Magnificent Frigates, Blue-Footed Boobies, Finches and More: A Birder’s Paradise in the Galápagos

Guest Post by Vickie Lillo

American Oystercathers on the beach

The sky overhead darkens momentarily as I take off my snorkeling fins, balancing myself against a protruding root from a manglar (mangrove tree). Darkens enough to cast a quick shadow.  Not from passing clouds or remnants of the garúa mist floating down from the highlands, but from a syncopated formation of turquoise webbed feet and azure beaks.  I feel like I’m in an exotic rendition of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, ‘The Birds’, as I watch blue-footed boobies dive bombing for fish off the cove at Tortuga Bay, here on Santa Cruz, the main isle of the Galápagosbirds. 

I’ve never considered myself a bird-watcher of any note before, but the extraordinary aviary on this archipelago 600 miles from South America has changed my perspective.  Wrapping a beach towel around my waist, I straddle a downed tree trunk, content to languish in the shade and watch the native fowl.  An American oystercatcher, orange bill and all, strolls across the sand, plucking microscopic specks of food from the muck.  A yellow warbler flitters amongst the foliage where I’m sitting, inches from my mask.  Unperturbed by my presence.Great Blue HeronFinished with swimming, my husband, son and I round the bend, toward Playa Mansa, the surfer’s hangout, only to meet a great Blue Heron, strutting amongst the lava rock.  Past the carcass of a Sally Lightfoot crab.  Past a pair of oversized marine iguanas, sunning.  He rotates that regal head in our direction, eyes us. ..and goes on his way.

Playful finches dart along the trail, twittering, careful not to mar their tawny feathers against the thorny Opuntia trees.  The finches are cute, but with all the whimsical birds of the Galápagos, I find it incomprehensible that Darwin would have concentrated all his attentions, and focused his evolution theories, on such a drab species.

Back at the main pier, we’re just in time for the afternoon theatrics at the wharf.  Fishermen are hauling in the day’s catch to sell to the waiting islanders.  Another crowd is waiting too.  The brown pelicans have already begun roosting in the neighboring treetops. Their enormous gullets quiver in anticipation of a meal.  Swallow-tailed seagulls malinger along the edges of the concrete ‘butchering block’.  Ready to pounce at the first sign of discarded viscera.

Male and female Blue-footed BoobiesOnly the newest jester in this comedy of errors, a piquero patas azules (blue-footed booby) remains steadfast on his curbside perch…unmoving.  Glowering.  Daring one of the camera-clicking lady tourists to venture a bit too close–a squawk and a disapproving peck will send her scurrying on her way.  A hungry sea lion joins the melée, flopping closer and closer toward the tempting bucket of albacora and wahoo.  This daily routine of the Galápagos’ native birds and animals is free entertainment for us.

On Isabela, the largest landmass in the archipelago, lava gulls parade along the endless beach, foraging for mollusks amongst the glistening rocks.  The tide eases in, washing slowly over the shoreline, temporarily displacing a lizard from his hiding place at the edge of the stones.  He races across the sand, toward a twisted manglar –a safe haven.  Meanwhile, a bevy of fragatas (frigate birds) cloud the sky.  Giant raven-colored wings arc into a “V” pattern, flapping imperceptibly, as they glide toward the cruise boats anchored near the harbor.

We are headed to La Crianza, the turtle breeding facility, to admire the nursery of growing tortoises.  Following a walkway partially shaded by overhanging mangroves, we pass La Poza de Las Diablas (Devil’s Pond).  Majestic flamingos snake through the reeds at the edge of the lagoon, on willowy legs.  Galápagos pintail ducks paddle by.  The lazy pace of island life.

It’s our last day on Isabela, and we’re hoping for a glimpse of endemic penguins swimming near the Puerto Villamil dock.  We grab our snorkeling gear once more, and set off in the direction of Concha y Perla, a tranquil bay of emerald ocean bordering that same pier.  Nicolas is already in the water, head submerged, snapping photos of a sea turtle swimming toward the distant waves.  My husband Gustavo and I are still trying to squeeze into our fins and secure our snorkel tubes.  Minutes after plunging into the chilly current, we catch sight of a flipper, then another.  The sea lions begin darting around us…upside down…blowing bubbles and trying to ‘kiss’ us.

Giant Tortoise of the GalapagosWhen the leones marinos finally leave, in search of new playmates, we dry off and retrace our steps to the Concha entrance, alongside the footpath to the pier.  We dodge another threesome of sea lions, snoozing mid-trail.  Whiskers jiggle against the sand with every breath.  Another harem of sleeping leones lays contentedly nearby.  Without a care in the world.

A sally off the floating dock ahead sends a solitary pingüino into the sea–a Galápagos penguin splashing in the tides.  We are amazed by the little fellow, capable of surviving here at the equator.  He’s a long way from his cousins near the Arctic poles.

As we pack our duffel bags for tomorrow’s rollicking ferry ride back to the mainland of Santa Cruz, we feel wistful leaving this cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific sporting such amazing creatures.  The free sites alone have put us in close contact with almost two dozen birds and mammals.  Close enough, literally, to reach out and touch.

But that’s against the Galápagos rules.   It’s important to play by the book, to respect the birds, the reptiles, the aquatic life, and all the animals.  The rewards are great.  Like seeing a male blue-footed booby tap dancing for his sweetheart, whistling, hoping for his mate’s accepting HONK.  Or maybe it’s witnessing the stern face of a Magnificent frigate guarding his fluffy chick, high atop a nest balanced on desert scrub.  The sheen of his purplish-black feathers shimmers in the sunlight, reflecting off the crimson of his deflated gular sac.  Beholding the delicate balance of nature with an intimate look at its ‘performers’–that’s the little piece of paradise a visit to the Galápagos offers.  Even managing to take some of the “wild” out of their resident wildlife.

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Galápagos Islands tour and travel information

Galápagos National Park Service:
Central Office, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador: tel. (593)05 2526189; e-mail: info [at]dpng.gob.ec

On Santa Cruz:
Charles Darwin Research Station, Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador; tel. (593) 05 2526146 or 147; fax: (593) 05 2526146 or 147 ext. 102; e-mail: cdrs [at] fcdarwin.org.ec

To book tours and/or hotel/apartment on Santa Cruz:
Jennifer Cumming; Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador; e-mail: Jcumming [at] explorerventures.com

Hotel on Isabela – great base for all activities, which can be booked directly from the hotel:
Caleta Iguana, Avenida Antonio Gil, Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela, Galápagos, Ecuador; tel. (593) 05 2529405 or cell (593) 09 4079881; e-mail: info [at] caletaiguana.com

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