While you are cruising the Galapagos Islands, you’ll see a variety of seabirds. They may sail on the breeze above your ship. For others, you’ll land on the coast and hike up to their nesting grounds.
Even though seabirds are defined as those who spend much of their lives far out at sea, the Galapagos Islands proves to us that this isn’t always the case. Some species – like the penguin – are natural non-flyers. Others – like the flightless cormorant – have evolved to become land-bound birds.
In total, 23 species of seabirds are regularly seen in the Galapagos Islands. Of these, 14 are endemic. These species or subspecies are found only in the Galapagos, although closely related species may be found elsewhere. Five indigenous or resident species live and breed in the Galapagos, though they are not unique to the archipelago. Four other seabird species are migrants, temporarily visiting the Galapagos on a regular basis.
Get your binoculars and camera ready to check out these beautiful creatures that spend much time at sea. In this first part, we aim our binoculars and cameras on the Galapagos Islands’ most famous seabirds.
Boobies are the most famous of the Galapagos seabirds. Three comical species call these islands home.
The Blue-Footed Booby is the darling of the Galapagos Islands. These birds are famous for their courtship dance, in which the males “dance,” showing off their blue feet to prospective female mates. Blue-footed Boobies are easy to spot when they fish, as they plunge head-first into the sea, like a dive bomber. In recent years, breeding has been declining as the boobies’ favored food, sardines, are scarcer in the warming seas around the islands, which is being caused by climate change.
- Scientific name – Sula nebouxii excisa
- Spanish name – Piquero patas azules
- Length – 80-85 centimeters (32-34 inches)
- Wingspan – 152-158 centimeters (60-62 inches)
- Best islands to see them – North Seymour, Española; also Fernandina, Floreana, Genovesa, Isabela, Pinzon, Santa Cruz and other islands south of the equator.
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: April-May; nesting: July-December
Red-footed Boobies, as the name implies, have red-colored feet. Their beaks are blue and bodies white with dark-brown markings in the wings and back. It is the smallest of the booby species in the islands. It is estimated that the Galapagos’ Red-footed Booby colony is the largest in the world.
- Scientific name – Sula sula
- Spanish name – Piquero patas rojas
- Length – 70 centimeters (28 inches)
- Wingspan – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
- Best islands to see them – Genovesa; also San Cristobal at Pitt Point and Pitt Islet, Gardner-by-Floreana
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: June; nesting: September-December
The Nazca Booby is much different from its cousins. This booby species is white, with a black mask around its eyes, and dark-brown bands edging its wings and tail. Its beak ranges from rose to bright orange, and its feet a dull olive or blue-grey color. Nazca and the Masked Boobies used to be considered the same, but are now classified as distinct species. The Nazca Booby is the largest of the Galapagos’ booby species. Because of its large size, it often nests near the tops of cliffs.
- Scientific name – Sula granti
- Spanish name – Piquero de Nazca
- Length – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
- Wingspan – 1.5-2 meters (5-6 feet)
- Best islands to see them – Genovesa, Española
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: December-February, June; nesting: August-September
The Waved Albatross is another fantastic bird sought out by many Galapagos visitors. This endemic species can spend years at sea without touching land. They arrive en masse to the Galapagos Islands with the March equinox to mate, and stay until December to raise their young. The fledglings will not return to Española for five years, when they will then join in on the elaborate mating dance this species is known for. You can take a multi-day or day cruise to see them.
- Scientific name – Phoebastria irrorata
- Spanish name – Albatros de Galápagos
- Length – 1 meter (3,25 feet)
- Wingspan – 2,4 meters (8 feet)
- Best islands to see them – Española
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: April; nesting: May-October
The Galapagos Penguin is the second-smallest penguin in the world, and the only one found north of the equator. This flightless bird is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Like their cousins, these penguins are black and white, with a white line around the face. They have a relatively long bill. They can dive to a depth of eight meters (26 feet), though on occasion can go as deep as 55 meters (180 feet). These seabirds are heavily affected by the El Niño phenomenon, when their food supplies are limited. In February, they migrate from Bartholomé Island to Isabela and Fernandina. Watch for them torpedoing through the water.
- Scientific name – Spheniscus mendiculus
- Spanish name – Pingüino de Galápagos
- Height – 49-53 centimeters (19-21 inches)
- Best islands to see them – Bartholomé, Isabela, Fernandina
- Breeding / nesting season – April-May, August-September
The Flightless Cormorant is the largest cormorant and the only one incapable of flight. Its long body is a velvety dark grey. This cormorant has stunning sapphire-blue eyes. It has short legs and a long, hooked bill. After swimming, it comes to land and spreads its tatty wings to dry. This species is also very affected by the El Niño.
- Scientific name – Phalacrocorax harrisi
- Spanish name – cormorán no volador
- Length: 89-100 centimeters (35-39 inches)
- Best islands to see them – Isabela, Fernandina
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: July; nesting: August-September. If food supplies are plentiful, Flightless Cormorants may also mate and nest in October and/or December.
The Brown Pelican is instantly recognizable by its large, pouched bill. This bird is common throughout the Galapagos archipelago (especially at the Fishermen’s Wharf in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island). During the breeding season, the adults have white and chestnut-colored markings on their heads and necks. The Brown Pelican breeds on all the central islands, as well as on Española and Marchena.
- Scientific name – Pelecanus occidentalis urinator
- Spanish name – Pelícano café
- Length – 1.2 meters (4 feet)
- Wingspan – 2 meters (6.5 feet)
- Best islands to see them – Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Marchena, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Santiago.
- Breeding / nesting season – Year-round
Frigatebirds are known as the pirates of the seabird world, as they steal food from other birds while in flight. The reason is that Frigatebirds lack sufficient oils to waterproof their feathers, and thus cannot dive into the sea to catch their food as other seabirds do.
Two species of Frigatebirds are found in the Galapagos Islands. At Cerro Tijeretas on San Cristobal, you can see both types living side by side. Both are approximately the same size, and breed and nest year-round. Additionally, both species are black, and the males have a red throat that they inflate during the mating display.
The Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens magnificens) is endemic to the Galapagos. Males have a metallic-violet sheen to their black plumage. The females are black with white underside and black throat; a thin blue ring circles their eyes. A large colony of the Magnificent Frigatebird is on North Seymour Island.
The Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) is a resident Galapagos species. It is slightly smaller than its Magnificent cousin, and has a greenish hue to its black feathers. The females are black with white underside and throat, and a red ring around its eyes.
- Scientific name – Fregata spp
- Spanish name – tijereta, fragata
- Length – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
- Wingspan – 2.4 meters (8 feet)
- Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago, but especially San Cristobal, Genovesa and North Seymour
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: year-round, depending on the island (March-May on San Cristobal and Genovesa, June on North Seymour); nesting: May-October, depending on the island
There are many more seabirds you’ll see as you cruise through the Galapagos Islands. In Part 2, we’ll focus our binoculars on those that are truly sea-faring aves, including gulls, terns and petrels.
Photo credit: Brad Gratwicke