Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Trinidad trip

Sorry to backtrack here a little bit... it takes me a while to collect my thoughts and write them down; but I thought I'd share my last adventure with you...

In 2007, I received the Don Eckelberry Scholarship Award from the Society of Animal Artists. The award is a 10-day all expenses paid trip to the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad. Don Eckelberry was a renowned bird artist, naturalist, and longtime member of the SAA. Don helped establish the Asa Wright Nature Center. It was his hope that this award would inspire and provide valuable firsthand experience to young artists interested in tropical birds as subject matter. I was honored and appreciative to receive this award; it was a truly inspiring place and I can understand why Don loved it so.

My husband Jimmy and I traveled there in May of this year and it was an adventure! It was our first trip outside North America. I’ve never seen such beautiful birds! Some highlights were: blue- crowned motmots, channel billed toucans, golden-headed manakins, white-bearded manakins, scarlet ibis, orange winged parrots, sabre wing kites, gray hawks, white hawks, purple and green honeycreepers, and common potoo. It was a real treat for a bird lover such as me. I always had my camera in hand, not wanting to miss anything. I took tons of photos; so many that my shooting hand was cramped and achy by the end of the trip. Needless to say, I’ll have enough material to work from for many years to come.


View from the verandah.



Kelly and Jimmy

I awoke early every morning to the sounds of birds screeching and calling just outside our room. Fruits of different varieties and bread are laid out on platform feeders each morning luring the birds in from the rainforest allowing for close observation. It's not just birds who come here for a handout; agouti and large Tegu lizards snag scraps that fall to the ground. Hummingbird feeders are filled as well on the Center’s verandah, attracting hummers and honeycreepers to within mere inches of where you are sitting. I was able to get many close-up photos because the birds were engrossed in feeding and were used to people. One could spend their entire time just sitting on the verandah overlooking the beautiful Arima Valley and see multitudes of birds come and go without even stepping foot into the jungle. I miss that verandah.


Male green honeycreeper at feeder.



Tegu lizard looking for some scraps.

A female agouti scores some bread.


Copper-rumped hummingbird

After breakfast, we’d coat ourselves with insect repellent (to fend off the mosquitoes and chiggers) and we’d head off to the rainforest trails for the day. It was always hot and humid in the morning. We noticed that it seemed to be cooler in the afternoon which is not at all what we’re used to back home. The jungle was filled with the sounds of birds calling but one stood out like no other…the call of the bearded bellbird. They have the loudest call of any bird on the planet. Their call sounds like a hammer hitting an anvil over and over. They drove us mad looking for them. You would think that a good-sized bird with a bright white underside and the loudest call on the planet would be easy to spot, right? Not so. They stay high in the treetops so our necks were sore from craning our necks back to try and see these birds. We did finally spot them, but it took us several days of trying.


Tree in the rainforest.



The only photo I managed to get of a bearded bellbird.


Kelly and a forest giant.

The male white-bearded manakins were our favorite birds to observe. We enjoyed watching them romance the ladies in their lek, which is a courting area essentially. Up to two dozen males flit over the lek with its vertical saplings, audibly clicking their wings, sounding bug-like, as they jump back and forth. These little guys worked so hard and we rarely even saw a female come and take notice. I felt a little sorry for them.


Male white-bearded manakin


That's me; photographing the white-bearded manakins at their lek.

A short walk away from the white-bearded manakin’s lek was the golden-headed manakin’s lek. Their courting performance consists of sliding or “moonwalking” along a thin branch, again all to impress the ladies.


Male golden-headed manakins

By far the most beautiful bird there was the blue-crowned motmot. I became a little obsessed with getting a great photo of one after missing the opportunity of getting “the money shot”. My husband one evening had pointed to one posing beautifully on a low branch in perfect, glowing, early evening light…swinging its long tail from side to side…but by the time I got to where he was standing and tried to focus, the motmot had decided that he posed long enough and I missed that glorious shot. The image is burned in my head; I don’t believe I’ll forget that image of the one that got away. I’ll have to try my best to recapture that moment in paint someday with the photos I did manage to get of them.


Blue-crowned motmot

A special attraction at the Center is the Oilbird colony. Oilbirds, which are related to nightjars, are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. At night, they forage for fruit. The name Oilbird comes from the young birds which become quite chubby, often 50% heavier than their parents. These fat nestlings were collected and rendered down for their oil by indigenous people, and early settlers. We joined a guided hike down to Dunston Cave where the birds roost during the day. Only a limited number of people are allowed in at the same time to limit the disturbance to them. They nest close together on the cave ledges and blend into their surroundings. I did not even try to get a photo of them; it was so dark.


Always while out on the trails, we kept our eyes open for the poisonous fir de lance snake. Fortunately, we did not see one out on the trails because it would have been impossible to see; they are so well camouflaged. They are brown with a diamondback pattern and resemble a rattlesnake. The jungle floor was full of roots resembling snakes so it was hard to concern yourself with seeing one. However, one day at the swimming hole on the property, we got a real good look at one. We saw one basking poolside from a few feet away. The snake was holding an older gentleman hostage in a corner of the pool; there was no way to get around the snake unless he got in the water and he wasn’t about to do that. He said another larger one had come down from the hill while he was in the pool and got in the water with him. Yikes! He quickly jumped out. The snake proceeded to swim out and over the dammed up portion of the pool. Then, along came the other snake – probably a female following her mate. She decided to stay awhile on the side of the pool. That’s when we arrived. Eventually, she got in the pool as well and followed her mate over the edge, freeing our poor friend. Deciding that the coast was clear, I cannot believe our crazy selves still decided to get in that pool.


The Clearwater pool.



A beautiful butterfly orchid.

Most evenings after dinner, we’d join one of the guides for a night walk. Armed with our flashlights, we’d walk along the Center’s paved drive looking for whatever creatures of the night we could spot. We usually saw tarantulas, frogs, land crabs, whip scorpions, and walking sticks. On one night, I was the only lucky one in the group to spot a ferruginous pygmy owl before it flew off.

We signed up for three guided field trips off the Center’s grounds. Several species of birds could only be seen on the field trips. We ventured to Caroni Swamp for our first trip where we saw many flocks of brilliantly red scarlet ibis fly across the sky to roost in the mangrove trees for the night. We saw our second snake here; a Cook’s tree boa curled in a tree directly above our heads. Though it was a beautiful spectacle to see the scarlet ibis, from a photography standpoint, I was a little disappointed that we were unable to see any birds up close. On our drive out to the swamp, we stopped at Trincity sewage treatment plant – I know kind of gross, but it was a great spot to see (and photograph) birds. Who knew? We spotted blue heron, great heron, yellow hooded blackbird, egrets, wattled jacana, purple gallinule, and a gray hawk. Basking on a bank there was the largest caiman I’d ever seen.


Purple gallinule

Our second outing was to view the endangered leatherback sea turtles nesting at Matura Bay. This can only be done at night. The beach here is lined with palms and very narrow, due to erosion. We walked with our guide up and down the beach scanning the ocean for any signs of turtles. It’s very dark so it’s hard to make out anything. Our guide told us to make sure that we shine no lights and to not use any flash photography. They rely on the glare off the water and the dark of the tree line to find their way to shore. Lights can confuse the turtles and will send them back to the ocean. Conditions have to be just right or the turtles will turnaround. We were not out too long before we saw one coming to shore. It takes awhile for these turtles to haul themselves out. In fact, the whole laborious ordeal takes several hours. Our turtle was about 5 feet in length. They can get up to 8 feet in length and can weigh between 500 to 2000 lbs. When she found her spot, she started to burrow a hole in the sand with her front and back flippers. She decides that her hole is deep enough when her back flippers can no longer touch the bottom. She then deposits her eggs. The turtle goes into a trance-like state while she lays her eggs. During this time only, we were allowed to take photos if we wanted. Her clutch consisted of about 80 to 100 eggs. After depositing all her eggs, she then covered them back up with sand, smoothing over the surface. She turned to leave for the sea but then started to dig again; our guide told us she was creating a decoy nest. This was done to trick any would-be predators. When she completed this, she finally headed back to the sea. It was a wonderful experience and I felt very privileged to witness this.

Our last trip took us up Blanchisseuse Road, where we had an unsuccessful outing on a rainy day looking for the elusive piping guan, ornate hawk-eagle (the bird I had most wanted to see on this trip), and the collared trogon. The trip wasn’t a total bust; we did get to see rufous-tailed jacamars which I was able to get very close to and I got some great shots. They ranked right up there with the blue-crowned motmot for beauty in my eyes. I am fairly certain that they will be my first painting from Trinidad.

Rufous-tailed jacamar


We had a wonderful time and would definitely like to return someday. Next time we’ll check out Tobago too. For now, I look forward to getting started on some paintings inspired from the trip. Stay tuned…some of these guys may be showing up in some future work...


Male violaceous trogon


Male silverbeak tanager


Oropandola


White-necked jacobin

3 comments:

Tracey Clarke said...

Kelly, congrats...this is amazing...what a wonderful opportunity! I am looking forward to seeing the beautiful artwork to come from your photos...

Kelly Singleton said...

Thanks Tracey, it was a wonderful trip! I hope to get to my first painting from Trinidad real soon...I have some other painting commitments I have to get out of the way first.

cpbvk said...

Congratulations on a well-deserved award! It looks like you had a great trip. I followed you here from your comment on Terry Miller's blog, having recognized your name from Don Rambadt's high praise of your BIA piece. Incidentally, there's an interesting paper by Gerald Mayr (Journal of Avian Biology 34, 81-88). He finds Oilbirds to be phylogenetically closer to trogons than to nightjars. I look forward to seeing more of your work.