Galapagos-Part 1

Boobies Galore

I pull out of the World Pelagic Birding Headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada at noon on June 16th and 48 hours later I landed at Baltra Airport in the Galapago's having touched down in Guayaquil, Quito, Panama City, Houston and of course Detroit along the way. No major problems were encountered along the way, equipment was intact and accounted for and I was ready to see some seabirds. We had flown in on AeroGal the plane being festooned with Frigatebirds, Iguanas & Lava Lizards. I took it as an auspicious omen.

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Frigatebirds, Iguanas and Lava Lizards - AeroGal

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Baltra Airport - Galapago’s Islands


Day 1- June 19th/2011
I had signed up for a Field Guides tour led by Jesse Fagan (Central American birding authority) and Peter Freire (Galapago’s native naturalist/guide). It was a good choice and both the guides and the fellow tour participants were knowledgeable,keen and affable. Peter met us at the airport and within minutes we were on a bus heading for the ship. We spotted our first Darwin finches at the airport along with a few Galapago’s Doves and a distant Galapago’s Hawk soaring overhead.

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Nemo 2 with Daphne Major in background

We arrive at the dock and within seconds we were seeing Brown Noddies, Blue-footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds. A Galapago’s Shearwater winged by- the first new seabird of the trip. We interrupt birding briefly to take the panga (Zodiac-like boat) out to the Nemo 2 a large catamaran and home for the next 8 days. After getting settled away we left port and head north west to Daphne Major.

On the way out of port we started seeing our first
Elliot’s Storm-petrels aka White-vented Storm-petrels.This small storm-petrel is closely related to Wilson’s Storm-petrel and has very similar flight and feeding behaviours. It has a variably sized white belly patch. There are two populations of this species- the nominate Oceanities gracilis gracilis found locally in the Humbolt Current of northern Chile and O.g. galapagoensis the abundant resident form in the Galapagos. Interestingly despite fairly determined efforts no confirmed breeding sites have been found in the islands. This species is common close to shore and could be seen “pitter-pattering” behind the boat every morning and evening in harbor.

First Image Elliot’s Storm-petrel en route to Daphne Major - minimal white belly patch

Although Elliot’s Storm-petrels like Wilson’s have long legs that typically extend beyond the tail in flight I noted that this was certainly not alwats the case as illustrated above. It wasn’t long before we noted a larger storm-petrel with rapid swallow-like flight and a large white rump. We quickly confimed these as
Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels. Good looks were obtained but these birds proved very difficult to photograph.

About half way to Daphne Jesse spotted a
Nazca Booby floating in the water. This handsome species ranges from the Galapagos northward to Baja, California.

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Our first Nazca Booby on the way to Daphne Major

Daphne Major is a small islet to the northwest of Baltra. It is most well known as the site of Peter Grants famous research involving the evolution of Darwin Finches. The Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jonathan Weiner,
The Beak of the Finch is an excellent account of this landmark work and a must read for anyone visiting the Galapagos.

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Daphne Major

First Image Nazca Booby and Swallow-tailed Gulls- Daphne Major

As we approach Daphne Major we start observing lots more Nazca Boobies & Brown Noddies as well as our first Swallow-tailed Gulls and epic views of Red-billed Tropicbirds were had. A Galapagos subsp. of American Oystercatcher and a Wandering Tattler were seen on the rocky edge of the island. A circumnavigation of the island was interesting and allowed lots of observations of the nesting seabirds as well as Galapagos Sea Lions which lazed around the island.

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Brown Noddy, Daphne Major

First Image Red-billed Tropicbird, Daphne Major

First Image Galapagos Sea Lion, Daphne Major

After Daphne Major we set sail for Santa Cruz Island and an afternoon walk at Las Bachas a white sand beach on the southwest side of the island. As we relaxed offshore of Santa Cruz squadrons of Blue-footed Boobies rocketed past in search of feeding possibilities. Elliot’s Storm-petrels fed off the back of nearby ships. Magnificent and occasional Great Frigatebirds sailed along overhead providing endless entertainment.

First Image Magnificent Frigatebird, Santa Cruz

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Squadron of Blue-footed Boobies patrolling Las Bachas

We spent a couple hours at Las Bachas. Mostly we were looking for non seabird species including Sharp-billed Finch and American Flamingo. We did observe a Frigatebird feeding frenzy when most unfortunately a hatch of sea turtles was discovered by the mob. A Great Blue Heron joined in on the action. A immature Lava Gull posed for one of the few sightings of this species not associated with human waste.

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Frigatebird Feeding Frenzy (note the Great Blue Heron-lower middle) on sea turtle hatchlings

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Sally Lightfoot Crab, Las Bachas, Santa Cruz

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Immature Lava Gull, Las Bachas, Santa Cruz

The day ended as we cruised into the night towards Genovesa where day two was slated to begin.

First Image Day 1 -Nemo 2 route

Day 2- June 20th

First Image Genovesa -Galapagos Islands

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Nemo 2 anchored in Darwin Bay, Genovesa

We awoke early in Darwin Bay on the south side of the small island of Genovesa. This small island is truly one of brightest the jewels of the Galapagos. Many Nazca & Red-footed Boobies ( both dark and white morps) winged by with many frigatebirds, Galapagos Shearwaters and Swallow-tailed Gulls soaring overhead. We were eager to get ashore and soon were. What a place- we had a juvenile Swallow-tail Gull welcome us ashore and on walking a few meters I realized I was in the middle of a Great Frigatebird colony. This is one of the primary nesting sites for this species in the islands and unlike elswhere here this species vastly outnumbers the larger Magnificent Frigatebirds.

First Image A juvenile Swallow-tailed Gull welcomed us ashore at Genovesa

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Female Great Frigatebird and chick

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A male Great Frigatebird struts its stuff

As we strolled down the beach to the Mangroves we had a beautiful white morph Red-footed Booby fly by and we watched the frigatebirds and boobies bickering for sticks for nesting material. As we approached the mangroves numerous nesting Red-footed Boobies were observed. Red-footed boobies nest in the low branches of mangoves and available appropriate sites appear to be limited with some Mangroves supporting several nests. No chicks had hatched yet one year old juvenile was observed.A few Nazca Boobies were around but didn’t appear to be nesting. Galapagos Doves and Mockingbirds and several species of finches kept an eye on the goings on.

First Image White Morph Red-footed Booby - Genovesa

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Red-footed Booby in Mangoves - Genovesa

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Red-footed Booby gathering nesting material-Genovesa

First Image Red-footed Booby on nest-Genovesa

A light sprinkle resulted in a very photogenic rainbow and the
Swallow-tailed Gulls and Great Frigatebirds displayed wonderfully for everyone. This is certainly one of the most idyllic locations imaginable.

First Image Juvenile Great Frigatebird- note the diagnostic cinnamon head and chest- Genovesa

First Image Juvenile Great Frigatebird kleptoparasitizing Swallow-tailed Gull

First Image Swallow-tailed Gull-breathtaking, Genovesa

We headed back to the beach trying to avoid running into any Sea Lions and taking reams of pictures along the way. Many immature Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a Lava Heron lined our route back. The occasional Nazca Booby watched us with interest. A Galapagos Mockingbird stalked me most of the way back. Never had I felt the wildlife take such an positive interest in my presence
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Squawking Swallow-tailed Gull urging our departure

First Image Nazca Booby, displaying-Genovesa

First Image Juvenile Great Frigatebird-Genovesa

First Image Adult male Great Frigatebird showing off and cooling by ruffling up diagnostic greenish iridescent scapulars

As we headed back to the Nemo 2 I glanced back thinking that nothing could ever match this incredible location. Meanwhile we still had the afternoon ahead of us to explore the “top” of the island and its unique features including the enormous Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel breeding colony.

First Image Genovesa Rainbow - enchanting indeed!

After some lunch and snorkelling we were off to the Prince Phillip steps. This is the route up to the top of the cliffs of Genovesa memorializing a visit from the birding Prince in the 60s.
The steps are steep and carved out of the lava and the landing a wee bit treacherous but all went smoothly and our party made it ashore without complication.

First Image Prince Phillip Steps- Genovesa

First Image Up top of Genovesa with Palo Santo trees and nesting Nazca Boobies

While the intial impression of the top-side of Genovesa was a little less overwhelming it was still pretty cool. Nazca Boobies were nesting and fresh chicks to good sized fledglings could be found every few meters along the trail. An occasional Red-footed Booby in a tree could be seen but no nesting. One of the first Nazca Boobies we encountered appeared to have a large number of parasitic insects on its neck. The bird had a very young chick but looked somewhat lethargic and I wondered about its state of health.

First Image Nazca Booby on Genovesa-note the parasitic insects on neck

First Image Close-up of above showing parasitic insects

Thanks to Alvaro Jaramillo for pointing out that this gruesome little creatures are louse-flies or keds he supplied the following link -Hippoboscidae

I looked closely on many other Boobies and only noted one of these parasites on a couple of other boobies. I would be interested in the identity of these creatures if anyone knows.
We most enjoyed the many Nazca Booby chicks and fledglings. Baby boobies are damn homely looking, maybe this makes them unappetizing to predators?

First Image Nazca Booby on nest- Genovesa

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Baby Boobies(and a couple adolescents)-Genovesa

Interestingly although breeding habitat seemed to be available for both species on both the top-side and the shore-side of the island- Red-footed Boobies stuck to small shrubs along the shore-side while Nazcas use the ground on the top-side.

First Image Red-footed Booby loitering on the top-side of Genovesa

It wasn’t long before we reached a large open expanse separated made inaccessible by a very large crevice. The open expanse bordered the sea cliff and appeared to be close to half a kilometer in length. In the air were literally 1000s of Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels racing about in a very fast, terribly erratic manner. Occasionally one could be seen disappearing into a crevice. In the mealy small groups of Red-billed Tropicbirds chased each other around.

Since long before the beginning of the trip I had anticipated photographing Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels at this famous breeding site. This species the only Storm-petrel to visit its nests during the day proved to be a very elusive target and very fast relatively small erratic brown birds against a brown-black background is a challenge that Nikon and I are apparently still nit up to. Despite spending almost all my time trying ( and missing out on very good opportunities to photogragh the tropicbirds) the results were disappointing.

First Image First Image Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels at breeding colony at Genovesa

First Image Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel about to drop into burrow on Genovesa

First Image Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel -Genovesa

As my frustration mounted the group now quite a ways ahead signalled us would be photographers that they had an interesting find. We scurried up to view a Short-eared Owl stretching and preening in a large crevase. It looked well fed and apparently several owls inhabit this site and make a decent living predating the Storm-petrels with obviously more success than we had “capturing” them on film (well digital).

First Image First Image Galapagos subspecies of the Short-eared Owl- Genovesa

Later the group watched a second owl catch a Storm-petrel (yes I was still hopelessly trying to get a decent Wedge-tailed pic). On the way back I finally managed an in-focus shot -unfortunately an owl had been there before me so it leaves a little to the imagination.

First Image Storm-petrel remains after predation by Short-eared Owl

I finally got smart and gave up on the Storm-petrel pics (at least for now). I spent my last few minutes on the top-side getting some pictures of the multiple Red-billed Tropicbirds that played among the Storm-petrels.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Red-billed Tropicbirds, top-side -Genovesa

We returned to the Nemo 2 for the overnight trip to Isabella. We still had several hours of good light and with open ocean ahead I anticipated yet more more excitement.
We encountered several
Galapagos Shearwaters flying along the cliffs of Genoveva. This species once considered a subspecies of Audubon’s Shearwater is quite variable with an interesting “dark under-winged” form. I have posted a brief note Variation noted in Galapagos Shearwaters which includes comments and pictures illustrating the variation in this sp.

First Image Galapagos Shearwater & Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel off Genovesa

First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image Galapagos Shearwater off Genovesa

As Genovesa dissappered into the distance the Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels thinned out and the occasional Band-rumped Storm-petrel started to whiz by. These Storm-petrels appear rangier and longer-winged than the Elliot’s with a much different and more rapid and less fluttering flight style. They don’t tend to flutter around in small groups as Wilson’s/Elliot’s but will often rest on their belly in the water for a few seconds to feed. The last picture in the following group is a Band-rumped just before “belly-feeding”. The Wedge-rumped’s have a very erratic and swallow-like flight and there large white rump patch usually stands out like a sore thumb.

First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image Band-rumped Storm-petrels, off Genovesa

The Galapagos Band-rumpeds appear very similar to the Madeiran Storm-petrels with a relatively narrow rump stripe and a mildly forked tail. Their taxonomic status is really up in the air with the recent developments in the Macronesian Band-rumped complex. Technically the Galapagos birds are still Oceanodroma castro but this will inevitably change. Other Pacific breeding sites occur in Hawaii and Japan and I would not be surprised if they were all eventually considered unique taxa.

Shortly after the Band-rumpeds showed up Jesse spotted a dark-rumped storm-petrel. There ended up seeing a small cluster of these birds that appeared largish with a rather subdued carpal bar. After several viewings we felt these were
Black-storm Petrels. However given the suboptimal views I think I will leave these as “unidentified dark storm-petrels”. Unfortunately they were never close enough to get decent pictures in the fading light. The next sighting was of a rather distant larger dark shearwater. Jesse felt this was likely a Sooty and after reviewing the photos we all concurred that this was a Sooty Shearwater although I would have preferred a Wedge-tailed which seemed just as likely.

First Image Distant Sooty Shearwater, off Marchena

Next came the prize of the day as Peter spotted our first Galapagos Petrel. It made several passes of the boat at high speed and the jet black back glistened in the waning light. It was one of the highlights of the trip and a really great moment for all. Although a challenge to photograph we managed to document the smudgy black axillary markings that separates this species from the very similar Hawaiian Petrel.

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Our first look at a Galapagos Petrel off Marchena- note the smudgy black axillary markings


Well it had been quite the day. As the sunset we headed towards Isabella with anticipation of the wonders that would avail us in the morning.

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Route of the Nemo 2- Day 2

End of Part 1


In Part 2 which is coming soon you will find better pictures of Storm-Petrels and Galapagos Petrels along with Galapagos Penguins, Waved Albatrosses and of course Lonesome George (George Solitario)

A few more pics until next time

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A pair of boobies on Genovesa - photo by Jesse Fagan

First Image Magnificent Frigatebird - Las Bachas

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Juvenile Greater Frigatebirds-Genovesa

First Image Mangrove Yellow Warbler -Las Bacahas - ubiquitous in the Galapagos

First Image American Flamingo- Las Bachas

First Image Pair of Swallow-tail Gulls- Genovesa

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Large Ground Finch “Megamouth”- Genovesa