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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

The Galápagos Islands

2022 Narrative

It’s hard to imagine that life in the Galapagos is the main reality for the people who live there, such as the guides and boat crews, but also for the people who live in the towns and grow up there. For us it was a world away from reality, and a fascinating and beautiful one. While every outing had its highlights, the last full morning’s stroll amongst breeding and courting Waved Albatrosses and so many other birds stood out as the highlight. Other most memorable experiences were when our catamaran slowly motored through two different schools of Common Bottlenose Dolphins, the first probably numbering well over 300, and we were in awe of their ability to have fun leaping in front of the bows. Then there were the Elliot’s Storm-Petrels nearly always present behind the boat when we were close to shore, swimming with Green Sea Turtles and Galapagos Sea Lions, nesting Red-footed Boobies at arm’s length, and so many more enriching experiences. The boat’s crew was always wonderful, always helpful and our guide Jairo a patient and well-prepared interpreter of the amazing natural world we were witnessing.

IN DETAIL: Relieved to get out of the very uncomfortable seats in the crowded plane, we were greeted by Medium Ground-Finches and a Galapagos Dove as we arrived at the Baltra airport. Soon we were off to the highlands of Santa Cruz for our pre-cruise day of land birding. Crossing the Itabaca channel we had our first Magnificent Frigatebirds and a single Lava Gull. In the highlands, the giant tortoises at our lunch stop were the main attraction, and a low groaning led us to a mating pair, a first for everyone. They were still at it when we left, a nearby sleeping White-cheeked Pintail (of the endemic subspecies) paying no attention. As we left, our bus stopped when Jairo noticed a Paint-billed Crake bathing in a mud puddle in the middle of the road. In search for the endemic passerines at Los Gemelos, we saw our first Woodpecker Finches in a moist woodland with abundant and varied ferns and a mushroom-cloaked log. In the transition zone a little lower we had what would be our only Vegetarian Finches of the tour as well as a very cooperative Dark-billed Cuckoo. The abundant moths flushing from our feet included the stunningly beautiful Rattlebox Moth as well as an endemic butterfly – the Galapagos Blue.

A morning was spend seeing yet another Paint-billed Crake on our hotel grounds, followed by a pair of Galapagos Rails sneaking amongst the bracken ferns at Media Luna. We tried again for Large Tree Finch to no avail before making our way to the Nemo III in the Itabaca Channel for lunch. As we were setting off for our first outing, an Elliot’s Storm-Petrel flew into the dining area, and we had to catch it to toss it back out the back of the boat. Our scheduled afternoon outing was the loop walk on South Seymour Island, and it was a head-first plunge into the type of experiences that make the Galapagos such an incredible place. Nesting Blue-footed Boobies right by the trail, mating Great Frigatebirds, Lava Gulls unaware of their global rarity, Swallow-tailed Gulls playing in the breeze, young Galapagos Sea Lions fighting on the beach, and Land Iguanas lumbering past the group were all memorable. Those who looked a little more closely were treated to sightings of an endemic flightless grasshopper and a Hammerhead Shark swimming close to the surface by our anchored boat.

We awoke to a very different place in Darwin’s Bay at Genovesa Island. The morning’s first outing was up Prince Philip’s Steps to the top plateau, and right at the top were many pairs of Nazca Boobies, some displaying to attract those flying by, one carefully placing items around what might become a successful nest, and others wedging their way through our group to gain access to the takeoff point at the top of the cliff. The hike was highlighted by Short-eared Owls – one in a cliff nook and another in amongst the swarms of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, a sight unlike any other on Earth. We eventually tallied the two endemic species of finches found only on this little, remote island, as well as Gray Warbler-Finches and a unique subspecies of Galapagos Mockingbird. After snorkeling that included a White-tipped Reef Shark seen from the panga and gaudy Moorish Idols, we walked on the beach and behind a few mangroves where Great Frigatebirds and Red-footed Boobies were everywhere. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons could have been overlooked, but for one that sat stolidly at eye-level on the lava. Tiny Marine Iguanas basked in the sun, while Red-billed Tropicbirds screeched in frantic chases overhead (while also being pursued by hungry frigatebirds). The tiny ghost crabs scattering in the sand by the mangroves were an endemic species not to be overlooked. As we left, we paused briefly to watch a pair of mating Swallow-tailed Gulls, but then it wasn’t so brief after all. The male continued standing on the female after the first cloacal kiss, and in the end, they mated 7 times in an acrobatic feat worthy of the Cirque du Soleil. We departed Genovesa and headed westward in time for some late afternoon pelagic birding, during which we saw our first Galapagos Petrel.

We had a full day between Isabella and Fernadina Islands around the Bolívar Channel, the coolest and richest waters we would visit. We started with a panga ride below the cliffs of Punta Vicente Roca where Brown Noddies, with their placid facial expressions, perched on protrusions in the strange wind- and water-etched tuff cliffs. We detoured to a small feeding group of storm-petrels and a Mola-mola lolling on the surface. We then snorkeled in the same area, and the richness of the waters was in evidence as we swam with Galapagos Sea Lions and abundant Green Sea Turtles. Lucky ones had a giant Oceanic Manta Ray, Yellow-fin Tuna, and a school of Galapagos Penguins swim right by them. Before crossing the channel, we stopped at the mouth of Tagus Cove to spot the rare Galapagos Martins. As we arrived at Punta Espinosa, we flushed dense rafts of Galapagos Shearwaters that included some of the dark-winged and dark-faced forms that may be a separate species. We first snorkeled in the shallow water among algae-covered rocks where we spotted a few Marine Iguanas grazing while holding their breaths, and then our walk amongst the Lava Cactus-dotted lava flows was highlighted by not just the endemic cacti but our first Galapagos Hawks and a Western Galapagos Snake. Even though it had been a full day of memorable highlights, it wasn’t over yet. As we motored south through the channel to our next destination, we found ourselves amidst a group of Bryde’s Whales, with many shearwaters and storm petrels taking their share of little fish around the edges of the pod.

Our day up into the highlands of Isabela above the town of Puerto Villamil was a long one. On the panga ride to the dock we passed by a perched Galapagos Penguin in the harbor and then at the dock were greeted by a very confident young sea lion wandering just a bit from his mother. We soon met up with our chiva’s driver (who asked for our permission to pick up his daughter from day care so we could drop her off at school) and headed to the highlands. At the end of the road we trekked up to the edge of Serra Negra crater, all along hoping to find Large Tree-Finch, and maybe arrive at the top as the fog and mist cleared. We did eventually have glimpses of the huge crater below the rim, but the highlights of the muddy walk were the several Brujo Flycatchers, including one handsome male and a female feeding two adorable recent fledglings. It was nice to see that there’s at least one stronghold for this very threatened and dwindling species. We squeezed in a visit to the mangrove lagoons to see American Flamingos, amongst which were Yellow-billed Pintails, Black-necked Stilts, and our first Common Cactus-Finch. With a short scan of the beach, we saw some over-summering shorebirds and a Great Blue Heron, as well as a whole cluster of baby Marine Iguanas close by. We had even better views of more Galapagos Penguins on the same rocks before we were back at the Nemo III for a late lunch, where another sea lion stole the show by sitting on the back step of the boat. We were far enough into deep water before what would be a stunning sunset in order to add a lone Sooty Shearwater to the growing bird list.

We awoke offshore of the town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Floreana and soon made our way to another chiva for a ride into the highlands. We had another fascinating encounter with giant tortoises, these in an enclosure and harboring genes from several different island species, and we also enjoyed learning about the strange human stories of the colonization of this island. But there were birds to be seen too, such as the very local Medium Tree-Finch and another memorable encounter with Short-eared Owls in the forest. We finally saw our first Galapagos Flycatcher, though closer views would have to wait. Leaving the higher, wetter forest behind, we looked among the many butterflies closer to town, finding a Queen as well as many blues of both species, and even there found another Medium Tree-Finch as well as much better views of the Galapagos Flycatcher. Back on the boat for lunch, we were interrupted just before starting our dessert by the announcement that we were passing through a school of dolphins. We weren’t quite prepared for the amazing show we would experience for the next 20 minutes or more, as hundreds of these playful animals surrounded the boat. Maybe only the most acrobatic or privileged of the school rode the wave in front of the boat, and we finally had to tear ourselves away. It took some patience, but from the Nemo III we had very good views of a pair of Floreana Mockingbirds on the satellite islet of Champion before we had a super fun time snorkeling about ¾ the way around it, starting in deeper waters with huge schools of fish, and ending in calmer, shallower waters where we watched Galapagos Sea Lions performing acrobatics around us and spotted a very cryptic Stone Scorpionfish on the sea floor. Meanwhile Red-billed Tropicbirds chattered and flew along the short cliffs, giving a nice show. We had some pelagic birding on the way eastward, seeing our first majestic Waved Albatrosses.

Morning found us in Barrington Bay on the northeast side of Santa Fe Island. Our walk through the forest of stark palo santo trees and enormous, trunked prickly pears (hugging the biggest one) was memorable. The Santa Fe Land Iguanas endemic to this little island were a treat to see, as were nursing Sea Lions and our best views of Galapagos Hawk yet. We snorkeled a long circuit around the bay with many highlights, including more acrobatic Sea Lions, a rare Hawksbill Sea Turtle, several diamond stingrays, a snake-like Mosaic Moray, and a majestic White-tipped Reef Shark. We then motored to the much larger and well-populated San Cristóbal Island where we easily nabbed our third species of endemic mockingbird. We visited the galapaguera where baby Giant Tortoises were adorable, and countless Yellow Warblers almost seemed to enjoy our presence. We ended with a sighting of the subspecies of Woodpecker Finch endemic to this island followed by a bit of shopping before pulling anchor and having some pelagic birding time en route to our last island.

We took a very long and leisurely stroll around Punta Suarez on our last full day in the Galapagos, and it was worth every minute. Most boats include this most amazing of sites in their afternoon itinerary, so we had it all to ourselves during the best time of day. Our fourth and final mockingbird species ignored us upon our arrival as it dug in the sand just a few yards away, apparently finding tiny arthropods to eat. We later watched one eating pieces of skin being shed by a Marine Iguana. We spent some time mesmerized by the blowhole while Waved Albatrosses, Nazca Boobies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds skirted the cliffs in perfect light with an amazing backdrop of partially cloudy skies. One tropicbird was spotted on its nest up under a giant boulder. A nest with two baby Blue-footed Boobies was right in the trail, and one of the many pair of Waved Albatrosses seemed to be planning to have their egg right in the trail as well. In addition to the birds we enjoyed seeing more endemic taxa, such as Española Wolf Spider, Española Galapagos Racer, and Española Lava Lizard. In the afternoon, our walk on the stunningly white beach was highlighted by the spotting of a Tiger Snake Eel in the intertidal rocks as well as a hatchling Green Sea Turtle that we watched disappear into the sea. We snorkeled around the the islet Osborn, seeing a huge ray, another White-tipped Reef Shark, some Reef Cornetfish, and a Diamond Stingray attending babies.

Our final morning wasn’t wasted as the captain took us on a spin around Daphne Major, and he even detoured into the swarms of feeding Galapagos Shearwaters just offshore to give us better views of an Oceanic Manta Ray lounging on the water surface. We then had one last half hour to soak up the pleasure of sitting on top deck and watching the vast ocean around us before our flight back to Quito.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 18 January 2023