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One of the most attractive features of bird watching in the Galapagos is that you can identify most species without being an expert. In the first place there are only about 60 resident species and 13 of these are the finches. These constitute 50 per cent of all the resident land species and several can be identified according to island location and vegetation zone. Some species, like the penguin and Flightless Cormorant, virtually identify themselves. So while you will be able to identify most species quite easily by location, there are others, including some finches, where you need a good view and a good guide to help in the identification.
The relative paucity of species is actually one of the beauties of the birds of Galapagos. The finches and mockingbirds are excellent examples of adaptive radiation, where a species has evolved characteristically on an isolated island. This is not surprising in the case of reptiles and mammals that cannot fly but is quite surprising with birds that could, in theory, move from island to island relatively easily. You should not look on adaptive radiation, or the evolution of new species on particular islands as a thing of the past. It is almost certainly continuing even now, but so slowly that it may be hundreds of years before any visible differences are evident.
It is also worth nothing that the number of resident species of bird is growing. At least five species have become resident in the last fifty years. Some of them appear to have arrived independently and the others were almost certainly introduced by man. In addition to the resident species, there are a number of regular visitors. These are mainly migratory waders from North America. They are therefore generally to be seen in their winter plumage and so can be quite difficult to identify. However, some can be found in the islands all year round and it is possible that these may eventually become resident and breed.
Because the Galapagos islands are surrounded by thousands of miles of open ocean, seabirds have a prominent place in the fauna of the islands. There are nineteen resident species, five of which are endemic, and most of which are likely to be seen by the visitor who spends a week in the islands, whatever the time of year.
There may be as many as three-quarters of a million seabirds in the Galapagos, including 30 per cent of the world’s blue- footed boobies, the world’s largest red-footed booby colony and perhaps the largest concentration of masked boobies in the world.
Birds must keep their plumage in good condition if they are to survive and breed. Most seabirds change or moult their feathers each year or so before they become too ragged. Between moults, birds spend much time preening their feathers, straightening them out and keeping them oiled and waterproof.
Visitor to the islands are able to retire to the shade during the heat of the middle of the day. Seabirds trying to raise their young must often spend hours, days, and even weeks, staying in the same spot as they incubate their egg or brood their young. Nestlings must spend months in the same place with no shade. As you wonder through seabird colonies in the Galapagos look for ways in which the birds are trying to keep cool under the hot sun. Albatross chicks are often to be found sitting in the meager shade of shrubs; boobies, pelicans, cormorants, and frigatebirds all use a form of panting called “gular flutterin”, to lose heat. The loose flaps of skin between the bill and neck are moved and the air currents generated evaporate moisture and cause evaporative cooling; boobies are frequently found with the feathers on their backs fluffed up and their bodies oriented so that the breeze comes from behind and cools the skin, and the feet are kept shaded. Red-footed boobies and frigatebirds may often be seen draped over their nest or a branch with their necks hanging down, wings drooped, and cloacal surfaces exposed to the air but in the shade of the body.
The Galapagos Penguin, at just over 50 cm in length, but only some 35 cm. tall when standing upright, is one of the world’s smallest penguins.
It is the only penguin to bread entirely within the tropics and the only one to be found in the Northern Hemisphere.
They are found mainly in the western islands where the water is cooler but has appeared recently to be widening its range and is regularly seen around the eastern end of Santiago, Floreana and western Santa Cruz.
It is the largest bird that breeds in Galapagos. There is about 12.000 pair. Generally seen flying with long straight wings but not infrequently found in groups or rafts, especially close to Espanola at either end of the breeding season.
Albatross are wonderful and efficient fliers; however, they expend a great deal of energy to become airborne. When at sea they make use of their webbed feet, the wind and the waves. On land, where becoming airborne is even more difficult, they need a cliff which they can jump off and an onshore wind. This is especially so for a young bird that has just fledged.
It is the most easily identify , as its name suggests , by its bright blue feet.
The female is larger, has an apparently larger eye pupil than the male and honks as opposed to the male’s whistle; she also generally has rather darker blue feet.
These distinguishing features are most apparent when a couple is together, though the honking and whistling is recognizable on its own.
Few species of land birds inhabit the Galapagos, and three-quarters of these are endemic. Unlike the seabirds, most of which are excellent long- distance fliers, and birds from the tropics have little cause to make long flights. Twenty-two of the twenty-nine resident species are endemic and only fourteen successful colonisations could account for the present land bird fauna. Though relatives of all the Galapagos species may be found on the nearby mainland, only a freak of fate would bring them out a thousand kilometers from land. This must have happened, however, at least fourteen times in the past.
With few exceptions, the land birds are a singularly dull-coloured lot. With attitudes to man that seem to range from indifference, through curiosity and fearlessness, to outright imprudence, the Galapagos land birds are a pleasure to watch. Some of the species or their ancestors have been in the islands longer than others. Some species, such as the cuckoo and moorhen are near- identical with their mainland relatives. Others have diverged slightly producing endemic subspecies or races like yellow warbler, short-eared and barn owls, vermilion flycatcher, while yet others have formed distinct species, Galapagos hawk, Galapagos dove, and Galapagos flycatcher.
The land birds as a group include two of the most impressive examples of evolutionary change in the Galapagos: the mockingbirds and Darwin’s finches.
Only six species of mammals can be considered as native to the islands. The tropical sun and lack of food and water for the 1,000 km journey has screened out most of the mammal order which has been so successful elsewhere. The two bat species certainly arrived by air, probably in the same way as the native land birds, while the rice rats must have rafted to the islands. The sea lion and fur seal arrived by swimming. The absence of large mammalian predators probably accounts for the fearlessness of the other native fauna towards humans. The Galapagos sea lion is the largest animal in the islands, these creatures seem almost human in so many ways.
They are inquisitive and playful, yet aggressive at times. They are attractive and endearing, but also lazy as they lie on the beaches soaking up the sun and replenishing their oxygen. The Galapagos fur seal are less often seem than the sea lions, even though their total populations are similar, this is because fur seals prefer rockier, steeper more tugged shores with plenty of shade.
One of the most significant features of the wildlife of Galapagos is that the land animals are predominantly reptiles whereas in most of the world mammals are dominant. Reptiles are dominant in Galapagos owing to the isolation of the islands. considering that the island have never been connected with the continent, the native animals have had to make a crossing of at least 1.000km from the mainland to reach the islands, reptiles are better equipped than most of mammals for such a journey, owing to their ability to survive long periods without water. As a result, until the arrival of man, the reptiles of Galapagos were unchallenged and developed into the fascinating varieties that
The twenty-two species of Galapagos reptiles belong to five families; tortoises, marine turtles, lizards and iguanas, geckos and snakes. Twenty of these species are endemic to the archipelago, and may are endemic to individual islands.
These islands have been famed for their giant tortoises ever since their discovery and these enormous creatures continue to be the best known of the Galapagos animals.
The marine life of the Galapagos is exceptionally rich for the tropics. The combination of cool upwelling waters in some parts and warm tropical waters in the others allows for an astounding diversity of marine creatures. Sharks, turtles, sea lions, fish and invertebrates abound. Some 306 species of fish are found in Galapagos waters of which nearly a quarter are endemic forms. There are only a few small, and not very diverse, coral reefs, but the vesicular and creviced nature of the lava rock provides abundant shelter near the shores, and the open water is nutrient rich and swarming with life from the upwelling currents.
Occasionally, with the El Nino flow, the cool waters are displaced by warm waters and the ecology of the Galapagos marine ecosystem is drastically changed. Most Galapagos waters are still unexplored and new species continue to be discovered. Few visitors get a chance to scuba dive, but almost every visitor has the opportunity to do a mask and snorkel and peer down into the rich and varied shallows.