Letter from Barbuda

Lesley Hoffman visits the world’s largest colony of frigate birds

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The boatman cut the outboard motor and the sudden silence was pierced only by the cries of thousands of frigate birds as they wheeled and cavorted around us.

We had boarded the little boat outside Codrington, the only village on Barbuda, sister island to Antigua. The trip across Codrington Lagoon to the Frigate Bird Sanctuary took about 45 minutes; after shutting down the outboard, our guide — a member of Barbuda’s large Burton clan — hopped overboard into the waist–high water and pushed the small craft through the tangle of mangroves known as Man o’ War Island, home to one of the largest frigate bird colonies in the world.

As many as a dozen birds roosted on a single bush; they appeared undisturbed by our presence, and continued their relentless and rowdy activity: the males preening, the females circling, the youngsters demanding food as the mature birds returned to the nesting site, and all of them squawking and screeching.

Frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) — also called man-of-war or hurricane birds — are a common sight along the coast of many Caribbean islands. But it is to Barbuda that they come home in droves to roost each evening.

During the mating season — September to March — the all-black males sport their stunning red-throated bills as part of the annual courtship ritual. They puff out their throats and arch their heads back in their attempts to lure the females circling above. After mating, a flimsy, open nest is built and the female lays a single egg, which takes about seven weeks to hatch.

Both birds take part in the incubation process. Chicks remain in the nest for up to eight months before they are strong enough to fly. Adult females have a white breast but are otherwise black. Immature birds have a white head, breast and upper belly; only after a couple of years do their feathers turn black. Full-grown birds have a distinctive forked tail and a wingspan up to eight feet. And the gorgeous red throat pouch, dotted with black feathers, provides a major attraction not only for female frigates, but for tourists of all kinds. The birds are remarkably graceful in flight and have the lightest weight-to -wingspan ratio of any avian species. They can soar at great heights for hours, allowing them to feed along the coasts of distant islands before returning to the nest without ever landing. They cannot dive like other sea birds since their feathers lack water-resistant oils, so they have developed their own feeding strategy: they harass other sea birds until their victims release their catch, which the frigates then scoop up in mid– flight.

As our boat glided silently through the mangroves we were able to get within a couple of feet of the birds and take photos without any protest from them. It was a thrilling experience; we were reluctant to leave. But Captain Burton announced it was time to push the boat back to open water and fire up the engine again.

Avid bird watchers will also be able to spot many other species on Barbuda: pelicans, herons, kingfishers, ibis, warblers, oystercatchers, cormorants, snipes, tropical mockingbirds and ducks. Other wildlife includes feral donkeys, tortoises, wild boar and white-tailed deer.

Barbuda lies 40 km north of Antigua; the 20-minute flights from V.C. Bird International arrive early in the morning and leave after dusk to accommodate day-trippers. Tiny Barbuda remains one of the Eastern Caribbean’s least-visited and least-developed places. Accommodation ranges from the high-end K- Club (a favourite of the late Princess Diana) and Coco Point Lodge in the south-eastern part of the island to a few simple and spartan rooms in private guest houses — and not much in between.

There is no public transportation, but the town starts right at the airport and it’s not hard to find your way to the centre: just walk to the north and you’re there. Arrangements should be made in advance through a travel agent if you want to rent a car (with or without a driver) for the day. Only recently have the first roads been paved in Codrington and there are no directional signs anywhere.

Most of Barbuda’s 1,100 inhabitants share a dozen or so surnames and are descended from a small group of slaves brought to the island by Sir William Codrington, who leased the island from the Crown in 1685. The island is flat (the “Highlands” area is a mere 40 metres above sea level) and during sugar’s heyday it was used as an agricultural base to provide food crops for the canefield workers on Antigua. (Folklore has it that the slaves in Barbuda were specially bred to produce a stronger strain of African men, the better to serve their masters on the plantations.)

Barbuda is also known for its miles of white and pink (from coral) beaches, the sand of which is mined and taken across the sea to Antigua to make concrete. Barbuda’s affiliation with its sister island — engineered by colonial Britain — has never sat well with its fiercely independent and proud inhabitants, and the sand–mining issue is one of many that irks the locals and upsets the balance of harmony that the central government in St John’s strives for.

The island is surrounded by coral reefs. These provide excellent snorkelling — and danger. At least 200 ships have been claimed by the treacherous and largely uncharted waters. The wrecks now attract underwater enthusiasts and scores of fish species.

The boat trip to the frigate bird colony costs about US$50 per person; any travel agent or tour operator in Antigua will be able to make the arrangements. Or you can do what we did: wander through Codrington and ask around until you are directed to someone with a boat who is willing to take a couple of visitors on a memorable trip. Everyone knows everyone else in Barbuda. There’s no way to get lost.