Frigate birds (also called frigatebirds, frigate-birds or even the frigate petrel) are found across tropical and subtropical oceans, but the unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands is home to two types of this distinctive seabird: magnificent frigates and great frigates.
North Seymour Island, a great frigate breeding ground, is the only place on Galapagos Islands tours that visitors can count on seeing the male of the species showing off its vibrant red pouches to prospective mates. And yet, on your Galapagos cruise, you may encounter magnificent or great frigates at various points in your travels. Let's learn more about these fascinating birds and how you might interact with them in the Galapagos.
Frigate Birds Sightingson a Galapagos Islands Vacation
Throughout your Galapagos expedition, you'll be accompanied by an Expedition Leader well-versed in the flora and fauna of this incredibly biodiverse region. However, frigate birds have a number of distinctive characteristics that make them easy to spot when they're in the vicinity.
Like others in the Fregatidae family, their feathers lack waterproofing and they have a distinct bend mid-wing. In proportion to their weight, frigate birds have wings longer than any other bird species and are agile fliers. Charles Darwin was so taken with their acrobatics in flight that he dubbed the species, “the condor of the ocean.” Their flying ability is also aided by their well developed breast muscles, giving their chests a rounded look.
Magnificent frigates (Fregata magnificens) have a long, forked tail, short neck and a long, hooked bill. Adult males and females are dark in color, although there are subtle differences. The male of the species has rich, glossy black plumage, with a glossy green on his head and purple on the upper wings and back. The females, on the other hand, are a duller brownish-black, with distinctive white markings: a patch on the chest, three lines on the underwing, and a single, slightly more muted white line running diagonally across the upper wing.
Juveniles sport similar coloring, with the exception of a completely white head and chest. You might also notice, if you spot younger magnificent frigates, that their legs, feet and bill are a light bluish-grey color.
Great Frigate Birds vs Magnificent Frigate Birds
The males of both the magnificent frigate and great frigate (Fregata minor) species have a unique and defining characteristic in their gular (throat) pouch, which turns a bright, vibrant red during mating season. When inflated, this pouch is balloon-like and used to attract mating females. When they aren't breeding, the pouch fades in color to a light orange and isn't as noticeable, unless seen up close.
Both varieties of frigate bird you might encounter are better suited for flight than walking on land. Their short legs and small feet, combined with a massive wing to body weight ratio, result in an awkward gait. Magnificent frigate birds are typically 89-114 cm (35-45 inches) in length, while the great frigate bird averages 85 to 105 cm (33-41 inches). The magnificent frigate bird also has a slightly larger wingspan, up to 244 cm (96 inches) to the great frigates 205 to 230 cm (80-90 inches). In both species, the females are slightly larger than the males.
Where to Spot a Frigate bird in the Galapagos
You'll have ample opportunity to spot frigate birds on your Galapagos vacation, so keep your camera ready. Both species are known kleptoparasites, so watch for them swooping in from high above the surface of the ocean to steal their next snack from other seabirds!
North Seymour Island is a passenger favorite landing site on Day 6 of the 21-day Galápagos and Antarctica: Equator to Pole expedition and is a sure place to witness the frigate's red gular pouch in all its glory. You'll also have the opportunity to visit North Seymour on the 10-day Galápagos Expedition: Darwin's Playground, Central and North cruise.
Contact an experienced Polar Travel Adviser today to discover other unique and diverse species you may encounter on our Galapagos Islands tours!
Photos courtesy of Ecuador's Ministry of Tourism, and International Expeditions.