Galapagos Islands: Chasing Endemics on "Darwin’s Islands"

This cruise works well for both birders and photographers. While we do try to see all the endemics possible based on our itinerary, we also usually have plenty of time with each species, and the pace is usually quite relaxed. Most of the wildlife has little or no fear of people and can be observed and photographed at close range, even without expensive gear. Along with the birds, we will also devote some time watching and photographing other wildlife including reptiles and fish. A checklist of birds and other animals will be provided, and the tour leader will go through list every day.

The Galapagos Islands lie 1000km/625m off of the coast of Ecuador in South America. The destination had become one of the quintessential bucket list places to visit, and it is easy to see why. The wildlife of the islands is famously tame, and so appeals to people from all walks of life and allows anyone to walk away with more than merely decent photographs of them. To a birder, these islands have greater appeal still. In addition to the lure that they have for others, the islands are home to a discrete set of endemic bird species (more than twenty by current taxonomy, but ever increasing), many of which are easily found by taking a very comfortable cruise of this nature around some of the key islands. If ever there was a birding trip that you could feel totally comfortable inviting a non-birding partner on, this is it. Simply put, everybody likes the Galapagos, as it is a totally unique nature experience that is satiating to people from all walks of life.

Among the specialties we shall be seeking include Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Shearwater, Waved Albatross, Galapagos Rail, Lava Gull, Espanola and Galapagos Mockingbirds, and a host of finches, including the tool-using Woodpecker Finch. Aside from these so-called specialties, there are other birds that arguably are as high on the list of priorities like seeing frigatebirds displaying spectacularly at close range, tropicbirds effortlessly hanging in the wind offshore, and Blue-footed Boobies dancing mere inches away onshore. Of course, even the most focused birders are likely to find other distractions for their binoculars and cameras, like enormous Giant Tortoises, unique aquatic Marine Iguanas, and the absurdly confiding Galapagos Sea-Lions. We will be traveling around the islands on the Eden, a 16-passenger, Tourist Superior Class Yacht, with seven crew to look after our every need. There will also be optional snorkeling during the cruise too, for those who wish to do so.


 

Day 1: Arrival in Quito. Most flights arrive in the evening. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a hotel in Quito for the night.

Day 2: Quito to the Galapagos Islands (Baltra and Santa Cruz).In the morning, we will take a flight from the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, to the island of Baltra in the Galapagos (exact details of this flight are not yet known, but will be passed on to you before the tour begins), the main entry point into the islands. After going through entry procedures, we will take a short bus ride (10 minutes or so), to the dock, where we will connect with our yacht, which will be our base for the next eight nights. We are likely to see our first endemics right by the airport, as Small and Medium Ground-Finches, and Galapagos Doves can often be seen around there. Once we reach the harbor of the bay on Baltra, where the Eden yacht will be waiting for us, we may also see Lava Gull, Brown Noddy, or Elliot’s Storm-Petrel hanging around in the bay. As we get orientated on the ship, we’ll make a short navigation (30 minutes or so), to the island of Santa Cruz, where, after lunch, we’ll step foot on that island for the first time, with a visit to Bachas Beach.

The beach visit is likely to see us come into contact with further endemics, with the tame Galapagos Flycatcher, friendly Galapagos Mockingbird and up to three ground-finches all possible. While rare, Galapagos Martin is also possible, so we should keep an eye on the skies overhead too. However, the Galapagos is more than just a collection of endemic birds, we are also likely to experience some of the most approachable Yellow Warblers on the planet, and also offers some good shorebird habitat, where we could see our first Wandering Tattlers, Least Sandpipers, or Black-necked Stilts.

At night we will set sail for the island of Genovesa, in the far north of the archipelago, and navigation that will go on through the night for this long crossing.

Red-footed Booby is the scarcest of the boobies in the islands
Red-footed Booby is the scarcest of the boobies in the islands (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 3: Genovesa.Also known as “Bird Island”, Genovesa is literally packed with nesting birds. In the morning, you will make a wet landing at Darwin Bay, a horseshoe-shaped bay at the southern end of the island; in the afternoon another landing will be made at Prince Phillip’s Steps on the southeastern tip of the bay. Tens of thousands of birds nest on the island, which holds, among other things, the largest single colony of Red-footed Boobies in the world. Unlike their more famous cousins, the Blue-footed Booby, this species nests in trees dotted across Genovesa, which make for great eye level views and photo opps. Some of the other birds that you can expect to see, include Swallow-tailed Gull, Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-billed Tropicbird, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Galapagos Mockingbird. The island also offers the only shot at Genovesa Cactus-Finch for the cruise, a recently split species.

There will be other opportunities to snorkel here, which can yield close encounters with a myriad tropical fish, as well as turtles and harmless reef-sharks. There will be a morning and afternoon session on the island, broken up with a break on board the yacht for lunch. While all of the islands visited offer excellent photo opportunities, Genovesa is the one where people often find that they have not prepared enough memory cards for. It is easy to take thousands of photos on this fantastic island! After we have finished up on ‘Bird Island’, we shall set sail for two other islands far to the southwest of this one.

Genovesa Ground-Finch, a local endemic only found on that island
Genovesa Ground-Finch, a local endemic only found on that island (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 4: Bartolome and Santiago Islands. Today we’ll visit two islands, the tiny island of Bartolome, and Santiago. Waking early, we’ll head out in pangas (small boats required to land on shore) towards Bartolome, with a distinct chance of Galapagos Penguins swimming about the boat en-route. We’ll also keep a close eye on the rocks for perched penguins as we come in to land, in full view of one of the most emblematic features in the archipelago, the pinnacle rock of Bartolome. This is present on every postcard shop in the islands.

In the afternoon we’ll take a walk on a barren lava field in Sullivan Bay on Santiago island, where scattered endemic lava cactus can be interesting either for macro or wide angle shots. The shape, pattern and texture of the lava fields can produce some attractive pictures as well. Remember that we are talking about pahoehoe lava that is rare in the world but only common in Hawaii and the Galapagos. Here, we also have our first chances for the highly desired Galapagos Hawk that regularly soars overhead and we can often see it from the boat while having some beers. Overnight, we will cruise to San Cristobal.

A close up with one of the rarest gulls in the world (Swallow-tailed)
A close up with one of the rarest gulls in the world (Swallow-tailed) (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

PLEASE NOTE: We have requested a change to the stated itinerary here for day 5, so that we can visit Isabela island to look for Flightless Cormorant. If this permission is granted, this may affect the afternoon visit to Santiago, which may then be ommitted. However, this will not affect the stop on Bartolome, and the chance to see penguins. As Santiago holds no crucial species, we hope that this permission will be granted (see below).

Day 5: Coastal Santa Cruz OR Punta Albermarle in Isabela***. We’ll move on to our next site, Black Turtle Cove, which is a red mangrove lagoon on Santa Cruz and is a nursery for many sharks and rays. It’s also a great location to observe mating turtles around this time of year. You’ll see large groups of resting White-tip Reef Sharks, schools of Golden Rays and Spotted Eagle Rays, and a few juvenile Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks and Black-Tip Sharks. The water is very calm so we often used paddles instead of the loud panga engines to move through the area.

Quintessential Galapagos: Frigatebirds displaying
Quintessential Galapagos: Frigatebirds displaying (Sam Woods)

After lunch we navigate for a couple of hours to Cerro Dragon, where we’ll make a dry landing on lava rocks. Cerro Dragon is a small bay on the west coast of Santa Cruz and got its name from the many land iguanas that live in the area. Land iguanas are endemic to the Galapagos Islands where they have found good mating and nesting areas.

The massive animal afterwhich the islands were named: Giant Tortoise
The massive animal afterwhich the islands were named: Giant Tortoise (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

*** PLEASE NOTE: On this day we have requested a change to the official national park itinerary (that is what is outlined above covering Daphne and Santa Cruz islands), to visit the north of Isabela island instead. The reason for this request, is to give us the chance of seeing Flightless Cormorant. This is something we have requested, and been granted, on all previous cruises on which we have requested this. However, permission/denial for this request will not be given until TWO weeks before the cruise. Therefore, it will not be known for certain whether we can visit an area for the cormorant until that time. This area will also allow us to appreciate the contrast in sizes of Marine Iguanas across the islands; having seen the smallest subspecies on Genovesa previously; in Albermarle we will find the biggest of the races of the entire Archipelago. It is still a not well explored site for birders and surprises like Galapagos Martins may be present given the interesting conditions of the lava fields in this area.

Day 6: Santa Cruz Island. We’ll start the day with a visit to the highlands of Santa Cruz where many target bird species are located. The drive and walk up into the highlands will be in marked contrast; here the habitat changes to wet, and verdant Scalesia forest. This is very different from the picture postcard images of dry coastal Galapagos, studded with cacti. These higher elevations are home to an array of endemic species, and is particularly rich in ‘Darwin’s Finches’; we will especially be on the lookout for Large Tree-Finch, Woodpecker Finch, Vegetarian Finch, and Green Warbler-Finch. Our other key target, in the area of Media Luna, will be the shy and retiring Galapagos Rail. This day will also represent our best chance at the enormous animal after which the islands were named, the ‘Santa Cruz’ Giant Tortoise. There is also a small chance of the increasingly rare, local form of Vermilion Flycatcher split already by some taxonomies as ‘Little Vermilion Flycatcher’, a widely touted split due to vocal differences, and striking plumage differences in the female birds from the mainland forms. Unfortunately, this soon to become species has declined dramatically in recent years, due to persecution by the local ani population, and so the species is ever harder to find, year-on-year.

Blue-footed Boobies, the clowns of the Galapagos
Blue-footed Boobies, the clowns of the Galapagos (Keith Barnes)

We will head back down to the lowlands for lunch and to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on the edge of the town of Puerto Ayora. Here cacti grow, in sharp contrast to the highland areas visited earlier in the day, and we’ll keep an eye out for Common Cactus-Finch around the center, while also learning about the successful conservation projects involving among others, Giant Tortoises, which are now thriving in the islands. In the afternoon, we will head back up towards the highlands in search of whichever target we may have missed in the morning, or in the case we have nailed all the targets already, just to visit a different corner of the island.

Late in the day, we shall board our yacht for dinner, and in the evening will set sail for our next destination, the island of Floreana, in the central south of the archipelago.

Day 7: Floreana. As we approach Floreana Island around dawn, we will try to persuade the Capitain to navigates close to Champion and Gardner Islets. These tiny islands support the last populations of the critically-endangered Floreana Mockingbird, which was extirpated from mainland Floreana by introduced predators. Our ability to approach this area, and see this extremely localised bird, rests entirely won the whim of the captain. While no one is allowed to set foot on the islets, if our captain is willing, we can approach one of the islets, and then the mockingbird is usually readily found as there is little land to cover. We will request this permission for either the start of the day, or for when we start moving towards Espanola, as we will be passing close to them anyway at this stage.

Marine Iguanas are common in the islands, and especially colorful on Floreana and Espanola
Marine Iguanas are common in the islands, and especially colorful on Floreana and Espanola (Sam Woods)

In the morning on the mainland of Floreana island, we will walk for a short time around Punta Cormorant searching for specialties. The main target will be the super local Medium Tree-Finch, and once we get it, we will focus on the brackish lagoons for American Flamingos and shorebirds. Time permitting, we will have one of the most enjoyable snorkeling possibilities at nearby Devil’s Crown.

After returning to the boat for lunch we’ll sail on to Post Office Bay, where the islands’ original post office (really only a wooden barrel) was established in 1793. The current system still functions as it did three centuries ago: Visitors drop off unstamped letters and postcards AND pick-up whatever mail they can hand deliver themselves when they return home! We shall have another chance to get the rare Medium Tree-Finch here in case we did not get it in Punta Cormorant. Overnight, we will navigate towards Española Island.

A visit to the largest colony of Waved Albatrosses is always a highlight
A visit to the largest colony of Waved Albatrosses is always a highlight (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 8: Española Island. The whole day will be spent on this wonderful island, the southern part during the morning and the pristine, white sand beach of Gardner Bay in the afternoon. The morning takes us to one of the most impressive visitor sites in the Galapagos, Punta Suarez, where the single largest colony of Waved Albatrosses is located. This species only nests at this location with just a few other pairs also nesting on another offshore island in Ecuador. This island is also home to the super curious Española Mockingbird, a bird so tame that it will sometimes land right on people. If, by this stage, we have not yet seen a Galapagos Hawk well, then we have great chances here too. Gray Warbler-Finch is also regular on the scrub near the beach and the newly minted Espanola Cactus-Finch is normally found bounding around at close range nearby. We will navigate overnight towards the eastern island of San Cristobal.

Like many Galapagos species, the Espanola Mockingbird is remarkably tame
Like many Galapagos species, the Espanola Mockingbird is remarkably tame (Sam Woods)

Day 9: San Cristobal; fly back to Quito. We’ll arrive early in the morning on San Cristobal, the capital of the Galapagos. The first site will be Kicker Rock or Leon Dormido, a tuff volcanic cone that has been eroded by the wind and marine currents giving it the shape from the distance of a sleeping sea lion. This site is now home to Blue-footed Boobies and frigatebirds amongst many others, which have turned this area into their nesting site. After navigating around Kicker Rock we’ll continue on to the coastal area of San Cristobal which does not have the beauty of areas some of the areas visited earlier on the trip, but this scrub, crucially, does have the endemic San Cristobal Mockingbird. While the mockingbird, the island’s sole endemic, is our main target, we’ll have other chances at some of the species like Vegetarian Finch, Small Tree-Finch, and Woodpecker Finch in case we have not seen them before.

Mid-morning, we will be transferred to San Cristobal’s main city, Puerto Baquerizo where we will take a flight back to Quito. A night will be spent in Quito, before departures the following day.

Day 10: Departure from Quito.You will be transferred to Quito airport for internatinal departures out.

We'll have a chance at 2 land iguanas on this cruise
We'll have a chance at 2 land iguanas on this cruise (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy. Generally, the island visits are restricted by national park regulations, to a maximum of 4 hours per visit; and so with visiting 2 sites per day, this will be up to 8 hours, (absolute maximum) on land each day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. The walking is mostly easy, with only very slight gradients involved anywhere, and the distances covered short. There is the need to transfer from our larger yacht to a smaller boat (“Panga”) to visit many of the islands, and some of the visitor sites involve wet landings, with no dock at which to land, and the need to wade ashore from the smaller boat. The daytime journeys on the boats are not long, as all the longer voyages are undertaken at night.

CLIMATE: Warm and overcast, occasionally sunny and hot. The air temperature averages 70-80°F (21-27 °C), but it can cool down at night, and can feel considerably cooler on the boat deck. So while the temperature implies only summer clothes are needed; you will likely need a jacket/fleece too. Water temperature can be surprisingly cool to cold during this season; if you intend to snorkel, then it is a good idea to bring an insulating layer to do this with, to not only protect your body from the hot tropical sun, but also to insulate against the cooler currents./p>

ACCOMMODATION: On the arrival night and the night before departure a good standard business type hotel will be used in Quito. For seven nights in the Galapagos we will be on board a 16-passenger Tourist Superior Yacht, the Eden. For boat specifications, please see here: Eden Yacht

Ship Specifications
Ship Specifications (Eden Yacht)

PHOTOGRAPHY: The wildlife and bird photography on the Galapagos is amazing, with many photographs expected on this tour, with any type of camera, as the birds and animals are very approachable. In particular, there are good chances to photograph a variety of endemic finches, nesting frigatebirds, displaying boobies, storm-petrels, tropicbirds, and shearwaters in flight, nesting albatrosses, and foraging Yellow Warblers; Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Sea-Lions, and Giant Tortoises are also regularly photographed on this photo friendly cruise..

WHEN TO GO:

The Galapagos can be visited year round, although birders often choose not to visit in the first quarter of the year, as that is when the Waved Albatrosses are not breeding on land, and can be far out at sea. For this reason, this trip, and many others where this brd is of importance runs after April to ensure this bird is around.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

For the Galapagos itself, there is no special entry requirements, although a $USD100 entry fee needs to be paid on arrival at the airport in the Galapagos, as well as a further $USD20 airport fee specific to the Galapagos. PLEASE NOTE: This total amount of $USD120 is NOT included in the tour fee, and will need to be paid for – in US Dollars cash – on arrival in the Galapagos. The guide will assist with this if needed.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to boat staff, Galapagos National Park guide, and any drivers used (but NOT the Tropical Birding tour leader, or any hotel porters used in Quito); accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 10; safe drinking water throughout (sometimes juice is also provided during meals on board the Galapagos yacht); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 9; ground and boat transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 9; return domestic flight between Quito and the Galapagos; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the TROPICAL BIRDING tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the Quito hotel (if you require their services); international flights to and from Ecuador; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.