The scene comes straight from a primordial past: Five thousand Magnificent Frigatebirds — one of the largest and strangest birds on earth — circle in the air all at the same time, high above an undeveloped island near the intersection of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
Biologists are studying the birds on the five-mile-long island, Isla Contoy, located off the Yucatan coast about 30 miles north of Cancun. Though the Mexican government protects Isla Contoy, the project allows a limited number of visitors each day for three-hours, which is how we found ourselves feeling as though we had traveled back in time.
The Magnificent Frigatebird does look like an ancient creature. Guidebooks describe their long wings as pterodactyl-like. Their are tails are forked, practically demonic. The tropical birds are enormous, with a wing span of more than seven feet. But the Frigatebird’s mating routine is its most remarkable trait. Males inflate a gland sac in their throats so that it looks like a red, nearly heart-shaped balloon. Then the male waves its head around to show off its balloon while clattering its beak to in hopes of attracting a mate.
And mating is what it’s about on Isla Contoy. Magnificent Frigates are fairly common worldwide but their numbers are declining in the Americas because development is threatening the breeding grounds. So while Isla Contoy attracts some 150 different kinds of birds, from warblers to seagulls, none is as important as the Magnificent Frigatebird.
The mid-March day we visited, the Frigatebirds seemed oblivious to the intrusion. Narrow wooden walkways lead to within a dozen yards of the breeding grounds, and from there you can watch and take photos without creating a disturbance. It truly did feel like we’d stumbled on another time. And for those three hours, time seemed to stand absolutely still.