Wattled Guan which erects its head, showing its yellow “pendulum” dangling from its throat, a strange bird indeed. As usual, we have a tasty dinner and go to sleep ready for an early start the next day.
Day 5 – October 2nd.
Early in the morning, at 4 am, we get up, take a quick coffee and are ready for one of the most exciting birdwatching experiences in South America. It is the Cock-of-the-Rock day: Night is not over when we begin walking along a track. Twenty minutes later, we come into the reserve, where a family of local peasants consisting of three brothers has gone through a curious evolution process. They used to attract Antpitta to hunt and eat them. Now, thanks to eco-tourism, they lure them to be seen by an ever increasing number of birdwatchers. This property, which has many fruit trees in the northern part keeps a major patch of virgin rainforest on one of the hillsides. The fact that the terrain is steep and it can’t be exploited for agriculture has kept this spot unchanged and well conserved. Here, we can find many species of which the Cock-of-the-Rock and several antpitta are the targets. It is still dark when we cross over the fruit trees and come across a track which is secured by ropes on one side. The Cock-of-the-Rock usually visits the lek early everyday where they display in small groups. Here the population is formed by eight males, two youngsters and four females. As we descend a Rufescent Screech Owl can be heard in the distance, before we arrive at a point where the birds are making their noisy display. Through the vegetation, high pitch sounds, like a pig being killed, can be heard. As an act of provocation, several Cock-of-the-Rock jump through the branches in a chaotic dance to show their power. They move so much so it is hard to see them. When they are not screeching, they stop to lean their bodies back and show that rounded crest, they have almost no beak and an intense red matching the black and white of their wings. Without doubt a jewel of design and beauty. The sound and colour show lasts ten minutes, and then it is all quiet as silence takes over. The group comes out from the hide and gets ready to visit the reserve. A horizontal track led us to the edge of the forest before coming back through the same steep slope. Josele stays with Jacky, who is a bit tired. Nevertheless, before getting to a simple bench, an elusive and silent antpitta comes down the track, I can’t believe my eyes, it is really an antpitta coming out the forest like a thrush. I am even more impressed when one of the Paz brothers walks down with a recipient on his hand saying “Willy, Willy, come on, eat, come on, eat”. He asks us to wait a minute because Willy is a very shy bird. He has a hand full of worms for the birds lunch and everyone is advised about it as the show begins. Like in a circus, Mr. Paz calls his group of trained antpittas, throwing worms at them. He put some of the worms into a cut trunk where the restless bird climbed up like a lion and took his deserved reward. Everyone enjoyed the performance by a pair of Yellow-breasted Antpitta called “Willy” and “Esmeralda” and a Moustached Antpitta named “Flor” (flower), whose spouse “Roseta”, was away incubating her eggs. The group then sets off for a walk in the forest, Juan Carlos locates a male Powerful Woodpecker which was shortly joined by the female. A Common Potoo sunbathes without fear on its favourite perch at the end of a dry trunk, and then one of the Paz brothers approaches and informs us that the show goes on with its second part a Giant Antpitta which has been seen in the area and also has been recorded by an American production company. To attend the show we must go downhill so not everyone from the group comes. Right after we arrive, Mr. Paz asks us to wait because he has run out of worms and needs more. He disappears at the twist of the track and not very far away, we can hear him banging on a trunk like a woodpecker. Some minutes later, he appears along with the result of his search, it is a long worm taken from the trunk and conveniently chopped into pieces. It will be the “stars” meal. The second show starts like the first as the first sunrays point to the bird, this time the star’s name is Maria. Come on, come on, "mariaaaa" come, come ,come "mariaaaa" come, come, come. After some minutes, “Maria” appears not far in the trail (about 15 metres), making no noise at all. It is a Giant Antpitta, the bird does not dare to approach but the ringmaster throws some worms which entice the bird to jump up onto the pedestal, where most of the worms actually were. Consequently, Maria climbs up, picks and eats every piece then it disappears into the vegetation. Striking, Maria has changed its fate: it is not something to be cooked any more, now she is one of the most photographed “stars” in Ecuador. GOOD LUCK. We have breakfast at the reserve testing some local products. After a short break the party head for El Septimo Paraiso to pick up our luggage up and have lunch. We give to El Septimo Paraiso staff the obliging farewell and immediately after head off to Bellavista reserve. On our way we see a pair of White-throated Quail-Dove. At the arrival, right after getting off the bus we watch a dozen Red-billed Parrots, right over our heads two Green-and-black Fruiteater lean out through the tree leaves, while two Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans claim their territory in the distance. With the onset of rain we set off walking, but there are as many species beside the road that see us overwhelmed. These species include Buff-tailed Coronet, two Strong-billed Woodcreepers, a conspicuous Azara’s Spinetail that moved through the vegetation, the unique White-tailed Tyrannulet, and Russet-crowned Warbler. We keep on our walk when a Sickle-winged Guan comes out from a tree and alights not very far away allowing us to enjoy good views. Suddenly another star bird appears under some branches and we manage to focus and enjoy a good-looking Toucan Barbet. Two Western Hemispingus, a Blue-capped Tanager and several Rufous-naped Brush-Finch were watched for a while, and a beautiful Crimson-mantle Woodpecker landed close to the group. A few minutes later Juan Carlos points out that he has heard an Ocellated Tapaculo (Tapaculo in Spanish means ass cover, funny name for a bird family!…) We walk downhill a little bit and stopped silently by the crossroads where the bird was singing persistently. The entire group is silent in concentration, which I must thank all the participants for as this contributed to a wonderful atmosphere. We hear the tapaculo answering to the tape. It is really, really, nearby, but we do not find it, and silence comes again, and next time the bird calls it is really far. I am under the impression that the bird has seen us so it has decided to leave. Behind us, a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan arrives; It reminds us of a psychedelic 60s-painter’s dream, seeing its multicolour design. Every colour in this bird is attractive. It flies over our heads delighting the digiscopers, who seize the opportunity. Bellavista has made honour to its reputation of being one of the best places for birdwatching in Ecuador We leave the area heading for El Jardín del Colibri where we will spend our last night before our next destination to the Galapagos Islands. In the lodge we enjoy the last species of the day, which include a bright Southern Yellow Grosbeak, seen by some members of the group, the funny Cinereous Conebill and the good-looking Rufous-collared Sparrow, the most homely of them all. Juan Carlos’ wife cooks us an excellent dinner before we hop into bed to dream.
Day 6 – October 3rd
This morning we get up early, have a big breakfast and leave for the airport. We depart from Quito in a clean and well-cared plane, and after a brief stop in Guayaquil we arrive in the Galápagos, on Baltra Island, site of the National Parks main airport and former American World War II base. We go through the usual customs formalities and right after leaving the airport we come across our first endemic species, a group of Small Ground Finch which were feeding alongside some Medium Ground Finch. We then catch the bus to Baltra harbour, where our first class yacht, named the San José I is waiting for us. Before getting onto the zodiacs we experienced the sensation of being in Galapagos and enjoyed its first sample of the wildlife. Lava Gull, Galapagos Dove, Lava Lizard, a Brown Pelican resting on a rock, and several Common Noddies flying low over the water, while the Pacific’s bright sun lights up the volcanic slopes of the island. As soon as we boarded our yacht and before making ourselves comfortable we found we were hooked by the Galapagos magic. The Magnificent Frigatebird with its prehistoric look patrolled the sky, a Turnstone walks nervously amongst the nearby rocks in search of food, and several Elliot’s Storm Petrel’s approach closely to the yacht, while a Audubon’s Shearwater is spotted just outside the harbour. Once in the San Jose and after an exquisite lunch, we were introduced to Efrén, the naturalist guide that the authorities have put at our disposal. He informs us about the park rules and regulations as well as the programme for the rest of the day, where we have plans to make a little visit to the Daphne Island. As we set off we are followed by several Blue-Footed Boobies and Common Noddies in the sky and about ten Galapagos Sea Lions in the sea until we eventually get to the rocky Daphne Island. Excited, we have good views of Red-billed Tropicbird, Nazca Booby, the spotless Swallow-tailed Gull (a unique nocturnal gull ), Lava Gull, Mangrove Warbler, many Sally Lightfoot Crabs climbing up the rocks like moon aliens, and a beautiful specimen of Striated Heron motionless on a rock waiting for some fish to approach. As we cruise along the islands coast we see our first Wedge-rumped and a Madeiran Storm Petrel. The yacht’s first zodiac landings are performed in the north of the Isla Santa Cruz, in the Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle) Cove. The zodiacs leave the party on the beach, a beautiful white colour which comes from the many tiny mollusc shells that have washed ashore over the years. A Blue-footed Booby flies low over the water, usually its underparts are white but now it shows a pretty turquoise blue, resulting from the sun reflected on the sand through the crystalline sea water. The first Marine Iguanas rest on the rocks by the sea and drag their dark bodies over the sand, their facial features giving them a comic appearance. A Great Blue Heron settles by the riverside and does not move as we pass close by, whilst three Sanderling play with the waves. A small lagoon by the mangrove where fresh and salt water come together is used as a shelter for several birds such as Semipalmated Plover, Hudsonian Whimbrel, and Short-billed Dowitcher. We also observe for the first time birds such as a female Galapagos Flycatcher, several Medium Ground Finches, an adult and a young Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Smooth-billed Ani, quite a few Galapagos Pintail, and two Greater Flamingos. A lovely sunset accompanies us on our first day in this wonderful place. We return to the `San Jose’ for a welcome cocktail and a chance to meet the whole crew. After dinner the boat prepares to navigate across the Pacific, crossing the equator towards the northern hemisphere and bound for the Island of Genovesa.
Day 7 - October 4th
The day dawns bright and clear as we have breakfast and get prepared for our first visit to Genovesa Island. The zodiacs take us to the coast, where we go ashore onto the rocks before climbing the path to the upper part of the cliff. Two Wandering Tattlers and a Ruddy Turnstone fly off as arrive. We are soon absorbed into the coming and going of many birds such as Blue-Footed Booby, Swallow-tailed Gull, and the common Red-Footed Booby. The path is narrow, and there is not much space. All alone on the island we arrive at the top where several Medium Ground Finch are seen and the dark race of Short-eared Owl is found perched on a leafless tree. As we are walking through an abrupt solidified lava sea a young Short-eared Owl is seen resting in the shade, while nearby a Large Cactus Finch is watched searching for food in a huge Candelabra Cactus, which can measure up to seven metres high. This island holds the biggest colony of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels which fly to a fro, with Red-billed Tropicbirds, Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds, Nazca, Blue-footed and Red-Footed Boobies some of the latter also seen in the nests looking after their youngsters. This will be the only day in the tour that we will be able to observe all the three species of booby. We continued our walk and spotted a Purple Martin and several loud and agitated Galapagos Mockingbirds chasing one another amongst the trees. Juan is informed by someone from the group that there is bird on the ground with an enormous beak, it is soon identified as a Large Ground Finch. Several Sharp-beaked Ground Finches one of the smallest in the family, are also seen in the area. This bird, whose beak is characteristically pointed, breeds at high altitudes irrupting occasionally along the coast away from its nesting areas. We are living a fantastic experience in one of the oldest, smallest and lowest of the Galapagos Islands (only 64 metres high). After a tasty lunch and a brief rest, we are ready for a second visit to the island. Right after disembarking, we encounter several Swallow-tailed Gulls nesting on the water’s edge, while two Lava Gulls and several waders including Wandering Tattler and Turnstone welcome us. There is a young Striated Heron motionless on the rocks and many Sea Lions lazily stretched out on the beach here and there. In the waters of a small emerald cove, surrounded by sand and mangrove two young males chase each other while a group of females look on. Ignacio, who has gone deep into water, is threatened by one of the males, which shows him its teeth, forcing everyone in the group to move back. Some people are snorkelling, others digiscoping while most are sitting on fallen tree trunks enjoying peace in this tropical paradise. We head back to our yacht in readiness to sail to our next destination. On our sailing, our hopes are pinned on cetaceans and pelagic birds. Many Elliot’s Storm Petrel’s follow our ship, and we soon catch sight of the first Dark-rumped Petrel and some Audubon’s Shearwaters, while a few Markham’s Storm Petrel’s also put in an appearance. The ship’s food is really diverse, well-cooked and plentiful, and I must suppose that the Spanish influence has contributed to it.
Day 8 - October 5th
The night soon passes as we sail towards the southern hemisphere, crossing the equator line, and anchoring up just before breakfast. We had some good coffee, good fruit and good cereals, which gets us in to mood to undertake an exciting new day. We have traversed the archipelago from west to east, and now we are at Bolivar’s Channel just between the youngest and the highest islands of the archipelago; Fernandina and Isabella, the latter is the biggest of them all. Low clouds condense by the volcano slopes, creating a shadowy, yet pleasant, ambience as the sun can be an annoying companion in these latitudes. Playa Negra ( Black Beach) at Isla Isabela is our day’s first visit. The beach formed mainly for tiny black and red lava stones has a completely dark appearance which gives it its name. Our target is the scarce Mangrove Finch, with an estimated population of a few dozens pairs mainly limited to Fernandina and Isabella islands. Juan Carlos tells us that this bird breeds in the high areas of the islands, but can be spotted along the coastline once they leave these nesting areas. As we walk slowly along the beach searching for this rarity, Juan Carlos suddenly puts us on the alert as he hears a Mangrove Finch. We try to find it unsuccessfully. Further ahead a nice singing male is found and seen well by the entire group. Not far from the first one, two more of this highly prized finch are located and seen. Young Sea Lions are watched running after their mothers in anticipation of being fed. This tender scene sees an end to our visit on the black beach. Back to the San Jose for some snacks and a short siesta, after which we head for Isla Fernandina. We arrive at Punta Espinosa, an area where the red mangrove has conquered almost the whole coast. As we arrive a lonely Blue-Footed Booby is seen sat on a black rock, which makes his namely blue feet really stand out. Once on the beach we found a Great Blue Heron, five Wandering Tattler, one RuddyTurnstone a few Sanderling, and a group of MarineIguanas that appeared larger than any of those we had seen before. As soon as we enter into the mangrove an adult Lava Heron is seen to fly away and a few Small Ground Finch are also located. Our walk takes place between the beach, the lava fields and the dense mangrove. The journey along the broken lava field is crammed with Lava Lizards of many designs and sizes, and a Western Galapagos Racer Snake tries to hide from our curiosity. We arrived at the shore, the coastline is rough with many isolated rocks in the water making a good refuge for several animals, plus American Oystercatcher, ten Turnstone and another Lava Heron which stretches his neck out with an accurate lash and catches a fish which it soon gulps down. The first Galapagos Hawk appears, but the observation is short, while in the water we find three Galapagos Penguins swimming close to a few Sea Lions. Three Flightless Cormorants stand like scarecrows on the rocks and out at sea we watch Elliot’s Storm Petrel, Magnificent and Great Frigatebird and Brown Pelican. Back to the ship and we set off bound for Urbina Bay on Isabella. En-route we see a Manta Ray jumping high out of the water, then we eventually identify our first Red-necked Phalaropes. We end up seeing lots of groups of phalaropes, as well as Dark-Rumped Petrel, Elliot’s Storm Petrel and good numbers of Audubon’s Shearwater, Brown Noddy and a few frigatebirds. After a super dinner, we enjoyed a quiet restful night in Urbina Bay!
Day 9 - October 6th
We are at Urbina bay, in front of Isla Isabela, which is the biggest of the archipelago.
The day is cloudy but with a nice temperature, a few tourist yachts stand by our side and the usual marine birds roam around the bay, with frigatebirds being the most abundant. After breakfast we make our first excursion on land, where the dominant vegetation is Palo Santo, Palo Verde and Acacia. The star of this place is the majestic Land Iguana. On arrival, we find the usual Mockingbirds and Ground Finches who receive us with indifference. We soon locate a few Mangrove Warblers and a Galapagos Flycatcher as well as our first Small Tree Finch. As soon as we enter the barren forest we discover the first Land Iguana, with his big appearance and nice yellowish colour. We can see the holes they’ve dug for breeding, and then under a thorny vegetation a male rests calmly, eyes wide open and motionless .Back to the boat, and after lunch and a relax we navigate towards Isla Isabela to visit Punta Moreno. Two Common Tern and a few Audubon’s Shearwaters appear on our way as well as four Galapagos Penguins. The zodiacs get us close to the rocky coast in Punta Moreno. After a short coastal walk we enter a wide lava field with its typical rounded shapes called “ha”, “ha”. The small lava cactus no taller than a few centimetres, spreads around the soil, and is the first plant able to colonize this poverty-stricken terrain. All we can see inland is solidified lava, which has an indescribable dark colour that shines with the reflection of the sun. In this huge and almost dead sea, are “dolina”- shaped depressions partially covered with water- and brimming with life and colour. The contrast between the dark colour of lava, the green of the grass, the blue of the water with its sky reflections, and the squashing pink of two Greater Flamingo dressed up between the herbs has a poetry that is difficult to describe.
A few metres away, a lonely Wilson’s Phalarope circles around pecking at the water and a Moorhen hides from us. A Lava Lizard crosses in front of us and we find three Smooth-billed Ani’s, a few Small Ground Finch, and a Mangrove Warbler with his nice yellow body and crimson head design.
The sea’s closest lagoon reveals another of the tour’s jewels, five White-tipped Reef Sharks occupy its lower side. In the last part of the journey, still in the rocky coastline, we find Great Blue, Galapagos and Striated Heron. We go back on board with the sensation of joy, from one of our best moments in this tour. It is not late and sailing to our next destination is scheduled, the guides inform us about the good chances to locate cetaceans and seabirds. The sea becomes a bit rough and the group spreads out inside the ship. A small valiant group stands on deck hoping to see the sea mammals. The route eastwards runs around the south western part of Isla Isabella with the attractive silhouette of the huge Cerro Azul volcano presiding the crossing. Mixed up with intermittent Dark-rumped Petrels, are hundreds of Audubon’s Shearwaters, Elliot’s Storm Petrels and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes flying tirelessly up and down over the ocean in a endless long line.
The sun falls down illuminating us with its warm light we say goodbye to the day with a shaky dinner “dancing between the waves”. Brave Paul! - CHECK LIST TOMORROW.
Day 10 - October 7th
We wake up at Puerto Villamil, south of Isla Isabella. The day is grey and it is going to rain. Here we have the first contact with the human species living on the Islands. Hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies and some Brown Pelicans have spent the night on the rocks near the port, and they now leave their roost in small groups. On the ground, two Whimbrel, a Semipalmated Plover and a Wandering Tattler are running among the rocks. A Galapagos Hawk dashes across the beach. Our next destination is into the Sierra Negra Volcano hillsides. The journey is very interesting as we are visiting the most humid habitats of the islands for the first time. All our visits have been restricted so far to the coastal and dry areas. The trip starts by crossing Puerto Villamil, a plain village full of bars and tourist shops with no architectural taste, the brick houses are not so well designed and have no good appearance. We cross the dry area with numerous cactus forming an authentic dry forest, if you can call it that. We continue through the intermediate zone where vegetation diversifies and human traces are noticeable. There are farm houses scattered along the way and many fruit trees. From the vehicle we can identify several species including Cattle Egret, Mangrove Warbler, Galapagos Flycatcher, Medium and Small Ground Finches, two Small Tree Finch, a female Vermillion Flycatcher and several Smooth-billed Ani. It starts raining when we have achieved some height and the landscape is predominated by Escalesia trees. The mist falls over our heads, the terrain is damp and smeared. After a one-hour journey we get near the unseen volcano summit. It continues to rain, so part of the group: Pat, Paul, Jean, Eva, Kathy, Dave, Ignacio –obviously- and myself decide to return to Puerto Villamil. The rest of the group: Juan Carlos, Chris, Angela, Brian, Gordon and Bill are ready to walk to the volcano crater hoping to observe a Woodpecker Finch. They found six specimens. After an hour walking between the mist and very close to the end, the clouds disappear and their effort is rewarded by a shining sun which allows them to contemplate the majestic caldera of the Sierra Negra Volcano, with its 25-km rim at their feet. To complete the experience, two Galapagos Martins approach the group, flying under their eyes. The rest of the group walks down the trail until the rain stops. A walk on the beach full of waders, presents to us the most relevant of surprises: an unsuspecting Marbled Godwit it is a nice encounter. Several Sanderling, Wandering Tattler and Whimbrel are feeding in the sand. The beach is full of small holes used as shelter by the Ghost Crabs. After feeding, they leave small sand balls near those holes. The joyous visitors of the volcano summit then take a short walk beside the shore, there are more than a dozen Semipalmated Plovers, eight Wilson’s Phalarope and a couple of Galapagos Pintail. Back in the town, some Cactus Finch are seen perched on the power cables. At noon, all the group get together at the port where we have a drink and get back on board for lunch. On the afternoon a walk around the near Tintoreras (sharks) lagoon at Villamil Bay will allows us to enjoy the famous gathering of Sea Iguana concealed among the rocks. They are crowding one on top of another in a static orgy of motionless bodies. You cannot tell where a head begins, which leg belongs to whom, three different heads come out of a single body, etc, etc. It is funny that in such odd and uncomfortable positions these animals are so social. On the water, three White-tipped Reef Sharks are spotted, as well as two American Oystercatchers. The usual Striated Heron and Wandering Tattler are seen, alongside Nazca Boobies and two Great Egrets. On the way back, two Galapagos Penguins rest on a small rock along with two Blue-footed Boobies. The Zodiacs allow us close looks before we go back to our floating house for another varied dinner.
Day 11 - October 8th
We wake up in Isla Española, one of the most western and lowest islands in the archipelago at just 230 metres high. The weather and the force of the sea have moulded the coast, forming rather high and abrupt cliffs, which shelter many sea birds, representing one of the biggest colonies of the islands. The day begins bright and clear, and as usual, we have breakfast early. A Galapagos Dove visits the boat before our departure to Gardner Bay, where we soon disembark and se our first Hood Mockingbird of the tour. They await us on the beach and we can approach them so close that we do not need to use any binoculars. Many female Sea Lions sunbathe, scattered over the white sand like ordinary tourists. The males excited, keep on drawing attention to themselves, yelling, jumping and moving through the water. A Galapagos Hawk flies over one of the wooded slopes of the coast and two Barn Swallow flying low, permanently patrol the beach. Many beautifully yellow, orange and grey Lava Lizards run around the beach, alighting on the Sea Lions, who let them remove any troublesome parasites from their bodies. The amazing Galapagos Hermit Crabs are abundant here and they seen coming in and out their mobile homes. Back for lunch and then we immediately head for Punta Suárez, where we will see the biggest concentration of sea-birds on the tour. On our way, many Pacific Green Turtles are sighted swimming in the sea. We are ALONE again, totally ALONE. It is noon and hot, but thanks to the sea-breeze our excursion is bearable. There is a steep sea cliff from the zodiacs to the island platform, where several Swallow-tailed Gulls hop around in the middle of the road. In Isla Española and Floreana we will see the only reddish mixed with black and dark green Sea Iguana. They are the biggest specimens that we have observed and are scattered around the volcanic stones side by side with Sea Lions. Hood Mockingbird, Warbler Finch and Nazca Booby. Two Magnificent Frigatebirds tirelessly chase a Red-billed Tropicbird that repeatedly yells before it eventually lands to have a break. When the tropicbird takes off, the two frigatebirds turn back and, in a violent attack, try to steal its food. This scene lasts about ten minutes, and has taken them from the land into the sea. The hundred-metre-high cliff is a constant coming and going of birds, mainly frigatebirds, the elegant tropicbird with their graceful flight, boobies and gulls. Walking over the uneven and rocky surface is rather uncomfortable, so we often stop for a time to enjoy the constant flight of birds. On this island we find one of the few colonies of Waved Albatross. Over the dry vegetation, we find three adults laying as though they were incubating. A little farther, in the shade of a leafless bush, a couple look at each other like they are in front of a mirror. They are at their most impressive in flight and like huge B-52s airplanes, they patrol the sky. We were lucky to observe about thirty birds, some on the ground some in the air. Several chicks, with their not-so-good-looking grey down, wait for their parents to come and feed them. A funny Hood Mockingbird stops on Brian’s telescope like a model ready to be photographed. We make a stop at a cliff’s edge to enjoy the wonderful sight of compressed waves forming a huge white blow. Its amazing to think that this scene is repeated regularly, forever and ever and ever. One of the most tender scenes of the tour is about to happen. On the top of a rock, there is a big nest consisting of dry leaves. Two Galapagos Hawks alighting on the nest caress each other delicately with their hooked beaks. The male, which is the smaller one, passes its beak softly through her head, and she slowly turns it in a deeply thankful gesture. Being two wild animals, it is surprising to me how tender the feeling they transmit. Our presence does nothing to disturb the lovers. Finally, we leave the area and I am under the impression of having witnessed the best moment of the tour, or at least one of the most beautiful.
Day 12 - October 9th
Having sailed from Isla Española to Isla Floreana, we get up very early and in good spirits, ready to enjoy whatever may come. And what we are looking for is nothing less than a Charles Mockingbird, the bird whose habitat is the most restricted of the islands. This rare bird inhabits the small Champion Island, northeast of Floreana. Arrival to Champion Island is only permitted by sea, so the San José has carefully come to a halt right in front of its coastline. The feeble light has not yet illuminated the area of our search; luckily, there is no dense vegetation, and, as in most coastal zones, there are many cactus. On the deck, with our telescopes, we are ready to locate a bird similar to a Blackbird on the front coast. We are not wide awake when an unidentified bird has stirred under a cactus, Juan Carlos manages to fix it and yells Charles Mockingbird!! Not without difficulties, everybody succeeds in looking at it while it moves on the ground, appearing and disappearing between the creased lava and the cactus trunks. Not everybody is satisfied, so we keep on searching for another specimen, which does not take long and allows itself to be watched walking through the black lava to the seashore. Juan Carlos comments that the Charles Mockingbird has an estimated population in Champion Island of about 50 individuals, but this he doubts as he has never seen more than three specimens on the numerous visits he has made to the island. With the satisfaction of a well-done job, an inviting breakfast sets us in the mood for another exciting day. We stop in the tiny Puerto Velasco, where a small Ecuadorian Marine base is located. At the port we find a group of huge Marine Iguana with beautiful shades of red and white crests. There are numerous finches, especially Small Ground Finch. A truck awaits us, and we hop in its back. We are taken, literally like cattle, through a path crossing the arid zone until we get to the damp zone with dense escalesia woods. We stop in the middle of the path, where there are many Large Cactus, Medium Ground, Vegetarian and Warbler Finches, as well as Galapagos Dove which is common here. Amongst this habitat we find the highest density of butterflies including Monarch, Galápagos Sulphur, Queen and Galápagos Blue. Also some insects like the Galápagos Ladybug draw the group’s attention. Juan Carlos starts calling for the Medium Tree Finch, with which we would complete all the Darwin Finches of the tour. Son we had two males come to a nearby tree where they were observed by the group for a long time. Mission accomplished, party returns back to Puerto Velasco, where we visit the house owned by a German family who settled in the area in 1932 and whose descendants still living there. The house has now been turned into a hotel. The development of the colonization is illustrated by a brilliant sample of antique pictures of this island, which has been renamed as “Cursed Island”.
We get back to our floating restaurant, with the usual exquisite food, and pay farewell to Floreana. On a remote beach one of the highlights of our tour to Galápagos is about to happen. We get off the boat on the rocky coast, with the usual seabirds joining us, we advance into the island and can see the first Galápagos Flycatcher and Mangrove Warbler. An enormous interior lagoon located between the slopes with leafless trees is in front of our eyes. The lava is reddish here, and its contrast with the water and the grey of the trees is something special. About twenty scattered Greater Flamingo are feeding, submerging their strange heads in the water, giving us the impression of a three-legged bird. Just a few meters in front of us, a large group of Wilson’s Phalarope flutters along with a Red-necked Phalarope, while in the water some Galápagos Pintail point their tails to the sky while feeding, and many waders wander on the shore looking for food. We can watch six Whimbrel, a Spotted Sandpiper and some Semipalmated Plovers. We continue on our walk arriving to the shore, we cannot go too deep in the water, for the fearsome Southern Sting Rays are swaying in the waves and camouflaging themselves under the sand. We are told that the bite of this fish is extremely painful. A lonesome Blue-footed Booby practices its fishing skills a few meters from the shore, it seems impossible that it does not get stuck into the sand when it throws itself in a powerful dive. Three Pacific Green Turtles stick out their heads aside of the shore, two of them are very close to each other with their heads almost touching. We all guess they are copulating. The group stirs in excitement and everyone takes position to observe another naturalist experience. The way back, following the same path, is slow as if we do not want to leave this magical place which has given us such a wonderful experience. We have dinner, and we are ready for another trip, from Floreana to Isla Santa Cruz.
Day 13 - October 10th
This morning we wake up in a bay right in front of Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz. The day looks cloudy, and we are about to achieve the tour’s objectives having observed almost all of the endemic specimens with only two species left, one of them being the elusive Galapagos Rail. This small and secretive bird inhabits the escalesia zone, where dampness, ferns and lichens extend over the landscape like a carpet. The comfortable bus awaits us on the port and we soon head inland. Our journey goes through an intermediate zone where there are orchards, fences, farms, etc. Juan Carlos gets a brief sighting of a Dark-billed Cuckoo, so everybody gets off the bus, but bird does not show well. After an intense search, it is located, perching on the lowest branch of a tree, the bird seems to be at ease in our presence; and everyone enjoys good views. We continue our journey to the end of the route, and then we walk through a smeared path which passes near a small brook. The ambient is cozy, with a thick silence and we can only hear the calling of a restless bird.
A fine wet mist envelopes the group and everything else. We have only about 50 metres of visibility around us, but are soon ready to locate the elusive Galapagos Rail. Our first attempts fail and we can only hear it in the distance. Everybody is focused and in great expectation. There is no wind, the silence is absolute, the only movement is that of the leaves shaken because of small drops fallen from other leaves. A quick sound breaks the silence, “chi-chi-chirroo”, betraying the bird. It is a Galapagos Rail, it sounds so close that we turn our eyes just a few centimeters away from the track, but the bird can only be briefly watched by a few in the group before disappearing like a ghost. Subsequent attempts are unsuccessful, so we leave with the satisfaction of having heard at least ten Galapagos Rails and enjoying such a beautiful place. Back on the bus we ride across part of the island, heading to El Chato lagoon, surrounded by huge trees forming an old forest in the intermediate zone. Numerous Giant Tortoises are scattered in the orchards. On our way, we detect a Paint-bellied Crake on a side of the road, but it runs quickly into the bushes, we wait for a little while, and the bird approaches timidly to cross the road and then disappears. In the middle of a dried out lake two huge Giant Tortoises feed placidly tearing off leaves which they swallow without chewing. We have our lunch here before getting back on the bus. The local guide makes a mistakes along the way and part of the group gets an extra hour of unexpected exercise, while the rest of the group explores the area while waiting and find a small group of Galapagos Pintail grooming in a nearby puddle. We spend the last part of the day in the enormous and well designed Charles Darwin Center, where we visit the gardens and see a wide variety of Darwin’s Finches, and study several sub-species of Giant Tortoise with their different and characteristic shells. Returning to the San José we saw a large group of Cattle Egrets moving to their roosting place. We have dinner and around midnight we depart to our next destination at Isla San Cristóbal.
Day 14 - October 11th
We arrive at Isla San Cristóbal, but the bad weather conditions make us change our plans and leave Lobos Island for the afternoon. After having breakfast we get ready to land on Puerto Barquerizo. It pleasantly surprises us to find a beautiful village which has houses with a good taste in design, and clean and well arranged streets. We head to the Galapaguera, a center for the threatened Giant Tortoises breeding in captivity. A skillful maneuver of the driver manages us to get around a funeral procession and during the journey, a Galapagos Martin crosses the road above the bus, but the subsequent stop and attempt to locate it give no results. We cross the entire island, and when we arrive at the other side, a small downpour greets us. The research center is located on the northern side of the island, in a pleasant environment surrounded by Palo Santo and other local tree species. It is sponsored by Spanish funds and inside these well designed visitors facilities we can observe the efforts to preserve the local Giant Tortoise, which is bred in captivity. Yet, another species has drawn us to this place; and by locating the Chatham Mockingbird we fulfill the list of Galapagos endemic species. We leave the northern part of the island heading south and then take a short trip near the border of Puerto Barquerizo hoping to find some more Galapagos Martins as Dave had missed it. Two Sand Martins and a female Purple Martin are all that we can find. As we continue walking downhill watching the various butterflies, like the Spot-winged Glider, the most remarkable bird of the walk, a Bobolink is seen by two of the group. To put the day to an end, we visit the Galapagos Interpretation centre, where an abstract of the socio-political history of the islands is depicted on clear and easy information boards. That night, our last night, at dinner we enjoy an exquisite lobster and local wine thanks to the generosity of Birdseekers and the San José’s captain. After the obligatory goodbye cocktail, we express our gratitude to the crew for their invaluable cooperation and then retire to our cabins.
Day 15th - October 12th
This morning we head to the northern part of Santa Cruz Island to visit the small Seymour Island, where we will spend the first part of the morning enjoying a colony of seabirds before catching our plane to Quito. As we arrive ashore we are greeted by a Brown Noddy, Brown Pelican and two frigatebirds. There are some Blue-footed Boobies wandering around on the island, as if they are the owners of the place, and on the sand rest two Land Iguanas partially hidden by the vegetation. There is some frantic activity here, with both Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds, and we can watch some territorial conflicts, birds mating, and a few males displaying shown their huge red throat pouches. There are also some females incubating in their nests, there are chicks, young birds and all of these allowing us to get amazingly close. The birds are so absorbed in their duties that they barely notice our presence. At Baltra Airport we can still watch the last Medium and Small Ground Finch of our trip, before boarding our plane. We arrive at Quito by sunset and decide to go shopping, our choices are an important bookstore and the handcrafts market. We eventually get to Juan Carlos’s private lodge in the pouring rain, and as we enjoy dinner we can review our bird list of the Galapagos Islands.
Day 16 - October 13th
The plane, which will return us to the old continent, departs on the afternoon, it will be a long day and a visit to the high wastelands on the eastern slopes of the Antisana volcano is scheduled. An abundant and early breakfast gets us ready for the long day which awaits us. The day has dawned grey and rainy, and before leaving the lodge we reexamine the bird species we can find here. Luckily, a couple of gorgeous Vermillion Flycatchers are nesting at the lodge and we watch them singing and flying from perch to perch. The usual Sparkling Violet-ear and Western Emerald are already feeding nearby and a short walk allows us to locate a Rusty Flowerpiercer, and some Great Thrushes flying around the highest trees. Another of the group’s most wanted birds is the Southern Yellow Grosbeak, which has been located by Juan Carlos, while nearby several common Rufous-collared Sparrows are gathering on a nearby trunk. We then leave and travel across Quito, it is Friday and the traffic is dense, slowly we get out of town and gain height. We go up a valley and pass a large river which extends to form several lagoon. The bus comes to a halt and we prepare to make a long stop in the middle of the way to our destination: the Tizana Reserve. Here, an elegant Black-tailed Trainbearer sways its tail while continuously changing perch. On the highest part of the slope there is a raptor perched on a pole, but we have bad visibility and the identification is troublesome. Juan Carlos determines it is a young Variable Hawk, nearby two Eared Doves fly across the valley and between the bushes we see a Black-billed Shrike-tyrant, two Plain-coloured Seedeaters and some Tufted Tit-tyrants moving around showing their prominent crests. Suddenly a Giant Hummingbird comes out in front of us, an amazing bird. On the rocky walls we spot Carunculated Caracaras and then as we cross a fence and walk down a few meters and stand on the border of a steep slope, far away on a tree Juan Carlos spots a spectacular Great Horned Owl. There was no time for all of us to watch it, as it flew to a nearby place landing on the ground, it is difficult to find it and is so well concealed, but using a little patience we all manage to enjoy it. At the bottom of the gorge the river extends itself, and flows placidly forming small islets inhabited by some wildfowl. From this watch point we can locate four Andean Gulls, several Yellow-billed Pintail and a lonesome Neotropic Cormorant. Before we leave the gorge a cry draws Juan Carlos’s attention, and after being audible for a while without being seen, a Tawny Antpitta shows up in the middle of a bush. There are two American Kestrels patrolling the area and some Eastern Kingbirds are perched on the fences. We make a stop up in the mountain as a beautiful Blue-and-yellow Tanager moves over the road, the bird is our last tanager of the tour and does not disappoint us. As we stop on the bridge over the River Papallacta, there is a light rain and the land is soaked. The beautiful mountain creek with thickets on its banks shows great activity as two Ecuadorian Hillstars are chasing each other through the dry bushy branches, several Black-winged Ground Doves fly out of a tree, and two Rufous-naped Brush-finches are observed for a moment but then disappear up the river. On the slope’s pasture two Grass Wrens are seen displaying and do not cease to sing. The wasteland and spacious plains similar to the Alpine meadows, provide shelter to a select group of birds. We drive along the slopes of the snowy Antisana volcano, which names this reserve. It is raining and the views of the mighty volcano are not very good, we cannot even see the peak. There are about 200 Carunculated Caracaras scattered on the wasteland; I do not know the reason for this abundance of birds of prey but it is quite remarkable as we are at an altitude of almost 3,600 meters. Along with the Caracara are small numbers of Andean Gull, and right before getting to our destination, where the road ends, Juan Carlos jumps off his seat and yells Andean Fox. A magnificent and good sized specimen is surprised by the passing of our bus, it stares at us in curiosity and makes small attempts to go away but is attracted by our presence and turns around repeatedly to watch us. It is not far from our vehicle, its size is between that of a fox and a wolf, the hair on its face and its attitude are quite magnificent. Moving on we find several Stout-billed Cinclodes before arriving at Lake Micacocha, up to 3,800 metres. It is now raining and the light is poor. We take a quick stop to locate Andean Coot, Andean Teal, the beautiful Silvery Grebe and a Baird’s Sandpiper on the banks of the lake. Two Plumbeous Sierra-Finches embellish the roof of a small shelter, and two Bar-winged Cinclodes take care of their nest energetically. We decide to start going down and have lunch in front of the cliffs where the Andean Condor can be spotted. As we drive back we locate an Andean Lapwing and after an intense search of the cliffs, we are not able to find the winged giant. So we drive back to Quito Airport, where we say our farewells to Juan and Edgar. Juan Carlos had been a superb guide. He has an incredibly good knowledge on how to identify the wide and complex bird list of Ecuador, he had worked extremely hard in finding many rare and beautiful new birds for us all.
After a short delay we depart Quito and head back to Madrid and then onto London where this spectacular tour concludes.
On behalf of myself and Juan Carlos I would like to thank everyone for their participation in such a wonderful tour. I would also like to thank Eva-Penn Smith for the list of plants seen on the Galapagos.