SPECIAL: World Migratory Bird Day

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This weekend is the 9th annual World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD). The themes for this year are strongly linked to GCT’s projects, goals and focuses;

  • Migratory bird conservation
  • Local community development
  • Wildlife watching tourism

Studies indicate there are 56 native bird species found across the islands, 80% of which are only found in the Galapagos (endemic), while the remaining 20% have also been found in other locations (indigenous). In addition to the native species, there are 29 migratory species and 64 species which have been observed once or twice (vagrants).

Whilst most of the endemic species in Galapagos are terrestrial birds, the famous Darwin’s finches for example, almost all of the migrants and vagrants are seabirds and waders to be found around the coasts and lagoons of the Islands. Recent vagrants visits have coincided with El Niño events (1982-83 and 1997-98), suggesting they may have been blown off their intended course and towards the Islands – an echo of how some of the original species may have made their way to the Islands.

C1 - 1698  Kate Lindsay

The Archipelago sits within the Pacific Americas Flyway – a term used for the routes used by migrating birds – and with the large upwelling of nutrients due to the oceanic currents, they are a highly desirable stopping-off point. Most of the migrant species are native to North America, as far up as the Arctic Circle. They then fly south and spend the northern hemisphere winter (October – March) in warmer climates. Whilst some of the species are merely stopping off in Galapagos on their way further south, others stop for the whole winter. There are six key species which make up the majority of the migrants.

  • Red-necked phalarope (Lobipes lobatus)
  • Ringed plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)
  • Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
  • Sanderling (Calidris alba)
  • Wandering tattler (Heteroscelus incanus)
  • Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

Recently some research came to light recording a red-necked phalarope which had been tagged in the Shetland Islands. Using GPS trackers it was recorded off the coast of Ecuador during the winter before returning on a 16,000 mile round trip – not bad for a bird smaller than a starling. (BBC article here)

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Galapagos can be viewed as a sort of service station for these birds during their long journeys and the conditions to be found on and around the Islands have proved so desirable the birds return year after year. Conservation is vital if the future generations will continue to flock back annually. Thanks to the Galapagos National Park, large areas of the Islands are protected from development and pollution, and for the sea birds the 133,000km2 Marine Reserve is vital for conserving the oceanic habitats which they rely upon.

Local community interaction is a vital tool that researchers and scientists can use in tracking and monitoring migrating birds. If locals are able to recognise the local birds easily then migrants will stand out (much like the tourists on the streets of Puerto Ayora). With more trained eyes looking to the skies and the seas there is a greater amount of accurate data which can be gathered and monitored to see how migration patterns and numbers may change over time.

The third theme of WMBD, sustainable tourism, is of paramount importance in the Galapagos Islands. Ensuring that the people who come to visit the Islands do so in a sustainable and conscientious manner is essential in maintaining the Islands as not only a great destination for migrating birds but also for migrating people. Unregulated and unsustainable tourism would have dire effects for all species.

While there are certain wildlife icons in Galapagos that steal the front covers of brochures and magazines, the migrants play an equally key role in the ecosystem and must be given an equal amount of protection. Events such as WMBD highlight these wanderers to the wider world and we are only too happy to spread the word and share the stories of Galapagos’ own flying visitors.

by James Medland