Day 2 (Friday, 13th February)
Arising and shining at 6:20, the light was good enough to appreciate what a fantastic location this was. Gary and his team have put in a lot of work since 1999, to assemble 3 or 4 sleeping and living quarters in the midst of the Aripo Heights hills, giving sweeping views of the forests in all directions. The place is absolutely teeming with birds, and even at this time in the morning, we were treated to Yellow Oriole, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, plenty of Palm Tanagers, and the spectacular sight and sound of multitudes of mixed Orange-winged & Yellow-crowned Parrot flocks flying over the valley, some landing in the cottage grounds. We spent 1-1˝ hours just wandering around the cottage gardens, and turned up more goodies such as Trinidad Euphonia, Silver-beaked Tanager, and distant raptors including Common Black-hawk.
The track we had been driven up the previous evening was now descended on foot, where there were singing and dancing Blue-black Grassquits, and very shy Bare-eyed Thrushes, until we found the spot where the car was parked. Crested Oropendolas were back and forth constantly here, servicing the nearby colony (which could actually be seen from the terrace of Aripo Cottage). We also found a single Blue Dacnis, and very close Blue-grey Tanagers, as well as more birds that escaped identification.
It was now after 8:00, so we decided to head back to the cottage for a cup of coffee and sit on the terrace. Between coffee time and breakfast at 9:30, we spent the whole time wandering around the cottage grounds again. Raptors were now appearing in numbers. Most to the South seemed to be Turkey Vultures, with less numerous Black Vultures, and a couple of Common Black-hawks for good measure. The northern aspect, which looked up to the higher elevations, was superb for White Hawks, with at least half a dozen in total, and 3 at once together. There was also what looked like a Great Black-hawk on this side of the property. More species popped up around the property as time went on: a tropical Kingbird had a favourite perch in front of the terrace, with Forest Elaenia in the bushes.
After breakfast, it was time to head off down the track again, and turn off to gently ascend Aripo Heights via the tarmac access road. It took only about 30-40 metres of walking downhill from the cottage to find a pair of Rufous-breasted Wrens, which were tending a nest which we found low down near the ground. The rufous colour on the chest of these birds is much brighter and more impressive than the books suggest. At the bottom of this descent, in a small clearing, we played a tape of Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, and even a short burst of this had an immediate effect, bringing out American Redstart, Violaceus Euphonia, female White-shouldered Tanager, Blue-grey Tanager, and Palm Tanager. We played the tape 3 or 4 more times, and each seemed to have less effect than the last one, but new birds were lured, including a pair of Tropical Parulas and a couple of male White-lined Tanagers. From this small clearing, an impressive colony of Crested Oropendolas could be seen, with the nests hanging down like a multitude of giant Penduline Tit constructions. The attendant birds flew to and fro from the colony constantly. Just around the corner from here, over a small stream, we saw the first of our honeycreepers – male Purple Honeycreeper with a streaked female.
We followed the track up from where car was parked, giving good views of the valley below, and the raptors overhead (Common Black-hawks occasionally amongst the numerous vultures, as well as 1-2 Grey Hawks). It was also very good for hummingbirds, including Black-throated Mango, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, and an unidentified wholly green bird which only landed briefly. Views over the Aripo Valley here are impressive, and is fully covered by lush rainforest. In amongst this are orange flowered Immortelle trees, which bear nectar that attracts a host of species. The sun was out most of this time, but a refreshing wind from the East kept temperatures comfortable.
Further progress up the track found masses of Bananaquits, interspersed by the occasional White-beaked Tanager and quick fly-through hummingbirds, until we came upon a more open view of the canopy to the South. Plenty of Immortelle trees here, as well as an army of ants crossing the track itself in a regimented line. The Immortelles and the ants seemed to combine to produce a profusion of birds, with Tanagers in the form of Silver-beaked, White-lined & White-shouldered, all three species of Honeycreeper, Bananaquits, fly-through hummers, and a couple of Greyish Saltators. A pair of Common Black-hawks were displaying high over the valley, one landing on an exposed branch a little later. Another colony of Crested Oropendolas was situated about 50m up from here, with some of the birds displaying a bizarre courtship ritual, as well as comical call, especially when welcoming another bird.
Barely another 100m up from the Oropendola colony was another productive Immortelle tree, which proved to the best for variety of species that we were to find. It also offered shade from the sun, and superb lighting on the birds. We spent at least an hour staring up at its lively branches, being particularly good for hummingbirds, with stunning views of at least 2 White-necked Jacobins, a Brown Violet-ear which visited twice, and elusive small green birds which eventually proved to be Blue-chinned Sapphires. At least three different kinds of flycatchers were eventually seen on the tree – Piratic Flycatcher and Tropical Pewee were present for some time, but a much smaller bird, possibly a tyrannulet, didn’t show well enough for identification. Male and female Green Honeycreepers were regular, with flocks of Tanagers flying through frequently (mainly White-beaked & White-lined, with the odd White-shouldered, as well as Blue-grey and the occasional Palm). More Common Black-hawks were again overhead, with one landing only about 50m away briefly.
We then climbed a rather steeper rough track, which ended after a short way at what would have been a rather smart house, if it had been finished. Plenty of raptors from here, including a pair of displaying Grey Hawks quite close to, and a fair few Chaetura swifts, which were mainly Grey-rumped Swifts, with a few Band-tailed Swifts amongst them.
Eager to please on the descent again, the favoured Immortelle tree produced White-breasted Emerald, alongside the already recorded White-necked Jacobins and Blue-chinned Sapphire. The Piratic Flycatcher was still in the same place, but another was much closer on wires a little further down the track. This was probably the first bird that we had seen using man made wires as a lookout post. Another hummingbird that we saw caused some problems, having plain green back and white underparts. However, it obliged by briefly hovering, showing rufous parts of the outer tail feathers, bordered by black and then white – only female Ruby-topaz Hummingbird shows these colours on the tail in Trinidad. We arrived back at Aripo Cottage at around 17:40, and watched the last birds of the day while sipping on a delicious local coffee. From the rear terrace, another new bird was seen on the lower bushes – Yellow-bellied Elaenia right in front of us, along with yet more Blue-grey & Palm Tanagers. The setting of the rainforested valley below the terrace was breathtaking, capping a brilliant first day. We hadn’t intended to do a full day at Aripo, since an afternoon excursion to another site in the car had been planned, but the birding was too good to miss, and we had covered only a portion of what could be seen here. It certainly proved to be a perfect place to stay, both for the comfort of the buildings and food, and the habitat on the doorstep.