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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

The Galápagos Islands

2016 Narrative

This year’s WINGS tour to the Galapagos was as enchanting as ever. Walking past indifferent albatrosses, boobies, mockingbirds, and fiches isn’t really birding, but we tallied all 61 the species as if we had worked for them, enjoying every minute. Blue-footed Booby was voted the favorite, but our experience with the Galapagos Hawks flying back and forth close overhead at Punta Suárez on Española made them a close second. Swallow-tailed Gulls with eggs, Galapagos Penguins in good numbers, Waved Albatrosses doing their complex mating rituals, and so many others were high on the list. Then there were the plants, mammals, invertebrates, snorkeling, geology, and just the general delight in being there that made this such a memorable trip.

We arrived at the Baltra Airport in the late morning and worked our way to our resort in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Galapagos Doves, Brown Noddies, and a Medium Ground-Finch were tallied along the way. Lunch at El Aquelarre (“The Coven”) started with one of just two Dark-billed Cuckoos of the tour, and we finished the afternoon at Los Gemelos where we really started to learn the finches – Woodpecker Finch, Vegetarian Finch, Green Warbler-Finch, and a multitude of various ground-finches were great to see.

Only those conscious at 2:30 a.m. on our second day would have noted the calling Galapagos Petrels immediately below the resort, apparently a small breeding colony that may have been undetected until now; the hotel manager seemed to think that we would see many owls flying around and calling at night. We took a morning walk up towards the hill called Media Luna into the fern and Miconia woodland where with patience we had amazing views of Galapagos Rail. A Vegetarian Finch eating a leaf of blue rabbits-foot fern was fascinating, and we had additional views of Woodpecker Finch, Galapagos Flycatcher, and several other finches.

We then made our way to our home for the next week, the sea catamaran Nemo III. Lunch was had while Elliot’s Storm-Petrels fluttered behind the boat and Bullseye Puffer Fish drifted about below. Our afternoon walk on North Seymour was a wonderful introduction to the exuberance of the Galapagos. Swallow-tailed Gulls, Blue-footed Boobies, and both Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds were in full breeding mode. Brown Pelicans, Brown Noddies, and Nazca Boobies passing by the short cliffs below was just plain fun. Also during the walk we saw land iguanas, one eating a cactus and also a very large male that was on a mission and didn’t veer off his course by an inch, passing by some of us close enough to touch.

We awoke on our first full day at sea next to San Cristóbal Island and made our landing on the islet of Lobos. It was good to get the most difficult hike out of the way early on – no one finds walking on bowling balls to be all that easy. But even those who took a tumble did so gracefully, and we saw some fun stuff. Yellow Warblers seemed more fearless here than anywhere else, a Lava Gull perched and sang its loud laughter from the landing’s hand rail, and frigatebirds fought over a Galapagos Garden Eel that seemed to want to periscope rather than dive to safety; the birds ended up leaving it be. Our first snorkeling had some of us learning how to use our cameras underwater, and we saw some amazing stuff. Marine Iguanas feeding on algae under water, a Brown Pelican diving right next to one of us, and gorgeous parrot fish were memorable. Back on board as we motored south, we got our first exciting views of Galapagos Petrel and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel. In the afternoon we anchored at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and went inland a short ways to an interesting cemetery where not before long we were looking at a very close San Cristobal Mockingbird. We had some intimate time with a Woodpecker Finch along the bike path and even more intimate moments with adorable Gray Warbler-Finches.

Española Island was a highlight of the tour. We started with a leisurely walk on the soft, white sand beach where the Española Mockingbirds don’t act like birds, even coming up to our feet. For those that didn’t snorkel, a Marine Iguana eating algae on a rock at low tide was a special sighting. We saw our first Galapagos Hawk over the beach, and the endemic and very unusual looking moth Aetole galapagoensis was something few tour groups ever notice. We snorkeled again, playing with the sea lions, seeing several species of fish and notably a Chocolate Chip Seastar. Punta Suárez was the most memorable location, if not for the majestic views of the cliffs and tremendous crashing waves (high tide plus full moon) or the strident blow hole, then for the unexpectedly wet ride to a dry landing. Waved Albatrosses had eggs, some were still performing their bonding displays, and others were wheeling in the breeze along the cliff face. We even got to watch one laboriously waddle up to the edge of the cliff, sit for several minutes, and then take off on the winds. Another highlight here was the tiny endemic band-winged grasshopper, Sphingonotus fuscoirroratus, new for the master trip list and a lifer for everyone. We finally got some pelagic birding in, getting a better grip on Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, while managing to pick out a few Band-rumpeds, and then in the dwindling light quick views of a distinctively dark and shallow wing-beated Markham’s Storm-Petrel.

We started our third day with Floreana Mockingbirds hopping about on the cliffs of the islet Gardner-by-Floreana, visited by very few tours. Our only Red-footed Boobies were also here. We made a short stop at Punta Cormorant (named after a boat) on the north shore of Floreana where American Flamingos and White-cheeked Pintails were hanging out, and then a pass by a known territory produced our first pair of Galapagos Penguins. We took a scenic bus ride up to Asilo de la Paz, where Medium Tree-Finch appeared with a little effort, and for those who had read up on the history of the area, a walk to the caves was particularly fascinating. Back in the town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra we encountered our fourth and final species of Lava Lizard, endemic to this island. The onward late afternoon ride north to Puerto Ayora was delightful in the tropical breeze, and those standing on the bow got to see a Monk’s Mobula ray directly below it. We got our best views yet of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels and many Galapagos Petrels, while in one feeding frenzy of boobies, shearwaters, and noddies, most people saw a Minke Whale (and a few lucky ones even saw the back of a Blue Whale).

Anchoring at Puerto Ayora overnight gave the boat’s crew a chance to visit family while we got a chance to see giant tortoises in the wild at Rancho Primicias. It was also good for birds, with high diversity of the finches, including the huge-beaked ground-finches that we felt comfortable calling Large Ground-Finches (for now, anyway, until perhaps some get lumped in the future). This would be our final experience with Woodpecker Finch, and it was good to get a repeat of Large Tree-Finch, a scarce bird. A rare Purple Gallinule and a ridiculously tame Paint-billed Crake tripled and completed our list of rails. Galápagos is also a geology lesson, and an unusually well-preserved lava tube was fun to explore. After marveling at some interesting spiders (a cellar spider and a flatty, the former probably endemic, the latter introduced), we saw the endemic subspecies of Barn Owl in small building by the lava tube. We finished the day with a relaxed visit of the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center and a stroll through town past the fish docks (our best views of Lava Gull) and souvenir shops.

We motored in the pre-dawn hours from Puerto Ayora to South Plaza just off the eastern shore of Santa Cruz, arriving just after dawn. This tiny islet held many fine experiences for us, such as the pleasure of watching many Galapagos Shearwaters zipping past us at the top of the cliffs, noisy Red-billed Tropicbirds overhead, a baby tropicbird chick hunkered in a crevice, and Swallow-tailed Gulls ignoring us along the path. Non-snorkelers got to see some nice fish in the very clear water below the cliffs, including Striped Mullets and King Angelfish, and an endemic Barrington Leaf-toed Gecko was found under a rock. On our way back to the boat a Short-eared Owl hissed at Peter to let him know he got too close.

A huge feeding swarm of Galapagos Shearwaters was quite a spectacle as we began our trip to Santa Fe Island. Once there we were greeted by several sea lions on the beach, and as we were changing into our shoes, one decided it wanted to pass right through the middle of our group, brushing against Jeannette’s leg. Endemic Santa Fe Land Iguanas were easy to find, the Galapagos Mockingbirds common, and we had our final views of Galapagos Hawk. More endemic critters seen by very few tourists here were the colorful moth Atteva galapagoensis and the small scorpion Hadruroides maculatus. Snorkeling was a bit more challenging here, with deeper somewhat milky-colored water from the fine sand, but Blue-chinned Parrotfish stood out has a highlight. For others, just being on the ocean for another day was memorable, and we passed through yet another marvelous feeding frenzy of shearwaters in the late afternoon.

On our final full day we started with a panga ride along the shore of Bartolomé where we encountered over 20 Galapagos Penguins, some swimming, and one pair mating while another brayed in approval nearby. The highlight of the climb to the overlook was the Galapagos Snake right by the wooden boardwalk, though noticing the Tiquilia flowers and lava cactus in the stark landscape, and seeing the various lava formations up close was worth the climb. Later in the morning as we motored south, a surprise was being able to peer into the caldera of Bainbridge Island from our boat, seeing several American Flamingos and White-cheeked Pintails; shortly thereafter we anchored for our second of two snorkeling opportunities. The huge schools of fish were delightful here, and a White-tipped Reef-Shark swimming around us was a thrill. A last-minute Moorish Idol was a spectacular fish and a fitting grand finale. We had another panga ride around China Hat, where we saw a downy Galapagos Shearwater deep in a crevice before we got back on the Nemo III and began motoring back east to our starting point at Baltra. This last pelagic trip had one more Waved Albatross, several lovely Galapagos Petrels, and a Tiger Shark, a first for the tour. Last was a complete circuit and a half around Daphne Major, the site of the Grant’s long-time study of ground-finches, where we hoped to see the martin but instead saw an abundance breeding seabirds at peak breeding activity.

Our wistful farewell morning featured a panga ride along North Seymour, where we added Galapagos Fur Seals to the list and enjoyed a last view of the spectacle of dozens of frigatebirds floating high overhead.

Rich Hoyer

July 2016

Created: 18 August 2016