Galapagos Islands and the Frigate Species

Two of the world’s five species of frigate are found in the Galapagos Islands: the great frigate, Fregata minor, and the slightly larger magnificent frigate, Fregata magnificens. These birds are extremely lightweight and remain on the wing for hours without effort, and can travel hundreds of miles from their breeding colonies. They have a lifespan of over 30 years and can possibly reach 50 years of age.

Frigates are not restricted to the Galapagos Islands; the great frigate has mainly an Indo-Pacific distribution with a couple of outposts in the Atlantic, and the magnificent frigate is found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas. Known also as “Man O’War” birds for their habit of followed the large sailing ships of the past, they have a six-foot wingspan and a deeply forked tail. Frigates can be seen harassing other species of birds in order to steal their catch, nesting material (known as “kleptoparasitism”) or sometimes just to keep in practice. They are amazingly maneuverable and their aerial acrobatics are stunning displays of agility. They are also capable of plucking fish from the ocean surface and other edible items from land such as chicks of other species and sea lion after-birth.

The two species can be identified by several means, however between the two male frigate species the differences are subtle and require sharp eyes, close proximity, or good binoculars. The adult male great frigate has a green sheen on their back feathers with a brown band across the wings. The magnificent frigate is practically identical but without the brown band and a purple sheen across the back feathers. Females are easier to distinguish; great frigate females have white feathers on belly and chest extending all the way to the chin and a red eye-ring. The magnificent frigate female also has white feathers on her belly and chest, but her neck is black, extends down onto her chest in a “V” and has a blue eye-ring. For the first year-and-a-half, juvenile frigates of the two species can also be distinguished by their head plumage. Great frigate chicks have golden-orange feathers on their heads, whereas chicks of the magnificent frigate have completely white head plumage.

In the Galapagos islands, frigates maintain large nesting colonies on several islands. During our Galapagos cruise, we can visit some of the more remote islands in Galapagos, and at certain times of the year witness their spectacular breeding displays. When a male frigate wants to attract a mate, he will choose a nest site in bush or tree and inflate his bright-red gular pouch. Lying under the chin, this air-filled pouch about the size of an inflated soccer-ball is an eye-popping signal from the air that he is available and looking for a mate. The two species of frigate have slightly different-sounding calls; the great frigate produces a type of ululation, whereas the magnificent frigate produces a lower register chatter. Both include resonant drumming with the bill against their gular sacs. As if that wasn’t enough to call the attention of females flying overhead, while making these calls the males also extend their wings to their full size and shimmy their feathers, catching the light and produce an unforgettable visual and auditory feast.

Nest building is a cooperative affair with the male bringing the material to the female. Incubation of the single egg is a task shared equally between the two. Chicks are cared for by both parents up to the age of three months, after which the males depart. Females continue to care for the young for over a year, meaning they breed every other year, whereas the males attempt to breed every year.

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