7 - 17 May 2022
by János Oláh
This year we had two back to back tours to these most amazing group of islands! The Galapagos archipelago is situated 1000 kilometres out into the Pacific Ocean off Ecuador and I think this tour is most closely resembles to our arctic cruises with very tame wildlife with a big list of endemic birds as a great bonus! It also offers an outstanding chance for wildlife photography and even snorkelling. These island have one of the highest rates of endemism of any island group in the world and harbour many unique creatures, including several forms of Giant Tortoise, the strange but wonderful Marine Iguana and no fewer than 30 endemic species of birds! The islands are also justly famous as the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution through natural selection and the inspiration for his book The Origin of Species, formulated after his visit in 1835. He found these islands inhabited by a strange, almost random, selection of plants, reptiles, birds and mammals – all of which had apparently reached the islands by chance and were in the process of ‘coming to terms’ with their new-found environment, slowly evolving into new species. The Ecuadorian government declared most of the 8000 square kilometres (nearly 3100 square miles) of the archipelago, which consists of over 50 islands, a national park in 1959. Most of the archipelago and its important wildlife is now carefully protected as one of the most precious of the world’s natural showpieces.
Our tour is designed to see all the available endemic birds on these islands on a specially crafted itinerary in the shortest possible time. We used the handsome, first-class motor yacht, the Nemo III, which has 8 cabins available and comfortably takes up to 14 passengers. A superb boat to explore the Galapagos! On our first tour in 2022 we managed to see all the available endemic birds of these islands as well as all but one of the available endemic subspecies. Strictly following the current taxonomy we recorded 69 species on this first tour as well as five species of mammals and good number of reptiles and insects. We also tried to see every currently recognised taxon of birds as you never know when they will be split up like the Grey Warbling Finch complex. There are some islands where tourist are not allowed hence not all Darwin’s finches are possible to see. On our short cruise we have visited eight of the main islands such as Santa Cruz, Genovese, Santa Fé, San Cristóbal, Espanola, Floreana, Isabela and Fernandina. We also visited several smaller offshore satellite islands like Baltra, Seymour Norte and Champion. We had the best possible landing slots to see the birds and could spend extended landing times on each island we could visit. There were many highlights but surely the walk amongst the breeding Waved Albatrosses on Espanola, watching the rare Galapagos Martin in its breeding ground, seeing the amazingly blue-eyed Flightless Cormorant, watching male Darwin’s Flycatchers on Isabela, tracking down some rare Darwin’s finches such as Vegetarian Finch and Large Tree Finch on Santa Cruz, lurking the skulking Paint-billed and Galapagos Crakes into view and of course the endless seabirds on the cruises are all to be remembered for a long time. It was a magical experience!
Our tour started in Quito where the group met and we were soon on our way to the Galapagos! When we arrived to Baltra Island off Santa Cruz where the main airport is located we had to go through all the necessary bureaucratic procedure, but it was smoothly run and really tourist friendly! Our first endemic bird was the Galapagos Dove while walking from the airplane to the customs. We encountered our first Darwin’s finch, the Small Ground Finch inside the terminal building while waiting for our baggage to arrive. We soon met our local naturalist guide Darwin – yes, we could not believe when he introduced himself – and moved to the harbour to board the Nemo III. It was all quick and efficient while birds were all around us. Galapagos Shearwaters were circling in the bay as well as Elliot’s Storm Petrels flitting around the boats. There was a single Grey Plover on the shore which turned out to be the only one of the tour. It was late afternoon by now so our boat quickly navigated to Seymour Norte Island just a few minutes away where we had an our first introductory landing and walk. It was really good to start this adventure and our short walk took us about two hours seeing Lava Herons, Swallow-tailed and Lava Gulls, many breeding Greater Frigatebirds and Blue-footed Boobies as well as our first Medium Ground Finch and many Land Iguanas. After sunset we were back on the boat and after our first great dinner we sailed out from the bay and off to the north towards remote Genovesa Island!
Dawn on the deck! This became a habit for many, sipping coffee watching the new location where we arrived – most of the long sailings were done at night. Our first such a morning was inside the sea-filled old caldera of Genovesa (Tower) Island, a fantastic location! A newly fledged Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel was on board this morning, perhaps landed on the boat out at sea while getting close to the island. It was well photographed and later it flew away. After breakfast we had a landing at Prince Philip’s Steps and walked to the Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel breeding colony. Wow! It was exciting to see thousands or tens of thousands of these storm petrels flying around while we quickly secured great looks of Genovesa Ground Finch, Genovesa Cactus Finch, mentalis race of the Grey Warbling Finch and impressive-billed Large Ground Finches! Breeding Red-footed Boobies of both white and brown morphs were along the trail and Nazca Boobies were also numerous. It took some time for us to find the ‘Galapagos’ Short-eared Owl but eventually Darwin located one roosting inside a crevice, well hidden from the eyes of visitors. The bauri race of Galapagos Mockingbird was also common and it is a very likely future split as Genovesa Mockingbird. On our way back to Nemo we found a few Galapagos Fur Seals, a rather hard-to-find endemic mammal. Lunch and snorkelling was followed by another landing with more looks of the same birds and lots of photography opportunities. Late afternoon we left Genovesa behind and spent the last bumpy hour with sea watching. We had a few Band-rumped Storm Petrels and our first Galapagos Petrel.
Dawn on the deck was in a calm bay at Santa Fé (Barrington) Island and we had a pre-breakfast landing to this special cactus covered island. Right at the landing spot we found three White-rumped Sandpipers and the bifasciata race of the Grey Warbling Finch. Our short walk in this unique habitat was very pleasant in the early morning hours! The barringtoni subspecies of Galapagos Mockingbird gave excellent looks as well as many Small and Medium Ground Finches plus our first Common Cactus Finches. It was interesting to see that these finches peeled off a little skin from the cactus and were drinking at this spot, one species after the other. Yellow looking Santa Fé Land Iguanas were also seen and were ready for breakfast! Back on boat we spotted our first Galapagos Hawks and Elliot’s Storm Petrels were dancing around us while having breakfast. After a short snorkelling session we were off to San Cristóbal. The few hours at sea was great and we spotted our first Waved Albatrosses and as many as 37 critically endangered Galapagos Petrels. We even found three breeding plumaged Red-necked Phalaropes which was an unexpected bonus. After lunch we arrived to San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island where two Kelp Gulls (rarity) were spotted in the harbour and we soon boarded our bus to explore the higher parts of this large island. We spent most of our time in the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a tortoise breeding centre. We saw our first Giant Tortoises as well as all the birds we were after such as San Cristobal Mockingbird, Galapagos Flycatcher, the luteola race of Grey Warbling Finch and the striatipectus subspecies of Woodpecker Finch. Supporting cast included many Mangrove Warblers and a Dark-billed Cuckoo for some. Back on Nemo we had a lovely dinner and as soon as we were in bed the anchor was lifted.
Dawn on the deck was in the sheltered Gardner’s Bay of Espanola Island. This bay with its superb sandy beach is on the northern shore of this most south-easterly island of the Galapagos group. A remote island famous of its breeding Waved Albatrosses, where 99% of the World’s population is found. A few breeding pairs occur at Isla de La Plata off coast of Manabí, still in Ecuador. We soon made a landing on this fantastic beach and there was only us and the wildlife – magical! Finding the target birds was not much of a challenge as the Espanola Mockingbirds were easily located, they were actually waiting for us. Apparently this is the mockingbird species which spends most time on the ground – compared to the other three species and numerous subspecies – and it is the ‘next’ species to became flightless (not in our lifetime though). Next we found the cinerascens race of Grey Warbling Finch feeding on the low bushes along the coast and soon the massive-billed Espanola Cactus Finch also showed well. We were also entertained by many Small Ground Finches and a few Galapagos Sea Lions as we were heading back for breakfast. We had a fantastic snorkelling session with the Sea Lions while some of us used the panga (zodiac) for photography. The galapagensis race of American Oystercatcher was also seen. A short boat ride took us to Punta Suarez for an afternoon landing. What a place it was with breeding Waved Albatrosses, Galapagos Hawks, Nazca Boobies, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Swallow-tailed Gulls, more Espanola Mockingbirds and Cactus Finches as well as several really pinkish coloured Marine Iguanas. Needless to say the afternoon was fantastic and a few hours passed in a blink of an eye.
Dawn on the deck found us anchored by the tiny island of Champion near Floreana (Charles) Island. Here we had a mission to find one of the rarest birds of the archipelago, the Floreana Mockingbird. It was the first mockingbird species described by Darwin and now only found on two tiny islands off the coast. Apparently Darwin’s reports say these birds were widespread across mainland Floreana, however it only took 50 years for the species to become extinct on the island (some people questions if they were ever numerous on the main island). During his travels he came across three other species of mockingbird in Galapagos. The differences in the three mockingbird species he saw triggered his idea that they all derived from a common ancestor, and that was used as part of his evidence for evolution by natural selection. So mockingbirds and not the finches! Anyway we started to scan the island by telescope as soon as there was light. Eventually a mockingbird was spotted but unfortunately disappeared before all got to see it. We wasted no time and jumped to our panga and started cruising around the island to get better looks – you are not allowed to land. It was not easy, but finally we had really nice looks of this critically endangered bird. Success and breakfast! We navigated to Puerto Velasco Ibarra and our local bus was waiting for us to transfer us to the highlands of Floreana. Our first stop was in some highland agricultural area where we quickly lured a Paint-billed Crake into view as well as tracked down another critically endangered endemic, the Medium Tree Finch. After this we drove to Asilo de La Paz, yet another Giant Tortoise reserve where we saw more Paint-billed Crakes, many Small and a few Medium Tree Finches, Galapagos Flycatcher and even a roosting ‘Galapagos’ Short-eared Owl. Our afternoon was spent sea watching as we were cruising towards Isabela Island. We had Band-rumped, Wedge-rumped and Elliot’s Storm Petrels, Waved Albatrosses, logged 14 Galapagos Petrels, a Sooty Shearwater and 265 Galapagos Shearwaters. It was dark when we dropped anchor in the harbour of Puerto Villamil.
This morning we drove to Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela (Albemarle) Island. We stopped a few times to explore some side trails before reaching the final car park. We had our first looks of the productus subspecies of Woodpecker Finch and heard a few Galapagos Crakes but they did not show. As soon as we stopped at the highest parts of the road a fine male Darwin’s Flycatcher was found by the national park buildings. Wow, it was unexpected, a potentially difficult bird fell quickly and we actually saw a total of eight during our morning walk! In this special place we walked all the way to the rim of the caldera, a pleasant 2,5 kilometre walk through birding habitat. Sierra Negra or Black Volcano is a large shield volcano at the south-eastern end of Isabela Island that rises to an altitude of 1124m. The caldera itself is 7,2 x 9,3 kilometre. It is one of the most active of the Galapagos volcanoes with the most recent historic eruption beginning in June 2018 and continuing through the summer. We had no volcanic activity this year but had great looks of the lava flows and great birding on our walk in and out. Apart from the Darwin’s Flycatchers we had several Green Warbling, Small Tree and Woodpecker Finches. It was a very nice morning in a very special habitat and landscape. On our way back we had the galapagensis race of White-cheeked Pintails, some pink American Flamingos and Black-necked Stilts. We were back to Nemo by lunch and we soon started cruising west along the south side of Isabela, we had a long way to go until next morning. It was an exciting afternoon though with many seabirds. We logged 59 Galapagos Petrels, three Sooty and one Pink-footed Shearwaters as well as 638 Galapagos Shearwaters. We also had many jumping rays, it was fun photographing them! Ah and the sunset was amazing, especially with Galapagos Petrels flying around us.
Dawn on the deck found us in Tagus Cove well north along the western side of Isabela. No doubt we had some really exciting targets for today. Birds you cannot see without visiting this part of the Galapagos. And all those birds are special indeed, the rare Galapagos Martin which has probably less than 250 individuals, the largest and the only flightless cormorant in the World with amazing blue eyes and the Galapagos Penguin which is the only penguin species which may be seen north of the Equator if you lucky. Well, all three of these special birds were found in our first 30 minutes at this special location. We saw the Galapagos Martins visiting some nesting crevices on a large rock wall while penguins and cormorant were feeding in the cove. The latter two was seen a few more times during the day with progressively better looks. After this great morning we sailed to Punta Espinosa on Fernandina (Narborough) Island. A short walk at this location gave us our only Striated Heron of the tour, some Wandering Tattlers, scope views of Flightless Cormorants, Galapagos Hawk and many Marine Iguanas. This was the location where they filmed the snakes going after the baby iguanas for the Attenborough film. Exciting location but we had not seen any snakes on this occasion however snorkelling with iguanas was fun. A short boat ride produced a rather scarce Pomarine Skua before we arrived to Punta Vicente Rocha back on Isabela. This was our last stop of the day and a panga ride gave us the best looks of Flightless Cormorants and Galapagos Penguins. There were also many Green Turtles and snorkelling with them was remarkable. Late afternoon we started cruising north seeing many seabirds again, we logged 43 Galapagos Petrels and 321 Galapagos Shearwaters. One of the best experience was a large pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins jumping around us. By dusk we reached Albemarle point, the northern tip of Isabela.
Our last morning on deck was near Daphne Major Island and this time we were not anchored but still cruising towards Baltra Island where our cruise has started. Sadly our time on Nemo III. has ended and after breakfast we said goodbye to the fantastic crew and were on our way to Media Luna on the island of Santa Cruz (Indefatigable). We had a full day to explore this second largest island of the archipelago and to find a few really tricky birds. Our hike up was easy and higher we got more Galapagos Crakes were calling around us from the thick vegetation. Eventually with managed to get excellent looks of this slat-bluish bird with a piercing red eye and spotted wings in the ferny undergrowth. Success! We also had several Woodpecker Finches, the nominate pallidus subspecies here as well as many Green Warbling Finches. Our next port of call was the Los Gemelos area in search of the rare Large Tree Finch. Our first hours produced no such a bird but great looks of Medium Ground and Small Tree Finches. We decided it was time for lunch, but before we arrived to our restaurant we found a roosting American Barn Owl, the endemic punctatissima race. Nice looking bird and always good to see a Tyto anywhere in the World! At our lunch place we saw many Giant Tortoises, some huge individuals. In the ‘garden’ of the restaurant right by the national park they planted many fruiting trees and the tortoise spend a lot of time here. They were really impressive indeed! We were back to the forest after lunch and our luck turned, we got prolonged looks of a male Large Tree Finch. We were very happy and decided to go straight for the last possible Darwin’s finch on our tour, the scarce Vegetarian Finch. So we drove to Puerto Ayora and visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in the last afternoon. Despite much effort we could not find any Vegetarian Finches. We had very nice observations of previously seen birds like Galapagos Mockingbirds, Small, Medium and Large Ground Finches and several Common cactus Finch. Our final dinner at Puerto Ayora was great, remembering all the amazing adventures we have done on this action-packed birding holiday though somehow we felt uneasy without the Vegetarian Finch. So early next morning we drove out to another location before breakfast in hope to connect with our last Darwin’s finch. Persistence pays off and this time we found a male Vegetarian Finch along a small forest trail feeding on some red berries. A grand finale indeed! We were back for breakfast, a quick packing and soon on our way to the airport. We said good bye to our very helpful, knowledgeable guide Darwin who made a big effort to make the tour successful and we will long remember his fantastic drawings for the daily program. Our 2022 Galapagos I. tour has finished and we can certainly conclude we saw all the birds we wanted, and we had a keen and lovely group of birders and photographers!
BIRDS OF THE TOUR
1st: Waved Albatross
2nd: Galapagos Crake
3rd: Flightless Cormorant
4th: Blue-footed Booby
5th: Blue-footed Booby
SYSTEMATIC LIST OF SPECIES RECORDED
White-cheeked Pintail Anas bahamensis
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani
Dark-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus melacoryphus A single was seen on San Cristóbal.
Galapagos Dove ◊ Zenaida galapagoensis Endemic. Common.
Paint-billed Crake ◊ Neocrex erythrops Excellent looks on Floreana.
Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata
Galapagos Crake ◊ Laterallus spilonota Endemic. Brilliant looks on Santa Cruz. Vulnerable
American Flamingo ◊ (Caribbean F) Phoenicopterus ruber
American Oystercatcher (Galapagos Oystercatcher) Haematopus [palliatus] galapagensis Endemic race, three were seen on Espanola.
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
Grey Plover (Black-bellied P) Pluvialis squatarola
Hudsonian Whimbrel Numenius hudsonicus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis Three were seen on Santa Fé, a rare passagebird.
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus Three breeding plumaged birds were seen on the way to San Cristóbal.
Wandering Tattler Tringa incana
Brown Noddy (Common N) Anous stolidus
Swallow-tailed Gull ◊ Creagrus furcatus Beautiful! Hundreds were seen.
Lava Gull ◊ Leucophaeus fuliginosus Endemic. About 15 were seen. Vulnerable
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus A rarity seen on San Cristóbal.
Pomarine Jaeger Stercorarius pomarinus One was seen in the Bolivar Channel.
Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus
Galapagos Penguin ◊ Spheniscus mendiculus Endemic. A total of 31 were seen on Isabela. Endangered
Elliot’s Storm Petrel ◊ (White-vented S P) Oceanites gracilis Common.
Waved Albatross ◊ Phoebastria irrorata Endemic. Amazing on Espanola! Critically endangered
Band-rumped Storm Petrel ◊ Hydrobates castro About ten were seen.
Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel ◊ Hydrobates tethys Amazing to see the breeding colony on Genovesa.
Galapagos Petrel ◊ Pterodroma phaeopygia Endemic. A total of 157 were logged. Critically endangered
Sooty Shearwater Ardenna grisea A few seen around Isabela.
Pink-footed Shearwater ◊ Ardenna creatopus One was seen along the southern shores of Isabela. Vulnerable
Galapagos Shearwater ◊ Puffinus subalaris Endemic. Common.
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
Great Frigatebird Fregata minor
Blue-footed Booby ◊ Sula nebouxii
Nazca Booby ◊ Sula granti Common.
Red-footed Booby ◊ Sula sula Common on Genovesa.
Flightless Cormorant ◊ Nannopterum harrisi Endemic. Those blue eyes! A total of 29 were seen. Vulnerable
Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea
Lava Heron ◊ Butorides sundevalli Endemic. Several sightings throughout.
Striated Heron Butorides striata A singleton was seen on Fernandina.
Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Galapagos Hawk ◊ Buteo galapagoensis Endemic. A total of six were seen. Vulnerable
American Barn Owl* ◊ (Galapagos B O) Tyto [furcata] punctatissima This endemic race was seen well on Santa Cruz.
Short-eared Owl ◊ (Galapagos S E O) Asio [flammeus] galapagoensis Endemic race. One was seen on Genovesa and one on Floreana.
Darwin’s Flycatcher ◊ (Galapagos Vermilion F) Pyrocephalus nanus Endemic. A total of eight were seen on Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela. Vulnerable
Galapagos Flycatcher ◊ Myiarchus magnirostris Endemic. Regularly seen.
Galapagos Martin ◊ Progne modesta Endemic. Excellent looks of 9 birds in Tagus Cove on Isabela. Endangered
Galapagos Mockingbird ◊ Mimus [parvulus] parvulus Endemic. Seen well on Isabela and Santa Cruz.
Galapagos Mockingbird ◊ Mimus [parvulus] barringtoni Endemic. Seen well on Santa Fé.
Galapagos Mockingbird ◊ Mimus [parvulus] bauri Endemic. Great looks on Genovesa. Potential split.
Floreana Mockingbird ◊ Mimus trifasciatus Endemic. Had to work, for it but eventually great looks on Champion Island near Floreana Island. Endangered.
Espanola Mockingbird ◊ (Hood M) Mimus macdonaldi Endemic. Common. Vulnerable
San Cristobal Mockingbird ◊ (Chatham M) Mimus melanotis Endemic. Several seen on San Cristóbal.
Mangrove Warbler Setophaga petechia Common. Subspecies aureola.
Green Warbler-Finch ◊ (Olive W-F) Certhidea olivacea Endemic. First seen on Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela. Vulnerable
Grey Warbler-Finch ◊ (Dusky W-F) Certhidea [fusca] mentalis Endemic. Two were seen on Genovesa.
Grey Warbler-Finch (Dusky W-F) Certhidea [fusca] luteola Endemic. About eight were seen on San Cristóbal.
Grey Warbler-Finch ◊ (Dusky W-F) Certhidea [fusca] cinerascens Endemic. Five were seen on Espanola.
Grey Warbler-Finch ◊ (Dusky W-F) Certhidea [fusca] bifasciata Endemic. Four were seen on Santa Fé Island.
Vegetarian Finch ◊ Platyspiza crassirostris Endemic. After much work we finally had one on Santa Cruz. Great looks!
Medium Tree Finch ◊ Camarhynchus pauper Endemic. A scarce one but four were seen well on Floreana. Critically endangered
Woodpecker Finch ◊ Camarhynchus [pallidus] pallidus Endemic. Several seen on Santa Cruz
Woodpecker Finch ◊ Camarhynchus [pallidus] productus Endemic. Many seen on Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela.
Woodpecker Finch ◊ Camarhynchus [pallidus] striatipecta Endemic. Five were seen on San Cristóbal.
Small Tree Finch ◊ Camarhynchus parvulus Endemic. First seen on Floreana.
Large Tree Finch ◊ Camarhynchus psittacula Endemic. A superb male was seen on Santa Cruz. Tricky one! Vulnerable
Small Ground Finch ◊ Geospiza fuliginosa Endemic. Common except on Genovesa.
Genovesa Ground Finch ◊ Geospiza acutirostris Endemic. Several were seen on Genovesa. Vulnerable
Espanola Cactus Finch ◊ Geospiza conirostris Endemic. Common on Espanola. Vulnerable
Genovesa Cactus Finch ◊ Geospiza propinqua Endemic. Common on Genovesa. Vulnerable
Large Ground Finch ◊ Geospiza magnirostris Endemic. Fairly common on Genovesa, rare elsewhere. Two seen on Santa Cruz as well.
Common Cactus Finch ◊ Geospiza scandens Endemic. Regularly seen, first on Santa Fé Island.
Medium Ground Finch ◊ Geospiza fortis Endemic. Regularly seen.
Galapagos Fur Seal Arctocephalus galapagoensis Endemic. About 13 were seen on Genovesa.
Galapagos Sea Lion Zalophus wollebaeki Endemic. Common.
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus
Black Rat* (introduced) Rattus rattus
Galápagos Giant Tortoise Chelonoidis nigra Endemic
San Cristobal Tortoise Chelonoidis chatamensis Endemic
Green Turtle (Pacific G T/Black T) Chelonia mydas
Galápagos Lava Lizard Tropidurus albemarlensis Endemic
Floreana Lava Lizard Tropidurus grayi Endemic
Española Lava Lizard Tropidurus delanonis Endemic
San Cristóbal Lava Lizard Tropidurus bivattatus Endemic
Land Iguana Conolophus subcristatus Endemic
Santa Fé Land Iguana Conolophus pallidus Endemic
Marine Iguana Amblyrhynchus cristatus Endemic
Golden Ray Rhinoptera steindachneri
Spotted Eagle Ray Aetobatus narinari Endangered
Devil Ray Mobula mobular Endangered
Manta Ray Mobula birostris Endangered
Moon Fish Lampris guttatus
Cloudless Sulphur Phoebis sennae marcelliana
Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus
Queen Butterfly Danaus gilippus thersippus
Galapagos Blue Leptotes parrhasioides Endemic
‘Galapagos’ Long-tailed Skipper Urbanus dorantes galapagensis Endemic race
Small Painted Locust Schistocerca literosa Endemic.
Large Painted Locust Schistocerca melanocera Endemic.