Updates

Oh Frigates

With the recent obliteration of Barbuda (and other nearby islands, but I’m specifically targeting Barbuda here) as a result of Hurricane Irma, there is a major concern (apart from the obvious humanitarian issue) about the fate of the island’s bird population. Many migratory birds such as sparrows and shorebirds can sense differences in barometric pressure – and either change their migratory route or delay/expedite their travels to suit. Some others may skirt around the edge of the storms, and a few intrepid individuals decide to brave the storm itself. In fact, there is a well-known record of a GPS-enabled Whimbrel named Chinquapin that flew directly into Hurricane Irene in 2011.

But what about birds that live in the path of a monstrous hurricane such as Irma? For the endemic Barbuda Warbler – there was nowhere to hide from the hours of howling 180mph winds. Already classified as Near Threatened according to the IUCN – due to habitat loss, its already low population and use of land for grazing – this recent event might spell the end; although we will have to wait and see.

Also in Barbuda was the largest breeding colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the entire western hemisphere. Estimated at around 100,000 birds, they converge around Codrington Lagoon to nest, raise young and then eventually drift westward toward the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere. I have to say “was” as Irma’s winds has all but obliterated the mangrove islands upon which they usually nest. The lagoon itself has completely flooded out – but as is nature – I’m sure it will regenerate in time.

But do the Frigatebirds have the time? The nesting season usually begins in September. Oh wait. So given the time of year, this means that most female Magnificent Frigatebirds (national bird of Antigua and Barbuda by the way) would either have just laid their eggs, or would be about to do so.

So my heart goes out to not only the affected people, but these magnificent Magnificent Frigatebirds (haha) that also stared directly at this beast. Although it is likely that many of the birds knew what was coming and high-tailed it out of there – probably except for the ones that had already started to incubate. All the numbers will emerge in due time, I’m certain.

Perhaps some of them may choose to visit our very own colony – if there is any room for newcomers that is. T&T houses a reasonable breeding population of Magnificent Frigatebirds on the islands of the extreme north of the territory. St Giles’ islands – affectionately known as St Giles rocks – because that’s what they are – are a collection of offshore islands just to the north east tip of Tobago. They form the northernmost land mass that belongs to Trinidad and Tobago, and they are home to a few hundred pairs of Magnificent Frigatebirds, as well as other seabird species.

While these birds aren’t part of the affected population, I thought it fitting to share some of my images of these majestic birds from a recent trip to these islands – only access is by boat, and any landing is strictly prohibited.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are mostly black birds with a distinctive angular silhouette. Most folks who are aware of what goes on above them (we all should be) would have some degree of familiarity with this unmistakable outline; one that has captivated me for no less than two decades. They were the first birds I used to actively observe. The difference with a visit to these tiny islands is that the birds can come a little closer than usual. This image was shot using a wide-angle lens and later converted to high-contrast black and white.

frigatebirds bq

 

 

 

 

 

The three birds pictured above are all juvenile birds, easily detectable with their all-white heads. Young birds from different nests often band together and explore. It truly is fascinating to observe them interact and practice the skills necessary for them to grow up to become one of the most (in)famous pirates of the open ocean. Without waterproofed feathers, these large birds cannot afford to get themselves wet. Tough task for a piscivore, right? All species of frigates must master the art of deftly plucking unsuspecting fish from the water, without actually entering the ocean. Practice makes perfect, and floating twigs make for great practice.

magnificent frigatebird-2

 

 

 

 

As they mature, their heads gradually turn black. Subadult females would resemble adult females of breeding age, except for one minor detail. Feet. While young birds have yellow feet, adult females’ feet are flushed reddish. St Giles is the only location (as far as I know) in T&T where one can get that coveted perched Magnificent Frigatebird photograph.

magnificent frigatebird

 

 

 

 

 

Adult male Magnificent Frigatebirds have a very conspicuous red throat patch – it’s actually called a gular sac – that is inflated and used to woo willing (and to encourage not-so-willing) females. This particular male seemed to have his hands full, with three attending females. They must really love that sac.

magnificent frigatebirds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I encourage everyone to pay a visit to these untouched islands – but only with an experienced and capable boatman. Zolani Frank of Frank’s Tours (868-470-7084) is one of the best, if not the best person to navigate the choppy waters off the tip of Tobago. Even though swells came from all sides and we never once were stationary, none of us on board ever felt threatened in the least.

Trust me, the experience is magical. To see hundreds of large seabirds take to the sky is something one doesn’t experience daily. I will share some of the other species we observed in a subsequent blog post. Stay tuned.

frigatebirds over st giles