Ecological hotspot

Print edition : May 31, 2013

A blue-footed booby on Espanola Island.

A baby Nazca in Espanola.

A Nazca booby colony in Espanola.

A Nazca mother preening herself.

A Galapagos hawk in Espanola.

A yellow warbler on Floreana Island.

Yellow warblers in Floreana.

A yellow-crowned night heron in Bartolome.

A swallow-tailed gull in North Seymour.

Swallow-tailed gull.

A frigate in flight over North Seymour.

A pair of blue-footed boobies in courtship dance on North Seymour Island.

A magnificent frigate in North Seymour.

A magnificent frigate.

A baby frigate in North Seymour.

A mother frigate with her hatchling in North Seymour.

A baby frigate in North Seymour.

A frigate with his females, North Seymour.

A male frigate not yet courting, in Santa Cruz.

THE mother Nazca booby looks at me quizzically as I inch towards her offspring, a fluffy white featherball, in order to get a closer shot. She makes no attempt to block my way, secure in the belief that no harm will come to her chick. The chick stares straight into my lens, perhaps bewildered by its own reflection in the glass. Like all other animals in the Galapagos islands, the birds are fearless. Early visitors to the islands captured many birds for food and sport, by simply grabbing them. Bishop Tomas de Berlanga of Panama, one of the earliest visitors to these islands, remarked that the birds were “so silly that they did not know how to flee and many were caught by hand”. Darwin also noticed how tame the birds were and came to the conclusion that fear of humans is not “acquired by individual birds in a short time, even when much persecuted; .. in the course of successive generations, it becomes hereditary”. From what we see, it is obvious that the fear has not yet become “hereditary” and quite happily so.

We are on Espanola Island, the ideal refuge for a host of nesting birds. There are chicks everywhere on the island as we pick our way through colonies of Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, gulls and Galapagos hawks, all with hatchlings of different vintages. Many birds are nesting on the ground with nary a shelter to protect them from the elements. Water shearers circle and hover in hundreds around the rock faces. It may seem a mystery that the islands should support such fecund wildlife when the terrain is apparently barren with only a semblance of vegetation. But then, the nutrient-rich ocean that surrounds these islands provides an unending supply of fish, squid and algae to these plumed residents.

Abundance of marine life

The Galapagos islands were thrown up when the Pacific plate and the Nazca plate collided with each other. The ocean currents that flow in this region have enriched the surrounding waters. The Humboldt Current, named after the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, is a cold, low-salinity ocean current that flows north-westward along the west coast of South America from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru. It can extend 1,000 kilometres offshore. The Humboldt Current Large Marine Ecosystem is one of the major upwelling systems of the world, supporting an extraordinary abundance of marine life. When it runs into the steep continental shelf, it dredges up cold, nutrient-rich water from the ocean floor and brings it to the surface. The nutrients support abundant microscopic life, which in turn supports a chain of ever-larger creatures.

Galapagos and its surrounding waters harbour large shoals of anchovies and account for a fifth of all the fish caught and consumed on our planet. The fisheries have held up pretty well despite increasing pollution and possible overfishing. But from time to time, this tropical paradise is threatened by the El Nino factor. El Nino’s warm waters—which bring rains to the American southwest—prevent the Humboldt Current from rising to the surface. When that happens, the number of fish plummets. And it can take years for the fishery to recover. Ivan, our guide, remembers how a few years ago El Nino had led to a virtual rout of marine creatures and consequently of nesting birds as well.

The ocean currents also give Galapagos its balmy climate. Charles Darwin was surprised by the untropical weather on these islands located in the heart of the tropics. He wrote, “[It] is far from being excessively hot… excepting during one short season, very little rain falls, and even then it is irregular.” Being a scientist, he also pinpointed the main reason: “[T]his seems chiefly caused by the singularly low temperature of the surrounding water, brought here by the great southern Polar current.”

Curious birds

It seems to be the start of the Garua season marked by cooler temperatures and misty rain in the highlands. On the beaches, though, it can get quite dry. As we sprawl on the powdery white sands after a satisfying swim, a pair of canary yellow warblers check out our water bottle for drops of water. In fact, they seem to know instinctively that the nozzle is the place to look for lingering droplets. Since we have been advised not to oblige wildlife, we curb the urge to slake their thirst. But soon they discover a puddle in which they not only drink, but even have a splash. After sloshing about a bit, they come to check us out again. They flit from bag to water bottle to our bags. One bird perches on my outstretched foot. I hold my breath and enjoy this unique privilege of proximity to wildlife.

Even the hood mocking bird is curious enough to come close to humans. This bird has mottled gray and brown plumage with a white underbelly. A long tail and legs give the bird its distinctive appearance. The species has a long, thin beak, useful for tapping into the eggs of seabirds. The species has the largest bill of any of the Galapagos mocking birds. Incidentally, this is the only bird that Darwin missed when he visited the islands, and it did not figure among the species transported to England for further study.

Elsewhere in Bartolome, pond herons scratch the parched surface of a brine pond looking for insects. We could spot a few orange flamingos which are not native to the islands but which, in recent years, seem to have made this island their breeding ground. They have not yet arrived in full strength, but we do spot a handful of them foraging in the salty waters. A yellow-crowned night heron crunches a snail and delicately scoops out the flesh, unmindful of the circle of human admirers watching its every move.

The island of Genovesa, northernmost in the Galapagos archipelago, is the breeding ground for red-footed boobies which flock here in their tens of thousands. But it is not season yet and so we settle for the stragglers in Floreana. The unique mangrove-like vegetation in Floreana provides a suitable perch for at least a few pairs to build their nests. Some are perched on rock ledges. The red colour of their webbed feet comes once again from the squid and algae that constitute their diet. The red-footed booby chicks are just hatching and the parents are busy ministering to them. Both male and female take turns to attend to the chick. Red-footed boobies are strong flyers and can travel up to 150 kilometres in search of food. They often hunt in large groups and are nimble enough to snare flying fish from the air. Boobies are well adapted for diving and have long bills, lean and aerodynamic bodies, closeable nostrils, and long wings which they wrap around their bodies before entering the water. Red-footed boobies use these attributes to plunge-dive and capture fish that they spot from above with their sharp eyes.

The frigate bird, of which there are two varieties—the great frigate bird and the magnificent frigate bird—is truly a unique species. Related to the pelican family, the frigate is also called a pirate bird. A fish-eater, this iridescent black bird rarely hunts its own food. It has honed to a fine art its skill in snatching fish from the beaks of other birds like pelicans and sea gulls. In fact, frigates perch on the mastheads of boats and wait for a hunting bird to appear. Even as the hunter plunges into the blue waters and emerges on the surface, the frigate dives to snatch the fish from the hunter. Unlike pelicans or boobies, frigate birds are not strictly aquatic, which is perhaps why they adopt this technique. The wingspan of the magnificent frigate bird can reach 2.3 metres. Frigate birds in flight are recognised by their forked tails.

There have been frigate birds galore ever since we landed in San Cristobal, yet one fascinating spectacle seems to elude us. The male frigate bird puts up an extraordinary courtship show, its bright red neck pouch inflated to the size of a big balloon as he tries to impress his female. Ivan, our guide, tells us that the mating season is a fortnight away. Even enterprising Ecoventura cannot fast-forward seasons to oblige eager visitors, he jokes. In all probability, we will be missing frigate birds in action just as we would miss the waved albatross and the flightless cormorants, both of which are expected to arrive a few weeks later.

Not to be dissuaded so easily, we march to the bridge to request the captain to check with the other islands just in case an odd male frigate bird got a bit impatient with the slow change of seasons. After a few calls to other boats, Captain Pablo swerves Letty towards North Seymour where a huge colony of magnificent frigate birds has decided to make haste in order to attract the best females. Their translucent pouches puffed up to capacity, the males are comically bobbing their heads up and down with great difficulty since their pouches get in the way. They make funny gurgling noises in the hope that the females will take notice, although most females feign supreme indifference. The female frigate can be very fastidious. The bigger the pouch, the more attractive the mate, no doubt; but he still has to establish his credentials by building a sturdy nest in an unassailable location before she will condescend to notice him. So between collecting twigs for a nest and putting up a show of display for his favourite female, the male frigate bird is kept very busy throughout the season.

North Seymour abounds in other bird species too. Swallow tailed gulls are having a raucous argument as to the best nesting sites on the island. Naturally, they baulk at any intrusion from camera-wielding visitors. Hundreds of gulls are flying around the steep rock surface looking for better nesting sites. The blue-footed boobies, though, do not seem to be so fussy. They are quite happy to be nesting even on open ground. But the courtship season is just beginning. Blue-footed boobies are elegant birds and their courtship ritual is graceful. Their footwork is as fancy as those of ballet dancers. The male raises one foot first, intently looks at his female, waiting for her to approve. Then he shifts to the other foot and conducts a complex manoeuvre of fancy footwork; from time to time, he raises his beak to the skies to let out a love cry. First she seems not to notice, but after a while, she becomes interested. Soon she mimics him tentatively at first, and then follows his foot movements diligently as if moving to an invisible choreography. And soon both the boobies are dancing in step, occasionally stretching their slender necks skywards in unison and letting out a chorused call. We watch this ageless ritual, mesmerised by the extraordinary beauty of the unique display. Our lenses are extended to their full length and our tape recorders stretched to capture their mating calls. Happily, the boobies are oblivious to all else and move to some primordial rhythm of their own. It is difficult to tear ourselves away from this lovely pair, but like all good things, our Galapagos trip also must come to an end. We turn back reluctantly to board Letty for one last time.

Related Articles