Not far off the coast of Tobago lies a smaller, even more intensely green island, Little Tobago. Even from the shores of Tobago, eager eyes can pick out the swirling white dots that can mean only thing: Tropicbirds.
Of all the many things to look forward to on last month’s visit to Trinidad and Tobago, I anticipated none more eagerly than the chance to finally see my first wild phaethontids, like bright white feathered suns against a tropical sky.
The Red-billed Tropicbirds of Little Tobago were busy indeed during our visit, hunting the open sea and flying in and out of their nesting cliffs — all the while working hard to avoid the depredations of the sinister-looking Magnificent Frigatebirds.
The frigates were remarkably good at hazing the tropicbirds into dropping their meal. The most dramatic episode was when a frigatebird swooped in to grab a tropicbird by the long tail; for several seconds, the pirate twisted the smaller bird’s feathers until finally it defecated — and the frigatebird dropped to partake of the stream in flight. Not overly appetizing, but still something no birder would want to have missed.
With so much bustle everywhere, it was obvious that the tropicbirds were in fact breeding, an assumption quickly borne out by the discovery of incubating birds right at our chosen overlook.
This individual was sufficiently nonplussed as to get up and turn its back to us, but the others simply faced us down, confident, I suppose, in the intimidation factor provided by that sharp, blood-red bill.
Only a frigatebird would mess with a face like that.