Large bird among rocks
Birds,  Galapagos Islands

The waved albatross of Española Island

The trail across Española Island to the cliffs of Puerto Egas requires a little effort. In places it is almost like walking on stepping stones, moving from one lava boulder to the next along the route. But the reward at the end of the path is enormous – and I use that word advisedly.

The waved albatross is the largest bird in the Galápagos with a wingspan of up to two and a half metres. These birds are considered endemic not simply to the Galápagos, but specifically to Española. They nest in just two locations on the island: Punta Cevallos (which can’t be visited by tourists), and Punta Suarez. Like all albatross 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.

These are the stars of Española

Waved albatross 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. There is also a lot of bowing, and parading around one another with the head swaying side to side in an exaggerated fashion, accompanied by a nasal ‘anh-a-annhh’ sound.

We visited towards the end of the breeding season, when pairs were already established and chicks hatched. But 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.

Waved albatross breeding display

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 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.

Meeting a chick

For the first few weeks after hatching, one parent guards the chick while the other forages for food. 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 this five month old chick, already huge. My first sight of him 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!  

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. They too then return to the island to begin breeding for the first time, continuing the cycle of waved albatross on Española Island.

On the cliffs

We finished our walk on the far side of the island, on the steep cliffs of Puerto Egas. Here we sat and watched 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.

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. All too soon however we had to leave, to make our way back across the lava field following a path parallel to (and a little less rocky than) our outward one.

We passed a few more albatross but there was little time to linger. Our guide Fabian had realised that having spent so much time with the albatross 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 our panga with five minutes to spare after a truly exhilarating afternoon!

I am retrospectively linking this post to Lisa’s Bird Weekly challenge theme of Baby Birds, even though this is rather a large baby!

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2012

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