Day 6 (Tuesday, 17th February)
After this first foray into the Arena Forest, we wasted quite a bit of time looking for the Arena Dam and Reservoir – initially due to poor directions in Murphy, taking us over very poor tracks which the car barely survived, and then, once we had found the dam entrance, entry was barred due to lack of permits. We abandoned further exploration of the forest, and decided to head for Wallerfields instead. However, we did pick up our first Yellow-rumped Cacique on the way back to the main highway, and our first Yellow-headed Caracara perched on a pole at the side of the main road South.
We found the left hand turnoff on Cumuto Road, which is a bush and tree lined track which eventually ends on the southern strip of Wallerfields airfield. We stashed the car about 100m along this track to have a snack and look into the birds of the area at the same time. Many flowering plants were mixed in with the trees and large bushes, thus turning up Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Green Hermit, White-breasted Emerald, Barred Antshrike, Fork-tailed Palm-swift overhead, and the unusual sight of an Anhinga circling upwards in the thermals above us.
We progressed to the old airport runways, the smaller South one of which eventually joined the much larger counterpart. The latter was very wide and long, supposedly disused (it was built for World War II use), but still looks if it has its uses. We had been told that Nightjars are easy to see here after dusk, but also warned to be very careful, since the current nocturnal use of the airstrip is not exactly legal, or safe to watch. Continuing on around the airfield, which had constant traffic from the works within Wallerfields, we didn’t see a great deal – probably not the best time of day! We did encounter a massive flock of Black Vultures on the ground, around the ruins of the old airport buildings.
A short way down from the track, we were back on Cumuto road, crossed the Aripo River, and parked the car immediately after this on a poor track to the left. We followed this track, which was parallel to the river, to an old sand quarry, which was now almost back to a natural state, with masses of varied and potentially productive habitat, having open areas of water surrounded by marsh, and palms to the South. It seemed an absolutely ideal spot for birds, so it was surprising that it turned out so quiet. The only birds around the open water were a Crested Oropendola and Fork-tailed Palm-swifts overhead. The palm stands even contained deep water and exposed roots, containing many fish of various sizes, ideal for kingfishers and waterthrushes, but again no joy.
Things livened up a little on the way back to the car, not so much due to numbers of birds, but a small variety of interesting species. About half way back, an elusive Rufous-browed Peppershrike was found singing on the underside of a tall palm frond about 10m high. An Osprey was soaring overhead a little further along, with Southern Rough-winged Swallows lower down over the river and treetops. A male Ruby-topaz Hummingbird was feeding briefly next to the car, and a Striped Cuckoo landed in the trees to the rear. The same stand of trees held a Grey Hawk, which had been calling since we started the walk.
In the town of Cumuto, we quickly found the track to Aripo Savannah. This is right next to the Forestry Commission Offices, where there is a small car park. It might have been worth spending a little more time to check in here, since the Savannah does have a sign stating “Permit only”. At the entrance to the track, we had good views of our first definite Sulphury Flycatcher. After all the Tropical Kingbirds we had seen, this bird had a much cleaner and deeper white throat, merging into yellow on the chest, and appeared to have a less shallow fork to the tail. Shortly after this, we also picked up our first definite Savannah Hawk flying overhead. After about 200m, a track to the left led on to the savannah proper, which is largely open flat grassland, with scattered stands of palms. We did walk one or two of these trails, but the time of day was again not the best (mid-afternoon), leading to only 2 more Savannah Hawks flying through.
We had planned to end the day at Nariva Swamp, but since the time had passed faster than we had expected, we decided to try our luck at the Aripo Agricultural Station, which is situated just to the West of the Aripo Village road. We had been informed by Gerard at Pax Guest House that this would be closed to us, but we decided to try our luck. Approaching the turn into the station, we had excellent views of a Savannah Hawk perched on a telegraph pole near to the main highway. It may have been a good omen, since the staff at the office just through the main gate were more than happy for us to bird the area. The only proviso was that we were careful of the herd of domesticated bison along the way after dark.
Once out of the car, a pair of White-winged Swallows landed above on the wires, and a pair of tiny Green-rumped Parrotlets flew across and landed in a nearby lone bush. Barely away from the few buildings at the entrance, a Solitary Sandpiper was feeding in a waterlogged cowpen. From this spot, we picked out singing Red-breasted Blackbird, and a pair of Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters flew in and landed briefly. Still in the same spot, a lone Saffron Finch flew over, and a couple of White-headed Marsh-tyrants posed on the fences lining the track. A female seedeater behind us remained unidentified (beige with dark eye – what chance did we have?).
There was a large cattle shed about 400m from the station entrance, with intimidating bison in the surrounding enclosed fields. Alongside these was a small stream filled ditch, which flowed under the track through a low bridge, which was teeming with Wattled Jacanas, Southern Lapwings, Striated Herons, and various other waders such as Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpipers. As we crossed over this bridge, a Greater Yellowlegs appeared from its opening underneath us. Pied Water-tyrants were tending a nest a short distance downstream. We decided that we wouldn’t have enough time before dark to reach a small pool just under a mile from the entrance, plus the fact that the bison seemed to be starting to be a bit nervy (the wire fence all of a sudden looked very flimsy), so turned back. This resulted in plenty of time to enjoy the birds we had already seen some more, including more Red-breasted Blackbirds, a couple of Spotted Sandpipers, and Grey-breasted Martin over. The agricultural station turned out to be a great birding success. Until then, some good birds had been seen, although the day had been very “bitty”, particularly through the middle of the day, but the quality of this site was way above the rest of the day’s experiences. To cap this, as we were approaching the car, a Yellow-chinned Spinetail landed near the cowpen which had earlier held the Solitary Sandpiper.