Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Whistling Ducks of Pointe-a-Pierre

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks at the Point-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks at the Point-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust

My family hails from the Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean.  We still go back every few years to visit, and I always look forward to good food and time with my extended family. I also try to squeeze in as much jungle and beach visiting as I can. When my family planned a trip for this past Christmas, I vowed to myself that I would drag them on some eco-adventures by whatever means necessary. The means turned out to be whining (and a lot of it). But, on our second to last day on the island, we made it out to the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust.

Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust is a bird sanctuary and breeding center tucked away inside the grounds of the Petrotrin Oil Refinery. The friendly guards at the refinery gates waved us in once we’d explained why we were there (they don’t want people to just come wander around the refinery for no good reason). We followed their directions down winding roads through the refinery grounds. When we finally made it to the Wildfowl Trust, we were greeted by a different sort of guard – a curious but wary Indian Peacock, who was seemingly unaware that his bedraggled tail was more sympathy-inducing than impressive. He strutted around our car, fanning that molting tail if we got too close and letting out some extraordinarily strident cries. He eventually seemed satisfied that we weren’t a threat (or he’d figured out that we weren’t going to feed him) and left us alone after we started down the gravel path to the visitor center of the Trust.

Indian Peacock that greeted us

The Indian Peacock that greeted us in the parking lot

Pointe-a-Pierre’s main visitor building, the Learning Centre, serves as a staging area for tourists and students, souvenir shop, and tiny museum. It’s filled with preserved animal and insect specimens in varying states of disrepair and yellowing educational posters. You don’t come to the Trust for the Leaning Centre, however – you come for the gardens and birds surrounding it.

On the porch outside the building, Frankie the Blue-and-Gold Macaw gives guests a much friendlier greeting than the peacocks in the parking lot. A victim of the illegal pet trade, Frankie was confined at a young age, disrupting proper wing growth. He’ll never be able to fly and is kept separate from the other macaws at the Trust (a small breeding population) due to his special needs. He is now used to educate visitors and students about conservation and animal treatment. In a scratchy voice, Frankie tells visitors “Hello” as they pass by.

Frankie, the Blue-and-Gold Macaw, having a snack.

Frankie, the Blue-and-Gold Macaw

The Learning Centre is also surrounded by a tropical garden, filled with bright flowering trees and plants. More peacocks, including alabaster White Peacocks, strut through the garden, occasionally followed by a group of peahens (female peafowl, peacocks are the male of the species); the ladies seemed much less interested in the humans wandering around their home.

A White Peacock and some peahens enjoying food that Frankie dropped out of his cage. A Muscovy Duck joined in the feast.

A White Peacock and some peahens enjoying food that Frankie dropped out of his cage. A Muscovy Duck (left) joined in the feast.

Our official tour starts with one of Pointe-a-Pierre’s lakes. The Trust serves two main purposes – to educate the public about environmental issues and to breed and release several species of endangered or threatened birds.

The commitment of the Trust to breeding native wildfowl is evident as soon as we reach the lake. The shore is covered in ducks. Many of them rest standing on one leg on a nearby tree and nesting boxes. The vast majority of the birds are small waterfowl with bright coral-orange beaks and feet. Their bodies are mostly a soft brown fading to grey on their heads, with black-edged white wings, black bellies, and black tails. And though these are definitely ducks, they don’t quack. When we first approached the lake, I thought we were hearing the cries of native songbirds, but the whistling “pichichi” sound that filled the air was coming from the collection of ducks on the lake shore. These are the Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks for which the Trust was founded.

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks resting on one of their nesting boxes. In the wild, they nest in hollow trees.

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks resting on one of their nesting boxes. In the wild, they nest in hollow trees.

It was actually a hunter who took the first steps to preserve the Black-Bellied Ducks. He noticed that there were fewer ducks around each year, and decided that something had to be done to preserve the island population. Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks weigh only 1.5-2 pounds; each duck provides very little meat, so hunters must kill more of them to get the same amount of meat that fewer larger ducks would provide. The Black-Bellied Ducks are also docile and easy to catch. While the bird isn’t endangered worldwide, they are threatened by over-hunting in Trinidad. Since 1962, the Wildfowl Trust has released over 1300 Black-Bellied Whistling Tree ducks alone and over 1400 other ducks of various species.

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Duck in flight. Source: http://americans4birds.ipower.com/waterfowl.html

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Duck in flight.   (Source)

The wild Trinidadian population of Black-Bellied Ducks lived in the island swamps, feeding at night. They can also be found along the coast of Mexico and northern South America. Whistling tree ducks live in family groups, which they protect aggressively against outsiders (including other Black-Bellied Ducks). They huddle in groups on the shore and swim in neat rows among the lily pads, like something out of a children’s book.

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks swimming in a row

Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks swimming in a row

Duck mating pairs are monogamous and will stay together for years raising and taking care of their young. Some of the ducks at the Trust are still young enough to have a grey beak instead of the orange beak of an adult (placing them at under 8 months old). 

Juvenile Black-Bellied Duck. In addition to a grey instead of orange beak, their plumage is also less bright than adults. Source: http://www.pbase.com/nsxbirder/image/117423122

Juvenile Black-Bellied Duck. In addition to a grey instead of orange beak, their plumage is also less bright than adults. (Source)

Birds like the whistling tree duck aren’t as flashy as macaws or peacocks, but they’re an important part of the ecosystem all the same. The ducks eat mosquito larva, keeping down the insect population. They also disperse plant seeds in their scat; water lilies in particular rely on species like ducks to spread their seeds. The Trust aims to educate school kids and visitors alike on links between humans and the environment, by immersing visitors in the natural world around them and through educational signs posted around the Trust grounds.

Our tour takes us past several signs detailing the rain cycle, feeding chain, and climate change. We also pass breeding cages of Blue-and-Gold Macaws (like Frankie), who had been driven to extinction on the island by the illegal pet trade. These birds had been imported from Venezuela in an effort to re-establish a native population. There are more ducks too – White-Faced Whistling Ducks, Fulvous Whistling Ducks, White Cheeked Pintails, and Muscovy Ducks (easy to pick out by the red patches on their faces).

A Muscovy Duck (with some Black-Bellies in the background). Muscovy's are much larger than the Black-Bellied ducks. Females like the one pictured here can weigh up to 7 pounds, and males  can weigh up to 15

Muscovy Ducks like the one in the foreground are much larger than Black-Bellied Ducks. Females (like the one pictured here) can weigh up to 7 pounds, and males can weigh up to 15

The trust even breeds Scarlet Ibis, a bright pinkish-red bird with a long curving bill that lives in the same swampy habitat as the Black-Bellied Whistling Tree Ducks. Ibises are hard to breed and require a very particular diet of shrimp and insects to maintain their vibrant color. The Scarlet Ibises in the Trust are the brightest I’ve ever seen, and the Trust has successfully released almost 100 specimens into the wild.

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Scarlet Ibis breeding enclosure. Juvenile ibises are grey and their scarlet feathers come in as they mature

It’s fitting that we leave the Trust the same way we came in, escorted by a curious (and probably hungry) group of peacocks. They’re still swaggering around like we humans are but lowly peasants in their kingdom. From the loving treatment and reverence I’ve seen given to the birds here, I think they’re right.

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Further reading:
Pointe-a-Pierre WildFowl Trust webiste
Listen to the calls of the Whistling Tree Duck