The Galapagos Islands are not short on beautiful marine birds; however, the Galapagos Albatross, with its wingspan measuring up to 8.2 feet, is an image of pure power and poise. The albatross, also known as the Waved Albatross, is the largest bird in the Galapagos and one of the biggest marine birds in the world, making it a highlight for many visitors to the islands.
In addition to its impressive size, the albatross is most recognizable thanks to its extraordinarily large yellow bill, along with its chestnut brown body and white head. What many do not know is that, contradictorily to its large size, the Galapagos Albatross is one of the longest-living birds in the world and the oldest ever recorded reached the ripe old age of 51. However, the typical life span of the albatross is closer to 45 years.
Bird of flight
The Galapagos Albatross is technically a resident of the Galapagos Archipelago; however, upon observing this bird, it is clear that its true home is the open sky. The vast majority of its life is spent on the wing or peacefully sitting at sea in the waters along the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coastline. The bird’s body is beautifully structured for flight and it is able to delicately maneuver the currents in order to use the least amount of energy possible, only needing to flap its wings during particularly calm weather. On the other hand, the bird appears very awkward and clumsy on land, moving with a slow and waddling gait. Indeed, they only land on the islands to breed.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the albatross’s behavior is its long and highly ritualized mating dance. The Galapagos Albatross is one of the few species of bird that mates for life, and so it puts forth an outstanding amount of energy to find a mate. The mating ritual occurs every mating season, although it tends to be more intricate among new mates or a pair that was unable to reproduce the preceding season. Interestingly enough, despite this, the albatross is not very loyal, with around 25% of offspring resulting from extra-pair copulation.
The mating dance plays a significant role in determining the future compatibility of a pair, as it requires strict cooperation from each of the birds. Once a pair comes together, they begin the dance by facing each other, and lowering and extending their heads to touch beaks. They then begin to circle the ends of their beaks around each other, which creates a hollow wooden noise. This performance is central to the dance and is performed several times. However, the dance consists of various specific movements, each of which is initiated by one bird and copied or responded to with a movement from the other bird. These are accompanied by calls or bill clapping and can involve bowing, sky pointing, and an extravagant and blundering walk. In addition to announcing the breeding season, this dance is used various times throughout the relationship. It can be used to strengthen the bond between mates or also to determine egg/chick ownership when the birds return from an extended stay at sea.
The female albatross will lay an egg between mid-April and July each year, and the chick hatches around two months later. The responsibility of caring for the egg is shared between the two partners, who take turns incubating the egg. Albatrosses have the odd custom of laying their eggs onto bare ground instead of in a nest and actually rolling the egg around during incubation. Indeed, eggs have been reported to cover up to 40 meters before hatching. Scientists are unsure as to the reason for this egg rolling; nevertheless, it seems to be an important part of the chick hatching process.
The parents continue to share the responsibility of caring for the chick once it hatches, and the couple will take turns between watching over the chick and fishing. Once the chick is stronger and more independent, both parents will leave it for extended amounts of time in a sort of chick nursery while they spend increasing period of time at sea.
One feature that is particularly unique to the Galapagos Albatross of all of the animals in the archipelago is its extremely predictable breeding cycle. In fact, the albatross is one of the few animals in the Galapagos Islands that is an annual breeder, and it is for this same reason that it only breeds on Española Island. Due to the bird’s large size and enormous wings, it is very difficult for it to take off in flight and depends on seasonal winds and the island’s high cliffs in order to do so. In mid-January, these winds lose much of their strength and the birds are literally unable to take flight. As they depend on fish and crustaceans from the open ocean for their source of food, if any of the birds or hatchlings do not leave the islands before this time, they will become stranded in the Galapagos and die of starvation.