Asa Wright Nature Center

hummingbird

Hummingbird.

As a long time/on and off again Trinidad and Tobago resident, it’s sometimes hard for me to like the place.

Yes, the landscape is littered with bars, strip malls, Indian expos, Chuck E Cheese’s, Starbucks (a recent incursion), KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s. Yes, there’s traffic, accidents, pollution, and a serious crime problem. But there’s hope. While many locals spend their hard earned cash in the rum shops, shopping centers, cinemas, and restaurants, some head to the hills.

Although Trinidad calls itself the land of the hummingbird, these tiny creatures are hard to spot unless you head into the green regions of the country, what locals call de bush. It’s there that you realize that Trinidad and Tobago are not sandy islands but rainforest and wildlife-rich bits broken off from the South American continent.

A bit of background

Located along Arima Blanchisseuse Road is Asa Wright Nature Center. Formerly known as Springhill Estate, the area used to be a cocoa, citrus, and coffee plantation but has now become a bird watcher’s haven.

It was originally purchased by Joseph and Helen Bruce-Holmes in 1936 from the British colonial government then sold to Newcombe and Asa Wright. Because of the estate’s proximity to an oilbird cave, Asa began hosting scientists and conservationists who studied the species. Established as a non-profit in 1967, it’s one of the first wildlife centers in the Caribbean and covers an impressive 1500 acres across the Arima and Aripo valleys of the Northern Range.

 

greathouse
Corridor in the main house of the Asa Wright Nature Center.

 

The veranda

From the veranda of the Center’s main building (a restored plantation house), there is green bush and mountain as far as the eye can reach. Quivering bundles of turquoise, emerald, sapphire. A flash of gold. A trill and a flap. Hummingbirds, green and purple honeycreepers, and bananaquits sip sugar water from hanging bird feeders. Others dig into slices of watermelon and bananas laid out on bench feeders.

 

honeycreepers
Purple honeycreepers.

 

The tour

If you go to the Center, take one of the guided tours of the grounds. There are two tours for day visitors: one at mid-morning and one in the afternoon. Our guide, Randall Duberry, shared a lot of interesting information about the plants and animals along the Discovery trail.

 

torchginger
Hawaiian torch or torch ginger.

 

The flora

Here are some plants Randall pointed out.

  •  Vervain is popular with hummingbirds and recommended for mothers who want to produce more breast milk.
  • Katahar aka jackfruit aka durian can be used as a laxative and to treat sterility and skin diseases.
  • St. John’s bush (very different to St. John’s wort) aka blood bush can be used as a blood thinner and to treat rashes. It’s called blood bush because the juice runs red.
  • A sandbox tree covered in spikes that produces seeds that explode in the forest. These seeds are used to make what locals call dolphin jewelry. He also explained that the sandbox is the only tree monkey don’t climb (Trinidad sayings).
  • Hawaiian torch or torch ginger that looks like pineapple but tastes sweeter than cilantro.
  • Hot lips plant. Apparently, if you kiss it for seven nights then kiss your love, both of you will stay together forever.

 

TRINI
Golden shrimp or lollipop plant- popular with hummingbirds.

 

The fauna

At the start of the tour, Randall also told the group that we would probably see three birds: the white-bearded manakin, the golden-headed manakin, and the bearded bellbird.

He explained that the golden-headed manakin is the Michael Jackson of birds, moonwalking and hopping from branch to branch to woo females. Although we went to the bird’s lek or courtship area where Randall called and called, we saw no bird.

Then we headed to the white-bearded manakin’s lek. Here, we saw one male, a tiny white and black bird making a popping sound. Randall explained that in this avian ballroom, up to 80 males each clear a spot on the forest floor and dance, fighting for the attention of a single female. He added that these playboy birds are notorious for sabotaging other males to win the female’s favor. In Trini parlance, they like to dirty their partner water.

The bearded bellbird is also native to Trinidad and Tobago. It was easier to hear than spot this gray and white feathered bird that perched high in the trees and emitted loud staccato screeches. And yes, it does have a beard of black wattles down its throat!

Along the trail, we also heard the mot mot’s hoop hoop! Randall pointed out that this bird’s call is often mistaken for the sound of douens: supernatural, childlike creatures with backward-turning feet that lure people into the forest.

We didn’t get a chance to see the oilbird because you have to arrange a separate tour to get to their habitat. Dunston Cave at the Center is one of the most accessible oilbird colonies on the island. Also known as guacharo, this bird lives in dark places like caves and flies at night. Randall also told us that way, way, way back, people killed these birds and used them as torches because of their high oil content.

During lunch, we spotted a golden tegu lizard, known locally as matte, calmly crawling up the driveway that led to the main building and a shy agouti feeding on old fruit.

 

powderpuff
Powder puff or mimosa.

 

How to get there

You can’t just show up at the Center. Visits must be booked at least one day in advance. Included in the day ticket is an introductory tour of the surrounding bush where you can learn about the local flora and fauna. You can also stay overnight and dine in the restaurant but again, you have to book in advance. Bonus: if you stay three nights or more, you get a guided tour to Dunston Cave. Also, check out the Clearwater pool and the gift shop that sells robusta coffee grown on the estate and other souvenirs.

It’s very easy to get to Asa Wright Nature Center. From the Churchill-Roosevelt highway, turn into Arima Blanchisseuse road, drive past the houses, past the vast christophene patches on the hillsides, and soon you’ll reach the grounds.

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