A PREVIEW OF THE PIRATE BIRD OF THE KEYS – ONBOARD MAGAZINE

It’s hard to think the magnificent frigate is elusive, especially in the Florida Keys where every time you step out on a boat there’s a good chance you’ll see one.

Usually when you do, it is suspended a few hundred feet above the water, circling its 7-foot wingspan slightly in the shape of an M. He is up there for the view, watching. roughly acres of ocean surface at a time, looking for small fish or other birds that feed on small fish.

While magnificent frigates can be almost constant in the skies of the Florida Keys, they tend to keep their distance. At one point. you notice that they are rarely near you.

From my personal experience, there are two ways to get close to a magnificent frigate. The first is to inadvertently catch an undersized yellowtail flounder, then do the right thing and throw it away immediately. Most of the time, if the fish has the mind, it will dive a few feet and take its bearings, before living out the rest of its life as a mysterious, aquatic fish. But if the fish are a little dizzy, a little more tired from the process of being dragged from the hydrosphere where they live into the troposphere where we live, and then summarily thrown back, they could float near the surface for a minute. two, trying to reorient themselves.

And sometimes when that happens, somehow, in a clear blue sky – a sky that you had found completely empty moments before – a frigate will zoom in, pluck the amberjack and fly away with its bounty. before you have a chance to say, “Huh? What? Hey! ”(Magnificent frigates sometimes get caught in the fishing lines.)

The other, arguably more reliable, way to see a magnificent frigate is to take a trip to Dry Tortugas and sit on top of the fort, preferably on the windward side, where drafts pass through the water. , hit the two story brick wall and soar, creating the only updraft to be found for miles in any direction. There is a breeding colony of about 100 magnificent frigates just across the anchorage – the only breeding colony in the United States – so there is usually a small armada of them, floating there, sometimes drifting a little to the left, sometimes drifting a little to the right, always just out of range. There are few birds that can spend so much time in the air with so little effort.

A magnificent frigate weighs less than a pound, and it might seem, at first glance, that these are frail things assembled from hangers and old umbrella parts. But that would be belied by a few minutes spent watching them fly, seeing not only how subtly and effortlessly they can hold their place in the air, but also how quickly and skillfully they can pick up speed if they need to. hunt another bird.

The pursuit of other birds is crucial.

Magnificent frigates are flying puzzles. They are pelagic birds, which means that they spend most of their life at sea. (They come to land to breed, and sometimes you will see one sitting atop a channel marker or a mangrove.) But they can’t get wet. Their feathers are not waterproof. Too much contact with water and they will get stuck and drown.

This leaves them with two feeding strategies – either fly very low over the water and catch what they can with their four-and-a-half-inch beaks, or use what scientists call kleptoparasitism.

Kleptoparasitism is basically a fancy word for hacking. The frigates will chase another bird until they give up their lunch. This usually involves regurgitation, which looks coarse, but is slightly less coarse because the fish is usually regurgitated from the crop of the bullied bird, a pouch in the throat that is sort of the vestibule of the bullied bird. digestive tract.

Magnificent frigates are also one of the few species of seabirds that are sexually dimorphic, meaning you can identify the sexes at a glance. Juveniles all have white heads and breasts. Females have pale white breasts. Males are completely black except for a small patch of skin just below the lower part of their beak called the gulag sac, which is bright red and which they swell during the breeding season to the size of the males. ‘a little party balloon as a way to attack a mate.

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