Trip Report – December 2011
Comments: We don’t normally go on group tours but everything in the Galapagos is a group tour so we thought we may as well go with a birding group (Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours) to make sure we maximized our opportunity to get as many endemics as possible, while enjoying everything else that the Galapagos have to offer.
Unfortunately we still missed 3 endemics – Mangrove Finch (we didn’t expect to get that), Galapagos Rail and Medium Tree Finch. I can’t help but feel that the last 2 could have been seen with some better organization on VENT’s part but that’s birding for you!!!
When choosing your cruise bear in mind that everything in the Galapagos is controlled (and very well we thought) by the government so it is not always easy to go to the islands you want. We took a 7 day cruise to maximize the number of islands we could visit and we came away satisfied. We weren’t able to go to San Cristobal but that was the only one we missed.
Day 1: We had been well looked after in Quito and arrived at Baltra airport without having seen our luggage since the last hotel. That continued as we took a 10 minute bus ride to a dock where pangas (small zodiacs) took us to the Isabella 11 that was anchored a few hundred yards away – where we discovered our luggage in our cabins!
After a fabulous lunch (be prepared to consume 10,000 calories per day!) an afternoon cruise started the serious birding :- Nascar Booby, Galapagos Shearwater, Galapagos Martin, Elliot’s Storm Petrel, Brown Noddy, Swallow-tailed Gull, Red-billed Tropicbird and Blue-footed Booby all presented themselves.
Then a shore visit to North Seymour gave us our first look at the incredible nature on the islands. It is really true that the animals and birds of Galapagos have no fear of humans. You have to be careful not to stand on sea lion pups, iguanas and birds!
This late afternoon visit provided all our first close-up experience of the wildlife in this wonderful place – the birding highlights included: Great Frigatebirds, Lava Gull, Lava Heron, Galapagos Dove, Dark-billed Cuckoo, Mangrove Warbler, plus Medium and Small Ground Finch.
Day 2: An over night cruise meant that we woke up anchored off Espanola for what turned out to be a truly magical day. First birds came from a panga ride to Gardener Island – Hood Mockingbird was new and then great views of most of the same birds we saw yesterday.
Then a landing on Espanola at Punta Suarez, which not only presented dozens of iguanas and sea lions but meant that you had to be careful not to step on the ground finches and doves! Galapagos Hawk flew over and both Green Warbler and Large Cactus finch were on the beach, Nazcar Boobies were displaying at their nesting sites and Waved Albatross were either sitting on their nests or launching themselves out to sea within meters of where we stood. It is one thing to get a life bird but a whole other experience when they are just sitting right next to you!
Day 3: Another overnight cruise brought us to Floreana- which has an interesting history outlined in The Galapagos Affair by John Treherne.
This island was our one opportunity to get Medium Tree Finch but you have to go up to the highlands and our group had been unable to arrange transportation. The lowlands are not the most interesting for birds but we did get our first views of Galapagos Flycatcher and White-cheeked Pintail. We also had our first chance to snorkel with turtles and sea lions so not all bad! A brief afternoon visit to Post Office Bay was of interest after reading the above book but not of great significance from a birding perspective.
Day 4: We spent this day on Santa Cruz. A trip to the highlands provided good views of Woodpecker Finch, Small Tree Finch, Large Tree Finch, Vermillion Fly Catcher, Barn Owl, Galapagos Mockingbird, Vegetarian Finch, Green Warbler Finch and Giant Galapagos Tortoises. Our attempts at the Galapagos Rail were not successful which was disappointing because it was our only chance.
Lunch at a wonderful hotel (Finca Bay Eco Hotel) in Puerto Ayora allowed us to watch White-cheeked Pintail in the swimming pool and Lava Gulls walking around the edge of the pool – not bad for one of the world’s rarest gulls!
After lunch we went to the Darwin Research Centre which enabled us to get Common Cactus Finch but it was incredibly hot so we adjourned to a cafe in town and awaited our panga back to the boat.
Day 5: An early morning on deck to watch the boat pull in to Genovesa Island. Lots of seabirds including Wedge-Rumped (or Galapagos) petrel which we were looking for.
On land were plenty of nesting birds; Swallow-tailed Gulls, Yellow-crowned night Herons, Red-footed Boobies. Sharp-beaked Ground Finch was our main objective and was seen quite quickly – along with Galapagos Mockingbird.
A second landing in the afternoon (after another great snorkeling experience) had us climbing the Prince Philip Steps.
Great views of Short-eared Owls on the cliffs as we landed and a great hike but no new birds and no nesting Elliot’s petrels because they had completed their breeding and their young had fledged.
Day 6: Hot chocolate and cinnamon buns were on hand as we joined the guides for a sea watch early in the morning. We were heading around the top of Isabel island towards the Bolivar Channel – and looking for rafts of Red-necked Phalarope with the hope of a Red Phalarope along with better views of Dark-rumped (Galapagos) Petrel and Band-rumped Storm Petrel – we were successful with all except the Red Phalarope.
A panga ride to shore after breakfast offered our first views of Flightless Cormorant and Galapagos Penguin – which we snorkeled next to later in the morning while watching turtles graze beneath us. Quite unbelievable really.
An afternoon ride to Fernandino Island didn’t give much in the way of birds but was wonderful for other animals and a great excursion. The sunset as we road back to the Isabella was fabulous!
Day 7: Our final day was at Santiago Island – nothing new for us bird wise but great views of what we had come to think of as ‘the usual Galapagos birds’ as well as American Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Tattler, Ruddy Turnstone, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper and Sanderling.
We thoroughly enjoyed this trip – a great combination of birding and the unique experience that only the Galapagos can offer!
Guides & Resources
Guides: We booked through VENT Bird Tours.
Field Guide: Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands- Andy Swash and Rob Still
Bird Song: We didn’t have any as we were on an organized tours.
Lonely Planet guide for points of interest.