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Flying FrigateThe birds fascinated me. Frigate birds hovered overhead in packs like graceful flying wolves. Circling and floating, only rarely beating their wings, their effortless coasting on updrafts allowed them to soar to great heights. Looking at their majesty let my spirits uplift alongside them. Their huge wingspans formed sharp “M” shapes giving the illusion of bats, only larger. Like Batman. Or high divers – spotting fish far below they dive steeply into the depths. Some come up with their tapered beaks laden with fish as large as they; others stalk away disappointed, looking for a more adept hunter from whom to steal a meal.

In contrast, the pelicans beat the air to keep their stout bodies aloft, flying lower as they scan the sea for fish. Suddenly, one pelican rolls in the air and dives into the surf, twisting in mid-dive so that its pocketed bill can open wide and scoop up its prey whole. A splash. A second. It pops back to the surface. A miss. Off to try another. His mates form a squadron, scanning the surface for enemy infantry to attack. The signal is given; dozens of pelicans dive-bomb the hapless school. Success!

Two boat-tailed grackles fly in to break the tension, their iridescent plumage and broad flat tapered tails coming off as a tad bit ostentatious for an opening act. The main act brings in the laughing gulls: The mature males with beautiful black heads, the females more gray, the immatures mottled. They dance a tango with the waves, following the receding swells to snatch up floating prey, then rushing back to avoid the next rolling ripple. Laughing – or perhaps crying, depending on your interpretation – they largely ignore the tourists, though occasionally taking flight in a swarm when humans approach, only to land a dozen feet away.

The frigates continued to circle effortlessly, care-free and high-spirited as the sunlight tapers into the horizon.


David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Photo by Greg Miller, Greg Miller Birding: http://www.gregmillerbirding.com/2012/07/the-dry-tortugas-part-ii/male-magnificent-frigatebird-in-flight-dry-tortugas-fl-2012-04-26-img_4657-sz-2048/