Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hummingbird haven

There are no signs leading to Yerette, no imposing billboards advertising what may be the best place to experience hummingbirds up close. You know you've arrived when you see possibly the largest silk cotton tree in Trinidad at the bottom of the driveway leading to the home of Dr Theodore Ferguson and his wife, Gloria, in Valley View, Maracas, St Joseph.

Between August and September last year, the Fergusons discovered that dozens of well-maintained bird feeders placed strategically in and among their lush, green landscape just beyond their verandah, could lure some of the world's smallest flying acrobats—the hummingbirds. To say that what they created is now a hummingbird oasis will be the greatest understatement.

Rather than keep it to themselves, the Fergusons made the decision to open their home and share what they had with Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the world.

When I first arrived at Yerette, the skies were overcast and a light rain had just begun. In the distance, low clouds formed a skirt around Trinidad's second tallest peak, El Tucuche, yet all I could notice were the scores, perhaps even hundreds of hummingbirds, like floating jewels, just an arm's length away from me. I had heard reviews about this place—all great; but seeing is believing. And the sight of these birds, in plentiful abundance, stopped me in my tracks and left me speechless.

"I never planned to go into this. It came out of my love for photography," said Ferguson, who is arguably one of Trinidad's best bird photographers. He is also a walking encyclopedia on hummingbirds and has even gone to great lengths to observe these birds in their natural habitat.

Ferguson has staked out and photographed all the species of hummingbird in Trinidad and Tobago. Thirteen species can be found at Yerette, which was named after the Amerindian word for hummingbird.

On any given day, Ferguson estimates that there are between 750 and 3,000 hummingbirds in his oasis. "Numbers are greatest during cool, overcast conditions when we experience the hummingbird shower, especially at the end of a heavy rain shower," said Ferguson.

As he and I talked, a hummingbird zipped closely by my ear; it was enough to make the hairs on my hand stand on end.

The Fergusons have dozens of bird feeders in their yard. Each day, it takes about two hours to feed the birds and another two hours to maintain the garden.

There is a science to feeding hummingbirds. It's not as simple as mixing brown sugar with water. In fact, by so doing, one can inadvertently poison the hummingbirds—this is because brown sugar contains iron, which damages their internal organs, said Ferguson. Instead, Ferguson brings to a boil granulated sugar and water. He allows it to cool before refilling half-empty feeders.

The birds, he says, must be treated well. "In reorganising our garden, we placed the emphasis on flowering plants rather than lawn and green hedges. For example, our green hibiscus hedge was transformed into more bushy, flowering shrubs. Also, we sought to have a variety of flowering plants in order to attract a wider variety of species—this worked beautifully; we now have 13 of the 16 species found in Trinidad," said Ferguson.

They may be among the smallest birds in the animal kingdom, yet their flying capabilities more than make up for any deficiency on their part. For instance, these birds have excellent memories; while their brains are tiny, they have the largest brain in relation to body size among birds, said Ferguson. The hummingbird has weak feet, yet its wings beat up to 200 times a second; they can fly in any direction, including upside-down.

With the exception of their wings, hummingbirds are naturally iridescent, which is why, depending on the angle or the way the sunlight catches their tiny bodies, hummingbirds seem to change colours before our very eyes. At first glance, the breast of the tufted coquette appears to be brilliant orange in colour; look again, and before you know it, his bright, orange-coloured breast has turned a shimmering emerald green.

In just under a year, visitors from as far away as Australia and Japan have visited Yerette, and international birders and photographers have also made trips there part of their itinerary.

Messages posted in the visitors' log indicate the wonder and amazement many have experienced at Yerette. Visits to Yerette must be booked in advance by contacting the Fergusons at 663-2623, 373-1379 or 397-3724. While there, visitors can enjoy the hummingbirds up close, be treated to an equally impressive photo slide show, enjoy a complimentary morning or afternoon tea and view the Yerette Art Gallery, where hummingbird photos and craft items by Gloria Ferguson can be bought.

The hummingbird is a national symbol, it can be found on our currency, coat of arms and is an insignia of our protective services, yet few locals know much about these spectacular birds, said Ferguson.

He insisted that our environment must be promoted in a more positive way.

"Here at Yerette, we hope that we are helping people to have a better appreciation of what exists by giving our visitors a close-up view of one beauty in our midst—hummingbirds," he said.

On leaving Yerette, I decided that it's difficult choosing just one favourite among the hummingbird species, having seen so many beautiful birds. But if I had to choose, then it would be the Tufted Coquette.

When you visit Yerette, try choosing a favourite of your own.