Galápagos is a strange and wonderful world that becomes stranger to me by the hour. The penguins swim in tropical waters, some of the birds have bright blue feet, and others can’t even fly.
Even more bizarre is that some of the seabirds don’t even swim. The frigatebird is such a bird—large, magnificent and with an impressive wingspan (up to nearly seven feet across!) who soar out over the oceans and snatch their food up off the waves. Yet will a whole lifetime suspended over the water, these airborne giants would actually drown if they ever fell into the sea.
Over the years, I have spotted a few frigatebirds in my time at sea—always a racing silhouette overhead. Only in Galápagos did I meet the frigatebird up close, where they are all quite busy breeding at the moment.
In real life, frigatebirds look much less aerodynamic but much more fanciful and pompous than they appear in the air. Perched in the dead branches of the seemingly barren wasteland that is Galápagos, this giant flying thing becomes such an unexpected colorful oddity, I wonder how it can even exist in real life.
I met my first frigatebird on North Seymour, an island named after a British admiral who fought (for the wrong side) in the Revolutionary War. I wonder how he would feel about his namesake geography—a flat and fairly equatorial islet where birds who can’t swim go to mate. Among the gritty earth and crackling branches, the male birds gather by the dozens to parade their puffed up red throat patches blowing in the wind. Then they make the weirdest trilling sound with their beaks. Should the sound and waving inflated red throat patch make an impression, the female frigatebird will alight on a nearby branch and make up her mind about whether or not she wants to stick around this particular male. Female frigatebirds are rather choosy and I observed several failed matches during my brief tour. In fact, so few pairs made it beyond the first date, I thought it a miracle that any new frigatebirds were ever hatched—but they are.
I am happy to report, live from the Galápagos, that this year there is a healthy batch of fluffy, white baby frigatebirds, alive and well and hanging out in their nests of branches on North Seymour. Right now they look like awkward Muppets, but give them time and they should mature nicely into sleek and fancy adults.
Two separate species of frigatebirds reside here in Galápagos, differentiated by their superlative names, “Great” and “Magnificent.” Though we laymen are utterly underqualified in discerning which birds are magnificent versus those that are merely “great,” biologists have made this into law. Male frigatebirds with a collar of green feathers around their neck are “Great” (Fregata minor ridgwayi), whereas male frigatebirds with purple feathers are truly “Magnificent” (Fregata magnificens).
I saw both species on my second day exploring Galápagos and was immediately astounded by their strange and elaborate display. I kept blurting out pathetic adjectives like, “Wow, isn’t that bird great?” and, “Oh—wow! Isn’t that magnificent!”
But words, like birds, should never be taken lightly—if you say something is Magnificent, it better be Magnificent—and here, among the frigatebirds of central Galápagos, you at least have a fifty percent chance of being right.
There are many magnificent birds in this little world to the west, and even some great ones, too. As always, I’m glad for the chance to see them in their natural habitat . . . and even more grateful to catch them on camera.