Birth of a Birder
Travel Stories: Eva Holland never got too excited about birds. But then she found herself gazing up at the sky in the Galapagos.
06.24.14 | 10:34 AM ET
I‘d never thought much about birds. I’d certainly never gotten excited about them. But as the albatross banked hard and circled back toward our small group as we stood frozen on the trail, and as Xavier shouted “Here he comes again!” with his voice pitching higher, I felt my pulse accelerate. I craned my neck back and squinted into the bright equatorial sun while the great bird flew low overhead, its seven-foot wingspan more than filling my field of view.
Another albatross, a female, rested in the tall grass a few feet away. She watched us with one enormous, warm, dark eye, her beak hanging open slightly in what seemed like a smile. The male circled above us. Xavier, a naturalist guide, was ecstatic about their presence. He worked his camera, talking as fast as he shot. The waved albatross builds its nests exclusively in the Galapagos Islands, he explained, and the birds vanish each year from January to March, ranging out to sea. It was now March 31, and ours was the first sighting—from our ship, at least—so far this year.
I was a passenger on the National Geographic Endeavour, a Lindblad Expeditions ship that carries visitors into the Galapagos Islands for week-long cruises that also include nature walks, snorkeling sessions and documentary screenings. I’d flown from Whitehorse to Vancouver to Phoenix to Miami and then on to Guayaquil, a sprawling city I knew only from a dystopian Vonnegut novel, and finally out to San Cristobal Island to board the Endeavour.
The ship had spent its youth in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and had now been retired to the Galapagos year-round to ride out its golden years. It was a 295-foot long floating classroom designed for expedition-style cruising, and during our trip, the Endeavour was home to 96 passengers and a small army of crew members, including a pastry chef. Each day we were offered a selection of activities, including kayaking, snorkelling, short hikes and walks. We’d divide into groups of a dozen or so, each with a certified guide—large groups aren’t permitted to land on the islands en masse, nor are individuals allowed to wander off on their own—and then we’d pile into the Endeavour’s zodiacs and head to a sandy beach or rocky shore. On this, the second day of the trip, I’d signed up for the afternoon’s more intensive activity, a hot, dusty hike over treacherous volcanic terrain, primarily as a chance to stretch my legs. I’d never been drawn to the idea of birding—in fact, I’d been mystified by its appeal—and yet here I was, my adrenalin flaring as I stared at this large white bird.
Soon, the male circling above our little group was joined by a second albatross, and then a third. As we moved down a rocky path to the tall outer cliffs of Espanola Island, giant frigatebirds appeared, gleaming black and fork-tailed, nearly as big as the albatrosses. White-and-black Nazca boobies bobbed on the rocks, the adults sleek, the chicks covered in flyaway down, and finches and mockingbirds clung to the branches of low, shrubby trees. Nearby, a Galapagos hawk feasted on an unlucky lizard. Our dozen gawkers whispered and pointed, snapping photos and sharing silent smiles—united in our mission to see the birds, and to capture proof in pixels that we could carry home with us.
It was easier to get excited about birds here, in the Galapagos. At home, in Canada’s northern Yukon Territory, sparrows faded into the background; pigeons and seagulls were pests, mild annoyances; and the big black ravens that perched on dumpsters and car roof racks were a faintly menacing, Hitchcockian presence. None of them seemed, to me, to really mean anything. But in the islands, it seemed, the birds had heft—a historical, scientific and symbolic weight that demanded my attention.
It was in the Galapagos, after all, that Charles Darwin had begun to tinker with the ideas of evolution and natural selection, the remote region’s bounty of endemic species—so much variety in such a small area—setting him pondering.
“The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention,” he wrote in the Galapagos chapter of “The Voyage of the Beagle,” his memoir of a five-year journey around the world.
The mockingbirds first caught his attention. He saw and collected three of the islands’ four endemic species of mockingbird, not realizing at first that each one was unique to its own island—that, rather than being sibling species who lived alongside each other, they were separated by geography. When he did, he wrote:
“I never dreamed that islands, about 50 or 60 miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted… Reviewing the facts here given, one is astonished at the amount of creative force, if such an expression may be used, displayed on these small, barren, and rocky islands.”
The seeds of his theory germinated in the Galapagos. And it was here, too, more than a century after Darwin unleashed his “Origin of Species” on the world, that one of the most groundbreaking evolutionary studies ever conducted was begun.
Peter and Rosemary Grant started their work in the Galapagos in 1973, and they’ve been coming back ever since. Their work, brought to mainstream attention by Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer-winning book, The Beak of the Finch, is focused on the islands’ 13 endemic species of finch, known collectively as Darwin’s finches. The finches are astonishingly diverse, and their most glaring variation is in their beaks. Some of the finches use their beaks to shape tools out of twigs and stems; others use them to sip cactus nectar, and to pollinate cactus flowers; some have comparatively large, powerful beaks to crack open seeds, and one, the vampire finch, uses its beak to drink the blood of larger birds. For decades, the Grants have monitored the size and shape and uses of these beaks, and though Darwin believed that evolution would take millions of years to show visible effects, the Grants have seen the finches change before their eyes as the birds adapt to meet the challenges of a volatile environment.
The Grants have documented changes in the finch populations in response to drought and in response to downpour; they have seen quantifiable adaptation not across millennia, as Darwin supposed, or even across multiple generations, but in the turnover of a single generation. For instance, after a flood reduced the supply of larger seeds on the isolated island where they conduct their research—seeds requiring larger, wider beaks to crack—the Grants were able to measure a resulting rise of narrower beaks better suited for smaller seeds in a subsequent generation of geospiza fortis, the medium ground finch. And they’ve seen that kind of near-instant shift happen more than once. Their work, Weiner writes, “has enormous implications for our sense of reality, of what life is, and also for our sense of power, of what we can do with life.”
Darwin’s finches are not like Michelangelo’s Adam, who raises his finger languidly to meet the down-stretched finger of God: the free man, molded of clay, half-raised of earth, created in an instant.
“These birds are more like Michelangelo’s Prisoners, the famous statues he left half in and half out of the marble, so that looking at them today we can almost see and hear the sculptor’s chisel at work. The birds are alive and breathing, but they are unfinished; in the Galapagos the sculptor is still at work, measurably and demonstrably.
I became fixated not just on Darwin’s finches, but on all of the birds around me. On the inhabited island of Santa Cruz, when we visited the town of Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Station, I watched tiny finches hopping along the low stone walls that lined the main street (Charles Darwin Avenue, of course), pecking at fallen seeds. When we snorkeled off Floreana Island, I stared down at the slow-floating sting rays, the ungainly but weirdly graceful sea turtles, and, once, the chilling grey outline of a shark. But while the undersea world was beautiful, I couldn’t muster the same excitement for its taxonomies; I didn’t find myself reciting my sightings at the dinner table later on. And when our group drifted close to the cliffs on another snorkeling excursion, I pointed my snorkel mask up, at the point where water met sky, and watched and waited for the pelican’s long beak and paddling webbed feet to break the surface.
At night, I crawled into my bunk soon after dinner, turned on my reading light and tackled the next chapters of “The Beak of the Finch.” I was intoxicated by the idea of Earth’s animal life having an almost limitless capacity for adaptation, of species having the ability to change and survive so fast. In school, I’d been taught Darwinism as a violent struggle for survival, but this endless flexibility seemed, to me, like a more hopeful way of seeing the world.
We achieved maximum bird on our last full day onboard. I was up early, wired with anticipation, and stood on deck at sunrise as the Endeavour eased into Darwin Bay. All of the Galapagos islands are volcanic, but donut-shaped Genovesa Island, our final destination, is especially so: The calm, round bay that we motored into at dawn was a caldera, the mouth of the lone submerged volcano that made up the entire island; the steep, rocky cliffs that surrounded us were the upper rim of the mountain, and the gap we’d sailed through had been formed when a section of the volcano mouth had tumbled down, vanishing underwater.
I spent the morning on the beach, threading my way through a small squadron of swallow-tailed gulls and frigatebirds and red-footed boobies. The sky above was dark with the silhouettes of seabirds, swarming like mosquitoes on a summer evening back home. It was mating season, and the male frigatebirds stood in clusters, inflating the bright red pouches that dangled on their chests, shaking their wings and posing, hoping to attract a female. The boobies built nests in the shelter of the mangroves, fetching dried, bleached sticks from the edge of the water one by one—their webbed feet had adapted to let them clutch the tree branches like monkeys, Xavier pointed out; they were the only boobies that lived in trees, the only species of their kind with prehensile toes.
That afternoon, I climbed Prince Philip’s Steps, a rough stone staircase leading from a rocky landing area up to the top of the cliffs, and followed Xavier again as he led a dozen of us on our final birding excursion. Juvenile Nazca boobies littered the path and pecked at our feet; more frigatebirds swooped overhead or struck poses nearby, pouches ballooning. We walked through tall bushes until we reached open ground near the outer cliffs—we’d walked from inner to outer rim, the width of the island, in a matter of minutes. Then we scanned the dry ground, squinting into binoculars and telephoto lenses in search of the day’s quarry.
We spotted him when he moved, suddenly, spreading his tawny wings and drifting quickly from one spot to the next. The short-eared owl is found on five of the seven continents, and so is hardly unique to the Galapagos. But here, on Genovesa, where there were no Galapagos hawks or any other birds of prey, the species had changed. He had abandoned his nocturnal heritage and now hunted instead under the hot day’s sun, stepping in to fill the niche left empty by the absent hawk. The owl in our viewfinders represented tangible adaptation in action.
He was several hundred yards away, too far for even the biggest, longest zoom lenses we had to catch him clearly, and so he was only a blur as he killed and ate a storm petrel, a small seabird, while we watched. We stood, snapping photos hopelessly, waiting in vain for him to float closer, until the sun began to set and we retreated to our waiting zodiac.
One night, we all gathered on deck, in the bow of the ship, as the crew pointed us toward a low, cone-shaped island on the horizon. This was Daphne Major, the isolated, uninhabited island that the Grants had made into their laboratory for the past 40 years. The wait staff handed out flutes of champagne as we neared it, and the sun sank down to sea level, lighting up the island in silhouette. Above us, two dozen frigatebirds hovered, suspended by air currents, hardly moving their wings.
As the Endeavour made a wide, slow loop around the island, we toasted to the Grants, to Darwin, to evolution, and to the 13 species of Galapagos finch.