This column is the second of two on my recent trip to Ecuador. The first column detailed some of the highlights of a visit to Amazonia. In this column, I will cover our three-day excursion to the Galápagos Islands.
A visit to the Galápagos has been a dream of mine for a long time. Charles Darwin visited these shores in 1835 on his around the world cruise on the H.M.S. Beagle. His experiences with Galápagos mockingbirds, tortoises and finches were instrumental in his development of the theory of natural selection. To see these animals and to walk the same land that Darwin trod was a tremendous thrill.
Our group flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, 500 miles west to the Galápagos archipelago. We landed on the small island of Baltra. A U.S. Air Force base was established there during World War II and now serves as one of two commercial airports in the Galápagos.
After clearing security and paying the required $100 visitor’s fee, we boarded a bus for a short ride to a ferry dock. The passenger ferry took us just a few hundred yards to the large island of Santa Cruz, one of the four human-inhabited islands.
Brown Noddies (a type of tern), Brown Pelicans and Audubon’s Shearwaters flew above the water as we motored across the narrow channel.
Boarding another bus, we worked our way south towards the town of Puerto Ayora where we would spend three nights.
Our first stop enroute was Los Gemelos (The Twins), two huge volcanic depressions in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Admiring one of these two sinkholes, I noticed a bird out of the corner of my eye. It was a Warbler Finch, one of the 13 species collectively referred to as Darwin’s finches. Within a few minutes, we had seen four others: Woodpecker Finch, Large Ground-Finch, Small Ground-Finch and Medium Ground-Finch. I was thrilled!
With few natural predators, the animals of the Galápagos are well known for their fearlessness. As our group stood around one of Los Gemelos, a Galápagos Dove perched only feet away from us. This species is widespread in the archipelago but is declining. Our tour guide told us we were lucky to see this species. It is really a striking bird.
The dominant trees belong to the genus Scalesia and are members of the sunflower family. Without seeing the flowers, I would never have suspected the Scalesia are related to our daisies.
Our next stop was Rancho Primacia. A walk through this reserve yielded our first Galápagos tortoises as well as White-
cheeked Pintails, Galápagos Mockingbird, Yellow Warblers (the males have red feathers on their head) and a Common Moorhen.
The following day, we boarded a boat for a trip to Floreana, a two-hour cruise from Puerto Ayora. We saw Nazca Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Audubon’s Shearwaters and
Elliot’s Storm-Petrel during the crossing. Arriving at Floreana, we saw Galápagos sea lions and marine iguanas on the rocks near the dock.
We boarded a bus for transport to the highlands of the island. I was particularly keen to see the Medium Tree-Finch, endemic to this island, but was skunked. We did see lots of tortoises, Galápagos Flycatchers and a brief glimpse of a Galápagos Hawk.
We cruised to Devil’s Crown, a rocky outcrop just offshore. Two Galápagos Penguins were perched on the shore with a Swallow-tailed Gull close by. A Great Blue Heron was roosting there as well.
On Devil’s Crown, many Blue-footed Boobies and Nazca Boobies were roosting. A couple of spectacular Red-billed Tropicbirds circled the boat.
The next day we sailed north for three hours to the small island of Bartholomé, adjacent to the large island of Santiago. Bartholomé is a young island, a little less than a million years old. The soil is very poor; plants are sparse and well adapted to the arid environment here. Geologically, Bartholomé is fascinating with lava tubes and magma formations. Ornithologically, the island has little to offer so no new species were added to our list. The snorkeling just offshore was spectacular with many fish species and sea turtles seen.
On our final morning, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora. Walking in, we saw our last
Darwin’s finch species of the trip, Common Cactus-Finch.
At the institute, eggs of the 13 species of Galápagos tortoises are incubated and the young turtles raised for five years before release into their original habitat where the eggs were collected. We saw Lonesome George, the last member of his species, found only on the small island of Pinta.
[Originally published on May 1, 2010]