Tropicbird. Tropics bird. Tropical bird. The species that make up the bizarre order Pheothonitiformes are some of the most desirable on the ABA area checklist given their infrequent forays into our area from breeding sites on islands far to the south. There are few places where they can be found, and even fewer where they’re expected. But can you ever really expect a blindingly white bird with an outlandishly long tail appearing out of nowhere beyond the sight of land? Shearwaters, Petrels, and Storm-Petrels stay low on the water, and as such the pelagic birder is constantly peering at the horizon hoping to pick up the tell-tale dynamic soaring arcs of the tubenoses against the swelling and churning ocean. But Tropicbirds come in high, and can be missed until the moment they’re practically on top of you, when the call goes up, the peace of the pelagic’s boring yin period abruptly switching to its full on deck-swapping mad yang. And suddenly you’re face to beak with one of the classiest birds of the open sea.
Three species of tropicbirds can be found in the genus Phaeton, a name of significance for lovers of Greek mythology. Phaeton was the son of Helios, the personification of the sun, who rode his golden chariot across the sky every day from east to west, but had something of an insecure streak, begging his mother Clymene for proof that his father was, indeed, the sun god. He got permission from his father to drive the golden chariot across the sky but, per usual in these stories, his hubris gets the best of him. He loses control, driving the chariot into the ground and threatening to burn Earth up. Zeus intervenes, tossing a lighting bolt at Phaeton and killing him before the chariot hits the ground. Is it a coincidence, then, that Tropicbirds have a thunderbolt for a tail?
Linneaus’s choice of Phaeton was probably more literal, apparently having more to do with the Tropicbird’s reported attempts to follow the path of the sun as per 16th Century accounts. Phaeton does mean “sun” in Greek, after all. But everything’s better with a little mythology.
The most common Tropicbird off the coast of North Carolina is the White-tailed, a semi-annual visitor to warm Gulf Stream waters, particularly with a strong south wind. They nest in the Caribbean and on Bermuda; the birds we saw could have come from either population as both are approximately equidistant from North Carolina’s waters and of the same subspecies, catesbyi, a tribute to the english naturalist Mark Catesby, who described many bird and plant species in the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. The species name, lepterus, is unique only in the sense that White-tailed Tropicbird alone holds that moniker. It comes from the Greek, leptos, meaning “delicate or slender’, with the suffix –ouros, “tailed”. Simple and definitive, like most scientific names strive to be.
But the tail is only the most celebrated of the White-tailed Tropicbird’s field marks, and even then only present in the full adult birds that only rarely stray this far north or west. More reliable is the black bandito mask, the massive orange or reddish bill, and the distinctive pattern of black on white on the back and wings that characterizes each of the Tropicbird species. White-tailed is identified by the black “V” on the coverts extending down to the base of the tail, a clean, bold impression that serves to make the entire bird a study in precision.
To see one Tropicbird on a pelagic trip is a treat, as many years have gone by since they were regularly encountered in the Gulf Stream, but by all accounts this has been a banner year for them in the area. Even so, the joy of seeing not one, not two, but three White-tailed Tropicbirds circling the boat together, is an experience known by very very few birders. So when they disappeared into the clouds on the horizon, seemingly merging into the blue and white haze of the sky while we sat and watched, the entire boat was left with the sense that we had witnessed something we will probably never see again. The blaze white bird with the sun’s pedigree, returning to whence it came.