Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard the M/V Evolution Jul 25—Aug 03, 2014

Posted by Paul Greenfield

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Paul Greenfield

Paul Greenfield grew up near New York City and became interested in birds as a child. He received his B.F.A. from Temple University where he was an art major at the Tyler S...

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Cruising the Galapagos Islands is a truly multidimensional experience—both in time and space—on land and sea, and under the sea. It may well be the closest one will ever come to experiencing time travel, being transported back to earth’s earliest development, at times feeling like being caught in a sort of limbo within an evolutionary timeframe between two end-points…how else can those crazy Flightless Cormorants with their apparently useless, disheveled wings be explained? One’s attention is constantly drawn to earth’s fascinating tectonic and volcanic geology, and how ocean and wind currents play a key role in defining the colonization of a special floral and faunal community. One is taken back in human history with every step, retracing those of explorers, pirates, whalers, sailors, and adventurers, not to mention Charles Darwin, the voyage of the Beagle, and his earth-shattering revelations on the origin of species…and then there’s life aboard ship, its cuisine and creature comforts.

Espanola Mockingbird

Espanola Mockingbird— Photo: Paul J. Greenfield

Our July Galapagos Islands Cruise was no exception to this paradigm. We explored these wonderful islands—described as “dross and worthless…” by their 1535 discoverer, Fray Tomás de Berlanga—strolling along ivory, red, and black beaches, walking through distinct environments of cacti, Palo Santo, and thorn scrub, barren lava flows with the most primitive colonizing plants, and highland “transitional” and Scalezia (dandelion relatives) forests. We explored rocky coastlines in our pangas/Zodiacs and scanned the ocean’s surface for whales, dolphins, and rays. Snorkelers swam among exotic fish, sharks, and sea-stars, and played with sea turtles, sea lions, cormorants, and penguins, or was it the other way around? We stood among sea lions, Land and Marine iguanas, Lava Lizards, and Giant Tortoises; visited with nesting Waved Albatross, Blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls, and Galapagos Hawk; and we even shared our ship’s deck and masts with Magnificent Frigatebirds, a Galapagos Dove, and a few finches. We watched from the ship’s deck as a frightened Flying Fish ably escaped the hungry jaws of a pair of Galapagos Sharks, only to be snatched up by a stealthy sea lion. We witnessed a dueling albatross threesome, dancing Blue-footed Boobies with their flashing “blue-suede shoes,” breaching Humpback Whales, and hunting Orcas.

Our birding on these “enchanted isles” was typically enjoyable with most species being relatively effortless to see—though we had to take care to avoid stepping on a few boobies, doves, and finches—and a select few demanding some special effort. Watching Waved Albatross at sea as we neared Española Island was very special; enjoying close views of a beautiful Swallow-tailed Gull escorting our ship during the night was unforgettable; and Red-billed Tropicbirds flying repeatedly by us while they attempted to make a perfect landing at their nest became an instant ooh and ahh moment. But it seems to be that collection of ordinary-looking Darwin’s finches—yes, those that confused even Charles himself—that always seemed to challenge us the most. We sifted through one-after-another, checking beaks and comparing plumage over and over again. It was really on two islands that “finching” got kinda serious; on Santa Cruz and our brief morning on San Cristóbal, our chances of seeing many of the possible species was greatest, so we needed to focus, and we did just that. On our two-day visit to Santa Cruz Island (Bachas Beach, Cerro Dragón, the highlands and Darwin Station), eight of the nine possible finch species were seen by at least some of the group, Large Tree-Finch got away and Vegetarian Finch was seen by only a few of us. So we had excellent views of Woodpecker Finch, Green Warbler-Finch, Common Cactus-Finch, and a Large Ground-Finch, aside from the more common and widespread Small and Medium ground-finches and Small Tree-Finch.

Our mission was clear for the last morning before heading to the airport on San Cristóbal Island: seek out Large Tree-Finch and Vegetarian Finch, along with the island endemic San Cristóbal Mockingbird, and get decent looks at them. We arranged to take a bus at the Puerto Baquerizo Moreno landing for all those interested, and headed to the highlands. Our driver suggested trying our luck along a side road we came across and, with only a limited amount of time available, we walked up the track, checking the trees and shrubs for any finches we could find—there were lots and we quickly picked up several species, including more Green Warbler-Finches and Woodpecker Finch along with other common species. A somewhat familiar song type was heard and our first San Cristóbal Mockingbird showed up, then another. They then came in close (no surprise, after all we were on the Galapagos Islands!). Shortly after that, and after playing what seemed like ineffective tape of Vegetarian Finch vocalizations, two silent Veggis came in and sat close by for all to see…excellent! Shortly afterwards, a pair of Large Tree-Finches came into view; oblivious to our presence, they proceeded to forage and fuss about in plain view. Couldn´t ask for more than that; we even had time to join the rest of the group at the local Galapagos Museum, back in town, before heading to the airport for our return flight. Not bad! A perfect way to end a perfect trip!