Hummingbird heaven in famed Trinidad garden
PORT of SPAIN, Trinidad -- The largest concentration of hummingbirds in the Caribbean can be found in a nondescript neighbourhood in the lush Maracas Valley town of St. Joseph -- or to be more specific, in Theo and Gloria Ferguson's garden.
Hundreds of the birds visit on an average day, including 13 of the 17 hummingbird species that can be found on the dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
"Twelve of those 13 should be here today," says Theo, who has worked diligently to attract the birds by planting their favourite flowers and installing dozens of bird feeders.
Two years ago, the couple decided to share their avian paradise with visitors and opened Yerette, which is the Amerindian word for hummingbird. It has since become one of the island's top tourist attractions.
Any day is a good day to see hummingbirds but once in a while -- for some unexplained reason -- an extraordinarily large number will show up in a single day. Theo calls that a "hummingbird shower."
"We had over 3,000 birds here on Christmas Day. That was extra special. We're not sure why but once a month we get that kind of invasion. And it just leaves everybody stunned."
The tour begins on the garden patio, where Theo introduces our small group to the world of the hummingbird, as dozens of the tiny creatures chirp, tweet and flutter behind him.
"Listen to the sounds and you hear buzzing -- that comes from the beating of the wings, but do you know how fast they beat?" Theo asks. "Very fast, between 80 and 100 times every second," he adds, clapping his hands for effect.
The birds, which exist only in the Americas (mostly in the tropics), burn the human equivalent of about 150,000 calories a day. Their tiny hearts beat up to 1,200 times per minute and their aerial manoeuvres include the ability to fly backwards and upside down!
"Hummingbirds," Theo says, "are the biological extreme within nature."
They are also a powerful national symbol of Trinidad and Tobago, which is known as the Land of the Hummingbird. Images of the bird appear on the national coat of arms, the $20 note and the passport. One of the country's national awards is the Hummingbird Medal. The bird is the main insignia of the army, coast guard, air guard and police as well as being the logo of Caribbean Airlines, Trinidad's national carrier.
The metallic iridescence of the hummingbirds has prompted some to call them "flying jewels" or "living gems." Unfortunately that beauty once had a down side for the species.
In the 19th century they were captured, killed and exported to Europe to be used as adornments by the fashion industry, Theo tells us. One shipment alone that arrived in London contained over 400,000 of the birds. Today the species is protected by international law and it's illegal to capture, own, buy or sell a hummingbird in many places.
Inside the cozy art gallery that is part of the Ferguson's home, Theo's stunning photographs adorn the walls. We watch a photo presentation of the hummingbirds on a high definition TV, enhanced by our host's live narration. We see the birds sunbathing and rain bathing and examples of a manoevre Theo calls the "body slam."
There are images of the Tufted Coquette -- the world's second smallest bird (length 17 cm) and the Ruby Topaz -- which Theo calls one of the most beautiful hummingbirds.
"I love the gold on the rump of the Black-throated Mango," he enthuses over another image.
"Here's the most iridescent bird now, the Blue-chinned Sapphire -- that's my wife's favourite."
As for Theo's favourite? "I don't have one," he insists. "They're all my children."
NEED TO KNOW
Yerette is at 88 Valley View, Maracas Valley, St. Joseph in Trinidad. Visits are by appointment only. To arrange, check yerette.com or call 1-868-663-2623. Admission is $25 US. Among species you can expect to see are the White-chested Emerald, the Black-throated Mango, the Ruby Topaz and the Green Hermit.