Birding Galapagos Islands on a Budget August 28th-September 12th, 2009

The word budget and Galapagos Islands don´t really fit together into one sentence, but it is possible to visit this extraordinary and wildlife rich archipelago without taking out a loan on the family home, better yet, live in a tent for a year. The Galapagos Islands are over a dozen islands, rock outcrops, and volcanic burps in the middle of the Pacific about 1000 kilometers from mainland South America. Geographically they are isolated, but politically they belong to Ecuador, and one must pass through either Quito or Guayaquil to get there. Better to fly from Guayaquil to save money (365 dollars roundtrip during high season). On arriving on the islands, most flights land in Baltra, but San Cristobal is another option. It may be worth it to land in Baltra and leave from San Cristobal. I didn´t do that, but check the possibilities. Once in Baltra a bus (free) and ferry will take you to Santa Cruz Island right next door (20 min trip) and then it’s a beautiful 45 min bus ride (2 dollars) across Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos.

 

Puerto Ayora, Photo Claudia Cavazos

Puerto Ayora offers all that the tourist heart desires, art shops, fancy restaurants, clubs, bars and lots of tour companies that will even guide you the hundred meters down to the beach for a fee. For the budget birder Puerto Ayora has plenty of reasonable accommodations, try Hostal Amigo, $10 per person and eat at the stands lining the side street behind the main drag, here its possible to get a big plate of chicken and rice for $2.50.

 

Lava Lizard, Photo Stephan Lorenz

The fauna and flora in the Galapagos Islands evolved in isolation for thousands of years, thus many unique and endemic species are resident. Bird wise that translates into 25 species found nowhere else. This breaks down into 13 species of the famous Darwin´s Finches, 4 species of Mockingbird, a flycatcher, a rail, a penguin, a heron, a hawk, a dove, a cormorant (the famous non valador), and a gull. The majority of species are easy to observe and yes, incredibly tame, except for the rail. Birding the Galapagos Islands independently is cheaper, but one will miss certain species, because of difficulty reaching certain islands, but it is still possible to see the majority of the endemics and unless you need absolute completeness in your life it is worthwhile.

Small Ground Finch, Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

I spent two weeks traveling between the major islands and birding as much as possible and managed to see 20 of the 25 endemic species, plus many seabirds and other resident landbirds, recording 58 species overall. Santa Cruz Island is worth at least two days, maybe three would be better. Puerto Ayora is the place to stay and most birding destination are easily reached from there.

 

Santa Cruz Island

 

Darwin Research Station

 

The popular research station, where captive tortoises skew the definition of time with their slow crawls across their pens, is a great place to start birding. The area abounds with native vegetation and Darwin’s Finches hop around the pens. Galapagos Mockingbirds are obvious, Galapagos Flycatchers are also easily seen, have fun sorting through the three species of Ground Finches, Small, Medium, and Large, if you look at enough of them they will eventually sort out. Common Cactus Finches are also present, seriously check the cacti as that was the only plant I saw them on (on Isabella I also saw them in shrubs). The research station is the only place where I saw Vegetarian Finch, which is supposedly also present in the highlands on Santa Cruz, but extensive searching there turned up nothing. Go to the station early in the morning before the crowds arrive. I had a female Vegetarian Finch feed sluggishly in some shrubs near the back area and one morning had a brief glimpse of a pair here too. Vegetarian Finches are very sluggish and thus not easy to pick out from among the hordes of Ground Finches at the same time they seem to move more between trees. Yellow Warblers are everywhere.

 

Galapagos Tortoise, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Media Luna

 

It´s easy and cheap to take a taxi to Bella Vista (2 dollars), from where a trail starts for Media Luna. The walk to the actual trailhead takes about two hours going slowly, but is worth doing since there are many birds in the agricultural areas. There is an open square near the T-intersection and a rough dirt road starts towards Media Luna on the far right hand corner, you do not need a guide to get there, I met some people who worked for the national park and it was fine to explore the area and trust me, you will not get lost even if the taxi drivers inundate you with horror stories. The start of the hike goes through agricultural areas where Pain-billed Crakes occur, probably easier to see here than anywhere else in the world. One foraged right out in the open next to a clump of grass, with tape the birds should be easy to see. Overall, I saw about five birds crossing the road. Also Small Tree Finches occur and Woodpecker Finch was seen in some of the larger trees higher up. Black-billed Cuckoos are also fairly common here along with the ever present Smooth-billed Ani. Eventually the road ends at a small parking area and a narrow trail starts winding through low Miconia vegetation. Follow this trail and check for Warbler Finch, fairly common here, and Large Tree Finch, uncommon. After a ten minute walk, the trail splits. I continued for another fifty meters along the left fork where a Galapagos Rail responded to my pishing. You probably need tape to see the bird and it soon walked circles around me, coming right out into the open onto the trail. The entire area is probably good for the rail and Media Luna is one of the best areas to see this endemic, after the Mangrove Finch it is probably the most difficult endemic to see.

Galapagos Rail running for cover, Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

Los Gemelos

 

These places are giant sinkholes in the highlands of Santa Cruz and are located right off the main highway. Short hiking trails wind around them and offer great access to highland woodland and birds. Its better to wait for taxis going in that direction from Bella Vista since it is cheaper to share the fare, buses run along the route too, but I could never figure those out. A taxi costs around 5 dollars and hitchhiking is also an option, but not easy (easier on San Cristobal Island). For some odd reason Los Gemelos was the only place I got good looks at Galapagos Dove (flying birds were seen on Baltra and North Seymor), but there were half a dozen birds here flying inside the sinkhole and perching on the precarious walls. I assume the steep walls provide safe nesting sites. Darwin Finches occur in large flocks, all three Ground Finches, two species of Tree Finches, but I didn´t see Vegetarian Finch which is supposedly also present. This area also supports Short-eared Owl, but I didn´t find it.

 

Galapagos Dove, Photo Stephan Lorenz

El Chato

 

This is a tortoise preserve and easily reached by a long walk from Santa Rosa, a town past Bella Vista. Tortoises occur right along the track leading to the preserve and it is not even necessary to enter the actual protected area. The birds are pretty much the same and nothing special was seen here.

 

Tortuga Bay

 

Great spot to relax and watch the Marine Iguanas sleep on the beach, occasionally sneezing. It is an hour walk from Puerto Ayora and the trail leads through dry lowland shrub where Mockingbirds are common. Flamingoes can sometimes be seen along the beach, but none were present when I visited. The regular seabirds pass by constantly, Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Noddies, and Lava Gulls slouch along the beach. Lava Heron might be in the mangroves, but beware of the Striated Heron, which appeared at least as common. The best looks I got at Lava Heron where in the Puerto Ayora Harbor and the ferry landing on the Santa Cruz side coming from Baltra. On the way to Tortuga bay there is a turn towards a small natural pool where local kids take the plunge. A very short trail leads through some mangroves and I had incredible views of Woodpecker Finch here using a stick for about thirty minutes, methodically probing through dead snags.

 

Galapagos Mockingbird, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Las Grietas

 

A quick ferry will take you across Puerto Ayora Harbor and the start of the Las Grietas Trail, small grottoes of cool clear water perfect for a refreshing swim after the hot walk. The trail goes past mangroves and muddy pools where White-cheeked Pintails can be seen. After that it is about time to leave Santa Cruz.

 

Floreana

 

Best reached by day trip from Santa Cruz (65 dollars) and make sure to pick a trip that includes snorkeling near Champion Islet. The crossing takes about an hour and a half and I saw Waved Albatross and Galapagos Petrel (both species where recorded on almost every crossing). Elliot´s Storm-Petrel can be seen right in the Puerto Ayora Harbor and are often very close to land. Before taking the dip with the resident sea lions at Champion Islet make sure to scan the rocky slopes for Charles Mockingbird. A species endemic to Floreana, but now restricted to the small rock outcrops of Champion and Gardener, it remains a mystery why it went extinct on Floreana. I saw at least one bird reasonably well as it foraged below some brush. Audubon´s Shearwater swirled past and half a dozen pairs of Swallow-tailed Gulls rested below overhanging rocks. After snorkeling, the boat motored around the main island and stopped at Puerto Velasco Ibarra, don´t be fooled by the name as the town is nothing but a few dusty sheds and one relatively expensive hotel (but apparently cheaper accommodation can be had with locals). This would be a great island to spend a couple of days, since it is cheap to reach and offers a secluded experience with lots of wildlife and hiking. Unfortunately I only had a few hours. After lunch at the local restaurant a truck takes the group to the highlands to visit more tortoises in pens. This is the best place to look for Medium Tree Finch, endemic to Floreana. I observed several individuals coming to drink with other finches within the tortoise enclosure, with limited time you need some luck as the birds didn´t seem common. There is some additional hiking, but birding was generally slow. After about one hour in the highlands it is back to the town and boat. The craft motors around the island a bit more and there is a good chance of spotting Galapagos Penguin in one of the coves. I saw one slipping into the water quickly, so keep your eyes open. On the return trip there are more chances for seabirds, Waved Albatross, Audubon´s Shearwater, Galapagos Petrel, and Strom-Petrels.

 

Marine Iguana, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Isabella

 

Cerro Azul

 

I recommend visiting Isabella next, a harrowing (depending on weather) four hour ferry ride from Santa Cruz will get you to Puerto Villamil (the ferry crossing between Santa Cruz and Isabella or San Cristobal are a standard 30 dollar each way), the only town on Isabella. One of the two engines failed on our crossing adding another bumpy two hours. There are plenty of accommodations, mostly moderate in price, but cheap places can be found. There are plenty of restaurants, stores, and of course tour companies. I tried visiting Cerro Azul on my own, but it really seems nearly impossible, since you are only allowed onto the actual volcano with a guide. The day trip runs $40 per person and it seemed that that was the regular price. The tour leaves early in the morning and jeeps one up the mountain. The five hour hike starts at the ranger station and leads through a spectacular landscape, past mindboggling overlooks towards a moonscape of recent volcanic activity. This was the only place where I got good views of Galapagos Hawk with at least two birds soaring along the rim of the volcano, if not visiting Espanola or Santa Fe, this is the best bet for the species. Further along the trail I noted several Galapagos Martins, the only ones seen on the trip. Finches and Galapagos Doves are also present, but difficult to observe while going with a group. This was also the only place where I saw Vermillion Flycatcher, now a fairly rare bird in the Galapagos.

 

Cerro Azul, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Wall of Tears

 

A track leaves town on its western edge and leads for about seven kilometers to the Wall of Tears, a huge stone structure built by convicts when Isabella was a prison colony. The track leads through typical dry lowland vegetation, offers a great viewpoint and miles of deserted beaches. Tortoises, the common finches, including Common Cactus Finch can be seen. Migratory shorebirds frequent the long stretches of sand and the endemic subspecies of American Oystercatcher is present. Carefully check the near shore waters for Penguins as these frequent the area, I saw three very close to town, foraging less than five meters offshore.

 

Galapagos Hawk, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Town Lagoons

 

There are several lagoons close to Puerto Villamil, one right in town, which often harbors American Flamingo. Isabella is the best place to observe this species in the Galapagos. The lagoons a bit further out of town had three flamingos, one Lesser Yellowlegs, and Black-necked Stilts.

 

American Flamingos, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Isabella and Fernandina to the west are the only places to observe the Flightless Cormorant, but only expensive cruises visit that part of the Galapagos and it is not possible to reach that area by day trip. In addition, the remnant populations of the endangered Mangrove Finch occurs on the western side of Isabella. Thus both species are unlikely to be seen unless on an expensive tour or organized bird trip, both species I missed.

 

Galapagos Sea Lion siesta, Photo Stephan Lorenz

San Cristobal

 

San Cristobal can be reached via a barf choking ferry ride from Santa Cruz (of course that depends on weather). The four hour crossing provides great sea birding opportunities, but have a light meal the night before and hold on tight to your bins and use your imagination as you try to identify birds through wobble and sea spray. Nevertheless I got great looks at Waved Albatross and Galapagos Petrel. Puerto Moreno is the largest town on San Cristobal and offers great accommodations and cheap fare. The cheapest place found was Residencial San Francisco ($15 a double) and cheap good restaurants can be found along the side streets off the main drag. The one reason to come to San Cristobal is to see the endemic Chatham Mockingbird, which can be easily observed on the road to the Interpretation Center, which also has a decent trail where finches can be observed. I spent some time sea watching from various points along the shore on the north side of the harbor and got good views of Waved Albatross, Galapagos Petrel, and even a close fly-by of a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, many Elliott´s Storm-Petrel without choking on last night´s food.

 

Galapagos Flycatcher, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Junco Lagoon

 

A lagoon inside a crater several kilometers out of town. Take a taxi to El Progreso and from there start walking along the main road, it’s a long hike and I caught a ride with a gravel truck, so hitchhiking might be the best option to avoid an expensive taxi ride, which still is no more than ten dollars. The walk offers good opportunities to observe Chatham Mockingbird and the endemic race of Warbler Finch, plus many other finches. Magnificent Frigatebirds dip for baths in the lagoon and I saw Common Moorhen, plus a pair of American Coots, which are accidental in the Galapagos. Continuing along the main road will get you to Puerto Chino a small deserted beach backing a small bay great for swimming with Green Sea Turtles or just watching Blue-footed Boobies bomb the water for fish.

 

El Junco Lagoon, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Espanola from San Cristobal

 

It used to be possible to visit Espanola for a day from San Cristobal, but apparently that boat sank two months before I got there. Now one has to book at least a four day tour to get there, which maybe worth it since two endemics can be found there, Hood Mockingbird and Large Cactus Finch, in addition to large seabird colonies, including the only Waved Albatross colony in the Galapagos (a second small colony exists on Isla de la Plata just off the Ecuadorian coast). I didn´t make the trip and thus missed both endemics.

 

Kicker Rock

 

From San Cristobal it is possible to take a half day trip to picture perfect Kicker Rock (50 dollar). The trip passes by a Frigatebird colony where I saw at least one or two Great Frigatebird chicks, so it should be possible to see adults. I also spotted two pilot whales and a small flock of Strom-Petrels, which probably contained Galapagos Strom-Petrel, a species I failed to observe, but they breed at Kicker Rock. Nazca Boobies also frequent Kicker Rock and can be seen perched along the steep cliffs. The snorkeling around Kicker Rock is fantastic, especially swimming through the narrow channel between the vertical cliffs where the waters abound with Sea turtles and sharks

Kicker Rock, Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

North Seymor

 

A day trip goes from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to North Seymor. North Seymor is mostly a flat rocky island of sparse bushes harboring large Blue-footed Booby colonies, many Magnificent Frigatebirds and a few Great Frigatebirds, look for the chicks with rusty colored heads. It is also a great place to see Land Iguanas, many pairs of Swallow-tailed Gulls and the regular Sea Lions.

 

North Seymor, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Bartolome

 

Is scenically on of the most amazing islands, but it is an expensive day trip from Santa Cruz. It’s a great place to get close to Galapagos Penguins, but the one individual around when I was there stayed on the rocks out of the water, despite my enticing it to come for a swim. In addition the trip there takes one past Daphne, the site of the famous Grant study into evolution of finches.

 

And here follows the obligatory Bird List:

 

Galapagos Penguin                         Floreana, Isabella, Bartolome

Waved Albatross                              all crossings, seen from land San Cristobal

Audubon´s Shearwater                 all crossings

Dark-rumped Galapagos Petrel ferry crossing, seen from land San Cristobal

Elliot´s Storm-Petrel                        often close to land, check harbors

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel    seen from land San Cristobal, several seen on trip to Bartolome

Red-billed Tropicbird                      crossings, many around Daphne

Brown Pelican                                   common

Blue-footed Booby                         abundant

Nazca Booby                                      a few at sea, Kicker Rock

Magnificent Frigatebird                 abundant, colony on North Seymor

Great Frigatebird                             North Seymor and also one or two chicks on San Cristobal

Great Blue Heron                             Santa Cruz

Great Egret                                         Isabella

Cattle Egret                                        common on Santa Cruz

Lava Heron                                         uncommon, Santa Cruz, Bartolome

Striated Heron                                  Santa Cruz

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron     Santa Cruz

Greater Flamingo                             Isabella, Santa Cruz

White-cheeked Pintail                   Isabella, Santa Cruz

Galapagos Hawk                               Santa Fe, Isabella

Galapagos Rail                                   Media Luna Santa Cruz

Paint-billed Crake                            Santa Cruz common, Floreana

Common Moorhen                         San Cristobal

American Coot                                  Junca Lagoon San Cristobal, accidental in Galapagos

American Oystercatcher               uncommon, endemic subspecies, Isabella, Bartolome

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Black-bellied Plover

Spotted Sandpiper

Sanderling

Wandering Tattler

Whimbrel

Ruddy Turnstone

Black-necked Stilt

Lesser Yellowlegs

Wilson´s Phalarope

Red Phalarope

Swallow-tailed Gull                         Champion, North Seymor

Lava Gull                                              common Santa Cruz

Brown Noddy                                    abundant

Galapagos Dove                               Los Gemelos Santa Cruz, Baltra, North Seymor

Dark-billed Cuckoo                          Santa Cruz

Smooth-billed Ani                            abundant

Vermillion Flycatcher                      Isabella, now uncommon, also present on Santa Cruz

Galapagos Flycatcher                     common Santa Cruz, San Cristobal

Galapagos Martin                            Isabella, has been lumped with Southern Martin

Galapagos Mockingbird                 common on Santa Cruz and other islands

Charles Mockingbird                       Champion, only possible to see from boat

Chatham Mockingbird                   or San Cristobal Mockingbird

Yellow Warbler                                 abundant the most common landbird

Small Ground Finch                         abundant

Medium Ground Finch                  common

Large Ground Finch                         fairly common on Santa Cruz

Common Cactus Finch                   best seen at Darwin Research Station

Small Tree Finch                               highlands of Santa Cruz, but also few at Research Station

Medium Tree Finch                         Floreana, in tortoise pens coming to water in cement basin

Large Tree Finch                               appeared uncommon in highlands of Santa Cruz

Vegetarian Finch                              Darwin Research Station, hard to see but there

Woodpecker Finch                          Media Luna and Mangroves on Santa Cruz

Warbler Finch                                    common in highlands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal

 

Other Wildlife

 

Marine Iguana, Land Iguana, Green See Turtle, White-tipped Shark, Hammerhead Shark, Manta Ray, Galapagos Tortoise, Green Sea Turtle

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