The wildlife-rich archipelago of the Galapagos Islands is home to a huge number of endemic and breeding avian species. For birdwatchers, the very best way to explore this fascinating region is on a Galapagos cruise. Visiting the smaller, less-accessible islands as well as the more high profile ones affords the opportunity to observe a vast and diverse range of birdlife.
The Blue-Footed Booby
One of the marine birds that can be seen on a Galapagos cruise itinerary is the very appropriately named Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii). Their name comes from the Spanish “bobo", which means stupid. But although they may have appeared to fit their moniker to the original Spanish colonists who encountered them on land, when they take to the skies on the hunt in their ocean habitat it's an entirely different story.
The species is found in various locations along the western coasts of South and Central America, but around half the global population of breeding pairs lives in the Galapagos archipelago. With no real predators, these quirky birds are, like most of the wildlife here, unafraid of human contact and there are plenty of opportunities for a close encounter.
Being a marine bird their bodies are designed for hunting in the ocean. They have a pointed bill and a body shaped like a torpedo for plunging into deep dives from high in the air (up to 100m). When they begin a dive, they accelerate as they descend, tucking their long wings (which can reach a span of up to 1.5m) into their body. Their streamlined shape enables them to hit the water at speeds of up to 60kmph and dive down to around 25m.
Because of the constant need to dive, the bird's nostrils are permanently closed and it breathes through the sides of its mouth. To protect the brain from the constant impact, it is protected within the skull by special air sacs.
They have white under-plumage with a brown head, neck and wings. Both males and females have webbed feet, which serve as protection to cover their eggs as they're incubating (a job for both parents).
Why So Blue?
The turquoise feet are the most striking aspect of the bird's appearance and, aside from being extremely attractive, the colouring does serve a purpose. The blue is a result of pigments called carotenoids, which are derived from their diet of fish. The pigments are also a source of antioxidants, which help to stimulate the immune system and promote good health – the bluer the feet, the healthier the bird.
The feet are the main focus of the courtship dance, with the males displaying them to the females in an elaborate presentation – lifting each foot high in the air in a slow, measured strut. He also shows off his nesting materials and engages in “sky-pointing", which entails raising the wings and tail while pointing the bill skywards. During courtship, females select their mate based not just on the colour and luminosity of the male's feet, but also the size. Larger feet are better for the incubation of the eggs, providing a greater surface area of protection.
The birds breed every 8-9 months, with the females usually laying 2-3 eggs a few days apart. The incubation period is around 40-45 days and, once the chicks hatch, both parents share their feeding and care. Because of the staggered birthing times, there's vigorous sibling rivalry between the chicks, which quite often results in the death of the younger chicks.
Where to See Them
The Blue-footed Booby can be seen throughout the archipelago, and for those on a Galapagos cruise multiple sightings can be expected around Espanola, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago and many of the other smaller islands as well.
For avid birdwatchers, a Galapagos cruise offers the memorable experience of sightings of not only the Blue-footed Booby, but a veritable host of other unique avian, mammal and reptile species.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos cruise itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.