Speaking of Nature: Bird of my dreams, it’s you: Spotting a White-tailed Tropicbird on our cruise in Bermuda

Seen here with wings fixed as it makes a graceful turn back toward The Keep, at the very end of  the  western end of Bermuda, an adult white-tailed tropicbird is nothing less than a gorgeous fantasy bird.

Seen here with wings fixed as it makes a graceful turn back toward The Keep, at the very end of the western end of Bermuda, an adult white-tailed tropicbird is nothing less than a gorgeous fantasy bird. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Gazette

Published: 04-30-2024 12:11 PM

It was the morning of April 16 and I was up early. It seems to be impossible for me to sleep late at this time of year because I am so excited about seeing the first birds of the season, but this particular morning was a little different. It was the Monday of my spring break weekend and I was indeed hoping to see some new birds, but I wasn’t going to be seeing the birds in my yard. Why? The answer is simple. I was on the balcony of my stateroom on a cruise ship and we had just arrived at the Royal Dockyard in Bermuda.

The cruise was my idea because I wanted to do something for our 20th wedding anniversary. Because I am a teacher, I have very little flexibility in my time off, so I took advantage of the built-in April vacation from classes and booked passage to a new place. The gorgeous, beaming smile on my wife’s face was all I needed to see to know that I had made a good choice. Both of us were amazed by the scene outside.

A 19th century British fort simply known as “The Keep” occupies the land at the very end of the western end of Bermuda and our ship pulled up right next to it. Built of massive blocks of native stone, the sheer walls of this fortress gave it the look of a citadel that could have been built 1,000 years ago. The earth tones of the stone were in exquisite contrast to the turquoise water and the slightly bluer shade of the morning sky. Together, we must have said, ”Ooooo” and ”Ahhhh” a hundred times.

But for me there was something particularly interesting happening right above The Keep. A group of white birds was flying back and forth over the shoreline where the walls met the water and I knew that these were birds that I had never seen before. My camera was readied in the briefest of moments and I was absolutely spellbound by what I saw through the viewfinder. There, in all of its glory, was a White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus).

The national bird of Bermuda, the White-tailed Tropicbird is a species that I would describe as a “fantasy bird.” Everything about this creature is elegant and appealing. The long, yellow-orange beak is the bird’s primary tool for catching fish. This is accomplished in the same way that our North American tern and kingfisher species do it: they dive face-first into the water and grab fish with their beaks. But the long, tapered wings, the elegant pattern of black feathers against the otherwise-white body and the stupendously-long central tail feathers are simply over-the-top. Simply amazing!

Our first morning on Bermuda was about to start, but I simply couldn’t pull myself away from the sights in front of me. Not only were these birds astounding to look at, but I had also accidentally arrived just in time to see pairs of birds performing their stylized nuptial flights. The ritual involves two birds flying in close pairs with one member of the pair slowly closing the distance between them until it looks like it may actually try to land on the other’s back. Then, the final in a final flourish of aerial skill, the higher of the two birds bent its own tail down in an attempt to touch the tail of its potential mate.

These birds performed this maneuver again and again, always turning into the wind and flying parallel to the walls of the Keep as they headed toward open water. One giant cannon, presumably left over from WWII, seemed to point exactly in the direction that the birds needed to fly in. They had the entire area to use, but they would always circle back and fly right over the fortress, as though it was their favorite place in the world.

Tropicbirds lay only a single egg and this can either be placed on the edge of a cliff, or the ground itself. These birds have no set breeding schedule and will breed when conditions are favorable. If their nest is unsuccessful, they can try again after about five months. If they manage to raise their chick to fledgling, then they will have to wait for 10 months until they can think about trying again. It all depends on the availability of food (fish, squid and crabs) that the parents have access to.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

I was in Bermuda for three days and I somehow managed to take my best photographs of tropicbirds in the first half hour of my stay. This, I think, is in no small part due to the specific location of my stateroom on the ship. It was facing west, which gave it perfect lighting in the morning, and it was on Deck 11, which allowed me to shoot eye-to-eye with the birds and sometimes even at a downward angle. The bird in today’s photo had completed a run along the fortress walls and then had turned toward the west to make a U-turn back toward The Keep. I just happened to get lucky enough to catch the bird with wings fixed as it completed its turn.

Back at home, writing this account of the amazing birds that I can now add to my Life List, I am still enchanted by what I saw. Those of you who may be fans of the Harry Potter films may remember the final scene of “The Half-blood Prince” when Dumbledore’s pet phoenix – Fawkes – flies out over the lake next to Hogwarts Castle, never to be seen again. As far as I am concerned, those magical tropicbirds will always be flying in pairs, clearly in love with one another, and so joyous in what they are doing that they keep turning around so that they can fly together forever.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.