Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A matter of survival


We visited the domain of one of our nocturnal species of avian wild life at a period when newborn chicks as well as those half grown are trying to adapt to the habitat into which they were born.

As we entered the cavern hundreds of pairs of red eyes peered down at us. The large white dots forming a distinguishing line at their sides were prominent in the darkness. Large birds squawked and click clicked as they flew around using echo location in the dark recesses of the interior. The roof and walls were just crowded with birds. This was the sanctuary of the oilbird steatornis caripensis and we were but mere disturbances of their peace at the moment.

Personally I wondered how a person coming here with the sole intention of poaching this harmless species felt when this colony guarded its territory so fiercely. Our visit alone felt like sinful intrusion.

We explored a part of the cavern wall that curved further inward to a series of ledges where a number of birds had built their nests. In the past we had retrieved gear used for ensnaring the birds here. Today all was well.

Presumably this would have been one of the caverns that the First Peoples had visited centuries ago to gather oil from the fat of the oilbird. At that time, it was a matter of survival.

Nearby, we found one shallow nest with three eggs in it and another with two tiny newborns that spun round and round in their limited space. Quite close by, a large bird snarled an apparent warning to us. We believed that this was the parent of these chicks.

There was a third nest with an extremely large ‘fatty’ ‘half grown’ that had feathers only on his head, wings and tail. We could see how our First Peoples got enough oil to satisfy their needs.

This larger chick spun round and round on his nest too. This seemed to be the typical behaviour of this species as we had noted the same spinning trait of the newborns.

On nests where adult oilbirds sat, we could see the usual rocking movement of their heads from side to side that we had come to be so familiar with. Someone called this a ‘Stevie Wonder move’.

On the other side of the cavern, another half grown got our attention as he landed with a loud thump and a flurry of half feathered wings having unsuccessfully tried to fly like his elders. Just about four months old, this bird was beginning his own quest for survival. He remained motionless for a while until regaining his initial will to try his wings again and again.

Our oilbirds are perhaps the least observed of our avian species in this part of the world because of their nocturnal life and the fact that their colonies thrive off the beaten track in the cavernous terrain of our mountains. When Alexander von Humboldt first discovered these birds in a cave in Venezuela’s north eastern mountains in 1799 their existence was virtually unknown to people other than immediate natives. This location eventually became Venezuela’s first national monument.

Today some caverns in northern South America have become tourist attractions. In Trinidad, this is so to a lesser extent because of the lack of manpower to effectively protect and manage these remote locations. So far, only the Asa Wright Nature Centre has been successful in protecting, promoting and maintaining its oilbird cavern as a tourist attraction.

It is always an amazing sight to see a large colony of oilbirds fly out from the home cavern in mass exodus at sunset. Their feeding grounds are sometimes located miles away from their home they being the only nocturnal fruit eating bird in the world and must find bearing palms and laurels.

On their return to the home cavern, we could well imagine the eager reactions of their dependent offspring to sustenance being served after spending a night alone. Soon, these chicks will follow in the habits of their parents as they too will continue the cycle of survival of this species.