I stood on the deck of the tiny vacation home and gazed dreamily at the turquoise ocean that rolled out to the horizon. A warm breeze brought the delicious taste of the sea to the tip of my tongue. A wooden path led to stairs that would carry me to the white coral sands of paradise. I had arrived at the island of Grand Turk.
The flight from the main Turks & Caicos island of Provodenciales is a 25 minute hop. Grand Turk is the capitol of Turks & Caicos, but it is a step back in time to a more relaxed way of life. My days on Provodenciales had been surprisingly devoid of wildlife, so I was looking forward to seeing what Grand Turk had to offer.
I had read that tropicbirds could been seen around the islands, but tropicbirds are a pelagic species and I’ve been to many places where they can supposedly be seen, without ever actually seeing one.
I woke early the next morning, as the Caribbean sun burst through the windows, illuminating the small white room. I opened the door letting the ocean breeze blow the sleep from my head. Looking out on to the ocean I noticed white birds wheeling in the air above the big blue. My first thought was that it must be a gull or perhaps a Royal tern. I took my binoculars to the edge of the cliff and lifted them to my bleary eyes. A large white bird banked into view. If the orange bill and mascara swipe were the first tells, the long whip tail was the confirmation. I was looking at my first ever tropicbird.
Several more White-tailed tropicbirds circled upwards on the rising thermals, before swooping toward the cliffs. As the birds came close to the cliff they would sweep upwards, showing off that magnificent tail as it coiled and whipped behind them.
With much patience under a hot sun, I was able to snap a couple of shots of the moment that the tropicbird hung in the air before sweeping upwards. It was clear that that they were searching for something at the top of the cliff face, but what?
The tropicbirds turned and headed back out, high above the North Atlantic coast. As I watched the birds swooping closer together, the most magical thing happened. The tropicbirds paired off and engaged in a mesmerizing mid-air dance. The elegant ceremony involved the female holding her line in the air while the male flew above and gentle caressed her flowing tail with the tip of his tail.
As the afternoon wore on, I noticed the birds coming closer to the cliffs again. I set off down the stairs to the deserted beach, in the hopes of a close-up photograph. I stood on the shoreline as a tropicbird glided directly towards me, filling my frame, passing by before circling and repeating. The bird was gliding tight to the cliff face, and I realised that it was looking for potential nesting spots.
The soft ocean-carved rock of the cliff face was pock-marked with cracks and crevices that the birds were studying during thier slow fly-by. Occasionally a bird would hover outside a hole in the rock, before rolling back out to sea.
At first glance, when flying above the ocean, the tropicbird can easily be confused for a tern, dressed in white with an orange bill. But as the bird comes close it is apparent that it is a much bigger bird than even the largest of the tern family. With an overall length of up to 80 cm (31 inches) and a wingspan of close to a meter (38 inches).
I stood on the beach firing shots as the next bird surveyed the cliff. A hole at the base of the cliff at beach level caught a bird’s eye. To my delight, it plunged down and settled on the ground, inside the mouth of the hole. The tropicbird sat for a few moments, trying the crevice for size and comfort, before turning and with a few beats of angel wings, it took to the air.
It seemed that the final decision on a suitable nest site had not yet been reached. Eventually, when a site is selected, the female will lay a single egg on the ground or ledge. Both parents will incubate the eggs and then bring back a steady stream of fish and squid for the chick. Studies have shown a preferance for flying fish as a food source. What a wonderfully tropical sight it must be to watch tropicbirds feeding on flying fish.
It was a real thrill to finally see these ocean gliders, with their tangerine beaks and gothic swipe of eyeliner. Even more thrilling to witness the elegant courtship dance for which the distinctive tail feathers were designed.
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