Travelogue with Sea Birds

Terrence Bayly

July 5, 2004

A tour of the Galápagos Archipelago will ultimately guarantee to provide a glimpse into the lives of many different flora and fauna that do not inhabit the United States. Seeing as the archipelago is a chain of isolated islands 500 miles off by itself in the Pacific Ocean, you would imagine that many of the birds are in fact sea birds. We were in contact with such animals every day of the trip and pretty much at all times of our trip. There are endless experiences that could be documented about these birds, but I am going to try to hit some of the highlights and mention some of the notable memories we brought home from our excellent trip.

The boobies are arguably the most recognizable family of seabirds found in the Galápagos Islands. Now that we have gotten our snickering aside and purchased our "I Love Boobies" shirts we can understand the appeal of these birds. Their frequency is quite high in the islands, and their tameness around humans allows them to be easily observed by tourists. Our group got up close and personal particularly with the blue-footed boobies. These birds get their name from their overly noticeable sky-blue colored feet. They seem quite goofy on land as they waddle around with a confused look on their face, but they make up for this clumsiness in the air with their aerodynamic and smooth flying. The blue-footed boobies are divers, hovering over the water and diving down to catch fish swimming below them. We often saw the boobies diving into the water from the boat or on the dinghies, but I found it more impressive to see the behind the scenes, under the water aspects of their hunting. While snorkeling off Española Island we were in the water as the boobies were diving into the water to catch some dinner. We also watched these hunters dive below the fish and catch them on their way up on Luis' feeding frenzy video he played for us.

An interesting thing about seabirds is that none of them have a penis for mating. The seabirds come in contact with each other and the males will deposit a bag of sperm onto the females that is used to fertilize their eggs. While walking through the blue-footed booby nesting ground we witnessed two boobies mating, but did not realize how short their sessions last. Within 30 seconds of mounting the female, the male seemed to give it a quick back massage with its feet, and then hopped off like nothing happened. Luis explained the act and it all made sense why we all almost missed getting a picture of it because it was so brief.

We didn't get to see as much of the Nazca boobies, although we did walk by one of their nesting grounds, but it was located on top of some rocks that prevented us from getting too close. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of the red-footed boobies during our trip.

The endemic Galápagos penguin is one of the seabirds of interest for visiting observers. This species of penguin is generally smaller than the Antarctic penguins, and typically surprises visitors with their presence, considering the archipelago is located on the equator. Penguins typically inhabit environments with cooler temperatures, but the strong upwelling found on the coasts of the Galápagos Islands bring colder water up from the bottom of the ocean to replace the warmer water being blown out by the trade winds. The Humboldt Current also brings colder water north into the island chain from the cooler water down in the Antarctic range. These two factors provide the colder water temperatures favored by these flightless seabirds.

The Galápagos penguin uses a technique called feather preening to keep its coat sharp and provide needed insulation to maintain body temperature. Preening is the process of cleaning and straightening the feathers in order to keep them oily and waterproof. This act is characteristic of most seabirds, but the Galápagos penguin can spend as much as three hours per day preening it's coat, significantly longer than some of the other seabirds.

According to our guide Luis, we were fortunate to apparently see the entire population of penguins inhabiting the island of Bartolomé. Dr. Merck and Dr. Holtz also mentioned that the number and frequency of penguins we saw on our trip easily surpassed that of either of their previous trip. This was one of many good omens experienced during our trip that pointed towards this being the best Galápagos trip ever. We snorkeled with the penguins and watched them swim to cool off, as well as return to the rocks to preen their feathers and preserve their tuxedo, the mature ones that is.

We also got a glimpse and "studied" the waved albatross on the island of Española. These large birds were actually not as large as I was expecting. Although they are about the size of a full size turkey, I was envisioning a massive bird bigger than anything I had ever seen. The albatross was one of the seabirds that our group could just sit down on the rocks and take in what the birds were doing. These birds are so massive and their wingspan so large that they are unable to simply start flapping their wings and take off. They need to hurl themselves off a cliff and extend their wings to catch them as they fall to the ground. We sat on the coastline and watched as the albatrosses came waddling from their nesting ground to the cliffside in order to take off and get food. We also sat back and were amazed by the albatross courtship dance. We had front row seats of a new couple who were sword fighting with their beaks trying to stay in rhythm with each other. This act lasts for the first year of their relationship before breeding can occur.

The feeding technique of the albatross is a little different than you would expect from a seabird. The albatross goes out to sea to catch some fish and makes the food into an oil by getting rid of the water and maintaining the fat. This technique differs from the common feeding practice of some of the other seabirds that catch the fish and regurgitate it for their young.

The albatross also performs a puzzling practice of rolling their eggs during their incubation period. They will move them up to 14 meters per day. We saw the downside of this action when we came across an abandoned cracked albatross egg that was slowly being eaten by little ants and mites.

Although the booby gets plenty of laughs from tourists, the frigate bird might draw the most questions from them, at least from myself. The two species of frigates found in the Galápagos are the Great Frigate and the Magnificent Frigate. We had the running joke that the other two species of frigates have to be something like the Average Frigate and the Dismal Frigate.

I didn't so much question the courtship technique of the frigate as much as I was just interested in this unique action. The male frigates have a red pouch on their neck that they inflate in order to attract the females. They sit in the bushes with their pouches inflated and as the females fly by, they tap their beaks on the pouch in an attempt to convince the females to land by them and become their mate.

These birds are also extremely long, with wingspans around 8 feet, but not as massive as the albatross. Luis told us that these birds without a doubt were the most agile and able fliers of all the birds. Their slender body and forked tail allow them to maneuver through the air, but is not advantageous for them to dive. These birds act like pirates by flying through the air and literally snatching an already caught fish from a bird flying home with its victory.

The Galápagos Islands are full of seabirds that one could argue are the weirdest birds they have ever seen. The flightless cormorant is a strong contender for this title. While standing on the rocks and preening, this bird appears to be quite normal. Not until this bird opens its "wings" do you come to see why the flightless cormorant gets second looks from tourists. The bird lacks terrestrial predators, so it has lost its need to flee from trouble, and in the process, also has lost its wings.

There was not a moment of the trip that was uninteresting to me, but the brown pelican seemed to be the most normal and familiar of the fauna. The brown pelican, so named because of the brown feathers on its neck, acts and appears very similar to the pelicans in the United States. They have great eyesight, and will perch either on rocks or on the back of our boat and spot fish to swoop down and trap in their large beaks. The pelicans have a pouch that allows them to hold the full live fish, bring it to the surface and swallow it down. We had a pelican that seemed to stalk Eugenia around our boat, but maybe it was around more so at night to utilize the light to spot fish in the water.

The brown pelican's arch enemy and biggest annoyance is the brown noddy. Like the frigate birds, the brown noddies are pirate hunters. They fly around with the pelicans and land on their head waiting to steal the catch right out of their mouths. It was amusing to watch the waiting game that takes place between the pelican and noddy. We saw the noddies sitting on the pelicans for a few minutes before they got bored with waiting and would fly away and allow the pelican to enjoy its catch.

We saw some of the other sea birds while we were out motoring on the boat, but the only problem is that we just saw them fly by to get a glimpse of them, rather then get to observe them and analyze their actions. We were fortunate enough to see the storm petrels pattering on the surface of the water to coax the fish to come to top and feed. But other than that, we witnessed a tropicbird flyby, some shearwater passings and some gull spottings, but didn't really get to observe much about them.