On November 5, 2017, Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) celebrated its 50th anniversary. Guest writer Johanne Ryan, conservation officer of the centre, shares some of its rich history.
The development of the centre began decades before it opened. Its story can be told through the people who have lived and worked there. It starts with Charles William Meyer, whose father bought him the then Spring Hill Estate, because of Charles’ interest in agriculture. Meyer built the estate house using hardwood and tapia from Spring Hill. The house was completed two years later, in 1908. The house that Charles built is the same one you walk into when you visit the AWNC. You can sit on its verandah and observe a variety of colourful birds.
About a decade later, Joseph Holmes and his wife, Helen Bruce, bought Spring Hill. Holmes was an engineer and made many structural additions to the house. He employed workmen to repair the main house, he piped water to it and brought electricity by setting up a small hydro-electric generator. The old generator can still be seen along the Bamboo Valley trail. Holmes also introduced new fruit trees (citrus and bananas) and other flowering plants to the estate.
Later, in 1947, Asa Gudmundsottir Wright and her husband, Henry Newcome Wright, moved from Cornwall, UK to Spring Hill. Their new retirement home was chosen not only to benefit Newcome’s health but to feed his interest in nature. The Wrights cultivated cocoa, coffee, citrus and bananas and sold the fruits.
Soon, Asa and Newcome befriended naturalist, adventurer and author Dr William Beebe who moved in four miles lower down the Arima Valley and called his property Simla. Beebe could be described as the Jacques Cousteau of his time. Or rather, one could describe Jacques Cousteau as the William Beebe of his time, for Beebe worked before Cousteau. Beebe became famous for a then record deep sea dive. He and a friend, Otis Barton, reached 3,028 feet under the sea in his bathysphere.
Thanks to publications on the flora and fauna of the Arima Valley done by Beebe and his colleagues, the area became a popular attraction for US visitors. Simla, which served as the Tropical Research Station of the New York Zoological Society, was later donated to the AWNC.
Researchers enjoyed studying the Trinidad rainforest and equally enjoyed the delicious chocolate cake that Asa served when they were invited to tea. Newcome passed away in 1955 and when Simla could not accommodate all its visitors, Asa Wright welcomed new guests. American bird artist Don Eckelberry and his wife Virginia were some of Asa’s early guests.
Asa managed the estate on her own, but when her health declined, her friends became concerned. What would become of Spring Hill? A group of interested people, headed by Don Eckelberry, together raised money to buy the estate to conserve its wildlife. The World Wildlife Fund contributed towards the protection of the resident oilbirds, which are monitored to this day. Erma “Jonnie” Fisk was the largest individual financial contributor. The TT Field Naturalists’ Club (TTFNC) also contributed.
Asa Wright Nature Centre was officially opened on November 5, 1967. The estate was to be conserved in perpetuity, but its fledgling years were challenging. It was run by a 16-member board of management and these members even gave money from their own pockets, so the centre could meet its debt. The centre was running on little advertising and therefore few guests. There was no telephone and poor postal service. When AWNC appointed a US booking agent, its financial status improved. Today, it celebrates a 33-year partnership with the booking agent, Caligo Ventures. AWNC also expanded to the UK market and regularly attends the British Birdwatching Fair.
Though the view of the Arima Valley from the verandah may not have changed much since then, AWNC has grown as an organisation. Once a two-room lodge, it can now house up to 50 guests and employs approximately 50 people. It runs a souvenir shop and restaurant which serves a buffet-style lunch every day. It conserves approximately 1,200 acres of land and maintains feeding stations and various food plants for wildlife. After additional ledges were constructed in the oilbird cave by John Dunston, Elliot Olton, Jogie Ramlal and Roodal Ramlal, the oilbird population grew from 36 birds in the opening year to over 160 in 2017. The cave was named Dunston Cave, in memory of John Dunston, who did significant work with the oilbirds.
The wildlife and natural area at Spring Hill has attracted many people, from far and near, and Asa Wright welcomes thousands of visitors each year. Over 170 species of birds have been recorded on the property, including the Trinidad motmot, ornate hawk-eagle, black hawk-eagle, amethyst woodstar, golden-headed and white-bearded manakins, channel-billed toucan, various trogons and hummingbirds. Regulars at the feeders include green and purple honeycreepers, various tanagers, agoutis and golden tegu lizards. Though less often seen on the property, other mammals, reptiles and amphibians such as tayra, silky anteaters, snakes and various frogs have been observed.
As part of its mission, it facilitates research and environmental education. Workshops first started at AWNC in 1972 and this year, in celebration of its anniversary, it has hosted workshops by “celebrity birders” thanks to the work of Caligo Ventures. They included Edward Rooks and Dr Janice Edgerly-Rooks, Scott and Amy Weidensaul, Keith Hansen and Patricia Briceno. Renowned bird illustrator David Sibley capped off the series.
The AWNC also runs the Valley Schools Outreach Programme, in which weekly, interactive lessons on environmental science are done at schools. Funding from the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Program supported the community workshops and the development of educational materials.
The centre has facilitated camera trapping by Mike Rutherford of the University of the West Indies and the Trinidad Ocelot Project. Several species of mammals, including the ocelot, deer and crab-eating raccoon, were photographed. Through UWI and the US Wildlife Conservation Agency, it monitored oilbirds via GPS.
Throughout the years, the TTFNC has supported Asa Wright Nature Centre in many of its endeavours. In fact, word has it that TTFNC members thought the centre would be a suitable sanctuary even before it became a nature centre. Over the years many field naturalists have had connections with the centre, some even serving on the board. Ian Lambie, the first TT citizen to be president of AWNC, was also president of the TTFNC. Former chair Carol James was part of the TTFNC and its current chairman is TTFNC member Graham White. These are just a few field naturalists who have served on the centre’s board. The club was even represented on the centre’s very first board.
As Asa Wright Nature Centre celebrates 50 years, the board thanks everyone who has helped through the years, and the staff, past and present, who serve as pillars of its continuously growing organisation, as well as TTFNC for its continuous support. As the bearded bellbird calls at a distance in the valley, it seems to herald a successful future.
For more information on the natural environment, you can contact the TT Field Naturalists’ Club at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit its website at www.ttfnc.org and Facebook or YouTube pages. The club’s next monthly meeting will be held today at St Mary’s College, Port-of Spain, 6 pm, when there will be a lecture titled Macaw Madness by Aliya Hosein.