Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary is one of Trinidad’s most popular attractions, situated a few kilometres south of the East–West Corridor, and accessed via the Uriah Butler Highway. As well as serving as a roosting spot for flocks of elegant and spectacularly red scarlet ibis, T&T’s national bird, these forty square kilometres of tidal lagoons, marshland and mangrove forest bordering the Gulf of Paria between the mouths of the Caroni and Madame Espagnole rivers are home to 157 species of birds, while caimans, snakes, opossums, racoons and silky anteaters live in the water and mangrove canopy. Rich in fish and oysters, the swamp is also a spawning ground for massive tarpon and groupers (the largest caught here weighed 250lb). It was designated a protected wildlife area in 1953, but poaching still occurs, and industrial waste pollution remains a problem. Nonetheless, it’s a beguiling and beautiful place, and is well worth a visit.
Most people visit Caroni for a boat tour of the swamp; two companies offer trips aboard open pirogues that chug slowly through a maze of channels into the mangroves, which themselves have an otherworldly appearance: some have twisted aerial roots growing downwards into the water, while others have roots that grow upwards, emerging from the murky depths like stalagmites. Guides point out birds, plants and animals of interest – you’ll usually see snakes and common wetland birds such as egrets and blue herons – but the main attraction are the scarlet ibis, which roost on mangrove islands in the middle of open lagoons far into the swamp. Once the boat engines shudder to a halt, a spectacular scene unfolds as thousands of birds flock in, gradually turning their preferred clump of trees a vibrant red. This intense plumage owes its pigment to carotene, derived from the bird’s main prey – shrimp, worms and fiddler and tree-climbing crabs. In April and May, breeding pairs construct flat, open nests in the mangroves; once laid, their eggs incubate for just under a month before all-black hatchlings emerge – it takes up to three years for their diet to replace the dark feathers with a brilliant crimson.