Thousands of Waved Albatrosses came ashore in the Galapagos to mate and nest just a few weeks before Kongo came to visit earlier this month. It was very fortunate timing on the monkey’s part because he got to witness the unusual and fascinating mating rituals these birds follow during breeding season.
The Waved Albatross nests almost exclusively on Espaola Island in the Galapagos but a few nesting pairs can be found on other islands. When not breeding and nesting, these birds spend most of their life at sea near the coast of Ecuador and Peru.
These giant seabirds have a wingspan of nearly eight feet and are wonderful flyers. Landings and take offs are a bit of a problem. Their wings are stiff and these birds have a fairly high stall speed so they need a lot of runway to land. The also need a lot of wind to get airborne because flapping those big wings takes a lot of effort. For this reason you can find the birds nesting near the windy cliffs on Espanola Island. There is a lot of brush to protect the nests from predators but plenty of open spaces for landing. When they want to take off they simply waddle over to the cliff and throw themselves off. Once airborne these birds travel thousands of miles with little effort by taking advantage of air currents and their very efficient flight controls.
Like almost all the animals on the Galapagos, these birds showed no fear of humans and we were often very close to them as they actually nested in the middle of the trail or in the bushes beside the trail. Our guides tried to keep us at least six feet from the birds and not block them when they were walking but sometimes that was hard to do. They were literally all around you!
The mating rituals of these birds were amazing and elaborate. It involved a lot of dancing, beak clacking, raising and lowering their heads in unison, and making “woo-boo” sounds. Hey, go birds go! If you are only mating once a year Kongo would be shouting WOO HOO too!
These birds mate for life and remain together for decades. The lifespans of a Waved Albatross is 45-55 years but some have been recorded to live much longer. The oldest living albatross on Midway Island in the Northern Pacific was banded in the early 1950s.
The pair produce a single egg each mating season, which is between April and June. If you look closely beneath the albatross below you can spot the egg she is sitting on.
When Kongo was in the Navy his ships were frequently adopted by an albatross or a pair of them. For centuries, sailors have always considered the albatross a good luck symbol and a talisman for a safe voyage. Given their difficulty taking off, having a perch atop the mast of a destroyer was likely a big help in enabling the birds to get airborne whenever they wanted. Ashore, they sometimes have to walk up to half a mile or so to get to the cliff for take off and if you’ve ever seen one of these giant birds walking on medium-sized lava boulders you realize it’s quite an effort.
Although ungainly ashore, aloft they are magnificent!
Now, you may have head the metaphor that someone had an albatross hung around their neck. Did you know where that comes from? Hmmm, did you?
The “albatross around your neck” idiom seems to be confusing because it’s considered by mariners to be a good luck omen. So what’s this big bird hung around your neck for? Doesn’t make sense Well, this mystery goes back to the poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem an albatross is following the ship and everybody is happy because it is a good omen. Then, the mariner shoots the albatross with a cross-bow (these birds were also known as sea turkeys to mariners). Later, when the ship runs out of water the lack of their good fortune is blamed on the mariner who shot the albatross. Thus, they hung that albatross around his neck with their blame and with it went the guilt for causing their sad state.
So there you go.
See more of Kongo’s images from the Galapagos here.
Travel safe. Have fun. Be nice to the albatross.