CRUISES FOR NATURE AND ORNITHOLIDAYS

THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS WITH ECUADOR

Cruise on the Cachalote – In Darwin’s Footsteps

25 September to 7 October 2010

A Personal Diary

  

      Blue-footed Booby

This is a copy of the report sent to those group members that came on this

Cruises for Nature and Ornitholidays'

tour to the

Galapagos Islands with Ecuador 2010

Saturday 25 September

We had a very early start, with a scheduled meeting time for the group at the unearthly hour of 0420 in Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport. Everyone was on time though, and even a queue had formed at the Iberia check-in desks. We checked our luggage through to Quito in Ecuador and then went through to the Departure Lounge, with time for much-needed teas or coffees. Our first flight, to Spain, gave us a chance of some sleep on the way. Madrid Airport can be confusing when changing terminals but this morning a bus took us from the aircraft direct to the international terminal.

The long-haul flight from Madrid to Quito took more than ten hours. We touched down at 1630, the immigration facilities were relatively smooth and we met again at the carousel to collect the luggage. Wendy, from our ground handlers, was waiting in the Arrival Hall to take us to our first hotel. It was a nice hotel, in colonial style, located in the oldest part of the city.

The rooms were allocated and we agreed to meet later for dinner, which allowed everyone time to shower and freshen-up. Most of the group were tired after a very long day’s travelling and retired early, eager to start the holiday proper with birding tomorrow.

 

Sunday 26 September

Morning calls were at 0645. After breakfast, an extensive buffet, the bags were collected and loaded onto our bus. Our specialist birding guide arrived and was introduced. His name was Norby and had been involved in the past with the setting-up of the now famous Napo Wildlife Centre in the Amazon.

We left at 0730, driving north and skirting the city we headed for Yanacocha. This reserve was established as recently as 2001 and is administered by the Jocotoco Foundation. It protects almost the entire known world population of the Black-breasted Puffleg, a critically endangered hummingbird, whose known range is restricted to the Pichincha Volcano. One stop, on the way uphill, gave us our first ‘hummer’, a full-tailed male Black-tailed Trainbearer, and Glossy Flowerpiercers and Cinerous Conebills moved quickly through the bushes whilst a Tawny Antpitta called from the mountainside.

The habitat at Yanacocha is high altitude forest (3400m), including Polylepis, a type that is severely depleted throughout the Andes. Volcan Pichincha and other more-distant volcanoes were in view from the level trail. Birds here can come through in fast-moving parties, or waves, and soon we were experiencing typical Neotropical birds of this altitude. Stunningly bright tanagers including three species of mountain-tanager appeared; Hooded, Scarlet-bellied and the uncommon Black-chested. A Pearled Treerunner and a Superciliaried Hemispingus (what a name!) joined the conebills, flowerpiercers and flycatchers as the flock moved through.

Hummingbird feeders, containing sugar water, had been placed conveniently along the trail where these tiny multi-coloured jewels could be admired. They lived up to their names: Great Sapphirewing, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, and Mountain Velvetbreast (though no sign of the Black-breasted Puffleg) but jaws dropped when the Sword-billed Hummingbird put in an appearance – this bird is the only species to have a bill longer than the rest of its body (an adaptation to feed on flowers with long corollas, such as Datura).

We walked back along the ridge to the bus to collect our packed lunches. The biting midges soon got the better of us though and we retreated to eat inside the bus. We left Yanacocha and drove the old Nono-Mindo Road. Now a known birding site, this area has been the subject of major conservation action over recent years to save its fantastic cloud forest, the home to special wildlife of the Chocó region.

A call from the back of the bus had the bus screeching to a halt. A pair of Torrent Ducks was standing on a large rock in the centre of the fast-flowing river, but could not be relocated for the rest of the group. Whilst searching the river an eagle appeared over the mountain ridge. It was a Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, a huge scarce eagle of montane forest. A bird that really surprised me came next, at the side of the road – (nearly) all antpittas are difficult to see….but here was a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta!

Our run of luck continued. A White-capped Dipper appeared on cue along the river and, at another stop, the distinctive calls of Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks and Plate-billed Mountain Toucans could be heard. It took a while but everyone finally saw the birds, even at distance across the valley (tomorrow would be better, particularly for the former).

As the light was fading we arrived at our lodge near Mindo. We met for a drink before dinner, after which we completed our first birdlist for the tour and discussed the plans for tomorrow.

 

Monday 27 September

We had a very early start once again. Morning calls were arranged for 0400 and after a quick cup of locally produced coffee we were underway. Our destination this morning was the farm of Angel Paz, now a small private reserve. Angel has become a celebrity for his amazing ability to train and call-in Antpittas. This is extraordinary, especially considering the shy and retiring nature of this family of birds.

It was still dark when we arrived, and in the poor light a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk glided by. Soon Angel had joined us and we walked to his first ‘stakeout’. Ahead, we could hear the calls of Andean Cock-of-the Rocks, and as the light improved the dazzling red plumage of excited males could be seen as they jumped and danced between the branches of this lek (a gathering place for males to display and attract the females). We had to be quiet as the birds were very close, the views so much better than yesterday.

We left these birds, which were still loudly competing for the attention of any interested female, and took one of the forest trails. A Golden-crowned Flycatcher sallied from the top of a large tree where Golden, Metallic-green and Blue-capped Tanagers were hyperactive - contrasting behaviour to the typically sluggish Cinnamon Becard in the same tree.

We walked downhill, steep in places, to find ‘Maria’ waiting for us, standing upright on a tree stump. This was one of Angel’s Antpittas, this one a Giant Antpitta and equally famous as Angel in her own right! She was the very first to come to food, hopping out from the dark forest floor some five years ago. There she was, awaiting her breakfast of worms, unafraid of the humans with clicking cameras, and even taking food from Angel’s hand. Stunning views of this rare and local species, which must be the most well fed antpitta in the world. 

We continued further downhill towards a small river. Angel started calling ‘Willy, Willy, venga, venga’ (‘Willy, come’) and threw some earthworms but Willy, a Yellow-breasted Antpitta, took his time. Obviously not so hungry as Maria he put in a grand appearance after ten minutes.

 

We moved on to the next two Antpitta species. Angel has been training both Moustached and Ochre-breasted. Quietness was needed from everybody, as well as determined and concentrated peering at the leaf litter. Once again, we had success with both, the Moustached being seen later to hop across the path. There is now a new member to Angel’s troupe, a species in the same family as the antpittas, a Rufous-breasted Antthrush. This was a total surprise for me as I was not aware this species was becoming habituated also. Though still wary, the bird came running in, cocking its upright tail like a small Moorhen, to the food thrown. Today we had seen four antpittas (five including yesterday’s) and an antthrush!

Angel had built a feeding station since I was here two years ago. He began cutting-up fruit, then using a system of pulleys to place it at the tree trunks. We were soon joined by a couple of Sickle-winged Guans (which usually keep their distance as they are hunted ‘for the pot’ in Ecuador) and colourful Toucan Barbets. 

We headed back towards the bus. It wasn’t over yet though, as Angel’s hummingbird feeders gave us many new species. The favourites seemed to be the showy Violet-tailed Sylph and the diminutive Purple throated Woodstar. A Squirrel Cuckoo and an inconspicuous Orange-breasted Fruiteater delayed our breakfast which had been cooked by Angel’s family and served to us at a wooden veranda.

We left ‘El Paz Refugio de los Aves’ and drove the old Mindo Road once more. Once we were into good forest we would walk, with the bus following every 20 minutes or so. Birding needed more effort (considering this morning’s triumphs) but one bird stood out. ‘Quick, quick, see this bird’ I said excitedly, the group probably not realising the rarity of this species. It was a Tanager Finch, very rare indeed, and recorded from only two tiny areas in Ecuador. Not much difference in neighbouring Colombia, where it is found in two small areas and seen infrequently. Its affinities are unclear, once regarded as a bunting, now seemingly a tanager, so placed into a monotypic genus. On a personal note, the best bird we saw in Ecuador (others may disagree!)

I could hear Golden-headed Quetzals calling to both sides of us. We tried playback, couldn’t see the birds, when Norby pointed and said one was looking directly at us. This behaviour is so typical of the trogon family; to appear slyly when you don’t expect it.

We returned to the lodge to freshen up, ready for dinner.

 

Tuesday 28 September

Norby, and myself, offered an optional early morning bird-walk, beginning at 0530, though we were to find it didn’t get light until closer to 0600. In front of the lodge there was a bright street lamp, which had attracted many moths during the night, some very large. It was a magnet for the birds, with the likes of Scrub Blackbird and Spotted Woodcreeper at eye-level and Ecuadorian Thrush and Pacific Hornero on the ground. Soon, we found that it was time for our breakfast, having not left the one spot in the car park.

After breakfast, we checked the hummingbird feeders (now 30 species since arriving in Ecuador). Favourite today, probably the male Booted Racket-tails. We loaded the bus, said goodbye to Sachatamia Lodge, and headed for Milpe. On the entrance road to the reserve a Choco Toucan was put into the scopes for all to see, White-thighed Swallows chased flying insects, and a graceful Swallow-tailed Kite circled overhead. 

The reserve had more hummingbird feeders so we took a while sitting, observing, with soft drinks to hand (Green Thorntail was new). Close-by, we watched whilst Club-winged Manakins did their delightful display dance, wings flicking upwards synchronized to a strange mechanical noise that comes from their modified secondary feathers.

A walk along a ridge gave us some good species. Pale-mandibled Araçari, a small toucan that remained motionless for minutes, a Plain Xenops feeding (that was more upside-down than right way up), Smoky-brown Woodpecker followed by an impressive Strong-billed Woodcreeper. The migrant Blackburnian Warblers we saw would have arrived very recently from the United States, add Black-winged Saltator and, not forgetting, those tanagers once more. The birds came fast and furious. 

We drove to another reserve called Silanche. We ate our packed lunches before a short walk to a watchtower. The birding from the high platform was not too productive but the large dynamic White-collared Swifts were of note. A new hummer for the group was feeding at ground cover, Purple-chested Hummingbird.

From the ranger’s hut we took another short walk. A calling Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, a tiny flycatcher, couldn’t be enticed from deep cover, even with the use of playback. A rain puddle in the track ahead, some distance away, tempted a flock of Lemon-rumped Tanagers to come and drink as well as bathe.

We returned to the bus and started our journey to Quito. We bid farewell to Norby who left us in the suburbs, close to his home. We arrived later than expected in the old sector of the city, partly due to traffic congestion, so delayed our restaurant reservation for about three-quarters of an hour, to allow time in the hotel to shower and change. Our ground agent had arranged dinner tonight at one of the top restaurants in the city.

 

Wednesday 29 September

Early morning calls roused everybody at 0530. Today we would be travelling to the Galapagos Islands! After a quick buffet breakfast Wendy arrived and helped with the baggage loading and at the airport the group check-in. Our entire luggage had to be screened to ensure we were not taking in any plants or seeds.

Our aircraft stopped at Guayaquil en route where more passengers boarded. The islands came into view from the port side and we landed on the small island of Baltra. The vegetation was sparse, this island desert-like. Entry formalities were slow yet well organised. Awaiting us outside were two of the boat crew - Monica, our naturalist, and Jimmy, one of the deck hands (plus the first of the ubiquitous Darwin’s finches, these being Small Ground Finches).

Jimmy loaded our luggage to take to the boat separately whilst we took the local bus to the quayside. The Cachalote, our home for the next eight days, could be seen at anchor in the bay. Two of the crew came to collect us in the inflatable boats (Zodiacs) and once aboard the Cachalote we were given a familiarisation briefing.

 

Soon we were underway sailing. From the lounge windows Galapagos Shearwaters streamed past and hundreds of Bottlenose Dolphins, more than 200 certainly, came towards the boat as if to welcome us to the islands. Our Galapagos experience was truly underway.

We sailed towards South Plaza. Elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds crossed the bow whilst both White-vented and Band-rumped Storm Petrels were our outriders. We dropped anchor and went ashore to where sea lions and Marine Iguanas had made home. Even getting past them, as they loafed on the small pier, meant careful negotiation as they were not going to move – here, these animals were tame and unafraid, and they had right of way. 

 

Another finch species fed at the cactus flowers, correct identification, yes Cactus Finch. Also, Small Ground Finches were abundant, and enquiring Yellow Warblers came to hop around our feet. We took a circular walk stopping for Galapagos Land Iguanas, primeval small dinosaurs seemingly from another land and another time, and at the cliffs we stopped to photograph Swallow-tailed Gulls; this species is ashore during the day, then will fly offshore in flocks at dusk, the world’s only truly nocturnal gull. We could see out at sea there was a feeding frenzy as thousands of birds had gathered over a fish shoal – probably the tuna were chasing the sardines.

 

              

                                                                          Swallow-tailed Gull

We returned to the boat and sailed to Puerta Ayora, the main town of the Galapagos, on Isla Santa Cruz. We were to sleep here tonight, in the calm of the harbour.

 

Thursday 30 September

Georgie, our waiter/barman/steward served breakfast at 0700. We disembarked by zodiac, manoeuvring past the many boats in the harbour, of various sizes and design, to the town’s pier. Monica flagged down three pickup vehicles that would act as taxis taking us to the far end of the main street, to where the Darwin Institute was to be found.

The buildings are scattered within a extensive scrubby area. I heard a Woodpecker Finch so tried playback, using the iPod, and the bird came flying in to perch less than a metre above our heads. There were many finches in the grounds and it was an education trying to examine, and agree, the various bill shapes and sizes for the different species. I must say I’m not convinced on all the species, their distribution on the various islands, as currently detailed in the literature. There was one though that was quite striking, and reacted strongly to playback, the Vegetarian Finch that perched conveniently for us on a nearby handrail.

We walked the trail around the Darwin Institute visiting the pens holding tortoises from a variety of the islands. Lonesome George was there, still going strong, the last of his kind from Pinta Island. Probably not yet 100 years old, and hopefully he has many years left yet (for a tortoise that is). Who knows, just maybe a female still survives somewhere?

An hour was allowed in our itinerary to visit the shops in the main street. This was the only chance to buy gifts for oneself or those back home. Most of the goods were first-class quality, with a number of the group opting for the inexpensive jewellery and upmarket T-shirts.

At our agreed meeting place a bus was waiting to take us into the highlands. Lunch was in an open-air restaurant at a small hotel, Altira Ranch, with very good food and service. Two Barn Owls were roosting in the changing rooms for the swimming pool. They were of the dark-breasted form (one much more so than the other). Outwardly unconcerned by our close presence the nearest bird kept one eye marginally open, watching our every move.

Our bus dropped us at a trail that led through highland woodland and then to open grassland. The Giant Tortoises were wild here, a number migrate from the mountains to the rich grasslands at this farm called Rancho Mariposa. White-cheeked Pintails and Moorhens were at two small pools, but this year no luck with Galapagos Rail (no response to playback either). Inside the woodland a female Vermilion Flycatcher was new for the list but one finch I expected at this site, Large Tree, didn’t show (we would try later in the itinerary, on Floreana).

We returned to town and soon were aboard the tenders taking us back to the boat. A briefing from Monica on tomorrow’s plans followed dinner. The boat pulled anchor. We were to sail through the night.

 

Friday 1 October

We awoke to see Hood Island. After breakfast at 0700 we were taken ashore for a ‘wet landing’ on a long golden beach dotted with sea lions. Our welcoming party were a gang of chattering Hood Mockingbirds that would inspect us, plus our shoes, backpacks etc.  

We walked the beach as far as allowed. Large Cactus Finches fed along the vegetation line and a Galapagos Hawk landed not 15 metres away. Black Turtles could be seen in the shallow crystal-clear water, raising their heads to inhale, to slowly submerge again. On the rocks, at the far end, Wandering Tattlers scurried from the breaking surf and a pair of American Oystercatchers (a potential taxonomic split) was seen.

For those interested in going snorkelling, the zodiacs headed for a small islet. The water here was cold and the on-board wetsuits needed, though the fish plentiful.

We sailed to another part of Hood Island. The walk here would be memorable, as this was the sole breeding ground for the Waved Albatross. These huge birds were magical. Strutting about, forming pair-bonds by ‘bill-fencing’, then opening their gapes widely - often in unison - to point the bill skywards. Chicks of varying sizes were dotted over the landscape.

 

                         

                                                                             Waved Albatross

Comical Blue-footed Boobies, with ridiculous oversized feet, were nesting on the pathway and careful stepping was required, especially as tiny young were in some nests, whilst alongside us Galapagos Doves quietly searched out fallen seeds to eat. The Nazca Boobies were more colonial nesters, and hundreds had occupied one particular corner of our route. Altogether, this was a gem of a place.

 

                         

                                                                                 Nazca Booby

The zodiacs took us back to the Cachalote. Dinner was soon underway. What awaited us tomorrow? Could it get any better?

 

Saturday 2 October 

Again, we sailed in darkness. We were off the island of Floreana early morning. We had a mini-expedition planned, to see one species of bird that occupies only the tiniest of islets. I had wondered if this is the smallest range possible for a viable breeding population that can still be genetically sound. The bird, Charles Mockingbird, extirpated from Floreana, the main island, for reasons unknown though introduced predators may have been to blame.

The two zodiacs were lowered and we clambered aboard. Landing on Champion Island, this tiny islet, is not allowed so we cruised the coastline. Soon, the shout went up, spotted by Miguel, our boatman, we had our first. It didn’t take long for yet another and our tally soon exceeded 10 birds in half-hour.

The boat sailed a short distance to one of the beaches of Floreana and, once ashore, we walked to a substantial brackish lagoon. A Least Sandpiper was scoped, and later we were to find three more of these ‘peeps’, migrating from northern climes. Black-necked Stilts fed in the shallow water and Semi-palmated Plovers ran along the areas of dried sand. At the rocky areas Striated (Lava) Herons hunted fish stealthily, their plumage blending against the black lava.

Our walk took us to another beach where more waders were found; Sanderling, Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Turnstone – all species we were more accustomed to back home. Back at the first beach a Galapagos Penguin popped up on the water surface. Good enough for him it looked ideal for our snorkelling also, so some of the group took the opportunity and were rewarded with a turtle being seen underwater.

Lunch aboard was followed by a visit to Post Office Bay. The old 'postbox' here is a barrel, surrounded by paraphernalia left by visitors, boats and ships. Many years back this was a method of leaving letters for the next boat to take, if that were possibly their destination. Maybe not fast but a letter could at least reach its final destination. Many of our party did leave letters that await the next visitors to take them to the country concerned. It will be interesting to see how long they take!

We had changed the itinerary, with the National Park’s approval, to visit another area on Floreana. The highlands here on this island are the only site for Medium Tree Finch, so the group all agreed to give it a try. It required some background organisation as a bus would be required and the National Park authorities would charge for the amendment. This was the first time that Ornitholidays were to try this excursion.

The landing at the pier was precarious as the high surf came in directly pushing the stern of the zodiacs. Once the entire group were on the pier, the open-sided bus arrived and we were underway. Our first stop looked good but no luck with Medium Tree Finch, though we did score with Large Tree, the one we had missed on Santa Cruz. The second stop was tremendously successful. A female came to playback, then a male responded. Once we knew the distinct call it was quite easy to find them.

Monica led a walk uphill to a system of caves. Romantically linked to the pirates and buccaneers it was said these were carved-out hundreds of years ago and occupied by people. One cave, even used lava tubes for an oven. 

We returned to the quay, boarding the pangas by the same wobbly method as earlier, though this time a couple of locals gave us boarding and casting-off advice. Quite an adventure!

We now had a set routine after dinner; to go through plans for the next day, answer questions on that, and then recap today’s events with completion of the bird and mammal lists.

 

Sunday 3 October

A long sailing, through the night, took us the west of Isabela. Our usual landing place for the zodiacs had too much swell so we motored to another spot. Our first Flightless Cormorant was watched fishing, its vestigial wings clearly visible. At the second spot we had to step ashore onto lava, then make five or six steps uphill to the flat. The background was the impressive volcano, Cerro Azul, which dominated the barren landscape. Ahead lay a field of lava, a flat moonscape of twisted and jagged flows, yet even here some plants had taken root.

We started our walk. A couple of Galapagos Martins seen at distance flew closer to us. This can be a difficult bird to see within the islands but this site seems reliable, as they breed here within the molten rock. We headed for some brackish lagoons where the seawater had entered through the lava cracks. The lush vegetation around the water suited the Moorhens and White-cheeked Pintails. Four Caribbean Flamingos were in the water, their vivid colour contrasting with the barren terrain we had just crossed. One of the martins came to perch atop a small bush.

Back at the boat, two Band-rumped Storm Petrels made a couple of passes through the throng of White-vented. We set sail, to be at sea for a few hours and now, in daylight, there was the chance for seawatching. Almost immediately we saw the blow from a whale and the Captain steered the Cachalote closer. It was either a Bryde’s or a Sei Whale, the field identification is difficult as differences between these two rorquals are minor. Bryde’s has three ridges on top of the head (the rostrum) and Sei just one, and to add to the confusion some populations of Bryde's vary in size, colour, and baleen structure in different geographical locations.

Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel was called, from the deck, then two interesting records. Firstly, two flocks of migrating Common Terns and, secondly, a light-phase adult Pomarine Skua though this individual lacked the ‘spoons’, the twisted central tail-feathers.

We entered a sheltered cove called Elizabeth Bay. On a very small islet we counted seven Galapagos Penguins as we passed. We dropped the anchor, launched the zodiacs to cruise through a mangrove forest. There were many turtles in the quiet backwaters and a stingray species was seen also. Striated Herons broke the silence with their harsh ‘skeow’ calls. The sky became a deep red as we made our return to the boat at dusk.

Soon, it became clear that individual Galapagos Petrels were arcing across the sky, coming close inshore and passing the boat. It was evident these birds were gathering offshore at dusk to fly to a colony somewhere nearby. On deck I counted 18 in ten minutes. This breeding site may be unknown (though a small number of burrows have recently been discovered on Volcan Alcedo) and the GPS reading was taken which will be passed on to researchers. This is a critically endangered species that has been suffering a very worrying decline over some years.

After dinner the birdlog was called, then Monica told us about the people and population history of the archipelago.

 

                           

Magnificent Frigatebird

Monday 4 October

We had cruised further north to Urbina Bay, still on the large island of Isabela. The zodiacs approached a penguin, standing on the rocks, before we landed. We took a circular walk seeing many Land Iguanas and yet more mockingbirds and finches. On our return to the beach we found now three Galapagos Penguins feeding close inshore in the surf together with a Flightless Cormorant and Black Turtles. It was another place for snorkelling and some seized the opportunity whilst others walked the beach to a rocky outcrop.

The boat set sail to Fernandina. It was breezy and the Captain agreed to raise the sails. The boat leant to starboard as the wind took hold and the sails filled. This crossing gave us more seawatching from the deck.  Another Sei/Bryde’s Whale was seen but a pod of smaller ‘whales’ intrigued me - these were Melon-headed Whales - the sloping forehead that separates them from Pygmy Killer Whales visible at times. Although called whales these are scientifically grouped as ‘oceanic dolphins’. Small pale waders lifted from the sea ahead of the boat. 2000+ phalaropes! The majority, by far, were Grey Phalaropes but a few darker-backed birds were probably Red-necked, but in the distance. The flocks would break up, then regroup, and the birds were in view for the next 20 minutes. Galapagos Shearwaters numbered thousands also, and we should remember the three storm petrel species also. This area, a purple patch, a seawatching hotspot!

We went ashore on Fernandina. The path from the tiny pier was covered completely with Marine Iguanas. Close by, a known breeding area for these had been roped off and we skirted around it. A furtive Dark-billed Cuckoo played hard to get, but gave himself up to everyone finally. Sea lions swam and played in shallow pools and many turtles could be seen in the clear water. At one headland a small colony of Flightless Cormorants were nesting - the nests, an untidy mess of seaweed.

We returned to the boat to allow the mid to late afternoon on the sea. I knew we were to cross a renowned area for cetaceans here in the Bolivar Channel and we were not disappointed. Five, maybe six, more Sei/Bryde’s, then came a terrific school of more than 2000 Common Dolphins with many of them leaping high into the air to crash back into the water. They came by, surrounding us but not taking much notice. Determined, they carried on their way. The birds seen were good on this sector also, still more phalaropes and a count of 12 Galapagos Petrels before darkness.

Georgie had surprise cocktails ready as we approached the Equator. Everyone gathered at the bridge and we raised our glasses to a shout of ‘hooray’, as the GPS showed latitude 0° 00´ 00´´.

 

Tuesday 5 October

We were at sea, through the night, the anchor dropped at 0400. We lay off Santiago. For the first time there was more than one other boat in the bay, probably due to being closer to the main island of Santa Cruz. Ashore, our walk today would be along the coastal path, the sea constantly in view. This rocky shoreline suited the shorebirds and Turnstones, Whimbrels and Wandering Tattlers were here. We had a new pinniped, the Galapagos Fur Seal; once treated as an endemic, a colony has now been found in Peru.

This island was our last chance for Sharp-beaked Ground Finch but it was neither heard nor seen (the species is easier on Tower Island, to the far north-east, though not on this route)

PS We had seen 12 species of Darwin’s Finches (including the split of Warbler Finch) on the cruise. Apart from Sharp-beaked above, there is one more in the Galapagos Islands plus one, generally treated as a Darwin’s Finch, at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. The specific status of Mangrove Finch has been questioned recently, some believing it to be a form of Woodpecker Finch specialising in Mangroves, though recent mtDNA work shows it does merit species status. It is the rarest of the Galapagos birds, found in only two mangrove patches, and numbers some 40 pairs at each site (data 2010) 

 

There was the chance of a swim and many of the group jumped at the opportunity, though the faces of some was an absolute picture as a large bull sea lion, a beachmaster honking his harem together, came closely cruising by! The zodiacs came to collect us, riding in on strong surf. We boarded, up to the thighs in water, and returned to the boat for refreshments and snacks aboard.

We sailed to the volcanic islet of Bartolomé, just off the east coast of Santiago. A school of Bottlenose Dolphins rode the bow of the Cachalote for a short while, and a lone Galapagos Petrel shot across the sky. Here was the last prospect of snorkelling, whilst others opted for a zodiac cruise, following the rocky shoreline in search of penguins. Usually a good locality they took some finding this time; we found only one, then later a further two. Bartolomé has a stairway, rising 114 metres to the beacon at the summit, for fine views and one of the most photographed scenes in the islands. It was an optional walk whilst others relaxed on board.

 

                                                          

                                                                               Galapagos Penguin

During the evening the Captain and the full crew, in white formal dress, presented themselves to say farewell to us and, in turn, we paid tribute and thanked them for their services on the boat and showing us their islands and its wildlife. 

 

Wednesday 6 October

The boat was at Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz and we had one final zodiac cruise left. By 0615 we were in the tranquillity of the mangroves. We turned off the engines and used the paddles. The only noise came from turtles as they took in air at the water surface. There were many White-tipped Reef Sharks; their full length could be seen well as they passed under the boats. It was a nice way to end our travels around the Galapagos Islands.

After breakfast time had been allowed for a shower and final packing. At Baltra the main luggage was transferred to the pangas, we said goodbye to the crew, and then crossed to the pier where a bus was waiting to take us to the airport.

Monica helped at the check-in desks and we said goodbye to her as she awaited the next passengers’ arrival. We had time to visit the shops and stalls, have coffee, or complete our Galapagos lists. Two of the group would be taking a different flight, staying longer on the mainland, and two more were to leave us in Guayaquil to travel onwards to Peru. Our flight departed, and in less than two hours we had touched down in Ecuador.

Pilar, our guide, was waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall. With a few hours in hand she showed us the city before we left for Madrid. We drove to the cathedral, visited the central park, and strolled the old streets of the city.

Once we had checked-in for our flights we waited in the Departure Lounge where there was some confusion regarding a delay but, at last we left, two hours later than planned. Our flight to Madrid took ten-and-half hours.

 

Thursday 7 October

The delay in Guayaquil meant unfortunately we had missed our connecting flight to London so later flights were rebooked with Iberia. We used the monorail to then travel to another terminal building where, after a further delay, we were underway to Heathrow, London.

At the baggage carousel we gathered to say farewell to each other. We had a marvellous time in the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador and now all that remained was to travel to our homes.

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to our two specialist guides - Norby in Ecuador and Monica in Galapagos - for showing us the birds and animals of Ecuador and the islands. Norby was excellent at identifying birds, knowing the sites to visit and was an amiable travelling companion. Monica, the naturalist aboard the boat, was extremely knowledgeable on the history and geology of the islands and, not least, taught us about the wildlife we had been privileged to see.

This fabulous cruise of the Galapagos Islands had a fine Captain and crew (special mention of the chef and barman!). Many thanks to the Captain of the Cachalote for taking us safely through the archipelago. The crew looked after all our needs whilst aboard, and in the inflatables, including always lending ‘a helping hand’ as necessary. 

Our driver in Ecuador, Guillermo, was superb; he drove most carefully, and diligently looked after our belongings for many hours whilst we birded. Wendy, of our ground handlers, answered many questions from myself, verbally and on the telephone, and handled our transfers and hotel arrangements.

Finally, and most importantly, my thanks to you all for coming on this tour following ‘In Darwin’s Footsteps’. I hope you enjoyed ‘The Galapagos Islands with Ecuador’ and have fond memories of the wildlife and birds. I hope to see you soon on another of our Cruises for Nature or an Ornitholidays’ adventure.

Tony Pym

Ornitholidays and Cruises for Nature

29 Straight Mile

Romsey

Hants

SO51 9BB

Tel: 01794 519445/01794 523500

Email: info@ornitholidays.co.uk

          info@cruisesfornature.co.uk

        

October 2010

 

Itinerary and Weather

25 September

Flew from Heathrow, London - Madrid. Flew Madrid - Quito, Ecuador

26 September

Yanacocha Reserve. Nono-Mindo Road

Bright, rain late afternoon 18°C

27 September

Refugio Paz de Los Aves. Nono-Mindo Road

Pleasant, cloudy later with light shower 20°C

28 September

Satchatamia Lodge. Milpe Bird Sanctuary. Silanche Reserve

Hot and humid 28°C

29 September

Flew Quito - Guayaquil - Baltra (Galapagos Islnds). Embarked Cachalote. South Plaza

Cloudy, overcast, windy 22°C

30 September

Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora. Darwin Foundation. Highlands

Sunny, then overcast 27°C

1 October

Hood (Española). Gardner Bay. Suarez Point

Cloudy, sun later 26°C

2 October

Champion Island. Floreana. Post Office Bay. Puerto Velasco Barra. Highlands

Cloudy, then sunny 26°C

3 October

Isabela. Punto Moreno. Elizabeth Bay

Cloudy, then sunny 28°C

4 October

Isabela. Urbina Bay. Fernandina. Espinosa Point

Hot and sunny 30°C

5 October

Santiago. Puerto Egas. Bartolomé

Dull start, becoming hot and sunny 28°C 

6 October

Santa Cruz. Black Turtle Cove. Baltra. Disembarked Cachalote. Flew Baltra - Guayaquil. City tour. Flew Guayaquil - Madrid

Cloudy, hot 27°C

7 October

Flew Madrid - Heathrow, London