The Galapagos Islands are renowned for their unusual birds. The Islands’ birds have evolved independently of mainland species, and have evolved to adapt to the unusual geographic conditions. And like other land and water species, most of these birds have no predators, so they are indifferent to human and other animal proximity. Scientists are not positive how the evolutionary ancestors of these birds first arrived on the islands. Perhaps blown way off course from the mainland. Perhaps floated for weeks on debris washed out in flooding mainland rivers.
The first stop on our cruise was Genovesa Island which is the furthest to the NE in the grouping. First views when coming up on deck after sleeping during the sailing was that of red-footed boobies dive bombing into the water beak-first for fish … in droves – hundreds at a time. Our first shore excursion was all about birds. Birds were EVERYWHERE! Sitting on the ground, sitting in bushes, sitting on rocks. They would not even flinch as we walked by.
Genovesa Island is also home to thousands of Nasca boobies. These fishing birds are perhaps less dramatic looking, except for the chicks that appear as big cotton balls.
Mixed amongst the boobies were Galapagos lava gulls and night herons – all equally indifferent to us gawkers.
After snorkeling in the afternoon, we went by zodiac across the bay (Genovesa Island is a volcanic crater – the crater forms the bay, with an opening to the sea) and scampered up some stairs built into the cliff to explore more bird habitat.
Even more boobies here. You literally had to walk around them, and had to be careful not to back up onto one. We walked from the inner part of the crater to the outside on the open ocean where we saw a Galapagos short-eared owls were hunting Galapagos petrels (you might notice a trend here …. we realized it is pretty easy to name/identify the birds – just put “Galapagos” in front of whatever … because they are all endemic here)
Other days took us to other islands that hosted other birds. “Darwin’s Finches” are well known. Darwin collected specimens when on the islands in 1835, and while sailing back to England he noted how identical looking brown finches from different islands had markedly different beaks. Similarly with mockingbirds from different isles. This is one of the things that got him thinking about the concept of “adaptation” and evolution. Each island had different vegetation and seeds, so beaks were specialized.
Frigate birds also have a significant presence in the Galapagos, but are found elsewhere too. These birds catch fish, but are unable to swim or take off after being in the water (they die if they end up in the water). Sailors of years gone by always welcomed the sight of frigate birds because it meant they were getting close to land (the birds have to stay reasonable close to shore). We saw frigate birds on land, but were most impressed with their inclination to fly with our boat when we were under way. They would fly about 3 ft off the side of the ship … sometimes 5 or 6 at a time … and were so close that we could actually have touched them if we’d have tried. It reminds me of dolphins liking to swim just off the bow of a moving boat.
Galapagos hawks were the top land predators. We’d see them circling around above when we went ashore. They eat mostly lava lizards, snakes and especially marine iguanas.
On our second last day we visited Punta Espinosa on Fernadina Island where we encountered the flightless cormorant. These guys made their way to the Galapagos Islands via flight, but food was so readily available in the water (fish!) that they have evolved to become swimmers, not flyers. Their wings are now tiny, and useless, though they still like to dry them in the wind like cormorants elsewhere with “real” wings.