Feathery Island Days

Land Birds
By Blanche Gelber
  |  Gorp.com

Of the land birds, 22 of the 29 species living in the Galapagos are peculiar to the islands. Among these are 13 species of Darwin finches, several Galapagos mockingbirds, the Galapagos dove, hawk, martin and rail, as well as two flycatchers. In addition, two subspecies inhabit only these several islands: barn and short-eared owls.

More than a dozen types of Darwin's finches provided the basis of the naturalist's theory of evolution. Fearless and noisy in the Galapagos, these sparrow-size birds are defined by their size, the shapes of their beaks, and their feeding habits. They are categorized into ground, vegetarian, tree and warbler varieties. In the northeastern United States, I have become familiar with the habits of several other finches including house, purple and gold species. In my observation, these finches are gregarious birds who travel and chirp merrily together with their own kind and others, but they all flee from human proximity.

Another several species of birds extremely different from their American relatives are the Galapagos mockingbirds. Just before departing on this trip, I had observed a nearly foot-long gray and white male flicking its considerable tail in a beautiful pose, no doubt thinking he was alone in the grassy field. In Maine the northern mockingbird is a familiar friend, his varied songs mimicking borrowed phrases and repeated throughout the day. Seen in the countryside the bird scrambles away if a person approaches. In the Galapagos, I was surprised to hear local mockingbirds referred to as pests until a few days later I found myself waving one off! Noisy, curious and communal, the four endemic species—streaked brownish gray with white underparts—are inquisitive rather than frightened as they actively hunt small animals and other birds.

In the New York City and mid-coast Maine areas where most of my birding experience is rooted, one must race and struggle to catch glimpses of migrating warblers passing through in large numbers during the early spring and fall. Small and extremely active, these little songbirds jump briskly about seeking insects in tree foliage. It takes perseverance at first to locate a yellow warbler, and more to stay with its flitting path from twig to twig. The wee bird moves elusively as if shifting swiftly to hide behind clustered restless leaves.

The Galapagos version provided a startling contrast. Down at my feet a yellow warbler hopped up to within my shadow in overhead sunlight. I noted a rusty patch on top of his yellow head as he tipped his eye up at me, his sharp small beak shining, revealing the matching light of a brownish-red necklace dashed across his chest. Reportedly these warblers habitually enter local houses to catch flying insects trapped at the windows.

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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