From the Polaris in the Galapagos

Apr 05, 2001 - National Geographic Polaris


From the Polaris in the Galapagos
Genovesa Island

This truly is the best time of year for Genovesa Island, as the activity amongst the resident seabirds really is at its peak right now. What a day that we had! Not fifty feet from our landing site we saw everything that can possibly be seen here, it was just incredible.

Red-footed boobies are everywhere here, in fact there is a population of over 250,000 pairs. Though one might not think so, not having seen them all week, this is actually not only the smallest but by far the most abundant booby in the archipelago. We also came across a large breeding colony of the great frigate bird which are busy breeding at this time, so had their gular pouches complete inflated: an unforgettable sight, not to mention the sounds of them desperately trying to call down the overflying females.

Genovesa is also home to possibly the largest swallow-tailed gull colony in the world. This is one of the most outlandish of Galapagos residents, as it is the only nocturnal gull in the world. With the exception of a few pairs in Malpelo, off the coast of Colombia, Galapagos is the only place in the world they can be found, and they undoubtedly evolved their strange habits here. This morning they were all over the place, some nesting, others already with chicks. Something I had never seen before, however, was one of these beautiful gulls alight on top of someone's head, as occurred to one of our guests as he was getting ready for the excursion: we are still wondering why a normally shy bird did that!

The swallow-tailed gull is colonial and is found on most small islands and on the cliffs of larger islands. Foot watching is a common behaviour of gulls in general, including our rather odd one, and this behaviour is thought to be an appeasement display. Sometimes this is exaggerated to the point where the bird looks back through its legs, perhaps indicating a greater degree of discomfort. It also appears to be a displacement activity, one that is done when the bird is not sure what to do, like biting nails is for a human.

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