Learning about Boobies – Blue-footed, that is…
I must admit that the one bird I was most eager to see in the Galapagos was the Blue-Footed Booby (Sula nebouxii). It’s brightly colored blue feet, to say nothing of its name, have made it an iconic symbol of the islands, but unlike many other species found here, it is not endemic. Blue-footed boobies can be found in the islands along the Pacific Coast from the Gulf of California to South America, but half of all breeding pairs nest in the Galapagos. They can be found on almost of the islands, with the largest group nesting on Espanola. Their numbers are declining, though, and they have the lowest population of the three booby species found in the islands.
Luckily, we saw our first glimpse of those bright blue feet on our first full day, on the dinghy ride to Prince Phillip’s Steps on the island of Genovesa. (That was the only blue-footed booby for the next few days, as we were treated to many Nazca boobies, red-footed boobies and frigatebirds. More about them on another day!)
Back to that name…
“Booby” comes from the Spanish word bobo, which can be translated to mean stupid, foolish or clown, and these large seabirds earned that moniker due to their clumsy appearance on land. Their average body length is about 32 inches, but the wing-span is about 5 feet.
The beach of Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal Island, two days later gave us more extensive views of the species, and here is where the blue-footed booby really gained my respect. When viewed in the air and especially when diving, these birds are anything but clumsy. They are transformed into stream-lined diving machines, plunging from 80-100 feet above at speeds up to 60 mph. I was transfixed as I watch their graceful circular sweeps from above culminating in sudden 90 degree head-first dives.
I changed my mind about swimming at the beach and concentrated all of my time on capturing their air-borned antics. I took many photos of splashes and near-misses, but I was able to freeze-frame a few of their acrobatic aerodynamics.
It’s all about the schools of small fish seen swimming below, such as sardines and mackerel. The boobies can hunt singly but they often hunt in pairs or even groups, with the “lead” diver signaling when a school is found below the surface of the water. The group then dives in unison. The tails flare as they begin their descent, but the bodies appear like pointed bullets when they break the surface of the water. The boobies are perfectly adapted for these high-speed plunges. Their nostrils are permanently closed to prevent problems in the water, and they have to breathe through the corners of their mouths. They even have a special air sac in their skulls to protect their brains from the pressure of the dives.
The blue color of the blue-footed booby’s webbed feet comes from carotenoid pigments obtained from its diet of fresh fish. These carotenoids act as antioxidants and stimulates for the bird’s immune system, and because of this, the shad of blue is a good indication of a booby’s health. The brighter the blue, the healthier it is, and also the more attractive it appears as a potential mate.
Male blue-footed boobies do a high-stepping dance to show off their blue feet, hoping to attract a female. This is also accompanied by a lot of strutting and sky-pointing as we witnessed with the pair below at Point Cormorant on the island of Floreana.
A little bit of grooming before the dance!
And then, show me your blue feet!
The blue-footed boobies did not disappoint, and as expected, they were definitely a highlight of my trip to the Galapagos!