Jeannette and I now have a saying: “When opportunity knocks, we buy plane tickets!” And such was the case when WINGS – for whom I am a Senior Leader – offered their guides and significant others the chance to take some open berths on Rich Hoyer’s Galapagos tour. Because the boat was chartered, those empty beds would have gone to waste, so for the price of airfare and various expenses, this was a chance we simply had to make happen. Because the Galapagos!
As luck would have it, one of my weekend tours cancelled with too few participants, and I had kept the second half of June much more open than normal to work on a project. Well, with all of my guiding packed into the first two weeks of the month, plus finishing that project, plus running the store in a very busy season, etc, etc, we simply said “we have to do this” (despite all rational common sense suggesting otherwise)!
And so we did.
(I’ve taken the “travelogue” approach to this blog post as usual, recounting our trip and sharing a few thoughts and tidbits here and there. However, for a great and informative treatment of the Galapagos from birds to geology, I highly recommend John Kricher’s Galapagos: A Natural History.)
6/17: Travel Day.
It was a long day. A drive to Logan, a flight to Miami, a four hour layover, and then a flight to Quito…we didn’t get to bed until 11:30 local time (12:30 EDT). We were tired.
6/18: No time for rest yet.
A 5:45 breakfast, which we were barely conscious for, started the day. In addition to seeing Rich for the first time in many years, and Steve Howell (who also took advantage of the opportunity ahead of his upcoming Ecuador tour) for the first time in a few years, we immediately recognized two of the participants. In the “birding is a small world” department, we came to realize that we met Bill and Don in a van on St. Lucia in January! We came together when the local guides we each were spending time with teamed up to get us to and from a remote part of the island, and search for Bridled Quail-Dove and White-breasted Thrasher. Go figure.
Organizing luggage and getting ready to board the minibus in the hotel’s parking lot, Jeannette and I quickly picked up a couple of life birds, as neither of us have been to the region before: Blue-and-yellow Tanager and Scrub Tanager. There were no doubt others in the garden, but they would have to wait for our return.
Already back to the airport, we boarded our flight to Baltra in the Galapagos, with a short stop in Guayaquil. After landing in Baltra, the short walk from the tarmac to the arrivals building yielded our first endemic of the trip: Galapagos Dove – with its spiffy, screaming-blue eyeliner.
Our first Galapagos Island – North Seymour Island, as we arrived in Baltra.
Our first “Darwin’s finches” flitted about: the un-evocatively but fairly descriptively-named Medium Ground-Finch. I was looking at a Darwin’s finch. Seriously, this was a dream come true.
We cleared immigrations and customs, and then we temporarily split off from the group; we were on our own this afternoon. We hopped on the bus to the ferry for the short crossing to Santa Cruz, enjoying numerous (Galapagos) Brown Noddies along the way.
A half-hour drive to our hotel gave us a sample of the transition between habitats as we gained elevation. We arrived at the Twin Lodges Galapagos, a quaint eco-lodge with lovely and spacious rooms, on the outskirts of the town of Bellavista.
We walked into town for lunch, first feasting on numerous Yellow Warblers of the near-endemic subspecies aureola. Introduced Smooth-billed Anis were also common, and we began our education of Darwin’s finches by comparing numerous Medium and Small Ground-Finches. Separated almost exclusively by bill shape and size, we struggled a bit, especially with lone birds, even with a small mixed group in town allowing helpful direct comparisons.
Lunch from a small streetside restaurant was superb, and a nice introduction to the local cuisine.
We picked up some vittles at a bakery for dinner (lunch was the large meal of the day!) and walked back up to our lodge, spotting our lifer Dark-billed Cuckoos.
After a little rest, a short casual mosey in the other direction gave us more time with finches, including our first Green Warbler-finches, as well as garrulous Galapagos Mockingbirds.
We were in bed by 7:30 and slept for 9 ½ hours. It was wonderful.
Perhaps the most “countable” Large Ground-Finch of the day.
6/19: Birding to the Boat.
After a breakfast overflowing with fresh fruit from the garden of the lodge, we took a short cab ride to meet up with the WINGS group at their resort. It was time to let Rich do the work!
A Small Tree-Finch worked the resort grounds, and following a discussion with Rich and Steve, added Large Ground-Finch to our list from yesterday. These birds are not easy, and a lot of them seem best left unidentified, but one pair of birds in the Bellavista town square clearly had the massively deep bill (as deep or deeper than it is long) and bill ridge above its forehead that should, in theory, confirm it as a Large…and not just a large Medium!
Our birding outing uphill yielded a few Woodpecker Finches. In particular, one bird that was perched on a snag was holding a thin, straight twig in its bill. One of the only birds in the world that uses a tool, this bird had its handy, wood-boring-larvae-extracting device at the ready. “Woodpecker Finch with a tool” was one of my most-wanted observations of the trip. Score!
A Short-eared Owl almost took out Jeannette as it went crashing into the brush, offering up some of the best photographs that this species(s) will ever offer.
Then Rich went to work and got us a great look at the secretive (about the only secretive thing on these islands) Galapagos Rail – one of the most challenging species to see in the islands.
As we moseyed downhill, several Vegetarian Finches were encountered, including a few that were observed, well, eating their vegetables. One particular bird was fond of a certain type of fern frond. The uniqueness of each of Darwin’s finches is not found in their plumage, but in their diet and the amazing evolution of specialized bills to aid in that particular diet.
Galapagos Flycatchers, a rather dull Myiarchus, made their presence known, and one bird graciously posed for photos.
We then took a bus down to the ferry across the channel back to Baltra (with our first views of Galapagos Shearwaters). Then the other bus to the airport. And then another bus to the port where we took a zodiac to our home of the next week, the Nemo III. Marine Iguanas, the endemic subspecies of American Oystercatcher, our first Galapagos Seal Lions and Blue-footed Boobies, were all soon spotted.
We settled into our exceedingly comfortable cabin, then wandered around the boat, spied Elliot’s Storm-Petrels as we ate lunch, and noted a lingering Sanderling on the beach. A single spiffy Lava Gull (arguably the rarest gull in the world with only about 300 pairs) stood guard.
Blue-footed Boobies and both Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds escorted us out of the harbor as we made our way to North Seymour Island.
As we dropped anchor, the magic really began. Swallow-tailed Gulls, one of my “most wanted” species in the world were jaw-dropping. Much larger than I expected, with a loping wingbeat reminiscent of a small egret, these simply stunning birds were even more astounding than I expected.
And then we landed.
And this is what Galapagos dreams are made of. While studying dull finches in town squares was pretty cool, having to move Swallow-tailed Gulls out of the landing was a little more impressive.
With an onshore breeze, frigatebirds, Blue-footed Boobies and Swallow-tailed Gulls were cruising by at literally an arm’s length. Our lifer Nazca Boobies punctuated the sorties of Blue-foots, Galapagos Shearwaters were numerous offshore, and Small Ground-Finches worked the dry ground.
As we walked along the trail – a mere half-mile that took almost 3 hours! – both frigatebirds were enganged in all stages of breeding, from “ballooning” males to nearly-fledged chicks. A few Blue-footed Boobies were dancing, but most were already incubating or brooding chicks of various ages.
Galapagos Lava Lizards darted and prehistoric Land Iguanas lumbered. A couple of Galapagos Petrels passed by offshore, and a Great Egret was escorted off the island by a Swallow-tailed Gull.
This place was simply extraordinary, and even surpassed what I thought were outsized expectations and visions for being here. As one member of the group said, “Why the hell did I wait so long to do this!?” It defied superlatives. I just wandered around with a smile. Jeannette filled three memory cards. I’ll let the photos do the rest of the talking.
Male Great Frigatebird
6/20: San Cristobal Island.
We awoke at our anchorage of the tiny Sea Lion Island, just offshore of San Cristobal. After the information and sensory overload yesterday, it was rather relaxing to stroll the tiny island. Plenty of Blue-footed Boobies, both Frigatebirds, and –you guessed it – Galapagos Sea-Lions were present. While there was a photo at every turn yesterday, and our heads were on a swivel, we instead spent a little more time closely looking and watching behaviors of the boobies, and still trying to figure out how to separate the different ages and sexes of Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Wandering Tattler (2) and Great Blue Heron (1-2) were added to our list, along with Green Sea Turtles just offshore. A Lava Gull finally posed for photos.
The second half of the morning was spent snorkeling, it was stellar. Besides massive amounts of fish of many varieties and Diamond-backed Sting-Rays, we had feeding Marine Iguanas. It was rather surreal looking down into the water at a lizard, and we were treated to one in full swim commuting from patches of green algae – their required food source that is just starting to recover from the recent El Nino (we have seen quite a few dead iguanas that didn’t make it through the spell of warm water that kills the green algae; they apparently cannot digest the brown algae that flourishes in the warmer waters).
The fish – of which I know nothing about – were a lot of fun, but then, out of nowhere, a Sea Lion appears, and is swimming full speed right towards me! At what seemed to be the last second, it wheeled around and dodged right, as if entertaining itself in a game of chicken. It did this several times to me, then to others, and then appeared to attempt to get one of us to play. Of course, it was probably just showing off – yeah, they’re a little more nimble in the water than us flopping humans.
The icing on the cake for me was the Brown Pelican that dove into a school of baitfish nearby. It was absolutely amazing to see the bird plunge down, massive maw agape. Unfortunately for the pelican, the little fishes dodged skillfully away.
Being in the water with Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Sea-Lions, and plunging pelicans is not something I will ever forget.
Back on the boat, we motored into some deeper water, hoping to see Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. Galapagos Shearwaters were numerous, and we passed a sea stack with Nazca Boobies and a Swallow-tailed Gull.
We glimpsed only one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, along with one Band-rumped and many Elliot’s, but as we sat down for lunch, two Wedge-rumps came darting in and spent at least 20 minutes in our wake, affording great views and photo ops.
Anchoring in the unexpectedly (to us) busy harbor of the Galapagonian capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we boarded a bus for a short drive to the outskirts of town, just uphill. Starting at a small but packed cemetery, followed by a slow walk downhill on a wide bike path, we quickly scored San Cristobal Mockingbird (followed by five more on our walk), Gray Warbler-Finch (at least a dozen in all), the San Cristobal subspecies of Vegetarian Finch and Woodpecker Finch, and the largest-billed Medium Ground-Finches we have so far seen (adding to our confidence of our Large Ground-Finch identification from the first day). Small Tree-Finches and numerous Small Ground-Finches, ubiquitous Yellow Warblers, and several Smooth-billed Anis rounded out the list.
San Cristobal Mockingbird
Having gotten slightly more confident in the identification of the Darwin’s finches that we have been seeing, I have found more time to simply study their remarkable behaviors, such as the Woodpecker Finch foraging on a trunk like a nuthatch, the warbler-finch probing the ends of tiny branches like a parula, and the range of foodstuffs fed upon by the two ground-finches.
A larger Small Ground-Finch? Or a small Medium?
Definitely a Medium Ground-Finch.
Back in town, we gawked at gaudy Sally Lightfoot Crabs covering the rocks, Galapagos Sea Lions covering the docks, and a patient Lava Heron (dark-morph of the endemic subspecies of Striated Heron) waiting for passing fish.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Lava Heron (dark-morph Striated of the endemic subspecies)
6/21: Espanola Island.
Today was incredible! I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking today.
The morning started with the exceptional Espanola (Hood) Mockingbird, the first of which left the beach to inspect the deck of our boat. Many more came out to investigate us as we strolled the beach, taking in the Large Cactus-Finches (soon to be Espanola Ground-Finch) and magnificent Galapagos Hawks – a bird Jeannette and I have wanted to see for a very, very long time.
Female Espanola Lava Lizard
Another mind-boggling hour of snorkeling (even with a wetsuit, that’s about the maximum in these chilly waters) in deep water, with sealife clinging to the shear cliffs included more close passes by Galapagos Sea-Lions. King Angelfish stole the show, however, although the Chocolate Chip Seastar was also a crowd favorite.
After lunch, we visited the Waved Albatross colony (lifer!) at Suarez Point. Dozens of nesting albatross were scattered about and many more were cruising by the cliffs, riding updrafts.
I could have stayed at these cliffs all week: close passes by albatross, countless Red-billed Tropicbirds, many in display flight and Nazca Boobies, with goodly numbers of Blue-footed Boobies mixed in, a smattering of Swallow-tailed Gulls, and staggering numbers of Galapagos Shearwaters coming and going from their cliffside burrows.
The last hour of daylight was spent searching deeper waters for pelagics, which included our first Band-rumped Storm-Petrels of the trip. Then Steve Howell called out “Markham’s Storm-Petrel!” as this big, dark storm-petrel winged by – a lifer even for Rich, and a most unexpected addition to the now-hefty roster of lifer birds for me (unfortunately, Jeannette had just left to hit the shower!).
6/22: Floreana Island.
As the Nemo III cruised close to the cliffs of Gardiner-by-Floreana, a few curious Charles (Floreana) Mockingbirds came out to investigate. Critically Endangered and now found only on two offshore islets around Floreana, this was a bird I was not counting on seeing. Seeing about a half-dozen was a real treat, even if they were about as far as anything we had seen the whole trip!
A landing at Cormorant Point (named for a wrecked ship, and not the endemic flightless bird our itinerary will not be taking us to) to visit a brackish lagoon was an interesting new habitat, and yielded 11 American Flamingos, and the endemic subspecies of White-cheeked Pintail. Resident Black-necked Stilts, oversummering Ruddy Turnstones, and a single tarrying Semipalmated Plover padded the trip list as well.
endemic subspecies of White-cheeked Pintail with an oversummering Ruddy Turnstone
phone-scoped American Flamingos
Some more birding by boat produced one (perhaps 2) Galapagos Penguins in the water – another bird I did not expect to see on this tour. It only surfaced a few times, but it was seen well, and it was a real treat to see a flamingo and a penguin in the same morning!
In the afternoon, we landed at Puerto Velasco Ibarra, where a truck ride uphill into the island’s higher interior, took us to a very different habitat, and into the realm of Medium Tree-Finches, a Galapagos Tortoise reserve (non-releasable hybrids; a long story) and some fascinating island history.
The endemic subspecies of Yellow Warbler occupies many niches, including foraging for flies around tortoises.
A couple of Common Cactus-Finches welcomed us back to town, joining the Small and Medium Ground-Finches, not to mention the Marine Iguanas and sea lions lining the pier.
Heading into our most productive seabirding waters after lunch, we were soon rewarded with a staggering amount of Galapagos Shearwaters, 100’s of Brown Noddies, and countless swirling Elliot’s and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. A feeding frenzy attracted both Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies, and was centered around a group of feeding whales, which we unfortunately did not get very close to. We did have a couple of Minke Whales before and after, and a little while later, a magnificent Blue Whale – the largest animal to ever roam the earth.
Steve checks to make sure he isn’t missing anything.
With our trip already half-over, it seems like a good place to break. Look for Part II (including our species list) in a separate blog post in the coming days!