Penguins, Frigates, Boobies and other Galapagos birds
One of the main draws for visitors to the Galapagos Islands is the variety and volume of plant and animal life, many of which are unique and found nowhere else in the world. And though you can expect to see a wealth of different species during your visit, both on land and in the waters surrounding the islands, it is in the skies that some of the most varied and plentiful residents can be found.
A total of around 140 birds species have been registered in the Galapagos. Of those 58 are residential, 76 migratory and six have been introduced, making the archipelago a heaven for bird enthusiasts and anyone who enjoys the wonder of nature. In fact, the majority of the animals that you’ll see during your visit to the islands will probably be Galapagos birds, so getting a good appreciation of the diversity on offer is an important part of understanding life in the archipelago. Although around 50% of the resident species are endemic to the islands, many of the Galapagos birds are currently under threat due to factors associated with human activity.
Of all of the local Galapagos birds the blue-footed boobies, with their brightly colored appendages, are some of the most instantly recognizable. Large populations of the birds can be found on North Seymour Island, San Cristobal, and Española Island.
In general, the Galapagos birds can be divided into three groups; seabirds, coastal birds, and land birds, and apart from the blue-footed boobies, the islands are also home to flightless cormorants, penguins, finches and waved albatross. The sheer number, as well as the almost tame appearance of the birds, is a sight to behold, and a true ‘must see’ for any nature lovers and the keen ornithologist out there.
Listing and habits of the seabirds that inhabit the enchanted isles
The cool, oxygen-rich waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands support an abundant marine flora and fauna which, in turns, support a variety of seabirds. The most obvious and frequently seen seabirds are members of the order Pelecaniformes. In the Galapagos, these include two species of the frigate bird, three species of booby, the brown pelican, the red-billed tropicbird and the flightless cormorant.
No marine region would be complete without seagulls (order Charadriiformes) and the Galapagos are no exception. However, there are only two species of gulls, the swallow-tail gull, and the lava gull, and both are endemic to the archipelago. Another bird belonging to this order that is commonly seen is the brown noddy tern.
The third order of seabirds found in the Galapagos is the Procellariiformes. This order includes the ubiquitous, but difficult to observe, Audubon shearwater and a variety of storm petrels. It also includes the magnificent waved albatross, which, with its 7-8 foot wingspan is the largest bird in the Galapagos.
The final major order of seabird represented in the Galapagos, remarkably, is the Sphenisciphromes, the penguins! The sole penguin found on the equator is the endemic Galapagos penguin.
Named for their blue legs and feet, these are the most common and non-descript of the Galapagos Booby. Their natural habitat extends from Peru to Mexico. Young blue-foots look quite similar to adults yet it takes 2 to 3 years to reach their adult plumage of a pale streaked head, dark mantle with white patches on the nape and rump, white bellies and a dark tail. Blue-Footed Boobies nest in colonies. In large colonies, there is almost continuous breeding with pairs nesting every 7 to 9 months. They can be seen breeding on most islands north of the equator in the Galapagos.
The smallest booby grows to be 28 in (71 cm) long with a wingspan of 4 ft (1.37 m). Most of the Galapagos Red foote are all brown with the exception of red legs and feet and a light blue bill with a red base. A small percent of the red-foots are mistaken for masked boobies with whiteheads, bodies and wings, red feet and legs, and blue beaks.
Colonial in nature the Red-Footed differs from the other boobies by making their nests in small trees and shrubs. Colonies can be found on Tower, Culpepper, Wenman, Gardener-near-Floreana, Punta and Isla Pitt. They are rarely seen in areas other than where they breed. Eggs can be found throughout the year with colonies hatching at the same times.
The largest of the Galapagos Booby grow to 30 to 35 inches Galapagos Nazca Boobies(76 to 89 cm) in length with a wingspan of 5 to 6 ft (1.5 to 1.8 m). Adult birds are easily identified with their beautiful white head, body and wing coverts, dark tails, masks, and patches on their backs. Young masked boobies with their gray legs and feet their dark head and bellies can be mistaken for the brown booby.
Masked Boobies are common in the tropics and subtropics nesting in colonies along cliffs or at the sea edge. These are the only boobies in the Galapagos to have an annual breeding cycle, though the cycle varies between islands. On Tower Island, most of the eggs are laid between August and November while on Espanola Island the eggs are laid from November to February.
The Frigatebirds, also called Man O’War, are seabirds that are virtually not waterproof! What a contradiction! They are large (almost 6 feet/1.8 m. wingspan), lightweight and have a long, hooked beak to catch fish without getting wet. Frigates have an easier way to get food: stealing from other birds, specially red-footed boobies (this is, naturally, a survival strategy). And when it is time to raise a family, they settle in others’ nests or abscond with some sticks.
Male frigates have shiny green or purple plumage (depending on the species) and a resplendent scarlet pouch, which is displayed in courtship. There are two species of frigates in Galapagos: The Magnificent Frigate Bird and the Great Frigate Bird. Their main nesting colonies are found in Genovesa (Tower) and North Seymour Islands.
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificence)
The largest of the two frigate birds found in Galapagos measured 1.10 m long and had a wingspan of 2.45 m. The male is entirely black with a purplish sheen on its back and a red goular pouch, which is only visible during the breeding season. The female has white breast and shoulders but is otherwise completely black.
Best viewed: North Seymour, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Genovesa.
The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is found throughout Galapagos islands, skimming over the water, plunge-diving, and resting in mangrove trees. In addition to Galapagos, the brown pelican is found along the western coasts of northern South America, Central America, and North America, and throughout the Caribbean. The Galapagos population of brown pelican is considered to be an endemic subspecies.
Adult pelicans can be distinguished from juveniles by their plumage. Juveniles tend to have gray face, skin, bill, and legs, with a brown body. Adults have a white neck, gray-brown upper body and brown to black lower body. The neck is white, often with a yellowish crown. In breeding season, the back of the neck is a rich chestnut brown. The individual in the picture above is an adult in non-breeding plumage.
They build their nests in mangroves or in low-lying coastal bushes such as saltbush (Cryptocarpus). Female pelicans lay two to three eggs and both parents share in incubation and feeding. Of all the Pelecaniformes, the pelican has the largest gular sac, from which the juveniles feed. Pelicans breed throughout the year, but individual colonies tend to breed synchronously. The best place to see breeding pelicans is Isla Rabida.
Tropicbirds, the smallest of the Pelecaniformes belong to the family Phaethontidae which contains one genus, Phaethon, and three species. They derive their other common name, the “bosun bird”, from their characteristic “t’weee-eee” call which is reminiscent of a boatswain’s whistle. The Galapagos Islands species, the red-billed tropicbird (P. aethereus) is also found in the tropical latitudes of the eastern Pacific, the Caribbean, and in the Indian Ocean. In Galapagos, it is not uncommon to see them soaring along the cliffs where they make their nests, on islands such as South Plaza, Espanola, Genovesa, and N. Seymour. Tropicbirds are striking birds, with a vivid, white body, black wing edges and eye stripe, red bill, and two long, streaming tail feathers. Like some of the other Pelecaniformes, tropicbirds are plunge-divers, feeding on squid and fish, well out at sea. After a dive, they bob back up to the surface, sitting momentarily, with their two tail feathers cocked in an upright position.
Tropicbirds court each other with an aerial display and callings. They make their nests on ledges and in holes and crevices in the cliffs, and lay a single egg on the ground. Both parents share in incubation and in the feeding of the chick. The juvenile tropicbird looks much like its parents except that its bill is yellow.
The Galapagos flightless cormorant evolved in an isolated environment that was free of predators.The birds had no need to fly and eventually became flightless. This unique variety of cormorant lives in the westernmost islands, Fernandina and Isabela, where there is plenty of food and nesting habitat for this unusual seabird. In islands with plenty of food and safety, the cormorants had no practical use for their wings and, simply, by means of natural selection, became flightless. Most of the predators being at sea, the cormorant with smaller wings became a better swimmer.
The flightless cormorant (Nannopterum harrisi) is the only cormorant (family Phalacrocoracidae) found in the Galapagos, and of the 27-28 cormorant species worldwide, it is the only one that has lost the ability to fly. So unusual is the flightless cormorant by comparison to other cormorants, that most authors place it in a separate genus – all other cormorants belong to the genus Phalacrocorax. Like other flightless birds, the keel on the breastbone, which supports the large flight muscles, is drastically reduced. Instead, the legs are heavier and more powerful than in other cormorants. Unlike the penguin, whose wings are used as paddles to literally fly through the water, the flightless cormorant propels itself by powerful kicks. The birds feed no more than 100 m offshore, feeding near the bottom of squid, octopus, eel, and fish.
However, the Galapagos Islands have not remained free of predators, and, consequently, this cormorant is now one of the world’s rarest birds. Through the years, dogs, cats, and pigs were introduced to the Islands and have had a drastic effect on the cormorant population. As well, these birds had no fear of men and could easily be approached and picked up. There are now only about 1,000 flightless cormorants left and the species is listed as rare. Nevertheless, it is not considered to be endangered.
Flightless cormorants have a complex courtship behavior which begins in the water and then continues on shore. The pair swims around each other, their long necks bent into a snake-like figure. The male then leads the female ashore, turning back towards the female, and assuming the snake-neck posture. The pair builds a nest composed of seaweed, sea urchins, starfish, and dead fish, and the male continually brings “gifts” to the female, which she incorporates into the nest. The female lays three eggs, though usually, only one chick survives. Both male and female share in incubation.
Once the eggs have hatched, both parents continue to share responsibilities of feeding and brooding (protecting the chicks from exposure to heat and cold), but once the chicks are old enough to be independent, and if food supplies are plentiful, the female will leave the male to carry out further parenting, and she will leave to find a new mate. Females can breed three times in a single year. Thus, although their population size is small, flightless cormorants can recover fairly quickly from environmental disasters like El Nino.
All of the above aviarian species can be spotted throughout several parts of the itinerary on an expedition cruise of the Enchanted Isles.
The Waved Albatross is the largest bird in the Galapagos Islands. It is found around the East Pacific. With a wingspan of 11 feet (3.5 m.), an albatross can follow wind currents for days. Their only home in Galapagos is Española (Hood) Island where spectacular courtship-displays amaze any visitor. Albatrosses depart their lovely grounds by early January and return by early April. They follow the cold waters back to the coast of South America. When the southeast trade winds come back, they not only bring cool nutrient-rich waters, but the albatrosses as well.
Among the many interesting features of the waved albatross is the feeding mechanism of their young: fish oil! What an adaptation for long-feeding trips in the ocean. The Albatross also has the ability to drink salt water and filter out the salt in a gland by their eyes. The salt is then excreted by nostril tubes through the bill. Albatrosses spend most of their time out at sea, eating squid, fish, and invertebrates. They breed almost exclusively on Espanola in colonies. They mate for life, following a courtship dance. Females lay one egg, which both parents nurture for about seven months. After that, the young flies out to sea, and returns, after five to seven years, as a mature bird ready to mate.
Waved albatrosses, like other albatrosses, engage in a very lengthy, noisy, and complex courtship ritual. The dance involves bill-fencing, in which the partners bend, face each other, and rapidly slap their bills back and forth. In another step, each faces the other in an upright posture, sometimes posing with bill wide open. The bills are then shut with a loud clap. Sometimes the birds will clatter their bills rapidly. The dance also involves bowing and parading around one another with the head swaying side to side in an exaggerated sway, accompanied by a nasal “anh-a-annhh” sound. These steps are interspersed frequently with bouts of bill fencing. The dance is longer and more involved in new pairs, or in pairs that failed to breed in the previous season. For visitors lucky enough to see it, the courtship dance of the waved albatross is a highlight of any Galapagos Islands cruise trip.
Storm petrels, the name “Petrel” is thought to be derived from St. Peter, because of their habit of not quite landing in the water, but dipping their feet in and fluttering over the surface while they feed on plankton, makes them seem as though they are walking on water. Worldwide, there are eight genera of storm petrels, containing about 20 species. These eight genera are divided into two main groups, one inhabiting the northern hemisphere, and the other the southern, with some overlap in the tropics. In the Galapagos, there are three resident species:
Of those three, Oceanites is a southern form while Oceanodroma is a northern form. Both the white-vented storm petrel and the Wedge-rumped storm petrel are endemic Galapagos subspecies. Other species of storm petrels have occasionally been reported as vagrants.
Storm petrels are not often easy to identify because of their very small size (6-8 inches), rapid movements, and generally great distances from the observer. The White-vented storm petrel is the most commonly sighted inshore species. It is part of the southern grouping of genera and, typical of that group, it has very long legs which project behind the tail. In Galapagos, it is the only storm petrel with this feature. All three Galapagos storm petrels have a white patch on their rump.
Despite the fact that the White-Vented Storm Petrel is a resident, endemic subspecies, its breeding sites have never been found. Autopsies of dead birds suggest that they lay their eggs from April to September. The other two species, both Oceanodroma, have well-established breeding areas. One well-known site is on the cliffs above Prince Philip’s Steps on Genovesa. There, the birds nest in the numerous lava tubes and cracks that riddle the ground. The birds fly rapidly back and forth, seeming more like a swarm of insects than a flock of birds. The wedge-rumped storm petrel is the only one to visit its breeding site during the day, feeding by night. Thus, any day-time siting of a feeding storm petrel will most likely not be the Wedge-rumped. The wedge-rumped petrel breeds from April to October, laying one egg that is incubated by both parents. The band-rumped petrel likewise lays a single egg, but breeds in two groups, one from February to October, and the other from October to May. Like other storm petrels, and unlike its neighbor, the Wedge-rumped, it feeds during the day, usually farther out to sea than the white-vented storm petrel, and returns to its nest at night.
Audubon’s shearwater (Puffinus iherminieri) is a medium-sized seabird commonly seen from the yachts. Typically, they skim close to the water, with intermittent periods of flapping and gliding. They always seem to be on the move, either individually or in flocks, and it is not often easy to get a good sighting, let alone a good photograph.
they have white bellies with dark brown wings and back, and a dark brown head with a white throat. They are most easily confused with the larger, less common Hawaiian or dark-rumped petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia). Apart from size, the forehead and face of the Hawaiian petrel is white.
Audubon’s shearwater has a worldwide distribution, with populations in addition to the Galapagos in the western and central Pacific, the Philippine Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean (it was once, but no longer, present in Bermuda). The Galapagos Islands population is considered to be an endemic subspecies. Shearwaters are encountered throughout the archipelago, most frequently near the cliffs where they nest. They feed on small planktonic crustaceans and fish larvae, which they take from the surface, and on small fish, and squid, which they catch by plunge-diving to depths of about six feet. It is not uncommon to see them fishing in large flocks, or in mixed flocks with pelicans and brown noddies.
A completely dark gull endemic has almost black wings. The rest of the body is dark grey though paler on the belly.They have white upper and lower eyebrows, which vary between individuals, and red eyelids. The legs and bill are black while the inside of the mouth or gape is scarlet. This is quite often seen as they frequently emit long raucous gull-like calls with their bills wide open. The immature bird is largely brown.
The Lava Gull is primarily a scavenger and nest robber. It will also eat lizards and newly hatched iguanas and turtles, and will on occasion catch fish and small crustaceans in shallow lagoons and beaches. A solitary nester on sheltered beaches and lagoons, the two olive, heavily blotched eggs of the Lava Gull blend in with their surroundings and are difficult to pick out. Incubation takes around 30 days and the young fledge at about 60 days. They are then looked after by the adults for a short period.
Being scavengers, immature Lava Gulls are more naturally self-sufficient than some species with more specialized feeding habits. While the total population is thought to be only around 400 pairs, they are not in immediate danger but are obviously vulnerable especially in view of their ground nesting.
The Galápagos Penguins congregate along the rocky lava shores of Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago and Bartolome, islands cooled off by both the Cromwell and Humboldt currents. The Humboldt Current is the one that brought them all the way up to these tropical latitudes. Look carefully for crevices in the rocky lava shorelines for penguins nesting inside them. Small lava tubes are favorite places too.
Dare to see a torpedo in the water? Jump in with the penguins and watch these graceful, but rocket fast birds, fly through the water like an arrow. This is the smallest of the warm weather penguins. It stands only 16 to 18 inches (40 to 45 cm) tall and weighs only 5 pounds (2 to 2.5 kg). Galapagos penguins have a thin white band that runs under their chin. They have a black upside down horseshoe shape around their belly. The Galapagos penguin may look like the Magellanic but it is smaller and the black markings on the belly are thinner. They are the penguins that live the farthest north.
These penguins use burrows and two eggs are laid. They only mate and breed when there is plenty of food. Often only one chick is raised. Both parents tend the eggs for 38 to 40 days. Chicks are cared for by both male and female. The chick is guarded for about 30 days after hatching. The chicks molt, get their adult feathers and are on their own in about 60 to 65 days.
One of the main problems for the Galapagos penguin is keeping cool. Living close to the equator it can get over 100 degrees F (38 degrees Celsius) during the day. They keep cool by swimming and hunting for food in the cold water of the Cromwell Current during the day. During the cool nights, they sleep and nest on the land. They hold their flippers out to help the heat escape their bodies. They protect their feet from getting sunburned by holding their flippers over their feet when on land.
Galapagos penguins eat mostly small fish such as mullet and sardines. They are dependent on the ocean currents to bring fish to their feeding grounds. Server weather from El Nino caused a severe shortage of food about 20 years ago. At that time over 70% of the Galapagos penguins died. Since then their numbers have increased but many scientists believe this species to be endangered. It is reported that there are about 800 breeding pairs left in the world.
Also known as Noddy terns or brown noddy terns, these birds actually nod at each other as part of their courtship ritual. They are classified as terns. They are dark brown with a greyish-white cap.
Almost extinct in Hawaii, this Petrel is coming back well in the Galapagos Islands. It is much similar to an Audobon shearwater, but the petrel is much larger. It has a white belly.
On a nighttime voyage in the Galapagos waters, the form of a bird will follow the boat for what seems like miles. These are the nocturnal swallow-tailed gulls, hunting the night swimming marine life of the sea. With their red eye-ring and indifferent attitude towards cameras and close-ups, they are a cute and patient model. Though if you get too close, they will let you know with their sharp alarm call.
Listing and habits of the coastal birds that inhabit the Enchanted Islands
The coast of the Galapagos serves as home to a diverse group of shorebirds, waders, waterfowl and lagoon birds. These birds are capable of long-distance flights and are often migratory, they do not feed out at sea. Instead, they find food between the tides, in coastal lagoons, and in ponds near to the highland areas of certain Islands.
The Greater Flamingo arrived from the Caribbean and is the most impressive and colorful of all the lagoon and shorebirds. It is also one of the endangered species in the islands. Introduced carnivores, like cats and dogs, can easily feed on the chicks.
The flamingos live in small numbers in the brackish waters of lagoons dotted around several of the islands. Their bright pink coloring stands out against the dark background of volcanic lava. It is thought that fewer than 500 flamingos are now present on Galapagos. Unlike much wildlife on the islands, these birds are nervous and will normally only be viewed in the distance. They will often desert their nests if disturbed.
Flamingos love privacy: They do not tolerate disturbances when breeding; their nests consist of mounds of mud. Flamingos feed on crustaceans and plants and live in Floreana, Isabela, Rabida, Santa Cruz, and Santiago.
(Ardeola striata), a slightly more distinctly marked bird with pale neck and breast with a black cap; the lava heron is almost entirely slate gray, ideal camouflage against the basaltic rocks of the islands. The scientific jury is still out on whether these are distinct species, or whether the more well-adapted lava heron is an evolutionary descendant of the emigrant striated.
Nyctanassa violacea, quite common along waterways throughout the Americas. Mainly active at night, it feeds on insects large and small and is sometimes seen in Puerto Ayora catching bugs by the light of streetlamps. Though primarily a coastal inhabitant, it has been sighted high on the volcanic slopes of Isabela, where it presumably forages for grasshoppers and other large insects.
The Casmerodius alba is also found here, though probably as a migrant rather than nesting species. These birds are sometimes mistaken for the Great blue, which also has a white phase.
The Bubulcus ibis are also found here, usually in the highlands with introduced cattle herds. Though today a common sight, these smaller white egrets are native to Africa, from which they migrated only in the last century to their current world-wide distribution.
These birds feed on crustaceans and molluscs and are also able to open crab shells with their strong beaks. This is a distinctive black and white bird with a striking orange bill. It has a loud shrill call and is frequently both seen and heard around the shoreline. Their distinctive beak is both a hammer and a knife. These handsome looking waders use their bright beak to stab a bivalve between the shells of many mollusks and slice the strong adductor muscles to get at the meat inside, they also hammer away on the shell of a sea urchin, crab or mollusk.
They patrol the beaches for food and are somewhat approachable, they actually come close tourists. Chicks are often seen trying to get their own food when just a few weeks old. This behavior is typical of shorebirds who are less dependant on parents than seabirds.
Yes, there are ducks in the Galapagos Islands! Also called the Bahama pintail, has a wide range from shore to highlands, feeding on small birds and insects as well as fresh-water vegetation in shallow ponds.
(Himantopus himantopus), a handsome white-necked bird with white breast and face, and red legs. A resident bird of the low-lying lagoons, like the flamingo and pintail, the stilt probes the mud for food with its narrow black bill.
A plump shorebird found between August and April. Like most plovers, the semi-palmated will run for a few steps and then stop still, often peeping to distract attention from its nest.
An orange-legged shorebird which gains its name from the feeding habit of looking for intertidal life is also found in the winter months between August and March.
A medium-sized, yellow legged, mostly grey shorebird. It is found walking by the rocks searching for food as it bounces up and down, this movement is called teetering.
Familiar shore birds whose presence in the Galapagos is a refreshing reminder of the interconnectedness of life on earth. It is quite large and has a long down-curved bill. It has brown eye-stripes and crown-stripes.
Known as moorhens, it looks like a breed between a chicken, a duck and a shorebird (finally); it is actually a fully aquatic coot-like rail.
Know as “peeps”, they hang out by the shoreline. These are whitish small birds. They are a migrant species that breed in the northern arctic region. They have greenish-yellow legs and a black bill.
Listing and habits of the land birds that inhabit the Enchanted Islands
Few species of land birds inhabit the Galapagos Islands, and Galapagos Yellow Birdthree-quarters of these are endemic or occurring only in the archipelago. Unlike the seabirds, most of which are excellent long-distance fliers, land birds from the tropics have little cause to make long flights. Though relatives of all the Galápagos species may be found on the nearby mainland, only a freak of fate would bring them out a thousand kilometers from land. This must have happened, however, at least fourteen times in the past.
With few exceptions, the land birds are a singularly dull-colored lot. As if to make up for this lack of exciting color, their “tameness” is unsurpassed. With attitudes to humans that seem to range from indifference, through curiosity and fearlessness, to outright impudence, the Galapagos land birds are a pleasure to watch and study.
Because Galapagos visitors spend so much time on and around the water, the sea and shore birds typically Galapagos Islands Bird receive more attention than the land birds. The seabirds tend to be bigger, more obvious, can be observed more easily, and display lots of different types of behaviors. Land birds, on the other hand, are smaller, drabber, and more secretive. It takes more effort, more patience, and more understanding to observe them. Some birds, like the cuckoo and the rail, have small populations and tend to be cryptic in their habits. There are 29 recognized species of land birds living in the Galapagos Islands and Darwin came close to seeing them all. Of course, he didn’t visit all of the islands and didn’t see everything. Darwin succinctly cataloged the resident land birds in the “Voyage of the Beagle”:
“Of land-birds I obtained twenty-six kinds, all peculiar to the group and found nowhere else, with the exception of one lark-like finch from North America (Dolichonyx oryzivorous*), which ranges on that continent as far north as 54 degrees and generally frequents marshes. The other twenty-five birds consist, firstly, of a hawk, curiously intermediate in structure between a Buzzard and the American group of carrion-feeding Polybori; and with this latter, it agrees most closely in every habit and even tone of voice. Secondly, there are two owls, representing the short-eared and barn owls of Europe. Thirdly, a wren, three tyrant-flycatchers (two of them species of Pyrocephalus, one or both of which would be ranked by some ornithologists as only varieties), and a dove — all analogous to but distinct from, American species. fourthly, a swallow, which though differing from the Progene purpurea of both Americas, only in being rather duller colored, smaller, and slenderer, is considered by Mr. Gould as specifically distinct. Fifthly, there are three species of mocking-thrush — a form highly characteristic of America. The remaining land-birds form a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, the form of the body, and plumage. There are thirteen species, which Mr. Gould has divided into four sub-groups. All these species are peculiar to this archipelago.…”
Charles Darwin, 1845
The Galapagos Islands are home to 13 species of finches, belonging to 4 genera. These finches all evolved from a single species similar to the Blue-Black Grassquit Finch Volatina Jacarina commonly found along the Pacific Coast of South America. Once in the Galapagos Islands, the finches adapted to their habitat and the size and shape of their bills reflect their specializations.
Galapagos Small Finch, Vegetarian Finch, and Ground Finch all have crushing bills while Tree Finch have a grasping bill and Cactus Finch, Warbler Finch and Woodpecker Finch have probing bills.
All of Darwin ‘s Finches are sparrow-sized and similar in appearance to gray, brown, black or olive feathers. They have short rounded wings and a rounded tail that often appears cocked to one side. Most male finches mature to a solid black color, while the females mature to a drab grayish color. Exceptions are made for the Vegetarian and Tree Finches, the males never become completely black rather they have a black head, neck and upper breast. Warbler, Woodpecker, and Mangrove Finches have more of an olive color.
The finch varies by what they eat: some eat seeds and others insects. The Ground Finches eat ticks they remove with their crushing beaks from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas and kick eggs into rocks to feed upon their contents. On Isla Wolf, the Sharp Beaked Ground Finch is known as the “Vampire Finch” as it jumps on the backs of Masked Boobies and Red-Footed Boobies pecking at their flesh and feeding on their blood. Woodpecker and Mangrove Finch use small twigs and cactus spines as tools to dine on the larva stored in dead tree branches.
Though they have adapted to allow for specialized feeding most finches are generalized eaters. The specialization developed allowing the birds to survive during the dry season or times of drought when little food is available. Then these specialized tools allow the birds to better compete for food sources with other birds and animals.
There are 13 species of Darwin finch in the Galapagos Islands:
Warbler Finch “Certhidea olivacea”
The four species of ground finches are similar in coloration — adult males are black, and females streaked brown. They all have bills of the “crushing” variety, used for feeding on seeds.
Geospiza nebulosa of the humid highlands, the Galapagos Sharp beaked Finch bird of the central and western islands is highly endangered. Which is really unfortunate since some ornithologists believe it may be the closest to the ancestral form of all Darwin’s finches. On Wolf Island (or Culpepper, in the northwest corner of the archipelago) this finch is called the “vampire finch,” for its habit of pecking at the skin of boobies until they draw blood, which they drink. Such a behavior may have evolved from eating the parasitic insects that are found in bird plumage (as ground finches do in other islands).
the G. fuliginosa is wide-spread throughout the archipelago, except for Genovesa and the smaller islands of the northwest, Darwin (Wenman) or Wolf.
The G. magnirostris, though less common than other ground finches, is found on all major islands, except for Genovesa and Wolf All three species have similar appearance and behavior, and telling them apart is a challenge even for ornithologists.
Probably descendant from ground finches are the cactus finches, being more similar in coloration and distribution. The male cactus finches are mostly black, with probing bills; the females are streaked, like the ground finches.
G. conirostris is more limited, found only on Española, Genovesa, Darwin, and Wolf. Both finches are found on the large prickly pear cactus of the Galápagos, eating the small insects in the flowers or the fruit itself.
the G. crassirostris, though more closely related to tree finches, lives mainly in the humid highlands of the larger islands. It is lighter in color, more like the tree finches, though the male sports a jet-black head and neck in contrast to its creamy breast. Although its diet is primarily fruits and soft seeds, it will sneak in a few insects now and then.
Tree finches, as their name implies, are largely arboreal and feed primarily on insects. They are paler than ground or cactus finches, with gray heads and wings and white or streaked breasts. Their bill shape is sharper than ground finches and more useful for grasping, which is better suited to their insect diet.
The Geospiza parvula lives on all the major islands except for Española, Genovesa, Marchena, and Darwin
The R. psittacula is also rare or unknown on Wolf, Santa Fe, Baltra, and Pinzón and Rábida. Of note is that it is rarely found on the large, hospitable island of Floreana.
The G. pauper is as you might suspect mid-way in size between the other tree finches. However, its range is restricted only to Floreana Island, and some believe it may be a hybrid of the Large and Small tree finches found here as well. As noted, the Large tree finch is not a frequent resident of Floreana, and if the Medium species is a hybrid, it may have replaced the Large habitat.
Geospiza pallida, one of the very few birds in the world to use “tools”. In this case, a twig or cactus spine, to aid in feeding. The small yellowish finch will seek out and select this implement to pry insects or their larvae out of small holes in cactuses, or from beneath bark. They have even been seen to carry the tool from tree to tree as if it has proven its value as a favorite. The woodpecker finch nests in the highlands of the major central islands including San Cristobal, Santa Cruz Island, Santiago, Pinzón, Isabela, and Fernandina.
The G. heliobates, a light colored bird with a narrow bill that is found on Isabela and Fernandina. Rising sea levels due to global warming post a direct threat to the survival of this species, since it nests in the endangered mangrove forests.
The G. olivacea is the smallest of Darwin’s finches, and in the size and shape of its bill, coloration, and song it earns its name. Even Darwin was certain it was a warbler, but John Gould, who cataloged Darwin’s collection upon the latter’s return from the voyage of the Beagle, identified it by anatomy correctly as a finch. Despite its unique role in the catalog of Darwin’s finches, it is the most wide-spread species, nesting in the highlands of the large islands but being found through all quarters of the archipelago.
The mockingbirds are extremely tame and very curious birds, they will happily approach tourists on the beach to see whether there is any food or water. You should not feed the birds as this would make them become dependent on such service. There are four different species of mockingbird on the islands – three of these are specific to individual islands and one species may be found all over the islands.
Although tortoises and finches are the organisms that most commonly come to mind when thinking of Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, and evolution, it was the mockingbirds, or mocking-thrushes, that first drew Darwin’s attention to the strange diversity of species within the archipelago.
“…the different islands probably have their Charles Darwinrepresentative species or races of the Amblyrhynchus, as well as the tortoise. My attention was first thoroughly aroused by comparing together the numerous specimens, shot by myself and several other parties on board, of the mocking-thrushes, when, to my astonishment, I discovered that all those from Charles Island belonged to one species (Mimus trifasciatus); all from Albemarle Island to M. parvulus; and all from James and Chatham Islands…belonged to M. melanotis.”
Charles Darwin, 1845
In the Galapagos Islands, there are 4 different species of mockingbirds. The first one is the Galapagos mockingbird.
The M. parvulus is probably the root species, originating in the easternmost isle of San Cristobal and dispersing to the west. This aggressive bird is found on all major islands except on those where competitive mockingbirds have evolved. They are omnivorous, and their habit of running after small lava lizards and insets has begged comparison with road-runners.
The M. melanotis is the population left behind on the root island and is characterized by a very distinctive black eyepatch around its yellow eye.
The M. macdonaldi, also known as Hood mockingbird, found only on Española and nearby islands. The Hood mockingbird is extremely aggressive. It is not uncommon for them to land on a visitor’s head and they will explore any unknown object, always looking for food or drink. Many tourists to Española (or Hood Island) are struck by the forwardness and seeming intelligence of these birds.
The M. trifasciatus, again named after its main habitation. The former has the longest bill of the four, and is notably tamer and more curious than other species. The somewhat duller Floreana has the interesting habit of nesting in prickly pear, the only mockingbird to do so. Sadly, this bird is now extinct on Floreana island itself, probably due to the usual suspects. Cats, rats, dogs and goats, along with pigs and other barnyard animals, pirated their eggs and devoured their habitat. It is still seen on nearby Champion Island, where the heavy foot of civilization has yet to tread.
Interestingly, of the major islands of the central archipelago, only Pinzón lacks a Mockingbird, despite its location between Santa Cruz Island and Isabela. Perhaps the limited biota on Pinzón is an explanation. Also, mockingbirds are not distance flyers, to begin with, and their behaviors, as well as physical evolution on separate islands, has re-reinforced their isolation. While they became extinct on Baltra during the American occupation of the Second World War, they have not yet repopulated despite the half-mile distance separating that island from Santa Cruz Island.
Though once widespread throughout the central islands of the archipelago, the endemic Galápagos hawk (Buteo galapageoensis) is now endangered on all the populated islands. It is a dark and handsome bird, similar to the Swainson’s hawk of North America, with lightly barred tail feathers. It feeds on land lizards and small iguanas, native and introduced rats, and smaller birds such as doves and mockingbirds. Its eyesight is excellent, as is typical with buteos.
Being at the top of the natural food chain in the Galapagos Islands, this hawk is virtually fearless and quite easy to approach. Charles Darwin even noted:
“A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk out of the branch of a tree.”
Also known as the Asio flammeus, the short-eared owl can often be seen on Genovesa (Tower) Island where it hunts on foot among the colonies of storm petrels. It will wait at the entrance to a storm petrels burrow and will lunge with its claws when it hears a bird within reach. As its name implies, its ears are small and hard to see.
The Tyto punctissima lives on Santa Cruz Island, Isabela, San Cristobal and Fernandina, though Steadman points out it is now extinct on Floreana because of introduced mammals such as cats. It has the distinctive heart-shaped face of the common barn owl, though is smaller and darker. Like its cousin, it is almost entirely nocturnal and rarely seen. Its diet consists primarily of small rodents, lizards, birds, and bats, and its habitat is in lava tubes, holes in trees and abandoned buildings.
The small Galapagos dove is endemic to the islands and is found in the more arid parts of the main islands. A process of evolution on Genovesa Island has softened the spines of cactus plants and thereby allowed the Galapagos dove access to pollinate the flowers. This has occurred due to the lack of bees that would normally perform this function.
One of the more pleasant birds to encounter on the islands is the Galapagos dove (Zenaida galapagoensis), a pretty, tame and well-mannered creature. It is reddish brown with black and white markings, touches of incandescent green, red feet and a bright blue eye ring. Its bill is curved downward, larger and more curved than most other doves. Though usually very silent, its low call reminds some of a mourning dove.
Its primary characteristic, however, is its tameness — pirates from the 18th century told of doves landing on their hats and shoulders, and visitors frequently spot a dove just a few feet away with a curious look in its eye. This tameness has had its price: according to ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, ten men on Santiago Island ate 39,000 doves in three months. Darwin records meeting a boy armed only with a stick who came to the same water well every day to “procure a little heap of them for dinner.”
Locally known as “Garrapateros”, they feed on ticks (garrapatas) and therefore got their name and presence. They were introduced to free cattle from this pest. Now today they are the real pest, they outcompete the tree finches for food. It is a crow-sized black bird with a large drooping tail and black bill with a beautiful high pitched call.
Also known as the Dendroica petechia, another colorful bird is the bright yellow warbler. This bird is not endemic and may be found anywhere from Alaska to Peru. The male has thin red streaks on its chest and a red cap. It is common throughout the Galapagos Islands, especially found in mangroves or manzanillo trees.
Pronge modesta, another endemic bird that nests in cliffs as around Tagus Cove, or crater rims in the interior, of many islands. Some believe the population here is merely a slightly smaller variant of the Southern martin (P. Concolor) of South America, suggesting a recent arrival on the westerly winds
Also known as the Coccyzus melacoryphus. The first sighting Galapagos Dark Billed Cuckoo Bird in the Galápagos was in 1888 on San Cristobal and Floreana, and today it is found on most other large islands as well. Native to tropical lowlands from Argentina to Colombia, it may owe its arrival and success in the Galapagos Islands to the same environmental factors that threaten other species. The warm waters of El Niño years encourage its dispersal, and it has colonized other islands off the continent as well. As befits a recent arrival, the cuckoo is shy and secretive, instinctively wary of human contact.
* Endemic sub-species