|ISLA DE LA PLATA, ECUADOR|
The BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY derives its name from the Spanish "bobo," or dunce. Which comes to mind a hundred times today as I hike up a six-hundred-foot hill on this remote island 25 miles off the mainland coast, since the silly birds have not just squatted but laid their eggs in the middle of the path. Which makes a certain sense, I guess, since the paths are already cleared; the birds that choose to build their nests in the thick scrub that covers the island must first pound the tall grass down in order to scoop out a shallow hole to lay in. Which makes me think maybe the big birds are not so slow after all.
While the island is littered with boobies, the dominant creature here is frigate birds, specifically MAGNIFICENT FRIGATES. Possibly the largest concentration in the world have built their nests in the branches of low-lying trees atop the island. There are turkey vultures too, and Nazca boobies, brown pelicans, long-tailed mockingbirds and hummingbirds. But it is the 5,000 soaring, split-tailed frigate that are most impressive as they swoop low over the island's peaks, heading back to their nests carrying lunch for the month-old, all-white chicks that wait.
The once-private island is now home to MACHALILLA NATIONAL PARK; its guides commute from the mainland for the day, by powerboat. Most aspire to work in Ecuador's most prized island sanctuary, the GALAPAGOS. Six hundred miles away, home to an even richer abundance of wild species, those guiding jobs are hard to come by. Ecuador is a very poor country and many, especially outdoors people, would love to find a job there. Oscar, a jungle-expert I meet on the beach here uses a jungle-myth to explain why he works this tiny outpost rather than in the bigger islands: "You have to have been born in the Galapagos to guide there," he says. Which is not exactly true; but given the competition for those guiding jobs, he probably would have had to start there 20 years ago.
From the top of the island the rocky coastline is dotted with sea caves, crashing waves and diving pelicans. I suggest to Oscar that this is still not a bad office. He concurs, motioning with his hand to follow him even higher.