We spent 18 days in Ecuador in September 2009 bird watching in 3 locations; i.e., Quito metro area, the Galapagos Islands and the Tandayapa Valley.
This review covers bird watching on the Celebrity Xpedition cruise of September 6 to 13, 2009, and some info on the pre and post cruise activities.
On our first morning in Quito, we walked around the Marriott Hotel (0.197S 78.489W) and were surprised to see a very long-tailed hummingbird nesting outside the hotel entrance. Our tour guide that day confirmed that is was a Black-tailed Trainbearer. We also saw a Sparkling Violetear hummingbird in the bottle bushes by the pool. Rufous-collared Sparrows were flying in the lobby, and several Glossy-black Thrushes landed on the roof outside our room.
We took a bus tour of Old Town Quito that was part of the Celebrity package. We visited the World Heritage Sites including the Church of the Company of Jesus where they had used animals from Ecuador like penguins, condors, tortoises, iguanas, etc to decorate the exterior, instead of Gargoyles. Hundreds of Rock Pigeons and a few Eared Doves were in the plaza outside the church. We also stopped at the Independence Plaza, Presidential Palace and Zócalo (center of town plaza), before heading to the Pululahua Crater 16 Km outside of town for lunch. In the afternoon we stopped at the Middle of the Earth Monument, where we saw a Vermilion Flycatcher in the flowers.
We flew from Quito to Baltra in the Galapagos Islands on Sept 6. With 92 passengers, this is the largest cruise ship operating in the Galapagos Islands, but small enough to allow intensive exploration of the islands.
The rooms were slightly smaller that other cruise ships we had been on, but more than adequate with plenty of storage and a nice bathroom. The beds were fine, but we couldn’t see how they would make into a comfortable double bed since the foot of the bed tapered down a few inches – plus someone would be trapped against the wall.
Br & Lu were normally buffets in the dining room, but sometimes they used the back deck. Dinner was menu service in the dining room – all casual dress. They requested that passengers select their dinner menu items from a checklist each morning so they would not waste food – good idea.
They mostly used fresh food items from the Galapagos or Ecuador – we saw them bringing coolers of lobsters to the ship on zodiac boats the night we had lobster for dinner. There was a lot of Ecuadorian influence in the menus – all good. All the guides, cooks, zodiac boat drivers, etc were from Ecuador. The guides all spoke great English (which is a requirement to be a guide in Ecuador). The US Dollar is the official currency of Ecuador, so there was no exchange problems.
In the afternoon we sailed a few miles to East Seymour Island (0.400S 90.291W – i.e. Zero degrees and (60 x .4) 24 minutes or 24 miles south of the Equator). We went ashore in Zodiac boats and hiked 2 Km around a Blue-footed Booby and Magnificant Frigatebird rookery, with hundreds of nesting and courting birds. Some of the Blue-footed Boobys were doing their mating dances. Our guide tried to imitate the dance and almost fell on the loose lava cinders. We saw one Great Frigatebird chick sitting on a nest. We were amazed at how close you could get to the nesting birds.
The National Park has closed the islands where the Red-footed Boobys nest. They are rarely seen in areas other than where they breed. We didn’t see any.
Walking on the irregular lava surface was really tough, and hard on your feet and ankles. The ship provided walking sticks, but with a camera and binoculars, there were not enough hands for everything! At least one overweight man fell and got scratched pretty badly.
Swallow-tailed and Lava Gulls roost around the rookery. The Swallow-tail Gull is a nocturnal feeder (the only nocturnal feeding gull in the world). Yellow Warblers, American Oystercatchers and Ruddy Turnstones rounded out the show along the coast – there were large numbers of Yellow Warblers were on every island, but no other warbler species.
You can put the Lat. & Long. I give into Google Earth to see the location I am discussing. You will normally find lots of pictures there as well.
At 9am we arrived at the small town of Puerto Baquerizo (0.901S 89.611W) to tour the Human History Museum and shop in town. All the stores had Blue-footed Booby jewelry. Along the streets we saw 2 species of Darwin Finches; i.e., the Medium Ground-Finch and the more numerous Small Ground-Finch. There were also some Smooth-billed Anis. At the beach in town Sealions rested behind a fence designed to keep them out of town. After lunch we arrived at Espanola Island (1.371S 89.732W). On the 3Km guided hike we saw 16 bird species including the Galapagos Dove, 3 Galapagos Hawks up-close, a Hood Mockingbird, and numerous Large Cactus-Finches. The highlights were the nesting Red-billed Tropicbirds soaring close overhead, and the Waved Albatross nesting colony. We were too late for the Albatross mating dances that takes place in April, but numerous Albatross chick in downy feathers were visible. The several hundred Albatrosses in this colony use a “runway” that drops over the edge of a cliff in order to get their hefty bodies airborne. The Waved Albatrosses fly back to Peru to get food to feed their chicks.
Espanola Island is also home to the very photographic red and green Christmas Marine Iguanas. A large blowhole is located near the Albatross colony.
Unlike most cruises, the distance covered each night is fairly short. Typically, the ship would anchor around 11pm is a remote harbor. In the early morning they would complete the trip to the next destination.
On September 8 we landed on Floreana Island (1.205S 90.413W) about 8am. On the Cormorant Trail hike we passes a large lagoon where dozens of Greater Caribbean Flamingos were nesting in lava rocks accompanied by several White-cheeked Pintails, Wilson's Phalaropes, Semipalmated Plovers, Great Blue Herons, and Ruddy Turnstones. Cactus-Finches and Yellow Warblers were also present.
We hiked over to a beach where Green Sea Turtles nest. This was not the normal nesting season, but we could see the drag marks in the soft sand where a female turtle had come a shore overnight to lay eggs, and the tiny tracks of baby sea turtles heading toward the ocean. Several Magnificent Frigatebirds were flying low over the beach searching for turtle eggs.
There were 6 snorkeling opportunities during the cruise. We elected not to go snorkeling, even though we had brought our own snorkel masks and tubes, because the water was relatively cold, we had sinus issues, and there was not enough time to do the bird identification from the hundreds of pictures I would take on each outing and still go snorkeling. Many people went snorkeling with the wet suits provided by the ship. Some people saw turtles, penguins, and sea lions in the water; others didn’t see much.
In the mid afternoon we returned to Floreana Island (1.223S 90.419W) to search for Galapagos Penguins. We didn’t find any on our Ponga Boat (a.k.a. Zodiac) ride to shore, but we did see some Black-bellied Plovers and Solitary Sandpipers along with Galapagos Shearwaters. By the time we got to shore a pair of Penguins had started swimming just off shore.
We hiked up to the Baroness Lookout for a view of the area – magnificent! On the return Ponga Boat ride we found a pair of Galapagos Penguins on a lava outcropping in the bay.
On Sept 9 we used the Ponga Boats to land on Santa Cruz Island (0.494S 90.327W) at Bachas Beach. We went for a long hike behind the beach to a pond where we saw Black-necked Stilts, and an adult plus Juvenile Greater Caribbean Flamingo. Along the coast were Striated Herons, Wandering Tattlers, and a Whimbrel; along with a few Lava Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Sanderlings, Semipalmated Plovers. Hundreds of Blue-footed Boobys, Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, Brown Noddys, Brown Pelicans, and Galapagos Shearwater were off shore. In the brush we found the Medium Ground-Finch and Small Ground-Finch plus a Galapagos Flycatcher.
By mid afternoon we arrived at Bartolome Island (0.283S 90.553W) with its volcanic peaks and lunar landscape of relatively fresh lava. We took the 1.5 Km trail to the scenic lookout high over the island (that involved climbing 358 wooden steps). Only one Small Ground-Finch flew by on the hike. Later at Bartolome Beach, we saw some Galapagos Penguins and numerous ocean birds.
After dinner around 10pm they turned on the ship’s lights to draw in ocean birds and marine animals. A Brown Pelican showed up and proceeded to catch flying fish. Some people saw a shark swimming beside the ship. The spookiest thing was a Swallow-tailed Gull flapping in the dark - looking like an Owl.
Overnight September 10 we briefly sailed into the Northern Hemisphere before returning to the Southern Hemisphere at Isabela Island (0.644S 91.125W). By 9am we were at Urbina Bay where we saw several large Land Iguanas and their lava tube boroughs. Coming a shore, we had a brief glimpse of a Flightless Cormorant in the water. Hiking around the island we saw some Cactus-Finches, Sharp-beaked and Small Ground-Finches, Galapagos Mockingbirds, and a Galapagos Penguin back at the beach. The most unusual bird sighting of the day was 11 Galapagos Hawks soaring overhead (like vultures).
Back on ship the crew had set out sandwiches and cookies. After a Lava Gull got into the snacks, they all went into the garbage.
For lunch we had a back deck buffet. While I was sitting next to the rail, someone yelled “Manta Raye”! I pointed my camera in the direction of the splash and got a beautiful series of pictures of a Manta Reye jumping out of the water and doing a 360-degree flip in mid-air (using a 200mm lens on Sport setting). Great pictures!
By late afternoon we arrived at Espinoza Point on Fernandina Island (0.351S 91.381W), home of the Galapagos Flightless Cormorants. Hiking around the lava rocks we found 5 Cormorants, 3 drying their pathetic looking wings like normal cormorants. We saw 15 birds here including the Lava Heron. This turned out to be a good spot to see Green Sea turtles swimming in the water up-close. We saw several baby Sealions with their Mother’s, with the Bull keeping his eye on us. There were also mobs of Marine Iguanas sunning on the lava rocks, and blowing salt water out of their nose at us.
On September 11 we sailed back to Santiago Island (1.225S 90.854W) near Puerto Egas to see Fur Sealions (a.k.a. Fur Seals). Fur Sealions are about one-third the size of regular Sea Lions, but they have external ears, unlike Seals. On the morning hike to the Fur Sealion area we past close enough to a Galapagos Hawk to touch it! We saw 21 bird species this morning including the Cactus-Finch, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Mockingbird, Ruddy Turnstone, Striated Heron, Whimbrel, Great Egret, and a Wandering Tattler. The best photo op was when a Small Ground-Finch decided to clean a Marine Iguana in front of us.
On our way to the NW corner of Santa Cruz Island, we had to make an emergency deviation to Port Ayora (the largest town in the Galapagos Islands) to disembark a lady that had developed a breathing problem (she had been snorkeling in the morning and came up spitting blood). This kind of thing happens more than you might think. Cruise ships I have been on have made emergency medical stops on 3 out of 9 cruises. The moral of the story is - buy the trip insurance, which covers emergency air evacuation from remote places like this that are otherwise very expensive!
We arrived at Dragon Hill (0.515S 90.47W) around 4:30pm. There was plenty of time for the 1.5-mile hike to see Land Iguanas. We also saw some Medium and Small Ground-Finches, American Oystercatchers, Black-necked Stilts, Flamingos, Galapagos Mockingbirds, and a Least Sandpiper. A large flock of Blue-footed Boobys was settling in for the night as the Ponga Boats headed back to the ship.
We were back to Port Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (0.741S 90.303W) in the early morning hours of September 12. The ocean had 6-foot swells today, which made getting onto the Ponga Boats trickier than before, but the ride to shore was not a problem. We arrived at the Darwin Research Station on the outskirts of town around 9am to see the Giant Land Tortoises. The land tortoises in the Galapagos Islands can weigh up to 600 lbs – double the weight of the next closest land tortoises which lives in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. There are 13 subspecies of the giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands – Lonesome George is the sole representative of one subspecies. We saw 15 bird species this morning, the only new species being the Large Ground-Finch.
Afterwards, there was time to window shop as we walked back to the Ponga Boat dock in town. The trip back to the ship was pretty wavy, but our driver was an expert in navigating the waves.
In the afternoon we drove into the highlands to The Twins Farm. This private farm adjoins the Giant Tortoise Preserve. There are some 5000 tortoises in the Preserve, about 50 of which could be in the farm at any given time. It was raining when we arrived at the lush farm. During our 1 Km walk we saw 20 giant tortoises very up-close. Afterwards, the farm served fresh Lemon-grass Tea and coffee.
Each evening there was some crew or passenger based entertainment after dinner. Since they don’t have professional entertainment, the drinks are always free all day and most of the night. I think some people come for the drinks instead of the wildlife. Tonight they showed a Power Point slide show of our trip. Afterwards, we all received a free CD with the pictures.
I thought the cruise was terrific. I really like the small ship - probably the smaller the better for me. You saw the same people all the time, so you got to know people faster, but clicks developed even during this short period of time. Smoking was not a big issue. We did see a woman smoking on deck around the buffets. I was told she sneaked a cigarette into the dining room in her purse once (but she didn't sit near us). We really liked the intensive shore excursion nature of the cruise. We got our money's worth on shore trips; other people got it with free drinks at the bar.
On September 13 we flew back to Quito, followed by shopping at the Artisan market and a farewell dinner.
On September 14 we walked over to the Hilton Hotel Colon (0.208S 78.497W). In the sprawling Parque de el Ejido across from the hotel we saw a Zone-tailed Hawk flying and got a picture. Hawks are not usually seen in Quito. Later we went shopping at the Mariscal Market close to the Hotel Colon (intersection of Jorge Washington & Juan Leon) for scarfs and Coca Tea (good to drink in high altitudes).
Our Post-cruise trip was to spend a week bird watching in the Tandayapa Valley (0.041N & 78.678W) at the Alambi Cloudforest Resort (www.alambicloudforest.com). This area is known for its quetzals, trogons, toucans, tanagers and hummingbirds. Great choice – wish we had stayed longer!
During our 18 days in Ecuador we saw 233 bird species:
Quito area – 22 species Galapagos Islands – 48 species Cloudforest – 172 species
Carl Ball firstname.lastname@example.org