The National Trust’s Booby Pond Nature Reserve on Little Cayman is home to the largest breeding colony of Red-footed Boobies in the Western Hemisphere. Its 260 acres comprise the pond, mangrove fringe and the entire red- footed booby nesting areas in the dry forest and shrubland the north of the pond, and an additional buffer zone. These birds are Little Cayman’s original deep-sea fishermen. Like our ancestors who roamed the seas in schooners in quest of bounteous fishing grounds, Red-footed Boobies may fly for days in search of food. However, at the end of a hard day, their troubles are far from being over. For as they draw near the waters of home, they know that they will inevitably face one final challenge from their archenemies, the Magnificent Frigate bird.
Courtship begins in the fall and nest building and laying its one egg begins from late October and young boobies are found in the nest as late as May. Adult booby come in two colour phases: white with black on the wing and brown with a white rump and tail. The white, fluffy booby chicks fledge to a nondescript brown plumage after four months dedicated care from both parents. Red-footed Boobies nest amongst the branches of mangroves and forest trees in the nature reserve. With both parents alternating responsibility for incubating eggs and feeding the downy chicks upon hatching, this means that one adult will stay on the nest while the other leaves in search of food. Boobies have a storage area called a ‘crop’ in their gullets where they hold food that will later be regurgitated to feed their chicks and mate. Unfortunately, patrolling Frigate birds are all too aware of this fact and see this as the perfect ‘easy meal’. In one-on-one combat between a Booby and Frigate bird, the latter will always win. The only option for the Booby is to lighten its load by purging the contents of its crop, and to head back out to sea to find more food, leaving its mate stranded and its chicks hungry.
However, if Boobies are deficient in strength, they are superior in intellect; for Little Cayman’s deep-sea fishermen have devised an ingenious line of defence to confuse the Frigate birds based on the premise that there is safety in numbers. Their dawn exodus from the nesting site, as they embark upon their lengthy journeys, proves unproblematic as they are without a catch. It is the return journey where they will need to outwit their enemies. For energy efficiency, Red-footed Boobies can be seen flying low over the ocean. As they near home, they mill around offshore until they have formed a group – the larger the group, the less chance there is of becoming a victim. The Boobies begin to climb in a spiralling column, joined constantly by birds arriving from out at sea. This ascent will allow them ultimately to use gravity to give them optimum speed for their final descent into the nest. Gradually, they peel off in large groups from the top of the column, wings are streamlined and, torpedo-like, the Boobies begin their controlled freefall into the safety of their nesting grounds. The best time to view these birds are early in the morning and before dusk as they return from fishing when pursued by the Frigate birds. Spectacular chases result as one or more Frigate birds chase a desperate booby around the sky until it releases part of its fish catch or climbs high in the sky.
When one considers there are thousands of Red-footed Boobies in Little Cayman, it is easy to understand the astonishing spectacle this battle for survival must make in the encroaching twilight hours. Their technique must work, as studies indicate that the Red-footed Booby population is healthy. That is not to say, however, that the future holds no concern for these wondrous birds. We must continue to protect and admire this beautiful species.
For more information on the Trust’s various historic and natural sites, please visit our website, particularly the Information Sheets drop-down menu on the bottom left. Photos from the National Trust Archive and Courtney Platt.
Discover the unique beauty of Cayman! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky, or call 949-0121.The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust.
Last week’s answer: The highest point on Grand Cayman is 60 feet.
Trivia question: Which bat in Cayman has twins?
Look for the answer in next week’s feature!