No. 14: Galápagos Islands

Feel wild and free on an avian adventure in Ecuador's biodiverse volcanic archipelago.

Free As A Bird

Occasionally, at the conclusion of yoga practice, my favorite instructors end with a Sanskrit prayer: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. It means, “May all beings everywhere be happy and free. And may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.” 

It’s a heartwarming thought, and one I love hearing. The first part, sometimes simplified in English as, “may all living things be wild and free,” especially resonates with me. And when I think of freedom, it’s birds that come to mind. For as long as I can remember I’ve had recurring dreams in which I can fly. In my REM state I soar above treetops, between buildings, over and into the sea and atop rolling hills powered by the butterfly kicks I learned as a young swimmer. It’s like a hybrid of swimming and flying, actually, and I can do it both in the air and underwater. In my dreams it hardly takes any effort. Yet this ability doesn’t come across as a magical power; it feels like something my body was made to do. Maybe my unconscious brain recognizes that birds—and all of us, for that matter—evolved from fish. There’s an inextricable link between the two that’s obvious when you watch fins and wings at work. 

I find birds pretty fascinating. When I was home-schooled in 4th grade, my mom and I studied birdwatching and observed pesky blue jays and beautiful bluebirds in our backyard. (And for my entire childhood, we fed a family of ducks that lived in our pond.) Later on when I made it to Africa for safari I was enchanted by the quirky behaviors and incredible vibrance of species like lilac-breasted rollers. But it wasn’t until the other night when I re-watched The Big Year—the very funny 2011 film about obsessive birders starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson—that I recalled just how cool they are. Funny enough, I’d spent an indulgent 30 minutes earlier that day attempting to capture a good shot of the snow-white great egret we see gracefully criss-crossing my sister’s pond daily here in Nairobi, Kenya. 

When I sat down to write about the Galápagos, I started with visuals, and quickly realized a significant portion of my favorite images from the trip last year aboard the chic Ecoventura Theory were of the avian persuasion. I struggled to whittle down my photographs as it became clear the Galápagos was a topic far too broad for a single newsletter. It’s an otherworldly destination with wondrous life at every level—ocean, land and air—from sea turtles only dwarfed by gargantuan tortoises to seals and land iguanas, rays and dolphins. Not to mention penguins, flamingos, the famous blue-footed boobies and birds whose throats blow up into enormous red balloons. Interestingly, the very first creature we spotted on the trip was the San Cristobal mockingbird, critical to Charles Darwin formulating his theory of natural selection—it was his muse. So, here is my ode to birds of the Galápagos Islands, the place where my own adoration for the class aves was confirmed once and for all.  

Ecoventura’s exceptional naturalist guides Sofia and Fernando told me there are more than 150 species of birds in the Galápagos. I can say without a doubt that great frigatebirds are the oddest. On Genovesa Island I gawked at the giant crimson balloon-like throats (called a gular pouch) the males inflate to attract females during mating season. I for one cannot imagine finding it attractive but, hey, it clearly works since they seem to be in great supply. Fernando called them the “pirates of the Galápagos,” since they can eat anything they want, from baby sea turtles to marine iguanas and eel, as they glide just over the water’s surface scooping food.  

The name, red-footed booby, would make you think this bird’s best feature is its feet. But I fell in love with their heads. Blue-footed boobies are what everyone associates with the Galápagos (fun fact: they choose their mate based on the intensity of their foot color because it’s a sign of health), but in a beauty contest they’d lose. My favorite species’ most marked attributes are their one-of-a-kind beaks and faces, each a totally unique watercolor painted in shades of periwinkle, lavender, turquoise, coral and salmon pink. As they perched with prehensile feet atop nests in the red mangrove trees I became obsessed with capturing the photos of the most vibrant, framed by striking blue-rimmed eyes and silky feathers.   

At a different part of Genovesa Island, we climbed Prince Philip’s Steps to trek amid seemingly thousands of of the largest booby of all: the nazca booby. This seabird with white plumage and yellow beaks was only recognized as its own species in 2002. In the heat of the midday sun, they acted quite sedate, standing still in petite patches of shade cast by barren palo santo trees.  

Incredibly downy white fluff made this chick—a young nazca booby—the sweetest thing I’d seen in a long time. I almost didn’t see it, the baby was so hidden away, most likely waiting for its mama to come back with food.   

The endemic Galápagos short-eared owl knows the power of camouflage—with the exception, perhaps, of its sunny yellow eyes. It felt like a serious win when we finally spotted one, blending in beautifully with the rock, and most likely awaiting the chance to catch a storm petrel as it left a tunnel in the hardened lava. 

In a brackish lake on Santa Cruz, en route to find sumo wrestling land iguanas at Dragon Hill, we came across flamingos. I don’t know why, since pink was never my favorite color, but flamingos have completely delighted me since I first saw them in a zoo. I remember realizing, in awe, they could fly—and a spectacular sight it is—when my mom, sister and I explored Camargue National Park in the south of France. I also once memorably spent days seeking them on Isla Holbox in Mexico, my dear friend Joy as dedicated to the prolonged pursuit as I. Here, though, they didn’t elude me, though I had to be almost dragged away since I would have happily spent the afternoon marveling at the funky shapes created by their backwards-bending knees and serpentine necks.

The appropriately named lava gull is exactly the color of the ancient flow that coats many of the Galápagos Islands to which it’s endemic. It’s actually the world’s rarest gull, with just several hundreds thought to remain. The best characteristic of these birds is their hilarious call—it sounds just like a mocking human laugh and reduced us to giggles. 

The landscape of Fernandina Island is breathtaking: inky lava flow with pleats and fissures, prolific fuzzy cactus, baleen whale skeletons, piles of black marine iguanas, and sapphire-hued water. The endemic brown pelican sitting so pretty there was icing on the cake. 

Anchored aside Santa Cruz Island, we took panga boats to explore Black Turtle Cove and, along with spying on a pair of mating sea turtles (that ritual looks seriously exhausting for the female, by the way, since she has to keep them both afloat). we found an adorable little Galápagos penguin going for a swim. If it looks a little tropical for a penguin, you’re right—these are the only ones living north of the equator. Later in the trip they’d prove a fun albeit speedy snorkeling companion. (Sadly, rising ocean levels due to climate change could threaten these cute creatures, since they lay their eggs on shores very close to water.)  

You can’t help but feel sorry for this guy, a bird that cannot fly. You can see it in his shrunken wings—the flightless cormorant is an endemic species that over time lost its ability to do the main thing birds do. (The guides explained it arrived on Fernandina Island flying, but without predators and with plenty of food, it lost the need.) In a way, it’s become more like a fish, since it swims down to the sea floor for its meals. The bird hasn’t fully evolved to an aquatic life, however—it’s not waterproof! After each dive the blue-eyed species must spread its little wings out wide so the sun can dry the feathers.   

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