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:


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