Confessions of a Self-Loathing Bird-Watcher

Today’s slide show: Images from North Seymour.

Today’s video: Sea lions aren’t the most graceful creatures.

It must be easier to visit a BL-4 bio-safety laboratory where the scientists handle Ebola virus and Lassa fever than it is to slip into the Galápagos Islands. And if it isn’t easier, it’s got to be cheaper. The Ecuadorian authorities inspect your bags before you board the plane from Quito to Galápagos to prevent the importation of plants or animals that will upset the local ecology. Then they inspect your bags when you arrive because, I assume, they don’t trust the first inspector. Is this how they treated folks at Ellis Island?

The Ecuadorian government taxes each visitor $100 just for the pleasure of stepping foot on Galápagos. To keep the 3,000 square miles of islands spread out over 17,500 square miles of equatorial ocean pristine, all island-hoppers must lodge on excursion vessels manned by licensed guides who are under orders to evict you from the islands before 6 p.m. and police your hiking and snorkeling. No smoking on the islands. No eating. No walking off the trail. No feeding or touching the animals. And absolutely no nonconsensual sex with the animals. If you stay a week, as my group of 15 visitors on the Parranda is, meals, lodging, and island-cruising will cost you about $5,000 after airfare.

I silently recite the Galápagos rules as we depart by Zodiac from the Parranda.Our destination is the lava shore of North Seymour, a small islet, a couple of hundred yards away. I zero in on a swarm of two dozen brown noddies with my binoculars and feel something close to ecstatic consciousness as the noddies skim the ocean surface, nabbing anchovies driven upward by attacking mackerel and small tuna.

“Are you a bird-watcher?” asks Abel, a fellow tourist sitting next to me on the bouncing Zodiac.

The full flush of self-loathing rises in my throat, and I drop the binos from my eyes. Shall I tell Abel the truth, that I am one of those pathetic little men who haunt woods invading the privacy of our avian brothers, pointing binoculars at them and whispering things like “America bittern at 2 o’clock!”

Adult blue-footed boobies have blue feet

A score of frigatebirds hang in the sky like Calder mobiles, out to steal the catch from the industrious blue-footed boobies returning from fishing expeditions 100 miles out with food for their chicks. The brown pelicans flow along the coast like the dawn patrol, arcing up and arrowing into the water like 10-meter platform divers to catch their dinner. Sea lions, too many to count, and sea lion pups bark on the lava rocks of the shore, sharing the space with swallow-tailed gulls. I am at the mezzanine level of heaven, and the elevator is going up.

“Yes,” I whisper confidentially to Abel, “but I’m embarrassed about it.”

“Why be embarrassed?”

“I’ll tell you later,” I promise, returning to my reverie.

Bird-watching, truth be told, is a fool’s enterprise. Flitting from beach to mountains to swamps to garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants in hopes of spotting a Wilson’s phalarope or other prized species is just another knuckleheaded form of collecting. It’s no less pathetic than collecting Fiestaware or baseball cards, both of which are pretty pathetic. Bird-watchers aren’t in the tradition of the Great Victorian Naturalists, who described and collected wildlife to advance science. It’s a useless acquisitive hobby, and any effort to explain my enthusiasm will only make me sound like a bigger doofus.

We make our landing on the lava rocks and pile out. North Seymour is arid, like most of the 60-odd islands and rocks in the archipelago. Beyond the lava boulders is a small terrace of sand followed by saltbush, squat palo santo trees, and the maytenusbush where hundreds of frigatebirds (both great and magnificent—fregata minor and fregata magnificens) roost with their chicks. Flowering opuntia cactuses abound. As our guide Luis Die leads us down the well-marked path, I fairly reel at the proximity to the birds. If you’re not mindful of where you walk, you may literally step on a blue-footed booby.

For a bird-watcher, self-loathing or not, the intimacy afforded by the Galápagos is a reversal of the natural order. Almost everywhere on Earth, predators make birds skittish, so bird-watching requires you to combine stealth with patience. But here on North Seymour, even yellow warblers, frequent visitors to American backyards during migration season, are blasé about our group. One yellow warbler works the periphery of a booby chick corpse, stabbing flies as they land to feed. “Maggot Vacation 2000!” says my photographer Steven. Two hours later, after we’ve completed the circuit of frigatebird nests and eyeballed marine and land iguanas, the warbler is still working his meal ticket. In Galápagos, you to get close enough to see the ticks on the birds. This isn’t bird-watching, this is zoo-going.

Young sea lion resting on the lava

The grace with which the birds, sea lions, sea turtles, giant tortoises, and iguanas tolerate human beings gives the place a Blakean, paradisiacal tang. When Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos for five weeks in 1835, he contrasted its trusting creatures with those inhabiting the similarly isolated Falkland Islands. The Falkland’s beasts had already “learnt caution” around human beings. But a century and three quarters later, the animals of Galápagos still don’t give a fig about us, because the only potential predator, man, is kept on a short leash.

I’ve seen big birds up close in large numbers once before. About 20 years ago, I visited an Australian chicken ranch to buy a couple of egg-layers for my friend Leslie’s backyard coop. Inside an airplane hangar-sized building, thousands upon thousands of tightly caged hens clucked madly. Looking close up into the chicken’s eyes, I knew absolute terror. Is there anything more insane and evil in all god’s creation than a bird eye seen in close-up? Pluck the feathers from even the most beautiful bird, and what do you have? A two-legged, scaley lizard that moves in mechanical jerks and stops. Small wonder there’s no American Lizard-Watching Society.

If my boat-mates are similarly repulsed by the intimacy with the hundreds and hundreds of boobies and frigatebirds, they don’t say so. In fact, after 30 minutes of expressing wonder at the birds and sea lions, they completely normalized the experience. They might as well be strolling the aisles of a supermarket. Trudging along with our guide Luis, I pester him with questions, and he’s as patient with my allegedly informed questions (“Luis, does the blue-footed booby occupy the same niche here in the south as the gannet does in the north?”) as he does the transparently stupid ones (“Luis, is that a sea lion?” a tourist once asked him. “No, it’s a marine iguana,” he said).

In his fixin’ to die of AIDS memoir This Wild Darkness, Harold Brodkey compares the elements of bird-watching to the approach of death. “[W]hen I saw a bird for the first time I couldn’t really see it, because I had no formal arrangement, no sense of pattern for it. I couldn’t remember it clearly, either. But once I identified the bird, the drawings in my books and my own sense of order arranged the image and made it clearer to me, and I never forgot it. From then on I could see the bird in two ways—as the fresh, unpatterned vision and the patterned one,” he writes. “Well, seeing death nearby is very like the first way of seeing.”

At the risk of sound pretentious on top of silly, what pulls me to birds and hence to Galápagos is the two ways of seeing. Humans, whether they collect Fiestaware, star-gaze, or collect coins, are pattern-detection animals and relish constructing visual order out of chaos. Making the unpatterned, furtive outlines of feathers and color match the patterned illustrations and descriptions found in TheSibley Guide to Birds is my simple pleasure. That’s the long answer, Abel. Besides, bird-watching is very portable, and it gets me out of the house.