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A Niddle of Noddies

We were exploring Cayo de Agua in Los Roques, the out islands of Venezuela, poking around the mangroves when we were startled by a guttural growl from a dark sea bird sitting on a stick nest. We were able to get quite close and indentified a Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus) as the maker of the guttural kaark.

The first time I saw a Brown Noddy I was puzzled because this sleek dark bird looks a lot like a tern, but is all dark. Once I identified this mystery seabird I began to see it now and again flying around small islands and cays where they nest.

Brown Noddies are indeed terns with reverse plumage. They are entirely smoky brown with a conspicuous white forehead and crown. The white of the crown ends above the eye, leaving the eyes the same dark color as the body. They have a long slender black bill, black legs and a wedge shaped tail. Juveniles are brown, including the cap, with white streaking on the under parts. Sexes are alike in appearance but males are larger than females. Unlike many seabirds, they do not have a breeding plumage. Brown Noddies can be distinguished from the closely related Black Noddy by their larger size and plumage, which is dark brown rather than black. Brown Noddies are the more common Noddy in the Caribbean. A group of noddies are collectively known as a 'niddle'.

Brown Noddies can be found all over the world in tropical waters including Hawaii, Australia, the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Caribbean Sea. They are gregarious and are often found with other terns at sea. They are strong fliers but can also swim and will settle on water or flotsam. They usually hunt low to the water surface and hover and dip or scoop for small fish, crustaceans, squid, pelagic mollusks, jelly fish and insects.

Noddies have earned their name from their habit of nodding and bowing during courtship. They nest in large colonies, constructing their platform like nests of sticks, shells, leaves and seaweed. The nests are constructed on rocky shelves, in cactus or in shrubs and trees (such as mangroves) and, occasionally, on the ground. The nests may be re-used by the pair for several years. The female Brown Noddy lays a single buff-colored spotted egg each breeding season (from March through September). Both parents incubate the egg during the approximately 35 days of incubation. The parents take turns at the nest with the chick while the other hunts for fish to bring back and regurgitate for the chick. Chicks reach adult weight in 18 days. Most chicks outweigh parents in six weeks. They are capable of short flights before reaching full wing development, and will flee if alarmed. The chick fledges when it is about 35-40 days old and its parents will continue to feed it for several months after fledging. After breeding season the Noddies will leave the nesting island and move out to sea.

Like all nesting seabirds, Noddies are vulnerable to habitat destruction, human disturbance and predation by mammals. Brown Noddies have been extirpated from several cays in Jamaica as a result of egg collecting and overall the West Indian population is in decline.

Devi Sharp is a retired wildlife biologist and is exploring the birds of the Caribbean with her husband, Hunter, on their sailboat Arctic Tern. Chuck Shipley is a former professor of computer science and an avid amateur photographer. He and his wife Barbara live aboard their trawler Tusen Takk II in the Caribbean.

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