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Ecuador - Galápagos 2004

  1.  High Andes

2. Galápagos 

3.  Espanolá  


Ecuador - Galápagos 2004

Santa Cruz




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Santa Cruz Giant Land Tortoise


Santa Cruz Giant Land Tortoise

A Long Day At Sea

The schedule called for us to sail all night and arrive the next morning at Floreana on the eastern side of the large island of Isabella. The next morning the early birds included Daan Sandee who had a remarkable GPS device that not only gave latitude and longitude but figured our speed. We were just passing the end of Fernandina and encountering heavy swells from the open Pacific. The boat was making 4 knots an hour. We were a long way from Floreana. The crew remained rather uncommunicative but eventually we figured out there would be no landing on Floreana and thus no Medium Tree-finch. The guide announced that breakfast would be delayed. Actually it turned out breakfast was cancelled. The cook passed out sandwiches and crackers instead.

The swells rocking the boat made it difficult to walk around, but otherwise it was a beautiful day at sea that turned into a long pelagic with at least 15 species.   Waved Albatross, Galápagos Petrels, White-vented Storm-petrels, Red-billed Tropicbird, Swallow-tailed Gull, and Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel.

Eventually we stopped in the lee of the small island of Tortola for lunch where we spotted breeding Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds, Blue-footed Booby.

These kind of boat problems are not unknown on Galápagos trips. Several people in our group had made trips before and all had stories of boat problems. We were pretty lucky to complete most of our trip.

Santa Cruz

The next day we finally landed at the wharf of the major city Porto Ayora on Santa Cruz.. We walked through town to the Darwin Research Station where they raise giant land tortoises for release in the wild and sell gifts.

On this walk and in the Darwin Station we saw: Cactus Finch, Medium Ground Finch, Lava Heron, Black-necked Stilt, Yellow Warblers, Galápagos Flycatcher, Galápagos Mockingbird, Small Tree Finch, Large Ground Finch.

We went by bus to Bellavista where we walked up a muddy trail looking for Galápagos Rail. It answered our tape and one person was able to see the tiny little black rail in the shrubs. At one time it was moving less than two feet from me, but I was unable to see it. On our last birding day in the islands we went back to the muddy trail at Bellavista where the persistent finally got great looks at the rail. I had enough and went back to the bus.We did see Warbler Finch, Woodpecker Finch and Vermilion Flycatcher.

Walking a farm road in an area reserved for giant land tortoises we saw many tortoises one with a Cattle Egret on its back and Smooth-billed Ani.

In my opinion the best island we visited was Espanolá, the primary breeding ground for the endemic Waved Albatross and for Blue-footed Boobies and other seabirds. As at all the islands the number of tourists per day is strictly regulated and visitors are restricted to walking a defined path at a landing site known as Punta Suarez. On the beach were the usual sea lions and marine iguanas and the Hood Mockingbird a bird reputed to puncture unattended Albatross eggs.

From the landing beach we started a walk along an easy path around the point. Nasca Boobies formerly considered a subspecies of the Masked Booby were roosting on the rocks and flying close to the shore.

Along this walk we also saw a Red-billed Tropic bird sitting in a cavity of the rock with its tail extending outside the hole on the other side. It appeared to be on a nest. There was also a Yellow-crowned Night-heron

The beautiful Swallow-tailed Gull has a wing pattern like that of Sabine's Gull..

Swallow-tailed Gull
Blue-footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby

Nasca Booby formerly Masked Booby subspecies

Nasca Booby

Waved Albatross
The Waved Albatross is now appropriately called the Galápagos Albatross by authors such as Ticknell which is the reference for this description. It breeds only on the island of Espanolá and one small island close to the coast of Ecuador. The Waved Albatross feeds exclusively in a triangle from the Galápagos Islands to the coast of Ecuador and down to the coast of Peru. It is not endangered by long line fishing because it tends not to follow ships or trawlers. El Niño years are devastating because in the warmer waters the food source declines.

Eventually we came to the Waved Albatross colony or at least the small part of it that tourists are allowed to visit. We saw several pairs of Albatross sitting together. You might jump to the conclusion that this pair represents a breeding couple, but consideration of the natural history of the albatross makes that highly unlikely. Probably these birds are singles. These two may be in the process of forming a pair bond and trying it out.  If they are successful in forming a lasting pair bond, they will come back next year and nest for real.

Waved Albatross pair

During March rafts of birds are seen on the water off Espanolá. In April the males return to the nesting area sitting near their previous nesting site. The females return somewhat later and mating occurs. The female will leave to feed returning ready to lay a single egg. After laying the female will incubate the egg for up to 5 days until the male returns to take the first extended incubation shift. The female feeds at sea for 19-22 days. Thereafter the pair alternate shifts of up to two weeks. The average period of incubation is 61 days. If one partner does not return, the other will continue to incubate until starvation forces it to sea. Unattended eggs are attack by Mockingbirds and account for the empty egg shells found on the breeding ground.

After hatching, the chick is brooded and then guarded by one adult in shifts for several weeks. The older chick is left on its own while both parents go to sea to find food for themselves and to feed the hungry chick. It takes two parents to feed a single chick. Unattended chicks must stay close to the nesting site or the parents will not find them when they return to feed. If the parent returns and finds the chick missing, they will leave the colony and return to the sea to try again next year. You can see how important it is that tourists stay some distance from the chicks. Parents feed the chicks by regurgitating food into the chick's mouth. At first the chicks are fed daily by one parent or the other but later in the season a chick may wait 2 weeks for either parent to return.

Chicks almost ready to fledge start exercising their wings. They are fed up until they fledge. Eventually the chick walks to the edge of the cliff and takes off into the wind. They are now on their own and will remain alone at sea for at least two years before returning to the natal colony to begin the search for a mate.

Most birds return when they are 3 years old and spend up to 3 years as singles looking for a mate. These are the birds we saw at colony in August. Birds may not mate for the first time until they are 7 years old.

Albatross find a mate and build a lifetime pair bond by dancing and those lucky enough to witness the dance of the Albatross are enchanted. Visiting an albatross colony during the dancing season is not easy. The best opportunity is a visit to Midway Atoll to see the Laysan Albatross. Unfortunately Midway has been closed to the public since the April after 9/11. There is no good reason for this. Write to the president and congress urging that Midway NWR be opened to the public. Read about my trip to Midway in 2000.

Waved Albatross dance

Most of the singles at Punta Suarez the morning we were there were sitting around in ones and twos. We were lucky to see this one pair performing the dance. The bird on the left is bowing while clicking his (her) bill.

Unlike the Laysan Albatross at Midway there was no prancing around in circles. It could be that this couple was just not serious enough.

Here both birds are skypointing. They kept up this bill clicking, bowing, skypointing and preening under the wing for several minutes before the bird on the right just walked off and joined another group of birds. The bird on the left just sat down.

During the pair formation period, the birds do not feed. An unsuccessful bird will give up when he or she gets too hungry and leave the island to try again next year. We were there in the first week of August. If could be that most of the singles have left for the season either because they made a pair bond or just got too hungry.

Waved Albatross dance skypoiting
Waved Albatross

I think the Galápagos Albatross is the most beautiful of its kind. The large yellow bill is set off by the smoky black back and wings. The name "Waved Albatross" described the subtle wavy lines on the sides and breast which in these pictures appears gray. The white head and neck of the adult is suffused with pale yellow just barely visible in the photograph above. The underwings are white in the center with broad dark margins and tips.

This bird is sitting right on the marked path and all the tourists pass by very close. He or she sat tight without moving. This could be a breeding adult sitting on an egg. More probably it is another loafing single resting in the singles bar.

Once a pair bond is formed it lasts for life. The bonded pair will sit around for a short period of time and then both birds will leave the colony to feed until the start of the new breeding season. Part of the irony of the dance which so fascinates birders is that after a pair bond is formed, the couple will spend little time together. Raising a chick is so demanding that one bird or the other must be at sea feeding all the time. When the birds meet in the spring they spend a little time bill clicking and renewing their bond before getting down to business.

This is an Albatross chick old enough to be left alone while both parents go to sea to find food for themselves and for their chick.

An ugly duckling perhaps, but notice the big bill and feet. He or she will be a beautiful adult if he beats the odds and survives to fly.

I was appalled that the Ecuadoran Guides allowed tourists to sit less than 10 feet from this chick and to surround the chick on all sides. I cannot image that an adult would come in to feed this chick under these circumstances. Tourists are only on the island for part of the day, but one group after another passes this point. I would suggest that no person be allowed to linger near a chick or to get within 20 feet.

Waved Albatross chick

The part of the colony we saw did not seem to be a healthy colony. I saw only one chick in the colony and the only other evidence of breeding pairs was an abandoned egg. Only a few singles were active in the colony. Fifty or more birds could be seen sitting on the water offshore. I know that singles at Midway Atoll go offshore periodically to bath and rest on the water so these birds might be doing the same.

At my urging Paul Greenfield asked some questions about the birds. Apparently elsewhere on the island there are 13,000 - 15,000 breeding pairs reported to be doing well. Why is the small colony where tourists are allowed to visit doing so poorly? Perhaps the path should be closed in April and May to allow the birds to settle in and establish their nests. More troublesome is the thought that the emphasis in the Galápagos is not on the prosperity of the Albatross. We know the Galápagos Petrel is severely declining. Each visitor to the island pays $100 entry fee and more than 90,000 visitors come each year. Only 60% of this fee goes to protecting the endemic birds and animals. The park seems to be doing well at protecting and restoring the giant land tortoise. Birds may be neglected.

Final Days
On San Cristobal we saw the Chatham Mockingbird and Vegetarian Finch on the road to the Galapaqulra de Cerro Colorado turtle refuge. We walked the trails of the turtle refuge birding and looking at the large turtles endemic to this island. Later we climbed the El Junco volcano crater with a lake shrouded in fog. Magnificent Frigatebirds were swooping over the lake looking for fresh water.

Back on the boat we sailed to North Seymour. On the way we saw 2 Albatrosses on the water. The first had something and the second seemed to bounce on the first and then a frigatebird bounced on both of them. This seemed a most strange encounter and unfortunately we were not too close. Later we circled a large seamount with screeching Tropicbirds and lots of Boobies.

The next day we landed on North Seymour where we saw a Red-footed Booby, sea lion pups and Blue-footed Boobies with chicks. Some Magnificent Frigatebirds sat with their red throats extended.

We packed up and said good-by to the "Free Enterprise" and made a long skiff ride to the island of Baltra. A bus picked us up and we went to a farm for some of the best land birding of the trip. On the road down to the lake we had quick looks at Paint-billed Crake. We walked around the lake seeing: Dark-billed Cuckoo, Short-eared Owl, Moorhen, Purple Gallinule, White-cheeked Pintail, Whimbrel. We also watched several Magnificent Frigatebirds scooping up drinks of fresh water from the pond.

We had lunch at the farm restaurant eating on the open veranda. We then went back to the muddy trail to try again for the Galápagos Rail. That evening we stayed at a hotel in Porto Ayoro and enjoyed a final dinner together with Paul Greenfield.

The next day we flew back to Quito and visited Paul's apartment to see his paintings and the original plates for the Birds of Ecuador. Our final night we were at the El Jardin Bed and Breakfast before flying home to Boston.

   Trip ReportsEcuador - Galápagos 2004  |  1. Introduction - High Andes |  2, Galápagos  | 3.  Espanolá   Top of page      Comments to webmaster