Thursday, February 23, 2017

Tobago Village Business

There’s a quiet revolution taking place in Tobago tourism. It is not on the busy south-west of the island where big hotels straddle the beaches. But if you follow the winding Northside Road to the village home of a Prime Minister and President of the twin-island republic, you’ll discover the transformation of a fishing village into the quintessential Tobago adventure destination. Castara clings to the forested western slopes of the Main Ridge reserve and looks into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Here indeed is Paradise. Pat Ganase considers Castara.

WaveSong at Heavenly Bay, Coast Hanger, Shady Mango, Sea Steps, Dolphin, Hummingbird, Breadfruit Grove, Sunset, Birdsong or Fiddle Tree! Ali Baba's Sea Breeze is tucked up a secret slope overlooking the quiet Castara cove.The names of cottages call to you and sing invitations to this vacation village on the west coast of Tobago facing the Caribbean Sea. Homegrown developments in Castara over the last 25 years have blossomed into resort cottages scattered like stars and nestled on the forested slopes below the island’s Main Ridge reserve. The result is an idyllic resort village intertwined among the residences of Castara.

Spectacular sunsets over Castara Bay seen from Birdsong.(All photos courtesy Castara Retreats)
This trend away from the exclusive all-inclusive tourism plants of the past is building community-visitor relationships from the ground up. Castara is answering the question, what do adventurers wish for in strange lands? And it is setting the pace in the movement away from mass visitor groups, facilitated by the expansion of modern communication and on-line marketing. The village might feel like an place lost to time, but it is advanced in all key aspects: construction, services and access, fostering entrepreneurship, investment and employment. The result: clients that are individuals, couples or families who have opted for longer stays; a week is not too much; many of them returning year after year.

What has turned this sleepy village on the way to Englishman’s Bay or Parlatuvier or Bloody Bay or L’anse Fourmi into a destination? Perhaps, this has been 300 years in the making.

In the period after 1770, the Castara estate was managed by Laird Ferguson who became Lt. Governor of Tobago. The bay was called Charles Bay by the English, whose ships fetched sugar here at the end of Dock Road. Sugar was grown on the estate until emancipation in 1839. After the emancipation of the slaves, cocoa was planted. Edwin Williams of Castara recounted (Trinidad Express, 2010) that an earthquake followed by a hurricane destroyed many homes in the village near Englishman’s Bay causing the migration of families to the area where the Castara river empties into Castara Big Bay, a centre of fishing and farming. Castara Small Bay, fondly known as Heavenly Bay, supports reefs suitable for snorkelliing.

Seine fishing in Castara Bay

Today, Tobago’s Northside Road climbs over the western edge of the main ridge from Scarborough to Moriah and winds above the coastline to Castara. The Mt Dillon to Castara stretch was completed in the 1960s; before which it was common to go by coastal steamer from Plymouth or Scarborough. Sheltered and separate, engaged in fishing or farming, isolation made the families of Castara independent, resourceful and self-sufficient, qualities that keep them close and connected as a community, confidently welcoming and generous to visitors.

One of the first modern “guesthouses” in Castara was owner-managed Blue Mango Cottage which opened in 1992, offering three apartments – Sea Steps, Sweet Point and Trinity’s Cottage. The success of Blue Mango, acclaimed by word of mouth, and later in international media, encouraged others to build guest cottages. The Castara Naturalist is right on the beach, with 14 apartments named after sea creatures. Ali Baba's Sea Breeze overlooks Heavenly Bay.

Cottages hidden in the trees are barely seen from the beach

This is the Castara that Steve and Sue Felgate chose to invest in, after a visit in the late 1990s, some 20 years ago. The Felgates live in Hay-on-Wye (a traditional town on the river Wye) in Wales. Steve has a business background and retired in 1998. He now devotes much of his time to Castara Retreats and sustainable tourism. Their daughter Lorna who worked with international NGOs in Africa and London is the marketing and communications director for Castara Retreats. 

“We have lots of friends in Castara, and over the years we have received many acts of kindness from the local community.  It feels that we have grown together in meeting the opportunities of tourism in a sustainable way. … The development of tourism needs to be directed by the community and focused on long-term goals to protect the community, the local economy, and the environment.”

Steve and Porridge go fishing

The Felgates built Castara Retreats gradually, with local expertise and skills. Today, Castara Retreats comprises 15 units including a few that house families, others that house couples or individuals.
Writer Edmund de Waal (The Hare with Amber Eyes, The White Road) came with his family (wife Sue, and three pre-teens) in 2012. He wrote in the Telegraph magazine: “The idea of the place is that you make things up as you go along – drop in on a neighbor to ask if she will cook for you, ask for advice from Porridge about boats or about how to reach the local waterfall (cross the football field and keep going; it is worth it). This feels very natural but is completely dependent on you reading the briefing notes properly beforehand. You will not be managed.”

By the end of the family’s ten-day stay at the Birdsong villa - hiking the Main Ridge and Little Tobago with expert guides, visiting a cocoa estate and swimming in forest pools and beaches – de Waal concludes, “Indeed the cadence of life in Castara was so gentle that the more robust tourism of some of the other places we visited felt peculiar.”

Tourism in Castara is based on the hospitality of people who are happy and proud to share their way of life with visitors. It is so natural, Felgate says, “We all know the beauty of the island, its beaches, reefs and rainforests, but what is most surprising is the local people, and their warmth and generosity towards visitors.”

In the last three years, he says, “Over 30 stakeholders in tourism in the village came together to form a non-profit community group called Castara Tourism Development Association. The group is very active in harnessing the opportunities of tourism for the benefit of the community.  We employ about 20 local persons at Castara Retreats including the general manager, Porridge, who lives in the village. Our housekeeping team comes from Castara and Parlatuvier.  Some have their own tourism-related business, under the umbrella of Castara Retreats, including bread making, laundry services, car hire, and boat trips.

Creative tropical cocktails feature fresh limes
“Most importantly, we would like to see the benefits of tourism continue to spread across the community so that all who want to be involved can do so. This sharing of the opportunity is what generates goodwill, and it is the goodwill of the community in welcoming people, that makes Castara and its local economy successful, and sustainable into the very long term.”
Progress may have come slowly to Castara, but it is a pace that is comfortable for the community. Over the recent two decades, these owner-operated guest houses, beach houses and self-catered apartment units have evolved a distinctive and identifiable Castara style. Simple architecture, natural building materials and furnishings, person-to-person local services and a community ambience breathe life into a different tourism industry for Tobago.

Castara Retreats supports marine conservation in Tobago and works in partnership with the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC).

Sustainability, as the website for Castara Retreats proclaims, emerges from offering “an authentic Caribbean holiday in a uniquely local style; where guests can positively engage with the natural environment and local community – adding value and contributing to the economic well-being of the village. In return, visitors have an insight into the life of a Caribbean fishing village, lapped by the waves of one of the most beautiful beaches on Tobago.”

Local managers Porridge and Jeanell

Ali Baba's Sea Breeze and Tours:
Blue Mango:
Naturalist Beach Resort:
Castara Retreats:
Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville:

(All photos courtesy Castara Retreats)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Tobago's Main Ridge Forest Reserve: "for the purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain"

Welcome to the third piece in this series highlighting the biodiversity of Tobago’s Main Ridge. This week, Amy Deacon has invited her colleague Aidan Farrell, a Plant Biologist at The University of the West Indies, to take us on a tour of the lush vegetation of the Main Ridge reserve -and why we can’t do without it! This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday 17th February 2017.

A recent botanical survey of Trinidad and Tobago carried out by the National Herbarium, found that the Main Ridge was home to a third of the most biodiverse plots in the country. The survey recorded close to 350 plant species in the area, including 12 endemic plant species. This high diversity is in large part due to Tobago’s geological history; as well as sharing many species with the South American continent, it also supports species typical of the Antilles. Importantly, this diversity has been retained in the Main Ridge as it has been protected from exploitation since 1776. Another reason for the presence of high numbers of species is the fact that the reserve includes three distinct habitat types: lowland rainforest, lower montane rainforest, and xerophytic rainforest. It is notable that all three forest types include the word ‘rain’ as, in fact, rain was the motivation behind the preservation of the forest in 1776: "for the purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain upon which the fertility of lands in these climates doth entirely depend". In this article we will look at a few of the most characteristic plant species of the reserve, while simultaneously answering the question: ‘how do rainforests make rain?’

Shelldancer, the spectacular Aechmea dichlamydea bromeliad thrives in the Main Ridge. Photo courtesy Kris Sookdeo

The most diverse of the three habitats, and perhaps the forest most associated with the main ridge, is the lower montane rainforest. The lower montane rainforest is described as a Rosewood – Wild Cocoa forest (Byrsonima spicata – Licania biglandulosa forest association), not only because these two species are abundant, but because they tend to be found in this forest type more often than in other types.

Rosewood, more commonly called Wild Cherry or Serrette in Trinidad (although other species also take these names), is related to the Barbados Cherry, and for the birds, bats and agoutis of the main ridge it provides a feast of fruit every October. When flowering, the tree has a distinctive appearance with its grey bark, shiny green leaves and copper-yellow flowers. This species can grow tall (up to 40 metres), yet in the Main Ridge reserve it is usually shorter than 20 metres. Indeed, most trees in the Main Ridge are shorter than the equivalent forest type in Trinidad due to the action of the wind on the exposed ridge (known as ’wind-pruning’).
The copper-yellow flowers of the Rosewood Tree (Byrsonima spicata) Photo courtesy M P Oatham

The Rosewood tree is drought-tolerant and does not lose its leaves in the drier months, which means it can shade the forest floor from the drying rays of the sun. In the wet season, the root system captures rain water and directs it upwards, forming a fine mist above the canopy. All forests contribute to the formation of rain clouds, but the Main Ridge forest makes this process clearly visible; anyone who has driven uphill on the Roxborough - Parlatuvier road during the wet season will have witnessed the transition from the clear dry air near the coast, to the humid atmosphere of the lower montane forest.

When water is plentiful, trees suck up huge amounts from the roots and drag it up into the canopy where it escapes through microscopic pores (stomata). Most of the rain that falls on land is returned to the atmosphere after passing through plant leaves, allowing clouds to form and keeping the rain falling. However, plants are not careless - when water is scarce, the pores on the leaves close and the water remaining in the soil is bound, protected from gravity by the matrix of soil particles and protected from evaporation by the forest canopy. Much of the rain received in Tobago will have passed through the tall canopy trees of the Amazon rainforest as the moist air makes its way northeast, but without the trees on the ridge, it would just as easily pass by.

At its highest points the Roxborough-Parlatuvier road is fringed by thick stands of ferns (bracken), flourishing in the humid air trapped under the tree canopies. The cool humid microclimate created by the canopy also allows epiphytes to thrive. This is a term for plants that live on other plants for support (not as parasites), gaining their water and nutrition directly from the air and rain. In particular there are several species of epiphytic bromeliads or ‘Wild Pines’ in the Main Ridge. Bromeliads are common in the tropical Americas, but most often they are found high in the canopy providing a glimpse of colour to the keen-eyed naturalist. Not so in the Main Ridge reserve; the low, partially open canopy means that even the most casual observer can spot these spectacular herbs, as they are often found at eye-level. Indeed you may need to look down to the forest floor to see some species. However, please don’t be tempted to take one home – as clearly proclaimed on the Main Ridge boundary sign: ‘No Plucking of Plants’ is permitted within the reserve.

The Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road takes you right through the Main Ridge Reserve, with edges lined with lush green ferns. Photo courtesy Kris Sookdeo

One of the most striking bromeliads within the reserve is Aechmea dichlamydea var. trinitensis, or the ‘Shelldancer’ as its cultivated cousin is called. This spectacular species has large fractal-like blooms transitioning from bright red, to pink, then purple or even blue at the tips. This species is only found in Tobago, Trinidad and Venezuela, but it is prized in botanic gardens around the world for its unusually-coloured display. Bromeliads are able to survive away from the soil as their leaves grow in a tight whorl that forms a bowl to collect water. This allows them to store rain, or on rainless days the leaves can even catch water vapour from the air and direct it drop by drop into the water reservoir. At the base of the bowl, specialised roots grow upwards and inwards to soak up the water, while the more traditional roots grow down and out to hug the tree and provide stability. In this way the bromeliads retain water vapour that might otherwise be lost to the wind.

A similar process is happening on a larger scale in the forest itself, the branches and leaves slow down the passing air, preventing it from stripping away moisture and, if the passing air is humid, providing a surface for condensation to form. This condensed water along with the water that come from the rain, is held in the network of plants, soil and streams that make up this vital ecosystem. 

What the island’s climate would be like without the meteorological powers of the Main Ridge doesn’t bear thinking about!

 Sign marking the boundary to the Main Ridge Reserve. Photo courtesy Kalamazad Khan

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Fascinating Frogs of Tobago's Main Ridge Reserve

Are you following this series on Tobago's special and unique creatures? This is the second in the series by Amy Deacon, Lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine and Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club. This week Amy takes a closer look at some of the more hidden – but no less valuable – biodiversity of Tobago’s Main Ridge: the frogs. 
Frogs, toads, newts and salamanders are all amphibians, as they live underwater for at least some of their lives, and on land the rest of the time. Tobago is home to 15 different frog species, many of which are found inside the Main Ridge Reserve. Four of these are not found on Trinidad, and three are found nowhere else in the world.

The cartoon-like Tobago Glass Frog. Photo courtesy Renoir Auguste

The Tobago Glass Frog is one of the most unusual. This tiny (2cm) frog has a Kermit-like, cartoon appearance as it is bright green with big eyes. However, if you were to turn it over, you would see how it got its name: its belly is completely transparent, meaning that its heart, liver and all other internal organs are plain to see. Remarkable or repulsive, depending on your perspective!
The other astonishing thing about this species is how it reproduces. First, a male calls to attract multiple females to the underside of a carefully chosen Heliconia leaf by the side of a stream. A single male may mate with many females, each of which lays their eggs on the leaf before disappearing. The male then remains for several days to loyally guard them from predators – such as insects, spiders and crabs. Eventually the bright green tadpoles hatch and simply plop into the stream below. Amazingly, the presence of a predator can actually trigger the early hatching of the tadpoles, as a clever escape mechanism.

The next species we will look at may be less pretty, but is no less interesting. The Tobago Stream Frog is endemic to Tobago – in other words, it is found nowhere else in the world. They are widespread within the Main Ridge forest but you are unlikely to spot them as they are about the same size as the glass frog and tend to be dull brown in colour from above. However, on closer inspection, females have a bright yellow throat and – strangely – males turn black when they are calling to females. They are extremely good at jumping, and almost impossible to catch, even if you are keen-sighted enough to spot one! Once again, it is the fathers that are responsible for looking after the babies. After spawn is laid and hatches in forest leaf litter, the male frog actually carries the young tadpoles on his back to a suitable pool of water - a very strange sight, and exemplary parenting behaviour.

The Tobago Stream Frog isn’t the only frog endemic to the island; two other Main Ridge frogs that are found nowhere else in the world are the Charlotteville Litter Frog and Turpin’s Litter Frog. ‘Litter’ frogs are so-called for their preference for leaf-litter along the sides of streams, not because of a preference for garbage, although in some places they are forced to put up with plastic trash left by those who pass to collect water from the reserve’s clean supply.

These frogs eluded scientists for centuries, perhaps due to their incredible camouflage abilities, perfectly blending in among dead leaves. The Charlotteville Litter Frog was first scientifically documented in 1995 and Turpin’s Litter Frog in 2001. The former was originally discovered in the north-east of the island (hence the name), but has now been sighted almost everywhere aside from the Scarborough and Crown Point areas. The latter appears to be restricted to the North Coast road and parts of the Main Ridge. However, very little is known about either species in terms of how they breed, what they eat, and their exact distribution on Tobago. Such knowledge will be essential if we are to effectively conserve them.
The cryptically-coloured Charlotteville Litter Frog. Photo courtesy Renoir Auguste

The Turpin's Litter Frog is known only from the Northern parts of the Main Ridge Photo courtesy Renoir Auguste

Frog conservation becomes even more important when we consider that the health of the Main Ridge frog populations can tell us a lot about the health of the whole ecosystem. Frogs are especially sensitive to environmental change; they need both healthy forests and clean water to complete their life cycle, so if either is compromised this will be reflected in their numbers and distribution. Also, their breathable damp skin quickly absorbs toxins from the environment, so any pollution will affect frogs first, giving us a warning sign. These reasons also mean that frogs, and amphibians in general, are in trouble globally, as they are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, disease and human development.

The Tobago Glass Frog in particular has extremely specific habitat needs and tends to be found in small, isolated populations – which means that the removal of streamside vegetation for agriculture or development could wipe out a population overnight. For this reason it is classified as a ‘vulnerable’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

We must learn more about our native frogs and ensure their survival – especially those that we have sole responsibility for as they are found nowhere else on the planet. If we don’t – who will?

The male Tobago Glass Frog guarding his precious eggs Photo courtesy Renoir Auguste

(For more information on T&T’s amphibians and reptiles, see: and keep an eye out later in the year for a new Field Guide published by the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club.)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Magnificent Birdlife of the Main Ridge Reserve

What’s special about Tobago’s terrestrial flora and fauna? Start with the fact that the Main Ridge Reserve is the oldest protected forest in the western hemisphere, and everything gets better! Amy Deacon, Lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine and Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club, looks at some of Tobago’s special creatures.

Tobago’s Main Ridge Reserve was given legal protection in 1776; a historic act that marked the start of the global environmental movement, and helped ensure that the forest and its biodiversity is still thriving today. Over the coming weeks we will consider some of the highlights of this biodiversity, and what makes Tobago’s flora and fauna so special. In this article, we will consider some of the island’s most iconic bird species.

The White-tailed Sabrewing stretches its wings. Photo courtesy Wendell Stephen Jay Reyes
Over 220 species of bird can be found on Tobago, 27 of which cannot be found in Trinidad. Many of these make their home in the forests of the Main Ridge reserve and its surrounds.

One such species is the White-tailed Sabrewing, Campylopterus ensipennis, known affectionately as ‘Campy’. This exquisite hummingbird is found exclusively in the forests of Tobago and Venezuela, but was feared locally extinct in Tobago after Hurricane Flora devastated the Main Ridge in 1963. Happily, it was rediscovered about a decade later, and recent surveys show that its population is recovering well. Indeed, it is now possible to spot this special bird outside of the reserve boundaries. In 2005 the EMA declared the White-tailed Sabrewing an Environmentally Sensitive Species, worthy of special protection.

Sabrewings are fairly unafraid of human observers, and may even hover close by to investigate. If you suspect you have spotted a sabrewing, but want to be sure that you’re not confusing it with one of Tobago’s other five species of hummingbird, you should look for distinctive white feathers on the outside of their fanned tail when flying, and thick, flat feathers on the outside of their wings when resting. It is these long sword-like wings that give them their name.
Male blue-backed manakins prepare for their courtship performance. Photo courtesy Graham White

Another iconic inhabitant of the Main Ridge is the small but stylish Blue-backed Manakin. Like the sabrewing, it is also absent from Trinidad, yet is found in the forests of much of South America. Males are jet black with a bright blue back and a red cap, while females are a camouflaged olive green. Catching a glimpse of these birds is fairly easy, but you are in for a real treat if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a ‘lek’. This is the name given to their courtship arena, a patch of forest selected by the manakins for its low branches, which males meticulously strip of leaves and clean in preparation for a well-choreographed communal breeding display. The display typically begins with chirpy duets by multiple pairs of males, but once a female arrives on the scene, it escalates to an enthusiastic bout of jumping with a soundtrack of buzzing noises. Eventually, one male grabs the attention of the female by showing off his red cap and blue back, while making a mechanical clicking sound, apparently enabling the female to judge whether he would make a good father to her chicks!

A much more common site as you wander along the trails of the Main Ridge is the spectacular Trinidad Motmot, which tends to perch silently on high branches either side of the path. A few years ago scientists realised that our motmots are different enough from those elsewhere in the region to be classified as an ‘endemic species’ – this means that they are unique to our islands. Actually, the Trinidad part of its name is quite misleading; not only is it present on both islands, but it is actually much more common on Tobago. However, thanks to its long "tennis-racquet" tail feathers and iridescent turquoise brow, this charismatic species is unmistakable on either island.

The Trinidad Motmot is easily identified by its "tennis recquet" tail. Photo courtesy Wendell Stephen Jay Reyes
 You don’t even have to venture inside the forest to see this glamorous bird, which is equally happy perching on electricity wires along the north-west coast or along the Roxborough – Parlatuvier road where it swoops down to catch flying insects. Take care not to confuse it with the equally colourful but smaller Rufous-tailed Jacamar, which has similar habits but lacks the tennis-racquet tail. The elaborate tail may seem impractical, but it is actually a survival strategy: certain tail-wag movements signify to other motmots that there is potential danger nearby.

As you emerge from the Main Ridge road and hit the coast on either side, you will meet another characteristic bird of Tobago, the Man-o’-War, or Magnificent Frigatebird. Truly deserving of its grand title, it can be seen soaring high in the sky in the shape of a ‘W’. From a distance, frigatebirds appear to be dark all over; in fact, the males sport a fleshy bib which can be inflated into a ginormous red balloon during their breeding display, while the females wear a feathery white scarf.
In order to escape predators, T&T’s entire population of this long-winged, fork-tailed seabird breeds and roosts almost exclusively on St Giles island, off the coast of Charlotteville. Despite this, it is a common sight not only above the Main Ridge, but also above Trinidad’s Northern Range, with many making the considerable migration from St Giles on a daily basis.
The frigates are also known as ‘Pirates of the Skies’, thanks to their unscrupulous habit of stealing the hard-earned catch of other seabirds without ever touching the water themselves. These attacks can be quite dramatic, as they frequently force other seabirds to disgorge their meals in mid-air. Indeed it was this spectacle that brought British film maker Sir David Attenborough to Little Tobago in the late 1980s to film sequences for his BBC documentary, deservedly bringing Tobago’s birdlife to an international audience.

Here we have touched upon only a handful of Tobago’s wonderful bird species. One of the best things about Tobago’s birds is that most are very easy to encounter and enjoy – but just because we see them regularly, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate how lucky we are to have such beautiful and interesting species ‘on our doorstep’. Continuing the legacy of protection for the Main Ridge will ensure that future generations can experience this biodiversity, as well as benefitting from income generated by the many visitors who travel to Tobago from all around the world just to catch a glimpse of a Blue-backed Manakin or a White-tailed Sabrewing!
Dr Amy Deacon, UWI lecturer and secretary of the Field Naturalists Club

To see more of Wendell Stephen Jay Reyes' bird photography, see these links: