Feathery Island Days

Seabirds 1
By Blanche Gelber
  |  Gorp.com

A red-footed booby stood squarely on his palo santo (holy stick) tree, his large prehensile webbed feet firmly gripping a horizontal branch. Two feet tall, he proudly displayed his long, strong-looking blue beak and eyelids contrasting colorfully with brown wings, beige chest and tummy, and bright red flat feet. Neither frightened nor shy, he watched the line of well-behaved visitors file by, eyeing one or another who paused to take his picture. Farther along the Genovesa Island trail, a rarer whiteface red-footed booby perched amid low salt bushes. If I reached out, I could touch him. He too observed with curiosity and engaged me in exchanging visual examinations.

On the other side of Genovesa Island the steep uneven wet climb up Prince Phillip Steps led to a busy colony of more nesting birds. Blue-footed boobies (yes, with large bright-blue webbed feet) sat within their circles of white rays (of excreta) on bare ground. Slightly larger masked boobies, their bright white bodies contrasting with black masks, tails and wing fringes, nested in their sprayed circles on cliff rocks. Every few feet, an adult booby was posted, gently warming one or two eggs or a small chick. One masked booby parent jabbed defensively to protect a tiny naked newborn chick, attempting to hide it under soft chest plumage. He repeatedly fended off continuing aggressive lunges from a fearless mockingbird hungrily threatening and encroaching within the sanctity of the nesting circle.

Time and again we observed all three species of booby adults flying horizontally 40 to 50 feet above the water, stopping midair and suddenly aiming straight down like streamlined arrows when they spotted fish below. Long strong pointed bills and aerodynamic bodies plummeted in a fast vertical drop to plunge into the water for prey.

Interspersed conspicuously among the nesting smaller white booby chicks were bigger ungainly young frigatebirds, their solid black bodies appearing almost too large for their platforms of twigs. Later in life they bully booby chicks and harass adults to rob their food but all seemed to be coexisting neighbors at this point.

Adult frigatebirds of both varieties—great (males have a green sheen) or magnificent (with a purple sheen)—appeared omnipresent soaring overhead. These birds do not land at sea but glide in high circles throughout the Galapagos skies. The frigatebird courtship image is a popular one, the male's bright red leathery pouch inflated and huge under his throat and fronting his chest to attract the female whose breast bears white plumage. Great frigatebirds feed far offshore whereas magnificent frigatebirds hunt for food close to the coast. With their large-span sharply crooked wings and deeply forked tail, the large dark bodies circling high overhead somehow made me think pterodactyl thoughts!

Colony members paid little heed to the short stream of taller human tourists who gawked and snapped cameras. It was rewarding and refreshing not to be seen as automatically frightening predators but to feel a trusting rapport and somehow equal in status with these fellows!

On several occasions during the restful time-off hours between hikes, my own water antics were carefully observed by another kind of bird: seagulls. One sunny afternoon after lunch I sat alone in the "hot tub" on the top deck of our boat beneath the open sky. The water in the tub was quite cool; contained, it shifted in aborted waves from one side of the tub to the other while the lilting boat chugged through strong currents. Flapping wings alerted me to the arrival of my observer. A lava gull alighted on the rail around the outer deck. This is one of the two gulls found in the Galapagos, both of them endemic. In the northeastern United States one thinks of gulls as white or pale in color but the lava gull is a dark bird who looks like his name: sooty gray with black feet and beak. Only his eye-ring is white on a dark head. Known to be a solitary bird, this one stayed a long time watching me in the tub while I watched him. He left as quietly and unexpectedly as he arrived, a mystery.

The other local gull is a night feeder. The swallowtail gull has a red eye-ring and white spots like nightlights at the base and tip of its dark beak. The body is pale gray and white, the feet reddish. This bird hunts offshore at night and has the very same fishing patterns that eye-catching tropicbirds practice during daylight hours. Red-billed tropicbirds fly over coastal waters with their extraordinary trailing feathers fluttering like streamers out behind. A pair of two-foot-long narrow white feathers extends beyond the tail of the one-and-a-half-foot body!

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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