Galapagos Penguin (Nick Athanas)

Galapagos Endemics Cruise
on the Yate Fragata

20 - 29 November 2008

Tour leaders: Nick Athanas & Andrés Vásquez

Galapagos National Park guide: Rogelio Guaycha Ayala

Tour report and all photos by Nick Athanas

You've probably already heard people people sing the praises of the Galapagos, but there's a good reason for that. It truly is a magical place. The first time you land on one of those uninhabited islands covered with breeding seabirds, fearless sea lions, friendly finches, and curious mockingbirds, you feel a sense of awe that is just impossible to explain. Our November trip was a lot of fun, and despite some rough seas on a few days, I know everyone still had a great time. You don't come here for a big bird list; our total list was 70 or 71 species, and that is high for this trip. However, the 24 endemics still makes it a worthwhile trip even for a hardcore lister. Seeing all the endemic bird species has become much harder recently now that Playa Negra is closed to visitors - but - we still may have succeeded. How can I not be sure? Well, read on and find out.

Our home for the week was the 16-berth Yate Fragata. It's a small, well-designed yacht with a friendly atmosphere. The top level has a large observation deck, great for pelagic watching during the crossings between islands. The crew was friendly and truly went out of their way to help, and the cook was simply amazing, coming up with delectible dishes in a kitchen that was about the size on an office cubicle.

Yate Fragata (Nick Athanas)
The Yate Fragata

21 November - Baltra and Santa Cruz
The trip started with an uneventful 2.5 hour flight from Quito to the island of Baltra. After completing the entry formalities and collecting our luggage, we hopped on the bus for a five-minute ride to where the yacht was moored, seeing Lava Gull and Brown Noddy even before we got on board. We set of straight away for nearby Santa Cruz Island. Our first landing point, Playa Bachas, was very close, and we had already arrived by the time we finished lunch. We boarded our pangas (skiffs) and headed ashore. At our landing point, we watched numerous Small Ground-Finches scouring the rocks for food as a Lava Gull watched nearby. We walked slowly down the beach seeing  wintering shorebirds like Whimbrel, Wandering Tattler, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, and Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers.  A few "Lava Herons" were on the island as well, In the scrub next to the beach we saw the first of many Galapagos Mockingbirds and Yellow Warblers, while a nearby lagoon held a lone American Flamingo and few White-cheeked Pintails. The key endemic for Bachas is the Galapagos Martin; it's surprisingly one of the scarcest of the endemics and is possible to miss on a trip like this. We had good luck with on this tour; not only did we see one here, we saw them on three other islands as well. We headed back to the yacht for the night, and after dinner we started cruising towards Puerta Ayora on the southern side of the island.

Lava Gull (Nick Athanas) American Flamingo (Nick Athanas)
Lava Gull American Flamingo

22 November - Santa Cruz Higlands and Charles Darwin Research Station
We were up early in anticipation of the big day ahead. Santa Cruz has the best accessable highland habitats on the Galapagos, and there are several birds that are only likely to be seen here on this itinerary. From the tour leader's perspective, that makes it probably the only stressful day of the trip! Our first stop was Finca Primicias, well known as one of best places to see wild Galapagos Tortoises. There were plenty - the first one was right in the middle of the road even before we got there. It was soon followed by some great finch flocks with Small Tree-Finch, Warbler Finch, Vegetarian Finch, and Woodpecker Finch. Dark-billed Cuckoos proved to be really common up here, and we saw the first of many before hopping back on the bus and carrying on. Again, we hardly got anywhere when chaos erupted - a Galapagos Crake was seen by several of the group on the side of the road before disappearing into a thicket. As we all piled out of the bus to search, a different crake sprinted across the road into the same thicket. This newcomer, however, was clearly a Paint-billed Crake! An unlikely series of events to be sure, but it definitely got everyone pumped up. Finally we arrived at the reserve, to be greeted by an absolutely humungous flock of ground-finches. There were hundreds of birds foraging on the ground, occasionally flying to nearby trees and bushes. The vast majority were Small Ground-Finches, but there were good numbers of Medium Ground-Finches and at least one Large Ground-Finch. We wandered around for a while watching tortoises and more finches, but apart from a few glimpses by some fo the group, saw no more rails or crakes. We decided to head up to Media Luna to try for a better look at Galapagos Rail, and after a long, hard search up a slippery trail, we all finally got good views. Here we also saw the first of many amazingly "tame" Galapagos Flycatchers, though somehow managed to miss Large Tree-Finch.  After lunch, we had a relaxing walk around the Charles Darwin Research Station, adding Common Cactus-Finch and getting  better views of Galapagos Mockingbird, before having some free time for shopping, relaxing, or exploring Puerto Ayora.

Galapagos Mockingbird (Nick Athanas) Common Cactus-Finch (Nick Athanas)
Galapagos Mockingbird Common Cactus-Finch

Giant Tortoises (Nick Athanas)
Galapagos Tortoises

23 November - San Cristobal and Española Islands
After steaming for a few hours pre-dawn, we arrived at Puerto Barequizo Moreno just before breakfast, and were on the island just after first light. A bus was waiting for us, and we quickly headed up to the town of El Progreso, in search of the island's one endemic bird, the San Cristobal Mockingbird, and we found a pair within about 40 minutes or so, along with another Vegetarian Finch. A bit of exploring above the town did not produce much else, though we did see a few more mockers, so we were back on the yacht and sailing south by about 9:00 am. The seas became unexpectedly rough, and those of us who had not taken our seasick pills in time really regretted it! A stalwart few remained on the top deck and managed to see some of the regular pelagic birds, including Galapagos Shearwater, Galapagos Petrel, and White-vented, Wedge-rumped, and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels. Fortunately, we saw all of these again on later dates when the seas were calmer. We arrived at Española just after lunch, which gave us plenty of time at Punta Suarez, always one of the favorite landing points on this trip. It's one of those islands that, no matter where you look, there's always something going on. A pair of Galapagos Hawks and horde of curious Hood Mockingbirds scampering around at our feet started things off right at the landing. Marine Iguanas and Galapagos Sea Lions were everywhere, often with their own attending mockers. We walked slowly down the loop trail, taking it all in, seeing nesting Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies, Red-billed Tropicbirds flying around everywhere, dozens of beautiful Swallow-tailed Gulls, and of course the star bird of the island, the Waved Albatross. All but a few of the world's population breed on this one island, and we saw lots of nearly full-grown chicks, some almost old enough to fly. There were are few new land birds for us, including Large Cactus-Finch, the lowland form of Warbler Finch, and the first decent views of the pretty Galapagos Dove.

Hood Mockingbird & Marine Iguana (Nick Athanas) Galapagos Hawk (Nick Athanas)
Hood Mockingbird and Marine Iguana Galapagos Hawk

Waved Albatross (Nick Athanas)
Waved Albatrosses

24 November - Floreana Island and Champion Islet
After a relatively calm overnight crossing, we arrived at Puerto Velasco Ibarra, the only town on Floreana, in the early morning hours. Again we were on land right after dawn, this time heading up the mountain in a ranchero, a typical Ecuadorian bus that is basically a flatbed truck with wooden benches bolted on it. Normally there is only one key bird to see up here, the Medium Tree-Finch, endemic only to the higher elevations of this island. However, due to a bit of bad luck on Santa Cruz, we were also looking for Large Tree-Finch. The driver of our ranchero had obviously worked with birders before, because he suggested we stop at a small side track half way up. His help was much appreciated, since we found our main quarry very quickly, with Small Ground-Finches nearby to compare with. It was a banded bird, so it looks like this might have been a study site for the species. So it was down to one, and it wasn't looking good. We wandered around some trails at a small cattle ranch called Asilo de la Paz, finding plenty of finches, including another Medium Tree, but no luck with the Large. Finally, with time running out, we tried our luck walking back down the main road, and miraculously, literally moments before I was about to give up, one finally turned up. It had such a large, long bill there was doubt in anyone's mind. That's about as 11th hour as you can get! Relieved, we headed back to the yacht and cruised around to the north side of the island. After some snorkeling at the famous Devil's Crown, where we saw King Angelfish, Bicolored Parrotfish, and other beauties, we headed over to tiny Champion Islet. This, along with Garder, a similar-sized island, are the last refuges of the critically-endangered Charles Mockingbird. It used to occur on Floreana, but was wiped out due to introduced predators, and now they only occur on these two islands, which total less than a square mile of land. The total population may be less than 60 individuals, according to BirdLife International. It is prohibited to land on the islands, but we took our pangas along the shore and quickly found about eight individuals - a significant proportion of the global population - and watched them for quite some time. In late afternoon, we set off for Isabela, a journey that took most of the night.

White-bellied Storm-Petrel (Nick Athanas) Waved Albatross (Nick Athanas)
White-vented Storm-Petrels Waved Albatross

25 November - Isabela Island (Punta Moreno) and the Bolívar Channel
It's not often you get a lifer through your bathroom window, but it happened today as the Flightless Cormorants swam by the boat before breakfast. They are only found on Isabela and Fernandina, and we saw quite a few over the next two days. After breakfast, we negotiated the low tide to our landing point and walked over an amazing lava field - bleak, twisted rock with a few endemic cacti here and there - interspersed with oases of small pools surrounded by stunted trees. Some of the pools were alive with activity, with Black-necked Stilts and various shorebirds working the edges, White-cheeked Pintails dabbling in the shallows, Magnificent Frigatebirds whirling overhead, and the occasional Galapagos Martin flying by. Nearer the beach, the low tide had trapped a Pacific Green Turtle in a small pool, and it swam round-and-round while waiting for the rising tide to fill up the channel again. Later in the morning, we rode around in the pangas watching more Flightless Cormorants, and having great views of Galapagos Penguins. While our attempts to swim with them failed, the snorkeling here was quite good despite the surprisingly cold water. After lunch, we started cruising north through the Bolívar Channel, the narrow passage between Isabela and Fernandina islands. The sheer number of birds here was mind-blowing (check the photo below): huge flocks of Red Phalaropes were everywhere, with the occasional Red-necked mixed in. We estimated the number of Red Phalaropes we saw that afternoon to be in the tens of thousands, a number none of us had ever experienced before. There were also thousands of Galapagos Shearwaters, hundreds White-vented Storm-Petrels and Brown Noddies, dozens of Galapagos Petrels, and the occasional Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel and Franklin's Gull. A few cetacions were also spotted; while the identity of some of them was a matter of great debate, we defintely saw at least one Bryde's Whale. It was a moment to be etched in memory forever: late afternoon on the top deck of the yacht, with dead calm seas, surrounded by thousands of birds, whales surfacing nearby, and bathed in the soft light of the sun setting over nearby Fernandina Island.

Pacific Green Turtle (Nick Athanas) Galapagos Petrel (Nick Athanas)
Pacific Green Turtle Galapagos Petrel

Seabird feeding frenzy (Nick Athanas)
Seabird feeding frenzy in the Bolívar Channel

26 November - Fernandina Island (Punta Espinoza)
In the past, we would have spent this morning on Isabela at nearby Playa Negra, the last stronghold of the critically endangered Mangrove Finch. However, this site is now closed to tourists due to the dire situation of this bird, so we had to make due with Punta Espinoza. There are good mangroves here, but apart from two recent unconfirmed sightings, there had been no records of Mangrove Finch here for more than thirty years. We were hardly confident, but we still scoured the mangroves as we walked slowly along the rocky path, seeing a few birds like another Galapagos Hawk, but nothing new. Finally a dull finch flew in and landed in the mangroves right in front of us, clearly something different from the Small Ground-Finches we had been seeing all morning. MANGROVE FINCH I shouted with elation, and we watched it for ten minutes before it flew, occasionally preening and pecking the branch it was perched on. Did it realize it was the center of attention? It didn't seem to be bothered by the dozen cameras being pointed at it and the constant sound of clicks and beeps as hundreds of photos were taken. Exhilirated, we returned to the yacht and decided to take another panga ride to get better views and to photograph Flightless Cormorant and Galapagos Penguin, both of which were very obliging. Right after lunch, we started steaming for Genovesa, the longest crossing of the trip. More seawatching in the afternoon got us a few Pomarine Jaegers along with the more common species.

The Mangrove Finch story isn't finished. After returning to Quito, I asked two experts to look at the photos and confirm the identity. Sadly, both of them thought our bird more resembled Woodpecker Finch, though neither could say with 100% certainty the identity of the bird. One of them even said that he has seen Mangrove Finches at Playa Negra with bill shapes much like the one we saw. What would a Woodpecker Finch be doing in the mangroves? Isn't a Mangrove Finch just a Woodpecker Finch that evolved to live in the mangroves? Are they really distinct species, or have they only just started to diverge, but haven't quite made it yet? These are questions that are yet to be answered. The Darwin's finches are like a real-life experiment in a living laboratory of evolution.

Update 17 June 2009: After further studies of the photos and video we took of this bird, the Mangrove Finch experts are now prepared to say that our bird almost certainly has to be the real thing, which would make it the first confirmed record of that species from Fernandina since the early 1970's. A great find indeed and good news for this critically endangered species! More photos and details can be found here.

Photo by Nick Athanas Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (Nick Athanas)
The finch we saw in the mangroves on Fernandina - is it a Mangrove Finch? Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

Flightless Cormorant - Nick Athanas
Flightless Cormorant

27 November - Genovesa Island
We were all relieved to drop anchor in the sheltered bay near Playa Darwin just before breakfast, and even happier to be on solid ground at least for a little while. Genovesa is yet another one of those islands where you can fill your camera chip up in no time flat. It has the biggest colony of Red-footed Boobies on the Galapagos, and they were everywhere, brown morphs, white morphs, and plenty of fluffy fledglings. There were also lots of Nazca Boobies, Lava and Swallow-tailed Gulls, Great Frigatebirds, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. We easily found our last remaining Darwin's finch in the form of Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch, as well as an endemic race of Large Cactus-Finch and our best views of Large Ground-Finch. Later in the morning, we rode pangas along the cliffs to see the Galapagos Fur Seals that were slumbering on the rocks, and a few of us donned wetsuits to do some more snorkeling. In the afternoon, we climbed up Price Philip's Steps (a rocky staircase given that name after a visit from His Royal Highness in 1964). We were hoping to see the endemic race of Short-eared Owl, but sadly they did not appear despite the many Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, one of their favorite foods. It was one of the few (minor) disappointments of the trip.

Nazca Boobies (Nick Athanas) Red-footed Booby (Nick Athanas)
Nazca Boobies Red-footed Booby

Swallow-tailed Gulls (Nick Athanas) Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch (Nick Athanas)
Swallow-tailed Gulls   Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch

28 November - North Seymour and Baltra
The crossing between Genovesa and North Seymour was the roughest yet - lots of things were going "bump" in the night, and a lot of us didn't get a whole lot of sleep. North Seymour is a surprisingly fun island considering how small and close to the airport it is. We had less than two hours here, but still we saw some great things: Magnificent Frigatebirds with their throat pouches fully inflated, dancing Blue-footed Boobies, and a sea lion giving birth right in front of us. Sadly, before we knew it, time was up and we had to head back to Baltra, say our goodbyes to the crew, and head back to the airport. Our flight to Quito was smooth and on time, and we celebrated the trip with a festive Mexican meal at a local restaurant, complete with margaritas. Much of the group were staying in Ecuador to sample the fantastic birding on the mainland

Blue-footed Booby (Nick Athanas)
Blue-footed Boobies

Galapagos Sea Lion (Nick Athanas)
Galapagos Sea Lion, having just given birth moments ago.


Bird list follows Clements, including the most recent updates from 15 December 2008.

White-cheeked Pintail (Anas bahamensis galapagensis)
American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
E-Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)
Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus)
Galapagos Shearwater (Puffinus subalaris)
White-vented Storm-Petrel (Oceanites gracilis galapagoensis)
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma tethys tethys)
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma castro)
Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus)
Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii excisa)
Nazca Booby (Sula granti)
Red-footed Booby (Sula sula websteri)
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator)
Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)
Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor ridgwayi)
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias cognata)
Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Striated Heron (Butorides striata sundevalli)
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea pauper)
E-Galapagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis)
E-Galapagos Rail (Laterallus spilonotus)
Paint-billed Crake (Neocrex erythrops erythrops)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus cachinnans)
Black-bellied (Gray) Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)
Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus galapagensis)
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)
Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria)
Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana)
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
Sanderling (Calidris alba)
Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla)
Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri)
Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)
Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)
Swallow-tailed Gull (Creagrus furcatus)
Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)
Franklin's Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan)
E-Lava Gull (Leucophaeus fuliginosus)
Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus galapagensis)
Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)
E-Galapagos Dove (Zenaida galapagoensis galapagoensis)
Dark-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus melacoryphus)
Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani)
Barn Owl (Tyto alba punctatissima) (dead in the road)
E-Galapagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris)
E-Galapagos Martin (Progne modesta)
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
E-Galapagos Mockingbird (Nesomimus parvulus parvulus & bauri (Genovesa))
E-Charles (Floreana) Mockingbird (Nesomimus trifasciatus)
E-Hood (Española) Mockingbird (Nesomimus macdonaldi)
E-San Cristobal Mockingbird (Nesomimus melanotis)
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia aureola)
E-Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) - A potential split. We saw "Highland" Warbler Finch, the olivacea group, on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Floreana. The "Lowland" Warbler Finch, the fusca group, we saw on Española and Genovesa.
E-Vegetarian Finch (Platyspiza crassirostris)
E-Woodpecker Finch (Camarhynchus pallidus pallidus)
E-Large Tree-Finch (Camarhynchus psittacula psittacula)
E-Medium Tree-Finch (Camarhynchus pauper)
E-Small Tree-Finch (Camarhynchus parvulus parvulus & salvini (San Cristobal))
??? E-Mangrove Finch (Camarhynchus heliobates)
E-Small Ground-Finch (Geospiza fuliginosa)
E-Large Ground-Finch (Geospiza magnirostris)
E-Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch (Geospiza difficilis debilirostris)
E-Common Cactus-Finch (Geospiza scandens intermedia)
E-Medium Ground-Finch (Geospiza fortis)
E-Large Cactus-Finch (Geospiza conirostris conirostris(Española) & propinqua(Genovesa))

OTHER WILDLIFE (not an exhaustive list)
Pacific Green Turtle  Chelonia midas agassisi
Marine Iguana  Amblyrhynchus cristatus
Land Iguana  Conolophus subcristatus
Galapagos Lava Lizard Microlophus albemarlensis
Española Lava Lizard Microlophus delanonis
Floreana Lava Lizard Microlophus greyi
Banded Galapagos Snake  Antillophis sleveni
Galapagos Giant Tortoise  Geochelone elaphantophus
Galapagos Sea Lion  Zalophus califomianus wollebacki
Galapagos Fur Seal  Arctocephalus galapagoensis
House Mouse
Mus musculus (introduced)
Bryde’s Whale  Balaenoptera edeni
Sally Lightfoot Crab Grapsus grapsus
Yellow-tailed Damselfish Chromis xanthurus
Concentric Puffer Sphoeroides annulatus
Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish Prionurus laticlavius
Panamic Sargeant Major Abudefduf troschelii
flying fish sp. Exocoetidae sp.
King Angelfish Holacanthus passer
Bicolor Parrotfish Cetoscarus bicolor
Spotted Eagle Ray Aetobatus narinari
Golden Ray Rhinoptera steindachneri
White-tipped Reef Shark Triaenodon obesus
Yellow-tailed Mullet Mugil rammelsbergii
Swordfish Xiphias gladias
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola
Moorish Idol Zanclus cornutus
Galapagos Painted Locust Schistocerca melanocera
Spot-winged Glider Pantala hymenaea
Galapagos Carpenter Bee Xylocopa darwini
Yellow Paper Wasp Polistes versicolor

Marine Iguanas (Nick Athanas)
Marine Iguanas