Birding Tobago’s Backbone

Faraaz Abdool invites us to look for birds in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. You don’t even have to look that hard to spot some of the splendid birds that call Tobago home. These photos of Tobago’s rainforest birds courtesy Faraaz Abdool.

The Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road snakes over the spine of Tobago, through the oldest patch of protected rainforest in the western hemisphere. Protected since 1776, a few years after Tobago slipped under British rule, the Main Ridge Forest Reserve is home to many species of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. As a region, the Caribbean’s habitat has changed drastically over the years, with rainforest suffering the most. Thankfully, the almost ten thousand acres of rainforest on Tobago remain a reserve. 

Due to its height and proximity to the ocean, Main Ridge supports a large variety of birdlife. One is likely to see a Collared Trogon on the side of the road and then look up to see a flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds drifting overhead. Most species of birds can be easily sighted without ever having to leave your vehicle. 

Rufous-tailed Jacamars are often found in pairs, usually detected by their vocalizations

Vegetation is thick along both sides of the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road, which makes for relatively casual birding. While you are unlikely to encounter a person crossing the road, be on the lookout for Motmots or Jacamars creating the same heart-stopping jolt  as they suddenly decide to see what’s on the other side. As encouraging as the concept of birding without leaving the comfort of your vehicle sounds, sightings will exponentially increase if you can be still within the surroundings. Which begs the question: where exactly do I pull over?

Collared Trogon along the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road

This brings into play another sense which some may argue is more important than sight when birding in the rainforest. While the eyes can spot a Broad-winged Hawk perched two hundred metres away, the ears pick up the calls of Blue-backed Manakins, Red-legged Honeycreepers and what sounds like at least a thousand Bananaquits. Aural clues are the best indicators of where to pull over to have a quick look around. Many forest species are drawn to the edge of the roadway by the presence of a flowering or fruiting tree. 

Immature male Blue-backed Manakin. In a few months, his back will be powder blue.

The real jewels are often hidden within the rainforest, away from the drone of the occasional vehicle and the direct light of day. These birds are to be found by way of numerous hiking trails that extend into the forest; the most popular of these is Gilpin Trail, which according to local history, was the original road that linked Roxborough to Bloody Bay. It is far different from what we might consider a “roadway;” Gilpin Trail bends around steep embankments, closely following a river flowing through pools which are fly-through bathrooms for White-tailed Sabrewings. These beautiful blue-green hummingbirds were almost wiped from the biodiversity of Tobago by Hurricane Flora in 1963, but have fortunately regained a strong foothold on the island. Other than Tobago, they can only be found in a small patch of forest on the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela. 

Blue-backed Manakins at a lek

As one travels along the trail, the sounds of water and distant wind are often interrupted by the whooping call of a Trinidad Motmot, or the optimistic “keep-going” chirp of a skulking Stripe-breasted Spinetail. Loud, raucous and familiar, Orange-winged Parrots debate incessantly over all matters at hand. The mournful song of the White-necked Thrush haunts all who hear it. Rufous-breasted Wrens belt their songs loudly, albeit from the thick understory. But rising above the din is one call that pushes all others to the category of ambient birdsong.

Great Black Hawks are one of three raptor species commonly seen within Main Ridge

Usually Blue-backed Manakins chirp; it is a thick, rich chirp that can be heard for quite a distance. Both males and females make this call, which usually assists a frustrated birder in locating the bird. While the olive-green females seem to have life easy and laid-back, the males occupy their time by fastidiously honing their craft. This craft being an elaborate dance routine, in the hope that he may be selected above all other competitors by a willing female, for a chance to pass their genes on to the next generation. Areas where these dances are carried out are called leks, and the practice of performing the routines is referred to as lekking.

Stripe-breasted Spinetail along a trail within Main Ridge

Before they even reach adulthood, immature male Blue-backed Manakins make it their business to find these leks. They sit by, watching, learning from the masters. They may spend five to eight years as observers, dancing without any female present, waiting and biding their time for the perfect moment. Of course, it is pure entertainment for human observers of this unique behaviour, as the birds’ chirps become more and more urgent as they descend upon the lek. As chirping intensifies, they start making different calls. Whirrs and whistles precede a most bizarre warble as up to six males line up on a low branch, leapfrogging over one another for a brief moment, only to scatter to their respective perches to await the judgement of the attendant female. 

Trinidad Motmot along the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road

The magic of it all is the unpredictability of nature herself. Every day some wonders are revealed while others are kept hidden. Some days the treetops will be disturbed by Crested Oropendolas, another day a Great Black Hawk will come crashing through. Overnight rains easily turn a dry riverbed into a bubbling stream, where a Grey-throated Leaftosser checked for bugs yesterday is now a haunt for a White-throated Spadebill, on the hunt for emerging insects. Such is the beauty of birding, especially in the primeval setting of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. 

White-tailed Sabrewing photographed outside the Bloody Bay Recreational Site/Main Ridge Visitor’s Centre

The uncommonly seen White-throated Spadebill can, with luck, sometimes be encountered along the trails through the rainforest


  1. Such excellent photos of exquisite birds! Great birding in Tobago as told by Faraaz!


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