Favorite thing: There are four different species of Mockingbirds found on the Galápagos, all of them endemic. Two of these are rare and one considered endangered, and we didn’t see either as we didn’t go to the islands where they live. These are the Charles (or Floreana) Mockingbird found only on two small islands Champion and Gardner just off Floreana (of which only 150 birds are thought to exist), and the more common, but equally restricted in area, Chatham (or San Cristóbal) Mockingbird, found only on San Cristóbal.
But we did see the Hood mockingbird on Española, where it is endemic and relatively common, and the Galápagos mockingbird, which is widespread on several of the islands, on Genovesa. The latter is recognised as having six subspecies: barringtoni (Santa Fe); bauri (Genovesa); hulli (Darwin); parvulus (Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour and Daphne); personatus (Pinta, Marchena, Santiago and Rabida) and wenmani (Wolf). The one in my photo, therefore, is subspecies bauri, since I saw it on Genovesa. Charles Darwin noticed the varied species and subspecies of mockingbirds in the archipelago, and his observations of them shaped his theories on evolution, probably more so than those of the more often cited finches:
”I examined many specimens [of mockingbird] in the different islands, and in each the respective kind is alone present. These birds agree in general plumage, structure, and habits; so that the different species replace each other in the economy of the different islands. These species are not characterized by the markings on the plumage alone, but likewise by the size and form of the bill, and other differences.” (Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1839)
All the mockingbirds have grey and brown plumage with white under parts, and are about 25-28cm in length. Their bill is long, thin and black. They are omnivorous, eating seabird eggs, insects, young finches or even small lava lizards in addition to seeds. They are known to try to get water from tourists’ water bottles if left on the ground for any time, and would eat any food dropped by visitors if they were to disobey park rules and bring some on to the islands. But that won’t be you, will it?!
Next tip: "Galápagos Finches”Related to:
- National/State Park
Favorite thing: Although small and relatively plain, the Galápagos or Darwin Finches are amongst the best-known of the archipelago’s species, owing to the role they played in shaping Darwin’s theories. Although their bodies look similar, their bills vary greatly in size and shape, leading Darwin to theorise that they had adapted to suit the food that was available to them on their particular island.
Altogether there are 13 species, all of them endemic to the islands, namely:
Vampire Finch; Large Ground Finch; Medium Ground Finch; Small Ground Finch; Large Tree Finch; Medium Tree Finch; Small Tree Finch; Vegetarian Finch; Cactus Finch; Large Cactus Finch; Woodpecker Finch; Mangrove Finch; Warbler Finch
They can be divided according to whether they eat mainly seeds, fruit or insects. The former live mainly on the ground and have beaks suited for crushing. The insect eaters live mostly in trees. Some have probing beaks, while others are slightly hooked and best for grasping. The fruit-eating Vegetarian Tree Finch has a parrot-like beak, and the ground-living Cactus Finch has a long curved beak like the probers, to get between the spines of the Opuntia on which it feeds. But while all this sounds helpful, it is still difficult to distinguish some of the species from each other. None of us in the group were ever sure whether we were looking at a Small, Medium or Large Ground Finch, however many times we asked Fabian (and he patiently replied). I think we would have needed them to line up in an avian identity parade to be confident of naming them! But the Cactus Finch was a little easier, owing to his long beak and unique choice of food.
We saw finches just about everywhere we went. Like all of the island species, they are pretty tame, but they hop around a lot and are hard to capture on camera. The best shot I got was at the airport on Baltra while waiting in the café for our flight back to Quito – the finches were everywhere snatching up the crumbs, sometimes even from the plates of those still eating. But of course by then we had no Fabian with us to help with identification! I’m pretty sure it’s a Ground Finch, by the shape of the bill, and if so it must be a female, as all the males are black; my guess is that it’s a female Large Ground Finch, but if anyone knows otherwise ...
My other two photos are of a male Cactus Finch we saw at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. You can clearly see the much longer, pointed bill.
Next tip: ”Yellow Warbler”Related to:
- National/State Park
Favorite thing: Owls are nocturnal, right? Well yes, normally – but not here on the Galápagos! The Short-eared Owl is one of two owl species found here (the other is the Barn Owl, which we didn’t see on our trip). We saw several on Genovesa, on the trail at Prince Philip’s Steps (El Barranco). And although it was broad daylight, they were not only to be seen on the ground, but also, some of them at least, flying and hunting. Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos Hawk is present.
The Short Eared Owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.
Next tip: some “Other birds seen”Related to:
- National/State Park
Other birds seen
Favorite thing: We saw very many other species of birds in our week in the Galápagos Islands, not all of which I was able to photograph or even to note. Among those I did capture, either in my camera or journal or both, were:
~ Red-billed Tropicbird (from the cliffs of South Plaza)
~ Brown Pelicans (at the Fish Market and around the harbour of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, on South Plaza and elsewhere – even in one of the Angelito’s pangas – see photo three!)
~ American Oystercatcher (on Rabida and Santiago)
~ Shearwaters (from the cliffs of South Plaza)
~ White-cheeked pintail duck (in the Santa Cruz Highlands)
~ Smooth-billed ani (in the Santa Cruz Highlands)
~ Vermillion flycatcher (in the Santa Cruz Highlands)
~ Common Noddies (from the cliffs of South Plaza, near Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz, and elsewhere)
Next tip: let’s get beneath the waves and go ”Snorkelling"Related to:
- National/State Park
Favorite thing: As well as all the wildlife on the islands and in the air above, there is lots to see in the surrounding waters. You will some marine life from the boat and panga, but to see it at its best it is necessary to get into the sea with them, so do sample snorkelling Galápagos style!
The Galápagos Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi) is a subspecies of the Pacific Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), and is the only turtle to breed on the islands. Nesting is between the months of December and June, and we were there in November – too early, although Fabian did point out one nest on the beach of Bartolomé, where we also saw a turtle swimming in the sea very close to the shore, his head poked above the waves. We saw several on our last morning too, on a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz. But the best place to see them is, as I said, in the water. There were several at our snorkelling site off the beach of Santiago, but my clearest encounter was in Gardner Bay, Española.
The Pacific Green Sea Turtle is listed as an endangered species and is protected from exploitation in most countries, including Ecuador. The Galapagos National Park authorities close certain beaches in the Islands when it is nesting season for the Green Sea Turtles to protect the nests from tourist activity. However, the turtles are still in danger because of several human practices. Water pollution indirectly harms them as it threatens their food supplies, and many green sea turtles die caught in fishing nets. If you do find yourself on a beach with a turtle nest, as we did, your guide will point it out – be sure not to walk on it.
Next tip: ”White-tipped Reef Shark”Related to:
- Diving and Snorkeling
- National/State Park
White-tipped Reef Shark
Favorite thing: There are several sharks that inhabit the waters around the Galápagos Islands – Hammerheads, the endemic Galápagos Shark, Whale Sharks, White- and Black-tipped Reef Sharks. Of these, it is the White-tipped Reef Shark that you are most likely to see while snorkelling. And while the notion of swimming with a shark may seem scary, there is no need to worry, as this species is no threat to humans – they feed at night on small fish and are very docile. I saw one on my very first snorkelling trip, off Santiago when the Angelito was moored between that island and Sombrero Chino on our first whole day in the islands. Unfortunately I hadn’t at that point really got the hang of my new underwater camera, so I didn’t get a clear picture – you can only just make it out (photo three). But I did manage to grab some shots of those we saw on our final morning on a last panga trip at Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz.
We didn’t see any of the other sharks on our cruise, but certainly Hammerhead Sharks can sometimes be seen when snorkelling – I would love to have spotted one! The others are best seen by divers rather than snorkelers, so it’s not surprising that we didn’t get to see them. But I won’t easily forget seeing that White-tipped Reef Shark swim past me as I snorkelled in the Galápagos for the very first time!
Next tip: ”Manta rays” and other rays too!Related to:
- Diving and Snorkeling
- National/State Park
Manta rays and more
Favorite thing: I had seen rays before (in an aquarium!) and loved the graceful way in which they move. But I have never before seen a manta ray, the largest of the species. A couple of our group had already spotted one briefly from the boat by the time we reached Rabida, but I had missed it on both occasions, so I was thrilled when one was sighted in sea beneath where we stood on the cliffs here. It swam languidly up and down for some time, so we were able to get a good look at how it moved and to appreciate its huge size. Manta rays can grow up to seven metres across, and when their triangular “wings” appear out of the water you might at first think a shark is swimming past, until you spot the large mass of its body just beneath the surface. Sometimes they even jump clear of the water, and it was this behaviour that I unfortunately missed seeing from the boat. But watching this huge fish drift past below us here was a special experience that I was pleased not to have missed.
We also saw Spotted Eagle Rays, on the same final panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz, when we saw the sharks mentioned in my previous tip. And when we snorkelled in Gardner Bay, Española, there were some Stingrays in the water, although again I didn’t get a clear look – certainly not clear enough for a photo. Spotted Eagle Rays have a wingspan ranging from one to two metres, pointed heads, and long tails with a spiny termination, but their most distinguishing feature is, as the name suggests, the white spots dotted over their black tops. Stingrays are a similar size but are grey rather than black, with no spots, and of course have a nasty sting in their tail – so don’t get too close if you see one!
Next tip: ”Opuntia” – the first of several about the flora of the islands.Related to:
- National/State Park
Favorite thing: You will naturally spend much of your time on the Galápagos Islands marvelling at the animal life, but the plant life too is worthy of mention as it helps to shape and to colour these amazing landscapes. Of these, the most striking are probably the three species of cactus that grow here – Opuntia (or prickly pear), lava cactus and the candelabra cactus.
The former in particular not only forms a prickly backdrop to the many natural dramas played out before you on each island, but has also played a leading part in the evolution of some of their inhabitants - the Cactus Finch, for example, who has developed a long bill to delve between the spines to reach the juicy pads. The Opuntia has also allowed the Land Iguana to thrive on these islands, providing it not only with its main source of food but also of water. On islands where the Opuntia is less easily found, the early iguanas which arrived here, floating on rafts of vegetation, were in some cases forced to look to the sea for their food, and evolved into the Marine Iguanas we see today.
But evolution works both ways! On some islands such as South Plaza and Santa Fe, the Opuntia has grown tall and tree-like to keep the pads out of reach of the Land iguanas and other herbivores such as Giant Tortoises, but where these animals are less prevalent or non-existent it has remained a low shrub.
And on Genovesa (at Prince Philip Steps) Fabian showed us how the spines of the Opuntia cactus here have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos Dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function. Altogether there are six different species of Opuntia in Galápagos (O. echios, O. galapageia, O. Helleri, O. insularis, O. saxicola, O. megasperma), and these can be divided into 14 different varieties. When you learn all about them, you will find yourself looking at these prickly specimens in a new light.
Next tip: ”Other cacti”Related to:
- National/State Park
Favorite thing: While prickly pears are found in many parts of the world, the large Candelabra Cactus is endemic to the Galápagos. Named for its shape, it resembles the Organ Pipe Cactus of the Sonora Desert and can reach seven metres in height. It can be seen in the more arid zones of some islands – the ones in my picture (number three) were photographed on Santiago, opposite Sombrero Chino.
The other cactus found here is the Lava Cactus. This plant is often the first coloniser of new lava flows (hence its name) and its presence helps to start the breakdown of the rocks into soil that will eventually allow other plants to move in. They grow in clumps measuring up to 60 cm in height with soft furry spines. New growth on the cacti is yellow, and rather attractive, but as the cacti mature the colour fades, becoming first paler and then eventually a drab grey or black with age. We saw clumps of lava cactus dotted over the somewhat barren and surreal landscape of Bartolomé and on Genovesa.
Next tip: plants of the ”Coastal zone”Related to:
- National/State Park
Other plant-life: the coastal zone
Favorite thing: As well as the cacti, there are plenty of other plants to bring colour to the islands, though some you will have to search for. The islands are typically divided into three major vegetation zones, each with a very different landscape and correspondingly different flora: the coastal (or littoral) zone, the arid zone and the humid zone (the latter only found on the larger islands with highland interiors, such as Santa Cruz and Isabella). Some sub-divide the zones, but recognising these three is enough to help the average visitor’s understanding of the flora here.
Plants of the coastal zone include the various types of mangrove (black, white and red, of which the latter is the most common). We saw mangroves on Genovesa, home to hundreds of nesting Red-footed Boobies, and in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz, among other places. Other coastal zone plants are Saltbush, Beach Morning Glory and Galápagos Carpet Weed or Sesuvium. The latter changes its colour from intense green in the rainy season to orange and red in the dry season, such as when we visited, and was especially spectacular on South Plaza – like a New England Fall at ground level!
Next tip: plants of the ”Arid and humid zones”Related to:
- National/State Park
Other plant-life: the arid and humid zones
Favorite thing: Plants of the arid zone include the various cacti (covered in previous tips). Another that you will see in lots of places is Palo Santo, which Fabian also referred to as Holy Stick or the Jerusalem Tree. This is related to frankincense, and its sap contains an aromatic resin, hence the common names. The branches are shipped to the mainland where they are burned as incense in churches. Palo Santo looses their leaves during the dry season to help stop water loss, so the ones we saw (for example on North Seymour and Genovesa) were bare and looked almost dead. We also saw Palo Verde which has long, green, leafless stalks and extremely sharp spines. Another plant to beware of in this zone is the Manzanillo, also known as the "poison apple" tree. This is the only indigenous toxic plant in the islands. Touching the sap causes dermatitis, and eating the fruit can be lethal to humans, although giant tortoises can eat it and enjoy it. We saw a Manzanillo just by the beach on Santiago, near where we left our snorkelling and swimming gear – Fabian made sure we didn’t get too close though.
Also common in this zone is Cordia lutea or Yellow Cordia – very pretty. We saw this on Rabida and on Santa Cruz. Another colourful plant is the alternanthera, of which several species can be found – the one in my photo is on Santiago.
We didn’t spend much time in the humid zone anywhere, apart from our afternoon in the Highlands of Santa Cruz. The landscape here was very different from elsewhere, partially cultivated with crops such as palms, tropical fruits and maize. Elsewhere we saw tall trees hung with moss and covered in lichens (these were scalesias, or daisy trees, which can grow to almost 15 metres), and various ferns. It all looked very lush and rather alien after our days at sea and on rocky islands.
This is the last of my tips. Click here to return to my intro page, or here to see my travelogue with photos of the end of cruise party!Related to:
- National/State Park
Galapagos Best place to visit!
Favorite thing: Galapagos islands is the place where you can connect with the nature!!.
The wildlife is fantastic!, all the animals are not afraid from you!. that only you can find in the Galapagos islands.
The sealife y excited!, I found sharks, dolphins, and even whales!. just sknorkeling.
I advice you to go visit the Galapagos islands!, go to http://www.galapagoscruises.com/ where is all the information that you need!
Fondest memory: swim with the sea lions with all my famaly!Related to:
Beware of disreputable tour agency
Favorite thing: I am a travel agent in New Jersey, who unfortunately booked a trip for my clients, through Latin Tour Dimensions and its owner, Michael Steinberger, based in Miami Florida. He is totally dishonorable, unreliable, dishonest and a total scam artist.
This man refuses to pay my travel agent commission which is approx. $950.
I planned a 2 week tour for a couple to the Galapagos, Quito, Casco, and Machu Picchu. It was to start on Nov.29, 2011, with a cost of $5833.00 each. My first contact with Steinberger was in early August 2011. He asked for a $ 4000 deposit early on for air, boat deposit etc. which was sent to him. Balance was to be paid in middle October, but he charged their card in early Sept.
We E-mailed and spoke about 10 times in setting up the trip. I kept asking for confirmations for air, cruise, and hotels. Was told they would be forthcoming. Finally about 2 weeks before trip had some itinerary.
Two days before the trip, he called me and clients and tried to get them to postpone their trip for a few days. Claiming glitches, but not where they were. We were all upset as money was paid a long time ago. We let him know that it was not possible. Then the day before the flight he asked them not to go to the airport until they heard from him, more glitches. The day of the flight was terrible because we were waiting for his OK. Finally about 4 hours before the flight he called and said all was, “TAKEN CARE OF”.
The clients E-mailed me the next day, from Quito. He had not paid their hotel nor their first tour guides. Client paid out of their pockets.
Finally, upon coming home client found an additional charge for $ 6300, on his credit card. We do not know how this criminal thought he would get away with this.
Legitimate companies pay commission within 15-45 days after client returns. It is now over 4 Months and he does not even acknowledge e-mail or phone calls.
Please do some research and DO NOT USE THIS CRIMINAL for your trips!!!!!!
Choosing a boat or ship
Favorite thing: Most of the accomodation and tours are conducted from boats or ships that move from one island to another carrying the tourists/travelers along in various levels of comfort.
The Galapagos are at the equator and the sun is absolutely merciless. One key thing to find out about a boat or ship when you are looking at the features of a tour is to determine if there is enough shade! Many of the boats have very small shaded areas. Limited shade means that that is where everyone will be. If you are not a person who gets along with everyone on board all of the time you may be unhappy with that arrangement.
My experience was on a ship named the Parranda. The entire top was under canvas and was cool and breezy and excellent. The captain and crew were very good. I highly recommend this ship.
Fondest memory: Total immersion: It was so very easy to not think of work or my to-do list there. There were so many wonderful moments it is difficult to choose.
One of my favorites was the mail box. When I was a small child I read about the whaler's mailbox on one of the islands where one could look in and take out any mail that was going to one of one's future destinations and hand deliver that mail; and leave mail in the box trusting other people to deliver it. I had wanted to do that simple thing for decades. I took mail and left mail and it made me happier.Related to:
- Adventure Travel
- Whale Watching
Choosing a Galápagos cruise
Favorite thing: The period of travel you're considering is among the most popular times, so you probably want to make a decision pretty soon.
We traveled with Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel) in Sept., 2009, on the 16-passenger Tip Top II (in the first-class category). The boat, the crew, the travel company--all were exceptional and first-rate. As you're considering what boat to take, be sure to consider the itineraries. I strongly suggest an itinerary that includes Genovesa (to the north--terrific sea bird nesting colonies) and Española (to the south--the magnificent Waved Albatrosses will be nesting during the period you're considering and this is pretty much the only place in the world you can see them). Our boat didn't get to the westernmost islands of Isabela & Fernandina; if you're interested in volcanoes, you'd find those islands especially interesting too. However, only a few boats get to all 4 of those islands. If you have to chose, I would choose Genovesa and Española first.
You can read our trip report here: http://galapagos2009.wordpress.com/. (Cut and paste the address into your browser.) From this page, you can click on write-ups and photos from the outings. You can also read some pages about life on the boat, the decisions we faced, and thoughts about what to consider packing. You'll find those pages under the Practicalities tab.
Have fun planning this great adventure!
Fondest memory: Being in the midst of the spectacular wildlife, busily living their lives around us as if we were invisible.Related to:
Galápagos Islands Hotels
Barrio Punta Estrada S/N, Puerto Ayora, 00000, Ecuador
Good for: Business
Puerto Villamil, Isabela Galapagos Islands, , Ecuador
Good for: Solo
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