In the dwindling light of sunset, the low purr of a boat engine blends with the snap, gurgle and pop of the marsh. We putter along aboard a pirogue, our wide, long and low vessel negotiating submerged branches and shallow banks with surprising agility.
The Caribbean island’s brightest and most brilliant display of plumage has nothing to do with Carnival: it happens every day, in a swamp at twilight, when the scarlet ibis comes home to roost.
As we edge around a bend, the swamp’s bogged–down silence is punctured by a series of sharp gasps from my 12 fellow bird watchers. I turn my head just in time to see a pair of vermilion wings disappear into the thicket. It’s a blink–and–you’d–miss–it kind of moment, and I kind of missed it. But from what I’ve heard, there will be more. Thousands more.
Stretching along Trinidad’s western shore, just south of capital city Port of Spain, lie the Caroni Swamp and Caroni Bird Sanctuary, a 12,000–acre mangrove forest you’d be forgiven for mistaking for a stretch of the Amazon River. Cook’s tree boas doze, coiled in tall mangroves, while schools of four–eyed fish shimmy along the water’s surface, close enough to touch. More than 180 avian species call the Caroni Swamp home, but I’ve come to the Caribbean island to see its heart: the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s most beloved bird, famous for its dazzling red plumage.
During the day, these birds fly deep into the swamp to feed on the crustaceans that give them their colour. But they return to the islands within the Caroni each evening by the thousands, transmogrifying its lush green landscape into ever–shifting mounds of scarlet that pulsate under the setting sun.
Allister Nanan guides us through a narrow passage, his careful steering of the engine’s tiller second nature. With his free hand, he points out a yellow–headed caracara flying overhead. Allister tells me he has been coming to the swamp nearly every day for the past three decades, as a guide for ecotourists, but his family’s legacy of protecting the wetland –and its scarlet symbol – goes back over 80 years.
The story starts with his grandfather, Simon Oudit Nanan. In the 1930s, when it was legal to harvest animals from the Caroni, Simon worked as a guide for hunters. Most came for the blue–winged teal, but some were less circumspect, often finding the scarlet ibis in their sights. As Simon became interested in observing and protecting the ibis, and with the support of some of his more influential clients, he successfully petitioned for the creation of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary in 1948. Simon’s son Winston held the torch after his father’s death, pioneering ecotourism in Trinidad and putting the Caroni and the scarlet ibis on the international map. In 2015, the swamp was renamed the Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary in his honour.
Thanks to the Nanan family, the scarlet ibis is strictly protected by law; today, hunters are fined the Canadian equivalent of about $20,000 per feather. It’s a development Allister is proud of, and one he views as vital: “If it wasn’t for Simon, Winston and the Nanans, would these birds still be here?’”
On Tobago, Trinidad’s sister island, conservation and wildlife photographer Faraaz Abdool sips his morning coffee looking out at the thick, leafy forest that enfolds the sleepy town of Runnemede. Abdool leads customized birding trips for ecotourists on both Trinidad and Tobago. He’s talking me through the challenges birds face in the dual–island nation, like poaching and the encroachment of human settlements on their habitat. Proximity to town is part of the appeal of the Caroni – it’s a half–hour drive from Port of Spain. According to the Nanans, it’s the only place in the world to see the ibis that doesn’t require a day or more of travel to get to.
But it’s a delicate balance: Introducing ecotourists to breathtaking bird species like the scarlet ibis is one way of championing their protection. Whenever he can, Abdool ends his tours with a visit to the Caroni – it’s a guaranteed jaw–dropping experience. “There’s no other place where you can see a few thousand brilliant red birds flying right in front of you,” he says. Spotting one scarlet ibis is a magical experience, but to see thousands is cosmic.
Eleven kilometres into the Caroni, our pirogue wanders into a sprawling lagoon that wraps around a dense, tree–covered islet. To my left, a flock of ruby–tinged flamingos prune their feathers atop mudflats exposed by low tide. These leggy creatures are relatively new to the swamp, and Allister has a theory as to their provenance: They first appeared seven years ago, a few days after his father’s death. For Allister, it’s a sign that Winston’s passion lives on in the place he loved best.
Overhead, the ibises have begun to arrive. Tiny red specks consolidate into long–beaked, crimson birds. Scores of them descend upon the island, their colour becoming more spectacular in the glow of dusk. As twilight creeps in, I’m surrounded by more ibises than I can possibly count– we’re nearing cosmic levels. Allister tells me to hold my hand up to my ear, and as I do their soft chittering gets a little louder. Maybe it’s their way of saying thank you to the Nanan family for still watching over them, all these years.
When You Go
This family–owned boutique hotel is located on the outskirts of the capital, Port of Spain. It’s a short walk from the 260–acre Queen’s Park Savannah, making Kapok a great launch point for evening walks in Trinidad’s lush botanical gardens and savouring fresh–cut coconut sat sunset. Hike up Lady Chancellor Hill for unmatched views of the city backed by the Gulf of Paria.
Made with curried meat and potatoes – a product of Trinidad and Tobago’s Indian influence – roti is a dish that locals are particularly proud of. At Hott Shoppe, order this West Indian burritoon dalpuri (a flatbread made with split peas) for a perfect blend of spice, flavour and heat. Portions are generous, so bring a friend.
While fun–in–the–sun favourites Carib and Stag are Trinidad’s most popular lagers, John Tannous wanted to create a local brew he and other beer lovers could call their own. Tommy’s Brewing – named after Tannous’ adventure–loving granddad – has been serving craft beer and fresh food out of their Movie Towne location since 2018. (The Pirogue Tropical Pils is a particularly refreshing choice after a day in the swamp.)