Little Tobago: Counting the Birds of Paradise

The quarry has long since flown away, but scientists are still looking for it


There may or may not be a portrait of Queen Victoria looking down on the chaps at Britain’s Scientific Exploration Society, but the fact is they’re a bit out of touch.

Go count the Birds of Paradise on Little Tobago Island, they told graduate student Helen Jones when she asked the Society for assistance with a master’s degree project. Ahem . . . there are no Birds of paradise on Little Tobago. Haven’t been for years. Most of them – introduced from the Aru Islands off New Guinea in 1909 – were blown away in a hurricane that howled across the star-shaped island, a tourist attraction off the north-east coast of Tobago, 34 years ago.

Well, then, try the White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird, a rare and very much extant Tobago species, it was suggested. But as Jones soon discovered, it was already the focus of scientific enquiry.

At this point, a less determined person than Jones — a 25- year-old Metropolitan Manchester University student — might have said "bird-feathers" and settled on looking for ties on the faces of the Scientific Exploration Society’s executives. But she was made of sterner stuff. "I did some digging and came up with the Red-billed Tropicbird," she says. That’s one of 33 different species breeding on Little Tobago Island.

Each year after Christmas hundreds of Redbills (there may be thousands, but no-one has ever counted) arrive on Little Tobago for the annual breeding cycle that lasts until nearly Easter. They occupy the rugged island’s wind-swept eastern cliffs; the sky is filled with the cry of their voices and their extraordinary aerobatics as they carve patterns with their flowing tail feathers and hover over their nests. On the ground they stumble like drunks because their leg muscles are so weak. A Redbill landing is not an exercise in precision.

Where do they come from and where do they go? No-one knows, says Jones. There’s speculation that they fly up and down the Gulf Stream, only coming to land to nest. But knowledge about them is scant. "People are more interested in vulnerableor threatened species".

She shared her Redbill watch with four other observers. Caroline Robertson, a co-student of Jones, agreed to join her in the Tobago project but would study the Brown Booby, another seabird that nests on the island, Stevan Croasdale, a survivor of the Scientific Exploration Society debacle, joined the women to study insects. Douglas Robertson, Caroline’s brother, and Nick Wiltshire signed up as research assistants. David Rooks the Tobago naturalist who had been assisting the group, persuaded them to include a study of the impact of tourism on nesting sites.

But without Society support the group had to scratch for money. They hit upon a hitherto little-known marketing strategy of which their parents might not have approved, but which did the job. "Looking for sponsorship was soul destroying," says Jones. "People responded as if we were coming here for a holiday. So we had a raffle. The prizes were first edition prints of naked women".

There’s no water on Little Tobago Island; you get there by boat, and most of the chosen study sites are a hazardous 45-minute walk from the landing point, away from the more accessible areas visited by tourists. Eight hours a day under the tropical sun watching birds preen, fight, turn eggs, bed chicks, defecate and sleep, recording every event on a clipboard and timing it with a stopwatch, hardly counts as quality vacation time.

But the project was a success. The location of the Brown Booby nests was kept secret the handsome bird is regarded as a delicacy by some local people, and unknown numbers are killed each year. Little Tobago is a bird sanctuary, but there’s no enforcement. "We don’t know the impact of poaching," says Jones. "Without tagging the birds we never will".

The students completed their study on their own. One result was immediately available for public consumption and for scrutiny by the Scientific Exploration Society. Nowhere on the island, it was confirmed, did they meet a Bird of Paradise.