AWESOME HURRICANES & MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS


Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

AWESOME HURRICANES & MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS

‘Awesome’ in its original (and biblical) sense of ‘inspiring awe and fear’, I mean – as with hurricanes; not as in ‘awesome cupcakes’. And Magnificent because that’s what frigatebirds effortlessly are.

This post is about the resilience of birds after extreme weather events, and their powers of recovery. As we all recall, last autumn large areas of the Caribbean region were devastated by those twin furies, Irma and Maria. Islands that received direct hits from these destructive hurricanes were trashed with unimaginable ferocity, at a massive human, infrastructure and ecological cost from which slow recovery is still in progress. Barbuda was one of those islands.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

This is the heartening story of a colony of frigatebirds on Barbuda, where in the aftermath of the storms BirdsCaribbean members offered to survey the effects of the storms in terms of the natural history of the region. These included Frantz Delcroix and Eric Delcroix, who spent time on Barbuda in mid-October, 6 weeks after Hurricane Irma.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

Their assignment was to visit Codrington Lagoon, Barbuda, to carry out a survey of the Magnificent Frigatebirds to check how – or if – the sanctuary and its population was recovering six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit. The boat trip to the colony must have been tense; there might have been little or no colony left to survey.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

As they neared the location, and to their delight, they saw hundreds of frigatebirds in flight, with bushes adorned with the bright red gular pouches the males. In all they estimated 1,710 frigatebirds were in the colony. In a count of seven bushes alone, 279 birds (83 females and 196 males) were counted. Amazingly, 90% of the females were on nests and some of the birds were observed courting and mating, with males even carrying nest materials.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

Before the hurricane, the 4,000–5,000-strong frigatebird colony had chicks in the nest. Surveys just after the hurricane found no surviving chicks and only around 300 birds. Now, one and a half months later, there were more than 1,700 frigatebirds starting a new breeding period with almost all of the females nesting!

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

The team were of course deeply affected by the damage and desolation on Barbuda, and the suffering of its people. In a purely environmental context, the frigatebirds were a small sign of hope. As was noted at the time, “witnessing the power of nature—its ability to inflict such damage, but also how it can quickly rebound—was an extraordinary experience. So, we did not leave without hope. Nature is resilient!

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

BirdsCaribbean is an excellent and wide-ranging organisation that deserves support. You can ‘like’ it or follow it on FB HERE, sign up for regular emails, volunteer to get involved or donate on the website HERE, and maybe even consider a contribution to its ongoing hurricane recovery efforts HERE

Special thanks to Frantz Delcroix and Eric Delcroix for permission to use some of their wonderful photos taken during the survey; and to use parts of their review (with some adjustment to apply to the specifics of this post). Many thanks also to Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean, for her kind support whenever the occasion has arisen! 

 

MAGNIFICENT FLYING MACHINES: FRIGATEBIRDS


Magnificent Frigatebirds (m) - Michael Vaughn

MAGNIFICENT FLYING MACHINES: FRIGATEBIRDS

It’s almost exactly one year since I last posted about the Magnificent Frigatebird aka Man-o-War Bird (Fregata magnificens). You can read about their courtship displays, gular pouches, nesting habits, names, uses to mankind (if any), and 10 magnificent facts about them HERE. I’ve included some truncated facts below.

Now is a good time to revisit these wonderful sky pirates, for 2 reasons. The first is that photographer Michael Vaughn has produced some outstanding images of the species. The second is that I have just watched a characteristically superb BBC David Attenborough prog showing frigatebirds robbing tropicbirds of fish – despite them being lodged in the tropicbirds’ throats (for safekeeping…). Here’s the link to the sequence.

     CLICK LOGO TO VIEWmagnificent-frigatebird

Film clip: MF has TB by the leg & shakes it until the fish  (circled) drops outMagnificent Frigatebird steals fish from Tropicbird (BBC clip)

magnificent-frigatebird

A MAN-O-WAR GALLERY

A male in flight (a most unusual shot, taken from above)Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

Juveniles being delinquentMagnificent Frigatebirds (juv) - Michael Vaughn

A female in flight: the white front is the invariable distinguishing featureMagnificent Frigatebird (f) - Michael Vaughn

Maybe a bit of rivalry going on here….?Magnificent Frigatebird (f) - Michael Vaughn

magnificent-frigatebird

10 MAGNIFICENT FACTS ABOUT FRIGATEBIRDS

  • The largest of several frigatebird species around the world
  • Found in tropical and subtropical waters
  • Females have white fronts – easily distinguishable from males in flight
  • Adult wingspan is 7+ feet = largest wing-area / bodyweight ratio of any bird
  • Can remain in flight and far out to sea for many days
  • KLEPTOPARASITES – will rob other seabirds of their food
  • Diet: mainly fish & squid from the water’s surface; seabird chicks
  • Nest in colonies, producing a single egg every other season
  • Don’t land on water, as they can’t float; and feeble at walking on land
  • One of the earliest depictions of a frigatebird is by Eleazar Albin in 1737. He was a naturalist contemporary of MARK CATESBY & pre-dated AUDUBON

Albin’s Magnificent FrigatebirdFrigatebird_Eleazar_Albin_1737

Audubon’s Magnificent FrigatebirdAudubon Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

Credits: Michael Vaughn for all photos; cartoon from Birdorable; Mr Albin and Mr Audubon for ornithological awesomeness; TV CLIP bbc.co.uk  © copyright 2009 BBC

Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

FRIGATEBIRDS aka MAN-O-WAR BIRDS: TRULY MAGNIFICENT


Magnificent Frigatebird (m) with inflated 'gular sac' (neck pouch) - Athena Alexander / Jet Eliot

FRIGATEBIRDS aka MAN-O-WAR BIRDS: TRULY MAGNIFICENT

I have a feeling that today’s header image may be one of the best I have been fortunate enough to be able to use. Certainly in the top ten. This is a male frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) in the breeding season, with his extraordinary inflatable GULAR POUCH fully blown up. He is at his most chest-burstingly dashing, at least to female frigatebirds, and this great capture by photographer Athena Alexander from the excellent blog of JET ELIOT, shows one of the wonders of the bird world. A glimpse of his mate can be seen just behind his head, but frankly he has made the story his own! And just look at the size of his wings. If a bird can steal limelight, he has effortlessly done so.

COURTSHIP DISPLAY

The image below shows the male enacting his courtship display. Jet Eliot describes it thus: “During courtship display this balloon-like sac takes about 20 minutes to fully inflate.  It is featherless, scarlet red, and tight as a drum.  It’s so big it distorts him. When he’s ready and has a suitable audience of females flying overhead, he points his face skyward and rapidly beats his wings against the balloon, creating a low, booming sound”. The male’s pouch is not entirely inflated. A female is nestled under the his protective wing. Presumably she has been won over and mating will soon occur once the performance ends. Or maybe she’s bored with the whole routine – she looks rather as though she has seen it all before…frigatebird-displaying

magnificent-frigatebird

NESTING

Even on the nest, males are keen to be in the picture. Not for them the ‘absentee father’ role, out fishing the entire day. Instead, they share chick-care duties, looking after the single enormous, fluffy chick. An adult pair stays together for the year, forsaking all other. Chick care takes a long time from egg to fledging and beyond – so much so that frigatebirds only breed every other year, and always produce a single egg. For this reason, habitat destruction of breeding grounds has a far greater effect on population numbers than for birds that breed annually.Magnificent Frigatebird (m) and chick on nest - Athena Alexander / Jet Eliot

magnificent-frigatebird

10 MAGNIFICENT FACTS ABOUT FRIGATEBIRDS

  • Magnificent Frigatebirds are the largest of several frigatebird species around the world
  •  They are found in tropical and subtropical watersimgres
  • Females have white fronts that make them easily distinguishable in flight
  • An adult’s wingspan is 7+ feet, with the largest wing-area / bodyweight ratio of any bird
  • Frigatebirds can remain in flight and far out to sea for many days
  • They are KLEPTOPARASITES and will rob other seabirds of their food
  • Their diet is mainly fish & squid snatched from the water’s surface; also seabird chicks
  • They nest in colonies, producing a single egg every other season
  • They don’t actually land on water, as they don’t float; and they are feeble at walking on land
  • One of the earliest depictions of a frigatebird is by Eleazar Albin in 1737. He was a naturalist contemporary of MARK CATESBY and pre-dated AUDUBON

Frigatebird_Eleazar_Albin_1737

magnificent-frigatebird

NAMING THE FRIGATEBIRD: A POTTED HISTORY

  • Columbus encountered them on his first voyage in 1492, but knew them by their Spanish name rabiforçado or ‘fork-tail’.
  • The use of the name ‘frigatebird’ was first recorded in 1667 and referenced the frigate warship, a powerful sea-vessel
  • ‘Man-o-War Bird’ was the name given to the bird by English mariners in the Caribbean, being the colloquial name given by sailors to a frigate.

magnificent-frigatebird

A MAN-O-WAR GALLERY

A female frigatebird hunts for food among the mangroves on AbacoMagnificent Frigatebird.Abaco Bahamas.2.12.Tom Sheley 2

A female frigatebird soars high over Marsh HarbourMagnificent Frigatebird, Marsh Harbour, Abaco - Tom Reed

This male has taken off before his gular pouch has had time to deflate fullyFrigatebirds (m) 2 Michael Vaughn

An osprey escorts a female frigatebird from his territory to a different bit of sky…Frigatebird & Osprey Michael Vaughn

Juvenile frigatebirdFrigatebird (juv) Michael Vaughn

A fully-inflated male with a droopy one who needs to get started quick if he’s going to get a mateFrigatebirds (m) 1 Michael Vaughn

ARE FRIGATEBIRDS ANY USE TO MAN OR BEAST?

Yes, emphatically so, to man anyway. Mariners through the ages have used frigatebirds as indicators of nearby land – not necessarily visible, but within sailing distance. And fishermen through the ditto have used them as reliable indicators of where fish are to be found. As an example from personal experience on Abaco, going fishing out of Casuarina into the deep waters of the open sea, the sight of high-flying frigatebirds signals ‘get ready to fish’. They are scouting around for fish, and so are you. But they know where the fish are. Follow them and you will may be rewarded. Because where there are fish for seabird predators, there are fish for the large fish predators – mahi mahi, tuna and wahoo, for example. This is not my main type of fishing, but each time we have been out in those waters – with the Delphi Club often a still-visible speck on the horizon – the frigatebirds have led us to good catches of mahi mahi (= dorado or ‘dolphin’). Last year, under the watchful gaze of the frigatebirds, in a heart-stopping moment I jumped a wahoo. If that sounds slightly rude, it isn’t – and I didn’t catch it anyway. It just leapt vertically right out of the water without taking the goodies…

STOP PRESS Cheryl Wile Ferguson sent me a great photo of a female MF being sociable with humans in the Galapagos. She hitched a ride for 2 hours during a sea crossing…Magnificent Frigatebird (f) hitching a boat ride (Cheryl Wile Ferguson)

Audubon’s Magnificent FrigatebirdAudubon Frigatebird

Credits: first and foremost to Athena Alexander and Jet Eliot for use permission for images 1 – 3 (taken on Galapagos) and much invaluable info; as ever to Tom Sheley (4), Tom Reed (5) and Michael Vaughn (6,7,8,9) for their photos; Cartoon from Birdorable; other images open source; magpie pickings for facts and figures; and some limited personal experience (regrettably but unsurprisingly all my photos of frigatebirds flying, diving, triumphantly catching fish etc are too crap to use)