Wings in the Moonlight

It is 10:00 p.m. on Monday, day one aboard the Galapagos Legend.  I’ve been curled up in bed for nearly 30 minutes reading up on tomorrow’s activities, islands and, of course, anticipated bird sightings.  My husband, Jonathan, and I are EXHAUSTED.  Both of us are fading quickly. Lights off. Alarms set. Too tired to bother closing the thin, sea-blue curtains, we convince one another it is futile; the sheer fabric will, undoubtedly, fail to block out the early morning sun, anyway.  As we both close our eyes and begin to drift into a much needed slumber, we hear the unfortunate, and terribly irritating, sound of an unhinged closet door slamming open and shut with each rock of the boat. We look at one another with dread, praying that the other will volunteer the last bit of energy he can muster, and shut the six-foot-tall pendulum swinging across the cabin. To and fro, the door continued to slam again and again…

Swallow-tailed Gull on the island of North Seymour

All of a sudden, we are both caught off-guard by the sight of snowy-white flapping wings just outside our naked windows. “No way!” we say to each other, simultaneously leaping from the bed and bolting to get a look at the excitement transpiring just outside the confines of our petite cabin in the mysterious waters of the Galapagos.  We peer down from our deck and see approximately 15 Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) swimming in the waters below, taunting and inhaling fish galore. Partaking in this feeding frenzy are five Swallow-tailed Gulls (Creagrus furcatus) that are strategically plucking startled fish from the water, one-by-one. “Brilliant,” I think.

Instinctively, I throw on some sandals, grab my camera and phone my sister, Michelle. She doesn’t answer. I, then, remember Michelle is off trying desperately to access the Internet (not readily available in these parts, it appears) in order to submit an important document to her fellow members on the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research FoundationÔ Board of Trustees.  I chuckled at the irony; was she was truly missing the world’s only night-feeding gull at work?  I hoped with all my heart that she, too, had front row seats to this highly exclusive show.

Swallow-tailed Gull enjoying nature's buffet

We joined a handful of other dedicated wildlife watchers decked out in pajamas, including a few who fled their cabins so quickly they were wearing two different shoes (no, I was not one of them… this time).   While most people were fascinated by the feeding sharks – and, believe me, they had every reason to be – I was witnessing a feeding spectacle starring the one-and-only fully nocturnal gull and seabird in the world.

One hungry Galapagos Shark!

The Galapagos shark usually feeds near the sea bottom. This evening, however, the sharks had embarked on a somewhat unusual hunting expedition. Illuminated waters, as a result of lighting from the ship, attracted an abundance of surface-dwelling prey, such as flying fish and squid.  The sharks were not about to skip the buffet and eagerly partook… and so did the gulls.

What a beauty!

On this night, the gulls take full advantage of the meal below them, giving us a chance to watch their incredible nocturnal foraging behavior.  What makes this experience even more remarkable is that this unique adaptation is not yet fully understood.

Some believe that this adaptation developed as a means to avoid kleptoparasitism, or piracy, by frigatebirds.  Their night vision and unusual melatonin levels (likely connected to their nighttime activity) continue to be of interest to scientists. The Swallow-tailed Gull is considered “near-endemic” to the Galapagos, since a few pairs nest on Malpelo Island off the coast of Colombia. Spread among 50 colonies, the Galapagos population is estimated to be between 10,000 to 15,000 pairs.

I am, once again, curled up in bed. Only this time, I have a smile from ear-to-ear (and it is not just because Jonathan finally shut the closet door!).  I just witnessed something extraordinary.  Surely, I could have waited until tomorrow to write, but I didn’t want to spare any delicious detail or ounce of awe from you.

Even though I had spotted, observed and photographed the Swallow-tailed gull earlier today, eyewitnessing its’ most unusual adaptation in action is, perhaps, one of my greatest bird watching moments yet.  Certainly, this evening will shine particularly bright when I recall my adventures in the Galapagos.

Happy Birding!


P.S. I hope you will be as relieved as I was to know that Michelle had been on the deck above witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime event all along.  Thank goodness!

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