Large pool and black rocks with birds overhead
Bird place of the month,  Birds,  Galapagos Islands

A visit to ‘Bird Island’, Genovesa

Genovesa is one of just three main islands in the group that lie north of the Equator (the others being Marchana and Darwin, neither of which can be visited). The downside of a visit to Genovesa is the long voyage needed to reach the island, as it lies at some distance from the centre of the archipelago. Crossings take around seven or eight hours, and the sea between the southerly islands and Genovesa is more open and exposed, and therefore can be rougher. But if you join me on a virtual visit to my chosen Bird Place of the Month, the seas shouldn’t bother you (and indeed, they didn’t bother me!) Last month I took you to Española to meet the waved albatross, but in Genovesa we will see a much wider variety of species.

To moor here boats need to cross a shallow and narrow channel into the caldera in order to anchor at the base of the steep crater walls. The bay formed by this caldera is Darwin Bay. Both visitor sites are found here, and the one we went to first, in the morning, was a wet landing on the small beach that bears the same name.

Beach with rocks and sea lions, one in the water
Sea lions on the beach, Darwin Bay

The Darwin Bay trail

This trail starts on the beach and is at first sandy and later over rocky lava. Near the start, on the cliffs lining the beach, we saw swallow-tailed gulls nesting, some with chicks.

Red-footed boobies and frigatebirds

Leaving the beach we walked among red mangrove and palo santo trees. In every tree, or so it appeared, several red-footed boobies were nesting, many of them with fluffy white chicks. They seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, as gently curious about us as we were about them and almost posing for our cameras. I took so many photos as it seemed that in each tree I passed there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one!

Red bird's feet clutching a branch
Red-footed booby feet

These are definitely among the most photogenic of Galápagos birds, with their bright blue bills, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye (‘I like the eyeshadow’, was my Dad’s comment later when he saw my photos!), soft brown plumage and red feet. The latter are worth a close look, not only for their vivid colour but also for their amazing prehensile quality. Look at how they grip the branches of the trees!

Further along the trail between the mangrove trees it was great frigatebirds that proliferated, mainly juveniles with those comical ginger hairdos, and fluffy chicks. It’s likely that many of the adults were at sea looking for food for the young. Great frigatebirds care for and feed their young for up to two years.

At the tide pools

Behind the beach at Darwin Bay, the trail through the mangrove trees is interspersed with more open stretches beside a series of sheltered tide pools set into a rocky outcrop. My feature photo was taken here. The trail winds in and out of the trees, and this more open environment offers opportunities to see some different species. Among them we saw several yellow-crowned night herons, both juveniles and adults, stalking the rocks or tucked into the crevices in the low cliffs that surround them.

Nesting on these outcrops were lots more swallow-tailed gulls. I enjoyed watching how affectionate the pairs seemed with each other.

Prince Philip Steps

In the afternoon we landed at another point on the island, Prince Philip Steps. Here a steep but short climb leads to a trail across the cliffs. The steps take their name from the visit by Britain’s Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, in the 1960s. They are also known by the Spanish name of El Barranco. Once at the top of the steps you are at the start of a two-kilometre trail. It passes at first through a palo santo forest typical of the arid zone of the Galápagos Islands.

Nazca boobies

Here it was mainly the Nazca boobies that engaged my photographic efforts. While the red-footed boobies we had seen in the morning nest in the mangrove trees, the Nazca boobies prefer the ground. They have different breeding seasons on the different islands, but here on Genovesa it is August to November. Many of them had chicks of different ages, from scrawny newborns to larger balls of fluff.

Other pairs were yet to produce their young and were either guarding eggs (Nazca boobies lay two) or even still in the courtship stage, building their nests.

Nazca booby with chick
The lava fields

Eventually the forest started to thin out and we emerged on to a more open plateau. This is a broad lava field that stretches towards the north shore of the island. Here we saw more Nazca boobies nesting, mainly still quite close to the trees. We followed the path through the scrubby vegetation towards the cliffs. Birds were swooping overhead: frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls, wedge-rumped storm petrels and others.

We were excited to see the birds’ main predator, the short-eared owl, also flying past. Owls on the Galápagos Islands are not nocturnal, so it is not unusual to see them in broad daylight like this, but for us it was amazing to watch them hunting in the middle of the afternoon! Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos hawk is present, unsurprisingly!

The short-eared owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis. My photos of this one aren’t as clear as I’d have liked as he hid in the shade when not in flight.

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2012


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