St Giles and the Bird of Paradise

Meet the birds of Tobago’s offshore islands with Faraaz Abdool
This feature was published in Tobago Newsday, December 14, 2017
(All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool)

No, we’re not talking about Giles the Hermit – but something that has a similar level of secrecy and a whole lot more majesty. The islands of St Giles at 11.34 degrees north latitude form the northernmost land mass that falls under the jurisdiction of Trinidad and Tobago. Located just off the north-eastern tip of Tobago, this gathering of rocky offshore islets is an ecologically important site for a host of different creatures. So much so that the critically acclaimed (not to mention mind-blowing) documentary series Blue Planet II features a segment that was filmed in the waters just off St Giles Island.
After being the property of Charlotteville Estates for one hundred years, the St Giles islands were deeded to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1965 – under the condition that they be designated a sanctuary. This proactive move more than fifty years ago has ensured that today, we can all enjoy observing the wildlife that frequents these rocky islets – in particular the seabirds that rely on a safe place in order to nest and raise future generations.
Adult Laughing Gull in breeding plumage, Little Tobago
A short distance around the north tip of Tobago lies an island that was formerly known as Bird of Paradise Island – after its introduced population of Greater Bird of Paradise. After the passage of Hurricane Flora in 1963, the Birds of Paradise were not able to recover and today, they can no longer be found on Little Tobago. We also know a lot more about the perils of non-native species – so although the intentions were noble, it is absolutely beneficial to our native species that the population did not survive. The Greater Bird of Paradise still lives on each TT hundred dollar bill though!
Brown Noddies with first year juvenile Laughing Gulls on St Giles
Open-ocean birds lead a vastly different lifestyle than the feathered friends we’re accustomed to. Sometimes for days, weeks, even months at a time they live with no land in sight. Some of these birds rest bobbing on the surface of the water; others get their shut-eye on the wing. When it’s time to nest, it’s a different story.
Bridled Tern and young on a crevice on St Giles
Pelagic terns such as Bridled and Sooty Terns can spend their non-breeding months almost anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean, although they do tend to follow warmer water. Both species breed on the islands of St Giles as well as on Little Tobago. Superficially very similar, the Sooty Terns tend to prefer the slightly more gentle cliffs of Little Tobago, almost as if they prefer the elbow room of an open nest; while the Bridled Terns will nest in crevices that will make anyone’s palms sweaty.
During their nesting period, the noisy Sooty Terns jostle for position among the hundreds of equally noisy Laughing Gulls that also nest on Little Tobago.
Laughing Gulls are not ocean going birds; they are a common and familiar sight around seashores on both Trinidad and Tobago. Around April each year, they all gather and migrate en masse to Little Tobago and St Giles to raise their young, whether they were spending their time in Plymouth or Point Fortin. Not only do they change location, they also change their appearance drastically. The rush of hormones that accompanies the courtship and breeding period transforms each adult Laughing Gull from a plain, drab bird to a striking black-headed specimen with a bill that seems to have been dipped in blood. Bright white crescents around their eyes complete their fresh, dressed-up look.
Another member of the family Laridae (that includes gulls and terns) is the Brown Noddy. Evidence of the relation is clear in the similarities in body structure. Brown Noddies do sport a silvery-white cap that looks like it has been carefully airbrushed on. Relatively social birds, they not only nest colonially, but will associate with other seabird species while feeding. It has been noted that when they arrive to a colonial nest-site for the very first time, they always do so under cover of darkness.
While on the topic of darkness, there is a bird that nests on these islands but only visits its offspring at night. Audubon’s Shearwaters do sometimes nest in crevices like Bridled Terns, but they also nest under dense vegetation or even in an underground burrow.
The breeding habits of all these birds make one point abundantly clear – populations are extremely susceptible to human interference. They are at their most vulnerable while they are raising their young – as are the chicks themselves – an activity that takes place at ground level. The reason these seabirds choose offshore islands to lay their eggs is simple: no terrestrial predators. This is why responsible human behaviour is mandatory at these special sites around the world in order to ensure their survival. A single cat or rat that makes it onto any of these islands can have disastrous consequences.
Sooty Tern jostling for space among the Laughing Gulls on Little Tobago
These birds endure untold hardships on a day to day basis: Sooty Terns rely on ocean predators to force small fish to the surface, Bridled Terns must find and follow the boundaries between ocean currents in order to eat. It isn’t easy to be covered in feathers that must be kept dry while your food is underwater!

The waters off of Tobago must, in no uncertain terms, be kept rich in order to continue to provide food for the next generation of graceful seabirds. And we have discussed here only half the recorded species that can be seen with relative ease at the correct time of year. Between April and August, you have a good chance of getting great views of these species.
If you want to visit these bird sanctuaries, be sure to go with a knowledgeable guide: Zolani Frank of Frank’s Tours is both expert boatman and birder, two necessary skills for an unforgettable experience.
Audubon shearwater chick in a nest burrow on Little Tobago. All photos by Faraaz Abdool


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