Posted by: ktzefr | February 24, 2010

Birdwatching: Up Close in the Galapagos

Our lives are like birds’ lives, flying around, blown away.” ~ Appalachia, Charles Wright

I sit at my window watching the rain wash away mounds of snow, hoping this is the beginning of the spring thaw.  Thousands of discarded black shells from birdseed litter the remaining white stuff from my front door to the driveway.  I’ll be glad when the soaked earth and ivy reclaim the mess.  My son read the other day that people in the US spend $1.45 million each year for birdseed!  He looked at me shaking his head.  Yes, I know.  I’m one of those people.

Fuzzy, the squirrel

I didn’t have a lot of time to feed birds when we had “domestic” animals — a dog, a rabbit, cats, gerbils, mice, fish, and hermit crabs — but the last of the indoor pets, an old fat and rather nasty-tempered cat, died on Christmas night two years ago.  Although I don’t yet have the blue jays eating out of my hands, I have managed to semi-tame one of the squirrels that lives in our trees.   He keeps me company on the deck during the warm months.

We named him Fuzzy and he’s stayed rather plump through the winter on a steady diet of peanuts, stale French bread, and the birdseed he manages to steal from the two feeders that are not squirrel-proof.

{If you’ve never seen a squirrel do tricks, check out Twiggy the water-skiing squirrel on You Tube.}

Although I have a large community of birds at my feeders — whole families of cardinals, blue jays, finches, doves, juncos, chickadees, titmice, a few starling and grackles — I don’t have any pictures to share.  Without a telephoto lens or other pricey contraption, it’s impossible to get close enough and be quick enough to get a snapshot like this one of my pal Fuzzy.  I open the door and they fly away in one wild cloud of color…

********

A baby masked booby

Birding in the Galapagos Islands, however, is an entirely different story.  The birds have few, if any, predators and have never had a reason to be afraid.  It’s easy to get up close and personal with frigatebirds and owls and colonies of waved albatross, look into their eyes, get close enough to touch were it permitted to do so.

In the Galapagos archipelago there are 15 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and more than a hundred big rocks and islets.  Two-legged, talking animals live on a few, but most are uninhabited except for creatures that don’t say a word.  The surroundings are quiet, the landscape desolate, and hiking, swimming, and contemplating nature are the only activities available.

From my notebook of April 2001:

It’s almost six a.m. and we’re docked somewhere off the island of Espanola, the most remote island in the Galapagos chain.  We climb into a panga for the trip ashore where the dock is just a natural stone jetty with sea lions draped over the hot rocks like stacks of winter coats.  Many animals here are endemic; they are found nowhere else on earth.  Of the estimated 12,000 pairs of waved albatross in the world, almost all of them live on this small island.  As we walk along a trail that twists and turns alongside their nests, the big birds merely look at us with curious, watery eyes.  Espanola is mostly volcanic rock with steep cliffs that provide space for these large birds to take flight.  Locals call this place the “albatross airport.”  When the bishop of Panama landed in these islands in the 1500s he gave this description in his diary: “It looked as though God had caused it to rain stones.”

Photo:KFawcett Waved Albatross

In this vast stretch of nothingness hundreds of birds nest on the ground.  There are no trees on the island except small shrubs, mostly mangrove and palo santo trees.

Masked boobies care for their offspring.  There are two babies about two weeks apart.  If the first baby dies, the second takes its place.  If the first one lives, however, it kills the second booby at birth…survival of the fittest in one of its rawest forms.

Photo:KFawcett

We are greeted by a blue-footed booby , but he doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in us.

Photo:DFawcett Blue-footed Booby

A male great frigatebird nests in a bed of twigs and vines that he has carefully constructed. The great frigatebird blows up his gular throat sac like a red balloon to attract females.

Photo:MFawcett Great Frigatebird

A red-footed booby watches us with interest but never leaves his perch in the mangrove…

Photo:DFawcett Red-footed booby

We sail overnight to Genovesa Island, a tiny dot across a long stretch of Pacific from Espanola.  My stomach tosses and turns with the boat and I have to hold on to the bed frame to keep from rolling onto the floor.  By morning the boat is docked at Darwin Bay in the caldera of an extinct volcano.  The island looks vacant and forlorn, a less-than-ordinary rock stuck in the middle of the sea.  No buildings, electric wires, or roads.  No sounds other than the breaking waves and bird calls.

On the beach the swallow-tail gulls click beaks and dance to their own music.

On a hike around the island we discover a little short-eared owl sleeping on the ground in the middle of the trail.  He hears our footsteps and wakes up, but makes no indication of moving.  We take a detour around a cluster of dusty palo santo trees, figuring we wouldn’t want someone walking through our bedroom while we tried to sleep.

 

Photo:MFawcett Short-eared Owl

 

Even Darwin’s finches don’t mind visitors.

Photo:DFawcett Darwin's Finch

There are 13 finch species.  Over time the shapes and sizes of their beaks changed in order to eat whatever food was available to survive — various seeds in different sizes, insects, fruit, nectar.  There’s even a finch that uses tools, a cactus spine or a twig, to dig beetle larvae from rotten wood.  And then there is the strangest of them all. Geospiza difficilis, the “vampire finch,” lands on the backs of bigger birds and pecks them until they bleed.  In times of slim pickings on the islands, this bird, which is no bigger than a billiard ball, survives on the blood of its feathered kin.

*****

…other days, other times we swam with sting rays in Darwin Bay and with the sea lions on San Cristobal Island, and we hiked into the highlands of Santa Cruz Island looking for giant tortoises.  But I kept remembering the little owl that looked at us without an ounce of fear, and I couldn’t help wondering what life would be like if there were no predators.  The sun had been intense that morning and the air completely still as we trudged amongst the dusty mangroves to a spot on a cliff above the sea to rest for awhile and gather our thoughts.  The distant shades of blue separated into layers from the deep, dark water to the shallow turquoise shoreline, and finally the blue-white sky.  It felt like the hush of a church house during prayer.

Photo:KFawcett The blues of San Cristobal Island in the moments before a storm

*****

Perhaps by the end of the coming summer, I’ll have given the blue jays enough peanuts to coax one of the more fearless to perch on a branch of my snowball tree and smile for a camera closeup — but I doubt it.

Check out the online guide to birds and birdwatching at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify birds in your own backyard, hear their song, and learn about habitat and migration patterns.  For more information about the birds of the Galapagos, conservation issues, or the islands in general, click here.

**********

TO COME AND GO LIKE MAGIC

Now available in paperback from most booksellers and at Amazon.

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Responses

  1. Your pictures are beautiful of the birds. My friend was there a few years ago and told me that you can walk right up to the birds and they won’t move. Thanks for sharing your article.

    • Thanks! The birds have no fear of humans and this makes for a very eerie, but almost spiritual, experience. The Galapagos Is. are some of the most interesting and rewarding places I’ve been. Visit, again, or subscribe as I’m sure I’ll be “returning” to these islands many times in my thoughts and words.


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