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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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)
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
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
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.
Photo credit: Paul Krawczuk