In the wet wonderland outside of our house, it’s a squishy, soggy, sea of green.  Blustery winds are making cloud waves in the gray sky.  Rain bands are playing a thunderous tune and setting off the flash-flood alarms.

We’re in the middle of Hurricane Lane’s approach as she swirls and churns the Pacific ocean southwest of us.

God has blessed us with minimal impact; the power is on, the cell phones work, the baby plants in our new garden are keeping their hope up; courageously leaning into the wind.  And we’ve occupied ourselves by playing in the puddles with gusto and collecting downed green papayas for a heart-lifting soup.

Yesterday, during a relative lull, we ventured forth to explore our silent neighborhood as our neighbors stayed dry in their boarded-up homes.  As we hiked up the big hill, a gorgeous Great Frigatebird was flying low, just above the tree line in front of us.

Every time their sleek silhouette soars above my head, I feel an exultant thrill.  Great Frigatebirds are incredible soaring creatures.  Masters of flight!

great frigate

As they fly overhead, back-lit by the sun’s light, they resemble a stealth aircraft with the graceful and elegant lines of a ballerina.

They fly with such ease; making effortless adjustments to perfectly capture the wind and soar out of sight; leaving my heart uplifted.

Ever since I first saw one in flight, I have been intimately drawn to these beautiful, high-flying surfers of the sky.

Watching Great Frigatebirds fly, compared to other birds, is the difference of seeing a  passenger airplane flying overhead versus a UFO.  Nothing else moves like them in the sky.

I’ve excitedly watched Bald Eagles flap and glide, swooping low over rivers and lakes.  I’ve balked at rare California Condors spreading their feathers wide as they drift down into the Grand Canyon.  I’ve rested in the shade as Hawks circled above the soft Appalachian mountains.  But none cruise like the Great Frigatebird.  When I spot one, it’s a stop-everything, “Wow, look at it go!” moment, every time.

To me they are the Spirit of Flight personified.  Their evolutionary quirks suggest a spirit that continually preferred to be aloft more than all other activities.

A Few Fun Facts about the Great Frigatebird:

  • They have a Unique Flight Pattern:
    • Riding thermals, they soar up in a series of circular climbs and descents and have been known to go as high as 9,900 feet, before gliding back down.  That’s a seabird record!  Can you imagine the view from up there?!
    • Other than Swifts, Frigatebirds are the only known bird species to be able to sleep while they soar.
  • They are Exceptionally Dedicated Parents:
    • They care for their chick for 12 months; feeding and teaching their young survival skills.  This is the longest period of parental care of all birds!
  • Seabirds that can’t land at Sea:
    • Hunting/fishing is a tricky business for these birds because 1) they are not waterproof and 2) their feet aren’t webbed, so they can’t take off from a water-landing.  Strange adaptations for a bird that spends most of it’s life in the air over the ocean and only comes to land to breed or take care of their young.
    • To catch food, they swoop down and snap up flying fish and grab their prey (fish, squid, etc) from the surface without touching the water.
    • They work in conjunction with dolphins or schools of tuna.  As the dolphins and tuna chase their lunch, fish are pushed to the surface and leap out of the water in an attempt to escape their oceanic pursuers only to be caught by a long hooked bill instead.
  • Stats:
    • With a wingspan of up to 7 1/2 feet and weighing only a few pounds, they have the largest wing to weight ratio of any bird.
    • They can live up to 30 years.
    • “Along with the Albatross, Frigatebirds are the quintessential seabird.”  The Albatross works the cold gales of the Sub-antarctic, while Frigatebirds stick to the warm thermals of the Tropics and Subtropics.
  • In Hawaii:
    • There are about 10,000 pairs in Hawaii, with nearly all of them in the northern, uninhabited islands.
  • A Bird of Many Names:
    • The Hawaiian name for the Great Frigatebird is ‘Iwa which translates as thief.  Some of their other catchy villain names include Man of War and Pajaro Pirata aka. Pirate Bird. 
    • Despite what these names imply, Frigatebirds catch food for themselves 95% of the time and Great Frigatebirds are even less likely to pirate food.
    • While these birds have been called many names, Frigatebird is the nickname that stuck.  In 1738, Eleazar Albin, an English naturalist and illustrator, gets the credit for first using this descriptor in his A Natural History of Birds; comparing them to frigates – fast, highly-maneuverable warships.

Walt Whitman wrote a poem, which couldn’t be more fitting right now in this stormy moment on Maui.  In his ode, Thou Who Hast Slept All Night Upon the Storm, Whitman describes the awe he felt in experiencing a storm while at sea and watching the Magnificent Frigatebird prevail over the tempest.

“Thou born to match the gale, (thou art all wings).  To cope with heaven and earth and sea and hurricane…”
“That sport’st amid the lightning-flash and thunder-cloud.  In them, in thy experiences, had’st thou my soul.  What joys!  What joys were thine!”

What joys!  What prowess.  What grace, indeed!  They remind me to soar.  And that a new perspective can change everything.

♠ K.I.D.

Thou Who Hast Slept All Night Upon the Storm
by Walt Whitman

Thou who hast slept all night upon the storm,
Waking renew’d on thy prodigious pinions,
(Burst the wild storm? above it thou ascended’st,
And rested on the sky, thy slave that cradled thee,)
Now a blue point, far, far in heaven floating,
As to the light emerging here on deck I watch thee,
(Myself a speck, a point on the world’s floating vast.)

Far, far at sea,
After the night’s fierce drifts have strewn the shore with wrecks,
With re-appearing day as now so happy and serene,
The rosy and elastic dawn, the flashing sun,
The limpid spread of air cerulean,
Thou also re-appearest.

Thou born to match the gale, (thou art all wings,)
To cope with heaven and earth and sea and hurricane,
Thou ship of air that never furl’st thy sails,
Days, even weeks untired and onward, through spaces, realms gyrating,
At dusk that lookist on Senegal, at morn America,
That sport’st amid the lightning-flash and thunder-cloud,
In them, in thy experiences, had’st thou my soul,
What joys! what joys were thine!

2 thoughts on “Wild Beauty: The Great Frigatebird

  1. Yes, it was wonderful to catch a glimpse of what an amazing creature this is in the world. I had no idea. Although I have to say the prospect of sleeping while flying sounds more terrifying than fun!
    Sharon

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  2. thank you for illuminating this beautiful bird’s special world, : it is fun to imagine sleeping while flying. They are lovely to watch. Your story pulls me into your feeling of awe. Whitman’s ode is a surprise study in old english- I never guessed he was where Frigate birds roam, noticing whether they furlst their wings.

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