The “twitchers” of the Tasmanian bird-watching community are all abuzz – or should I say all a-twitter – about the sighting of two seabirds never officially recorded in the state’s waters.
The birds are lesser and great frigate birds which are normally found on islands and seas within the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland.
The birds – a flock of them in one instance – were spotted on the east coast of Tasmania about the same time the terrible storms struck the south-east and eastern mainland last month, bringing death and destruction. That same storm system also made its way south a few days later, devastation here.
Five frigate birds – four great and one lesser – were sighted off St Helens on June 9 and three days earlier there was an even more remarkable sighting closer to Hobart. A great frigate bird was seen off Mays Point, Sandford, being harassed by forest ravens!
It’s not unusual for seabirds found in tropical areas to avoid tempest – they seem to have an uncanny knack of predicting storms – but to find the frigate birds this far south is truly remarkable.
Frigate birds are one of the most dramatic – and dare I say romantic – species of the bird world and the handful of bird-watchers who saw them were given a real treat.
Frigate birds represent the avian pirates of the high seas. Their main prey is fish and squid, caught when chased to the water surface by large predators such as tuna, but frigate birds are also referred to as kleptoparasites as they rob other seabirds of food, and are known to snatch seabird chicks from the nest. They use their aerial skills and agility to chase down other birds like terns which have caught fish. They harry them, so they finally drop their catch. The frigate birds then swoop for the bounty, often catching it before it hits the water.
Frigate birds, with distinctive long and pointed wings and long forked tails, are able to soar for days on wind currents. They spend most of the day in flight hunting for food, and roost on trees or cliffs at night.
Their name “frigate” derives from the French mariners’ term for fast a warship and it was the magnificent frigate bird of the Caribbean which first came to the notice of both sailors and naturalists. Because they were likened to pirates in some quarters, the Royal Navy had its own term for them – Man of War birds.
Christopher Columbus encountered frigate birds when passing the Cape Verde Islands on his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. In his journal entry he used the word “fork tail” to describe them.
At about a metre in length, with a two-metre wingspan, the great frigate bird found in the Pacific and Indian oceans is slightly smaller than the magnificent frigatebird of the Caribbean. Like its West Indian counterpart, it is a stunning bird and, with the slightly smaller lesser species, is an exciting addition to the Tasmanian bird list.