Red-billed Tropicbirds at Little Tobago Island

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island

The small and uninhabited island of Little Tobago in the West Indies was our destination for observing rare close-up views of red-billed tropicbirds.

Little Tobago Island jetty

Red-billed tropicbirds nest on this island for 6-8 weeks. After the chicks are born they return to sea. Primarily a white bird with black eye markings, they are about 19 inches (48 cm) long. Their long streamer tail is unmistakable.

View from Little Tobago Observation Deck

There are few chances to ever see a tropicbird. As seabirds, they live and hunt on the ocean. Although they nest on land, if you are in one of the nesting venues, the birds are usually far away on a cliff and about the size of a pinhead.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Little Tobago Island (female)

We took a 20-minute boat ride to the island.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Little Tobago Island has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1926, and is home to numerous nesting seabird colonies. It hosts 50 species of native birds.


Nesting Red-billed Tropicbird hiding

Anyone going to Little Tobago Island requires a permit, and there are no facilities (no food, water, or bathrooms).


Once we walked through the tropical forest and up the muddy trails, we observed numerous bird species from the observation deck–gulls and noddies, shearwaters, brown boobies, and a peregrine falcon. Plenty of frigatebirds too–another of my favorite seabirds.


Our guide, in his jocular Caribbean accent, explained the deck had been built for the making of a David Attenborough film in 1990. Compared to the rest of the island with impenetrable jungle growth and abandoned buildings, the deck was well-maintained, sturdy, and boasted a sweeping, unobstructed view of the ocean.

Frigatebird (left) chasing Red-billed Tropicbird (center)

The film, he told us, was entitled “The Trials of Life,” and David Attenborough had visited here to narrate Episode 3. They had filmed the red-billed tropicbirds and highlighted the birds’s challenge in feeding the chicks.


The tropicbird parents gather fish in their mouths to take back to the nest for the chick, but are often attacked by frigatebirds. Sometimes the frigatebird will violently pluck out the tropicbird’s streamer tail, or accost the bird in other ways. They don’t care about the bird, they just want the mouthful of food.


Click here for YouTube David Attenborough Episode 3 at Little Tobago Island.  It is a few minutes of footage at the end.


I knew about the tropicbirds, the frigatebirds, and their ongoing war. But my interest was suddenly piqued by the other topic.

“So David Attenborough was here?” I asked.


The guide nodded.


“Right where we’re standing?”


He nodded again.


I heard him say the tail feathers grow back, but after that I unknowingly tuned out his words. Instead, I looked around at the deck, dazzled by David Attenborough being here.


Soon we descended the trail.


I muttered, “David Attenborough was on these steps” and “David Attenborough went down this trail.” Between the crashing sea, strong winds, and squawking birds, no one heard me. Well, no one responded. I might’ve been going on a bit too much about it.


But magically I had just come one step closer to one of my heroes. This funky little island with its abandoned buildings and seabird spectacles had just become a new heaven.


Photo credit Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.


David Attenborough (cropped).jpg

Wildscreen’s photograph of David Attenborough at ARKive’s launch in Bristol, England © May 2003

The Trials of Life DVD cover



80 thoughts on “Red-billed Tropicbirds at Little Tobago Island

  1. I’m with you! I would have lost all attention at learning about the Big DA.

    We just watched a show (Netflix streamed) where the frigatebirds — ‘pirates of the sea’ — gobbled down not only helpless undefended tern chicks but ALSO strong young terns in flight. A fatally injured tern would get dropped only to be swept into another waiting bill, for further torture before sliding down the gullet alive. Nature. It’s a bird-eat-bird world, I tell ya, Jet.

    You have had quite the bird adventures! When I grow up, I want to be Jet (Athena). ;D

    • I SO enjoyed your greeting, Shannon, thanks so very much…I’m still smiling as I type. Those pirates of the sea can be rough, it’s true. I still love them, for their incredible flying skills, and those males with that giant red throat pouch during breeding are so very cool. I loved hearing your delight for “the Big DA” too, Shannon. Many thanks, my friend~~

  2. David Attenborough is quite something isn’t he, but even he isn’t a patch on those birds. The photos are wonderful – both the tropicbird and the frigate bird look like they have been drawn or designed by someone with a few flicks of a pen – almost unreal looking. I love them, thank you 😄

    • Oh how I enjoyed hearing your enjoyment and appreciation of the tropicbird and frigatebird, Alastair. Outstanding fliers and a joy to watch. I am delighted to have introduced these “few flicks of a pen” to you. You made me smile, thank you. 🙂

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the visit to Little Tobago Island, Iris. I wouldn’t say it’s calm there, with the sea and wind and bawdy birds, but the isolation is magnificent, and the beauty unending. Fun to take you along~~

  3. Wonderful stories and photographs! What beautiful birds, and the fight for food on the wing is incredible. Really enjoyed this, and there’s nothing eccentric about wandering an uninhabited Caribbean island talking to yourself. Not if David Attenborough has been there.
    Thanks for this, Jet. Have a great weekend!

    • And oh, how wonderful it was to receive this message and validation, pc. What a fun place to wander and imagine, and a joy to have you join me. Thanks ever so, pc. You, too, have a fun-filled weekend.

  4. Loved the view from the observation deck and your reaction to sharing a space once visited by David Attenborough. I currently have Planet Earth 2 recorded to watch and I will definitely check out the YouTube videos for Trials of Life. Thanks for sharing the wonderful shots of the red-billed tropicbirds and your trip to Little Tobago Island.

    • It was interesting to look at the 1990 Trials of Life film segment, and a thrill to see the observation deck where we stood. Of course, as it goes in film footage vs. real life, I suspect the few minutes on film of the tropicbird and frigatebird battles consisted in real time of at least a week of filming. Interesting too to see how far filming (stabilization, clarity, etc.) has advanced in the past 17 years. The Planet Earth 2 series (I haven’t seen it yet) is supposed to be very advanced technologically, I am sure you (and I) will enjoy it immensely. Thanks so much, ACI, for your lovely comment and interest.

  5. The neotropic birds have very stylized bodies and are the F-35 of the islands. Great fliers too! I’m sure that you enjoyed every moment on the island. Great post Jet. 🙂

  6. Thanks for taking us along on another one of your fascinating adventures to a unique and remote spot, Jet. What a treat that you were even able to catch a glimpse of the nesting area. I loved your reaction and your comments about David Attenborough having preceded you there – it is quite a thrill to be in such ‘proximity’ to one of your heroes!

    • Over the years my hero list has grown and includes all types from rock stars to politicians, popular people as well as little-known, folks long-gone and living too. It changes, as I change; but David Attenborough has always been present on it. He has been paramount in our generation for waking the world up to dwindling species and earth’s challenges. I appreciate your visit, BJ, and your kind words, and your own appreciation of our earth’s species.

    • Aren’t those lovely shots of the tropicbird, Mary? We were lucky to be fairly close, and Athena did a nice job photographing them, too. Thanks so much for your visit today~~

  7. i’m grateful to visit this beauty
    and soar with these birdies
    through your eyes & words, Jet!
    I gained much admiration watching the BBC’s
    nature & science series when I lived in Amsterdam,
    David Attenborough is quite an inspiring voice for nature 🙂

    • Yes, David Attenborough is an “inspiring voice for nature,” David, and I am lucky to have had his influence in my life through the nature and science series of which you speak. I am honored to take you soaring up to the observation deck of Little Tobago Island, sharing those amazing seabirds with you. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful visit.

  8. I like that the white tropicbirds have tails which may regrow. I love their smaller size, 19″ and how there is a bit of red and black in their markings, Jet.
    I admire David Attenborough, so would have also been thrilled he has stood there and seen the nesting places of these beautiful birds!

    • They are definitely different looking, Jan, with those crazy streamer tails. Thanks for joining me at Little Tobago Island, I’m glad you were able to join me in this heaven.

  9. Lovely post about birds I doubt I will ever have the chance to see in real life. Very beautiful graceful photos of these “kite-like” birds.

    I was thinking a bit of David Attenborough worship was going on and then you admitted it. Personally, given your common interests, I think you’d both get along very well together.

    • No, the tropicbirds and albatross are not related, but they are both seabirds. I’m glad you enjoyed the tropicbird post, Resa — thank you for your visit.

  10. Loved this post… your tales of adventure, Athena’s beautiful photos, and the link to Attenborough’s video. It was so stunning – as his features always are! I just kept thinking at the end of his video…he was standing on the platform that Jet and Athena stood on! 😉

    • Such a lovely comment, and a fun share too, Nan. What a joy to see the tropicbirds, and this lovely tropical island, and then the added pleasure of a brief, albeit imagined, tango with David Attenborough. My warm thanks for your visits and comments, dear Nan.

  11. We don’t go far to see the amazing Frigatebirds in south Florida. Step outside
    and with good fortune one will be flying overhead. This graceful birds do thrill the senses
    and imagination as they swoop low looking for prey.
    Thank you Jet for your wonderful post

    • Yes you are lucky down there in south Florida to have the frigatebirds every day. I’m glad to know they are appreciated, but then, this does not surprise me about you, Eddie. My grateful thanks~~

  12. Loved this post, Jet. Could you hear me sighing when I viewed your pictures? Oh to be anywhere near the ocean! And those pictures! Wow just wow! Every single one is incredible. As for your hero worship, I laughed out loud. I understand completely. Thank you for educating me about a piece of this beautiful world I did not know about. 🙂 ❤

  13. Hello
    Another one of our favorite parts of our T&T trip! And thanks so much for the Attenborough link as I was trying to find that. We walked on hallowed ground…
    Take care

    • Hi Regina! I was hoping you would catch my Tobago Island post, and am glad you found the Attenborough link helpful. I think this film was only put on YouTube a few months ago, so I’m glad I found it and you enjoyed it. It was definitely our favorite part of the Tobago portion of the trip. Thanks so much for your visit and comment~~

  14. Can i touch you? My parents finally bought a TV when I was ten or eleven. My favorite programs at that age in England were David Attenborough wildlife shows. He has definitely been at the top of my list of real heroes for most of my life. He has done so much for the planet. Lucky you to stand in his footsteps! I’ve been watching “Blue Planet” narrated by him. My cat Freddie doesn’t give a hoot about TV. But when Blue Planet comes on at 9:00pm on Tuesdays, I kid you not, that cat is already in place to watch his favorite show… he is riveted to the TV for the entire time with his eyes popping out of his head. I guess I have to take a photo!

    • Roslyn, this comment had me laughing. I love it that not only you, but your cat Freddie, treasure the delights of David Attenborough. Funny comment and story, many thanks for your visit.

  15. I am grinning ear to ear Jet. I am imagining the internal conversation going on inside the guides head at your repeated questions. ” Oh brother another Attenborough groupie” Guide does double face palm.
    I’m with you. Seems pretty cool to me to be venturing out to little known destinations with such a legend. Even if not at the same time. 🙂

    • He was a cheerful guide, so talkative and boisterous, I would guess he has heard plenty of everything by now. Fun to bring you up to the platform, Sue, so I could show you the wonder of this place. Many thanks for your visit~~

  16. It is such a joy to see the variety of birds and scenery of the remote areas you travel to, Jet. And how heart-warming it is to know you got to walk along the same paths as one of your heroes. 🙂

    • It is a supreme pleasure to share these scenic, birdy areas with you, Donna. Fortunately there are so many birds we can’t possibly get to them all, so it’s great fun to share them with one another. I appreciate our fun exchange of birding adventures. Thanks for your visit and comments, I hope you are feeling better.

  17. What a great place to visit, and in such great ‘company’ 🙂 I found the dramatic footage of the fight for food – what an ordeal for the Red-billed Tropicbird!

    • I’m so glad you had a moment to watch the footage and enjoy this post, Helen. With all the bird behavior you observe, I am certain you would’ve enjoyed that deck on the mountaintop, and how wonderful that I could share it with you. Many thanks for your visits and comments.

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