Many locals would be surprised to learn that three hours into an old Amerindian trail from Maracas Bay on the North Coast over the steep terrain and lush greenery of the Northern Range's 936 metre El Tucuche, lands you near the Maracas River in Maracas Valley, St Joseph. Several trails are connecting the North Coast over the hills to the valley and from the valley, you can even hike to Caura, Blanchisseuse and Arima. Having continuity and connectedness; that's how the First Peoples saw the land.
It is said that, to the Amerindians, Maracas Bay was sacred. The sound of its lulling waves most likely caused it to be named after the Amerindians' sacred instrument, the maraca (shak-shak), which was used to summon the good spirits. Majestic and teeming with hummingbirds, El Tucuche, too, was thought to be esteemed. T&T's indigenous people were believed to have revered the entire expanse from Maracas Bay to Maracas Valley as holy, calling the valley, nourished by water from the mountain, the Spiritual Capital of Trinidad.
From their vantage point atop the winding roads of Valley View in Maracas Valley, Dr Theo Ferguson and his wife, Gloria, have a perfect view of the mountain to Maracas. Their garden is almost always abuzz with the antics of small creatures who put on a fantastic display of iridescent splendour as they flap tiny wings and flitter in every imaginable direction in the sun. Spirits of the ancestors were thought to dwell in these petite balls of personality we call hummingbirds. The ancestors referred to them as “Yerettê” and called this country, “Iere”–Land of the Hummingbird.
Dr Theo Ferguson and his wife, Gloria.
Yerettê–Home of the Hummingbird was the name the Fergusons gave to their home when they opened it as a small bird sanctuary to the public nine years ago. Hummingbirds began flocking to their garden after Ferguson put up a few bird feeders to photograph the unique little creatures and their numbers just kept increasing.
Bedazzling birds, deemed “magical” for their unique qualities, hummingbirds are the smallest, fastest, busiest, hungriest birds in the world according to Ferguson. The only birds that can hover on their own energy in one place or fly backwards, there are over 350 species of hummingbirds in the world. The humming or buzzing sound of their wings, which beat up to 80 times per second, is how they get their name.
Their high-pitched chirps pierce the air as the birds dart and zip among an array of bright flowers and feeders filled with a solution of granulated sugar and boiled water hung in the Fergusons' garden. The artificial nectar in the feeders is never made with brown sugar as this is harmful to them.
With a high metabolism, hummingbirds require large amounts of energy; 90 per cent of which they derive from nectar and the other ten per cent from insects like mosquitoes and tiny flies. Dipping long beaks into colourful flowers, they lap the nectar with their tongues at high speeds.
Found in the Americas, mostly in the Tropics, 19 species of hummingbirds have been recorded in T&T. Ferguson, a UWI agriscientist-turned-leadership development educator and bird photographer, spotted and recorded one of two new species in Trinidad within recent years. In 2015, after sightings in Lopinot and Arima, the Amethyst Woodstar visited his yard and four years later, he discovered the country's 19th species, the Glittering-throated Emerald at Yerettê.
Of the 19, 15 species visit their garden. The Copper-rumped Hummingbird comes around most often. Visitors get glimpses of all of the birds' personalities, with the curious being known to land on one's hand. Some are seen in combat with other birds while protecting their territory and many birds are witnessed relishing a good shower whenever it rains.
Ruby Topaz. Inset: A male Ruby Topaz feeds on the nectar of Vervain flowers.
Photo courtesy Dr Theo Ferguson
Ferguson believes that although we may be familiar with seeing hummingbirds in nature and on many of our national emblems, our national airline carrier and national postal corporation, we know little about them. The tufted coquette (6.6–eight cm), the second smallest bird in the world, attracts most foreign tourists to his garden. (Smallest in the world is the bee hummingbird at five-six cm and is found only in Cuba). Also popular is the Ruby Topaz–an eye-catching explosion of ruby red, iridescent gold and orange, tempered with brown.
“Most hummingbirds are in the Tropics. So you get a lot of traffic from Europe and other parts of the world. Nature tourists who come to Trinidad to see hummingbirds. There are so many unique and special things about hummingbirds. People want to see them,” Ferguson said.
With T&T's borders somewhat open, bookings from foreign tourists are already picking up again. It is the locals who fail to take the opportunity to explore our natural environment–especially in light of the pandemic and overseas travel restrictions–who concern him most.
He feels that T&T lacks an appreciation of nature that the Amerindians were wise enough to cultivate. Much of our history and natural heritage is not covered by the history books, Ferguson, who was commissioned to make a limited-edition book on birds of Trinidad and Tobago to be presented to visiting Heads of State of the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), insisted.
“When we think about the hummingbirds, we think about the Amerindians,” he said, adding that his wife was 21 per cent Amerindian.
“We don't pay much respect to the Amerindian heritage. We are not very conscious of the Amerindian heritage even though there are so many place names after the Amerindians. Most of the animals in the forest are named after the Amerindians, we have Amerindian foods as well...'barbeque' is an Amerindian word,” he said.
In fact, all islands of the Caribbean had Amerindian names, for instance, St Vincent was “Hairoun”–Land of the Blessed” and Antigua is “Wadadi”–Land of Fish Oil, as Ferguson pointed out.
To him, foreigners were more avid nature enthusiasts and he sees far more of them show an interest in discovering our natural environment.
“We have an active hiking community, but most Trinidadians don't go close to the bush. They like parties and the beach and so on.”
He compared us to Costa Rica where a love for nature is instilled through their education system from an early age. As a result, the people highly regard their natural resources.
Trinidad and Tobago boasts gorgeous, diverse topography and wildlife. However, he felt that one of the greatest issues in trying to sell nature tourism and ecotourism is that our people need to be educated about them.
“Trinidad is one of the most attractive places in the world in terms of nature. But the people don't know about nature, so how can you sell nature when the people don't know about it?” asked Ferguson, whose photographs have been shown internationally, including at a photographic exhibition at the Georgia State Botanic Gardens, University of Georgia.
As an agriscientist, Ferguson lived in South Africa for seven years, heading a development consultancy. When the experience did not go the way he intended, he rethought his life, delving into leadership development, writing ten books and training many in the private and public sector, even at the Cabinet level and around the world.
His introspection led him “into the bush” in numerous areas of Trinidad, where he took up photography. Asa Wright is where he landed. He would later develop his private home of 35 years into Yerettê.
“I fell in love with hummingbirds. I discovered I had a passion for these little creatures and I wanted to photograph them. So I started preparing here and the birds came in much larger numbers than I expected. My wife and I decided to share this with others,” he recalled.
Gloria's satisfaction showed as she popped out to announce lunch and stayed for a brief chat. She and her small staff prepare refreshments depending on the time of day for visitors as part of the experience.
Gloria dedicatedly created the garden, introducing flowers like the Brazilian Red cloak, honeysuckle and hibiscus. Besides hummingbirds, the Fergusons also receive visits from agoutis, iguanas and mattes (a large gold and black-striped lizard). The garden's ambiance balances the creatures' energy with a therapeutic calm. Some see it as a spiritual place, a sanctuary.
Apart from communicating messages from the spirits, some believe that the hummingbirds bring joy, healing and good luck. Ferguson felt that visitors harness the birds' strong, positive energy and become one with nature. Even medical doctors send patients to Yerettê for the experience, he informed. Some visitors even ask to gather from it, medicinal plants like the Lantana or Christmas bush, a sworn remedy for colds and respiratory issues, and Vervain which is used as cooling and helps mothers lactate when their breast milk is difficult to come in after giving birth.
The garden and its radiant hummingbirds, and Maracas Valley, in general, are glimpses of the wealth of natural gems T&T possesses. The immeasurable beauty and natural wonders of this country abound. We only have to look around and connect, Ferguson said.
Hummingbirds show personality like this male Tufted Coquette captured at Yerettê.
Photo courtesy Dr Theo Ferguson
Q&A with Dr Theo Ferguson
What about the hummingbird appealed to you? The grace, elegance of the bird the unique abilities it possesses?
You know in life you come upon situations or circumstances, things that touch you deeply and move you at a deep spiritual level...and it becomes a kind of love relationship that you can't explain, except that it appeals to you strongly? So that relationship developed. We attract a lot of hummingbirds here now. We're not sure why. My wife calls it a blessing.
Apart from the spiritual and healing elements, what should people know re: the importance of the hummingbird in nature?
Hummingbirds are major pollinators, but we don't pay much attention to the hummingbird. In fact, they are the sole pollinators for over 8,000 species of flowering plants. As they move from plant to plant lapping nectar, the pollen sticks to their beaks and they carry the pollen with them. So if you were to take hummingbirds out of nature, can you see the crisis we would have? (There will be no food chains to sustain life.) We want to spread a message to the world about the importance of hummingbirds as pollinators.
How can we export Trinidad as an ecotourism attraction?
Start by educating the children so that everybody who travels out of Trinidad becomes part of your marketing team. You don't leave it to chance. Many of the people on Tourism Boards can talk and write nice marketing plans. They have to re-educate themselves completely about nature...visit the bush. Hopefully, that will change in the future.
How do you feel about the closure of Asa Wright, especially having had a special relationship with them?
Very special relationship. Very sad. I don't know the inside story. That is yet to be made public...but they can't close it. Asa Wright has to remain. There's such a demand for what they offer. I expect by early next year they should be starting to reopen.