Friday, November 13, 2009

Asa Wright Nature Center

We spent three days at Asa Wright last time we were in Trinidad and loved it so much! So once we knew we were arriving on Monday and Russ didn't leave until Friday, it became theatrically possible to spend a night there. Still it was an amazing coincidence that Jesse had scheduled a trip leaving Wednesday and returning Thursday. Perfect! With a small amount of persuasion he included returning via Maracus Bay so we could have a Bake and Shark at Richard's.

Our last time there we took a lot of pictures of the birds but to be honest our camera equipment isn't really adequate for this type of photography. Once in a while we get lucky as this shot of a tiny hummingbird Scott took shows. Walt and Honoree came with us before and Walt's amazing pictures can be seen in my blog entry on the visit October 2006.
We left Crew's Inn at 9 AM with a full van. Only one other couple were staying the night with us, the rest were there for the day and then going on to the Caroni Swamp to see the scarlet ibis. Around 10 AM we stopped in Arima at Jesse's favorite doubles stand. Scott and I love doubles and sahimas. The former are a Trini favorite snack - fried dough stuffed with chickpea curry, chutney and herb sauce. Scott and Jesse were the only ones who had these with hot sauce. Sahimas are fried dough with callaloo leaves chopped up in it. Yummy! Jesse had Scott & I try the eggplant fried appetiser too - good but spicy.
Then we started up the steep narrow road to Asa Wright Bird Sanctury. The road has many hair pin turns and isn't in the best of condition - like most roads in Trinidad. Trinis will tell you that the only time roads are repaired is right before an election. We passed a number of slopes planted with christophenes. This delicious vegetable is a bumpy green squash type that can be eaten cooked or raw in a salad. It's a cross between a zucchini and a cucumber (but no seeds). It needs to be protected from the sun and grows hanging from its' vines. Like coffee plants it is grown on steep slopes under nets. It looks like a huge challenge to crawl under to pick them!
This property began as a cocoa/coffee plantation called Spring Hill back in 1905. A German immigrant built it for his oldest son. Later during WWI all his other properties and businesses were confiscated by the English government in Trinidad but luckily the son was a Trinidad citizen and kept the property. Not for long though as cocoa prices plummeted and he lost it to the bank.
In 1936 Joseph and Helen Bruce-Holmes bought Spring Hill Plantation from the government, which acquired it in default of taxes. They renovated the plantation house, and lived there until after World War II, when they returned to the United States. They had become good friends with Newcombe and Asa Wright who bought the plantation and eventually the house from them. As Mr. Wright was an invalid his wife Asa, originally from Iceland, managed the plantation. At the same time the Wrights bought Spring Hill, William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society, acquired the adjoining plantation, Simla, as a Field Station for the study of the New World Tropics. Asa acted as a hostess for many prominent ornithologists such as David and Barbara Snow who came to study the birds, particularly the oil birds in a cave on the property.
About this time, Newcombe died, leaving Asa Wright with dwindling financial resources. As she aged it became difficult for her to maintain the plantation, a source of concern for the many conservationists from around the world. William Beebe died and Simla fell into disrepair. Fortunately, a small group formed to do something to save these treasures. In 1967, Don Eckelberry, a renowned wildlife artist, Erma Fisk, a prominent ornithologist and conservationist, and Russell Mason of Florida Audubon Society raised money to buy Spring Hill. A non-profit Trust administered by the Bank of Nova Scotia Trust Co., and an international Board of Management composed of 11 Trinidadians and 10 foreign members was set up to establish the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Its purpose was to provide a Centre open to the public for recreation and the study of tropical wildlife, as well as to preserve the wildlife and rainforest of the Arima Valley. The Centre is one of the top birdwatching spots in the Caribbean; a total of 159 species of birds have been recorded there. Asa lived there until she died.
The original plantation house is now the restaurant and hotel. The living room looks like Asa just stepped out and a wide lovely porch stretches out towards the view down the valley and of the birds.

Many cottages with four rooms each surround the main house. There are walks with excellent guides available a number of times during the day and again after dinner. Miles of trails honeycomb the property - you can hike for hours and should as the food is delicious and plentiful.

At 6 AM coffee is served on the veranda which fills up quickly with bird enthusiasts. The coffee beans are grown on the property! Breakfast is at 7:30 AM, lunch at 12, tea at 4 PM, rum punch at 6 and dinner at 7. Shown here are the trays coming out for tea with pizza squares and shortbread cookies.
There are guided walks given twice in the morning, once in the afternoon and in the evening after dinner. Denise was our guide that morning and it was a lively session. She talked not only about the birds and flowers but some of the most interesting facts were on the insect life. We spent some time watching the army ants and the leaf cutter ants. These latter are a fascinating life form. One queen forms the colony and has thousands of children. She can live 30 years and when she dies the colony gradually dies as well - not new babies. We saw ant hills of various ages.
We spent a lot of time out on the veranda interspersed with hikes and in the afternoon a dip in the pool.

The stream has been dammed and made into a semi natural pool with a waterfall at the end (photo show Scott and Russ there). There is a changing room and steps to enter. What a lovely place to cool off after a hike. Although in our case we found another lovely pool and waterfall on the Bamboo Valley Trail (photo shows me in there).
In the evening we went out with Harold, a very knowledgeable guide. We were walking along the road in the pitch black when Harold flashed light on a bamboo stalk and there was a HUGE tarantella, 6 or 8 inches long. That was the beginning of a very interesting hour! We saw sleeping birds, insects and several snakes (that's Harold joking around with a small snake that looks a little like a pit viper).

The huge hanging white flowers seen here smell marvelous at night. Harold warned us not to sniff too long - hallucinogenic.
It was lovely having a relaxing morning watching the birds - and no boat chores! Jesse picked us up at noon for the trip home - another blog entry!

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