As is customary at this time of year, I knew I was going to do some form of recap of what was surely a year that defined what it means to possess wave characteristics. I eventually settled on an examination of experiences, not really a "best of" in terms of what I saw, the images I made, or the places I have been - but simply what has been most memorable on a month-by-month basis. These are the moments we hold dear, and it is only fitting that we revisit them from time to time to ensure that the lessons stay with us. Do enjoy.
It was only the second day of the year. We roused long before there was any hint of light in the sky and began the two hour journey to the edge of the remote southeastern forest in Trinidad. This journey to the Trinity Hills was long overdue, and with an impending long-term trip to Tobago on the horizon, we figured that this would be as good of a time as any. You can share in this experience here.
It only took a few hours for us all to become well-adjusted enough to life in Tobago. I say a few hours as that was how long it took for the drugs to wear off. Not for me or my wife - for Jupiter, our beloved cat who had never left Trinidad before. He was by no means a travel-fiend, loving his home base, his castle. But after a gang of unruly strays took over (with one extremely brazen one actually breaking in our home to attack him) I promised him that I’d take him to a place where there was nothing to bother his soul. And so we did. By the following morning he was in good spirits, exploring and loving it. The forest was stimulating his senses, when a Great Black Hawk made a close pass he stood up, transfixed at the size of the creature. Never before had he seen a bird that large, and that deadly! Within a few days he was playing as 12-year old kittens do. Cat happenings aside, I was busy rekindling bonds with the birds of Tobago. Blue-backed Manakins, White-tailed Nightjars, and oh so many motmots and jacamars.
Almost to the end of the month I hopped on a boat with some friends and skirted the islands at the northern boundary of the country. The Saint Giles islands rarely disappoint, and this time was no different. The sight and sound of thousands of birds perfectly adapted to the inhospitable (from my limited human perspective) ocean never fails to impress. Except for this time, I made the cardinal error of checking camera settings as I sat in the boat before we left the dock. This was something I should’ve done while on terra firma, as I immediately felt motion sickness set in. Not the ideal situation at the start of a boating trip, right? Anyway, I thankfully never threw up and came out with some decent frames. The absolute best of which was a juvenile Brown Pelican resting in a shaft of late afternoon sunshine at the edge of Goat Island. This we saw on the journey back to mainland Tobago, and it was the definition of a fleeting moment. Oh, how a photograph can immortalise a moment in time!
The fair weather of March brought hours of walking forested trails, and I enjoyed many notable sightings. Getting views of secretive forest birds tickled the birder in me in ways I never expected. As per my usual ethos of casual birding, I was afforded glimpses into the lives of many birds most folks do not even get their eyes on. I giggled at the adorable squeak of the White-throated Spadebill as it flew from perch to perch around me, hunting insects unbothered by my presence. I finally got to see a Grey-throated Leaftosser forage along the forest floor, tossing leaves.
A bird doesn’t have to be a new bird - or lifer - for the experience to stand out, as all birds are equally special and precious. But one night as we were having dinner I heard an unfamiliar barking noise from the trees across the river. I stopped chewing immediately. Was it a heron? Or was it… the unthinkable?
Then we heard the noise again.
It was, indeed, the unthinkable. The unmistakable barking of a bird I had never seen before - even though I had dreamed of seeing it innumerable times. We grabbed a torch (that incidentally, we only acquired the very night prior!) and followed our ears.
Not expecting anything much, I didn’t even pick my camera up. I knew what I was hearing, but no part of me was remotely anticipating seeing the bird with any degree of clarity. It was when I realised there were two - not one - I began to feel an upwelling of euphoria. Moreover, the sounds were getting closer!
I toyed with the idea of running for my camera, but not wanting to jeopardise my first real opportunity with this species, I persevered scanning the trees for either source. After a few short minutes (felt like hours on a knife-edge) my eyes discerned the shape of a bird perched within the sub-canopy. At that moment, the unthinkable became not only the perceptible, but the perceived and reckoned. We were looking at a Striped Owl!
This species of owl was the only resident owl in T&T that had eluded me for all these years. Found only on Tobago, nighttime searches were futile and fleeting. I gave up actively searching for this bird many years ago, willing to leave it up to the natural way of probabilities. And oh, were the odds in favour on that cool March night! A pair of Striped Owls, calling out to each other as they travelled along the river encircling the property. They would fly in tandem from tree to tree, remaining vocal throughout. At one point, the pitch of their raucous barks began to rise, and they both flew towards one another. Just as they were about to collide, both birds put the brakes on, and seemed to almost go belly-up in mid-air. They deftly touched each other’s feet, a sublime, divine, owl-fist bump.
Floored by that experience, I couldn’t take it any more. I thrust the torch in Joanne’s hands and sprinted for my camera. Thankfully my batteries were charged! By the time I returned, one owl had moved a little further into the darkness but we still had a visual on the other. As I mentioned earlier we had only acquired the torch the previous night - so this was also my first time photographing a bird using a torch in addition to whatever ambient light there was. Learning settings on the fly, I fired off several frames, tweaked this and that, and repeated the process. Nailing the focus and keeping the camera steady at a slow shutter speed made it a little challenging, but I was able to come out of that experience with a whole single image I was happy with. Much better than none!
The fair weather of April found me many a time working the birds along the coastline of the island. Tropicbirds and boobies are fun, but the coasts were beginning to get active with the arrival of several species of terns. Calmer waters were patrolled by the largest of the lot, Royal Terns along with a small population of Sandwich Terns (including the Cayenne variety). On rougher coastlines as the month wore on, one was just beginning to catch glimpses of Bridled Tern and Brown Noddy. The latter species deserves its very own blog post for it being the antithesis of what is considered a tern. In the mix were Roseate Terns - described by some as the most beautiful of all terns anywhere on Earth.
A Roseate Tern is an angelic, lithe creature. Of the purest white with a jet black cap that extends over the back of its neck, Roseate Terns earn their name in the breeding season - which is the reason why they visit Tobago in the first place. During these few months a surge in hormones causes a gentle pink wash to appear over their breast area. Their bright red legs are complemented by a sharp, red and black bill.
Roseate Terns are a tropical species, rarely ranging further north than the southernmost United States. Due to the fact that many birders from the global north are not afforded the opportunity to observe this species coupled with its sheer beauty, the Roseate Tern is a real gold-star bird.
I spent several mornings in April working with Roseate Terns as they hunted the shallow, clear waters of Tobago’s Caribbean coast. Because they started foraging long before sunrise, I was able to play with twilight colours and clouds to a great degree. Looking forward to trying again in 2023!
On a casual drive (are there any other worthwhile drives anyway?) through the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Joanne spotted what looked like a large boa constrictor on the side of the road. I quickly pulled over and ran towards it, fearing the worst. Was it yet another notch in the roadkill tally?
It didn’t look crushed, nor did it look run over. But a closer look at its neck revealed some lacerations - presumably contact with a weed-whacker wielded by a wayward man from a short while earlier, as the grass on the side of the road was all freshly cut. We sighed. Yet another example of man’s cruelty. Then its tongue flicked. Still alive!
We stayed with the snake for almost an hour, trying to coax it into the forest. At one point it attempted to climb onto me. I eventually tried to heave it into the bush with the help of a fallen branch, but its weight broke the branch. I managed to get it into the shelter of a nearby gully, but it didn’t like where I put it, and climbed back out. As it lay outstretched, recovering from its ascent, I took the opportunity to photograph it. Eventually, it began moving again, and slid off into the undergrowth.
The entire experience was a lesson in trust. Mutual trust, me in understanding that it was a powerful predator and should be treated with utmost respect; the snake in knowing that the same species that deliberately harmed it earlier was now out to help. It was bittersweet, as I learned after the fact that its injuries may likely become infected and ultimately prove fatal.
June brought the most significant alteration to our lives. Our dearest Jupiter, the feline captain of our little ship, departed his ailing body. While there are countless stories to share on his life and death, for brevity’s sake I will avoid that at this point. After we bid adieu, we headed into the rainforest, intent on staying out for as long as possible. Barn Owls hunted at the perimeter, I nearly rolled over my own foot trying to photograph one of them at some point. I guess it was just one of those days, right?
I cannot say that the image of this Barn Owl will always remind me of him, as that would imply he sometimes leaves my mind. Swipe to see Jupiter in one of his preferred perches.
This month’s time to shine took place in Trinidad, actually. On an early morning mission to La Vega Estate in Gran Couva we were greeted with the sound of several Guianan Trogons as the sun broke free of the horizon. A single Green-backed Trogon joined in as well at some point. Bit by bit, we counted no fewer than seven of these majestic little birds all around us! Adults - both males and females - as well as young birds just learning about what it takes to be a trogon. Usually I’m happy to see a single bird, ecstatic when there is a pair. But multiple pairs and juveniles?!
My favourite image from that morning wasn’t of a trogon, though, but of a Squirrel Cuckoo that bounded from tree to tree. If you’re unfamiliar with this bird’s movement, picture a squirrel running along branches, jumping from one tree to another, and you’ll have a fair description of how the Squirrel Cuckoo operates. Yes, it was named after the mammal.
Something about the delicate light and this bird’s subtle beauty gets me every time. Enjoy female and male Guianan Trogons below, swipe further for a view of the Squirrel Cuckoo.
I wasn’t photographing much in August as my main camera body began to give me some hiccups. However, I did have a memorable experience with a Rufous-breasted Wren - a typically furtive and rarely seen species. Late one evening exiting one of the trails within the Main Ridge Forest Reserve a small bird flew out of the darkness and sat on a nearby tree. It was uncharacteristically still, so it was only after I looked at it through binoculars (even though I had to step backwards to get it in focus) I realised what it was. Pushing the limits of my camera, I came out with a few usable frames even though it was almost too dark to see.
The turn of the seasons brought me back to the wetlands, from where I gushed over returning shorebirds at the slightest provocation. Whether it was on my social media, for the newspaper, or for 10,000 Birds - you’d basically have to pay me to stop talking about shorebirds. Each migration season I fall in love with them over and over again. Late one evening we were working the beach at Bloody Bay on the fringes of the rainforest and I noticed a sleek sandpiper slightly larger than the Semipalmated Plovers that were scattered along the wrack line - a White-rumped Sandpiper! With a mammoth migration and transient existence, this species may be one of my favourite birds ever.
A single morning in October brought about several rarely seen migrants, a very interesting looking Green Heron, and an unforgettable, extremely profound experience. Although I have written separate articles covering each, it was the fallen yellowlegs that left the biggest mark in my psyche. Read about it here.
Boreal migrants continued to pour in throughout November. While the previous month was one of shorebirds, November brought warblers. Yellow, Prothonotary, and Blackpoll Warblers were fixtures in the wetlands of southwest Tobago. It was the latter two species that attracted me the most, as I was well accustomed to seeing Yellow Warblers every year in Trinidad.
Although I had seen Prothonotary Warblers a few times before, it had been almost a decade since I had seen one - so the sight of that unique shade of yellow truly took my breath away! And I had only seen Blackpoll Warbler once prior, and that was a single individual probably thirty metres up in the canopy of a large tree, backlit of course.
Not only was I able to see these birds, I was able to spend considerable time with them and simply observe them doing their thing. Another migratory species - a Yellow-billed Cuckoo - was typically in attendance in the particular area, clearly a physical space of great significance to these globetrotters.
Migratory species spend weeks each year bouncing back and forth between wintering and breeding grounds, and their journeys never fail to fascinate and amaze. But December marked the arrival of a different kind of traveller. Contrasting with the species mentioned previously in this piece, seabirds visit our shores to breed.
These are not birds that go between lands. Seabirds are oceanic creatures, built for worlds of water and air - both alien to us. As such, they occupy a special place in my heart. Red-billed Tropicbirds drift from the open ocean, converging on Little Tobago at the confluence of two oceans. The bountiful ocean delivers squid and flying fish to the birds, and they come to the precipitous, cacti-laden cliffs of the island to lay their eggs and raise their young. As if this wasn’t enough, the skies around the island are filled with hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds. These terrifyingly large birds are also surprisingly quick and agile, and use all their tricks to harass the smaller seabirds en route with a full crop to feed their young on the island. See, the frigatebirds eat fish - but lack the oil glands to keep their feathers dry. Usually, they would pick food off the surface of the ocean - or in a most dramatic fashion grab flying fish as they take to the air to escape predators underwater.
However, when the tropicbirds are breeding, the opportunity for the frigatebirds to become kleptoparasites arises, and they never pass up the opportunity. Tropicbirds are grabbed and shaken until they release their cargo. Amazingly, the frigatebirds are usually able to catch the disgorged fish within a few split seconds!
Having this unfold only a few metres away a couple days ago cemented this moment as one of the most memorable not only for the month, or for the year, but forever!