbirds we were seeing were the Copper-rumped, even though their lower backs have a bronzy sheen. (The speed at which hummingbirds move results sometimes in its being difficult to correlate the front and rear views of the birds one is seeing. I've been doing very poorly with the hummers here--we should be seeing up to fourteen species--so I've been longing for David Sibley to come here to do a good field guide for at least the hummingbirds, so we'd know what both sides look like.) Young Howard said he'd asked a guide, who had confirmed that these bronzy-backed birds are White-chested Emeralds. Just about then, a very cooperative Emerald chose a perch right in front of us to hunt from for a quarter hour and let us see both sides well enough that we won't be confused again.
Someone spotted a toucan down the valley, so Lee fetched his scope and set it up to give everybody a view.
I took a moment to contemplate the very common Palm Tanagers. Something I read last night suggested that they are the same species as the Blue-gray, which seems crazy, but apparently they do interbreed now and then.
I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to get my mind around more of the hummers. The Jacobins were very active, and I finally got the female figured out. She is quite different from the starkly marked male, but her white-speckled throat is easy to spot.
I suddenly saw a very coppery back on a perched hummingbird and called out, "This has to be a Copper-rumped", which brought the others to look. The bird dashed into a bush after a bug and dashed back to the same perch but alighted facing us. For an instant, my mind told me that a different bird had flown in. The front side of this one was a splendid iridescent green (the same color as a Berylline Hummingbird). Then I realized that it really was all the same bird. Everyone was oohing and aahing, and there was no question but that this was a Copper-rumped Hummingbird. Looking around, we counted heads and realized that the other Howard wasn't on the veranda. He'd been out on the trails earlier, and Janet thought he was probably taking a shower. We all willed him to hurry back, but he missed the bird. (I did call the man from Quebec over in time for him to see it; it was such a glorious bird, I didn't want anyone to miss it.)
I heard Jim and Betsy say "Euphonia", so I went over to investigate. They'd just about decided that the lovely purple and gold bird they were watching was a Trinidad Euphonia, but I got a good enough look to point out that it had no black triangle under the chin, so it had to be the Violaceous. Jim was impressed, but he didn't know how much time I'd spent worrying about whether I had fooled myself into believing the euphonia I saw a few days ago was a Trinidad. (I was comforted this morning when Janet spotted another not far from here.)
Just before the light failed completely, the younger Howard showed me a female Black-throated Mango (I totally missed the one all the others saw when we were out with Jogie this morning). She has broad wavy black and white stripes all down the front of her body, so she'll be easy to recognize in the future, too. Now, I wish I could get as good a look at the male.
Several of the very steep valleys near the Centre are planted with a vine that produces a green gourd-like vegetable. The vines climb up poles and then spread out about six feet above the ground on platforms of chicken wire hung between the poles, all up and down the extremely steep slopes. (The effect is to make the valleys look as though they are wearing a wig of kudzu.) As we drive along the road, we see farm workers tending the plants, which looks to be a really tough job. The soup at dinner this evening was made of those vegetables and was quite pleasant.
And the conversation at dinner was pleasant too. The group has great fun together. There is a lot of joshing and a lot of sharing of birds. Right after we sat down for the meal, Howard gave Lee a small enameled pin with the Asa Wright Nature Centre logo "to thank you for sharing your scope".
Howard mentioned at dinner that he got badly bitten by chiggers yesterday; his legs are covered with ugly sores. After dinner, I found that Lee also got quite a few bites despite having acceded to my pleas to put insect repellent on his legs.
Before we left, Howard described the precautions he took against chiggers this morning, and somebody suggested that he ought to tuck his pantlegs into his socks to make it harder for the chiggers to get to him. His response was that he knew that would help, but it looked too "dorky". I suggested that that concern came from associating with teenagers all his working life (though I knew better than even to hint that Lee should tuck his pantlegs in).
As we got down into the savannah, we began seeing Zone-tailed Hawks circling in kettles of Turkey Vultures, mimicing the vultures to throw their potential prey off guard. (They even hold their wings like the vultures, but one can spot them by their yellow legs.)
Much of the savannah is taken up by Waller Field, an abandoned U.S. airbase from World War II. The airstrips still exist, now surrounded by palm trees, dry grasslands, and brushy woodlands. We had to trust that Jogie and Mahase would be able to find their way out of the maze (at one point during the morning they stopped to direct some lost birders to an exit).
Jogie knew his way through the maze well enough to take us straight to a Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (which was very high on my wish list). We watched it for a quarter of an hour, as it hunted from a favorite perch. We got good scope views, but I never managed to see its wonderful red and yellow iridescence. (Lee did, however, once when it flew out into the sunlight.) What I saw was a pretty chestnut hummingbird with a rufous tail and a crest that just barely glinted pinpricks of brilliant red. But that was very satisfying.
While we were watching the Ruby-Topaz, Jogie called out "Blue Dacnis"; this is a bird I've longed for for years and we soon had glorious views of both the male and the female. Nearby we had a glimpse of another hummingbird, probably a White-tailed Goldenthroat.
We walked along the abandoned road to an area lined with palms that were just full of birds, especially Red-bellied Macaws (far more than we saw at sunset a couple of days ago). The macaws were everywhere and the air was filled with their screeches, but we soon began finding smaller, quieter birds, too. Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts dashed about overhead. One of the first birds we identified was a Yellow-breasted Flycatcher.
In a tree that I soon came to think of as our lucky tree, we found male and female Black-tailed Tityras, a Moriche Oriole (black with bright yellow hood, rump, and shoulder), and Sulphury Flycatchers, and we got good long looks at all of them.
Betsy and Jim had wandered down the road and were looking intently into the bushes, so I joined them and they told me that they'd been watching a Ruby-Topaz in bright sunlight with full iridescence. He'd gone by the time I got there, so I stood waiting for him to return until Jogie urged us all back into the vans.
We drove on through the airfield stopping now and then. Some Green-rumped Parrotlets perched on a wire long enough for us all to get good scope views. Two Savannah Hawks stood on the pillars of a collapsed building.
Passing through a wooded area, we stopped because Jogie had heard the ever-maddening Rufous-browed Peppershrike. We got out and searched and had soon found a nice Black-crested Antshrike. Then Kathleen actually got a clear look at the Peppershrike. I don't think anybody else got it, but we were all relieved to learn that it is possible to see a Peppershrike.
Shortly before noon, we drove on to the little town of Cumuto, to see the nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques in a Caribbean Pine in front of the police station.
While we watched for the Caciques to streak out to get food for their nestlings and to streak back just as fast, we admired the pine tree, which was strewn with epiphytes as well as Cacique nests. The entire top was covered with bright violet orchid blossoms. Lower in the tree were a pair of Violaceous Euphonias. I was glad finally to have gotten a look at the plain little female. As it happened, while I was watching the Euphonias, Lee and Betsy had gone into the neighboring post office to buy a set of Trinidad's lovely bird postage stamps, including one with the male euphonia.
We drove on through the Arena Forest, a dry lowland forest, birding as we went. I was sitting near the back of the van and heard Mahase say something about kingfishers, to which I responded in my intense way, "Where? Where? Where?" Kathleen explained gently that Mahase had just been telling us that we should keep an eye out for kingfishers along the streams.
We stopped in the grounds of an abandoned plantation to eat the lunch the Centre had packed for us. There were Jacaranda trees in bloom; the flowers are only on the very top of the tall trees, which look as though they are wearing crowns of blue blossoms. Pineapple plants along the driveway bore half-grown fruit.
After we'd eaten our rice and beans, Jogie led us down a dirt road seeking a White-bellied Antbird he could hear calling in the forest. We never found it, but we got a good close-up view (my first) of a White-tailed Trogon. As we left, there was some grousing about the fact that birders are no longer allowed to visit the Arena Reservoir, which is said to have very good birds.
Driving back toward the mountains, we stopped to view a ditch with lapwings and jacanas and then got a good view of a Gray Hawk circling low above us and an even better look at a Zone-tailed Hawk among a kettle of Turkey Vultures.
Once we were in the foothills, we noticed several fires burning in the woods. Fires are apparently left to burn in the abandoned plantations, but they seem not to consume the trees, only the undergrowth.
We were ready for a nap and then a shower, but we made it to the veranda in time for tea at 4. I munched three of the lovely currant cakes while watching the always-absorbing parade of birds at the feeders. I was boggled for a moment when a British accent called out, "Look at that orange one!" I looked and saw no orange bird and then realized that he was a butterfly watcher. (There are other nice things in the world besides birds, Melinda.)
Waiting to get back into the vans at 4:30, we all commented on how dorky Howard looked with his pantlegs tucked into his socks. He must be getting desperate in his battle against the chiggers. The raillery was cut off by the sight of a male Barred Antshrike and his rufous mate (who looks as mad as he).
We were headed back to Waller Field (which now seems to be called Wallerfield) for night birding. On our way, we pulled off the main highway to stand on a narrow highway bridge in rush-hour traffic and look for a bird Ron had glimpsed when we passed earlier in the day. He'd said he saw something "ibis-like", from which Jogie concluded it must be a Limpkin. Sure enough, we looked down and there was a Limpkin hunting at the edge of the stream. Since I'd never really believed I'd live to see one, I was astounded when another Limpkin flew in. I was so absorbed in watching them that I didn't react quickly enough when somebody called "Striated Heron". That bird was quite distant and I didn't see it at all.
There was still enough daylight to allow another pass through the Agricultural Station, which yielded a lovely Merlin (my first). It circled low about us, giving us a great view and then perched in a tree. I walked down the road towards it and got an even better view before it took off again.
On our way out, we passed a Savannah Hawk on a pole and Red-breasted Blackbirds in the fields.
We went on to the airbase and sat down on the road next to our lucky tree to eat our dinner while Red-bellied Macaws flew in to roost in the palm trees (with a very nice sunset behind them). Well, actually, the women sat on the nice warm road and the men all stood awkwardly trying to hold their plates and glasses and eat at the same time. This happened at lunch, too; there was speculation about the gender-related behavior.
Once it was dark, we drove slowly along the old runways looking for night birds. Many Southern Lapwings and Least Sandpipers were already roosting on the warm asphalt. The lapwings scolded bitterly as they flew off; the sandpipers looked sleepy and confused.
We got out quietly and followed Jogie to an abandoned building. When we'd gathered around him, he shone a spotlight up to the collapsed second story to show us a delightful Tropical Screech-Owl. Only 9 inches long, it had a bright green grasshopper almost that long in its beak. It froze and stared back at us warily. Jogie turned the light off soon and we headed back to the van.
Next, he took us to find a Common Potoo perched in a bush along the airstrip. We all got good looks at it through the scopes.
We continued cruising around the airstrips until everyone had seen Common Paraques and White-tailed Nightjars flying up from the warm surface. Not wishing to disturb them further, we left and headed back up into the mountains.
There was a sort of meeping sound, a baby bird begging to be fed, coming from deep in a tree by the veranda, right at eye level. I finally found the bird, a fledgling Crested Oropendula. I watched as its parent made several trips to feed it. It was strange to hear a bold, brassy oropendula making "sweet little me" sounds.
There were lots of birds but no new ones until just before the breakfast gong rang, when I spotted a gray and white bird we've not seen before. It turned out to be a Grayish Saltator. Janet ran to the diningroom to call the rest of the group back to the veranda to see it. "We've got a bird out here!"
We did finally make it to the breakfast table and then stayed so long that the staff were growing impatient with us. The hot topic of discussion was Ron's observation that the large doves with the gray on their heads might not really be Gray-fronted Doves. Perhaps they are actually White-tipped Doves. We all searched our consciences and realized that when we'd first seen these doves from the veranda soon after we arrived, somebody had told us that they were the Gray-fronted and we hadn't questioned that.
There was much looking through both the Trinidad & Tobago and the Venezuela field guides to settle the question. The books showed the Gray-fronted to have red eye rings and the White-tipped to have blue, so it ought to be easy. We resolved to clear the question up as soon as possible and went out to the veranda to look. There were, of course, none of the doves to be seen. I was quite certain, however, that the dove I'd met face-to-face on the trail had had red eye rings and, therefore, was the Gray-fronted.
We were scheduled to go down to the Oilbird cave with one of the Centre's guides, Vijay Singh. A few others joined our party, including the man from Quebec. (He is said to have arrived here with a list of must-see birds and to have been seeking them out. Earlier this morning, he asked me rather urgently if we have seen a Forest Elaenia--a totally uninteresting little brown and yellow flycatcher. He seemed relieved when I assured him we had seen it in the vicinity two days ago.)
On the steep trail down to the cave, Vijay identified a number of things for us, including a cacoa tree. (I think I can now identify it myself, which is good, since this is my sacred tree.) He had us all peer into one of the pipes used as a handrail to see the tarantula hiding there.
Early on we had a good look at a Blue-crowned Motmot. I hadn't realized until then that Lee had happened not to see any of the motmots that come to the feeders infrequently, so I was glad he got to see this one. They really are amazingly beautiful birds.
Then the man from Quebec pointed out a Forest Elaenia (his first) and was very happy. We also had good looks at Great Antshrikes along the way.
The Oilbirds are the world's only nocturnal fruit-eating birds and seem to be distantly related to cuckoos. The name comes from the fact that people used to capture the young birds to render down for oil for cooking and lighting. (One even hears of their being stuck on a stick and lit as a torch.)
We'd been warned that we wouldn't get a very good view of the Oilbirds. There are half a dozen Oilbird colonies on Trinidad and others in northern South America, but the roosting cave here at Asa Wright is by far the most accessible one. The Centre is still learning to balance the birds' needs against people's desire to see them. The entire colony disappeared in 1980 and 1981, very likely due to the fact that people were allowed to go into the cave unsupervised (and would sometimes frighten the sleeping birds to get them to move). The Centre closed the cave for four years then and the population began to rebound. Last December's census was 137 birds, which was good, but it included no young, which was very bad. They are thinking of closing the trail again for a while.
The Oilbird cave is part of a steep narrow canyon cut by a small stream. The grotto outside the cave is lovely and rainforesty but very hot and humid. The guide asked us to wait there while he took three people at a time just to the entrance of the cave.
We watched birds while we were waiting, of course, and one of our companions was soon pointing out a hummingbird I've not yet seen, the Rufous-tailed Hermit. I raised my binoculars to my glasses, and my glasses fogged up totally. By time I'd recovered, the bird was gone.
A while later, we watched a small pale-green bird flit among the vines on the cliff. While Lee and I were having our turn in the cave, the group identified her as a female White-bearded Manakin.
Though there was very little light in the cave, we did get reasonably good looks at the Oilbirds.
By the time we got back up the steep trail, I was seriously overheated. (Some of the others noted with alarm how red in the face I'd become.) So Lee and I headed back to the veranda for several glasses of ice water and then to our room for cool showers while the rest of the group went to seek the Bearded Bellbird, which is often heard but seldom seen. At lunch, we were delighted to hear that they'd all had excellent looks at the bellbird.
After lunch, most of us took to the veranda again before our 1:30 departure, realizing we wouldn't have many more chances to idle there. Kathleen had told me earlier that she has seen Great Antshrikes from the veranda, but even so it took me a moment to recognize one from above.
All of us were keeping an eye out for those troublesome doves, which had disappeared completely. Kathleen to Howard: "We have to see them both; we've already put both of them on our lifelists!"
As our departure time neared, Lee began nudging me to go to our room to pick up my things, but I pleaded to be allowed to stay for "just one more Purple Honeycreeper". Two finally came to drink nectar from the hummingbird feeder right below me. I was savouring them and making sure I knew what color their eyes are when suddenly an iridescent turquoise cap appeared in my binoculars and I called out, "What is that?". The bird flew, but Lee found it for me again, a Red-legged Honeycreeper (and I could see the top side this time). We called the others to come see it and then I dashed off to pick up my things. When we met at the vans, Ron and the Howard's told me that they'd watched it long enough to see it hover in front of one of the feeders, which allowed them to see its bright yellow wing linings.
Off we headed down into the very hot lowlands to visit the sewage treatment plant. On our way, we passed a grassfire with dozens of Cattle Egrets following the fire line to catch little things fleeing the fire.
I nearly roasted at the sewage treatment plant, but it was great! We saw: Least Grebes, Snowy Egrets, Little Egrets, Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, Wattled Jacanas, Spotted Sandpipers, Pied Water-Tyrants, White-headed Marsh-Tyrants, White-winged Swallows, Barn Swallows, Tropical Mockingbirds, and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds.
The Little Egrets were a special treasure. They're a Eurasian species rather like the Snowy Egret, but easily distinguishable when in breeding plumage (which these were) by the differences in the shape of the crest plumes and in the color of the lores. This is the first bird we've found that is listed in the "Accidental and Infrequently Reported" section of the T&T bird checklist.
Then we drove on to the Caroni Swamp on the west coast of the island. Lee and I were in the second van. As it pulled up to the boat launching area, Jogie was already out of his van and calling to us all to come quickly. In a bush right next to the boat was a startlingly lovely Red-capped Cardinal.
As we clambered into the flat-bottomed boat, Jogie put the younger Howard in charge of the "tea" things and bid us goodbye. The boat set out along beautiful narrow mangrove creeks. As it headed straight into the sun, I realized I was going to get broiled, despite my long sleeves and hat and sunscreen. We hadn't gone far, however, when Betsy told me that I was getting very red and asked if I'd like some sunscreen. I grabbed for it and slathered it on before even thanking her.
It was a wonderful trip! The mangrove roots were full of birds. We'd soon seen Little Blue Herons, Osprey, Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Greater Ani, and Tropical Kingbirds. The boatman pulled over and stopped to let us see a Common Potoo perched atop a dead tree, looking like an extension of the tree. Then we worked out that the tiny pale blue-and-yellow birds flitting across the creeks were Bicolored Conebills.
Lee and I kept telling each other that there must be kingfishers here. We looked and looked but never saw even one.
As we continued along the mangrove creeks, calling to one another to duck the low-hanging branches, the boatman stopped again to show us a Silky Anteater, a ball of fur high up in a tree.
Shortly after that, the boat came out into open water with several small islands not far away. The boatman stopped the boat in the shade of the trees and we settled down to watch the Scarlet Ibises come in to roost. Let us just say that this was a world-class experience, a fitting finale for our stay on Trinidad!
The Scarlet Ibises flew in in small groups or flocks of dozens, from all directions (some come across the channel from Venezuela) and alighted in the trees of the small island nearest us. They were joined by Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Tricolored Herons, but the little island was soon predominantly scarlet.
(Because Howard is red/green colorblind, an awful handicap for a birder, Janet had been worried that the spectacle of bright red birds landing in bright green trees might be lost on him, but that seems not to have been the case.)
In the water near the island, we saw Olivaceous Cormorants, Anhingas, and Blue-winged Teal. An Osprey flew over carrying a large fish. A Yellow-headed Caracara gave us a low fly-by.
It was wonderful!
Young Howard passed around the rum punch and juice and cakes and we toasted Trinidad's national bird, the Scarlet Ibis.
The boat finally left when the light began to fail. We were allowed two minutes much nearer a small island that was occupied almost exclusively by Scarlet Ibises.
On our way back along the darkening mangrove creek, we had one last very low fly-over by a flock of Scarlet Ibises still catching the sun in their brilliant feathers.
It was late when we got back to the Centre for dinner. We resolved to settle the vexatious dove question before we leave for Tobago tomorrow.
Since Lee prefers to do the packing himself, I quickly organized my things for him and then headed up to the veranda. The others were talking with a nice man named Ian (we later found out that he is the President and CEO of Asa Wright and had flown in from Tobago last evening). We asked him about the doves and he assured us that if they were the White-tipped we would notice the white tips when they turn.
Ian led us up the hill to "the hummingbird place", an area with several hummingbird plants, including a mimosa tree in full flower. (We later realized that this was the place Jogie had described to us as being good for hummingbirds, but we'd not understood his directions.) There were lots of hummingbirds, and Ian helped us identify them all. I finally saw the brilliant green iridescence on the White-chested Emerald. We had a Blue-chinned Sapphire, Black-throated Mangos, lots of Jacobins, and then Howard finally got his Copper-rumped Hummingbird, several very good looks. Ian was surprised to hear that Howard hadn't seen the Copper-rumped earlier; he said that they used to be the most common hummingbird at Asa Wright.
We left for breakfast ruluctantly, wishing we'd spent many hours at this spot while we had the chance.
At breakfast, Betsy told us that she'd killed a good-sized tarantula in their room the previous evening and that she'd taken the corpse to the front desk this morning.
Lee and I hurried through breakfast so I could take him up to the hummingbird place. We got great looks at the Copper-rumped and at a female mango, but we've still not gotten a really good look at the male.
While we were waiting to get into the vans, Betsy told us that when they'd first arrived at the Centre, a newly-married couple had been asking to upgrade their room so that they would have a double bed. She added that Jim has been teasing her every evening, saying that he is going to go ask to have their room upgraded. She then cast her eyes down demurely and said, "That's a bit of adult humor."
We gathered for some group photos with Jogie and then it was time for us to head down to the airport, with Jogie and his brother driving the vans. We passed Mahase on the way and waved goodbye to him.
Once we'd checked in for the flight to Tobago, we sat in the departure lounge speaking of many things. Carol has been reading A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul, which is set in Trinidad. She is finding it very interesting, and I am kicking myself for not having thought of reading some Naipaul on this trip.
On the short flight to Tobago, I continued reading Life on the Mississippi and hoped that my reaction to the poverty in Trinidad isn't too much like Mrs. Trollope's reaction to the squalor she found on the American frontier. Her book about her visit to America had Twain (and the rest of the country) snorting when he wrote this book.
The flight was only about twenty minutes. While waiting for our bags in the Tobago airport, I laughed to find myself using binoculars to look at photographs of birds across the room.
We were met at the airport by Adolphus James, who is considered to be the best birding guide on Tobago. He loaded us into his bus and showed us a map of Tobago. The airport is at the very western tip of the island. He said it would take us about an hour and a half to get to the inn on the eastern side of the island.
We spotted Caribbean Martins before we left the airport. We birded our way the length of the island, as Adolphus's son drove us along the hilly southern road, which gave us beautiful sea vistas. Before long, we were seeing Magnificent Frigatebirds floating over. Howard, who had never seen a chachalaca before, was very pleased to be the first to spot a Rufous-vented Chachalaca in a tree by the road. I completely missed the Rufous-tailed Jacamar that Adolphus's son spotted on a roadside wire.
Finally, the road entered a small village (with a "Bird Watcher's Bar") set on a very pretty ocean cove. We turned into a long driveway for the Blue Waters Inn. The driveway went up over a very high, steep hill and made an equally steep descent into the next cove, from where we could see Little Tobago Island not far offshore.
We were soon all checked in, with pleasant rooms right above the high-tide line (though getting to them requires walking up another steep hill). Lee and I dropped our things in our room, checked out the balcony overlooking the water (but shaded by big trees full of bird chatter). After admiring the draperies batiked with stylized motmots and kingfishers, we headed down the hill to meet the others for a late lunch. On our way down the hill, we found Tropical Mockingbirds and lots of chachalacas in the bushes. Outside the diningroom, Ron and I watched a female Black-throated Mango in bright sunlight. I'd never before noticed the purplish-rufous of her tail.
We were all tired and grateful for lunch, especially the chocolate ice cream for dessert. The diningroom has no walls, so we became accustomed to having Bananaquits waiting for us to drop crumbs. Bananaquits are one of the most common birds on Trinidad, but they are everywhere on Tobago.
After lunch, Lee and I hurried up to our room to slather on sunscreen and insect repellent. Outside our room, workers were raking up the bougainvillea flowers that covered the ground. Back down the hill, a group of us met Adolphus for a late afternoon birding trip. He drove us a few miles to a dry woodland about 100-200 feet above sealevel.
As we walked through the woodland, we could almost always look up and see a frigatebird wheeling high above us. Motmots and jacamars (both birds to die for) were very common. Although Tobago, being so much smaller, has fewer species of birds than Trinidad, it has some that aren't found on Trinidad. Howard was rejoicing that there are no chiggers on Tobago!
Adolphus had stopped at this particular spot because he'd heard a male Blue-backed Manakin, an especially desirable bird. When we approached their traditional lek, however, it was empty. Adolphus said that some of the newer guides haven't learned that they must never actually enter the lek, as it disturbs the birds too much. Later during our walk he heard manakins calling from further up the hill; he hopes that they've reestablished the lek there. He promised us, however, that we'd see the manakins when we go to the rainforest. My first thought was that that was crazy, that no bird would breed in two such different habitats, but then I remembered the rule that on islands there are fewer species but with much broader ranges.
We soon had a male Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird and again I got hints of the ruby iridescence but no more. The Howard's laughed at me for saying I'd sell my soul for a better look.
We got a number of new species, including Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Black-faced Grassquit, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.
Some of us also saw a White-fringed Antbird and an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher which arrived simultaneously in two different trees. I think Lee was the only one who saw them both. Ron and I saw neither, which is very unusual for him.
He and I pointed out a couple of Great Kiskadees atop a palm tree, only to be shot down by Adolphus who explained (a) that there are no Great Kiskadees on Tobago and (b) that those were Tropical Kingbirds. He added to our embarrassment by pointing out the Pale-vented Pigeon sitting just below the kingbirds. Even then and even with the scope, we all had a very hard time seeing this bird, which was quite handsome.
We continued along, getting better views than before of Orange-winged Parrots (perched!), a female Collared Trogon, a Gray Kingbird, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Blue-black Grassquits, and Great Cowbirds. But I still haven't caught the yellow wing lining of the Red-legged Honeycreepers.
Near the end of the walk, Adolphus pointed out a White-tipped Dove nearby. We all immediately concluded that this was not the bird we were seeing at Asa Wright. We feel safe at last putting both birds on our lists.
When the light began to fail, we headed back to the Inn. At the base of the driveway, Ron called "Stop!" He'd spotted a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron hunting very nearby. Adolphus backed up so that we got a great view as the bird stalked and caught a crab at the base of a tree. It flew a few feet away and stood facing us with the crab in its bill, leaving us all aching for a camera.
When it flew off, we continued to the Inn. Before leaving us for the day, Adolphus cautioned that we would have plenty of opportunity to get to know the Bananaquit in the Inn's diningroom, so after today the fine for asking "What bird is that?" about a Bananaquit would be to buy a bottle of champagne for the entire party.
We were all hot and tired by the time we returned to the Inn. Walking back to our rooms, Howard and Lee and I were greeted by Janet and Betsy, who told us about the Blue-and-Yellow Macaw in front of the dive shop. That was enough to convince us to trudge even further up and down hill. The macaw was perched in a low tree on the beach. It had a feeder nearby, but somebody in the shop had told Janet and Betsy that it comes and goes on its own. I was struck by how small it seemed close up. My impression from the Blue-and-Yellows we saw flying over us in Peru was that they were larger; it's so hard to judge.
Lee and I trudged back to our room for a shower before joining the others for dinner. The group lingered over dinner, with talk of books, teaching, and the news of the NCAA basketball tournament that the younger Howard had picked up from a recent arrival from the U.S.
We considered whether the Blue-and-Yellow was countable and concluded that we'd need a lot more proof that it's wild than we have. The subject of the "Striated Heron" some of us saw on Thursday came up, and we concluded that none of us saw it well enough to say for sure that it wasn't really just a Little Blue.
We talked about the plans for the rest of our trip, including the horrendous 4am departure time some of us have on Tuesday. Jim said, "Who's leaving at 4am?", and Betsy replied, "You are!"
I got a better look at a male Black-throated Mango than previously (I still haven't caught the purple of the tail). Mockingbirds were everywhere, and so were motmots. The sight of a Blue-crowned Motmot in full sunlight still takes my breath away. I finally saw for myself the blue eye ring of one of the White-tipped Doves.
Yesterday, we kept seeing a flock of a couple of dozen Ruddy Turnstones sticking close together on the beach. I found them this morning still in their roosting place under the pier, looking as though they weren't all quite awake yet.
We joined the others (and some Bananaquits) for a very pleasant breakfast in the diningroom. Ron and the Howard's had hiked up the extremely steep driveway and another road further up the mountainside. They'd seen a Red-rumped Woodpecker and a White-fringed Antwren.
The conversation turned to the question of differentiating the Red-billed Tropicbirds we should be seeing here from White-tailed Tropicbirds, which are apparently sometime seen here. It's going to take some careful looking.
The program for the morning was a trip to Little Tobago Island, twenty minutes away by glass-bottomed boat, but I was tired and not eager to get fried in the intense sun, so Lee and I decided to take a vacation from our vacation and do nothing all day but read, sleep, and eat. We did take a short walk to look (unsuccessfully) for the Red-rumped Woodpecker before retiring to our balcony to read among all the birdsong from the beachside trees. I was soon savoring Life on the Mississippi again:
Not that there is any "architecture" in Canal Street: to speak in broad, general terms, there is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries. It seems a strange thing to say of a wealthy, far-seeing, and energetic city of a quarter of a million inhabitants, but it is true. There is a huge granite U.S. Custom-house--costly enough, genuine enough, but as a decoration it is inferior to a gasometer. It looks like a state prison. But it was built before the war. Architecture in America may be said to have been born since the war. New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck--to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the "burnt district" by radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago. The "burnt district" of Boston was commonplace before the fire; but now there is no commercial district in any city in the world that can surpass it--or perhaps even rival it--in beauty, elegance, and tastefulness.I was amused at one point to look down and see a mockingbird bathing in the footbath at the base of the steps leading up from the beach. More Twain (still in New Orleans):
When one goes from the levee or the business streets near it, to a cemetery, he observes to himself that if those people down there would live as neatly while they were alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it; and besides, their quarter would be the wonder and admiration of the business world. Fresh flowers, in vases of water, are to be seen at the portals of many of the vaults: placed there by the pious hands of bereaved parents and children, husbands and wives, and renewed daily. A milder form of sorrow finds its inexpensive and lasting remembrance in the coarse and ugly but indestructible immortelle--which is a wreath or cross or some such emblem, made of rosettes of black linen, with sometimes a yellow rosette at the conjunction of the cross's bars--kind of sorrowful breast-pin, so to say. The immortelle requires no attention: you can just hang it up, and there you are; just leave it alone, it will take care of your grief for you...We met the others for lunch after the boat returned. They had had a great time. They'd seen lovely corals through the boat's bottom. They had gotten both Red-footed and Brown Boobies, and they had seen Red-billed Tropicbirds on their nests. They had sat overlooking some bamboo watering troughs, which the guide filled with water. Many of the island's birds had been waiting for just that; the troughs were soon covered with birds. One trough had a dozen mockingbirds in a row; another was covered with Blue-gray Tanagers. Although they'd seen no new birds, they'd gotten very good looks at some we've seen only from afar before. (Ron told me he'd checked all of the tropicbirds flying about and hadn't found a single White-tailed.)
Howard was proposing a scheme for the afternoon of trying to find a taxi to take a group of us to one of the swamps that is supposed to have good birds, but an inquiry at the desk revealed that the swamp is an hour on the other side of the airport, which was enough to quash that project. Everybody seemed ready to vegetate for a while.
As we left the lunch table, I casually mentioned to Jim and Betsy that we had all decided to get together for dinner at 7pm. Then Lee and I went back to our reading. Even more Twain:
We visited the old St. Louis Hotel, now occupied by municipal offices. There is nothing strikingly remarkable about it; but one can say of it as of the Academy of Music in New York, that if a broom or a shovel has ever been used in it there is no circumstantial evidence to back up the fact. It is curious that cabbages and hay and things do not grow in the Academy of Music; but no doubt it is on account of the interruption of the light by the benches, and the impossibility of hoeing the crop except in the aisles. The fact that the ushers grow their buttonhole-bouquets on the premises shows what might be done if they had the right kind of an agricultural head to the establishment.And:
We had dinner on a ground-veranda over the water--the chief dish the renowned fish called the pompano, delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.And finally his attribution of the Civil War to Sir Walter Scott:
Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote...During the afternoon, we enjoyed looking down from our balcony and watching the little flock of Ruddies. They do everything together. When they'd finished sandpiping for the day, they gathered in a small area just below us and preened til their feathers were perfect and then tucked their heads under their wings for an afternoon nap in the shade of the trees.
It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.
Late in the afternoon, the wind rose and we could hear the macaw shrieking. When we walked down to see him, we got the feeling that he was calling for his owner to come take him in from his very exposed perch.
At dinner, the others told us that on their trip to Little Tobago this morning they had learned that the island used to have a population of Greater Birds-of-Paradise brought here from New Guinea by the former owner of the island, who wished to protect them from the threat of extinction in their native home. Unfortunately, all the ones here were wiped out in the 1963 hurricane. I'd been boggled to see Greater Bird-of-Paradise in the "Accidental and Infrequently Reported" section of the checklist; it's good to know how that bird came to be on the list.
After dinner, a waitress brought out the cake Lee had ordered in honor of Jim's and Betsy's fiftieth wedding anniversary. I think they were pleased. We were all impressed by the casual professionalism with which Betsy cut the cake. She must have had a lifetime of serving the cake at church socials.
Back in our room after dinner, I began reading The Business of May Next: James Madison & the Founding, by William Lee Miller. In his introduction Miller comments:
After Mrs. Scott bequeathed Montpelier to the National Trust, a member of the committee on what to do with it mused that perhaps in order to attract any tourists it would be necessary to advertise the place as Dolley Madison's house.
Howard had just seen a Red-rumped Woodpecker nearby, so he took us to see it. We couldn't find it, but we did see a Shiny Cowbird and a Yellow-bellied Elaenia.
We were rather surprised to be served a full-blown breakfast rather than just some cereal. I concentrated on the fresh papaya--it's likely to be a while before I get any again.
At 7, Augustus loaded us all into his bus and headed for the rainforest. As the road began to rise into the mountains, he stopped at a good woodpecker site. We soon had excellent views of male and female Red-crowned Woodpeckers (which don't occur on Trinidad). While we were there, Lee spotted some Orange-winged Parrots perched atop a dead tree. While it was my turn at the scope, they took flight, so I finally got to see the orange on their wings.
The Rainforest Preserve we were headed to (elevation 2000 feet) is the oldest nature preserve in the Western Hemisphere. It was established in 1765, during the reign of George III!
Adolphus took us right to the top of the hill to a small building with restrooms. The view was splendid. The restrooms were not altogether. Howard held up the line by reading the instructions (including the one not to use "bush toiletpaper") aloud to the rest of us. That got him laughs but also instructions to stop dawdling. While we were waiting, Orange-Winged Parrots flew around very near us, letting all of us see the orange in their wings.
Then Adolphus drove us down to the Gilpin Trace, a trail cut into the wall of a small, steep-sided valley in beautiful rainforest. (When we got out of his little bus, there were vendors renting rubber boots, but the weather has been dry, so they got no takers.)
Almost the first bird we saw was a White-tailed Sabrewing, the bird we were most anxious to see. Adolphus called, "There is the rarest bird on Tobago!" This beautiful large green and blue and white hummingbird was thought to have been extirpated here by the 1963 hurricane. There were no more sightings until 1974. The population is beginning to recover, although predation by motmots is a problem. We got several very good looks at the bird, flying and perched and even chasing another White-tailed Sabrewing.
(The names of hummingbirds are alone enough to tantalize. The field guide for Venezuela divides their hummingbirds into several groups, the Sunangels, the Pufflegs, the Brilliants, the Violetears, the Mangos, the Sabrewings, the Starfrontlets, the Coquettes, the Woodstars, the Emeralds, the Sapphires, the Goldenthroats, the Hermits, and the Barbthroats. One row of one of the hummingbird plates in that guide shows the Booted Racket-tail, the Bearded Helmetcrest, and the Fiery-tailed Awlbill. It's no wonder people become obsessed with hummingbirds!)
We soon also had an excellent view of a perched Rufous-breasted Hermit. (This is the hummingbird I missed when my glasses fogged up outside the Oilbird cave.) Later, Adolphus showed us a Hermit's nest suspended from the underside of a palm frond.
We had a female Collared Trogon just a few feet away (she is very elegant in gray-brown and scarlet) and then a good close look at a male Golden-olive Woodpecker. There were Blue-crowned Motmots everywhere. In fact, the younger Howard laughed at me for uttering the appalling sentence, "It's just a motmot."
A tiny bird was working its way along the opposite valley wall, searching under the leaves for food. It was very hard to see, but well worth the effort, a Stripe-breasted Spinetail. Nearby I finally got a definitive glimpse at a Rufous-breasted Wren, a pretty little bird that the others have been seeing almost every day and which I've missed totally. The book says, "throat and sides of face conspicuously speckled black on white," and that's what I finally glimpsed. (Yesterday we stopped in the inn's gift shop and I liked a coconut shell with a Rufous-breasted Wren painted on it, but I decided not to buy it because it would bring back bad memories of never seeing the bird.)
But to compensate for that small triumph, I then failed completely to see the Buff-throated Woodcreeper and the White-throated Spadebill that Lee and all the others got. Sigh.
We kept hearing but not seeing Blue-backed Manakins, the most-desired bird for today (now that we'd seen the Sabrewing).
At one point, some of us including Adolphus got ahead of the others on the trail, but Howard came rushing down to call us back for a Venezuelan Flycatcher. Adolphus was clearly dubious, thinking Howard had confused it with the Brown-crested Flycatcher, but Howard was adamant. Adolphus soon heard the bird call, however, and agreed that it was definitely the Venezuelan. Then it popped into plain view and gave us all a good look.
We had a clear look at a Yellow-legged Thrush. A White-necked Thrush eluded us for a while, turning huge leaves over along the streambed down below us. (The little valley was so steep there that Lee had to sit down on the trail to look over the side to see the bird.)
We continued to see the Sabrewings cavorting. What a joy! Then Adolphus cautioned us to be quiet and pointed out a tiny hummingbird nest on the upper side of a broad leaf right next to the trail at about shoulder height. In the nest were two little White-necked Jacobin chicks. (A hummingbird egg is about the size of a jelly bean and these babies were fairly recently hatched, which should give you an idea of their size.) When we peered into the nest, the fuzzy babies opened their little yellow beaks to beg to be fed.
Further down the trail, Ron very patiently helped me find the well-camouflaged female Blue-backed Manakin that all the others had already spotted.
When we got as far down the trail as we could go (there are washouts further down), Adolphus turned to lead us back up the trail, stopping at the places where we "should" see a Fuscous Flycatcher and a Plain Antvireo. He was clearly disappointed that he could find neither of those birds for us.
When we passed back by the Jacobin nest, the female was sitting on it brooding her babies. She sat there bravely while we passed by as quietly as we could manage.
As we continued back up the trail, Adolphus paused and identified a call for us, "That's a Yellow-legged Thrush imitating a Chivi Vireo." I asked if the Tropical Mockingbirds imitate other birds as our Northern Mockingbirds do, and he replied, "Yes, but not as ridiculous as this."
We got back into the bus and drove a bit further downhill to the trail that approaches a Blue-backed Manakin lek. Adolphus said we would go inside the forest and then stand very quietly just over a low ridge from the lek. (These manakins lek on the ground and in saplings like the White-bearded, but they have raised their mating dance to an even more extreme level; two or three males perform together to achieve even more spectacular results.)
As we entered the woods, there was a flash of blue as a manakin flew off. We hiked in a bit further and stood very still for several minutes. Howard spotted a Rufous-breasted Wren on the ground nearby and I finally got a reasonably good look, or at least more than a definitive glimpse.
We continued standing silently and were rewarded by the sight of a male Blue-backed Manakin flying in quietly and perching facing us on a low branch very nearby. (The Blue-backed is identical to the Long-tailed Manakin we failed to see in Costa Rica except for not having the two long tail streamers. Such is the biodiversity of the Neotropics that there is a third nearly identical species, the Lance-tailed Manakin, which has a tail intermediate between those of the Blue-backed and the Long-tailed.)
It was extraordinarily beautiful. The scarlet crest blazed against the velvety black head. I thought the blue was dazzling, and then another bird flew in and perched with its back to us and I could see that the blue iridesces to turquoise in the right light. A group of three males alighted a few yards to our left, presumably an entire "dance team". Adolphus took a few people at a time to tiptoe closer. There were only two of them left, sitting inches apart, when I got there, but it was a breathtaking sight. As we came out of the woods, I had another nice view of one right at the edge of the woods.
Betsy had been so fatigued by the Gilpin Trace walk that she and Jim had stayed in the bus; we were all glad to learn that they'd seen two of the manakins from the bus.
We headed back to the inn in a celebratory mood. We got another nice look at the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at the base of the driveway and then all had lunch together.
After a nap and a shower, Lee went for a dip in the ocean and I read some more of The Business of May Next:
The characteristics of the original American institutions are linked to their having been formed not in an oral culture or a script culture (writing but not printing) but in the world of the printing press. The concept of the United States was prepared in three hundred years of printing on paper; the nation was scribbled into existence on a piece of paper; the new republic was shaped and defended out of arguments carried on, on pieces of paper....And a bit further:
Print made it possible to do what the small-scale democracies of Athens and Rome had done, chiefly by the human voice, not by pamphlets, broadsides, articles in newspapers. Whereas the exchange of ideas in the republics of Greece and Rome took place largely by the human voice, with the climactic movements in large face-to-face meetings in Areopagus and the Forum, with Demosthenes and Isocrates and Cicero and the like playing the central role in their tradition of oratorical eloquence, the modern republics that James Madison studied (in print) and the new one he helped to come into being (largely by print) had a much different cultural shape, and for one important reason: the means of presenting and arguing and preserving and spreading ideas had undergone a radical change. The great political movements that are most important to the making of America--the Puritan revolution and the Glorious Revolution in England and the American Revolution and constitution-making--were all inundated with furious hailstorms of print.
People from Princeton to this day will tell you that Princeton produced more signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Witherspoon himself, and more of the framers of the Constitution, including Madison, than any of the other five colleges in the American colonies.When Lee returned, the two of us walked down to say goodbye to the macaw.
At dinner, we learned that Ron had climbed up the mountain again and had gotten a White-fringed Antwren and a Golden-fronted Greenlet. His list for the trip is now up to 165! He told me somewhat shamefacedly that he'd seen one bird none of the rest of us saw. Back on Trinidad, when we were standing on the highway bridge looking down at the Limpkins, he and Jogie had gone across the road and had spotted male and female Masked Yellow-Throats. Jogie had not wanted to call the rest of us over because he didn't want to disturb the birds. Given how many birds Ron has found for the rest of us, I'm sure none of us begrudges him the Yellow-Throats.
We lingered over our last dinner together. There was talk of perhaps getting together again at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November. Those of us who have a 4am departure tomorrow hugged the four who don't goodbye and were off to get a bit of sleep.
When we got to the place in the driveway where we've been seeing the Night-Heron, a heron (very likely that one) flew across the road in the darkness. Howard, who was riding shotgun, drew a laugh by calling it a Striated Heron. (We're all still sighing over not having gotten a Striated.)
We got to the Tobago airport long before the 6:55 departure time, but there were lines enough for us to stand in to use up the time. We all sadly reviewed the lovely photographs in the departure area of birds we managed not to see (though we did very well on both islands). The best one we missed was the Tufted Coquette, Trinidad's smallest bird (2.7 inches). We will have to return someday for another try.
It was daylight by the time we reached Trinidad. I volunteered to go ahead to the departure lounge with all the optics and hand baggage so that Lee could tary in the airport shops to add to his folk music collection. (I think I could have made it without staggering if he hadn't parked his hat on my head, too.) He arrived in the departure lounge carrying a stack of T&T CDs just as boarding began.
On the flight to Miami, I luxuriated in The Business of May Next. Once the new Constitution had been adopted and Madison had been elected to the House of Representatives, he led the effort to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution (having been dissuaded from his original view that this was unnecessary by letters from Jefferson, by the difficulty in getting the Constitution adopted because of the lack of an explicit statement of rights, and by discussions with his own constituents in Virginia). From his speech to the House:
I wish, among other reasons why something should be done, that those who have been friendly to the adoption of this constitution, may have the opportunity of proving to those who were opposed to it, that they were as sincerely devoted to liberty and a republican government, as those who charged them with wishing the adoption of this constitution in order to lay the foundation of an aristocracy or despotism. It will be a desirable thing to extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community any apprehensions, that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled. And if there are amendments desired, of such a nature as will not injure the constitution, and they can be ingrafted so as to give satisfaction to the doubting part of our fellow citizens; the friends of the federal government will evince that spirit of deference and concession for which they have hitherto been distinguished.Lee laughed out loud now and then, reading Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen. Among the disclaimers at the beginning of the book:
To the best of the author's knowledge, there is no such licensed product as a Double-jointed Vampire Barbie, nor is there a cinematic portrayal thereof.When the flight was over, we hugged Howard & Janet and Jim & Betsy and Ron goodbye and then we all dashed on our way to other places.
However, while most events described in this book are imaginary, the dining habits of the common bovine dung beetle are authentically represented.
Immigration and Customs at Miami went much faster than they ever do at Newark, so we headed straight to the Continental counter to ask to change our Newark flight to an earlier one and were delighted when they got us on a flight six hours earlier. That left us time for a leisurely lunch at the hotel restaurant and a phone call to my mother (who has had food poisoning but was much more interested in talking about the birds we've seen). We quickly bought the "Weaselball" for the cats and tried three bookstores for anything by Naipaul (which was too much to expect of Miami Airport) before boarding the flight home.
Not having found any Naipaul, I continued reading The Business of May Next, getting to the fascinating part about composing the Bill of Rights. Here, Miller discusses Madison's choice of "due process of law" rather than "the law of the land" (which had been used in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, not to mention the Magna Carta):
But Madison quarried the phrase "due process of law" from New York's proposals [for amendments to the Constitution]. This may sound like a merely verbal matter, or a question only of style, but in these constitutional matters the difference in a word, a phrase, even a comma, can turn out to have immense consequences. So much was riding on every nuance of expression that one feels that Madison might find his pencil breaking under the weight of it all. To say "the law of the land" would leave open the possibility that one could be deprived of life, liberty, or property simply by legislative enactment: if a legislature passed it, then it would be "the law of the land." But the phrase "due process of law" moves the protection up a notch. Now something more than barebones legality is required: a process of law, which includes the care and protection afforded by formal and proper--"fair"--procedures of courts.I regretted getting to the end of the book. After the Constitution had been written and adopted and amended to include the Bill of Rights:
What happened then? The American revolutionaries did not proceed to cut off each other's heads on the glorious guillotine or to kill each other in glorious purges. If they had lived in the age of the photograph it would not have been necessary for them to keep airbrushing out of the group pictures those revolutionaries who later lost political struggles. Two of the greatest collaborators from the earliest days of the American Revolution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom returned from Europe in 1789 to take part in the new government, later bitterly opposed each other. But they did not lead insurgent forces or banish each other to the hills of Kentucky or have each other liquidated. They lived on through each other's depredations and settled down in old age to a renewed correspondence--full of reminiscences but also full of ideas, pounding away still on thoughts about government. They were both able to live long enough to astonish their countrymen by dying, both of them, with breathtaking symbolic audacity, on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.With great animal cunning, we managed to find a luggage cart at Newark and then to sneak it onto the monorail when the monorail guard's back was turned. We left it at D3, happy in the knowledge that finding it there would make some other overburdened traveller's day.
And James Madison? Madison went on to serve his country for almost half a century. In 1836, ten years after Jefferson and Adams both had died, eager patriots tried to persuade James Madison, the last of the fathers, to try round out that miracle by the timing of his demise. He was eighty-six years old and failing, and they wanted him to take stimulants to keep himself alive until the sixtieth anniversary of the Fourth. But the modest Madison, never strong on gloire, said no thanks and died a week early.
When we got to Princeton, the daffodils in the bed outside the kitchen were in full bloom, but the water in the birdbath was frozen.
I always expect when we drive up to the house after having been away that we'll find that it has burned down and the cats are dead. That hadn't happened, but the cats were very annoyed. Apparently our young neighbor who was cat-sitting for them misunderstood our instructions and gave them one can of catfood per day, rather than their usual two. (Of course, I'd left bowls of kibbles and water upstairs sufficient to get them through if she'd not come at all.) We apologized profusely and offered the Weaselball in atonement. They were not amused. (The one with polka-dots is Purmudgeon; the one without, Lightning.)
The heap of mail was full of birthday cards and presents, including (in a box in a box in a box in a box) a pair of delightful little gold hummingbird earrings from Sandra. And Jim and Bonnie had sent the latest photos of their beautiful Kamille (cuddled up with a stuffed toy we'd sent her for her birthday).
We've phoned Lee's sweet father, who is well, have taken the breakfast things out of the freezer, and are now off to bed feeling very mellow.
Love to you all,