We then headed to the breeding colonies of Magnificent Frigatebirds (MAFRs). One theory about the name “frigatebird” relates to their method of feeding. Historically, pirates used frigates as warship; and MAFRs qualify as the pirates of the Galápagos. MAFRs, much like cormorants and Anhingas, don’t have waterproof feathers and therefore cannot spend much time in the water fishing. However, they often live in the same habitats as Blue-footed Boobies, who are excellent fishers. A MAFR relies on its sharp vision and swift flight to determine when a booby has caught a fish. Zeroing in, it chases and harasses the successful booby until it drops its fish. The MAFR swoops in and catches the falling meal mid-air and flaps off with sustenance. We occasionally saw them harass Red-billed Tropicbirds in this way, too. (Note that in 2010, scientists determined that the Galápagos MAFRs have differed genetically from MAFRs in both the Caribbean and the Pacific sides of the archipelago for more than 500,000 years. You can read more about this study here. Whether this genetic difference is sufficient to warrant designation as new species is as yet unknown. Stay tuned…)
The stages of MAFR breeding overlapped greatly on this island. We saw male MAFRs engaged in breeding displays, inflating their bright red gular (throat) pouches and flapping their long, out-stretched wings. In many cases, these “raring to get started” males were displaying in close proximity to rather mature MAFR nestlings. Remember that we saw only Great Frigatebird (GRFR) nestlings on Genovesa. You can tell that these chicks were MAFRs rather than GRFRs because they had no brown on their heads. You can also tell that the adult females in these photos were MAFRs rather than GRFRs because they had the deep black Vs on their breasts; female GRFRs have white all the way to their throats. Also, while female GRFRs have red eye rings, female MAFRs have blue eye rings. The blue eye ring is hard to see in these photos, since we kept our distance from the breeding colonies. But the red eye ring of a GRFR would have been quite obvious, even at this distance. The 3 photos immediately below were the same colony, with one displaying male. (Click on any photo to see a larger version; use your browser’s “back” button to return to this page.) In the 4th photo (2nd row, center), you see one male (far right) with a fully inflated gular pouch near a male whose pouch has deflated to a barely visible red squiggle, signifying that he was finished trying to attract a mate. (Perhaps the female preening to his right had already consented.) Throughout the islands, we saw males with gular pouches in a variety of sizes—another demonstration that the breeding season for MAFRs in the archipelago stretches across many months.
Since we had several great views of the displaying male MAFRs and the nesting colonies, we traversed the shorter out-and-back trail, heading back to the pangas after just about an hour. Several folks in our group had spotted a flip-flop off the path on our way out; coming back, Carlos tracked it down, determined to remove any and all litter. (He had already picked up a rapidly disintegrating piece of foam that seemed to have been from a cheap cooler. The curses of an island’s being so close to major civilization, I imagine.) It was a ways off the approved path, so he took a moment to gauge how far it was from the path to the dreaded intruder and how he could get to it without touching land. Tossing a comment over his shoulder in a mock-serious announcer voice—“I am a trained professional. Don’t try this at home, children!”—he rock-hopped deftly to the flip-flop, snatched it up, and rock-hopped back to the path without ever touching the soil. He took the admonition of “Take only photographs; leave only footprints; kill only time” one step further: Not even footprints remained.
A pair of Swallow-tailed Gulls and a preening Brown Pelican watched us troop down the rock staircase and back to the pangas. If you look closely at the Swallow-tailed Gull in the lower left corner of this photo (a zoomed-in copy is on the right), you can get a sense of the bright red interior of its mouth and its tongue—nicely coordinated with those bright red legs and feet.