The walking trail is a metre wide space where the biggest and most dangerous boulders have been removed. After stumbling for half an hour, taking tortuous, slippery steps and trying not to sprain an ankle, it comes as a bit of a shock that this rocky terrain is both take-off and landing strip for the waved albatross of Española Island, Galapagos. At up to a metre tall, these spectacular birds provide heart-stopping moments as they wobble and lumber to the edge of a basalt cliff, before launching themselves off against the wind to transform into graceful flying creatures. Landing is just as spectacular, as their splayed feet bounce like skis across the boulders, wings acting as airbrakes until they slow enough to be able to stop. Their legs look thin and easily snapped, but unlike us humans, who clumsily slip and stumble, they are clearly masters of this terrain.
These basalt cliffs, on the most westerly point of Española, are the only nesting site for the ten to twelve thousand pairs of waved albatross living on this planet. Like many albatross, these beautiful birds mate for life and have a very lengthy, noisy and complex courtship ritual. The young adults are very sociable and, before they finally choose a mate, island visitors can often see them in groups practising their courtship displays. They seem to dance, bowing and parading around each other, with heads swaying from side to side in an exaggerated way, accompanied by a strange, haunting nasal sound. At some unknown signal, necks stretch and heads are thrown back to point directly at the sky, before beaks descend and clack together in a parry of fencing moves. It may be many years before these young adults finally select a mate, but when they do, the female will lay a single egg between mid-April and July. Both parents will incubate the egg and, after hatching, one will stay with the young chick whilst the other feeds. Bigger chicks are left in nursery groups while their parents spend longer times at sea searching for squid, their favourite food. By November the juvenile birds look as if every day is a very ‘bad hair day’, with curled, straggly down feathers standing up Mohican-style. These ugly ducklings don’t have long to develop their striking adult plumage. In late December the adult birds will leave the island and fly out to sea. If the juveniles haven’t fledged, they will be unable to fly, or catch food for themselves and will die. Each day, as sleek feathers develop and straggly down falls off, they exercise growing wing muscles, lifting their heavy bodies further and further off the ground. Before long a few stumbling steps between the boulders, becomes a clumsy, wobbling run, until they manage to take off for the first time. Once in the air they are natural fliers and gracefully circle around a few times before coming into their rocky airstrip for the first of many bumpy, but masterful landings.
This story was first published in ‘Viva List Latin America’ in 2007 (check out http://www.vivatravelguides.com/). ISBN: 978 0 9791264 0 0