Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, news, 2017, awards, Darwin’s finches, evolution, giant tortoise, extinction, breeding, Lonesome George, sharks, illegal fishing

2017 Galapagos News Roundup

This has been a busy year in the Galapagos Islands, with prestigious tourism awards, new discoveries – and challenges.

 

Award-Winning Galapagos

Throughout 2017, the Galapagos Islands racked up several important tourism awards. It landed in the Best Islands category of Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Awards thanks to the islands’ incredible snorkeling and close animal encounters. Travelers desiring to explore the Galapagos’ undersea world should take note that National Geographic placed Cousin’s Rock on its list of the World’s Greatest Scuba Diving Spots.

In December, the World Travel Awards, also known as the “Tourism Oscars,” declared the Galapagos as the World’s Best Beach Destination. And what is the best of these beaches, according to TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards for 2017? That would be Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, which was chosen among the Top 25 Beaches in the world.

 

Evolution in Real Time: A New Species of Darwin’s Finch

The Galapagos Islands are famous for its role in the development of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This year provided not only further proof supporting this theory – but also the revelation that evolution can occur within a few generations.

For decades, scientists Rosemary and Peter Grant have studied Darwin’s finches on Daphne Mayor Island. In 1981, they noticed the arrival of a male large cactus finch from Española Island, 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south. This strange-singing bird captured the fancy of a local female medium ground finch, and they produced fertile offspring. Three Darwin finch generations later, DNA testing shows they are genetically different than any other Darwin finch population.

 

Bringing the Floreana Giant Tortoise Back to Life

Genetic testing is giving Galapagos scientists many other new insights on the islands’ unique species, including the survival of species once thought to be extinct. Such is the case of the Floreana giant tortoise, thought to be forever gone since the 1830s. DNA testing showed that some tortoises on Isabela Island’s Wolf Volcano were hybrids of the Floreana and the local giant tortoise species. In 2017, a new breeding program began at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island, to revive the Floreana tortoise and the first eggs have now hatched.

 

A Homecoming for an Extinct Galapagos Species

The same giant tortoise DNA testing program has failed to find any hybrids of the Pinta Island species. The last known member of this species, iconic Lonesome George, died in 2012, marking the official extinction of this giant tortoise species.

After careful preservation, Lonesome George returned to the Galapagos Islands in February 2017. His special, climate-controlled gallery is part of the new Giant Tortoise route at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center.

 

Sharks in the Galapagos, part 1

Thanks to the work of several shark conservation programs, we have uncovered more fascinating information about these masters of the sea in the Galapagos Islands.  Shark monitoring led to the discovery of a scalloped hammerhead shark breeding site and nursery in the Galapagos.

Galapagos Whale Shark Project (GWSP), a project supported by the Galapagos National Park and several international agencies like the Charles Darwin Foundation, found that a high number of pregnant whale sharks pass through the archipelago, especially in the sector of the special shark reserve declared in 2016. This year, scientists successfully conducted ultrasounds on these females.

 

Sharks in the Galapagos, part 2

Not all of the news about sharks in the Galapagos was so inspiring. In August 2017, the Chinese ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was intercepted in the Galapagos Marine Reserve with 6,600 near-extinct and endangered sharks aboard. The 20-man crew was tried and sentenced to up to four years in prison each member and ordered to pay a US$5.9 million fine.

 

2017 has been a banner year in understanding and conserving the Galapagos Islands’ many incomparable species. It has also been a year of many accolades and challenges for one of the world’s most pristine nature reserves.

 

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Photo credit: Thomas Bonnin

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Denizens of the Galapagos’ Prehistoric World: Seven Reptiles to Spot on Your Galapagos Adventure

At times, when walking through the Galapagos landscape, you feel as if you have been mysteriously transported to prehistoric times. Miniature, dinosaur-like creatures cling onto the rough rocks of the volcanic scenery.

The Galapagos Islands have often been called the Kingdom of Reptiles. These dry, desert islands are a paradise for everything from giant tortoise to iguanas – including the only ocean-going iguana in the world. But there are other reptiles crawling through the sparse brush.

These creatures’ ancestors could best survive the long journey on vegetation mats drifting from the mainland, 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away, as they can go long periods without water. But over millions of years, they have evolved to be totally different creatures from their continental cousins.

Here’s a list of what antediluvian creatures you can expect to see during your Galapagos vacation.

 

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Galapagos giant tortoise. photo by Oliver Dodd (www.flickr.com/photos/oliverdodd)

Giant Tortoise

The most iconic of the Galapagos Islands’ reptiles are the giant tortoises. These gentle giants arrived about three million years ago, and evolved into at least 17 different species. Each of the larger islands had its own species. On Isabela Island, each volcano has its species.

The giant tortoise population was severely affected by pirates and whalers who hunted them for their meat. Four species are known to be extinct: Rábida, Santa Fe and Pinta, whose last specimen was the famous Lonesome George. The Fernandina giant tortoise most likely became extinct naturally, due to the frequent volcanic eruptions on that island.

For more than 100 years, it was believed the Floreana giant tortoise was extinct, but several years ago, hybrid Floreana tortoises were discovered on Isabela Island. A special breeding program is now underway to bring this species back to “life.” This same breeding program brought the Española giant tortoise back from the brink of extinction.

Breeding centers exist on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela islands. In the highlands of Santa Cruz is El Chato, a nature reserve for giant tortoises. These reptiles can also be seen plodding across other islands’ wild landscapes.

  • Scientific name – Geochelone spp.
  • Spanish name – Tortuga gigante
  • Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Española, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Pinzon, Isabela
  • Best time of year to see them – Year-round, though best during their migration season, June-December
  • Breeding / nesting season – May-June (September on Santa Cruz); hatching season: December-April

 

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Sea turtle. photo by Thomas Bonnin (www.flickr.com/photos/thomas-bonnin)

Sea Turtle

Seeing an East Pacific Green Turtle while swimming or snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands is a magical experience, especially in the month of October when they are quite numerous. During egg laying and hatching seasons (January-May), it is important to stay on marked paths to prevent destruction of their nests.

Several other sea turtle species migrate through the Galapagos Islands, including Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Leatherback. Perhaps, while snorkeling, you’ll be lucky and see one of these as they swim through the archipelago.

  • Scientific name – Chelonia mydas 
  • Spanish name – Tortuga marina
  • Where to see them – Santiago, Floreana and Española; also Fernandina, Genovesa, Isabela, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz
  • Best time of year to see them – October-May
  • Breeding / nesting season – mating: November-December; nesting: January-March; hatching: April-May

 

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Marine iguana. photo by Ivar Abrahamsen (www.flickr.com/photos/flurdy)

Marine Iguana

Charles Darwin wrote that marine iguanas were hideous creatures, imps of the dark. These remarkable reptiles are the only iguanas in the world that live in the sea.

Upon the black lava rocky shores of the Galapagos Islands, you’ll see these creatures huddled together, warming themselves after feasting on alga in the chill sea. When feeding, they can dive up to 20 meters (65 feet) deep – it is quite an experience to encounter one while snorkeling. When swimming, a marine iguana uses its long tail as a rudder.

Another fascinating feature of marine iguanas is that they sneeze, releasing excess salt from their bodies. The ones you’ll see on Española Island are famously called the “Christmas marine iguanas,” as they are turn bright green and red during the mating season.

  • Scientific name – Amblyrhynchus cristatus
  • Spanish name – Iguana marina
  • Where to see them – Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Marchena, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Santa Fe, Santiago
  • Best time of year to see them – present year-round
  • Breeding / nesting season – mating: January; nesting: February-April; hatching: May-July

 

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Land iguana. photo by Vince Smith (www.flickr.com/photos/vsmithuk)

Land Iguana

If you land at Baltra Airport, one of the first Galapagos reptiles you may see is the land iguana. (They are so common here that the landing strips have to be cleared off of them before planes arrive!)

Most of the iguanas in the Americas are green – but not in the Galapagos Islands. Here, they are a vibrant yellow-orange. This allows them to blend into the landscape of red lava rock and sere brush. The species found on Santa Fe Island (Conolophus pallidus) is pale yellow.

Land iguanas diverged from the marine iguana about 10.5 million years ago. These reptiles are common throughout the Galapagos archipelago, and can be found on most of the islands you’ll visit during your cruise. They are extinct on Santiago Island.

Another uncommonly colored iguana in the Galapagos is the pink iguana (Conolophus marthae) which is only found on Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, an area closed to the public. The pink iguana evolved from its yellow cousins approximately 5.7 million years ago.

  • Scientific name – Conolophus subcristatus
  • Spanish name – Iguana terrestre
  • Where to see them – Baltra, North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Isabela (not on Cerro Azul), Fernandina, Plazas
  • Best time of year to see them – Year-round, but especially January-May
  • Breeding / nesting season – breeding: January; nesting: February-March; hatching: April-May

 

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Lava lizard. photo by Brian Gratwicke (www.flickr.com/photos/briangratwicke)

Lava Lizard

While walking around the Galapagos Islands, be sure to look at the ground. You surely would not want to step on a lava lizard, another reptile found only in the Galapagos Islands. Throughout the archipelago, there are nine species of these small lizards.

During the mating season, female lava lizards blush deeply as their potential mates do push-ups to attract their attention.

  • Scientific name – Microlophus spp.
  • Spanish name – Lagartija de lava
  • Where to see them – Santiago, Pinta, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Floreana, San Cristobal, Isabela, Fernandina, Pinzon, Española Island, Gardner and Osborn Islets, Caldwell and Enderby Islets, Marchena
  • Best time of year to see them – Year-round, especially July-November
  • Breeding / nesting season – mating: July-November

 

Galapagos Gecko

During the night, you may hear chuckling in your land-based hotel room. These are the sounds of geckos happily feasting on ants, mosquitoes and other pests.

There six endemic species of Galapagos geckos. Fossil records show there was a seventh species on Rabida Island. All the endemic species are recognized by their leaf-shaped toes. Additionally, there are four introduced gecko species. Three have straight toes, and one is leaf-toed.

An interesting feature of some gecko species is the females are capable of reproducing without a male mate. This makes it easier for geckos to spread to new islands.

  • Scientific name – Phyllodactylus spp.
  • Spanish name – Gecko
  • Where to see them – Floreana, Isabela, Pinzón, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Santa Fe, Wolf Island, San Cristobal
  • Best time of year to see them – Year-round; nocturnal
  • Breeding / nesting season – mating: October-November

 

Galapagos Islands, reptiles, giant tortoise, sea turtle, marine iguana, land iguana, pink iguana, gecko, lava lizard, snake, amphibians

Galapagos snake. photo by Jordan Fischer (www.flickr.com/photos/jordanfischer)

Galapagos Snakes

Perhaps you have seen that seen that BBC documentary in which a whole pit of snakes pursues a newly hatched marine iguana. Although snakes are timid creatures, you might witness such a scene during your explorations of the Galapagos Islands.

Three snake species inhabit the Galapagos archipelago. All are brown and yellow, camouflaging perfectly with their surroundings. All are constrictors, and inhabit arid and coastal zones. The territories of each species do not overlap.

The Galapagos racer (Alsophis spp.) is a fairly common snake found on Santa Cruz, Baltra and Española islands. Subspecies live on Fernandina and on Isabela islands.

The Galapagos snake, also called the Floreana snake (Pseudalsophis biserialis) is endemic to Floreana Island. Subspecies exist on Española and San Cristobal islands.

The third species is Slevin’s snake or the Galapagos banded snake (Pseudalsophis slevini), found on Isabela, Fernandina and Pinzon. A subspecies, Steindachner’s snake (Striped Galapagos Snake, Pseudalsophis steindachneri) resides on Baltra, Rabida, Santa Cruz and Santiago.

As with other Galapagos reptiles, one species of snake may also be found in the sea. The yellow-bellied sea snake, also called the Pelagic sea snake (Hydrophis platurus) is a migrant in the Galapagos archipelago. You may have the luck to see one while snorkeling.

  • Scientific name – Alsophis spp., Pseudalsophis spp.
  • Spanish name – culebra
  • Where to see them – Santa Cruz, Baltra, Española, Floreana, Champion and Gardner Islets, Isabela, Fernandina, Pinzon, Rabida, Santiago, San Cristobal
  • Best time of year to see them – Year-round
  • Breeding / nesting season – unknown

 

A Note on Amphibians ….

No amphibians are endemic or native to the Galapagos Islands.

However, in 1998, the Fowler’s snouted treefrog (Scinax quinquefasciatus Fowler) was discovered residing in the Galapagos Islands. It was accidentally introduced from the coastal mainland. This treefrog has been found on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and southern Isabela islands. Efforts to eradicate this species have been unsuccessful to date.

 

During you explorations of the Galapagos Islands – both on land and in the sea – you will discover an astounding prehistoric Kingdom of Reptiles.

 

Already been? Share your favourite sighting in the comments below.

 

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Photo credit: schorsch1982

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

Strolling Galapagos Shores: Shore & Wetland Birds to Spot on Your Galapagos Vacation

While strolling along the infinite sea and lagoon shores of the Galapagos, you will see more of the Islands’ endemic and resident birds.

Upon the tumbled, wave-worn lava boulders strewn across the beaches, you can observe herons and oystercatchers, natives to the Galapagos. Plovers, sandpipers and many other seasonal migrants also wander the rough-sand beaches, taking a break from cold northern winters.

Shorebirds have long, skinny legs and toes. Their feet are not webbed. The best time to observe these birds is at low tide, when they are hunting at the water’s edge for crabs and other crustaceans. Some shorebirds may also be seen at inland lagoons and wetlands.

The islands’ lagoons, marshes and other wetlands are other favorite haunts for waterfowl. The best places to observe these types of birds are outside of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, and on the hike to Las Grutas on Santa Cruz Island. As they spend much time in the water, these birds have webbed feet. Their diets mainly consist of insects and fish. Wetland birds include flamingos, ducks and other waterfowl.

Of the 26 shore and lagoon birds seen in the Galapagos, only one is an endemic species unique to these islands. Four others (and possibly a fifth) are endemic subspecies. Migrants include 19 regular visitors.

You won’t need binoculars to spot these shorebirds, as their habitats are easily accessible. The endemic Galapagos species are famously calm in the presence of humans. The migrants tend to be more skittish.

 

Galapagos Shore Birds
Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

Lava Heron. photo by Aaron Logan (www.flickr.com/photos/lightmatter)

Lava Heron

Endemic to the Galapagos Islands, the Lava Heron is an excellent example of a species that blends into its lava rock environment. They are uniformly slate-grey, with a silvery sheen to the back and metallic-green gloss to the wings. During the mating season, its dark-grey beak turns black and the legs turn bright orange. This is a solitary heron, building its nests under lava rocks or in the lower branches of mangrove trees.

Some debate still exists as to whether the Lava Heron is a local variation of the Striated Heron (Butorides striata), or whether the Striated Heron resides in the Galapagos Islands alongside the endemic Lava Heron.

  • Scientific name – Butorides sundevalli
  • Spanish name – Garza de lava
  • Length – 35 centimeters (14 inches)
  • Wingspan – 63 centimeters (25 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago
  • Breeding / nesting season – As many as three mating seasons per year, though usually September-March

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

Yellow-crowned Night Heron. photo by Les Williams (www.flickr.com/photos/leswilliamsphotography)

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

This night heron subspecies is unique to the Galapagos. It has a blue-grey body. A long yellow-white plume of feathers crowns its black head, which has a white stripe below the orange eyes and a thick beak. During the breeding season, the yellow legs become salmon colored. It is common in the coastal zone of the islands, though sometimes it is found inland. This elusive heron is active at dusk and at night.

  • Scientific name – Nyctanassa violacea pauper 
  • Spanish name – huaque, garza nocturna
  • Length – 55-61 centimeters (22-24 inches)
  • Wingspan – 107-112 centimeters (42-44 inches)
  • Best island to see them  – Throughout the archipelago, except Darwin and Wolf islands
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

Great Blue Heron. photo by Jeff Hart (www.flickr.com/photos/ipeguy)

Great Blue Heron

The first thing you’ll notice about this Galapagos subspecies of the Great Blue Heron is that it is greyer than its Great Blue cousins. Its long, sharp beak is yellow. A dark plume of feathers crests its head, which sports a black stripe above the eye. The throat is whitish. The Great Blue Heron has a varied diet that includes not only fish, but also small reptiles like lava lizards and young marine iguanas. It breeds in the coastal zones only on the larger islands.

  • Scientific name – Ardea herodias cognata 
  • Spanish name – garza morena
  • Length – 95 centimeters (37 inches)
  • Wingspan – 175 centimeters (69 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – On the main islands, particularly San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Fernandina; also Genovesa and Marchena
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round

 

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

Great Egret. photo by Anne Dirkse (www.flickr.com/photos/annedirkse)

Great Egret

A close relative to the herons, the Great Egret is a resident shorebird of the Galapagos Islands. It is snowy white, with long feathers down its back. Its legs are ebony-black and its bill is yellow-orange. Count yourself lucky if you see one of these timid birds.

  • Scientific name – Ardea alba 
  • Spanish name – garza blanca
  • Length – 80-104 centimeters (31-41 inches)
  • Wingspan – 140-170 centimeters (55-67 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Santa Cruz, Isabela
  • Breeding / nesting season – unknown

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

American Oystercatcher. photo by Anne Dirkse (www.flickr.com/photos/annedirkse)

American Oystercatcher

The American Oystercatcher is a large bird with dark-brown to black back and black wings and white underside. Its bright yellow eyes are ringed with red. It has a thick red-orange beak that is used to pry open shellfish. This is another subspecies that is endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

  • Scientific name – Haematopus palliatus galapagensis
  • Spanish name – ostrero, cangrejero
  • Length – 40-44 cm (16-17 inches)
  • Wingspan – 76-90 centimeters (30-36 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Española, Fernandina, Genovesa, Isabela, Marchena, Pinta, San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Santiago
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: October-March; Nesting: July (especially Puerto Egas, Santiago Island)

 

Galapagos Wetland Birds
Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

Galapagos Flamingo. photo by Steven Bedard (www.flickr.com/photos/28656738@N02)

Galapagos Flamingo

Galapagos Flamingos are high on many travelers’ must-see lists. Like its cousins, these flamingos are bright pink, with long legs and graceful, curving neck. Its wings have red coverts and black secondary flight feathers. The beak is black-tipped. They build mud nests in saltwater lagoons. Many ornithologists consider this an endemic Galapagos subspecies. The population is endangered, with only 350-500 birds. A strong El Niño event affects their food supply, and thus their breeding.

  • Scientific name – Phoenicopterus ruber glyphorhynchus
  • Spanish name – flamenco
  • Length – 120-140 centimeters (47-55 inches)
  • Wingspan – 140-166 centimeters (55-65 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Bainbridge No. 3 Islet, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Rabida, Santiago, Isabela
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: July-August; nesting: February (especially Floreana Island). However, if food supplies are excellent, flamingos can breed and nest throughout the year.

 

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants

White-cheeked Pintail. photo by Andy Morffew (www.flickr.com/photos/andymorffew)

White-cheeked Pintail

The White-cheeked Pintail is the only common duck in the Galapagos Islands, and is an endemic subspecies. The body is brown, with grey-tinged upperparts and dark-brown spotted underparts. Its head is brown, and throat and cheeks are white. A green patch bordered in beige marks the wings. The bill is dark and blue-hued with a red base. These ducks can also be seen in highland ponds.

  • Scientific name – Anas bahamensis galapagensis 
  • Spanish name – Patillo
  • Length – 45-50 centimeters (18-20 inches)
  • Wingspan – 93 centimeters (37 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Española, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago, Genovesa, Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: February (year-round if food supplies are good)

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants


Black-necked Stilt. photo by Arnie Papp (www.flickr.com/photos/apapp)

Black-necked Stilt

The Black-necked Stilt has a black back and white belly. The head is black-capped with a white spot above the eye and a white throat. Its black beak is long and thin. It has very long (10-25 centimeters / 8-10 inches), rose-colored legs. This stilt is a resident of the Galapagos, and can be seen on beaches and in coastal marshes.

  • Scientific name – Himantopus mexicanus 
  • Spanish name – tero real
  • Length – 37 centimeters (14.5 inches)
  • Wingspan – 71 centimeters (28 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: December-June; Nesting: April-August

 

 

Common Gallinule

The Common Gallinule (also called Moorhen) is a resident species of the Galapagos, living in brackish lagoons. This is a duck-like, blackish-grey bird with a white line along the flanks and white under the tail. The most distinguishing feature of the Common Gallinule is the large red frontal shield above its yellow bill.

  • Scientific name – Gallinula chloropus
  • Spanish name – gallinula
  • Length – 30-38 centimeters (12-15 inches)
  • Wingspan – 54–62 centimeters (21-24 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: May-October

 

Galapagos Islands, shorebirds, waterfowl, lagoons, heron, duck, flamingo, American oystercatcher, gallinule, stilt, plover, sandpiper, phalarope, migrants


Whimbrel. photo by Maciej (www.flickr.com/photos/phaselockedloop)

And Then There Are the Migrants …

The Galapagos Islands are a favorite vacation spot for Northern Hemisphere humans and migrating birds alike. As the weather turns colder in the north, many stop here on their further south destinations, or choose to spend the entire winter in the archipelago. They begin arriving in August and will stay until March. Another month to watch for them is June.

Approximately 30 species of birds migrate to the Galapagos, half of which are shorebirds. These include:

  • Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres; Spanish: vuelve piedras) – Santa Cruz, Española, Pinta,
  • Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus; Spanish: chorlitejo) – Santa Cruz, Floreana, Marchena, Pinta, Isabela
  • Black-bellied Plover (Grey Plover) (Pluvialis squatarola; Spanish: playero cabezón) – Santa Cruz, Isabela
  • Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius; Spanish: correlino) – Santa Cruz, Isabela
  • Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla; Spanish: playero enano) – Santa Cruz, Floreana, Pinta, Isabela
  • Sanderling (Calidris alba; Spanish: playero común) – Isabela
  • Short billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus; Spanish: agujeta piquicorta) – Santa Cruz
  • Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus; Spanish: zarapito) – Santa Cruz, Isabela
  • Red (Grey) Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius; Spanish: falaropo rojo) – Genovesa
  • Northern Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus; Spanish: falaropo norteño) – Fernandina
  • Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor; Spanish: falaropo de Wilson) – Santa Cruz, Isabela
  • Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes; Spanish: chorlo chico) – Santa Cruz
  • Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca; Spanish: chorlo real) – Santa Cruz
  • Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana; Spanish: errante) – Santa Cruz, Española, Floreana, Marchena, Pinzón, Isabela, Fernandina
  • Willet (Tringa semipalmata; Spanish: playero aliblanco) – Santa Cruz

Only two migrant birds frequent Galapagos lagoons. The Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors; Spanish: cerceta aliazul), which can be seen on Isabela Island, is small brown duck has a pale-blue patch on the wings. The Pied-Billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps; Spanish: sormomujo) stays on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela islands.

 

Did you see any of these fantastic birds strolling on Galapagos shores? Tell us about it in the comments below. If you’ll be taking a Galapagos cruise, check out the seabirds that may follow you from island to island.

 

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Photo credit: Paul Krawczuk

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Sailing on Galapagos Breezes: Seabirds to Spot on Your Galapagos Cruise (part 2)

While you are cruising from one Galapagos island to another, you will be visited by diverse seabirds. They may sail on the breeze, following your ship, or even land on the riggings or railings for a while.

In this part, we will follow the movements of true seabirds that spend much of their lives far out at sea. They also come to land, to nest on the coastal cliffs and shores of the Galapagos Islands. So even if you decide to take a land-based tour of the Galapagos, you may still see some of them. July and September are especially busy months for rearing their young.

Many of these seabird species are endemic, being found only in the Galapagos. Resident or indigenous species are not unique to the Galapagos, but they do live and breed in these islands. Four seabird species are migrants, temporarily visiting the Galapagos on a regular basis.

Get your binoculars and camera ready to check out these beautiful creatures. We give you the length and wingspan of each seabird species, so you may more easily identify them as they sail overhead.

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Lava Gull. photo by Vince Smith (www.flickr.com/photos/vsmithuk)

Lava Gull

Only about 400 breeding pairs of Lava Gulls exist, making it the rarest of all gulls in the world. Even though they are not numerous, it is common to see them throughout the Galapagos archipelago (especially at Puerto Ayora’s Fishermen’s Wharf). Its body is sooty grey, with a paler underside. The head is darker grey, with white lining around the eyes. The eyes lids and inside of its mouth are scarlet.

  • Scientific name – Leucophaeus fuliginosus
  • Spanish name – gaviota de lava
  • Length – 51-55 centimeters (1.8 feet)
  • Wingspan – 130 centimeters (4.2 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago, but especially Santa Cruz Island
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: May-October; nesting: November-February

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Swallow-tailed Gull. photo by Murray Foubister (www.flickr.com/photos/mfoubister)

Swallow-tailed Gull

The endemic Swallow-tailed Gull is the world’s only nocturnal gull. It has a white body, and a distinctive black head with a crimson ring around its eyes. Its black bill has a grey tip. The feet are red. As its name indicates, the tail is forked. During March, keep your eyes on the cliffs, as you have a good chance of seeing fluffy Swallow-tailed Gull chicks.

  • Scientific name – Creagrus furcatus
  • Spanish name – gaviota cola bifurcada
  • Length – 51-57 centimeters (20-22 inches)
  • Wingspan – 124-139 centimeters (49-55 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Genovesa, South Plaza
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Galapagos Shearwater. photo by Jayne Bartlett (www.flickr.com/photos/jaynebartlett)

Galapagos Shearwater

The Galapagos Shearwater is dark brown to black on its back, wings, head and tail, and white on its underside. You can distinguish these low flyers by how they skim over the water with quick wingbeats. During May, great flocks of Galapagos Shearwaters are sighted during daytime navigation. This seabird is endemic to the Galapagos Islands where it breeds, and migrates to the Pacific coast of southern Mexico and Central America.

  • Scientific name – Puffinus subalaris
  • Spanish name – Pufino de Galápagos
  • Length – 29-31 centimeters (11-12 inches)
  • Wingspan – 63 centimeters (25 inches)
  • Best place to see them – islets off Santa Cruz, Española, Santa Cruz, Champion and Wolf islands
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Galapagos Petrel. photo by Lip Kee (www.flickr.com/photos/lipkee)

Petrels

Four species of Petrel can be seen in the Galapagos Islands. Three are endemic: Elliot’s Strom Petrel, Wedge-rumped Strom Petrel and Galapagos Petrel. The Band-rumped Storm Petrel is resident.

Elliot’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites gracilis galapagoensis) is a small, dark-brown bird. Distinguishing marks are a pale brown bar on the upper wings, a white rump and a pale grey belly patch. It is commonly seen during Galapagos cruises and lives on many of the islands. Little is known about its nesting habits, though it is believed it mates between April and October.

The Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma tethys tethys) is a medium-sized bird that is dark-brown down the backside and lighter on the underside. A pale brown bar marks the upper wing. The rump is white and triangular shaped. It typically breeds April to October, and nests on Genovesa and Pitt Islet.

The Galapagos Petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia) is locally called pata pegada. This dark-colored bird has a white forehead. It is frequently sighted on crossings between islands. In the evening, the Galapagos Petrel flies inland, and even in Puerto Aroya you may see it heading home. Listen for its high-pitched whistle. In April and May, it nests in the highlands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Santiago, Floreana and Isabela.

The Band-rumped Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) is medium-sized, dark-brown seabird with a paler bar on the upper wing and a wide white bar across the upper tail. It has two breeding seasons (May and November), and nests on several of the archipelago’s smaller islands.

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Brown Noddy Tern. photo by Les Williams (www.flickr.com/photos/leswilliamsphotography)

Brown Noddy Tern

The Brown Noddy is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Its brown body has a whitish “cap” on its head. They earn their unusual name because they nod to each other during courtship rituals. They usually nest in cliffs or low trees, and rarely on the ground.

  • Scientific name – Anous stolidus galapagensis
  • Spanish name – Gaviotín de cabeza blanca
  • Length – 39 centimeters (15 inches)
  • Wingspan – 76 centimeter (30 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago, but especially Darwin, Española, Isabela, Pinzon, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Wolf
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: November

 

Sooty Tern

The Sooty Tern is rarely seen during most Galapagos cruises, though if you head to the western part of the archipelago, you may spot them. These birds are black along the back, with black head, wings and tail. The throat and undersides are white. A white triangle perches above the beak. The Sooty Tern is currently known to live only in the Galapagos Islands; however, there is insufficient knowledge to judge whether this tern subspecies is endemic to these islands. It breeds on Darwin Island.

  • Scientific name – Onychoprion fuscatus crissalis
  • Spanish name – Gaviotín negro
  • Length – 38-45 centimeters (15-18 inches)
  • Wingspan – 86-94 centimeters (34-37 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Western part of the Galapagos archipelago

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Red-billed Tropicbird. photo by Lip Kee (www.flickr.com/photos/lipkee)

Red-billed Tropicbird

The Red-Billed Tropicbird is a stunning sight to see. This snowy-white bird has black markings around the eyes, and on the wings and lower back. Its most striking features are its bright-red beak and the 46- to 56-centimeter (18 to 22 inch) long tail streamers. When feeding, it plunge dives. It nests on sea cliffs and smaller islets throughout the archipelago. During February, flocks of majestic Red-billed Tropic Birds sail the skies near the central and southern islands of the archipelago. It is an indigenous Galapagos seabird species.

  • Scientific name – Phaethon aethereus
  • Spanish name – Pájaro Tropical
  • Best islands to see them – Darwin, Española, Genovesa, Santa Cruz, Santiago and small islets
  • Best time of year to see them – February
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, gull, tern, petrel, migrants

Franklin’s Gull. photo by Rian Castillo (www.flickr.com/photos/digitizedchaos)

And Then There Are the Migrants …

Four seabirds are regular visitors to the Galapagos Islands. You’ll see them during the summer and winter months as they migrate from the cold weather in one hemisphere to the other. With the coming of the September equinox, they are southbound; with the March, they head to northern climes.

If you are vacationing in the Galapagos at these times, keep an eye out for the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) and Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) near Santa Cruz Island. The Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) can be seen on Santa Cruz, as well as Baltra and North Seymour. If your Galapagos cruise is also visiting the western part of the archipelago, then look for Franklin’s Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan) near Isabela and Fernandina islands.

 

Be sure to check out Part 1, in which we train our binoculars on the Galapagos Islands’ most iconic and common seabirds, like the Flightless Cormorant and Frigatebirds. How many of these incredible seabirds did you see on your Galapagos cruise? Tell us about it in the comments below.

 

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Photo credit: Don Heffernan