Red-tailed Tropicbird: Soot Covered Stowaway Found Far From Home

Beneath black soot was a thin, dehydrated Red-tailed Tropicbird. Photos by Arian Gastelum – International Bird Rescue

A container ship delivered more than they bargained for when a crew member heard a noise coming from the engine room and discovered an unusual stowaway. Beneath black soot was a thin, dehydrated Red-tailed Tropicbird.

These exotic waterbirds are not often seen by people because they rarely forage for fish within sight of land, and they nest on offshore islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Their appearance similarly resembles a tern, with white plumage, a black mask, and red bill. They are distinct by their red tail streamers that can grow twice their body length.

The crew managed to safely capture the tropicbird and place them in a box, where they rested until they could reach help. The ship, which had come all the way from South Korea, anchored at the Port of Los Angeles Harbor, and the captain gave International Bird Rescue a call.

After coordinating a trip with Berth 60, a water taxi service for inner waters in the vicinity of Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors, the tropicbird was transferred safely into the hands of Bird Rescue. The last time a Tropicbird was in care at Bird Rescue was in 2011.

With the help of Dawn dish soap, the tropicbird’s soot-covered feathers transformed into a beautiful white coat. Because these birds fly and dive for their fish, they will not feed themselves while in care. Our wildlife technicians were responsible for hand feeding them twice a day.

In care, the tropicbird was paid a visit by Hailey Winslow of Fox 11 Los Angeles, who deemed them the “Lady Gaga” of birds in their feature, “Earth Day 2022: Learn about the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro.”

Over the course of 17 days, they regained their strength, healed their minor toe abrasions, and were ready to head back into the wild. Prior to their final exam, they left a little souvenir for our staff: a red tail streamer. Once their tails are fully matured, they fall out on their own and grow back. The timing of this break felt like a gesture, a thank you for their recovery.

It is no simple feat to release an offshore bird because they hunt miles away from the coast. We explored our options: we could fly them by plane to Hawaii, where Tropicbirds are more commonly found, or we could coordinate a boat to ride miles out to open water and release them from there. Ultimately, we sought the solution that required less travel to protect the mental and physical health of our newly recovered patient.

Thanks to Diane Alps, Boat Programs Coordinator for Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, and the Redondo Beach Whale Watch which allowed us to come aboard their boat, the Navegante. With an audience full of whale-watching attendees, the tropicbird was successfully released seven miles out to sea.

After a washing, the clean Red-tail Tropicbird gets some exercise before being released.