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Birding in the Galapagos

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More than just finches

After a guided tour of the Charles Darwin Research Centre we still had a couple hours to kill before heading out to where the Moby Dick lay at anchor. Besides, we needed some time to digest the huge lump of history and science that resident naturalist Heimi had just fed us.

From the volcanic origins of the Galapagos some 5 million years ago, to their role as a refuge for the evolution of unique species, to Darwin's flash of insight, Heimi covered all the bases. But, to be honest, the subtle differences in beaks and plumage among the finches – the little brown birds that clinched Darwin's theory of natural selection and secured his place in history – were not nearly as fascinating as the air-show going on in the harbour.

You don't have to be a dedicated bird watcher to appreciate the antics of birds in the Galapagos. Humans, it seems, are more or less invisible there; at least the local birds go about their lives as though we didn't exist. Betty and I found a bench on the Puerto Ayora waterfront on Isla Santa Cruz and settled down with a cool drink to watch the show.

Squadrons of brown pelicans glide past in precise military formation, their two-metre wings almost touching. With ungainly pouched beaks tucked back they are a picture of aerodynamic perfection. A few solo pelicans, fishing just offshore, dive straight down from heights of more than a hundred feet. With wings partly folded and beaks extended they look like Star-Wars fighters. Their dive ends in a great splash, a shallow plunge, and if all goes as planned, a pouch full of sea water containing a few fish.

The pelican is now faced with getting rid of the water without losing the fish, a critical manoeuvre that is exploited by the brown noddy. The noddy, a large tropical tern, perches on the pelican's head ready to snatch anything it can during the draining process. The pelican makes no effort to shake it off – apparently content to just float around and wait it out. Half a dozen pelicans, each with a noddy on its head, were still waiting when we headed out to our own dinner and bed aboard the Moby Dick.

After travelling through most of the night the boat dropped anchor off Isla Seymore. Breakfast at six, a short skiff ride ashore and we climb a narrow trail into a rookery where hundreds of blue-footed boobys and frigate birds have staked out nest sites. No need for stealth or telephoto lenses. The locals are much too busy courting and mating to even notice us strolling through their bedrooms. For the boobys home is where the egg is, and if it happens to be in the middle of the trail mom doesn't even flinch when you step over her. Her mate continues his courting without missing a beat, displaying first one and then the other bright blue foot.

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