For nature lovers, Galapagos holidays provide the opportunity to view some of the most fascinating wildlife on the planet. Among the most anticipated of all the species are the birds of the archipelago, and their abundance and fearlessness make for some very accessible bird watching.
The Night Birds
There are just two resident night birds: the Barn Owl and the Short-eared Owl, both of which have endemic sub-species in the archipelago. For those who travel to the islands on Galapagos holidays, there are plenty of opportunities to catch sight of these enigmatic creatures.
The Barn Owl
Tyto alba is part of the Tytonidae family, which (with other members the Grass, Sooty, Bay and Masked Owls) is a separate classification from all other owls. Their distinctive appearance is characterised by a heart-shaped facial disc, which they use like a satellite dish to trap sound and focus it into their ears. They are of a medium size, growing up to 26 cm in length, with a wingspan of up to 68 cm. Their plumage is light greyish with small spots and brown upper colouring, and they have long, wide wings, hooked bills and sharp, curved talons for catching and gripping prey.
While they are predominantly nocturnal, they can occasionally be seen hunting on the ground or perched on branches in the early morning or evening. One of their most distinctive characteristics is the deep, slow sound that can be heard as they flap their wings, interspersed by an eerie silence as they glide.
Throughout the archipelago, the bird can mainly be seen on San Cristobal, Isabela, Fernandina and Santa Cruz. It is now thought to be extinct on Floreana due to predation by introduced species.
The Short-eared Owl
Asio flammeus belongs to the Strigidae family and is easily discernible by the dark, mottled plumage, very large wingspan (90-105 cm) and dark facial disc. Their size ranges from about 35 cm to 42 cm in length, and they have powerful but quite short legs, a very sharp, hooked bill and distinctive yellow eyes with black rings. What’s more, they have tufted feathers on either side of their heads, giving them the appearance of ears (and their name), which are raised when they are on high alert.
While they are mostly nocturnal, hunting and feeding in the late evening, they are also diurnal and crepuscular. They subsist mainly on rodents, insects and small mammals, but will also eat smaller birds – in particular, the petrels on Genovesa Island, where they have developed a peculiar technique of ‘stalking’ the petrels as they enter and leave their nests in the lava tunnels.
They have an irregular wing beat and usually fly very low to the ground when hunting, before swooping down to secure prey with their powerful feet. Visitors on Galapagos holidays can see these owls throughout the archipelago, predominantly in the early morning or late evening, but also during the daytime (when hawks are not around).
Bird Watching in a Unique Environment
For those with a particular interest in bird watching, Galapagos holidays provide a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a vast range of endemic and migratory species in one of the most fascinating places on Earth.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.