Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Trinidad: December 21, 2008

The national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, the Scarlet Ibis can be seen in its full glory every evening at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, where thousands of birds come to roost at a particular site in the mangrove swamp. As this is one of the most impressive birding spectacles in the world, visiting birders can expect good infrastructure but crowded viewing conditions, as hoards of foreign tourists are packed into a half-dozen boats and motored out through the mangroves directly to the site, bypassing many other good birding opportunities. Aimee and I were fortunate to tour the swamp privately in the company of an aggressive but talented birding guide, Shaun, picking up a number of excellent birds before arriving at the site just as the magnificent show was starting.

The late afternoon sun created quite a bit of glare as we entered the swamp through a ruler-straight channel, but soon we were in the shade of the mangroves, three different types of trees actually. Our guide quickly proved his worth as he first called in two American Pygmy Kingfishers, and then patiently worked a Gray-Breasted Wood-Rail using playback; we had good looks at this latter bird as it moved surreptitiously behind the gnarled mangrove roots, which were exposed at low tide. Before entering the main channel, we passed a statuesque Little Blue Heron and a roosting Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron as well.

Along the main channel that leads out to the Scarlet Ibis roosting site, we passed directly underneath an Osprey that was tearing into a fish several meters above our head; remarkably tame, it stared at us vacantly before resuming its meal. Then, Shaun heard a Green-Throated Mango, and we watched it move about above in the mangrove canopy, its black-striped belly clearly visible from many meters away; this beautiful hummingbird is a restricted-range species found only in the northeastern part of South America and adjacent Caribbean islands. Finally, he pointed out a Common Potoo roosting in its usual site deep within the tangled mangroves and practically hidden from view.

A last stop before viewing the ibis led us up a narrow channel where Shaun had earlier seen a Clapper Rail. After several loud bursts of playback, the bird responded from nearby but impossibly deep within the mangrove roots. Just before abandoning the bird, I caught a glimpse of it as I contorted my body around in the boat, and eventually we all had reasonable views of this difficult but clearly-marked rail. Unfortunately, we had burned a lot of time tracking down several of these furtive birds, and now we were running late and had to motor out to the ibis site, sending a huge wake into the swamp on either side of the channel.

We jetted out into the open just as several flocks of Scarlet Ibises were passing overhead, the rays of the setting sun illuminating them brilliantly against an azure sky. Awestruck, we watched as a clump of mangroves across the large channel slowly filled up with hundreds of shockingly red birds, gradually taking on the characteristics of a massive, tropical Christmas tree. Flocks of Great Egrets and Tricolored Herons were also streaming across the channel to the same site. Clearly bored by the spectacle, Shaun diverted our attention to a group of fast-moving Bicolored Conebills in the mangroves on our side of the channel. Although he was able to stir them up with playback, I never was able to distinguish their field marks as the light was growing dimmer by the moment. A specialty of the mangroves, this modest conebill is one of the target species at Caroni Bird Sanctuary.

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