There is a gusty island in the Galapagos where seabirds flock–a dry, barren, lava-covered place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Here we had the rare opportunity to witness the courtship dance of the waved albatross.
Espanola Island is the southernmost and oldest of the Galapagos isles. It is the first speck of land the birds come to after traveling 600 miles (1,000 km) from Ecuador and Peru.
With long wings that can soar without flapping for hours, the waved albatrosses spend most of their life at sea, foraging on fish, squid and crustaceans. It is only during breeding time, their brief phase on land, that we see them so close.
A bird with a critically-endangered conservation status, the waved albatrosses gather here to court and breed–the world’s largest concentration of this species. Named for a wavy feather pattern, they have a wingspan of 7-8 feet (220-250 cm).
There were two surreal things going on that day as we stood buffeting the strong winds. There were hundreds of seabirds at our feet, different species, all performing bizarre mating rituals; and we stood unnoticed in the middle of it…could have been rocks for all they cared.
And secondly, these were rarely seen birds, yet they were everywhere.
The courtship dance of the monogamous albatross is a spectacular event. They clack their long bills together, much like two people fencing. They bow in unison, strut around, and vocalize a squawking serenade.
The frigid waters of the Humboldt Current are plentiful with sea life for feeding their young. And the island is also predator-free, allowing the birds to nest on the ground without disturbance.
Months later, after the chicks are hatched and ready for flight, the albatrosses awkwardly waddle to the cliff edge. Their task has been completed, the cold, nutrient-rich waters will warm soon, and it’s time to return to sea, teach their young.
Facing strong tradewinds, the albatrosses step to the precipice, open their massive wings, and gracefully begin their very long flight.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander
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