galapagos islands birds

Galapagos Shore Birds

Many resident shore birds of the Galapagos are now sufficiently different from mainland species to have been awarded and endemic subspecies status by taxonomists. Only one has been given a full species status: the endemic lava heron.

But what are shorebirds? These are birds that spend most of their time around seashores. These species use the resources found on beaches or on the rocky coasts, feeding on shellfish from the pools on the beaches.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher Galapagos Birds

This species is able to open crab shells with their strong beaks and eat the contents. They make their living in the inter-tidal zone, feeding on crustaceans and molluscs. These birds are best seen in Genovesa, Marchena, San Cristobal, and Española Islands.

The Cattle Egret

Probably the most recent natural arrival in Galapagos as part of a worldwide expansion of this especies. The Cattle Egret feeds on locusts, grasshoppers and other insects; also lizards and probably the young of iguanas and green turtles. These birds are best seen in Española, San Cristobal, Darwin, Wolf, Marchena and Genovesa Islands.

Greater Flamingo

Galapagos birds

An unmistakable bird, with immensely legs, a long neck and striking pink to vermilion plumage.
Their diet is quite varied, with crustaceans, molluscs, annelid worms, insects and plant material, algae, diatoms, seeds, etc.
These birds are best seen in Isabela, Punta Moreno, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Rabida Islands.

Great Blue Heron

Reaches a height of 1 meter high and a wingspan of nearly 2m. The blue heron diet is based on small fishes, crabs, lizards, small iguanas and young birds. These birds are best seen in Genovesa, Marchena, San Cristobal, and Española Islands.

Galapagos birds

Lava Heron

Galapagos Birds

The Lava heron is a solitary nester in mangroves or around lagoons, and is quite territorial.
The lava heron feeds mainly on small fish, crabs lizards and insects. It is often seen stalking sally lightfoot crabs.
These birds are best seen in Española, San Cristobal, Darwin, Wolf, Marchena and Genovesa Islands.

White Checked Pintail

Its also known by the name of Galapagos Pintail. With a height of around 45 cm, it is considered a small bird.
The Galapagos Pintail feeds on vegetable matters and invertebrates on the surface of water and by dabbling, but may also dive in deeper freshwater lakes and ponds to escape predators.
These birds are best seen in Española, San Cristobal, Darwin, Wolf, Marchena and Genovesa Islands.

The Boobies

There are three species of booby resident in the Galapagos Islands; none is endemic. Boobies are strong fliers, sometimes feeding many kilometers offshore. They have forward-pointing, stereoscopic vision which allows them to judge distance accurately and pinpoint their prey, even underwater.

Booby refers to the Spanish word Bobo, meaning clown or stupid.

The Blue-Footed Booby

One of the archipelago’s most sought-after birds, not because it is rare but because it is entertaining. Everyone who visits the islands will certainly see it.

In trying to attract a mate, the male actually dances. If attracted, a female will come to join him and together they dance the ‘booby two-step´. If all goes well the dance peaks in mutual sky pointing, face to face, and culminates in mating.

The Red-Footed Booby

Distributed in only five main colonies around the archipelago. These are situated on the outer islands close to deep, oceanic water, their preferred feeding area. Red foots are the smallest boobies and partly because they may feed hundreds of kilometers offshore, only manage to bring back enough food to raise a single chick.
Young red-foots in particular often come to investigate boats approaching their island colonies, and show off their perching ability by landing on the rigging and rails. As a survival method they have learned to accompany ships and feed on flying fish which the boat disturbs. In a display of fast low-level flying, red-foots snatch the fish in mid-air.

Galapagos Birds

The Nazca Booby

Masked boobies, or Nazca Boobies, lay two eggs but only ever raise one chick. The eggs are laid a few days apart, giving chick hatches, its stronger sibling attacks it and pushes it out of the guano ring which represents the nest. The parents ignore the battle, known as obligate sibling murder (or the “Cain and Abel syndrome”), and leave the chick to its fate – invariably an attack by mockingbirds. Should the first egg not hatch, the second egg fulfills its role as an insurance and goes on to reach maturity.

The Galapagos Albatross

What do Miami Vice, Fleetwood Mac, and the original film “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” have in common? Answer – they have all made reference to the albatross. The Galapagos Albatross or Waved Albatross, as it is also known, is one of the 21 species of albatross, an animal with such mythical allure that it has crossed over into popular culture hundreds of times.

In fact, sailors are known as superstitious people who look for signs; in earlier centuries they thought that albatrosses were the reincarnated souls of drowned sailors and when they followed your ship it was seen as good luck or an omen of good things to come. On the other hand, if you killed them, perhaps for food as many sailors did, it was considered very bad luck!

The most famous poem referring to a mariner was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge. The captain of a ship shot an albatross and then some seriously bad luck hit the ship and the crew leading eventually to their deaths, but before that, the crew hung the albatross around the neck of the captain as a symbol of the bad luck he had brought upon them.

To have an albatross around your neck is now a saying meaning that you are carrying an emotional burden. Wow! Heavy stuff! But let’s concentrate on live albatrosses and the beauty in them.

Albatrosses live on the oceans most of their lives. They have huge wingspans, larger even than a condor, and although the Galapagos Albatross is not the largest it still has a wingspan of 7 to 8 feet.

They are the ultimate gliders covering great distances with just minimal effort.  They hardly move their wings to fly because they rise into the wind and then turn and glide in the same direction as the wind. Their wings are so evolved that when fully extended they have a tendon that locks into place meaning they don’t waste energy straining to stretch their wings. For every meter, they drop they can glide forward 22 meters.

And when flying their hearts are beating at the same rate as if they were at rest.  What could be more efficient than that? How about sleeping when they are flying? Scientists know that albatrosses can’t be asleep on the water for too long for fear of being eaten so they now speculate that they have different sleep patterns meaning they fly hundreds of miles on auto-pilot half asleep.

The Galapagos Albatross nests on Española Island from March through to September and can be seen on the South American coast in northern Peru and Ecuador the rest of the year. They are considered endemic to the Galapagos Islands because they are the same population of birds that just migrate rather than two distinct populations.

The Galapagos Albatross is the only member of the albatross family that lives in the tropics. They fly over a much smaller area than some of their cousins, not flying thousands of miles as other albatross species do, possibly because the Humboldt Current is like an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant compared to other minimalist-cuisine ocean areas.

They are sometimes called Waved albatrosses for the wave pattern of their wing feathers. Their crowns and necks are tinted a light yellow contrasting with their white breasts. They also have huge bright yellow bills which seem altogether too long for their small heads.

That said there is some impressive technology inside those bills. There are 2 tubes along the sides of the bills that can actually measure the albatross’s air speed so that they don’t come close to stalling. The same bills also have a nasal gland that gets rid of all the salt that the birds take in as they dive into the oceans to eat plankton and small squid. Air speed indicators and a mini-desalination plant – how long before an albatross becomes the symbol of a hi-tech company?

On the ground, Galapagos Albatrosses like to hang out on Espanola Island during the breeding season. They can be seen at Suarez Point where they use the cliffs as a launching pad but breeding takes place at Gardner Bay; here is where you get to see the epic courtship dance. If you look at videos made by tourists then about halfway through the video you can hear someone start to laugh – it really is one of the funniest things you will see any bird doing anywhere in the world.

The staccato opening and snapping of the bills produces a rapid clacking sound and then they wave them in the air at each other and smack them together as if in a pretend sword fight. They also step around each other bowing at the same time. They sound and look like tap dancers engaged in a friendly sword fight.

The albatrosses invest all this time in ritual mating so that they choose the right partner. In doing so they create a unique ‘dance’ that allows them to recognize each other when returning the following years; the male always arrives first on Espanola. The best time to see this ritual is in March and April.

Galapagos Albatrosses in common with other albatross species are monogamous and only lay one egg every year. Being an endemic species we should expect to see some differences between a Galapagos Albatross and all the other species. Sure enough, the Waved Albatross doesn’t even make a nest. Instead, it rolls the egg around the pair’s territory, often as much as 50 meters. It’s not clear why they do this but scientists have observed that the further an egg is rolled the healthier the hatched chick seems to be.

Sometimes disaster strikes and they lose the egg. You can only imagine how that conversation would go; “Babe, I’m really sorry but I’ve got to ‘break’ some bad news, I’ve lost our egg.” Funnily enough, there actually are rare cases of ‘divorce’ among Galapagos pairs and normally they occur after several years of failed breeding, or, one imagines, losing an egg more than once.

The 2 month incubation period generally ends in July or August when the chicks gather together in nurseries while the parents fly out to sea on the lookout for food. They fly from ten to 100 miles which might seem a long way to you and me but is probably like a trip down to the local supermarket for them. Any food they find is swallowed and mixed with oil in the adult’s bellies before being regurgitated and injected into the chick’s open mouths.

The fledglings continue to grow and develop safely because, as with all albatrosses, they are bred on islands that historically were free of mammals and therefore most predators, although the Galapagos Hawk preys on eggs and baby fledglings.

By December the fledglings are fully grown and ready for their maiden flights which often take place in the first days of January.  A third or more of the fledglings never make it back to their birthplace to breed themselves. The biggest threats are oil slicks and fishing hooks which seem to kill off more males than females affecting future breeding success. A recent fall in numbers has seen the Galapagos Albatross placed on the list of critically endangered species.

For now, we are free to enjoy their hysterical mating ritual and marvel at their effortless gliding abilities.

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The Galapagos Royal Frigatebird

When is a Royal magnificent? We’re not talking about some stand-out European prince or princess here but rather the Galapagos Royal Frigatebird or the Magnificent Frigatebird as it is often called. Bedecked in royal robe colors with the shoulder plumage of the males glistening purple in sunlight and with 7 foot wingspan spread, this truly is a magnificent addition to Galapagos wildlife while the royal ermine-white breast of the female complements the males’ purple robes.

There are two captivating frigatebirds on the Galapagos competing for our attention, the Magnificent and the Greater. Confusingly, the Magnificent Frigatebird is the larger of the two.

French mariners gave frigatebirds their name as it comes from La Frégate a fast warship often used by pirates. True to name frigatebirds are fast and do ‘attack’ other birds to rob the food in their bills or scare them into regurgitating food they have just swallowed. The poor booby’s in the Galapagos are the birds that are most attacked and even Christopher Columbus noted this during his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492.

There are frigatebirds spread all around the world in tropical climates. There are 5 species of frigate bird and the Magnificent Frigatebird is found in several places in the Eastern Pacific including on the mainland Ecuador coast. Frigatebirds are fantastic aviators, highly evolved (more of which later) to fly hundreds, even thousands of miles at sea.

These are highly mobile sea birds so you might think that the Magnificent or Great Frigatebirds would be among the least likely of animals on the Galapagos Islands to be endemic to the area. But, the magic of the Galapagos Islands, its famed uniqueness, seems to have struck again. It is now thought that the Galapagos Magnificent Frigatebird has been a ‘distinct evolutionary group’ for several hundred thousand years. Hey! Can we just say new species?

In 2010 scientists from the Smithsonian Institute detected distinct DNA differences between Magnificent Frigatebirds from the Galapagos and their closest neighbours from the Panamanian and Ecuador mainland. The Galapagos Royal (Magnificent) Frigatebirds are distinctly larger too, meaning they are the largest frigatebirds in the world. The Smithsonian Institute concluded “Our finding is a powerful testimony to the evolutionary uniqueness of the animals inhabiting the Galapagos archipelago”.

Of course, this instantly throws up new issues. Until now Magnificent Frigatebirds on a worldwide level were classified as being ‘Least Concern’ status on the endangered species list. Now, with the publication of this study the 1,000 breeding pairs on the Galapagos should probably be considered as very vulnerable; it wouldn’t take much to wipe them out – maybe more frequent occurrences of El Niño or a catastrophic human related event such as a very large oil spill.

It is incredible that all these years after the Galapagos became famous after Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published, that as recently as 2010 new evidence is turning up to prove just how unique the Galapagos Islands are.

The upside of course is that Magnificent Frigatebirds are easier to watch on the Galapagos Islands. You can see them up close and personal on Genovesa, San Cristobal and North Seymour when they start to mate.

The mating and courtship starts as early as March when the males stay on land to inflate their red throat pouches. It’s a process that takes up to 30 minutes for each bird and meanwhile the females are flying serenely above looking for a choice male. The more the females fly over the crazier the males become, extending their wings the full six foot span, shaking their heads, opening their bills and shrieking to the skies.

Does a larger, redder throat patch mean that one male is stronger than another? Only the females know why they choose a certain male but once they decide they too land and breeding takes place and these normally silent birds make a drumming noise. One egg is the result and the males and females share parental duties for the first 3 months before the male takes off. Typical!

Although albatrosses have a larger wingspan than frigate birds they are not as perfectly evolved for effortless flight as the frigatebird family. The Galapagos Royal Frigatebird has the largest wingspan compared to body weight of any bird in the world and, as a result, using thermals it can fly extremely high and glide over great distances.

Although it is speculated that albatrosses sleep in flight it is actually known that frigatebirds catch forty winks as they fly. German and Swiss scientists attached small ‘neurologgers’ on to the heads of some frigatebirds to measure brain wave activity. They also were able to measure when the frigatebirds were flying. They found that frigatebirds sleep in short ten second bursts with half their brains. The other half stays awake to watch out for prey and make sure there are no mid-air collisions or crash landings into the ocean. Maybe being ‘half asleep’ is actually smarter than it sounds.

Watching out where they are going is very important for all frigatebirds because unlike other sea birds they don’t have the oil producing gland that produces the oil that makes other sea birds’ feathers impermeable allowing them to land on the ocean or even dive into it.

For frigatebirds landing on the ocean is about as appealing as walking through fire is for us. Without the waterproofing oil their feathers would become water-soaked and heavy and eventually they’d just sink and drown. Not a welcome outcome so it is perhaps just as well they are such awesome flyers.

So awesome in fact they seem to be able to just hover at any pre-determined spot knowing exactly how much effort is needed to remain there. They are so agile they can catch flying fish mid air or descend and hover above the surface for just enough time to pluck a squid from the surface water. Another useful trick is being able to catch mid-air the regurgitated food dropped by other sea birds before it hits the ocean.

You can catch the Galapagos Royal Frigatebird inflating and mating on the islands of San Cristobal and Genovesa in March and continuing into April. In May they start to lay the solitary eggs in a shallow, platform nest in a low bush or tree. The red pouches are still on display in June but on the north side of Seymour Island and those eggs are hatched in July and August.

After the eggs hatch the male Magnificent Frigatebirds abandon the nest and take off to the ocean skies gliding into the Galapagos sunset, travelling the oceans but never able to land until the next time they encounter land. Much the same as those pirate boats many years ago.

Q&A about the Galapagos Birds

The Galapagos Islands is a kingdom far, far away in the middle of nowhere on the Pacific Ocean. People didn’t even discover these islands existed until a few hundred years ago. Not even animals, like the tortoises and iguanas, knew about this magical place. Is most likely that the first animals to get to the Enchanted Islands were the birds. Why? Because they were able to fly there.

What kinds of birds are in Galapagos?

All kinds! There are sea birds like penguins and boobies, shore birds like ducks and oystercatchers, and land birds like owls and finches. If you have enough time, luck and a good sight, you can find up to 178 different species of birds in Galapagos.

Why are Galapagos birds so interesting?

Well, there are a couple of answers to that. First of all, the birds there really aren’t afraid of people, so you can usually walk right up to them to take a close-up picture and they won’t fly away. Also, many of them are endemic, meaning that they don’t live anywhere else. In other words, Galapagos is the only place in the world where you can find them!

Are all of the birds endemic?

Not all of them. Many are, like the Galapagos Penguin and the Lava Gulls. Others are “native,” which means that they live there naturally, but can also be found in other places. One of the typical peculiar Galapagos birds, the Blue-footed Booby is one of them since he is already an “old stager” in the Galapagos. Some Galapagos birds, like the Smooth-billed Ani, wouldn’t have made it to the islands alone. They are “introduced” species, which means that they were brought (accidentally or on purpose) by people. Nowadays, they are considered a threat to the Galapagos pristine eco-system.

What are some famous Galapagos birds?

The most famous ones are probably the colorful blue-footed and red-footed boobies. That the name Blue/Red-Footed Boobies arises from the color of their feet is obviously, but why “Booby”? This name comes from the Spanish word “bobo”, which means goofy. When first Spanish explorers came to the Galapagos and found them clumsy waddling around, they found that name suitable.

You might also know the finches from Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Even though all the 13 species originate from one ancestor, they look, nourish, sing and behave differently on each island, which makes watching them more interesting for you.

Since they are the only penguins you can meet on or even north of the equator, the cute Galapagos Penguins are pretty extraordinary, too. Not to forget the droll Flightless Cormorant, who is the only cormorant in the world that cannot fly!

Can you touch the birds in Galapagos?

Even though its sooo tempting to touch all those Galapagos animals, including birds, to feel their skin, fur or feathers, don’t even think about touching them. People who live in Galapagos used to eat some of the birds, but they don’t anymore because of the rules. So just enjoy their phenomenal close sight, take pictures, including some selfies with your new bird-buddy, but don’t try to touch them.

What do the birds eat?

That depends on the bird. Most of the bigger birds in Galapagos, like the Waved Albatross, Blue-footed Booby or Galapagos Penguin dine on fish and other water animals like squids and octopuses. The smaller birds that live on land eat seeds and bugs. The Galapagos Hawk is the most important predator on land as it hunts small iguanas, lizards, snakes and even other, smaller birds.

Are any of the birds extinct?

No, but some are unfortunately in danger of extinction. The Floreana Island Mockingbird, for example, doesn’t live there anymore: there are only a few left on little islands near Floreana. Also, the cute Galapagos Penguins are endangered. Not just that humans steal their food by overfishing, it’s also El Niño, which makes their life hard. El Niño is a climate phenomenon, which makes the cold, nutritious water go in deeper regions, covered by warm, nutrient-poor water.

Scientists also worry, that the last Lava Gulls could die out soon, even though they truly eat everything. Luckily the Galapagos National Park and conservation organizations are making a lot of effort for keeping an eye on them!

Why do penguins live in Galapagos?

Well, they take advantage from two currents at once. The Humboldt Current comes straight from Antarctica to Galapagos and brings them some cool water for not breaking a sweat. The Cromwell Current is bringing them an additional, great food supply so that they can feast properly in the Galapagos.

What is the biggest bird in Galapagos?

The largest of the Galapagos birds is the Waved Albatross. He can reach a wingspan of up to 7-8 feet! That’s even taller than Shaquille O’Neal. When he is flying, he barely needs to move his wings just by using the winds. And if you get the chance to see their courtship ritual, you will be beyond fascination!

Why can’t the cormorants in Galapagos fly?

The Galapagos cormorants have stubby wings, which make them look really clumsy and don’t allow them to fly. Within the last 2 million years, the cormorant most likely didn’t really feel the need to fly so that genetic mutations just little by little eliminated this ability. In exchange, the flightless cormorant got some strong legs, which help him hunt his prey in the ocean.

What endangers Galapagos birds?

In addition to the predators like the Galapagos hawk and the introduced cats and dogs, the Galapagos birds are currently endangered by several foreign pathogens, like parasites and infectious diseases. They most likely came to the Galapagos by introduced bird species.

What colors can I expect from Galapagos birds?

Galapagos birds can be found in many colors! The male Frigate bird will amaze you with its red gular pouch, the Blue Footed Booby will charm you with their, well, blue colored feet. Furthermore, you will see pink Flamingos, Brown Pelicans, and yellow warblers.

How big are Darwin Finches?

It depends on the species. The Large Tree Finch is the largest of the Darwin finches and can reach a weight of 18g – the same as two grapes. The smallest finch on the Galapagos is the Warbler Finch, which can gain up to 8g – less than a 1$ coin.

Are male birds always more colorful than female birds?

Most of them are, but in some species, such as the Blue Footed Boobies, both sexes look the same. The Galapagos Barn Owl ladies look even more colorful than their males. While male Barn Owls have their chest white and black spotted, the females’ chest is way more spotted and in a slight reddish color – as if she applied a bit rouge to be more attractive.



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