Wednesday 11 November 2009

It's Not All About the Boobies

Since I have managed to include the word boobies in my title again, I should be able to keep my readership numbers up for this month, although I do suspect that potential readers are now getting wise to the fact that my boobies are of the feathered variety. So, I think that it is time to move on and talk about some of the other birds found on the Galapagos Islands. Now, my Dad was never much of a boobie kind of guy – he was more of a legs man. This is a jolly good thing really, since I would not be here otherwise, given my Mum’s deficiency in the boob department (sorry, Mum, if you are reading this, but, well, let’s look on the bright side, at least your monthly check for lumps is much easier. If you did develop a lump you would know due to the fact that you would go up a cup size!). Anyway, getting back to the legs, there are several birds on the Galapagos that have a very nice pair of legs. And yes, both of these birds do have a pair of legs, but, and don’t ask me why, they seem to prefer to just use one of them at a time. The first of these two birds is a yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea). I know, it doesn’t have a yellow crown and it is not night. The lack of the yellow crown is due to the fact that it is a juvenile and, for all I know, he stands here all day and night. We stood and watched him for about 30 minutes and he didn’t move in all that time. In fact, all he did was stare at us. Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this very unnerving. It is one of the reasons (and there are many) that I am not overly fond of very young children, because they too will just sit there and stare, right at you. Now, you and I know that it is rude to stare, but I guess that herons and babies have not learnt about such social niceties and so have no qualms about staring at you until you squirm and have to look away and go and busy yourself doing something else. My cat does much the same thing. She follows me, very silently, and whenever I look around, there she is, sitting there, staring at me. Who knows what is going through her walnut sized brain, but I get the uncomfortable feeling that she is plotting the downfall of the human race or trying to mind meld with me and convince me that I need to feed her some tuna, right now. She is doing it now, as I type, but I am resisting the urge to go and find the can opener ........... must get tuna ........... no, no, get a grip, get back to the blog.

The other heron is a Galapagos, or lava, heron (Butorides sundevalli). This one is only found on the Galapagos Islands and its slate grey colour is supposed to help it blend in with the black and grey colours of the lava flows. Perhaps no-one told this heron about that, or perhaps it is colour blind, since it stands out quite nicely against this red and orange lava flow. The bright orange legs, sorry, leg, indicates that this one is busy trying to catch the attention of another heron who is also attracted to legs rather than breasts.

Now, one can only go for so long when writing about the Galapagos and birds before one inevitably and predictably ends up facing the topic of the finches. Good old Darwin and his finches. Except, of course, they aren’t really Darwin’s finches at all. Yes, he did notice that there was quite a variety of finches on the islands, many more than found on the nearest mainland, but he really did not grasp the importance of this until much later when John Gould, the curator at the museum of the Zoological Society of London, was looking at his collection of birds. It turns out that Darwin had even more finch species than he thought, since he had misidentified some finches as grosbeaks, wrens and warblers. He had also failed to notice that many of the species were unique to particular islands, a fact that was later to be crucial to his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. I managed to photograph five (?) out of the 13 species of finches on the islands. Just by having a quick look at their bills you can start to see how these birds have adapted to the different food sources available on the different islands.

Darwin did eventually manage to sort his finches out, but during his short stay on the Galapagos, the birds that actually caught his attention were the mockingbirds. The photo below shows a pair of Hood mockingbirds (Nesomimus macdonaldi), found only on EspaƱola (formerly known as Hood) Island. Contrary to popular belief, it was the mockingbirds and not the finches that had the greatest impact on Darwin and his ideas on evolution. This was because it was the first species that Darwin noticed distinct differences when he looked from island to island. He wrote “My attention was first thoroughly aroused by comparing together the numerous specimens, shot by myself and several other parties on board, of the mocking-thrushes, when, to my astonishment, I discovered that all those from Charles Island belonged to one species (Mimus trifasciatus); all from Albemarle Island to M. parvulus; and all from James and Chatham Islands......belonged to M. melanotis." Now, I do have to remind myself that times were very different back when Darwin was travelling the world and that all his killing was done in the name of science, but still, he did seem to kill a lot of things as he travelled around. Not that I am entirely innocent on this front. Here we can see a mockingbird that has just caught a large painted locust grasshopper. I might have been the cause of the demise of this ill-fated hopper, since I knew that it was there and I also suspected that if I took another step forward it would hop right into the waiting beak of the bird. I was right. The bird was happy and I got a good photo, all at the expense of the poor insect. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this was nothing compared to Darwin. I could also add that in the grand scheme of things, I, as a scientist am nothing compared to Darwin, so all things are in balance.

One of the most common birds on the Galapagos is the frigatebird. This pirate of the sea is well known for the dirty tactics used when acquiring food. Most people seem to think that these birds just flap around in large gangs and mob any passing seabird that appears carrying food. They are masters of aerial acrobatics and can harass other birds to the point that they will actually regurgitate a recent meal which the frigatebird will then snatch from the air or water surface. This hooligan of the bird world reputation is a little unfair, since this magnificent bird only gets a small percentage of its food in this way. Most of its food is plucked from surface waters while the bird is on the wing and this bird is wonderfully adapted to life on the wing. It has the the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird and spends most of its time (day and night) in the air. The only other bird known to do this is the common swift. The frigate bird is so well adapted to life on the wing that it cannot swim (it does not have webbed feet) or take off from the water surface and finds it hard to walk or take off from a flat surface. When it does land to breed, it has to be on a cliff edge or in a tree so that it can take to the air again.

Another endearing fact about these birds is that they have the longest known period of parental care of all birds, usually taking over a year before seeing their fledglings leave the nest. This means that they cannot breed every year and that either the parents are very caring, or that their lazy children know when they have a good thing going. While we were on the Galapagos, we saw many chicks that were larger than their parents, still sitting there with open mouths waiting to be fed. I wonder if they expected their mum to clean out the nest as well?

The last bird that I am going to introduce to you in this post is one of my favourites (yes, I know, I seem to have a lot of favourites, like the penguins and the boobies, but humour me, OK?). These beautiful, graceful, charming and perpetually worried looking birds are Galapagos albatrosses, also known as the waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata). These birds pair for life and have the most beautifully choreographed courtship dance. This dance includes bill circling, clacking, bowing and gaping and lifting the head to the sky while emitting a melodious whooo hooo sound. And we were lucky enough to witness a pair performing this dance right in front of us (well, actually, we were hiding behind a bush, since we didn’t want to disturb them, so I am lacking in good photos of the proceedings). Just looking at these worried looking faces and seeing how they much they care for each other melted my heart.

They will also put a huge grin on your face and make you laugh. They may be the most elegant bird when in the air riding the ocean winds with effortless grace, but on land, not so much. We watched while one young bird flapped his wings to build up his flight muscles while also apparently exercising his beak muscles and practicing his bill gaping. We also watched as an adult made its way to the cliff edge on comically large feet. We all waited with baited breath until the bird launched itself off the cliff and took to the air, no longer clumsy or comical, but beautiful and elegant and wonderfully free.

I am going to finish this post with a few more of my favourite bird photos from the Galapagos. I have so many photos from this wonderful place that it has been very hard to pick just a few (as you can probably tell by the number included – sorry for all of you that don’t have a fast internet connection, although you probably gave up trying to open this page long ago and so won’t even be reading this). The first two are swallow-tailed gulls. Did you know that these are the only nocturnal gulls and that they have larger eyes than any other gull? Well, you do now.

We then have a sanderling, I think, but then my shorebird ID is not very good, well, to be honest, it is non-existent, so if anyone thinks that I have got this wrong, please correct me and we shall finish with a juvenile Galapagos brown pelican, taken from a Zodiac in rather wobbly waters while I was trying to decide whether to throw up or not. Quite the pleasing result, given the circumstances, don’t you think?


Suldog said...

Well, even if it wasn't about my favorite sort of boobies, it was still fun. Nice photos, and fascinating stuff about the frigates, which I never knew.

jay said...

A magnificent post, as always, DBM! I love your bird photos - you might say that the Galapagos Isles make it easy because the birds are so tame, but I doubt many people could get anywhere near such good results, even so.

So. What does the little finch with the enormous beak eat? Enquiring minds ...

Don't Bug Me! said...

SD: That is one of the things that I enjoy about writing these posts - learning things that I never knew before. Oh, I am sure that the guide probably mentioned some of these things while we were there, but my attention span is rather limited and my mind and I started to wander......

Jay: That would be a large ground finch and the enormous beak is very good at cracking things open, so it eats seeds that are too big and hard to be cracked open by finches with smaller beaks. Unfortunately, I did not get to see (knowingly) a woodpecker finch. This is one of only a few birds that has learnt to use a tool. Since it does not have a long beak and tongue like a true woodpecker, it uses a twig, which it pokes into holes to fish out insect larvae. And then there is the vampire finch.........mmmmmm booby blood.

Cortes said...

As usual, the photos are fantastic. I now see where your penchant for bird watching comes from. But will the local varieties be as interesting or as diverse as what you found on the Islands? I wonder.

Very easy reading this time, as I was not distracted by all the boobies!

Still waiting on the water photos, so I guess I will just have to keep coming back.

Well done!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Cortes: It is not as if I have a lot of readers, so I have to keep the few that I have in any way that I can. But don't worry, the watery stuff is coming to a computer screen near you soon - I just hope you won't be disappointed when it does finally arrive.

Baino said...

What can I say. I'm in awe of your photographs, David Attenborough would be proud . .they're just amazing and I have to say, have a soft spot for the Albatross. Beautiful. I love finches too although I don't have many near my place. We have larger birds due mainly to the gum tree habitat and a lack of lower shrubs. Don't worry about losing your readers . . .you might not post often but you sure make an impact when you do. Just lovely.

LadyFi said...

Amazing astounding photos! Never seen feathered boobies before, so now I'm much wiser!

Anya said...

Unique shots from birds today :-)
My compliments !!
Fantastic post ...

Don't Bug Me! said...

Baino: Thank you for the compliment - making David Attenborough proud, who could ask for more!?! I have just taken a bird ID course and I am struggling to tell the difference between a house finch and a purple finch - apparently it all has to do with the shape of the bill.

Hi Lady Fi! Thank you for popping by and for your compliment. I shall be round to visit you and Oscar very shortly.

Anya: Thanks, as always.

Kate said...

I love the finches - it always fascinated me when I learnt how they had evolved and adapted over there! The albatross is lovely too!!!

Another great post - I enjoyed reading it!

Anya said...

they say all ducks where saved
I think the photographer did help

Sistertex said...

Wow - fantastic! I really love the albatrosses, they are so enjoyable to watch. Your photos are wonderful and they filled us in so nicely. You have taken some great photos there. I really appreciate you sharing everything with us, so facinating!

jay said...

Vampire finch?? Yikes ... !

Remind me not to go there! LOL!