As we rode the ferry across the Itabaca Channel, frigatebirds were one of the first birds we saw. They seem to be everywhere. They soar above the islands, their distinctive silhouettes making them easy to identify.
Although we saw frigatebirds before boarding our ship, we got really up close and personal with them on North Seymour Island on the first afternoon of our cruise. North Seymour Island is just north of Baltra Island (where the airport is) and was the first site we visited. We didn’t know what, exactly, to expect. We were in awe at what we saw there: the island was teeming with nesting, mating, and chick-rearing frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies (more on them later).
I had done some research about what to expect from the wildlife in the Galápagos in June and July, but it was confusing. Animals mate and have young at different times of the year on different islands and exact timing depends on the weather, the currents, and, I assume, a multitude of other factors. But the websites I read assured me that there is always something interesting happening in the Galápagos. Was North Seymour Island truly special at this moment or were we in awe because this was our first true introduction to the wildlife of the Galápagos? I don’t know, but I can tell you that I was mesmerized at every turn. Not only were there a LOT of animals, but they were close. The birds built nests just feet from the trail, and one bird even sat on the trail, requiring us to route around her.
There are two types of frigatebirds in the Galápagos: Great and Magnificent. It’s one of the few places in the world where the two share space so closely. We even saw both species sitting in the same tree, though they don’t interbreed. We found it hard to distinguish them at first; evidently they don’t.
The naturalists from our cruise explained how to tell them apart. When the sun hits them and if you are close enough, you can see iridescent green feathers on the backs of the great males and purple ones on the magnificents. The females have slight differences as well. The magnificent females have blue eye rings, and a white patch of feathers that makes an “M” shape on her chest. The female great frigatebird has a red eye ring, and a white chest patch that covers her neck.
The males of both species have a red throat pouch that they inflate during mating season in order to attract a female. They also open their wings, point their beaks to the sky, and make clicking sounds with their beaks. We were lucky to see this display during our hike.
We also felt fortunate to see many baby frigatebirds. They’re little fluffs of white feathers and long, hooked beaks, like little cotton balls with faces.