Feathery Island Days

Seabirds 2
By Blanche Gelber
  |  Gorp.com

Every midday, it was very special to swim at a different island cove, usually beside resident sea lions on a picturesque sand beach. The watchful gaze of brown pelicans poised like lifeguards standing on duty at high points of waterfront rocks always felt reassuring. In fact these big birds with hefty bodies four feet long were actually searching from the shores. After spotting fish one will fly low to scoop a few gallons from the ocean filling its expandable throat pouch, then strain out the water through openings in the long flat bill and swallow the remaining fish. The pelican lifts its bulky body with heavy flaps of seven-foot wings and then glides, head hunched back on shoulders, huge bill touching ample breast. We met these large brown birds with their sometimes-tousled light crowns and long yellowish necks, in many parts of the archipelago.

Diminutive Galapagos penguins are the only penguins living and breeding as far north from the Antarctic as the equator. They swim ducklike on the ocean surface and cannot fly. Underwater they navigate swiftly, steering with their feet, their front wings having evolved into fins. Only about two feet long, this bird has a black back, face and wings, white eye-lines that curve around the cheeks and across the throat, and a full white chest and tummy. Onshore, the penguins live in small groups, waddle upright and slide down slopes. The severe 1983 El Nino weather pattern killed the fish and crustaceans they eat, thus causing a loss of three quarters of the penguin population, which is now thought to number perhaps 3,000 birds.

Flightless cormorants are remarkable for their atrophied wings. They still hold open these stunted useless wings to dry their feathers in the sun and wind, the characteristic spread posture habitually practiced by double-crested cormorants observed across North America. The dark brown body is more than three feet long and has a long crooked neck and powerful hooked bill. It is believed that the absence of predators may have influenced the bird's flightless evolution and the keel of breastbone no longer develops to make flying possible. Like penguins, the cormorants use their feet to steer as they swim and hunt eels, octopus and fish underwater. When on the surface only their snaking necks are visible, bodies submerged. One of the rarest of birds, approximately 800 pairs live on a few particular Galapagos coastlines.

The waved albatross is the largest bird found in the archipelago, its body three feet long with a wide-reaching wingspan of eight feet. The upper wings and back are dark brown, the head, chest, and underwings white, the long neck backed with yellow, and webbed feet gray. Its very large yellow bill bears tube-shape nostrils. A heightened sense of smell enables survival by locating food at sea: squid, fish and crustaceans. Narrowly endemic to Espanola Island, parent albatrosses breed from April through December, spending the remainder of the year at sea. Nonbreeding birds live over the Pacific Ocean off the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts. In windy weather they glide in soaring flight but must work hard beating powerful wings during calm periods. In S. T. Coleridge's landmark English ballad of early 19th century romantic adventure, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, this mighty bird figured symbolically in an encounter with the aging sailor at sea.

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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