TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
24 October - 3 November 2002
Extension to 10 November 2002
Unscheduled extension to 12 November 2002
I am most grateful to Daniel, Juan Carlos, Freddy and the crew of Beluga for making this such a delightful holiday. I am also grateful to you all for your enthusiasm, good cheer and patience whilst 'under fire' from the volcano. My special thanks go to Sergio Benardi and to his team at Enchanted Excursions for dealing with the transport crisis with such aplomb.
Thanks to John Morris for the account of the volcanically-enforced extension, and to Ken & Mary McCarthy for the plant list
THURSDAY 24 NOVEMBER
Flight to Quito, Ecuador
FRIDAY 25 OCTOBER
WEATHER GALAPAGOS 4/8 Cumulus, sunny,. Swell from the W. Becoming 1/8 Cu. Hot
An early morning flight from Quito brought us to Baltra by 09.30. By 11.30 we were comfortably settled into the MV Beluga and making for the nearby island of North Seymour.
We were soon watching a fine array of seabirds. Elliot's Storm-petrels were feeding within a few metres of the boat as flocks of Audubon's Shearwaters swept by. Brown Noddies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Pelicans took their turn to entertain us. Suddenly we were sailing through loose flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes which took to the air. There must have been at least two hundred birds. Noisy American Oystercatchers were in complete contrast to the very inactive nocturnal Swallow-tailed Gulls. As we watched a screaming flock of displaying Red-billed Tropicbirds flew overhead. We now felt that we had really arrived in Equatorial waters!
After lunch we landed on North Seymour. En route we were able to compare Galapagos Sea Lions with a single Galapagos Fur Sea Lion. We were welcomed by a fine adult Swallow-tailed Gull, a Marine Iguana, a large Land Iguana and the local very colourful species of Lava Lizard. We had walked half a dozen metres! Our walk took us past young Blue-footed Boobies and squads of Magnificent Frigatebirds, some of the males showing off their vivid red inflated gular pouches. There were also a handful of Great Frigatebirds.
Our first encounter with songbirds brought us into close contact with Small Ground-Finch and Mangrove Warblers. The latter was ro prove very common. Another star performer was a long, slender Galapagos Snake.
As we reached the shore again we came across Turnstones and Sanderling. The highlight of this section of the walk though was a close view of the very rare Lava Gull. Two adult birds allowed us to watch them at very close range. As the total World population of this species is thought to number four hundred we felt very privileged.
A great drama then ensued, a juvenile booby fighting off three frigatebirds as they made every attempt to add it to their menu. This time the booby won but we did get the impression that its days were numbered.
The sea lions seemed two fall into two categories: those who were fast asleep and the minority who were surfing inshore on the rolling breakers. The surfers were obviously not just gaining a lift home as they returned to the surf time and time again!
Our trip closed as Audubon's Shearwaters and a single Galapagos Petrel glided across the path of the setting sun.
Overnight we sailed to Espanola.
SATURDAY 26 OCTOBER
WEATHER 6/8 Cu. Sunny SE2. Clearing to 1/8 Cu. p.m.
We awoke to find ourselves in Gardner Bay, Espanola. We shared the beach with Galapagos Sea Lions. Overhead Galapagos Hawks were on patrol and Hood Mockingbirds danced around our feet in the hope that we might disturb some invertebrate morsel. Once again we turned our attention to the finches, finding Small Ground, Warbler and Large Cactus Finches. We spent some time watching the latter as this would be our only opportunity to do so during the trip. Ghost and Semi-terrestrial Hermit Crabs were active as were the Lava Lizards and Marine Iguanas. Wading birds were represented by Sanderling, American Oystercatcher and the long-range migrant Wandering Tattler.
By 13.00 we were en route to Punta Suares. On landing we were introduced to massed Marine Iguanas, Yellow-crowned Night-heron and the delightful Galapagos Flycatcher. Then a long, sinuous snake was identified as Hood Racer.
As we walked carefully over the broken lumps of black lava we searched for juvenile Waved Albatross. Evenually we found a number of these fat, fluffy balls sporting huge yellow beaks. Some were accompanied by adults. As soon as we reached a more open area we ere able to watch the wonderful grace of the adult Waved Albatross as they wheeled overhead. They were not alone though as Swallow-tailed Gulls, Nazca and Blueofooted Boobies, Red-billed Tropicbirds and Audubon's Shearwaters filled the air. Overhead Galapagos Hawks and frigatebirds watched, waiting for any feeding opportunity.
At 20.00 we set sail for Floreana.
SUNDAY 27 OCTOBER
WEATHER 4-6/8 Cu., sunny a.m. Sunny spells p.m.
The well-known Post Office Bay was our first venue of the day. Even before we could go ashore we were delighted to see two Galapagos Penguins swim past the ship. However we were soon ashore at the post office, a series of highly imaginative signs and artefacts, in the midst of which was a barrel. This was the post office for generations of sailors. Letters were left in the box in the hope that the next ship to call would be on the way home and able to deliver the mail. We sorted though the messages, took some to be delivered on our return to the UK or USA and then left our own postcards.
This was not just a social call, Cactus, Large Ground and Vegetarian Finches got into the act, as did a Semi-palmated Plover, Great Blue Heron, Lava Heron and six more penguins.
We then moved on to Baroness Lookout from which we gained a fine view of the area. A Spotless Ladybug and a Galapagos Sulphur Butterfly were admired by all as was a Small Tree Finch. Regretfully half the group had already set off in their zodiac by the time the rest of us saw the Dark-billed Cuckoo.
Punta Cormoran is an exciting venue consisting of Greensand Beach behind which is a large brackish lagoon. It seemed an incongruous sight in this remote setting to leave the beech and be confronted with a flock of Greater Flamingoes busily feeding. On closer examination small groups of White-cheeked Pintail were also cashing in on this fine food source. One of these ducks had a companion that followed its every move. The elegant Wilson's Phalarope, a North American migrant, was busy feediing on scraps of food disturbed by the Pintail. Careful searching revealed more wader species. Two fine Black-necked Stilts were busy feeding as were the expected Whimbrel, Spotted Sandpiper, Wandering Tattler and Least Sandpiper. A lone Western Sandpiper was a pleasant surprise.
By 14.00 we were approaching the little island of Champion. Whilst some of the group snorkelled the rest sailed around the island. Seabirds abounded, many siting on nests. A lone Cattle Egret and a Laughing Gull entertained us as we searched for Charles Mockingbird, a species once common on Floreana but now confined to Champion-by-Floreana and the nearby Gardner-by- Floreana. Eventually four very active individuals came to light.
At 15.30 we started our daylight cruise to Santa Cruz. Highlights of the trip included encounters with two Waved Albatross, four Dark-rumped Petrel, two of which passed very close to the bow of the Beluga, and sixty or so Red-necked Phalarope.
We arrived at Puerto Ayora at 18.00 in time for some of the crew to enjoy an evening at home.
MONDAY 28 OCTOBER
WEATHER 4-7/8 Cu. Warm. humid in the highlands at 700M above sea level.
The morning was spent driving inland. We were soon at Twin Craters, two impressive calderas. Here the highlight was the discovery of Woodpecker Finches, a Dark-billed Cuckoo and Galapagos Monarch butterflies.
By 10.00 we were at Rancho Primicia, a haven for Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise. We were lucky enough to find seventeen of these impressive reptiles. Some virtually blocked the paths and retracted their heads and hissed as we passed. The small pond, though very overgrown, held Moorhen, a Pied-billed Grebe and White-cheeked Pintail. Nearby a few lucky members of the group saw the elusive Galapagos Grebe.
The afternoon was spent at the Charles Darwin Research Station where we saw 'Lonesome George', the last remaining Pinta Giant Tortoise. It was then time to shop.
We spent the night in port.
TUESDAY 29 OCTOBER
WEATHER 2-5/8 Cu. Hot. Light Breeze.
During the night we had rounded Punta Cristobal and by 06.00 we were well on our way to Punta Moreno, Isabela.
A watch from the deck brought us into contact with a pod of eight Bottle-nosed Dolphin which rode the bow of the Beluga for a while. They were soon followed by porpoising sea lions. As we moved NE we came across dozens of Pacific Green Turtles. A flock of Red -necked Phalarope then passed by as we studied the storm-petrels feeding near the ship. We concluded that we were watching considerable numbers of Elliot's Storm-petrel and a handful of Madeiran Storm-petrels. We were surprised to note two migrant Common Terns.
We arrived at Punta Moreno at 07.00. Some of the party spent the early part of the morning in a zodiac exploring the local coastline while the rest landed on the point. Both groups had excellent views of Flightless Cormorant. The walk over the rough shattered A-a type lava was splendid; in places we felt as though we had landed on the Moon! The lava had been colonised in places by a wide variety of plants, nowhere more so than in the depressions where water had gathered. Some of the depressions had been taken over completely by vegetation whilst others were brackish pools surrounded by lush vegetation. In these pools we found Moorhen, Greater Flamingos, Pied-billed Grebe, Cattle Egret and Black-necked Stilts. Overhead were Galapagos Martins. One pool which was still connected to the sea was home to a White-tipped Shark. We also came across fellow Travelling Naturalist leader Will Wagstaff with an Island Holidays group.
As we prepared to return to the Beluga we watched a feeding frenzy out to sea. A tight flock of Brown Pelicans were surrounded by feeding Audubon's Shearwaters, Blue-footed Boobies, a few Flightless Cormorant and a Galapagos Penguin. At one point the sea boiled with flailing fish.
At 11.00 we sailed on. A watch from the deck produced sightings of two Waved Albatross, a few Nazca Boobies, a handful of phalaropes, Elliot's and Madeiran Storm Petrels.
Lunch was at the soup stage when there was a shout of "Whale!" Lunch was postponed as we all dashed on deck. Ahead of us there was a 'blow' and then a rolling back displaying a rather blunt decurved dorsal fin. We soon established that we were watching a mother and calf Humpback Whale. We watched for twenty minutes, enjoying views of the female's huge white flippers beneath the surface and close views of the double blow hole, the ridged head and the carunculate nose of the immature animal. The climax of the experience was reached when the youngster breached, crashing down on the water with huge splash. After such a splendid experience we enjoyed a very relaxed lunch. The opinion of the crew was "Muche Espectaculo!"
In mid afternoon we sailed to Elizabeth Bay where we took the zodiacs into the mangroves. Once there paddles replaced the outboard engines and we moved silently in the channels between the mangroves. Here we enjoyed wonderful views of Hawksbill and Pacific Green Turtles swimming near the boats. We also marvelled at the ability of Galapagos Fur Sealions to climb out of the water to sun themselves on broad leaning tree trunks.
We spent the night in the bay.
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER
WEATHER 6-7/8 Cu. Flat calm sea. Dull. Brighter afternoon - 4/8 Cu.
0530 We sailed for Urvina Bay.
Elliott's Storm Petrels and Audubon's Shearwaters were present in huge numbers as we sailed north west.
By 09.10 we were driving the boats onto the steep beach of the bay. In 1854 a square kilometre was uplifted exposing a shell beach and coral reef. The coral and shell beds were very obvious at the burrows made by numerous Land Iguana. Whilst Galapagos Hawks soared overhead we found a feral cat and a fine local Giant Tortoise. We also witnessed the huge damage done by feral goats.
At 11.30 we sailed for Punta Espinosa on Fernandina. Once again we encountered a host of seabirds. As we passed through the Bolivar Channel we came across tight flocks of feeding Elliot's Storm-petrels and a handful of Wedge-tailed and Madeiran Storm-petrels. Six Bottle-nosed Dolphins were also recorded. There were obviously masses of fish in the area.
We took an afternoon walk. The rocky shore held a variety of waders, Striated and Lava Herons and nesting Galapagos Flightless Cormorants. The photographic opportunity of the day occurred when an immature Galapagos Hawk perched on a stick for ten minutes or so!
At 17.00 we set sail for Puerto Egas, Santiago. The decision to set off in daylight was to prove valuable.
Almost as soon as we rounded the point a tall, slender blow was seen. Soon the whale blew again and showed an arched back and a short, slightly decurved dorsal fin. Before long we had seen dozens of blows from up to eight distinct locations. The skipper took us towards a distant blow until we were able to watch the whale from a range of 100 metres. On seeing the blow the dorsal fin showed on a steeply curved back. The whale then briefly showed its head, a side on view of which showed a central and lateral ridge (suggesting that if viewed head on there would be three ridges.) This was clearly a Bryde's Whale (pronounced bree-dahs). Up to eight rorqual whales were thought to be present, most probably Bryde's Whales.
As soon as we resumed our course we noticed that a boat to the NW of us had suddenly changed course. On checking the area we could see distinct splashes over a wide front to the east of the boat. As we drew nearer dolphins could be seen leaping clear of the sea. Fortunately a slight change of course brought us into the midst of this spectacle. Not only were there thousands of Common Dolphins approaching our boat but a smaller number of Yellow-finned Tuna had joined the fray, leaping equally energetically. The Skipper estimated that the 'front' covered by the dolphins was four kilometers wide.
Believe it or not during our short trip we also observed some six hundred Red-necked Phalarope, smaller numbers of Audubon's Shearwaters, Dark-rumped Petrels and Madeiran Storm-petrels. Some experiences in a naturalist's life are unforgettable and unrepeatable, and this was certainly one of them!
THURSDAY 31 OCTOBER
PUERTO EGAS, SANTIAGO
WEATHER Dull start, then 2/8 Cu. sun later.
A morning walk gave us the chance to watch waders at close range. We were also able to gain our best views of Galapagos Fur Sealions.
Some of the party went swimming.
Lunch was taken en route to Bartolome.
The afternoon was spent getting to grips with the local volcanic geology, Bartolome displaying a huge range of features
FRIDAY 1 NOVEMBER
WEATHER 8/8 Cu. dull, calm.
Sailed to Black Turtle Cove. Santa Cruz.
We were soon in the zodiacs paddling through the mangroves. Marine creatures abounded - White-tipped Sharks, shoals of Cow-nosed Rays, Starfish, Sea Cucumbers and mating Pacific Green Turtle. As we prepared to leave the area a Great Egret flew past the Beluga.
We were soon on Baltra and en route to Quito where we said goodbye to Daniel.
The evening was spent at La Ronda, a fine restaurant.
SATURDAY 2 NOVEMBER
WEATHER Dull, light breeze. Mist and light rain.. Fine late afternoon.
Judy, Wendy, Ken and Mary set off for the U.K. as the rest of us made for San Isidro.
We were soon in the shadow of the Papallacta Pass where a walk enabled us to identify a number of hummingbirds, tanagers and finches.
We then climbed to the radio station overlooking the pass where we found a number of typical high altitude bird species including Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Bar-winged and Stout-billed Cinclodes, Many-stripped Canastero and the very local Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. White-chinned Thistletail, Plumbeous Sierrra-finch and Cinereous Conebill were found as we descended to the pass.
As we passed through the town of Papallacta we searched the local river, finding three Torrent Duck, Spotted Sandpiper and a variety of small birds.
We were then privileged to visit Guango Lodge where we enjoyed a hot drink while watching hummingbirds at feeders. Nine species of hummingbirds were noted.
By 17.30 we were being geeted by Mitch and Carmen at San Isidro. We were to spend three nights at 6,800 ft above sea level.
After dinner we were lucky enough to see a splendid Black-banded Owl.
SUNDAY 3 NOVEMBER
WEATHER A fine morning with the odd shower. Dull in the afternoon, the clouds carrying volcanic ash
An early morning walk brought into contact with a host of local birds and the charming Red-tailed Squirrel.
Later we bussed to Cosanga, the local town where we were lucky enough to see another Torrent Duck. We then drove to the local ridge at 7,200 ft a.s.l. Here we encountered a Black and Chestnut Eagle, which sadly soared out of sight in no time. Other splendid birds included White-tailed Hillstar, Hooded Mountain Tanager and Flame-faced Tanager.
We then noticed that the cloud was building and showing a distinct yellow tinge. Apparently the Reventador Volcano, some 100 Km to the NNE had erupted sending huge clouds of ash into the air and blocking local roads with lava.
On returning to San Isidro we discovered that the wind had blown ash into Quito.
After lunch a local walk enabled us to watch yet more bird species including Golden-headed Quetzal, Slate-crowned Antpitta and Saffron-crowned Tanager.
In the evening we spent some time studying the moths that had gathered around the lights.
MONDAY 4 NOVEMBER
WEATHER Total cloud cover except during mid morning and late afternoon when the sun shone. In the late evening there was a violent electric storm
The day was spent driving to and along the Loreto Road. This took us over the local mountain ridge to the junction with the Loreto Road. We then rode and walked from 3,900 to 3,500 ft a.s.l.
Tanagers and flycatchers abounded. Parrots, parakeets and woodpeckers were also well represented. One of the highlights of the day was the appearance of two American Swallow-tailed Kites over the wooded slopes near the road. In contrast we marvelled at the flycatching ability of Green-fronted Lancebills, wonderfully active hummingbirds dicing with death inches from a rushing waterfall.
On our return to San Isidro Mitch briefed us on the latest volcano situation. It appeared that more eruptions had resulted in ash clouds reducing the visibility over the Papallacta Pass and in Quito. The implication was that we might have to stay at San Isidro rather than driving to the west to Tandyapa.
We put this behind us and celebrated Cath's birthday, even though it was a day early. (We knew it would be more difficult on the following day due to a potentially difficult travelling day). As we ate our birthday cake we were entertained by the local minstrels who just happened to be doubling as the builders at work in the lodge area!
TUESDAY 5 NOVEMBER
WEATHER Generally full cloud cover. Steady rain at times.
After an early morning meeting the leaders decided to 'go for it' and attempt to tackle the Papallacta Pass. As we gained height we saw that the roadside vegetation was covered in grey ash. The weather was dull and the atmosphere depressing. We made good progress though as we started to make our way down into the central valley the cloud parted and there was a brief sunny period. We stopped in the hope that the local raptors would be desperate to hunt. We were not disappointed. The first bird to appear was a fine immature Andean Condor which soared over the local peak. It was soon joined by a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, four Variable Hawks, four Carunculated Caracara and a lone Plain-breasted Hawk. This was a wonderful experience which thrilled us all.
We made such good progress through Quito, possibly due to a much reduced level of traffic, that we we decided to take the pretty route along the old Nono-Mindo Road. This enabled us to enjoy views of Andean Guan, White-capped Dipper and a fine collection of songbirds.
By 17.50 we were at 5,600 ft a.s.l. at Tandyapa Lodge. We were greeted by twelve species of hummingbirds at the feeders. What a close to the day !
WEDNESDAY 6 NOVEMBER
WEATHER Heavy rain overnight. 8/8 Cu. Dry, warm, humid
At 0600 we walked to a platform overlooking the valley below the lodge. Here we were inundated with birds : tanagers, warblers, flycatchers and finches. The breathtaking spectacle of the morning though was provided by two male Cock-of-the Rock. One taunted us from the other side of the valley, causing a great deal of frustration as it appeared only intermittently. Within a few minutes, though, the owner of the local territory appeared in front of us and showed off its startling orange, black and grey finery. It was the finest view of the species that I had ever seen despite having recorded the bird at a good many sites.
Later in the morning we decide to experience the gloom and darkness of the primary rain forest, an experience not be missed at any price. We walked the winding path around the valley to the road below, sometimes through thick scrub and at other points in a cathedral like atmosphere of tall statuesque trees stretching forty metres or more into the canopy. Though there were few birds to be seen their calls filled the air. We were lucky enough to see Golden-winged Manakin, Olivaceous Piha and Grey Wood-wren. Once out on the open slope which abutted the forest we came across Azara's Spinetail and a fine adult Black and Chestnut Eagle carrying a squirrel.
Despite the steady rain we enjoyed our afternoon trip up the mountain to Tony's House. Tony Nunnery is a well-known bird guide who has planned his garden in such a way that it attracts a wide range of bird species. The speciality of the garden though is the hummingbirds which visit the feeders. During our visit we recorded fifteen species of 'hummers', including the very local Gorgeted Woodstar.
The evening went with a swing as we celebrated Cath's birthday once again!
THURSDAY 7 NOVEMBER
WEATHER Overcast, showers.
We made an early start so that we could be at the Los Banchos road by 07.00.
There were those who thought the departure time a little early until we arrived at our destination to find the birds in wonderful form. We were soon surrounded by tanagers, flycatchers parrots and seedeaters. One of the most colourful birds of the trip also featured: we watched flocks of Pale-mandibled Aracari feeding at our leisure. Bronze-winged Parrots also made an appearance, as did Maroon-tailed Parakeets in all their splendour. We were so absorbed with the watching that it was almost 11.30 before we arrived at Mindo Lindo, another hummingbird site. The light rain made hummingbird watching difficult but we did manage to see a displaying male Club-winged Manakin and a fine Golden -headed Quetzal.
A visit to the town of Mindo was essential as it was the only place on this side of the mountains with a reliable telephone link. Our mission was to discover whether our homeward flight was possible given the ash storm in Quito. Eventually we discovered that Quito airport was closed and that we would have to make alternative arrangements. This we put into the hands of our agents. Surprisingly the town was full of birds, including many not yet seen on our trip.
Lunch was taken at Los Colibris, yet another hummingbird magnet. Our only records of White-necked Jacobin, White-whiskered Hermit, Green-crowned Woodnymph and Green-crownwd Brilliant were at this site.
After another short walk we returned to the lodge.
FRIDAY 8 NOVEMBER
WEATHER 5/8 Cu. Fine except for a little rain at lunchtime
We climbed up the mountain beyond Tandayapa to discover yet more bird treasures including Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, another local gem. We also sought out a number of local species including the startling Toucan Barbet and Spillmann's Tapaculo.
We then lunched at Bella Vista Lodge where Sickle-winged Guan was seen marching up one of the paths. Amazingly, having only glimpsed Spillmann's Tapaculo on the mountain, an immature bird that had not yet learnt that its species was supposed to be skulking, was seen in full view at the lodge!
Our journey to Quito was uneventful and brought us into the city in time to go and rebook our airline tickets, a process involving the whole group in person and eventually achieved at some cost to our rising blood pressure!
SATURDAY 9 NOVEMBER
The group should have flown out this morning but now we had to make plans to fly from Guayaquil on Monday. At least we had managed to arrange to keep our rooms at the hotel for the present. Every cloud has a silver lining - more shopping time !
SUNDAY 10 NOVEMBER
The group set off by bus to Guayaquil
Neil was due to travel to the Amazon on Monday so he stayed in Quito. As luck would have it Daniel ('of the Galapagos') was available so we visited the Antisana National Park. The weather was sunny and the landscape wonderful. The birds were not so bad either!