Seabird Species

Redbilled Tropicbird

Albert Chipps1, Les Underhill2, Estelle van der Merwe3 & Kees Camphuysen4

1Smit Pentow Marine
2Animal Demography Unit
4Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ)

  Red-billed Tropicbird
Photo Albert Chipps
Red-billed Tropicbird

Three subspecies of the Redbilled Tropicbird Phaethon aetherus breed on tropical islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. The nearest breeding colony to southern Africa is at St Helena (15 58S 5 43W) in the Atlantic Ocean. Here we reports details of the fourth, fifth and sixth records of the species off Namibia and South Africa. The fifth record became the first specimen record. We review the records of this species in the southeastern Atlantic Ocean.

At 1030 on 9 January 2001, an adult Red-billed Tropicbird was spotted as it circled around the Smit Pentow Marine deep-sea tug John Ross and the ship it was towing. For an hour it made frequent and seemingly desparate attempts to land on board the tug, trying to land on the gunnals, on the fenders, and even in the anchor housing on the bow. It would get to the point of landing, and then, in a flurry of feathers, go off again streaming its long white tail. Then it would give up on the tug, fly off to the ship being towed, and repeat the performance there before returning to the tug. Three of the photographs on this page were taken during this period by Albert Chipps, electrician aboard the John Ross, and seabird enthusiast. Ultimately, the bird crashed exhausted on the deck of the tug. The tug was then at 32 41S 15 30E, 300 km northwest of Cape Town. The weather was clear and sunny, with a calm sea; previous days had been grey and overcast with a cool fresh wind blowing.

Red-billed Tropicbird
Photos Albert Chipps
Red-billed Tropicbird

The tropicbird was cared for on board by keeping it hydrated in a quiet, poorly lit, unstressed environment. On arrival in Cape Town two days later, it was sent to the rescue centre of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). It was found to be suffering from a lung infection, and although it was treated with great care, it died six days later, becoming the first specimen record for the species in southern African waters.

This is the fourth record of the Redbilled Tropicbird off South Africa, and the first specimen, the previous records all being sight records. The first record was on 25 November 1984, when one was seen and photographed close inshore from Chapman's Peak Drive on the Cape Peninsula. The second record was on 9 February 1989, about 70 km off the Cape Peninsula. The third was made from the John Ross by AC on 10 December 2000, about 180 km north of the specimen record made one month later.

There are two records off the Namibian coast. A Redbilled Tropicbird accompanied a research ship "for a short time" at a point about 400 km offshore of Luderitz. The researchers do not give the exact date, but it was most likely to have been in early April 1972.

On 3 February 2001, Kees Camphuysen, saw a Redbilled Tropicbird from the research vessel Pelagia of the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. The ship was on an oceanographic research cruise from Walvis Bay to Cape Town, on a zig-zag course mostly far beyond the continental shelf. The tropicbird circled the ship a few times at 1745. The position was 28 45S 2 41E, about 1500 km due west of the mouth of the Orange River. There are thus now a total six records of the species off the coastline of South Africa and Namibia.

The specimen was of the nominate subspecies which breeds only on islands of the Atlantic Ocean south of the equator. These are St Helena and Ascension Islands in the mid-Atlantic, and on islands in two archipelgos in the eastern Atlanitc off the coast of Brazil, Abrolhos and Fernando de Noronha. The total population of this subspecies on these islands is believed to number fewer than 3000 pairs.

Red-billed Tropicbird
Photo Les Underhill
The head of the Redbilled Tropicbird, after admittance to SANCCOB
Red-billed Tropicbird
Photo Les Underhill
Close up of the foot of the Redbilled Tropicbird