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Bird Watching in Tobago

Bird Watching in Tobago
by Nancy Greenleese

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Trinidad and Tobago perch off the coast of Venezuela, twin islands offering scuba diving and deserted beaches. While bird watchers have long visited Trinidad, a few are beginning to flock to Tobago, where more than 200 species of birds nest. There are no fancy package tours and few well-schooled guides. It's simply man and nature living together. Nancy Greenleese sent us this report.

I'd never watched birds. In fact, I watch out for them in San Diego where the seagulls tend to shower me with little presents on my daily run. But, while visiting Speyside, Tobago, the birds forced me to take notice.

Birds flit and flirt, strut and swoon all over Tobago. Each day, I watched the friendly Jackamars dance around my sandy feet and awoke to the sinister cackle of the Chacalacas, the National Bird, which is infamous for destroying gardens. Eventually, both the pesky and golden-voiced birds called out to me to take a closer look.

I bob across the choppy waters in a glass bottomed boat headed for Little Tobago, an island sanctuary. With me are some British tourists and a guide, 24-year old Darrien Kent. Hiking past bamboo troughs filled with water for the birds, we reach the top of a cliff.

Darrien: "It is a very beautiful place here. Right about now, you can view the Atlantic Ocean. That is the Atlantic Ocean. So these are the Red Bill Tropicbirds. Which is very, very, very beautiful."

Dozens of the snow-white birds soar above a rocky inlet, performing one of nature's finest sky shows. Nearly a century ago, landowner Sir William Ingraham created this bird sanctuary after rescuing some Birds of Paradise from Papa New Guinea. A 1963 Hurricane wiped out the birds. But the native species thrive, allowing British bird-watcher Laurie King to show me the birds through his bionic binoculars.

Laurie: "Get onto a Tropicbird, just up here."

Nancy: "Oh yes, yes. Oh, they're beautiful. Thank you very much."

Laurie: "You're a birdwatcher now."

Back at the Inn, we enjoy some rum and sit around "liming", local slang for gossiping. Bird watching is beginning to take off in Tobago. Tourism officials say the number of birdwatchers who visit the island doubles each year. Nearly 4,000 visited last year. The globetrotting Brits are among the pioneers, trying to name birds with inadequate guidebooks. Laurie says they've seen many unidentified flying objects.

Laurie: "These two guys found a bird this morning, an 'LBJ', a little brown job. Couldn't identify it. It's quite interesting investigating to try to find out what that bird is. And you don't always succeed."

Nancy: "Did you figure out what this little brown job is."

Laurie: "No."

Nancy: "And what will you do."

Laurie: "Drink ourselves into a stupor."

I get the feeling that they might want to find more little brown jobs, at least to keep them fueled with spicy rum drinks. Graham Whitby of York, England says birding here is a walk on the wild side.

Graham: "When you are that close to, say, a Jackamar, you feel like you're accepted, if you like. As humans, we're often intruding, aren't we? But when your bird is taking no notice of you, you feel like you're part of the environment."

With a few sightings behind me, I decide to take the plunge with Darrien into the rain forest. Established in 1766, it's the oldest, legally protected forest in the world. In the early morning, a layer of fog rests upon the moist, dense palms. The forest is teeming with Parrots, Blue Crown Mott-Motts that have heads the colors of the Caribbean waters, and other birds.

Nancy: "See that something just..."

Darrien: "That's the Bare-eye Truss."

Nancy: "See it on the bamboo branch?"

John: "Hmm."

Nancy: "Right across. Crossing the gully. On the cross bar. Ohh. There it went!"

And off we went to Argyle Falls, where nature's symphony added another instrument. We heard a song, not a bird song, but one produced by man. At the base of the falls, a wiry musician stood atop a wet rock, playing the clarinet. The man-made music seems fitting in this country where locals celebrate and co-mingle with Tobago's natural beauty.

From Speyside, Tobago, I'm Nancy Greenleese for The Savvy Traveler.


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