The Barn Owl on Galapagos Islands is an endemic subspecies, Tyto alba punctatissima. It is quite uncommon and there are around 9000 Barn Owls on the islands. They occur both in the lowlands and in the highlands and can be found on Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristóbal, Isla Isabela and Isla Fernandina.
The Barn Owls have a characteristic hart-shaped facial disk with large dark eyes. The facial disc works as a satellite dish and collects sounds to the ears. Around the facial disk there is a brown edge. The under part of the Barn Owl is whitish with black spots and the upper part is golden-brown with black and white spots.
The Barn Owls are nocturnal birds but they can also be seen hunting at dusk and dawn. They have excellent hearing and usually use sound when they look for prey. They eat rodents, reptiles and other birds.
Nests of the Barn Owl can be found in small cavities, in lava tubes, holes in a tree or in old buildings.
The Barn Owls usually don’t live for more than 1-2 years, but they are able to breed when they are about 10 months.
On the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. That is where we saw the Barn Owl in the picture. It was inside a small shed at the farm we visited. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair ,there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to Galapagos!
The Blue-footed Boobies are funny looking birds, but also amazing with their bright blue feet and their special mating ritual. The Blue-footed Booby on Galapagos Islands is an endemic subspecies (Sula nebouxii excisa) and it is a common, with around 10 000 pairs.
As the name indicate the Blue-footed Boobies have bright blue webbed feet. The bill is greyish blue and the head brown and white. The under parts are white and the wings and upper parts are brown.
Males and females look alike, but males are slightly smaller than the females and the pupil of the females looks larger than the pupil of the males.
The Blue-footed Boobies feed on fish which they plunge dive into the Ocean for. When I snorkelled at Sullivan Bay (Santiago) one dived into the water just in front of me. They are really quick!
The Blue-footed Boobies have a very interesting mating ritual. The male make a dance in front of the female, where he raises one blue foot at a time. He then points the bill to the sky and spread out his wings. The male makes a whistle sound, and the female who has joined in with the movements answers with a more guttural honk. They than offer each another sticks and twigs, for a future nest. I was very happy to see this courtship ritual on Isla Española and I have a video of it both on my Isla Española page and on my Galapagos Islands page.
The Blue-footed Boobies form monogamous pairs and make their nest on the ground. The female lay 2-3 eggs, which both parents help to incubate. To keep the eggs warm they use their feet. After about 45 days the eggs hatch. If food supply is scarce the youngest and smallest chicks will be kicked out of the nest and only the biggest chick will be fed and survive.
The name Booby is believed to come from the Spanish word bobo, which means stupid.
The photo is from the visitor site Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz. There are Blue-footed Boobies on the rocks and out at sea is the boat M/S Cachalote which I made a one-week cruise with.
The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki) is an endemic subspecies. It is common, and there is a population of about 50 000 Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands. They can be seen in many places near the shores, on beaches, on the rocks or even in the towns (for example on a porch in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora). Don’t be surprised if you get surrounded by playful sea lions while snorkelling. It is absolutely fantastic!
The male Sea Lion becomes very large, up to 230cm in length, with a weigh up to 250kg. They have a dark brown fur, which almost looks black when wet and they have a thick neck.
The females are smaller and weigh up to 120kg. They have lighter brown fur, which looks dark brown when wet. There are many more females as only one tenth of the Sea Lion pups are males.
The Galapagos Sea Lions feed during the day and they mostly eat Sardines. They can be away at sea for days to hunt for fish. Sharks are natural predators of the Sea Lions.
The Galapagos Sea Lions form colonies which consist of a dominant male (bull) and up to 30 females (cows) with their pups. The bull protects its territory against other males and sometimes there are fights. As it is difficult for a male to be away feeding while protecting his territory he becomes weaker and he will then be replaced by a stronger male after a while. Males without a territory form bachelor colonies.
The females give birth to one pup each year, which they nurse for up to three years. Sometimes you can see two pups of different age suckling milk from their mother. When they are around five months the pups can start fishing for themselves though. The mother and child can recognise each other’s bark and thus find each other among the other Sea Lions in the colony.
In the photo a Sea Lion is waiting, together with Pelicans, for leftovers at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz. Looking through my photos I realise I don’t have any other photos of Sea Lions on Isla Santa Cruz than the ones from the Fish Market, even though I saw several.
There are 13 species of Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands, and they are all endemic. The Finches are famous because the role they played in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution . When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his voyage with the Beagle he didn’t pay much attention to the finches, but more to the Mockingbirds which he noticed differences in, between the islands. He collected finches but didn’t record from which islands. It was not until he came home and talked to an ornithologist and others who had collected finches during the visit that he understood the significance of them.
All 13 Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands have evolved from a species of finch found on the South American Pacific coast. When they came to Galapagos Islands they adopted to different habitats and food available there. The beaks have evolved to be suitable to the food they eat. To be able to specialize in feeding is good when food is scarce and there is more competition for what is available.
Interesting to know is that the Woodpecker Finch can use thorns or twigs as tools when they search for larva or other insects in small crevices. Ground Finches eat skin parasites from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch on Wolf and Darwin is also called Vampire Finch as they feed on blood they peck from Nazca Boobies.
The Darwin Finches have a length of 10 - 16cm. Their plumage is mottled grey, brown, black or olive coloured. Some species are not difficult to distinguish, while others are more difficult to identify. Not only are some species looking alike, but there are variations within a species and there are also hybrids.
The Darwin Finches in the photos were seen in Santa Cruz Highlands and on the path to Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz.
Las Grietas is a long fissure in the lava rock. Here freshwater filtered down from the highlands meet salty water entering from the sea, making the water in the ravine brackish. It is a very nice place for swimming and snorkelling. The water is very clear, but can be a bit cold. Some people dive or make somersaults from the high cliffs. When you swim you can continue longer than you think, but you will have to walk over a few rooks and then you can continue the swim around the corner. I think it is a very beautiful place!
In the afternoon, I have heard, tour groups come here, so if you want tranquillity you should come early. It is easy to go here on your own from Puerto Ayora. Just take a water taxi ($0.60) from the pier over to Angemeyer Point and than follow the trail. After passing Finch Bay Hotel the trail becomes more rocky, so good shoes can be good to wear. Along the path there are several small lagoons were you might see migratory and coastal birds (for example I saw a Great Blue Heron here).
The first time I visited Las Grietas I hadn’t brought swimwear or snorkel equipment with me, so I came back the next day. I rented the snorkel equipment at Cabo Mar, near the harbour. It was $5 (July 2011) for the whole day and the equipment was good.
The vegetation in the highlands is very different to the coast. It is wetter, with green pastures and forests. There are many places of interest to visit in the Santa Cruz Highlands, like the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos, Cerro Crocker and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
In Santa Cruz Highlands I have only visited Hacienda Mariposa, a cattle farm owned by Steve Divine. It is situated between Bellavista and Santa Rosa, near El Chato Tortoise Reserve. In the green pastures of Hacienda Mariposa you can see Giant Tortoises in the wild. It is only during the dry season that the tortoises are present though, because during the wet season, when it is breeding season, the tortoises move the arid zone.
It was on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, that we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz and Hacienda Mariposa.
Before we started our walk around the farm to look for tortoises we heard that there was a Barn Owl in a small shed by the house. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair, there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to the Galapagos!
We went for a short walk to look for Giant Tortoises and luckily we saw one, a juvenile, as it wasn’t that big. Then we went back to the farm and got some juice to drink and took photos of the shell from a very big tortoise. Besides the Barn Owl and its chick we saw Cattle Egrets, Smooth-billed Anis, a Yellow Warbler and a Darwin Finch during our visit. I don’t know which Darwin Finch it was as it was the first one I saw, the photo is very dark and I have only written Darwin Finch in my notebook. When we left the farm we saw a Short-eared Owl sitting on a pole next to the road. That was good luck! Now we had seen both species of owls that occur on the Galapagos Islands even before we had got to the boat.
There is not a great number of insect species in the Galapagos Islands, but only something over a thousand. There are 22 species of grasshoppers and one of them is the endemic Galapagos Flightless Grasshopper (Halemus robustus), a small grasshopper without wings.
The Galapagos Flightless Grasshoppers are quite widespread on the islands, but their brownish colouring make it very difficult to see them. This Galapagos Flightless Grasshopper was sitting on a flower of a Galapagos Cotton bush so it was easier to spot it against the light yellow background. If it had been sitting on one of the branches instead we would probably have passed without seeing it. The photo is taken along the trail to Cerro Dragon, Isla Santa Cruz.
The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is common in Galapagos Islands, but it is a migrant bird that prefers breading in the colder northern climates of North America, Europe and Asia. In the Galapagos it can often be found along sandy beaches, by lagoons and tidal pools.
The Whimbrel is a large wader with a long curved bill. The females have a longer bill than the males. The legs and neck are long and the plumage is grey-brown with a paler underpart than upperpart.
Whimbrels eat small crustaceans and marine worms they pick up from the muddy surface they walk over, and they eat small fish and insects.
The Whimbrel in the two photos was seen at a small lagoon along the trail at Cerro Dragon, Isla Santa Cruz.
The Short-eared Owl in Galapagos Islands is an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis. It is found on most islands and usually in open land and grassland. There are around 9000 Short-eared Owls in Galapagos.
The name Short-eared Owl comes from the fact that there are tufts of feathers that look like ears on the head. The eyes are large and yellow with a black ring around. The facial disc can be light in colour but also dark brown. The beak is dark and hooked. The plumage is dark brown and mottled. The underparts are lighter with streaks. The Short-eared Owls becomes around 34-43cm long and the female is usually a little larger than the male.
The Short-eared Owls are diurnal, but can mostly be seen hunting in the early morning or late evening. They eat rodents, large insects and small birds.
The Short-eared Owls nest on the ground and they are usually monogamous.
The Short-eared Owl in the photo was sitting on a pole just next to the dirt road near a farm in Santa Cruz highlands. Santa Cruz highlands was the first place we visited during the weeklong cruise with M/S Cachalote. At the farm we had seen a Galapagos Barn Owl, and now when we left we saw the Short-eared Owl. That was good luck, that we got to see both species of owls that occur on the Galapagos Islands, even before we had got to the boat.
Later we saw a Short-eared Owl on Isla Genovesa as well. That one was far away and we looked at it through binoculars. The Short-eared Owls can often be seen on Isla Genovesa were it hunts for storm petrels.
Before going to the airport on the last day of the cruise with Cachalote we visited Black Turtle Cove very early in the morning, even before breakfast. The sun was just rising and the light was beautiful . It was a very calm and peaceful morning.
Black Turtle Cove is a shallow inlet surrounded by mangrove vegetation, situated on the north coast of Isla Santa Cruz. There is no landing site and it is only visited with a panga (dinghy). When we arrived into the cove we saw lots of Cattle Egrets sitting in the mangroves and as we came closer they all took off. It was a lovely thing to see. The Cattle Egrets come down from the highlands to spend the night at Black Turtle Cove, where it is warmer during the night than in the highlands. We also saw many pelicans and smaller birds following the pelicans in case it would drop a fish they could catch. In the water there were turtles, Golden Rays and also a few White-tipped Reef Sharks. The sharks were resting on the bottom and a bit difficult to see, but to my surprise you could see them better with sunglasses on.
At Tortuga Bay there is a beautiful long white sandy beach (Playa Brava). There are strong currents in the sea so this beach is not for swimming, but some people are surfing, kayaking and sunbathing. If you want to swim there is a smaller protected beach (Playa Mansa) in the end of Tortuga Bay. At Tortuga Bay you will probably see Marine Iguanas and different birds like the Brown Pelican, The Great Blue Heron and Sanderlings. You are not allowed to walk on the dunes above the beach as that is a nesting area for the marine green turtle. In the end of Tortuga Bay there is an area with lots of Opuntia cactus, a cactus that on Galapagos Islands grows like a tree.
From Puerto Ayora there is a 2.5km long paved trail leading to Tortuga Bay. It is a beautiful walk past green vegetation, among other plants many Opuntia cactuses. You might see Ground Finches and Cactus Finches along the walk.
At the starting point of the trail you must register at an office, and you must do so when you return too. The office is open between 6-18.
Charles Darwin Research Station is situated in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, at the east end of Avenida Charles Darwin. It was established in 1964 and it is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Here more than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are working with research and conservation projects to protect the Galapagos ecosystem and endangered species.
At Charles Darwin Research Station there is a museum and information centre where you can learn much about the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands. There is a breeding centre and a house where baby-tortoises are incubated. The young tortoises are taken care of until they are old enough to be taken to their home islands and natural habitat. In the Galapagos Islands there are 11 different subspecies of the Giant Tortoise, and at Charles Darwin Research Station you can see several of them. The most famous tortoise here is Lonesome George. He is the only surviving Tortoise of the subspecies from Isla Pinta. Many attempts have been made to mate him with closely related females, but without success.
There are several enclosures with adult Giant Tortoises and in one of them you can go down to come close to the tortoises. There are also enclosures with Land Iguanas.
I visited Charles Darwin Research Station on the first day of the Cruise with M/S Cachalote, so we got a very good guided walk around the area. However, it is easy to visit on your own. It is only a 15 minutes walk from central Puerto Ayora and around the Research Station there are several trails and information boards. It is free to visit.
Update June 2012: Lonesome George died on the 24th of June 2012. He was found dead in the morning by his caretaker and it is believed that he died because his heart stopped and because of old age. Lonesome George was between 90 -107 years.
The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) can be seen on most big islands of the Galapagos (you can also see them in the West Indies and North- and Central America). The Great Blue Heron is a wader and when you see one it will probably be near shallow water, where they are often seen standing still waiting for prey. They feed on fish, crabs, young marine iguanas, lava lizards, small birds and insects.
With their tall legs and neck the Great Blue Heron looks majestic. The feathers are blue-grey and the head is white with a black strip. The beak is long, sharp and yellow. An adult Great Blue Heron can have a wingspan of over 2 metres and it can be over 1.30 metres tall. They are beautiful birds.
I saw Great Blue Herons on Floreana, Isla Isabela and on Isla Santa Cruz. The one on the photos is from Tortuga Bay, just outside Puerto Ayora.
The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is an introduced bird to the Galapagos Islands. It occurs in the highlands of Floreana, Isla Santa Cruz, Santiago and Isla Isabela and it can often be seen in open and semi-open landscapes.
The Smooth-billed Ani belongs to the cuckoo family. It is around 35cm long and it has a black plumage and a big black bill. The tail is long and gets broader towards the end.
It was not until the 1960s that the Smooth-billed Ani was introduced to Galapagos Islands. As they are not very good flyers of long distances over water they were probably introduced by humans. It is believed the Smooth-billed Anis were brought to the islands because they remove parasites and ticks from livestock. As they are introduced birds they compete for resources with the endemic and native birds.
The Smooth-billed Ani also feed on larger insects and Lava Lizards.
The same nest is used by several pairs and they share incubation and feeding. The nest is built in trees.
The Smooth-billed Anis in the photo was seen in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz.
One of the highlights of Galapagos Islands is to see the amazing Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). They are endemic to the islands and they are also the only lizards in the word that swim in the sea. The Marine Iguanas spend most of their time on land, but they feed on algae and seaweed. There are seven subspecies of Marine Iguanas in the archipelago and they can be found on all islands, often in the shore zone, on the lava rocks.
During millions of years the Marine Iguana has evolved to be well adapted to its environment. With a flattened snout and sharp teeth they can effectively feed on the algae on the rocks. Their tail helps them swim under water and with their long claws they can stand firmly on the rocks. Sometimes you can see the Marine Iguanas snort, that is when they get rid of excess sea salt with help from salt-eliminating glands in their nostrils. Most Marine Iguanas are black or dark grey in colour but on some islands the male can have a red or green colouring, a colouring that becomes brighter during the mating season.
Males become around 1m long, but some subspecies become longer and others shorter. The females are shorter than the males, and the spines along their back are not as large as on the male.
Females and young iguanas feed along the shore when it is low tide. It is mostly the males that feed in the sea and they can stay up to an hour under water. As the water is cold the iguanas must get warm when they come up on land, and then you can often see them basking in the sun with their face to the sun and their body raised from the ground (they must get warm, but not too warm so by raising the body they will allow the air to circulate under the body).
The Marine Iguanas are funny to see in the water. Twice when I snorkelled I saw them swimming. At Sullivan Bay I saw a Marin Iguana just as it took off from the bottom and swam up to the surface. As it reached the surface a sea lion got hold of the tail and played with it. Great for me to see, but I don’t think the iguana appreciated it that much. While snorkelling near Puerto Villamil I saw a whole group of iguanas swimming at the surface and just past me. It was wonderful.
The breeding season is from November - March. The females will then lay the eggs in an underground nest where they are incubated for three months. The baby iguanas are small and are therefore vulnerable to predators. They risk getting eaten by owls, hawks herons or mocking birds.