A giant tropical bird - a type rarely, if ever, seen in the Bay Area - got stuck in the vortex of a hurricane-force Pacific storm this month and took a dizzying Wizard of Oz-like ride hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles off course.
That's the theory of how it ended up in a tree in Healdsburg.
The gangly, feathered galoot with a hooked beak and wingspan topping 7 feet is recovering at a Bay Area animal rescue center after a couple of bird watchers spotted it in the tree and knew right away that it was alien to Northern California.
It was positively identified Tuesday as a male juvenile magnificent frigatebird, known scientifically as Fregata magnificens. The species is known to inhabit the tropical Atlantic, the Caribbean and Cape Verde Islands. Although frigatebirds breed along the Pacific coast as far north as Mexico, they are most at home in steaming hot equatorial regions like the Galapagos Islands.
"In our entire 37 years, we've never treated one in Northern California," said Monte Merrick, a wildlife rehabilitator for the International Bird Rescue Research Center, in Cordelia. "There have been sightings, but those sightings are rare."
The big bird was spotted on Jan. 4 after a winter storm with winds of over 75 mph swept through the Bay Area, knocking out power to thousands of residents.
John and Dana Naber said they walked that day to an old dead pine tree on the Russian River where ospreys normally feed near their house in Healdsburg. Up on a branch was a being the likes of which they had never seen before.
"This time we looked up and knew it wasn't an osprey," said Dana Naber. "We did not know what the bird was at first."
The couple ran back home, pulled out their bird books and began researching on the Internet. It looked, they concluded, like a frigatebird. But bird experts with the Audubon Society, Santa Rosa Bird Rescue and the rescue center in Cordelia treated their entreaties with the kind of skepticism one might expect from someone who had just been told there was a pterodactyl attacking tourists in the Tenderloin.
Seeing was believing, though. The alien bird was found the next day in a tree only 50 feet from where it was first spotted. A local window washer with a 40-foot ladder helped bird rescuers from Santa Rosa capture the seabird, which was taken to the Cordelia rescue center.
The wayward flier was sick, emaciated and near death, Merrick said, noting it was 400 grams underweight with a temperature far below normal. It was placed on intravenous drugs and has been recovering ever since.
The magnificent frigatebird, so named by sailors because of the way it sails majestically through the sky, is also known as a pirate bird because of its penchant for stealing food from other seabirds. South Seas sailors of a bygone era called it man-o'-war bird because of the expert way it would outmaneuver its rivals, silently sweeping down to the ocean and plucking up prey without getting wet and chasing and looting other birds with equal aplomb.
Its tactic is to chase other seabirds, forcing them to regurgitate their meals, which the frigatebird catches, more often than not, in midair.
Frigatebirds typically grow 36 inches long with a 90-inch wingspan. Males are all black. During mating season, they inflate a scarlet pouch on their throats for up to 20 minutes at a time. Females find the red balloon display irresistible.
Frigatebirds like the one found in Healdsburg are usually silent, but they make a rattling sound when they are nesting.
Experts say the birds produce a single egg and that both parents take turns feeding the chick for the first three months. The mother takes over for another eight months and, much like humans, it is common to see juveniles as big as their parents waiting to be fed.
Their populations appear to be declining, according to the experts, probably because of human destruction of habitat for housing and resorts, introduced predators, overfishing and disturbance of breeding colonies.
The Healdsburg frigatebird was named Florence by the Nabers until Tuesday, when they were informed that it was a male. It was their first opportunity since its capture to see the bird, which is being kept in a large wooden pen covered with sheets at the rescue center.
Merrick removed a pink sheet, revealing a white headed bird with a long beak hooking downward. Like a mother bird, Merrick held the bird's head and stuffed fish down its throat.
After the feeding, the bird shook its feathers in a way that reminded Merrick of pelican behavior. He said the shaking may be the result of stress or the cold or, perhaps, it's a natural feeding behavior.
"This is a juvenile bird and this would be its first winter, which might explain its problem finding its way around the world and ending up in Northern California," said Merrick.
Merrick said the fact that frigatebirds spend almost their entire lives aloft makes them especially susceptible to being blown off course. Some 1,500 frigatebirds were found in Kansas in 1988 after Hurricane Gilbert blew through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Off course frigatebirds also have been reported on the Isle of Man, in Denmark and Spain. In 2005, a male was found in England, miles from the sea in Whitchurch, Shropshire. It died a few days later.
The only other magnificent frigatebird that anyone remembers in California landed on a cargo ship in the mid-Pacific in 2004 and was successfully rehabilitated at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center, which is managed by the local rescue and rehabilitation center.
Merrick said the plan is to also take the bird to the Los Angeles center in February and release it in San Diego, which rescuers hope is far enough south for it to find its way back to the tropics.
Dana and John Naber said when that happens the wayward bird will have lived up to his new name, Freedom.
"He looks terrific," said Dana Naber, peering like a proud mother into the tent-like shelter where the bird is being kept. But, she added, "He's just like a man. He couldn't ask for directions."
For more information about the rescue center, go to:
E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.