THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, 22-29 SEPT 1996 - J Hornbuckle


At the last minute I decided to visit the Galapagos at the end of a South American trip, booking in Quito a cruise two weeks beforehand. Lots of 7 (and 4) night cruises were available, from $500 upwards, plus $290 for the flight and $91 National Park fee and tax. I booked one for $520 through Sarvaltours, without major hitch - I was later advised of two good agencies: the well-known Galasam, and Elinatour (tel 525352). The boat was full, with 12 people, on the first 3 nights and I was obliged to share the tiny cabin with a Californian girl, but there were only 8 aboard for the remainder of the trip and I had the cabin to myself. The pitching of the ship, the scarce availability of washing water and the toilet-flushing method took some getting used to, but the food and company were good and I greatly enjoyed the trip. A magical “must visit” place.  


Sept     22         08.30 flight to Baltras from Quito. Bus across Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora; Charles Darwin Research Station. Overnight voyage to Plazas.

23         07.00-08.30 Plazas; 12.00-13.00 Santa Fe (Barrington); 17.45-21.00 Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal (Chatham) - unscheduled. Overnight to Espanola (Hood).

24         07.30-11.00 Espanola; 12.00-18.30 voyage to Floreana (Charles).

25         07.30-11.30 Post Office Bay and Punta Cormorant, Floreana; 18.00-21.00 Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. Overnight to Isabela.

26         07.30-15.30 Sierra Negra and Chico Volcanoes (bus, horse and foot), 16.30-18.00 Puerto Villamil area, Isabela. Overnight to Rabida (Jervis).

27         07.30-10.00 Jervis; 12.30-17.00 Puerto Egas, Santiago (James) - salt mine and coast; voyage to Sullivan Bay.

28         07.30-11.30 Sullivan Bay, Santiago and Bartolome; 16.00-17.30 North Seymour.

29         06.30-07.30 Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz. 12.00 flight back to Quito.

Systematic List

Galapagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus

2 Punta Cormorant, Floreana and 14 Pto Egas, Santiago.

Waved Albatross, Diomedea irrorata

Fairly common in the southern seas, eg 20+ from Santa Fe to San Cristobal and 50+ from Espanola to Floreana, but very few north of Santa Cruz. 10+ with 1 juv on Espanola and 50+ around the cliffs.

Dark-rumped Petrel, Pterodroma phaeopygia

A few on most voyages, with a max of c.10 between Santa Fe and San Cristobal; scarcer in northern waters.

Galapagos (Audubon's Shearwater), Puffinus (lherminieri) subalaris

Locally common, eg 100s near Santiago and North Seymour, with small numbers on the open sea.

White-vented Storm-Petrel, Oceanites gracilis

A few singles or twos daily, with most in northern waters, especially near Santiago.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, Oceanodroma tethys

A few singles most days, commoner in southern waters.

Red-billed Tropicbird, Phaethon aethereus

Rarely seen away from the favoured islands of Plazas, Floreana, Espanola and North Seymour, where 10-30 were in evidence.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificens

Common almost everywhere at sea, with a large nesting colony on North Seymour.

Great Frigatebird, Fregata minor

Only a few identified - they nest on the more remote Genovesa/ Tower.

Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii

Common round all the islands and abundant on Espanola and North Seymour; generally only small numbers on the open sea.

Masked Booby, Sula dactylatra

100s on Espanola and smaller colonies on a few other rocky outcrops. Common in small numbers on the open sea.

Red-footed Booby, Sula sula

Only 1 was spotted in flight, between Plazas and Santa Fe.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Very common around the islands but only seen breeding on Rabida.

White-cheeked Pintail, Anas bahamensis

2+ Pto Ayora, Floreana, Isabela and Black Turtle Cove.

Greater Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber

1 Floreana and 5 Isabela.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Singles scattered about the islands, a few very tame.

Great Egret, Casmerodius albus

6+ Black Turtle Cove.

Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis

Small flocks on Santa Cruz and Isabela.

Galapagos Heron, Butorides sundevalli

Small numbers on many rocky shores, the most (5+) at Black Turtle Cove

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

A few singles, especially at night eg at Pto Ayora dock.

Galapagos Hawk, Buteo galapagoensis

8 at Pto Egas (nesting and displaying at the Salt Mine), 2 on Bartolome, Espanola and Santa Fe

Common Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus

8 at Puerto Villamil, Isabela.

Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus

A few on many coasts.

Lesser Yellowlegs, Tringa flavipes

2 at Puerto Villamil, Isabela.

Wandering Tattler, Tringa incana

1 or 2 on several beaches, with 5+ at Pto Ayora.

Willet, Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

1 at Pto Egas, Santiago.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres

A few on several beaches.

Sanderling, Calidris alba

A few at Floreana and Isabela.

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Calidris pusilla

3-4 at Punta Cormorant, Floreana.

Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla

2 at Puerto Villamil, Isabela.

Wilson's Phalarope, Phalaropus tricolor

3 at Punta Cormorant, Floreana.

Red-necked Phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus

Locally common at sea, especially between Plazas and Santa Fe where there were 1000s.

American Oystercatcher, Haematopus palliatus

1 at Pto Egas, Santiago.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

A few at Floreana and Isabela.

Grey Plover, Pluvialis squatarola

2 at Pto Egas, Santiago.

Semipalmated Plover, Charadrius semipalmatus

1 or 2 on many beaches.

Kelp Gull, Larus dominicanus

An adult on the beach at Plazas, the first island visited, was immediately identified as this sp. Only later did I discover that only one bird had been recorded before, although it stayed for two years.

Lava Gull, Larus fuliginosus

Widespread along coasts in very small numbers, with a max. of 10+ on the shark-islet off Pto Villamil.

Swallow-tailed Gull, Creagrus furcatus

Common and breeding on Plazas, Espanola and N Seymour, and widespread in small numbers.

Brown Noddy, Anous stolidus

Widespread and locally common, mainly near coasts; breeding on N Seymour at least.

Galapagos Dove, Zenaida galapagoensis

Fairly common on Santiago, 4 on Rabida and singles on Santa Fe and at Puerto Ayora.

Dark-billed Cuckoo, coccyzus melacoryphus

2 near the Darwin Research Centre, Pto Ayora and 1 near the Salt Mine on Santiago.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophaga ani

Several parties in the highlands of Santa Cruz and Isabela and a few on Santiago. A newly arrived, probably by introduction, and rapidly spreading colonist.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus

A male in the highlands of Isabela, probably with several female/ immatures.

Galapagos Flycatcher, Myiarchus magnirostris

Widespread and common in small numbers.

Galapagos Mockingbird, Nesomimus parvulus

Common except on Floreana and San Cristobal.

Charles Mockingbird, Nesomimus trifasciatus

2 on Champion.

Hood Mockingbird, Nesomimus macdonaldi

Common and tame on Espanola.

Southern Martin, Progne modesta

C.10 around the volcanic crater on Isabela. 1 Progne sp. in flight at Black Turtle Cove.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

2+ of this rare visitor on Espanola.

Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia

Abundant on all land including beaches and rocky coasts.

Large Ground-Finch, Geospiza magnirostris

A few near the Salt Mine, Santiago.

Medium Ground-Finch, Geospiza fortis

Fairly common on Isabela and Santa Cruz.

Small Ground-Finch, Geospiza fuliginosa

Common throughout.

Common Cactus-Finch, Geospiza scandens

A few on Plazas and Santa Fe.

Large Cactus-Finch, Geospiza conirostris

A few on Espanola.

Vegetarian Finch, Camarhynchus crassirostris

1 at Darwin Research Station, Pto Ayora.

Large Tree-Finch, Camarhynchus psittacula

Several in the highlands of Isabela.

Small Tree-Finch, Camarhynchus parvulus

3+ on Floreana, several on Santiago and common in the highlands of Isabela.

Woodpecker Finch, Camarhynchus pallidus

1 at Darwin Research Station, Pto Ayora.

Warbler Finch, Certhidea olivacea

3+ on Espanola.                                                                        61 species


Flightless Cormorant, Phalacrocorax harrisi

Galapagos Rail, Laterallus spilonotus

San Cristobal Mockingbird, Nesomimus melanotis

Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch, Geospiza difficilis

Medium Tree-Finch, Camarhynchus pauper

Mangrove Finch, Camarhynchus heliobates



California Sea Lion  Widespread and abundant. 

Galapagos Fur Seal  5 at Puerto Egas, Santiago.

Bottlenose Dolphin   Schools seen on several occasions, including riding the boat’s bow.

Birding Galapagos

You can spend $900 / £600 for a basic week’s cruise and see 20 of the endemics, £2790 for 2 weeks with BirdQuest and see 25-26 endemics in style, or almost any sum in between.

I recommend booking a 7 night/ 8 day cruise in Quito or Guayaquil, eg 2 weeks beforehand, having decided whether to go Economy or Tourist class - the latter will cost an extra $100-200 for a faster, nicer boat, possibly with more people and a more knowledgeable guide. Travel agents take travellers cheques or credit cards but charge premiums of 6-10% for the latter.

Most 1 week tours do not go to Isabela; try to get one that does and if seeing Flightless Cormorant is preferable to spectacular volcanic scenery, ask to be taken across the island (for an extra fee) rather than up the volcano. Delay your return flight for 1 or 2 days to allow a visit to the Santa Cruz highlands for Galapagos Rail, and possibly Paint-billed Crake and Giant Tortoise, along with Woodpecker Finch, Vegetarian Finch and Large Tree Finch, any of which you might otherwise miss. Accommodation shpuld be easy to find in Pto Ayora.

To see 3 of the 4 most difficult species, you must either take a 2-week cruise, to visit San Cristobal, Fernandina, west Floreana and Genovesa, or

1. Ensure your cruise has some time, in daylight, on San Cristobal, which is unlikely, or go there afterwards by ferry. The Mockingbird should be in the reserve to the west of Pto Baquerizo Moreno.

2. Ensure your cruise visits the village of  on Floreana so you can get into the hills for Medium Tree-Finch - only possible with a Tourist class (faster) boat I think.

3.. Try to get a day-trip to Genovesa for the Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch (and nesting Red-footed Booby and storm-petrels). The Ground-Finch also occurs in the highlands of Santiago but you are unlikely to be able to get there; a local guide claimed it was at the salt mine but I could not convince myself I had seen one and doubt that it is hgh or humid enough..

Mangrove Finch is the joker - BirdQuest claim to get in on western Isabela and it also occurred on Fernandina, but the Danes could not find it. I looked in good mangroves on southern Isabela but without a sniff.

Timing - avoid July and August, busy and more expensive, October-February - Albatrosses not breeding. April is probably the best month if you like snorkeling, as the seas are warm and all the birds are breeding, but September is good, apart from cold seas, as the turtles are arriving for the Nov-Feb breeding season.

It can be difficult to get a definite Tourist class booking in the low season as such cruises are often cancelled due to low demand. Economy class always runs but the number of such boats is rapidly declining as owners replace them with more profitable boats, which will push up prices and reduce availability.

Take rainwear, as low cloud / drizzle is not infrequent, and a jumper/ jacket - can be cold on deck. A zoom lens, eg 70-200mm, is more use than a long lens as the birds and animals are very approachable. Take more film than you think you will need, although it is available, at a price, in Pto Ayora. A telescope is unnecessary unless you are a sea-watching fanatic or want to try and spot Flightless Cormorants on the west coast of Isabela from the top of the volcano (which is probably possible).  


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