Finches are the most famous birds of the Galapagos Islands (thanks, Charles Darwin) but there are many other bird species that are in turn beautiful, exotic, or downright hilarious that they’re all worthy of attention while on vacation there. Birds play a crucial role in the balance of wildlife and nature in the Galapagos Islands; eating insects, spreading seeds and occasionally being a food source themselves have birds being living examples of the importance of their place in the ecological pyramid of productivity, of wildlife, and the planet as a whole.
The wildlife of the Galapagos is its biggest draw, and while Ecuador has made moves to limit tourism there due to resulting environmental degradation, it’s a guarantee that every tourist who travels to the Galapagos islands has a keen interest in nature and wildlife. Galapagos tortoises, Galapagos sea lions, Galapagos iguanas and Galapagos marine life are all mind-bogglingly unafraid of people, making wildlife tours of the Galapagos Islands unlike anywhere else in the world. This is common knowledge for most travelers who read up on various destinations’ nature preserves (though it really has to be seen to be believed). What especially amazed me — and I mean this is the purest, most literal sense — was how relaxed the birds of the Galapagos were while my family and I slowly walked, hiked, snorkeled and slogged near them.
We didn’t see every species of birds in the Galapagos — there are 56 types of birds, 45 of which are endemic to the Galapagos islands — but we sure saw a lot! Here’s a run-down of my five favorites of the birds we did see, and that anyone planning to travel to the Galapagos islands can expect to see, as well.
Boobies: These sea birds dive under water to catch fish. There are three types of boobies, the most famous being the Blue-Footed Booby. They are everyone’s favorite comic relief bird in the Galapagos because, let’s face it, they are hilarious. Especially the Blue-footed Boobies’ mating dance: the hopeful fellow lifts one blue foot and then the other in a dance to show the female booby how lovely and blue his feet are. We traveled to the Galapagos Islands when it wasn’t mating season. We did see Blue-footed Boobies bumping into each other and looking quizzically at rocks that were vaguely-bird-shaped, though. The other two types of boobies are the Red-footed Booby and the Nazca Booby; I had a fun bit of nonverbal communication with a juvenile Blue Footed or Nazca Booby who, possibly, thought my hat was his mother. Everyone on our trip loved the boobies — anyone traveling to the Galapagos will see some boobies, because they’re pretty populous.
Frigatebirds: The male Great Frigatebird also puts on a show when trying to attract a mate, but instead of a foot-waving dance, he inflates his throat. This looks great; male great frigates have red “gular sacs,” which inflate like balloons. There is a large Great Frigatebird population in the Galapagos, and we saw so many males trying to find that special someone over Christmas vacation that it looked like there had been an explosion at a red balloon factory. Also like boobies, these are sea birds that can be seen gracefully coasting along the water’s surface. They also do something pretty clever; when they see dolphin pods herding schools of fish together and to the surface, they’ll swoop down and “steal” some of the dolphins’ fish.
Galapagos Penguins: Every time my family and I went snorkeling on this trip, I made some noise to our ship’s naturalist about hoping to see a penguin. She smiled benignly each time, reminding me how difficult it is to find those small birds (they are the second smallest penguin subspecies). Galapagos penguins are quite rare and are endemic to the Galapagos islands, meaning, found only there. Finally, during a late afternoon snorkel around Floreana Island, the ship’s naturalist excitedly waved me over. A penguin sighting! Every time I tried to get a nice photo, though, the Galapagos penguin shifted around. I was thrilled to see its back, though — good enough! Galapagos penguins are endangered for a variety of reasons including oil pollution and the introduction of invasive species on Isabella Island (such as dogs and cats that then go feral and attack the ground-nesting birds). With less than one thousand pairs of Galapagos penguins in the world, we were lucky to see this one rotund little guy and, later, a pair that were further away. The ongoing efforts of the Galapagos caretakers to eradicate the larger islands of invasive species will hopefully mean that the population can rebound.
Galapagos Flamingos: We were lucky to be able to see a couple small flocks of Galapagos flamingos, as there are less than 400 total left. They’re an endangered species, and we trekked a couple miles inland on southern Isabela island, very very quietly, so as to be able to find them. The marshy area they wade in is full of the brine shrimp that give flamingos their distinctive pink color. Now, like many people, my family and I have seen flamingos at one zoo or another. But seeing them in the wild, from a respectful distance, felt as if we were gifted with a glimpse into how these birds are meant to be. Some grey juveniles followed their parents, honking for attention and freebie snacks, while older flamingos, already pink, gracefully picked their way through the murky water, sipping water, filter feeding, preening, or tucking their heads behind their wings to ball up and take on the appearance, from across the way, of feathery lollipops.
Darwin’s Finches: These birds aren’t pink, they don’t have hilarious mating dances, and they definitely don’t look like an exploded red balloon factory. Small, plain, with very little distinctiveness, these “little brown jobbies” wouldn’t be anyone’s favorite bird of the Galapagos Islands were it not for their place in history. Darwin’s finches are comprised of thirteen distinct species on the Galapagos which have been (and continue to be) a living lab for evolutionary biologists. From On the Origin of Species to The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, nonfiction books relay stories about the isolated islands and natural weather events therein which have had observable effects on finch populations and their differentiation. Survival of the fittest is seen in action on the islands — several incidences and ongoing effects of weather changes on the Galapagos Islands are described in The Beak of the Finch, which makes for fascinating, illuminating reading.
In the twenty-first century, walking round the flashier and more comedic of my five favorite types of birds of the Galapagos Islands, I would be completely remiss to not give a hat tip to Darwin’s Finches. They, and what Darwin learned from them, provided the impetus to keep the Galapagos Islands what they are today. The protected Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of our world’s greatest natural treasures, for our time, and for all time.