A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about finches

Our feathered friends

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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In my last entry I shared some of the most distinctive animals we encountered on the Galápagos – iguanas, seals, lizards and crabs. Now it is the turn of the birds to step into the limelight.

Blue-footed boobies

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Blue-footed boobies, Isla Espanola

There are several species indelibly linked in the mind with the Galápagos Islands, and one of these is certainly the blue-footed booby. The distinctive feet that give it its name, almost turquoise in colour, really are as bright and bizarre-looking as they seem in the photos! These feet are used during courtship, the birds deliberately lifting their feet and showing them to their mates. The rest of the bird though is somewhat drab: a mix of brown and white with a large greyish-blue bill. This bill is used very effectively in feeding – the booby plunges downwards into the sea at speeds of nearly 100 kph, using the bill like an arrow to pierce the water.

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Blue-footed booby and chick, North Seymour

Male and female blue-footed boobies look alike, though the females tend to be a little larger, and their eyes have a little more pigmentation around them. The males have slightly lighter feet, and I think that in my photo above, of a pair on Española, the male may be the one on the right, for this reason. They also sound different – males give a plaintive whistle whereas females and immature juveniles give a hoarse “quack”.

Blue-footed boobies are not endemic to the Galápagos, despite being so intrinsically linked to them in numerous images, but over half of all breeding pairs nest here. They lay between one and three eggs, though two is usual. The eggs hatch a few days apart, and in seasons when food is scarce it is not uncommon for the older chick to kill its smaller and weaker sibling.

By the way, the odd (and in English rather suggestive) name is thought to have derived from the Spanish slang term bobo, meaning "stupid" – perhaps because of their clumsiness on land, or because these almost-tame birds had an unfortunate habit of landing on sailing ships and were easily captured and eaten.

Red-footed boobies

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Red-footed booby, Genovesa

Before coming to the Galápagos I had seen numerous photos of blue-footed boobies and was looking forward to meeting them “in person”, but I had seen and read relatively little about their red-footed cousins and consequently was surprised and delighted to find them even more appealing! The combination of bright blue bill, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye, soft brown (usually) plumage and red feet is a winning one. I say “usually” soft brown, because you will also see white Red-footed Boobies, although only 5% fall into this category, and both are the same species.

Unlike other boobies, the red-footed ones nest in trees, and on Genovesa we saw loads of them in the red mangrove trees that lined the trail at Darwin Bay. Many of them had soft fluffy white chicks, and they seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, and as gently curious about us as we were about them. I took so many photos as it seemed that in every tree there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one!

These boobies are the smallest of the three species found in the Galápagos, at about 70 cm. They raise just one chick at a time, and about 15 months apart. Because mating isn’t seasonal, there is always a good chance you will see young chicks, whatever time of year you visit the islands.

Nazca boobies

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Nazca booby and eggs, Genovesa

The third of the booby species to be seen in the Galápagos are the Nazca boobies. Once thought to be a sub-species of masked booby, these are now recognised as a species in their own right, endemic to these islands. They are mostly white, with an orange bill and the mask-like black markings around it.

Nazca boobies lay two eggs, several days apart. If they both hatch, the older chick will push its sibling out of the nest area. The parent booby will not intervene and the younger chick will certainly die of thirst, hunger or cold. Scientists believe that the two eggs are laid so that one acts as a sort of insurance in case the other gets destroyed or eaten, or the first chick dies soon after hatching. They nest at different times on different islands, for instance you will see eggs laid on Genovesa between August and November and on Española between November and February. This meant that visiting in November we were able to see all the different stages of their life-cycle, especially on Genovesa where we saw lots of them, in particular along the path near Prince Philip Steps (El Barranco) – some had eggs, some a small or not so small chick, and a few pairs were in the early stages of courtship and building their nests.

Frigatebirds

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Magnificent frigate bird on North Seymour, and great frigatebird on Genovesa

Frigatebirds are large mainly black birds, related to pelicans. There are two species found in the Galápagos Islands – the magnificent frigatebird (fregata magnificens) and the great frigatebird (fregata minor), and we were able to see both during our week’s cruising. Both are fantastic flyers, able to spend up to a week in the air without landing, but they are clumsy on land and unable to swim. They feed by snatching prey from the ocean surface or beach (or sometimes from other birds) using their long, hooked bills.

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Frigatebirds in flight above the Angelito

The males of both species are black, with iridescent feathers that have a purple sheen on the magnificent frigate birds and greenish on the great frigatebirds. The females lack this sheen and have pale breasts. The eyes of the female magnificent frigatebird have a blue ring and those of a great frigate bird a red or pink one. Juvenile magnificent frigatebirds have pale heads, while the juvenile great frigatebirds have a ginger-coloured head that made me smile each time I saw one!

They were also regularly to be seen accompanying the Angelito as we sailed from island to island, including a memorable occasion when one left a sizeable “deposit” on my head, much to the amusement of others in our group, although not mine as I had only just washed my hair and had to do so all over again!

Gulls

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Swallow-tail gulls, Isla Genovesa

There are five species of gull that you might see on the Galápagos Islands, of which two are endemic – the swallow-tailed and lava gulls. We saw both of these, but far more of the former. As the name suggests, it has a forked tail and is an attractive bird, I thought, with its silver-grey plumage (white on the under parts), dark head and red eye-ring.

Galápagos dove

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Galápagos dove, Isla Seymour

The Galápagos dove was another of the birds that we saw on many of the islands, on beaches and on the low scrubby ground that often lies behind the foreshore. It is quite small (between 18 and 23 cm long) and rather attractive, with a vivid blue eye ring and red legs and feet “topping and tailing” a soft brown mottled body, its wing feather flecked with white and with a rose-pink breast.

The Galápagos dove has a curved beak and feeds largely on seeds picked from the ground, mainly from the opuntia cactus. It also eats the pulp of the cactus, which is probably their main source of water. On Genovesa, Fabian showed us how the spines of the opuntia have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function.

Herons

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Lava heron and marine iguanas, Espanola

There are several species of heron on the Galápagos, including great blue herons, yellow-crowned night herons and lava herons, all of which we saw in our time here. I have seen Great Blue Herons elsewhere, but those seen here belong to an endemic subspecies, cognata. They are as the name suggests the largest of the herons, and are found in quite small numbers on several islands.

Lava herons are fairly drab grey birds, with a hunched posture, but with bright orange-yellow legs when breeding (grey at other times). They feed on small fish and crabs.

We saw several yellow-crowned night herons on Genovesa, both adults and juveniles. Only the adults have the distinctive yellow crown that gives them the first part of their name. The second part drives from their habit of feeding mainly at night, when they hunt for crabs in coastal lagoons. Despite this nocturnal habit, we saw quite a few here in broad daylight.

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Yellow-crowned night herons, Genovesa (juvenile on the left)

Mockingbirds

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Mockingbird, Genovesa

There are four different species of mockingbirds found on the Galápagos, all of them endemic. Two of these are rare and one considered endangered, and we didn’t see either as we didn’t go to the islands where they live. These are the Charles (or Floreana) mockingbird found only on two small islands Champion and Gardner just off Floreana (of which only 150 birds are thought to exist), and the more common, but equally restricted in area, Chatham (or San Cristóbal) mockingbird, found only on San Cristóbal.

But we did see the Hood mockingbird on Española, where it is endemic and relatively common, and the Galápagos mockingbird, which is widespread on several of the islands, on Genovesa. The latter is recognised as having six subspecies: barringtoni (Santa Fe); bauri (Genovesa); hulli (Darwin); parvulus (Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour and Daphne); personatus (Pinta, Marchena, Santiago and Rabida) and wenmani (Wolf). The ones in my photo, therefore, are subspecies bauri, since I saw them on Genovesa. Charles Darwin noticed the varied species and subspecies of mockingbirds in the archipelago, and his observations of them shaped his theories on evolution, probably more so than those of the more often cited finches:

I examined many specimens [of mocking bird] in the different islands, and in each the respective kind is alone present. These birds agree in general plumage, structure, and habits; so that the different species replace each other in the economy of the different islands. These species are not characterized by the markings on the plumage alone, but likewise by the size and form of the bill, and other differences.” (Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1839)

All the mockingbirds have grey and brown plumage with white under parts, and are about 25-28cm in length. Their bill is long, thin and black. They are omnivorous, eating seabird eggs, insects, young finches or even small lava lizards in addition to seeds. They are known to try to get water from tourists’ water bottles if left on the ground for any time, and would eat any food dropped by visitors if they were to disobey park rules and bring some on to the islands. But that won’t be you, will it?!

Galápagos finches

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Ground finch (I think) at the airport, Baltra

Although small and relatively plain, the Galápagos or Darwin finches are amongst the best-known of the archipelago’s species, owing to the role they played in shaping Darwin’s theories. Although their bodies look similar, their bills vary greatly in size and shape, leading Darwin to theorise that they had adapted to suit the food that was available to them on their particular island.

Altogether there are 13 species, all of them endemic to the islands, namely:
vampire finch; large ground finch; medium ground finch; small ground finch; large tree finch; medium tree finch; small tree finch; vegetarian finch; cactus finch; large cactus finch; woodpecker finch; mangrove finch; warbler finch

They can be divided according to whether they eat mainly seeds, fruit or insects. The former live mainly on the ground and have beaks suited for crushing. The insect eaters live mostly in trees. Some have probing beaks, while others are slightly hooked and best for grasping. The fruit-eating vegetarian tree finch has a parrot-like beak, and the ground-living cactus finch has a long curved beak like the probers, to get between the spines of the opuntia on which it feeds. But while all this sounds helpful, it is still difficult to distinguish some of the species from each other. None of us in the group were ever sure whether we were looking at a small, medium or large ground finch, however many times we asked Fabian (and he patiently replied). I think we would have needed them to line up in an avian identity parade to be confident of naming them! But the cactus finch was a little easier, owing to his long beak and unique choice of food.

We saw finches just about everywhere we went. Like all of the island species, they are pretty tame, but they hop around a lot and are hard to capture on camera. The best shot I got was at the airport on Baltra while waiting in the café for our flight back to Quito – the finches were everywhere snatching up the crumbs, sometimes even from the plates of those still eating. But of course by then we had no Fabian with us to help with identification! I’m pretty sure it’s a ground finch, by the shape of the bill, and if so it must be a female, as all the males are black; my guess is that it’s a female large ground finch, but if anyone knows otherwise ...

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Cactus finch, Santa Cruz

My other photo, above, is of a male cactus finch we saw at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz. You can clearly see the much longer, pointed bill.

Yellow warbler

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Yellow warbler, South Plaza

One of the smallest but prettiest of Galápagos Islands birds is the yellow warbler. It is not endemic, being found from Alaska to Peru, but as with all species, you are likely to get closer to one here than elsewhere. And like the finches, it is continually on the move and thus very hard to photograph – I have more pictures of blurred Yellow Warblers than of any other species!

This is a small songbird (12-13 cm in height), with a thin pointed beak. It is mostly yellow in colour and the male has reddish streaks on his chest and a reddish-brown crown. The female lacks the crown patch, having a more olive-coloured head.

Other birds seen

We saw very many other species of birds in our week in the Galápagos Islands, not all of which I was able to photograph or even to note. Among those I did capture, either in my camera or journal or both, were:

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Waved albatross, Española

~ waved albatross
~ red-billed tropicbird
~ brown pelicans
~ American oystercatcher
~ shearwaters
~ white-cheeked pintail duck
~ smooth-billed ani
~ vermillion flycatcher
~ common noddies

I will share more wildlife as we travel around the islands, but by now I expect that you are as eager as we were, on first boarding the Angelito, to start to explore this magical world …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged birds islands wildlife galapagos ecuador albatross finches Comments (9)

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