If you sail across oceans you get to know your seabirds. At least, the major groups. Of course, sorting out one species of petrel from another can be well nigh impossible unless you’re an expert, on a big ship with fabulous binoculars. But the general jizz allows broad identification and sends us scurrying down to open Peter Harrison’s bible in a usually unsuccessful attempt to refine our identification
In the Galapagos the bird life is so fecund and the creatures so tame that the identification process is reasonably easy. In the Southern Ocean you might glimpse one or two storm petrels, usually in bad weather and usually when you’re seasick. Here though, there are vast rafts of them pottering about with equanimity close by, and on calm water.
One bird however, has until now defied all my attempts at identification. It is a small and shy creature which rafts in company with the storm petrels along the coast. It is brown and white, with a slender neck and an elegant profile. I couldn’t find it in Harrison or the Galapagos bird guides, but by chance it popped up in an internet search.
it is the red-necked phalarope. It doesn’t have a red neck in the Galapagos because here it is in winter plumage.
These little birds have a most extraordinary annual migration, only clearly defined a couple of years ago. They breed in circumpolar subarctic outposts like the Shetland Islands and Svalbard. Every northern autumn they fly south via Iceland, Greenland, Labrador, Nova Scotia and the US coast to Cuba, Panama, Ecuador and Peru. And yes, some of them come out the Galapagos. Not as epic as the journey of the arctic tern, but pretty amazing nonetheless.
The other interesting thing about red-necked phalaropes is that when breeding it is the female which flaunts the come-and-fuck-me plumage (in this case a red neck) during courting. A refreshing reversal.
You may say that small things arouse small minds, but for me this is such an exciting discovery. If I’d stayed here long enough I reckon I could have written Origin of the Species. I am so excited to have seen these birds. None has been close enough to photograph, but here are a couple of pics I have filched from the internet.