The Yellow Tail Tree
In the center of the rural village of Parlatuvier is a most interesting spot where a spectacular sight occurs each and every evening, year ‘round, at sunset. Hundreds and even thousands of the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus), locally known as the "Yellow Tail" bird come to one small spot in the local park to roost. The Crested Oropendola is the only bird in the family Icteridae native to Tobago which weaves the long hanging stocking-like nests. There is no other place like this known to exist in all of Tobago. This park needs to be further studied, preserved and protected.
The area lies right at the junction of the Parlatuvier East River and the Parlatuvier West River. Look for a small stand of bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) exactly where the two rivers meet. This is the "tree". As you may know, bamboo is a member of the grass family and not really a tree. The area around the bamboo stand has been cleaned and fixed up under the supervision of the head of the Village Council, Carlton Campbell. The area is not far from the main road and easily accessible. To watch the sight, plan to be there about 40 minutes before sunset to get the full show. This bamboo stand is where most of the action takes place. Position yourself so you can see the sunset, and make yourself comfortable. I will describe the sight viewing the tree with my back to the sea, at a distance of about 150 feet.
While you are there, watch for many of the other abundant local avifauna, including: Yellow- crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor), Little Blue Heron (Florida caerulea), Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). You may also see the aerial acrobatics over the river of the Short-tailed Swift (Chaetura brachyura).
At about 40 minutes to sunset you will see Giant Cowbirds (Scaphidura oryzivora), the first arrivals, begin to gather. The Cowbirds initially land along the periphery hill to the left of the main tree. At first, almost no birds land in the main tree. Noise level from the birds is low. The Cowbirds will continue to arrive at the periphery for about 30 minutes.
At about 20 minutes till sunset, many Cowbirds will start shifting to the tree. They first occupy the topmost sentinel positions, and seem to be anxiously watching and waiting for the Oropendolas. The Cowbirds become more and more vocal. It is during this time that the local frogs start to add to the background noises. Also during this period, I have seen many other species of birds dart into the tree, including: Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) [up to eight], Shiny Cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) [up to 25], White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi), [up to 40], Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) [up to 8], Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) [up to five], Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani), Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and once even a hummingbird!
About eight minutes before sunset, the Cowbirds hoarse, squeaky calls increase even more, as the first Oropendolas fly in to the periphery trees. They begin to appear from every direction, mostly in groups, from one to fifty, sometimes more. They will all fly to the periphery first, even if they must first fly over the roosting tree to get there. The Cowbirds are visibly excited by the arrival of the Oropendolas, which continue to arrive up till about 15-18 minutes after sunset. The timing is always the same, even on a day when cloud cover obscures the sunset.
During this last phase, there is much displaying on the periphery by the Oropendolas. You can hear the unmistakable high pitched gurgle of their display call as they hang upside down and spread their feathers for all to see. Just before the sun goes down, the majority of the Cowbirds, along with some of the Oropendolas, will move from the periphery to the communal roosting tree.
As soon as the sun sinks into the sea, the Oropendolas start to make their move. They come from the periphery trees singly, or in groups of up to sixty at a time and flock into the roosting tree. The Oropendolas will continue to land in to the periphery, then move to the roost, for up to about 18 minutes after sundown. The Cowbirds leave their sentinel positions in the tops of the bamboo, and move into closer quarters with the Oropendolas. This is the time when the noise level from the birds comes to a crescendo. The tree is literally alive with several hundreds, sometimes thousands, of excited birds. Also at this time, with dusk moving in, many smaller birds dart into the roost, impossible to identify from lack of light, their speed, and distance.
I have seen gatherings of Oropendolas of up to 1,900 (6/24/94), up to 1,500 (5/1/95), up to 750 (5/17/96), and up to 450 (4/26/96). There usually appears to be about 300 to 450 Giant Cowbirds. There are no long stocking shaped Oropendola nests anywhere in the vicinity of this tree.
Local residents say this bird gathering has been taking place for as long as anyone can remember. Carlton Campbell (1995) says he's been watching this tree for over 35 years and the birds have come every night year ‘round. He claims there used to be many more, but the numbers get less and less every year. Duran Chance (1994) has lived in Parlatuvier for around 55 years and remembers it taking place in the same spot all that time. Carlton Campbell (1996) relates some five or more years ago when his 70+ year old father mentioned that the birds came to the same tree when his father was a young boy, and even back at that time, people said the birds came as long as anyone could remember.
David Rooks (1996) knew of no other place on Tobago where a phenomenon such as this occurred. Richard ffrench (1996) was familiar with communal roosting of the Crested Oropendola in Trinidad, but not Tobago. He has observed communal roosting sites of Crested Oropendola in the Arima Valley, most always in bamboo, most always in the lower valley. He figures the Oropendola favour bamboo because it allows them to get larger numbers closer together than any other roosting sites would. The sites he has observed attracted large numbers of Oropendolas every evening, and in the mornings, the birds could be seen to fan out over about an eight mile radius.
Many questions need to be answered regarding this awesome nightly sight in Parlatuvier. Why do the birds come to the same place every evening all year? Do the numbers of birds change with different seasons throughout the year? Are there more males or females? Are there any parent birds at the roost while young are still in their nests? Why are there no Oropendola nests around this area if it is so popular? Are the bird numbers really declining? Is this a courtship area? How large an area are they coming from? Why are other species of birds mixing with them?
I hope I have raised some interest for this special place in Tobago. There certainly needs to be much more study. There also needs to be protection. Just since last year, a house has been put up literally under the Yellow Tail Tree, and it has a very noisy dog, which most definitely makes the birds nervous. With the new pier in Parlatuvier, there is much more traffic generated on the bumpy road near the tree, which the birds obviously don't like. I propose the entire area be made a national park and/or protected area by the government. Matt Kelly
Matt Kelly and his wife Mary, ardent environmentalists and Environment TOBAGO members from Massachusetts, USA., visit Tobago several times a year.