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Ecuador and the Galapagos, Jan 2020 (1 Viewer)

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Great diversity of wildlife! Those iguanas are incredible to look at - like paint flaking off ancient buildings.

Matt Bell

Registered User
14 January (morning)

The day at Isabela Island began with a dinghy ride into the mangroves at Punta Moreno. As we approached the shore, we had our first sight of Flightless Cormorant on the rocks. In the sandy, shallow bay there were plenty of rays — Spotted Eagle-Ray, Marbled Ray and Diamond Stingray.

Perched in the mangroves were large numbers of immature Brown Pelican — which look even more dinosaur-like than the adults (see pic). We also had a cracking view of a Lava Heron perched on a branch out in the open. A single Semi-palmated Plover was picking away at the shoreline. The dinghy ride ended with our first sight of some rather glum-looking Galapagos Penguin on the rocks, among hundreds of basking Marine Iguanas (see pic).

Disembarking we took a short hike across the pahoehoe lava to a small pool, which is sometimes used by flamingos, but not today. We did however get a good close view of a Large Painted Locust.

Our pre-lunch outing was snorkeling off Punta Moreno. The water wasn’t especially clear, and the fish not as varied as on our previous dives, so we swam along the coast not expecting very much. We were wrong.

The turbid water was full of life, and it came closer to us than even my most feverish dreams about the Galapagos had led me to expect. It started with a lone Flightless Cormorant — our first underwater encounter with this strangest of birds. The bird dived repeatedly right in of my wife and me, literally at arm’s length — we could have reached out and touched it. Once, twice, maybe five or six times it dived powerfully and effortlessly to the rocky seafloor, about ten feet down, until it finally came up with its reward, a little octopus about the size of my fist. The octopus, small though it was, wasn’t going to give up without a fight — it wrapped its legs round the cormorant’s bill, trying to force the bird to release it. This struggle went on for a minute or so, a foot or two below the surface and just three or four feet in front of us. I imagine the octopus's tactic of smothering the cormorant might be effective -- maybe the cormorant would get tired and give up. But then out of nowhere, a sealion shot towards us at frightening speed and snatched the octopus out of the cormorant’s bill. Which I guess taught us who was the top predator in this bit of inshore water, and that for all the little octopus's valiant efforts, it couldn't do anything about a big hungry sealion.


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Matt Bell

Registered User
14 January (afternoon)

There was plenty to digest over lunch. After the cormorant-octopus-sealion incident, we’d had a couple more close encounters with sealions. Swimming in their presence was really extraordinary. They’re big beasts that swim like lightning and yet they’re able to turn on a sixpence at top speed. We found it alarming at first: they’d bullet straight towards us at such pace that a collision seemed inevitable, and then at the last instant they’d suddenly veer away. Once we got used to them, we couldn’t help but giggle at their sheer speed and agility. Divers sometimes talk about sealions playing with them. Perhaps that’s true. Or perhaps it’s their inquisitiveness and confidence that makes them approach divers so close. Or maybe they’re just showing off.

After lunch we disembarked at Urbina Bay and took a walk through the dry scrub in pursuit of Land Iguanas and tortoises. At first though it was all about birds. The brush was thick with them, and as usual they were utterly unbothered by our presence. We got very close to a few Galapagos Mockingbirds and Galapagos Flycatchers (see pics). Eventually, we found a huge male Galapagos Land Iguana, resplendently painted in all the yellows and reds of iron oxide. This character was really picture perfect, and he posed beautifully for us, showing us all the fine detail of his armour, especially the crest of vicious-looking spikes along his spine. Eventually he had enough and plodded off (see pics). Finally to round off the hike, we found a splendid mature tortoise.


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Matt Bell

Registered User
15 January

The morning found us at Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. The cove itself was full of Brown Noddies. We landed for a hike up the hillside and great views of Isabela’s volcanoes. On the way back down we stopped to look at the salt lagoon of Darwin Lake — a circle of brilliant blue water shading to green and yellow at the shore. It was a long way down to the water from our viewpoint, but we could just about make out several hundred-strong rafts of small birds — our first Red-necked Phalarope.

Before lunch we explored the cove by kayak, with Noddies flying all around us and Boobies on the cliffs.

During lunch we sailed across the strait to Fernandina Island, accompanied by Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel and massive rafts of thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes. I don’t know how many we saw — the phalaropes seemed to go on forever, one huge raft after another. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 10,000 of them. I’ve never seen birds at sea in such huge numbers before.

That was just a prelude to the main event of the day — the mouth-watering prospect of a landing at Punta Espinosa. If you don’t know it, do check out the gripping sequence in the Planet Earth II TV series, where a Marine Iguana hatchling only just escapes the clutches of some Banded Racer Snakes — that was filmed at Punta Espinosa. Well, we didn’t see any snakes, but the place has to be one of the most magical I’ve ever visited — up there with the Okavango Delta and the Ngorongoro Crater.

The landing at Punta Espinosa is in the middle of a thick growth of mangroves, so as you disembark surrounded by mangroves, you have no sense of what awaits on the open shoreline beyond. Emerging from the mangroves, you’re on a rocky shore, with the occasional small beach. The Marine Iguanas are everywhere, thousands of them, along with good numbers of Flightless Cormorants. The sight of these cormorants hanging out their vestigial wings to dry would be odd and even a bit pathetic, had we not seen one hunt so skilfully underwater.

Punta Espinosa is also a popular sealion nursery, with plenty of pups play-fighting in the shallows, as well as the odd bull flexing its muscles. A couple of sealions came up to us and sniffed at our legs, just like any friendly labrador you might meet in your local park.

The new birds we saw were really just a side-show -- Galapagos Dove, Wandering Tattler (one bird among a group of Whimbrel), Ruddy Turnstone, and American Oystercatcher (including a mother with a newly hatched chick). But what’s really magical about Punta Espinosa is that almost every square meter of seemingly unhospitable rocky and sandy ground is packed with animal life.


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Matt Bell

Registered User
16 January

Overnight our boat took us round the northern tip of Isabela to Santiago Island.

The main event of the day was a morning hike along the shore of James Bay. This is a rocky shore with a wide tidal zone full of rockpools and, inevitably, thousands of Marine Iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs (see pic). Which also means herons: Great-blue Heron (see pic), Lava Heron and Yellow-crowned Night Heron. The were also a few Semi-palmated Plover and American Oystercatcher.

The scrub and bushes on the landward side of the path were full of Galapagos Doves, Galapagos Flycatchers and Yellow Warblers. The flycatchers here were the most confiding birds yet: there was a pair that landed on our cameras, attracted by their own reflection in the lenses, I suppose (see pic).

This was also a hangout for Galapagos Fur Seal families. The pups really are the cutest things alive (see pic). And at last, just as we were heading back to the dinghy, we saw our first and only Galapagos raptor: the endemic Galapagos Hawk. Although just a typical buteo in appearance (c.p. Swainson's), it was great to find the bird. There may be as few as 150 individuals.


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Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Amazing - it really is the ‘land that time forgot’ isn’t it! What’s that behind the Oystercatcher- it looks like an ossified giant tortoise!?

Matt Bell

Registered User
Amazing - it really is the ‘land that time forgot’ isn’t it! What’s that behind the Oystercatcher- it looks like an ossified giant tortoise!?

My uneducated guess is that it's a bit of whale skeleton. We did see other whales bones lying around at Punta Espinoza.

Matt Bell

Registered User
16 January

This was also a hangout for Galapagos Fur Seal families. The pups really are the cutest things alive (see pic). And at last, just as we were heading back to the dinghy, we saw our first and only Galapagos raptor: the endemic Galapagos Hawk. Although just a typical buteo in appearance (c.p. Swainson's), it was great to find the bird. There may be as few as 150 individuals.

CORRECTION: 150 mating pairs

Matt Bell

Registered User
17 January

The next morning took us to the east side of Santiago and a walk across the pahoehoe lava of Sullivan’s Bay, with good numbers of Galapagos Penguins on the shore.

No new birds today, but in the afternoon we had a real treat — perhaps our best birding day of the Galapagos trip. During lunch we sailed across the channel to the very small and fairly flat North Seymour Island. After an excellent hour of snorkelling up and down the coast (sharks and rays), we landed for a walk across the island and through its stunted forest of Dwarf Palo Santo trees, which is a main nesting site for Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds and Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies.

All were present except the Nazcas. The Blue-foots didn’t seem to be breeding — the views were great anyway, and there was some nice pair-bonding going on (see pic). Both frigatebird species were in breeding behaviour — we saw a good number of males with their bright-red gular pouches fully inflated. They really are extraordinary creatures. Seen in a strong late-afternoon sunlight, the irridescence of the scapular feathers is very clear, which is the best way to distinguish Great from Magnificent — the former being purple-green and the latter purple. (The second frigatebird pic below is a Great.) The gular pouches showed a vivid pale red.

Walking across to the north side of the small island, we found plenty of sealions with pups on the beach. Also we got our best views of Swallow-tailed Gull. Now gulls don’t generally rank high in my bird beauty parades, but this species is really gorgeous. And I don’t normally brag about my photos, but the pic below of the Swallow-tailed Gull is rather nice.

So no new birds, but exceptional views of some top Galapagos species.


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Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
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Matt Bell

Registered User
18 January

After eight days of cruising it was time to leave paradise.

Before returning to Seymour Airport for our flight back to Quito, we stopped off for an early morning stroll on Mosquera Islet, a low and unpromising stretch of sand and rock. The main attraction was the sealion colony. The eastern shore of Mosquera has good waves – yes, it’s a surfing beach! And of course sealions do love surfing. So we had a delightful half hour watching some sealion cubs body-boarding on the waves. And our last bird species of the Galapagos leg of the trip was the lowly Sanderling.

That’s a healthier number Matt but still a critically low number for an endemic species - sadly human disturbance/occupation may be partly to blame - and like all island habitats, cat predation is apparently a serious issue for wildlife on the Galapagos https://www.darwinfoundation.org/en/datazone/checklist?species=5211

The number of tourists visiting the Galapagos has exploded in the last twenty years, as has the resident population -- the average wage is higher than on the mainland, so it's to be expected.

In addition to cats, there's a problem with rats (obviously) and wild goats. On the plus side, the Galapagos is such a unique and iconic place that it's been able to attract significant resources to address these problems. Good work has been done in eradicating invasive species from some islands.

The worst problem at the moment seems to be the industrial-scale fishing of sharks, mainly by Chinese boats. Quite how a small country like Ecuador can defend itself against that is still to be seen.

Matt Bell

Registered User
19 January

Having arrived back in Quito the previous afternoon, we were off again at the crack of dawn: we headed out of Quito in a minibus for Mashpi Lodge, about two-and-a-half hours’ drive north and (thankfully) at only 900m above sea level. En route we stopped for lunch at the ancient ruins of Tulipe and clocked our first cloud-forest bird: Flame-rumped Tanager (subsp. icteronotus). (The pic below was actually taken a couple of days later at Mashpi, but I include it here because …).

The Mashpi Lodge is in a 2,500-hectare reserve. The lodge itself is super-modern and pretty luxurious. The floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere, even in the bedrooms (see pic below), make it feel like you’re within touching distance of the forest, which is of course the real star of the show.

Mashpi is a remnant of what was once a continuous corridor of cloud forest stretching from Panama down to Peru. Not much remains. We learned that there are three key things about cloud forest: altitude (not too high and not too low), rainfall (lots of it), and moss (absolutely everywhere: see pic below). The moss absorbs vast quantities of water, so that under the burning equatorial sun there’s a huge upwards flow of water vapour which then turns into a cover of low cloud just above the forest canopy. So there’s a constant alternation of sun and cloud, and when the rain falls, as it does every day, it can be absolutely torrential.

On arrival we took a walk through the forest with a guide and — saw no birds at all. Strange. Late afternoon back at the lodge, I had a quick look from the rooftop terrace and saw White-and-blue Swallow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Moss-backed Tanager — the last is the signature bird of the reserve. But by the end of the day I was beginning to wonder whether the biodiversity was, well, not quite all it was cracked up to be. Of course, I shouldn’t have worried.


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Matt Bell

Registered User
20 January

Another early start. We set off on foot through the forest before dawn to have breakfast at one of the top birding spots. Our disappointment the previous afternoon was explained: the afternoon is usually quiet, the early morning definitely very noisy! We didn’t stop much on on the short walk and only saw what (literally) crossed our path: Rufous-breasted Ant-Thrush and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch.

Our destination was a platform looking down across a clearing onto the forest beyond. The next two hours saw a cavalcade of wonderful forest birds, some attracted by the ripe bananas left out for them, but most just doing what they do naturally.

I’d like to be able to write a structured narrative, but all I have is a list: Black-cheeked Woodpecker (see pic), Buff-throated Saltator, Purple-crowned Fairy (female, see pic), Blue-grey Tanager (already seen at Napo), Flame-rumped Tanager (seen the day before at Tulipe), Rose-faced Parrot (we saw a fair few of these), Palm Tanager, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Squirrel Cuckoo, Collared Araçari (see pic: a particularly dapper and engaging bird), Western Wood-Peewee, Tricoloured Brush-Finch, Variable Seedeater (subsp. ophthalmica, male, see pic), Common Tody-Flycatcher, Ruddy Pigeon (also seen at Napo), Ornate Hawk-Eagle (sadly too distant to appreciate its full magnificence), Black-winged Saltator (see pic), Green Thorntail, Bronze-winged Parrot, Black-tipped Cotinga, Thick-billed Euphonia, Maroon-tailed Parakeet, Andean Emerald, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Pale-Banded Thrush, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper. And … relax.

Yes, we did. We spent the afternoon wheeling through the canopy on a weird bicycle-cum-skilift contraption. Afternoons are quiet, as we were discovering. Only one new bird: Choco Toucan.


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JWN Andrewes

Poor Judge of Pasta.
Been really enjoying this account Matt. I spent 5 months in Ecuador way back in '89, mostly in cloud forest, but also along the Napo, so this is bringing back a lot of fond birding memories. Sounds like you had a great trip.

Matt Bell

Registered User
Been really enjoying this account Matt. I spent 5 months in Ecuador way back in '89, mostly in cloud forest, but also along the Napo, so this is bringing back a lot of fond birding memories. Sounds like you had a great trip.

Thanks for the kind comments. 5 months in Ecuador sounds like heaven.

Matt Bell

Registered User
21 January

Time to see some more Hummingbirds. Just inside the entrance to the reserve, there’s a shelter with some hummingbird feeders. It seems to attract lots of other small birds: flycatchers, tanagers and so on. (Again, food is put out for them.) Before dawn, we were ferried up to the reserve gate in a minibus, and then we strolled back down along the track to the shelter.

There was a group of trees just before the shelter that seemed to be very attractive to the birds, and in the space of ten minutes just standing on the road we’d seen an amazing array of species: Ochre-breasted Tanager, Empress Brilliant, Ornate Flycatcher, Flame-faced Tanager, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Velvet-purple Coronet, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Black-billed Peppershrike, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Cinnamon Becard. And that was before we’d even reached the feeding station.

At Mashpi there’s good reason to have a shelter to sit under. For much of the two hours or so we spent at the feeding station, it absolutely bucketed down. Proper cloud forest rain. However, it didn’t stop the birds. The hummingbirds zipped in and out: Violet-tailed Sylph, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Purple-throated Woodstar, Brown Inca, White-necked Jacobin, Green-crowned Brilliant and Booted Racket-tail (see pic: this is the last of the four pics below, but otherwise they're in the right order).

The other birds were splendid too: Smoke-coloured Peewee, Golden Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager (a stunningly beautiful bird: see pic, with Flame-faced Tanager), Golden-naped Tanager (see pic), Rufous-throated Tanager, and Toucan Barbet — the nominate race is an Ecuador endemic and a very striking bird indeed (see pic).

After lunch back at the lodge, we hiked to an observation tower above the forest canopy. Up in the clouds there were White-collared Swift and Grey-rumped Swift, and below us in the canopy Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, Rufous-brown Solitaire, and Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager.


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