When a biologist colleague of mine was suddenly unable to go, I was invited to take her place on an all-expenses-paid academic trip to the Galápagos Islands. Who was I to refuse such an offer?!! The trip was billed as a faculty development exercise, and the 16 participants – all professors at small liberal arts colleges – all had interests and expertise in areas related to the work of Charles Darwin. Our specific goals as individuals varied, but most of us had stated an intent to develop course materials based on the experiences we would have in the Galápagos. The trip would be an 8-day natural history tour aboard the 16-passenger motor yacht Guantanamera, following the same itinerary the trip organizer had used on several past visits with his college classes.
Academics aside, my own more personal goal for the trip was, of course, to see as many as possible of the endemic birds of the Galápagos. After learning our itinerary and a bit about the natural history and geographic distribution of species among the islands, however, I quickly realized that there would be some species I would simply have no chance of seeing. My biggest disappointment was that we would not be visiting Fernandina or the northern half of Isabela, thereby missing the only likely locations for Flightless Cormorant and Mangrove Finch. We would also not be visiting San Cristóbal (Chatham Mockingbird) or the highlands of Floreana (Medium Tree Finch). So the first lesson I learned about the Galápagos was that serious birders interested in seeing all of the endemics should go with a company that organizes tours designed specifically for that purpose. Because of the considerable distance to Fernandina, such tours typically require 10-11 days.
Details of the itinerary aside, I also learned upon arrival in the Galápagos that standard natural history tours are not designed for leisurely birding or prolonged wildlife observation (at least our tour wasn’t). As many as 4-6 other tour groups of 16 persons each were present simultaneously at many of the sites we visited. Each group must follow a rigid schedule of arrival and departure times on each island and must keep moving at a pace sufficient not to interfere with other groups. If I or others lingered to look at or for a particular species, it was not uncommon for our guide to appear and ask us to move along, or for another group’s guide to politely but pointedly inform us that our group was elsewhere. Several times we were allowed an hour or more on our own to explore a beach or town, and I took advantage of those moments of freedom to look for the smaller and less common birds that require some patience to find or identify with certainty.
The organizer of our trip had hired Washington Parédes to be our local natural history guide. Kevin had used Washington on several previous visits with college classes, and felt that he was far superior to other Galápagos guides he’d met. Frankly, I was disappointed, and did not think Washington was of the same caliber as most of the local birding guides I’ve hired in various parts of the world. He definitely had the comedy routine worked out that probably appeals to a majority of tourists, but I found his knowledge of the natural history and local species (especially the birds) to be fairly superficial. He also knew nothing about the geology of the islands, which was unfortunate since some of the sites we visited were on the itinerary specifically because of their interesting geological features, about which we learned little. Washington was, however, excellent at mimicking the calls of sea lions and seabirds (boobies, albatross), and used this talent to arouse animals for our benefit. In my opinion, the frequency with which he did this was unethical and constituted harassment of the wildlife. If I were to visit the Galápagos again, I would go with a tour designed specifically for birders, accompanied by a reputable birding guide.
Day 1: Arrival on Baltra. Bus trip to highlands of Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora.
Day 2: South Plaza in a.m.; Santa Fé in p.m.
Day 3: Española: Bahía Gardner in a.m.; Punta Suárez in p.m.
Day 4: Floreana in a.m.; cruise to Puerto Ayora in p.m.
Day 5: Isabela: Puerto Villamil, horseback ride to Volcán Chico
Day 6: Rábida in a.m.; Bartolomé in p.m.
Day 7: Genovesa: Prince Philip’s Steps in a.m.; Darwin Bay in p.m.
Day 8: N. Seymour in a.m.; transfer to Baltra for flight out
June 15: Santa Cruz
An uneventful flight from Quito with a short stop in Guayaquil got us in to Baltra in the early afternoon. After clearing immigration (a lengthy process because 3 flights had arrived simultaneously at the tiny airport) we were transported by bus to the pier, where we boarded the Guantanamera. First item of business was to install our luggage in the tiny double cabins, each of which had bunk beds and a closet-sized, private bathroom. After a quick lunch and a short trip across the narrow channel to Santa Cruz, we disembarked and boarded a bus for the drive across the island to the highland area where Galápagos tortoises can be seen in the wild (most of the wild tortoise populations are in areas that are difficult to access or off-limits to tourists, so Santa Cruz is one of the few places to see them outside of the captive breeding centers). Our first stop was at Los Gemelos (The Twins), two large pit craters. Here I saw my first Galápagos Mockingbird and Small Ground-Finch, and the only Vegetarian Finches of the trip. We then drove down some narrow farm lanes looking for tortoises, stopping when we located one or two among cattle in the pastures. Knowing that this visit to the highlands was probably my only chance of finding Galápagos Rail, I spent the few minutes we were given to commune with the tortoises instead poking around several promising-looking damp spots covered with dense, weedy vegetation. I did succeed in flushing a rail, but the relatively brown back and fact that it flew a short distance rather than ran suggested that it was more likely a Paint-billed Crake than a Galápagos Rail. Next we were dropped off at a subterranean lava tube and instructed to make our way through it to a restaurant/bar at the far end, a distance of about 400 meters. Washington did not accompany us, and we emerged to find him ensconced in front of the bar’s TV watching a World Cup qualifying match in which Ecuador was playing. We were supposed to be continuing on to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, but Washington and the bus driver were no hurry to leave the bar. While waiting, I wandered down the road in search of birds, but found little other than some Smooth-billed Anis and Yellow Warblers. Eventually we did drive on to Puerto Ayora, but upon our arrival were told that there had been a change of plan and we would visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Wednesday instead. In the meantime, we had 2 hours to kill in Puerto Ayora while the entire local population crowded around television sets watching the soccer match. I found my own way to the CDRS and spent an hour there before they closed, finding Common Cactus-Finch, a pair of what I was pretty sure were Large Ground-Finches, and a Galápagos Flycatcher feeding two fledglings. After the match ended, we finally drove back across the island and re-boarded Guantanamera for a very late dinner.
June 16: South Plaza and Santa Fé
We woke up to find the boat anchored off South Plaza, and ate breakfast while watching Elliott’s and Wedge-rumped (Galápagos) Storm-Petrels feeding around the stern. We then went ashore and walked the length of this small island up to cliffs where we had terrific views of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Noddies and Audubon’s Shearwaters flying past at eye-level or below. Swallow-tailed Gulls were nesting along the cliff tops, seemingly unconcerned but nonetheless in danger of being stepped on by the parade of tourists filing past. South Plaza also has a sizable population of handsome, yellow Land Iguanas. We returned to the boat at 10 a.m. and motored to Santa Fé, where we spent the early part of the afternoon snorkeling. Late in the afternoon we went ashore to a sand beach littered with sea lions, among which an American Oystercatcher and the ubiquitous Galápagos Mockingbirds were foraging. A sunset hike through a forest of enormous Opuntia cactus trees was very pleasant, and yielded good looks at Galápagos Dove and Warbler Finch.
June 17: Española
During the night we had made the long sea journey to Española, where we started the morning at Bahía Gardner. Here we were dropped off on a long sand beach and left to amuse ourselves for several hours. Hood Mockingbirds were plentiful and eager to investigate our backpacks, shoes and anything else they could get into. All three species of finch found on Española – Large Cactus-Finch, Small Ground-Finch and Warbler Finch – were feeding at the upper edge of the beach on a species of Solanum and Tiquilia, a prostrate grayish-leaved plant. The Small Ground-Finches were also feeding among the algae-covered rocks in the intertidal, hopping about among a nice population of Marine Iguanas. A Lava Heron stalked prey at the water’s edge. During lunch we motored the short distance to Punta Suárez, site of the only breeding colony of Waved Albatrosses. Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies were nesting along the rocky shore, and there were plenty of Waved Albatross nests scattered about the grassy area on the top of the island. Some of the albatross pairs were engaged in their elaborate courtship display, which includes a complex sequence of head-bobbing, bill-fencing and synchronized skypointing. Punta Suárez was also the only place during the trip where we saw Galápagos Hawks, a group of three sprawled on top of one another on the ground, forming a feathered pig-pile. A few Galápagos Fur Seals were also present at Punta Suárez, one of only a few places we would see them.
June 18: Floreana and Puerto Ayora
Wednesday morning found us at Punta Cormorán on Floreana, starting the morning with visits to Flamingo Lagoon and the green sand beach (not obviously green, but containing a lot of the pale green volcanic stone olivine mixed in with the sand). The lagoon held White-cheeked Pintail, Black-necked Stilts, several Wandering Tattlers, and about 25 very distant Greater Flamingos. Next we went snorkeling, running across a small group of Galápagos Penguins on our way out to the Devil’s Crown, a site where we found Galápagos and White-tipped Reef Sharks. Finally, a stop at Post Office Bay followed by a short hike to another lava tube, this one ending in a subterranean pool where some of us went for a very cold dip. No birds along the way, and unfortunately our sea route did not take us anywhere near Champion or Gardner Islands, where the only populations of Charles Mockingbird are found. The afternoon was spent en route to Puerto Ayora, a sea voyage of about 4 hrs. I spent the time on the aft deck looking for pelagic seabirds – one seen on the distant horizon that had long wings, a bright white underside and arcing flight was likely a Galápagos Petrel, but a closer look would have been most welcome. Upon arrival in Puerto Ayora we went directly to the Charles Darwin Research Station. In addition to the species I had seen there previously, this time I was able to identify with some certainty Medium Ground-Finch, as well as a possible Small Tree-Finch. We spent the evening in Puerto Ayora while the Guantanamera was being re-provisioned (coincidentally, Ecuador was also playing its next qualifying match), and re-boarded at about 10 p.m.
June 19: Isabela
Overnight we cruised from Puerto Ayora to Isabela, landing in the early morning at Puerto Villamil. It was a very gray, overcast day, and as we drove up into the highlands it got progressively foggier. We made the hour-long horseback ride to Sierra Negra in very damp conditions, through knee-deep mud and visibility of about 30 m. The ride follows the rim of the Sierra Negra caldera and is supposed to offer fantastic views, but from the path we were unable to see even as far as the edge of the crater. My binoculars stayed in my pack the entire time – birding from atop a horse would have been difficult enough in good weather conditions! Eventually we dismounted and walked for another hour or so across an extensive lava field to the fumaroles of Volcán Chico. The weather cleared enough for a view down the volcano’s slopes while we ate a picnic lunch on the edge of a fumarole. The return hike and horseback ride were even wetter, with a steady, penetrating drizzle soaking us the entire way back down the mountain. We proceeded to the Tortoise Breeding Center where we were able to change into dry clothes (those who had brought them) and warm up a bit while viewing the baby tortoises, and then to a restaurant in town for a late lunch. The last part of the afternoon was spent visiting The Wall of Tears, the site of a former penal colony. Here I identified with greater certainty Small Tree-Finch, and was amazed by the shear numbers of Yellow Warblers, including a flock of 25 hawking insects from a tree atop the massive stone wall.
June 20: Rábida and Bartolomé
Our first stop of the morning was the red sand beach at Rábida, where there was a nesting colony of Brown Pelicans in the scrub bordering the beach, and no birds to speak of in Flamingo Lagoon. A snorkeling trip along the shore was quickly aborted when several members of our group ran into some Portuguese Man-o-War and suffered painful stings. We motored on to Bartolomé, en route passing the bleak lava fields of Santiago, the aptly named China Hat Rock, and a volcanic island whose crater is now a lagoon where a few Greater Flamingos could be seen. We arrived at the scenic Isla Bartolomé in time to spend the afternoon snorkeling in the company of Galápagos Penguins. For me, the highlight of the entire trip was watching these amazingly fast and graceful birds swimming circles around schools of fish. Occasionally a penguin would pop to the surface a few feet away, and we would float eye-to-eye momentarily before he dived again and resumed the chase. Magic! Before dinner we made the obligatory hike up to the summit viewpoint to enjoy the sun setting over Pinnacle Rock below.
June 21: Genovesa
Another long overnight sea journey put us on Genovesa in the morning, site of the most spectacular seabird colonies we would see. A dinghy ride along the cliffs was good for viewing Red-footed Boobies, Red-billed Tropicbirds and Great Frigatebirds nesting in the overhanging vegetation, as well as baby Galápagos Fur Seals hauled out on the rocks. We ascended Prince Philip’s Steps to the top of the island, and walked to where a huge colony of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels nests in a lava field. Along the way we passed many more nesting frigatebirds, Red-footed and Nazca Boobies, and I identified two Sharp-beaked Ground-Finches and a Large Cactus-Finch. The airspace above the storm-petrel colony was thick with birds, since this species is unusual in spending the day at the nest. As a result, the Short-eared Owls that prey on the storm-petrels are also diurnal, and we were fortunate to find one perched close to us along the edge of a small ravine. As we watched, the owl non-chalantly jumped sideways a few feet into some vegetation and emerged with a storm-petrel, which he then carried to an underground burrow among rocks in the lava field. A close second to the penguin show! We returned to the boat and spent the rest of the morning snorkeling; despite poor visibility, everyone managed to glimpse one or more Hammerhead Sharks. In the late afternoon we went ashore at Darwin Bay, where the male Great Frigatebirds were putting on a particularly good show, shaking their inflated gular pouches and ululating every time a female passed overhead. The trees here, too, were thick with nesting Red-footed Boobies, and on the beach were small groups of Lava Gulls, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and nesting Swallow-tailed Gulls.
June 22: North Seymour
Our final morning was spent on North Seymour. Here we finally saw a few pairs of nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds, along with many more Great Frigatebirds and Blue-footed Boobies. A large flock of Brown Noddies was foraging around the landing area. Like South Plaza, N. Seymour also has many large Land Iguanas, although the population here consists of transplants from nearby Baltra, whose own endemic population was extirpated during WWII. During the short boat trip back to Baltra we finished packing, and were at the airport by mid-morning. The flight back to Quito was again uneventful, and we arrived at our hotel there in plenty of time for dinner.
During the 8-day trip I managed to identify 45 species with certainty, 21 of them Galápagos endemics. Four species of Darwin’s finches eluded me, along with Galápagos Rail, Galápagos Martin, and three other species that were excluded from consideration by our itinerary (Flightless Cormorant; Charles and Chatham Mockingbirds).
Complete trip list:
Galápagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) FL, BA
Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) ES
?Galápagos Petrel (Pterodroma galapagensis)
Audubon's Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri subularis) SC, SP, FL, GE, NS
Elliott’s (White-vented) Storm-Petrel (Oceanites gracilis) SP, ES, FL, IS, RA, BA, NS
Wedge-rumped (Galápagos) Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma tethys tethys) SP, ES, FL, GE
Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) SP, ES, GE
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator) SC, SP, ES, FL, IS, BA, GE, NS
Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii excisa) SC, SP, SF, ES, FL, IS, RA, BA, GE, NS
Nazca Booby (Sula granti) SP, SF, ES, FL, GE
Red-footed Booby (Sula sula websteri) GE
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) SP, SF, ES, FL, IS, RA, BA, GE, NS
Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) GE, NS
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) SC
Great Egret (Ardea alba) IS
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) SC
Lava Heron (Butorides sundevalli) SC, SP, ES, RA, GE
Striated Heron (Butorides striata) IS
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) SC, ES, RA, GE
Greater (Caribbean) Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) FL, IS
White-cheeked Pintail (Anas bahamensis galapagensis) SC, FL, IS
Galápagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) ES
?Paint-billed Crake (Neocrex erythrops) SC
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus galapagensis) SF
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) FL
Wandering Tattler (Heterosceles incanus) FL
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) NS
Lava Gull (Larus fuliginosus) SC, IS, GE
Swallow-tailed Gull (Creagrus furcatus) SP, ES, FL, GE, NS
Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus galapagensis) SC, SP, IS, RA, BA, GE, NS
Galápagos Dove (Zenaida galapagoensis) SC, SF, ES, RA, GE, NS
Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) SC, IS
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus galapagoensis) GE
Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) IS
Galápagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) SC, SF, FL
Galápagos Mockingbird (Nesomimus parvulus) SC, SF, IS, RA, GE, NS
Hood Mockingbird (Nesomimus macdonaldi) ES
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia aureola) SC, SP, SF, ES, IS, RA, GE
Large Ground-Finch (Geospiza magnirostris) SC
Medium Ground-Finch (Geospiza fortis) SC, FL
Small Ground-Finch (Geospiza fuliginosa) SC, SF, ES, RA
Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch (Geospiza difficilis) GE
Common Cactus-Finch (Geospiza scandens) SC, SP, IS, RA
Large Cactus-Finch (Geospiza conirostris) ES, GE
Vegetarian Finch (Camarhynchus crassirostris) SC
Small Tree-Finch (Camarhynchus parvulus) SC, IS
Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) SF, ES, GE
bold face = Galápagos endemics
SC = Santa Cruz
SP = South Plaza
SF = Santa Fé
ES = Española
FL = Floreana
IS = Isabela
RA = Rábida
BA = Bartolomé
GE = Genovesa
NS = North Seymour