Galapagos (#2) Boobies

Please treat all images as copyrighted. Contact me if you want to use any photo. Thanks, DEC.

The nearest relative to any of the boobies which can be see in northern hemisphere waters (Atlantic only) is the Northern Gannet. Aside from the Sea of Cortez in Mexican waters where occasional Blue-footed Booby sightings are recorded, we rarely see any booby on the west (Pacific) coast. The Brown Booby is in the Virgin Islands and wanders northward – but none of the Galapagos boobies are expected in the US.

The Galapagos Islands have many unique animals; mostly reptiles and birds. The mockingbirds, finches, tortoises, and iguanas get a lot of press but the single albatross and three booby species present in the archipelago are sort of next in line. The Lava Lizards are also island-adapted but not mentioned very often at all. And plants, especially the Scalesia “trees” (those giant daisies) have “speciated” as they have adapted to different islands as well. Remoteness does interesting things to organisms. You can read about island evolution and biogeography in the next blog page which will look at some books that detail these happenings.

But let’s look at the boobies. In the Galapagos there are three species of boobies that you can expect too see; Blue-footed, Nazca, and Red-footed. The Blue-footed Booby is the most easily seen as they are on most of the islands and tend to feed by diving into nearshore waters. As a visitor we are almost always in these nearshore waters and this increases our chances of close encounters with the blue-foots. All boobies are about the size of a Canada Goose, maybe a bit smaller, but not much smaller. They are streamlined and have a solid pointy bill – this makes a high-speed diving entry into the water relatively safe. The Blue-footeds are a brown bird with a white belly and a mottled head and neck and very blue feet.

The female Blue-footed Booby is larger than the male, has darker blue feet, and has a much larger pupil in the eye. The female in the picture above is the rear bird facing left. If you were there and watching their courtship behavior you would hear the male whistle and the female honk. The solemn, and somewhat goofy-looking, slow-motion lifting of the blue feet is part of a pairing ritual that can go on for weeks. They will lay up to three eggs and in a very good year might raise three young; but nestling cannibalism in lean years often brings the success rate down to one.
Waiting for the tide to deliver some lunch, or resting while digesting after feeding – I have no idea what this Blue-footed Booby is actually doing – perhaps simply enjoying the point and counterpoint of the lava rocks adjacent to a coral sand beach on the island of Floreana. It had a great perch for viewing the beach, our ship, and the group of tourists.
This young Blue-foot is out of the nest (actually there isn’t much of a nest at all) and hanging out on the beach. The “sand” is a mix of lava and coral bits for the most part and the bird is just waiting around for the parents to feed it and for its feathers to grow out. The analogous age for a human would be about 11 years old, maybe 12. Blue-footed Boobies breed on all the islands south of the equator and are quite common. It probably won’t be a breeding bird for another three, maybe four, years.

The Nazca Booby (below) is the largest of the archipelago’s boobies and is most often seen on its favored guano-covered roosting rocks. Like most of the larger island birds they prefer to jump off a promontory into the wind to get airborne. They all can take off from land (excepting the Waved Albatross perhaps) and also from the ocean surface, it is just easier to fall into the wind and sail away.

The Nazca Booby is the largest and whitest of the Galapagos boobies. With its black face and wings it is easily differentiated from all other birds. The Nazca is similar to another tropical booby, the Masked Booby and for years was considered to be a sub-species of the more widespread Masked Booby. The Masked is found between the tropics (Cancer and Capricorn that is) in the Pacific, and mostly in the mid and western Pacific. The Nazca Booby always lays two eggs and raises only one young. The Nazca Booby has an orangish bill where the Masked Booby has a much yellower bill.
Nazca Boobies feed well offshore and are usually seen near roosting and nesting areas and rarely seen diving for fish. If you are fortunate to travel to a northern or western island in the day time you might see Nazca Boobies well off shore. There are lots of birds that use the open ocean as a feeding resource and others that remain nearshore.
For all birds, but especially those that both fly and swim, feather maintenance is a matter of life and death. Combing, arranging, oiling, and layering feathers is a constant activity.

The third booby of the Galapagos is the Red-footed. This is the smallest of the boobies and one that actually has two color morphs; a brown phase and a white phase. They are spread around the world but do not nest near the USA. There are colonies near the Yucatan and off the Mexican coast. In the Galapagos they are mostly of the brown morph and have several unusual characteristics.

The Red-footed Booby is often in trees; they sit in shrubs and trees with ease. They build stick nests in coarse shrubs and lay just one egg. The egg is incubated for about 45 days. The young is a flightless nestling for another 130 days or so and is fed by its parents for another 90 days after fledging. That is 265 days of intense parental care and obligation. If you ad in the courtship displays and behaviors it encompasses a whole year.
Red-footed Boobies have an overall brown look with a whitish tail and blueish beak (or bill). Populations around the globe tend to have a color bias; in the Galapagos they are brownish. The Red-footed Boobies, with their shrub/tree orientation often nest in the same areas as the frigatebirds which also use vegetation for display and nesting.
This last image is interesting – it is a Red-footed Booby that I photographed just off the beach on Floreana. The Red-footed Boobies tend to feed away from the islands in deep water. It is unusual for it to be nearshore and off an island where it doesn’t nest.

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