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The Islands
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flora fauna
The attraction of bird life in the Galapagos isn’t only the abundance of rare and interesting species [nearly 60 resident species on the islands of which some 28 are endemic]. It is also the fact that many birds are unafraid of humans and therefore easy to see close up. There are also dozens of migrant birds which almost always can be spotted.

The comical boobies are likely to be among the first birds you’ll meet on the islands. As you wander along pathways through their nesting colonies, they continue on with their rituals and activities, such as courtship dancing or incubating eggs under their webbed feet. Even within a few feet of hundreds of birds they appear as indifferent to you as you might be to a passing stranger on a street. Blue-footed boobies frequently lay eggs right in the middle of a path, their nest being nothing more than a circle of guano defining a boundary for their young chicks. Masked boobies also lay their eggs on the ground, while red-footed boobies make primitive nests in bushes or low trees. Each of the booby species has carved out its ecological niche, with the blue-footed birds feeding from the shore, and the red-footed variety diving for fish away from the breeding colonies.

The friendly Galapagos penguin is one the world’s smallest, rarest and least-studied penguins, and lives further north than any other species. These flightless birds charm all as they hop about the rocks and plop feet-first into the sea. The world’s only other flightless seabird is the flightless cormorant, another rare and endemic species. Its small, atrophied wings are thought to be the result of evolution, where swimming and hunting became more important than flight. The tallest of the world’s 29 species of cormorant, it is curiously ungainly on land but is a powerful swimmer. It’s also one of the few seabirds that doesn’t keep the same mate from one nesting to the next.

Of special interest among seabirds, the waved albatross, one of the rarest and by far the largest bird in the archipelago, is endemic to Espanola, aside from some pairs on Isla de la Plata, off the mainland coast. Albatrosses spend their first few years at sea before returning to breed, and all are at sea from mid-January to mid-March. One of the most spectacular sights on the Galapagos is their courtship dance, when they bow and sway, honk and whistle, point to the sky and fence with their long, yellow bills.

Various species of petrel are common on many of the islands, of the archipelago but the dark-rumped petrel has been in danger of extinction. Also known as the Hawaiian petrel, this shy, nocturnal seabird, which mates for life, is nearly extinct on those islands. Early settlers on the Galapagos found these petrels in immense numbers. Reports say that during nesting season, the night air was filled with their howls and weird cackling calls. By the 1960s very few young were surviving because rats and pigs were eating their eggs and dogs and cats were killing chicks and adult birds. An intensive predator control program by the Darwin Station and the Park Service has had promising results.

One of the most spectacular seabirds of the Galapagos is the frigate bird of which there are two difficult-to-distinguish species: the augustly named great and magnificent frigate birds. With deep, forked tails and long pointed wings spanning over two meters, they have the highest wingspan-to-body ratio of any other bird. Elegant and streamlined, they can be seen cruising thermals above many parts of the islands on the lookout for prey. Frigate bird aren’t hawks; they are air pirates, or cleptoparasites. Their technique is to harass other birds such as boobies to drop or regurgitate their food. With atrophied preening glands, they are unable to secrete enough oil to waterproof their wings. This is why frigate bird cannot dive or land in the water, though they can fish on the surface with their hooked beaks. The male frigate bird has an enormous red pouch of skin under his beak, which he inflates almost to the size of a football to attract females. One of the most extraordinary sights of the Galapagos is that of a courting male frigate bird sitting in a tree, or even flying overhead, with a big, bright red balloon puffed up on his chest. Frigate birds are opportunistic breeders and mate all year-round. The females lay one egg annually because feeding the chick until it can fly and get food for itself means another year of hard-line aerial piracy.

Other special, mostly endemic seabirds to watch for on the Galapagos islands include: the beautiful swallow-tailed gull with its crimson eye-ring, which travels great distances out to sea and is the only gull to feed only at night; the lava gull, considered to be the rarest gull in the world; the splendid red-billed tropical bird, with its two elongated tail streamers; and the brown pelican, with its huge “scoop-fishing” bill and prehistoric appearance.

Among shorebirds, the stately but shy greater flamingo is literally head and shoulders above other birds in its habitat of salty lagoons, though it’s slightly shorter than the more ubiquitous common egret, also known as the great egret or the American egret, which favors the rocky coastline. Though flamingos breed in other parts of the world, the Galapagos subspecies is rare. It doesn’t like to be disturbed, and is likely to desert its mud nest if disturbed. Bird-watchers are advised to be especially sensitive. On the shorebird watch you may also spot oystercatchers, plovers, sandpipers, turnstones, whimbrels and stilts.

Of the land birds, the most scientifically important are the 13 species known as Darwin’s finches, so-called because these birds were a key in the development of the scientist’s theory of evolution by natural selection. By studying the sizes and shapes of their beaks Charles Darwin observed how the finches had adapted themselves, and survived in the harsh habitats of the volcanic Galapagos islands. His belief that all the finches shared a common ancestry was a major factor in the formulation of his theories about the origins of species and the beginning of life itself.

Since Darwin’s visit in 1835, many scientists have studied his famous finches in great detail researching the mechanisms of evolution. As an indication of the number of such studies, The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner, lists some 300 bibliographical references.

On the Galapagos islands, 13 species of finches can be classified into four subspecies. There are those that live in trees and eat fruits and bugs; those that also live in trees but are vegetarians; birds that live in trees, but look and act like warblers; and birds who spend much of their time hopping on the ground. Among these species there are great differences in behavior. The woodpecker finch, for example, has the extraordinary ability to break a cactus spine or a twig to make a tool, which it uses to dig for insects in a tree, while the sharp-beaked ground finch picks at the tail feathers of molting boobies and drinks their blood.

On most of the Galapagos islands you see finches flying about, picking up crumbs, bathing in puddles. They are all small, black or gray-brown birds, no bigger than sparrows, with short wings and tails. Their differentiating characteristics are the shapes and sizes of their beaks. Unless you are an expert bird watcher it’s unlikely you’ll be able to distinguish one species from another. As one field guide states: “It is only a very wise man or a fool who thinks he is able to identify all the finches which he sees.”

Like the finches, Galapagos mockingbird, of which there are four endemic species and six subspecies, has been the subject of painstaking scientific research. These noisy, curious, sociable birds are on all the islands except Pinzon.

There is thought to be just a hundred pairs left of the endemic Galapagos hawk, the only raptor that breeds on the islands. The birds practice cooperative polyandry, in which a female mates with two or more males and all the adults help raise the young. There are also two endemic subspecies of owl on the islands: the short-eared owl and the barn owl.

|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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