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Waved Albatross Mating



The walking trail is nothing more than a meter-wide swath from where the biggest and most dangerous boulders have been removed. After stumbling along for half an hour trying not to sprain an ankle, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that this rocky terrain is both the take-off and landing strip of the waved albatross of Española Island, Galápagos.


At up to one metre tall—roughly the size of a large turkey—these spectacular birds create heart-stopping moments as they wobble and lumber to the edge of a basalt cliff, before taking off into the wind to become graceful flying creatures. Their landings are just as spectacular, as their splayed feet bounce like skis across the boulders, wings acting as airbrakes, until they are slow enough to be able to stop. Their legs appear thin and fragile, but unlike human beings, they are clearly masters of this inhospitable terrain. These basalt cliffs, on the most westerly point of picturesque Española Island, are the only nesting sites for the ten to twelve thousand pairs of waved albatross that remain on this planet. Like many humans, these beautiful birds also 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 practicing their courtship displays. They seem to dance, bowing and parading around each other, heads swaying from side to side in an exaggerated way, as they perform a strange nasal honking. 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 it hatches, 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 their favourite food—tasty squid! By November the juvenile birds look as if every day is a “bad hair day.” 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, become a clumsy, wobbling run, until the albatross manage to take off for the first time. Once in the air, they fly naturally and gracefully circle around a few times before coming into their rocky airstrip for the first of many bumpy, but well-mastered landings.

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