'Oh my God, it's a frigatebird': Birders flock to Point Pelee for glimpse of rare, tropical bird

The magnificent frigatebird, with its six-foot wide wing span, caught the eye of Joan Walker because it was being harassed by a dozen or so gulls as it soared outside her home on Pelee Drive on Thursday afternoon.

Mike Malone quickly snapped several photos to verify the sighting for the rest of the bird-watching world

The tropical magnificent frigatebird made a rare appearance at Point Pelee, Ont. on Thursday afternoon. (Kory Renaud)

Joan Walker was at her kitchen table talking to her mother when she shrieked at the rare sight of a massive tropical bird that has only been spotted a handful of times in Ontario.

The magnificent frigatebird, with its six-foot wide wing span, caught her eye because it was being harassed by a dozen or so gulls as it soared outside her home on Pelee Drive on Thursday afternoon.

She immediately jumped from her chair and ran next door to her family's nature store to tell her husband Mike Malone. He quickly snapped several photos to verify the sighting for the rest of the bird-watching world.

"Oh my God, it's a frigatebird," Walker recalled yelling into the phone. "I went running out of the house."

Rare sighting

In the Point Pelee bird-count area, which now has a sighting count of 394 species, this is the first time a frigatebird has been recorded and it's already garnering plenty of attention.

The bird has been spotted resting in a maple tree just outside Malone's shop, Pelee Wings Nature Store. Depending on how long the bird stays, he expects dozens of out-of-town birders will flock to the region trying to get a glimpse of the stoic fowl, which is also known as the man of war bird. 

Word spread quickly after the photos were shared on Facebook shortly following the Thursday afternoon sighting. Later that evening, there were already half a dozen avid bird watchers from the county at Malone's store. 

One of those visitors was Sarah Rupert, whose dad spotted the first ever recorded sighting of a magnificent frigatebird in Ontario back in 1988. Living in Sarnia at the time, she skipped school that day to get down to Lake Huron, where her dad told her to find it.

Since then, there has only been a handful of sightings, so Point Pelee bird watchers say they feel like they struck gold.  

"This is the jackpot bird of the year, so far," Rupert said. "It's not a bird that's here often. 

Fish-thieving bird drifted off course

The bird, which typically lives over tropical and subtropical waters on either side of North America, likely got pushed off course by tropical storm Cindy, according to Paul Pratt, retired naturalist. 

"It's a well-known phenomenon that birds get caught up in these storms and get carried inland, when they normally wouldn't have any interest in going inland," he said. 

Pratt actually went to Point Pelee earlier in the week with a faint hope of spotting this exact species. Pratt had read about a sighting of an estimated 800 to 1,000 frigatebirds flying up the Mississippi River as the storm moved inland near New Orleans.

"It was in the back of my mind, not being deadly serious, but still thinking about it," he said. "I guess I went down there a bit too early."

There is no way to predict how long the bird may stay, but there is plenty of fish to keep it alive, Malone explained. The magnificent frigatebird typically gather their food by robbing other fowl of their catch.

"If a bird comes up out of the ocean with a fish in its beak, they dive on them," Malone said. "They'll hammer these birds in the air, hammer them on the head, tear their tail feathers out."

The kleptoparasites typically line the ocean shores, but fish in Lake Erie will make for good eating as well, Malone explained.