We awoke early to a startlingly beautiful morning off Playa Tortuga Negra. The sea was like blue ink and the sky cloudless and still. The black volcanic sand was a startling contrast to the white flour beaches we had seen previously. After a short panga ride we were disembarking on the beach.
I was thrilled as the first creature we encountered was a Galapagos Penguin taking its morning swim. It was joined subsequently by a friend and they lazed about in the water playing games and preaning- typical penguin stuff
Nemo 2 off Playa Tortuga Negra
Playa Tortuga Negra
Galapagos Penguins are quite locally distributed in the Galapagos with the west coast of Isabella being one of the best spots to view this species. The total population at most may be a few thousand birds with a dramatic decline in numbers after El Nino years down to only a few hundred. Scary- how easy it would be for a dramatic weather event to drive this bird to extinction.
Our first look at Galapagos Penguin -Playa Tortuga Negra, Isabella
I reluctantly left my new penguin buddies and moved inland with the group to search for our non-seabird target bird for the morning the Mangrove Finch. It took us only a few minutes to locate this the very rarest of the Galapagos endemics and close prolonged viewing was enjoyed by all. I purposefully haven’t spent much time on the finch-quest aspect of the trip given t but it was an enjoyable and interesting part of the adventure. Peter Freire & Jesse Fagan were a masterful team hunting down each finch and Galapagos endemic for the group.
Mangrove Finch- rarest of the Galapagos endemics - Playa Tortuga Negra
We loaded back on to the panga and cruised allong the west shore of Isabella. After a short cruise we came across some more Galapagos Penguins and then several Flightless Cormorants. This is another very localized endemic being mostly limited to Isabella with probably only 7-800 pairs making up the entire population. They have a beady turquoise and ridiculous vestigial wings that they like to show off by hanging them out to dry in typical cormorant fashion.
Flightless Cormorants- Isabella
We had some great opportunities to see nesting sites and watched a pair of Cormorants fashioning their nest made of seaweed and other vegetation. Galapagos Penguins swam closely by the boat seemingly quite inquisitive.
Galapagos Penguin off Isabella
Great fun was had by all watching the cormorant and penguin antics. We returned to the Nemo 2 for some lunch, snorkelling and then a cruise across Elizabeth Bay.
The west side of Isabella including the Bolivar Channel and Elizabeth Bay seem to be a congregating area for the “dark under-wing” morph of the Galapagos Shearwater. Whether this morph represents a variation of the Galapagos Shearwater or possibly a different taxa at this point is unknown. Some observational data suggests this morph may use a different nesting strategy. I have posted a brief note on the Variation in Galapagos Shearwater here.
Galapagos Shearwater -“dark under-wing” morph, Elizabeth Bay
We were able to view and photograph a large number of “dark under-winged” Galapagos Shearwaters on the cruise across Elizabeth Bay along with a two distant Galapagos Petrels and a few Wedge-rumped and lots of Elliot’s Storm-petrels. We arrived on the far side of the bay in the late afternoon and went for a fascinating hike on the Punta Moreno lava fields which emanate from the Sierra Negra volcano. This is a fascinating spot with vast expanses of barren lava flows with intermittent vegetated potholes and small wetlands.
Punta Moreno lava fields with small wetlands (pink spots= American Flamingos)
The lava fields host some interesting cacti, Large-billed Cactus Finches and Lava Lizards. The wetlands hold American Flamingoes and White-cheeked Pintail and Common Moorhens.
Lava Lizard - Punta Moreno lava fields
After the hike we took a brief pangas ride down to a small colony of huge Marine Iguanas and Galapagos Penguins which we enjoyed as the sun set on the day.
Galapagos Penguin enjoying the sunset As headed off for the far side of Isabella I contemplated another spectacular day and anticipated more adventures the next day.
Day3-Nemo 2 route
Day4- June 22/11 We awoke in the harbour at Peurto Villamil . I had to interrupt breakfast for an excellent opportunity to photograph Elliot’s Storm-petrels off the stern of the boat. I was able to confirm that they too have yellow webbing of the feet like Wilson’s. One thing that struck me from the photos is how different, features like wing length and shape can appear depending on the birds posture and activity.
Elliot’s Storm-petrel -note yellow webbing of feet- Peurto Villamil harbour The Elliot’s Storm-petrel is quite variable in the amount of white on its underside ranging from little more than a typical Wilson’s to having and extensive white belly. Some of this variation is illustrated in the following pictures but birds with both more and less white are not rare. I have avoided the use of this birds other common name “White-vented Storm-petrel” as some of the birds have virtually no white on the vent.
Note the differences in wing shape in different postures.
Elliot’s Storm-petrel -showing variation in white underside -Peurto Villamil harbour After breakfast weheaded up into the highlands of Isabella to look for finches and other land birds. It was a fairly successful outing with great looks at Woodpecker Finch and the Galapagos Vermillion Flycatcher along with Dark-billed Cuckoo.
Galapagos Vermillion Flycatcher-highlands of Isabella
On the way back out to the Nemo 2 we did a short cruise around the harbour and had another opportunity to observe and photograph Galapagos Penguins. This was the only location were we saw immature Galapagos Penguins which have a different facial pattern.A few Blue-footed Boobies were hanging with the penguins.
Blue-footed Booby and immature Galapagos Penguin -Peurto Villamil harbour Adult and immature Galapagos Penguins -Peurto Villamil harbour
One of the primary breeding siites for Galapagos Petrels is Cerro Pajas at 640 meters on the island of Floreana. The usual issue of introduced predators including rodents, cats, dogs and goats had decimated this species throughout the islands and it was well on the way to extinction when predator control programs were introduced initially in 1982. The Cerro Pajas colony is the largest with an estimated 2000 nests probably close to 30% of the total which was estimated at 5-6000 nests in 2008.
Galapagos Petrels are large black and white pterodromas with long pointed wings and a longer tail than most other pteredromas.Closely related to the Hawaiian Petrel and previously felt to be cospecific (“Dark-rumped” Petrel) biological as well as morphological differences are considered sufficient to warrant individual species designation by most recent sources. Differentiation in the field can be very challenging. Galapagos Petrels generally have some dark axillary & flank markings not found in Hawaiian Petrel lacks. I was keen to test out this “field mark”.
The body of water between Isabella and Floreana is referred to locally as the “Floreana Canal”. It wasn’t long after leaving Isabella that we spotted our first petrel.
Galapagos Petrel - Floreana Canal showing dark markings on axillary and flank
Galapagos Petrel - Floreana Canal showing dark markings on axillary and flank
We saw about 20 Galapagos Petrels as we crossed the canal towards Floreana. Over the course of the trip we saw at least 100 petrels and I was able to photograph “adequately” about 25 birds. All of these revealed dark axillary markings which are usually complex & seemingly distinctively different in each bird. In Part 3 I will show several more examples which will help illustrate this feature.
As we approached Floreana the sun was setting and we could see petrels heading towards Cerro Pajas a great ending to another great day in the Enchanted Isles.
The hills of Floreana from the sea Cerro Pajas- largest breeding site for Galapagos Petrel - Floreana
Day 4- Nemo 2 route
End of Part 2- Part 3 will continue with more Galapagos Petrels, lots of Albatross action and finally a few decent Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel pictures.