Day 5: Boobies, noddies and extraordinary tails
Nic Dunlop is my new best friend.
Because of him, I got to throw a bird off a cliff and watch it catch the wind and soar.
That’s a pretty awesome thing.
We start early, in misty rain, scrabbling through the vines and among the rocks, to the place where the tropic birds were. ‘Were’ because the adults went to sea several hours ago to fish for their young, leaving the chicks concealed in the thick and tangled undergrowth, invisible to our uneducated eyes.
But Nic knows.
Adult red-tailed tropic birds are iridescent white, with black sunglasses and feet, pointed red beak and long scarlet filaments extending from their backsides, tail feathers modified into sexually explicit advertisements.
Red tailed tropic bird chicks are by turn white bundles of fluff with oversized heads punctuated with boot button eyes, then fluffy bundles with natty black chevron-covered wings and finally, as teenagers, sleek serious birds with white bellies and a top coat of black prison arrow stripes.
The larger chicks are plucked, protesting noisily, from their nests, weighed and banded then returned to their former resting places. When the adults return to feed the young, they too are summarily snatched, confined in a bag, weighed and banded.
Then comes the fun bit. Nic, Bird and Nature Week guide, and tropic bird wrangler, carefully passes the bird, which seems to have adopted a ‘can we just get this over with’ attitude to a volunteer in the group who gets to throw it off the edge of the cliff.
Its actually the best way to release a tropic bird – or so he says. At least none hit the bottom.
Tropic birds banded, its off to see the noddies, done up in their best brown suit and pale grey hat, black sabre bills shining and sharp. Noddies don’t, as far as I could see, actually nod, so maybe the name is an ornithological joke, long-ago lost in translation.
I haven’t seen these birds before but watching them perched precariously on barely-there ledges above a raging, rolling ocean has raised an interesting question. Noddies splay their rather delicately webbed feet on the sharp, pointed limestone outcrops to keep their balance – how does that not hurt? I barely scrape past a prickly bit and have to reach for a bandaid.
Not a hope of catching these little beauties, so we are content to simply watch them go about their morning ablutions, or observe them sitting quietly on the cliff, feathers ruffled by the wind, thinking noddie thoughts.
Maybe they’re wondering why their feet hurt.
Red-footed boobies, on the other hand, probably don’t think too much.
They go through life with a vaguely astonished expression, as if constantly surprised and somewhat disturbed by what they see.
Nic takes us to a resting tree, where birds done with breeding or too young to bother, take their leisure during the heat of the day. This tree isn’t high up the cliffs, like those in which they nest, so our bunch of birdos is able to examine the boobies in detail.
With bodies like cartoon cigars and bright red, webbed feet which seem ridiculously unsuitable for tree perching, these torpedo feeders are noisy, gregarious and quarrelsome. We hear them wherever we go on the island, a background litany of bickering and complaint.
All eyes are immediately drawn to the boobie draped loosely across several branches, wings outstretched, head dangling between the twigs. We assumed its dead but Nic says its just resting. We, in hesitant disbelief, raise binoculars and zoom lenses to check
He’s right, its breathing.
Nic knows these things.