Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, mammals, dolphins, whales, sea lions, fur seals, rats, bats, goats, humans

Furry and Warm-Blooded – Galapagos mammals

Not only do cold-blooded reptiles and birds inhabit the Galapagos Islands. Mammals – from mice to men, from sea lions to whales – also live on these isles.

Sixty species of mammals have been recorded in the Galapagos Islands. Of these, 16 are endemic or native, three are native and 13 are migratory. Introduced species number 16. Eight endemic species are extinct; five disappeared from the Galapagos landscape before the arrival of humans, and are known only by their fossils. As with reptiles and birds, mammals may be found at sea and on land.

More details about each of these mammals may be found in Galapagos natural history guides.

 

Galapagos Sea Mammals

Most Galapagos mammals are found in the waters surrounding the islands, migrants who seasonally swim through, leaping near the bow of your cruise ship. These include several types of whales and dolphins. Others, like sea lions, are found on land and at sea. You may find yourself swimming with a playful pup!

 

Whales

Whales are Cetaceans. They differ from land mammals in that they do not have fur or hair. Instead, to protect them from frigid ocean temperatures, they have a thick layer of blubber. This feature made them important in 19th century industry. During that era, hundreds of whaling ships plied the Galapagos seas in search of these valuable marine mammals.

Your first sign of a whale may be their blow, when they send a stream of water into the air. They usually swim in small groups of two to ten. These marine mammals fall into two groups: baleen whales, which have a fringed bone to filter foods like plankton, and toothed whales.

As far as is known, whales are strictly migrants in the Galapagos Islands. None are known to breed or give birth in the marine reserve.

The most prevalent whales in the Galapagos are the baleen. Frequently seen inshore and offshore are Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Less often spotted are fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).

Two species of sperm whales, another type of baleen whale, are found in the Galapagos archipelago. The more common one is the dwarf sperm whale (pygmy sperm whale, Kogia simus). The sperm whale (Balaenoptera borealis) is rarer.

Toothed whales that migrate through the Galapagos Islands are Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) and Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), both occasionally seen in the marine reserve.

  • Spanish name – ballena
  • Best islands to see them – throughout the archipelago, best especially in the west
  • Best time of year to see them – June-November

 

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Dolphins. photo by Lucy Rickards (www.flickr.com/photos/lucybraceevans)

Dolphins

Dolphins also are cetaceans, but are smaller and sleeker. You’ll see them leaping alongside your ship during your Galapagos cruise. They are fast and acrobatic swimmers. As far as is known, no dolphin species breeds in the Galapagos.

Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) is grey above and light grey to white along its underside. The dorsal fin is black. Adults are 1.7-2.4 meters (5.5-7.8 feet) in length. They may be seen singly, or in groups of up to 2,000 individuals. These are the most commonly seen dolphin in the Galapagos Islands.

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) is nearly twice the size of the common dolphin (1.9-3.9 meters / 6.2-13 feet). It is a uniform great, sometimes a little lighter on the underside. Its forehead bulges. These may be seen in groups of up to 25 dolphins.

Although also called killer whale, the orca (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the dolphin family, reaching 5-9 meters (16-30 feet) in length. It is black with distinctive white marks on the belly, and a tall dorsal fin. It swims in groups of two to thirty. In the Galapagos, they hunt other sea mammals, like the sea lions, sperm whales and Bryde’s whales.

Other members of the dolphin family that may be seen in the Galapagos Marine Reserve are short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhyncus), false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) and the melon-headed dolphin (melon-headed whale, Peponocephala electra).

  • Spanish name – delfín
  • Best islands to see them – throughout the archipelago, but especially in the Bolívar Channel between Fernandina and Isabela, and along the west coast of Isabela Island
  • Best time of year to see them – June-November

 

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Galapagos sea lions. photo by Pete (www.flickr.com/photos/petebackwards)

Galapagos Sea Lion

With a population of about 50,000, the Galapagos Sea Lion is one of the most common mammals in the archipelago. They are the largest Galapagos animal, with males weighing up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds). These are an endemic subspecies of the California sea lion.

Male sea lions (bulls) are distinguished by their bulging forehead. During the mating season, adult bulls may be seen fighting for control of large harems. At this time, males may be quite aggressive, so be sure to keep your distance. Bachelor pups are quite playful and frequently join human swimmers and surfers. Sea lions prefer sunny beaches and shallow water.

  • Scientific name – Zalophus californianus wollebacki
  • Spanish name – lobo marino
  • Best islands to see them – common throughout the archipelago; especially large colonies on San Cristobal
  • Breeding / birthing season – July-November

 

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Galapagos fur seal. photo by Anne Dirkse (www.flickr.com/photos/annedirkse)

Galapagos Fur Seal

Galapagos fur seals are not true fur seals, but rather a furry cousin to the sea lion. They are easy to confuse. These fur seals, though, are smaller than sea lions, and they have a broader and shorter head with protruding eyes and ears, and longer front flippers. Because of their fur, they were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century. Their population has recovered quite well.

Like sea lions, males keep a harem of numerous females. They prefer cool, shady rocky shores and deep waters. They hunt at night, and are preyed on by sharks and orcas.

  • Scientific name – Arctocephalus galapagoensis
  • Spanish name – lobo de dos pelos de Galápagos
  • Best islands to see them – Santiago (James Bay), Genovesa (Darwin Bay)
  • Breeding / nesting season – August-December

 

Galapagos Land Mammals

Only a few species of land mammals are endemic to the Galapagos. Because most Galapagos ancestors arrived on floating rafts of vegetation, the survival rate of mammals was slim and only the smallest, mice and bats, lived to establish roots in the islands. All of the larger land mammals, such as goats, arrived courtesy of one other mammal: Homo sapiens. These introduced mammals have caused immense damage to the Galapagos Islands’ fragile ecosystem and its endemic fauna.

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, mammals, dolphins, whales, sea lions, fur seals, rats, bats, goats, humans

Galapagos rice rat. photo by Joanne Goldby (www.flickr.com/photos/jovamp)

Galapagos Rice Rats

Originally, seven species of rice rats inhabited the Galapagos. The surviving four species are found on islands with no human population. These small rodents are island-specific. Each species is found on particular islands: the petite Santa Fe rice rat (Oryzomys bauri) and small Fernandina rice rat (Nesoryzomys fernandinae), both approximately 20 centimeters (8 inches), and the Santiago rice rat (Nesoryzomys swarthi) and large Fernandina rice rat (Nesoryzomys narboroughii), both measuring in at 35 centimeters (14 inches). All species are light to dark greyish-brown.

Because they are active at night, you probably won’t see the endemic rice rats during your Galapagos vacation. Not much is known about the breeding habits of these rats, though it appears it occurs during the warm, wet the season (December-May). The Santiago rice rat is the only endemic species that is known to be able to compete with the introduced black rat (Rattus rattus).

 

Galapagos Bats

Two species of endemic bats wing across the night skies of the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos red bat (Lasiurus borealis) is found in both the lowlands and the highlands of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. It is bright burnt orange, with yellow forequarters and underside. It forages near the ground.

The Galapagos hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus) is larger and light-brown colored. It has a blunt head with no nose. Its preferred habitat is mangrove forests on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago and Isabela islands. This bat is a higher flyer, foraging in trees and the air.

Like other bats, Galapagos bats are active at night. You may see them fluttering around street lights, or roosting in lava tunnels during the day. Nothing is known about their breeding habits.

 

Mammals Introduced to the Galapagos Islands

Over the centuries, several very destructive mammals have been introduced into the Galapagos Islands – and all at the hands of another mammal, Homo sapiens (humans). The worst of these is perhaps the black rat (Rattus rattus) which undoubtedly arrived with the first pirate ships to sail into the Galapagos archipelago.  The black rat not only competes with endemic rice rats for food, but they also destroy giant tortoise and bird nests, and eat the eggs. On Santiago, Pinzon and several other islands, the black rat has been successfully eliminated.

Whalers brought a whole menagerie of mammals to the Galapagos Islands. They left a few animals of each species on islands, to guarantee a steady supply of meat for passing ships. One of the most important of these was the goat (Capra hircus). This mammal has caused great havoc in the Galapagos. They not only compete with the endemic animals for food, but also indelibly alter the terrain of the islands. In a project scientists worldwide never thought would be possible, Isabela Island was completely erased of this species in a ten-year project. Other smaller islands have also seen successful eradication of goats.

Other livestock introduced into the islands by whalers were pig, cattle, horse and donkey. Wild populations of these animals have been eradicated from Santiago and several other smaller islands, allowing the ecosystems to recover. Once this mission has been accomplished, the islands have seen endemic fauna and flora rebound. On Pinzon and other isles, giant tortoises have been successfully reintroduced.

In modern-day Galapagos, several of these mammal species are kept as livestock, restricted to the agricultural zones of the four human-inhabited islands.

 

Humans

The most important of the introduced mammal species is the human being (Homo sapiens). Besides the sea lion, this is the most easily encountered mammal in the Galapagos. The first long-term human settlement in the Galapagos occurred on Floreana Island. Over the centuries, humans have lived primarily on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Floreana and Isabela, where they are permitted to live under national park regulations; Santiago also was once populated. Three percent of Galapagos National Park is reserved for Homo sapiens’ urban and agricultural needs.

The Galapagos has a permanent human population of approximately 25,000 (2010 census). As well, almost 225,000 tourists arrive each year, mostly from December to January, and June to August. Galapagos natives have adapted their lives and culture to the natural limitations of the islands. As the islands cannot produce enough food for the human population, much must be shipped in from continental Ecuador. Galapagos residents celebrate a number of holidays, both Ecuadorian and religious, like Day of the Dead and Christmas, as well as village patron saint holidays. They also have annual sporting marathons on each of the major islands.

 

Mammals are just one type of Galapagos fauna you’ll encounter during your vacation in these unique islands. You’ll also see many reptiles, as well as sea, shore and land birds.

 

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Galapagos Feathered Friends: Land Birds of the Galapagos Islands (part 2)

Not all the land birds you’ll see in the Galapagos Islands are small, sweet songbirds. The landscape is also populated with everything from mockingbirds and crakes, to hawks and owls.

These islands are also visited by some very familiar-looking migrants during the northern winter months. Plus, two invasive species have found their niche in the Galapagos.

In the Galapagos Islands, the larger-sized birds are hunted by feral cats and dogs. Goats and pigs destroy native vegetation that provides food and nesting sites for these birds. Although not as affected by Philorni downsi fly larvae as the small birds are, mockingbirds and others are infected with avian pox.

Some of the larger birds begin nesting after the first rains come in December. Others prefer the dryer months of the year. El Niño events can affect breeding.

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants

Galapagos Mockingbird. photo by Anne Dirkse (www.flickr.com/photos/annedirkse)

Galapagos Mockingbird

There is no mistaking a Galapagos Mockingbird, as its appearance and song is much like its cousins elsewhere. This grey and white mottled bird has a long tail and thin, down-ward curving beak. Galapagos Mockingbird is the most common species, though several islands have their own species. It is this bird, not Darwin’s finches, which piqued Charles Darwin’s curiosity while in the Galapagos.

On Española is Mimus macdonaldi, the largest of the mockingbirds. The elimination of goats on this island has allowed the vegetation to rebound, and thus the population of this bird. San Cristobal Mockingbird (Mimus melanotis) is the smallest of these birds and, as its name indicates, is found on San Cristobal Island. Floreana Mockingbird (Mimus trifasciatus) is extinct on its home island, but still seen on Champion and Gardner islets near Floreana.

No matter on which island they are found, mockingbirds prefer open scrublands in arid zones. They are omnivorous, eating fleshy fruits and insects. They have been observed cracking seabird eggs, drinking blood from injured sea lions and eating ticks from marine iguanas. These mockingbirds are more closely related to those of North America and the Caribbean, rather than species from South America. Galapagos Mockingbirds are affected by destruction of their habitat’s vegetation and avian pox. Thus far, it appears they are not affected by Philornis downsi.

  • Scientific name – Mimus parvulus
  • Spanish name – cucuve de Galapagos
  • Length – 25 centimeters (10 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Santiago, Pinta, Marchena, Genovesa, Isabela, Fernandina, Darwin and Wolf islands
  • Breeding / nesting season – October-April

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants

Galapagos Dove. photo by Mike Weston (www.flickr.com/photos/mikeweston)

Galapagos Dove

The endemic Galapagos Dove is dark, reddish-brown bird with a rose-colored neck and breast and buff-colored abdomen. Its brown wings are streaked with black and white. A distinctive sky-blue ring rounds its eyes. It has a downward curving beak. Galapagos Dove inhabits the arid lowlands, feasting on seeds, fruits and insects. It is also a pollinator. It is affected by avian pox.

  • Scientific name – Zenaida galapagoensis
  • Spanish name – paloma de Galápagos
  • Length – 18-23 centimeters (7-9 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – common on many of the islands
  • Breeding / nesting season – December-May, reaching its peak in February

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants


Dark-billed Cuckoo. photo by putneymark (www.flickr.com/photos/putneymark)

Dark-billed Cuckoo

Dark-billed Cuckoo is a medium-sized dark-brown bird with a beige breast. It has a short neck, long tail and long, pointed wings. It has a short, dark beak. This elusive bird is a Galapagos resident, inhabiting wet scrub and woodlands. Its diet consists mainly of insects, with some fruits and seeds. It is possibly affected by Philornis downsi.

  • Scientific name – Coccyzus melacoryphus
  • Spanish name – cuclillo
  • Length – 27 centimeters (11 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela and other major islands
  • Breeding / nesting season – December-March

 

Galapagos Martin

Galapagos Martin is the only endemic member of the swallow family in the archipelago. It looks much like the Purple Martin, with males being shiny blue-violet and females, dull blue above with a cocoa-brown underside. The wings are pointed and the narrow tail forked. Galapagos Martin may be seen in mangroves, coastal cliffs or volcano rims. It feeds on insects, capturing them in flight. Possibly affected by Philornis downsi.

  • Scientific name – Progne modesta 
  • Spanish name – golondrina de Galápagos
  • Length – 15 centimeters (6 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – all islands, especially San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela; absent from the northern five islands (Culpepper, Wenman, Pinta, Marchena and Genovesa) and rare on Española
  • Breeding / nesting season – August-March

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants


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

Galapagos Rail

Galapagos Rail (also call Galapagos Crake) is endemic to the archipelago. Its back is dark brown spotted with white, and the underside is greyish-brown. A narrow white band marks its flanks and thighs. Its iris is red. The bill and legs are dark brown. It is a near-flightless bird. Galapagos Rail prefers the deep underbrush of moist grasslands and highland forests. It feeds on insects during the day. This species’ largest threats are being hunted by feral dogs, cats and pigs, and the destruction of habitat by goats and cattle. Eradication programs of these introduced species have allowed the rail population to recover.

  • Scientific name – Laterallus spilonota
  • Spanish name – pachay
  • Length –  15-16 centimeters (6 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago, Pinta, Isabela. Extinct on Baltra.
  • Breeding / nesting season – September-April

 

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Paint-billed Crake. photo by Brian Gratwicke (www.flickr.com/photos/briangratwicke)

Paint-billed Crake

Painted-billed Crake is indigenous to Galapagos, living and breeding in these islands but not unique to them and most likely a recent arrival. This shy bird is slightly larger than the Galapagos Rail. It has dark grey plumage and may be chestnut brown on the back. It has a red-based yellow bill and red legs. In Galapagos, Paint-billed Crake prefers the dense undergrowth of moist forests, especially in the highlands and farming areas. Its diet consists primarily of insects.

  • Scientific name – Neocrex erythrops
  • Spanish name – gallareta
  • Length – 20 centimeters (8 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela (Alcedo Volcano)
  • Breeding / nesting season – December-May

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants

Galapagos Hawk. photo by Ian Masias (www.flickr.com/photos/randomwalking16)

Galapagos Hawk

Sitting atop a tree or soaring overhead, you may see a large, dark-colored bird with broad wings. This is the Galapagos Hawk, an endemic raptor of these islands. Its bill is dark and the feet are yellow. The grey-brown tail has nine dark bands. Galapagos Hawk are seen from the coastal regions to the arid highlands. It is a daytime raptor, hunting small mammals, lizards (including marine iguanas) and birds. Breeding is polyandrous, with females having five to eight mates. Threats include unavailability of food, and possibly pesticides used in feral mammal control.

  • Scientific name – Buteo galapagoensis 
  • Spanish name – gavilán de Galápagos
  • Length – 56 centimeters (22 inches), wingspan 120 centimeters (47 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Santa Fe, Española, Santiago, Marchena, Pinta, Isabela. Extinct on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana, Baltra.
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: August

 

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Galapagos Short-eared Owl. photo by Joanne Goldby (www.flickr.com/photos/jovamp)

Galapagos Short-eared Owl

Galapagos Short-eared Owl is one of two endemic owls in the islands. A cousin to short-eared owls on other continents, this subspecies is smaller and darker, evolving to fit its volcanic environment. It is dark brown, mottled with darker brown and tan. Its face is ringed with white, and topped with small ear tufts. It has yellow eyes. Females are slightly larger than males. Galapagos Short-eared owl preys on rats, lizards and birds. It is a daytime hunter, except on islands where the Galapagos Hawk is also present; then this owl feeds at night. It prefers open grasslands and lava flows. This owl builds its nests under shrubs. The most serious threat is introduced rats that eat the eggs.

  • Scientific name – Asio flammeus galapagoensis 
  • Spanish name – lechuza de campo
  • Length – 40 centimeters (16 inches), wingspan 85-100 centimeters (33-39 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – present on all the main islands, except Wolf
  • Breeding / nesting season – cool, dry season (June-November)

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants

Galapagos Barn Owl. photo by Paul Krawczuk (www.flickr.com/photos/krawczuk)

Galapagos Barn Owl

Galapagos Barn Owl is another endemic owl to these islands. It is pale golden-brown, with darker patches on the head and back. The upper wing is speckled with black. It has a distinguishing, heart-shaped, white ring around the face. Galapagos Barn Owl hunts rodents and insects from dusk to dawn. During the day, it may be found roosting in buildings or lava tunnels. It hunts over sparsely vegetated areas.

  • Scientific name – Tyto alba punctatissima
  • Spanish name – lechuza de campanario
  • Length –  26 centimeters (10 inches), wingspan 68 centimeters (27 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – year-round, though mostly in the wet, warm season (December-May)

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, raptors, mockingbird, dove, cuckoo, martin, crake, rail, hawk, owl, ani, cattle egret, migrants


Bobolink. photo by Scott Heron (www.flickr.com/photos/scottheron)

Migrants to the Galapagos

Six species of birds call the Galapagos home during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter (November-March). Most commonly seen on Santa Cruz Island are Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) and Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). Raptors include Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) and Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), which also frequents Isabela Island.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) has two vacation periods in the Galapagos, between July and August and between October and December. It has been seen on Genovesa, Española, Santiago, Floreana, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Pinta and Bartolome islands.

 

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Smooth-billed Ani. photo by Vince Smith (www.flickr.com/photos/vsmithuk)

And then there are the Introduced Species

Not all birds you’ll see on the main islands are native to Galapagos. Two frequently spotted species are the Smooth-billed Ani and the Cattle Egret. Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani, garrapatero) was introduced in the 1960s to control ticks on local cattle. It is a medium-sized bird (30-36 centimeters / 12-14 inches long) with iridescent black plumage, long tail and blade-like beak. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis, garza bueyera), a native of Africa, has a totally different history. For centuries, this species has been migrating slowly around the globe, arriving in the Americas in 1800s and to the Galapagos in the mid-1960s. It is a small, white heron that is half-meter (1.7 feet) long with a meter-wide (three-foot) wingspan. Feathers on the head, chest and lower back are buff colored.

 

Check out Part 1 of this series on Galapagos land birds to see what other feathered you’ll see on during your hikes on the islands. Also check out what seabirds, shorebirds, reptiles and mammals you’ll come across during your Galapagos adventure.

 

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Galapagos Feathered Friends: Land Birds of the Galapagos Islands (part 1)

No matter which Galapagos island you visit, you’ll see our feathered friends, Darwin’s Finches and numerous other land birds, hopping across the ground or flitting across the sky. Many blend into the lava landscape. A few are brightly colored.

Endemic species – those unique to the Galapagos – include 22 species and subspecies of finches, warblers, flycatchers, mockingbirds, hawks and owls. They evolved from ancestors that came from the South American continent hundreds of thousands of years ago.

In the Galapagos Islands, populations of small birds are impacted by feral cats, dogs, goats and pigs. Some of these introduced species destroy native vegetation that provides food and nesting sites for birds. Others hunt the birds. The disease avian pox, first discovered in Galapagos by the 1905-06 California Academy of Sciences expedition, also infects the archipelago’s birds. Small songbirds like Darwin’s finches, flycatchers and warblers are severely threatened by invasive Philorni downsi fly larvae that infest nests and kill hatchlings within days. In some areas, the mortality rate approaches 100 percent.

Darwin’s Finches and other small land birds begin nesting after the first rains come in December. Drought conditions, which often occur with an El Niño event, will reduce breeding.

In this first part of this series on land birds, we’ll get the binoculars out to spot the Galapagos’ small land birds.

 

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Vegetarian Finch. photo by Lip Kee (www.flickr.com/photos/lipkee)

Darwin’s Finches

Darwin’s Finches are not related at all to true finches; rather they are cousins to tanagers. There are two basic groups of Darwin’s Finches: ground finches (all belonging to the Geospiza genus) and tree finches (belonging to several genera). They are further distinguished by beak size which evolved to fill specific niches in the islands’ food supply.

Because the finches have short generations, evolution is evident. Rosemary and Peter Grant, who have spent many decades studying finches on Daphne Mayor, have documented the changes in finch appearances there, including a new species tentatively called Big Bird. Other scientists have also noted evolutionary changes in beaks of finches that live near human settlements.

It is difficult to distinguish one species of sparrow-sized Darwin’s Finches from another. One key is the island on which they are found. Another is the shape and size of the beak. Many books on Galapagos natural history detail the differences between the finches. All are endemic to the Galapagos. One related species exists on Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica.

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Small Ground Finch. photo by Francesco Veronesi (www.flickr.com/photos/francesco_veronesi)

Ground Finches

Within this group are ground finches and cactus finches, each filling a different niche in the ecosystem.

Small Ground Finch (Geospiza fuliginosa, pinzón tierrero pequeño) eats flowers, seeds, fruits, small insects, and removes ticks from iguanas and tortoises. It lives in coastal and dry zones. Medium Ground Finch (Geospiza fortis, pinzón mediano de tierra) relies on seeds and flowers, and prefers lowland scrub and forest edges. Both may be pollinators, and are seen on all islands except Genovesa, Darwin and Wolf. Medium Ground Finch is extinct on Española.

Large Ground Finch (Geospiza magnirostris, pinzón tierrero grande) has a massive beak, allowing it to eat large, hard seeds. It prefers arid lowlands of the major islands, except Darwin and Española; it may be extinct on San Cristobal and Floreana.

Sharp-beaked Ground Finch (Geospiza difficilis, pinzón de pico afilado) eats insects and snails in the highlands of Santiago, Pinta and Fernandina. It is absent from Darwin, Wolf and Genovesa, and extinct on Santa Cruz. Two varieties of this bird, both considered conspecific (belonging to the same species) are found in the Galapagos, and may be confused with Sharp-beaked Ground Finch. Vampire Ground-finch (Geospiza septentrionalis, pinzón vampire), found on Darwin and Wolf, eats not only seeds and insects, but also the blood of Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies. Genovesa Ground Finch (Geospiza acutirostris, pinzón de tierra de Genovesa) is found only on Genovesa Island.

Cactus finches live in coastal, dry shrub and woodlands with much Opuntia cactus. Their diets center on this plant: flowers, nectar, seeds, and insects on rotting pads. Common Cactus Finch, also called Cactus Ground Finch (Geospiza scandens, pinzón de cactus común), is found on all main islands except Fernandina and Pinzón (where it may be extinct). Large Cactus Finch, also known as Large Cactus Ground Finch or Española Cactus Finch (Geospiza conirostris, pinzón de cactus grande), lives only on Española. These two species do not co-inhabit any island. Genovesa Cactus Finch (Geospiza propinqua, pinzón de cactus de Genovesa), found only on Genovesa, is conspecific with the Large Cactus Finch.

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, Darwin’ finch, flycatcher, warbler

Floreana Small Tree Finch. photo by Mike Comber (www.flickr.com/photos/colonelq_mcc42)

Tree Finches

Tree finches are found in wooded areas of the Galapagos, some preferring mangroves and others Scalesia forests. With the exception of one species, all are omnivorous (fruits, seeds and leaves, as well as insects and larvae).

Small Tree Finch (Camarhynchus parvulus, pinzón arbóreo pequeño) is the smallest of the Darwin tree finches. It lives in highland and transitional zone forests on San Cristobal, Santa Fe, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Pinzon, Rabida, Santiago, Isabela and Fernandina. The critically endangered Medium Tree Finch (Camarhynchus pauper, pinzón arbóreo mediano) is found only on Floreana. Large Tree Finch (Camarhynchus psittacula, pinzón arbóreo grande) is the largest of the tree finches, and has a long, heavy beak like a parrot which it uses to peck insects from tree bark. It has a wide range, from the arid coastal zone to humid Scalesia forests of all main islands, except Española, Genovesa, Darwin and Wolf; it is extinct on Pinzón.

During the dry season, Woodpecker Finch (Camarhynchus pallidus, pinzón carpintero or pinzón artesano) may use a cactus spine or twig to dig larvae out from holes in wood. It is usually seen in the highland forests of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Pinzon, Isabela and Fernandina.

Mangrove Finch (Camarhynchus heliobates, pinzón de manglar) is a critically endangered species, with only 80 specimens left in the wild. The Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park are spearheading a project to protect this species from the highly destructive Philornis downsi fly larvae. They live in mixed mangrove forests at Playa Tortuga Negra, Caleta Black and Cartago (Isabela Island). It is extinct on Fernandina.

Vegetarian finch (Platyspiza crassirostris, pinzón vegetarian) eats seeds, flowers, fruits and leaves. It is found in the transition and lower agricultural zones of all islands, except Santa Fe, Española, Baltra, Seymour, Genovesa, Darwin and Wolf.

Warbler Finches are the smallest and have the thinnest beak of all the Darwin Finches. Genetic studies show this species came from southern Central America about 850,000 years ago. Ornithologists now recognize two distinct warbler finch species, as they differ in appearance, distribution, habitat and song. Both species eat insects. Gray Warbler Finch (Certhidea fusca, pinzón cantor gris) inhabits the arid lowlands of San Cristobal, Española, Santa Fe, Floreana, Pinta, Darwin and Wolf. They are also found on the smaller islands in the east, north and south of the archipelago. There are seven subspecies, each confined to specific islands. Green Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea, pinzón cantor verde) prefers humid Scelesia forests in the highlands of Santa Cruz, Santiago, Rabida, Pinzon, Isabela and Fernandina.

 

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, Darwin’ finch, flycatcher, warbler


Galapagos Flycatcher. photo by Kathy Drouin (www.flickr.com/photos/kdrouin)

Galapagos Flycatcher

The endemic Galapagos Flycatcher is the largest of its class in the islands. This bird is greyish brown with a grey throat. The male has a yellow belly and the female has a beige one. The head may have crest feathers; the beak is thick. Galapagos Flycatcher prefers tropical deciduous and wet forests. Its diet consists mainly of insects, but also some fruit. Genetic studies show this species arrived from southern Central America approximately 850,000 years ago. It is affected by Philornis downsi.

  • Scientific name – Myiarchus magnirostris
  • Spanish name – papamoscas
  • Length – 15-16 centimeters (6 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Common on all islands, except Genovesa; now rare on San Cristobal.
  • Breeding / nesting season – January-March (though, at times, as early as November and as late as May)

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, Darwin’ finch, flycatcher, warbler

Vermillion Flycatcher. photo by Steven Bedard (www.flickr.com/photos/28656738@N02)

Vermilion Flycatcher

Galapagos Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus nanus) is a timid bird that inspires awe when seen. The males are bright-red with a black band across its eyes and black wings. Females are dull-grey with peach-colored belly. Galapagos Vermilion Flycatcher prefers the dry, upper zones of the islands, in open scalesia, deciduous and guava forests. It feeds exclusively on insects. It is affected by Philornis downsi. San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus dubius) was declared extinct in 2016.

  • Scientific name – Pyrocephalus rubinus
  • Spanish name – pájaro brujo
  • Length – 13-14 centimeters (5-6 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Breeds on most of the main islands. Few or no recent records of sightings on Santa Fe, Rabida, Wolf, Española, Darwin, Genovesa and Baltra islands.
  • Breeding / nesting season – During warmer months (December-May), though may occur as early as October.
Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, land birds, song birds, Darwin’ finch, flycatcher, warbler


Yellow Warbler. photo by Andy Morffew (www.flickr.com/photos/andymorffew)

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler (a.k.a. Galapagos Mangrove Warbler) is another brightly colored Galapagos land bird. It has a reddish cap and reddish streaks on the breast. Wing feathers are tipped in dark olive to black. It sings a sweet song. Yellow Warbler resides from the shoreline up to the highlands. It is an insectivorous species. It is closely related to a Cocos Island species, and colonized the archipelago less than 300,000 years ago. The invasive fly Philornis downsi is causing heavy chick mortality.

  • Scientific name – Dendroica petechia aureola
  • Spanish name – canario María
  • Length – 12 centimeters (5 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – All islands, but especially San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela
  • Breeding / nesting season – December-March

 

During your Galapagos vacation, you will see most of these petite feathered friends. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the mockingbirds, raptors and other species that also call the Galapagos home.

 

Galapagos Travel Planner - FREE Download

 

Photo credit: Ben Tavener

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, vacation, cruise, giant tortoise, beach, awards, entry requirements, Ecuador, climate, weather, snorkeling

5 Reasons to Visit the Galapagos Islands in 2018

A new year has begun – and it’s time to be thinking about your dream vacation to the Galapagos Islands.

If you need a bit more convincing that 2018 is the year you should visit the Galapagos, we’ll give you five reasons to go.

 

Because You Deserve an Escape

Let’s start with the most important reason for a Galapagos vacation in 2018: You deserve a great escape to one of the planet’s most magical places. If you have a milestone birthday or anniversary coming up this year, the Galapagos will gift you with memorable experiences. As well, this archipelago is a unique place for your honeymoon or a family reunion. A trip here could be an unusual graduation gift for that budding scientist in your family. The Galapagos also makes the perfect get-away-alone destination.

 

Baby Galapagos Tortoises!

For many years, the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, has been the place where you could see baby tortoises. For decades, it’s worked to repopulate Española and Pinzon islands with these gentle giants. But the baby tortoises you can see now are not just any species of giant tortoises – but one being brought back from extinction.

For over a century, it was believed the Floreana Giant tortoise was extinct. But at the beginning of this millennium, with DNA testing, Floreana hybrids were discovered on Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. The Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative was begun to bring this species of giant tortoise back from extinction – and the first babies have hatched! Be sure to add a visit to them on your Galapagos to-do list.

 

Stroll the World’s Best Beach

In December 2017, the 2017 World Travel Awards – the Tourism Oscars – declared the Galapagos Islands as the World’s Leading Beach Destination. The beaches in this archipelago range from powdery white at Tortuga Bay and ebony at James Bay (Santiago Island) to breathtaking scarlet on Rabida Island and olive-green at Cormorant Point (Floreana). These beaches are also a wonderful place to observe dozens of endemic, native and migrant shore birds.

 

La Niña Will Be Visiting

Another La Niña climatic event is occurring in the Pacific Ocean, and is expected to continue until May. This means that on land, it will be cooler and dryer – affecting plants’ flowering and the availability of food for animals. At sea, water temperatures are cooler. Underwater life will be more abundant, promising great snorkeling adventures (you will probably need a wet suit), and the accompaniment of dolphins and whales on your Galapagos cruise.

 

Experience a Place Where Nature Rules

Most of Galapagos National Park is protected, with humans being able to reside on only five of the islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Floreana and Isabela. The other islands are deserted, with stringently regulated visits coordinated by the national park. You will rarely see another tour group at a site. You’ll also notice there are no docks on the isolated islands – landings are made in a panga (zodiac raft) or by wading to shore (what is called a “wet landing”).

These restrictions help to preserve not only the Galapagos Islands’ near-pristine environment, but also to guarantee you the experience humans have had since the first recorded visit in 1535: the fearlessness the birds, tortoises, sea lions and other native inhabitants exhibit.

 

To Protect the Galapagos Even More

Big changes in entry requirements to both Ecuador and the Galapagos are underway and are anticipated to take effect in February 2018. Even though the laws were passed in 2017, Ecuador’s Foreign Relations and Human Mobility Ministry and the Galapagos Governing Council are deciding how to effectively implement them.

The first new requirement is that all tourists entering Ecuador will have to show proof of medical insurance for the duration of their stay in the country. The second big change affecting your Galapagos vacation is that you must show proof of your cruise and / or hotel reservations for your entire stay in the islands.

 

Are you convinced now to go to the Galapagos Islands in 2018? If you are, check out our wildlife and weather calendar to choose the perfect time for you to go.

 

Galapagos Travel Planner - FREE Download

 

Photo credit: Paul Krawczuk