Of all the places that I’ve visited in the world, none is more remarkable than the Galápagos Islands. It is the sort of place that every person with an interest in the natural world should visit. And birders certainly fit that definition. So, if you haven’t been there, put it on your bucket list. There are not a lot of species to add to your list there, but the experience of encountering birds and other animals on their terms is simply amazing.
The second edition of Galápagos: A Natural History by John Kricher and Kevin Loughlin is a masterpiece befitting the remarkable place that is its subject. Of the dozens of books that I have reviewed, this is one of the very best. Not only is it a great companion for those visiting the archipelago, but it would serve as a great reference for those who are unable to make the pilgrimage to the Galápagos. The book is interesting, well written, and gloriously illustrated. I visited the Galápagos in 2017, and I would have loved to have this book before I traveled. I would have had a more productive and enjoyable visit with the preparation that this book would have provided.
At 8.5 by 6.25 by 1.5 inches in size and 2.5 pounds, the book is a solid tome that will not be at home in your pocket. Its 496 pages are chock-a-block full of easy-to-read text and beautiful photos. While it is billed as the second edition, it is a very different book from the first edition; the second has almost twice as many pages due to a plethora of new photos. Indeed, there are so many now that the photographer, Loughlin, is listed as a co-author.
The book comprises 12 chapters, loosely organized as five general discussions, five chapters on wildlife, a chapter on threats, and a large final chapter that expounds on all the major islands and their landing sites. One of the quirks is that, according to the acknowledgments in the book, “all the chapter titles appear as phrases in Darwin’s writings about the islands.” It is just about the only thing that I would not recommend. The chapter titles are, to paraphrase Paul Simon, strained to describe the contents. But that tiny quirk does not affect the quality of the book. The only other nit that I would pick is that there is no chapter on plants or insects. Plant life is discussed often throughout the book because it is so essential to any discussion of the ecology of the islands. It would have been beneficial to aggregate the plant information into a separate chapter.
The first chapter is an introduction that makes the case for visiting the Galápagos by describing how a visitor might experience the islands. The wonders depicted are contrasted with Darwin’s words: “Nothing could be less inviting.” The next chapter is historical, focusing on the early explorers and inhabitants. One of the interesting facets of the book is an intriguing discussion of the eclectic group of misfits that failed to establish a community on the island of Floreana in the mid-20th century. At the end of the chapter there is a list of 13 references that provide documentation for the information proffered and opportunities for further reading, and I love the accountability that the references represent.
The next chapter is a potpourri of information about the archipelago, including geology, natural history, climate, and ecological zones. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is highlighted in this early chapter when Kricher introduces the concept of endemism by explaining it in illuminating detail using the case of the California Condor. Since the Galápagos Islands sit at the confluence of warm and cold ocean currents, Kricher gives a detailed exposition of the oceanography and climate of the islands.
The fourth chapter of the book goes into Darwin’s visit in detail, and it illuminates how his understanding of the birds evolved through his interactions with ornithologist John Gould after returning to England. One timely issue discussed is the matter of what constitutes a species, which ironically is never defined in Darwin’s magnus opus, On the Origin of Species.
Chapter five discusses the geology of the archipelago and the fascinating volcanism that so characteristically defines the morphology of the islands. Indeed, apart from the unique life on the islands, the varied volcanic artifacts are a dramatic attraction for visitors. The beautiful photos of the various volcanic types will help the reader appreciate the islands’ geology.
Chapter six begins the five parts of the book that focus on the animals that have made the Galápagos so famous. Sixty pages are devoted to the reptiles, with one chapter for the tortoises and another for the lizards and snakes. Some of the photos of the iguanas are the most evocative of the entire book, with one dramatic image of a marine iguana gracing the cover.
The next two chapters, eight and nine, focus on birds—which is why we are here. These two chapters consist of 130 pages (27 pages of which discuss Darwin’s “finches”) and form a major focus of the book. One of the things that I appreciate is that Kricher starts the discussion by defining his standard for what constitutes a species. This is emblematic of the entire work, wherein Kricher, who is first a scientist, supports his contentions through references and declarations of the origins of his ideas. These two chapters are full of interesting facts about the natural history of the birds and their fascinating lives. One of my favorite parts is the discussion of the evolution of Darwin’s “finches” (which are really tanagers) on the island of Daphne Major, which was the site of some dramatic, real-time evolution in the 1970s and 1980s, as documented by Peter and Rosemary Grant and their students. Loughlin’s bird photos are among his very best; they not only document the species but also capture their interesting behaviors.
Chapter ten, which deals mainly with aquatic animals, has one of the most strained titles, “Several Huge Whales.” Whales only constitute ten percent of the chapter, which is less than half as much as fish are addressed. Indeed, the only disappointing photos in the entire book are of humpback whales. I realize that the photos show the huge marine mammals as tourists might encounter them, but the images fall short compared to the rest of the book. This chapter is key since tourists are often swimming or snorkeling around the islands while waiting for their turn to walk on land. Since the underwater species are uniform throughout the archipelago, learning about them is relatively easy.
The final substantive chapter of the book (chapter 11) is a wake-up call to counteract the many threats to the fragile and unique ecosystems on and surrounding the Galápagos. Concerns about illegal fishing, population growth, and invasive species are examined.
The last chapter is the longest at 109 pages, and it is essential to the book’s usefulness. It is a listing of all the major islands, plus information helpful for visitors. For each island, there is detailed information on what to see, what to expect, and what not to miss. Once you have your itinerary, you will be able to review the places you will visit so that you can make your trip to this most unique of places on Earth that much more memorable.
Peter Kaestner is a retired U.S. diplomat and the #1 world lister. He was the first person to see all the world's bird families, and in 1989 he introduced Western science to the bird that would later be called Cundinamarca Antpitta (Grallaria kaestneri). When not adding to his life list, Peter is a part-time tour leader for Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures.
Birding is a force for good in our society. Learning and sharing about birds translates into concern for birds and the environment, and the American Birding Association provides resources and community for all people interested in birds!