Breeding Frigatebirds

Male frigatebird, Galapagos

Male frigatebird, Galapagos

Although I had seen them soaring many times from Hawaiian shorelines, my goal was to see the male frigatebird in breeding.  I wanted to see the sea bird with the flamboyant red throat pouch.


Frigatebirds have the largest wing-area-to-body-weight ratio of any bird on this planet.  With a wingspan stretching 7.5 feet (2.3 meters), they have been known to fly continuously for up to 12 days–hunting, bathing, and drinking on the wing.


Lacking oil glands, they cannot dry off, do not swim.  Due to their body proportionality, they cannot walk.  Their pneumatic (filled with air) bones are so light, they only contribute to 5% of the total body weight.  They live in tropical or subtropical seas, and breed on certain remote oceanic islands.


Female Great Frigatebird

Female Great Frigatebird

Named for their sea faring ways, frigatebirds are slow breeders, producing only one egg per season, every other year.  More info here.


So we arranged to visit a frigatebird breeding colony in the Galapagos Islands.  Upon arrival on North Seymour Island, winds were strong, gusting sand into our eyes.  Per Ecuador’s rules, a guide led us; we traversed obscure sandy paths through tall bushes and dry scrub brush, headed for the colony of several dozen Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds.


Male frigatebird and nestling on nest, No. Seymour Island

Male frigatebird & nestling on nest, No. Seymour Isl.

As we neared the colony, the sounds of utter bird chaos greeted us.  We heard nestlings whining and screeching, males clicking and clacking, there was gobbling and rattling.  Click here for a sound byte.


The red gular pouch (or throat sac) on the male was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen.  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.


Male Magnificent Frigatebird displaying

Male Magnificent Frigatebird displaying

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.


These majestic aerialists soar for days, and grace the skies of the world’s tropical shorelines.  And their courtship involves huge throat balloons and rhythmic drumming.  What a spectacular bird!


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander



86 thoughts on “Breeding Frigatebirds

    • How fortunate to have Hawaii in your future, Jan. I have seen them (in non-breeding phase) on most of the Hawaiian islands. You might easily mistake them for vultures, but upon closer look you will see they are much, much bigger. They are always soaring within sight of the ocean. Keep looking, and I am quite certain you will see a few. Aloha! And Mahalo! 😀

    • Being an excellent photographer yourself, you can imagine how many hundreds of photos there were that got deleted before these got winnowed out. ha. Thank you, Cindy — always a treat.

    • This made me laugh, thank you sc. They sure captivated us two females. lol. ‘Course we happened to travel thousands of miles just to see them, so that had something to do with it too. lol. Thanks so much, my friend, always a delight. 😀

  1. Magnificent bird! One chick every other year, and probably their breeding age is some five years… Another species in danger. Thank you for the informative post and stunning photos.

    • We’re not doing “a big year” except for every year is a big year when it comes to birding. So very glad you enjoyed the post, grey eye. Thanks for stopping by, come again sometime, there’s lots of birding adventures here. 😀

    • Although not in breeding, we have seen the frigatebirds in Belize, Hawaii, Australia, Mexico and Florida (I think) too. So you may see them in your other travels, Sue. Thanks so much! 😀

      • We saw the non-breeding frigatebirds in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico. The species there is the magnificent. When I say non-breeding, it means you will not see the red gular pouch. You will see a very big black and white bird soaring high above you near the water, with a forked tail. We stayed at the Garza Canela Hotel (ask for their best rm). You might see them along other tropical Mexican shorelines as well, binoculars are advised. Glad you asked, dear Sue, let me know if you have more questions. 😀 😀

      • We are headed to the Nayarit area but already booked. I will keep my eyes peeled although I am certainly not a birder. Thanks so much for the information Jet. 🙂

  2. I watched these birds (Non breeding) at the very north coast of Peru and not to far from Galapagos. They are amazing looking when they fly in circles gliding the warm ascending wind, resembling pterodactyls. I was happy to shoot some pictures of them. Thanks Jet for your quite interesting post! 🙂

  3. I love frigatebirds, they’re extra cute and it’s so amazing to observe them flying with this huge red balloon 😉

    I don’t know , have you seen some of my pictures from Galapagos, but here are 3 photos of frigatebirds: ,
    Sorry, for putting 3 links, but these birds are so amazing so I couldn’t resist to share them 🙂

  4. Magnificent. You lucky lady. I love Albatross and was thrilled to see some about 10 years ago off the East Coast of Australia. I hope to see some again. An old female Laysan Albatross, Wisdom, who is 64 years old lays her eggs on Midway. I know I digress but your frigates reminded me of that.

    • The big seabirds, are so, ahhh, incredible to see up close. A rare opportunity for us, because when they/we are out at sea, we cannot get as close. There were albatross on the Galapagos Isl. too, and blue foot boobies as well. I enjoyed your enthusiasm, Sherry, and appreciate your visit–thank you! 😀

    • When we had finally arrived on this remote island (after a year of planning, yrs of saving, and 2 days of travel) we had a similar feeling…could not quite believe it. I am so lucky Athena captured these great photos to confirm the reality. And how fun to share this incredible bird with you, pc. Thank you. 😀

  5. Those red throats are spectacular and to see them like that, in their natural habitat, WOW! We saw so many of these bird crossing the Panama Canal but never knew of their personal challenges – thank you. 🙂

  6. frigates…man, way more spectacular than I thought. And didn’t know they were in Hawaii. I saw them in the Galapagos, but didn’t realize about their wingspan, or inability to walk! Very cool post!

  7. OM,om dear Jet!What a showy and extraordinary species of a bird it is!I have stayed dumbfounded after seeing Athena’s brilliant photos and reading your pictorial prose!Incredible feautures and characteristics,amazing flying abilities and breeding strategies.I am over enthusiastic,I don’t know what I’m saying,what I am writing about this super-powerful and beautiful bird.It’s like a hi-tech aircraft.This red red ballon-like throat and its functionality is incredible!Please dear fiend,take all those posts with the rare photos you share with us and make them a printed book.Compelling experiences,you’re a great birder,a great naturalist!Thank you so very much for this captivating post 🙂 ^)))*****

    • I am humbled by your spirited remarks, dear Doda, and smiling as I type. I have a very special place in my heart for the Galapagos frigatebirds. I am delighted it showed in the post, and feel so lucky to have Athena’s awesome photos to share. A bird we chased halfway across the world and watched for an hour, but what a fantastic hour it was. I am absolutely delighted to have shared this incredible species with you, dear Doda. Thank you so much. 😀

  8. Loved this, Jet. Great photos from Athena. We have frigatebirds (man-o-war birds) on Abaco, and I have watched males displaying… but on a distant sandbank out of practical camera range. Birds that fly over the shoreline are mostly females. When deep-sea fishing, it pays to look out for these birds. They show where fish are to be found. They feed on the small fish that larger fish – mahi mahi / ‘dolphin’ / dorado – are also after… So the rule is, look for the frigatebirds! RH

    • Oh I love that you have had so many experiences with the frigatebirds, RH. How very rich for you. I had heard about watching on fishing boats for the frigatebirds, but I really liked hearing your firsthand experience. Thanks so very much for your contribution here, my friend. 😀

    • That was definitely the longest trek we have ever made for one species — definitely worth it. I am glad you enjoyed the frigatebirds, dear Nan. Thank you so much for stopping by. 🙂

  9. Jet, I’m just putting together a post about Frigatebirds and remembered your recent post with Athena’s wonderful pics. May I have use permission for some of these, duly credited to A and also to you (with a link to your blog if you like!). Quite understand if either or both of you would prefer not… RH

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