Galapagos Endemics Cruise

24 July - 2 August, 2008

Tour Leader: Scott Olmstead

All photos taken by the tour leader during the trip.

Galapagos Hawk in company of Marine Iguanas, Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding


July 24:  Arrival in Quito
July 25:  Air travel to Baltra, Galapagos/Santa Cruz
July 26:  Puerto Ayora/Santa Cruz Highlands/Charles Darwin Station
July 27:  San Cristobal/Española
July 28:  Floreana/Champion
July 29:  Punta Moreno, Isabela/Cruising Bolívar Channel
July 30:  Punta Espinosa, Fernandina/Cruising toward Genovesa
July 31:  Genovesa
August 1: North Seymour/Return to Quito
August 2: Departure

Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding Red-footed Booby, Genovesa  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

Tour Summary

25 July:  Landing on Baltra and seeing for the first time the arid, scrubby landscape is always a surprise no matter how much you have read about the Galapagos. It just looks primitive. As we climbed out of the plane and into the welcoming heat, the birding got underway from the runway: we had already seen Galapagos Dove and a pair of Medium Ground-Finches before we even reached the tiny airport terminal. At the airport we were met by our certified naturalist guide Pedro and we hopped on the shuttle to the wharf on the other side of the island. In just a few minutes’ time we were greeted by lazy Galapagos Sea Lions lounging on the rocks as we prepared to board our yacht. We loaded the pangas (dinghies) and headed out to the Fragata, our home for the next week, which was anchored in the harbor. Brown Noddies, and White-vented Storm-Petrels danced around the harbor, while Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead. After lunch onboard, we pulled up anchor and cruised to nearby Bachas Beach on the larger island of Santa Cruz. We spent the afternoon strolling along the beach, enjoying the Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Lava Gulls, occasionally checking out the brackish lagoons on the other side of the sand dunes. A few American Flamingos and Wandering Tattlers were present in the lagoons, and we had our first views of Galapagos Mockingbirds in the surrounding scrub.  Blue-footed Boobies were appreciated as they rested on the rocks in the tidal zone and fished the waters near shore. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, we headed for Puerto Ayora, and were treated to passable views or our first Galapagos Petrels at dusk. A welcome cocktail with the crew before dinner capped off a fine first day and we settled in for the overnight cruise along the coast of Santa Cruz island. Those who went out on deck after dinner were treated to their first encounter with Swallow-tailed Gull as two of these strange nocturnal gulls were seen flying alongside the boat in the darkness.

Lava Gull, Santa Cruz  -  Scott Olmsteead/Tropical Birding Small Ground-Finch, San Cristobal  -  Scott Olmstead

26 July: After a 6am breakfast, we went ashore at Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in Galápagos, and boarded a bus that took us up to the highlands. Our first stop was the twin craters “Los Gemelos”, a pair of collapsed craters resembling two tremendous sinkholes. The craters are impressive, but the surrounding cloud forest is of equal interest, being composed primarily of the tree-like composite Scalesia, a genus endemic to the islands. On this morning the higher elevations of the island were wrapped in the cool mist (garua) characteristic of this time of the year. We found several finches, most notably Large Tree-Finch, Warbler Finch, and two Woodpecker Finches, tapping away at small branches like their namesake. We then headed down to lower elevations and took a side road up toward Media Luna to look for Galapagos Rail. When the bus could go no farther we got out and walked up into the Miconia zone, where we found a wet scrubby habitat dominated by Miconia and ferns. Battling light drizzle and a wet trail, we eventually heard the call of our target: Galapagos Rail; with a little playback we soon had a pair of these bold yet tiny rails scurrying around our feet! Satisfied with our success with the rails, we headed back to the boat for lunch, throwing in a short stop to check out some lava tubes along the way. In the afternoon a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station was in store. Of course you can’t miss the tortoises, here part of the famous captive breeding program, but we were a bit more surprised (and pleased) to find our first Vegetarian Finch of the trip foraging in the arid vegetation. Common Cactus-Finch was another new bird here.

Sally Lightfoot Crab, Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding The famous blowhole on Española  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

27 July: After an overnight crossing to the island of San Cristobal, we went ashore at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital of the Galápagos. Our quarry on San Cristobal was without doubt the endemic San Cristobal Mockingbird and we had fantastic views of this curious mimid near the highland town of El Progreso. By late morning we were cruising toward Española island at the far southeast of the archipelago, accompanied by numerous Galapagos Petrels and Audubon’s Shearwaters. A rorqual seen well near the boat defied positive identification, but was most likely a Bryde’s Whale. Our afternoon landing on Española at Punta Suarez was certainly one of the highlights of the whole tour. This little island is home to over 99% of the breeding population of the magnificent Waved Albatross. Here we enjoyed watching the albatrosses engaged in their fascinating pair-bonding rituals and also were able to witness a few of these tremendous birds taking flight from the cliffs into a stiff onshore wind. Of course the albatross wasn’t the only bird on the island and we racked up our second island-endemic mockingbird of the day: the mostly-terrestrial Hood Mockingbird. Large Cactus-Finch added to our growing finch tally and this was also our first chance to observe the tender and complex courtship behaviors of the Blue-footed Booby. Did I mention the flashy Red-billed Tropicbirds cruising overhead and the elegant Swallow-tailed Gulls posing near the spectacular blowhole in the rock below the cliffs? Yes, this was an afternoon to be remembered. After dinner we set sail for the island of Floreana, approximately 40 nautical miles to the west.

Waved Albatross pair, Española  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding Swallow-tailed Gull, Española  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

28 July: Early ashore this morning at Puerto Velasco Ibarra, where we boarded a typical Ecuadorian open-sided bus called a chiva and headed once again for the highlands. At  Asilo de la Paz (about 300m elevation) we found Small Tree-Finches to be abundant in the lush Scalesia forest, and after some searching we managed to discover one Medium Tree-Finch, which allowed a nice study as it foraged. Galapagos Flycatcher seemed to be particularly common on this island as well. A visit to the tortoise rearing pen at Asilo de la Paz proved a rather intimate experience compared to our visit to the research station at Puerto Ayora. Here it was just us and the tortoises. It’s interesting to note that these tortoises, part of the ongoing captive breeding program, are of the San Cristobal race, considered the closest extant relative to the now extinct Floreana race. Eventually these tortoises will be introduced to the island after it has been rid of introduced competitors such as goats. By late morning we were cruising toward to the north side of the island and before lunch we made a special trip to the tiny islet of Champion, last refuge of the Charles Mockingbird. We boarded the pangas for a close approach to the island, where we easily found at least two family groups of the mockingbirds. Audubon’s Shearwaters and Red-billed Tropicbirds coming and going from their nests in the rocky crevices in the lava cliffs above the tide line completed the experience. After lunch a few of use spent an hour or so snorkeling at the famous “Corona del Diablo” (Devil’s Crown), an old eroded cinder cone that breaks the surface not far off Punta Cormorán. Close up encounters with beauties like King Angelfish, Hieroglyphic Hawkfish, Moorish Idol, and Bumphead Parrotfish made this excursion well worthwhile. The final excursion of the day was a landing at Punta Comrorán where we found White-cheeked Pintails and Carribean Flamingos in the brackish lagoons and a Dark-billed Cuckoo eating one of the endemic painted locusts in a dry Palo Santo tree! A harsh but fascinating spectacle was a group of Magnificent Frigatebirds swooping down to the dunes on the beach to scoop up and gobble down young Pacific Green Turtles that were emerging from a nest.

Giant Tortoise, Floreana  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding American Flamingos, Isabela  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

29 July: Overnight we made a long crossing to our landing site at Punta Moreno on the west side of Isabela, the largest island in the archiplego. The primary attraction at Punta Moreno is the landscape and we spent much of the morning walking on an extensive flow of smooth, startlingly bare, pahoehoe lava. The lava flow, perhaps a couple hundred years old (exact age uncertain), has been colonized successfully by a the endemic Lava Cactus and a few other plants. In the middle of the flow we found a few brackish lagoons nestled into cavities where the lava had collapsed.  These pools sheltered more flamingos and pintail, many Common Moorhens, and two Galapagos Martins foraging over the surface. The martin is surely one of the more difficult and unpredictable Galápagos endemics, and we were quite pleased to have seen it. This was to be our only sighting of the week. Cruising in the pangas along the rocky shore we found a group of about 20 Galapagos Penguins fishing together and a couple of massive Flightless Cormorants on the rocks and in the water. Before lunch there was time for some more snorkeling, and we were treated to the incredible experience of swimming with more than a dozen Pacific Green Turtles. These creatures are elegant beyond belief underwater. A single Port Jackson Shark was also seen. After lunch we headed north up the Bolívar Channel toward our next landing point of Punta Espinosa on Fernandina island. This gave us a welcome opportunity for pelagic birding and whale watching as we passed through the most nutrient-rich waters in the archipelago. Here the subsurface Cromwell Current, flowing east, hits the western shore Isabela and is forced upward, bringing very cold water and all manner of plankton to the surface and creating an important feeding site for birds and mammals alike. Our best birds of the afternoon were seen under very different circumstances. The first, Markham’s Storm-Petrel, was seen in the conventional way, in flight over the water. The second, White-faced Storm-Petrel, was discovered by one of the crew resting on the boat! Perhaps disoriented and/or exhausted, the bird stayed onboard until nightfall but was gone the following morning. This afternoon we also enjoyed the fantastic sight of an adult Humpback Whale repeatedly slapping the surface with its pectoral fins as its calf swam nearby. At one point we were close enough to hear the smacking of the fin against the water. Perhaps this interesting behavior was a foraging technique; certainly humpbacks can generate tremendous amounts of pressure by hitting the surface with their fins. We arrived at our anchorage at Punta Espinosa just in time for a gorgeous sunset, and I’m sure we all enjoyed a deep and restful sleep at anchor!

Flightless Cormorant, Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding Galapagos Penguin, Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

30 July: The landing site at Punta Espinosa is made up of a lava flow, a shallow bay, and a decent-sized tract of Red Mangroves. As Pedro explained to us, a rapid uplift of about 3 vertical meters occurred in 1975 - so rapid was the uplift that it apparently trapped a whale, as evidenced by the skeleton that we saw on the lava! The westernmost point of the main archipelago, Fernandina is the youngest and one of the most active of the islands. Here we found more penguins, more cormorants, hordes of marine iguanas, and a Galapagos Hawk that seemed to be enjoying the company of the iguanas. I had held out some degree of hope that we might be able to locate the rare and endangered Mangrove Finch in the mangroves here, but ironically we found not a single finch of any sort all morning! Lava Lizards were also common here and we even found an endemic Galapagos Striped Snake, our only snake of the trip. After lunch we set out on our longest crossing of the trip heading for Genovesa. The waters north of the Bolívar Channel were particularly productive for birds and cetaceans and we saw several whales, of which at least one was a Bryde’s and another was probably a Minke. Birding was great as we rounded the northwesternmost point of Isabela (the “Oreja del Burro”), and we picked up Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Pomarine Jaeger, and Wedge-tailed Shearwater. We also passed through a large group of Ocean Sunfish. Strong current and high seas slowed our speed to a crawl of about 6 knots and hampered our progress as we cruised east toward Genovesa.

Lava Lizard, Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding Marine Iguanas, Fernandina  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

31 July: Dawn found us passing to the south of Marchena island, with at least four hours to go until arriving at our destination. This delay was a blessing in one respect as it gave us a bit more time for pelagic birding, and we enjoyed excellent studies of several Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, a bird we had not seen well the day before. As we approached Genovesa we began to accumulate Red-footed Boobies which were flying with the boat and playfully picking at the radio antennas. When we arrived at Darwin Bay, Genovesa at about 10:30am and went ashore at Prince Philip’s Steps, everyone was relieved to be on solid ground after a marathon 20-hour crossing! Genovesa did not disappoint, and after ascending the steps we found ourselves amid nesting Great Frigatebirds and Nazca, Red-footed, and Blue-footed Boobies. Walking a little farther we came upon an open rocky plateau that is home to a nesting colony of thousands of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. Here we also located a couple of Short-eared Owls of the endemic subspecies galapagoensis; these owls prey heavily on the storm-petrels as they come and go from the colony. Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch was our 12th and final species of Darwin’s finches. On an afternoon panga ride along the cliffs we saw a few Galapagos Fur Seals snoozing away the daylight hours, and for the afternoon we made a landing at Darwin Bay, where we had some fantastic birding. The gorgeous Swallow-tailed Gulls are common here, and we had a nice study of Large Ground-Finches, their bills seeming impossibly huge. In contrast to the somewhat intermediate looking Butorides herons we had seen on Fernandina, here we saw a truly dark Lava Heron along with the local Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. We cruised south overnight toward Baltra and Santa Cruz, once again escorted by ghostly Swallow-tailed Gulls and this time a lone Red-footed Booby as well.

Blue-footed Booby, North Seymour  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding Great Frigatebird with chick, Genovesa  -  Scott Olmstead/Tropical Birding

1 August: Before our departure from the islands we had time to make a pre-breakfast landing at North Seymour, not far from Baltra. One last stroll through a colony of Blue-footed Boobies and frigatebirds was a nice end to the trip. Here we also found one of the large, cactus-eating Land Iguanas waiting for the warm morning sun. By mid-morning we were heading for the airport for our flight back to Quito and the rest of the world.

Bird List

The taxonomy and nomenclature of this list follow Clements (2000) & updates.
Alternate nomenclature and classifcations employed by the AOU's South American Classification Committee are given in parentheses.

PENGUINS  Spheniscidae

Galapagos Penguin  Spheniscus mendiculus

ALBATROSSES  Diomedeidae
Waved Albatross  Phoebastria irrorata

Galapagos Petrel  Pterodroma phaeopygia
Wedge-tailed Shearwater  Puffinus pacificus
Audubon's (Galapagos) Shearwater  Puffinus lherminieri subalaris

STORM-PETRELS  Hydrobatidae
White-vented (Elliot's) Storm-Petrel  Oceanites gracilis
White-faced Storm-Petrel  Pelagodroma marina
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel  Oceanodroma tethys
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  Oceanodroma castro
Leach’s Storm-Petrel  Oceanodroma leucorhoa
Markham’s Storm-Petrel  Oceanodroma markhami

TROPICBIRDS  Phaethontidae
Red-billed Tropicbird  Phaethon aethereus

PELICANS  Pelecanidae
Brown Pelican  Pelecanus occidentalis


Blue-footed Booby  Sula nebouxii
Nazca Booby  Sula grantii
Red-footed Booby  Sula sula

CORMORANTS  Phalacrocoracidae
Flightless Cormorant  Phalacrocorax harrisi

Magnificent Frigatebird  Fregata magnificens
Great Frigatebird  Fregata minor


Great Blue Heron  Ardea herodias
Great Egret  Ardea alba
Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis
Striated Heron  Butorides striatus
”Galapagos” or “Lava” Heron  Butorides striatus sundevalli
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron  Nyctanassa violacea

FLAMINGOS  Phoenicopteridae
Carribean (American) Flamingo  Phoenicopterus ruber

White-cheeked Pintail  Anas bahamensis

HAWKS, EAGLES, & KITES  Accipitridae
Galapagos Hawk  Buteo galapagoensis

Galapagos Rail  Laterallus spilonotus
Common Moorhen (Gallinule)  Gallinula chloropus

OYSTERCATCHERS  Haematopodidae
American Oystercatcher  Haematopus palliatus

AVOCETS & STILTS  Recurvirostridae
Black-necked Stilt  Himantopus mexicanus

PLOVERS & LAPWINGS  Charadriidae
Semipalmated Plover  Charadrius semipalmatus

SANDPIPERS  Scolopacidae
Whimbrel  Numenius phaeopus
Wandering Tattler  Heterosceles incanus
Ruddy Turnstone  Arenaria interpres
Red-necked Phalarope  Phalaropus lobatus
Red Phalarope  Phalaropus fulicaria

SKUAS & JAEGERS  Stercorariidae
Pomarine Jaeger  Stercorarius pomarinus

GULLS  Laridae
Lava Gull  Larus fuliginosus
Swallow-tailed Gull  Creagrus furcatus

TERNS Sternidae

Brown Noddy  Anous stolidus

PIGEONS & DOVES  Columbidae

Galapagos Dove  Zenaida galapagoensis

CUCKOOS  Cuculidae
Dark-billed Cuckoo  Coccyzus melacoryphus
Smooth-billed Ani  Crotophaga ani

Short-eared Owl  Asi flammeus

Galapagos Flycatcher  Myiarchus magnirostris

SWALLOWS  Hirundinidae

Galapagos Martin  Progne modesta

Galapagos Mockingbird  Nesomimus parvulus
Charles (Floreana) Mockingbird  Nesomimus trifasciatus
Hood (Española) Mockingbird  Nesomimus macdonaldi
San Cristobal Mockingbird  Nesomimus melanotis

Yellow Warbler  Dendroica petechia


Large Ground-Finch  Geospiza magnirostris
Medium Ground-Finch  Geospiza fortis
Small Ground-Finch  Geospiza fuliginosa
Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch  Geospiza difficilis
Common Cactus-Finch  Geospiza scandens
Large Cactus-Finch  Geospiza conirostris
Vegetarian Finch  Camarhynchus (Platyspiza) crassirostris
Large Tree-Finch  Camarhynchus psittacula
Small Tree-Finch  Camarhynchus parvulus
Medium Tree-Finch  Camarhynchus pauper
Woodpecker Finch  Camarhynchus pallidus
Warbler Finch  Certhidea olivacea

Reptile and Mammal List:

Pacific Green Turtle  Chelonia midas
Marine Iguana  Amblyrhynchus cristatus
Land Iguana  Conolophus subcristatus
Lava Lizard  Microlophus Spp.
Banded Galapagos Snake  Antillophis sleveni
Galapagos Giant Tortoise  Geochelone elaphantophus (in captivity)

Galapagos Sea Lion  Zalophus califomianus wollebacki
Galapagos Fur Seal  Arctocephalus galapagoensis
Humpback Whale  Megaloptera novaeangliae
Minke Whale  Balaenoptera acutorostrata
Bryde’s Whale  Balaenoptera edeni

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