1-15 December 2015.
The Galapagos Islands are the stuff of dreams: white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, giant tortoises, marine iguanas under your feet, stunning views, and so much more! But the Galapagos Islands are more than just eye candy for your tropical get-away. These islands are where the foundations of our understanding of evolution by natural selection started to develop. Charles Darwin visited a few of the islands in 1835, collected a few specimens and, having returned to England, started pondering the variation in birds he observed between the various islands. However, Charles Darwin was not alone in his thoughts. Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of biogeography, independently developed his thoughts on evolution by natural selection after years of research in the Malay Archipelago of South-east Asia. Together Wallace and Darwin published a paper describing their theory, but it was Darwin’s Book “On the Origin of Species” that gained all the fame. But I digress, the Galapagos Islands are loaded with scientific fame and mesmerizing data that have helped shape the theory of evolution. It is on these islands where Darwin and later Peter and Rosemary Grant documented that species were shaped via natural selection. It was Peter and Rosemary Grant and their team of researchers that documented evolution in action in Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major. They measured bill size, seed sizes, weather, food availability, and everything else they could for decades to show that natural selection was shaping bill size and distribution and hence was always at work changing, separating, and re-uniting these species. The seminal work of the Grants is truly awe-inspiring, so much so that their work was the feature of a popular book entitled “The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time” by Jonathan Weiner.
Having studied evolution for years and gobbled up the “Beak of the Finch”, when I saw Daphne Major on the horizon I nearly lost my breath. The famous Daphne Major was there, right in front of me, the site where decades of research was conducted, cementing what we know about evolution. And it is for these reasons that, for me, the Galapagos Islands are more than just a set of islands, these are the islands of evolutionary history.
Alongside the science history aspect, the Galapagos Islands really do have an otherworldly beauty and allure. The landscapes are phenomenal! Lava rock and desert landscapes form the backdrop against crystal clear blue waters with wildlife swarming all around. Literally, you have to watch where you step as marine iguanas, Galapagos sea lions, land iguanas, and Blue-footed Boobies have no fear at all. They look up at you, totally unconcerned, as you step over them. If you are looking for close encounters with wildlife the Galapagos is certainly the place to be. While Josh was trying to photograph a Galapagos Flycatcher it decided to take a closer look and perched at the end of his camera lenses. How’s that for a close up! We had incredible close ups of more wildlife than even I could have imagined. Galapagos Sea Lions loafed on the beach underfoot and playfully swam past us in the surf. Both the land and marine iguanas posed for close ups at every turn and who can’t pass up taking a photo of such a cute smile (we have hundreds of iguana photos). Sea turtles swam unconcerned around us while we snorkeled and Sally Lightfoot crabs colorfully adorned the lava rocks. The Galapagos Islands truly are a paradise.
And then there are the birds… There are 25 bird species endemic to the islands following current taxonomy, and several more seabirds which are essentially endemic and are best seen from the islands, namely the Waved Albatross, Galapagos Petrel, and Swallow-tailed Gull, as well as an endemic subspecies of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel and a breeding population of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to see all of the endemic birds on the Islands. Access to the highlands of Floreana to see Medium Tree-Finch is a bit difficult, as is access to Campion and Gardner Islets to see Floreana Mockingbird (access may be granted by the park service but approval takes time and money, and it may or may not be possible to hire a private boat to attempt a day trip). The Mangrove Finch is critically endangered and access to the mangroves that it still inhabits on the west side of Isabela is not possible. However, the remaining endemics can be readily found on their respective islands. A brief note on the taxonomy of the Galapagos endemics – a recent proposal submitted to the South American Checklist Committee points at there being two species of Large Cactus-Finch and three species of Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch, which would raise the number of Galapagos endemics. However the Sharp-beaked Ground-Finches on Santiago, Pinta, and Fernandina would be very difficult and/or impossible to access.
It can be really hard to choose which islands to visit in the Galapagos as every island offers something different and unique to see. Because we could not decide which of the islands to visit we decided that this was our once in a life time experience so we better take advantage of it. We sucked it up, picked an inexpensive boat, and booked a 15-day cruise to see as many of the islands as possible. But we also spent two days on our own prior to the tour to check out a few places the tour was not going. While it is possible to do land-based island-hopping tours, we wanted to see more of the islands and get a true experience, which necessitates one of the many cruise options.
We started by flying to San Cristóbal to track down the San Cristobal Mockingbird. In one quick afternoon in the drizzling rain (birding near the old cemetery) we met our target in 5 minutes. We also ran into five different species of finches (Gray Warbler-Finch, Vegetarian Finch, Small Tree-Finch, Small Ground-Finch, and Medium Ground-Finch). It took us awhile to identify the finches and feel comfortable with our IDs as some of the finches look remarkably similar and bill size can be very hard to judge. Many, many finches that we saw throughout the trip went unidentified because we really could not determine the ID with any certainty. In fact, bill sizes overlap in several species, and in some cases Small Ground-Finches on one Island might have larger bills due to the absence of Medium Ground-Finches with which to compete, or Medium Ground-Finches might have smaller bills where there are no Small Ground-Finches with which to compete. As well, there are several documented cases of the finches hybridizing, all of which leaves identification of some individuals a challenge indeed.
The next day we took the speed boat to Santa Cruz and spent the day in the highlands searching for the Galapagos Rail and other island specialties. One thing that I found amazing is how quickly vegetation communities change in the Galapagos as you go up in elevation. On the south sides of the islands desert scrub extends to around 330 feet but by the time you are up to 700 feet you are in the Scalesia zone (similar to low canopy montane rainforest). And at 1,300 feet you find yourself in the cold and wet elfin forest of Miconia. This rapid transition in vegetation (and temperature) is really something to see and is a pleasant surprise after spending a day in the lowland heat.
At Media Luna, in the highlands of Santa Cruz, amid the Miconia forest, Galapagos Rails lurk in the understory. We spent one misty cool afternoon searching for the rail and found a pair not too far off the trail where we got a quick peek at them. Another good birding spot in the highlands is Los Gemelos (the twin craters) in the Scalesia zone. This is a great spot to look for the tool using Woodpecker Finch and other highland finches such as Large Tree-Finch and Green Warbling-Finch. It is worth noting that you can visit both of these sites without a guide and any taxi driver will know how to get there. Catching a ride back from Los Gemelos to Puerto Ayora can take a while but eventually a bus or private vehicle will stop and give you a ride. Getting back to Puerto Ayora from Media Luna is easier as all you need to do is walk back to the Bellavista and hail a taxi.
Perhaps the most popular destinations in the highlands of Santa Cruz are Las Primicias and El Chato, both private farms adjoining the National Park, where Giant Galapagos Tortoises roam through pastures and are far easier to find. These giants come out of the forest and into the farm lands to feed on grasses and, in the process, pose for the hundreds of tourists who snap their pictures and ooh and ahh. Besides the tortoises, Las Primicias and El Chato are also a great place to see Paint-billed Crake and White-cheeked Pintail.
After our visit to the highlands, we hopped on board our boat, the Angelito, to begin 15 amazing days of cruising around the Galapagos Islands. In the Galapagos, boats range from basic cabins with bunkbeds to deluxe catamarans to small cruise-ship style boats, the higher end boats complete with hot tubs and full service bars. We opted for the lower-middle of the line on a “tourist superior” boat called Angelito. After all who needs a hot tub on a boat? The Angelito was super cozy and comfortable, very clean and well maintained, with very accommodating and friendly staff. After 15 days on the boat I was very spoiled; who was going to hand me a fresh towel after my dip in the ocean?
We visited nearly every tourist site on the islands and every single visit was incredible with something new and interesting to see, from stunning landscapes to sea turtles to Waved Albatrosses to Manta Rays to Flightless Cormorants. With so many sites, it is too much to detail every stop, so we will highlight some of our favorite stops and share photos that in this case, are better than words.
First up on our cruise was Punta Suarez on Española Island where Waved Albatrosses, Blue-footed Boobies, and Nazca Boobies nest. Some of the most colorful marine iguanas also make Española home. Española was by far one of our favorite islands. Walking amid nesting seabirds is an experience that should not be missed. And the Waved Albatross, Wow! We watched them strut their stuff and click their bills together during their mating dance. Truly awesome! I’m still smiling even writing about the them; what an amazing bird. Even more amazing is that 99% of the world’s population of Waved Albatross nest just in this one colony on this one point on this one island, and spend the rest of their lives at sea. Punta Suarez also boosts a stunning blow hole where hundreds of Waved Albatross, Galapagos Shearwaters, Elliot’s Storm-Petrels, and Nazca Boobies whiz by huge sprays of mist as the surge hits the rocks. Punta Suarez is also a good place to see Galapagos Hawk, Galapagos Dove, Swallow-tailed Gull, Large Cactus-Finch, and Española Mockingbird.
Next up we toured Santa Fe Island and South Plaza. We walked through giant prickly pear cactus and grinned at the Santa Fe Island Land Iguanas on our short island tour. The scenery at South Plaza is unreal; the red, orange, and rust colored vegetation contrast beautifully with the crystal clear waters. But the real attraction here is the nesting seabirds on the cliff. Red-billed Tropicbirds and Galapagos Shearwaters nest on South Plaza and if you’ve never seen one close up you will certainly get the opportunity at South Plaza as the Tropicbirds wing by screaming and wheeling at full speed just beneath you. Red-billed Tropicbirds are another one of those crazy cool birds that you can never get tired of looking at or listening to. South Plaza is also a good place to see Common Cactus-Finch.
A few stops later we landed at Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. We walked through Palo Santo forests up to a view point for amazing looks of the bay and Tagus Cove. Here we also encountered another Woodpecker Finch at the top of the steps. They are not super easy to find, so we were pretty thrilled to have seen another one.
Isabela and Fernandina Islands are the place to be to see Galapagos Penguin and the odd, helpless looking, and perhaps T-Rex related Flightless Cormorant. We saw several Galapagos Penguins and Flightless Cormorants and even had the pleasure of snorkeling with a few. Another great stop along Isabela was Punto Moreno. This is one of the most barren and inhospitable places to visit, but the lava fields here are other worldly and are pocketed with a mosaic of little sinkhole wetlands that are teaming with life! While enjoying the incredible landscape we saw two Galapagos Martins flying low over the island. Galapagos Martins can be hard to find, especially if it is cloudy in the highlands of Isabela where they are normally spotted, so we considered ourselves pretty lucky to have had such great looks. But probably the single best thing we saw at Punto Moreno was a Sea Horse. One of the crew members knew the area very well and helped us search the sea floor for tiny little sea horses hanging on to the algae. It required diving down a bit to have a look, but we found a sea horse! Such a cool sea creature!
Long transits between islands are generally done during the night, which makes seawatching tough. Josh and I were thus very excited to have a long trip around the southwest corner of Isabela during the day to search for the rare Galapagos Petrel. Petrels like deep water, so the southwest corner of Isabela, where the water is deep and where the prevailing winds and currents strike the islands, is perhaps the best place to look for it. As opposed to the generally quiet oceans we had had previously, the sea here was teaming with life. We spent hours on deck checking, and along with the ever common Elliot’s Storm-Petrels, Galapagos Shearwaters, Nazca Boobies, and Blue-footed Boobies, we saw a handful of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, many Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, many Red-necked Phalaropes, and, best of all, at least 10 Galapagos Petrels. I was worried that we would miss this bird, or perhaps only see one and it would be too far away to get a satisfying look, but we had a few that came really close to the boat and gave us great views.
We made a few stops at the infamous Floreana Island where a mysterious murder took place and some very interesting characters tried to make a life for themselves (see the trailer for recent movie called The Galapagos Affair). At Punto Cormorant on Floreana, we watched female Green Sea Turtles make the long trek back to the ocean after laying their eggs higher on the beach. Those ladies certainly worked hard. Off the coast of Floreana we snorkeled around Devil’s Crown which provides some of the best snorkeling the Galapagos. Unfortunately when we were there, the ocean was choppy and rough; not the best snorkeling conditions. We did, however, get great looks at a group of resting White-tipped Reef Sharks, as well as my first (rather unpleasant) encounter with a jelly fish.
Another seabird nesting colony tops our list of favorite places in the Galapagos, North Seymor Island. Here Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Blue-footed Boobies nest and depending on the time of year, the Great Frigatebirds puff up their gular pouches and strut their stuff within arm’s reach. It is really a spectacle to see and one not to miss! In all the years that I have been birding I have never seen a Frigatebird with their gular pouch inflated.
For amazing landscapes and views, Bartolome Island is a must and is understandably one of the most photographed places on the islands. If you are looking for the killer photos that you see all over the internet, make sure your tour stops in the morning, as the afternoon light will be right in your face, very harsh, and can make photography more than a little challenging.
Okay, yet another seabird nesting colony tops our list again, but how can you not love Genovesa Island. Getting to Genovesa requires a long, usually rough sail but it is worth the sleepless night and getting tossed side to side by the waves. On Genovesa, Red-footed and Nazca Boobies nest in nearly every shrub and stand on nearly every rock. There are thousands of them squawking all over the island, with Swallow-tailed Gull and Lava Gulls aplenty, a huge colony of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, and thousands of Magnificent Frigatebirds. Genovesa Island is also noteworthy for three other critters, the Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch (which probably composes at least three different species), the Genovesa subspecies of Large Cactus-Finch (which is likely a species in its own right), and Short-eared Owl. The Sharp-beak Ground-Finch, also known as the Vampire Finch, has started pecking at the bases of feathers on the backs of Nazca Boobies to drink their blood. Although this behavior has only been documented on Darwin and Wolf Islands, it is still a very cool bird to see. While the Short-eared Owl is not endemic to the islands and has a fairly worldwide distribution, it has made a name for itself on Genovesa because it has the habitat of standing outside nesting burrows of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels and nabbing them for dinner as they come out of their burrows. In fact, when we found a day roosting Short-eared Owl he had a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel in his talons and a pile of feathers and remains surrounding him.
Choosing a tour is probably one of the more difficult things as there are tons of tour operators and boats, which offer superficially similar itineraries but with different stops at different sites. Tours in the Galapagos are strictly regulated by the park service to ensure that each visitor site is not overrun with people and only certain sites can be visited by tourists. For Galapagos cruises there are two general routes that all boats run, the eastern and western route. Each route includes stops at various islands and run for 4 to 8 days each. I recommend first deciding which islands you want to visit and then work with a tour or boat operator to figure out what is the right tour for you. The Galapagos Conservancy website has a ton of great information and highlights all of the visitor sites for each of the islands to help you choose where you want to visit. We used Think Galapagos to book our tour. Rachel was extremely helpful, very knowledgeable, and knew enough about the birds and the access issues to guide us well. She put together a great trip for us and answered tons of our annoying questions. We definitely recommend Think Galapagos.
If birds are your primary motivation for going to the Galapagos it can be very expensive to book a birding specific tour. With a little research and study we were able to find all of the key species, minus the two on Floreana, on our own. All tours have a mandatory licensed naturalist guide, but unfortunately many of the guides do not have a good handle on the finches and are not there to show you all of the birds. The amount of time you have on each island is also limited so we did not have time to thoroughly bird every island and only had time to see a few species here and there. That said we still found all of the birds we were looking for. A little research can go a long way to make sure you see all of the Galapagos birds. Click galapagos data to download an excel file that contains a list of species and how many times we observed them at each visitor site from 1-15 December 2015 to help you plan what islands you would like to visit.