Monday, May 12, 2014

Magnificent Frigatebird !!!

I think even non-birders will be fascinated by this bit of Magnificent Frigatebird trivia:
An adult Magnificent Frigatebird has a 90 inch wingspan (think 7.5 feet!) and only weighs some 3.3 pounds.
Frigatebird’s legs are so short, they cannot walk. Period.
Except when they are nesting or caring for their young, these birds rarely touch land or sea.  Night or day—these birds live on the wing!
These Magnificently-winged beauties have a long forked-tail. Both wingspan and tail equip them for quick acrobatic movements and sprinter-like turns and maneuvers.  (Equipped for their good life and for another bird’s bad day.  Read on…)
The Frigatebird spends almost ALL of its life soaring in the air, mostly over ocean, gulf and bays.  BUT their feathers are not water-proof!  If they land on the water (or dive into water for favored fish or squid diet), the water absorption will quickly drown them!  Did Mother-Nature create a design flaw?  Read on about innate survival craftiness…
The solution?  It would seem that Mother Nature’s design has equipped these soaring acrobats for a life of thievery!  Magnificent Frigatebirds are the pirates of the seas, stealing other seabird’s food.  And just how do they steal food, without touching their feathers or theft to water?  Read on…
Frigatebirds will often work in groups, giving chase to another bird when that bird is in flight, carrying its honestly-caught seafood dinner in bill (or pouch).  The in-flight chase will cause the chased bird’s dinner to be dropped (or regurgitated) and the Frigatebird will make its frigate-like maneuver and catch the drop, mid-air, without touching water!  
Wow, Mother Nature, it seems you didn’t just gift us humans with the “skill” of craftiness for a life outside of Eden!
Thus the name Frigatebird—frigates are fast-moving, highly maneuverable ships, often used as warships.  In the 1700’s, frigates were the ship-of-choice for pirates.  Pirate-crewed frigates could out-maneuver their victims’ ships and exploit high-seas thievery, stealing the victims’ vessels of goods and supplies. 
And so I leave you to contemplate:  the non-human, natural design of a Magnificent Frigatebird requires it to mooch and rob and thieve for its daily bread.  There is no moral compass.  They do what they are innately designed to do.  They make the most of their best-in-design to compensate for their worst-in-design.  Sound familiar?
And now on to my story, and pictures, of Friday’s unexpected Magnificent Frigatebird sighting!  (You can do it, read on….)

I spent this past Friday out birding the Texas City dike.  If you’ve never visited “The Dike” (as locals call it), this man-made pier extends over five miles into Galveston Bay.

A good asphalt road takes you out to the dike’s end, providing fantastic views of Galveston Bay, the east-side of Galveston Island, the Galveston-Bolivar ferry route, international mega-tankers and ships traversing the Houston Ship Channel. 

Weekends will find the dike quite crowded with people and cars, but school-year weekdays hold the quiet of most fisher-folk.  My blog post from November 2013 shares pictures and info: The Texas City Dike Pictures & Story

Although Friday was quite warm and humid, I was delighted with a day of close-range photographic opportunities to capture shorebird courting rituals. Sandwich Terns and Laughing Gulls were risking “a talking to” from conservative parents due to their extravagant Public Display of Affection.  (My upcoming “Gull Love” blog post is in the making.) 

Many of us second half-century birders appreciate birding the Texas City dike as it is mostly a sit-in-car activity.  Drive out on the dike and pick just about any human-empty spot, park the car, and sit and wait.  The birds will come to you. 

Look out onto the bay waters for diving Brown Pelicans; watch their not-so-elegant crash-landing fishing technique.  Use your binoculars to scan the dike’s granite boulders.  These granite boulders frame much of the dike’s five-mile ribbon of land, protecting it from wave and storm.

Your binocular view will likely catch American Oystercatchers or Black-bellied Plovers walking and hopping from boulder-to-boulder. Even Great Blue Herons will pose atop granite for your day’s photos. These granite boulders hold many a childhood memory for me when family daytrips allowed me to walk and hop boulder-to-boulder. 

The shell-packed “land” and beach areas of the dike offer great viewing of a number of shorebirds, from motor-legged Sanderlings to belly-flopped Black Skimmers. 

Now this past Friday found me driving from Spot X to Spot Y on the dike, thrilled with my peeping at the gull and tern PDA. While driving some 10mph, looking out and about for water and land-level birds, I noted a large flying Aves, just visible from the top upper-left corner of my windshield.  I admit to first giving it no attention, no real look, writing it off as a Great Blue Heron.
But my brain’s internal registers cycled from zeros to ones, and I swerved the car a bit for another look.  With this second look time froze; my brain’s processors were caught by surprise:  a Swallow-tail Kite’s forked tail?  On a mega-mega-bird? 

In one spastic move I pulled the car off the asphalt and onto the shell-based shoulder, jumped out of the car with camera and binoculars, and searched sky to reacquire this soaring beauty.  My evening field-guide studies were bringing an unfamiliar bird to mind:  Frigatebird!

My focus was on getting photographs—and this high-soaring feathered One was a quick-moving speck-of-an-object, against a solid grey, overcast sky. If you photograph flying birds, you know the challenge.  If you attempt to photograph soaring hawks or Anhingas, you definitely understand!

My photos are not stellar—I’d have to go to the Dry Tortugas or Coastal Brazil, Ecuador or Baja California for “grounded” nest-sightings of a Magnificent Frigatebird. 
But what an amazing surprise to sight two Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over Galveston Bay.  Both appeared to be second year “juveniles” but only one gave me best photographic viewing. 
This closer Frigatebird showed missing and misplaced feathers that the more distant companion did not.  Whether the feathers are damaged from battle-scarred thievery or normal mid-molt loss, I do not know.
I’m thrilled to add this current day pirate-of-the-seas to my life list. And I’ll long wonder over this bird that soars most twenty-four-hour days for in-flight rest, in-flight meals and in-flight thievery!

Footnote:  The only U.S. nesting site for the Magnificent Frigatebird is the Dry Tortugas.  Never heard of them?  Me neither.  They are a small group of U.S. islands located off the end of the Florida Keys.   These islands include the Dry Tortugas National Park.  Look up the history and geography of this U.S. soil—fascinating!


  1. I think I swiped a candy bar once from Dave. When caught by Mom, I wished I could have used the excuse of "Kleptoparasitism" which is what the Frigatebirds have. As it turned out, I ended up without the candy bar AND had to help Mom dry the dishes.

    1. Serves you right. And you call that drying dishes? Dave

  2. I remember my first frigatebird sighting...I thought it was an airplane! Great experience, isn't it?!


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