Oh, Frigate!

Faraaz Abdool is an avid wildlife photographer and conservationist. His passion is to record and share the beauty of nature as art in the hope that future generations would be able to also enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth. Here, he asks us to cherish Trinidad and Tobago’s colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds as he mourns the loss of Barbuda’s colony. (The original version of this feature was first published here: http://faraazabdool.com/2017/09/10/oh-frigates/ )

With the recent obliteration of Barbuda as a result of Hurricane Irma, there is a major concern 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 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 – a type of shorebird – 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 remaining suitable habitat for grazing of domesticated animals – this recent event might have been  the end. However, the Barbuda Warbler has been found in post-Irma surveys; though official numbers are yet to emerge.

Also on 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 reduced to nothing the mangrove islands upon which they usually nest. The lagoon itself has completely flooded out. I’m sure it will regenerate in time. But do the Frigatebirds have the time? The nesting season usually begins in September. So given the time of year, this means that most female Magnificent Frigatebirds (national bird of Antigua and Barbuda) would either have just laid their eggs, or were about to do so.  (At the time of publication, October 19, 2017, we are told that the Barbuda birds are returning to the Lagoon.)

Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird “practising” the art of picking fish from the surface of the water, using a small twig as a dummy fish. (All photos by Faraaz Abdool)

My heart goes out to not only the affected people, but these magnificent Magnificent Frigatebirds that also stared directly at the beast. It is likely that many of the birds knew what was coming and high-tailed it out of there – except for the ones that had already started to incubate. A comprehensive census must be conducted in due course.

Perhaps some of them may choose to visit our very own colony – if there is any room for newcomers. T&T houses a reasonable breeding population of Magnificent Frigatebirds on the islands of Saint Giles. These islands 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.
Magnificent Frigatebirds are mostly black with a distinctive angular silhouette. Of the five members of the Frigatebird family, Magnificent Frigatebirds are the largest. They are graceful masters of the air and open ocean as they are able to soar effortlessly for hours without expending much energy flapping their wings. This is because they have the largest wingspan to body length ratio of any bird – this means that they have tremendously large wings for a relatively small bodies. This trait allows them to be very skilful on the wing – something that is necessary for a bird that eats fish but can’t afford to get wet!
Female Magnificent Frigatebird perched. Tobago’s offshore islands are the only place within T&T one would be able to see a perched Magnificent Frigatebird.

Magnificent Frigatebirds live over the ocean, eat fish but if they ever land on the surface of the water, they become waterlogged and drown. Their feathers do not have the waterproofing that other seabirds have. Furthermore, they would be unable to flap their huge wings properly to enable a takeoff from the water. So how do they get their food?

Their high level of maneuverability lets them fly down to the water and deftly pick floating morsels off the surface –  fish or discarded offal from a fishing vessel. They have also been known to eat flying fish that have taken to the air to escape a predator underwater. A now famous clip of the flying fish’s predicament was filmed by the BBC a couple years ago just off St Giles.
What makes them most infamous – and what has given rise to their various names – is their habit of stealing food from other seabirds. Boobies, Terns and Tropicbirds are all smaller than the gigantic Frigatebirds, and once the pirates realize there’s booty to be had, it’s all out war. Harassment can range from simply blocking the flight path to outright attacks; Frigatebirds have been known to grab the tails of the smaller birds until they regurgitate their catch. It is for this reason they are called “Man-o-war” – and even their official name is derived from the word “frigate”, which is a type of fast warship.
Male Magnificent Frigatebird with red gular sac visible, sitting among three adult female Magnificent Frigatebirds.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are generally easy to tell apart from each other. Adult females are the largest, they are all black overall with an easily seen white throat patch. Adult males have no white, but they do have a spectacular red throat that they puff up during courtship. Unlike the female’s white throat which is feathered, this red throat of adult males is actually featherless and is referred to as a gular sac. Young Magnificent Frigatebirds start their lives off completely white, and gradually get their black adult feathers as they mature. Immature birds retain a pure white head until they reach adulthood.

Magnificent Frigatebirds occupy a special niche in the ecosystem of the New World Tropics, and most people have only seen them soaring in the sky, not unlike the illustrations of prehistoric flying reptiles. There are few places in the world where they perch – and our very own islands of St Giles is one of those very special places.


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