Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

Masters of the Sea – Sharks of the Galapagos Islands

Many travelers to the Galapagos Islands hope to see a hammerhead or whale shark gracefully plowing the waters around them while they dive. And these Enchanted Isles are the perfect place to have this experience.

Sharks are of the elasmobranch class of fish, which also includes rays, skates and chimeras (ghost sharks). They have a cartilaginous (instead of bone) skeleton, five to seven gill slits on the sides of the head, and pectoral fins that are not fused to the head. Sharks are an ancient species, with their first ancestors appearing in the fossil record over 420 million years ago. Modern sharks emerged about 100 million years ago. With a few freshwater exceptions, all live in the oceans.

Sharks are a highly migratory fish, and with monitoring projects, their movements are just beginning to be understood. Not much is known about their actions in the Galapagos, though in recent years, exciting discoveries have been made about these giants of the sea in the islands.

Of the nearly three dozen types of sharks found in the Galapagos Islands, only twelve are very common residents or migrants. Of these, five are most often seen during snorkeling and scuba diving expeditions. If you want to see massive shark schools and are an experienced scuba diver, consider booking a seven- to ten-day liveaboard expedition to Darwin and Wolf islands.

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

Scalloped hammerhead shark. photo by Sylke Rohrlach (www.flickr.com/photos/87895263@N06)

Scalloped hammerhead shark

One of the Galapagos resident sharks many tourists want to see is the scalloped hammerhead. This unique-looking shark has a large, hammer-shaped head that is scalloped along the front edge. Its eyes are at either end of the “hammer.” It is silvery gray to grayish-brown, and white on the underside.

Scalloped hammerheads swim at depths of three to 182 meters (10-600 feet). They are migratory, moving on to the Coco Islands off the coast of Costa Rica. As well, in June they migrate in large schools to the northern Galapagos Islands. In 2017, a scalloped hammerhead shark nursery was discovered in the Galapagos.

Smooth hammerhead and great hammerhead sharks are rarely seen in the Galapagos Islands.

The scalloped hammerhead shark is the symbol of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

  • Scientific name – Sphyrna lewini
  • Spanish name – tiburón martillo común
  • Length – 1.5-4.2 meters (5-14 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Wolf and Darwin islands; also Gordon Rocks, north of Santa Cruz Island
  • Best months to see them – December-May

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

White-tipped reef shark. photo by Paul Krawczuk (www.flickr.com/photos/krawczuk)

White-tipped reef shark

The white-tipped reef shark is the most common shark species in the Galapagos Islands. These non-aggressive sharks are often found in shallow waters. They are slender and grey, with white tips on the first dorsal and upper caudal fin. Their snouts are rounded. The white-tipped reef shark feeds at night and rests during the day. They breed in the Galapagos archipelago.

  • Scientific name – Triaenodon obesus
  • Spanish name – tintorera
  • Length – 1.4-2.4 meters (4.6-8 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Common throughout the archipelago; Las Tintoreras islets near Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island
  • Best months to see them – Year-round

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

Black-tipped reef shark. photo by Lorraine Caputo

Black-tipped reef shark

As its name indicates, the tips of this shark’s fins are black. The upper body is greyish brown and the underside white. Its snout is blunt and rounded. The black-tipped reef shark prefers warm, shallow coastal waters.  This reef shark is small and quite timid. It breeds in the Galapagos Islands, often giving birth in mangroves.  It can be confused with the black-tip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus).

  • Scientific name – Carcharhinus melanopterus
  • Spanish name – tiburón punta negra de arrecife
  • Length – to 1.9 meters (2 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – common throughout the archipelago
  • Best months to see them – year-round

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

Whale shark. photo by Anthony Patterson (www.flickr.com/photos/88rabbit)

Whale shark

Whale sharks are not only the largest of the shark species, but also the largest fish species – and not at all related to whales. On the back and sides, they are blueish-grey with white spots that are unique to each individual. White lines run between the spots. The underside is whitish. The broad, flat head has small eyes just behind the mouth.

Unlike most sharks, the whale shark eats primarily plankton and only occasionally small fish. It is seen at depths of two to 20 meters (6-60 feet). Even though it is not known to birth in the Galapagos Islands, recent investigations show that a large number of pregnant whale sharks spend time near Darwin and Wolf islands.

  • Scientific name – Rhincodon typus
  • Spanish name – tiburón ballena
  • Length – 10-12 meters, maximum 18 meters (33-39 feet, maximum 59 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Wolf and Darwin islands
  • Best months to see them – July-September

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

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

Galapagos shark

Galapagos shark can be mistaken for dusky shark or grey reef shark, but it does have several distinguishing features. Its snout is wide and round, and the tall pectoral fin is slightly rounded. This is one of the larger sharks you’ll see in the archipelago.

It is most commonly encountered in shallow waters (2 meters / 7 feet) along coral reefs and rocky bottoms. It can also be seen as deep as 80 meters (263 feet), though juveniles prefer waters less than 25 meters (82 feet). Despite its name, the Galapagos shark is found in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It owes its name to being first discovered in the Galapagos archipelago. It breeds in the Galapagos Islands.

  • Scientific name – Carcharhinus galapagensis
  • Spanish name – tiburón de Galápagos
  • Length – 10-12 feet (3-3.6 meters)
  • Best islands to see them – northern islands; also Gordon Rocks
  • Best months to see them – year-round

 

Other sharks you might see in the Galapagos Islands during your underwater explorations are black-tip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus), silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvie).

 

Threats to Sharks of the Galapagos Islands

Sharks inspire awe and even fear in many people. These masters of the sea, though, are very important for the health of ocean environments. They are at the top of the food chain, with only humans posing a threat to their existence. Sharks may be accidentally caught in fishing nets – though humans most prize their fins which are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac in some Asian traditions.

Fishing within the Galapagos Marine Reserve is strictly controlled. Still, in August 2017, the Chinese ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was intercepted in the reserve with 6,600 near-extinct and endangered sharks from the Galapagos aboard. The 20-man crew was tried and convicted, resulting in four-year prison sentences and a multi-million dollar fine.

Another major threat to sharks in the Galapagos Islands is the El Niño phenomenon. When an El Niño develops, ocean waters increase. This warming means there is less food for ocean dwellers – not only for sharks, but also whales, marine iguanas and seabirds. This decreased food supply means less breeding and a decrease in population. If the El Niño is severe, populations may starve to death.

 

Shark Conservation in the Galapagos

Because the Galapagos Islands are vast and secluded, over thirty varieties of sharks find refuge here. In 2016, the Ecuadorian government declared 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) around Darwin and Wolf islands a marine sanctuary to protect the high concentration of sharks in that area of the archipelago.

Several Galapagos research projects, supported by the Galapagos National Park and international agencies like the Charles Darwin Foundation, are revealing more about these masters of the sea, and new species are still being discovered, as in 2012 when the deep-water catshark (Bythaelurus giddingsi) was caught.

A project funded by National Geographic is monitoring the movements of sharks. Scientists have found that some important shark species migrate between the Galapagos, Malpelo Island (off the coast of Colombia) and the Cocos Islands (off the coast of Costa Rica). A swimway sanctuary has been proposed for this area of the eastern Pacific. Another fantastic discovery of this project is a scalloped hammerhead nursery in the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Whale Shark Project (GWSP) has found that a high number of pregnant whale sharks pass through the archipelago, especially near Wolf and Darwin islands. In 2017, scientists successfully conducted ultrasounds on these females.

Non-scientists are also being called to action to protect sharks in the Galapagos Islands. Local educational programs are helping Galapagos residents to understand the importance of these creatures in maintaining the environmental health of the archipelago. As well, shark researchers are asking people like you to become citizen scientists to help monitor this species.

 

Galapagos, Galapagos Islands, sharks, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, research, conservation

No Swimming – Shark resting area. photo by Michael R Perry (www.flickr.com/photos/michaelrperry)

Close Encounters of the Shark Kind in the Galapagos Islands

Shark attacks in the Galapagos Islands are very rare – especially considering that tens of thousands of people snorkel, swim and scuba dive in the marine reserve every year. The reason attacks may be so unusual is that Galapagos seas still are very pristine, guaranteeing sharks plenty of food.

According to Shark Attack Data, only seven shark attacks in the Galapagos have been reported since 1954, none of which have resulted in death. Two involved fishing accidents and four attacks were against surfers. The species of shark is unknown in most of the incidences, though in two, the Galapagos shark species was involved. This is considered to be the most aggressive of the sharks found in the archipelago.

If any close encounter of the shark kind were to occur, the Galapagos National Park will investigate the situation and issue any protective measures needed. Tour companies may also temporarily substitute snorkeling with other activities, like panga rides or kayaking, in the affected area.

But what measures can you personally take while you are in sharks’ natural habitat? Here are a few tips from shark experts:

  • Avoid splashing about in the water, both upon entering from the panga or while swimming.
  • As much fun as it is to swim with sea lions, reconsider swimming near colonies during pupping season. Sharks hunt after the young sea lion pups, and might think your flipper is a fin.
  • Avoid areas where there is fishing.
  • Do not enter signed no-swimming areas.
  • Avoid wearing shiny jewelry or a brightly colored swimsuit, as you may be mistaken for a fish.
  • Do not enter the water if you are bleeding, have a wound or are menstruating. (Sharks have an acute sense of smell, and blood can attract them.)

 

Because of the Galapagos Islands’ pristine environment, you will undoubtedly fulfill your dream of seeing these graceful sea creatures during your Galapagos vacation.

 

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Galapagos Islands, climate change, El Niño, La Niña, effects, flora, fauna, snorkeling

Galapagos Islands Meets El Niño and La Niña

El Niño and La Niña are climate events that periodically visit the Galapagos Islands. What are they, and how will they affect your Galapagos vacation?

Both phenomena are part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle that disturbs the Pacific Ocean basin. El Niño is the dry phase of the cycle, and La Niña is the wet phase. El Niño conditions arise approximately every five years, with severe ones occurring every 10 to 20 years. La Niña usually comes immediately after an El Niño finishes. Such events can last from five months to almost two years. The ENSO cycle affects not only countries in the Pacific Ocean basin, but also Antarctica, Europe and Africa.

El Niño and La Niña alter the flow of the three major currents that wash the Galapagos archipelago: the warm Panama Current from the north; the Cromwell Current, which brings nutrients from the deep sea to the surface; and the cold South Equatorial Current / Humboldt Current from the east. This latter current is the most affected by El Niño, and perhaps the most important to the Galapagos ecosystem.

 

What is El Niño?

El Niño (The Little Boy) is named for the Christ child, as it usually begins around Christmastime. Its most striking feature is that ocean temperatures rise in the eastern Pacific. In addition, high pressure reigns over the western Pacific Ocean and low pressure over the eastern Pacific. Equatorial trade winds in this part of the world usually flow from east to west. However, during El Niño, they weaken or may even reverse direction.

In some years, El Niño is weak, and in others, it is strong. During the last half-century, severe El Niño events have happened in 1972-1973, 1982-1983, 1997-1998 and 2015-2016.

Even though El Niño primarily is felt in the central and eastern tropical Pacific basin, its effects are also felt elsewhere. In Australia, warmer temperatures, reduced rainfall and drought conditions can occur. The same conditions occur in North America, all along the Pacific coast from Canada through Central America. Central Canada also has warmer, dryer weather, whereas the Gulf Coast and Florida have more rainfall.

In South America, droughts occur in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. The Pacific coast region, as well as the southern part of the continent, experience more rain. The Atacama Desert of northern Chile, one of the driest regions of the world, is covered with flowers.

 

What is La Niña?

La Niña (The Little Girl) has been called an anti-El Niño. It is the direct opposite of the El Niño phenomenon. The equatorial seas in the eastern Pacific Ocean basin are cooler than normal. Air pressures are high over the eastern ocean and low over the western.

In Australia, La Niña brings increased rainfall and cooler temperatures. In the U.S., temperatures in the Northwest are cooler than normal and in the Southeast, they are warmer. Further south, Peru and Chile suffer droughts, whereas places like Bolivia and Brazil can experience catastrophic flooding.

 

How El Niño and La Niña Affect the Galapagos Islands

In the Galapagos, the effects of El Niño and La Niña are strongly felt by the islands’ unique flora and fauna. The ecosystem goes awry, especially when a severe El Niño strikes.

During El Niño, the cold Humboldt Current does not arrive. This current flows northward from Antarctica and runs along the South American Pacific coast. When it reaches northern Peru, it veers westward to the Galapagos Islands and becomes known as the South Equatorial Current. Without this cold water, nutrients necessary for marine iguanas, penguins, sea lions, blue-footed boobies and other iconic Galapagos species are scarce. This affects not only these animals’ survivability, but also their breeding. During the strong 1982-83 El Niño, 77% of the Galapagos penguin population died, and during the 1997-98 event mortality was 65%. Only 30% of the marine iguana population survived the 1982-83 El Niño, and those that made it through became thinner and shorter.

On land, the situation is quite different. Rains are frequent, and so the landscape is plusher. This increase of food favors land bird breeding. For humans, snorkeling, swimming and diving are more pleasant because the sea is warmer.

The effects are exactly opposite when La Niña arrives. The sea is cooler and more nutrient-rich, a boon to marine life. Not only are penguins and sea birds thriving, but whales and their kin are more frequent visitors to the Galapagos archipelago. On land, however, drought reigns, making less food available for land iguanas, giant tortoises and land birds. During La Niña, these species breed less.

 

How will you know if El Niño or La Niña will be visiting the Galapagos Islands at the same time as you? International agencies like the U.S.’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency publish regular updates on the Pacific Ocean climate conditions.

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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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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


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.

 

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

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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Photo credit: Remco Tack

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

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.

 

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

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.

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

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

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

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Sailing on Galapagos Breezes: Seabirds to Spot on Your Galapagos Cruise (part 1)

While you are cruising the Galapagos Islands, you’ll see a variety of seabirds. They may sail on the breeze above your ship. For others, you’ll land on the coast and hike up to their nesting grounds.

Even though seabirds are defined as those who spend much of their lives far out at sea, the Galapagos Islands proves to us that this isn’t always the case. Some species – like the penguin – are natural non-flyers. Others – like the flightless cormorant – have evolved to become land-bound birds.

In total, 23 species of seabirds are regularly seen in the Galapagos Islands. Of these, 14 are endemic. These species or subspecies are found only in the Galapagos, although closely related species may be found elsewhere. Five indigenous or resident species live and breed in the Galapagos, though they are not unique to the archipelago. Four other seabird species are migrants, temporarily visiting the Galapagos on a regular basis.

Get your binoculars and camera ready to check out these beautiful creatures that spend much time at sea. In this first part, we aim our binoculars and cameras on the Galapagos Islands’ most famous seabirds.

 

Boobies

Boobies are the most famous of the Galapagos seabirds. Three comical species call these islands home.

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Blue-footed Booby. photo by Nicolas de Camaret (www.flickr.com/photos/ndecam)

Blue-footed Booby

The Blue-Footed Booby is the darling of the Galapagos Islands. These birds are famous for their courtship dance, in which the males “dance,” showing off their blue feet to prospective female mates. Blue-footed Boobies are easy to spot when they fish, as they plunge head-first into the sea, like a dive bomber. In recent years, breeding has been declining as the boobies’ favored food, sardines, are scarcer in the warming seas around the islands, which is being caused by climate change.

  • Scientific name – Sula nebouxii excisa
  • Spanish name – Piquero patas azules
  • Length – 80-85 centimeters (32-34 inches)
  • Wingspan – 152-158 centimeters (60-62 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – North Seymour, Española; also Fernandina, Floreana, Genovesa, Isabela, Pinzon, Santa Cruz and other islands south of the equator.
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: April-May; nesting: July-December

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Red-footed Booby. photo by Brad Gratwicke (www.flickr.com/photos/briangratwicke)

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Boobies, as the name implies, have red-colored feet. Their beaks are blue and bodies white with dark-brown markings in the wings and back. It is the smallest of the booby species in the islands. It is estimated that the Galapagos’ Red-footed Booby colony is the largest in the world.

  • Scientific name – Sula sula
  • Spanish name – Piquero patas rojas
  • Length – 70 centimeters (28 inches)
  • Wingspan – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Genovesa; also San Cristobal at Pitt Point and Pitt Islet, Gardner-by-Floreana
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: June; nesting: September-December

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Nazca Booby. photo by Derek Keats (www.flickr.com/photos/dkeats)

Nazca Booby

The Nazca Booby is much different from its cousins. This booby species is white, with a black mask around its eyes, and dark-brown bands edging its wings and tail. Its beak ranges from rose to bright orange, and its feet a dull olive or blue-grey color. Nazca and the Masked Boobies used to be considered the same, but are now classified as distinct species. The Nazca Booby is the largest of the Galapagos’ booby species. Because of its large size, it often nests near the tops of cliffs.

  • Scientific name – Sula granti
  • Spanish name – Piquero de Nazca
  • Length – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
  • Wingspan – 1.5-2 meters (5-6 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Genovesa, Española
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: December-February, June; nesting: August-September

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Waved Albatross. photo by protographer23 (www.flickr.com/photos/protographer23)

Waved Albatross

The Waved Albatross is another fantastic bird sought out by many Galapagos visitors. This endemic species can spend years at sea without touching land. They arrive en masse to the Galapagos Islands with the March equinox to mate, and stay until December to raise their young. The fledglings will not return to Española for five years, when they will then join in on the elaborate mating dance this species is known for. You can take a multi-day or day cruise to see them.

  • Scientific name – Phoebastria irrorata
  • Spanish name – Albatros de Galápagos
  • Length – 1 meter (3,25 feet)
  • Wingspan – 2,4 meters (8 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Española
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: April; nesting: May-October

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Galapagos Penguins. photo by taquiman (www.flickr.com/photos/10705232@N06)

Galapagos Penguin

The Galapagos Penguin is the second-smallest penguin in the world, and the only one found north of the equator. This flightless bird is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Like their cousins, these penguins are black and white, with a white line around the face. They have a relatively long bill. They can dive to a depth of eight meters (26 feet), though on occasion can go as deep as 55 meters (180 feet). These seabirds are heavily affected by the El Niño phenomenon, when their food supplies are limited. In February, they migrate from Bartholomé Island to Isabela and Fernandina. Watch for them torpedoing through the water.

  • Scientific name – Spheniscus mendiculus
  • Spanish name – Pingüino de Galápagos
  • Height – 49-53 centimeters (19-21 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Bartholomé, Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – April-May, August-September

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Flightless cormorant. photo by Brian Gratwicke (www.flickr.com/photos/briangratwicke)

Flightless Cormorant

The Flightless Cormorant is the largest cormorant and the only one incapable of flight. Its long body is a velvety dark grey. This cormorant has stunning sapphire-blue eyes. It has short legs and a long, hooked bill. After swimming, it comes to land and spreads its tatty wings to dry. This species is also very affected by the El Niño.

  • Scientific name – Phalacrocorax harrisi
  • Spanish name – cormorán no volador
  • Length: 89-100 centimeters (35-39 inches)
  • Best islands to see them – Isabela, Fernandina
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: July; nesting: August-September. If food supplies are plentiful, Flightless Cormorants may also mate and nest in October and/or December.

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Brown Pelican. photo by Anne Dirkse (www.flickr.com/photos/annedirkse)

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican is instantly recognizable by its large, pouched bill. This bird is common throughout the Galapagos archipelago (especially at the Fishermen’s Wharf in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island). During the breeding season, the adults have white and chestnut-colored markings on their heads and necks. The Brown Pelican breeds on all the central islands, as well as on Española and Marchena.

  • Scientific name – Pelecanus occidentalis urinator
  • Spanish name – Pelícano café
  • Length – 1.2 meters (4 feet)
  • Wingspan – 2 meters (6.5 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Marchena, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Santiago.
  • Breeding / nesting season – Year-round

 

Galapagos Islands, cruises, seabirds, sea birds, blue-footed booby, boobies, penguin, flightless cormorant, waved albatross, pelican, frigatebirds

Magnificent Frigatebird. photo by E.K.111 (www.flickr.com/photos/ek111)

Frigatebirds

Frigatebirds are known as the pirates of the seabird world, as they steal food from other birds while in flight. The reason is that Frigatebirds lack sufficient oils to waterproof their feathers, and thus cannot dive into the sea to catch their food as other seabirds do.

Two species of Frigatebirds are found in the Galapagos Islands. At Cerro Tijeretas on San Cristobal, you can see both types living side by side. Both are approximately the same size, and breed and nest year-round. Additionally, both species are black, and the males have a red throat that they inflate during the mating display.

The Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens magnificens) is endemic to the Galapagos. Males have a metallic-violet sheen to their black plumage. The females are black with white underside and black throat; a thin blue ring circles their eyes. A large colony of the Magnificent Frigatebird is on North Seymour Island.

The Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) is a resident Galapagos species. It is slightly smaller than its Magnificent cousin, and has a greenish hue to its black feathers. The females are black with white underside and throat, and a red ring around its eyes.

  • Scientific name – Fregata spp
  • Spanish name – tijereta, fragata
  • Length – 1 meter (3.25 feet)
  • Wingspan – 2.4 meters (8 feet)
  • Best islands to see them – Throughout the archipelago, but especially San Cristobal, Genovesa and North Seymour
  • Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: year-round, depending on the island (March-May on San Cristobal and Genovesa, June on North Seymour); nesting: May-October, depending on the island

 

There are many more seabirds you’ll see as you cruise through the Galapagos Islands. In Part 2, we’ll focus our binoculars on those that are truly sea-faring aves, including gulls, terns and petrels.

 

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Photo credit: Brad Gratwicke