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GALAPAGOS (including Mainland Ecuador Extension)

Thursday 19th May - Saturday 4th June 2016

Andy Swash

Waved Albatross (Andy Swash)

Waved Albatross (Andy Swash)

Any visit to Galápagos, the aptly named ‘enchanted islands’, is guaranteed to be a wonderful wildlife experience, particularly if it involves a cruise around the archipelago in a specially chartered luxury motor yacht. And so it proved with the highly successful and enjoyable Birdquest / Wild Images tour this year, during which all 33 of the available Galápagos endemic and near-endemic birds (based on the latest taxonomic changes) were seen well. But it was the amazing creatures of Galápagos and their total lack of fear of humans that made the tour such a magical experience, allowing us intimate encounters with some of the most fascinating birds, mammals, reptiles and, for those who wished, fish, on our beautiful planet. And the photographic opportunities were endless...

Our itinerary involved a 10-night cruise aboard the well-appointed and extremely comfortable and stable Tip Top IV and took us to ten of the islands, providing a unique opportunity to see all of the ‘available’ endemic birds. Due to restrictions imposed by the Galápagos National Park Service, it is no longer possible to land at any of the sites where the Critically Endangered and declining Mangrove Finch is still known to occur. We also saw most of the endemic mammals and reptiles, and a range of the islands’ more notable invertebrates and plant life. Our total bird list was 69 species – a good tally for mid-summer. The views we managed to obtain of virtually all the species, including thirteen of the fourteen species that are currently categorized as globally threatened, were exceptional. We also found a few rare migrants and vagrant species, adding to the excitement.

There were very many highlights during the tour, but special mention should be made of the wonderful morning spent admiring Waved Albatrosses on Española, where we even had to step carefully to avoid birds nesting on the paths; excellent views of Floreana (Charles) Mockingbirds during a panga (dinghy) ride along the coast of the tiny island of Champion (landing is not permitted on this island, which is one of only two remaining strongholds for this Critically Endangered species); Medium Tree-finches (also categorized as Critically Endangered) at point-blank range in the highlands of Floreana; close views of Flightless Cormorants and Galápagos Penguins on Isabela; the evening gathering of Galápagos Petrels off Santiago (another of the Critically Endangered breeding endemics); walking amongst breeding colonies of Blue-footed, Nazca and Red-footed Boobies and displaying Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds at point-blank range. We also had unprecedented views of Paint-billed Crakes in the highlands of Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. But perhaps the most significant bird sighting of the tour was the very close and prolonged views of Galápagos Martins at a breeding site on Isabela, allowing some excellent images to be taken of this Endangered and very rarely photographed species.

The non-avian highlights included watching Galápagos Giant Tortoises on Santa Cruz; Marine Iguanas feeding on algae in the pounding surf; Land Iguanas on North Seymour; four species of endemic lava lizard and an endemic snake; and, for those who opted to go snorkelling, a bewildering array of marine life, including innumerable colourful fishes and playful Galápagos Sea Lions. But perhaps the most exciting encounters were with cetaceans: we recorded an impressive six species during the cruise, including Blue, Bryde’s and (probably) Sei Whales, and pods of Killer Whales (Orcas).

For those members of the group who had opted to go on the Andes extension, this part of the tour began with a journey from Quito to the slopes of nearby Pichincha Volcano. We were met at our hotel by Juan Carlos Calvachi, our Ecuadorian guide for the remainder of the trip, who welcomed us all on board a spacious bus, driven by Edgar, which made easy work of the steep road up to the Jocotoco Foundation Yanacocha Reserve. The morning was spent walking along the winding but flat trail running along the mountainside, giving us an opportunity to experience birding in lush, montane temperate forest. Many of the special birds of the forest at this high altitude (3,400?m) were seen along the way, the highlights including Purple-backed and Rainbow-bearded Thornbills, Rufous Wren, Spectacled Whitestart, Yellow-breasted Brush Finch, Hooded, Black-chested and Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanagers, Glossy and Masked Flowerpiercers, Bar-bellied Woodpecker and Andean Guan.

Giant Antpitta (Andy Swash)

Giant Antpitta (Andy Swash)