An American's Guide to Galápagos Islands: Galápagos Owl

In Search of the

Galápagos Short-eared Owl

Búho campestre de las Galapagos

Morning wake up call is 6:00 am in the Galápagos because excursions onto these desert islands generally must end before noon when it becomes too hot to walk, hike or anything else (breathe) on the sun-scorched lava. Afternoon excursions begin around 3:00 pm. Everyone has to be off the islands around 6:30 pm (dark).

I'm sailing on the Silver Galapagos, a 4,000 ton (289 ft x 50 ft; 88 m x 15 m) all-suites, luxurious cruise ship. However, the luxury is kind of lost on me because of the 6:00 am wake up calls, the long hikes, and the miserably hot and humid weather.

From what I've seen thus far there are no deep water ports in the Galápagos so to get to the islands the ship drops anchor, twice a day, usually in a sea-filled caldera of an ancient, dormant volcano. Each island has this circular, deep-water feature. From the anchorage passengers disembark to small inflatable boats (zodiacs). From my penthouse suite it is 60-feet down to sea level. The last 20 feet are down a steep, swaying and rocking wooden ladder to a wave-splashed wooden platform. On the platform crew and guides grab and drop passengers to the zodiacs bobbing in the sea. This is the daily routine from the Silver Galapagos to whatever island we're visiting, twice a day, early morning and late afternoon.

For those thinking about this trip I'm in suite 603, Silver Suite Class, adjacent to the spa and gym. All of my dispatches will be referencing my experience in this suite.

According to the Galapagos National Park Rules (Parque Nacional Galápagos y Reserva Marina), visitors must be accompanied by a naturalist guide. Visitors must stay 6 feet from all wildlife, no flash photography, and no commercial photography unless so-authorized. What? Yeah. Lots more rules here: Galapagos National Park Rules. I never signed any release so my photos contain my standard copyright. Its worth mentioning that Silversea asks all the passengers to sign a photographic release so that passengers images can be used for promotional material and in films and videos that are being made during voyages. I did not sign that release either.

On our excursions the guides try to keep the groups to 12 visitors per guide, or less. The preferred language is English and it is spoken easily by most guides and most passengers from around the world. The crew and all guides are Ecuadorian.

The groups-of-12-or-less can be a real problem if you get paired with a group that you do not wish to spend hours with, as you are generally paired with them for the duration of your 4-hour excursion to and from the islands. I learned this early on and I try to position myself so that I get with groups that are less offensive to my sensibilities.

This is one of the drawbacks of a $15,000+ per person, excursion cruise. There are less than 100 passengers and an equal number of crew. If there are passengers who do not share your sensibilities it is difficult to escape them on such a small boat.

I'm a liberal, progressive, middle-class nature lover so if I get paired with a group of rich, boorish, obnoxious conservatives who won't shut up about politics, its a problem. Also I've been paired with some who are racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist and rude. The pairings make for less than ideal cruising and exploring conditions. Silversea didn't mention the passenger grouping protocol in the brochures. There have been no fist fights so far but harsh words have been shared.

To be clear. There is no protocol. It is first-come-first on to zodiacs and whomever you get on the zodiac with you are paired with them for the next 4 hours. For the money I think they could do a 100-question survey for guests and gauge from the answers who might fit better with whom and so-group them.

Galápagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) are everywhere

Very few tourists. This was a good group. Some are not.

The guide-to-tourist groups quickly break apart when there is an injury, which happens. It reminds me of fish bait balls: small fish swarm tightly packed into spherical formations about a common center in a last-ditch defensive measure when threatened by predators. When the predator attacks, everything falls apart. Same thing happens with these human groups touring the Galápagos, tightly packed with guides until there's a problem then chaos and the group dynamic quickly falls apart. Soon there are smaller groups, milling around aimlessly, mixing with other groups. It is a sociological experiment that is fascinating to watch but one that was not anticipated by this traveler.

Located on the equator the Galápagos are hot year round. This year my visit should be during warm-wet season (January-March) but the wet has been delayed by La Niña so it is just warm and sultry, sticky hot and humid. Nothing will dry. Even aboard ship, in the air conditioning everything is damp. Kind of miserable weather like Florida in August.

Today's morning excursion is a search for the Galapagos short-eared owl.

The literature says the best place to see the owls is on Isla Genovesa in the far NE of the archipelago. The Silver Galapagos dropped anchor in the caldera of the island. The caldera feature is now called "Great Darwin Bay" and we are set to hike across a small peninsula (lacking any name that I can find) to the south-facing beaches where the owls prey on storm petrols.

Prince Philip's Steps

To get to the beaches we have to first land on rocks. Yeah. Rocks. Its not easy. We are hoisted ashore by crew members, one-by-one we take our position on the wet rocks. From there it is up an extraordinary steep path "Prince Philip's Steps" to the Nazca Booby rookery 25 m (82 feet) above sea level. Once there we hike through the seabird colony on very unstable lava. This lava is as unstable as you will find. Huge 1 ton slabs of lava shift underfoot. For this "hike" I use 2 hiking poles and carefully choose every step.

The Galapagos short-eared owl (Asio flammeus galapagoensis; Búho campestre de las Galápagos) is a sub-species of the short-eared owl, a bird which found on all continents except Antarctica. Galapagos short-eared owls are endemic to the Galápagos Islands and, as is frequently the case with Galápagos endemics, their coloration is darker and they are smaller than their mainland counterparts. They are not present where there are Galapagos hawks. The hawk and owl do not coexist peacefully.

Galápagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis)

Photo: ©Thomas O'Neil

I guess Thomas didn't sign the photographic release either.

The owl's name arises from the small ear tufts set near the center of their forehead. They have a wingspan of 85-100 cm and are silent fliers. The sexes are alike, with the females generally larger than the males, and immature plumage resembling that of the adults.

They are found in open areas of grassland or lava rock, and hunt by flying low over these areas, feeding on rats, lava lizards, and birds. Most owls hunt at night, however the Galápagos short-eared owl has adapted to hunt in the daytime as well, to avoid competition with the Galápagos hawk. They are able to hunt birds much larger than themselves, such as boobies, by striking at the back of the neck, taking the bird by surprise.

Nazca booby with newborn chick. The nest is minimalist.

The Galápagos short-eared owl has developed a unique hunting behavior on Genovesa island, at the storm petrel rookery. The petrels nest deep in tunnels in the lava rock, usually out of reach of the owls. However the owls have learned to stalk nearby, watching the petrels as they enter and leave the tunnels. The owls then wait close by for the petrel to leave the tunnel and catch them unaware. Another technique they use is to hide in the entrance of the tunnel to grab a petrel as it flies in.

They tend to nest under trees and shrubs, and have one clutch per year of two to four eggs. The eggs hatch in three to six weeks, and the young are ready to fledge at four weeks old. The juvenile birds are ready to mate and reproduce after their first birtday. Their population was estimated to be around 9,000 pairs in the 1980s, but further research is needed to calculate their current numbers.

Hiking across the barren plains of Isla Genovesa, Galápagos

Where to see them: The Galápagos short-eared owl is wide-spread throughout the Archipelago, and have been known to fly between islands. They are most frequently seen hunting in the seabird colonies of Genovesa. Above, one of my shots of the barren cliffs and caves of Genovesa Island. We hiked across this bleak landscape in search of the owls.

When to see them: They can be seen at any time of year. They are most active at night and early in the morning on most islands, and they can be seen in the day time on islands where the Galápagos hawk is absent.

Threats: The biggest threat to the Galápagos short-eared owl is the predation of their eggs by introduced rats.

Conservation action: None. IUCN Red List Least Concern.

I finally spot an owl. Now to get him to look my way.

In image I've drawn an arrow to the owl, some 100 m from my position.

Click on the image for a larger view.

We hiked for what seemed like forever across the lava, through a dead-looking "forest" of palo santos trees (no leaves due to drought), through the Nazca Booby (Sula granti) rookery.

The seabird colonies are exposed on the rock, nests of nothing more than a worn down patch of lava and dust. The owls are out there somewhere, but we're not seeing them.

My socks and boots are squishy wet with sweat. I duck behind a rock formation and remove my underwear, letting everything breathe for a few minutes before replacing my hiking pants, now commando.

With a 400mm lens I eventually found a couple of owls, preying on storm petrols. The owl pictured at the top of this post was at the end of the trail, in a cave, missing one eye. I imagined him to be old and not-long-for-this-world but the guides say he has been so afflicted for years and does just fine. The other two owls I find and photographed are larger and healthier-looking (below). They all appear sleepy-eyed.

Success: The owl looks kind of sleepy.

I'm amazed that he finally looked in my direction and I got a clear shot.

Mission accomplished. Despite the aggravation, angst, heat, and difficult hike we see the elusive owl. I consider myself lucky knowing that few will ever visit this place much less catch a glimpse of these magnificent owls.

I sit on a rock staring out toward the South Pacific contemplating the hike back. I've just been informed that the trail is not circular. We must hike back the way we came, the entire 2 miles? Back to Prince Philip's Steps. ARGH! I hear a scream, the guides go running. Another hiker falls victim to the lava. Red blood stains the dusty black lava. The hiking groups fall apart. The guide-to-guests protocol broken again on this excursion to Isla Genovesa as the guides help the injured hiker out.

I am not a group follower so I take off with my hiking partner. Together we accidentally get off trail and into a Nazca booby and Frigate Bird colony. The animals here are completely unafraid of humans. You'd think in the centuries since Darwin they would have learned that most humans are not their friends. They look at us as a mere curiosity. I continue to snap photos as we make our way out. My companion is worried we will miss the boat. I assure him that they won't leave without us, and they don't. On the Silver Galapagos every passenger has a credit card like ID hanging on lanyard around their neck. When you disembark the ship you scan, embarking the ship you scan. They do a good job of keeping track of everyone and they don't depart until everyone is back onboard.

We catch one of the last zodiacs off of this rock and prepare for lunch, siesta, then another 4-hour excursion this afternoon. More on that excursion in my next dispatch from Galápagos.