Spotting a Galapagos Oddball

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It’s easy to associate the Galapagos Islands with Charles Darwin…and if you did it would be for good reason! In fact, Darwin’s stint in the archipelago back in 1835 shaped the ideas that would later rock the world of biology and our understanding of our own place in it.

But while he did spend a total of five weeks cruising through the archipelago aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin’s visit allowed very little time on land. In fact, he made only four landings on these islands spread out over an area of 45,000 km2. He observed and collected a number of organisms but there are many that escaped his close observation. Even so, we are able to take away this one fact from his descriptions of the ones he did see: the animals here were different from those found elsewhere, and sometimes very different! When I first visited the Galapagos in 2013, I encountered one particularly weird feathered inhabitant that would leave a big impression on me.

It was a little past 10 o’clock at night and the air was balmy and pleasant. We had had a satisfying first day of discovery in the Galapagos and all of us aboard the M/Y Beluga had retired to our cabins as our vessel transited towards the island that we would visit the next day. I was in my cabin adjacent to the upper deck, still awake and seated comfortably with the lights switched off as I reviewed photographs of the day’s sightings on my camera. Suddenly and from the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of some bright wing-like objects eerily flapping at eye-level outside my window at the ship’s port side! These “wings” – of what I assumed must belong to a bird – were beating in synchrony in almost complete darkness and following us at our vessel’s speed. I sat fully upright. Somewhat perturbed, my mind raced through the possibilities of what I was watching. I focused in and could discern the shape of a bird’s body in between the wings and I reasoned that this could be none other than the Swallow-tailed Gull. It was a bird I had never previously seen and was hoping to encounter in earnest on this tour!

Before I say more, let me assure you that that the Swallow-tailed Gull is no ordinary “sea gull”. Breeding almost exclusively in the  Galapagos, it has a sooty-grey head and dark beady eyes encircled in red tissue that lend it a quizzical appearance; a forked tail; and a striking black, white and grey wing pattern, that all combine to make it singularly attractive. And its behaviour is also quite peculiar. There is no fixed annual breeding cycle for their population, so one can find pairs at different breeding stages even on the same island. But what is perhaps the most interesting is that it is the world’s only gull that forages exclusively at night!

I jumped to my feet and quickly stepped outside onto the upper deck to get a better look at it. With the assistance of the faint glow from the lights at the ship’s bow, I was able to discern the unique plumage pattern with binoculars. Indeed, it was this bird that I looked forward to seeing! It flew alongside us for over an hour; occasionally dipping down to the water for what I could only assume was one of its preferred food items of small fish or squid that frequent the water’s surface at night. Perhaps our vessel’s lights made it easier for the gull to see its prey, and this could be the reason it was following us. I watched in wonder for over an hour. The gull was still following us and foraging when I finally went to bed after 11 o’clock!

We would have the opportunity for much better views of Swallow-tailed Gulls during daylight hours and in a variety of situations in the coming days. As with most Galapagos wildlife, they are rather fearless and allow for close-up views, thereby providing an intimate portrait of their lives. We would witness and photograph various courtship behaviours, incubation, young and fluffy babies, older and almost independent young, confrontations with each other and other species, and birds in flight.

The Swallow-tailed Gull is just one of the many fine and interesting sightings one can make in the Galapagos.

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