The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator approximately 600 miles west from the coast of Ecuador. Twenty islands, over 50 islets, and some 250 rocks comprise this remote archipelago. What makes the Galapagos unique is the unbelievable biodiversity found in the islands. A delicate ecosystem comprised of plants and animals makes the best bird sightings in the Galapagos. Thousands of miles of the open ocean provide as many as 1,000,000 seabirds with a place of their own.
The Galapagos Islands are a bird watcher’s dream and needs to be understood that birding here is different than a rainforest. Visitors have the chance to get up close and personal with frigate birds, dancing boobies, lava gulls and waved albatrosses. Even travelers who are not birders will enjoy the numerous birds found on the islands as they are behaviorally and visually interesting. Many have become avid birders after witnessing the Galapagos bird life.
Formerly known as the Waved Albatross, this is one of the most graceful flying birds in the world. They can spend months without touching land. These are the largest birds in the islands with wingspans of up to 8 feet wide. This albatross species has one of the most amazing ritualized courtship displays of any bird. The display includes a perfectly choreographed “dance” of up to 20 minutes. The dance features lots of bill clicking, bowing, whistling, honking and swaying. It is quite mesmerizing to watch. This is an island-endemic seabird and can only be seen on Española (Hood) Island from early April to late December. Española Island is one part of the islands of the southeastern region of the archipelago.
This graceful bird is one of the most impressive seabirds found in the Galapagos Islands. With their black eye stripe and coral red bill, they are easy to spot. They like to feed far out into the sea, diving for squid and fish. When approaching their cliff-side nests, they show their keen accuracy as they land right on crevices and small holes. Best observations of red-billed tropicbirds occur in the afternoon, and their main nesting areas can be seen on Genovesa, South Plaza, and Española Islands.
One of the most famous birds in the Galapagos is the blue-footed booby. With bright blue feet and unusual courtship display, these birds are fascinating to observe. They also are keynote species for understanding how a particular weather pattern may set in the islands since their breeding strategy is known as “opportunistic breeding”. Best nesting colonies are found on North Seymour, Española, and Isabela Islands.
These are only a few of the birds found in the islands. There are more than 50 species of land and sea birds in total on the islands. The remarkable feature of birdwatching in the Galapagos is not the numbers of species, like in rainforests or cloud forests, but the unusual endemic species found here like Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, Darwin’s finches, the famous mockingbirds, doves, petrels, and to make the list even more bizarre there’s a flamingo species.
Here are some of the best bird sightings in the Galapagos:
Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos and one of the few places where the extremely rare shearwater bird can be seen. Punta Vicente Roca in the northern tip of the island is one of the best areas for spotting blue-footed boobies, noddy terns, brown pelicans, and Galapagos penguins. At Tagus Cove, flightless cormorants, mockingbirds and at least three species of Darwin’s finches can be seen. At Urbina Bay, Galapagos doves and yellow warblers are popular bird species to be seen.
Santa Cruz is the second-largest island in the Galapagos and holds many vegetation zones at different elevations. Most visitors to the islands spend some time here. The island is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, an important facility where eco-research takes place. Santa Cruz has a variety of birds and marine animals, some of which are the only remaining members of their species. There are several species of Darwin’s finches. At least seven species can be easily spotted here. In addition, various shorebirds and seabirds can be found in nearby Tortuga Bay. Las Bachas, a gorgeous white sand beach located on the north side of the island, is home to white-cheeked pintails, finches, and American flamingos. You can also see Sally Lightfoot crabs wandering around on the rocks. The crabs may attract striated herons and great blue herons.
Santa Cruz has several large volcanic craters. Media Luna, one of the largest craters, is a good spot to observe Galapagos rails, common gallinules, and crakes, although these are rare and very secretive. They are only likely to be seen by an expert guide who knows how and when to find them. Other birds located on the island include the unusual woodpecker finch and Galapagos flycatchers. Dark-billed cuckoos can be also seen up in the highlands, and with some luck vermillion flycatchers.
Española, also known as Hood Island, is the southeastern-most island in the Galapagos. It is a must-see island for birding as it offers a variety of unique bird watching opportunities. Espanola is the primary nesting site of the Galapagos albatross. These birds are usually only seen at sea. The entire population thrives on Española from April to late December, and their stunning courtship can be seen from April to late July. About two dozen albatrosses have been spotted on Plata Island off the coast of mainland Ecuador. Espanola is also home to one of the biggest colonies of nesting blue-footed boobies in the world. Other birds that nest on the island include Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and red-billed tropicbirds. Land birds found on Espanola include the large cactus finch, the Galapagos dove, small ground finch, warbler finch, and the Galapagos hawk.
Floreana Island is known for having a colorful history involving whalers, convicts, buccaneers and pirates who frequented the island in the 18th century. This island is definitely one of the best bird sightings in the Galapagos where you can see a variety of marine birds, including the blue-footed booby, herons, brown pelicans, flamingos, and with some luck the medium tree finch which is an island endemic. In brackish water lagoons, you may spot pintail ducks, common stilts, sandpipers, whimbrels, and sanderlings.
Perhaps the best bird sightings in the Galapagos can be fully witnessed up north in the island of Genovesa (Tower). This northern island is accessed by very few ships, but here is where the show of birds will occur. This is for sure one of the best places to see the wild combination of bird species: great frigatebirds, swallow-tail gulls, Galapagos shearwaters, tropicbirds, finches, red-footed boobies, yellow warblers, and even a predator species like the very well camouflaged short-eared owl.
An expedition cruise is a great way to view all the exceptional wildlife that the Galapagos has to offer. You will encounter exotic fauna, wild animals and a large variety of bird species. A Galapagos cruise provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy a highly immersive birding experience that you will remember long after you return home.
Blog Reviewed & Edited by: Francisco Dousdebés
All Images: Francisco Dousdebés