A cherished handful of Central and South American locations enjoy international renown as absolutely mandatory destinations for adventurous bird watchers and nature lovers. Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad holds a prominent position on that list of luminaries. As a card-carrying member of this famed ecolodge’s target audience, I’ve always knownI would eventually visit. Now I’ve finally spent time at Asa Wright, I understand why.
The dichotomous republic of Trinidad and Tobago may be something of a cipher to anyone unfamiliar with the point where the Caribbean ends and South America begins. In my humble opinion, this extravagantly gorgeous country is blessed with the best attributes of both regions, boasting exquisite beaches, lush rainforests, relaxed island culture, delectable cuisine, and brilliant biodiversity. And English is the national language! T&T is a country any birding beach-lover can gladly visit without feeling deprived or compromised. That assumes, of course, that he or she stays at Asa Wright Nature Centre.
Then again, there is not much of an “if” involved when discussing Asa Wright, but rather an emphatic “when!” Everyone visits the Nature Centre, including resident Trinidadians and Tobagonians. Asa Wright Nature Centre simply has everything we want in an ecolodge. The food is delicious, the company delightful, and the accomodations extremely comfortable. And then there are the birds…
Asa Wright Nature Centre is most renowned for its resident breeding colony of unearthly Oilbirds. However, a visitor’s exposure to the amazing avifauna of this Northern Range valley usually begins on the veranda. I’ve been privileged to travel somewhat extensively through the Americas, but I still pulled a ton of lifers from the veranda before my first breakfast. Highlights here (while drinking the thrillingly strong coffee) include Channel-billed Toucan, Crested Oropendola, Turquoise Tanager, Bat Falcon, Barred Antshrike, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Gray-headed Dove, Yellow Oriole, and a suite of hot hummingbirds that deserve their own report. If you can’t spot any of the three resident thrushes or two gorgeous trogons yourself from the veranda, you can count on one of the Asa Wright naturalists scoping the canopy to point them out for you!
But many of the best birds are best seen on the trails. Anyone who has read my reviews of ecolodges and birding destinations knows that I love a spectacle. In that spirit, let me assure you that Asa Wright puts on a show. Who else has not one but two different manakin leks right off their trails? No sooner did our guide lead us to the appointed spot than we were faced with ten luminous Golden-headed Manakin males dancing for the drab target of their competitive affection. At the next spot, gorgeous White-bearded Manakins shimmied at eye level. Wow!
Seriously, highly coveted birds are rarely this readily available. We rolled up to a sign sharing information about the Bearded Bellbird, a very cool cotinga that happens to be the symbol of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, and simply had to look up to spot a bearded buck hollering for a hen.
Visiting birders are sure to spot most of the aforementioned avian icons along with antbirds, ovenbirds, and other stunners. But no trip to Asa Wright Nature Centre is complete without the pilgrimage to Dunston Cave, home of the infamous Oilbirds. The walk to this evocative riparian grotto is actually rather short, but the experience feels akin to a ritual to anyone who has long anticipated dropping in on the diablotin. This raucous cave nester, the only nocturnal fructivorous bird in the world, is worthy of a special trip and Asa Wright may be the very best place to see it. I actually turned down an opportunity years ago to see this species in Ecuador because I wanted the Dunston Cave birds to be my first. I’m sure you’ll be as glad as I was. Everything about the experience was better than expected, from the Chestnut-collared Swift perched on its nest in a nook outside the entry to the sunlight filtering through a large crack in the ceiling. The highlight, of course, was the Oilbird itself, of which more than a hundred huddled cryptically on shelves from top to bottom. Flash photography was understandably banned and we used low-power flashlights to illuminate otherwise invisible birds. Consequently, my only photos of Oilbirds came out kind of freaky. Fortunately, Jerry Lower of Caligo Ventures is a much better photographer than I am…
Asa Wright Oilbirds © Jerry Lower, Caligo Ventures
Without hyperbole, I can say that everything about my stay at Asa Wright Nature Centre was amazing. And if the birds in this report aren’t enough to get you searching deal sites for airfare to Port of Spain, be advised that the centre is the ideal base of operations for just about everything else you want to do on Trinidad. Asa Wright was unforgettable, but far from the only unforgettable aspect of my visit.
So rest assured that Asa Wright Nature Centre is not just as amazing as you’ve heard, but probably better. Serious birders and naturalists will find a veritable playground offering weeks of dazzling diversion. On the other hand, visitors who have trouble telling trogons from toucans will find themselves in very good hands; the local guides are simply outstanding and Caligo Ventures can take care of everything else. This tour operator, which has been the exclusive U.S. representative of the Centre for an admirably long time, can connect travelers with every other highlight of Trinidad & Tobago from Asa Wright’s most excellent base. I strongly recommend Asa Wright Nature Centre to any traveler with even a general interest in natural beauty and Caribbean style.
Yellow Oriole from the veranda © Mark Hedden, Caligo Ventures
My week-long trip to Trinidad & Tobago was a familiarity trip organized by my friends Larry Lebowitz and Mark Hedden at Caligo Ventures. I will always be grateful to Caligo Ventures for showing me just how phenomenal T&T is!