Dancing Red Tailed Tropicbirds

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Dancing Red Tailed Tropicbirds

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Jun 04, 2010

This is a red-tailed tropicbird—koa’e’ula to Hawaiians and Phaethon rubricauda rothschildi to scientists. At Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, we (or, at least I), call these seabirds, “Valentine’s Birds.” For two reasons: 1) They arrive at the refuge in early February, around Valentine’s Day, every year; and 2) Their tail feathers and bill are painted a striking red.

Here, one red-tailed tropicbird is mid-flight, about to fly backwards. That’s right. Backwards. Three-and-a-half-feet of wingspan in reverse. It’s part of the migratory bird’s courtship ritual, which can involve five or six birds at one time. It also involves quite a bit of raucous squawking. If you’re at the refuge between February and November and an annoying ruckus is taking place above your head, chances are good it’s a couple—or more—red-tailed tropicbirds doing their thing.

Right now, the breeders are doing their thing by sitting on and feeding their chicks in scratched out hollows or crevices on steep hillsides or vertical cliffs. They started hatching in late May and will not fledge for 90 to 100 days, give or take a day or three. They return about four years later to breed. The squawkers overhead are still dating. Hence, the dancing and hoarse singing.

Red-tailed tropicbird are found, as the name implies, in tropical locales around the world, including the Indian Ocean and Central Pacific Ocean. In the main Hawaiian Islands, they can be seen at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge—where I volunteer as a docent on Friday afternoons, so stop by and say hi—and Oahu.

Now’s a good time to see red-tailed tropicbirds, especially at the refuge. They’re flying overhead. They’re squawking. And a few chicks on nests can be seen from one of Kilauea Point’s lookouts. What’s more this weekend is fee-free. You can thank President Obama for that. As part of the Obama Adminstration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, all national parks, national wildlife refuges and many other areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management are closing their fee booths and throwing open their doors on Saturday, June 5th and Sunday, June 6th. So get outside. At the very least, go for a walk or a hike. And let me know about it. Wherever you go, whatever you do. I’d like to hear about your adventure.

Here is a list of national parks and wildlife refuges in Hawaii:

James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge
Oahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge
Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge

Haleakala National Park
Kakahaia National Wildlife Refuge
Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge
Huleia National Wildlife Refuge
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge

Hawaii Island
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park
Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge
Pu'ukohola Heiau


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