Galápagos Islands. July August 2016 OSCAR CAMPBELL - PDF

Galápagos Islands July August 2016 OSCAR CAMPBELL This trip report outlines an 11-day visit (7 days on a boat cruise; two days either side based in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz) to the Galápagos Islands, made

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Galápagos Islands July August 2016 OSCAR CAMPBELL This trip report outlines an 11-day visit (7 days on a boat cruise; two days either side based in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz) to the Galápagos Islands, made during July August As trip reports written by independent birders to this location were a little hard to find when I was planning this, I thought it would be useful to put a few things down on paper for anyone coming along in the future. If you want to see everything, or pretty much everything on the Galápagos, you need to go on a custom birding trip where you won t need any of the information that follows as, presumably, you will simply pay your cash and be led around by a guide who knows all of what follows (and more). But if you are planning to visit independently, and particularly if like me lack the time, money and/or inclination for two weeks on a boat and/or being led around by somebody else, hopefully what follows will help. Where to go First and foremost, pretty much all of the Galápagos Islands are awesome and a visit there, in particular a cruise to any of the visitor sites away from the main centres of habitation (which are very few) will surely by one of the career highlights for any birder or naturalist. This will be the case for pretty much any cruise you take, regardless of exact route. But given that you are likely only to be doing this once, there are a few things worth bearing in mind: If, like me, you rate seabirds as being straight out of the top drawer, visits to the famous seabird islands of Genovesa and Española with their large and spectacular breeding colonies of various species are absolute musts. Waved Albatross is only on the latter island (although we also saw a handful on the runs from Santa Cruz to Floreana and Santa Fe islands) and not going to the former will make Red-footed Booby very tricky and you will miss the remarkable diurnal maelstrom of Galápagos Storm-Petrels. Further, there are several landbirds that are endemic, or nearly so (in that other islands where they occur are even more remote and/or have no visitor sites) on both Genovesa and Española too. The problem is that both islands are far-flung (north-west and south-west corners of the archipelago respectively) and require an overnight sail to get there. Many general cruise routes go to one or the other (or sometimes even neither); few go to both. The other really outstanding place to visit is (apparently) Fernandina and the adjacent shoreline of Isabela (most spectacular volcanology on the archipelago; this is the only place you will see Flightless Cormorant and there is, maybe, an extremely outside chance of the critically endangered Mangrove Finch) plus the biggest concentrations of Marine Iguanas and Galápagos Penguins. However, Fernandina is in the far east of the archipelago and a long way from Santa Cruz, let alone Genovesa or Española. No seven day, general interest cruise would or could take in all three islands. So if you are taking a seven day cruise, something has to give; for me it was the cormorants (we saw a few penguins and masses of iguanas elsewhere) and I did not go to Fernandina or Isabela at all. Birdwise, it is very advisable, nay essential, to have a few days shoretime before or after your cruise to visit the highlands of one of the large islands. Santa Cruz, by far the main population centre on the islands, is the easiest and most central place to do this; an easy 20km taxi ride or cycle from Puerto Ayora (in itself not at all a bad place to stay with some nearby nice sites and good birds right in the town) will get you to suitable habitat to look for several of the Darwin s Finches, Galápagos Rail, Paint-billed Crake etc. and you can see lots of Giant Tortoises too. Most general cruises do not include time in the highlands, and, even if they did, it would be a rushed group tour and you would not have time to find some or most of the birds, which are at low density and, in some cases (those pesky finches; see page 13) hard to identify. For that reason, adding a few days (at least) in Puerto Ayora is a good idea and well worth doing. Santa Cruz is the obvious island to base yourself at and, if you have longer than a couple of days, you could also do visits from there to San Cristóbal to try for the mockingbird (although I saw this on the beach during the cruise; not sure how lucky this was; I didn t expect it) and to Floreana to try for Medium Tree Finch (apparently highlands only). To have a reasonable chance of finding these (certainly the finch) an overnight stay would be preferable. Isabela can also be visited by public ferry from Santa Cruz but to get to the most interesting parts (i.e. Fernandina) you would need another long trip, with at least one overnight. Sites around Puerto Villamil, where the Santa Cruz boat comes in on southern Isabela sound quite interesting, and getting uphill to one of the volcanoes may yield more Giant Tortoises and Galápagos Martin (a species I didn t see but apparently easier here). It is easy to get to any of these other main islands from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz; there are several ferries per day and you can buy tickets in many places. The crossings are on small speedboats and often rough; don t count on good views of many seabirds. Booking the cruise After spending a lot of time looking, we booked a cruise from 29 July to 5 August 2016 on the motor yacht Golondrina (see this link) as that boat, unlike most others, was going to both Genovesa and Española on the same itinerary (itinerary C; see map below). All the other days and visitor sites we went too were great as well. Golondrina was a very small boat (maximum passengers 16) and one of the cheaper ones (definitely in what they call tourist, or even budget tourist class). It was still pretty expensive by our standards (c USD per person for seven nights) but everything in the Galápagos Islands is (very) expensive; coming from mainland Ecuador you can easily double at least - the price of hotels, eating out etc. There were plenty of more expensive options but, unless you pay 1.5 or 2 times as much, all you are paying for is a few inches more bunk / bed space, or maybe a few more cocktails thrown in before dinner; the experience in terms of the route, guide etc. is not going to be any different. Despite being on a budget trip, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Golondrina; food was decent and there was plenty of it; itinerary and all landings and snorkeling trips were very good or better (exact detail and timings of these are all controlled by the national park authorities and so likely to be similar on most boats), the guide (whilst not a birding specialist) was ok and very relaxed about things and the small crew were very friendly. We booked our trip in early March (i.e. five months in advance) via Galápagos Travel Centre who provided good and prompt service via . The boat was nearly full but not quite and a couple of people managed to get a space within a few days before we started. Playing this game will be slightly cheaper presumably but, if you don t have unlimited time, rather risky and you will also have limited choice over the itinerary. So if there are sites you really want to go to, especially if they are far-flung, taking a punt like that is not really an option. Transport practicalities Most (almost all?) cruises leave from Baltra Island, where the main airport is; the jetty is a short, 5- minute bus ride from the airport. If you don t step off a flight onto a cruise you will need to get to the meeting point at the airport from Puerto Ayora; this takes 1.5 hrs or so, depending on how long you need to wait for the ferry across the Baltra channel. Buses meet all the flights and regularly leave Puerto Ayora, at least in the mornings. Flights from Quito are generally booked by the tour agent that books your cruise. Accommodation in Puerto Ayora Via we booked four nights, two either side of the boat at the Hostal Estrella del Mar. This was a decent enough place and not excessively expensive, with great views of Academy Bay and its Galápagos Petrels, amongst others, its main selling point. Puerto Ayora is full of various guesthouses, hotels and agents selling tours; even in August (high season) it looked easy to find somewhere at short notice. Weather Weather in the Galápagos, certainly during the garua season (April / May to December) is dry and pleasantly cloudy and with invariable mist at higher elevations. Thanks to the Humboldt Current, it is never too hot; although the sun is strong we never saw more than a few hours of it most days, so it was easy to dodge. Breezy conditions, whilst not making for rough seas, kept the temperature down too. Visits to the highlands were characterized by low swirling cloud and, once, wet mist for several hours. Boots and raincoats were essential here. Timing Pretty much all key species can be found year round, the one big exception being Waved Albatross (absent January to March). During our visit in July, many boobies, frigatebirds, Swallow-tailed Gulls etc. had chicks and seabird activity at the colonies was excellent. Galápagos Rail apparently breeds in the garua season and therefore should have been calling but my one visit to its Miconia forest habitat drew a blank. Most other landbirds breed much earlier in the year; however some of Darwin s Finches, apparently breeding mainly in the moist and transitional zones seemingly disperse lower when not breeding. That may explain the very good selection I found in the arid zone very close to Puerto Ayora, but I also spent the day before tramping round the highlands exerting a lot of effort trying to find several that was missing. Small numbers of boreal waders winter here and presumably there would be bigger numbers and better variety during September to April than during our visit. But you are hardly going all the way to Galápagos for them. What to bring A scope was not essential, although I did have mine; it was used mainly for sea-watching over Academy Bay, Puerto Ayora from the hotel. More useful were two DSLRs, with different lenses: I used my 400mm on one body and an mm zoom on the other. The latter was essential as many things are extremely tame; I did not miss having anything to cover mm range as footwork did that. Whilst most of the landbirds were pretty quiet, I had some fun with my recorder with some of the seabirds; some of the results of this are downloadable here. I came armed with the standard visitor guidebook by Fitter, Fitter & Hosking (see this link for its various guises); it was sufficient for many species and covers all obvious animals, most common plants and has good sections on the island s vegetation zones, geology, an introduction to evolutionary theory etc. This book is well-nigh essential and a very good background to the natural history of the island but is insufficient to identify many Darwin s Finches, and to sort out all plumages of frigatebirds and storm-petrels. For that reason, a specialized seabird guide, and time invested taking information from HBW-Alive would be well spent; see bottom page for the best I could manage on the finches. There was reasonable general background information in the appropriate volume of Lonely Planet whilst a copy of Barry Boyce s Traveller s Guide (see this link) on the boat also provided a fair amount of background information. This book is supposed to be good too, but I haven t seen it. In addition, this excellent website is required reading for planning a birding trip anywhere in Ecuador and includes a whole section (Chapter 7) on the Galápagos Islands including much specific site information and useful maps. This report gives some good details on current taxonomic trends and conservation issues for some species. Finally, I had some fun with my sound recorder (see here for the results) but it was hardly essential kit. Clothing was very casual but seabirding from a moving deck was sometimes quite chilly; a few layers were necessary quite often. Most landings could be done in flip flops but, for rocky ones, stronger shoes were a better idea. Snorkeling is standard on all cruises, usually once or twice a day and wonderful; if you bring your own mask and fins you will save a few dollars. The water temperature as a chilly 19 o C which, for many people is decidedly uncomfortable for longer snorkels; a wetsuit was invaluable (many be rentable on board or, cheaper, from various dive shops in Puerto Ayora). Natural history interest other than birds Not being a specialist, I have elected not to say much about marine life and vegetation zones in the location accounts below. However, the former is some of the best on the planet, bar nowhere, and a real highlight of any visit will be lots of snorkeling. This is worthwhile just about anywhere, including right by Puerto Ayora. Galápagos Sea lions are common, sometimes abundant almost everywhere, as are Green Turtles, both from boats and underwater. We were unlucky to see only one distant whale off Genovesa and no dolphins; most cruises, certainly if they go along the Bolivar Channel to the west of Isabela, do better than this. The vegetation, in particular its striking zonation in with regard to elevation (a proxy for humidity), the adaptive radiation of certain genera, most notably Scalesia and Opuntia and differing cacti growth forms selected for on islands subject to different degrees of grazing pressure by Land Iguanas and Giant Tortoises over evolutionary time and blatant ecological release (those Mangrove Warblers get EVERYWHERE ) is exceptionally interesting and obvious to any observant visitor. A general but adequate introduction to much of this, and more, is given in the Fitter, Fitter & Hosking book. Birding sites visited Below, brief information is provided on all the sites we visited, starting with sites on the cruise (1 to 9, in itinerary order) and then various sites in or easily reachable from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz (10A to E). Highlights and key points are noted and the following information should be read in conjunction with Chapter 7 of the aforementioned website. A number of widespread and fairly common (and very easily seen) species throughout all or most of the islands (namely White-vented Storm-Petrel, Galápagos Shearwater, Blue-footed Booby, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, White-cheeked Pintail, Common Noddy, Galápagos Dove sparse on Santa Cruz but common on most low, arid, unhabituated islands - Galápagos Flycatcher, Galápagos Mockingbird, Mangrove Warbler and Medium Ground-Finch) are not generally mentioned in the account that follows, nor are all the shorebirds logged (total 12 species, mostly scattered and in very small numbers). Large Ground and Small Ground Finches appeared fairly common on certain islands, including Santa Cruz but the presence of Medium Ground Finch, seemingly rather variable in bill dimensions, confuses things and meant I was only confident identifying the extremes of the former two species. 1. Bacchus Beach and Baltra Channel (Santa Cruz) This site is on the north side of Santa Cruz and close to Baltra where most cruises start, so is a popular first visiting point for many itineraries. The very scenic beach has small numbers of Marine Iguanas and a range of common birds. Very photogenic Lava Gulls and American Oystercatchers were our highlights, whilst the short run across from Baltra and later back to Baltra Channel in late afternoon produced good or very good looks at the critically endangered Galápagos Petrel (breeds in the Miconia zone of the interior of Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal and other larger islands - so is worth looking out for close to dusk around these islands) and my first views of Wedge-rumped Storm- Petrel and Nazca Booby. Baltra Channel, which you will cross several times in all probability, is good for common inshore seabirds which readily use the narrow channel as a conduit, plus Great Blue and Lava Herons and Galápagos Dove (otherwise decidedly scarce on Santa Cruz). 2. Genovesa Island This unmissable island is famous for its diurnal blizzard of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels and associated predatory Shorteared Owls, but also has a sensational array of breeding other breeding seabirds. You are unlikely to see Red-footed Boobies anywhere else, but they are extremely common here and other obvious nesting species include Nazca Booby, Great Frigatebird (no Magnificent here?), Swallow-tailed Gull and Red-billed Tropicbird. You can walk right up to pretty much all of these on their nests. There are two landing sites, close together in a sheltered bay that is actually a flooded caldera. The Prince Philip Steps site soon leads to the south-facing cliffs where the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels nest; the colony was very active during our visit, with birds everywhere and careful scanning revealed one or two Short-eared Owls. The nocturnal Band-rumped Storm-Petrel are here too, but our morning visit failed to find any. A late afternoon visit would presumably be better but this is luck of the draw depending on what landing times the boat has booked; in fact we failed to see this species anywhere, despite avid checking of any storm-petrels that came close enough. Most of the longer journeys over deeper water are made at night on most cruises so I am not sure what to suggest for finding this species. Regarding landbirds, Sharp-billed and Grey Warbler Finches were easy to find and distinctive (Genovesa is the only easily accessible site for the former) and I had a couple of Large Cactus Finches, although rather more Large Ground Finches (former are more obvious on Española). Also notable on Genovesa were several approachable Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (Lava Herons more distant), Galápagos Fur Seals (far scarcer than sea lions; this is the only site we found them) and a whale, possibly Sperm Whale in deeper water offshore. 3. Bartholomé and Santiago (Sullivan s Bay) Islands The main interest of these islands is scenery and geology, rather than birds. The viewpoint climbed up early morning to Pinnacle Rock gives one of the best and certainly the most famous Galápagos panoramas and there are lots Lava Lizards and interesting early successional vegetation such as Lava Cacti on the bare slopes. We also spent some time walking over a recent (approximately 120 year-old) lava flow. Birding was very slow compared to Genovesa (inevitably) with Galápagos Penguin being the one critical exception: there is a small colony in the area and we saw several very closely at Bartholomé and, even more memorably still, snorkeled into and after a trio swimming at Sullivan s Bay. This rare bird is very local unless you go to Fernandina. The cruise from Santiago back towards Santa Cruz was started late afternoon and provided some of the best boat seabirding of the trip as we sailed right through thousands of Galápagos Shearwaters and also had some good petrel action, plus groups of Red-necked Phalaropes. 4. South Plaza Island This small, low island is on the west side of Santa Cruz and is full of seabirds, although not to the same extent or variety as Genovesa or Española. It is reachable on bumpy day trips from Puerto Ayora but we overnighted here and went ashore first thing in the morning. Key species are Galápagos Shearwater (hundreds attending cliffs in the morning), Swallow-tailed Gulls (many chicks) and Red-billed Tropicbirds (several incubating adults and chicks found in crevices) plus lots of our first large Land Iguanas and very photogenic Galápagos Sea lions. We also found a very close, tame Short-eared Owl near the landing point. The late morning cruise across to Santa Fe provided many fewer seabirds than the Santiago Santa Cruz run the afternoon before, but very good variety including several Galápagos Petrels and even our first Waved Albatrosses (a little distant, but exciting). 5. Santa Fe (Barrington Bay) We
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