The Red-Footed Boobies of Kilauea Point: Graceful & Clumsy Speedsters

7 Jun

The lighthouse on Kilauea Point is one of my favorite day trips on the island of Kaua’i for three reasons: (1) the Point is home to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and its photogenic bird population, (2) the Point itself is a fascinating geologic feature, and (3) I just REALLY like lighthouses. While lighthouses and basaltic rocks are very cool in and of themselves, for this blog post I’d rather talk about one of the more exotic birds of the wildlife preserve: the Red-Footed Booby (Sula sula rubripes Gould, 1838).

For the photographer in me, the Point’s Boobies make a great subject because they’re so colorful and easy to photograph on the ground or in flight. But my “inner naturalist” loves them for their unusual lifestyle, graceful flight, and their characteristically death-defying takeoff and landing techniques.

An adult Red-Footed Booby cruises the updrafts of the Kilauea Point peninsula.

A Red-Footed Booby cruises the updrafts, Kilauea Point peninsula.
(For a larger version, click on the image.)

Taxonomically, the Red-Footed Booby is a member of the Order Suliformes (includes cormorants, boobies, and gannets) and the Family Sulidae (just boobies and gannets). Its genus and species taxa are Sula and sula, respectively. However, to distinguish the Red-footed Booby from other boobies, it’s been assigned a subspecies taxon, rubripes. Hence, its full taxonomic designation: Sula sula rubripes.  (Science just LOVES labels…)

With a length of about 70 cm (28 in) and a wingspan of as much as one meter (3.3 ft), this red-footed aviator is the smallest of the boobies. Red-Footed Boobies are also the fastest fliers of the boobies. In addition to the distinctive bright-red footwear, its bill and throat are light sky-blue and salmon pink, respectively. Red-Footed Boobies are polymorphic: they display a wide range of coloration patterns known as “morphs.” The plumage of the individual birds of the Red Footed Booby population that flies and roosts at Kilauea Point is known as the “white morph”: it’s adult plumage is a combination of snow-white head, body, and tail with dark-brown tips on the trailing edges of its wing feathers (known as “primaries”). Birds of different morphs don’t appear to interbreed, even when they share a common roosting site. I’ve never seen other morphs at the Kilauea Point rookery.

A booby heads out to sea to do some fishing. (For a larger version,

A booby heads out to sea to do some fishing.
(For a larger version, click on the image.)

Breeding couples roost and build their nests in large colonies of birds (called “rookeries”). Red-Footed Booby pairs at the Kilauea Point rookery all seemed to build their rather messy-looking nests of twigs and sticks on the ground in spaces between the shrubs and stunted Koa Haole trees that cover the slopes and steep basaltic cliffs of the peninsula. One egg is laid in the nest and cared for by both parents in shifts of 24 hours (like the British, boobies like a “rota”). Since boobies lack a brood patch, the egg is incubated by the parent’s feet. The egg hatches in about 100 days, and after the chick becomes a fledgling, its parents continue to care for it for a couple of more months. Young adults reach breeding age at about four years; breeding pairs are monogamous throughout their lives. The average life span is 22 years.

A nesting parent patiently sits warming his/her lone egg with its bright-red feet.

A nesting parent patiently sits warming his/her lone egg.
(For a larger version, click on the image.)

This species is a strictly marine bird: though it roosts on land to build a nest, it remains out to sea (that is, it is “pelagic”) for most of its adult life. Boobies favor tropical islands like Kaua’i; the species’ natural population range is just north of the Tropic of Cancer (23° 26′ 15.143″ north of the Equator) and a bit south of the Tropic of Capricorn (23° 26′ 14.908″ south of the Equator). While out to sea, the adult booby feeds on squid and flying fish, diving deep under water to snag the squid and scooping-up the flying fish in mid-air as it jumps to avoid subsurface predators.

An adult bird whizzes just above the treetops, riding the updrafts in the cove near the lighthouse.

An adult bird whizzes just above the treetops, riding the updrafts in the cove near the lighthouse. 
(For a larger version, click on the image.)

The boobies of the Kilauea Point rookery are magnificently powerful and graceful while in flight, swooping low, fast, and close-in over the sheer basalt cliffs of the peninsula. However, their clumsy suicide-dive takeoffs and crash landings are simultaneously fearful and humorous affairs. Perhaps that’s why they spend so much time in the air.

A suicide-dive takeoff from the steep cliffs of the peninsula.

A suicide-dive takeoff from the steep cliffs of the peninsula.
(For a larger version, click on the image.)

A less-than-graceful landing in the bushes

A less-than-graceful landing in the bushes… “a good landing is any one you can walk away from.”
(For a larger version, click on the image.)

It took me a long time to learn how to get good, clear photographs of the speedy fliers as they whizzed by overhead, gliding along the updrafts in the gulf between the peninsula’s steep cliffs and those of the adjacent shoreline. You have to “lead” the bird like an anti-aircraft gunner or sport hunter, panning quickly and moving your camera’s lens to the point just ahead of the point in space where you anticipate the bird will be in the next fraction of a second. It was a steep learning curve for me at first, but so very rewarding when I got these nice shots of my beautiful, clumsy boobies.

A graceful young adult (note brown feet) takes wing.

A graceful young adult (note brown feet) takes wing.
(For a larger version, click on image.)

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