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.
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.
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.
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