For centuries upon centuries, the Galapagos Islands were left to the sole forces of nature: fed by the multiple marine currents that sweep past their shores, contorted by the ENSO climatic fluctuations and warmed by the strong rays of the equatorial sun. With little competition and predation on these isolated islands, plants and animals were able to evolve as they pleased based on the reality of the archipelago, resulting in particularly unique evolutionary traits. From the goofy blue-footed boobies to the tiny Galapagos penguin and renowned Darwin finch, these adaptations are beautifully represented in the many species of Galapagos birds. Furthermore, their highly ritualized mating dances, spectacular diving skills and adorable, fluffy chicks provide a wide range of unforgettable photo opportunities.
The Galapagos Penguin
This is one of the most iconic birds in the Galapagos Archipelago – nowhere else in the world can you see a penguin so far north, and particularly one that crosses the equator from time to time. Although you won’t be able to catch them in flight, these Galapagos birds are spectacular swimmers, diving and spinning through the water to catch their prey. Whether torpedoing through a shoal of fish, hopping over rocks or playfully swimming circles around you, they promise a spectacular photograph. The Galapagos penguin is closely related to the penguins of the Peruvian and Chilean Coast. Scientists believe their ancestors were caught up in the Humboldt Current and pushed north towards the islands.
The Galapagos cormorant is the heaviest and largest cormorant in the world, and is also the only one that has lost its ability to fly. The cormorant is the only species of all Galapagos birds that has evolved as a swimmer at the expense of its flight, a result of evolution and a lack of natural predators. These birds are easily recognizable thanks to their tiny wings, which are three times smaller than the size required to fly. The flightless cormorant fishes in the ocean, consuming fish, octopus and eel, using its hooked beak to snatch up prey. They can typically be found posing along the shore, particularly close to the tideline.
Gulls and Albatrosses
As you enjoy a cocktail on the deck of your cruise ship, keep your camera at the ready for two wonderfully unique Galapagos birds: the swallowtail gull and waved albatross. The swallowtail gull is one of two gulls in the Galapagos and the only nocturnal species in the world. Thanks to its extraordinary vision, it is able to spy out fish and squid with nothing more than the help of a little bit of moonlight. On the other hand, the waved albatross is renowned for its enormous wingspan and outstanding migration patterns, flying as far as Japan (approximately 8,500 ml.). It is the largest bird in the Galapagos, and its wingspan reaches up to 8.2 ft. These birds have magnificent control in the air, taking advantage of wind currents to glide for hours. They are quite awkward on land, so you will want to snatch a picture while they are on the wing; however, keep in mind they are only in the archipelago from April to December.
Frigatebirds and Tropicbirds
Frigatebirds are most commonly seen at sea, like black kites hovering in the air searching for their prey. There are two species in the islands, and they can easily be distinguished from each other based on their location: great frigatebirds are offshore feeders, while the magnificent frigatebird is an inshore feeder. These birds are most easily recognized by their bright red chests, which the males inflate during their mating rituals. The tropicbird, unlike frigatebirds, plunge dives into the ocean to catch its prey. These Galapagos birds are primarily white with black tips painted onto their wings and a dark black stroke by their eye, which is contrasted against their bright red bill. These birds are particularly beautiful in the air due to two long feathers that stream out from their tail.
Although the blue-footed is the most famous, there are three species of boobies that live in the Galapagos: the Nazca, the blue-footed and red-footed, each of which has different reproductive habits and nesting preferences. These birds are quite clownish on land, although they pose beautifully on rocky cliffs thanks to their stunning colors. However, while it may be difficult to get a photo of this, the skill of these birds is best appreciated at sea. Booby birds are spectacular divers and swimmers, and drop from impressive heights to catch their prey.
These endemic Galapagos birds are renowned around the world for how clearly they illustrate the evolutionary processes that inspired Darwin to write On the Origin of Species. This is in part because they are still in the initial phases of evolution, meaning that each species only demonstrates very slight differences that are mostly evident in their beaks. There are at least 13 species of Darwin finch, and they are well distributed throughout the archipelago. It is likely you will see these cute little birds pecking around the ground or perched on cacti on most of the islands you visit.
More Galapagos Birds to Keep an Eye Out For
Galapagos birds range in all sizes and colors, but by far the most dominant bird is the endemic Galapagos hawk. The Galapagos hawk sits at the top of the food chain and governs the islands at will. Like all Galapagos birds, the hawk shows very little fear of humans and can often be seen perched on a large rock or soaring in the sky during the day, scouring the land for any animal that steps out of line.
The Galapagos flamingo is at the top of many visitors’ lists of Galapagos birds. These birds are most often seen wading around the briny lagoons that dot the shores, and if you’re lucky you might catch one of their social mating rituals or see one of these stunning pink birds soaring through the sky. These flamingoes are actually American flamingoes, but those found in the Galapagos are thought to be the brightest flamingoes in the world.