Updated: Sep 25
We recently had the privilege of exploring the famed Galápagos Islands. Our weeklong trip provided ample birdwatching opportunities and resulted in a total of 22 life-lister birds. This blog is meant to provide some useful background information for anyone planning a birding trip to the enchanted islands. Figuring out which of the 19 islands to visit can be somewhat daunting, but with a little forethought and creativity, birders can easily plan their own Galápagos adventure.
Close encounter with a marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) on the Playa de la Estación near the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island
Land-based vs. Sea-based Tours
There are two ways to explore the Galápagos Islands, land-based and sea-based. Land-based tours involve staying in town and taking relatively short daytrips to different islands throughout the week. Sea-based tours provide accommodation on a yacht and involve traveling from island to island, using the boat as a base. Both approaches have their perks, but the cheaper option is definitely the land-based approach. On our weeklong vacation this past January, we spent roughly $1000 per person in addition to the flights. This compares to weeklong sea-based tours that can easily cost in the range of $4,000 - $5,000 per person. I recommend checking out https://www.liveaboard.com/cruise/galapagos to compare prices for different sea-based tours.
We planned our land-based tour, accepting the fact that we would not be able to see everything the Galápagos has to offer. This includes all the birds. When you go and where you go will ultimately determine what you see.
A swallow-tailed gull (Creagrus furcatus) is not the slightest bit concerned with my presence
When to Go
The rainy season (which is also, somewhat confusingly, the sunny season) lasts from January to April and is often accompanied by more tropical weather. At this time of year, the Coastal Current, brings warm tropical water from Panama, which results in better visibility and calmer seas. It also creates humid air masses on land which can create temporary downpours amidst the sunshine. June through October is the dry season in the Galápagos. At this time of year, the Humboldt current brings relatively cold water to the islands, making snorkeling rather uncomfortable for long periods of time without a wetsuit. The cold water is high in nutrients, which is good for marine wildlife, but less optimal for underwater visibility. The cold water creates a surface airmass that collides with warmer inland air, creating a thick fog that forms in the highlands. This is known as “garua.” Days during the dry season tend to be more overcast and the relative humidity is lower than during the rainy season.
What to See
Many birders who come to the Galápagos are most excited to see the critically endangered waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata). If you came in January, you’d be disappointed to learn that they won’t be returning again until late March and early April. Plan to come between April and October if seeing a waved albatross is at the top on your list. And make sure you book a tour that takes you to Española (Hood) Island, the only place they breed on the Galápagos.
During our visit to Española Island in the Galápagos (July 2009), we had the amazing privilege of witnessing the courtship display of the critically endangered waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata). Notice the bill-circling, sky-pointing, and head-swaying behaviors
For an encounter with a Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), make sure you get to Isabela Island. If you want to see a red-footed booby (Sula sula) and/or nesting wedge-rumped (Hydrobates tethys) and band-rumped storm petrels (Hydrobates castro), make sure to plan a trip to one of the outlying islands like Genovesa. If you want to see a flightless cormorant (Nannopterum harrisi), you will need to book a sea-based tour that goes to the western side of Isabela. If you want to see an American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), make sure to do some birding around Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. You can also see them on Floreana and Rábida. And if it’s the sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus) you’re after, you’ll have to book a diving tour to the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf.
Getting to the Galápagos Islands
Now that you know when you are going, you must plan how and where to go. Getting to the Galápagos is not the fastest process. Located 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, it would take a while for you to get there by boat. You first need to book a flight to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, and then take a separate flight to either Baltra or San Cristóbal. We decided to fly to Baltra, an island just to the north of Santa Cruz, the central-most island of the archipelago. All flights touch down in Guayaquil on the coast of Ecuador before heading out to the islands. You can speed things up a little bit when traveling from your home country by flying directly to Guayaquil, instead of Quito.
Map of Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Baltra Island and San Cristóbal Island airports are indicated with red dots
Once we touched down on Isla Baltra, the first words out of everyone’s mouth were “I didn’t know this was a desert!” The airport is surrounded by barren land speckled with giant Opuntia cacti and Parkinsonia bushes.
You may see an occasional land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) here and possibly a Galápagos Dove (Zenaida galapagoensis). For most people, their first bird will be the ubiquitous small ground finch (Geospiza fuliginosa), not unsimilar in behavior to our European house sparrow (Passer domesticus). At the airport, you will see these friendly little birds approaching you without the slightest hint of fear.
The small ground finch (Geospiza fuliginosa) is likely the first bird you will see getting off your plane at the Baltra Airport
Before venturing out onto the island, you will be asked to pay a $100 National Park Fee (in addition to the $20 tourist visa they make you purchase before flying to the Galápagos). It is another $5 to take the 10-minute shuttle from the airport through the ruins of an old United States Military Base to the Itabaca Canal. Here, you will likely see many dark-colored terns swooping down into the waves. These are brown noddies (Anous stolidus), a tropical tern with long, graceful wings that can sometimes be seen harassing brown pelicans for their catch. They nest along rocky cliffs near the water’s edge and bob their head repeatedly during courtship. Yes, this is why they are called noddies.
We found this brown noddy (Anous stolidus) on a nest under a lava bridge at Los Túneles de Cabo Rosa on Isabela Island
You should also see your first blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii) plunge diving into the surrounding waters. Look up high for circling magnificent (Fregata magnificens) and great frigatebirds (Fregata minor). Adult frigatebirds are difficult to identify on the wing, but the juvenile Great can be separated from the Magnificent by the rusty color of the white head.
This adult male magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) has a bright red gular sack that he inflates when posturing for potential mates. You can tell the difference between mature male magnificent and great frigatebirds by the color of the iridescent sheen on the back. Magnificents have a purple sheen, whereas Greats have a green sheen. To help remember which is which, birders remember the phrase "Green is Great"
You’ll be asked to pay one dollar for a short panga ride across the canal. On the other side, you can take a shuttle ($5) across the highlands of Santa Cruz to the town of of Puerto Ayora. If you prefer, you can split a $25 cab ride with others.
Our Land-based Itinerary
Our land-based adventure started in Puerto Ayora, the largest human habitation in the Galápagos. There are more than 12,000 people that live in this town. Here is a brief overview of our trip:
Day 1: Activities around Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
Day 2: Daytrip to Floreana Island
Day 3: Ferry to Isabela Island. Rented bikes and explored beaches west of town
Day 4: Snorkeled in the Concha de Perla lagoon and took a half day tour to Los Túneles de Cabo Rosa
Day 5: Ferry to Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz highlands
Day 6: Santa Cruz highlands to airport
Day 1: Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
In Puerto Ayora, we first explored the Charles Darwin Research Station and learned about the giant tortoise recovery program at the Centro de Crianza Fausto Llerena. The station is about a 20-minute walk east of town and we found the birding to be pretty good in the surrounding mangroves along the way. We went in the afternoon when it was really hot, so I’m sure it would be better in the morning. This is supposed to be a good spot for dark-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus melacoryphus), which we never found. This is where we found our first Galápagos mockingbird (Mimus parvulus), Galápagos yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia aureola), medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis), and Galápagos flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris). On our way back, we stopped at the Playa de la Estación, where we saw our first full adult marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) and this lava heron (Butorides sundevalli).
Some authorities, like the American Ornithological Society and Birdlife International, consider the lava heron (Butorides sundevalli) to be a subspecies or color morph of the striated heron (Butorides striata)
A marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) basks in the sun to restore its body temperature after feeding off of algae in the intertidal areas near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
Taking photographs of Darwin's finches on the trail to the Darwin Research Center's Centro de Crianza Fausto Llerena
We went back to our hotel to reapply sunscreen (the equatorial sun is brutal) and made our way down to the pier where we paid a panga one dollar a piece to take us across to Playa de los Alemanes, right in front of the Finch Bay hotel. A walk along the beach turned up a lone ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), several white-cheeked pintails (Anas bahamensis), and a snack-searching common gallinule (Gallinula galeata).
Two saddle-back tortoises mate at the Darwin Research Center's Centro de Crianza Fausto Llerena. The saddle-back shell evolved in environments where ground vegetation was largely absent and tortoises had to raise their heads to access food resources. The dome-shaped shell evolved in highland areas where ground-level vegetation was abundant
We made our way through the grounds of the Finch Bay hotel where we found our first lava gulls (Leucophaeus fuliginosus). Some were even wading in the pool amidst human swimmers! It is likely that the lava gull's sister species (the species it evolved from) is the laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla). They may have evolved charcoal-colored bodies to blend into the black lava rocks that dominate the landscape in their habitat. This may make them less obvious to prey like crabs and fish.
We set foot on an adjacent path to the entrance to Las Grietas, where the trail clings to the edge of a barren salt flat. I can especially remember the smell here: the fragrant aroma of Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens) wafted lazily in the humid air around us. This is one of my favorite smells on Earth. Here, at the salt flat, we saw several black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and a lone whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). There is a $10 charge to enter Las Grietas. The fee includes a guide who walks you to the main attraction, a giant fissure in the volcanic rock where sea water meets fresh water. The snorkeling here is good, but it would be better at mid-day when the sun is directly overhead.
Angie and I on the trail to Las Grietas
This fissure in the volcanic rock at Las Grietas allows fresh water and salt water to mix, creating a unique snorkeling environment
Day 2: Daytrip to Floreana Island
Angie pointing out several volcanic tuff cones in the distance on Floreana. Tuff cones are formed when lava heats water and forms very fine grains of ash that settle around the crater. Over time, this fine material hardens to form a rock known as tuff
The next morning, we set off on a day tour to Floreana Island. We ended up booking our tour the day before, as sometimes you can find better prices for boats that are looking to fill up last minute. Be careful doing this during high season. Boats may not be available. In fact, we wanted to find a boat to Bartolomé but couldn’t find anything available for another three days. I was told that high season is February to April and June to August.
It's important to note that if you are a birder who is looking for a quality birding experience, you may want to book with a more reputable boat. The boat that we booked ended up being very small (ten passengers plus two crew and a guide) and it had limited opportunity to do any real birding from the boat. Our naturalist guide was not very good and she felt like more of a babysitter than anything else. I’ve been told the Sea Finch, Queen Rose, and Santa Fe III are all really good boats, but their tours are considerably more expensive. We paid $160 per person for the day, which included lunch. The Sea Finch, Queen Rose, and Santa Fe III all start around $300 per person. You pay for what you get.
This male lava lizard (Microlophus spp.) was doing pushups in front of us to display for nearby females. Unlike other places, the Galápagos Islands are dominated by reptiles and birds. Mammals have not been as successful colonizing the islands, with the exception of introduced invasive species like black rats, goats, dogs, and cats
The day started with a two-hour cruise to Floreana Island, due south of Santa Cruz. Our first stop was a wet landing at the Pirate’s Caves, where we took a short hike up to the top of a hill overlooking the azure ocean. On the beach, Sally lightfoot crabs (Grapsus grapsus) skittered about and several Galápagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) basked in the sun. Aside from a close-up look at a blue-footed booby and an encounter with a common cactus finch (Geospiza scandens), the birding was not great here. I’d skip it if you can, especially if you are here to see birds.
A Sally lightfoot crab (Grapsus grapsus) dashes across the sand in front of us after our wet landing on Floreana Island. These crimson red-colored crabs can be seen in intertidal areas throughout the Galápagos Islands
The common cactus finch (Geospiza scandens) is not always found in cactus, but it does prefer the fruit of the Opuntia, prickly pear cactus. This finch has a much pointier bill and sometimes it even appears drooping. Española and Genovesa Islands each have their own unique species of cactus finch
Angie says hello to a curious Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki ) on the beach at Pirate's Cave, Floreana Island
Instead, I would go directly towards Enderby Island, a small islet off the northern coast of Floreana. Here, we saw nesting Nazca boobies (Sula granti), brown noddies (A. stolidus), and many Galápagos shearwaters (Puffinus subalaris). We kept our eyes open for the Galápagos petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia) but unfortunately we did not see any. I would also spend more time around Champion Island to make sure you get your Floreana mockingbird (see below).
The Nazca booby (Sula granti) was separated from the masked booby (Sula dactylatra) in 2002. Like the blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii), the Nazca booby makes its nest by using a bare scrape in the ground, demarcated by excrement. Siblicide has been regularly observed in this species. The first chick is born around five days before the second and is larger and stronger by the time the second is born. The older chick drags the younger chick out of the nest, effectively killing it. Studies have shown that adult Nazca boobies can easily feed two chicks, so why do we see this phenomenon? In the face of a cruel, dynamic ocean environment, one exceptionally strong chick is much more likely to survive than two mildly strong chicks
A short boat ride later, we were circumnavigating the coast of Champion Island, the last refuge of the endemic Floreana mockingbird (Mimus trifasciatus). Unfortunately, it is impossible to land on Champion, so we had to search for mockingbirds from the boat. We were unsuccessful. We did, however, have our first encounters with swallow-tailed gull (C. furcatus), red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), and Elliot’s storm petrel (Oceanites gracilis) here off the coast of Champion.
Tropicbirds look like extremely ornate terns, but they are are not closely related to terns. They have extremely long, ribbon-like tails and are known for their fanciful diving displays during courtship. These red-billed tropicbirds (Phaethon aethereus) flew directly over our boat, reminding me of a stealth bomber flyover at a football game
After Champion, we made a wet landing near Punta Cormorant, a very misleading name indeed, as no flightless cormorants are found here. The beach was a unique green color from olivine crystals and we admired several specimens of the endemic Floreana cutleaf daisy (Lecocarpus pinnatifidus) growing amongst stands of black mangrove.
The Floreana cutleaf daisy (Lecocarpus pinnatifidus) is endemic to Floreana, found nowhere else in the world
A short hike inland brought us to a salt lagoon where we could see three American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) preening in the distance. Apparently, they nest here and sometimes you can see their conical nests sculpted with mud on the far side of the lagoon. For a chance to see the spectacular courtship displays (including head-flagging and wing-salute), try to spend some time here in July, which marks the beginning of the breeding season.
The American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) nests on Floreana Island from July through October. We also saw flamingos in salt lagoons near Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island
Walking back towards the boat, we spotted white-cheeked pintail (A. bahamensis), both small (G. fuliginosa) and medium ground finch (G. fortis), along with what seemed like scores of Galápagos yellow warblers (S. petechia auriola).
In many wild areas, the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) appears to be the most commonly spotted finch. This species was made famous by researchers Rosemary and Peter Grant, who by banding an entire population of medium ground finches on the island of Daphne Major, were able to provide evidence of evolution happening in real time. During the several decades of research by the Grants, the finches were subjected to both a severe drought and dramatic rains that accompanied El Niño. After the drought, nearly 9 out of 10 medium ground finches on the island died. Those that survived were the birds that had large enough bills to crack open the one seed available to the finches. In just one generation of natural selection, the population of medium ground finches on Daphne Major had been nonrandomly altered. Daphne Major was now an island with "larger-billed" finches. Four to five years later during a harsh El Niño event, rains persisted and favored the production of small seeds. That year there was a scarcity of large seeded plants. This created the exact opposite reaction, where the finches moved toward smaller bill and body sizes
The interior of Floreana Island is the only place where the endemic medium tree finch (Camarhynchus pauper) can be found. Be sure to request a tour that includes some hiking into the Floreana highlands if you want to see the medium tree finch. Also, before leaving Punta Cormorant, ask your guide to take you over to “Penguin Rock.” If you’re lucky, you may see one of the few Galápagos penguins (S. mendiculus) that roost there.
Many small rocky islets can be found around the larger islands. This one had dozens of Nazca boobies (Sula granti) and Galápagos shearwaters (Puffinus subalaris) on it
If I could do this trip again, I would want to snorkel around the Devil’s Crown. If you can dive it, all the better. But I've read that some groups are allowed to snorkel over the submerged volcanic cone beneath the Crown. Ask about whether your tour has the option of doing this. It is apparently fantastic. We snorkeled nearby and it was pretty good, but the conditions were rough. We encountered huge schools of Pacific creolefish (Paranthias colonus), king angel fish (Holacanthus passer), blue and gold snapper (Lutjanus viridis), yellow-tailed snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), blue-chinned parrotfish (Scarus ghobban) and the occasional Galápagos sea lion (Z. wollebaeki) would swim by. Angie and I even got to swim hand in hand beside a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). We also admired the elegant blue sea star (Linckia laevigata) here.
A giant manta ray (Mobula birostris) leaping out of the water. Not the best photo, but hey, I captured it! Breaching is often done to rid the body of ectoparasites
On the way back through the Devil’s crown area, we were accompanied by a pod of hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiaps truncatus), some leaping entirely out of the water in front of our boat. We also saw a giant manta ray (Mobula birostris) leap fully out of the water and two red-billed tropicbirds (P. aethereus) whizzed by us with their ribbon tails streaming behind them.
Hundreds of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) surrounded our boat on our return trip past Devil's Crown
Angie on the hike above the Pirate's Cave area of Floreana Island
Day 3: Isabela Island
The next morning, we took the 7 am ferry over to Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. The trip took around two hours and cost us $35 each way. I would recommend booking this ahead of time online (https://galapagostransfers.com/boat-schedules-galapagos/ ) so you can secure your spot, especially during the peak tourist seasons. It is important to arrive at to the dock at least a half hour before departure.
On the trip across the sea, there is really not much of an opportunity to birdwatch. The boat moves quickly, and it does not make stops to sightsee. I put my binoculars away and got some much-needed shuteye.
On the bike trail towards Muro de las lagrimas, west of Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island
We decided to rent bikes and followed the road west of town to where it split from the main road and headed out along the coast. The trail gets very sandy but push along until you get to some of the turnoffs and do some birding here. We stopped at a place called Pozo Verde (Green Pool), where we dropped our bikes and hiked into a tangle of scrub vegetation. Here we saw our first small tree finch (Camarhynchus parvulus). We noticed that the bird’s song was unique and upon closer inspection, we were able to see it’s bicolored head and breast.
The trail led us to several small beaches, our favorite being the Playa del amor. The water is crystalline here and you share the beach with no one except for several lounging marine iguanas. We did not make it all the way down to El Muro de las Lagrimas, a stone wall built by former prisoners. Instead, we relaxed on the beach and observed the world around us. Angie noticed a few Sally lightfoot (G. grapsus) juvenile crabs hiding out in a mangrove trunk. They are much darker in color than the adults.
The crystalline waters at Playa del Amor
After returning to town, we stopped for a drink at Beto’s Bar and enjoyed the birdwatching from the beachfront. Here we saw black-bellied plover (Pluvialis squatarola), whimbrel (N. phaeopus), sanderling (Calidris alba), and our very first wandering tattler (Tringa incana), all while we sipped on our cocolocos. As the evening draw near, we returned our bikes and walked over to the Laguna Salinas, the salt water lagoon behind our hotel. The golden hour light was perfect for viewing several American flamingos and white-cheeked pintails. Afterwards, we went for dinner at Hornados Albita and followed it up with drinks and live music at the Pink Iguana. We highly recommend both.
The wandering tattler (Tringa incana) is a medium-sized wading bird that bobs its tail rapidly as it hunts for crustaceans and worms in the sand
Sunset from the beach in front of Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island
Day 4 – Snorkeling at Concha de Perla and Los Túneles de Cabo Rosa
The main square in Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island
The next morning we got up and hitched a one dollar cab ride over to the docks where we could snorkel at Concha de Perla, a mangrove lagoon filled with tropical fish, marine iguanas, sea lions, and sometimes even penguins. Highlights of this snorkel were stepping over sleeping sea lions on the boardwalk, swimming with a marine iguana and several sea lions, colorful schools of blue-chinned parrotfish (S. ghobban) and sergeant majors (Abudefduf saxatilis), and a chocolate chip sea star (Protoreaster nodosus). Angie saw a green sea turtle (C. mydas) here as well.
A sea lion pup on the docks near Concha de Perla
The day before we booked a half-day snorkeling tour to Los Tuneles de Cabo Rosa, a paradise of lava tunnels and bridges above and below the water. The half-day tour cost us $160 per person and included lunch and several snorkeling experiences in and around the tunnels. Although the boat was just as small and packed as our tour to Floreana, our guide Glenda was much improved from our first guide. She let us know what we could expect to see and did a great job pointing things out to us underwater. She even had underwater hand signals for each of the different animals.
A hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) near Los Túneles with dozens of Cortez rainbow wrasses (Thalassoma lucasanum) picking ectoparasites off its head
Our tour started off with a bang. Walking along the dock to the boat we got a great view of a marbled ray (Taeniurops meyeni). As Glenda offered some information on the ray, a Galápagos penguin (S. mendiculus) swam into our view, showing itself for just a few seconds. Life lister!
On the hour-long trip to Cabo Rosa, we stopped to observe a giant manta ray (M. birostris) swimming on the surface of the ocean. Our first snorkeling opportunity at Los Túneles was quite productive. We observed a number of large hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) grazing on sea grass, along with an even larger green sea turtle (C. mydas). The hawksbills had several beautiful Cortez rainbow wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum) hovering around their heads, plucking parasites off their heads. Glenda pointed out several spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) amidst other fish like large-banded blennies (Ophioblennius steindachneri), Galápagos ringtail damselfish (Stegastes beebei), yellowtail damselfish (Chrysiptera parasema), sergeant major (A. saxatilis), three-banded butterflyfish (Chaetodon robustus), and streamer hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia).
Moving to another area to snorkel through the lava bridges, Glenda pointed out a Pacific sea horse (Hippocampus ingens) clinging to a piece of sea grass. She also found some underwater caves where white-tipped reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) were sleeping. Here we also saw a cryptic Galápagos octopus (Octopus oculifer) and a fairly large spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus).
The visibility here was only fair. I think it may have been better if we had gone at low tide. The sun definitely makes a difference. When it goes behind the clouds it becomes much harder to see things.
Candelabra cacti (Jasminocereus thouarsii) adorn the volcanic rocks amidst labyrinthine underwater passageways at Los Túneles de Cabo Rosa
My favorite part of this tour was after lunch when we were allowed to get off the boat and walk along the top of the lava bridges. Spattered with candelabra cacti (Jasminocereus thouarsii), the lava bridges provide homes and nesting sites to many different species. Peering down among the rocks, I was able to find a nesting pair of brown noddies, a hunting yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) along with a striated heron (Butorides striata) fishing in the shallows.
This striated heron (Butorides striata) is noticeably different from the lava heron we saw earlier in the trip. Notice the chestnut in the wings and the yellow legs (instead of orange)
Can you tell which blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii) is the male and which is the female? The female is the larger bird and has a larger iris than the male. She is the bird in the background
At the end of the path, Glenda introduced us to this pair of breeding blue-footed boobies. We watched in awe as they performed their courtship ritual right in front of us!
In addition to being the largest island in the archipelago, Isabela is also one of the most volcanically active. Home to six prominent shield volcanoes, five of which are still active, Isabela is still growing. It is home to five distinct species of giant tortoise, each on the slopes of a different volcano. The Sierra Negra volcano has the second largest caldera in the world (after Ngoronogoro in Tanzania) and is a good place to look for Darwin’s flycatcher (Pyrocephalus nanus) and Galápagos martin (Progne modesta), two endemic species that are becoming much rarer. Due to time constraints, we unfortunately had to cut this activity out of our itinerary.
It should also be noted that any birder coming to Isabela should try to find the opportunity to search for the most critically endangered bird of them all on the Galápagos: the mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates). There is only a small population remaining in two isolated mangrove forests along the northwest coast of Isabela. Today, the mangrove finch is one of the most range-restricted birds in the world, with only around 100 individuals remaining. You will need a specialized tour stop to get you close to the mangrove finch, although the two main breeding areas are now off limits to visitors.
Day 5 – Santa Cruz Highlands
A Galápagos mockingbird (Mimus parvulus) in the Scalesia forest of the Santa Cruz highlands
The ferry back to Santa Cruz Island (Puerto Ayora) leaves even earlier from Isabela (Puerto Villamil). A 6 am departure meant that we needed to be at the docks no later than 5:30 am. This meant we got back to Puerto Ayora fairly early (around 8:30 am) and had a full day to relax at our boutique hotel in the highlands.
Colorful adornments above the street in downtown Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
We hailed a cab for $7 that drove us out of town 15 minutes to Semilla Verde, a gorgeous property nestled in the Tree Daisy (Scalesia pedunculata) forest in the hills above the coast. Our truck had to drop us off halfway up the driveway because it was blocked by a giant dome-shelled tortoise (Geochelone nigrita) who refused to move. I asked our driver if the tortoises ever get run over by cars. He told me they do not wander in the roads at night and are fairly easy to see during the day, but if you hit one it can come with a $30,000 fine and/or a three-year jail sentence. I later found an article about a police officer who was caught trying to smuggle 185 baby tortoises to Guayaquil. He was caught and sentenced to three years in prison.
The dome-shelled Galápagos giant tortoise (Geochelone nigrita) can be found roaming around the grounds of Semilla Verde. They don't seem to mind people very much, but will pull their head into their shell if you get too close. The air that is pushed out of the body cavity when the head is retracted makes it sound as if the tortoise is hissing
The highlands of Santa Cruz Island contain some 3,000+ dome-shelled tortoises that roam around freely on farms and reserves. At Semilla Verde, the owners have reforested 12 acres with native Scalesia species and are growing shade grown coffee in the understory.
The lush grounds of the Semilla Verde boutique hotel in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island
We spent most the morning wandering around the trails of the property searching for new birds. In addition to hundreds of migrating monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), we saw Galápagos mockingbird (M. parvulus), Galápagos flycatcher (M. magnirostris), and six species of Darwin’s finches, including woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus), green warbler finch (Certhidea olivacea), and large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) that were life listers for us.
The Galápagos flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) is an endemic species that routinely perches on visitors and their cameras
Side Note on Darwin’s Finches
While I’m on the topic of Darwin’s finches, I’d like to elaborate a little bit here. Most people seem to think that these little brown jobbies (LBJs in typical birder parlance) were Darwin’s posterchild as evidence for evolution. This is a common misconception. In fact, there was not even one mention of the finches in his famous 1859 publication On the Origin of Species. According to Frank J. Sulloway, Darwin had failed to note which islands several different species of finches were collected from, and thus did not have clear evidence for natural selection. Instead, he used his plant collections to better serve him in the formation of his hypothesis.
We heard this woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) before we saw it. We watched it for a while, hoping it would pick up a branch and start using it as a tool, but we had no luck
It turns out, Darwin never even got a chance to observe many of the finches, including this pictured woodpecker finch (C. pallidus), made famous for adapting to use a cactus spine to poke into crevices and extract insect larvae. It was not until he returned to England and spoke with the preeminent ornithologist John Gould about the diversity of these unassuming finches that he began to realize their importance. Gould used several labeled specimens procured by Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, to suggest that adaptive radiation was playing out at its finest.
The large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) has been given the nickname "megamouth" because of its enormous, parrot-like bill
Another common misconception is that these birds are finches. Recent genetic analysis has shown that these birds are more closely related to the tanagers, belonging to a more recently evolved family known as Thraupidae.
It is not any task to observe and identify all 17 species of Darwin’s finches that can be found on the archipelago. One is found outside the Galápagos on Costa Rica’s Cocos Islands. You have to travel widely through the islands to see them all and know exactly where to look. It’s worth spending some time listening to the finches before you get to the islands. They have distinct calls which can help you identify them. Be forewarned: they are not easy! You’ll have to spend some time with them to get comfortable with identifications. Even so, at times it is likely you will have to settle for a finch spp. identification with some of them.
When Charles Darwin first observed the warbler finch, he believed it to be a species of wren. The ornithologist John Gould informed Darwin that this bird was one of the many finches he had collected. Today, the warbler finch is separated into two species, the green warbler finch (Certhidea olivaea) pictured above and the grey warbler finch (Certhidea fusca)
In general, the small and medium ground finches, the small tree finch, the common cactus finch, and the green warbler finch are all common enough to be seen by most visitors. The large ground finch, large tree finch, woodpecker finch, and vegetarian finch are considered uncommon, but can be found with some effort. Española and Genovesa Islands have their own species of cactus finch, so you must go to those islands to find them. Genovesa also has its own species of ground finch (formerly the Genovesa sharp-beaked ground finch). The sharp-beaked ground finch that occurred on the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf is now it’s own species: the Vampire finch (Geospiza septentrionalis), known for pecking into the backs of Nazca boobies to feed on their blood.
The adaptive radiation of Darwin's finches
Day 6 – Los Gemelos to Baltra
A walk along the trails of Semilla Verde comes with unforgettable reptilian encounters
Several Galápagos yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia auriola) stopped by the pool's waterfall for a quick bath
Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis), originally from Africa, arrived naturally to the Galápagos
On our final day, we enjoyed a few more hours on the peaceful grounds of Semilla Verde, then transferred back to Baltra for our early afternoon flight. On the way, we stopped at Los Gemelos, two collapsed lava tubes that have transformed into verdant twin sink holes, covered with Scalesia trees, ferns, mosses, lichens, and liverworts.
We posed for a quick selfie in front of one of the Los Gemelos sink holes
Our hike was rather rushed here, so it didn’t turn up any new birds. Apparently, eight species of Darwin’s finches can be spotted here, including the large tree finch (Camarhynchus psittacula). This is also a good place to look for vermillion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus obscurus) and short-eared owl (Asio flammeus galapagoensis). Nearby Media Luna can be a good spot for Galápagos crake (Laterallus spilonota) and paint-billed crake (Neocrex erythrops).
The ephiphyte-draped Scalesia forest depends on heavy mists during the garua season for much of its moisture. It is a world all its own
Hopefully, this 6-day itinerary gives you some good ideas to craft your own land-based birding excursion to the Galápagos islands. Find our full list of birds below. As noted above, there were many species we did not see on this trip. I guess we'll just have to go back to find the rest!
* indicates our lifers
White-cheeked pintail *
American flamingo *
Red-necked phalarope *
Wandering tattler *
Swallow-tailed gull *
Lava gull *
Brown noddy *
Red-billed tropicbird *
Galapagos penguin *
Elliot's storm petrel *
Great frigatebird *
Blue-footed booby *
Yellow-crowned night heron
Galapagos flycatcher *
Galapagos mockingbird *
Green warbler finch *
Vegetarian finch *
Woodpecker finch *
Small tree finch *
Small ground finch *
Large ground finch *
Common cactus finch *
Medium ground finch *
Kricher, J., & Loughlin, K. (2006). Galápagos - A Natural History (2nd ed., p. 496). Princeton University Press.
Fitter, J., Fitter, D., & Hosking, D. (2002). Wildlife of the Galápagos (2nd ed., p. 287). Princeton University Press.