Thursday, July 30, 2009

Asa Wright: Toast For Breakfast

Thursday, July 30, 2009
Relaxed tropical birding from the Asa Wright verandah.

As dawn arrives in the Arima Valley of Trinidad, the birds are the first ones to stir, followed shortly by the bird watchers. In between these stirrings, there is a very important thing—a ritual you might say—that happens in the gardens that separate the rain forest from the buildings at the Asa Wright Nature Centre: the bird feeders are filled.

The well-stocked bird feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre, as seen from the verandah.

I'd been hearing about the Asa Wright bird feeders for 30 years, at least. Twenty-one years ago, the very first article I worked on as the newly minted assistant editor for Bird Watcher's Digest was an account of birding at Asa Wright and Trinidad by Steve, Dave, and Karl Maslowski. Over the years thousands of bird watchers have made the pilgrimage to Asa, the first nature center dedicated to bird watching and conservation in the American tropics, and still one of the best.

When dawn begins her slow awakening, it is the voices of the forest birds that are your alarm clock at Asa. Each morning during our recent week there it was the bearded bellbird, the great antshrike, or the palm tanagers that awakened me. And then, when you wake up and realize where you are, you begin to move as rapidly as possible to get dressed and down to the main building—the original house that Asa Wright herself lived in—to get to what is probably the world's most famous porch, or as they call it at Asa Wright Nature Centre: the verandah! Yes, they spell veranda with an 'h' on the end, and I've got to tell you, the Asa veranda IS ah-inspiring.
The view, looking down the Arima Valley, from the Asa Wright verandah.

Sitting on the verandah at Asa Wright, you are never at a loss for birds. Bananaquits and palm tanagers are everywhere. The palm tanagers even nest inside the main building, coming and going just inches from the bino-toting bird watchers who have come to experience this bit of the American tropics. Beyond these ubiquitous birds there is a never-ending cavalcade of tanagers, euphonias, honeycreepers, motmots, hummingbirds, and doves flitting to and from the bird feeders. All the while the skies are filled with martins and swallows, vultures and hawks, oropendolas and thrushes, and a constant chorus of songs, calls, and fluttering wings. To sit on the verandah at Asa Wright is the tropical equivalent of sitting in Times Square in New York City for a bit of people watching. Sooner or later, everyone passes by you.

A male bananaquit gets his carbs from bread at the Asa Wright bird feeders.

So what makes these feeders so special? I've visited a number of tropical eco-lodges where nary a bird feeder could be seen. The difference at Asa is that the birds are accustomed to the feeders and they are tuned in to what is being put out daily just for them by the staff at AWNC.

So they must have some secret formula, right? Perfectly devised offerings for tropical bird feeding? Surely that's the secret of Asa's success!

Nope. It's toast, slices of watermelon, papaya, and some nectar in the hummingbird feeders, and that's basically it! I could hardly believe my eyes on my first morning on the world-famous verandah as I watched a staff member carefully placing slices of toast underneath the protective mesh wire that holds the food items in place. She had scarcely stepped a foot away before the bananquits and palm tanagers were on each of the platforms pecking out tiny billfulls of toast.

A preening palm tanager.

Most of the feeder visitors seemed to enjoy the bread, but a few, such as the turquoise-browed motmot, and the crested oropendola, come in just for the fruit. The hummers ( a half-dozen or more species) have eyes and bills only for the nectar in the feeders, though they will occasionally nab a small insect flying over the fast-ripening feeder fruit.
Blue-crowned motmot.

The experience of verandah birding made the folks in our party want to stay put, right there. The birding was that good, and relaxing. But we had trails to walk, birding expeditions to take, and other places, other birds to encounter. If I am lucky enough to return to Asa Wright for another week sometime, I believe I will allot at least 50% of my time there to verandah birding. There's just nothing better than enjoying the birds of the topics from the comfort of a covered porch elevated over the feeders, with a commanding view of the Arima valley.
Bay-headed tanager.

A constantly changing river of birds trickled through the trees surrounding the verandah, including many spectacular tanager species. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tanagers, so you won't be surprised to know that my first really good looks ever at the stunning bay-headed tanager made my knees weak.

I'm only sharing a fraction of the images and amazing birds I saw during our verandah sitting at Asa Wright. Our trip was filled with very talented birders, including our hosts Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics and Mark Hedden of Caligo Ventures. Our fellow participants were Pete Dunne (of Cape May Bird Observatory and New Jersey Audubon) and his wife Linda, Kenn and Kim Kaufman (he of field guide fame and she of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory). To this we added the experienced guides from the Asa Wright staff, so you can be sure that very few birds were left unidentified. Leica sponsored the trip, the focus of which was digiscoping using the new Leica spotting scopes, adaptors, and digital cameras. I'll post more soon about the digiscoping. For now, let me just say that the Leica digiscoping rig is amazingly easy to use and the images (motmot, bananaquit, video in this post) will speak for themselves.

A tegu lizard looks for something to eat below the Asa Wright bird feeders.

And just in case you think we were far too bird-centric in our focus, I'll say that we saw at least five different species of large lizard on the Asa grounds, plus a handful of toads and frogs, and numerous colorful butterflies. Sadly (but perhaps fortunately) we did not encounter any of the snake species common to the Asa property.

One final thing to know about the verandah: It's coffes (or tea) in the morning; tea (or coffee) at the 4 p.m. tea time, then rum punch at 6:00 p.m. This is when most of the lively conversation takes place.

To learn more about the amazing history of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, visit the organization's website. To get a multimedia taste of what the feeder action was like on the verandah, check out this one-minute video I shot of bananaqits and a female green honeycreeper enjoying their morning toast for breakfast:

p.s. Sorry for the day-late posting. Re-entry to the real world is a mind-bender/time-eater.


On July 31, 2009 at 3:22 AM Chris Harbard said...

It's been 22 years since I was there... Oh to return...!

On July 31, 2009 at 11:38 PM Geoff said...

Wow birding by butt trini style. Can’t wait till the kids are old enough to join… who am I kidding a week on a tropical Island with no kids Wow.

On August 2, 2009 at 12:44 PM Anonymous said...

Bill, I hope you got to the verandah early enough to see the bats feed just as it gets light enough to see. I've told many people that the verandah at Asa Wright is probably my most favorite birding location in the world.


On August 6, 2009 at 9:10 AM Christopher said...

We went a few months back, and I have to say to anyone who is reading this - YOU MUST GO THERE. These descriptions are not exaggerations. I've never experienced anything like this place in my life. Everyone, from hosts to guides, to the other guests are wonderful. The birds are almost beyond description - and many are just mere feet away, allowing crippling looks, and even photos should you desire. (And although the digiscoping is excellent - you don't even need to for many birds.) Go, go go!!!