Traveling to the Galapagos Islands opens the door to a world of adventure and discovery for all types of travelers, particularly birders. With 174 bird species, 26 endemic species and 17 globally threatened species, this biologically diverse and protected archipelago offers ornithology tours you can’t find anywhere else on the planet.
As you plan your trip to the islands, consider these 10 Galapagos birds you’re sure to spot in in the Islands:
The American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), with its distinct reddish-pink plumage, is found on a number of islands in the Galapagos. Visitors to Playa Ocha on San Cristobal Island, the point of embarkation for our Darwin’s Playground, Central and North expedition, will see flamingos playing in a tidal lagoon. On Day 7 of the same cruise, you’ll have the chance to hike to a flamingo lagoon on Floreana Island.
On the Darwin’s Playground, Far West expedition, you’ll walk to a lagoon near Dragon Hill on Santa Cruz Island, where flamingos wade alongside common stilts and pintail ducks.
The Galapagos are home to four species of endemic mockingbirds, including the Chatham mockingbirds (Mimus melanotis), which you’ll have the opportunity to view at Playa Ocha on San Cristobal Island. This species is endangered, though not to the same degree as the critically endangered Floreana mockingbird (Mimus trifasciatus), named for the island on which it resides.
The Española (Hood) mockingbird (Mimus macdonaldi) is endemic to that island and is recognized as a vulnerable species. The more common Galapagos mockingbird (Mimus parvulus) has six subspecies, each endemic to a single island, or a group of islands.
3. Darwin’s Finch
Fifteen finch species live in the Galapagos Islands, although you may not spot each one in the areas visited on expedition landing sites. Collectively, they’re known as either Darwin’s Finches or Galapagos Finches. Belonging to the tanager family, they are not closely related to true finches.
Keep your eyes open for green warbler-finch (Certhidea olivacea), vegetarian finch (Platyspiza crassirostris), woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) and small ground finch (Geospiza fuliginosa), among others. At Playa Ocha on San Cristobal Island, your Day 2 destination on the Darwin’s Playground: Central and North expedition, look for the medium ground-finch (Geospiza fortis). And on Day 6, as you hike to a scenic lagoon on North Seymour Island, a variety of finch species might make themselves known.
4. Galapagos Hawks
The Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) is a birder’s delight, with its distinctive mating call and piercing scream. Similar in size to the red-tailed or Swanson’s hawk, it spends the majority of its time in the air; you’re most likely to see one soaring overhead as you trek around North Seymour Island, or wade ashore to Punta Suarez on Española Island -- through a sea lion colony after a Zodiac cruise, of course.
Yes, it’s true: the endangered blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii) really does have blue feet!
You’re sure to see them performing their hilarious courtship dance when we visit the open areas of North Seymour Island. Blue-footed boobies, also spotted on South Plaza Island and Eden Islet just off the coast of Whaler Bay on Baltra, are one of five booby species you might encounter in your Galapagos travels.
Red-footed boobies (Sula sula) are rare, but you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of the distinct seabird at Genovesa Island on Day 5 of your Darwin’s Playground, Central and North expedition. Nazca boobies (Sula granti), recognizable by the dark mask ringing its small eyes and pointed beak, were actually a subspecies of the masked booby, with whom they reside on Clipperton Island. You might see them at Eden Islet, on Day 2 of the Darwin’s Playground, Far West expedition.
6. Flightless Cormorants
The flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi), endemic to the Galapagos Islands, is a vulnerable species with webbed feet and strong legs that power it through the island waters, in search of a tasty meal of eel, fish, or octopus. Flightless cormorant feed within 100 meters of the shore, so you have a good chance of spotting one on your expedition. Fernandina Island, the youngest and most volcanically active of the islands, and Tagus Cove on Isabela Island, are great places to see this species.
The Galapagos Islands are home to nine species of heron, including the Great Blue (Ardea herodias) variety most recognizable to the average North American visitor. They’re a common sight in and around the tide pools at Puerto Egas on Santiago Island, as are lava herons (Butorides sundevalli), an endemic species that loves stalking and snacking on the small crabs and fish exposed at low tide. One other heron species you’re apt to spot at the tidal pools is the yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) who, despite its name, hunts crustaceans at all hours of the day and night.
You’ll have the chance to see either the black and white American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) -- or both! They’re known to frequent Puerto Egas on Santiago Island, where we stop in the afternoon to visit tide pools after a Zodiac cruise on the Darwin’s Playground, Central and North expedition.
Darwin’s Playground, Far West travelers won’t miss out, as we visit Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island on Day 5, after snorkeling and swimming with Galapagos penguins and sea lions! It’s another hotspot for viewing oystercatchers.
9. Frigate Birds
Two of the five species of the colorful and distinctive frigate bird found across tropical and subtropical oceans live in the Galapagos Islands: the magnificent frigate bird (Fregata magnificens) and the great frigate bird (Fregata minor). Frigate birds, or fregatidae, are a sister group to the suloidea, which includes boobies, cormorants and darters.
You’ll know the frigate bird by its long, hooked bill, deeply forked tail, and the male’s red gular pouch. Frigate birds nest on North Seymour Island, the only place we can always find males showing their red pouches to attract females.
10. Galapagos Penguins
Swimming the crystal waters off Isabela Island, visitors to the Galapagos will notice they have company! Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), endemic to the archipelago, zip through the waters alongside majestic sea turtles, colorful fish and other marine life.
The Galapagos penguin, an endangered species, is the only penguin in the wild that lives north of the equator. You may spot Galapagos penguins off Isabela Island, particularly at Tagus Cove, or on Bartolomé, where they breed. However, they are dramatically affected by El Niño and seem to follow the cooler waters of the Cromwell Current, so may be more populous where they find the coldest, most nutrient-rich surface water at any given time.
Galapagos Travel is a Birder’s Dream Come True
Ornithologists, avid birders and amateurs alike find the Galapagos Islands a dream come true. Other rare species you might encounter here include the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), lava gulls (Leucophaeus fuliginosus) found in Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island, the critically endangered waved albatross (link to blog post) (Phoebastria irrorata) at Punta Suarez on Española Island, the Galapagos dove and more. There are too many to list!
Contact an experienced Polar Travel Adviser today to learn about birdwatching expeditions in the Galapagos Islands.
Photos courtesy of International Expeditions and Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism.