The battle of Little Tobago

It’s a wildlife sanctuary, but this tiny island is still the scene of a struggle for survival. Sharda Patasar reports from the front lines

A brown booby perches on a perilous cliff face. Photograph by Nyla SinghA red-billed tropicbird awkwardly makes its way to the cliff edge. Photograph by Nyla SinghThe tropicbird’s inhospitable nesting environment. Photograph by Nyla Singh

 

In the distance, off Speyside, Tobago, beyond the yachts docked at the jetty, an island comes into view. This is Little Tobago, a wildlife sanctuary that was once known for its birds of paradise. They were brought here in the early twentieth century from their native New Guinea, where they were in danger owing to overhunting, but are now believed to have died out in Little Tobago. The extinction of the birds of paradise has brought into focus the red-billed tropicbird, or tropicbird, as it is simply called, and the brown booby.
The nesting site of these birds is simultaneously beautiful and violent. Those who hike to the cliff from which the birds can be best seen are met with the birds’ cries of survival. To the onlooker, the living environment of these birds, particularly the tropicbirds, is a cruel one.
The tropicbirds have very short legs, which can only be used adjust themselves comfortably after they crash-land on their stomachs, or as a sort of paddle to shuffle to safety in shrubbery on the cliff where they nest. They hide among cacti and other plants, where their young are ensured some sort of protection. When the adult birds are ready to fly again, they drag themselves on their stomachs to the cliff edge, from which they throw themselves to begin their flight. The birds use their legs to shuffle awkwardly over branches, twigs, and other debris lying in their path to get to their launching spot.
The tropicbirds and boobies are hunted by the frigate bird, which is larger than they are. Unable to hunt in the water, owing to the lack of oil on its wings, the frigate bird hunts its food indirectly. It chases the tropicbird and catch it by its long tail, then shakes its prey violently until the smaller bird either brings up the food from its stomach or releases the fish it holds in its beak. Mission accomplished, the frigate bird lets the other bird go and swoops down to catch the falling food before it reaches the sea.
Update (6/12/2011): This is a corrected update to the print article originally published in the November/December 2011 issue (#112) of Caribbean Beat. The author and Caribbean Beat deeply regret the error, and a correction will also be issued in the next print issue.