WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

EFFORTLESS ELEGANCE

Here are some gorgeous white-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) seen within the last week near the Low Place on Man-o-War Cay. There were 6 in the group, flying high, flying low, circling, dipping down, flirting  – all of this taking place just offshore.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Sally Chisholm, Abaco birder and photographer, was with Todd Pover of CWFNJ, engaged in the final piping plover count of the season before the birds return to their summer breeding grounds [check out ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH if you are interested]. Sally and Todd were distracted from the matter in hand as the group of tropicbirds glided and swooped through the air. It was a free demonstration of beautiful flying skills that can be matched by few other species.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

It became obvious that courtship was involved. As Sally vividly describes it, “The birds were observed for more than 15 minutes making wide circles, at times flying out of sight across towards Great Abaco and coming back flying low over the same area on MOW. Two birds would interact with a lot of “keck-keck-keck”, and then one of the pair flew down to land several times in the same crevice of the iron shore. It first appeared that the bird was landing for food but none of the photos showed anything carried. The display looked to be one of courtship and was amazing to watch”.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

TROPICAL TOPICS

  • WTTR plunge-dive for fish and squid, sometimes submerging completely
  • Or they swoop and skim their prey from the surface
  • Another technique to take flying fish in the air (I’d love to see that…)
  • WTTR have no fixed breeding season, and may nest year-round
  • Nesting is colonial or in pairs in a particular area, or even in isolation
  • Pre-mating behaviour involves courtship displays (as here)
  • A pair will fly together, one above the other then…
  • …the higher bird bends its tail down to touch tail of lower bird and [veil drawn]
  • They nest in crevices, holes in rock, on ledges, on the ground under vegetation
  • Chicks are fed by both parents using regurgitation
  • The same site may be re-used for several years by the same pair

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Credits: All photos, Sally Chisholm except the fantastic nest shot, Melissa Maura (many thanks to both for use permission – I’ve never got a decent photo of one); Audubon NA

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD

A competition to decide the most elegant bird found on Abaco (of 350+ recorded species) is a simpler task than it sounds. Colourfulness doesn’t come into (sorry, painted bunting, Abaco parrot & co). Nor cuteness, rarity, popularity and so on. Some birds don’t make the starting line at all (but we love you, ungainly limpkins and raucous clumsy-flying Anis). Best to judge from a different viewpoint: is there one bird that in flight is invariably beautiful to watch, in a way that can make you catch your breath…?

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

The caribbean white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) is one of six types of tropicbird found worldwide. It is named after pioneering naturalist MARK CATESBY, who predated John James Audubon. Click the link to find out more about him. Catesby’s depiction (below) of a ‘Phaeton’ must be one of the earliest.

Catesby’s TropicbirdTropicbird - Mark Catesby jpg

IMG_0413

In the Bahamas, tropicbirds are summer resident only and breed on the islands. Abaco is fortunate to have several breeding colonies, not all in remote or inaccessible places. Female tropicbirds lay a single egg directly onto the ground or on rocky ledges and in rocky holes. One might suppose that such limited egg production with a somewhat high-risk nesting policy, coupled with modern problems such as habitat destruction, might affect numbers. However, these fine birds seem to be doing well, and are IUCN-listed ‘Least Concern’.

This tropicbird on Abaco has found a safe place to nest in a rocky holeWhite-tailed Tropicbird on nest, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

Tropicbirds have a variety of local names in the Caribbean, for example ‘longtail’ and ‘bosun bird’ (after their screeching call). They plunge-dive for fish, but are inexpert swimmers. This is a factor I am prepared to overlook in the elegance contest. They were born to fly high, not to paddle about.

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE STORY OF TB THE TROPICBIRD

A couple of years ago, a tropicbird chick was rescued by a dive boat and given to Melissa Maura, well-known for her animal magic, to care for. She nurtured ‘TB’, giving him a soft bed and providing him with a swimming pool. To begin with, it looked as though he might not be able to fly at all, but as he became stronger he started to flap his wings.

White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Then it was time to go to the beach, get acquainted with sand and sea, and practise flying. I have some pathetic photos of an exhausted TB lying flat out on the sand after his initial attempts to fly. But Melissa and TB persevered with the flying practice and in due course TB began to get the hang of it. Finally, the great day arrived. Melissa and a friend took TB down to the beach and launched him into the air. He took off, flying strongly away, never to return. A moment of triumph mixed with poignance.

  White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura) White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

You are very welcome to propose a rival in the elegance stakes in the comment box!

Credits: Main photos Alex Hughes; TB images Melissa Maura

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)