Large bird on ground with scattered rocks
Bird place of the month,  Birds,  Galapagos Islands

Española, home of the waved albatross

Seamus Heaney

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks

Had I from old and young!

Instead of the cross, the Albatross

About my neck was hung.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Española lies in the far south east of the Galápagos Islands group and is fairly small. Being so remote, the crossing here from Santa Cruz took us all night. In the morning we landed on the soft sands of Gardner Bay on its north coast where we encountered numerous Galápagos sea lions.

But in this post I want to take you to the much more rugged south of the island, as my contribution to May’s Bird Place challenge. The trail here is very different from the sands of Gardner Bay, being three kilometres in length and rated difficult. With a troublesome knee, I found it to be the most challenging of any on the islands, both for its length and its rockiness. It was almost like walking on stepping stones in places, moving from one lava boulder to the next along the route. It was also tiring for several of the others I think, but we all agreed it was more than worth the effort. Certainly I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

We landed at a short flight of stone steps, where a path laid over the rocks led to the small beach where our visit was to start, led by our naturalist guide, Fabian.

Marine iguanas

From the beach we followed a short path to an area where there was a large number of marine iguanas. These were different from those we had seen elsewhere, as this is a species endemic to this island. They have a deep red, and when breeding green, colouring, leading to the nickname of ‘Christmas’ iguana.

After a while we left the marine iguanas to themselves and started along the rock-strewn path that heads across this narrow spit of land.

Waved albatross chick encounter

The undoubted stars of Española, if you visit at the right time of the year as we did (late March to December) are the awe-inspiring waved albatross. My first sight of a five-month-old chick, already huge, will stay with me for a long time, and he seemed equally taken by the sight of us – happy to sit and pose on his nest for as long as we wanted to sit and watch him, which as you can imagine was quite a while!

Waved albatross chick

As so often on this trip, Fabian’s relaxed approach to these excursions really paid off, as he gave us plenty of time to appreciate all that we saw.

We then moved on to an open area of jumbled lava rocks, on the far side of which there were a large number of albatrosses, and spent considerable time here too, watching all the activity.

Rocky ground with birds flying
Albatross nesting site
Waved albatrosses

Waved albatrosses are considered endemic not only to the Galápagos, but to Española, where they are nest in just two locations, Punta Cevallos (which can’t be visited), and here at Punta Suarez. Like other albatrosses they spend part of the year at sea. They begin to return to Española in March, the males arriving first. They mate for life, so the male returns to the previous year’s breeding territory to await his partner.

Courtship ritual

Waved albatrosses, again like other albatrosses, engage in a very lengthy, noisy, and complex courtship ritual, even if they are an established pair (although new pairs perform for longer). The dance involves bill-fencing, in which the partners bend, face each other, and rapidly slap their bills back and forth. In another step each faces the other in an upright posture, sometimes poising with bill wide open. The bills are then shut with a loud clap. Sometimes the birds will clatter their bills rapidly. The dance also involves bowing and parading around one another with the head swaying side to side in an exaggerated movement, accompanied by a nasal ‘anh-a-annhh’ sound.

Although we visited towards the end of the breeding season, when pairs were already established and chicks hatched, we were fortunate enough to see a few of these displays as couples reinforced their bonds, or in one instance, it seemed, flirted with others. My video, shot in the open area here, gives an idea of this activity, although it could be sharper (my zoom was at full extension and I had no tripod).

Waved albatross courtship ritual
Three large birds, one with wings outstretched
The courtship ritual
Large egg between rocks and a small lizard
Waved albatross egg and lava lizard

Between mid-April and July the pair produces a single egg. They don’t build a nest, so the egg simply lies on the ground (the one in my photo had been abandoned and was empty). The egg is incubated by both parents for about two months. Early in incubation, each parent takes long stints, as much as three weeks, but as hatching nears, the stints become shorter.

For the first few weeks after hatching, one parent guards the chick while the other forages for food, but after that, the chicks are left unguarded, in nursery groups, while both parents spend longer times at sea looking for food. It was in one of these groups that we found our young friends.

By the end of December, the chicks have fledged, and they leave their nurseries with their parents and head for the western Pacific. Although their parents return to Española the following year, the fledglings remain away for five to six years, at which time they also return to the island to begin breeding for the first time.

On the cliffs at Puerto Egas

After plenty of time with the albatrosses Fabian again announced that it was time to move on, so we carried on to where the trail emerges on to the cliff top, having crossed a narrow spit of land to the opposite side from the landing point.

We had another lengthy pause when we first arrived at this point, sitting and watching the albatross and frigates flying past us and the waves crashing on the rocks below. To see an albatross in flight is a breath-taking sight indeed.

Two large birds flying overhead
Waved albatross and frigatebird in flight

A short walk along the cliffs brought us to another viewing point with a dramatic blowhole beneath us, and again we paused here for quite a while to enjoy the spectacle.

Coastline with water spurting up
The blowhole

But eventually we had to turn back, following a path parallel to (and a little less rocky than) our outward one. We passed a few more albatrosses and towards the end saw some Nazca and blue-footed boobies.

We spent so long on the trail that as we neared the end of the path back to the landing point Fabian realised that we were at risk of being still on the island after 18.15, when no one is permitted to be there. He urged us on, and the last of our group boarded the panga with five minutes to spare after a truly exhilarating afternoon!

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2012


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