Asa Wright

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Mon 5 Oct 2009 21:03

The Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge


Up we jumped ready to be picked up by Jessie in his posh Maxi Taxi for a day out. We drove through Port of Spain listening to Jessie, between his mobile phone calls, about Trinidad, its history, a bit about politics and fascinating facts. We drove for about an hour and arrived at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge which is a nature resort and scientific research station, of about 700 acres, located in the Arima Valley of the Northern Range in Trinidad, 1,200 feet above sea level, in pristine rain forest. The Centre is one of the top bird watching spots in the Caribbean; a total of 159 species of birds have been recorded here. The Centre is owned by a non-profit trust and is in the "1000 things to do" First we went on a short guided tour to seek out Manikins and learn about Oilbirds a new one on us.


The Heliconia welcomed us. A view over the grounds and a cut flower

The major properties consist of the Spring Hill Estate and the adjacent William Beebe Tropical Research Station (also known as Simla) which was established by William Beebe as a tropical research station for the New York Zoological Society. Both properties had previously been cacao estates but contained large stands of original rainforest as well. Newcombe and Asa Wright hosted many visiting scientists in this period, including noted ornithologists David Snow and Barbara Snow who made detailed studies of the oilbirds and the fascinating and very complex courtship dances of the White-bearded Manakin and the Golden-headed Manakin.


A bottle brush, a new colour of Heliconia called Sexy Pink and an old favourite from Grenada

The Wright's home, built in 1908, became internationally renowned for its easy access to wildlife especially the oilbird colonies in the nearby Dunstan Cave, and large numbers of humming birds. After the death of Newcombe Wright, the Spring Hill Estate was acquired by a non-profit Trust. Asa Wright continued to live at the Centre until her death in 1971. The Centre recently acquired the Rapsey Estate in the Aripo Valley, just west of the Arima Valley. Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), also known as Guácharo, is a slim, long-winged bird related to the nightjars and usually placed with these in the order Caprimulgiformes. Oilbirds are found in the northern areas of South America from Guyana and the island of Trinidad to Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia in forests and woodland with caves. It is a seasonal migrant, moving from its breeding caves in search of fruit trees. It has occurred as a rare vagrant to Costa Rica, Panama and Aruba. This nocturnal species, uniquely, is a specialist feeder on the fruit of the Oil Palm and tropical laurels. All the other nightjars and their relatives are insectivores. The Oilbird's feet are small and almost useless, other than for clinging to vertical surfaces. However, it is capable of hovering and twisting flight, which enables it to navigate through restricted areas of its caves. This is a large bird at sixteen to nineteen inches in height, with a wing span of some three feet. It has a flattened, powerfully hooked bill surrounded by deep chestnut rictal bristles up to two inches long. It is mainly reddish-brown with white spots on the nape and wings. Lower parts are cinnamon-buff spotted with white. The stiff tail feathers are a rich brown spotted with white on either side. During the day these gregarious birds rest on cave ledges. The nest is a heap of droppings, usually above water - either a stream or the sea, on which two to four glossy white eggs are laid which soon become stained brown. These are rounded but with a distinctly pointed smaller end and average 41.2 x 33.2 mm.



The squabs become very fat before fledging, weighing up to half again as much as the adult birds do. They used to be harvested and rendered for oil, hence the name "oilbird". Although the Oilbird forages by sight, it is one of only a few birds, and the only nocturnal one, known to navigate by echolocation in sufficiently poor light conditions, using a series of sharp audible clicks for this purpose. It also produces a variety of harsh screams while in its caves. Entering a cave with a light especially provokes these raucous calls; they also may be heard as the birds prepare to emerge from a cave at dusk. The oilbird is called a "guácharo" or "tayo" in Spanish, both terms being of indigenous origin. In Trinidad it was sometimes called "diablotin" (French for "little devil"), presumably referring to its loud cries, which have been likened to those of tortured men. The Guacharo Cave (Oilbird Cave), in the mountainous Caripe district of northern Monagas, Venezuela, is where Alexander von Humboldt first studied the species. The caripensis of the binomial name means "of Caripe", and Steatornis means "fat bird", in reference to the fatness of the squabs. The Guácharo Cave was Venezuela's first national monument, and is the centerpiece of a national park; according to some estimates there may be 15,000 or more birds living there. Colombia also has a national park named after its "Cueva de los Guacharos", near the southern border with Ecuador. Oilbirds have been reported in various other places along the Andean mountain chain, including near Ecuador's Cueva de los Tayos and in Brazil: they are known to dwell as far south as the Carrasco National Park in Bolivia. Dunstan Cave, at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, is home to about two hundred nesting pairs.



Time for a few pictures before a traditional buffet lunch and local pear juice. Then for serious birding on the balcony overlooking many feeding tables.



Lovely to see the variety of birds but the first hummer of the day was very special.